Tag Archives: historical jesus

Benefit of the Doubt

http://www.amazon.com/Benefit-Doubt-Breaking-Idol-Certainty/dp/0801014921/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1378440591&sr=8-1&keywords=Faith%2C+Doubt%2C+and+the+idol+of+certaintyGreg Boyd sent me a copy of his most recent book, Benefit of the Doubt: Breaking the Idol of Certainty (Baker Books, 2013). Thanks, Greg!

The book came out in September and I finished it last month. I apologize for the delay on the review. I’ve been trying to keep up with reading, writing, daddy duties, and preparing to move across the country. It’s a challenging time right now.

If you follow the blog, you know that Greg is a friend and mentor of mine. So, I’m a little biased. I’ve read almost everything he’s written, and I’m a faithful podritioner at whchurch.org.

However, no matter how I might feel about someone, I always try to read with an open heart and mind. If anything, my relationship with any author simply means that there is a level of experience and trust there that allows me to more easily consider new ideas, while still being able to read critically.

I never always agree with everything anyone says. Unless it’s Jesus, of course. But I have found that I agree with Greg on many things.

This book is no exception.

Here is the publisher’s summary of the book:

“In Benefit of the Doubt, influential theologian, pastor, and bestselling author Gregory Boyd invites readers to embrace a faith that doesn’t strive for certainty, but rather for commitment in the midst of uncertainty. Boyd rejects the idea that a person’s faith is as strong as it is certain. In fact, he makes the case that doubt can enhance faith and that seeking certainty is harming many in today’s church. Readers who wrestle with their faith will welcome Boyd’s message that experiencing a life-transforming relationship with Christ is possible, even with unresolved questions about the Bible, theology, and ethics. Boyd shares stories of his own painful journey, and stories of those to whom he has ministered, with a poignant honesty that will resonate with readers of all ages.”

I didn’t realize how much I needed this book. Not only does Greg speak to my own experiences of shifting beliefs, and agonizing doubt about a number things over the years, it also makes sense of the certainty-seeking faith held by others close to me who think I’ve gone off the deep end.

Greg says that many Christians think faith is feeling certain about everything, therefore doubt is the enemy of faith. These folks can’t handle any ambiguity. Doubt is sin. Everything in the Bible is black and white.

Those with certainty-seeking faith get their life from feeling certain about right beliefs. Greg believes that their salvation is even wrapped up and hinges on believing the right things, and feeling certain about them.

“Believing that one’s salvation depends on remaining sufficiently certain about right beliefs can cause people to fear learning things that might make them doubt the rightness of their beliefs. It thus creates a learning phobia that in turn leads many to remain immature in their capacity to objectively, calmly, and lovingly reflect on and debate their beliefs.” p.76

Having grown up among conservative evangelicals in the South, this is something I’ve seen over and over again. The very people who say they want to learn seem almost incapable of processing anything that challenges or contradicts what they were taught and believe in their church.

Greg says that certainty-seeking faith is a self-serving quest. He writes, “Though certainty-seeking believers claim to care about believing the truth, they are actually only concerned with enjoying the secure feeling of being certain while avoiding the pain of doubt” (p.52).

Benefit of the Doubt is an honest glimpse into Greg’s own journey of faith and doubt. He talks about how he was an atheist as a teenager, came to Christ in a fundamentalist church, lost his certainty-seeking faith in college, and discovered a faith built on the foundation of a living Christ.

Greg learned to embrace doubt as a part of a covenantal (relationship based) faith with Christ. Ultimately, biblical faith is found in a person, not in any particular belief found in or about the Bible.

He writes, “The all-important center of the Christian faith is not anything we believe; it’s the person of Jesus Christ, with whom we are invited to have a life-giving relationship.” He goes on to say, “Rather than believing in Jesus because I believe the Bible to be the inspired Word of God, as evangelicals typically do, I came to believe the Bible was the inspired Word of God because I first believe in Jesus” (p.159).

Greg is calling for a restructuring—a new model of faith. He calls it the “Concentric Circles” paradigm (Figure 8.1 on pg. 171).

At the center is belief in Jesus Christ, the first circle is dogma (what has traditionally been understood as orthodox Christianity), the second is doctrine (different ways the church has interpreted dogma), and the third outer ring is the realm of opinion (different ways of interpreting doctrine).

“Identifying the center as the intellectual foundation of the faith, and sole source of life, and by distinguishing it from all other beliefs, this model allows hungry people to enter a relationship with Christ and participate in the life he gives without requiring them to first resolve a single other issue.” p.173

Greg believes this model “creates space for people to think on their own” and that it does so “without watering down the traditional definition of historic-orthodox Christianity.” Doubt is allowed, even beneficial.

Yes, but what about all of the verses that seem to make doubt an enemy of faith (e.g. John 20:27; Mark 11:23; James 1:6; etc.)? Greg addresses each verse that has been used to uphold the certainty-seeking model of faith.

“You may end up disagreeing with me, which is fine, but your convictions will be more refined and stronger for having done so. On the other hand, you may end up embracing a kind of faith that is more secure precisely because it is free of the need to feel certain. You may discover a way of exercising faith that is more vibrant precisely because it empowers you to fearlessly question, to accept ambiguity, and to embrace doubt. And you may end up agreeing with me that this way of doing faith is not only more plausible in our contemporary world and more effective in advancing the kingdom, but it is also more biblical.” p.32

If you feel beaten down, overwhelmed, or turned off by certainty-seeking faith, and you want to understand how doubt is an essential part of real covenantal faith, I highly recommend reading Benefit of the Doubt.

What Others Are Saying

Here is what others (that I respect & trust) have written:

“If you’re a Christian who wrestles with doubt or you know someone who does, Benefit of the Doubt is one of the best books ever written on the subject.”–Frank Viola, author of God’s Favorite Place on Earth; blogger at www.frankviola.org

Benefit of the Doubt is a deeply personal yet profoundly theological look at the important role of doubt in the Christian faith. Prepare to feel a little less crazy, a little less alone, and a lot more challenged to take the risk of following Jesus with your head and heart engaged. Boyd is the best sort of company for the journey.”–Rachel Held Evans, blogger at www.rachelheldevans.com; author of Evolving in Monkey Town and A Year of Biblical Womanhood 

“If you ever wrestle with an inner skeptic (like me) or regularly interact with skeptics, this book offers hugely helpful insight into the benefits of doubt and how to leverage doubt in deepening our trust in God. I predict many people who read Benefit of the Doubt will find it profoundly life-changing.” –Bruxy Cavey, teaching pastor, The Meeting House; author of The End of Religion; www.bruxy.com

“Boyd has gotten used to exploring new territory, and in this book he dives into the issue of doubt and certainty–and recovers the lost treasure of Christlike humility and childlike wonder. Enjoy.”–Shane Claiborne, author, activist, and lover of Jesus; www.thesimpleway.org

That’s plenty of reason to read this book!

___________________________________________

* Listen to Greg’s interview on the very funny, The Drew Marshall Show.

D.D. Flowers, 2013.


The Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth

A Brief Survey of the Historical Evidence

Christians celebrate the death of Jesus on what is known as Good Friday. It is a rather odd thing to celebrate someone’s death, especially when it was such a brutal and barbaric execution. Some skeptics today have written believers off as sick delusional people. No doubt, it is an old charge. It was even strange to Pliny the Younger who investigated the early church’s worship of the crucified Jesus—those who sang “a hymn to Christ as to a god” (Pliny, Letters 10.96-97).

But for those who are Christians, Good Friday is a time of deep theological reflection. The biblical narrative from creation to fall, from exilic despair to salvific hope, from sinner’s debt to atoning sacrifice, has reached its climax in the life and death of Christ—the true Israelite, the promised Messiah who takes away the sins of the world.

It is a beautiful death because it is the first and only death in the history of mankind that has the power to save—the Creator God becomes human flesh and displays boundless love to his broken creation. The idea of it is too good to be compared to any ancient myth of dying and rising gods, and it is so self-incrementing that any man would or could make it up only to endure the wrath of empire for proclaiming it.

However, the death of Jesus holds no power if he stays dead. That is why the apostle Paul was so adamant about it to the Corinthians who were arguing about the future of those who had died before Christ’s Second Coming (parousia). He writes:

If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins (1 Cor 15:14-17 NIV).

There has been no shortage of books, articles, and journal entries written on the resurrection of Jesus, especially in the last few decades.[1] Dale Allison has stated that the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus is the “prize puzzle of New Testament research.”[2] There are excellent presentations by historical Jesus scholars that have been published in defense of the resurrection—arguments that are concerned with the reliability of the biblical text, the historical possibility of the event, and the reasonability of belief in such a miraculous occurrence.

It is the purpose of this paper to bring out some of the strongest points used in defense of the physical resurrection of the historical Jesus. This paper will persuasively argue on behalf of the following points: (1) the reliability of the NT, eyewitness testimony, and multiple attestation; (2) the empty tomb, resurrection appearances, and the growth of the early church; (3) the philosophical and scientific reasonability of miracles, ancient and modern.

EVIDENCE FOR THE RESURRECTION

Reliability of the NT, Eyewitness Testimony & Multiple Attestation

All four of the Gospels record the death and resurrection of Jesus (Matt 28; Mk 16; Lk 24; Jn 20). However, the inspiration and trustworthiness of the Bible is no longer assumed. Truthfully, the reliability of the Bible has even been heavily attacked since the Enlightenment. While a case could be built for the death and resurrection of Jesus apart from the New Testament sources, the author of this paper is not so willing to give up on the reliability of the NT and the Gospels as historical ancient biographies of Jesus.[3]

Daniel Wallace has recently written, “In Greek alone, there are more than 5,600 manuscripts today… altogether about 20,000 handwritten manuscripts of the NT in various languages.” [4] Even if someone were to destroy all of those manuscripts, the NT could be entirely reconstructed with the one million quotations by the early church fathers![5]

Some critics will respond, what about all those discrepancies? There are certainly textual variants in the many manuscripts we have, but the careful reader should not let the skeptical NT textual critic, Bart Ehrman, convert them to agnosticism just yet.[6] F.F. Bruce has written, “The variant readings about which any doubt remains among textual critics of the New Testament affect no material question of historic fact or of Christian faith and practice.”[7]

In fact, the more historical and textual criticism that is being done on the NT Gospels, the more scholars are recognizing just how meticulous the ancient authors were in their creative retelling of the life of Christ. For instance, Luke, a companion of the apostle Paul, says he consulted with the “eyewitnesses” and “carefully investigated everything from the beginning” (Lk 1:2-3). Luke’s concern to give an “orderly account” of the things that happened in the first half of the century simply can’t be denied if any historian is consistent with their treatment of historical texts.

The apostle Paul passes along an early creedal statement about Jesus:

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that 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 Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers 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 (1 Cor 15:3-8 NIV).

James D.G. Dunn has written that scholars can be “entirely confident” that this tradition was formulated within months of Jesus’ death.[8] So, with the early dating of the Gospels being within approximately 30-40 years of the actual events, the careful oral transmission and tradition between Jesus and the writing of the Gospels, and the multiple eyewitness testimony that Jesus was seen in a resurrected form (something that it seems they had a difficult time finding the words to express), it is fair to say that something out of the ordinary happened.

The majority of scholars agree on some basic events in the life of Jesus. E.P. Sanders has written, “There are no substantial doubts about the general course of Jesus’ life: when and where he lived, approximately when and where he died, and the sort of thing that he did during his public activity …”[9]

No real scholar in the field denies these things. Even the liberal Jesus Seminar scholar, John Dominic Crossan, admits that the crucifixion of Jesus is historical “as sure as anything historical can be.”[10] It is one of the major points of agreement between liberal and conservative Jesus scholars. For any person to deny the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, they must be ignorant of history or purposely distorting the facts. Ancient historians such as Josephus, Tacitus, Lucian, Mara Bar-Serapion, and the Jewish Talmud, mention that Jesus was crucified.[11] Mainstream scholars agree with the biblical text: Jesus really lived, he was crucified, he died, and he was buried in a borrowed tomb. (Mk 15:42-47; Matt 27:57-61; Lk 23:50-54).

Empty Tomb, Resurrection Appearances, & Growth of the Early Church

The empty tomb is recorded and admitted by Christians, enemies of Jesus, and skeptics alike—in ancient and modern times. All four canonical Gospels mention the empty tomb. Paul affirms the empty tomb with the early creed in 1 Cor 15:3-4, and so does Luke in Acts 13:29. While there are scholars today that refuse to acknowledge an empty tomb (e.g. Crossan believes that Jesus’ body was discarded with criminals and eaten by dogs), most scholars recognize the empty tomb as a historical fact.

The empty tomb makes the most historical sense. If the body was not missing, the early Christian message could have been easily stamped out with, “Resurrected? We have his body right here!” The big question is ‘why was it empty?’ The Jewish polemic against the Christian message was that the disciples had stolen the body (Matt 28:11-15; Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho, 108; Tertullian’s On Spectacles, 30). Matthew writes, “And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day” (28:15).

The swoon theory was first proposed in the eighteenth century.[12] This theory claims that Jesus was not really dead after all, but merely slipped into a coma, later to be revived in the cold conditions of the dark tomb. Let there be no mistake. The Romans knew how to kill condemned criminals.[13] While there may have been an occasion where someone escaped the cross (e.g. when Romans fled the scene of battle), the historical evidence in the case of Jesus does not allow for a great escape. The medical evidence indicates a certain death (Jn 19:34).[14]

David Strauss, a nineteenth century liberal scholar, was unconvinced of the swoon theory, saying that a half-dead Jesus would not have convinced his disciples of a glorified resurrection.[15] Strauss points out that you can’t talk about the empty tomb without considering the transformation that took place with the disciples who had previously abandoned Jesus. What else can explain what they claimed they saw, and empowered them to speak the message of the risen Jesus?

According to a small few, the disciples actually had some sort of mass LSD trip, a group hallucination.[16] There are many reasons why this theory doesn’t add up. In short, the disciples claimed to have touched him, ate with him, yet he walked through walls! Also, there has never been one documented account of an entire group of people having the same hallucinations.[17] And the disciples would need to be under a continual psychotic delusion to face martyrdom with non-resistance, declaring that Jesus had been raised from the dead.

Michael Licona writes: “Historians are not chained to using a psychological explanation that is stacked against the supernatural in order to obtain purely natural conclusions in their historical work. They need to go beyond psychological conjectures and employ method carefully.”[18]

Other theories have been proposed: Jesus had a twin brother that dropped in after the crucifixion and appeared to the disciples; the women went to the wrong tomb; and the resurrection was only spiritual. But none of these theories can account for all of the historical evidence, what the disciples believed were resurrection appearances, the teaching of the apostles, and the growth of the early church in the face of intense persecution.

I know in their own terms what they saw was the raised Jesus. That’s what they say and then all the historic evidence we have afterwards attest to their conviction that that’s what they saw. I’m not saying that they really did see the raised Jesus. I wasn’t there. I don’t know what they saw. But I do know that as a historian that they must have seen something.[19]

Whatever they saw, it was enough to change the mind of James, the brother of Jesus, and Saul of Tarsus, a zealous Pharisee and persecutor of the church. James becomes the leader of the Jerusalem church (Acts 15), and he is later martyred for his belief that Jesus had been raised from the dead. What could have happened to prompt the brother of Jesus to become one of the church’s greatest leaders? An encounter with the risen Jesus is the most likely of all possible scenarios.

Saul of Tarsus had a first-hand encounter with the resurrected Christ, while on his way to persecute the church in Damascus, Syria (Acts 9). Something happened to this Saul, student of the great Jewish teacher, Gamiliel (Acts 22:3). He said his transformation from persecutor to apostle was a result of being confronted by the resurrected and glorified Christ. What could change this zealous teacher of the Law? The apostle Paul had met the risen Jesus.

N. T. Wright makes the claim that he knows nothing else that could explain the initial birth and rapid expansion of the early church, except that Jesus was really raised from the dead. Wright states that there are two things “historically secure” about the first Easter: the empty tomb and the meeting with the resurrected Jesus. Nothing in Second-Temple Judaism would have produced such a radical claim that someone (i.e. a crucified Messiah) would be raised to life in the middle of human history.[20] Wright says, “It is therefore historically highly probable that Jesus’ tomb was indeed empty on the third day after his execution, and that the disciples did indeed encounter him giving every appearance of being well and truly alive.”[21]

There is another piece of evidence that adds further weight to the story. Fitting with the principle of embarrassment, the Gospel writers report that it was women who first found the empty tomb and met the risen Jesus (Matt 281-10; Mk 16:1-11; Lk 24:1-11). This is rather peculiar since a woman’s testimony was not even considered as a reliable witness in a first century law court (Josephus, Ant 4.219).

It comes as no surprise that the disciples did not believe their report (Lk 24:11). If they were making up a story about a crucified and resurrected Messiah, especially when the whole idea was foreign to Judaism in the first place, the last thing they would do is have women as the first eyewitnesses to the empty tomb and resurrection. But no attempt is made to gloss over this embarrassing episode.

This bit of the story adds to the historical credibility of the empty tomb. The physical resurrection of Jesus is the best explanation for the empty tomb, as well as the experiences of the disciples, and the rapid growth of the early church in the face of overwhelming opposition from the same world that condemned Jesus.

Limitations of Science & Boundaries of Human Reason

There are certain biases and presuppositions that must be acknowledged on the outset of an investigation into the case for the resurrection. The seventeenth and eighteenth century Enlightenment has conditioned much of the West to separate faith and reason. The church has often been guilty of refusing to take serious the discoveries of science. The sloppy practice of using the Scriptures to attack and defend scientific theories has furthered the idea that faith and reason are at odds with one another.

Of course, there is such a thing as bad science, something that many evolutionary biologists and skeptics of religion today refuse to acknowledge. But who will argue that it was right for the church to denounce Galileo’s heliocentrism—that the earth revolves around the sun? Like many European intellectuals who grew tired of the abuses of the Roman Catholic Church, some modern skeptics and scholars abandon faith altogether, reject any spiritual dimensions to life and the cosmos, only to rely solely upon science as the only infallible guide to epistemology (what we can know and how can we know it). Is this sound?

The thinking of David Hume has left an indelible mark on Western society. Hume rejected the idea of miracles, largely based on his naturalistic perspective that the laws of nature prohibit them from happening. Hume wrote:

The Christian Religion not only was at first attended with miracles, but even at this day cannot be believed by any reasonable person without one. Mere reason is insufficient to convince us of its veracity: And whoever is moved by Faith to assent to it, is conscious of a continued miracle in his own person, which subverts all the principles of his understanding, and gives him a determination to believe what is most contrary to custom and experience.[22]

Would the resurrection of Jesus be a violation of natural laws? Are miracles to be entirely ruled out because Hume concluded that they are contrary to nature and the whole of human experience?

There are currently three main views of natural law: the regularity theory, the nomic necessity theory, and the causal dispositions theory. None of these theories actually allow for miracles to be understood as violations of the laws of nature. Instead, miracles are naturally impossible events that require an unknown or “supernatural” force to interrupt the natural world at a certain time and place.

Naturalism may indicate that dead people stay dead. But if there is a God who created the world, and sent his Son to reveal his divine program, then how skeptics be so certain that this God wouldn’t raise Jesus from the dead in order to vindicate him and affirm divine revelation? It is just the sort of thing God would do to reveal himself and redeem mankind for a new world—a world that he has not left to simply wind down, grow cold, and become stardust.

William Lane Craig writes:

When a scientific anomaly occurs, it is usually assumed that some unknown natural factors are interfering, so that the law is neither violated nor revised. But suppose the law fails to describe or predict accurately because some supernatural factors are interfering? Clearly the implicit assumption of such laws is that no supernatural factors as well as no natural factors are interfering. Thus, if the law proves inaccurate in a particular case because God is acting, the law is neither violated nor revised. If God brings about some event which a law of nature fails to predict or describe, such an event cannot be characterized as a violation of a law of nature, since the law is valid only under tacit assumption that no supernatural factors come into play in addition to the natural factors.[23]

It is for the reason of “miracles” and the divinity attributed to Jesus that some “historians” find reason not to trust anything the Gospel writers say. They believe the Gospels are tainted with wishful thinking. Therefore, it is hard to determine who the “historical Jesus” really is after all. Crossan has written the following on the possibility of a resurrection miracle: “I do not think this event ever did or could happen… I do not think that anyone, anywhere, at any time brings dead people back to life.”[24]

Historians should not be so quick to dismiss the miraculous as human inventions by lunatic disciples wanting to start their own religion on a failed Messiah.[25] Paul Rhodes Eddy and Gregory Boyd have written:

Most within the guild of historical-critical scholarship identify the historical-critical method with this unequivocal commitment to the presupposition of naturalism. For such scholars, talk about a naturalistic historical-critical method is redundant, and talk about about a historical-critical method that is not unequivocally committed to naturalism is a contradiction in terms.[26]

Eddy and Boyd suggest an alternative method they call an “open historical-critical method” that is not unequivocally committed to naturalism and is open to events that defy natural explanation. The method is “critical” in that it first looks for “natural” causes to bizarre events, but at the same time it is “open” to the appeals of “supernatural” occurrences, not rejecting them on an a priori basis.[27] Scholars must be willing to follow the evidence wherever it leads them.

Other contemporary NT scholars also argue for the historical probability of miracles, thus substantiating the claims of the NT. Craig Evans believes that the same criteria used for supporting the authentic words of Jesus in the Gospels, can also be applied to miracles. The historical criteria are multiple attestation, dissimilarity, and embarrassment.[28]

As already previously argued, all of these can be found in the resurrection story. Craig Keener has arguably written the greatest work on the subject of miracles. In his two-volume work, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts, Keener challenges David Hume’s epistemological skepticism, and presents a monumental case for miraculous phenomena from late antiquity up to contemporary times. He begins by pointing out that all of the many ancient sources acknowledge that Jesus was a worker of miracles. Keener describes the importance of miracles in the Gospels:

Most scholars today working on the subject thus accept the claim that Jesus was a healer and exorcist. The evidence is stronger for this claim than for most other specific historical claims that we could make about Jesus or earliest Christianity. Scholars often note that miracles characterized Jesus’ historical activity no less than his teaching and prophetic activities did. So central are miracle reports to the Gospels that one could remove them only if one regarded the Gospels as preserving barely any genuine information about Jesus.[29]

Keener mentions how Walter Wink, a NT scholar and member of the Jesus Seminar, shifted his “materialistic” assumptions about reality after a divine healing of his own. Wink says, “I have no difficulty believing that Jesus actually healed people, and not just of psychosomatic diseases.” Wink writes that any scholar who would deny the truth of his story because of their worldview, do so “not on historical grounds, but on the basis of their” antisupernaturalistic assumptions.[30]

Therefore, it is important to study the historical Jesus by first discarding of the presupposition that naturalism can fully account for the way things are in the world. As Craig has written, “If we begin by presupposing naturalism, then of course what we wind up with is a purely natural Jesus. This reconstructed, naturalistic Jesus is not based on evidence, but on definition.”[31] So, based on the amount of observable evidence, there is good reason to believe in miracles today.

EVIDENCE THAT DEMANDS A VERDICT

The very laws of nature (as we know them) are continually sustained by God’s power. He has revealed himself in the natural order and in the spiritual order. But more specifically, God’s good will for creation has been made known in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ of Nazareth. And he has displayed his saving power by raising this Jesus from the dead. However, it is right to conclude that no amount of scientific or historical data can conclusively prove that Jesus rose from the dead. Belief in miracles, the resurrection of Jesus particularly, is not born from historical evidence alone. John Meier candidly writes:

Can miracles happen? Do miracles happen? In my view, these wide-ranging questions are legitimate in the arena of philosophy or theology. But they are illegitimate or at least unanswerable in a historical investigation that stubbornly restricts itself to empirical evidence and rational deductions or inferences from such evidence.[32]

C. E. B. Cranfield sums up his survey of the evidence in this way:

A positive proof of its truth is just not to be had by such means. Certainty with regard to it can come to us only by the work of the Holy Spirit making us free to believe. But it seems to me that the evidence available to us—and I have tried now a good many times to weigh it as carefully and honestly and objectively as I can—is such that, though I cannot prove that God raised Jesus from the dead by historical-critical methods, I can believe it without any way violating my intellectual or moral integrity. For myself, I must declare that I do indeed confidently believe it.[33]

Finally, there are at least five established facts in the case for the resurrection. These “minimal facts” are the death of Jesus by crucifixion, the empty tomb, the disciple’s resurrection claims, the conversions of James and Paul, and the rapid growth of the early church in the face of suffering and death. This is compelling evidence for the resurrection of Jesus that every skeptic must confront with historical, logical, and consistent reasons of rebuttal if they wish to challenge mainstream biblical and historical scholarship, or engage in an attack on the gospel of Jesus.

After normal causations are exhausted as an explanation for the resurrection story, the historical evidence points to the “high probability” that Jesus rose from the dead.[34]

D.D. Flowers, 2012.

NOTE: This academic paper was put into a popular three-part post “Why I Believe in the Resurrection of Jesus” here at the blog. There are active links and videos in that series of posts.


[1] A few major scholars such as Dale Allison, Raymond Brown, Peter Carnley, David Catchpole, William Lane Craig, John Dominic Crossan, James D.G. Dunn, Bart Ehrman, Gary Habermas, Gerd Ludemann, Willi Marxsen, Gerald O’Collins, Richard Swinburne, A.J.M. Wedderburn and N.T. Wright have weighed in on the topic.

[2] Dale Allison, Resurrecting Jesus: The Earliest Christian Tradition and Its Interpreters (New York: T&T Clark, 2005), 200.

[3] See Richard Burridge, What are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004). Burridge calls for an understanding of the gospels an ancient biographies.

[4] Daniel B. Wallace, Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament: Manuscript, Patristic, and Apocryphal Evidence (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2011), 28.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Bart Ehrman is a NT textual critic, and former evangelical Christian. See his book, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005). Also, see Nicholas Perrin’s response to Ehrman in his book, Lost in Transmission: What Can We Know About the Words of Jesus (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007).

[7] F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1981), 14-15.

[8] James D. G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered. Christianity in the Making, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 855.

[9] E. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (London: Penguin, 1993), 11.

[10] John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Peasant (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992), 145.

[11] Josephus, Antiquities 18.64; Tacitus, Annals 15.44; Lucian of Samosata, The Death of Pererine 11-13; Mara Bar Serapion, BL Add. 14658; and the Talmud, Sanhedrin 43a. The Quran denies that Jesus was crucified on a Roman cross (Surah 4:157-158). This is a rather embarrassing historical blunder on behalf of the Quran. This is not some insignificant textual variant or slight discrepancy in the Islamic text. It is a historical contradiction.

[12] Early proponents were: Karl Friedrich Bahrdt, Karl Venturini, Heinrich Paulus, and Friedrich Schleiermacher. The muslim, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, proposed that Jesus survived the crucifixion in journeyed to India. See his book, Jesus in India (1899).

[13] See the ancient writer, Seneca Moral Epistles 101; and Martin Hengel, Crucifixion, trans. John Bowden (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977), 22-23.

[14] “interpretations based on the assumption that Jesus did not die on the cross appear to be at odds with modern medical knowledge.” The Journal of the American Medical Association “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ” Vol. 255 (March 21, 1986), 1463.

[15] David Strauss, A New Life of Jesus. 2 vols (Edinburgh: Williams & Norgate, 1879).

[16] Oddly enough, Strauss actually popularized this theory. In Strauss’ view, the disciples were tripping with the resurrected Christ! This view is not taken seriously by any scholar or medical expert today. See Jake O’Connell “Jesus’ resurrection and collective hallucinations.” Tyndale Bulletin 60, no. 1 (January 1, 2009): 69-105.

[17] Gary Habermas and Michael Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2004), 105-108.

[18] Michael Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2010), 567-568.

[19] Paula Fredriksen (Boston University) in an interview by Peter Jennings in Search for Jesus (American Broadcasting Corp. [ABC], July 2000).

[20] Douglas W. Kennard, Messiah Jesus: Christology in His Day and Ours (New York: Peter Lang, 2008), 335. Kennard writes: “No O.T. text claims the time of third day resurrection of Messiah, but a sentiment grew among Pharisaic second Temple Judaism that began to see the Biblical text describe the general resurrection and even a Messianic resurrection on the third day.” Also see Wright’s Resurrection of the Son of God, 321-322. It can at least be said that the traumatized disciples were not thinking that Jesus was going to rise from the dead

[21] N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, Vol. 3: Christian Origins and the Question of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 686-687.

[22] David Hume, An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 10.2.101. Hume is saying that it is a miracle that anyone could ever be dumb enough to believe in the Christian faith!

[23] William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth & Apologetics (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008), 262.

[24] Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994), 94-95.

[25] The following contemporary perspectives on miracles take the notion seriously: R. Swinburne, The Concept of Miracle (New York: Macmillan, 1970); F.J. Beckwith, David Hume’s Argument against Miracles: A Critical Analysis (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1989); T.C. Williams, The Idea of the Miraculous: The Challenge to Science and Religion (New York: Macmillan, 1990); J. Houston, Reported Miracles: A Critique of Hume (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994); R.D. Geivett and G.R. Habermas, eds., In Defense of Miracles: A Comprehensive Case for God’s Action in History (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1997); C.S. Keener, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011).

[26] Paul Rhodes Eddy and Gregory Boyd, The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 51-52.

[27] Ibid., 53.

[28] Craig Evans, Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 140.

[29] Craig S. Keener, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 23-24.

[30] Ibid., 103.

[31] Craig, 279.

[32] John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Vol. 2 (New York: Doubleday, 1994), 511. Meier is not saying that miracles are not real events in time and space, nor is he doing “covert” apologetics.

[33] C.E.B. Cranfield, “The Resurrection of Jesus.” The Historical Jesus in Recent Research. eds. James D.G. Dunn and Scot McKnight (Winona Lake: Eisebrauns, 2005), 390-391.

[34] David J. Norman, “Doubt and the resurrection of Jesus.” Theological Studies 69, no. 4 (December 1, 2008): 786-811.


The Jewish Religious World of Jesus

The Jewish Religious World of Jesus—A Brief Overview

There is a great deal of misunderstanding that often derives from a reading of the New Testament when the modern reader does not consider the religious matrix of the first-century.

Ultimately, proper application to our own situation suffers tremendously.

In the last 20 years, biblical scholars have taken great strides in discovering the world of Second-Temple Judaism. This new wealth of information has made it possible for the church to better understand the religious world of Jesus. Placing Jesus within his own context, helps us to see him in our own.

Scholars are learning that the Jewish Religious landscape was much more multi-faceted than previously imagined.

N.T. Wright has written, “the one thing we can safely say about first-century Judaism is that there is no such thing as first-century Judaism, and that it may be best to speak of ‘Judaisms,’ plural” (Wright, 244).

In the previous two centuries before Jesus, political and religious strife created a tumultuous climate, especially in the region of Palestine.

The successful Maccabean Revolt, and then the people’s utter disgust with the failure of the Hasmonean Dynasty, had largely brought about an apocalyptic worldview, deep longings for a Jewish Messiah to establish the kingdom of God on the earth, and a hope in the imminent restoration of Israel according to God’s covenantal faithfulness.

There were several religious parties and sects that grew up during this period, and they were in full bloom during the ministry of Jesus.

This article will briefly examine what is currently known about those Jewish Religious groups that existed in the time of Jesus, and beckon the reader to consider what Jesus’ relationship was to them.

Pharisees

The Pharisees emerge as the most popular of all religious groups in the first-century. The etymology of the name Pharisee is uncertain, but some scholars believe the name is derived from the Hebrew word parush, which means “separation” or “consecration.”

This religious sect has commonly been labeled as strict legalists who were bent on oppressing people with burdensome rules for their own self-righteous pleasure. But that may not be an entirely accurate portrayal.

Jesus did indeed speak harsh words to these religious leaders, calling them hypocrites and “white washed tombs” (Matt. 23). His words of rebuke were certainly the strongest with the Pharisees.

However, it appears that Jesus may have had more in common with the Pharisees than any other religious group in the first-century.

So, who were these teachers of the law? Who were the “scribes” and Pharisees? And why was Jesus so bothered by this religious group?

The Pharisees were deeply concerned about Torah and they actively sought ways to find fresh interpretions and apply the Scripture to a world on the move. The “scribes” were those specifically trained in interpreting Torah. Although the scribes did not belong to any one specific party, it seems that they resonated with the Pharisees.

The Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the dead and eternal life and punishment. They also were accepting of other more recent theological developments regarding angels and demons. The Pharisees were not only concerned about proper biblical interpretation, but also with proving their covenant faithfulness in ritual purity.

For the most part, the people trusted the guidance of the Pharisees as they influenced the life of the nation at the local level and showed great devotion to God. The Pharisees believed that Torah was for all people, and they made a concerted effort to keep the Law of Moses fresh and alive.

“Woe to you, blind guides!”

Why then does Jesus rebuke the Pharisees throughout the Gospels? It is because the Pharisees believed that rabbinical oral-interpretive traditions (i.e. “traditions of the elders”) were just as authoritative as the Torah itself.

Also, the Pharisaical purity practices led them to erect social distinctions between themselves and fellow Jews. It became rather difficult for Pharisees to maneuver in life after adhering to extra human-laws and traditions.

Jesus simply would not allow the accumulation of the petty Pharisaical traditions deter him from the divine law. Jesus was deeply troubled by the “yeast” of the Pharisees (Matt. 16:12).

It was a disregard for the Pharisaical traditions that placed Jesus at odds with this popular sect. The Pharisees were unwilling to depart from those interpretive traditions that they felt were the greatest display of God’s covenant faithfulness. For this, they sought to trap and kill him.

Had the Pharisees not been so fond of their own teachings, and had instead been open to the teachings of the Galilean rabbi, they may have possibly recognized Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah promised in the Scriptures.

Sadducees

The Sadducees are remembered as the smaller aristocratic party that “combined conservative religious attitudes with power politics” (Ferguson, 519). Unlike the Pharisees, the Sadducees adhered to stricter interpretations, claiming only Torah as authoritative—even rejecting the Prophets and the Writings. They were the Religious Right of Jesus’ day.

What scholars learn about the Sadducees comes mainly from their opponents. The Sadducees are mostly remembered for their denial of the resurrection from the dead (Matt. 22:23). They had no use for the theological developments of the intertestamental period.

Their primary role as a priestly party was controlling the temple ritual. The Sadducees appear to be mostly interested in maintaining the status quo. Where most Jews detested the Roman imperial occupation of Palestine, the Sadducees enjoyed the peace, power, and influence that Rome was able to give them. They preferred the Pax Romana over the peace of Jesus.

They were only interested in serving God in so far as it didn’t require them to give up their secure position of prosperity or progress in their theology. It is worth noting that there is evidence of several Pharisees who followed Jesus, but there is not a single record of a Sadducee convert.

The Sadducees drop off the religious radar soon after the destruction of the temple in AD 70. These conservatives fade with the shifting of their world.

Essenes

The monastic sect that lived at Qumran, which is located on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea, were called the “Essenes.” The Essenes, according to Philo and Josephus, numbered over 4,000 men. This religious group believed they were the rightful heirs of God’s promises.

The Essenes communicated this belief by withdrawing from temple life in Jerusalem, believing the entire religious system was corrupt. They practiced extreme frugality, celibacy, and ritual purity.

Ritual purity was central to the Essene way of life as they began their day with a purification bath before dressing in standard white outer garments.

There were ritual morning prayers, communal meals, and daily agrarian duties. They may have also worked as shepherds, beekeepers, and craftsmen.

The Essenes held an apocalyptic worldview. They believed they were living in the last days and that the prophets pointed to their times. This can be seen throughout Qumran literature. The Essenes were anticipating a conquering Messiah and they believed that they were saving themselves as the faithful keepers of the covenant. All others were just religious pretenders.

They intensely studied and copied the Scriptures. Since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, scholars have learned that the Essene community believed they were “sons of light” and the last remnant of God’s covenant.

Some scholars have suggested that John the Baptist may have emerged from the Qumran community.

Zealots, Sicarii, and Herodians

The Zealots are known as the extreme anti-Roman party with violent tendencies. Scholars point out that it is likely that these revolutionaries only differed from the Pharisees in their willingness to use violent force and sacrifice themselves for the sake of Jewish liberty.

The Zealots held a biblical hermeneutic that encouraged violent revolt against the enemies of God. Josephus has written, they were Jews expressing their conviction: “No lord, but God” (Jospehus, Ant. 18.1.6). Simon the Zealot was one of the Twelve disciples of Jesus (Matt. 10:4).

Another branch of the Zealots were the Sicarii, or “dagger men” (Acts 21:38). These terrorists would mingle among the crowds of people, especially during Jewish festivals, and strike down prominent Roman officials, only to quickly disappear back into the crowd undetected.

These were the men that held Herod’s wilderness compound, Masada, during the Jewish revolt which first began in AD 66. It was in this military fortress that hundreds of Sicarii, along with their families, would take their own lives in order to avoid capture by the Romans in AD 73. The Romans were impressed by the honor and bravery of these freedom fighters.

The Herodians were another political and religious group that carried great influence among the people of Palestine. They are mentioned only three times in the New Testament. As their name suggests, the Herodians were clearly partisan to the Herodian dynasty, but they are still seen joining with the Pharisees in their opposition to Jesus (Mk. 3:6).

This is significant, since the Herodians were politically affiliated with Herod’s house, but religiously and economically in agreement with the Sadducees. The testimony of Matthew and Mark reveal that the Herodians were willing to work alongside their rivals to oppose Jesus of Nazareth.

Samaritans

Samaria was the hill country located between Galilee to the north and Judea to the south. Jesus told a parable of a Good Samaritan who helped a man that was beaten and left for dead on the side of the road (Lk. 10:25-37). Several pious travelers walk right on by the helpless man, but it is the Samaritan that reflects the kingdom of God.

This story cuts to the heart of Jewish prejudices towards this religious and ethnic group. For the religious Jews living in the first-century, it is impossible to miss Jesus’ provocative challenge to reconsider popular opinion about a religious neighbor and fellow keeper of the covenant.

So who were the Samaritans? Why were they disliked among many Jews?

The Samaritans were considered an unclean and illegitimate “half-breed race” that was neither Jew nor Gentile. This was due to their practice of intermarrying with pagans, being descendants of the northern tribes that split from Judah after the time of Solomon, and their establishment of a rival temple on Mt. Gerizim.

The woman at the well discusses this point of contention with Jesus in John 4:1-42. Jesus proposes that the religious feud of temple worship is no longer relevant because the Messiah has come to set the world to rights.

Jesus indicates that God has something else in mind which goes beyond what was being anticipated and practiced by all religious Jews.

What Religious Brand Was Jesus?

It is worthy of careful consideration that Jesus did not entirely agree with any Jewish Religious group of his own day. Jesus rebuked representatives and ideologies from each group in an effort to reform their ideas of covenant faithfulness, ritual purity, and Messianic expectations.

For some of these religious folk, he did affirm that certain points of their theology were correct, still they needed to be refined through his own divine interpretation of Scripture (Jn. 5:39). Jesus claimed to be the only one able to interpret and teach without any blind spots or lapse in judgment.

Jesus refused to affiliate himself with any of the Jewish denominations of his day. He would not allow himself to be pigeonholed, and he was angered by the efforts other Jews made to place God in a box, constrained by their own theological and philosophical paradigms.

No, Jesus kept a healthy distance from these religious groups and he refused to weigh in on the hot political and religious debates of the day.

Jesus turned the tables on his opponents. He shocked his audience by challenging their view of the Father’s love, teaching the inclusion of all those that welcomed him as Messiah, and proclaiming himself savior of the world.

Instead of joining these religious groups, Jesus gave a clear and resounding call, “Come, follow me” (Mk. 1:17). And the invitation still stands today.

Suggested Reading

  • DeSilva, David. An Introduction to the New Testament: Contexts, Methods & Ministry Formation. Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004.
  • Evans, Craig, and Stanley Porter. Dictionary of New Testament Background. Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000.
  • Ferguson, Everett. Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 3rd ed. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2003.
  • VanderKam, James. An Introduction to Early Judaism. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2001.
  • Wright, N.T. The New Testament and the People of God, Vol. 1: Christian Origins and the Question of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992.

Walking the Line: Staying Out of Theological Ditches

I am continually reminded that much heartache comes in our journey by not embracing the tensions in theology (our knowing of God) and seeking to walk in the middle of those tensions that seem to contradict one another.

Our Christian journey is often a tension-filled road of discipleship. Instead of striving to walk in the middle of the road in what’s taught about Christ and the essentials of our faith, folks often end up in the ditches. And boy are they dirty!

Here are just a few ditches I’ve personally encountered:

  • faith alone vs. good works
  • human reason (head) vs. blind faith (heart)
  • predestination vs. free will
  • love vs. wrath
  • Old Testament vs. New Testament
  • historical Jesus vs. theological Jesus
  • Scriptures vs. Jesus
  • rest vs. work
  • justice vs. mercy
  • oppressive law vs. cheap grace
  • conservative vs. liberal
  • traditional vs. charismatic
  • Southern Baptist vs. the world
  • rules vs. freedom (1 Corinthians vs. Galatians)
  • holy huddle vs. “I have to save the world” evangelism

How much doctrinal division and denominations have been formed out of choosing one side of the ditch to walk in?

All of this comes about because folks are unwilling to embrace the tensions. I wonder what kind of people we would be if we chose to walk God’s line—walk His road and stay out of those ditches.

What kind of people would we be if we accepted every believer’s portion of Christ? What if we were known by our love for one another and how we humbly explore the mystery of Christ together?

I’m confident we would be better listeners. We would be His learners.

Isn’t that one of the reasons we so desperately need each other? We help each other stay out of the ditch. But instead we often hear believers express this in a round about way: “Look!  I’m over here… my side is better.  Why aren’t you doing what I’m doing?”

And we think things to ourselves like, “Whew! I’m so glad I’m not stupid like that guy. I’m so glad I’m free. I’m glad I really know what’s going on.”

We go out trying to jerk wheels over to our side of the ditch through books, blogs, and magazines, and movements. I have found that people who jerk the wheel into any ditch probably aren’t paying much attention to what’s really going on. They make over-correcting a lifestyle.

If someone were to follow behind a drunk driver, that’s about how they drive.  (They do often slam into the back of people because their vision is impaired.)  And if they’re not drunk, it makes me say to myself, “Who taught that guy how to drive?” (I live in Houston, so I ask myself this almost everyday.)

I have followed behind some believers like that. And yes I know they have been behind me. I was in vocational ministry for a few years.

I submit that we have not learned these things from our driving instructor: Christ.

Think with me for a second. Maybe the ditches are there for a reason. It could be that those lines have been placed before us so that we can see the road. Sure, no one drives in a perfectly straight line. Nobody walks in perfect symmetry either.

But it is expected that we stay in our lane and walk on the pathway provided for us. When we don’t we’re likely to have a wreck or walk into a signpost. I think the sign says, “DON’T WALK ON THE GRASS!”

And let’s not forget this point. I look at these ditches and find that some of them don’t even really exist (e.g. love vs. wrath). We have dug our own ditches—potholes in many cases.  Because we don’t see the Instructor properly, we end up driving however we like.

This makes the roads unsafe to drive on and the ditches cluttered with wreckage.

WARNING: Ditches often collect trash! They’re dirty, smelly, and they induce vomiting. There might be an occasional rain that washes it out, but eventually there will be more filth collect there in the gutter. Stay out of the ditch! It’s hazardous to your health.

Dear saints, trust God in the tensions and understand that He has given us His truth in tension-filled pairs for a reason. Seek to discover a hermeneutical (biblical interpretation) practice where you’re taking the time to listen to others in community.

A communal hermeneutic keeps us out of the ditches and helps us to stay on the road that leads us to Christ; where we may encounter the Living Lord in His written Word.

We were not created to walk behind each other, but beside each other. We were created for community. In this way we are able to lookout for the potholes, stay out of the ditches, and walk the line we have in Christ.

Lord help us to walk Your line and find the balance of traveling the road You’re walking. Amen.

So, what ditches have you encountered?


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