Easter Examined: Could Jesus have risen from the dead?

As a child I learned many ‘fantastic’ stories surrounding our religious holidays.  I learned that a jolly fat man lived in the North Pole and flew around the world with reindeer, climbing down chimneys to give gifts to good girls and boys on Christmas.  I learned about the Easter bunny that gave out eggs and chocolates to the same good girls and boys at Easter time.  As I grew older I realized that these stories were cute but not true – I could look back and smile on them – but I would (and did) outgrow them.

Is the Resurrection story of Jesus credible?

I also learned other ‘stories’ about our religious holidays.  These stories had shepherds seeing angels, wise men following stars, a baby born in a manger – stories that form the basis of the Christmas celebration.  But perhaps the most dramatic was the story of how Jesus died on a cross, but that three days later he came back to life again – stories forming the basis of Easter.

These second set of stories, taken at face value, seem as fantastic as the first set.  The question I had when I got a little older and realized that the first set of stories were not ‘really’ true was – Is the second set also false?  After all, these stories seem equally incredible!  This is especially true of the Easter story which claimed that three days after his death, Jesus underwent a physical resurrection and came to life again.  This is probably the most audacious story across all religions, one perhaps fit for a tabloid headline – ‘Dead Man Comes Back to Life’.  Could it be true? Or even credible?  Was there any reasonable evidence to substantiate it?

The Resurrection: A Life-and-Death Issue

These are hard questions to answer.  But surely it is worth some adult thought since it touches on our mortality.  After all, as Woody Allen reminded us in ‘The Wisdom I learned from a filthy-rich, hard-drinking playboy’ death is inevitable for you, me and all others too.  If Jesus has in some way defeated death then it would have huge implications for all of us.  So in this and the subsequent post I want to briefly summarize some things I have learned in studying and thinking through this question.  There are more detailed videos in Session 7.

Perhaps the best way to try to answer this question is to work through all the possible alternatives and see which alternative makes most sense – without prejudging by ‘faith’ any supernatural explanation.  That Jesus lived and died a public death that has altered the course of history is certain.  One need not even go to the Bible for that.  We looked at some external evidence for this in Session 4.  But here let’s review a couple of secular references to Jesus and the impact he made on the world of his day.

Tacitus’ Testimony relating to Jesus and the Resurrection

The Roman governor-historian Tacitus made a fascinating reference to Jesus when describing how Nero martyred 1st century Christians (in AD 65) as scapegoats for the burning of Rome.  Here is what he says:

‘Nero.. punished with the most exquisite tortures, the persons commonly called Christians, who were hated for their enormities. Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius; but the pernicious superstition, repressed for a time broke out again, not only through Judea, where the mischief originated, but through the city of Rome also’ (Annals XV. 44)

The interesting point about this statement is that Tacitus corroborates that Jesus was: 1) a historical person; 2) executed by Pontius Pilate in Judea; 3) by 65 AD (time of Nero) the Christian faith had spread across the Mediterranean to Rome from Judea – and with such an intensity that the emperor of Rome felt he had to deal with it.  Notice as well that Cornelius Tacitus is saying these things as a hostile witness since he considers what Christ started a ‘pernicious superstition’.

Josephus’ Testimony relating to Jesus & the Resurrection

Josephus was a Jewish military leader/historian who wrote to a Roman audience.  In this writing he summarizes the history of the Jewish nation from its beginning up to his time.  In so doing he covers the time and career of Jesus with these words:

‘At this time there was a wise man … Jesus. … good, and … virtuous.  And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned Him to be crucified and to die. And those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that He had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that He was alive’… (Antiquities xviii. 33)

So it seems from these glimpses back into the past that the death of Christ was a known and discussed event and the issue of his resurrection was being forced unto the Roman world by his disciples.

Acts on Events in Jerusalem just after Jesus’ Crucifixion

Luke, a physician and historian provides further details as to how this movement advanced in the ancient world.  Here is his excerpt from Acts:

‘The priests and the captain … came up to Peter and John … They were greatly disturbed because the apostles were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead…They seized Peter and John… put them in jail…When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished… “What are we going to do with these men?” they asked’.. (Acts 4:1-16)
‘Then the high priest and all his associates,… arrested the apostles and put them in the public jail. …they were furious and wanted to put them to death….They called the apostles in and had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go.’ (Acts 5:17-40)

One can see from this account that the political/religious leaders were going to great lengths to stop this ‘pernicious superstition’ (as Tacitus called it).  We should note that these events were occurring in Jerusalem – the same city where only a few weeks earlier Jesus had been publicly executed and buried.

An Empty Tomb: Reasoned from Historical Testimony

Having surveyed the pertinent historical data we are in a position to work through the possible explanations that surround the hypothesized resurrection of Christ.  To start with, we have two (and only two) possible alternatives concerning the body of the dead Jesus.

Options for the Jesus' Tomb occupied or empty
Options for the Tomb of Jesus

As the figure shows, the body of Christ was either in the tomb or was not.  Let us assume that his body was still in the tomb.  As we reflect on the unfolding events recorded in history, however, we are quickly confronted with absurdities.  Why would the religious/political leaders have to go to such extremes to stop such exaggerations of an alleged resurrection if the body was still in the tomb, a few minutes walk from where the disciples were publicly proclaiming his resurrection?  If I had been one of those religious/political leaders, I would have waited until Peter or John had reached the climax of their speech concerning the resurrection and then publicly paraded the body of Christ before all – audience and disciples.  I would have discredited the fledgling movement without having to imprison, torture and finally martyr them!  And consider – thousands were converted to belief in the physical resurrection of Christ in Jerusalem at this time.  If I had been one of those in the crowds – listening to Peter, pondering and wondering if I could believe his incredible message (after all, this belief came with a price of persecution) I would have at least taken my lunch break to go down to the tomb to take a look for myself.  If the body of Christ was still in the tomb this movement would not have gained any adherents in such a hostile environment with such incriminating counter evidence on-hand.  So Christ’s body remaining in the tomb leads to absurdities.  This alternative cannot be seriously entertained.

Tomb was not occupied

Of course this does not prove a resurrection.  There are several natural possibilities for how a tomb can get empty.  In my next post I look at some.

Did Constantine corrupt the Gospel or Bible?

Over the years I have been asked rather frequently about Constantine. There is lots of misinformation and rumour that circulates about him.  Popular books/movies such as the Da Vinci Code or Holy Blood, Holy Grail portray him as the Roman Emperor who basically invented the Gospel for his own political ends.  Is that true?  Let us start with some easy-to-verify facts about him.

Constantine the Great: Facts on-hand

Constantine was Roman Emperor from 306-337 AD.  Prior to his rule many of the Roman Emperors were openly hostile to the Gospel, killing and persecuting many of the followers of the gospel.  The Emperor Nero started this trend in 64 AD, when he took first century followers of the gospel, bound and dipped them in oil, and burned them alive as human torches for lighting in his palace gardens!  Successive Emperors Domitian, Marcus Aurelius (of Gladiator movie fame), Diocletian and others continued this kind of treatment.  But Constantine issued the Edict of Milan in 313 AD, granting religious tolerance to all views.  Constantine became sole emperor of Rome by being victorious in a series of military campaigns against other rivals.  During these campaigns he converted to Christianity (from paganism).  There is much debate today whether his ‘conversion’ was sincere, or whether he did so for political gain.

The Council of Nicaea

In 325 AD Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea, the first empire-wide meeting of church leaders to discuss various controversies.   People often wonder if the gospels were changed or corrupted, or even selected (in some back-room conspiracy) for inclusion in the Bible at this time.  In fact, the main point of discussion was the theological understanding of the relationship between Jesus and God.  One camp (led by Arius) held that they were of different essences, and the other camp (led by Athanasius) held that they were of the same essences.   Therefore we know that theological interpretations were staked out and the summary Nicene Creed was authored from this council convened by Constantine.

Corruption or Conspiracy?

But were the gospels changed and/or selected at this council?  As we saw in Session 3 and the introductory article on Textual Criticism of the Bible, there are many manuscripts on-hand today that come from up to two hundred years before the time of Constantine (and the Council of Nicaea).  If this council (or Constantine) changed the documents of the New Testament then we would see this change in the copies that pre-date the Council of Nicaea from those that come after.  But the copies show no such change.  We see this in the timeline in the figure below taken from an article on the King James Bible where the manuscripts for Bibles today predate Constantine and the Council of Nicaea by up to two hundred years.

manuscripts and times from which modern Bibles are translated
From where does the Bible come?

But were the ‘wrong’ gospels selected into the Bible at this point?  We also know that this was not the case because both sides of the debate (Arius and Athanasius) used the same gospels and epistles (the ones that are in the Bible now) to argue their case.  Arius and Athanasius did not disagree on what the scriptural documents stated, nor did they disagree on which documents should be ‘in’ the Bible.  They disagreed, with heated debate, on the interpretation of these same scriptures.  We know this because an account of the debates and intrigues of the Council of Nicaea and Constantine’s role in it is preserved for us in the reporting of Eusebius who was one of the delegates to this council.  The writings of Athanasius are also preserved.

Constantine vs. the Good News of Gospel

Constantine did have a huge impact on the development of Christianity.  Christian celebrations like Christmas on December 25, how the date for the Easter celebration is calculated, and a reversal of the gospel from being counter-cultural and viewed with mistrust by the government, to becoming the cultural standard of Europe, in alliance with government, started with Constantine.  But the Gospel is not about culture or government power.  It is about a good news message from God freely received in the hearts and minds of people – and then changing their hearts.  And just like barnacles collecting on the hull of a ship can distort the hydrodynamics of a streamlined keel – and must be removed for the ship to regain its ability to move gracefully in the water – so a lot of Christianity that has developed since Constantine might need to be scraped away so we can access the pure gospel.  But it can be done.  And the ‘scraper’ with which we can find the pure Good News is the Bible.  Since the books in the Bible were not invented, modified or corrupted by Constantine we can use them to get a view of Jesus and his Gospel that has been around since his disciples went forth proclaiming his message.  This also allows us to better understand the various conspiracy theories about Jesus, (like did he have a wife or was he ‘invented’ from the ancient Egyptian mystery religion of Osiris, Isis and Horus).  It also allows us to understand where terms like ‘Christ’ originate.

But what about the theology and creeds that came from the Council of Nicaea?  Are they corrupt?  The really good news is that since the scriptures upon which these interpretations were debated are open and available to us today, we ourselves can consider the scriptures, understand its message, and assess those very same interpretations and creeds.  What many people have not understood, is that all themes in the Bible have their origins in the Old Testament, which predates by hundreds of years the influence of Constantine and even that of the Church.  For example, prophetic themes about the coming of the Messiah, as well as themes predicting the development of the Jewish people are dotted through the entire Old Testament.

Whatever we conclude about creeds and theology we can then ‘own it’ if we examine it for ourselves.  We may decide for a multitude of reasons not to believe or accept the Gospel.  Or we may decide to embrace it.  But let us avoid the really foolish notion of bringing Constantine into the mix.  He would be a poor excuse whichever way we land.