BLOG AUTHOR’S EDITORIAL PROLOGUE: I have to say that this is one of the most well-written, fair. and balanced treatments of the historicity and theology of the Easter event that I’ve ever read. Christians, we need to take a long, hard look at the way we make arguments, and the way we think. We have to learn how to be intellectually honest (instead of email-forwarding, panic-stricken reactionaries). As you read this article I challenge you think, Think, THINK, THINK… and enjoy! – He IS risen!
Facts and friction of Easter
Historical evidence for the crucifixion is solid, says John Dickson. It’s the resurrection where ways divide.
Easter highlights the risky, even vulnerable, position of the world’s 2 billion Christians. I am not just thinking of the blockbuster headlines that frequently coincide with their holy days – the discovery of Jesus’ tomb (complete with his remains), reports of his marriage to Mary Magdalene, and so on.There is something about Christianity itself that puts believers in a precarious situation. I am talking about the overtly historical claims of this particular faith. Reports of the public execution of a famous teacher and healer, not to mention his supposed resurrection, are just asking for a raised eyebrow. The logic is simple: if you say that something spectacular took place on the stage of history, thoughtful people are going to ask you historical questions. It is as if Christianity happily places its neck on the chopping block of public scrutiny and invites anyone who wishes to come and take a swing.And swing they do. Professor Richard Dawkins of the University of Oxford tells us in The God Delusion that a “serious” historical case can be made “that Jesus never lived at all”. In The Atheist Manifesto the French philosopher Michel Onfray contends that from start to finish Jesus was “a trick born of the rational mind”. He finds the crucifixion story particularly implausible. “At that time,” he assures us, “Jews were not crucified but stoned to death.” And, finally, in the provocative God Is Not GreatChristopher Hitchens speaks of Jesus’ “highly questionable existence” and says of the resurrection: “We have a right, if not an obligation, to respect ourselves enough to disbelieve the whole thing.” Suddenly, all the events of Easter – Jesus’ existence, crucifixion and resurrection – disappear in a moment of dogmatic unbelief, and those with even a faint inkling about the significance of Jesus are made to feel foolish.How do Christians cope with this chorus of scepticism?
Some adopt an accommodating stance. They retreat from the traditional claims of Christianity and opt for a spiritualised version of the message: Jesus is not so much the crucified and risen Saviour as the pious sage whose wisdom touches the soul. This is an old tradition going back to the Gnostics of the second and third centuries. They produced counter-Gospels in which Jesus is stripped of his historical particularity as a Jewish prophet, healer and martyr and is recast as a transcendent figure whose teaching unites us to the Divine. Such a Jesus is unassailable to historical doubters because his actual history is irrelevant. Curiously, you are more likely to find this figure in an Easter sermon of a mainstream church than in an ancient history lecture at a university. It is questionable theology but it is even worse history.
Other Christians take an entirely different route. Offended by the caustic criticisms of the nouveau atheists and disdainful of the accommodating strategy of the liberals, some attempt to defend every historical detail of the Gospel record. In the past 30 years quite an industry has arisen dedicated to confirming the entire Jesus story from virgin birth to heavenly ascension. “Apologetics”, as it is called, fills many a wall in the Christian bookshops of the world. It is a mixed bag. Some of it is measured and well-informed. Some of it makes the historian – especially the Christian historian – cringe. I don’t know how many times I have heard well-meaning believers say “there is more evidence for Jesus Christ than for Julius Caesar”. The statement is based on the observation that Caesar’s Warshas survived in just 10 ancient manuscript copies, whereas the New Testament has survived in several thousand. It sounds impressive but it is misleading. The huge number of New Testament manuscripts does help scholars reconstruct what was in the original text but it tells us nothing about whether the reported events were accurately recorded in the first place. A well-preserved mistake is still a mistake. In any case, the existence of Julius Caesar is confirmed by independent inscriptions and coins (things not normally granted to Galilean carpenters). Christian apologetics is sometimes the mirror image of atheist apologetics – marked by rhetoric and overstatement rather than responsible scholarship.Outside this triangle of sceptics, accommodators and apologists there is another group of men and women who number in the thousands, whose works fill the academic libraries and journals of the world and yet whose views are rarely considered in popular discussion of this topic.
I am talking about professional biblical historians: not professors of theology in religious institutions but university historians specialising in the language, literature and culture of the biblical period. Be they Christian, Jewish or agnostic, such scholars shun both overreaching scepticism and theological dogma. They approach the Gospels not as zealous fabrications or divine scripture but as texts comparable with any other from the period. All texts have blind spots and points to prove. If historians waited until they found a source with no angle, they would have nothing left to work with (ancient or modern). The goal is not to discover an agenda-less source but to analyse every source in light of its discernible commitment. This is how scholars read every ancient text, including the New Testament. They do not privilege the Gospels, but nor do they come to them with prejudice. Christians may be unsettled by this objective historical analysis of their sacred texts but there is no comfort here for the dogmatic sceptic either. For while mainstream scholars disagree on many things about the life of Jesus, there is a very strong consensus that the basic narrative of the Gospels is historically sound.
Take the question of Jesus’ existence. Dawkins may have his reservations; so might Onfray and Hitchens. But no one who is actually doing ancient history does. I contacted three eminent ancient history professors this week and asked if they knew of any professional historian who argued that Jesus never lived. They did not. Professor Graeme Clarke of the Australian National University was happy to go on the record as saying: “Frankly, I know of no ancient historian or biblical historian who would have a twinge of doubt about the existence of a Jesus Christ – the documentary evidence is simply overwhelming.” Dawkins inadvertently proves the point. In The God Delusionhis sole example of a serious historical case against the existence of Jesus is that of “Professor G.A. Wells of the University of London”. Dawkins does not mention that George Wells is a professor of German language, not history.That Jesus lived cannot be disputed. In addition to the plentiful Christian sources of the first century, we have two references to Jesus by the first-century Jewish writer Josephus, one mention by the great Roman chronicler Tacitus and a highly probable reference by Mara bar Serapion, a little-known Syrian writer of the first century. From these non-Christian sources we learn not only when and where Jesus lived and died but also that he was a famous teacher and healer. Josephus speaks of paradoxa erga, “extraordinary deeds”. I recently interviewed Professor Geza Vermes of the University of Oxford and asked him about these intriguing words. Vermes is a leading biblical historian and committed Jew. He explained what virtually everyone in the field today considers beyond doubt: Jesus did things which friend and foe alike thought were supernatural. What those things were the historian cannot say. All we know with near certainty is that Jesus’ contemporaries found them extraordinary.
But what of the Easter events? There is a broad consensus here, too. Few biblical historians accept all of the details of the Gospel accounts – to the chagrin of some Christians – but most, whether Jewish, Christian or agnostic, agree that these writings have preserved a reliable core of information about the tumultuous final days of Jesus’ life: he created a public disturbance in the Jerusalem temple shortly before his arrest; he shared a final (Passover) meal with his disciples; he was arrested by the priestly elite and handed over to the Romans; he was crucified for treason under the mocking charge “king of the Jews”. These are the accepted facts of the Easter narrative. Christian apologists may often exaggerate them but the new atheists simply ignore them.
Consider Onfray’s historical commentary in The Atheist Manifesto. “Jews were not crucified but stoned,” he tells us, and even if Jesus had been crucified, he would not have been placed in a tomb, as the Gospels say, because crucifixion victims were never given a proper burial: “There was no question of bodies being laid to rest in tombs.” This amounts to a clear historical blunder on the part of Onfray. Jews were perhaps the most crucified people in antiquity. The Dead Sea Scrolls and Josephus both report an incident where 800 Pharisees were crucified on one day; their wives and children were made to look on. Josephus tells us further that during the siege of Jerusalem in AD70 the Romans crucified 500 Jews a day while sacking the city. Actually, our only archaeological remains of a crucifixion victim – a male heel bone with an 11-centimetre nail still in place – were discovered in a Jewish tomb. This Jew, like Jesus, had been crucified and then properly buried.
But what of the resurrection? Despite the arguments of some Christian apologists, most mainstream scholars do not treat the resurrection as belonging to their field of inquiry. It is similar to Jesus’ healings. Historians would not say that Jesus actually performed miracles – that would be to turn from history to philosophy and theology. They can only say that he did things which those around him interpreted as miraculous. So, too, with the resurrection. No historian wearing his or her historical cap would say that God raised Jesus from the dead. That is a theological interpretation of the evidence. What most scholars do affirm is more modest, though not without significance: Jesus’ tomb was empty shortly after his crucifixion and significant numbers of men and women experienced what they believed to be appearances of the risen Jesus. These are the historical facts of Easter Sunday: an empty tomb and resurrection experiences. They are accepted not only by serious Christian scholars but also by leading Jewish historians such as Vermes and self-confessed agnostics such as Professor Ed Sanders of Duke University, who once wrote: “That Jesus’ followers (and later Paul) had resurrection experiences is, in my judgment, a fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know.” This is typical of the responsible historian’s approach to Easter: whatever the explanation, something extraordinary happened.This is where history leads us – and leaves us. How we go on from here to interpret the historical evidence involves our other beliefs about the world. Those who are convinced that the laws of nature are the only things regulating the universe will reject the resurrection in principle: no amount of evidence could suggest otherwise. However, those who suspect that there is a reality behind the laws of nature – a lawgiver – can feel rationally justified in remaining open to an outrageous claim such as the resurrection of God incarnate.
Christianity will continue to lay its neck on the chopping block of public scrutiny, inviting anyone who wishes to come and take a swing. My hope is that the sceptics will go about this with less dogmatism and that Christians will avoid both an accommodating retreat and overreaching apologetics. The truth lies elsewhere. While it is not possible to prove every detail, the core of the Jesus story is historically sound, and it is intellectually irresponsible to say otherwise. Believers could learn to be less defensive; sceptics could read more widely. Then, as the dust settles, we might be able to enjoy a more measured conversation about the hugely significant figure at the heart of Easter.
Dr John Dickson is the director of the Centre for Public Christianity (www.publicchristianity.org) and an honorary associate of the Department of Ancient History at Macquarie University.