Jesus' Resurrection and the Evidence
Easter is the Christian holiday that celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Christians believe that Jesus was killed on a Friday, and rose from the dead on the following Sunday. What he was up to on Friday and Saturday nights, I don't know. In any case, there has developed a fascinating literature on the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus.
Easter Sunday is an appropriate time for an examination of that evidence. This article will consider four major pieces of evidence put forward. We need not consider such low-level details as what year Paul wrote this or that, or whether the Hebrew word for "resurrection" matches with the Aramaic. That would be like asking not whether Jesus converted water into wine, but whether it was white wine or red wine. Ignoring such unimportant details, we can focus on the meat of the claims being made.
1. Visions of Jesus
Jesus appeared to many people in many situations after his death. Many of these earliest followers were tortured and killed for their beliefs. No one would suffer and die horribly for something they know to be a lie.
There is little question that the earliest and most enthusiastic followers of Jesus believed in him with all their heart. The question is not whether they believed they saw him, but whether it is true.
Instead of seeing a previously dead corpse walking around, they probably hallucinated it, dreamed it, day-dreamed it, had a false memory, saw an impostor, or otherwise mistook someone else or something else for the risen Jesus (or some combination thereof). He was a superstar, famous or infamous to many people. Countless individuals were discussing and debating the man and his message before and after his death, and he was an extremely charismatic figure that grabbed the attention of supporters and detractors alike.
The single-minded obsession that so many people had for him and his provocative, controversial life bolsters this view. And remember that the society in question (both Jews and Gentiles) was already predisposed to mystical, magical, supernatural and other-worldly explanations for unexplainable events and experiences.
Two important aspects of ancient Near Eastern people, including the most educated among them, must therefore be kept in mind: (1) the ease with which they surrendered their attention, loyalty and energy to charismatic personalities, and (2) the quickness with which they explained the unexplainable in supernatural terms. The modern Christian is very familiar with snake oil salesmen and magicians. The early Christian was not.
Much of the snowballing of the early visions can be attributed to mass hysteria, especially given the primitive and backward nature of the people. And since we are talking about diehard true believers given to supernaturalistic explanations for things they did not understand, at least some exaggeration on the part of the Biblical authors is expected, as well as white lies or outright fabrications--conscious or otherwise.
Once stories, rumors and second-hand accounts of "visions" of the risen Jesus started to circulate, no doubt many individuals--everyone from the skeptical persecutor to the kool-aid drinker--began to think very differently and very frequently about him. This helps explain why some skeptical individuals became converts after having such visions themselves. If you are obsessing over the "nonsense" your enemies are peddling, and allow that obsession to consume you day and night, you might have a similar experience yourself, just because you are mulling it to such a pathologically obsessive degree. Sound unlikely? Sure it is, but given the circumstances, it's a lot more likely than a dead corpse coming back to life.
2. Jesus' Empty Tomb
Jesus' tomb was discovered empty, even after Roman guards had been stationed at the entrance by the local Jewish leaders precisely to prevent grave robbing.
Obviously, a number of possibilities can be imagined that are much more realistic than a dead corpse coming back to life. Firstly, perhaps the Roman guards themselves got drunk and decided to play a prank on the followers of Jesus and everybody else by robbing the grave. Secondly, perhaps a small group of followers killed or paid off the Roman guards to give them access to the body, exhumed it and discarded it, for the purpose of "keeping the hope alive" as it were. The subsequent stonings, beatings and killings of the followers who weren't in on it (and therefore went to the grave believing in the resurrection) would be enough to force them to keep their mouths shut out of shame and embarrassment.
3. Women's Testimony
Women were the primary witnesses of Jesus' empty tomb. In that society, women's testimony was seen as highly suspect at best, and worthless at worst. If early Christians wanted to establish the veracity of their story, why would they cite some of the most disrespected and untrustworthy members of society?
First of all, early Christians believed the women's story. It's not necessarily that they would do their best to "bend the truth" to convince nonbelievers, they were just telling the straight story as they saw it, and it happened to include the women. More importantly, forget about women taking away from the story; what if the fact of such unusual witnesses actually enhanced the magic and wonder of the claim being made?
So much of what Jesus said and taught during his life was totally iconoclastic, turning established norms and traditional beliefs on their head. Thus, rather than minimizing the story of resurrection, if anything the fact that weak and disrespected people (women) were the key witnesses is entirely in-line with the radical nature of Jesus' ideas. By that point, his followers were no doubt accustomed to expecting the unexpected. They might even have viewed it as a final test of their faith.
4. Unique Beliefs in Christianity
Christian beliefs, including the resurrection, exhibit significant superficial and substantive divergences from previous religious traditions, and from Judaism to that point. The fact that authentically new ideas and beliefs arose in a short period of time indicates that something remarkable happened.
This is one of the more curious ideas put forward. It would seem to rely on the unspoken assumption that religious ideas are never created, only borrowed. Thus, in the absence of some actual event, there is no rational explanation for why meaningful changes in symbols, narratives or themes would occur. This is straightforwardly untrue--humans have very vivid imaginations, especially primitive humans. In addition, this argument results in circular logic: we are compelled to believe the story of the resurrection in part because these people believed it. Why did they believe it? Because it actually happened. How do we know it happened? Because they believed it.
More problematic is the potential for an infinite regress: if every religion borrows from a previous religion or religions, we are left with an eternal string of religions reaching back in time. At some point, some new idea had to be invented. And if it could happen once, it could happen again and again. We know there was a plethora of other cults and religious movements in the Roman empire at this time, resulting in a wide diversity of new beliefs. Finally, this argument fails to realize that, for example, although the conception of "resurrection" in Judaism to that point may have differed from the subsequent Christian one, the plausibility of supernatural explanations was constant, and therefore although the specific beliefs may have changed, the essential epistemological and philosophical framework remained.
Jesus' Resurrection: Conclusions
It is difficult to imagine a scenario where sufficient evidence could be brought to bear in favor of an event of this kind. Many Christian apologists love to say that, aside from an actual resurrection, "no other explanation is reasonable." To the contrary, almost any other explanation is more reasonable. Saying that aliens came down from the planet Zorb, vaporized the body and scrambled everyone's memories would be more reasonable.
They say there is as much if not more independent evidence for the resurrection of Jesus as for any other event in ancient history. But this argument fails to reckon with the sheer enormity of the claim being made. One cannot claim that someone died and came back to life in an ancient heathen society, say there is as much evidence as for the life of Socrates, and think their job is done. An extraordinary claim requires an extraordinary amount of evidence, not an ordinary amount of evidence. Specifically, the Christian must provide enough evidence to overwhelm the laws of physics, biology and common sense that his claim violates. In the absence of such evidence, the rational person should not accept it. I think I'll stick with the Easter Bunny on Sunday.