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.

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.

Whether we are comfortable with it or not, Christianity does indeed stand or fall on certain historical facts--not merely historical claims, but historical facts. Among these facts that are most crucial to Christian faith is that of Jesus' resurrection from the dead. The Christian faith is not mere faith in faith--ours or someone else's--but rather, a belief about the significance of certain historical events. Paul was quite right to say that if Christ was not raised, Christians are the most pitiable of all human beings. They are believers in a lie if Christ is not raised. If Christ is not raised, it also changes the way we may look at God.

Notice how very little the New Testament says about dying and going to heaven, and that when the matter is discussed, for instance in 2 Cor. 5:1-10, Paul makes clear that life without a body in heaven is by no means his own ultimate hope or expectation in regard to how he will spend eternity. Indeed, Paul refers to life in heaven without a body as nakedness, which to an early Jew was hardly the most desirable state of affairs. While it is true that under the influence of Greek thought medieval Christianity often substituted the discussion of immortality of the soul for the New Testament doctrine of resurrection of the body, this is not what the majority of New Testament passages are speaking of when they refer to the afterlife. Indeed, it could be said that in the New Testament life in heaven is seen only as an interim condition. Resurrection is something that happens in the earthly realm to real persons who have died. It is not an event in some other realm (for instance, heaven) and is not immune to historical scrutiny and evaluation. It is interesting that J. Murphy-O'Connor has suggested in a recent book, Paul: A Critical Life, that the whole reason that Christians believed in the everlasting existence of the human personality beyond death at all was precisely because they believed that there had to be a person there for God in Christ to raise up on the last day. How very different this is from what one usually hears today about dying and going to heaven.

Any position in which claims about Jesus or the resurrection are removed from the realm of historical reality and placed in a subjective realm of personal belief or some realm that is immune to human scrutiny does Jesus and the resurrection no service and no justice. It is a ploy of desperation to suggest that Christian faith would be little affected if Jesus was not actually raised from the dead in space and time. This is the approach of people who want to maintain their faith even at the expense of historical reality or the facts. A person who gives up on the historical foundations of the Christian faith has in fact given up on the possibility of any real continuity between his or her own faith and that of a Peter, Paul, James, John, Mary Magdalene, or Priscilla. Whatever may be said about such an approach today, its nonhistorical faith is not the faith that the early Christians lived and died for. They had an interest in historical reality, especially the historical reality of Jesus and his resurrection, because they believed their faith, for better or worse, was grounded in it.

Nor was this faith of theirs something conjured up generations or even years later than the time of Jesus' life. Paul was in direct contact with various eyewitnesses of the life, death, and resurrection appearances of Jesus. It is striking that in Paul's letters, nowhere does he have to argue with other major Christian leaders about his views on the resurrection and the risen Lord.
Indeed, he suggests in Romans 10, Philippians 2, and elsewhere that the common and earliest confession of all these first Christians was "Jesus is the risen Lord." Furthermore, he suggests in 1 Cor. 15:1-5 that the earliest Christians also held very particular beliefs about the end of Jesus' earthly life and the transition to his present heavenly state as risen and exalted Lord. Paul writes 1 Corinthians 15 within twenty-five years of Jesus' death, while various original eyewitnesses were still around to correct him. The silence of his Christian peers on this issue compared to their criticism of his views on the law (see Galatians) is deafening. It shows where the common ground truly lay.

Thus, it will not do to suggest that the passion and resurrection narratives in the Gospels are largely constructed from the Old Testament. The outline of and some vignettes from these narratives can already be found in Paul's letters in places like 1 Corinthians 11 and 15. It was the startling things that happened to Jesus at the close of his earthly career--his shocking crucifixion and then his equally astonishing resurrection--that caused the earliest Christians to race back to their sacred Scriptures to help them interpret the significance of these events. They did not first find these events in the Old Testament prophecies and then create new narratives out of the old prophecies. This is shown most clearly by the fact that many of the texts used to interpret the key final events of Jesus' life, in their original contexts in the Hebrew Scriptures, would not have suggested such things to a reader who had not heard of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. I know of no evidence that non-Christian early Jews were looking for a resurrected messiah, and in fact, the evidence that they were looking for a crucified one is also very doubtful.

C. H. Dodd once proposed that the story of Mary Magdalene at the tomb was one of the most self-authenticating stories in all the Gospels. In his view, it had all the elements of the personal testimony of an eyewitness. First, knowing what the tradition said about Mary Magdalene's past (see Luke 8:2), it is hardly credible that the earliest Christians would have made up a story about Jesus appearing first to her. Second, it is not credible that a later Christian hagiographer would have had her suggest that perhaps Jesus' body had been stolen from the tomb. Third, it is not believable that later reverential Christians would have suggested that the first eyewitness mistook Jesus for a gardener. The portrait of Mary and her spiritual perceptiveness is hardly flattering here. Fourth, it is not believable that early Christians would have created the idea that Jesus commissioned Mary to proclaim the Easter message to the Twelve. On this last point we have the clear support of 1 Corinthians 15, when we see that the witness of the women to the risen Lord, if not totally eliminated from the official witness list is clearly sublimated.

It is not believable that early Christians made up stories about women, and particularly Mary Magdalene, as the first and foremost validating witnesses of the risen Lord. This is not credible especially because the writers of these Gospels, like other early Christians, were hoping for more converts. "These things are written in order that you might believe," says the Fourth Evangelist at the end of John 20. A more serious reckoning with these narratives, especially John 20, but also Mark 16, Matthew 28, and to a lesser degree Luke 24, is necessary if we really want to get at the heart of the earliest forms of the stories about that first Easter, and get to the bottom of what happened on that first Easter Sunday morning. I submit that these stories cannot be ignored. It is not convincing to appeal to Mark 16:8 as the proposed ending for such stories, as that is an argument from silence not substance. In fact, even if we stop at Mark 16:8, the empty tomb and resurrection are clearly proclaimed (cf. 16:7), and the "going before you into Galilee" motif suggests appearances not only in Jerusalem but also in Galilee. Thus a consistent witness to Jesus' resurrection runs throughout our sources, and this provides prima facie evidence that Jesus' resurrection and appearances provide the key historical middle terms between the life and death of Jesus and the birth of the early church.

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