It's a Miracle! (Part 2)
Do we have the right historical record of the resurrection of Jesus? Is it trustworthy and credible? What do we do with the facts and the evidence around it?
As I get ready to celebrate Easter long weekend, I ponder what I celebrate – Christianity’s greatest miracle. Do we have the right historical record of the resurrection of Jesus? Is it trustworthy and credible? What do we do with the facts and the evidence around it?
We started talking about miracles last week. We reviewed arguments against them. J.E. Littlewood claimed that miracles were common and nothing special, whereas David Hume argued that it wasn’t rational to believe in them because they were rare. We talked about the possibility of miracles stemming from the origin of the universe. Outside of a religious context, through philosophical and scientific arguments like the Kalam argument, or the cosmological argument, or the teleological argument, we can conclude that the universe was created through a supernatural process, which becomes evidence that miracles are possible. We looked a bit into modern-day miracles, and how some branches of Christianity believe that they don’t happen the same way anymore, while others do.
And we stopped at today’s topic; the real kicker, the thing that matters the most in a sense. Are historical miracles true? As you’ll see in a moment, an interesting aspect of the resurrection of Jesus is that it kind of turns the tables on how we think about miracles. Here’s what I mean. With most claimed miracles, you methodically peel back the reasons why it’s not a miracle, and more often than not, that provides the more credible explanation.
Last time, we discussed the example of living alone, leaving your house one morning, and realizing that your fridge was totally empty. You went about your day – you didn’t get any groceries – but then you came home and found the fridge fully stocked. The most obvious thing you start looking into are things like, who else has access to the house, that could have known you were in need of this, that was in a position to get groceries, come to your house while you were gone, and restock the fridge? You would have to dispel those and many other natural, rational explanations before you concluded you’re in front of a miracle. And typically, that’s how it goes.
With the resurrection of Jesus, however, it’s a bit of the opposite. You start with the claim, and you just start coming up with all these reasons why it must not have been a miracle. What you find, though, is that the evidence is overwhelmingly for a miracle – not against it.
I’m going to look at this from two broad dimensions. One has to do with the text. Do we have a faithful, reputable, credible record of these events? We believe in these things because they’re in the Bible. But was this really the intent of the original authors? Or did someone tamper with the text? Were the authors wrong, or embellishing or making things up? And once I’m satisfied with the text, or at least in the right direction, I’ll have to deal with the facts. What do I do about them once I have confirmed that they weren’t written as fiction? Entire books have been written on this topic. Let’s see if I can give you a concise, relatable summary of the facts.
Let’s start with the text. This is one of those cases where we can’t conduct a scientific experiment to reproduce results, because this is a historical event. So instead of using empirical or experiential types of evidence, we have to resort to the principles of historical investigation. And of course, in doing so we need to hold the Bible to the same bar as other documents. We shouldn’t demand a lower bar for sacred texts than we do for other historical documents; conversely, we shouldn’t require evidence above what we do for those other documents.
The first question is, do we have a faithful copy of the text? We know we don’t have the originals, so we need to verify the faithfulness of our copies. The criteria we use for ancient texts is, how old are the copies? How far after the events they described were they written? And how many copies do we have, and how do they compare to each other?
Before tackling the Bible, let’s see how this looks like for other ancient texts. There is no reasonable doubt that the poems of Homer – the Iliad and the Odyssey – that we have today are faithful to the originals. This is based on about 1,800 copies, which are dated approximately 400 years after the originals were written. Similarly, there is no question about the historicity and integrity of the works of Greek philosopher Plato or historian Herodotus. We have between 7 and 10 surviving copies of their works, which are about 1,200 years older than the originals.
Where does the biblical New Testament come in? There are close to 6,000 known copies of the New Testament, and the earliest copies are no more than 100 years older than the events they describe. In fact, we know that Mark, the first written Gospel, was complete very soon after Jesus died and resurrected; and all gospels are thought to have been written by 70 AD, which is about 30 years after these events.
It’s important to note that these delays don’t bring the texts into question, because these cultures had a strong tradition of memorizing events and orally relaying them to each other and to the next generation. I don’t know about you, but I’d be wary of any event orally preserved for more than a few seconds these days. If I’m honest with you, I’d even be wary of having to call my family if I didn’t have my phone with me. I think I remember their numbers, but I’d rather not have to find out the hard way!
Today, of course, we don’t need to rely on our memories to the same extent. In fact, that’s probably the reason why our memories don’t do that kind of heavy lifting anymore. But rest assured that back in the day these delays wouldn’t necessarily compromise the integrity of the text. Of course, the sooner things were written down, the more likely they were to be accurate. By that token, the New Testament fares very well.
We know therefore that the text we have is the text we were intended to have. But how much can we believe this text? This points to aspects like testimony and the level of detail in them. To illustrate this, think about a present day event. Think about a recent event on which you read or saw multiple news reports from different sources on that same event. You probably found small differences or discrepancies between accounts, which in and of themselves didn’t invalidate the reporting; they just pointed to different perspectives from different viewers.
The reporters may have witnessed the events directly, and if they didn’t, you expect that they found suitable witnesses – people who actually saw or perceived the events being covered, with a way to check their motives and character. This could have involved corroborating evidence from other sources, like police reports, video footage and others. There’s also the element of objectivity. Are these witnesses or these reports trying to cast a given subject in the best possible light? Or are they including difficult or even embarrassing facts about the players?
And all of these aspects apply to the gospels. The testimony was early. It was provided by eyewitnesses, or people who were confirmed by reputable sources to have been in touch with eyewitnesses. There are multiple sources, and the tiny discrepancies in their stories, instead of being contradictions, serve to reflect a variety of viewpoints that reinforces the fact that their sources were eyewitnesses to the events. There is corroborating evidence from archaeology, from writers who weren’t Christians, that were even flat out against the Gospel. The narrative includes embarrassing details about the disciples, and difficult sayings of Jesus.
So the text stands numerous tests in terms of integrity and veracity. But does this apply to everything in it? Because there could be elements of myth and legend inserted into the text, like the accounts of supernatural miracles. We can look at the text, compare it with well-known standards from literary critics and a number of scientific disciplines, and find out if that’s the case.
One particular criterion that is used extensively here is whether the writing exhibits embellishments. Is it using the same type of language, the same type of narrative, for this type of event? Or does it change all of a sudden when something miraculous or supernatural or whatever authors want to emphasize in a particular way happens? When you look at the narrative of the resurrection in the gospels, the language is on par with everything else that is described. There are no specific terms. There are no bombastic words. There is no exciting graphical narrative. It all follows the same tone throughout the whole book. If you were reading the gospels for the first time, you could easily think that resurrections were as factual and common as fishermen fishing, farmers farming, or rich people throwing parties.
To wrap up the text aspect, let’s compare all of this with another piece of important literature, that describing the life of Alexander the Great. Just like Jesus, Alexander lived 33 years. Unlike Jesus, he carried out extraordinary accomplishments from a political perspective. Extraordinary military campaigns, conquering of countries, establishing a very large kingdom… Most of the evidence for the life of Alexander the Great comes from writings that are dated 100 to 400 years after his death, and those papers are not being questioned. I’m not questioning them. We trust all those things. We have applied the same bar to the gospels, and have even more reason to trust them.
Having said that, let’s go to the facts of the Gospel. What is the narrative that we’re trying to analyze here from a miraculous perspective?
We’re saying that Jesus lived, which is out of historical question. We’re saying that He died through Roman crucifixion – also undeniably historical. He was buried, so there was a grave that was sealed with His body inside. His body was embalmed with over 75 pounds of embalming materials and wrapped in clothes. Again, this is well attested historically.
Then, the grave is found empty. At the same time, the disciples witnessed that He appeared to them. And as a result of those appearances, these men, who were scared, terrified, in hiding, boldly come out and literally lay their lives on the line to attest these events.
I’m going to focus on four key lines of thought typically used to question these supernatural claims. The first one is that Jesus didn’t really die. No death means no resurrection. When you look at the historical record, Romans did not flog people they were going to crucify. On its own, crucifixion essentially had a 100% success rate; no one survived it.
However, because of Pilate’s weak character, Jesus was both flogged and crucified. This explains why He died so soon. It wasn’t typical for sufferers of crucifixion to die on the same day. They would suffer for days, after which oftentimes their legs would be broken, to prevent them from propping themselves up to breathe. Eventually they died of suffocation. Jesus didn’t need to have any bones broken – which, by the way, is just one of hundreds of messianic prophecies He fulfilled. The results of the flogging compounded with the excruciating pains of crucifixion to end Jesus’s life in a matter of hours.
The second claim is that disciples went to the wrong grave and found it empty. It wasn’t the right grave, and that explains everything. That would imply that not only the disciples, but no one in town remembered. The Romans had placed a guard on this grave. They and the Jews would have been very interested in finding the corpse to be able to demonstrate that Jesus died. Having all of them consistently looking at the wrong grave doesn’t make sense.
The third argument is that the grave was robbed by the disciples, to be able to present the resurrection myth as legitimate. The grave was guarded by a Roman guard. It was extremely hard to get past that. Robbing graves carried a death sentence in Judea, and the soldiers themselves would have paid with their lives if there was evidence that the grave was tampered with. In a fascinating plot twist, it may well have been that the Jewish high priests and the guards combined to spread the grave robbery hypothesis as a conspiracy theory, in a way that allowed them to help each other save face.
And the fourth argument I’ll address is that of hallucination – the idea that all these people who saw Jesus after He resurrected merely think they saw him and were hallucinating instead. Here’s the problem with this argument. As science advances, up to this very day, psychiatry denies the possibility of a group hallucination. Hallucination is never a group phenomenon; it only affects specific individuals. The gospels and subsequent New Testament books record 13 appearances of Jesus post-resurrection, including one to about 500 people. There’s just no scientific possibility that they went into a group hallucination.
Where From Here?
These are the facts, and these are the arguments. Like I said earlier, whole books have been written on this topic. I’m just trying to give you a high level summary of the key lines of discussion. And here are my closing thoughts.
On June 17 1972, a security guard discovered a burglary in progress at the Watergate Complex. What followed was an increasingly fragile conspiracy by some of the most powerful men in the United States to cover up the involvement of President Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign in illicit activities. This ended up costing Nixon the presidency, and the “-gate” suffix entered our lexicon as a perennial synonym of lies, scandal and embarrassment.
One of those men was Chuck Colson, special counsel to President Nixon, who was charged and jailed in the scandal’s aftermath. Shortly before being arrested, Colson read C. S. Lewis’s classic “Mere Christianity,” and he became a Christian. And he noted the contrast between what he had witnessed and been part of and the claims of the gospel. In his book “God and Government” he wrote:
In my Watergate experience, I saw the inability of men – powerful, highly motivated professionals – to hold together a conspiracy based on a lie. It was less than three weeks from the time that Mr. Nixon knew all the facts to the time that John Dean went to prosecutors. […] The actual cover-up lasted less than a month. Yet Christ’s powerless followers maintained to their grim deaths by execution that they had in fact seen Jesus Christ raised from the dead. […] Men and women do not give up their comfort – and certainly not their lives– for what they know to be a lie.
Occam’s razor is a principle that among other articulations, states that the simplest explanation is the one most likely to be correct. When you look at the evidence for the resurrection, you may experience the sinking feeling that most refutations are more far-fetched than the simple acceptance of facts at face value. Jesus died, but He resurrected. And far from being an isolated event, this completed the plan of salvation that God had hashed out throughout the Old Testament.
The beauty of this is that it’s sufficiently attested to pass pretty much any intellectual test. To answer pretty much any concern that raises against it. But at the same time, it’s not imposed. God has chosen not to overwhelm us, say by appearing to each one of us personally, but to let us use the same mechanisms and processes we’d apply to any other event to convince ourselves about the truth of this one.
Therefore, in the end, the choice of what to do in light of these facts remains yours.