Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Resurrection of Jesus - Fact or Myth?

            This Easter Sunday, I wanted to briefly address a question that often comes up: Did Jesus really exist, and did he really rise from the dead, or is the whole story a myth?
            I will most likely discuss the proof of Jesus' life, death and resurrection in detail in a later blog post, but I wanted to briefly summarize proof we have that the story is true.  First, we have a wealth of texts that verify Jesus' existence.  We have the four Gospels, written by eyewitnesses and their companions, which all tell the story of Jesus, his life and teachings, and his death and resurrection.  The letters of early church fathers (such as Papias, Polycarp and a document known as the Didache), written between 95-150 CE, quoted extensively from all four of the Gospels and said that they contained the words of Jesus.  We also have an early fragment of John's Gospel (known as Papyrus P52), dated roughly to the first half of the second century CE.  The four Gospels were in circulation and being quoted by 100 CE, which means that they were written within 70 years of the death and resurrection of Jesus (which occurred circa 30 CE).  In addition, we have the letters of Paul, Peter and James, who all were martyred prior to 67 CE.  All of these letters testified to the existence of Jesus and his death and resurrection, and all were written within 40 years of the events.
            Besides the Biblical texts, we have extra-Biblical documents that testify that a man named Jesus lived and was executed during the governorship of Pontius Pilate (whose existence has been confirmed by archaeological evidence; see my earlier blog on The Pilate Stone).  Tacitus, a first-century Roman historian, mentioned "Christus" being executed during the reign of Tiberius, and Emperor Nero's persecution of Christians [1].  Suetonius, another Roman historian, mentioned the same events [2].  Josephus, a Jewish historian, mentioned Jesus, James and John the Baptist in Antiquities [3].  The Babylonian Talmud mentioned a man named "Yeshu" who was accused of sorcery and apostasy, and hanged on the eve of Passover [4].  There are quite a few other examples, but these are among the most prominent.
            As for evidence of the resurrection, we have several clues that point to the fact that Jesus actually, bodily rose from the dead.  Witnesses saw his body laid in the tomb, a seal was placed over the entrance and guards were present (Matthew 27:57-66).  After Jesus rose from the dead, he appeared to his disciples and many others, including 500 people at one time (1 Corinthians 15:3-8).  The empty tomb was explained away by the religious officials, who conspired with the guards to say that the disciples stole the body while the guards were asleep (Matthew 28:11-15).  This theory is very faulty, however - how would the disciples have been able to break the seal and remove the body without waking the guards?  Why would all of the disciples have suffered torture and gone to their violent deaths proclaiming a risen Jesus if they had just stolen his dead body and hidden it?  Why would they die for a lie?  Had that been the case, at some point the truth of their deception would have been exposed. 
            The empty tomb attests to the resurrection of Jesus.  To end the spread of Christianity, all that the religious leaders and Romans would have had to do was produce Jesus' body and present it publicly as proof that he did not rise from the dead.  They could not, however, because the body was gone.
            One of my favorite parts of Scripture is the original ending of the gospel of Mark, just after the women who went to the tomb found it empty and an angel told them that Jesus had risen: "Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid" (Mark 16:8, NIV).  The gospel ends very abruptly, with women running away from an empty tomb.  It is almost as if the author was posing a question to the reader: "The tomb is empty.  Now, what do you think happened?"

[1] Tacitus, Annals 15.44 (written circa 116 CE)
[2] Suetonius, Life of Nero 16.2
[3] Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews Books 18 and 20 (written circa 93-94 CE)
[4] Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 43a