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  What do Scholars say about Jesus' Resurrection: is it just a Myth? What do Scholars say about Jesus' Resurrection: is it just a Myth?
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2016-06-12 11:53:53
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 “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die like everyone else, will live again.”
                          --Jesus Christ

“When he said that He himself would rise again from the dead, the third day after He was crucified, He said something that only a fool would dare say… No founder of any world religion known to men ever dared say a thing like that.”
--Wilbur Smith (Bible scholar)

“I believe that when I die I shall rot, and nothing of my own ego will survive.”
--Bertrand Russell (English Philosopher)


Wilbur Smith                 Bertrand Russell               Josh Mc Dowell       

The story of Jesus’ resurrection is foundational to Christianity as a religion. To deny it is in effect to dismiss Christianity as just another myth which modern “enlightened” man ought to dismiss, the sooner the better, as a mere legend embellished over time. It is also to declare the whole of the gospels’ narration as an hoax perpetrated on human-kind in the last two thousand years. This is usually the attitude of assorted agnostics and atheists vis a vis Christianity and religion in general.

What we read in the gospels is that Jesus appeared alive to his disciples after his crucifixion and burial. They claim not only to have seen him but also to have eaten with him, touched him, and spent forty days with him. If this is false, it invalidates everything he said about himself, about the meaning of life and man’s destiny after his death. As Paul aptly puts it: “If Christ did not resurrect, our faith is in vain.” It is founded upon a lie. On the other hand, if the claim of resurrection is true, then, as written by theologian R.C. Sproul “Jesus has the credentials and certification that no other religious leader possesses.” Indeed, all other religious leaders are dead, but Christianity insists that Christ is alive. So, is Jesus’ resurrection a fantastic fact or a vicious myth? To find out, we need to look at the evidence of history and draw proper conclusions.


R. C. Sproul        Joseph Campbell           John Dominic Crossan          

Many skeptics have attempted to disprove the resurrection. Josh McDowell was one such skeptic who spent more than seven hundred hours researching the evidence for the resurrection. McDowell stated this regarding the importance of the resurrection: “I have come to the conclusion that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is one of the most wicked, vicious, heartless hoaxes ever foisted upon the minds of men, or it is the most fantastic fact of history. McDowell later wrote his classic work, The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict (1999), documenting what he discovered.

There are other skeptics such Bertrand Russell, quoted above, who is not concerned with historical facts but denies the resurrection; the mythologist Joseph Campbell who declares that the resurrection is not a factual event, just as most narrations in mythology are neither factual nor historical; the theologian John Dominic Crossan who seems to agree with Campbell. None of those skeptics present hard evidence for their views.  


Dr. J.P. Moreland           Peter Steinfels                      Lord Hailsham

In advance of his death, Jesus told his disciples that he would be betrayed, arrested, and crucified and that he would come back to life three days later. That’s a strange plan! Jesus was no entertainer willing to perform for others on demand; instead, he promised that his death and resurrection would prove to people (if their minds and hearts were open) that he was indeed the Messiah. In other words, it is perfectly logical to suppose that since Jesus had clearly told his disciples that he would rise again after his death, failure to keep that promise would expose him as a fraud.

We know the facts of Jesus’ passion and death on the cross. Most scholars do not dispute the fact that there is an historical Jesus who was born in Palestine at the time when Caesar Augustus was Rome’s emperor, and who died under Tiberius’ reign when Palestine was governed by Pontius Pilate. An even greater darkness of depression annihilated the dreams of those who had become infatuated with Jesus’ charisma and joyful vitality. Former Lord High Chancellor of Britain, Lord Hailsham, notes that “The tragedy of the Cross was not that they crucified a melancholy figure, full of moral precepts, ascetic and gloomy … What they crucified was a young man, vital, full of life and the joy of it, the Lord of life itself … someone so utterly attractive that people followed him for the sheer fun of it.”


Pilate wanted verification that Jesus was dead before allowing his crucified body to be buried. So a Roman guard thrust a spear into Jesus’ side. The mixture of blood and water that flowed out was a clear indication that Jesus was dead. “The dead do not bleed, ordinarily, but the right auricle of the human heart holds liquid blood after death, and the outer sac hold a serum called hydropericardium.” Once his death was certified by the guards, Jesus’ body was then taken down from the cross and buried in Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb. Roman guards next sealed the tomb, and secured it with a 24-hour watch.

Meanwhile, Jesus’ disciples were in shock. Dr. J. P. Moreland explains how devastated and confused they were after Jesus’ death on the cross. “They no longer had confidence that Jesus had been sent by God. They also had been taught that God would not let his Messiah suffer death. So they dispersed. The Jesus movement was all but stopped in its tracks.” All hope was vanquished. Rome and the Jewish leaders had prevailed – or so it seemed.

But it wasn’t the end. The Jesus movement did not disappear, and Christianity exists today as the world’s largest religion. In a New York Times article, Peter Steinfels cites the startling events that occurred three days after Jesus’ death: “Shortly after Jesus was executed, his followers were suddenly galvanized from a baffled and cowering group into people whose message about a living Jesus and a coming kingdom, preached at the risk of their lives, eventually changed an empire. Something happened. 

There are only five plausible explanations for Jesus’ alleged resurrection, as portrayed in the New Testament: 1) Jesus didn’t really die on the cross.  2) The “resurrection” was a conspiracy. 3) The disciples were hallucinating. 4) The account is legendary or mythological. 5) It really happened. Let’s work our way through these options. In the first place we need to ascertain that there was a corpse. After all, occasionally “corpses,” or people who are believed dead, do recover and walk away.

One place to ascertain that is in the reports of non-Christian historians from around the time when Jesus lived. Three of these historians mentioned the death of Jesus: Lucian (c.120 – after c.180) referred to Jesus as a crucified sophist (philosopher). Josephus (c.37 – c.100 ) wrote, “At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man, for he was a doer of amazing deeds. When Pilate condemned him to the cross, the leading men among us, having accused him, those who loved him did not cease to do so.”  Tacitus (c. 56 – c.120) wrote, “Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty … at the hands of our procurator, Pontius Pilate.”


 Lucian                              Josephus                                      Tacitus

Noted skeptic James Tabor stated, “I think we need have no doubt that given Jesus’ execution by Roman crucifixion he was truly dead.” In light of such historical and medical evidence, we seem to be on good grounds for dismissing the first of our five options. Jesus was clearly dead, “of that there was no doubt.”


 James Tabor          Historian Paul Johnson

However, many others have questioned how Jesus’ body disappeared from the tomb. English journalist Dr. Frank Morison initially thought the resurrection was either a myth or a hoax, and he began doing research to write a book refuting it. The book became famous but for reasons other than its original intent.

Morison began by attempting to solve the case of the empty tomb. The tomb belonged to a member of the Sanhedrin Council, Joseph of Arimathea. Joseph must have been a real person. Otherwise, the Jewish leaders would have exposed the story as a fraud in their attempt to disprove the resurrection. Also, Joseph’s tomb would have been at a well-known location and easily identifiable, so any thoughts of Jesus being “lost in the graveyard” would need to be dismissed.

Morison wondered why Jesus’ enemies would have allowed the “empty tomb myth” to persist if it weren’t true. The discovery of Jesus’ body would have instantly killed the entire plot. And what is known historically of Jesus’ enemies is that in fact they did accuse Jesus’ disciples of stealing the body, an accusation clearly predicated on a shared belief that the tomb was in fact found empty.


Dr. Frank Morison                                                        Professor Paul Maier

Dr. Paul L. Maier, professor of ancient history at Western Michigan University, similarly stated, “If all the evidence is weighed carefully and fairly, it is indeed justifiable … to conclude that the tomb in which Jesus was buried was actually empty on the morning of the first Easter. And no shred of evidence has yet been discovered … that would disprove this statement.”

The Jewish leaders were stunned. They accused the disciples of stealing Jesus’ body. But the accusation did not hold water, for the Romans had assigned a 24-hour watch at the tomb with a trained guard unit (from four to 16 soldiers). Josh McDowell notes that these were not ordinary soldiers. “When that guard unit failed in its duty – if they fell asleep, left their position, or failed in any way – there are a number of historical sources that describe the punishment. They were stripped of their own clothes and burned alive in a fire started with their own garments, or they were crucified upside down. The Roman Guard unit was committed to discipline and they feared failure in any way.” It would have been impossible for anyone to have slipped by the Roman guards and to have moved a two-ton stone. Yet the stone was moved away and the body of Jesus was missing.

If Jesus’ body was anywhere to be found, his enemies would have quickly exposed the resurrection as a fraud. Tom Anderson, former president of the California Trial Lawyers Association, summarizes the strength of this argument: “With an event so well publicized, don’t you think that it’s reasonable that one historian, one eye witness, one antagonist would record for all time that he had seen Christ’s body? … The silence of history is deafening when it comes to the testimony against the resurrection.” So, with no body of evidence, and with a known tomb clearly empty, Morison accepted the evidence as solid that Jesus’ body had somehow disappeared from the tomb.

As Morison continued his investigation, he began to examine the motives of Jesus’ followers. Maybe the supposed resurrection was actually a stolen body. But if so, how does one account for all the reported appearances of a resurrected Jesus? Historian Paul Johnson, in A History of the Jews (1988), wrote that “What mattered was not the circumstances of his death but the fact that he was widely and obstinately believed, by an expanding circle of people, to have risen again.”  The tomb was indeed empty. But it wasn’t the mere absence of a body that could have galvanized Jesus’ followers (especially if they had been the ones who had stolen it). Something extraordinary must have happened, for the followers of Jesus ceased mourning, ceased hiding, and began fearlessly proclaiming that they had seen Jesus alive.

Each eyewitness account reports that Jesus suddenly appeared bodily to his followers, the women first. Morison wondered why conspirators would make women central to their plot. In the first century Jewish community, women had virtually no rights, personhood, or status. If the plot were to succeed, Morison reasoned, the conspirators would have portrayed men, not women, as the first to see Jesus alive. And yet we hear that women touched him, spoke with him, and were the first to find the empty tomb. Later, according to the eyewitness accounts, all the disciples saw Jesus on more than ten separate occasions. They wrote that he showed them his hands and feet and told them to touch him. And he reportedly ate with them and later appeared alive to more than 500 followers on one occasion.


Mary Magdalene encounters Jesus at the Tomb

Legal scholar John Warwick Montgomery stated, “In 56 A.D. [the Apostle Paul wrote that over 500 people had seen the risen Jesus and that most of them were still alive. (1 Corinthians 15:6ff.) It passes the bounds of credibility that the early Christians could have manufactured such a tale and then preached it among those who might easily have refuted it simply by producing the body of Jesus.”

Bible scholars Geisler and Turek agree. “If the Resurrection had not occurred, why would the Apostle Paul give such a list of supposed eyewitnesses? He would immediately lose all credibility with his Corinthian readers by lying so blatantly.”


                                   Michael Green        Paul Little      John Warwik Montgomery

Peter told a crowd in Caesarea why he and the other disciples were so convinced Jesus was alive: “We apostles are witnesses of all he did throughout Israel and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by crucifying him, but God raised him to life three days later … We were those who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.” (Acts 10:39-41). British Bible scholar Michael Green remarked, “The appearances of Jesus are as well authenticated as anything in antiquity … There can be no rational doubt that they occurred.”

As if the eyewitness reports were not enough to challenge Morison’s skepticism, he was also baffled by the disciples’ behavior. A fact of history that has stumped historians, psychologists, and skeptics alike is that these eleven former cowards were suddenly willing to suffer humiliation, torture, and death. All but one of Jesus’ disciples were slain as martyrs. Would they have done so much for a lie, knowing they had taken the body? Moreover, ignorant fishermen could hardly be expected to die for an idea, a la Socrates.


                 Chuck Colson                 Gary Collins               J.A.D. Anderson

The terrorists on September 11 proved that some will die for a false cause they believe in. Yet to be a willing martyr for a known lie is insanity. As Paul Little wrote, “Men will die for what they believe to be true, though it may actually be false. They do not, however, die for what they know is a lie.” Jesus’ disciples behaved in a manner consistent with a genuine belief that their leader was alive and they were willing to die for him. No one has adequately explained why the disciples would have been willing to die for a known lie. But even if they all conspired to lie about Jesus’ resurrection, how could they have kept the conspiracy going for decades without at least one of them selling out for money or position? Moreland wrote, “Those who lie for personal gain do not stick together very long, especially when hardship decreases the benefits.”

Chuck Colson, implicated in the Watergate scandal during President Nixon’s administration, pointed out the difficulty of several people maintaining a lie for an extended period of time: “I know the resurrection is a fact, and Watergate proved it to me. How? Because twelve men testified they had seen Jesus raised from the dead, and then they proclaimed that truth for forty years, never once denying it. Everyone was beaten, tortured, stoned and put in prison. They would not have endured that if it weren’t true. Watergate embroiled twelve of the most powerful men in the world – and they couldn’t keep a lie for three weeks. You’re telling me twelve apostles could keep a lie for forty years?” Something happened that changed everything for these men and women.

Could mass hallucination be an explanation? Psychologist Gary Collins was asked about the possibility that hallucinations were behind the disciples’ radically changed behavior. Collins remarked, “Hallucinations are individual occurrences. By their very nature, only one person can see a given hallucination at a time. They certainly aren’t something which can be seen by a group of people.”  Hallucination is not even a remote possibility, according to psychologist Thomas J. Thorburn. “It is absolutely inconceivable that … five hundred persons, of average soundness of mind … should experience all kinds of sensuous impressions – visual, auditory, tactual – and that all these … experiences should rest entirely upon … hallucination.”

Furthermore, in the psychology of hallucinations, the person would need to be in a frame of mind where they so wished to see that person that their mind contrives it. Two major leaders of the early church, James and Paul, both state forcefully that they encountered a resurrected Jesus, neither expecting, or hoping for it. The apostle Paul, in fact, led the earliest persecutions of Christians, and his conversion remains inexplicable except for his own testimony that Jesus appeared to him, resurrected. The hallucination theory, then, appears to be another dead end.

Some unconvinced skeptics attribute the resurrection story to a legend that began with one or more persons lying or thinking they saw the resurrected Jesus. Over time, the legend would have grown and been embellished as it was passed around. The same may happen with a myth. On the surface this seems like a plausible scenario. But there are three major problems with that theory.  First, legends simply don’t develop while multiple eyewitnesses are alive to refute them. An historian of ancient Rome and Greece, A. N. Sherwin-White, argued that the resurrection news spread too soon and too quickly for it to have been a legend. Second, legends develop by oral tradition and don’t come with contemporary historical documents that can be verified. Yet the Gospels were written within three decades of the resurrection. Third, the legend theory doesn’t adequately explain either the fact of the empty tomb or the historically verified conviction of the apostles that Jesus was alive.

Therefore, the legend theory doesn’t seem to hold up any better than other attempts to explain away this amazing claim. Furthermore, the resurrection account of Jesus Christ actually altered history, beginning with the Roman Empire; and empire that within three centuries would be wholly Christianized; Constantine making Christianity its official religion. How could a mere legend make such an enormous historical impact within such a short period of time?


             A.N. Sherwin-White                    Dr. Simon Greenleaf

Morison was bewildered by the fact that “a tiny insignificant movement was able to prevail over the cunning grip of the Jewish establishment, as well as the might of Rome.” Why did it win, in the face of all those odds against it? He wrote, “Within twenty years, the claim of these Galilean peasants had disrupted the Jewish religious establishment … In less than fifty years it had begun to threaten the peace of the Roman Empire. When we have said everything that can be said … we stand confronted with the greatest mystery of all. Why did it win?”  Indeed, by all rights, if there were no resurrection, Christianity should have died out at the cross when the disciples fled for their lives. But, to the contrary, the apostles went on to establish a growing Christian movement.

J. N. D. Anderson wrote, “Think of the psychological absurdity of picturing a little band of defeated cowards cowering in an upper room one day and a few days later transformed into a company that no persecution could silence – and then attempting to attribute this dramatic change to nothing more convincing than a miserable fabrication … That simply wouldn’t make sense.”

With myth, hallucination, and a flawed autopsy ruled out, with incontrovertible evidence for an empty tomb, with a substantial body of eyewitnesses to his reappearance, and with the inexplicable transformation and impact upon the world of those who claimed to have seen him, Morison became convinced that his preconceived bias against Jesus Christ’s resurrection had been wrong. He began writing a different book – entitled Who Moved the Stone? (1987)– to detail his new conclusions. Morison simply followed the trail of evidence, clue by clue, until the truth of the case seemed clear to him. His surprise was that the evidence led to a belief in the resurrection.

In his first chapter, “The Book That Refused to Be Written,” this former skeptic explained how the evidence convinced him that Jesus’ resurrection was an actual historical event. “It was as though a man set out to cross a forest by a familiar and well-beaten track and came out suddenly where he did not expect to come out.” Morison is not alone in this. Countless other skeptics have examined the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection, and accepted it as the most astounding fact in all of human history. C. S. Lewis, who once had even doubted Jesus’ existence, was also persuaded by the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection. He writes, “Something perfectly new in the history of the Universe had happened. Christ had defeated death. The door which had always been locked had for the very first time been forced open.”

One of those who originally thought the resurrection was simply a myth, only to reverse his position like Morison, was one of the world’s leading legal scholars, Dr. Simon Greenleaf. Greenleaf helped to put the Harvard Law School on the map. He wrote the three-volume legal masterpiece A Treatise on the Law of Evidence, which has been called the “greatest single authority in the entire literature of legal procedure.” The U.S. judicial system today still relies on rules of evidence established by Greenleaf. While teaching law at Harvard, Professor Greenleaf stated to his class that the resurrection of Jesus Christ was simply a legend. As an atheist, he thought miracles to be impossible. Three of his law students challenged him to apply his acclaimed rules of evidence to the resurrection account. After much prodding, Greenleaf accepted his students’ challenge and began an investigation into the evidence. Focusing his brilliant legal mind on the facts of history, Greenleaf attempted to prove that the resurrection account was false.

But Greenleaf was unable to explain several dramatic changes that took place shortly after Jesus died, the most baffling being the behavior of the disciples. It wasn’t just one or two disciples who insisted Jesus had risen; it was all of them. Applying his own rules of evidence to the facts, Greenleaf arrived at his verdict. In a shocking reversal of his original position, Greenleaf accepted Jesus’ resurrection as the best explanation for the events that took place immediately after his crucifixion. To this brilliant legal scholar and former atheist, it would have been impossible for the disciples to persist with their conviction that Jesus had risen if they hadn’t actually seen the risen Christ.

In his book The Testimony of the Evangelists, Greenleaf documents the evidence that caused him to change his mind. In his conclusion he challenges those who seek the truth about the resurrection to fairly examine the evidence. Greenleaf was so persuaded by the evidence that he became a committed Christian. He believed that any unbiased person who honestly examines the evidence as in a court of law would conclude what he did – that Jesus Christ has truly risen. But the resurrection of Jesus Christ raises the question: What does the fact that Jesus defeated death have to do with my life? The answer to that question is what New Testament Christianity is all about.

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Emanuel Paparella2016-06-13 01:31:09
Addendum: to be added as a footnote to the above conclusions, is that if Jesus’ resurrection as a myth (and a foreign one at that since it came to Europe via the Middle East) is proven untenable as a true historical event, then it cannot be so easily disposed of with all the other anachronistic and passé myths deemed incompatible with a modern “enlightened” positivistic-scientific mind-set. So, all the preoccupation to hold Jesus as wise man but at the same time denounce his resurrection as a fraud (a contradiction usually overlooked) is ultimately an attempt to denounce Christianity in particular and religion in general as opium or poison of the people. What it usually gets substituted with is a fanatical ideology or a vapid cultural spirituality devoid of sacred symbols encompassing much but signifying little. In effect, the wheel has been reinvented.

Mirella Ionta2016-06-13 17:56:20
Regarding faith in Christ and his life and Resurrection, it is something that you cannot really intellectualize or explain using human reason alone. It involves suspending human reason and logical argumentation and taking a risk based on a spiritual "instinct" rather than human logic convinced by a physical proof.

rose2016-06-13 21:49:03
What is 2000 years in human existence. No matter what anyone thinks now it will all change in another 5000 years if humans are still here. There is no religion today that has been in existence for more than 5000 years.

Emanuel Paparella2016-06-14 10:28:59
Those who divorce reason from faith must not have heard of Thomas Aquinas, considered the greatest of the Church doctors. As a result they end up denying physical reality itself and live in lala land and give religion a bad name.

Emanuel Paparella2016-06-14 15:12:38
But there is Rose: it is called "worship of the gods" gods such as: wealth, pleasure, luxury, greed, sex, violence, power, lust, tyranny, etc. Those gods or idols are more than 10,000 years old, in fact they are as old as human-kind and if you think that science will eventually abolish them, good luck.

rose2016-06-15 22:58:35
What is 2000 years in human existence. No matter what anyone thinks now it will all change in another 5000 years if humans are still here. There is no religion today that has been in existence for more than 5000 years.

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