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Are resurrection reports biased storytelling or reliable eyewitness testimony?

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Part 2 of 8 in a series of articles by Derek Caldwell on the resurrection. Published March 28, 2024

There are a lot of religions with a lot of old books making a lot of claims that can’t be falsified. Nonetheless, we are justified in rejecting them as historically accurate tales of reality. Is the New Testament one of these books? Is it just another religious text trying to tell us what the “ultimate truth” is? Is it just one more mythology that we are being asked to accept uncritically? Well, let me just say this: if it is, I don’t want any part of it. But it isn’t. 

First, and perhaps this is more of a pet peeve, but one thing we should try to get out of the habit of is thinking that ancient people were just ignorant, uncritically thinking people willing to believe whatever was presented to them as miraculous. They were not. As history shows us, a lot of people did not believe in the resurrection when they were told about it. If they did, they would have become Christians, instead of considering the whole story foolish. Some of those early Christians, like Thomas, had to touch Christ’s wounds in order to believe it was Jesus. Peter and John ran to the tomb to verify the report of the women who said Jesus had risen from the grave. In other words, it was so unbelievable that they had to see it with their own eyes. And I, for one, don’t think it is all that crazy or all that uncritical to believe in resurrection once you see and touch and interact with a once-dead man multiple times over a period of forty days. It sounds to me like that would just be accepting the empirical evidence before you. And it would also not be all that ridiculous to believe in people who told you they saw that resurrected man, which will, I hope, be made apparent throughout this article.

Second, the New Testament is not a collection of writings from a mythical, prehistoric past. It is a collection of ancient biographies and letters written within about sixty years of the events they portray. Now, some of those writings, like the writings of James and Paul, were written very early on, within ten to twenty years after Christ’s resurrection, and they contain elements in them that reach back to just a few years (or sooner) after. For example, as Gary Habermas has shown, the information that Paul recounts in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 (penned around AD 55) must have been received by Paul from Peter and James (both eyewitnesses) around AD 34 or 36. “This follows the well-known Jewish practice,” Habermas explains, “of insuring doctrinal and pastoral continuity by reproducing faithful teaching.”1 The Gospels weren’t written immediately after the resurrection, but there is no disagreement between the earliest writings we do have (which, as just shown, contain information in them that must have been believed almost very shortly after Jesus’s crucifixion and death) and the slightly later Gospels that would be written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.2 Compared to other ancient biographies, the length of time between the events and the written Gospels is not unheard of. In fact, this gap is quite short and remarkable for the time. One oft-cited example is of Alexander the Great, whose biographies—largely considered reliable historical witnesses—were written at least four hundred years after his death.3 But he’s not the only one: the major sources informing Caesar Augustus’s biography for us come from a funerary inscription,4 Plutarch’s writings ninety years later, and four biographies written one hundred to two hundred years after the fact. Compare this data for Rome’s greatest emperor with that of Jesus, who had four biographies written within 35 to 65 years after his death! While biographies are the main sources of details pertaining to both Augustus’s and Jesus’s lives, there are other sources for both that are closer, like Paterculus’s mention of Augustus written within twenty years of his death, which is analogous to the writings of Paul for Jesus.5 If these gaps don’t bother us elsewhere, why should they bother us here? 

Third, some may be questioning if we can trust the writings of people who believed in Jesus. Aren’t they too biased to be taken as historical records? It should be noted that there are many ancient biographies we take as largely historical now, even though they were written by followers of the person in question. I was once in a dialogue with a skeptic about the New Testament’s reliability and that, to the point made in the last paragraph, if we trust other biographies written centuries after the fact, then there is no reason to discount the New Testament as a reliable historical document. This particular skeptic agreed with the dating of critical scholars who believe the Gospels were written much later in the first century. I think there are very good reasons to disagree with this, but let’s concede the point for the moment just to see the larger issue here. I had brought up the example of Alexander the Great to the skeptic, which he said wasn’t quite right. He happened to be a big fan of Alexander and had many of his biographies. He argued that, in fact, Alexander the Great’s earliest biographies, while written centuries after his life, could be trusted because they were based on the notes of people who knew or served under Alexander. How interesting, I thought. In attempting to refute the idea that a biography written further away from the subject’s lifetime could still be reliable, he had essentially admitted that people close to the subject, even sycophants, could write reliable history. And yet here is where the Christian is told they are in a bit of a Catch-22.6 

But before we get to the Catch-22, a word on the transmission of data about Jesus in between the events and the writing down of the events is in order here. What we have for the earliest sources of Jesus’s life are the documents of the New Testament. But, as already discussed, there are clues even in these documents that there were very early formulations of core truths meant for memorization and evangelization. There may have even been what scholars have called “Q,” an early collection of Jesus’s sayings compiled at least before Matthew and Luke.7 Interestingly, according to James DG Dunn, this supposed Q has a marked affinity for Galilean narratives, and there doesn’t appear to be any passion narrative in it. Since we know that the resurrection is one of the earliest beliefs of Christianity, then Dunn suggests that “the Q material first emerged in Galilee and was given its lasting shape there prior to Jesus’ death in Jerusalem.”8 Whatever the case may be, we see that in a variety of ways, the early Jesus people were spreading the good news of the gospel, whether through written letters, preaching, new catchy hymns and phrases, and other types of oral transmission. 

As moderns, when we hear about the “oral transmission” of some of this information, we can’t help but to shudder at the thought. In reality, though, it isn’t quite what we have in mind. When most people think of “oral transmission” of stories, they think of the oral transmission of myths and folk tales over hundreds of years in some sort of wild game of telephone. But that’s not at all what oral transmission is. Kenneth Bailey spoke of oral tradition as “informal controlled oral tradition” as the type of oral culture in ancient Palestine where there may be some flexibility in stories, but also a stable core maintained and remembered.9 Dunn posited that in oral tradition “we find a characteristic combination of stability and diversity, of fixity and flexibility.”10 Moreover, at the time of the transmission of these gospel stories, you still have apostles and other eyewitnesses around to help maintain the stable core. We actually see this in action with Paul, who in an effort to maintain the truth of the matter, verified his teaching in Jerusalem with James, Peter, and John (Gal. 2:1-10). And we must recall that this was not a game of Telephone, where only one person had the real message and whispered it in hopes that its content was obscured for comedic effect by other people. Rather, it was repeated aloud and often by the very people who lived it. And we mustn’t overlook the vast differences in culture as well. Moderns find oral transmission so unfathomable because our need for memory recall has been so lessened—and therefore weakened—by the advent of the printing press and easy access to books. As Birger Gerhardsson explained, in the West it is an incredibly recent phenomenon in which “the memory has been effectively unloaded into books. Not until our own day have we learned to accept a form of education which to a great extent consists of being able to find the material which is required in the right books, without needing to carry it all in the memory.” Gerhardsson called this revolution “the dethronement of memory.”11

Because of these considerations, some New Testament scholars believe we aren’t really talking about “oral transmission” at all, even if we date the writing of the Gospels a little later than more conservative scholars would. As renowned New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham explains, “The Gospels were written within living memory of the events they recount. Mark’s Gospel12 was written well within the lifetime of many of the eyewitnesses, while the other three canonical Gospels were written in the period when living eyewitnesses were becoming scarce, exactly at that point in time when their testimony would perish with them were it not put in writing. This is a highly significant fact, entailed not by unusually early datings of the Gospels but by the generally accepted ones.”13 The significance of this fact is striking:

If…the period between the “historical” Jesus and the Gospels was actually spanned, not by anonymous community transmission, but by the continuing presence and testimony of the eyewitnesses, who remained the authoritative sources of their traditions until their deaths, then the usual ways of thinking of oral tradition are not appropriate at all. … So, in imagining how the traditions reached the Gospel writers, not oral tradition but eyewitness testimony should be our principal model.14

And now back to the Catch-22. 

We do have records of people talking about Jesus who were not Christians, but it takes about 75 to 100 years for that to begin. That shouldn’t be a concern: Other than people who really liked you for some reason, or unless you were considered a major world figure at the time, no one would else would write about you (in a way that was meant to last, at least) in the ancient world. That might change, of course, if you became a bigger deal later, or you or your followers had started causing a ruckus. But the Catch-22 is this: People want a neutral voice, not a devoted follower of Jesus, who can give eyewitness testimony of the resurrection. If we had that, then perhaps a skeptic would consider it (allowing they heed the point above about ancients not being entirely gullible). However, the problem is that if someone were an eyewitness to the resurrected Jesus, then they most likely would have become a Christian! So, yes, you have no early non-Christians giving testimony about the resurrection. Instead, you have Christians saying they saw Him alive again. So, in effect, the witnessing of the resurrection resulted in the very thing that discounts someone as a reliable eyewitness to some skeptics today in that those witnesses became believers. But some of those early Christians—notably Paul, Peter, and Jesus’s brother James—had profound changes in perspective in order to become Christians. Two of them didn’t believe in Jesus’s mission at all when He was crucified. As a matter of fact, one of them would have been delighted to have heard that the crucifixion was a success. We’ll get into that more later.  

As it turns out, the apostles would have been considered the perfect people to have told the world about Jesus in the ancient world, which preferred to hear from non-detached observers. All that has been suggested here—that we allow these very close and very enthusiastic followers of Jesus to be heard as reliable witnesses—was actually once the normal, acceptable, and preferred method of hearing a story. Intriguingly, Bauckham highlights the work of Swedish scholar Samuel Byrskog, who discovered that “for Greek and Roman historians, the ideal eyewitness was not the dispassionate observer but one who, as a participant, had been closest to the events and whose direct experience enabled him to understand and interpret the significance of what he had seen.”15 Bauckham is right when he says, simply, “trusting testimony is not an irrational act of faith that leaves critical rationality aside; it is, on the contrary, the rationally appropriate way of responding to authentic testimony.”16 And this is truly authentic testimony in the Gospel accounts. There simply is no evidence of any radical change in the Jesus story between the death of Christ and the accounts in the Gospels. There is only evidence that the story maintained its integrity as it was passed along and recorded. The notion that states there must be legendary accretion is simply asserted by presupposition rather than observed in the witness of the early church itself.   

Given all that we have discussed in this small section, there is very little reason to not consider the New Testament a collection of reliable historical witnesses. Habermas and fellow scholar Michael Licona explain that historians look at five principles that satisfy historical requirements to be taken seriously as reliable historical documents: first, there are multiple sources independent of each other that attest to the historical claim; second, it is attested to by enemies of the event in question;17 third, the testimony includes embarrassing details about the witness that they would not wish to have known and they do not benefit from; fourth, eyewitnesses confirm what is known of the historical event; and fifth, earliest testimony confirms what is known of the historical event.18 The Gospels meet these requirements. That is not to say that you have to agree with the interpretation of events they portray. It is only to say that, at the very least, the New Testament is a collection of historical documents that depict what people truly believe they experienced and witnessed. Furthermore, it may only be our presuppositions (rather than the data) about whether miracles can happen, whether God exists, whether dead men can rise, or something else that would stop us from believing these accounts are depicting history accurately.19 

Derek Caldwell

Derek Caldwell

Derek Caldwell is researcher and content creator for Embrace the Truth.

References

1 Gary Habermas, “Tracing Jesus’ Resurrection to Its Earliest Eyewitness Accounts,” in William Lane Craig and Chad Meiester (eds.), God is Great, God is Good: Why Believing in God Is Reasonable and Responsible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 205.

2 There are several good reasons to believe that these are the authors of the Gospels, even though our manuscript copies do not have their names attached to them. Some of these reasons will be found in a forthcoming article on the reliability of the New Testament. However, until then, a brief word here may be helpful. Church tradition as far back as we can go associated these writings with the four authors mentioned here. There is little reason why these are names that would be fabricated. An accusation is often made that the early church gave the gospels these names later to increase their influence among a sea of alternative gospels. Yet, there is ample testimony that the “fourfold gospel” of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John exhibited the most influence very early on. Furthermore, while one could perhaps make the claim that John’s name was added to increase this Gospel’s influence, the authorship of John is affirmed by people very close in sequence to the Apostle himself, such as Irenaeus (who was a disciple of Polycarp, who himself was taught by John). One could possibly make a case that Matthew’s name was added because he, too, was an apostle and eyewitness. True enough, but if you are simply adding names to increase influence, why not choose a more influential apostle? And if the early church wanted to increase influence, and Matthew’s Gospel was one meant for Jewish believers, then why not put the name of an apostle who had not been a tax collector just to avoid the friction? Matthew is probably only considered a major apostle because of the Gospel that bears his name. Also, as it is well known, Mark was a co-laborer of the Apostle Peter, and early church testimony reports that Mark sought to replicate Peter’s testimony in his gospel account. I think that the early church would have been justified in calling this book “The Gospel of Peter” given this information, and yet it has always been known as the Gospel of Mark, a much less well-known and less influential person in the early church. Mark was not an apostle, and Peter was the Apostle of Apostles. Mark was also known for disappointing Paul (Acts 15:36-41), something that surely would have tarnished his reputation if anything, though they later reconciled (2 Timothy 4:11). Likewise, Luke was not an apostle, but a traveling companion of Paul. Luke also includes a lot of information about Mary in his account that is not included elsewhere. I could see the early church, if they were interested in simply putting influential names on these early Jesus biographies, calling this “The Gospel of Mary,” or even “The Gospel of Paul,” who could have been said to have learned his information directly from apostles, eyewitnesses, and revelation from the Lord. Or why not just slap on the name of any other apostle, like Simon the Zealot or Thomas? Thomas might have been a good candidate since this gospel appears to be investigative, and Thomas is noted for his desire for certainty in spiritual matters. And yet, they went with Luke, a Gentile traveling companion. Interestingly, in the second century and beyond you begin to see the rise of apocryphal gospels, written after the death of all of the apostles and other influential early leaders, yet attributed to them. Here you can find the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Judas, the Gospel of Thomas, and the Gospel of Mary, just to name a few. So, while certain gnostic sects may have been applying important names to their writings in order to increase their influence, it seems like the early church was doing the opposite. When they had a chance to legitimately call something, say, the Gospel of Peter, they instead called it by the one who penned the actual words: Mark. The contrast brings clarity, and correction, to the accusation leveled against the early church.

3 Craig Blomberg in Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998), 33.

4 Propaganda allegedly written by Augustus himself. The title of this piece, Res Gestae Divi Augusti, means “The Achievements of the Divine Augustus.” 

5 Michael Licona, “Fish Tales: Bart Ehrman’s Red Herrings and the Resurrection of Jesus,” in Paul Copan and William Lane Craig, Come Let Us Reason (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2012), 143.

6 For those unfamiliar with this phrase, a catch-22 situation is one in which the solution to the problem is inherently prohibited by the problem itself. A common example is when you try to get a job in order to gain experience, and yet you can’t get a job in your field because you don’t have the experience—everyone requires experience first, and yet none are willing to give the first experience. As I will argue shortly, people demand that they be shown closely-dated documents of neutral eyewitnesses to the resurrection, and yet people who saw the resurrected Christ quickly became anything but neutral. By witnessing the resurrection (which would lead to them following Christ), in essence, they became disqualified as eyewitnesses that future critics would accept. 

7 The Q document (so named from the German word Quelle, meaning source) is a possible early, though now lost, source of certain sayings and narratives of Jesus. Scholars hypothesized such a document, perhaps based on oral tradition (or perhaps it was even a living, airborne “document” of oral tradition remembered precisely), would explain why Matthew and Luke include some material that is word-for-word the same, or at least close to word-for-word, and yet appear to be written independently of one another. To be clear, there has never been any evidence of a Q document found, and the reason for the similarities remains something of a mystery. The Q hypothesis has been a popular one in academic circles due to its explanatory power, though it is not without its detractors and skeptics. 

8 James DG Dunn, “Remembering Jesus: How the Quest of the Historical Jesus Lost Its Way,” in James K. Beilby and Paul Rhodes Eddy (eds.), The Historical Jesus: Five Views (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 205.

9 Cited in J. Ed Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer, and Daniel B. Wallace, Reinventing Jesus: How Contemporary Skeptics Miss the Real Jesus and Mislead Popular Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2006), 36. 

10 Dunn, 214.

11 Komoszewski, et al., 36-37. 

12 An interesting aside here is to note that the writing of Gospels may have been later also because the early believers simply didn’t see the need to record these stories until it was perhaps taking a bit longer for Christ to return than they thought it would (the apostles didn’t always quite understand the plan, an embarrassing detail they chose to keep in the pages of the New Testament at their own expense), or because the faith was growing wide and they recognized a need to make sure the same story was told everywhere without having to rely on the simple memorized hymns and sayings, or both. Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 260-c. 340 AD), a historian from the early centuries of Christianity, wrote, “And so greatly did the splendor of piety illumine the minds of Peter’s hearers that they were not satisfied with hearing once only, and were not content with hearing once only, and were not content with the unwritten teaching of the divine Gospel, but with all sorts of entreaties they besought Mark, a follower of Peter, and the one whose Gospel is extant, that he would leave them [Christians in Rome] a written monument of the doctrine which had been orally communicated to them. Nor did they cease until they had prevailed with the man, and had thus become the occasion of the written Gospel which bears the name of Mark” (Eusebius of Caesarea, Ecclesiastical History 2.15.1). Mark was Peter’s “interpreter,” according to another ancient historian, Papias of Hierapolis (c. 60-c. 130 AD). Mark wrote down what Peter said in his sermons about the life of Jesus, “though not in an ordered form” (citation preserved in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 3.39.15). Bauckham’s analysis shows that this historical fun fact is mostly likely true and not just an attempt to attach an important apostle’s name to a Gospel named after a relative unknown. Indeed, the perspective of Mark throughout his Gospel is identified as Peter’s (see Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, chapters 6 and 7). 

13 Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006), 17. 

14 Ibid., 17-18 

15 Ibid., 19

16 Ibid., 14. Emphasis added. 

17 Since I already explained that you wouldn’t really have anyone affirming the resurrection who wasn’t a follower of Christ (because if you saw the resurrected Christ, you would be hard pressed to remain in disbelief!), let me explain what I mean here. First, the New Testament has testimony in it of Jewish and Roman peoples who affirm there is an empty tomb, but do not appear to believe that Jesus has been resurrected (Matthew 28:11-15). Secondly, and perhaps more likely, you have people like James and Paul who are witnesses in one form or another to Christ’s presence after his death, and both men previously either did not believe in Jesus’s mission (James) or violently rejected it and had Christians killed for preaching about his resurrection (Paul). 

18 Gary R. Habermas and Michael R. Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2004), 36-40.

19 As an example, before explaining that, yes, “Jesus probably did perform deeds that contemporaries viewed as miracles,” critical scholar Paula Fredriksen writes, “I as a historian have to weigh the testimony of tradition against what I think is possible in principle. I do not believe that God occasionally suspends the operation of what Hume called ‘natural law.’ What I think Jesus might possibly have done, in other words, must conform to what I think is possible in any case.” Paula Fredriksen, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews: A Jewish Life and the Emergence of Christianity (New York: Vintage Books, 2000), 114.

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