This coming Sunday is a time of the year when even the nominally religious give homage to the resurrection of Jesus. But if the polling data is correct, the percentage of Americans who believe in the claims of Christianity is rapidly shrinking. A common view of the resurrection is that it is a legend that developed over time among those who loved and revered Jesus. This is the view of Pentecostal preacher turned atheist Dan Barker:
There have been many reasons for doubting the claim [of the resurrection], but the consensus among critical scholars today appears to be that the story is a “legend.” During the 60-70 years it took for the Gospels to be composed, the original story went through a growth period that began with the unadorned idea that Jesus, like Grandma, had “died and gone to heaven” and ended with a fantastic narrative produced by a later generation of believers that included earthquakes, angels, an eclipse, a resuscitated corpse, and a spectacular bodily ascension into the clouds.
Is this the best explanation of the data? In this post I want to offer three reasons why the resurrection of Jesus is not in fact a legend.
First, the account of the resurrection arose too early to be a legend. Barker suggests that the original story about Jesus went through many decades of development and embellishment, resulting finally in the notion of a resurrection. But this is not what the historical evidence shows. Instead, the belief that Jesus rose from the dead originated very early in the life of the church. And “Exhibit A” for this evidence is a letter the apostle Paul wrote around the year AD 55 – First Corinthians.
While it is true that although the gospels were based on contemporaneous eyewitness accounts that they were not written until 30-60 years after the death of Jesus, the same cannot be said of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. All scholars of the New Testament documents place a date for First Corinthians around the year AD 55. And in that letter, Paul rehearses his earlier preaching in Corinth:
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
(1 Corinthians 15:3-5).
Paul reminds the Corinthians that he “delivered” on to them a message he also “received.” This is the technical terminology used in rabbinical settings to describe a tradition that is handed down. And Paul says that when he came to Corinth (around AD 52) that he handed down to the Corinthians a teaching that had been handed down to him. This means that the belief that Jesus was raised from the dead existed with twenty years of Jesus’ crucifixion in AD 33. And in fact, this belief must have existed well before AD 52, since this tradition was already being passed along.
Indeed, a wide array of New Testament scholars believe that the tradition Paul discusses here in 1 Corinthians 15 must have originated very early in Jerusalem. There are several reasons for this broad consensus, neatly summarized by Michael Licona in his massive work, The Resurrection of Jesus – A New Historiographical Approach:
- The language is not typical Pauline language and must have another source as its primary origin. Several phrases appear nowhere else in Paul’s writings: “according to the Scriptures,” “on the third day,” and “the twelve.” This accords with Paul’s claim that he passed along something he received from someone else.
- The tradition Paul recounts is obviously intended to be an easily recited creed, structured in parallel lines. Notice how the first and third lines have the same “verb+modifier+according to the Scriptures” structure (“Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” || “he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures”). This statement was designed to be handed down, as Paul says.
- There is further evidence that this statement originated in Jerusalem. For instance, Paul uses the Aramaic form of the name of Peter (“Cephas”), and later mentions James the Lord’s brother (verse 7). In Galatians 2:9 Paul refers to “James and Cephas” as two of the “pillars” of the church in Jerusalem. These (and other factors) point to a place and time of the origin of this statement around Jerusalem in the mid 30s.
For these and other reasons, the confession found here in 1 Corinthians 15 reflects beliefs about Jesus’ resurrection that can be traced back to within just a few years of the events themselves. Its early authenticity severely undermines the claim that the story of the resurrection was a legend that accrued over time. Assertions like Dan Barker’s that this belief arose many decades after the fact are without historical merit (for more details, see Licona’s extended discussion on pp 223-235).
Second, the account of the resurrection does not possess details we would have anticipated of a legend. For example, N.T. Wright points out that the only Old Testament backdrop for what a resurrected body looks like is Daniel 12:3 – the resurrected ones “shall shine like the brightness of the sky above.” Yet in the gospel testimony about the resurrected Jesus, there is no mention of a shimmering appearance at all. Instead, “Jesus is almost routinely depicted in these stories as having a human body with properties that are, to say the least, unusual” (N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, p. 605).
Further, if the gospel accounts were edited and embellished over time, it is very odd that they claim that the first witnesses of the empty tomb and the risen Jesus were the women who followed Jesus rather than the apostles. The testimony of women was not held in high regard in the ancient world, especially among Jews (see Josephus’s comments in his Antiquities 4.8.15). If these accounts arose as legendary embellishments over time, why not invent more credible witnesses? It makes much more sense to suppose that the inclusion of the women in the accounts is due to the fact that the accounts are designed to explain what actually happened, regardless of the awkwardness of the truth.
Third, the account of the resurrection does not emerge from a context that would have produced such a legend. To put it another way, how would the early Christians have even come up with such a story? The early Christians were Jewish, and while the Jews believed in a general resurrection of the dead at the end of history, there is no evidence that anyone had ever proposed that the Messiah would come to earth, die, and be raised from the dead within history. The very notion of a dying Messiah was absurd (as Peter’s response in Matthew 16:22 to Jesus’ prediction of His death demonstrates – “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you”). This was not the direction any Jews anticipated the story of the Messiah would take.
What about a pagan origin for this legend? The first problem with this suggestion is that the story of Jesus is a very Jewish story, with a worldview that is antithetical to paganism. A second problem is that the pagan worldview did not allow for the concept of the resurrection of the dead. Death was an escape from the body, setting the soul free – the last thing pagans desired was a reunion of the soul with the body. When Paul merely broached the subject of the resurrection of Jesus before the pagans at Athens he was met with derision (Acts 17:32).
Despite this evidence, it is common around this time of the year to see allegations on the internet that the early Christians copied the resurrection from pagan myths of dying and rising gods such as Osiris or Tammuz. This is actually a very old and long discredited theory that emerged from the “history of religions school” in 1900 era Germany (the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule). As Greg Boyd and Paul Eddy explain in The Jesus Legend, these views were ultimately rejected by historians because the alleged parallels with the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus turned out not to be parallel at all. Ancient pagans did have stories about gods that were killed and reduced to a shadowy existence in the underworld, or gods that went through cycles of life in the underworld and in the above world that coincided with the vegetative cycles. But such stories have nothing in common with the Christian claim of the unique, one-time events of Jesus’ death and resurrection to glory (see their detailed analysis on pp 139-147).
So, if the ancient Jews did not believe in a resurrected Messiah, and the ancient pagans would not believe in a resurrected Messiah, where did the early Christians ever come up with such a story? The best historical explanation is that they told this unusual and unanticipated story because – to their amazement – it is what actually happened.