Saturday, 5 June 2010

Resurrection: The Fingerprint Facts

A summary of the Bible Hour presentation at the Christadelphian Hall, Blackpool Street, Burton-upon-Trent on Sunday 30th May 2010.
This blog uses Bible references. If you don’t have a Bible, you can find the Bible text online.

We can use evidence to prove that Jesus existed, died and rose again.

There is a surprising amount of evidence that a man known as Jesus of Nazareth existed. In fact, there is said to be more contemporary documentation for the existence of Christ than for Julius Caesar.

We can take the evidence of three non-Christian historians from the 1st century AD:
• Tacitus (active c. AD 64-116) refers to Christians as followers of “Christus” who had “undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate.”
• Thallus (c. AD 52): in his writings a reference to Christ’s death is presented as fact.
• Josephus (c. AD 80-93) the famous Jewish historian refers to Jesus, his miracles, his crucifixion and his disciples. He also mentions “James the brother of Jesus who was called Christ”.

We can’t ignore this kind of evidence.

There are 2 tests historians use to test the reliability of ancient documents. Firstly the number of years that elapsed between the event happening and the date of the earliest written copy available to us today. Obviously, the longer period of time, the less likely it is to be reliable. We can apply these tests to the New Testament.

New Testament events happened between 30-100 AD. The earliest surviving record we have available to us today is about 130AD. By comparison, for Homer’s Iliad there’s a 500y gap. Pliny (who tells us about Vesuvius erupting in Pompeii) we have 750 years between the event happening and our oldest surviving document today. So if someone is sceptical of the New Testament text, they need to be even more sceptical about all the other classical history that we take for granted.

The second test is the number of ancient copies of the document (agreeing copies!) that survive. The more agreeing copies there are, the more likely it is to be accurate. There are seven of Pliny’s report of Vesuvius. Homer has 643. But there are more than 24,000 copies of the New Testament, in individual fragments, whole copies, and quotations in early church writings. This leads us to an important statement – historians in their professional capacity would say the New Testament is an accurate, reliable record of events.

All of the writers we’ve already referred to give us evidence that Jesus died. The fact that he had a lot of followers too means they’re not likely to get this fact wrong in their writings and not have it corrected or disputed at some point.
Mark 15v42-45 also gives some valuable evidence. The Roman soldier featured here would have been certain that Jesus was dead before handing him over to Joseph of Arimathea. It would have been more than his life was worth to get this wrong. The record also tells us that he was surprised he was already dead – he wasn’t expecting Jesus to die so quickly. So he would have been doubly sure that he really had died before releasing the body of the controversial man to Joseph here. Pilate too would have needed to be certain before he authorised its release. They knew their job!
In addition to these facts, the disciples of the Lord had completely given up hope that he was alive. You can imagine them desperate to cling to the idea that he had survived for as long as possible. Yet here, Joseph – one of his followers – goes and buries him. He knew there was no hope he was alive.

The so-called “swoon theory” – the idea that Christ didn’t actually die but revived later in the cool of the tomb and then escaped – only appeared in the C19th and makes no sense:

A Jesus who had survived would still be physically exhausted and covered in wounds – unable to escape from a tomb that was blocked up by a massive stone. And he would hardly have been strong enough to convince others that he was the prince of life in a state like that. If he hadn’t died, where could he go? The whole of Jerusalem was looking out for him, we can be sure, and he wouldn’t have been able to get far.

Seven facts provide evidence that Jesus Christ rose from the dead.

1. We know for certain that no-one ever produced the body.
There were many people who hated Jesus, and wanted to extinguish the movement he started once and for all. For this, all they had to do to ensure this was to produce the body. That would have silenced the “resurrection” movement for all time.
Instead, the Jewish elders have to claim that the disciples stole it (Matthew 28v11-15). This could never have been written in a widely circulated document if it wasn’t true – especially because it makes the Jews look incompetent. They were the ones who had guarded the tomb (27v63-66). In their desperation they allege that the disciples, most of whom had already fled, manage to get past guards who could not have fallen asleep on duty and lived to tell the tale, silently move a huge stone twice, escape again, and find somewhere to hide where no-one ever found the body.

2. The tomb was never venerated.
When a leader dies, experience tells us that the tomb becomes the focal point of followers afterwards. Tomb veneration was common in the 1st century. They could have easily identified the tomb – we know it was Joseph of Arimathea’s own (Matthew 27v59-60). But there is no record of the first Christians even so much as gathering for worship at the tomb, and we are not certain today which tomb it was. The obvious reason for this would be that the tomb was empty on that resurrection morning, and therefore insignificant.

3. The movement known as Christianity almost died, and yet suddenly turned around and flourished.
Something very dramatic would have been needed for this to happen. Only hours before his death, most of the disciples were in hiding, Jesus himself was (in the eyes of the authorities) weak and humble, willingly laying down his life without a fight. Judas had betrayed his lord, Peter had denied knowing him, many other followers had fled in fear, and only a very small crowd helplessly watched the Crucifixion take place. The atmosphere was sad and dejected (Luke 24v13-17, 21). This was a movement in rapid decline. But the turnabout happened in Jerusalem: the very place where it could have so easily been proved wrong. It would have been more likely to flourish elsewhere after these events – perhaps around Jesus’ birthplace. Only the resurrection of Jesus can make sense of this sudden shift in power. If we accept the Bible as a true and accurate record, then the resurrection was prophesied throughout the Old Testament, many hundreds of years earlier (see Psalm 16v10 and others).

4. Eyewitnesses were available at the time.
In 1 Corinthians 15v3-7, the Apostle Paul names people who you could go to and check the facts with. They could corroborate his claim that Jesus had indeed risen. If this was a lie, Paul wouldn’t have named them because many were still alive to argue. Notice that Paul claims that such a huge number had seen him, and not just a few. He would not have done this unless he was absolutely certain of its truth. Paul was staking his entire reputation, if not his life, on what he was writing.

5. Hallucinations need certain conditions to exist.
Some people claim that the personal appearances of Jesus after his death were hallucinations by the exhausted disciples. But hallucinations are as individual as we are. Even if several people hallucinate at the same time, perhaps under the influence of drugs, the hallucinations themselves will all be different because they arise from the subconscious mind. We know from the Gospels that people of a wide range of personality types claimed to see Jesus. On different occasions, 1, 2, 7, 10, 11, and 500 people all claimed to see Jesus – they were unlikely to all experience the same hallucination. Also the outward circumstances differed: walking along a road in the evening, shut away in a room, gathered at a meal table, and so on. In John 20v26-27, they touch him and eat with him. Hallucinations differ when situations change. And finally, all the appearances happened within 40 days then stopped abruptly, never to recur. That’s not how an illness or narcotic of this type usually behaves. So we can rule this out from being a credible alternative explanation – it is very unlikely that they would all see then same thing.

6. Peter spoke unopposed in Jerusalem only weeks later.
Peter can only give his speech in Acts 2v22-24 because no-one has proved these things wrong by then. If just one person in the massive crowd had seen the body or had a good explanation, they would have said so. But what actually happens is that countless people convert to Christianity within yards of the place where all this happened. People don’t even doubt the women who were the first to see the empty tomb in Luke 24v1-3. If there was any doubt of what they had seen or done with the body, Peter – or his crowd – would have called them to testify. But no-one ever calls on them in the Gospels or in Acts because no-one doubts what they found: an empty tomb.

7. People don’t die for a lie.
We have no record of any confessions under torture, or any deathbed repentances under persecution. Instead they all died, many through persecution, absolutely convinced of the resurrection and not once denying it. People will suffer and die for their convictions, but not for their inventions. The great moral establishment of the 1st Century church would not have been on stable or lasting foundations if any one of the disciples who were there knew it to be a sham. The resurrection being true is the only way to explain all of these pieces of evidence.

Why does it matter?
If Christ rose from the dead, so can we. It proves that death need not be the end for us. It would take a massive change for a mass murderer to espouse the cause for which he killed people. Yet this is what happened to Paul, who wrote about the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15v20-22.

This says that Christ was the “firstfruits” – the first offering of the harvest – with more to come in time. It means that all those who are in Christ – who are his followers by baptism and belief – will be raised too, and therefore death need not be the end for us either. That’s why this resurrection message is so important, and so full of hope for us today.

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