April 11, 2021 - Resurrection

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Today we want to take a look at Jesus’ resurrection. The evidence for Jesus’ resurrection proves to be stronger than for any other key event from ancient times. Without Jesus’ resurrection, we would have no reason to pay any attention to Jesus other than as an interesting historical figure. This event helps make perfect sense out of why Jesus acted and talked like he was God.

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem is the site of an event so huge, it turned the universe upside down: the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth in the year 30 AD. I’ve been there, but all I saw was the tourist level. But in the fall of 2016, archaeologists dug down below the tourist level. They first went thru a level of rubble. Underneath it, they found a marble slab with a cross on it, laid by the Crusaders. Underneath that slab, they found bedrock, the place where Jesus’ body was laid: the place where the Lord of the universe rose from the dead.

The empty tomb, followed by the appearances of the risen Jesus, becomes the bedrock for what we believe.

Now, how do we know that this is the place? When I first went to Israel, I believed that the so-called Garden Tomb next to Gordon’s Calvary was the site of the Empty Tomb. But then I realized that if the Holy Sepulcher church was not the right place, then the early church forgot where the Empty Tomb was less than 100 years after it happened. I doubt they would forget! 100 years after Easter, we are told that the emperor Hadrian built a pagan temple over a Jewish tomb that had become a holy site. What other Jewish tomb would qualify to become such a holy site? In the recent dig, stones from Hadrian’s pagan temple were found, proving that this was the shrine that Hadrian tried to replace. Here in the early 300’s is where believers build the church to mark the spot where Jesus died for us and rose. The church was bulldozed during the Crusades and rebuilt. A lot has changed, but we cannot forget the place where it all happened.

Jesus’ resurrection is the bedrock for our faith. It is the rock that cannot be shaken, the fact that refuses to go away. Without Jesus’ resurrection, we have no basis on which to claim that our pet fairy tale is more true than anyone else’s pet fairy tale. What really happened on that day in that tomb almost 20 centuries ago makes a world of difference to us today.

Historians tend to be allergic to any claims about supernatural events. But how else is God going to invade history (if that ever happens)? And is it scientific or logical to rule an event out of bounds just because it’s never happened before? It's better to ask, “What’s the evidence?” As we saw last week, Jesus scholars have developed criteria of authenticity to identify points of historical bedrock in the Gospels. Whenever we have multiple independent witnesses, whenever we find details that are highly unlikely to have been invented, and whenever the event helps explain other facts that are beyond dispute, there’s where we can be even more confident that here we have the historical Jesus.

All of these criteria kick in to confirm Jesus’ resurrection. We have multiple independent witnesses, including Paul. We have details that the church would not have invented: the cowardice of the disciples, women as the earliest witnesses, a Pharisee from a town we’ve never heard of before who asks for the body of Jesus and buries it in his own unused tomb, which guarantees that there will be no mistake about where he has been placed.

Plus, the resurrection becomes the best explanation for some hard-to-explain facts. How do we explain how men who were so scared they ran away from their Master, turned into men who would take a bullet for him? How do we explain how, the closer we get to the scene of the reported miracle, skepticism shrinks and faith grows? That’s not how it works with myths, which arise far away, more than 100 years after the fact. How do we explain the survival of the church? Death of the leader put an end to all other Messianic movements back then. Michael Licona observes that the Church survived with none of the advantages that Buddha, Confucius, or Mohammed had.

Let’s take a look at the details. Before we have a resurrection we can prove, we first need to nail down the facts about his death and burial. Joseph of Arimathea, the man who reportedly buries Jesus, is recognized to be a “very plausible historical character.” He is identified in all 4 Gospels plus the Gospel of Peter. He is from a town very difficult to identify, with no Christian symbolism. Who would invent burial by a sympathizer among the villains, particularly a member of the Sanhedrin itself? Joseph’s request for Jesus’ body took more courage than Peter showed, because here we have a non-relative whose request puts his own status with the Romans at risk. If Pilate had any doubts that Jesus was innocent, he never would have granted the body.

Joseph’s unused tomb guarantees that later, those who look for Jesus’ body would go to the right place, and could not confuse his body with others. (It also would have been tacky for a king to be buried in a used tomb.) The tomb would have ceased to be used after the new city wall was built 10 years later. Some of the same women who witnessed the cross also witnessed the place where he was buried (but for some reason, we see no cooperation between the women and Joseph). One wonders why Joseph’s tomb happened to be so close. Only Matthew says it was his. Did he use it temporarily, perhaps? Only John and the Gospel of Peter mention that there was a garden here (Jerusalem’s Garden Gate was named after it).

The only unusual part of the story here is the 75 pounds of spices brought by Joseph and Nicodemus, to which the women plan to add after the Sabbath. (A similar amount of spices is burned for the funeral of Rabbi Gamaliel.) Nicodemus is also named by John as being one of those who prepared Jesus’ body. Joseph and Nicodemus cannot eat the Passover unless they have servants to do the work here. Those who bring spices are not expecting resurrection. By contrast, Mark only says that Joseph buys a linen shroud. The rabbis said that on the Sabbath, “They may prepare all the requirements for a corpse, anoint it, and wash it, provided only that they do not move any one of the limbs.” No one who is not a follower of Jesus would go to such trouble.

The request to set a guard occurs only in Matthew and in the Gospel of Peter, which says that Petronius is the name of the sergeant in charge. The tomb has been unguarded all Friday night, but the soldiers would have checked it before sealing the tomb. The sealing is alleged to be a Christian invention. It is curious that the other Gospels don’t mention the Roman seal, but if giving away the body of a supposed traitor posed a security risk (Pilate obviously doesn’t think so in this case), then this move becomes highly believable. Maybe no one thought they needed to mention the guard until Matthew’s day, when the charge starts circulating that the body was stolen. And do you think maybe Joseph himself might have wanted a guard?

Not much later than this, Tiberius issues a decree found on stone in Nazareth (of all places!) promising stiff punishment for anyone caught vandalizing tombs, including those who have removed and disposed of bodies, or transferred them to other places.

The appearances of the risen Jesus come from both Jerusalem and Galilee. How do we put the two together? John has the disciples in Jerusalem even 8 days later when Jesus appears to Thomas; this would mean they stayed for the whole 8-day feast of Unleavened Bread. During the next 32 days, they evidently go back to Galilee, where Jesus appears for the Great Commission and for John’s miraculous catch of fish. (The Great Commission might be where the appearance to 500 mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15:6 takes place.) Then, they are back at the Mount of Olives for the Ascension, ten days before the next Jewish festival. Luke 24 gives the impression that the eleven disciples never left Jerusalem, but in his Gospel, Luke gives us an ascension that looks much sooner than what he describes more clearly in Acts.

The empty tomb and Jesus’ presence in the room Sunday night both belong together – neither of them makes sense without the other. So we start with the tomb. Unlike the Gospel of Peter, none of the canonical Gospels have coverage of Jesus leaving the tomb, although Matthew has coverage of the angel rolling the stone away, and the guards passing out. In Matthew, this angel announces to the two Mary’s that Jesus has risen, after which Jesus meets them on the way back from the tomb. In Mark, there are 3 women (including Salome), who meet a young man in white inside the tomb. They flee and “said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

We don’t find this story about the women anywhere before Mark’s Gospel; not in Acts, not in Paul. One reason is that women were viewed as unreliable witnesses. If the disciples had invented this story, they would have used Peter and John as witnesses. Secondly, the women’s account proves nothing that was not already conceded by both sides; everyone knew the tomb was empty. But the most important reason why the women and the church kept their mouths shut at first, as lawyer Frank Morison observes in his book Who Moved the Stone?, is the potentially damaging weakness that it puts the women at the scene of an alleged grave robbery at a suspiciously early hour of the morning. Who would have invented a story with such an embarrassing weakness? Now we can see why the disciples are in hiding later on that day!

In Luke, the women are the two Mary’s, plus Joanna, and the “other women,” and they meet two men in dazzling apparel, after which they report to the disciples, who do not believe them, although (according to some manuscripts, plus John’s Gospel) Peter runs to the tomb to check it out. John has Mary Magdalene by herself, who finds the tomb empty, and reports to Peter that they have taken the Lord away. Peter then witnesses the empty tomb. Mary then looks into the tomb and sees two angels, sitting at opposite ends of the place where Jesus’ body once lay. Mary then meets Jesus outside the tomb and mistakes him for the gardener. Jesus is neither dazzling with glory here, nor is he a resuscitated corpse.

It is often objected that the inconsistencies between the accounts disprove their trustworthiness. However, NT scholar N T Wright argues that they are “a strong point in favor of their early character. The later we imagine them being written up, the more likely it would be that inconsistencies would be ironed out.”

Jesus’ resurrection has survived even the toughest attempts of critics to explain it away. For me, the toughest issue is: How do we know that Jesus’ body wasn’t stolen and destroyed without a trace? That’s the #1 alternative. Unauthorized removal of the body is the automatic conclusion to which all of the earliest persons on the scene jump. The vast majority of scholars are agreed that the 11 disciples are too dispirited and too fearful to pull off such a heist. Men who ran away from their Master and denied they ever knew him? The idea of stealing his body has never crossed their minds.

But what about some other joker out there? What about Joseph of Arimathea, someone who has a motive to vindicate Jesus, unbeknownst to the other disciples? Couldn’t such a deceiver remove Jesus’ body and burn it or feed it to the dogs? Again, even most unbelieving scholars do not go there. The consensus is that in that time and culture, it was unthinkable that anyone would steal his body and trash it. What’s point in stealing a dead Messiah and claiming he’s alive while sitting on evidence to the contrary in your backyard? The only conceivable kind of person who would do this would be someone who had no sympathy for Jesus or his movement but who just wanted to poke the chief priests in the eye. I doubt such a person ever existed.

Because, if we look closer, we’ll see that the empty tomb is not empty after all. Look at the grave clothes left behind. What robber would have taken the time and trouble to unwrap the body and arrange to leave it looking like the body had escaped? John states that Jesus was wrapped in bandages,” and that Peter and John saw them, plus the headcloth “wrapped up,” the same verb for what Joseph of Arimathea did with the bandages to Jesus. (The first 3 Gospels say that Joseph wrapped Jesus in a linen sheet, the same noun used for what the young man was wearing in Mark 14 when they grab him and he runs away naked.) Why would a grave robber go to the trouble of making the scene of the crime look like a Houdini-style escape, with the empty grave clothes left behind like a shell?

What do we do with the famous claim made by an ex-priest named John Dominic Crossan that crucified criminals were denied burial, and that Jesus would have been thrown into a common grave and eaten by dogs? The Roman writer Tacitus does say that under Tiberius “people sentenced to death forfeited their property and were forbidden burial.” However, we have found a crucifixion victim buried in a family tomb, with the nail still thru the ankles. Both Philo and Josephus give us cases of Roman governors giving permission to bury an executed criminal. Special permission appears to have been given for Jesus as well.

What about supposed contradictions in the story? Did they see one angel or two? The fact that Mark only mentions one doesn’t rule out the possibility of two. Such apparent rough edges don’t disprove the story; they are proof of the story’s early, eyewitness character. Later accounts would have ironed out the difficulties. Do all the details line up from the witnesses of Columbine or 9/11? No, but we have no doubt that Columbine and 9/11 really happened. Events like Nero starting the fire in Rome or Hannibal crossing the Alps have huge contradictions between the sources, but nobody doubts they really happened. The accounts of Jesus’ resurrection are far easier to reconcile.

Unbiased witnesses are the hardest to find. How do you find an unbiased witness to an atomic bomb? One might ask, “You say the Gospel witnesses were all Christians. Yes, but what made them Christians?” How and why did they become biased witnesses?

The evidence is there. We have a positively identified empty tomb, plus empty grave clothes lying there, as if the person had engineered a Houdini-style escape. Plus we have the multiple appearances of the risen Jesus to witnesses who were totally disinclined to believe them. We have both his absence from the tomb and his presence in the room that night. How do we know it’s really him? His absence from the tomb. How do we know he’s not stolen or lying somewhere else? His presence in the room. One confirms the other. The case is compelling.

Jesus’ resurrection validates the whole of what we believe. If Jesus truly rose from the dead, it becomes a lot easier to believe that he walked on water, raised the dead, and was conceived by a biological miracle. The whole rest of the Bible becomes much easier to believe, including parts where all we can do is accept them on faith, including details and commands we find hard to accept. What happened in that tomb on that day so long ago becomes the bedrock for all that we believe.

Without Jesus’ resurrection, it’s hard to explain the existence of the Church. But was the Church ever a part of Jesus’ intention, or did it happen as an accident that was never planned that way? And how do we know what God’s authorized true Church is supposed to look like? We’ll take a look at these questions next time on Biblical Words and World.