Tag Archives: Gospels

Can Historians Even Talk About the Resurrection?

ResurrectionWhen it comes to studies of the historical Jesus, many historians end their inquiry at the crucifixion and burial. It is argued that the resurrection of Jesus is the topic for theologians and not historians. Studying the resurrection of Jesus is outside the expertise and responsibility of historians.

Is this true?

I wrote an article for the journal Studies in Religion that touched on this subject. I argue that there is a place for historians to talk about the resurrection without stepping on the feet of theologians.

What historians can do is talk about the crucifixion of Jesus and determine that he indeed died on the cross. Historians can also talk about the fact that there were numerous witnesses who claimed to have seen Jesus alive after the third day. This is historical inquiry.

The Apostle Paul passed on this early tradition with his own comments:

For I passed on to you as of first importance what I also received—that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as though to one born at the wrong time, he appeared to me also. (1 Corinthians 15:3-8)

Here Paul lists eyewitnesses of the risen Jesus. He states that there are hundreds of witnesses and basically challenges the Corinthians to go to Jerusalem and ask around. This is an invitation for historical inquiry.

What historians cannot do is to make theological conclusions. Historians cannot determine that Jesus is the second person of the Trinity or that he was Israel’s Messiah. All the historian can say is that one day Jesus was dead and that there is evidence that a couple of days later he was alive.

So yes, historians can speak about the resurrection, as long as they don’t make any theological conclusions about the event.

Two books I would recommend on this topic are:

The Dirty Little Secret About Dating the Gospels

CalendarThere is some debate when it comes to the dating of the Gospels. Some would like to date the Gospels in the 50s or 60s. There are others who will argue vehemently that the earliest Gospel must have been written after 70 AD.

The most popular dating of the Gospels puts Mark (as the earliest Gospel) at 70 AD or slightly before, Matthew and Luke in the mid-80s and John in the 90s. But let me tell you a secret.

We don’t really know.

So where do these dates come from?

The early dating of the Gospels is based on some backward calculating from events in Acts. Acts ends with Paul in Rome but still alive. Paul was executed around 65 AD during Nero’s reign. Assuming that Luke (who wrote Acts) would have described Paul’s death if it had already happen, Acts is then dated before 65. Luke’s Gospel is then dated before that. Since most scholars assume that Luke used Mark, that puts Mark fairly early.

However, we don’t know why Luke didn’t describe Paul’s death. It may be because it had not yet happened or he may have had some other literary or theological reason not to mention it. We don’t know.

The later dating of the Gospels revolves around a historical event in Jerusalem. It was in 70 AD that the Romans destroyed the Jerusalem Temple. The Synoptic Gospels include a prediction by Jesus of the destruction of this temple. Since it is impossible for people to predict the future, the Gospels must have been written after the destruction in 70 AD. Some scholars will let Mark be slightly before the event, when it was obvious that something like this would probably be happening.

Would the Gospels have to be dated after 70 AD? Since I’m a Christian, I don’t see it as impossible that Jesus could have made such a prophecy.

However, from a historical perspective I don’t think that the Gospels have to be dated after the destruction. From a purely human point-of-view, it is possible that Jesus could have successfully predicted the destruction of the temple. The tensions that led to the Jewish War of 67-70 were already present in Jesus’ day and it would not require divine sonship to predict that something was coming. In terms of the details of the prediction, Roman military practice was not a secret. Jerusalem was not the first rebellious city that the Romans destroyed. Jesus could have easily described what would happen to Jerusalem.

I appreciate the honesty of New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado in his commentary on Mark:

“For our purposes, we shall allow for the writing of Mark any time between A.D. 50 and 75, as I see no compelling basis for being more precise here.” (p. 8)

The truth is that we don’t know when the Gospels were written. We can place a beginning point as the last event described (death and resurrection around 30-33 AD) and an ending with our earliest manuscripts or quotations from these Gospels in other writings.

Is the Telephone Game a Good Analogy for the Jesus Oral Traditions?

telephone gameMost scholars are agreed that the traditions about Jesus were passed along as an oral tradition before being written down in the four Gospels. But what does that mean for their historical reliability?

Some people have compared this oral period to the telephone game. The telephone game is a fun activity that children (used to) play. One person starts with a message, whispers it in another child’s ear, who whispers it in another and so on. At the end of the game, the final version of the message is very different from the original, and it is in that difference that the fun is experienced.

If that is the case, could not something similar happened with the oral tradition? Perhaps the oral tradition that was written down by the evangelists was world’s apart from what Jesus actually said and did.

I see a number of problems with this analogy.

One is that we do not live in an oral culture, while the people who heard Jesus and wrote down his life did live in an oral culture. We should expect greater accuracy within that culture.

Another is that the people who were involved were neither children, nor did they consider it a game. They believed that Jesus was the Messiah and they took that very seriously.

Part of the fun of the telephone game was to deliberately distort the message. It is no fun if the message is passed on accurately. There is no reason why the early Christians would choose to change the message.

The oral traditions were passed on within communities. While there was room to adjust style and colour, it was expected that the basic content would remain the same. The community enforced accuracy.

The Gospels were written down during the lifetime of people who had heard Jesus and there would have been opportunities to challenge false reporting.

Finally, we find in our written Gospels a number of independent traditions, and yet there is remarkable agreement among these traditions.

This is not my attempt to prove the inerrancy of the Bible. I’m simply saying that the telephone game is a very inaccurate comparison to what was happening during the oral period.

5 Books on the New Testament That I Recommend

BookAlthough I love history, my formal training is in the area of the New Testament. I have come across some very helpful books over the years and I thought I would share what I think are the top five. Please note that I’m an Amazon affiliate and if you purchase any of these, you are supporting my work here.

What Are the Gospels?: A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography (The Biblical Resource Series)

Who Chose the Gospels?: Probing the Great Gospel Conspiracy

Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony

The Historical Jesus: Five Views

Introducing Paul: The Man, His Mission and His Message

Episode 6 – Jesus: Crucifixion and Resurrection

History of ChristianityIn this sixth episode of the History of Christianity, we take a look at Jesus as he enters Jerusalem, is arrested and crucified. We also look at the resurrection and why historians should discuss it.

For More Information:

Recommended Book:

Episode 5 – Jesus: The Ministry Years

History of ChristianityIn this fifth episode of the History of Christianity, we look at Jesus’s ministry before his entry into Jerusalem. Rather than recounting every event in the Gospels, we look at some of the major themes.

For More Information:

Recommended Book:

Episode 4 – Jesus: The Early Years

History of ChristianityIn this fourth episode of the History of Christianity, we look at Jesus from his birth to his baptism. We also look at questions of whether Matthew and Luke invented the virgin birth to copy pagan myths or satisfy Old Testament prophecy.

For More Information:

Recommended Book:

Episode 2 – Sources for Jesus

History of ChristianityIn this second episode of the History of Christianity, we take a look at the sources we have for Jesus. How can we even know that Jesus lived? We look at the three most important historical sources we have: the Gospels, the letters of Paul and Josephus. We look at some of the concerns that some critics have about these sources.

For More Information:

Recommended Book: