The Resurrection Probability

The celebration of the resurrection of Jesus will take place for many this Sunday. For most people these days, it is more-or-less a cultural event. I don’t necessarily mean they deny that the resurrection happened, but that they believe it based on their family and church affiliations, rather than as a result of their own serious consideration of the issue. Sometimes those who do contemplate and ask the hard questions are simply told to accept the claims of the celebration “by faith.” Faith then becomes little more than a blind leap of faith. But faith is not supposed to be a “blind leap.” It really is a step taken based on what we know from the past to be true. We have faith the “sun will rise” tomorrow, based on it having done so every day in the past. We step on an elevator with every confidence (faith) that it will take us to the floor we requested based on past experience. Other life occurrences are rare or even singular events. Assassinations of US Presidents while in office is rare – it has only happened four times in our history. The beginning of the universe happened only once in all of history. There was nothing and then there was something! The creation event itself is not “normative” – it is not reproducible and so not scientifically testable. We can’t even come up with a statistical probability of the universe coming into existence. Since it only happened once, there is nothing to measure it by. Therefore, we must reach our conclusion about this event based on other questions and criteria. I like the statement in the instructions of the online quiz Historical Improbabilities:

You can view history as an inevitable progression of events—or you can see it as a kaleidoscope of strange details and small surprises.

Some of you may have been following the bit of discussion Gary and I have been having on the blog from 2 weeks ago, Response to an Agnostic. Gary’s comment posted on March 22 posits two stories, one which follows the biblical account which has historically been held as true and the other which proposes the birth and development of a myth and then asks:

Which of the above two stories about Jesus is much more probable to be true?

That is an interesting question. There is no evidence for the second story but is invented mostly in the minds of The Jesus Seminar, Bart Ehrman and others and is based largely on a foundational belief that the resurrection didn’t happen. From that belief, assertions of late dating of the New Testament are made. Late dating is necessary order to have enough time for the “Jesus myth” to evolve. As I have mentioned in previous posts, I have written on this in Interrupting Ehrman

MCOI was part of the team that put together the “Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up? William Lane Craig vs. John Dominic Crossan” debate in 1995. On the way from the airport to the debate location, my friend, who was driving Dr Crossan, discussed with him his views of the events following the crucifixion. Crossan agreed that the crucifixion had happened and that Jesus was taken down from the cross on the day which Scripture indicates, but that the body of Jesus “was buried in a shallow grave and eaten by dogs.” This view have been stated by Crossan in radio interviews and his writings as well. When asked what evidence he had for this view, he said he had none but he believed it just the same.

On a different occasion another friend, the late Bob Passantino, met with the co-founder of The Jesus Seminar, Marcus Borg, at a book signing. Bob had an opportunity to talk with Borg, and noted that Borg denies the resurrection and believes the Scriptures to be about a myth which grew up around a person named Jesus. Borg agreed that Bob’s assessment of his position was correct. Bob then asked him a question. What if someone, say a person like Jesus, did live, was crucified and then was raised from the dead three days later – what would a historical account of that look like? Borg stared out the window for a few moments as he contemplated his response and then to Bob’s surprise, as well as the others who were in line waiting to have their book signed, he said, “It would probably look at lot like the New Testament.”

We have addressed the musings of The Jesus Seminar and Crossan in particular in The Hysterical Search for the Historical Jesus. To be sure, they have a story they prefer, but it is not a story that is provable. It is based largely on assumptions and assertions, but is not really the stuff of scholarly rigor. The fanciful tale of Gary, Ehrman and the Jesus Seminar is outlined in Gary’s remarks:

…and forty years later, after Jerusalem has been destroyed and most of the disciples are dead, a Greek speaking Christian in Rome writes down the story of Jesus. However, the version of the oral story that this man hears circulating in Rome tells of an empty tomb, the tomb of a member of the Sanhedrin, …so “Mark” writes down the story.

How would I address this in short form, a sort or Reader’s Digest explanation of why I believe in the resurrection? As I point out in Interrupting Ehrman I generally like to start with the Book of Acts, as we can figure out when most of the New Testament was written through the events Dr. Luke records in that book. But an important element is that the early believers remained in Jerusalem, the very place where the crucifixion and resurrection occurred, as the headquarters of the church for 8-10 years. Israel’s leaders in Jerusalem never embraced the Messiah and eventually began a persecution of believers which scattered many of the followers of “The Way.” (Acts 8:1). What is important is what the early followers believed and taught in Jerusalem in those very early years. We have an early church creed quoted by the Apostle Paul in text of 1 Corinthians 15:1-8:

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers 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 to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.

The creed (1 Cor. 15:3b-7) was something Paul received earlier and as we track it back in time, we find it was being used in the mid to late 30s. It takes time to develop a creed (statement of belief) because there is first “a need for a creed” before one is developed. Creeds are developed in response to opposition, to clarify an already held doctrine and give the believer an easy way to remember it. Most scholars agree that the process takes about 3-5 years. Paul authored 1 Corinthians around 56 AD. He is quoting a creed he received earlier, perhaps 10-15 years earlier. That puts us within 3-5 years of the resurrection event. Not nearly enough time for the supposed “Jesus Myth” Gary’s story to develop.

Given enough time, denying the claims of history becomes easier. Eyewitnesses are dead, places referred to can be difficult to find, and claims of “doctoring the evidence” becomes easier to allege by those who want to deny what has been long held as historically true. In our day, we regularly see this with holocaust deniers. The holocaust was not denied right after it occurred. But after some decades had passed, people who did not want to believe it simply denied that it had occurred! They claimed that eyewitness accounts were mere fabrications, or extreme exaggerations at the least. The photos or films taken at the time are now scoffed at as “Hollywood hype,” and the deniers “know” that Hollywood is supposedly controlled by Jews. Many holocaust deniers I have met are well educated (some PhDs), and nice people but I have a difficult time taking them seriously when they take this position. In a similar way I have found that “Gary” has been respectful in tone, and I do not personally dislike John Dominic Crossan. He seems kindly and has a great accent. As for Bart Ehrman, he and I have a fair amount in common and I find him engaging. But, as with the Holocaust deniers, I am hard pressed to find any credibility in their attempts to deny the resurrection. So, with the First Century believers, I leave you with the words that highlight this week:

He is Risen! Your response? He has risen indeed!


Comments

The Resurrection Probability — 2 Comments

  1. I was pleasently surprised, but also inspired by this article. There are several “talking points” that are obvious, yet it never occured to me to use them. Thank you for your mission. By the way, He IS Risen, He is risen indeed!

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