Monday, October 24, 2011

The Argument from Special Revelation: Jesus Christ (Part 5)


Note: see parts one, two, three, and four.

So how do the hypotheses used to explain the facts of Jesus’ life stack up against one another? Last time, we looked briefly at the five most prominent of these. Here, we’ll look a little more closely at the first two, using the criteria for testing historical hypotheses from part 2 of this series (linked above). I encourage you to take another look at those so that what follows will make more sense. In fact, it might not be a bad idea to keep both posts open for easy reference.

Again, the facts that are being explained are 1. the empty tomb, 2. the appearances of Jesus after His death, and 3. the belief of Jesus’ disciples that Jesus had been raised from the dead.

The Apparent Death Hypothesis

Criteria (1) and (2) are easily met. But that’s about all that can be said for this explanation. In terms of explanatory power (3) and plausibility (4), this hypothesis has trouble with all three facts: Empty tomb—Given what we now know about flogging and crucifixion in 1st century Rome, how could a man who recently endured these horrors and miraculously survived have had the strength left to remove the large stone from His own tomb and then escape a band of guards posted to ensure that this very thing (the removal of His body) did not happen? Appearances—Similarly, how did this very nearly dead man then visit His disciples and convince them that He was the long-anticipated Messiah, the Defeater of death, hell, and the grave? Resurrection claims—Related to this, from whence come the disciples’ early and consistent claims of resurrection, a novel concept within Judaism and one not at all disposed to be taken seriously? Surely the more likely conclusion is that Jesus just hadn’t died—not the much more complicated claim that He had been raised by God from the dead. Yet, this is precisely what they did claim.

This hypothesis is also pretty ad hoc (5), since any explanation given in response to the above problems will necessarily be an argument from silence. It’s also disconfirmed (6), as we saw, by modern medicine, since we know that no one could plausibly have survived what Jesus went through. Finally, it is even less likely than its naturalistic rivals (7), and so fails 5 of our 7 criteria.

The Conspiracy Hypothesis

This oldest of the naturalistic explanations (see Matthew 28:11-15) fares little better. It, too, satisfies criteria (1) and (2) but struggles with the rest, beginning with explanatory power (3): Empty tomb—If the disciples fabricated the story of Jesus’ resurrection, then why say that the tomb was found empty by women? Indeed, this is one of the worst things the disciples could have done if they wanted to be believed, since the testimony of women carried virtually no weight at the time. Appearances—The appearances of Jesus after the resurrection don’t fit with what one would expect a 1st century Jew to make up. It bears very little resemblance to the theophanies one finds in the Old Testament. More on this below. Resurrection claims—Here is the first nail in the proverbial coffin. If the disciples simply made up the story of Jesus’ resurrection, then why did they willingly and unanimously suffer torture and death, proclaiming to the end that it was true? People do not die for lies that they made up.

When we consider plausibility (4), we find the second nail in the coffin (as though another were needed). As N.T. Wright has argued in great detail, it just makes no historical sense to say that the disciples would have (or even could have) made up the sort of resurrection story we find in the New Testament, since this is not a concept that even existed before then. There would have been no reason whatsoever for a 1st century Jew to invent the idea of an individual, pre-eschatological, bodily resurrection in a story to other 1st century Jews. This is not only a project doomed to failure, but likely an impossible one, since such a thing would never have entered the mind of a Jew of this time. To assume that Christians could have invented the resurrection story is to read our 21st century context into the text of Scripture, rather than to let it speak from its own culture and time.

Like the Apparent Death Hypothesis, the Conspiracy Hypothesis is also ad hoc (5), in that it must meet objections with made-up stories regarding the disciples’ motives and methods for which we have no evidence. It is also disconfirmed (6) by our knowledge of 1st century Judaism and the highly dubious nature of elaborate conspiracy stories. It also fails criteria (7), since there are more likely options, including the Legend and Hallucination Hypotheses, which will be the subject of the next post in the series.

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