The Historical Reliability of the Gospels - Lesson 28

The Resurrection: Fact or Fiction?

What led a band of defeated followers of a failed Messianic claimant begin to preach him as Lord and God? If the resurrection is fiction, then the belief of the early church still needs to be explained. Alternate explanations fail to impress; and there is evidence for a bodily resurrection.

Craig Blomberg
The Historical Reliability of the Gospels
Lesson 28
Watching Now
The Resurrection: Fact or Fiction?


A. The swoon theory (Jesus did not actually die)

B. Jesus’ disciples stole the body

C. The women went to the wrong tomb

D. Mass hallucination (subjective visions)

E. Legendary or mythological explanations

1. The lack of actual parallels

2. The uniqueness of the Christian claim


A. The testimony of Paul

B. Jewish belief

C. Change from Sabbath to Sunday worship

D. Women as first witnesses

E. Restrained descriptions compared to Apocrypha

F. No tomb venerated in early centuries

G. Deut. 21:23 “contradicted”

H. No Jewish expectation of resurrection before Judgment Day

  • An introduction to the common myths that challenged the historicity of the gospel message. Some of the myths have no connection to any historical evidence (e.g., the Da Vinci Code), recently discovered “evidence” is often distorted (Dead Sea Scrolls and Gnostic literature), and Blomberg concludes that we should be initially skeptical of new findings.

  • How did Christians arrive at the canon of 27 authoritative documents that were from God and therefore foundational for Christian belief and living? Blomberg looks at hints from the New Testament itself, the citations and writings of the Apostolic Fathers, third century discussions, and the final ratification of the canon in the fourth century. None of our four Gospels were ever questioned, and no other gospel was put forward as equally authoritative.

  • Looks at the apocryphal and gnostic gospels. They show an interest in the infancy and final days of Jesus, but are of no historical value. There are gnostic gospels (mostly fragmentary) that are more esoteric, philosophical speculation, and Blomberg reads sections from the Gospel of Thomas.

  • Are the copies of the Greek New Testament accurate? Are the variations among the manuscripts so significant that we can no longer trust them? What about the two paragraphs that some Bibles say are not authentic? This discussion is called “Textual Criticism.”

  • Are the translations of the Bible reliable? Do they faithfully convey the meaning of the Greek? Why are they different and do they disagree on the essentials of the Christian faith?

  • Nothing covered so far guarantees that what the Gospel writers said is true. How do historians make assessments about reliability of claims made in ancient works? How do we know who wrote a document, when did they write it, and were they in a context in which they could know what actually happened?

  • There was a 30 — 40 year gap between the events of the Gospels and the writing of the Gospels. Can we trust the accounts of Jesus’ life as they were told during this time period. Were the Gospel writers even interested in preserving history? Were they in a position to do so?

  • Three recent areas of study encourage us to accept the reliability of oral tradition. They are studies in the nature of an oral culture, how the Gospels follow an informal controlled tradition, and the effect of social memory.

  • Discussion of the literary dependence among the gospels, formally known as the “Synoptic Problem.” Argues that Mark was the first written source, and Matthew and Luke borrow from him, from a common document (“Q”) and used their own material.

  • What kind of books are we dealing with? Different kinds of literature will be analyzed differently in terms of reliability. If it is fiction, we will analyze it a certain way. How should we read the Gospels?

  • While archaeology can’t prove certain things, it can corroborate many of the details of the Gospels and should encourage us to look forward to even more discoveries. Blomberg looks at Jesus’ imagery, the sites he traveled, the results of recent discoveries, and the weight of artifacts encouraging us to trust the Bible.

  • There is a belief that any and all Christian evidence is tainted, and so only non-Christian evidence should be investigated. Not only is this falacious (“silly and nonsensical”), and there is non-Christian evidence that tells us a surprising lot about Jesus.

  • Now that we have seen some of the criteria that historians use to judge the reliability of an ancient document, we will use those same criteria on the apocryphal and gnostic gospels. Blomberg uses the twelve criteria of historical reliability.

  • What is the resulting picture that we find of Jesus? For those who find only a small portion of the Gospels reliable, their picture of Jesus that results from the  limited sections of the gospels will be somewhat different from those who find a large portion as reliable.

  • Why do so many different scholars have such different views of Jesus? There actually is more similarity than at first is expected, but the differences are due to things such as scholar’s presuppositions. What then are the criteria for accepting a historical document as authentic?

  • Given the criteria established for historical reliability, which portions of the Synoptics have the strongest claim to being authentic?

  • Considering all the questions raised about the quest for who Jesus is, what can we know for sure? What is the core of the gospel tradition that does not require faith?

  • We have been looking at topics pertaining to the general trustworthiness of the Gospels. Now it is time to look at specific issues that might question the reliability of the Synoptics. Does looking at a cross section of the “apparent contradictions” give us more confidence?

  • Continuing the purpose of the previous chapter, Blomberg looks at specific harmonization problems between the Synoptics and the Gospel of John.

  • Looks at the overall features of John, arguing that they show the gospel to be a reliable witness to Jesus.

  • Now that we have looked at the issues of John’s reliability in general, Blomberg starts working through individual passages that have raised questions for some people. The question is whether or not Jon’s teaching dovetails with teaching in the Synoptics. Much of the issue has to do with presuppositions and the burden of proof, and the evidence Blomberg cites is often when John’s teaching finds a connection with Synoptic teaching or with historical data.

  • This quest was due to a new emphasis on the historical reliability of John. Some events in John have a greater claim to authenticity by liberal critics. Blomberg then looks at a theme throughout John of Jesus as the Purifier, which parallels the Synoptics account of Jesus healing people, making the unclean clean. This too argues for a greater part of John's gospel being historically reliable.

  • Paul discloses quite a bit of information about the historical Jesus in his letters. His letters come from the 50’s and early 60’s, before the gospels were probably written, so he is an independent witness as to whom Jesus was based on a reliable oral tradition.

  • Blomberg summarizes the previous lecture and continues by pointing out the similarities of key themes between Jesus and Paul. Instead of seeing differences between Jesus and Paul, these themes actually show how similar they are. Blomberg concludes by explaining why Paul does not make more allusions to Jesus.

  • Miracles are natural and expected if in fact God exists. But does he exist? If a person begins with atheistic presuppositions, then miracles are impossible and those portions of the Bible unreliable. This is not a detailed discussion of the topic but a quick summary of the arguments.

  • Do miracles outside of the Bible that parallel biblical miracles call into question the veracity of the latter? The fact of the matter is that they were different and often later than Jesus’ miracles.

  • Can we believe that Jesus was born of a virgin? If not, then this part of the gospel story is not reliable. Blomberg covers general issues and specific problems, and then positive support for the virginal conception.

  • What led a band of defeated followers of a failed Messianic claimant begin to preach him as Lord and God? If the resurrection is fiction, then the belief of the early church still needs to be explained. Alternate explanations fail to impress; and there is evidence for a bodily resurrection.

  • Does a defense of biblical reliability lead to any new insights about Jesus himself? Or does it simply bring us back to the status quo of historical Christian orthodoxy? Have our churches been preaching a balanced picture of the Bible, or have they been selective?

  • Blomberg summarizes the main points he has been making.

An in-depth look at the charges against the historicity of the gospels, and the evangelical answers.

Dr. Craig Blomberg

Historical Reliability of the Gospels


The Resurrection: Fact or Fiction?

Lesson Transcript


[00:00:00] This is a class on the historical reliability of the New Testament gospels. And this is session 28. The resurrection fact or fiction? One fact that is undeniable is the emergence of the Christian movement within months of the death of Jesus of Nazareth. In probably A.D. 30. Some would say 33. What led a band of disconsolate defeated disciples of. A messianic claimant. Who had died. To begin preaching him as Lord and God. There were plenty of other. Would be insurrections in the first century. Josephus, the late first century Jewish historian records a number of them. There were a dozen or more messianic claimants in the first and second centuries. Everyone. Died or was killed. And everyone that died. Had its movement die as well. What made the Jesus movement so different? The historic Christian claim is the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. Is that fact or is it fiction? If it is fiction, then one must come up with an alternative explanation for the belief. In early Christian circles that Jesus was bodily raised from the dead. Historically, there are a number of fanciful but inadequate explanations from time to time. Dare I say that the theory is resurrected that Jesus did not actually die on the cross. He perhaps became comatose. He perhaps appeared to be dead to the Roman soldiers, eager to take the body down and not defile the Jewish Sabbath. Because of the hostilities that would create. And so what is sometimes called the swoon theory, Jesus swoon, he he appeared to die. He appeared to lose consciousness on the cross. Prematurely buried. He wouldn't be the first person in the history of the world or the last. To have been taken to be dead prematurely. But let's think of what that would have required.


[00:03:06] Led. On a shelf in a cave like tomb. Bound with spices and linen wrappings. Somehow revived with enough strength to undo the bandages. Push a circular shaped huge stone sideways to free himself from the opening of the tomb. A stone so big that multiple women coming to that tomb on the first Easter Sunday morning had no idea how the stone would be rolled away and then appear to his followers, not as someone recovering from nearly mortal wounds. But as someone who had a glorious. Resurrected body. Takes more faith to believe in that. Then a resurrection. Or maybe. Jesus disciples stole the body. That is the oldest known counter explanation. Matthew, 27, includes a section of narrative about how. The Jews went to pilot to the Roman authorities to ask for a guard to seal the tomb so that no one could come and steal his body and claim that he rose from the dead. They were afraid that would happen because they knew of Jesus own predictions of a passion and a resurrection. But if that did happen before the tomb was sealed. Then all of the disciples involved in that charade. Knew their teaching was a lie. Knew that all of the demands for high ethics and integrity that characterized generation of ministry was based on a sham. And died martyrs deaths. If church tradition can be believed for what they knew was a lie. Different from others throughout history who have been willing to be martyred for all kinds of causes, but causes they sincerely believed in and thought were true. Or maybe the women on Easter Sunday morning, as reported in all four gospels, the first people to go. To the tomb that they believed Jesus body had been laid in went to the wrong one.


[00:05:58] There would have been many tombs. Similar in size and shape and appearance. The women were distraught in their grief. Perhaps they went to the wrong tomb and let others later to it. But then Jesus opponents, then others, even in the Jesus movement, believing in truth and integrity. Would simply have had to point out the correct tune. And the stories would have been done away with. A German scholar by the name of Gerd Ludeman in recent years. In, among other places, a book called What Really Happened The Resurrection of Jesus. Speaks about subjective visions. Speaks about what others have called mass hallucinations, acknowledges that something genuinely happened. That Jesus was truly dead and that his followers came to believe sincerely. That he was bodily raised from the dead. But because he is candid in his conviction that no person of the modern scientific era can actually hold such a belief, he has to opt for some subjective kind of experience that would not have been perceived, could not have been recorded, could not have been reported by anyone other than those who experienced it. Studies have been done of visions and mass hallucinations in many parts of the globe throughout history and without exception. Mass hallucinations, multiple hallucinations. Two different people at different times occur only when there is some actual object. A statue. A painting, an icon, a physical configuration of rock with light shining on it at a certain angle that creates an effect to multiple people over time. Without weighing in on whether it is genuine or something susceptible to a naturalistic explanation. We can still say no early Christian ever reported the resurrection in conjunction with such an object. And they were in different places as well as at different times. So by definition, it could not have been.


[00:08:45] The same object. Not surprisingly, then by far and away, the most common scholarly alternative explanation to the rise of Christianity is that. Whatever happened early on, the story was expanded over time. Was embellished with legendary or mythological elements and explanations. At an era in a time in a context when people no longer remembered enough of the original circumstances. To debunk, to refute. Or to change and correct the story. But where else do we see this occurring? As with the virgin birth, as with miracles. More generally, people make sweeping claims that upon further inspection cannot be justified. People make the claim that countless people in the ancient world had stories of bodily resurrections attached to them as a way of exalting them, of honoring them, of glorifying them. But no one seriously believed they were raised from the dead or if they did. No modern person can take seriously that belief. So what are the parallels? What are the examples? Stories of gods and goddesses in the Greek and Roman pantheon that every fall died and went to the underworld, explaining the lack of vegetation throughout the winter months. The temperate climates of the Mediterranean and then coinciding with the return of new vegetation each spring, were reborn. Yes, there are an abundance of such myths in ancient Greek and Roman mythology. Not one of which involves a known human being. Well, then perhaps we should turn to those stories of. The divine ization of emperors. Upon one's death. Augustus. Turned into a god by Senate acclamation. And later. Caligula. And he was thought mad for doing it, claiming to be divine while he was still alive. And then Nero persecuting those. Who wouldn't acknowledge it. In the sixties and domitian again in the nineties. But that's not the story of Jesus.


[00:11:59] It's not the story of. Jesus resurrection. No one ever said they saw Augustus walking on Earth. Or Caligula or Nero or Domitian. No one ever said their bodies were raised even in heaven. Greco-Roman belief was that of the immortality of the soul. They believed people's spirits lived on, and either a good or a bad or a shadowy place. But we don't have bodily resurrections. Are we to go back, as we talked about a few segments earlier, to the story of how Cyrus cut into pieces whose body parts were reassembled, but he never left the underworld. That's. Not a parallel. So where are the parallels? In fact, the Christian claim is unique, even among religions. That would come later. In the Christian religion, Islam. Has no claim of God becoming incarnate. In fact, the Son of God. When it's not understood as a metaphor, it is considered blasphemous by Islamic standards. Oh, there are legends birthed a half a millennium later about Muhammad's bodily resurrection, and they're rejected. By Orthodox Muslims. There is no other. Religion. Ancient. Modern or in-between. Of which we know of which we have ever known. That in its oldest sources claims a human founder. Undeniably human. To have been fully dead. And bodily resurrected? None. And anybody who tells you otherwise doesn't know what they're talking about. Partial parallels that aren't very close to this bit or that bit. But not to anything like. The complete package. Okay, so the Christian claims unique. It's still ridiculous, right? Is there evidence for a bodily resurrection? Can we do more than just debunk the alternatives? I think we can. There is the testimony of the Apostle Paul. In the mid fifties, a scant quarter of a century after the events narrated who says in first Corinthians 15.


[00:15:08] The most extensive passage about Jesus resurrection in all of the epistles. Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preach to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. And just as we saw with the accountant Paul in first Corinthians 11 related to the Last Supper, we have here, again the language of that which you have received and it will be repeated in verse three. For what I received, I passed on to you the language of oral tradition in an oral culture that cultivated great feats of memorization. The short, condensed list of witnesses in verses three through eight that has often been likened to an early creed or confession of faith because of its poetic, rhythmic and highly condensed fashion, like other known confessions of the Day. Was passed on faithfully is Paul's claim. And he says that he passed it on as a first importance. A footnote reminds us that the Greek translation, the Greek can also be translated. I passed on to you at the first, and probably both are true. What was most important was one of the first things taught. But if this is part of the fixed oral tradition, then it's probably one of the first things Paul learned. When Saul of Tarsus, as he had formerly been called. Was encountered by the risen Lord on the Damascus road. Blinded led to. A home on straight street in Damascus where a Christian by the name of Ananias. Taught him more about this faith. And then baptized him. That would have been 2 to 3 years if we crunch the New Testament numbers after Jesus death. And so Gerhard Ludeman, to his credit, also says that however, we explain the resurrection, we cannot explain it as a late, slowly evolving legend.


[00:17:43] This is something that arose within the first year or less of. The disciples experience after the death of their master. Because already as far afield as Damascus, within 2 to 3 years. A confession of faith. A tightly packed creed, or at the very least, a list of witnesses was being circulated and taught to individuals, a list that began with the teaching that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures that He was buried. And then that he was raised on the third day, according to the scriptures, and that he appeared to surface, that is Peter. And then do the 12 and then to 500. And finally, to James. And Paul. Sometimes said, Well, Paul includes himself on the list. Paul had a vision of the Heavenly Lord on the Damascus Road. Therefore, we should understand that as the paradigm. By which to explain the other appearances. Not objective. Bodily resurrection of somebody who could be touched and held and heard and seen as clearly a raised human being. But heavenly visionary experience. But Paul makes it clear he is not likening his experience identically to the other ones. He recognizes there was a period of time that Jesus appeared in one form. And last of all, verse eight, First Corinthians 15, he appeared to me as to one abnormally born. In other words, not in that period of time. When the kind of resurrection appearances were going on that led to the first Christians faith. After all. Uniform Jewish belief. In the ancient world was in a bodily resurrection. Not immortality of the soul. Not a subjective vision. Not even a temporary the ofany or revelation of God, but genuine bodily resurrection. From Daniel 12 onward. At the very latest. That conviction is clear.


[00:20:21] What is more. What on earth led Orthodox Jews who came to believe in Jesus? To change their sacred holy day of rest and worship from the seventh day of the week, the Sabbath, what we would call Saturday. To Sunday. What gives you the right to. Change one of the immutable ten foundational laws of your religion. Unless there was something objective enough to be datable to one Sunday morning. That changed their lives forever. What religion or sect or cult or fledgling gathering of individuals in the ancient Mediterranean world. Inventing a story that was fictitious or legendary would have uniformly made women. The first witnesses when women's testimony, with rare exception, was not admitted. In ancient courts of law. And once again, as we saw with the virgin birth, the descriptions are very restrained. In fact, in the Gospels, there is no actual account of the resurrection itself. How did Jesus get out? Did he have superhuman strength to roll the stone away, or did he just borrow language from Star Trek materialize outside of the tomb? It's only in the later apocryphal gospels, like the Gospel of Peter that we quoted earlier, where we have. Fictitious. Supernatural, angelic. Pretended explanations for how the resurrection itself took place. In the earliest centuries of the Christian church, there was no site. That pilgrims went to. To pay their respects at the Tomb of Jesus. Every other revered person in the ancient world, and most in most cultures throughout history have had such sites. Why not for Jesus? The conviction was there from earliest times on that there was no body. To honor. Because Christ had been bodily raised. And what on earth would have allowed a group of faithful Jewish individuals to ignore or flatly contradict the statement in their law and the book of Deuteronomy that cursed is anyone who hangs on a tree.


[00:23:29] It's true. The crucifixion was wooden shaped, a T-shaped pole made out of wood. It's true that crucifixion is not the same as hanging, but already, because of the prevalence of Roman crucifixion, rabbis had decided that the posture of outstretched arms descending the bodies, joints, legs hanging down was close enough to the posture of of hanging, which also occurred on on wooden trees with trunks and an outstretched branches that the curse of Deuteronomy applied. To all crucified victims. What would make a Jewish individual worship such a person as the Divine Messiah if their immutable law signified? The nature of his death meant he was cursed by God. Paul answers that question. He was curse, not for his own sense, but for the sins of the world. Galatians 313 and Context. But that doesn't answer the original historical question. What overcame the conviction that had to follow from the nature of Jesus death that he was coerced? Unless he was seen to be genuinely alive as a human being after his death. Someone says, Well, isn't it that very Jewish expectation of the resurrection of the body that could have given rise to a legend? But there was no Jewish expectation of a resurrection prior to judgment day and separate from the bodily resurrection of all other human beings that had ever lived. Daniel, 12 two talks about the resurrection of all people someday everlasting life and someday everlasting shame. What was radical about the Christian claim? Was that Messiah had been resurrected without the general resurrection. Starting. Who would have come up with that kind of an idea unless something objective had happened. One can say it takes too much faith. To believe in a resurrection. Craig Keener in his book on miracles that we referred to previously, has cataloged modern day resurrections.


[00:26:12] Oh, admittedly not. After a period of time, as long as Jesus was in the grave. But there are people who have been declared clinically dead for hours. Who have been resuscitated beyond any scientific explanation. Later on. And if there is a God, as we argued for miracles more generally, why could he not, on special rare occasions, choose to work in this way? One can say it takes more faith to believe in a bodily resurrection than not. One might reply. Once one has looked at all of the suggested alternatives, once one has looked at all of the positive evidence for a bodily resurrection. Takes more faith to believe in any of the alternate explanations. And it does. To believe in a God centered universe in which a resurrection. Of a divine messiah. Could actually take place.