Was Jesus raised from the dead?

Barrister Andrew Zak Williams puts the Resurrection on trial.

This Easter will see lots of Christians reminding us that the true meaning of the time of year doesn’t lie in chocolate eggs or in oversized bunnies.  Rather, Easter is a time to remember the most fundamental event in Christian history:  the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.   What is more, many believers are convinced that they have three arguments with which they can prove that the resurrection really occurred.

But what would happen if we put the case for the resurrection on trial and let the readers of the New Statesman sit in judgement?

The martyrs

The most commonly heard argument in favour of the resurrection is probably the most straightforward.  Virtually all the apostles and early Christian leaders died for their faith.  Why would they have done this if they knew that the resurrection story was a hoax?   

According to sceptics, though, what this argument gains in simplicity it lacks in evidence.  Apart from the apostle James, whose death is referred to in the New Testament, there is no evidence that any of the apostles were killed.  Admittedly, a gnostic epistle mentions Peter and Paul as having “borne testimony” in a sense that probably means “been martyred”, but it gives no details.  Apart from these, the only references to martyrdom are in late hagiographic legends.

Besides, even if the apostles had been martyred, this alone would not provide convincing evidence for the resurrection.  Rather, the apologist must surely establish that any apostle who was killed was given the chance to recant his claims about the resurrection to avoid death and that he refused.  Not only is this not proven, it is not even alleged.

The near-contemporaneous evidence

The next argument involves looking at what Paul wrote in one of his letters to the Corinthians, perhaps twenty years after the crucifixion:

 

“… Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve.  After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have died.” 

 

This is dynamite for the Christian apologist.  After all, surely Paul wouldn’t have written it if those who read the letter knew perfectly well that there were not more than five hundred believers who claimed to have seen a risen Jesus.  What is more, Paul introduces these comments by saying that he is merely reminding the Corinthians of the gospel that he has “received”.   Aha! cry the believers, he must have received this information from the leaders of the church when he visited them in Jerusalem a few years after the crucifixion.  In that case, the resurrection account must have circulated shortly after the crucifixion:  an indication of its likely truth.

The sceptical response is that this passage is a reference, not to a physical reappearance by Jesus, but rather to a spiritual one.  At first, this may sound unlikely.  But look at the Greek word that Paul uses for “appeared”:  ophthe.  It is the same one he uses in his other letters when referring to a spiritual appearance such as the one he claimed to have experienced on the road to Damascus.

Besides, a physical appearance by Jesus to over five hundred people is not mentioned anywhere in the gospels even though, in comparison, the post-resurrection appearances that are recorded in those texts pale into insignificance.   And is it really likely that so many of Jesus’ followers would have been gathered together in the days following the crucifixion?

American historian Richard Carrier concludes that “five hundred” may be a textual corruption from the almost identical word meaning “Pentecost”.  If he is right, the passage would appear to be referring to an event during which, according to Acts, over a hundred members of the early church believed that they saw fire from heaven descend upon them, filling them with the Holy Spirit.  It would not have taken much for their leader to persuade them that they had just seen the risen Jesus.

And look how the Corinthians passage continues:

 

“… Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.”

 

Could it be any clearer?  Paul thought of Jesus’ appearance to the five hundred as on a par with the vision he had received on the road to Damascus:  purely spiritual.  

What is more, Paul couldn’t have “received” this information from the leaders of the church, whether in Jerusalem or anywhere else:  Paul himself says elsewhere that he had not received the gospel from any man but rather from a revelation.

Quite frankly, it is difficult to know what to make of Paul’s letter.  Perhaps both sides have scored a couple of hits so far.  So let us move onto the third reason that is often given to support the resurrection account.

The role of women

In all four gospels, it is women who arrived at the tomb and discovered that Jesus’ body was missing.  Believers point out that in Jewish society at the time, a woman’s word carried less weight than that of a man.  Readers would have assumed that the women at the tomb were uneducated and terrified.  If the story of the empty tomb had been invented, surely it would have made sense for the gospel writers to pretend that male pillars of the community were present when the tomb was found to be empty.

But it must be remembered that the gospels were written more than thirty-five years after the crucifixion.  By then the Christian church was growing phenomenally.  Perhaps there was no longer the need to ensure that the empty tomb story was supported by reliable male witnesses.   Besides, it was especially among women that the church originally grew.  Perhaps it was in the church’s interests to give such a crucial role in the resurrection narrative to women.

Nevertheless it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that if the gospel writers had a free hand in concocting the resurrection tale, they missed an open goal when they decided to keep men away from the empty tomb.

Unreliable sources

Since we are considering the claim that a miracle occurred, we should expect evidence of a high standard:  so much so that we surely have the right to expect, at a minimum, the biblical accounts to be internally consistent.   Non-believers, though, argue that this is where the resurrection account runs into major difficulties.

If the resurrection were put on trial in a hypothetical courtroom, the gospels would almost certainly be ruled inadmissible.  After all, they’re the equivalent of witness statements summarising the evidence a witness intends to give in court.  Where a witness is unwilling or unable to attend court and so cannot be cross-examined, the chances of her statement being admitted in evidence fall drastically.  And that is so even when the judge knows her identity and has an uncorrupted, signed copy of her statement.   In the case of the gospels, we know virtually nothing about the writers – not even their true names – and can only guess at their sources.  Because we do not have the original manuscripts, for all we know, any part of any gospel could have been added up to a couple of centuries later.

Even so, let us assume that the gospels can be admitted in evidence.  Sceptics claim that we can place virtually no weight on anything they say about the resurrection.  This is for the simple reason that they are littered with major contradictions.

For instance, Luke and Acts make it clear that all of Jesus’ appearances to the disciples after the resurrection were in and around Jerusalem.  But in Matthew and Mark the figure in the tomb who appeared to the women said that Jesus would go before the disciples into Galilee – a journey of several days from Jerusalem.  Matthew goes on to record that the disciples then made their way to Galilee where Jesus appeared to them.  Both accounts cannot be true.

And was it one woman, Mary Magdelene, two women or three women who found the tomb empty?  All these answers appear in the gospels.  Similarly, the gospel writers cannot agree on whether the woman or women were greeted by a man, an angel or two “figures” at the tomb.

More importantly, what was Jesus like at this time?   Luke’s Jesus states, “Look at my hands and my feet. … Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.”   Yet John’s Jesus is able to walk through doors.

And scholars cannot agree whether the original manuscript of the earliest gospel, Mark, even mentioned the resurrection.

No wonder historian Charles Freeman concludes, “It is impossible to provide a coherent narrative account of what was seen.”

The best that believers can do is to try their utmost to reconcile the apparent contradictions.  For instance, although Luke writes that it was Mary Magdelene who attended the tomb, he does not specifically say that she was alone.  And although Luke and Acts indicate that Jesus stayed around Jerusalem after the resurrection, those texts do not specifically say so.

Yet, if you approach the resurrection accounts from an objective viewpoint, it is virtually impossible to avoid the conclusion that they are at odds with each other in important respects:  so much so that many Christians recognise this.

As we are about to see, this has grave consequences for the historical case for the resurrection.

So what happened?

You can possibly see why some Christians feel confident when they argue about the resurrection.  It hardly involves grappling with difficult science.  What is more, the role of women at the tomb and the fact that the resurrection story took hold relatively quickly give the account an air of authenticity lacking in many legends.

However, when a court investigates whether an event has occurred, the judge will want to know who the eyewitnesses are and what they saw.  This is where the case for the resurrection falls down.  The courts are used to eyewitnesses disagreeing over the details of a story.  But allow as much latitude as you like for the faltering memories and differing perspectives of eyewitnesses, and you still can’t explain the contradictions in the gospels surrounding what happened after the crucifixion.  In short, the testimony of the gospel writers is utterly unreliable.

And so the resurrection must be filed away along with hundreds of other unproven miracles proclaimed by the followers of the world’s many religions.

If Jesus was not resurrected, though, what really happened?    The burden of proving an alternative hypothesis can hardly fall on sceptics especially when the source materials are so problematic.  Even so, Charles Freeman has outlined a convincing theory that involves Caiaphas, Pilate’s high priest, disposing of Jesus’ body.  Desperate to send the Jesus movement back home, Caiaphas then left a message with the guards at the empty tomb, saying that Jesus had set off to Galilee.

And theologian John Shook suggests that Peter and James invented the resurrection account to shore up their own authority against Paul who arrived in Jerusalem boasting that Jesus had appeared to him in a vision on the way to Damascus.

The truth is that we will never know.  This is a debate that will not die ... and if it does, it will probably come back to life.

A worker lights the cross by the Colosseum in Rome. Photograph: Getty Images.
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What kind of Christian is Theresa May?

And why aren’t we questioning the vicar’s daughter on how her faith influences her politics?

“It is part of me. It is part of who I am and therefore how I approach things,” Theresa May told Kirsty Young when asked about her faith on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in November 2014. “I think it’s right that we don’t sort of flaunt these things here in British politics but it is a part of me, it’s there, and it obviously helps to frame my thinking.”

The daughter of a Church of England vicar, Rev. Hubert Brasier, May grew up an active Christian in Oxfordshire. She was so involved in parish life that she even taught some Sunday school classes. She goes on in the Desert Island Discs interview to choose the hymn When I Survey the Wondrous Cross sung by a chapel congregation, and recalls being alone in church with her parents, kneeling and singing together.

Despite her intense attachment to local CofE life, Theresa May’s role as a Christian in politics is defined more by her unwillingness to “flaunt” (in her words) her faith.

Perhaps this is partly why, as a Christian, May avoided the scrutiny directed at Lib Dem leader and evangelical Christian Tim Farron over the past week of his stance on homosexuality and abortion.

As Farron wriggled – first saying he didn’t want to make “theological pronouncements” on whether or not being gay is a sin (and then, days later, announcing that it isn’t) – May’s critics scratched their heads about why her voting record on such matters isn’t in the media spotlight.

She has a socially conservative voting record when it comes to such subjects. As the journalist and activist Owen Jones points out, she has voted against equalising the age of consent, repealing Section 28, and gay adoption (twice).

Although her more recent record on gay rights is slightly better than Farron’s – she voted in favour of same-sex marriage throughout the process, and while Farron voted against the Equality Act Sexual Orientation Regulations in 2007 (the legislation obliging bed and breakfast owners and wedding cake makers, etc, not to discriminate against gay people), May simply didn’t attend.

May has also voted for the ban on sex-selective abortions, for reducing the abortion limit to 20 weeks, abstained on three-parent babies, and against legalising assisted suicide.

“Looking at how she’s voted, it’s a slightly socially conservative position,” says Nick Spencer, Research Director of the religion and society think tank Theos. “That matches with her generally slightly more economically conservative, or non-liberal, position. But she’s not taking those views off pages of scripture or a theology textbook. What her Christianity does is orient her just slightly away from economic and social liberalism.”

Spencer has analysed how May’s faith affects her politics in his book called The Mighty and the Almighty: How Political Leaders Do God, published over Easter this year. He found that her brand of Christianity underpinned “the sense of mutual rights and responsibilities, and exercising those responsibilities through practical service”.

May’s father was an Anglo-Catholic, and Spencer points out that this tradition has roots in the Christian socialist tradition in the early 20th century. A world away from the late Victorian Methodism that fellow Christian Margaret Thatcher was raised with. “That brought with it a package of independence, hard work, probity, and economic prudence. They’re the values you’d get from a good old Gladstonian Liberal. Very different from May.”

Spencer believes May’s faith focuses her on a spirit of citizenship and communitarian values – in contrast to Thatcher proselytising the virtues of individualism during her premiership.

Cradle Christian

A big difference between May and Farron’s Christianity is that May is neither a convert nor an evangelical.

“She’s a cradle Christian, it’s deep in her bloodstream,” notes Spencer. “That means you’re very unlikely to find a command-and-control type role there, it’s not as if her faith’s going to point her in a single direction. She’s not a particularly ideological politician – it’s given her a groundwork and foundation on which her politics is built.”

This approach appears to be far more acceptable in the eyes of the public than Farron’s self-described “theological pronouncements”.  May is known to be a very private politician who keeps her personal life, including her ideas about faith, out of the headlines.

“I don’t think she has to show off, or join in, she just does it; she goes to church,” as her former cabinet colleague Cheryl Gillan put it simply to May’s biographer Rosa Prince.

The voters’ view

It’s this kind of Christianity – quiet but present, part of the fabric without imposing itself – that chimes most with British voters.

“In this country, given our history and the nature of the established Church, it's something that people recognise and understand even if they don't do it themselves,” says Katie Harrison, Director of the Faith Research Centre at polling company ComRes. “Whether or not it’s as active as it used to be, lots of people see it as a nice thing to have, and they understand a politician who talks warmly about those things. That’s probably a widely-held view.”

Although church and Sunday school attendance is falling (about 13 per cent say they regularly attend Christian religious services, aside from weddings and funerals), most current surveys of the British population find that about half still identify as Christian. And ComRes polling in January 2017 found that 52 per cent of people think it’s important that UK politicians and policy-makers have a good understanding of religion in the UK.

Perhaps this is why May, when asked by The Sunday Times last year how she makes tough decisions, felt able to mention her Christianity:  “There is something in terms of faith, I am a practising member of the Church of England and so forth, that lies behind what I do.”

“I don’t think we’re likely to react hysterically or with paranoid fear if our politicians start talking about their faith,” reflects Spencer. “What we don’t like is if they start ‘preaching’ about it.”

“Don’t do God”

So if May can speak about her personal faith, why was the nation so squeamish when Tony Blair did the same thing? Notoriously, the former Labour leader spoke so frankly about his religion when Prime Minister that his spin doctor Alastair Campbell warned: “We don’t do God.” Some of Blair’s critics accuse him of being driven to the Iraq war by his faith.

Although Blair’s faith is treated as the “watershed” of British society no longer finding public displays of religion acceptable, Spencer believes Blair’s problem was an unusual one. Like Farron, he was a convert. He famously converted to Catholicism as an adult (and by doing so after his resignation, side-stepped the question of a Catholic Prime Minister). Farron was baptised at 21. The British public is more comfortable with a leader who is culturally Christian than one who came to religion in their adulthood, who are subjected to more scrutiny.

That’s why Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Theresa May can get away with talking about their faith, according to Spencer. “Brown, a much more cultural Presbyterian, used a lot of Biblical language. Cameron talked about it all the time – but he was able to do so because he had a vague, cultural, undogmatic Anglicanism,” he tells me. “And May holds it at arm’s length and talks about being a clergyman’s daughter, in the same way Brown talked about his father’s moral compass.”

This doesn’t stop May’s hard Brexit and non-liberal domestic policy jarring with her Christian values, however. According to Harrison’s polling, Christian voters’ priorities lie in social justice, and tackling poverty at home and overseas – in contrast with the general population’s preoccupations.

Polling from 2015 (pre-Brexit, granted) found that practising Christians stated more concern about social justice (27 per cent) than immigration (14 per cent). When entering No 10, May put herself “squarely at the service of ordinary working-class people”. Perhaps it’s time for her to practise what she preaches.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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