The resurrection: Best-attested fact in history?

As a child, I was taught that the resurrection of Jesus Christ was the best-attested fact in all of ancient history. This is an extremely popular fundamentalist claim, probably originating with Thomas Arnold. It’s a bizarre one to make, as well, because fundamentalists also insist we must believe in Jesus by faith. Which is it? If the resurrection of Jesus is a superlatively well-documented fact, surely I don’t need faith. Fundamentalists are pulling the same trick they try with ‘scientific’ Creationism: They’re claiming that the evidence is conclusive, and where it isn’t, then insisting that faith is necessary to plug the gaps.

In claiming the resurrection of Jesus is historically verifiable, a huge amount is at stake. If Jesus physically rose from the dead, I should almost certainly be a Christian. That would change how I live my life. And that’s exactly what happened. Partly on the basis of what I was taught as incontrovertible evidence, I lived my life as a fundamentalist Christian. This is a far more critical matter than the age of the universe. It has implications for what I do with my money, who my friends are, what education I receive, what I do with my spare time, and what career I choose.

I was making all of those decisions on the basis that Jesus’ resurrection was… Well, let me quote:

The Resurrection of Jesus Christ from that ancient Judean tomb is one of the best proven facts in history — the best authenticated fact in all of ancient history. We have more documentary and practical evidence that he rose than that many important events even took place in the ancient world.[citation needed]

Accelerated Christian Education  (1995) Basic New Testament Church History 122, p. 43.

This is not true. It’s not remotely true. It’s a whopper to level with any of the untruths I’ve previously mentioned from ACE. Look at the strength of what they’re claiming here: Not just that Jesus rose from the dead, nor that this is proven beyond reasonable doubt (which, if you think about it, is a separate question), but that this is the single best authenticated fact in all of ancient history.

And it just isn’t. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t believe it happened – that’s another conversation for another day. Perhaps Jesus did rise from the dead, but this is certainly not an indubitable fact.

What would constitute good evidence, and do we have it for the resurrection? Obviously photos and video would be nice, but God decided to make the resurrection happen before that was possible.

  • Eyewitnesses

We don’t have any. The only account we have from someone who claimed to see the resurrected Jesus was Paul’s, and he didn’t claim to see a flesh-and-blood physical body. ACE taught me that Matthew and John’s Gospels were eyewitness accounts (and Mark’s and Luke’s gleaned from eyewitnesses). They were fibbing about this too. The Gospels were anonymous and the names we now give them were attached much later.

  • Contemporary accounts

We don’t have any of these either. Obviously, accounts from the time the event supposedly happened are more likely to be reliable than ones from years later. Jesus’ death was in approximately 30 CE; Mark’s Gospel (the earliest) was written around 70 CE.

  • Accounts from neutral sources (or, better yet, opposition sources)

All the resurrection accounts we have are from Christians. They have an obvious motivation to promote the resurrection story. An account from a non-Christian would be good. Even a contemporary account from a non-believer simply saying “Well, lots of people are claiming they’ve seen this dead bloke walking around” would be good. If Jesus had risen from the dead at this time, we’d expect to find lots of accounts of this type. We don’t have them.

Jewish historian Josephus is often claimed as being such a neutral source, but Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews (from around 93-94, so still not a contemporary account) shows evidence of Christian tampering. The scholarly consensus is that the claim about the resurrection was added later, by Christians.

There are other sources sometimes claimed as evidence for Jesus (The Talmud, Pliny the Younger, Tacitus, Suetonius, Thallus, Phlegon, Mara Bar-Serapion, Lucian, Hadrian), but they don’t mention the resurrection, or even Christian belief in such an event.

So we’re left with the Gospels. Yale University’s Dale Martin argues that the Gospels are not reliable evidence of anything (click the link to watch his full argument):

I believe that none of the empty tomb stories in the Gospels has any claim to historicity at all.

The only two things all five accounts (the four Gospels and Paul) have in common is, number one, that Jesus did in fact rise from the dead, and number two that it was on the third day. Everything else – who saw him, where they saw him, when they saw him, what else they saw (was it a young man, an angel, two men with dazzling clothes, two men sitting in the tomb, one at the head, one at the foot…), what Jesus looked like, differs in all the accounts…

These are the kinds of inconsistencies that a historian would expect when encountering stories that grew up and changed over time and space. You get the basic idea that Jesus was raised from the dead right. You even get this very old tradition that it was on the third day, but every other detail differs. If you put five people who all claim they saw a murder, and put them in five different rooms, and the only thing all five can agree on is that they saw it, but they can’t agree on who did it, how many accomplices were there, how many people were there, was it in Houston or Washington… If you had all these differences among five witnesses, you wouldn’t be able to accept the witness of any of them.

You can watch his explanation of the differences on YouTube. Or you can look at this handy guide (I’ve seen clearer guides than this, and also an amusing comic strip, but can’t find any of them, so let me know if you have others):

BJUUwHeCQAA3NC-

So maybe Jesus did rise from the dead, but the evidence is not the best in the ancient world. It does not put the matter beyond reasonable doubt, let alone prove it conclusively. And I know fundamentalists reading this will dispute all of the above, but that doesn’t matter.

You can only teach as fact those things which are decisively settled by the evidence.

It is immoral to teach in school that the resurrection of Jesus is a proven fact when it is nothing of the kind. It makes no difference that ACE are sincere in their belief. Children have the right to make an informed decision. This involves knowing what the evidence is. It involves learning what different interpretations exist for that evidence, and the reasons for those interpretations. Good education would teach them how to weigh those arguments, and to recognise good arguments. Fundamentalist education doesn’t do this (if it did, children would realise the arguments are packed with fallacies).

This is indoctrination. It is a violation of a child’s right to think rationally. It is dishonest and immoral. And it comes from Christians who claim that they have a monopoly on moral behaviour.

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About jonnyscaramanga

I grew up as a Christian fundamentalist in the UK. Now I am writing a book and blog about what that's like, and what fundamentalists believe.

Posted on August 5, 2013, in Accelerated Christian Education, Atheism, Christianity, Education, Faith Schools, Fundamentalism and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 23 Comments.

  1. I sometimes like to ask how would incontrovertible evidence for a physical resurrection of Jesus be distinguishable from incontrovertible evidence for a botched crucifixion?
    I suppose we could think of ways the two would be different, but if we had to answer with reference only to what is in the stories it would be difficult to come up with anything.

    • Indeed. So then we can ask if there’s incontrovertible evidence that Jesus’ body disappeared, or that the tomb was found empty — things believers and sceptics could agree on. And there isn’t anything like conclusive evidence for that, either.

  2. I think a related, but equally important question is “even if there was contemporary, eyewitness records of the resurrection, would that be good enough?” Is textual evidence “extraordinary” enough to justify the extraordinary claims about miracles?

    If it is, then why are most Christians skeptical of all the other written claims of miracles, from other religions, mystics, UFO survivors etc?

    • Yeah. This is why I think it’s better to ask questions that are neutral: Was Jesus really buried in a private tomb? Was this tomb discovered empty? Did people really have visions of Jesus after his death?

      I agree that the question of whether God raised Jesus from the dead is not one a historian could answer.

      • Hadn’t really thought about in terms of the non-miracle questions. That’s certainly a good tac. However, at the end of the day I don’t think it can ever get round the problem that written evidence alone probably isn’t enough to justify belief in a miracle. Otherwise you’d have to believe every wacky idea anyone ever wrote down.

  3. I don’t believe in any god or gods. However, I am willing to accept the possibility that a religious teacher named Jesus walked the earth.

    For those that do believe in the Christian version of a god it’s a massive fail on the part of their deity that the supposed resurrection of Jesus was apparently only witnessed by just a few individuals. If the Christian’s god wanted to convert the world to Jesus’s version of Judaism then the best way would have been to do something more spectacular than rolling a stone in the middle of the night!

    Why, when Jesus was supposedly crying out from the cross “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” didn’t the nails miraculously pop-out from the woodwork and the body of Jesus rise upwards into the heavens? If such a miracle had occurred then I have no doubt it would have caused instant mass conversion and such an event would then have been well documented in contemporary literature. But as we see from the many disasters in the world (earth quakes, hunger, mine collapses etc) the presence of any compassionate, miracle performing, deity is spectacularly missing now as it was then!.

    The resurrection contradiction are some of the many where the various books of the New Testament (selected by committee many centuries later) contradict the supposed activities of the man called Jesus. Unfortunately most Christians fail to compare verses in each of the books…. those that do become experts in Apologetics.

  4. As a young Christian, I took the gospel accounts as authentic. Yet, I still found myself questioning the resurrection. The gospel accounts are extremely vague, and read more like the wishful thinking of somebody suffering from hysteria. In ordinary evaluation of eye-witness accounts, we would give very little credibility to the gospel accounts of the resurrection.

  5. Jonny, you are correct that to say the resurrection is “the best authenticated fact in all of ancient history” is a false statement. And I also agree that “That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t believe it happened.” I believe it happened and I share my reasons at http://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/2013/05/13/alternative-explanations-for-the-resurrection-of-jesus/.

    A couple other observations: You mention that the Gospels are forty years later and anonymous. Before that, believers did not need written accounts; they had Jesus’ earliest followers with them. The Gospels were written when those early followers were approaching the age of death. They may not have been written by the specified writer (such as Matthew or John), but they were written by the aging follower’s community from his preaching over a period of decades.

    However, the earliest writings in the New Testament are undisputedly the writings of Paul, and he wrote much earlier than the Gospel writers. His letters are filled with references to the resurrection which Paul says he learned from the first disciples.

    Also a note about faith. I think you are using the term ‘faith’ in the sense of ‘a leap of faith’ that goes back to Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855), and today many people use it this way, including fundamentalists. However, the New Testament uses the term in another way. The most well known phrase is Paul’s ‘we are saved by faith–not works’ and what this means is that we rely on Jesus instead of our own efforts. It does not suggest a leap of faith.

    So there is no inconsistency in having faith in Jesus and accepting historical or scientific facts at the same time. I am sure you have faith (trust) in historical and scientific facts, as well.

    Thank you for this post. I believe all aspects of religion and Christianity should be challenged, but I know that no conclusion regarding the resurrection is definitive one way or the other.

    • Thanks for commenting Tim. I hoped you’d get involved since I know you’re a believer in the resurrection.

      The difference between us, of course, is that I don’t find the evidence compelling and you do, which is fine. I’m sure we can agree, though, that it’s not right to misrepresent what evidence does exist.

  6. For gods sake. Even Jesus’ /existence/ isn’t undisputed historical fact.

    • No, although the mythicist case is not regarded as credible by historians. I don’t think Jesus’ existence is proved beyond all doubt, but I think we can be confident about Jesus’ existence than we are about many figures from the same era.

      • “No, although the mythicist case is not regarded as credible by historians.”

        You are wrong about this Jonny. I’m a historian (or at least I taught history) and I am one of many who regard it as quite credible that the existence of the Christ (a title, not a name) was entirely mythical. However, it is equally credible that there was a charismatic preacher called Jesus of Nazareth, or Joshua bin Joseph, or something similar, who founded a small cult (small during his lifetime anyway as there are no contemporary references to it) in 1st century Palestine.

        The reality is that we don’t know. No one knows, because there is very little evidence, and no primary sources to rely on. All the references to Jesus Christ are secondary sources based on hearsay, written many years later, and mostly written by partisan commentator who saw it as their job to proselytise rather than accurately record historical events.

        Paul of Tarsus lived in Asia Minor, a long way from Palestine and although he may well have met and known people who had been in Palestine during the supposed lifetime of Christ his writings about this are still hearsay, based on second hand statements by partisan cult followers. Such evidence would be inadmissible in a British court and is rightly regarded by historians as highly suspect and unreliable.

        The exception to the ranks of partisan Christian cultist authors (many anonymous; like the so-called gospel writers “Matthew, Mark, Luke and John” whose actual identities are unknown) is Flavius Josephus. He was not a follower of the Christ cult (as it still was in 93 AD) but he does mention Jesus.and the crucifixion (although he does not mention the supposed resurrection and most historians agree that his writings were later doctored by Christian propagandists to insert false references to this). But Josephus was writing more than two generations after the events in Palestine and he was well aware of the stories told by the cultists. He was also a notoriously unreliable historian and this is even admitted by many zionists, despite the fact that they rely on him as the main source for the Masada myth. Many stories Josephus related simply have no evidence behind them (and sometimes contradict other versions of events which are supported by evidence) but it is perhaps unfair to judge him by modern standards.

        In the ancient world (and the early modern world too) writers of history generally made no distinction between historical evidence and myth. Thus, serious writers of Roman history, men who would regard themselves as serious intellectuals, would see no contradiction in asserting as fact things which were simply commonly accepted stories. This is what gives us the founding date for Rome itself (753 BC on 21 August), whereas the archaeology suggests that the settlements on the Palatine hill enclosed and drained the boggy area which became the Forum over a century later). The concept of assessing empirical historical evidence as the only valid basis for evaluating theories of history did not become established until the 18th century, and then only among a relatively small group of historians who faced vicious and sustained attack from the Church who (rightly) saw any requirement for actual evidence of historical veracity as a deadly threat to their control over people’s world view and to their power and influence.

        The plain fact is that we do not know for certain what happened 2,000 years ago. We have to assess what probably happened from a large amount of fragmentary evidence and often we reach conclusions based on the most likely probability rather than any provable certainty. In the case of the origins of the cult of Jesus Christ the evidence is sketchy. There are no primary sources to rely on and the secondary sources are all highly suspect. This does not prove that Jesus did not exist but it does place a substantial question mark over any and all stories about his life, his utterances and actions and his death and supposed resurrection.

        Religion teaches people to believe things without supporting evidence. This is unreasonable and intellectually bankrupt but if adults wish to go along with this then that is their choice and their right. What they do not have the right to do is insist that children are indoctrinated with the lie that these religious assertions about history are supported by valid evidence that can stand up to scrutiny. This is simply a lie and such lies have no place in any educational curriculum or syllabus.

  7. Oddly, of all the questions I’ve asked in my faith, the presence of miracles is not at the top. I question why miracles seem to be so random, but I don’t find it odd that the earth breaks it’s own rules. If earth were always predictable, it would be boring. I have studied the historical perspective. Obviously science and history cannot account for miracles, but yea, I am an anti-realists in the philosphical sense, which puts an odd third twist on the entire debate.

  8. SUCH WERE SOME OF YOU
    Christians like to state that they are sinners saved by grace. Christians should say I was a sinner saved by grace. To proclaim, I am a sinner, suggests that no repentance has taken place. Christians are not supposed to maintain the same sinful lifestyle they had before they had their sins washed by the blood of Christ.

    THE APOSTLE PAUL SPEAKING TO CHRISTIANS

    1 Corinthians 6:1-11….9 Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived;
    neither fornicators
    nor idolaters
    nor effeminate
    nor homosexuals
    nor thieves
    not the covetous
    nor drunkards
    nor revilers
    nor swindlers
    will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.

    Notice Paul said these Christians were sinners. Paul did not say they are sinners. Paul was not handing out sin permits to the Christians at Corinth. It was the exact opposite. Paul was saying that the Christians who continue to practice a sinful lifestyle would not enter into the kingdom of God.

    Yes, Christians do sin, however, Christians should not be sinners. Christians should have had all the, sin practice, they needed before they became Christians. Do you honestly believe Christians can live an entire life practicing fornication and still enter the kingdom of God?

    Ephesians 2:1-5…..3 Among them we too all formerly lived in lust of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest…….

    Christians should be, formerly sinners, saved by grace. Christians should not be current sinners expecting to be saved by grace!

    OF COURSE CHRISTIANS WHO SIN CAN BE FORGIVEN. THE QUESTION IS CAN CHRISTIANS WHO LIVE AN UNREPENTANT SINFUL LIFESTYLE EXPECT TO SEE THEIR NAMES WRITTEN IN THE LAMBS BOOK OF LIFE?

    YOU ARE INVITED TO FOLLOW MY CHRISTIAN BLOG. Google search>>>>steve finnell a christian view

    • Only if you follow this Christian blog first, Steve.

    • Steve, shame you’ve chosen to respond to an articulate and intelligent blog with a ranting plug for your own website. Bit of opportunistic trawling there hey!

      Why on earth would I read your work when you appear barely capable of expressing yourself? It’s disappointing (if not unsurprising) that you failed to extend Jonny the courtesy of even trying to respond to the serious issues his piece raises.

      I’d be interested in your view on the assertion that it is immoral for ACE to deliberately deceive and distort their pupils’ knowledge to further its agenda and views. Post a reasoned, sensible in LOWER CASE answer and I will happily read your blog.

  9. saying that Jesus went to heaven is an excuse the authors of the Bible use to explain why no one can find his corpse and also a way to make him more incredible and convince more people to believe in him.

  10. When a fundie tries to save an ex-fundie, I just have to grin.

  11. Speaking as a Christian and an ex-fundamentalist and a believer in the Resurrection, you’ve kind of hit one of my two biggest beefs with the Fundamentalist Movement in general (And A.C.E. in general). To Wit: “Facts” and “Faith” are not the same thing. If God wanted us to KNOW, He’d just show up on the evening news, or at the UN, or do a walk-on on The Tonight Show. Clearly, then, God doesn’t want us to KNOW, He wants us to BELIEVE. Trying to “Prove” the Bible (Which Fundamentalists continually attempt to do) is, I think, fundamentally misguided. It’s like concentrating on the typeface and ignoring the contents of the book entirely. Ok, maybe that’s an overstatement, but still…

    (My other major beef being that Fundamentalists can not – or simply will not – understand the concept of a ‘metaphor’)

  12. Having studied ancient Jewish history at University I find it alarming that so much disinformation about history and historical facts can found so readily on the internet. The piece about apparent contradictions is entirely inaccurate and shows a complete misunderstanding of both the texts concerned and indeed historical documents themselves please see http://www.biblegateway.com/blog/2012/03/questions-about-easter-do-the-resurrection-accounts-in-the-four-gospels-contradict-each-other/

    If you are a seeker or a Christian with doubts please don’t be put off looking into the historical documents concerning Jesus. Whilst historical nothing can be proven beyond any doubt it is nonetheless clear that it takes a lot less faith to believe the resurrection of Jesus than to believe in alternative theories. The historical record, the eye witnesses of the time, the sudden growth and expansion of the Christian faith all point to this. In fact as a historian I have to conclude that if Jesus didn’t rise from the grave the only rational explanation has to be that both Jesus himself and several hundred of his close followers must have been either sent by the devil to deceive people or entirely mad. Left with such a choice I have no option than to conclude that Jesus must have risen from the grave. I respect others who come to a different conclusion, indeed I admire their faith, bearing in mind that such a position is historical more difficult to defend.
    Dave Symons

  13. Please read ” Evidence that Demands a verdict ” ch 10 , by Josh McDowell – Historical evidences for the Christian Faith – Campus Crusade for Christ 1972.
    I quote an excerpt from p199:
    ” Simon Greenleaf ( 1783-1853) was the famous Royall Professor of Law at Harvard University, and succeeded Justice Joseph Story as the Dane Professor of law in the same university.
    Greenleaf produced a famous work entitled ‘ A Treatise on the Law of Evidence (1842)’ which has been claimed to be the greatest single authority on evidence in the entire literature of legal procedure.
    In 1846 Greenleaf wrote a volume entitled ‘ An Examination of the Testimony of the Four Evangelists by the Rules of Evidence Administered in the Courts of Justice ( Baker Book House, 1965, reprinted from 1847 edition).
    His conclusions assure me and many other Christian believers that my faith in God and His Word is a reasonable faith.

    • Jeff, with all due respect – and I am a Christian who believes in the resurrection – Greenleaf didn’t know nearly as much as we know today about the origin and development of the Gospels. As a result, much of his logical arguments are based on presuppositions that are simply not provqble, or are just wrong in some cases. If we still knew only what he knew, then, yeqh, good argument. Not a stone lock, but good argument. As we now know more than he did, however, it doesn’t hold up as well.

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