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Apologetics: How Do We Account for the Resurrection Stories in the Gospels?

Apologetics: How Do We Account for the Resurrection Stories in the Gospels?

Almost all New Testament scholars−both critical and conservative−agree that very shortly after Jesus was crucified, his disciples had experiences that led them to believe and proclaim that he had been resurrected and had appeared to them.[1] The witness of the four Gospels, as well as the birth and expansion of the early church, all point clearly to some pivotal event or experience that led the church to preach a doctrine counterintuitive to the prevailing religious beliefs of the Roman world.

For almost all scholars, this counts as a historical fact.[2] The point at which scholars depart, however, is how they account for the history of the Gospel stories that give witness to the resurrection. In other words, it’s indisputable that the early church preached the resurrection of Jesus. The scholarly headache comes from trying to discover what event or series of events led to the stories as we have them now. So, how do we make sense of the Easter stories?

The Old School Position

For almost two thousand years, the unbroken teaching of the church has been that the Gospels and other New Testament writings give a varied, yet clear and consistent witness of actual events. As early as 55 CE, Paul summarizes the established teaching of the early church−Jesus died, was buried and raised, and then appeared to a series of over five hundred witnesses ranging from Peter all the way to Paul himself (1 Corinthians 15:1-11).[3] For the church then and now, there is no contradiction between the resurrection as an event and the resurrection as later reported in the Gospels.[4]  

The Critical Position

For critical scholars, the guiding principle of skepticism forces a different answer. Regardless of how much evidence exists for the resurrection, miracles are impossible (or at least highly unlikely), and therefore the conundrum of the canonical resurrection accounts must be accounted for by natural means alone.[5] The pursuit to find the “story behind the story” of the resurrection has yielded a plethora of answers (many of which conflict), however, generally speaking the critical consensus is that the disciples experienced some kind of hallucination or apparition of Jesus. Some would even suggest that the Gospel writers fabricated the accounts on the basis of some other interest.[6] While at face value these theories are plausible−and perhaps even attractive in that they seamlessly guard a previous commitment to a naturalistic worldview−some serious questions remain as to whether such explanations make the best sense of the evidence.

Challenges to the Critical Position

For one, apparitions of deceased loved ones do not typically lead to stories of resurrection. As N.T. Wright points out, the experience of seeing a recently departed family member or friend does not lead to the conclusion that their grave is empty. The experience confirms the person’s death, not his or her resurrection. [7]

Second, the stories we have about the risen Jesus do not pair well with hallucinations or apparitions. Both Luke and John are at pains to show us that Jesus was not a spirit, but was raised in the body.[8] N.T. Wright observes that the detailed accounts of the physicality of the resurrection narratives betray any sense of visions or hallucinations.[9]

At this point some would claim that the physical nature of the resurrection accounts are the end product of spiritual experiences retold on repeat for decades. In other words, what started as a private hallucination eventually became a full-blown bodily resurrection story after years and years of storytelling. The problem with this scenario is that it betrays what we know about Roman and Greek beliefs about the afterlife in the places where the stories were supposedly retold and even written. N.T. Wright has persuasively demonstrated that despite the variety of views about the afterlife in the ancient pagan world, resurrection was not even on the radar, nor was it easily integrated into the prevailing philosophical and religious landscape.[10] For example, this explains why Paul received such a negative response when he preached in Athens, as well as why he had to spend an entire chapter in 1 Corinthians defending the bodily resurrection of Jesus and the future resurrection of believers.[11]

Furthermore, it seems odd that as the message about Jesus spread from Jerusalem to the Gentile world, the stories about the resurrection morphed into bodily accounts rather than just spiritual ones. One would think that the opposite would happen as the Jewish belief in resurrection spread into the resurrection-denying Gentile world. If, as Bart Ehrman postulates, the Gospel stories developed as they were told and retold in Gentile communities far from Palestine, and if the Gospel writers themselves were not even from Palestine, then it makes little sense to think that these communities and Gospel writers modified a spiritual appearance story (palpable and acceptable to Gentiles) into a bodily appearance story (which would appeal to more Jewish audiences).[12] A move from bodily resurrection to spiritual resurrection would make more sense.[13]

Resurrection Memory Shaped by Old Testament Hope?

Another possibility lingers. Perhaps the early church constructed the resurrection accounts as they read the Old Testament writings−especially the prophets. Maybe their collective memory of spiritual experiences was influenced by the very physical hope of the resurrection found in texts like Isaiah 25:6-9 or 66:22-23, which later led to a more physical narrative about the resurrection?

Scholars have long recognized that this is to some degree the case with the passion narratives. All four Gospels narrate the suffering and death of Jesus around the words of the Psalms and Prophets. “This was to fulfill the Scripture that says,” etc.[14] However, these quotations are strangely absent in the resurrection narratives. There’s no hint of the early church reading the Old Testament and then arriving at the resurrection stories. In fact, they defy what we would normally expect from a fabricated account. N.T. Wright summarizes:

If the evangelists had started off with a lesson, theological, moral, or practical, which they wanted to teach, and had attempted to develop ‘historicized’ Jesus-stories to serve as allegories of such lessons, they would not have come up with the kind of stories we have here.[15]

And yet, these are the stories we have. They have, historically speaking, the wrong witnesses (the women).[16] The disciples−later to be revered leaders in the early church−are honestly depicted as ignorant and slow to understand. All of the accounts are marked by shock and surprise rather than the “just so” stories we would expect from contrived accounts. For the scholar committed to preconceived skepticism the implications are almost inconceivable. Could the Gospel writers be simply telling the truth as they or the eyewitnesses they consulted truly experienced it? I suppose the answer to that question largely depends on what you already believe (or want) to be possible.

For more evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, follow this link.

Pastor John Rasmussen - Our Savior Lutheran Church - South Windsor, CT.

[1] Michael Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 2010), 463.

[2] That the disciples had experiences that led them to believe and proclaim that Jesus was raised is one of three historical assertions that Licona calls “historical bedrock.” These are the undisputed, rock bottom facts that almost all credible scholars and historians can agree upon. Many critical scholars accept a wider range of historical facts, however, to be as inclusive as possible for the sake of argument, Licona has narrowed down these historical facts to a lowest common denominator status. The other two are that Jesus died by crucifixion, and that Paul was converted to Christianity a few years after the crucifixion of Jesus after he had what he interpreted to be a post resurrection appearance of Jesus. For a very detailed discussion of what qualifies as “historical bedrock” see Licona,, 277-464.

[3] D.A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 447-448. The fact that Paul mentions the witness of Peter, as well as the formulaic nature of the words Paul is quoting, all suggest that these words go back even farther than Paulperhaps even back to Peter and the apostles, who may have established them shortly after the resurrection, thus placing the earliest words we have about the resurrection in close proximity with the event itself. For the textual history behind Paul’s words see Licona, 318-343.

[4] Opinions vary on when the Gospels were written. Most agree that Mark was written first, and John was written last. The possibilities range from the middle to the close of the first century, with some even suggestingmore rarely a date from the early second century. For a comparison between traditional and critical opinions see Carson and Moo, Charles B. Puskas and David Crump, An Introduction to the Gospels and Acts (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), and Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament (New York: Doubleday, 1997).

[5] The word “critical” in reference to scholarship can have a wide range of meaning. Many faithful, orthodox scholars are in a certain sense “critical,” meaning that they examine and compare their sources in light of new manuscripts, archaeological finds, etc. I suppose this is “critical” in the wide sense. In this post I am using the word “critical” in a more narrow sense, referring to those who practice biblical scholarship with a default method of skepticism, or with a commitment to a worldview that does not assume or allow for the central doctrines of the Bible. This seems to be the way that Bart Ehrman uses the term in Jesus Before the Gospels (New York, HarperOne: 2016).

[6] Scholars such as Geza Vermes, Michael Goulder, and Gerd Lüdemann all advocate some variation of the vision/hallucination hypothesis. Goulder and Lüdemann allow for only natural explanations from the social sciences. They postulate that the disciples were grief stricken or suffering from cognitive dissonance at the loss of their beloved teacher, which led to their experience of Jesus after his deathmuch like modern people commonly claim to have seen a deceased relative. These individual occurrences led to others claiming the same experiences, thus leading to the false claim that Jesus was raised. Vermes is a notable exception. While not allowing for the possibility that Jesus was bodily raised, he admits that the empty tomb and appearances are likely historical, however, the appearances were spiritual in nature and not bodily. John Dominic Crossan, while representing the default skepticism of critical scholarship, goes a step further in claiming that the resurrection accounts “have nothing to do with ecstatic experiences or entranced revelations,” but are rather the result of competing claims in the early church for “authority, power, leadership, and authority.” Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus, 523 and Crossan in The Resurrection of Jesus: John Dominic Crossan and N.T. Wright in Dialogue (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006), 177. For a detailed explanation and appraisal of each of these stances see Licona, 465-557.

[7] N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), 609-10.

[8] For example, see Luke 24:36-43 and John 20:26-29. These accounts make it very clear that the Gospel writers understood the resurrection as physical rather than spiritual.

[9] The Resurrection of the Son of God, 690.

[10] Wright concludes that while some in the ancient pagan world did believe in the possibility of immortality, the body was never part of the scenarioonly the soul. Death, whether the end or a new beginning, was “a one way street” with no possibility of bodily resurrection. Ibid., 82-85.

[11] “Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked” (Acts 17:32). In the case of 1 Corinthians, Paul’s defense of the resurrection in chapter 15 reveals that some in the congregation rejected bodily resurrection.

[12] Jesus Before the Gospels, 75-86.

[13] It appears that this is in fact what happened in the Corinthian church. The Greek view of the afterlife had infringed on the biblical doctrine of the resurrection, which led to Paul to call the Corinthians back into orthodoxy.

[14] John 19:24.

[15] The Resurrection of the Son of God, 599.  See also Richard Bauckham, who writes, “It is well recognized that the narratives of the passion and especially the crucifixion itself constantly quote or allude to the Old Testament, especially to the words of righteous sufferers in the Psalms. There is an intertextual network that serves to interpret the passion of Jesus by setting it within the experience and the expectation of Israel. But when we read on to the accounts of the empty tomb and the resurrection appearances there are hardly such allusions. The stories show little sign of following literary precedents, and standard narrative motifs, the building blocks of many an ancient story, are rare. For all the ingenuity of scholars these stories remain strangely sui generis and lacking theological interpretation.” Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 504-505.  

[16] Even skeptical scholars admit that the presence of the women as witnesses in the Gospel stories are odd given a culture in which the witness of a woman did not hold up in court. See Wright, 607-608. He also discusses the absence of the women in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, as well why it would be unlikely for the women to then be later inserted into the Gospel accounts.

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