Friday, January 27, 2012

Jesus: his death, resurrection, and the evidence from the gospels

Originally I was going to write a few blog posts, on related issues, but they seem to have coalesced into one. So this post addresses the issues "Did Jesus die on the cross?" and "The Gospels as history"...

Everything we know about the facts of Jesus's life death and resurrection comes from the four canonical gospels.

That's not to say that the other NT writings don't mention these events, but Paul is much more concerned about the theological implications of the events rather than the details of what actually happened. For example, you'll never find from reading Paul anything about where Jesus was crucified, when this happened, who witnessed it, etc. Nothing that Paul says about the earthly Jesus is not mirrored and expanded in the gospels. Paul says that Jesus was 'born of a woman', but not which woman. For those details we need to turn to the gospels.

Apologists often make a great deal of the secular writings about Jesus, such as Tacitus, Seutonius and Josephus, but all of these date to times several decades after Jesus, and all of the information in them merely confirms that there were "Christians" at the time of writing, and don't really tell us anything about Jesus himself.

So. Everything comes back to the gospels. How reliable are the gospel documents? Can we trust them to contain history? Who wrote them and when? These are all important questions, and we may never know the answers to them all. I've already discussed the Synoptic Problem at length, so I don't need to go into that here. But here I'll go into a couple of other questions:

1. Did Jesus die on the cross?

The first thing to say about this is that all four canonical gospels agree on this point - Jesus was crucified and died. The problem faced by anyone trying to defend the theory that Jesus was crucified but survived is that they have to show that the gospel writers were correct in some facts and wrong in others. If the gospels got the plain fact that Jesus died wrong, then how can we believe anything else in the entire story? Jesus death is the central event in all four gospels, if he hadn't died, then there is no gospel. To the writers of these stories, Jesus life only makes sense in the context of his death. If we assume that the gospels are in any way reliable, then that leads us to the conclusion that the authors of these documents were utterly convinced that Jesus died on the cross.

I have to say that if you want to doubt the gospel writers belief in Jesus's death on the cross, you also have to doubt everything else they say about Jesus's life as well.

Did Jesus die on the cross?
  • If we accept the testimony of the gospels, then yes.
  • If we don't accept the testimony of the gospels, then we don't know.
  • I'd say that there is no way to conclude 'no' based on the available evidence.

There is really no way to honestly use the gospels to conclude that Jesus - the man who taught in Galilee, had 12 disciples, performed miracles, and so on - did anything other than die on the cross.

Of course, using the same reasoning, we must conclude that - if the gospels are trustworthy - that Jesus also was raised from the dead (as attested in all four gospels) and appeared in physical form to his disciples after this (as attested in 3 out of the 4).

Its an all or nothing thing, as far as I can tell. And it probably works the other way around for most people - those who presuppose the death and resurrection of Jesus regard the gospels as trustworthy, those who presuppose the non-resurrection of Jesus must therefore regard all the information in the gospels as potentially untrustworthy. I can't really see a good case for the middle ground of accepting that the gospels got some details (such as the main topics in them!) wrong, but were otherwise accurate in terms of what they say about Jesus (his teaching, healings, etc.).

Now, I've come to the conclusion - in other posts - that the gospels do contain errors and misinformation, which - using the reasoning above - must lead me to the conclusion that we simply can't know whether or not Jesus died on the cross and was resurrected a few days afterwards.

The best I can conclude is that IF Jesus was crucified by the Romans, then there is an exceptionally high likelihood that he died on the cross, as history (Josephus) only records one survivor of crucifixion, and that only after being quickly taken down from the cross - a very rare event indeed.

The only thing we can really say with any certainty is that Christians in the late 1st or early 2nd century believed that Jesus was crucified, died and rose again, several decades before their time. This doesn't count as evidence one way or the other, I'm afraid.

2. The Gospels as History

I'm about to make the same point again, but in a different way.

As I see it, there are really only two options, and they don't start with the historicity of the gospels, they either end up there, or they don't. The starting point is the resurrection of Jesus.

IF Jesus was resurrected (raised from death in a physical and 'super-human' body) then the central beliefs of the Gospel writers are fundamentally true, and there is a good chance that the biographies of Christ that they wrote are grounded in reality and may contain useful historical details.

IF Jesus was not resurrected, then the apparent central beliefs of the Gospel writers are false and the Gospel writings are, at best, the writings of honest but gullible people who had been told a bunch of myths and believed them, or, at worst, complete and intentional fiction. In this case, there is no reason to suppose that any of the material in the gospels is good historical data.

Yes, I know that the gospels contain at least four secularly attested historical characters - Herod the Great, Herod Antipas, Pontius Pilate and Caiaphas the high priest. I would argue that these characters, while they do feature in the plot of the story, are more part of the setting of the gospels than integral to the story. In much the same way, Jerusalem and Galilee are part of the setting of the stories, the fact that we know there was a Jerusalem does not in any way provide evidence that the stories in the gospels which are recorded as happening in Jerusalem actually happened. There are numerous historically verifiable locations and characters in the stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but that doesn't imply that Sherlock Holmes was a real person, only that the stories about him were set in a real historical setting.

So where does this leave us? I think it means we can't use the internal evidence of the gospels to prove the resurrection of Jesus. Or the death of Jesus. Or even the life of Jesus.

Without external 'secular' evidence for the person of Jesus, not merely evidence that there were believers in Christ Jesus a generation or two after the alleged events, we really cannot be sure of anything to do with Jesus in history. Anything you want to claim about him (for example that he claimed to be the 'Son of God' or that he was an apocalyptic prophet, or that he was born of a virgin, or that he had 12 disciples) relies, primarily, on the assumption that he was resurrected from the dead. Without that fundamental assumption, we cannot 'know' anything at all about Jesus.


James F. McGrath said...

Actually, if you are going to approach this as a historical question, using the tools of historical research, then it is not at all an all-or-nothing situation. Historians regularly find some details in a text to be substantiated and others to be in error. There is no reason that the Gospels and Paul's letters could not be correct about Jesus having been crucified and incorrect about the resurrection, for instance.

Ricky Carvel said...

But if the authors had not believed in the resurrection, the accounts would never have been written (except for the possibility that they are intentional fiction).

These are not biographies or histories which happen to mention (in passing) the death and resurrection of Jesus, the very existence of them pre-supposes it.

I think a good case could be made for saying that all the other bits in the story are only there because of their relationship to the Passion and Resurrection story. They are there to support the main thesis. I can't see how you can put the main thesis to one side and only look at the other stuff as historical.

I guess its possible that real historical information might have slipped into an otherwise historical fiction, but how can we judge this?

Mike McQuaid said...

Presumably you mean we cannot "know" with 100% accuracy. That seems to be enough for other disciples and is enough for historical study in general.

minoria said...

There is the independent creed-hymn of the first Christians,found in philippians,the Carmen Christi,in Philippians 2:5-11,that most scholars believe is NOT by Paul.It could be from only 1O years after Jesus' death.It says:

1.Jesus died

2.Jesus was God,it says it 3 times:

Here is an article with all the details,in French,you can translate using Google Translate:

Ricky Carvel said...


I agree that Philippians 2 says that Jesus died. It doesn't say that he was crucified, it doesn't say that there was an empty tomb, it doesn't say when this happened, it doesn't say where this happened, and so on. For the answers to all those questions, we have to go to the gospels.

There is a lot going on in that chunk of Philippians 2, and I would argue that it does not say that Jesus was God. I am reasonably convinced that the passage is paralleling Christ with Adam - they start out the same, made in the image (or nature) of God. But Christ, unlike Adam, did not try to make himself equal with God, but rather humbled himself, even to the point of death. Therefore God exalted Christ above all other humans, above all other beings, and gave him the name 'Jesus' - saviour. Being exalted higher than all other beings does not make Christ equal with God, the passage makes clear that Christ did not try to be equal with God.

There is a school of thought, which I must blog about sometime, which holds that Christ was originally believed to be a divine character, who did his saving acts 'in the heavenly realms'. This school of thought holds that Paul taught this heavenly saviour, and it is only later writings (the gospels) and a later rewriting of Paul which grounded the mythical Christ into human history. The Philippians passage is one of the key passages in defending this view, because it is one of the earliest Christian writings, and it appears to suggest that Christ wasn't know as Jesus until after his exultation.

But more on that another time...

Ricky Carvel said...


I'm not sure which of my uses of the word 'know' you're referring to.

All I'm really saying is that all the information we have about Christ's earthly ministry comes from the gospels.

Because they pre-suppose his resurrection, and their main aim is to tell the accounts of the resurrection, then I don't think we can actually use them as reliable historical evidence for anything, unless we can prove that their presuppositions are true from other sources.

Consider a non-Christian (semi-)parallel: Romulus and Remus. Many histories of Romulus and Remus are told which pre-suppose their existence. I mean Romulus, at least, must have existed as Rome was named after him, right? If we take the fact of their existence as true, as the majority of (if not all) ancient Roman historians did, then we can try to construct a history around them, based on the stories presented. We can find information about the ancient (but now destroyed) city of Albalonga and reconstruct some history of that city. Well, we could do that, but if we consider that Romulus and Remus were just myths (their father was either Mars or Hercules, depending on which story you believe), then we have to doubt all information in the story unless it has corroborating evidence from some other source, which - crucially - does not support the myth story.

In the case of the NT, all we have are stories which corroborate the same (apparent) myth and must all (therefore) be treated with some degree of skepticism.

Mike McQuaid said...

I don't think Mark presupposes earthly resurrection. There's early manuscripts with that missed out altogether and it's the earliest gospel. It also misses out a lot of the problematic nativity story so it's currently my favourite gospel for these reasons :)

minoria said...

Hello Rick,

I have just read your comment.I have not been around here for some time.I disagee.

Philippians says Jesus was given the NAME ABOVE ALL NAMES.

I am certain you know Judaism even more than I.In JUDAISM ''the Name'' is HA-SHEM,the name,and any religious Jew will tell you,it is YAHWEH.Certainly Paul,a Pharisee,a religious expert,knew such a basic fact.

YAHWEH is the name above all names.

minoria said...

Hello Rick,

You could argue Jesus is the name above all names among humans,but I dont think any religious Jew would say it without adding the words "among humans".

I think you have not heard of this,but in the OT,in Jeremiah,in a passage that is specifically about the Davidic Messiah,the Messiah is called YAHWEH,more precisely YAHWEH TSIDKENU.

When one studies the history of Hebrew linguistic usage it can only logically mean,that,when APPLIED to a HUMAN,it is saying the Messiah would be YAHWEH,God incarnate.The details are here:


A Davidic Messiah title,and Judaism says this,is the word "netzer" or "branch".The way several passages are stated in the Old Testament it says the NETZER=JOSHUA,in Hebrew,or Yeshua in Aramaic,Jesus in English.

So one has Yeshua as the Davidic Messiah's name and he is called YAHWEH.I am sure Paul knew all THAT,he would certainly have thought of Jesus as God:

Ricky Carvel said...

Thanks for that.

There is one problem in your reasoning. Jesus is never, at any point, anywhere in the NT, given the name Yahweh.

Yes, Yahweh was 'Lord' in the OT, and Jesus is 'Lord' in the NT. And there is a very good case to be made for claiming that the early Christians believed that Jesus was nothing more or less than Yahweh himself. But there is good evidence that some strands of Christianity saw Jesus as Yahweh and God the Father as 'Elyon' - the father of all the gods who has been combined with Yahweh into a single character through much of the OT by monotheistic scribes. The theory is that these two gods were originally perceived as being separate and distinct gods, and Christianity was a branch of the old religion which was never really stamped out by monotheism. See my post discussing Margaret Barker's book "The Great Angel".

Either way, the Philippians passage still says Jesus was given the name above all names (whatever it is) after he had made himself obedient to death. It wasn't a name he was known by before his death...

Gary said...

News Alert: Scientists have proven the Bible False

And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years: 15 And let them be for lights in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth: and it was so. 16 And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also. –the Bible

The ancient Hebrews and therefore the early Christians believed that above the earth, God had created a “firmament” or domed ceiling, upon which he hung the sun, moon, stars, and planets. Heaven was directly above this “ceiling”.

Let’s now look at the story of the Ascension of Jesus:

When he (Jesus) had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11 They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” -The Bible

If you lived in the first century AD and believed that heaven was just on the other side of the firmament or “ceiling" above the earth, then it would be very consistent with your worldview to believe that if Jesus was going to return to heaven, all he had to do was to ascend past the clouds and he would soon reach the "ceiling" of the firmament, to which are hung the planets, the sun, and moon, and he then would pierce the firmament to enter heaven. And if one can look up and see the planets and stars, then these heavenly objects must be within a day's travel time. You would know this by common sense: if you can see a mountain in the distance, chances are you can reach it in a day's time. So believing that Jesus could ascend to heaven, at a speed slow enough for his disciples to watch him ascend into the clouds, would be completely consistent with this world view.

The problem for the Bible, and for Christians who believe that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant word of the Creator, is that this worldview has been proven absolutely false by modern science. There is no firmament. Jesus could not have reached the outer reaches of the universe to enter heaven moving at a speed at which humans could watch him ascend. Scientists have demonstrated that for a rocket or space ship to reach the next closest galaxy to our own, the Andromeda Galaxy, it would take two million LIGHT YEARS to get there!

Unless Jesus entered a tractor beam once he got into the clouds, a tractor beam that "beamed him up" to heaven like Captain Kirk would regularly do on Star this very in outer space, putting along, somewhere between earth and the Andromeda Galaxy. Bombshell! Jesus hasn't made it to heaven yet! Jesus is not sitting at the right hand of God the Father as the Bible claims.

Thus, scientists have proven the Bible false.

Trust science, my friends, not the scientifically ignorant superstitions and legends of ancient peoples, nor their holy books, full of preposterous supernatural claims.

Ricky Carvel said...


True. But irrelevant to the conversation on this page.

Gary said...

I disagree.

No one could have proven the story of the Ascension false at the time that the Bible was written. No one knew that the universe is as large as it is and that there was no firmament.

Due to the discoveries of science, we now know that the story of the Ascension is blatantly false. This demonstrates to even the Christian fundamentalist that the Bible is not inerrant and this increases the improbability that the Resurrection happened.

Jesus, if he existed, was just a man, not a god. That is what this information confirms. The supernatural claims about him are simply superstitious legends.