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The Credibility of the Testimony to Jesus’ Resurrection
By Alexander LaBrecque

The resurrection of the crucified Jesus is the foundational event of the Christian faith.  The gospel is about this event and what this event means, not about an abstract system of religious tenets.  The sixteenth century Reformation is considered by many to have made a great breakthrough in affirming that Christianity stands or falls on “the doctrine of justification by faith." By contrast, for the earliest Christians everything rested on not a doctrine but the historical reality of Jesus' resurrection.  From that event flows the distinctly Christian understanding of God and of humanity's salvation.

The earliest Christians made two historical claims concerning Jesus' resurrection: (1) that on the third day after his death and burial the tomb was found empty; (2) that subsequently, on several different occasions individuals and groups were eyewitnesses to encounters from Jesus bodily alive again.  The reports of the empty tomb and the resurrection appearances are historical claims and therefore subject to investigation.  Their authenticity is a matter not of 'faith' but of historical .judgment.  On the basis of historical evidence we must decide for or against the plausibility of those claims, just as we would judge in the case of any other alleged event.[1]

Since the first century skeptics have dismissed Jesus’ resurrection out of hand because their philosophical or religious presuppositions do not permit the event:  But that approach to the matter is an uncritical evasion of the historical questions.  It fails to attempt to deal honestly with the relevant evidence.  How are we to explain the origin of these extraordinary claims? What scenario most plausibly accounts for the evidence?  If the Easter claims do warrant rejection, that conclusion should result from a critical investigation of the claims.  But the evidence for Jesus' resurrection is such that the testimony welcomes scrutiny.

The fact of the empty tomb was conceded by the gospel's earliest adversaries and is acknowledged today by most critical scholars of Christian origins.[2]  A more complex issue is the factuality of the appearances of Jesus alive after his death, for that phenomenal claim has always been contested.  Its authenticity must be determined by examining the credibility of the witnessers' testimony and ascertaining the most plausible explanation for the reported appearances.

There are just three alternatives to choose from in this matter: (1) the witnesses did in fact see Jesus bodily alive after his death and burial; (2) Jesus' followers were deluded and experienced hallucinations, subjectively seeing" what they expected to see; (3) the empty tomb and the reported appearances were the staging of a hoax.  In all three of these scenarios, the case hinges on the credibility of the reports given by the alleged eyewitnesses.  Is their testimony historically credible and trustworthy?

The authenticity of Jesus' resurrection hinges on the     credibility of eyewitness testimony to the appearances.

This issue−the second in a series on the validity of the resurrection faith−presents evidence for the veracity of the witnesses' testimony concerning the Easter event.  After consideration of that evidence, responses will be made to the charges that the witnesses were deluded or perpetrating a hoax.

Evidence of the Testimony's Credibility

The primitive testimony is very early, conservative, and lacking signs of embellishment.  In I Cor 15:3-11 we have firsthand testimony from a purported eyewitness of the last of the resurrection appearances, written two and a half decades after the event.  Furthermore, Paul here transmits the testimony of other eyewitnesses as well, which he had received from them within six years of Jesus' crucifixion.[3]  At the time of their transmission to Paul these reports of the appearances of the risen Jesus had already become formally established in the creed here recited.  That the phenomena commenced “on the third day" had belonged to the original testimony.  And when 1 Corinthians was written (c. AD 55), most of over 500 eyewitnesses to the appearances were still alive (15:6) and the credibility of their testimony could be personally investigated and verified.

The New Testament Gospels and Acts were written no earlier than a decade after Corinthians, and as late as the end of the first century.  But the- primitive testimony left by Paul in 1 Cor 15:3-11 provides the historian a benchmark for testing the reliability of later Christian testimony Though these NT documents come from the second generation, they purportedly rely on eyewitness reports and original bearers of the Easter testimony (John 21:24; Luke 1:2; cf.  Acts 1:3,21-22).[4]  Of course, as narratives the resurrection accounts of the NT Gospels are far richer in detail than Paul's stark summary in 1 Cor 15; not surprisingly, there is also disparity between the Gospels in those details.  Nonetheless, the essence of their testimony−that for a limited period eyewitnesses saw Jesus bodily alive again−is in full agreement with that reported by Paul in the earliest  written record.

The reliability of the primitive testimony to Jesus' resurrection is attested not only by the early dates of these documents and their sources, but also by the fact that they are so conservative and lacking of the fanciful embellishment that developed soon enough.  Paul's list of the reported appearances in 1 Cor 15 is a bare-bones summary, as are the brief accounts of the earliest preaching in Acts.[5]  Again, the four NT Gospels present more detailed information about the circumstances of the resurrection appearances than do Paul or Acts, but even there we find notable restraint.  This is especially remarkable since the reports of Jesus' resurrection circulated orally long before they became preserved in the written accounts we have in the New Testament.

The primitive testimony is of early date, conservative, and lacks the embellishment found in later Christian writings.

Apparently, to the earliest Christians what happened in the Easter event was so remarkable in and of itself that they were not motivated to significantly embellish the resurrection story.[6]  Overall they were content with what they knew to be historical reality.  To their credit, the New Testament writers do not describe Jesus' resurrection in process of occurring.  In full honesty they are silent about that, unlike the legends found in later Christian literature.  Furthermore, in the primitive testimony the resurrection itself is not a public event seen by unbelievers−let alone by the disciples!  But by the early second century its occurrence becomes public in the apocryphal Gospel of Peter; here Jesus' emergence from the tomb is graphically portrayed and is alleged to have been witnessed by the Jewish elders and the Roman soldiers guarding the sepulchre (chs. 9-11).  This later fabrication attests the primitive church's concern with historical reality in the matter of Jesus' resurrection.  The fact that decades after the event the NT Gospels do not purport that his rising from the dead was publicly witnessed but retain its obscurity attests the authenticity of the original testimony.

Jesus' resurrection is without theological precedent.  In Judaism the hope of the resurrection of the dead concerned an event expected to occur at "the last day,” the end of the world as it now is−not within the present age.  Furthermore, Jews expected that the dead would be collectively raised to everlasting life, in a corporate event experienced by all the righteous together−not by one individual only, raised before all others.  To this day a major objection of Judaism to Jesus' messiah-ship is that the Messiah comes at the end of the age and reigns from Jerusalem; not so in the case of Jesus.  So the disciples' background in Judaism does not provide a precedent for the Christian belief that God had resurrected to immortality Jesus of Nazareth and him alone, while the present order of human history continues as before.  Indeed that is altogether without precedent.  If the disciples had experienced not an objective  appearance by the risen Jesus but a subjective vision, then the content of that vision should have been in accord with Jewish expectations.  It was not.

The disciples were not predisposed to the Easter event.  The theory that the disciples were predisposed to hallucinate that Jesus appeared to them alive might be plausible if despite his crucifixion they had remained unshakeable followers of his cause.  But the NT Gospels depict the disciples as dim-witted jerks and wimps who in fear for their own safety abandoned Jesus at his arrest, trial and crucifixion; the leader of the bunch emphatically denied ever knowing the man (Mark 14:66-72).  Only women and some peripheral followers were loyal enough to be present at Jesus' crucifixion and attend to his burial (Mark 15:40-16:1).  Meanwhile, his disciples were hiding in fear for their own lives (John 20:19).  The two followers en route to Emmaus confessed that with Jesus' crucifixion died their hopes for Israel's liberation from Roman oppression (Luke 24:21).  The Gospels attest that the disciples initially disbelieved even the resurrection appearances (Matt 28:17; Luke 24:36-43; John 20:24-29).

The witnesses were predisposed to not
expect the resurrection of this crucified man.

The admissions of confusion and cowardice in these accounts are marks of authenticity.  It is unimaginable that the propaganda literature of this fledgling movement (the Gospels) would portray its founders in such a bad light unless their abandonment and disbelief of Jesus were indeed factual.  Such candor about a sect's origins is unparalleled.

The testimony of the women reflects the Gospels' authentic witness.  The NT Gospels credit the discovery of the empty tomb to women, [7] including Mary Magdalene, a person of questionable repute.  Matthew and John also report that the risen Jesus first appeared to women of this group.  This is simply astounding, for in Judaism the testimony of females was without credibility.[8]  If the resurrection was a hoax perpetrated by Christians, then the empty tomb would not be found by women, nor would women be the first persons to whom a messenger announces that Jesus has risen from the dead.  Even the disciples discounted their report; the testimony of the women “seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them" (Luke 24:11).

Paul's omission of women from his list of witnesses in 1 Cor 15 is due to several factors.  It may reflect his recognition of contemporary society's depreciation of the credibility of female witnesses; [9] for him to have cited the testimony of women would have weakened his case.  Furthermore, the women's witness is more connected to the discovery of the empty tomb−a secondary, supporting evidence.  Paul sets forth what he regards as his most impressive witnesses and his strongest case—the resurrection appearances.  And to an appearance of the risen Christ Paul could personally attest.

The NT Gospels cite these persons as witnesses nonetheless because the women's testimony was known to be factual, despite their gender!  To the modem reader, therefore, the handicap of the ancient gender bias should confirm the authenticity of the Gospels' witness in this matter.

The scandal of the cross authenticates the Easter testimony.  To Judaism and to Greco-Roman society, crucifixion was utterly abhorrent. [10]  The Romans reserved this degrading execution for criminals, slaves and rebels, commonly referring to it as "the slaves' punishment." Exhaustion and the position of the victim's affixed body caused a slow, torturous death by asphyxiation, which often took days.  Josephus, a first-century Jew, describes crucifixion as "the most wretched of deaths."[11]  Frequently a victim was not buried but left rotting on the gibbet as carrion for birds of prey.  The deterrent effect of this public spectacle needs no elaboration.  Crucifixion was so cruel and shameful a death that even to speak of it in a social setting was considered vulgar.  Referring to Jesus' execution, the Roman historian Tacitus dismissed the resurrection faith as "a pernicious superstition“ akin to "all the horrible and shameful things in the world."[12]

For Christians therefore to proclaim as risen a "Christ crucified" was to herald "a scandal to Jews and an absurdity to Gentiles" (I Cor 1:23).  To Jews, crucifixion bore the additional stigma of signifying a divine curse that the Torah pronounced on evildoers and apostates: "a hanged man is accursed by God" (Deut 21:23).  To publicly claim that God had raised from the dead a crucified man exposed Christians to ridicule and shame.  The very notion of a crucified Messiah was a contradiction of terms and scandalously offensive to Jews.  The shame associated with Jesus' crucifixion was deeply felt by the earliest Christians, despite their confidence in the reality of his resurrection.  It so shamed some Christian Jews that they sought to compel Gentile converts to adopt Judaism, hoping that by such compensation “the scandal of the cross is removed” (Gal 5:11; 6:12).

To many of the witnesses' contemporaries the resurrection testimony was deemed so credible as to powerfully offset the scandal of the cross.

So the charge that as a hoax some Jews concocted the claim of Jesus' resurrection is more incredible than the Easter claim itself might seem to be.  As a former foe of the resurrection faith, Paul well understood that if God had not raised the crucified Jesus from the dead, then to proclaim that this had happened was to blaspheme, to bear “false witness against God" (1 Cor 15:15).  For Jews to foster a hoax of this nature would be very serious, especially since Jesus had died as one accursed by the Law.  The authenticity of the witnesses' bold claims to have seen Jesus supernaturally alive matches the gravity of his crucifixion as an apostate.

Unfortunately, the public scandal associated with crucifixion in the Roman era was later lost sight of altogether in Christendom and is unrecognized today by Christians no less than by non-believers.  Such an oversight has impoverished not only the church's theology but also its witness to the reality of Jesus' resurrection.  For given the extreme scandal of the cross within both Judaism and the Roman world, the proposition that Jesus' disciples either fabricated his resurrection appearances or hallucinated the sightings is implausible to the point of being ludicrous.

In view of the psychological obstacle of Jesus' crucifixion, it is amazing that any of their contemporaries believed the Easter witnesses at all.  Its stigma would deter not only the educated; the lower classes who had no rights would be most revulsed by his manner of death, for such a fate could befall them more easily than others in society.  Evidently the testimony to Jesus' resurrection was deemed so credible as to powerfully offset the scandal of the cross.

Paul was formerly a hostile witness, predisposed against the resurrection faith.  No opposition literature has survived from the generation of possible eyewitnesses, although the Christian movement soon became a significant threat to Judaism.  As far away as the imperial city, there was such strife among Jews over the Christian claim of Jesus' resurrection that in AD 49 the emperor Claudius expelled the Jewish community from Rome.[13]  Despite our lack of opposition literature from the first generation, the arguments that Jews and Gentiles used against the resurrection faith can be drawn from other sources, some of later date.

However, at least one-fifth of our New Testament was written by a man who not only claimed to be an eyewitness of the risen Jesus but had previously persecuted the Christian movement from the outset.[14]  Paul, formerly Saul the Pharisee, openly confessed that he had violently opposed the resurrection faith (Gal 1:11-14,23; Phil 3:4-7; 1 Cor 15:8-9).[15]  His conversion is dated c. AD 33, so within three years of Jesus' crucifixion−at the earliest stage of the movement−the Easter testimony possessed credibility sufficient to warrant suppression from its opponents.  Paul was undoubtedly acquainted with the arguments that Jews in Palestine had mustered against Jesus' resurrection, and it can be safely assumed that he himself had once utilized them.  So the fact that a sworn enemy who had sought to exterminate the Easter faith should now attest to an appearance of the risen Christ is as valuable a testimony as an historian could want to find.

Attempts to explain Paul's conversion from persecuting Pharisee to apostle of a crucified Messiah on the ground of preconditioning or wish-fulfillment utterly fail.  Psychologically and socially, he had nothing to gain and everything to lose by taking such a course.  For this Pharisee had been blameless in his observance of the Torah, gaining in social stature, and in devotion to Judaism surpassing his peers.  To him the Law was the divine criterion of reality Paul was so committed to the Jewish Bible that he set out to exterminate the Easter community, for its claim that God had raised from the dead this crucified apostate would undermine the Torah by which Jesus was accursed.[16]  It was precisely because Jesus' resurrection challenged the Torah's authority that Paul so zealously persecuted the Christian movement.

Suddenly and unexpectedly, the church's persecutor embraced the resurrection faith and began proclaiming that Jesus is the risen Messiah.  This Pharisee repudiated the Torah, that which had defined his very identity; in its place the scandal of the crucified Jesus now marked his new identity (Gal 2:19-21; 6:14-17).  In so doing Paul forfeited his blameless "righteousness under the Law,” the full assurance of salvation provided through Judaism.  His apostasy also excluded him from his heritage and exposed him to the persecution to which he had formerly subjected others (Phil 3:2-11; Gal 5:11).  Social gain?  Wish-fulfillment?  Hardly so in the case of Paul.

Of course, the world has no lack of fanatics who will risk all for their religion.  But such cases can be accounted for by the subject's prior conditioning.  Apart from the risen Christ's appearance to him, however, Paul’s conversion continues to defy  explanation.  Unfortunately this fact has been long obscured by western orthodoxy.  Pulpiteers have given us an almost romantic account of the conversion of Paul, who is recast as the prototype of Augustine and Luther.  According to Protestant legend, the apostle had been a troubled soul groaning under the burden of Jewish "legalism," unable to attain by self-effort the lofty piety for which he longed.  His introspective quest for serenity was fulfilled when, lo and behold, on the Damascus Road he discovered by passively trusting in Christ's merits that he no longer needed to earn God’s favor.

Paul's former hostility to the Christian faith firmly establishes the credibility of his testimony to an appearance of the risen Jesus.

New Testament scholars are now recognizing such an account of the apostle's conversion to be a pious fantasy, a Christian distortion of Judaism, and that Augustine's and Luther's concerns were alien to Paul.  At the time of his own conversion, Augustine had long been wishing to abandon a carnal lifestyle that displeased his mother, and the outcome of that psychological conflict was his adoption of a piety contemptuous of human existence.  A millennium later, Luther was a monk who had taken Augustine's theology to heart and felt guilty about being human.  Longing for freedom from a troubled conscience, Luther gained the relief he sought by finding in his Bible proof-texts that indicate God's justice is not only punitive but salvific and merciful.  In the cases of both Augustine and Luther, the turning point of their religious experience came when they found what they had been looking for all along.  By contrast, at the time of his conversion Paul had been an upwardly mobile Pharisee, spiritually and socially content, and like other Jews, fully assured of Gods approval.[17]  Far from seeking what the Christian sect might have to offer, this man could not have been more averse to it.  The resurrected Jesus was the last person the persecutor wanted to see!

Yet Paul himself does not make his earlier opposition to the resurrection faith an argument for his credibility as a witness of the risen Christ.  He cites his former zeal for the Torah and his persecution of the church only to highlight (1) God's grace toward him and (2) his personal knowledge that the resurrection faith has supplanted Judaism as the new identity of God's people.[18]  Had Paul cited his former hostility to the faith to show his credibility as witness to an appearance of the risen Christ, that would certainly be a valid argument; he does not however employ it, not even in 1 Cor 15:1-11 where it would have well served his point.  The fact that Paul does not make use of that argument attests strongly to the authenticity of his claim.

Paul's testimony as a former hostile witness and enemy of the resurrection faith carries as much weight as would the testimonies of Caiaphas and Pilate themselves.  And his conversion decisively refutes the notions that the resurrection appearances were a hoax or the product of wishful thinking.

The Easter testimony admits that Jesus' resurrection is almost unbelievable.  The New Testament's bold affirmation of Christ's resurrection stands in sharper relief when we consider that this is tempered by the admission that the Easter event is so extraordinary as to be almost incredible.

The earliest Christians well knew that resurrections don't occur in our world.  They were fully aware that people die, corpses decay, and the dead do not return to life.  The fact that the disciples initially disbelieved the reports of Jesus' resurrection and even the appearances is to their credit−a healthy, normal skepticism, an authentic reaction.  The NT Gospels also say that Jesus foretold his resurrection but his disciples had dismissed those claims.[19]  In so doing they acknowledge the difficulty of believing that such an event would occur or had occurred.  The earliest believers took quite seriously the fact that dead people do not rise.

In addition to the fact that resurrection contradicts common human experience, the gospel encountered religious and philosophical obstacles as well.  Regarding Jesus' resurrection the author of Acts cites from Israel's scripture: “Behold, you scoffers, wonder, and perish; for [God does] a deed in your days, a deed you will never believe, if one declares it to you" (13:41; quoting Hab 1:5).  Because Jesus had been crucified as one condemned by the Torah, devout Jews found it too much to believe that God would resurrect this particular man.[20]  And Greeks whose philosophy deemed the human body a corpse imprisoning the soul found the very notion of resurrection preposterous; surely God would not affirm the body by raising anyone from the dead![21]   At Athens "when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked; but others said, 'We will hear you again about this'" (Acts 17:32).  While knowing it to be factual, earliest Christianity understood that the resurrection was difficult to accept.

Contrast this with much of the Christian region today, which no longer marvels at Jesus' resurrection.  Now Christians generally are unaware of the evidence and many assume that the evidence is irrelevant.  His resurrection is presumed because it is the nth article of the creed, or because the Bible says so, or because "he lives within my heart."  On the scale of the wondrous, among some charismatics Christ's resurrection ranks just a bit higher than a leg-lengthening.  To the church in our day Jesus' resurrection is no more a surprising, extraordinary event.  A prevalent notion is that "of course Jesus rose from the dead, for God can do anything.”  Today the "strong" Christian does not appreciate the incredibleness of the Easter event, but regards a questioning of it as stubborn resistance to that which is manifestly obvious.  The fundamentalist spirit dares not to even acknowledge the difficulty,[22]  Where doubt is disallowed, superstition speaketh piously.

But earliest Christianity affirmed both the incredibleness of Jesus' resurrection and the factuality of this event.  The New Testament writers welcomed scrutiny of the witnesses' testimony (cf. 1 Cor 15:6), confident in the knowledge that its beginning "did not happen in a corner" (Acts 26:26) and that Jesus "presented himself alive after his passion by many proofs" (Acts 1:3).

With such weighty evidence in mind, let us now consider the alternative scenarios that purport to discredit the Easter claims.

Challenges to the Witnesses’ Credibility

Allegations of a hoax.  From earliest times the gospel's opponents alleged that the Easter event was a hoax.  The rabbis claimed that Jesus was a sorcerer and a deceiver, and Matt 28:11-15 reports that immediately after the resurrection the rumor began circulating in Judaism that the disciples had stolen his corpse.[23]

Their contemporaries’ charge of body snatching concedes that Jesus' tomb was both known and found empty; his followers had not gone to the wrong sepulchreBut people do not subject themselves to scandalous reproach, risk their lives and ultimately die to knowingly foster a hoax.  The witnesses were faithful Jews, and Paul admits that if false the resurrection testimony would be blasphemy against God.  To Judaism, Jesus had died under a divine curse as an evildoer; because of the scandal associated with crucifixion it is unthinkable that anyone would even believe, such a hoax, much less that a Jew would concoct it.  And were it a hoax, the earliest Christians would not fabricate the female testimony we find in the Gospels, for in Judaism women had no credibility as witnesses.

The sincerity of the witnesses' belief that Jesus has risen is also attested by the way this testimony radically changed their own lives.  This observation is not the old axiom that regular church attendance prompts people to behave nicely (as the cross of Christ shows, often religion has the opposite effect).  Rather, the witnesses lived by the specific belief that God had raised Jesus from the dead.  They acted out what such a faith entailed; for their testimony to Jesus' resurrection Peter, Paul and other primary witnesses suffered martyrdom.  Their manifest sincerity to the point of death refutes the allegation of a hoax.

People do not subject themselves to scandalous reproach, risk their lives and ultimately die to knowingly foster a hoax.

A variation of the hoax scenario is the swoon theory.  The swoon theory alleges that Jesus did not die from his crucifixion but lapsed into a coma, revived after burial, emerged from the tomb, and−and somehow his followers concluded that he had immortally risen from the dead.  Like the allegation that the disciples had stolen Jesus' body, the swoon theory existed from earliest times and has periodically resurfaced.[24]  The first allusion to it appears in the Gospel of Mark, which uniquely reports that the presiding centurion verified to Pilate that Jesus had died (15:44-45); satisfied that Jesus was indeed dead, Pilate then released the corpse[25] to Joseph for burial.   Apparently Mark cites the Romans' verification of Christ's  death to counter an allegation that Jesus was seen alive again because he had managed to survive the crucifixion.  This indicates the reported sightings bore such credibility among the witnesses' contemporaries that their opponents found it necessary to propose another explanation.

Independent of Mark's brief response to the swoon theory, the Gospel of John unwittingly presents medical evidence of Jesus' death on the cross.  John 19:31-34 reports that finding him already dead the Roman soldiers did not break Jesus' legs (to hasten asphyxiation), a procedure they used on the men crucified with him.  But for good measure one of them "pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water.”  The claim is then presented as John's eyewitness testimony that Jewish scriptures were “fulfilled” by the piercing of Jesus’ corpse and by the fact that his bones were not broken (vv 35-37).  The fourth Gospel's concern here is clearly not medical evidence but theological.  Nonetheless, the incidental reference to "blood and water" exiting from the spear wound demonstrates that in the main arteries massive clotting had already occurred, causing separation of the blood into clots and watery serum.  Despite the author's indifference to the medical significance of this testimony, the Gospel of John thus provides us confirmatory evidence of Jesus' death.

Still, the swoon theory collapses even if Jesus had fallen into a coma and later resuscitated.  For it is incomprehensible that the resurrection faith would evolve from the macabre sight of a revived crucifixion victim.  Against the weight of evidence, the swoon theory must assume that the witnesses were predisposed to make such a quantum leap.  Furthermore, it fails to take account of the formidable scandal of the cross.  And it leaves inexplicable Paul's radical conversion a few years later.

Actually, the very existence of the swoon theory attests to the credibility of the testimony, for it concedes as factual that after his crucifixion and burial the eyewitnesses saw Jesus bodily alive.  It thus belies the other hoax theory, the allegation that the corpse was stolen.  The swoon theory may also concede that the witnesses were sincere in their complicity while attributing the hoax to Jesus and perhaps others.  Like the allegation that the disciples stole the body, the swoon theory acknowledges that Jesus' tomb was both known and found vacant.

Far from discrediting the Easter testimony, these allegations of a hoax highlight its authenticity.

Hallucinations.  The assertion that the witnesses experienced subjective visions of Jesus after his death is the other major attempt to explain the origin of the resurrection testimony.  These subjective visions, it is alleged, were caused by and fulfilled the witnesses' expectation or desire to see Jesus alive again.  In short, since these visions were not perceptions of objective reality, they belong to the category of hallucinatory experiences.

This theory concedes the witnesses' sincerity but misrepresents or ignores the content of their claim.  The testimony of the witnesses was not that they had visions of Jesus but that they saw him bodily alive, that he was objectively there, that in his risen state they touched him and ate with him.[26]  Furthermore, the testimony is that the series of resurrection appearances was of limited duration and eventually ceased, and our earliest source distinguished those physical encounters from the most vivid of subjective visions.[27]

The hallucination theory concedes the witnesses' sincerity but ignores or misrepresents the content of their claim.

The hallucination theory's premise that the witnesses saw what they wished or were conditioned to see is undercut by the fact that Jesus' resurrection was so contrary to their expectations.  Pagan myths about dying and rising gods are sometimes cited as providing a precedent for the Easter claims, but such parallels are at best remote and not even pertinent as the witnesses were monotheistic Jews in Palestine.  Furthermore, Judaism did not expect a crucified Messiah accursed by the Torah, nor that prior to the end of the age a messianic figure would rise from the dead before all others.  Again, the disciples abandoned Jesus, fled in despair at his crucifixion, and disbelieved when he appeared.  And at the time of Christ's appearance to him, Paul was trying to exterminate Christianity because he knew that the resurrection faith undermined Judaism.  Such persons were not predisposed to hallucinate these phenomenal appearances nor is there any evidence that they had been prone to visions at all.

Furthermore, it is well known that hallucinations are experienced by individuals, not collectively by a group.  Yet the Easter testimony is that on several occasions, both to individuals and to groups, the risen Jesus showed himself alive; this does not fit the criteria of hallucinations.  The fact that the phenomena occurred at different times, to different people in different circumstances and places makes it implausible that the appearances were the product of an emotional chain reaction.

Finally, their claim to have objectively witnessed the resurrection appearances would be immediately refuted if their adversaries presented Jesus' corpse.[28]  Against the hallucination theory, then, stands also the fact of the empty tomb.

*     *     *

The attempts of these hoax and hallucination theories to account for the Easter claims are highly implausible.  Their specific allegations of fraud or delusion are unsubstantiated, undermined by the historical evidence, and mutually contradictory.  Ironically, one or more of those scenarios concede (1) the fact of the empty tomb, (2) the sincerity of the witnesses' claims to have seen the risen Jesus, or even that (3) Jesus was indeed seen bodily alive after his burial.

By contrast, the evidence upholds the credibility of the eyewitness testimony.  No other scenario interprets this evidence in a way that can account for the origin of the primitive Christian faith.  The Easter testimony is well-founded and worthy of critical acceptance.  That testimony can be rejected only if one prejudges the event as simply impossible, regardless of the evidence.  Extraordinary though it is, the only plausible explanation is that the witnesses did in fact see Jesus phenomenally alive after his death and entombment.   That conclusion is an historical judgment, not a leap of faith.

For Further Reading

James D. G. Dunn, The Evidence for Jesus (Westminster Press, 1985); Gerald O'Collins, Jesus Risen, (Paulist Press, 1987).

Evangelica
P.O. Box 61222
Pasadena, CA 91106


[1] See 'Foundations of the Resurrection Faith," Evangelica Profile (vol. 5 no. 1), on the resurrection appearances and the empty tomb, the basic significance of those claims, and the distinction between historical judgment and theological meaning ("faith”).

[2] The empty tomb was acknowledged by the early Jewish claim that the disciples stole Jesus' body and by the swoon theory's allegation that .Jesus did not die from crucifixion but revived after burial.  According to the Jewish scholar Geza Vermes, after examining all the evidence “the only conclusion acceptable to the historian” must be that Jesus' tomb was indeed found empty (Jesus the Jew, Collins, 1973, p. 41).

[3] On the early date of the primitive testimony preserved in I Cor 15:3-11,  see “Foundations of the Resurrection Faith," pp. 2-3.

[4] On the early date of the primitive testimony preserved in I Cor 15:3-11,  see “Foundations of the Resurrection Faith," pp. 2-3.

[5] Acts 2:22-:36; 3:13-26; 4:10; 5:30-32; 10:36-43; 13:26-41.

[6] An exception may be the curious addition to the passion narrative in Matt 27:52-53, which uniquely claims that others too were raised after Jesus' resurrection.  However, even that remained separate from Matthew's resurrection narrative.

[7] Mark 16:1-8; Matt 28;1-9; Luke 24:1-11; John 20:1-2,11-18.

[8] See the rabbinic Siphre on Deuteronomy, 190.

[9] Contrast Paul's affirmation of the ministries of three women in Rom 16:1-6.

[10] On the social significance of this method of execution see Martin Hengel, Crucifixion (Fortress Press, 1977).

[11] Josephus, Jewish Wars, 7.203.

[12] Tacitus, Annals, 15.4.

[13] Acts 18:2; Suetonius, The Life of Claudius, 25.4. Apparently misunderstanding the dispute, about AD 120 Suetonius records that the Jewish riots at Rome were actually “incited by Chrestus'(= Christ).

[14] Paul's prior hostility to the Christian movement is not challenged by critical scholarship.

[15] Cf. also Act.s 8:3; 9:1-5, 21; 22:3-8, 19-20; 26:4-15.

[16] That this was Paul's motivation for persecuting the church is reflected in Gal 1:1, 11-16; 2:16-3:1,13; 5:11; 6:12-17; Phil 3:2-11; I Cor 15:14-15; Rom 7:4.  Some Jewish believers like Stephen (Acts 6:11-14) had earlier discerned that Jesus' resurrection challenged the Torah's authority, but many Christian Jews tended to overlook that implication.

[17] Scholars now realize that Rom 7:7-25 is not an autobiographical sketch of the apostle's state of mind prior to his conversion.  Its anguished cry, 'Wretched man that I am!  Who will deliver me from the body of this death?' caricatures the plight of the faithful Jew who delights in the Torah as the divinely-revealed way to the future life.  For against that premise Paul has cleverly argued that the survival instinct renders impossible the fulfillment of the tenth commandment, which he radicalizes as forbidding all “desire." The rhetorical “I" of Rom 7 does not negate Paul's personal confessions in Gal 1 and Phil 3 of his pre-Christian satisfaction with Judaism.

[18] I Cor 15:8-10; Gal 1:11-17; Phil 3:2-11; cf. I Tim 1:12-16; Acts 26:2-23.

[19] Mark 8:.31 ff.; 9:9ff.; 10:33C and parallels; John 2:19-22.

[20] Acts 26:8 is a rhetorical question based on Judaism's premises, challenging Jewish prejudice against Jesus' resurrection.

[21] It was to correct to such misgivings among Christians at Corinth that Paul wrote I Cor 15:35-50, deducing from the appearances of the risen Christ that the resurrected body is vastly superior to that which is mortal and corrupted by death.

[22] Ironically, the position of a non-Christian who doubts that Jesus is risen on the grounds that .we do not see resurrections occurring is nearer to the NT perspective than the “faith” of a Christian who does not marvel at the anomaly of the resurrection.  Though myopic, the former takes objective reality and the Easter event more seriously than does the latter.

[23] This accusation against Jesus is found in Sanhedrin 43a; Matt 12:24; 27:62-66.  The charge that the disciples stole the body is repeated by the Jew Trypho in Justin Martyr's Dialogue With Trypho (108) and expressed later in Toledoth Yeshu.

[24] A modern rendition of this theory was Hugh Schonfield's The Passover Plot

[25] The intent of 15:44-45 is further confirmed by Mark's use of the Greek word for "corpse” here, not “body” (KJV, RSV, NIV et al),

[26] Acts 10:40-41; I John 1:1-3; Matt 28:9; Luke 24:36-42; John 20:24-27; 21:1-14.

[27] In I Cor 15:8 Paul claims that he witnessed the last of Christ’s resurrection appearances, whereas in 2 Cor 12:1ff. he refers to subjective visions that he experienced several years after that objective appearance.

[28] During the initial period the identity of the corpse (if presented) could have been ascertained, if even from the distinctive wounds.

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