Tag Archives: dale allison

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 can 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 Transfiguration

Theological Interpretation of the Glorified Christ

Dale Allison has written, “Reducing the theological Jesus to the historical Jesus is no more plausible than reducing the mental world to the physical world, even if a lot of smart people have tried to do both.”[1]

There is hardly a pericope in the Synoptic Gospels that presents such a challenge to critical historical Jesus scholars than that of the transfiguration of Christ. It is no wonder why this bizarre epiphany is chalked up as yet another mythological fabrication of the historical Jesus—the sad divinizing of a failed would-be Messiah.

It is this post-enlightenment rationalism that refuses to believe in miracles of any sort. If there is a god, he most certainly does not become human flesh, make the lame walk and the blind see, or raise folks from the dead.

This is of course not an issue for those who believe that the theological Jesus is also the historical Jesus, and that the earliest testimony about Jesus is reliable and trustworthy. Those believers who affirm the creeds of Nicaea and Chalcedon are open to God breaking forth from heaven with divine power into that realm in which human beings live, and move, and have their being. The transfiguration of Jesus is one of those breaking-in-moments where God visibly manifests his power and favor upon the one he claims to be his Son—the glorified Christ—the God-man.

Oddly enough, the transfiguration of Jesus is one of the most “neglected” stories in the entire New Testament.[2] Many widely acclaimed theology textbooks used in seminaries over the years say little to nothing about this magnificent display of the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth.[3]

What is the reason for so many pastors, theologians, and biblical scholars distancing themselves from the transfiguration narratives? To be truthful, not everyone is ignoring the transfiguration. Dorothy Lee states that the neglect is committed largely by the Western tradition.

Lee writes, “Christians in the East regard the transfiguration as central to the symbolism of the gospel, disclosing as much about themselves as about God.”[4] So, what is happening in the West?

In the West, contemporary scholarship has not given the transfiguration story as significant a place in the discussion on New Testament theology as might be expected. This is not to say that there has been a total absence of discussion, but the difficulties which the text itself poses to the modern exegete—literary, historical, and theological—have led scholars to give it relatively little attention.[5]

The purpose of this paper is to give a theological interpretation of the transfiguration of Jesus found within the Synoptic Gospels and elsewhere in the New Testament by: (1) giving a brief critical examination of the more recent scholarship, (2) appreciating the slight nuances between the Synoptic redactors, (3) revealing a Christology from “above” with feet still on the ground of real history, (4) proving that multiple attestation of the event adds to its significance. This paper will move past the often-debated concerns of origin, genre, and nature of the Synoptic account.

The author makes an informed assumption that the biblical text is accurate in what it reports about Jesus of Nazareth and the mysterious happenings on the mount of transfiguration. This paper will conclude with a challenge for Western traditions of Christianity to rediscover the transfiguration of Jesus with its theological and Christological implications for faith and practice.

THE TRANSFIGURATION IN THE SYNOPTIC GOSPELS

It is of first importance to notice that each of the Synoptic Gospels places the transfiguration within the same sequence of events:

(1) Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah; (2) Jesus commands the disciples not to tell anyone; (3) Jesus predicts his coming suffering, death, and resurrection from the dead; (4) Jesus calls his disciples to follow him sacrificially; (5) the transfiguration; (6) Jesus commands the disciples to keep quite until after his resurrection; (7) a discussion on the coming of Elijah (except in Luke); (8) the miraculous healing of a demonized boy; and (9) a second prediction of the passion of Christ.[6]

W. L. Liefeld declares, “The assumption is clearly that the event [transfiguration] took place at this juncture in the life and ministry of Jesus.”[7] This event must have taken place somewhere in the middle of Jesus’ ministry, and it stands alone as a one time occurrence. The transfiguration only finds meaning as a unique event occurring in the life and ministry of Jesus prior to his death, resurrection, and ascension. The case for a “misplaced resurrection account” has been laid to rest once and for all.[8]

The Gospel of Mark (9:2-10)

The vast majority of scholars believe that the Gospel of Mark was the first of the Synoptic Gospels (i.e. Marcan priority), and probably written in the mid to late 60’s to a predominately gentile audience.[9] Matthew and Luke are commonly thought to have borrowed from Mark—possibly using earlier source material and oral traditions to compose their biographies for their own purposes. Therefore, it is best to begin with the account in Mark.

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.  (Mark 9:2-10 NRSV)

As an ancient literary genre, the transfiguration is known as an “epiphany” because of the sudden manifestation of a divine being where the witnesses are invited to participate in the plan of God.[10] Marks says that the transfiguration took place “six days” after Jesus’ words that “some standing here will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power” (9:1). The “some” are Peter, James, and John—the power is seen in the glorification of Christ on the mountain.

Scholars are not certain on what mountain this occurred, but the most likely spot is Mount Meron located in Galilee about eight miles northwest of the Sea of Galilee. It is the highest peak in Palestine and close to Caesarea Philippi, the place of Peter’s great confession.[11] It comes as no surprise that this epiphany happens on a mountain. Mountains and other “high places” were viewed as the setting for divine experiences. For Jesus to lead Peter, James, and John up a “high mountain” prepares the audience for a forthcoming revelation.

Moses ascended the “mountain of God” (Exod 19:3) and had a divine encounter by way of a theophany on Sinai (Exod 19:16-20). After this encounter Moses took with him Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and seventy elders of Israel (Exod 24:9-10). Mark sets his readers up for a similar event, but it turns out to be something much different—far more extraordinary than anyone could expect or imagine. Jesus gives three of his disciples more insight into the previous confession that he is Messiah (8:29).

Mark says that Jesus was temporarily “transfigured” or “transformed” (metamorphoo) externally before them, and that his clothes were dazzling white. He emphasizes this fact with “no one on earth could bleach them” (9:3) that white. The shining white clothing is characteristic of heavenly beings, thus it draws attention to the heavenly nature of Jesus. R. T. France writes, “The point is presumably that no naturalistic explanation can account for what the disciples witnessed.”[12]

The story continues with its bizarre happenings as the OT prophets Elijah and Moses appear, and then begin “talking with Jesus” (9:4). Mark does not tell his readers what they are discussing, but the mere appearance of these two prophets speak a great deal to those sensitive to the Jewish Scriptures. It is probably best the traditional idea that these two men represent the Law and the Prophets be rejected.[13] Elijah was not a writing prophet, and his name is mentioned ahead of Moses.

The presence of these prophets triggers the eschatological promise of the coming of Elijah (6:15; 8:28) who was taken to heaven without dying (2 Kgs 2:11) and was expected as a forerunner to the new age (Mal 3:23-24). Moses had an experience where his face was left radiant from the glory of God (Exod 34:35). He prophesied in eschatological hope that a prophet greater than himself would come (Deut 18:15-19). The appearance of these two prophets symbolizes the arrival of the messianic age. The suffering and rejection of these prophets prefigure the experiences of the passion of Christ.

The Messiah has indeed arrived in Jesus. But as the rest of the pericope will reveal, he’s not the Messiah they expected.

Mark says that Peter responds to this mysterious event with words that have been greatly debated: “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” (9:5). Mark tells us that Peter said this because he was terrified and did not know what to say (9:6).[14] It is worth noting that Peter may not have fully grasped the full meaning to his previous confession in Caesarea Philippi. Here he addresses Jesus as “Rabbi” (teacher), and appears to interpret this event as signifying the equality of Jesus and the prophets.[15] Then from the heavenly cloud—representing the divine presence—came a voice saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him” (9:7)![16] Jesus is the glorified Christ—the Word of God.

In an instant things return to normal and Jesus tells the three disciples not to speak of what they have seen until after the “Son of Man had risen from the dead” (9:9). Mark reports that they did not understand what Jesus meant. The confusion of the disciples is common in Mark’s Gospel. Dorothy Lee writes, “Mark sees discipleship as flowing from Christology—that is, from his understanding of Jesus—so that the revealing of Jesus’ identity is bound up with the calling of the disciples.”[17]

Lee succinctly describes the symbolic significance of the prophets and the purpose for their appearing during the transfiguration:

Moses and Elijah are thus complex symbols, representing God’s ancient people, Israel, and associated with mountain epiphanies and the events of the end time. One thing is clear in the range of possible meanings. For Mark, the symbolic significance is unmistakably Christological: their presence acts as a dual pointer to the identity of Jesus himself. It is no coincidence that they appear at the very moment of Jesus’ metamorphosis, opening up past, present and future to the heavenly world, and giving a cosmic perspective on the human world embodied in Israel.[18]

The Gospel of Matthew (17:1-9)

Matthew was written for a Jewish audience, yet his Gospel is at the same time universal in its scope (13:38; 21:33-43; 28:18-20). The “Jewishness” of the Gospel can be seen in the extensive use of OT Scriptures and the substitution of “heaven” for God’s name. Matthew is intent on proving that Jesus is the new and greater Moses—the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy.

Matthew is interested in the church and the needs of the growing Jewish community. His Gospel comes later than Mark’s Gospel, and he abridges Mark’s material to make it more easily remembered by the new Jewish believers.[19] Matthew also stresses the inevitability of God’s judgment, apocalyptic eschatology, and that Jesus is the promised Messiah. Matthew focuses on the significance of Jesus and the cost of following Christ for the sake of the kingdom.

Matthew uses Mark’s narrative of the transfiguration, but there are clear nuances and variations that Matthew has added to the story in order allude more clearly to the OT, as the true identity of Christ is revealed in a call to discipleship. Matthew also says that it is “six days” after Jesus told the disciples about seeing the Son of Man “coming in his kingdom” (16:28). The six days may be a literary device used to set up a glorious seventh day event.[20]

In Matthew’s account, it is not only his clothes that are transformed into a dazzling white, but he says that Jesus’ face “shone like the sun” (17:2). He undoubtedly intends to evoke remembrance of the radiant face of Moses after having been in the presence of God (Exod 34:29-35). Moses is of course mentioned before Elijah in their appearing. Moses and Elijah had important roles as precursors to Jesus, now Christ comes to be more than an eschatological prophet. Matthew presents Jesus as coming to fulfill the Law and the Prophets. He himself is the fulfillment.

How did the disciples recognize Moses and Elijah? None of the Synoptic narratives tell us how they knew them, but it was most likely because of the conversation they overheard.[21] Matthew has Peter responding to Jesus with “Lord” instead of “Rabbi” (17:4). Where Peter’s folly in addressing Jesus as “Rabbi” is clear in Mark, Matthew may not want to use this title more as a literary avoidance of the words later to be spoken by Judas (26:25, 49).

Therefore, Matthew is able to keep Peter from speaking words that might sound like denial to readers, but maintain his clear confusion with what is happening. For Peter to suggest the building of three tents is in some manner to express that confusion (17:4). He may have suggested this for several reasons: (1) he wanted to honor each figure in a commemorative way; (2) he wanted them to stay on the mountain and continue communicating with them, like that of the Tent of Meeting; (3) he was simply being hospitable in seeking to provide habitations for them.[22]

Regardless of Peter’s true intentions (even if he himself knew what he meant), it was wrong to place Jesus on the same level with Moses and Elijah during this temporary event. The voice from heaven speaks (actually interrupting Peter), like the voice at Jesus’ baptism, testifying to the superiority of Christ over his predecessors. The enveloping cloud restrains Peter much like the cloud that kept Moses from entering the tabernacle (Exod 40:35).[23] The disciples fall down in fear after the hearing of the voice from heaven, indicating worship of the heavenly Christ.

Lee writes that the transfiguration “is the outward manifestation of the inner person, as revealed by God. Jesus is shown as he is in his true self, hidden from the eyes of the world…”[24]

The response of the church is to worship!

The Gospel of Luke (9:28-36)

The Gospel of Luke is the longest of all four gospels and is the first volume in his “orderly account” (Luke-Acts) of the life and teachings of Jesus. For those believing in the two-source theory with Marcan priority, both Matthew and Luke used Mark, as well as an unknown “Q” source.[25] Is Luke’s account of the transfiguration a simple redaction of Mark and Matthew? Maybe not.[26] There are similarities, but striking differences as well.

Luke begins his narrative with “eight days after” instead of the six days that both Mark and Matthew use. Is this a plain contradiction with what happened? Also, Luke will provide insight into the conversation that Jesus, Moses, and Elijah were having, not found in Mark and Matthew. Luke mentions the disciples being “weighed down with sleep” during the event, and uses slight differences in vocabulary and sequence. How do scholars account for the differences, and what do they mean?

Luke may have been relying on an unknown source, but explanation can be given apart from knowing that source and what it actually contained. As a historian, Luke smoothes out the “six days” to an approximate week. For Luke’s Gentile audience, it is not necessary to maintain such a direct connection to the OT. Luke says that Jesus went up with his disciples to pray (9:28). Prayer is a major theme in Luke-Acts as the author draws attention to this act in order to reveal its relationship to heaven (e.g. Lk 3:21-22; Acts 1:14; 2:1). The prayer of Jesus brings about the transfiguration event.

It would appear that in order to speak with the heavenly prophets Jesus would need for himself to be transfigured into heavenly form. Luke says that Jesus and the prophets were “speaking about his departure” that was coming in Jerusalem (9:31)—an exodus which leads to the playing out of salvation history.

So why does Luke mention that the disciples were sleepy? Luke intends to prefigure the prayer scene in the Garden of Gethsemane (22:39-53). At the transfiguration there is glory, in the garden there is agony. Luke ties these two scenes together in order to emphasize the confusion and misunderstanding of the disciples.[27]

The glorified Jesus will overcome this agony in resurrection (24:5). And the confusion of the grief-stricken disciples will be transformed into a bold confession of the glorified and resurrected Christ (24:52-53). As Luke says, “in those days” they told no one about what they had seen. But they would not stay silent forever.

THE TRANSFIGURATION ELSEWHERE IN THE NEW TESTAMENT

The Gospel of John

The Gospel of John is missing the transfiguration narrative. Why is that? George Ladd says, “John differs from the Synoptics in making the entire ministry of Jesus a manifestation of glory.”[28] It is clear that John seeks to portray the glory of Jesus throughout his Gospel, so why does he not include the narrative? It is hard to say. However, there is some evidence that John may have this event in mind in a couple of places.

John testifies to seeing the “glory of the one and only” (1:14). This could refer to the transfiguration, or he might be speaking of the entire life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Also, there is the Father’s voice from heaven, which proclaims that he had “glorified” the name of Jesus, and would do it again (12:27-33).

There is no way to be certain if John is referring to the transfiguration, but it does seem unlikely that such an event would not find its way into his Gospel, considering his theological emphasis and having experienced something as glorious as Jesus being transfigured before his very eyes.

Lee writes the following on the “absence” of the transfiguration:

If there is cross-fertilization between the two traditions, the Synoptic and the Johannine, the question of why John did not use the transfiguration story becomes more insistent. And here an answer can be suggested: that John did know something of the transfiguration and chose to use it, not as a single tale, but as a motif—a series of symbols—throughout his Gospel. If so, this would mean that, instead of re-telling the story with his own editorial changes, John has chosen to weave the threads of the transfiguration into the warp and woof of his tale, so that the main symbols are rehearsed again and again throughout the Johannine narrative. If so, the whole Gospel could be viewed as a ‘transfiguration’ story: ‘the glory which in the Synoptics flashes into the story on the mountain is perceived by Saint John to pervade all the words and works of Jesus.’[29]

Lee’s suggestion to view the entire Gospel as a transfiguration story is profound. This only further highlights the sheer beauty of John’s Gospel. John didn’t include the transfiguration narrative because it is not his style. He prefers to stretch such a grand event throughout his work.

The Second Epistle of Peter (1:16-18)

For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain. (NRSV)

In an effort to validate the “power and coming” of Christ, Peter reminds his audience that the disciples were eyewitnesses to the transfiguration. He actually uses a first-person-personal-pronoun to emphasize, “we ourselves heard” a voice that exalted Christ in the glorious event.[30]

This event is treated as a historical and spiritual reality which confirms the certainty of the future parousia of Christ.

The transfiguration actually happened and was observed. It is not legend or a mythical tale used much later to deify a crucified Messiah. In Peter’s mind, the disciples witnessed many mysterious things that present overwhelming evidence of the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth.

CONCLUSION—MOTIFS & MEANING

The many motifs within the transfiguration narrative can now be summarized before clarifying the theological interpretation of the glorified Christ. The first motif encountered is the “after six days”—used as a common literary pattern in Semitic literature.[31] This immediately parallels Exodus 24:16. The mountain ascension is the next feature reminiscent of Mount Sinai, as well as other events of divine revelation.

Also, the cloud on the mountain symbolizes the presence of the Lord on many occasions throughout the OT (Exod 19:16-19; Isa 4:5; Dan 7:13). The appearance of Moses and Elijah is significant for they are precursors to Christ and they represent eschatological prophets. This immediately identifies Jesus as eschatological prophet, but the unfolding of the vision reveals that he is much more than that—he is the Son of Man.

The voice from heaven is the climax of the experience. This “voice” alludes to Psalm 2:7. And it might even be possible that there is an allusion to Isaac, making Jesus the willing sacrifice.

Finally, what can be said and done for the recovery of the transfiguration in Christian faith and practice within the church? What difference does this make for the doctrine of Christ?

Western Christianity in many places is struggling for survival against a deadly secularism that smothers any sense of transcendence or mystery, too much of which has penetrated its own ranks. The Church needs to regain the vision of Christ on the mountain, the light in which we see light, the echo of the divine voice acclaiming Jesus the beloved Son—the biblical symbolism of a majestic, incarnate, crucified God as the only source of hope for the transfiguring of a disfigured world.[32]

The transfiguration affirms the church’s eschatological hope in the resurrected Christ, as the One who is greater than all the prophets—equal only to God—who reigns the universe supreme.

D.D. Flowers, 2012.

[1] Dale C. Allison, The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 79.

[2] Dorothy Lee, Transfiguration. New Century Theology Series. (New York: Continuum, 2004), 1.

[3] For example, Millard Erickson in his Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998), 1241, only gives passing mention to the pericope in order to speculate about heavenly bodies; Stanley Grenz doesn’t mention it at all in his Theology for the Community of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994); George Ladd briefly addresses the implications of the Matthean account in his A Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 222.

[4] Lee, 1.

[5] A. D. A. Moses, Matthew’s Transfiguration Story and Jewish-Christian Controversy (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996), 13. For a bibliography of scholarship before 1981, see T. F. Best, “The Transfiguration: A Select Bibliography.” Journal Of The Evangelical Theological Society 24, no. 2 (June 1, 1981): 157-161. Also see Dale Allison, The New Moses: A Matthean Typology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993).

[6] W. L. Liefeld, “Transfiguration,” Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. ed. Joel B. Green and Scot McKnight, 834-841 (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 834.

[7] Ibid., 835. Something out of the ordinary occurred on that mountain prior to the resurrection!

[8] Wellhausen, Bultmann, Carlston, and other liberal scholars have promoted this view. See Bultmann, The History of the Synoptic Tradition (Oxford: Blackwell, 1963), 259-260. The case for a misplaced resurrection appearance has been convincingly refuted. See Robert H. Stein, “Is the transfiguration (Mark 9:2-8) a misplaced resurrection-account.” Journal Of Biblical Literature 95, no. 1 (March 1, 1976): 79-96.

[9] Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1997), 111; 163; also Stanton’s The Gospels and Jesus, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 34.

[10] John Paul Heil, The Transfiguration of Jesus: Narrative Meaning and Function of Mark 9:2-8, Matthew 17:1-8 and Luke 9:28-36, (Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 2000), 38-39. The divine being remains invisible in a theophany. In the transfiguration, the disciples are being called to play a role in God’s salvific plan for the world.

[11] Liefeld, 835.

[12] R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek New Testament, The New International Greek Testament Commentary, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 351.

[13] Ibid.

[14] This is very telling since it is believed that Mark was largely dependent upon the testimony of Peter.

[15] Heil, 161.

[16] The first time this heavenly voice is heard is at Jesus’ baptism in Mark 1:11.

[17] Lee, 10.

[18] Ibid., 19.

[19] Robert H. Mounce, Matthew. New International Commentary (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1998), 4.

[20] Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 436. See Exodus 24:15-18. This and other features of the narrative are recalling the Sinai revelation.

[21] Ibid., 438.

[22] Heil, 127.

[23] John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew: A Commentary on the Greek Text. The New International Greek Testament Commentary, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 704. The call to “listen to him” echoes that of Dt. 18:15.

[24] Lee, 47. See James A. Penner, “Revelation and Discipleship in Matthew’s Transfiguration Account.”

Bibliotheca Sacra 152, no. 606 (April 1, 1995): 201-210. He claims the event is about revelation and discipleship.

[25] Brown, 116-122. See R.E. Brown’s Introduction to the New Testament for an overview of “Q”.

[26] Barbara O. Reid, “Voices and Angels: What Were They Talking about at the Transfiguration? A redaction-critical study of Luke 9:28-36.” Biblical Research 34, (January 1, 1989): 19-31.

[27] Lee, 74.

[28] Ladd, 312.

[29] Lee, 101.

[30] Leifeld, 836.

[31] Liefeld, 839.

[32] Lee, 2.


%d bloggers like this: