Robert Conner

To the dismay of the true believer it may be pointed out that disbelief in the resurrection begins in the New Testament itself and it begins even before the composition of the gospels. The earliest statement of Christian resurrection belief includes this flat denial of Jesus’ bodily resurrection by Christians: “But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?”[i] Or to quote Michael Goulder’s literal translation of anastasij nekrwn ouk estin, “there is no upstanding of corpses.”[ii] “Surely the very fact that Paul placed a lengthy list of eyewitnesses of the appearances of the risen Jesus at the very beginning of the whole discussion is most easily explained by the suggestion that the apostle feared some of his addressees entertained doubts on this matter.”[iii] “[Paul] wants to insist as vigorously as possible, no doubt for theological and apologetic reasons [emphasis added], that Jesus actually was raised from the dead and that he was seen by a particular group of people who were divinely appointed as witnesses to the resurrection.”[iv]
Paul’s defense of the resurrection belief shares little with the gospel reports—Paul says nothing about an empty tomb, or women witnesses, or Joseph of Arimathea, or guards, or angels, or a stone to be removed. In short, “Paul provides no details whatsoever about the burial” of Jesus.[v] So basically the earliest report of belief in the resurrection leaves open to conjecture how much of the gospel material may have been merely legendary.
Indeed, the thread of fear, doubt, and confusion runs through all the later gospel reports of the resurrection: “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.”[vi]When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.”[vii] “But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense…He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds?[viii] But [Thomas] said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe”…“Stop doubting and believe.”[ix]

Given that there were obviously grounds for doubt even among the “eyewitnesses,” we may safely conclude that the gospel reports of the resurrection were composed primarily with apologetic, not historical, intent. Some have even argued that the whole project of grounding the resurrection in history should be abandoned. Quoting William Farmer, Ronald Sider says, “[Farmer] has recently argued vehemently that the only kind of evidence for the resurrection the church has ever had—and should have ever desired—is the inner experience of justification by faith alone…BARTH and BULTMANN, too, are typical of many who, albeit in somewhat different ways, reject any citation of historical evidence to support the church’s belief in Jesus’ resurrection.”[x] Suffice to say that despite exhaustive (and exhausting) scholarly exchange—all of it speculative—no one can agree on who, exactly, within Paul’s house churches rejected the idea of resurrection, what, precisely, they understood “resurrection” to mean, or even how, specifically, Paul himself understood Jesus’ resurrection. In short, all scholars have ever had to ponder is a brief passage in an occasional letter and that Paul’s preaching might be subjected to deep analysis assumes there was ever anything deep to analyze in the first place.

The quest of the historicity of the resurrection, like the quest of most of early Christianity itself, is the pursuit of a misty phantom through a dense fog. Of the fourteen letters attributed to Paul, only seven are widely believed authentic. Two additional extracanonical and presumably spurious letters by “Paul” are also known (Laodiceans[xi] and 3 Corinthians). The implication from Paul’s own writings is that even in his day, mere decades after Jesus’ death, multiple conflicting and competing “gospels” were being preached—“But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse!”[xii] As for the canonical gospels themselves, the identity of the authors is unknown as is the place and time of their composition, their intended audience, and, despite decades of “source criticism,” the oral or written sources from which the sayings of Jesus as well as the resurrection accounts were derived remain undetermined. It is widely conceded in mainstream Jesus Studies that none of the gospel writers were eyewitnesses and of Mark, the putative author the earliest of the gospels, the historian Eusebius specifically says, “he had not heard the Lord, nor had he followed him.”[xiii]

That doctrinal mayhem characterized Christianity from the very beginning is evident from its founding documents. The Roman proconsul Gallio refused to involve himself in the internecine skirmishing of Jews and early Christians, “a dispute about semantics and names,” and dismissed the case with an abrupt, “See to it yourselves.”[xiv] In a stinging characterization, the Roman Celsus dismissed the quarrels between Christians and Jews as a proverbial “fight about the shadow of an ass.”[xv] Celsus, “a remarkably well-informed opponent”[xvi] learned many details about the disputatious Christian cliques: “they are divided and form factions and each wants his own sect,”[xvii] some rejected the Jewish God and the Jewish scriptures,[xviii] some even rejected “the doctrine of the resurrection according to scripture,”[xix] and worshipped “a god above heaven who transcends the heaven of the Jews.”[xx]

Within a few decades of Jesus’ death, Christians were at war with one another and consistent with their apocalyptic mindset, their infighting was portrayed in the truculent rhetoric of the Final Battle between Light and Darkness: “…in the last times some will fall away from the faith, misled by deceptive spirits and teachings of demons…for some have already turned away to follow Satan…having a sick craving for controversies and fights about words.”[xxi] Since the days of Celsus there has been no added historical evidence for the truth of Christian claims. As advocates of fideism tacitly admit, the only evidence for Christian claims is ultimately textual and accepting or rejecting it is a matter of belief in the reliability of the text, not historical proof. Any attempted dialogue with Christian apologists must remain cognizant of that fact.

[i] 1 Corinthians 15:12 (NIV)
[ii] Goulder, Michael. “Jesus’ Resurrection and Christian Origins: A Response to N.T. Wright,” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 3 (2005) 189.
[iii] Sider, Ronald J. “St. Paul’s Understanding of the Nature and Significance of the Resurrection in 1 Corinthians XV 1-19,” Novum Testamentum 19 (1977) 132.
[iv] Walker, William O. “Postcrucifixion Appearances and Christian Origins,” Journal of Biblical Literature 88 (1969) 159.
[v] Lowder, Jeffery Jay. “Historical Evidence and the Empty Tomb: A Reply to William Lane Craig,” Journal of Higher Criticism 8 (2001) 259.
[vi] Mark 16:8 (NIV).
[vii] Matthew 28:17 (NIV).
[viii] Luke 24:11, 38 (NIV).
[ix] John 20:25, 27 (NIV).
[x] Sider, op. cit., 124.
[xi] A letter to the Laodiceans is mentioned in Colossians 4:16, a letter widely thought to be pseudepigraphal although ‘canonical.’
[xii] Galatians 1:8 (NIV).
[xiii] Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History III, 39.
[xiv] Acts 18:15.
[xv] Origen, Contra Celsum III, 1, 4.
[xvi] Chadwick, Origen: Contra Celsum (1965), ix.
[xvii] Origen, op. cit. III, 10.
[xviii] Ibid, II, 3; IV, 2.
[xix] Ibid, V, 12.
[xx] Ibid, VI, 19.
[xxi] 1 Timothy 4:1, 5:15, 6:4.