Resurrection Considered: The First Fact


Photo Credit: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

This post continues the series that considers Habermas and Licona’s The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus. In the previous two posts, we agreed that we are looking for historical evidence of the resurrection: no feeling from God would be persuasive since similar experiences exist in other religions; we looked at a number of criteria that would enhance our confidence in the historicity of an event; and they asked that I not use arguments about the lack of credibility of the rest of the Bible which I will (reluctantly) do.

They tell us that they are going to use the “minimal facts” approach, which will consider only data that is strongly evidenced and granted by virtually all scholars on the subject. That fact four facts that they believe meet these criteria, and one that is close enough that they include it anyway.

The first two facts that the authors adduce are: (1) Jesus died by crucifixion; and (2) Jesus’s disciples believed that he rose and appeared to them. The authors say that these two facts, and the evidence for them are “perhaps more important than any other information in this book”.

The remaining facts that will be discussed in the next chapter are (3) The church persecutor Paul was suddenly changed; (4) the skeptic James, brother of Jesus, was suddenly changed; and (5) the tomb was empty. This last they agree is not universally accepted by scholars, and so is not a “minimal fact”. We will come to these in the next post in this series.

Regarding the first two facts, I would grant them, but it is incredibly important in this context to clarify exactly what is meant, especially with the second fact.

The first fact: Jesus died by crucifixion

The authors spend relatively little time on this fact. They introduce crucifixion as horrific and mention a number of non-Christian sources that support the claim that Jesus died in this way.

Crucifixion was used by the Romans “to punish members of the lower class, slaves, soldiers, the violently rebellious, and those accused of treason.” This, of course, begs the question, why was Jesus crucified? Though the authors do not address this question here, I think it is of importance because it establishes some of the context behind who Jesus was and what he thought of himself. To do so, we need to go a thousand years further back in time. As with any historical telling, we cannot achieve certainty on this, but we can use the same criteria that Licona and Habermas use and draw on the views of widely held scholarship. We will also draw on the Bible itself as a way to understand what was believed by Jews of the time. I draw heavily from Bart Ehrman’s book How Jesus Became God in this discussion.

King David’s House

In 1002 BCE, David became King of Israel. At his coronation, it is reported that the LORD said to David: “You are my son; today I have become your father.” (Psalm 2:7). The king of Israel was considered to be the son of God. He was not, of course, regarded as divine himself. The King of Israel was clearly just a man; but a man anointed by God and referred to as the son of God. This will be important.

Nathan was a prophet at the time, and God prophesied through him to David shortly after the coronation: “Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever” (2 Samuel 7:16).

The meaning of this is abundantly clear, and David’s line had a remarkably good run all the way to Zedekiah, the last king of Judah. In about 587 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar II took Jerusalem and razed it, including the destruction of the temple of Solomon. Clearly not forever.

You might expect that in the face of such a blatant failure of prophecy the religion would dwindle, but that is not the way of the world. Instead the persecuted Jewish people developed the idea that a Messiah, a Son of God, of the line of David, would arise and re-establish the throne. There was no hint that this character would be divine. David was a military leader, and that was how his house was to be re-established.

The Son of Man

In general, the “Son of Man” is a Hebrew or Aramaic phrase that simply means human being. It is used that way in most of the Old Testament. For example: Numbers 23:19 (”God is not human, that he should lie, not a human being, that he should change his mind” – the NIV translators have (accurately) translated the phrase as “human being”, but it is the same Hebrew phrase meaning “Son of Man”); Job 25:6; Psalm 8:4; Psalm 80:17; Psalm 144:3; Isaiah 51:12; Isaiah 56:2; Jeremiah 49:33; Ezekiel (Ezekiel is himself referred to as “Son of Man” by the heavenly being who speaks to him throughout the book). And even Daniel is referred to as “Son of man” in Daniel 8:17.

Daniel 7, however, begins to speak in apocalyptic terms. Daniel 7:1 tells us that “In the first year of Belshazzar king of Babylon, Daniel had a dream, and visions passed through his mind as he was lying in bed.” This would place it around 553 BCE, but scholars generally believe that it was apocalyptic literature from the mid-2nd century BCE.

Daniel 7:13 says: “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.”

A literal understanding of this is that the divine character descending from the clouds looked like a human. But the son of man came to be an apocalyptic figure that was going to overthrow the current world powers with divine power. Daniel 7 is not associated with the messiah, but later apocryphal works started to make this link. Whether this was linked by Jews in Jesus’s time or later by Christians is disputed, so we will have to consider both cases below.

Jesus the Apocalypticist

It is widely understood that Jesus was an apocalypticist. This is because he started his ministry as an apocalypticist; several of his sayings are apocalyptic in nature; and apocalyptic views were prevalent in early Christianity after his death. I will go through each of these three briefly now.

Firstly, Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. This passes the criterion of embarrassment, since John’s baptism of Jesus implies that he is superior to Jesus. The Christian writers would not want to imply this so it is unlikely that they made it up. In fact, Matthew has John try to deter Jesus (Matthew 3:14) and affirms that Jesus is superior, Luke has Jesus baptized in amongst a crowd (Luke 3:21), and John does not directly describe the event. Paul also never mentions it. In any event, we accept that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist.

John the Baptist is understood (in the Bible at least) to be an apocalypticist. His execution by Herod is described by Josephus as well as the Bible. As an aside, this brings about a contradiction in the dates, since Josephus describes that the Jews believed that John’s execution resulted in the destruction of Herod’s army in 36 CE, while the Bible links the execution to the start of Jesus’s ministry in 30 CE. Josephus relates that Herod feared that John would raise a rebellion, consistent with some apocalyptic teaching of the time.

In the Bible, John the Baptist says “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matthew 3:2). Referring to the Pharisees and Sadducees, he says: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? … The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Matthew 3:7,10; Luke 3:7,9). Referring to Jesus, he says “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

Later in Matthew and Luke, in a slight continuity error, John the Baptist is reported to send messengers from prison asking “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” (Matthew 11:3; Luke 7:19). Matthew makes it clear that they are talking about the messiah. Psalm 2:2 links the messiah to the line of David and the son of God. And, in fact, the link to Psalm 2:7 (”You are my son; today I have become your father.”) is explicit in the accounts of the baptism of Jesus, where the voice from heaven repeats variations on this phrase (Mark 1:11; Matthew 3:17;Luke 3:22). So John the Baptist was expecting a messiah imminently.

Secondly, Jesus preached about this transition in his ministry. The first words of Jesus to be reported in the first Gospel to be written are apocalyptic in nature: “The time has come. The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15). Throughout the Gospels, Jesus is referred to as the Son of God, the messiah. The two terms are often linked and often associated with signs and wonders. The two Gospels that provide genealogies are at pains to link Jesus with David (a little unconvincingly, since they link Joseph rather than Mary and are completely incompatible with each other outside of common references to the Old Testament). Mark begins his gospel: “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God,” (Mark 1:1).

The link to the Son of Man is less convincing. In some places Jesus is referring to himself, and in those cases it is often in a prediction of his death and suffering. However, in other cases, Jesus seems to be referring to a third party, and in those cases it is as a divine, apocalyptic, Daniel 7 kind of figure. Bart Ehrman believes that these latter references pass the criterion of embarrassment, since early Christians associated Jesus himself with the Son of Man, and therefore would not invent statements by Jesus where he calls someone else by this title. This would mean that Jesus believed a divine figure called the son of man was about to descend from the clouds in power and install him (the messiah, the son of god, the line of David) to the throne of Israel.

An alternative scenario is that Jesus believed he was both the son of man and the messiah. I do not find this one as convincing, but even if true, Jesus’s son of man statements would still be apocalyptic. Yet another alternative is that these phrases were attributed to Jesus by the early Christian authors, also not terribly convincing to me for a reason we will get to later. Since this is important, I will briefly go through the relevant statements with a little commentary.

We start with six very striking parallel passages from the synoptics. Here Matthew and Luke are making slight adjustments to the original by Mark. First, note in all three of these quotes that the Son of Man is “he” and “him” while Jesus refers to himself as “me” and “my”, even within the same sentence. Also, notice the very explicit imminence (”some who are standing here”) of something very dramatic (”glory”, “power”, “clouds of heaven”). And finally notice how Luke quietly drops the “with power” from 9:27; this is the beginning of the evolution to a new understanding in the face of the continued lack of a new event.

Mark 8:38-9:1 (Jesus speaking):

“If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”

And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”

Matthew 16:27-28 (Jesus speaking):

“For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.

“Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

Luke 9:26-27 (Jesus speaking):

“Whoever is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.

“Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.”

Mark 13:24-30 (Jesus speaking):

“But in those days, following that distress, ‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’

“At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens. … Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.”

Matthew 24:30-34 (Jesus speaking):

“Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.

“Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door. Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.”

Luke 21:25-32 (Jesus speaking):

“There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken. At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

He told them this parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near.

“Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.”

We now turn to another group of passages, in which the trial of Jesus is portrayed. You will note the association of the Son of God with the Messiah. Also notice how much more natural the conversation is if the Son of Man is envisioned as a separate entity from the Messiah/Son of God. And finally you can see how Jesus’s statement in Mark is specific, imminent, and impressive, while Luke’s is general, on-going, and invisible, again showing the evolution of belief.

Mark 14:61-62:

Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?”

“I am,” said Jesus. “And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”

Matthew 26:63-64:

The high priest said to him, “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.”

“You have said so,” Jesus replied. “But I say to all of you: From now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”

Luke 22:67-70 (Chief priests and teachers of the law talking):

“If you are the Messiah,” they said, “tell us.”

Jesus answered, “If I tell you, you will not believe me, and if I asked you, you would not answer. But from now on, the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the mighty God.”

They all asked, “Are you then the Son of God?”

He replied, “You say that I am.”

Matthew 29:38 shows the imminent arrival of the Son of Man, with all twelve disciples (including Judas) sitting on thrones. In this scenario, it is plausible that the Messiah is the king of Israel and continues to rule the twelve disciples under the Son of Man who establishes a global throne.

Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”

Matthew 25:31-34 (Jesus speaking) also demonstrates that the Son of Man is envisioned as the ruler of all nations, rather than then king of Israel:

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

John 1:49-51 shows again a separation between the Son of God, associated with the king of Israel, and the Son of Man, soon to bring about the apocalypse:

Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.”

Jesus said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.” He then added, “Very truly I tell you, you will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’ the Son of Man.”

John 3:13 (Jesus speaking) is extraordinary. The part I have italicized only appears in some manuscripts and is therefore often left out as it does not conform to the current orthodox position, but it is striking indeed if Jesus referred to the Son of Man as a character in heaven:

No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man, who is in heaven.

With all of this, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Jesus believed that the apocalypse was soon to arrive. That much is widely accepted. It is also compelling that he believed the Son of Man was a divine character, who was going to establish a new, Godly, global throne, while Jesus was going to be King of Israel, the Son of God, with the twelve disciples under him. In this case, later Christians would come to believe that Jesus was the Son of Man and have him say so, especially during the section in which he predicted his own suffering and death, which are unlikely to be historical.

So Jesus began his ministry with the apocalyptic preacher. His teachings were apocalyptic. And finally, after his death, the early church had an apocalyptic view. I again want to quote the relevant passages to establish this.

Acts 1:6 describes the disciples gathered around the risen Jesus: “Then they gather around him and asked him, ‘Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’”

Note the expectation that this will be imminent, and the clear reference to the kingdom of Israel as the central mission.

Now consider Paul’s view, which can be seen in 1 Corinthians 7:29-31: “What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not; those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.”

And, if this is not convincingly imminent, then consider 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 in which Paul expresses a clear expectation that he will witness this dramatic apocalypse: “For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.”

Peter also has this expectation. 1 Peter 4:7: “The end of all things is near.”

And 2 Peter 3:3-4(not believed to have been written by Peter, but the last of the New Testament books to have been written and representing an evolution of Christian understanding) says:

Above all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on at it has since the beginning of creation.”

Note that, whatever excuses are then offered, the coming was promised.

So Jesus began, continued and ended his ministry as an apocalypticist. This belief was somewhat common among Jews of the time. But, somewhat exceptionally, it is plausible that Jesus believed that he would be the King of Israel, the Messiah, the Son of God when this apocalypse occurred.

Jesus’s Death

This background brings us to the question I posed earlier: Why was Jesus crucified?

The setting was the passover, when Jews flocked into Jerusalem, many of them fostering nationalistic, apocalyptic beliefs. Surely the messiah would soon arrive to throw off the yolk of the Roman oppressor? The passover would be a particularly good time for it, since that celebrated a previous occasion when Jews were freed from an oppressor (the Egyptians). The historicity of the Exodus is irrelevant here, since the revolutionary fervor came from the belief rather than the fact, so the fact that no archaeological evidence for the exodus exists does not impact this story.

Jesus arrived. It is doubtful that he rode a donkey (or two donkeys, if the passage in Matthew 21:7 absurdly suggests), and this passage surely arose because of an expectation that whatever the early church believed the Old Testament said about the messiah must have happened in Jesus’s life (Matthew 21:4-5). In any event, he went to the temple and took offense at something, overthrowing tables and declaring the high priests and the temple to be corrupt. In line with other apocalypticists, he predicted the destruction of the temple. The high priests took offense and began to look for a way to remove him.

Jesus is not reported as saying that he is the King of the Jews, but the notion is plausible as discussed above, since he had taught his disciples in Matthew 29:38 that they would “also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” Bart Ehrman speculates that this was Judas’s betrayal: that he told the high priests that Jesus was calling himself the King of Israel, and declaring that this would happen soon.

In any event, the high priests saw their chance and reported him to Pilate, who was visiting Jerusalem from his palace in Caesarea precisely to control the risk of revolution from the Jews. When the high priests brought Jesus to him, he heard the case briefly and judged him guilty of treason: only Rome could make someone king of Israel. Pilate would not have time for the fine distinction between a theological event and a military one, and executed Jesus as an example.

It is highly doubtful that he would have released Jesus’s body, and so there would have been no tomb. We will go into this more in a future chapter, but it is clear that part of the punishment was to have the body on display as an example to others who were contemplating resistance.

This narrative makes a great deal more sense than the theologically charged narrative that we have all been brought up on, where the actual historical details are subordinate to God’s sovereignty over them. In any event, we can accept that Jesus died by crucifixion, but understanding why this happened sets up the context for understanding much of what happened next.

The second fact, that Jesus’s disciples believed that he rose and appeared to them, will be addressed in the following post.