Are the Written Accounts about the Resurrection of Jesus Faulty?
I find that many people who are skeptical these days about Jesus’ resurrection from the dead believe that the written accounts are either contradictory or are borrowed from pagan stories. And in either case they believe these are good reasons to distrust the writings. Since this weekend is Easter the celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus, I thought it appropriate to insert a post on this topic.
Recently, Dr. Michael R. Licona, the author of an outstanding new 700 page book analyzing the resurrection of Jesus from an historical perspective, has posted some short videos on ‘10 Myths about the Resurrection.’ It so happened that the first two were on these two topics of alleged contradictions and possible pagan sources, and so I have embedded these videos for your enjoyment and enlightenment after each section respectively.
The apostle Paul wrote in his first letter to the Christians in Corinth that, “… if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.”
In the context he clearly thought that it was a fact that Jesus had been raised from the dead and if it was not a fact, then Christians were fools who should be pitied. In his view Christianity stood or fell on whether Jesus’ resurrection was for real. So, are the written accounts about Jesus’ resurrection a hopeless jumble of contradictions? Not at all!
There are differences between the accounts, but they are differences in peripheral details not the main historical core. And this is exactly what one would expect if one were reading accounts from different people, written at different times, with different purposes, to different readers. When all the testimony is the same almost word for word, that is when a good detective rightly gets suspicious. Then it is more likely that the witnesses got together and cooked up a fictitious story.
The gospels are not intended to be exhaustive accounts of Jesus’ life. They are summaries. When one understands better the purposes each of the writers had for writing, to whom they were writing, and the genre they were writing in, it is easier to see how the alleged contradictions in these peripheral details actually can be harmonized.
Moreover, differences in details do not necessarily discredit an entire account. No historian suggests that just because there are differences in the eyewitness accounts of John F. Kennedy’s shooting, that therefore, JFK wasn’t assassinated.
What about the claim that the early Christians just borrowed the story of a dying and rising god from earlier pagan myths? This was a common claim in the late 19th and early 20th century. I cannot emphasize too strongly that even though this claim has been ‘resurrected’ and has been all over the Internet in the past decade, no serious scholar in this area of study considers this position tenable anymore.
The alleged parallels are spurious. Any similarities are far outweighed by the differences. The pagan legends are not about historical personages, they are just symbols for the seasons. There is no text prior to the late second century of a mythical deity who rose from the dead.
Moreover, there is no causal link between the pagan myths and the Jews. There was very little influence from the pagan religions in first-century Palestine. Jewish and early Christian thought was exclusive. Unlike most of the other religions of the time, they were not open to incorporating the ideas of other religions into their own. Therefore, the lines of influence are more likely to have run the other way. That is, it is much more likely that the 2nd and 3rd century pagan religions borrowed from Christianity, than Christianity borrowed the resurrection from pagan religions.
Historian Michael Grant summarizes the scholarly opinion, “Judaism was a milieu to which doctrines of the deaths and rebirths, of mythical gods seemed so entirely foreign that the emergence of such a fabrication from its midst is very hard to credit.” (Michael Grant, Jesus : An Historian’s Review of the Gospels, p. 199.)
The evidence for the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth on the Sunday following his torture and murder by Roman soldiers on the Friday, almost 2000 years ago is remarkably good. It is much better than most people think, especially in comparison to the evidence for other ancient events.
Have these two ‘Myths’ affected your view on the Resurrection of Jesus? What do you think of the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth? Why do you believe or what would it take for you to believe?
- If you would like more information and you don’t want to start with Michael Licona’s 700 page book, you might enjoy my five page article “Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?”
- You can also check out a new video series that Licona has available called The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus or if you are really serious about pursuing this topic you can purchase his scholarly book The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach.
You may also want to check out the following free resources by W.L.Craig on the Resurrection of Jesus.
- The Resurrection of Jesus
- Forum on the Resurrection with William Lane Craig: Discussion with students of the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection
- More scholarly articles by W.L. Craig on the resurrection and other issues related to the historical Jesus
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