Now, for the remainder of our present discussion about Jesus, let’s focus primarily on the claim about him that he was raised from the dead, because this is arguably the most important one. Atheists have no choice but to dismiss this part of the story, because if there is no God, then neither did God raise him from the dead. On the other hand, if God exists, then surely it is a trivial thing for God to bring a dead person back to life.
For the sake of argument, let’s suppose that God exists, and that Jesus was indeed raised from the dead. The first question we could ask is, where is the evidence? To answer this question, consider the story of Circo, another man who was executed by the Romans and then resurrected shortly afterwards, at roughly the same time as Jesus.
As you can imagine, this wonderful miracle became the talk of the town. Circo’s family was shocked and thrilled, and they told the story to the local Jewish press; but since the next issue of Judea Today wasn’t going to come out for several more months because of scroll shortages, the story was considered less important by the editor than the latest scandal involving the Roman governor.
The Jewish authorities heard about it and were intrigued, but since Circo hadn’t made any special claims about himself, other than that he was executed and came back to life, his resurrection didn’t impact their authority, and their attention soon became distracted by other matters.
The Roman authorities were skeptical about the stories of Circo’s resurrection, but when they saw him alive and well, a few officials conceded it must have happened, since the soldiers swore they had put him to death, and now here was Circo back with his family. The official in charge just assumed the soldiers were lying or incompetent, and had one of them executed. The others then quickly admitted to conspiring to let Circo live. They were punished severely but spared from death.
Either way, the authorities had no reason to keep a record of Circo’s resurrection, because he had already paid for his crime, and they didn’t have a Certificate of Resurrection they could issue him. Historians like Tacitus might have heard of the story, but since Circo didn’t have any real impact upon the historical narrative of the times, his story went untold.
And so, quite apart from the fact that I made Circo up, there would almost certainly be no evidence of his resurrection today, because local news scrolls weren’t designed to be preserved for thousands of years, local gossip would become a distant memory, and the authorities had no reason to record the event or preserve any records about it. Since Circo had no impact on politics or world history, it’s unlikely that historians would feel the need to record it. In other words, there would probably not be any evidence of Circo’s existence, let alone resurrection.
In many ways, the situation with Jesus would be much worse. Assuming for the moment that he really was resurrected, the Jewish authorities would have been actively opposed to this becoming widely believed, since it would give credence to the claim that he was the Son of God, a blasphemy from their point of view. Therefore, they would be no help in preserving any evidence.
According to the gospel stories, Jews who believed in Jesus were already being expelled from the synagogue even while he was alive, so there would have been a climate of fear around declaring faith in him. Certainly, believing in Jesus would have brought no reward or fame at the time.
The Roman authorities would have been neutral, or perhaps mildly hostile. Certainly they wouldn’t go out of their way to give credence to a man who claimed his authority came from a higher source than Rome, and who told his followers to be no part of the world. To them, Jesus and his followers would have been seen at best as just another eccentric Jewish cult. At worst, they could have been viewed as a danger to the empire, its authority and stability. Therefore, the Roman authorities also would have no interest in preserving evidence of Jesus’ resurrection.
Historians, who usually consider events in a wider context, might make a note of Jesus, but only in the context of any larger impact he would have made. From a historical point of view, the impact of Jesus came about because of the devotion of his followers in spreading his message; and this is what we find in the historical record.
Tacitus mentions him, but only in the context of Christians being used as a scapegoat by emperor Nero. The same is true with the Jewish historian Josephus, who, if we can accept at least some truth to the references, really only makes note of him in passing. This would make sense, since Josephus, writing perhaps fifty or sixty years after Jesus, didn’t have the benefit of hindsight we have today, to know how much of an impact Jesus and his followers would have on the world.
Our hypothetical man Circo wasn’t a religious leader or teacher, and had no political impact, so most likely he would have left no historical trace of his resurrection. In the case of Jesus, he didn’t have the backing of the religious authorities, and he also had no real political impact, at least not immediately.
However, the story tells us that Jesus had disciples. Therefore, since nobody else would have the motive, the only evidence for his resurrection would need to have been preserved by his followers.
And this is what we find, in the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, as well in as the letters of Paul, and other early Christian writings. This is why they need to be admitted as evidence for both the existence and the resurrection of Jesus.
But why isn’t there outside testimony about his resurrection – that is, outside of what we call the New Testament? To answer this, consider the example of the Roman centurion and those who were with Jesus at his death. When seeing the circumstances under which he died, the gospel of Matthew records these eyewitnesses as saying: “Certainly this was the Son of God.” 1
Why do we not have the testimony of this centurion? The answer is, we do. It is right there in the gospel of Matthew. Of course, assuming the centurion was literate, and many people weren’t in those days, it would be more convenient for us if he’d written a separate “Memoir Of An Astonished Centurion.” But even if we did have such a memoir, skeptics would probably say it was a forgery invented out of the imagination of Christians.
Besides, if the unusual events surrounding Jesus’ death didn’t persuade the centurion to become a Christian, why would he bother to write a book about it? Over time, the event would take on less significance for him, and eventually it would perhaps be explained away in his mind. On the other hand, if he did become a Christian, his testimony would likely have found its way into what we now know as the four gospels.
In other words, the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are a collection of eyewitness testimonies and experiences, compiled into four books. They are not just the testimonies of four men. The author of the gospel of Luke makes this clear. His gospel seems to be a letter addressed to a certain “Most Excellent Theophilus,” and it opens with the following introduction:
“Since many have undertaken to compile an account about the matters viewed with full certainty among us, just as the ones from the beginning became eyewitnesses and ministers of the word given to us, it seemed also to me, having followed all things accurately from the start, to write to you consecutively, Most Excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the sayings about which you were taught.” 2
According to this, Theophilus had already been taught the sayings of Jesus, even before Luke had compiled his gospel. (For the moment I will assume Matthew wrote the gospel of Matthew, Mark wrote the gospel of Mark, and so on. At present, the correct name of the author makes no difference to my arguments.) It appears that Luke’s aim was to clarify what Theophilus had already been taught, and to put the sayings of Jesus into some kind of context and sequence.
This is why one of the first things Luke describes is the pregnancy of Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist who later baptized Jesus, and then the pregnancy of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and a relative of Elizabeth. This provides the context for the birth and ministry of Jesus. Both stories read like they are based on the testimony of at least Mary.
According to the New Testament book we know as “Acts of Apostles,” which seems to be a follow-up document written by Luke to Theophilus, Mary became an early disciple of Jesus, after his supposed resurrection.3 The genealogy listed in Luke is also likely to be Mary’s, although it begins by saying Jesus was “the son, as the opinion was, of Joseph.” In other words, Mary’s actual genealogy begins at “son of Heli.” 4
By contrast, Matthew’s gospel begins by focusing on Joseph’s side of the story, who was going to be married to Mary. Incidentally, the chronology listed in Matthew is that of Joseph, but is not a complete listing of his ancestry.5 Since Joseph wasn’t Jesus’ real father according to the story, its main purpose was to make clear that Jesus was legally a “son of David” and “son of Abraham.” This was important, because Joseph’s family was required to be registered in the birthplace of his ancestors, which was Bethlehem, the birthplace of their ancestor David. The differing genealogies highlight that Jesus was a “son of David” both legally through his adopted father, and by blood through Mary.
Mark’s gospel was considered by the early Christian church to be written by an associate of the apostle Peter, and based on Peter’s experiences. Peter was a fisherman who worked in Galilee, and was one of the first of Jesus’ disciples. Many of the stories told in this gospel seem to be based on the eyewitness testimony of Peter. Jesus even starts his ministry from the house of Peter and his fisherman friends.
Later on, according to the book of Acts, as the first group of Gentiles became believers in Jesus, Peter is reported to have said: “You know the talk that has been going through the whole of Judea, beginning from Galilee, after the baptism which John preached; how Jesus of Nazareth was anointed by God with holy spirit and power.” He continued: “We are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem, whom they lifted up, hanging him on wood. God raised this one up on the third day, and gave him to become visible, not to all the people, but to witnesses appointed beforehand by God – to us, who ate and drank together with him after he had risen from the dead. And he charged us to preach to the people, and to testify that he is the one designated by God as judge of the living and the dead. To this one all the prophets testify, that through his name, everyone believing in him receives forgiveness of sins.” 6
According to the same book, one of the qualifications for replacing Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus, as one of the twelve apostles, was that they had to have been eyewitnesses to all of these things. Peter is reported to have said: “It is therefore necessary that, of the men who accompanied us all the time in which the Lord Jesus came in and out among us, beginning from the baptism by John until the day when he was taken up from us, one of these should become a witness together with us of his resurrection.” 7
John’s gospel is considered to have been written last. According to Christian tradition, the apostle wanted to give details that the other gospels had left out. His gospel also seems to quote extensively from eyewitness sources. For example, he begins early on by quoting testimony from John the Baptist, who is said to have baptized Jesus. As another example, it contains the testimony of a blind man healed by Jesus, and his verbal exchange with the Jewish authorities.
John also writes about the events surrounding Jesus’ death, as if he were an eyewitness. For example, he says that the soldiers divided Jesus’ outer garments into four parts, but cast lots over his inner garment; and by doing this, they fulfilled scripture. There is almost a tone of astonishment in John’s voice as he writes, “Indeed, then, the soldiers did these things.” 8
John doesn’t name himself throughout his gospel, but refers to himself as the disciple whom Jesus loved. According to his account, while Jesus was dying, when Jesus saw his mother and the disciple standing nearby, he indicated that they were to have a family relationship, like a mother and a son; and from that hour, the disciple took her into his home as his own mother. 9
Now, I have already established that the only evidence for the resurrection of Jesus likely to survive until our day, would need to have been preserved by his followers; and I have shown that the gospels themselves indicate that they are based on eyewitness testimonies about him, preserved by the disciples.
This raises one of the most important questions of all: just how reliable are the gospels? A determined atheist has no choice but to believe that, even if there is a core of truth behind the character of Jesus, some of the stories must have been exaggerated or fabricated – that is, made up somehow.
I’ll focus on the Resurrection Story, because this is really the key to deciding upon the nature of the other stories told in the gospels, and on the nature of Jesus himself. If Jesus wasn’t resurrected, then somebody or some group must have fabricated the story, and we can safely ignore the rest of the Christian message if we choose. Jesus may have been a good and holy man, but he wasn’t the Son of God. However, if Jesus was resurrected as the story claims, then he probably was the Son of God after all, and we should therefore pay attention to the other stories.
Now, if he wasn’t raised from the dead, then what was the source of the Resurrection Story, and how could it have come about? Only four groups of people would have had the means, motive and opportunity to come up with it. The first group would be the apostles and early disciples. The second would be the apostle Paul and his associates. The third group would be the later Christian Church, once the original apostles had died off. The fourth group would be the Church, particularly from the time of emperor Constantine, when the Christian religion became the official religion of the Roman empire.
To get to the bottom of the Resurrection Story, I will put forward a hypothesis for each group in turn, and then we will examine each hypothesis to see how plausible it is, based on logic and the evidence available to us.
In addition, I propose that there are really only three primary mechanisms by which the Resurrection Story, if untrue, could have come about. If an individual or group of people fabricated details or an eyewitness testimony, I will label this as “deception.” It is also possible that eyewitnesses might have misinterpreted a situation, or were gullible enough to believe something that simply wasn’t true, or perhaps had an experience that was really just a hallucination or something similar. I will label all of these as “delusion.” Finally, a story might have significantly changed as it got spread by word of mouth. I will call this “exaggeration.”
Of course, human motives and failings may be more deep and subtle, but I suggest that these three categories – deception, delusion and exaggeration – are sufficient to cover all plausible scenarios where the story isn’t true. For example, a lie, no matter how good the intention behind it, is still a form of deception. An eyewitness may have mistaken a stranger for Jesus, but that still qualifies as delusion, even though in ordinary circumstances we might simply call it a mistake.
But if anyone takes issue with the labels I have chosen, or thinks they are too simplistic, I would ask them to keep in mind that they are just words. They are just labels to help us think through and examine the evidence. However, my arguments won’t hinge on these labels.
The other hypothesis will be that the Resurrection Story is actually true, and there is no deception, delusion or exaggeration involved. However, in order to consider the validity of this, we must first examine the alternatives available to the skeptic and atheist – namely, that the gospels, at least the parts they choose not to believe, and particularly the Resurrection Story, are the product of some combination of deception, delusion and exaggeration.
1 Matthew 27:54. 2 Luke 1:1-4. 3 Acts 1:14. 4 Luke 3:23-38. 5 Matthew 1:1-17. 6 Acts 10:37,38,39-43. 7 Acts 1:21,22. 8 John 19:24. 9 John 19:25-27.