He Is Risen Indeed

Textual analysis of the gospels and an understanding of the first-century world point to the reality of Jesus' resurrection.

Cross at Dawn

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.

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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.

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