The First Easter: Historical Consensus

The events surrounding the first Easter are not all as hotly disputed nor are they as much in doubt as some think. In a comment on the Independent Attestation thread earlier in this series, Dave noted that the historical tide on NT scholarship is turning. John A. T. Robinson is one example of a scholar who had been skeptical of early dates for the NT documents, but who by the force of evidence came to conclude that all of them were produced between AD 50 and 70.

He represents a growing stream. Whereas once it was considered scholarly consensus that we could know little to nothing about the life of Christ, and especially his death and the events following, now that consensus is shattered. The well-known Jesus Seminar, for example, is now considered old-school and generally disregarded among serious scholars.

This is not to say that everyone believes that Jesus rose from the grave by the power of God. William Lane Craig points out in Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics that we can distinguish two kinds of questions: what can we know historically about the events of those several weeks, and what do those events mean?

Craig demonstrates the new historical consensus by pointing to skeptics who agree to the reality of many of the events recorded in the New Testament. The already-mentioned John A.T. Robinson (1919-1983) is one of those: though a bishop, he was of the liberal, secularizing camp; hardly an evangelical apologist.

Bart Ehrman has detailed his skepticism in many publications, yet in Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (published by Oxford University Press in 1999), he acknowledges,

Historians … have no difficulty whatsoever speaking about the belief in Jesus’ resurrection, since this is a matter of public record. For it is a historical fact that some of Jesus’ followers came to believe that he had been raised from the dead soon after his execution.

The source from which I obtained that quote is Craig’s book, already mentioned (page 350). Note that word “soon.” Craig later writes (p. 351),

Indeed, Ehrman himself, after expressing initial skepticism concerning some of these facts, came to regard them all as historically well founded.

The facts in question here are Jesus’ burial in a tomb provided by Joseph of Arimathea, the finding of the empty tomb by women on the third day, and that some of Jesus’ actual disciples claimed to have seen him alive after that.

In fact most New Testament critics, including John A.T. Robinson, now accept that Jesus was executed by the Romans and buried by Joseph of Arimathea in a tomb. Craig quantifies this by referring (pp. 370-371) to Gary Habermas’s study of “over 2,200 publications on the resurrection in English, French and German since 1975,” in which

Habermas found that 75% of scholars accepted the historicity of the discovery of Jesus’ empty tomb. The evidence is so compelling that even a number of Jewish scholars … have declared themselves convinced on the basis of the evidence that the tomb was empty.”

Then there were the appearances of Christ to his disciples. The skeptical scholar Gerd Lüdemann, would hardly accept that Jesus made genuine resurrection appearances, yet still he wrote,

It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus’ death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ.

The late University of Chicago redaction critic (i.e., NT skeptic) Norman Perrin wrote,

The more we study the tradition with regard to the appearances, the firmer the rock begins to appear on which they are based.

(The prior two quotes are taken from Craig, p. 381.)

And no one doubts that the Christian faith originated in Jerusalem in the first century. Rodney Stark showed (as Dave has already noted) that it had spread to at least thirteen cities by AD 100.

My first three posts in this series have explored how that last fact — the origination of Christianity in the specific form it took — relates to the claims of the resurrection. A large portion of the discussion in response was of the form, “but we don’t really know what happened, do we?” The answer to that is an unqualified, qualified yes. Let me explain. We do know for sure that Jesus lived, died, and was buried in a grave provided by Joseph of Arimathea. We know for sure that the grave was found empty by several women on the following Sunday, and that several of Jesus’ disciples had experiences that they took to be the risen Christ appearing to them. We know for sure that within a few decades Christianity had spread to at least twelve cities outside Jerusalem. Those are facts that historians regard to be true, with little or no qualification.

What do these facts mean? That’s where the dispute still continues.

In future posts I intend to follow Craig and other authors in detailing how it is that we know these things so confidently, based on sound historical methods. I am not a historian myself (neither are those who have said, “we don’t really know what happened”) but the explanations for these things are transparent. They have convinced skeptics.

Do I expect this to convince skeptics here that the resurrection genuinely happened? That’s not the topic right now. Only after we recognize that the above-mentioned events really happened will we turn to the question, “Is the resurrection the best explanation for them?” We will consider various alternate explanations for them at that time. For now, I am hoping simply to put to rest the canard, long since rejected among serious scholars, that we are operating in the dark. We do know at least some of what happened, and we know it with a high degree of confidence.