Did Jesus really rise from the dead?


Resurection-TodayThe Resurrection of Jesus is a common claim within the various strands of Christianity, so if you asked you would be advised “Of Course”. It in some ways also strikes me as odd that it is a big deal for some, because remember Jesus is supposed to be God, and so a resurrection or two for the entity that supposedly manufactured the entire universe should be a walk in the park.

However, do we have any historical evidence that it actually happened?

There are some things that I have no problem accepting, for example the idea that a chap called Jesus really existed. It was a very very common name  and so if you wandered into the Market in Bethlehem and called out “Jesus” then you would attract the attention of many who had that name. There is an entire book in the Bible named Jesus – it is in the Old Testament and you might know it as “Joshua” – and so what some might not appreciate is that the name “Jesus” is just a translation of yēšūă‘, hence naming your kid after a well-respected historical OT hero was quite common.

I also have no problem with the idea that a chap wandering about claiming to be the son of God ended up getting executed by the Romans as an undesirable. That also was very common. In fact I can think of a few examples that were specifically from just Galilee, both of the following claimed to be the Messiah and ended up being executed by the Romans …

Most historical scholars generally agree that there was a chap called Jesus, he was a messiah claimant, and that he was executed by the Romans. However, acceptance of all of that does not in any way verify any of the claims now associated with Jesus, and so none of that is evidence for any of the supernaturalism, the divinity claims, nor the resurrection.

(Side note: Yes it is popular to suggest his very existence was a myth, but the details of such claims tend not to withstand scrutiny, and there are good non-religious reasons for historians to accept the above)

If you are having a bit of difficulty with this, then let me illustrate it with a more modern example. Joseph Smith was quite real and did exist, and yet that fact does not in any way verify any of the claims asserted by the Mormon church regarding his status and character. They have specific claims regarding him, but he is also recent enough for us to be able to check historical records and discover that he was actually a bit of a rogue and con-artist).

So Did the Resurrection actually happen?

No, there is not one jot of historical evidence for that.

The first written account is contained within the Gospel of Mark which was written about 30 years after the event. However, it is not just the length of time that is problematic, the text itself is as well.  Verses 9-20 which describe Jesus appearing after his death is generally accepted by the vast majority of scholars as fake as a later addition, principally because the oldest copies of mark that we have, which date to about 300 CE, do not contain those verses. What then follows after Mark is Luke and Matthew about 15 years later and clearly they copied most of Mark (lay them side by side and you not only see that, but can also observe that Mark’s bad Greek grammar is fixed). Then even later we have the Gospel of John (written sometime between 90-110 CE) where we find that the concept of a Messiah has evolved into the concept of Jesus being God.

What is written is not so much a reporting of actual facts, but rather is about the evolution of a mythology regarding both what happened and who he was that rapidly grew around a Messiah claimant, and so it tells us a great deal about human psychology, but not very much about the things that are actually true.

Now, if you are struggling with this, then you do need to remember that the Bible is a Text that reports “facts” like this …

51 And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent;

52 And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose,

53 And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.

Matthew 27:51-53

In the above you have a claim that there was an earthquake and also a claim that lots of dead people got up, and went into town and walked about and were seen by many. The odd thing is that apart from this one text nobody noticed. Josephus, the well-known local historian who quite literally records a local Roman soldiers farting as a historical event, is stunningly silent about all of this. In other words, the Bible can and does exaggerate things a bit.

Many apologists will continue to assert that the Resurrection is the best documented event in history, and yet when challenged to present such evidence, all they are these highly dubious bible accounts written many many decades later. There is perhaps also Testimonium Flavianum that was written by Josephus, but that is also highly problematic and is generally deemed to be a forgery by most historians. (The use of the Greek in it is not how Josephus wrote, but is exactly how Eusebius who first references it in 324 CE wrote; he appears to be the forger).

What did the resurrection concept mean?

What is also rather interesting is that there existed an early jewish resurrection belief, and so what we find regarding the claimed resurrection of a Jewish Messiah was not something astonishingly new, but rather was all part of the prevailing Jewish belief system..

Josephus, who himself was a Pharisee, explained that the Pharisees held that only the soul was immortal and the souls of good people would be reincarnated and “pass into other bodies,” while “the souls of the wicked will suffer eternal punishment.” …

But then as to the two other orders at first mentioned, the Pharisees are those who are esteemed most skillful in the exact explication of their laws, and introduce the first sect. These ascribe all to fate [or providence], and to God, and yet allow, that to act what is right, or the contrary, is principally in the power of men, although fate does co-operate in every action. They say that all souls are incorruptible, but that the souls of good men only are removed into other bodies, – but that the souls of bad men are subject to eternal punishment. But the Sadducees are those that compose the second order, and take away fate entirely, and suppose that God is not concerned in our doing or not doing what is evil; and they say, that to act what is good, or what is evil, is at men’s own choice, and that the one or the other belongs so to every one, that they may act as they please. They also take away the belief of the immortal duration of the soul, and the punishments and rewards in Hades. Moreover, the Pharisees are friendly to one another, and are for the exercise of concord, and regard for the public; but the behavior of the Sadducees one towards another is in some degree wild, and their conversation with those that are of their own party is as barbarous as if they were strangers to them. And this is what I had to say concerning the philosophic sects among the Jews. – The wars of the Jews, Book II, Chap 8 v 14

Paul, the guy who introduced Christianity to the world and spread his ideas via his letters, declared himself to be a Pharisee, and so when he talks about the Resurrection within his letters (written about 52-53 CE), then this is the context where his resurrection beliefs come from.

But when Paul perceived that the one part were Sadducees, and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, Men and brethren, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee: of the hope and resurrection of the dead I am called in question. – Acts 23:6

Conclusions

Did Jesus literally resurrect? – No we have no evidence for that, and while many do assert it to be factual, they do still use the term “faith” as the foundation for it all – Faith is believing stuff on the basis of no evidence at all, and so deploying that term is to confirm the complete lack of any real facts.

What we do also have is a prevailing background concept of a resurrection belief that existed within the Pharisee belief system, and that the key architect of Christianity, Paul, was himself very much immersed within that belief, so it is not exactly a huge surprise to find him promoting the belief that a Messiah had resurrected, and not once did he refer to Jesus as God.

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