Debunking the Resurrection Fable Fable 

There is a false belief out there that says the Resurrection of Jesus Christ was just a fable; I call it the Resurrection fable fable.

This fable runs like this: the early church was a community of persecuted outsiders, which grew up originally out of a group of people who had followed Jesus and had been impressed with his charismatic personality and message. When he was killed, they maintained some identity as a faith community. In order to hold on to that identity and to keep their nascent faith alive, this community gradually developed a mythology around Jesus and his early followers, including the imaginative claim that he had risen from the dead. This solidified over the years into an actual belief that he rose from the dead, a powerful belief (even though false) which so strengthened them that they continued to maintain their faith identity and ultimately to change the whole world. 

I think that's a fair statement of the claim. It's rather unlikely on the face of it, but it's offered as a way to explain away another unlikely happening, the actual Resurrection of Christ. There's no disputing that members of the early church believed in the Resurrection, so this belief had to have come from somewhere, and it needs explaining

Last weekend at the National Conference on Christian Apologetics, Dr. Gary Habermas offered a question for those who would propose this explanation: "When did it happen?" Obviously the belief arose before the four Gospels, the opening books of the New Testament, were written. Consensus scholarship says the earliest of these gospels (Mark) was written no later than about 60-65 AD, possibly up to 70 AD. Those are secular scholars' dates; conservative Christians might date it earlier. So the fable had to have arisen and developed in no less than 3 to 4 decades after Jesus' death in 30 AD. Is that reasonable? Could a false story like that have come to life in less then 40 years, while some of Jesus' followers and critics were still around to tell what really happened?

Habermas says that's the wrong question.

The first New Testament mention of the Resurrection was in 1 Corinthians 15:3-6 (ESV):

"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."

Here we have an eyewitness report, and a report of other eyewitnesses. But there's a phrase buried in there that we are prone to skip over: "I delivered to you ... what I also received." What follows is what Paul received. It's a creedal statement of the early church. This is something on which secular scholars generally agree, along with conservative Christians. It's in the form of an early hymn, with a rhythmic flow to it. This, according to Habermas, is relatively non-controversial among New Testament scholars. (There are a few who take exception to almost all of this, but the mainstream of scholarship is moving in a conservative direction in regard to things like these.)

Thus we have this statement that was delivered to Paul. The Pauline authorship of this letter is not disputed, by the way. So now we have to consider just when it was delivered. For this we turn to another passage that was (non-controversially, again) written by Paul. He included considerable autobiographical material in his letter to the Galatians:

"For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.

"Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother. (In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!) Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia. And I was still unknown in person to the churches of Judea that are in Christ.They only were hearing it said, 'He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.' And they glorified God because of me.

"Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me. went up because of a revelation and set before them (though privately before those who seemed influential) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure I was not running or had not run in vain."

Paul met the risen Lord, and then spent three years in Arabia and Damascus studying and praying. But he wanted to be sure he was understanding the message correctly, that he was on the right track. He went to the leaders in Jerusalem after three years to receive what they had to say. He was playing the investigative reporter, checking his story to make sure he had it right, and he went to the original sources to find out what they had to report about the events. This letter was written at least fourteen years after that, and is conservatively dated in the late 40s; secular scholars might put it 5-7 years later. The creedal message Paul received could not have been developed any later than about 40 AD, or about ten years after the Crucifixion and Resurrection of which it speaks. Most scholars, Habermas says, are now putting it at 35-38 AD.

There's another thread to evidence on the dating of this creed. The statement he gave in 1 Corinthians 15 was something he had already told them, when he had visited them earlier. The letter was written in the mid- to late-50s; his visit was sometime prior to that, probably in 51 AD, about fifteen to twenty years earlier than the likely dates for the Gospel of Mark.

The upshot of it is that there was never a time in the early church when the death, resurrection, and deity of Christ were not reported and discussed. If there was, it would have had to have been extremely early--before 35-38 AD.

This is all based on a very liberal interpretation of the dates. But some secular scholars would even place this creed earlier. Gerd Lüdemann, atheistic German scholar, dates it at no later than 33 AD. One critical group puts it at 30 AD--the same year the events happened!

The fable theory is revealed to be a fable; for there was no time for this so-called beleaguered faith community to have come up with this story and made it counter-factually a matter of personal belief. The original witnesses were still there to say what actually happened. Fables don't grow and take root so quickly, especially in soil where the truth against them is being told. 

Posted: Sun - November 18, 2007 at 07:53 PM           |

© 2004-2007 by Tom Gilson. Permission is granted to quote up to two paragraphs of any blog entry, provided that a link back to the original is included or (in print) the website address is provided. Please email me regarding longer quotes. All other rights reserved.

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