Episode 21: He is risen!
Here we are in Easter 2021 and Christians are still talking about the resurrection! What’s the deal?! Josh and our guest for this episode, Nathan Sutcliffe, discuss the origin of this astonishing claim and highlight the historical phenomena that simply refuse to be explained by anything else other than Jesus actually rising from the dead. We’d love to hear your thoughts on this world-changing few days in history and what it means to you.
This episode was recorded for Easter 2021, and to kick things off, Josh asks Nathan why they should bother focusing on the strange old records of what went on in Jerusalem when they could instead be thinking more about the chocolate eggs that are readily available everywhere.
It’s a good question. Why be interested in the claim of the resurrection of Jesus? What is there that makes it worth looking into? And why do Christians view it as so important, so foundational to their faith? What does it have to do with them? These are some of the questions the episode aims to address.
The resurrection of Jesus and the role of evidence
The claims that Christians make are huge. Having a firm belief in anything that happened before digital record keeping was possible requires some good evidence. In this episode Josh and Nathan discuss some of the history and the sources we can look at to help us understand what happened.
They acknowledge that everyone looks at the same historical data – your belief or unbelief in any kind of god will affect how you view the claims made in the New Testament. If you don’t believe in God, then resurrections, in your worldview, are probably impossible. But if there is a God, then the resurrection of Jesus is something God is likely to want to do.
If we take good historical evidence and add it to this probability, what happens? Well, with good historical evidence, it becomes rational and appropriate for someone who believes in God to take the claim of resurrection seriously and be able to believe it really happened.
If presented with new evidence, or if we were shown that existing information that forms our understanding was wrong, well then you would hope to have the honesty and humility to re-evaluate your conclusions. That’s the approach that Josh and Nathan aim to take.
Reasons to believe (or at least be interested)
They discuss the fact that historical evidence points to ‘something’ happening, rather than nothing. Early Christians were convinced that the resurrection of Jesus was the ‘something’ that happened, and they could easily have been proved wrong in a number of ways.
What evidence was there for the original believers to accept that Jesus had risen from the dead? There are multiple early sources that claim that Jesus rose from the dead and that the tomb where he was laid was reported to be empty. The people making the claims were in Jerusalem at the time of his death, their claims were about events in living memory, near to where they were. Many of their claims would have been immediately disproved if the body of Jesus could have been produced from the tomb.
The claims were made very soon after the event
One important place where the resurrection is detailed by early Christians is a letter Paul wrote to believers in the Greek city of Corinth. Nathan explains that Paul was likely writing in the early 50s CE, only two decades after the event itself. He describes things he had told them before when he had visited them and, crucially, he says the things he told them had been told to him previously, before he had passed it all on to those in Corinth. This means, in simple terms, that the information had likely been around for a while.
This is the key passage from 1 Corinthians 15:
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.1 Corinthians 15:3-8
Josh and Nathan talk about how there is good consensus in biblical scholarship that this is an early creed, not a later fabrication. As an example:
Paul is quoting an early confessional formula… this confession is very ancient indeed, probably datable to the time surrounding Paul’s own call to apostleship – in other words, back to within about three years after Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem.Michael Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus, p318; Hays (1997) 257
Other early texts that talk about the resurrection of Jesus
Josh and Nathan also discuss other early texts that point to the reality of the resurrection: Mark 15:37-16:7 and Acts 13:28-31. These, alongside the passage in 1 Corinthians 15, show some really interesting features. They follow a pattern, even though they are presented differently, which means they all agree on the key points: Jesus died and was buried, but he was raised again and was seen by several other people. There is a high degree of correlation between these passages which means that they hold historical weight.
More broadly, all of these claims are about events that took place in the city of Jerusalem, a major and important city. It’s not as if the resurrection was supposed to have happened within a remote desert place, inaccessible and difficult to visit, and without any eye witnesses to observe what was happening. So, when the series of claims are considered together, it seems as though ‘something’ must have happened to trigger all the things that happen afterwards.
Josh and Nathan talk about more of the historical data that is available and note the following facts that are not contested by scholarship:
- Jesus, an itinerant preacher and reported miracle worker, died by crucifixion;
- Jesus ‘appeared’ to his followers, who began preaching his resurrection from Jerusalem, (the place of his death), where the claims could be easily contested;
- Saul of Tarsus and James (Jesus’ brother) change their minds as a result of an ‘appearance’ of Jesus, (and many other followers are willingly said to go to their deaths claiming that Jesus had risen from the dead);
- Unexpected, ‘against the grain’ changes occur in Jewish communities, (which were the beginnings of Christian church communities), that find their basis in the resurrection. This includes observing the Lord’s remembrance on the Sunday (not the Sabbath), and changing the tradition of circumcision to baptism.
Why is any of this important to Christians?
For believers it is not merely an interesting historical event. The resurrection of Jesus compels Christians to act in response to its significance.
Josh and Nathan reflect on how Jesus is more than just a teacher, more than just a popular figure whose words at times cause us to rethink our actions. It’s a breathtaking notion, that in the first Century there was this fierce prophet from an unimportant hamlet who;
- spoke up for the poor and oppressed;
- healed the sick and the needy;
- condemned those who caused these problems;
- railed against those who simply ignored the suffering;
…and that this local, small-time teacher, who was murdered and humiliated by the religious and political powers of the Empire, actually turns out to be vindicated as the son of God by being raised from the dead. This is impossible not to think about, impossible not to talk about, impossible not to take seriously.
We’d love to hear your thoughts on this world-changing few days in history and what it means to you. To conclude, Josh and Nathan talk about further resources about the resurrection of Jesus that might be helpful in more detailed studies:
- For a short and very accessible introduction to the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus: The Hole in History, Examining Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus – Weatherall, D.
- For an accessible book written by Biblical scholars that presents the arguments in a bit more detail: The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, Habermas, G. & Licona, M.
- For much more detail at an academic level: The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach – Licona, M.
- Another academic level tome: The Resurrection of the Son of God – Wright, N.T.
Introductory music: End of the Era by Kevin MacLeod, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license.
Introductory reading of Mark 16:1-7: Excerpt from the Complete NIV Audio Bible read by David Suchet; Hodder & Stoughton; Unabridged edition; April 2014