I watched a debate on the resurrection of Jesus between a Christian called Samuel Nesan and an anti-theist called Paulogia on the Modern Day Debate channel. You can access the video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hyUwYjrCZnE&t=4386s. While I believe that Samuel Nesan made many excellent points, I would like to add to his arguments in support of Jesus’ resurrection. I believe the evidence we have in ancient history is very compelling.
Paulogia opened by stating that the lowest probability event in history is the least likely event in history before stating that miracles have a low probability and thus more mundane alternatives should be favored. His mundane alternative to Jesus’ resurrection is that “they were mistaken.” To support this claim, he grouped his arguments under the following headings, suggesting we lack first-hand accounts, contemporary accounts, multiple and independent accounts, corroborated accounts and unbiased accounts. The intention of this article is to refute his claims.
Paulogia made the assertion that we have no first-hand accounts of Jesus’ resurrection since the authors of the Gospels did not self-identify. He further stated that the Gospels are “anonymous” and no one attributed them to the four named authors for “centuries.” Let it be noted that no one attributed the Gospels to anyone else in ancient history and we have early attributions in the 2nd century. For example, around 180 A.D. in Against Heresies 3.1.1 and Church History 5.8.2, Irenaeus stated that Matthew wrote a Gospel for the Hebrews in their own language while Paul and Peter were in Rome sharing the Good News. Prior to that around 130 A.D., Papias, the Bishop of Hierapolis referenced Mark and Matthew in his Expositions of the Logia of the Lord:
“The Elder also said this, “Mark, being the interpreter of Peter, whatsoever he remembered he wrote accurately, but not however in the order that these things were spoken or done by our Lord. For he neither heard the Lord, nor followed him, but afterwards, as I said, he was with Peter, who did not make a complete [or ordered] account of the Lord’s logia, but constructed his teachings according to chreiai. So Mark did nothing wrong in writing down single matters as he remembered them, for he gave special attention to one thing, of not passing by anything he heard, and not falsifying anything in these matters.”
“Concerning Mark, these things were related by the father [John the Elder]. Concerning Matthew these other things were said, “Therefore, Matthew set in order the logia (“divine oracles”) in a Hebrew dialect, and each interpreted them, as he was able.”
Other early support for the four named Gospel authors comes from Tertullian, Tatian, the Canon Muratorianus, and Origen.
Paulogia further suggested we have no contemporary accounts, yet 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, which even skeptics admit was a creed early Christians memorized between 3 and 5 years of Jesus’ resurrection, refutes his assertion. Some of the 500 were still living when Paul recorded 1 Corinthians 15 (prior to his martyrdom ~62 A.D.), so they could have refuted his writings if they were not true. We have no evidence of any ancient refutations of Paul’s claims.
“Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.” – Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11
Multiple, independent accounts
Paulogia pointed to similarities between the Synoptics to assert they are not independent, yet he paradoxically capitalized on differences to suggest we don’t have corroboration between them. He suggested that John is also borrowing from Mark by claiming some verses are ordered in the same way in the two books. One explanation may be that the verses are chronological, yet we would need the specific verses to check that explanation. Paulogia never specified the particular verses. He further pointed to the early ending of Mark at 16:8 to claim that when the book ended, no one knew Jesus had resurrected. Paulogia must have missed this verse in Mark 16:6-7:
“Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’”
Paulogia suggested the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) may have been sourced from a single source (known as Q or Quelle) or the authors may have borrowed from one another. Either way, we have multiple attestations. No one is claiming the Synoptics are authored by the same person. Furthermore, other books of the New Testament are authored independently. Even if we only had a single Gospel – or two (combining the Synoptics plus John), we have an attestation of Jesus’ ministry, resurrection, and divinity. Even if we only had Paul’s writings, we’d have enough of a testimony to Jesus’ ministry, resurrection and divinity. Even if we only had extra-biblical sources, we’d have enough of a testimony to Jesus’ ministry and the beliefs from the apostles that He resurrected and is divine.
Below I have listed the sources we have within 150 years of Jesus’ resurrection, which were originally cited by Habermas and Licona (2004).
- Nine traditional authors of the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, Author of Hebrews, James, Peter, and Jude.
- Twenty early Christian writings outside of the New Testament: Clement of Rome, 2 Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, Martyrdom of Polycarp, Barnabas, Didache, Shepherd of Hermas, Fragments of Papias, Justin Martyr, Aristides, Athenagoras, Theophilus of Antioch, Quadratus, Aristo of Pella, Melito of Sardis, Diognetus, Gospel of Peter, Apocalypse of Peter, and Epistula Apostolorum.
- Four heretical writings: Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Truth, Apocryphon of John, and the Treatise on Resurrection.
- Nine secular non-Christian sources: Josephus (Jewish historian), Tacitus (Roman historian), Pliny the Younger (Roman politician), Phlegon (freed slave who wrote histories), Lucian (Greek satirist), Celsus (Roman philosopher and anti-Christian polemicist), Mara Bar-Serapion (prisoner awaiting execution), Suetonius, and Thallus.
I have detailed the writings from nine secular sources offering evidence for Jesus within 150 years of His resurrection here: https://christian-apologist.com/2018/02/17/early-secular-sources-support-new-testament-accounts-of-jesus-divinity/.
No eyewitnesses, no claims of witnessing
We have eyewitnesses in Matthew (the tax collector), John (Jesus’ beloved apostle), Peter (Jesus’ rock), James (Jesus’ ½ brother) and Jude (Jesus’ ½ brother). We further have Paul who authored between six and thirteen books of the New Testament. Further, as pointed out by Samuel Nesan, Luke recorded Peter’s testimony in Acts 5:32.
“We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”
Additionally, Luke traveled with Paul, as noted when he referred to himself in the first person, starting in Acts 16. Luke further started the Gospel of Luke with his testimony that he collected an orderly, meticulous account. Paul also met with Peter and James, Jesus’ ½ brother. In other words, the New Testament contains contemporary references to Jesus, eyewitness authors, and those who knew the eyewitness authors and apostles.
Contradictions on timing
Paulogia further suggested what he deemed to be a contradiction in the timing of Jesus’ crucifixion between John’s account and the Synoptics’ accounts. John’s account uses the Judean system of timing, while the Synoptics use the Galilean, so this is not a contradiction. According to Hoehner (1977), the Galilean method of reckoning the timing of the Passover runs from sunrise to sunrise, so using the Galilean method, Nisan 14 began at sunrise on Thursday and Nisan 15 began at sunrise on Friday. The Galilean method was used by the Pharisees and the Synoptics used this reckoning. John used the Judean method of reckoning in which Nisan 14 began at sunset on Thursday night and ended at sunset on Friday night. The Judean method was used by the Sadducees. The Synoptic reckoning places the slaughter of the Passover lamb on Thursday between 3 and 5 p.m., while the Judean reckoning places the slaughter of the Passover lamb on Friday between 3 and 5 p.m. “Here may be a case in point where neither party [Pharisees or Sadducees] compromised and so there were two days of Passover slaughter” (Hoehner, 1977, pp. 89-90).
These differences can also help explain what appear to be discrepancies in the timing of Jesus’ appearance before Pontius Pilate as reported in Mark 15:25 and John 19:14. Mark’s day used a Jewish 24-hour time period, so the “third hour” when Jesus was crucified was three hours after the morning began at 6 a.m. John’s day used the Roman time period so the “sixth hour” when Jesus appeared before Pilate would be six hours after midnight at 6 a.m. Taken together, the Gospels report that Jesus appeared before Pilate around 6 a.m. He was crucified at 9 a.m. and darkness appeared between noon and 3 p.m., when He died. He was buried after that on Friday.
In the larger context, these findings indicate the apostles ate the Last Supper on a Thursday, followed by the crucifixion of Jesus on Friday, the Sabbath (Saturday) and the discovery of the empty tomb on Sunday by Mary Magdalene and other women. Just as Jesus had predicted (John 2:19; Mark 14:58), He rose on the third day.
Vision, hallucination, or Jesus?
Paulogia further made the assertion that Paul only witnessed either a hallucination or vision of Jesus, yet in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul refuted Paulogia’s assertion. Further, in 1 Corinthians 15: 12-22, Paul detailed Jesus’ resurrected human form:
“But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.
But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man.”
Also, note that mass hallucinations are impossible. Hallucinations are like dreams, only in a single person’s brain. Just as people do not share dreams, people do not share hallucinations.
Early Christian persecution: biases?
Paulogia suggested that the accounts we have of Jesus’ resurrection were biased, yet how logical is it to suggest a mere bias would be compelling enough to preach for Jesus for decades despite massive and gory persecution? And despite what some skeptics claim, gory persecution and martyrdoms were common in ancient times. We have support Biblically and extra-biblically for the martyrdoms of the apostles and many early Christians.
In the New Testament, numerous reports by authors such as Luke and Paul document early Christian persecution. Acts 7: 54-60 documents the stoning of Stephen, while Acts 12:2 documents the way Herod Agrippa put James, the brother of John, to death by the sword. Paul was also stoned, beaten, jailed, which he documented in his New Testament books. His beheading by Nero was documented by Origen, Tertullian, and Dionysius of Corinth (Habermas & Licona, 2004). The martyrdom of Jesus’ half- brother James was documented by Josephus, Hegesippus, and Clement of Alexandria (Habermas & Licona, 2004). Peter was crucified upside down, as confirmed by Eusebius, the first church historian, in his book “Ecclesiastical History” and also by Dionysius of Corinth, Tertullian, and Origen.
Other accounts of the deaths of the disciples are based on tradition. The most commonly accepted traditions are as follows: (https://www.gotquestions.org/apostles-die.html unless otherwise noted).
- Matthew suffered martyrdom in Ethiopia, killed by a sword.
- Bartholomew was flayed to death by a whip (Johns, 2014).
- Andrew was crucified on an X-shaped cross in Greece. The cross is now known as the cross of St. Andrew (Johns, 2014).
- Thomas was stabbed with a spear in India
- Paul was tortured and beheaded by the Emperor Nero in 67 AD.
- Peter was crucified upside-down, in fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy (John 21:18).
- James the Lesser was either beaten or stoned to death, while praying for his attackers (Johns, 2014).
- Philip was reportedly crucified upside-down in Hierapolis, Turkey. In 2011, archaeologists in Hierapolis discovered what they believed to be Philip’s tomb (Johns, 2014).
- Matthias reportedly preached in the “land of the cannibals” (Johns, 2014).
Jesus’ apostles were not the only ones to be persecuted. “The first Christian martyrs to be thrown to the wild beasts died in the arena of the Colosseum and, because of these martyrs, who succeeded the gladiators, the Colosseum was venerated greatly during the Middle Ages. It was considered to be a monument consecrated to the martyrdom of the early Christians. Only for that reason was it saved and for the same reason the vast structure, partially in ruins but still impressive in character, is still revered by many in the civilized world” (Rutledge, 1940).
“Immediately after registering Marcus Aurelius’ succession to Antoninus Pius [in 161 A.D.], Eusebius reports that, at the time discussed, there were great persecutions in Asia (IV, 14, io-i5, I) and that Polycarp was one of the martyrs of these persecutions…. Before telling the story of Polycarp’s arrest, torture, and execution Eusebius makes references to ‘the other martyrs’ with a summary characterization and some gory details of the barbarous treatment of these victims in this round of anti-Christian violence in Smyrna. For Polycarp was the twelfth martyr in this city, all the other martyrs being from Philadelphia (IV, 15, 45). Apart from Polycarp, Eusebius mentions only one other martyr by name, Germanicus (IV, I5,5 (Keresztes, 1968, p. 322).”
“According to the Martyrdom of Polycarp, it was the noonday crowd [at the Colosseum] that reacted ‘with uncontrollable wrath’ when [Bishop] Polycarp confessed to being a Christian. They first cried out to Philip the Asiarch to let a lion lose on Polycarp, but Philip could not do that, for the morning hunts were closed. Then the crowd cried out ‘with one mind that he should burn Polycarp alive’” (Thompson, 2002, p. 33)…. “Polycarp gazed directly at the crowd as he said ‘Away with the atheists’” (Mart. Pol. 9.2 cited in Thompson, 2002, p. 43). He was soon burned at the stake.
“Among the martyrs at Lyons was Sanctus, whose ‘body bore witness to his sufferings, being all one bruise and one wound, stretched and distorted out of any recognizably human shape; but Christ suffering in him achieved great glory, overwhelming the Adversary, and showing as an example to all the others that nothing is to be feared where the Father’s love is, nothing painful where we find Christ’s glory.’ The slave girl, Blandina, after being tortured, was ‘hung on a post and exposed as food for the wild beasts that were let loose on her. She seemed to hang there in the form of a cross … and with their physical eyes they [the other martyrs] saw in the person of their sister him who was crucified for them.’” (Mart. Pol. 1.2 cited in Thompson, 2002, p. 48).
Roman Emperor Decius (201 – 251 A.D.) instituted what was considered to be the first organized persecution of Christians throughout the Roman Empire (Scarre, 1995). Prior to Decius, persecutions of Christians had been more sporadic and local. Decius required that all citizens to perform a sacrifice to the Roman gods and the well-being of the Emperor in the presence of a Roman magistrate. The magistrate then issued a signed and witnessed certificate. Refusal to make this sacrifice resulted in the martyrdoms of some Christians, such as Babylas of Antioch, Alexander of Jerusalem, and Pope Fabian. Others, such as Bishop Cyprian of Carthage, went into hiding (Chapman, 2013). The next Emperor Gallienus paid less attention to Christianity, so the laws went into abeyance.
They were resurrected again with Diocletian, who came into office in 284. In 303, Emperors Diocletian, Maximian, Galerius, and Constantius issued a series of edicts that rescinded Christians’ legal rights and required compliance with traditional Pagan religious practices.
That ended when Constantine came into office in 306 A.D. Constantine restored Christians to full legal equality and returned property to them that had been confiscated. In 313 A.D., he signed the Edict of Milan, which offered Christians a comprehensive acceptance. Constantine himself had converted to Christianity when he had a vision of a Christian symbol, which helped him to win a battle and his seat as the Roman Emperor. Thank God for Constantine!
Some skeptics have argued that the early Christian disciples were mistaken, delusional, or were profiting from Christianity in some material way, yet they fail to consider basic psychology. They also fail to consider the early disciples reaped no material (sex, power, or money) rewards. We have no indication they were not of sound minds. They were martyred for their beliefs, yet they were in the position to know whether their beliefs were true. For this reason, comparing them to modern day martyrs, such as the 9-11 hijackers, is faulty. Muslim extremists believed what others told them – not what they saw. No Muslims have seen Allah. The Quran states that.
Consider the following:
- People of sound minds make decisions that maximize their outcomes.
- People of sound minds weigh benefits against drawbacks when making decisions.
- Early Christians wanted to maximize their chances of going to heaven by following Jesus.
- Early Christians weighed the benefits of going to heaven and following Jesus against the risks of imprisonment and death.
- Had early Christians determined the risks outweighed the benefits (and considered it all a lie), they would have recanted their testimonies in support of Jesus.
Jesus’ Counterintuitive Approach
Furthermore, Jesus’ chosen disciples speaks to His miracles. If I were going to start a new club or a new business, I would want to enlist the help of powerful and influential people. I would want support from people who had the money and visibility needed to help me get the word out. I would choose the best and brightest.
Rather than choose the powerful Pharisees, politicians, or other leaders, Jesus chose the weak. He chose fishermen, a tent maker, a tax collector, and others. He healed prostitutes, forgave adulterers and elevated women and children. Women, who were considered second class citizens during Jesus’ time were the first to make the most important discovery in the Bible: the empty tomb.
Jesus went against people’s expectations. Rather than appear with power, glory and majesty, He appeared in a manger. Rather than work as an earthly King, Jesus worked as a humble carpenter. Rather than rub elbows with the Pharisees who were considered the most devout followers of God, Jesus rubbed elbows with the sinners. Rather than call on His followers to do great works, He has called on us to have faith in Him. No other religions are like Christianity, which is the way, the truth, and the life.
CS Lewis’ Trilemma from Mere Christianity is appropriate here:
“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. . . . Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.
In conclusion, the claims by Paulogia suggesting that Jesus’ disciples were mistaken are without merit. Thank God for that!
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