If you recall, last time we looked at the list of "minimal facts" regarding the life of Christ that nearly all critical historians accept. Now, we will turn to the most prominent explanations of these facts that have been offered.
In the interest of space, I’ll only consider those facts that are most relevant to Jesus’ resurrection, and that need the most explaining: the empty tomb, the appearances of Jesus after His death, and the belief of Jesus’ disciples (including former skeptics James and Paul) that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Also, I’ll only consider those explanations which have had the most traction with scholars over the years, and so are the most likely candidates.
They are, in ascending order of credibility (based roughly on the number of scholars willing to accept them, along with my own bias):
1. the Apparent Death Hypothesis (a.k.a. the ‘Swoon Theory’)
2. the Conspiracy Hypothesis
3. the Legend Hypothesis
4. the Hallucination Hypothesis
5. the Christian Account 1
1. The Apparent Death Hypothesis — Jesus was not dead when He was taken down from the cross, but revived some time later and escaped to make the appearances to His disciples.
2. The Conspiracy Hypothesis — Jesus’ disciples stole His body and started the rumor that He had been resurrected.
3. The Legend Hypothesis — Jesus’ disciples never claimed that Jesus had literally risen from the dead; this was a later embellishment that made it into the New Testament accounts.
4. The Hallucination Hypothesis — The disciples (and Paul) were under extraordinary psychological stress following Jesus’ crucifixion, and this somehow led to their seeing Him alive again, in much the same way a bereaved person might ‘see’ her lost loved one after death. On this view, the appearances of Jesus to His disciples after His death are interpreted as purely psychological phenomena on the part of the disciples, in the form of visions or hallucinations, or in some cases even some sort of Freudian suppressed guilt and/or complex cognitive dissonance.
5. The Christian Account — Jesus was raised bodily from the dead and appeared to His disciples.
It should be noted that there is no rule saying that only one hypothesis must be true; it is possible that several of them might be combined for a stronger case. Indeed, the ones listed above are employed differently depending on the ‘fact’ being explained. However, it is not always possible to combine them, as even the ‘naturalistic’ ones (i.e. those other than the Christian claim) sometimes conflict. For example, the Apparent Death Hypothesis and the Conspiracy Hypothesis cannot both be true. However, the Legend Hypothesis might be strengthened by considering it in conjunction with, say, the Pagan Myth Hypothesis (see footnote below). I’ll let the reader choose whatever combination seems most likely, and stack it up against the Christian claim.
Next time, we will begin testing these competing hypotheses using the criteria we listed in Part 2 of this series (linked above).