In answering this question, it’s helpful for us to return to the “facts of the case.” Here, speculation is useless. It does not matter what we thought reality was like: whether we believed in thirty gods or none. It doesn’t matter what we find helpful, meaningful, or fulfilling. This is not about spirituality or moral uplift. Something has happened in history and we cannot wish it away. It either happened or it did not happen, but the claim itself is hardly meaningless or beyond investigation. Let’s look at the facts of the case.
The earliest Christians testified to the following elements of the resurrection claim, even to the point of martyrdom:
Jesus Christ lived, died, and was buried.
Even Marcus Borg, co-founder of the skeptical “Jesus Seminar,” concedes that Christ’s death by Roman crucifixion is “the most certain fact about the historical Jesus.” There are numerous attestations to these facts from ancient Jewish and Roman sources. According to the Babylonian Talmud, “Yeshua” was a false prophet hanged on Passover eve for sorcery and blasphemy. No less a towering Jewish scholar than Joseph Klausner identifies the following references to Jesus in the Talmud: Jesus was a rabbi whose mother, Mary (Miriam), was married to a carpenter who was nevertheless not the natural father of Jesus. Jesus went with his family to Egypt, returned to Judea and made disciples, performed miraculous signs by sorcery, led Israel astray, and was deserted at his trial without any defenders. On Passover eve he was crucified.
The Roman historian Suetonius (75-130 AD) wrote of the expulsion of Jews from Rome in 48 AD. One incident arose because a sect was worshipping a man, a “certain Chrestus” (Claudius 25.4). Late in the first century, Tacitus—the greatest Roman historian—referred to the crucifixion of Jesus under Pontius Pilate (Annals 15.44). In a letter to the Emperor Trajan around the year 110, Pliny the Younger, imperial governor of what is now Turkey, reported that Christians gathered on Sunday to pray to Jesus “as to a god,” to hear the letters of his appointed officers read and expounded. The early church received a meal at which they believed Christ himself presided (Epistle 10.96).
We know also from ancient sources how successful the Romans were at crucifixions. The description in the Gospels of the spear thrust into Christ’s side and the ensuing flow of blood and water fit with both routine accounts of crucifixion from Roman military historians as well as with modern medical examinations of the report. The so-called “swoon theory” speculates that Jesus did not really die, but was nursed back to health to live out his days and die a natural death. Yet, as Doug Powell observes, in addition to surviving the spear piercing his heart and one of his lungs, Jesus “would have had to control how much blood flowed out of the wound by sheer willpower.”
In Surah 4:157, Islam’s Qur’an teaches that the Romans “never killed him,” but “were made to think that they did.” No supporting argument for this conjecture is offered and the obvious question arises: Are we really to believe that the Roman government and military officers as well as the Jewish leaders and the people of Jerusalem “were made to think that” they had crucified Jesus when in fact they did not do so?
Furthermore, why should a document written six centuries after the events in question have any credence when we have first-century Christian, Jewish, and Roman documents that attest to Christ’s death and burial? Roman officers in charge of crucifixions knew when their victims were dead. Even the liberal New Testament scholar John A. T. Robinson concluded that the burial of Jesus in the tomb is “one of the earliest and best-attested facts about Jesus.”
The burial of Jesus in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea is mentioned in all four Gospels (Mt 27:57; Mk 15:43; Lk 23:50; Jn 19:38-39). This is a specific detail that lends credibility to the account. Furthermore, it’s an embarrassing detail that the disciples would not likely have forged. After all, according to the Gospels, the disciples fled and Peter had even denied knowing Jesus. Yet here is a wealthy and powerful member of the ruling Jewish Council (Sanhedrin), coming to Pilate to ask for permission to bury Jesus in his own tomb.
Adding to the embarrassment, according to John 19:38-42, Joseph was assisted in the burial by another leader of the Pharisees, Nicodemus (who met with Jesus secretly in John 3). Joseph was of such a stature that Pilate conceded to deliver the body over to him, but only after confirming with the centurion that Jesus was, in fact, dead (Mk 15:44-45).
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