Are There Reasons Beyond Faith to Believe That Jesus Rose From the Dead? #60 + Did Roman Historians Write About Jesus During the First Century?
Happy Leap Year, Friends! Today is the rarest day in our calendar, with the one exception being the legendary February 30th that sometimes shows up on milk carton expiration dates. Because the Robert Murray M’Cheyne Bible Reading Plan that we are following does not include February 29th (or February 30th, for that matter) we could have had a free day today, but that wouldn’t be seemly. The pod must go on! Today’s Scripture is 1 Corinthians 15 – the resurrection chapter. Let’s read it and then come back and discuss some reasons to believe in the resurrection and some reasons to believe in the reliability of the Bible. For more reasons to believe:
Easter Fact or Fiction – 20 Reasons to Believe Jesus Factually Rose From the Dead Book
Jesus Defeated Death – How Can We Know For Sure?! (Episode 44)
What Was The Central Event of Christianity? (Episode 17)
“So if you were going to make up a story about the resurrected Jesus Christ, you would never make up a story like this. You might have some luminescent, radiant Jesus bursting through the doors and everyone shielding their eyes, but instead what do you have? Would you, if you were making up a story do this? He just appears in their midst and says, “Do you have anything to eat?” Look how magnificent. Look what a faith-building experience. “And they gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he ate it.” Seriously, if you were making up a story about the resurrected Jesus, you just wouldn’t say things like this. Why would this be there? How mundane. How odd. How completely uninspiring. Why would that be there? The only right answer is, if you’re reading literature, it must have happened. Why else would you put it in? Legends are not like this.”Pastor Tim Keller – Sermon, Redeemer New York.
One of the oddest things about the resurrection accounts in all four gospels is their obvious lack of drama and embellishment. As Dr. Keller points out, Jesus just kind of appears in the midst of the disciples. They do cower, thinking he is a ghost, but after getting their courage back, Jesus quite anticlimactically asks for some boiled fish. If Hollywood had scripted the resurrection, Jesus would have come back in a blaze of glory, surrounded by a fiery glow. Thomas, upon expressing doubts, would have either been divinely smited down, or, Jesus would have answered his doubts with such a perfect put-down, that the disciples would have spent the rest of their lives reminding him how he’d been put in his place by the master. After Jesus met with the disciples, He would have flown off and utterly wiped the floor with Pilate and Herod…maybe even Caesar over in Rome. It would have been a blaze of glory and revenge, and every bad guy would have learned their lesson the hard way.
When all was said and done, Jesus would have rocketed back up to Heaven with an amazing display of light and sound. Jesus is back…and this time, it’s personal. That’s what would have happened if the resurrection of Jesus had been mythically embellished or fabricated, or exaggerated or invented. There would have been more drama – more comeuppance for the bad guys, and more adoration for Jesus.
Instead, He ate some fish. He had a discussion with Peter about John. He broke bread with Cleopas and another guy walking on the Emmaus road. Other than the coming back from the dead part…it just seems kind of mundane, doesn’t it? Even the ascension into Heaven is downplayed in the Gospels and Acts. Think about it: JESUS FLOATED UP INTO HEAVEN! How amazing that must have been to see, and yet Luke (who describes the ascension in the greatest detail) merely writes this, “51 And while He was blessing them, He left them and was carried up into heaven. 52 After worshiping Him, they returned to Jerusalem with great joy.” (Luke 24:51-52)
Matthew and John don’t even write about the ascension, and when Luke revisits it in Acts, all he adds is a small little detail about the disciples view of Jesus being blocked by a cloud, and the appearance of two guys (angels?) in white clothes who chide the disciples for looking up at the sky. Any writer – even a mediocre one – could have made that scene sound AMAZING, and could have done so without embellishing or exaggerating even a little bit! And yet, they didn’t…the drama was kept to an absolute minimum.
I propose that this is a signifier of real historical testimony, and the trustworthiness and sobriety of the Gospel writers. They didn’t have to add to the story. They didn’t have to stir up drama. They just told it like it happened, and even seemingly downplayed some of the more amazing things. Upon His return, Jesus appeared to the women first, and His brother and Peter and 500 other believers. None of them seem to be particularly important! Why not Herod? Why not Pilate? Why didn’t Jesus seek revenge on His executioners? Maybe organize a beat down of the Roman soldiers who had flogged Him? Alternatively, why didn’t He meet with somebody important like Joseph of Arimathea, or the high priest? Wouldn’t it have been great to have seen Caiaphas’ face when Jesus returned? Wouldn’t that have been a better story? And yet, none of that happened. Instead, what we get is narrative that does not exaggerate nor embellish, and is therefore all the more reliable because of it.
Every now and then, I get a bit of a wild hair and promote a Bible Reading Podcast post on Facebook. Please like the Bible Reading Facebook page on Facebook, by the way! Recently, I promoted a post that really brought out some trolls with some interesting swears and anti-Christian memes. No problem there. Also some people came out with some reasons NOT to believe in Jesus. Usually when I hear those, they are quite erroneous, but some folks had some decent responses, so I’d like to share a little bit of the dialog that we had.
Lawrence Bible Reading Podcast No Roman historian had actually met Jesus. Elastic stretches and truth ceases to be truth once it is retold. None of the stories in the bible were recorded by anyone who was there at the time that the bible claims that they allegedly happened. The bible stories were written by people without first hand eyewitness account centuries after they were supposed to have happened. I have heard people refer to this as mythology
Bible Reading Podcast Lawrence – This is, quite frankly, an absurd argument to make. Why would a Roman historian journey to Israel to meet a Jewish man who – according to the Bible – stayed the entirety of His ministry inside a country that is about 1/3 the size of Scotland? There would be no reason in the world for such a thing to happen. #2 There are exactly THREE Roman historians of any significance that were writing during the time of Jesus’ active ministry. Were you aware of this? Here they are:
#1 Seneca the Elder. He died in A.D. 39. He wrote a history of Rome, but it is almost entirely lost to history, as are MANY of the books and writings of the first century due to age, disintegration, intentional destruction and events like the fires at the libraries of Antioch and Serapeum.
#2 Claudius the emperor – He died in A.D. 49. He wrote copiously – an 8 volume history of Carthage and a 20 volume history of the Etruscans. ALL OF HIS WORKS ARE LOST. Did he write about Jesus? I suppose it is possible, but highly unlikely that you would write about Jesus in a history of Carthage and the Etruscans.
#3 Marcus Cluvius Rufus – He was a Roman historian and statesmen who wrote during the first century. ALL OF HIS WORKS ARE LOST TO HISTORY.
So, Lawrence – given that we have THREE Roman historians writing during the time of Jesus, and given the fact that almost 100 percent of their historical works are LOST to history – what conclusions can we draw from this? That’s correct – no conclusions whatsoever. Later Roman historians wrote extensively about Jesus. They possibly did during His lifetime too – Or not! – but we have no idea either way.
As to the second half of your paragraph – you are again making wild claims without the least bit of evidence backing them up. The New Testament accounts claim to be first hand. They are very early, and there are thousands of Greek manuscripts that back up the claim that they are very early. Were they written in the first century by eyewitnesses? I believe they absolutely were, but I cannot prove that beyond a shadow of doubt. (how could you, really?) I believe the preponderance of evidence over the years indicate they were. There is absolutely ZERO proof – ZERO! That the New Testament accounts were NOT written in the first century by eyewitnesses.
Not every scholar agrees on that one way or the other, but there is no evidence – historical, paleographical, or linguistic that indicates that the New Testament accounts were anything other than what they claim to be.
Bible Reading Podcast Philip Basically what you are saying, Philip is that you don’t trust the reports of the eyewitnesses that were on site for the ministry of Jesus, and that you would only trust the reports of historians that were hundreds of miles away – in their own country – and who’s works are lost to history. For a geography refresher, it is worth noting that the distance from Rome to Jerusalem is over 3,500 kilometers. The length of the entire nation of Israel is around 400 kilometers, for perspective.
In other words, your skepticism is completely without basis. The four Gospels are eyewitness accounts written by people who lived in the land where the events occurred and lived during the time the events occurred. I suspect the only reason you reject them as reliable is because you don’t like their conclusions.
Also on your Josephus contention – you are way outside the bounds of modern critical Bible scholarship. I’m not talking about Christian scholars, but scholars of antiquity. There are at least two mentions of Jesus in Josephus. The first and most extensive may indeed be an interpolation, but that has not been ‘proved,’ as you say. It is quite the matter of debate, though the consensus is that it is indeed an interpolation. The modern scholarly consensus is also that the interpolation was laid on top of an authentic passage about Jesus – just one that was added to by later Christian scholars. The other major mention of Jesus in Josephus is doubted by very few scholars, and almost all of them believe it to be genuine. So the overwhelming consensus of modern critical scholars is that Josephus wrote about Jesus.
It is fine if you want to be a skeptic, but you need to know that the vast majority of the skepticism that you have expressed in this post is actually based on faulty historiography, and skeptical theories that most modern scholars dismiss.
In an era that lacked internet, telegraph, television and newspapers, the news about Jesus – who spent his entire life in a country 1/3rd the size of Scotland – travelled slowly and organically, but it did indeed reach and transform the ENTIRE Roman Empire. Nobody doubts that fact. A question for you to grapple with in your skepticism is this: How did the testimony and message of Jesus take hold of and transform the entire Roman Empire?? Lest you just assume that they were morons who would believe anything, it might be worth remembering that, historically, many people of this time claimed to be gods, including many of the Roman emperors. How did their message not transform the world, while the message of Jesus did? You can’t explain it by money, power, ethnicity, clever strategy or really any other way. Something has to explain the power of the message of Jesus. I believe the explanation is the Resurrection and the Holy Spirit. How do you explain it?
One other note – given what you have written so far, I suspect you have a great respect for Roman historians. One of the earliest Roman historians we have surviving works from is Pliny the Younger. He wrote about Christians in the early second century. However, in terms of manuscripts, we have only ONE portion of Pliny’s writing that dates to earlier than the 9th century, and it is from the late 5th century – hundreds of years after the events that Pliny records. Historians don’t have a problem with this at all, considering we actually have a total of ZERO manuscripts from Greek historians or Roman historians that date to the first century on ANY subject. Pliny the younger’s historical records are considered quite reliable, despite the paucity of manuscript evidence to document their connection to the second century. There are many Greek New Testament fragments and manuscripts of the Bible that date MUCH earlier than the oldest surviving Pliny the Younger manuscript. There are old Latin ones, and Coptic ones as well – all scattered across the Middle East. The sheer volume of extant and old New Testament manuscripts dwarf any other ancient document from Greece or Rome. This should demonstrate some level of remarkable reliability to all but the most hardened skeptic.
If your skepticism doesn’t stand up to evidence that seems to disprove it, is it really intellectually honest or just an unwillingness to believe despite significant evidence to the contrary?