Repeating a common statement, a Christian friend told me that the resurrection of Jesus is one of the most attested events in history.
It would be nice if history confirmed such a key religious claim. If true, it would affirm beliefs and provide meaningful support for the world’s largest single religion.
Unfortunately, at least for the faithful, the claim is incorrect.
No historian of the time period knew of Jesus or even acknowledged Jesus’ existence. Later writers who did mention Christianity either cited religious claims to underpin their writing or presented a mishmash of facts and myths. The resurrection of Jesus is not mentioned by anyone outside the faith nor cited by any historian.
The Gospels are no help. Mark, the oldest, has no resurrection account. It ends with Jesus being buried in a cave. The book once had a resurrection tale, but that yarn was erased when two copies of oldest Mark were found to end without any resurrection account. The resurrection story turned out to have been added to Mark later by some misguided but well-intention editor making up for the omission.
Yet, Matthew and Luke both relied on the non-authentic material in Mark to fashion the resurrection stories in their Gospels. Those versions have remained intact, but being based on inserted hyperbole hardly makes them remotely accurate.
The youngest of the Gospels, John, does have a resurrection account, but being written so much later clearly allowed room for multiple non-facts to creep into the text. John alone presents a Jesus who is God on Earth, a lofty impression that effaces any hint of humanity or factual reality.
|Artist's impression of Paul|
Paul, a self-proclaimed apostle of Jesus, wrote the oldest texts that mention Jesus. His epistles, much edited, remain our best evidence simply because they are closer to the living Jesus, even though Paul admits to having never met the person named Jesus. However, they, too, raise serious concerns.
In I Corinthians, Paul wrote: “… Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.”
That sounds pretty through and might be great testimony, except for the fact others who supposedly saw Jesus left contrary testimony.
The Ebionites (“poor ones”) were the original followers of Jesus. They were converts to the original faith, and their literature has survived. They didn’t believe that Jesus was a god. They didn’t believe he was resurrected. And they hated Paul for, what they said, distorting Jesus’ teaching. Remember: they were the ones taught by the other disciples, who Paul said saw the risen Jesus. If so, their followers didn't know that.
Moreover, Paul cites “scripture” as his source. However, as the New Testament did not exist then, he had to be referring to Jewish texts. Not one of the 39 books in the Jewish Bible talks in any way about a resurrected person or anyone dying for someone else’s sins. In fact, the Jewish Bible says flatly that the sins of the father are not visited on the son.
“The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers: every man shall be put to death for his own sin” (Deut. 24:16).
In essence, the life, death and possible resurrection of Jesus rest completely on air. No fact buttresses the claims.
That doesn’t mean that Jesus is not, as the faithful insist, God incarnate who was sacrificed to save man from mortal sin. That’s belief. Facts then have no meaning in competition with belief.
However, in turn, believers can’t claim facts support their faith. Facts don’t.
Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history with an occasional foray into American culture. He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida. He holds an ABD in American Studies from Case Western Reserve University and an M.A. in communication from Kent State University. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
He is the author of the famed novel The Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus as well as The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Comparative Religion for Dummies. His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers. He can also be followed on Twitter.