He Is Risen Indeed
Textual analysis of the gospels and an understanding of the first-century world point to the reality of Jesus' resurrection.
BY: Ben Witherington
Reprinted from Ben Witherington III's New Testament History: A Narrative Account with permission of Baker Book House Company.
In this excerpt, a Bible scholar refutes arguments that gospel accounts of Jesus' resurrection involved grave robbing, mass hallucinations, symbols rather than historical fact, reconstructed Old Testament prophecies, later additions to the Mark 16:8 ending, and propaganda by a cult hoping for converts.
It is sometimes claimed that the stress on the physicality of the resurrection of Jesus is pure apologetics. I have always been mystified by this claim. If the gospels were written in the last third of the first century, when the church not only had a viable Gentile mission but also was already well on the way to being a largely Gentile community, why would a community trying to attract Gentiles make up a resurrection story, much less emphasize the material resurrection of Jesus? This notion was not a regular part of the pagan lexicon of the afterlife at all, as even a cursory study of the relevant passages in the Greek and Latin classics shows. Indeed, as Acts 17 suggests, pagans were more likely than not to ridicule such an idea. I can understand the apologetic theory if, and only if, the Gospels were directed largely to Pharisaic Jews or their sympathizers. I know of no scholar, however, who has argued such a case.
We are thus left with the fact that the earliest Christians, proponents of a missionary religion, nevertheless stressed a material notion of resurrection, including a material notion of what happened to their founder at Easter. I submit that the best explanation for this phenomenon is that something indeed must have happened to Jesus' body, and he must have been in personal and visible contact with his followers after Easter.
If it were merely the case that something happened to Jesus' body at Easter, it could have easily been assumed that he was taken up into heaven like an Elijah or an Enoch. As Gospel traditions such as John 20 make evident, an empty tomb by itself was subject to a variety of interpretations, including grave robbing. The empty tomb story by itself would not likely have generated the belief in a risen Jesus. There also must have been appearances of the risen Lord to various persons.
Perhaps here is the place to say something about the mass vision or hallucination theory. The suggestion that the disciples were victims of a hallucination, or their experience was the ultimate example of wish projections, or they merely saw visions has several problems. First, on all accounts the disciples doubted, deserted, and denied Jesus at the end, with the possible exception of some of his female followers and perhaps the Beloved Disciple (a Judean disciple). They were hardly in a psychological condition to produce a fantasy about a risen Jesus. Their hopes had been utterly shattered by his crucifixion less than three days before. Second, it will not do to suggest a mass hallucination, because all the traditions we have suggest that Jesus appeared at different times and places to different persons, last of all to Paul. I know of no basis for the notion of a contagious hallucination. Third, it is hardly believable that the earliest Christians would have made up the notion that Jesus appeared first to some women. We find no extended discussion in the Gospels of a personal appearance first to Peter or to James the brother of the Lord, but we do have stories about the appearance or appearances to the leading female disciples. Given the patriarchal world of the earliest Christians, it is not believable that a missionary-minded group would make up such a story. Nor is there any basis for the suggestion that these appearance stories were largely generated out of the Old Testament, which hardly mentions the notion of resurrection from the dead. In other words, the evidence as we have it strongly resists attempts to redefine "resurrection," if, that is, we wish to preserve any continuity with the historical Christian witness on this matter.