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Real, Dead, Buried: why the gospels aren’t lying or embellished

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Part 3 of 8 in a series of articles by Derek Caldwell on the resurrection. Published March 29, 2024

The Bible tells us that Jesus died on a Roman cross. Of course, to die, one must have first been alive. Even some of the most critical scholars in the relevant fields take for granted that Jesus was a real person. However, you will find on some of the popular and scholarly fringes a group of people who don’t even allow that very basic admission. This idea, as far as I can tell, was entirely absent from the world until the “History of Religions School” of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The claims of this school of thought and its predecessors have rightfully been dismissed for quite some time, and the vast scholarly consensus is that of course Jesus was a real person whose life was not simply the amalgamation of pagan predecessors. There are no justifiable reasons for dismissing the claim that Jesus was a real person. In truth, none of the history that follows this first-century movement—the founding of the church, the death of the eyewitnesses and disciples, the giving up of all power and prestige to be persecuted around the known world—makes sense if that is not at least true. This is one thing that truly has consensus among the vast majority of Christians, skeptics, and atheists alike. 

As a matter of fact, historian John Dickson is putting his money, or rather his Bible, where his mouth is. For several years now he has offered to eat a page of his Bible if someone can produce one scholar from a relevant field in an accredited university who denies the historical existence of Jesus of Nazareth. As of the writing of this article, John has yet to eat a page from his Bible.1 The skeptic from the dialogue I mentioned earlier told me that, despite all the historical evidence, he expected new findings to eventually prove (where, literally, 100% of previous findings have proven the exact opposite) that Jesus was not a real person. Would we call that a “skepticism of the gaps” sort of faith? Either way, Dickson’s words here sum it up quite well: “I don’t deny that there are substantial questions that could be raised about the Christian faith, but the historical reality of Jesus of Nazareth isn’t one of them.”2 

The reality of Jesus’s crucifixion

The death of Jesus is considered one of those facts included in the New Testament documents that really doesn’t make sense to write about unless it truly transpired, because it might seem embarrassing to those who believed He was God.3 Because Jewish people at the time believed that their messiah would come to fight and defeat Rome, and the rest of the world had an understanding that the best story is the one in which the hero wins the battle—and no one would’ve considered the humiliation of crucifixion a win—it is safe to say that the crucifixion took place. Bart Ehrman, a critical scholar who is no friend of Christianity, states it plainly: “One of the most certain facts of history is that Jesus was crucified on orders of the Roman prefect of Judea, Pontius Pilate.”4 

Within the pages of the New Testament, the enemies of the early Christians do not doubt the crucifixion took place. Rather, they argue that the body must have been stolen (cf. Matthew 28:11-15). And that admission, that at the very least Jesus had been crucified, is also confirmed in non-Christian sources as if it was a given. These writings include Jewish sources like Josephus (37-100 AD)5 and the Talmud (AD 70-200), Greco-Roman sources like Tacitus (56-120 AD) and Lucian (AD 125-around 180), and pagan sources like Mara Bar-Serapion.6

The reality of Jesus’s burial

One part of the death narrative of Christ that is often questioned, before we even get to the empty tomb, is the burial. A few critical scholars have doubted that Jesus would have been allowed a good burial since He had been crucified as a political threat and for the appeasement of angered Jewish leaders. The common practice of the time—and what we know of Pontius Pilate—suggests that Jesus’s body would have been thrown into a common grave. However, as New Testament scholar Craig Evans has shown, there is evidence from Philo of Alexandria that there were exceptions to the rule of common graves. Intriguingly, Philo directly references Pilate as an example of someone the Jews petitioned to maintain the practice of previous governors who allowed bodies to be given proper burials. Josephus also explicitly discusses the Jewish practice of taking down crucified bodies to bury them before sundown, even if the person was a malefactor, in order to avoid defiling the land. In peacetime this was the practice, especially the closer one got to Jerusalem.7 This direction is given in Deuteronomy 21:22-23, which states that a person hung on a tree was considered cursed by God, and to leave their dead body overnight would defile the holy land (cf. Gal. 3:13-14). Evans cites Helen Bond, a scholar with expertise in Christian origins, who gives the reasoning behind this exception: “Pilate, and possibly other governors, may have occasionally released lesser criminals as a gesture of Roman goodwill, especially during such a potentially volatile festival as the Passover.”8 

In order to maintain peace, which Rome was wont to do, they sometimes released the bodies of the deceased to be buried properly. As much as some Jewish people hated Jesus, many others loved him. And it may be that, because of the Passover, even those who were opposed to Jesus would have wanted his body properly buried so as not to defile the holy land during such an important national celebration. In times of peace—which the period of Jesus’s crucifixion roughly appears to be—Rome was willing to appease their subjects by allowing them to follow their own laws and customs. And since any crucifixion brought forward by the Jewish Council left the condemned’s body in the hands of that very same Jewish Council, it is not at all a stretch to think that Joseph of Arimathea—a sympathetic member of said council—arranged to have Jesus buried.9 When all of the data is accumulated, we can agree even with skeptical New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann who stated that this part of the narrative shows no sign of being legendary.10 

It may be helpful to pause here for a bit and just get a quick glimpse at what a legendary embellishment does look like as it pertains to Christ’s resurrection. Philosopher William Lane Craig is especially helpful in suggesting we compare the endings of the Gospel of Mark and the later apocryphal gospels that came in the second and third centuries. If we compare Mark to, say, the Gospel of Peter, a pseudepigraphical gospel written about 120 years after Christ’s crucifixion, we see a vast difference. This is an especially helpful comparison since the Gospel of Mark is largely Mark’s legitimate account of the Apostle Peter’s recollections.11 In Mark’s account, the women come to the tomb early and then, when addressed by an angel who tells them Jesus has risen and will see them in Galilee, they flee, “trembling and bewildered” and afraid (Mark 16:8).12 In the Gospel of Peter, by contrast, scribes, Pharisees, and elders station soldiers at the tomb so that the disciples wouldn’t steal his body and say that Jesus has risen. They had the tomb marked with seven wax seals to see if anyone tried to break in. The next day a large crowd surrounded the tomb to watch. In the night before “Lord’s day” (Sunday), the soldiers heard a loud voice from heaven. Two men “who had much radiance” came down from the opened heavens. The stone rolled away on its own and the two heavenly men entered. The soldiers gathered the nearby centurion and elders (who were also on watch) to see what was happening. When they came back, the two heavenly men are walking out with Jesus, and a cross is following them. The heads of the two heavenly men were “reaching unto heaven,” but Jesus’s head reached “beyond the heavens.” The voice from heaven asked if a “proclamation” had been made to the “fallen-asleep.” The cross answered “yes.” Later, a heavenly man descends again and enters the tomb in order to meet Mary Magdalene and the other women when they arrived.13

The differences between an actual Gospel account and a legendary “Gospel” seem quite clear in this case. That is not to say that some of the things in the four Gospel accounts do not sound, to many people, a bit far-fetched. However, the point here is simply to say that even with the differences in the Gospel accounts, there is largely agreement between them in such a way that, if one were to hold all four of them up against the Gospel of Peter, no one would have any trouble locating the one written a century after the fact. 

Derek Caldwell

Derek Caldwell

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

References

1 David Adams, “The Interview: John Dickson – Christian Historian and Author,” Sight Magazine, September 25, 2019, https://www.sightmagazine.com.au/features/13427-the-interview-john-dickson-christian-historian-and-author. 

2 John Dickson, “I’ll eat a page from my Bible if Jesus didn’t exist,” CPX, Centre for Public Christianity, October 21, 2014, https://www.publicchristianity.org/ill-eat-a-page-from-my-bible-if-jesus-didnt-exist/. For more details, see Dickson’s Is Jesus History? (Epsom, UK: The Good Book Company, 2019), especially his third chapter, “How to make me eat my Bible.” 

3 The criteria of “embarrassment” is one metric used by scholars of ancient texts to judge the reliability of any historical event. For instance, whenever anyone writes of the miracles performed by a revered figure, there is a healthy amount of skepticism involved. Perhaps the authors were lying to build up the reputation of their teacher, to gain some sort of spiritual or political power in the world, and so on. In that case, a historian cannot say really what happened in that instance—was a sick person really healed by a miracle worker or not? Some might say “no” due to a priori judgments about the existence of miracles, but they can’t say with certainty what did or did not happen in that instance, though they might be justified in believing it is not true. However, if there is an embarrassing detail—like, for instance, Peter denying Christ three times before his crucifixion, a Galilean messiah, or as in our present case, the death-by-crucifixion of a figure considered God by His followers—then the fact that this does not bolster their case, and may even be detrimental to it, means that it most likely did happen roughly how it was depicted. 

4 Quoted in 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), 148. Source: Bart D. Ehrman, The Historical Jesus: Lecture Transcript and Course Guidebook, Part 2 of 2 (Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company, 2000), 162. 

5 It is true that most scholars believe Christians tampered with Josephus’s writing, but almost none believe it is a total forgery. Josephus not only tells us about Jesus (with insertions by later Christians added or, less likely but still possible, just writing in ways that showed what Christians believed to be true about Jesus), but also about the death of James, Jesus’s brother. That said, this would not have been a story that Josephus fabricated for his own ends. Josephus was a Jewish historian writing on behalf of the Romans, and both the Jewish faithful and Romans disliked the Christian movement. It seems clear to me from the excerpts of Josephus that he probably wrote somewhat dispassionately about Jesus, and then later some (possibly well-meaning) Christians rather clumsily inserted pro-Christ additions. However, even if all of Josephus were fabricated, there are other sources without such suspicion attached to them.

6 Mara Bar-Serapion’s letter is dated anywhere from 73AD to the early third century. For a full list of these sources, see Gary Habermas and Michael Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2004). You may also view an excerpt from Gary Habermas’s The Historical Jesus (Joplin, MO: College Press Publishing, 1996) online. See Gary R. Habermas, “Ancient Non-Christian Sources,” Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary (1973-2015), 1996, https://digitalcommons.liberty.edu/lts_fac_pubs/39.  

7 Craig A. Evans, “Getting the Burial Traditions and Evidences Right,” in Michael F. Bird, Craig A. Evans, Simon J. Gathercole, Charles E. Hill, and Chris Tilling, How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature—A Response to Bart Ehrman (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014), 75. 

8 Ibid., 77

9 Ibid., 80-81.

10 Quoted in William Lane Craig, The Son Rises: The Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2000), 52. Source: Rudolf Bultmann, The History of the Synoptic Tradition, 2nd ed., trans. John Marsh (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1963), 274.

11 See the words of Papias preserved in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 3.39.15. 

12 There is considerable debate concerning the ending of the Gospel of Mark. The consensus view is that verses 9-20 are not original, and this is noted in most English bibles today. Some believe that the original ending to the Gospel is lost, though some think Mark meant to end his biography abruptly. See David Alan Black (ed.), Perspectives on the Ending of Mark: Four Views (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2008). 

13 Craig, 76. Multiple translations of the extant fragments of this writing are available on the Early Christian Writings website at http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/gospelpeter.html.

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