Defending the Historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus: Preliminary Concerns (Part 2 of 8)


2. Preliminary Concerns

Before getting into how historical methodology is used to infer the Resurrection as the best explanation of the facts concerning the fate of Jesus, I think it wise to first dispel a few common (but severely misguided) objections:

  • Textual variants: “The Bible has been recopied so many times and in so many different languages that it’s impossible to know what the original texts actually said.”
  • Discrepancies in the narratives: “Seeing as how there are numerous differences in the writers’ accounts of what they claim happened on Easter morning and the days that followed, none of them should be viewed as trustworthy.”
  • Legendary embellishment: “You can’t reasonably believe what the New Testament says about the Resurrection because none of it was written until decades after Jesus was crucified.”

2.1. Textual variants

The basis for this objection is due to what the objector thinks is analogous to the children’s game of “telephone” (where one child is given a verbal message to pass to the next child, who passes what he’s heard to the next child, and so on). By the time the message gets to the last child in the chain, it barely resembles what the first kid was told. Admittedly there does seem to be prima facie warrant for believing that that same problem should plague the NT documents—considering that their number of transmissions from generation to generation over 2,000 years are legion. Namely, How can we have any confidence that our Bibles are accurate reproductions of what was written in the original documents?

However, the NT was not transmitted that way: it was not told to one person who told it to another and so on; the telephone game is in no way analogous. The way in which the NT transmission drastically differs is that what we have is numerous people, independently witnessing NT events, with nine of those eyewitnesses/contemporaries putting their observations in writing. This misguided objection can only be advanced by one who appears to be plagued by a prevalent misunderstanding about the NT: that is, the belief that the NT was originally constructed as a single work. That is patently false. The NT documents are not one writing, but about 27 writings. The NT is 27 different documents that were written on 27 different scrolls by nine different writers over a span of approx. 20-50 years. These individual writings were later collected into one book we now call the Bible. Therefore, the NT is not just one source, but a collection of sources.

Still, the above paragraph seems to necessitate the following objection: “We still don’t have any of the original documents. Thus, we can’t know for sure if, during one of the numerous times that a manuscript was copied, someone didn’t take it upon themselves to alter the text.” While it is true that, so far, none of the original written documents have been discovered, how, exactly, is this supposed to prevent us from knowing what the originals said? As a matter of fact, our having multitudes of manuscripts, rather than just the originals, paradoxically allows us to be even more certain of what the originals actually said!

Here’s why. All significant literature from the ancient world is reconstructed into its original form by comparing the surviving manuscripts. Just how great the degree of certainty we will have that we’ve reconstructed the original accurately will depend primarily upon the number of manuscripts that we have—the more manuscripts, the better. In addition, the earlier the manuscripts, the more confident we can be that we have an accurate reconstruction. What we find with the NT documents with respect to their number and earliness of manuscripts is far better than anything else from the ancient world. In fact, the NT documents have more manuscripts, earlier manuscripts, and more abundantly supported manuscripts than the best ten pieces of classical literature combined!

2.1.1 Numerous Manuscripts

The difference between the NT manuscripts and others from the ancient world is well-illustrated by manuscript expert Dan Wallace when he points out that the manuscript copies of the average ancient author form a pile about four feet high. However, the NT manuscripts and translations reach over a mile high! There are nearly 5,800 handwritten Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, as well as the more than 9,000 manuscripts in other languages. Again, nothing from the ancient world even comes close in terms of manuscript support. The next closest work is the Iliad by Homer—with a mere 643 manuscripts! Most other ancient works have fewer than a dozen manuscripts.

2.1.2. Early Manuscripts

What’s more, the NT also has extremely early manuscripts—manuscripts that were written very soon after the originals. The earliest undisputed manuscript is the John Rylands papyri \(P^{52}\). Many scholars date it between AD 117-138. We also have nine disputed fragments that date from AD 50 to 70 found with the Dead Sea Scrolls. Some scholars believe these fragments are parts of six New Testament books including Mark, Acts, Romans, 1 Timothy, 2 Peter, and James. Even if these scholars are incorrect and the Rylands fragment is the earliest, the time gap between the original and the first surviving copy is still vastly shorter than anything else from the ancient world. The Iliad has the next shortest gap at about 500 years. While most other ancient works are 1,000 years or more from the original, the NT gap is only about 25 years; perhaps less.

2.1.3. Supported Manuscripts

In addition to the above points that serve to substantiate the quality of the NT documents, there’s even more to be said on the matter; namely, concerning the abundance of extrinsic support. Let’s imagine what would happen if, say, each and every manuscript and Bible were to suddenly disappear. What affect would that have on our ability to reconstruct the NT? Practically none. How so? Considering the degree to which the early church fathers quoted the NT (36,289 times), all but 11 verses can be reconstructed from their quotations alone! Therefore, we not only have thousands of manuscripts, but thousands of quotations from those manuscripts. This fact, coupled with what’s already been mentioned above, makes reconstruction of the original text virtually certain.

2.1.4. Spotting Textual Variants

In this section we will see why the aforementioned qualities possessed by the NT manuscripts give a great deal of confidence to scholars that they have reconstructed the originals accurately. That is to say, it will soon become conspicuously obvious why the process of comparing the myriad of copies and quotations allows for an extremely accurate reconstruction of the original. Let us ask, even if one concedes the objection that some of the NT manuscripts contain copying errors, what force does that have for the argument that the manuscripts should not be considered accurate reproductions of the originals? None. As a matter of fact, the NT manuscripts are suffused with copying errors! So why shouldn’t that fact lead to our skepticism towards the originals being accurately reconstructed? The following illustration should suffice to answer the question. Suppose we had five different manuscripts that have five different errors in the same verse—say, 1 John 1:1. Here are the hypothetical copies:

  1. We ??? to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life.
  2. We declare to you what was from the ???, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life.
  3. We declare to you ??? was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life.
  4. We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands,??? the word of life.
  5. We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we ??? seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life.

Would there be even the slightest bit of doubt as to what the original said? None at all. As the example makes evident, by the process of comparing and cross-checking, the original New Testament can be reconstructed with great accuracy.

2.1.5. Numerous Copies vs. Originals

I want to now return to something that was stated above (having multitudes of manuscripts rather than just the originals paradoxically allows us be more certain of what the originals actually said, than we would be if we had just the originals instead). Why exactly is this true? Because if an original were in someone’s possession, that person could change it. But if there are copies spread all over the world, there’s no way one person could significantly alter any of the texts; the process of reconstruction allows variants and changes from copies to be identified and corrected rather easily. That is precisely why the objection that one of the copyists could have significantly altered texts has zero plausibility. Considering how simple it was to spot variants in a single verse in the hypothetical example given above, imagine how much simpler it would be to spot variants that span the length of several verses. Therefore, ironically enough, not having the originals seems to preserve God’s Word better than actually having them. Ancient manuscript authority Fredric Kenyon notes the point when he writes:

It cannot be too strongly asserted that in substance the text of the Bible is certain: Especially is this the case with the New Testament. The number of manuscripts of the New Testament, of early translations from it, and of quotations from it in the oldest writers of the Church, is so large that it is practically certain that the true reading of every doubtful passage is preserved in some one or other of these ancient authorities. This can be said of no other ancient book in the world.

Even vitriolic opponents of Christianity like Bart Ehrman agree. Here’s what Ehrman says in his popular work Misquoting Jesus:

Bruce Metzger is one of the great scholars of modern times, and I dedicated the book to him because he was both my inspiration for going into textual criticism and the person who trained me in the field. I have nothing but respect and admiration for him. And even though we may disagree on important religious questions – he is a firmly committed Christian and I am not – we are in complete agreement on a number of very important historical and textual questions. If he and I were put in a room and asked to hammer out a consensus statement on what we think the original text of the New Testament probably looked like, there would be very few points of disagreement – maybe one or two dozen places out of many thousands. The position I argue for in ‘Misquoting Jesus’ does not actually stand at odds with Prof. Metzger’s position that the essential Christian beliefs are not affected by textual variants in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament.

Thus, we can confidently conclude that what we have in our New Testament is the same as that which was written down nearly 2,000 years ago.

2.2. Discrepancies in the Narratives

But what about all of the inconsistencies in the four gospels? Consider the following questions posed by the ever-skeptical Bart Ehrman, to which the gospels give several conflicting answers: What day did Jesus die, and at what time? Did he die on the day before the Passover meal was eaten, or did he die after it was eaten? Did he die at noon, or at 9 a.m.? Did Jesus carry his cross the entire way himself, or did Simon of Cyrene carry his cross? Did both robbers mock Jesus on the cross, or did only one of them mock him and the other come to his defense? Did the curtain in the temple rip in half before Jesus died, or after he died? Who went to the tomb on the third day? Was it Mary alone, or was it Mary with other women? If it was Mary with other women, how many other women were there, which ones were they, and what were their names? Was the stone rolled away before they got there or not? What did they see in the tomb? Did they see a man, did they see two men, or did they see an angel? What were they told to tell the disciples? Were the disciples supposed to stay in Jerusalem and see Jesus there, or were they to go to Galilee and see Jesus there? Did the women tell anyone or not? Did the disciples never leave Jerusalem, or did they immediately leave Jerusalem and go to Galilee?

2.2.1. Nature of Independent Testimony

Leaving aside the fact that many of these discrepancies are easily harmonized, the most pertinent thing to be said here is that the objection is irrelevant. We need to be very clear about something: these questions do not in any way demonstrate that the narratives contain any true contradictions or factual errors. What needs to be understood is, as Ehrman himself admits, these discrepancies are in the secondary details. They are of the sort to be found among any collection of independent historical accounts of some event.

Moreover, when we approach the issue from a legal perspective, we find that discrepancies and inaccuracies belong to almost all testimony. Two key points about witnesses: they seldom agree about every detail, and they are sometimes mistaken about some aspect of their own testimony. In spite of this, witnesses can be deemed reliable and trusted once we determine why they might have seen something differently or incorrectly. In fact, judges in the state of California instruct juries not to distrust a witness just because that witness may be wrong about some aspect of his or her testimony:

Do not automatically reject testimony just because of inconsistencies or conflicts. Consider whether the differences are important or not. People sometimes honestly forget things or make mistakes about what they remember. Also, two people may witness the same event yet see or hear it differently.

Witnesses can be wrong in some aspect of their testimony, yet be considered reliable, over all. Once the jury understands why the witness might be mistaken in a detail, they are encouraged to consider the rest of the testimony reliable. In fact, far from rendering testimony unreliable, the presence of discrepancies in the secondary details actually counts as strong evidence that the witness are telling the truth! Indeed, legal writer Dr. Ross Clifford, in discussing the “minor variations test” for authenticity of evidence, notes that differences are to be expected from truthful witnesses:

Whilst truthful witnesses complement each other, a judge would not expect them to describe the same incidents in precisely the same way. If they did, that would point to conspiracy. Sometimes there may not be total uniformity in the order of events. One anticipates variations when two or more people testify about the same incident.

Here’s how retired judge and lawyer/solicitor/barrister Herbert C. Casteel puts it:

The internal evidence of the resurrection accounts: Each of the four Gospels gives an account of that first Easter Sunday when Jesus arose from the tomb. When we first read these accounts it appears they are in hopeless contradiction. Matthew says it was Mary Magdalene and the other Mary who went out to the tomb. Mark says it was Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome. Luke says it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them, and John mentions only Mary Magdalene. Furthermore, they all mention different people to whom Jesus appeared on that day.

Does this mean that these are false reports, made-up by dishonest men to deceive us? On the contrary, this is good evidence that these are truthful accounts, because people who conspire to testify to a falsehood rehearse carefully to avoid contradictions. False testimony appears on the surface to be in harmony, but discrepancies appear when you dig deeper. True accounts may appear on the surface to be contradictory, but are found to be in harmony when you dig deeper.

The late Cambridge Downing Professor of law and eminent legal text-writer Thomas Starkie further explains this notion in one of his highly influential works:

The consistency of testimony is also a strong and most important test for judging of the credibility of witnesses. Where several witnesses bear testimony to the same transaction, and concur in their statement of a series of particular circumstances, and the order in which they occurred, such coincidences exclude all apprehension of mere chance and accident, and can be accounted for only by one or other of two suppositions; either the testimony is true, or the coincidences are the result of concert and conspiracy. If, therefore, the independency of the witnesses be proved, and the supposition of previous conspiracy be disproved, or rendered highly improbable, to the same extent will the truth of their testimony be established. . . .

The nature of such coincidences is most important: are they natural ones, which bear not the marks of artifice and premeditation ? Do they occur in points obviously material, or in minute and remote points which are not likely to be material, or in matters the importance of which could not have been foreseen? The number of such coincidences is also worthy of the most attentive consideration: human cunning, to a certain extent, may fabricate coincidences, even with regard to minute points, the more effectually to deceive; but the coincidences of art and invention are necessarily circumscribed and limited, whilst those of truth are indefinite and unlimited: the witnesses of art will be copious in their detail of circumstances, as far as their provision extends; beyond this they will be sparing and reserved, for fear of detection, and thus their testimony will not be even and consistent throughout: but the witnesses of truth will be equally ready and equally copious upon all points.

It is here to be observed, that partial variances in the testimony of different witnesses, on minute and collateral points, although they frequently afford the adverse advocate a topic for copious observation, are of little importance, unless they be of too prominent and striking a nature to be ascribed to mere inadvertence, inattention, or defect of memory.

2.2.2. Nature of the New Testament Testimony

As these legal experts affirm, discrepancies in the secondary details almost always are of no significance with respect to the truthfulness of the testimony. Thus, discrepancies in the secondary details of the Gospel accounts, according to the world’s best legal analysts, have virtually zero impact on the assessment of the veracity of testimony. The core of the narrative, however, is identical across the accounts, even if they differ in their secondary details. When you look at the Gospel accounts, what you find is that we have very good grounds for affirming the historical reliability of their core. Ehrman himself admits this:

[T]here are a couple of things that we can say for certain about Jesus after his death. We can say with relative certainty, for example, that he was buried. . . . [T]he accounts are fairly unanimous in saying (the earliest accounts we have are unanimous in saying) that Jesus was in fact buried by this fellow, Joseph of Arimathea, and so it’s relatively reliable that that’s what happened. We also have solid traditions to indicate that women found this tomb empty three days later. This is attested in all of our gospel sources, early and late, and so it appears to be a historical datum. And so I think we can say that after Jesus’ death, with some (probably with some) certainty, that he was buried, possibly by this fellow Joseph of Arimathea, and that three days later he appeared not to have been in his tomb.

Those are the words of Bart Ehrman, about whom there is no question as to whether he is among the most ardent of NT skeptics. And yet, he still opts for the word “certainty” in his description of our level of confidence in the historicity of the empty tomb! This speaks volumes to the evidential force of the empty tomb narratives. Michael Grant, a historian—and also an atheist—who wrote a book called Jesus, An Historian’s Review of the Gospels, says,

True, the discovery of the empty tomb is differently described by the various Gospels. But if we apply the same sort of criteria that we would apply to any other ancient literary sources, then the evidence is firm and plausible enough to necessitate the conclusion that the tomb was indeed found empty.

That too is a very strong statement by yet another secular historian in affirmation of the fact that, despite the discrepancies in the secondary details, the evidence is firm and plausible enough to necessitate the conclusion that the tomb was in fact found empty.

2.2.3 Veracity of the New Testament Testimony

To recap: no two independent witnesses to the same event will ever describe the event in exactly the same way. If the witnesses were to describe the event in exactly the same way, then one should probably question their honesty. When the NT documents were collected and placed under the same cover known as “The New Testament,” the original assemblers could easily have changed the differing accounts so they all said the same thing. But that’s not what they did. Instead, they left us with all four eyewitness accounts so we could get all the differing perspectives. These differences are not the result of deceitful fabrication; rather, they are simply the result of perspective. If we required that a witness be discredited if he fails of accuracy in any particular, it would be impossible to believe anything; courts of law could not function; all books of history—including narratives written from personal observation—would be worthless.

Where variations or inaccuracies occur in testimony, the only question is whether they are of such a number and character as to destroy the general trustworthiness of the narrators, and to cast doubt on the substantial contents of their tale. With respect to the Gospel accounts, all agree that Jesus of Nazareth,

  1. was crucified in Jerusalem by Roman authority during the Passover feast;
  2. was arrested and convicted on charges of blasphemy by the Jewish Sanhedrin;
  3. was slandered before the Roman Governor Pilate on charges of treason;
  4. died within several hours and was buried Friday afternoon by Joseph of Arimathea in a tomb, which was sealed with a stone.

Furthermore, there is unanimity that certain women followers of Jesus—including Mary Magdalene, who is always named—having observed his interment, visited his tomb early Sunday morning, only to find it empty. Thereafter, Jesus appeared alive from the dead to his disciples, who then became proclaimers of the message of his resurrection. Those are the core facts undergirding the inference to the resurrection hypothesis as the explanation that best explains the fate of Jesus; and they are facts on which there is harmonious agreement among the Gospel writers. Therefore, it would be entirely unjustified and wholly irresponsible for one to attempt to dismiss the historicity of the Resurrection solely on the grounds of there being minor discrepancies in the secondary details of the testimony.

2.3 Legendary Embellishment

The basic contention of this objection is that there was in fact nothing supernatural or divine about the historical Jesus—those properties are only attributed to him in the NT because of the decades separating his death from the time the NT was written. Thus, just as it is with virtually any narrative having an abundance of reproductions, the stories simply accrued their supernatural aspects little-by-little each time the story was retold (just like a “fish story” that’s been passed on from person-to-person: the first person says the catch was 50 lbs., then that person tells a third person it was 75 lbs., the third tells a fourth 100 lbs., and so on). The fact is, the objector will claim, none of Jesus’ followers or anyone else contemporary with his life claimed that he rose from the dead; these supernatural elements in the NT only exist for the same reason that the fourth person thinks that 100 lbs. was the weight of the fish—each successive person in the chain does his part to make his retelling of the story just a tad bit more extraordinary.

2.3.1 Insufficient Time for Legendary Accrual

But is this really the case with the NT? Not at all. It can be taken with virtual historical certainty that the claims of Jesus’ divinity originated long before any of the documents of the canonical NT were composed. Among the numerous NT critics and skeptics affirming this position, one need look no further than atheist historian Gerd Ludemann. Dr. Ludemann has argued forcefully that belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus must have emerged within two or three years of the death of Jesus. This is the view defended by virtually all NT scholars; including atheistic scholars, like Prof. Ludemann (I’ll explain some of the reasons why they hold this view shortly). The elapsed time simply doesn’t have the decades (or sometimes centuries) needed for the narrative to have developed the way all other ancient myths did. This point has been well-explained by A. N. Sherwin-White—a professional historian of times prior to and contemporaneous with Jesus—in his book Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament . In it, he explains that the sources for Roman and Greek history are usually removed one or two generations or even centuries from the events they record. Yet, historians reconstruct with confidence the course of Roman and Greek history.

For example, the two earliest biographies of Alexander the Great were written by Arrian and Plutarch more than 400 years after Alexander’s death, and yet classical historians still consider them to be trustworthy. The legends about Alexander the Great did not develop until during the centuries after these two writers. According to Sherwin-White, even two generations is too short a time span to allow legendary tendencies to wipe out the hard core of historical facts. When Professor Sherwin-White turns to the gospels, he states that for the gospels to be legends, the rate of legendary accumulation would have to be “unbelievable.” More generations would be needed.

2.3.2 Primitiveness of New Testament Source Material

This point becomes even more devastating for skepticism when we recall that the gospels themselves use sources that go back even closer to the events of Jesus’s life. For example, the story of Jesus’s suffering and death—the Passion Story—was probably not originally written by Mark. Rather Mark used a source for this narrative. And since Mark is the earliest gospel, it therefore follows that his source must be even earlier. Rudolf Pesch, a German expert on Mark, says the Passion source must go back to at least AD 37, just seven years after Jesus’s death . As another example, St. Paul hands on information concerning Jesus’ burial and resurrection appearances. Paul’s letters were written even before the gospels, and some of his information—i.e., what he passes on in his first letter to the Corinthian church about the resurrection appearances—has been dated to within five years after Jesus’s death. It just becomes irresponsible to speak of legends in such cases. Therefore, the claim that a supernatural Jesus is merely the product of later, legendary embellishment has been evacuated of any substance; hence it’s being abandoned by virtually all of NT scholarship.




References Cited


Posted in Historiography, Resurrection.

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