Anyone that has studied history as an investigative discipline (i.e. the historical method) will know that history cannot prove Jesus’ resurrection, even if it happened. The investigative form of history is the form that concerns itself with the methods and the question how do we know, instead of the body of knowledge. For those that haven’t studied history as an investigative discipline, let me explain why it can’t prove Jesus’ resurrection, firstly with some questions:
- What sort of things do historians accept as evidence?
- What is the goal of history?
I am scientifically minded, so when I think about historical evidence I immediately think of archaeology and other physical things. These are very important. But written texts are also important, and when it comes to the Bible it is probably worth me focussing on the nature of written evidence. A document from the same time as the event it records is always useful; this is called a contemporaneous document. But one contemporaneous document wouldn’t be sufficient; you’d need a few of them that agree. Documents that agree are consistent documents. You also want them to be unbiased and independent i.e. not records about the King from his servants, and not written by people that corroborated with each other. Unbiased, independent, contemporaneous and consistent documents.
The written accounts of the gospels are not contemporaneous documents. The earliest of them is sixty years after the fact. That might not seem like much, but sixty years ago it was 1953. My parents weren’t born. My granddad was a boy. If my mum tells me a story of my granddad’s childhood, as my granddad recited it to her, would you believe I could then write it down in a way that accurately described the true events? What if my aunty and my uncle did the same thing with their children (my cousins) and our stories all had subtle, but mutually exclusive differences; would you still believe we’d written a reliable account? Given that our accounts are demonstrably unreliable, would you trust the information in it to guide big decisions in your life?
This is the issue; not only are the gospels not contemporaneous documents, there are quite big disagreements between them. Did Jesus die the day before the Passover (as according to John) or after the Passover was eaten (as according to Mark)? Did this happen at noon (John) or at 9am (Mark)? Did Jesus carry his cross all the way, or did Simon of Cyrene help? Did both the robbers beside Jesus mock him, or did one mock him while the other defended him? Did the curtain in the temple rip before or after Jesus died?
With regard to the resurrection: who went to the tomb on the third day: Mary, alone; Mary with other women? If it was Mary with other women, the gospels don’t even agree who those women were or how many there were. Had the stone already been rolled away? Did they see a man, two men or an angel? Were the disciples to stay in Jerusalem or to go to Galilee to seek Jesus? Did the disciples never immediately leave Jerusalem? Did the women tell anyone?
So I don’t find the gospels reliable: non-contemporaneous, non-consistent documents written by non-eye witness Christians (i.e. potentially heavily biased) and all based on the same stories that have been circulating for decades (i.e. not independent).
But the next question was “what is the goal of history?” And the answer is to come up with what most likely happened. We can never know things through history with the same confidence we can know other scientific facts with (and science can’t be known to the same confidence as maths). But based on the evidence a historian’s job is to decide the most likely thing to have happened. I want to give an example of this from an archaeology class at my college before moving back to the I’m-an-obnoxious-atheist thread of my blog: the archaeological evidence was monkey skeletons and stone spearheads. The students’ conclusion was that this particular tribe of monkeys had become sufficiently technologically advanced to destroy itself; that the monkey had created stone tool and gone to war and died out. On the evidence they had, that was not the most likely answer. The most likely answer was that a species we know to already have access to stone tool (humans) killed them, and didn’t suffer any fatalities.
So now, even if we were convinced that the tomb was found empty, is a resurrection really the most likely answer? Is a supernatural event more likely than someone who sympathised with Jesus taking his body and burying it somewhere more dignified, or more discrete. Or perhaps a traditionalist took his body to bury it in a common grave, consistent with tradition (although, it would have been illegal at the time). In Matthew 27 Jesus is given a bitter wine to drink, it is more likely that Jesus’ took a drug that make him appear dead (to the medical experts of the day) and simply recovered instead of having been actually dead for a few days before God resurrected him?
When we are talking about the most likely option, a resurrection simply doesn’t cut it. History cannot prove it happened, even if it did.
(The New Testament Scholar, professor Bart Ehrman had already done most of the leg work for this post. Although, I’ve had to go to an online version of the King James Bible to confirm it. In doing that I discovered that I am currently staying in the first hotel I have ever stayed in without a copy of the New Testament in it)