The Historical Reliability of the Resurrection

A friend of the blog, Preston Cave, graciously sent me an article he wrote and gave me permission to post it with a few brief comments. He reviews two works on the historical reliability of the Resurrection of Jesus. Preston writes:

In the book, “The Resurrection of the Son of God”, we see N.T. Wright answering the fourth question in a five question series he proposes on the person and works of Jesus of Nazareth that he began in a previous work, “Jesus and the Victory of God”. Even though he answered the first three questions in his previous work, Wright spends the entire book on this one question: “So, what did happen on Easter?”

He aims to address many questions related to the beliefs of the early followers, the events surrounding Easter Sunday, and the writings and resurrection perspectives of both the Apostle Paul as well as the Corinthian believers of his day.

Wright begins by looking at death and afterlife perspectives of ancient peoples as recorded in the Old Testament as well as what Wright would call, “Post-biblical Judaism”. By this he means the second-Temple period. He notes that the Old Testament leans more towards a lack of understanding of the reality of the afterlife, whereas this “Post-biblical” second-Temple period shows to be more open to the beliefs of the resurrection.

Wright moves from here to the writings of the Apostle Paul. He spends an entire chapter covering the different letters with a special emphasis on the texts which point to Paul’s understandings and beliefs regarding the resurrection of Jesus. It seems clear to Wright that the Apostle Paul was thoroughly convinced that a bodily resurrection actually occurred. Wright ends this section with a lengthy examination of the resurrection texts to the Corinthians, specifically 1 Corinthians 15 and 2 Corinthians 4:7-5:10. He points out the clear differences in purposes of these two resurrection texts and concludes that one of Paul’s main points was to address the arrogance of the Corinthian believers in his third letter (2 Corinthians)

Wright begins the conclusion of this text with a further examination of 1 Corinthians 15, moving then to the writings of the non-Pauline New Testament texts, the early church fathers, and finally a detailed study of the Gospels. The verdict is clear. Jesus was bodily raised from the dead. Wright concludes that this should have serious ramifications to our lives.

One of these ramifications would have to be that “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.” (Rom 8:11a) then we can trust our lives can be and should be, characterized by such spiritual power the verberations of which should be felt in our thoughts, emotions, families, jobs, churches and coffee shops.

Preston addresses the other work on the Resurrection of Jesus:

In the book, The Resurrection of Jesus, Mike Licona introduces the idea that every historian has, what he would call, horizons. Horizons are nothing more than presuppositions held by the historian in which he or she will consciously, or unconsciously, apply to the history they are trying to record. Danger happens when the historian does not recognize or acknowledge his or her “pre-understanding” of the world around them.

Horizons are how a historian views things as a result of their knowledge, experience, belief, education, cultural conditioning, preferences, presuppositions, and worldview. (pg. 38) For instance, historians who have a strong bias against theism will have a hard time accurately researching and recording the plausibility of the miracles found in the New Testament. Licona spends quite a bit if time instructing the reader on the challenges historians face in regard to horizons. After acknowledging his own personal horizons, Licona dives into the various studies of the Jesus of Nazareth.

Licona gives a great example of the dedication of the Apostles by showing that even their fates are proof of the reliability of the written texts. He explains that the strength of their conviction indicates they were not just claiming that Jesus appeared to them after rising from the dead. They really believed it. They willingly endangered themselves by publicly proclaiming the risen Christ. (pg. 366)

After establishing the historical bedrock of the Greco-Roman biographies, Licona gives the reader five historical criteria for consideration before analyzing six hypotheses. The five criteria were: plausibility, explanatory scope, explanatory power, less ad hoc, and illumination. We saw that Geza Vermes didn’t know if Jesus really rose from the dead. Michael Goulder and Gerd Ludemann both proposed the idea that the disciples hallucinated the resurrection. John Dominic Crossan focused less on the historical plausibility of the resurrection and more on the meaning of the event. He did not believe in a literal resurrection. Pieter Craffert took the biblical texts seriously, but tried to explain the miracles and resurrection in natural terms. Lastly was the resurrection hypothesis, in which all five criteria were fulfilled.

Licona ends the book by concluding the resurrection hypothesis to be the only historically plausible hypothesis.

As William Lane Craig has famously pointed out, one of the horizons the 1st century Jew would have had is that not only do dead men not rise from the grave but the Anointed One even less so. To die hanging on a tree was to be cursed by God. Everything in the Apostle’s horizon would have pointed away from a Risen Savior, and yet they went to their grave proclaiming one.


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