Some say that Christ's resurrection was a myth, not history. Is this possible?

Artist's conception of Jesus falling with the cross on the way to GolgothaSome critics charge that the Gospels have obscured the historical Jesus of Nazareth by cloaking Him in layers of legend and myth.[1] They claim that the Bible's stories of Christ's resurrection are myth, not history. There are at least FOUR REASONS why the mythological interpretation fails.

  1. Comparative literature demonstrates that myth takes a number of generations to develop. There are no parallels in other literature of myth developing and being believed in the presence of eye-witnesses and within the short timeframe in which the New Testament was formed.[2] (for more info)

    Historical research is on the side of an immediate belief in Jesus' resurrection. An early apostle's creed includes the Resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:3-9) and has been dated by many scholars to within 3 to 7 years of Christ's death and resurrection.[3] This implies prior public belief.

    Scholars agree that the first letters by St. Paul appeared within 25 years or less of Jesus ministry, and the four Gospels within 21 (and no later than 65 years).[4] The preaching of the apostles always centered on the Resurrection. In a very short period of time, devout Jews throughout the Roman Empire who had formerly faithfully worshiped God on the seventh day of each week, converted to Christianity and began meeting on the first day, in celebration of Christ's resurrection.

    Hundreds of witnesses saw Christ alive after his death. Once he appeared to 500 people at once (1 Corinthians 15:6).

  2. Many of these eyewitnesses to Christ's public ministry were hostile toward the Jesus the Gospels describe (Matthew 12:22f). These opponents had both motives and means to correct falsehoods about Him had the first disciples attempted them.[5] Yet their opportunity did not produce a serious correction.

  3. The Gospels don't resemble either Greek myth or Jewish legend.[6] In contrast to those, the Gospels understate and lack embellishment, yet contain details counterproductive to the invention of legendary heroes. For example, the following six factors in John chapter 20 are at odds with the tendency of legendary material:

    • With great restraint, no attempt is made to describe the resurrection itself.

    • Mary neither initially recognized the risen Jesus (the “hero”) (John 20:14).

    • nor even considered that there was anything special about Him (John 20:16).

    • Indeed, even by the end of the day, the disciples (the secondary “heroes”) were still in hiding “for fear of the Jews” (John 20:19).

    • And, were the Gospels the free creation of paternalistic bias, as feminists charge, it is incredible the writers would have chosen women to be the first witnesses of the risen Jesus. The testimony of women didn't even count legally.[7]

    • Yet, it was their courage the morning after the Resurrection that put the men's contrasting cowardice to shame.

  4. Jews were the poorest of candidates for inventing a mythical Christ. No other culture has so opposed mythically confusing deity with humanity, as did the Jewish.[8]

SIX SKEPTICAL OBJECTIONS most frequently leveled by critics of Christ's resurrection

  1. Christ's resurrection is a myth, not history.

  2. The Resurrection stories are full of contradictions.

  3. Miracles are not possible.

  4. The body was stolen.

  5. Jesus only fainted and then recovered from His wounds.

  6. The witnesses were just “seeing things.”

Author: Rev. Gary W. Jensen, M.Div. Editor: Paul S. Taylor, Christian Answers. Provided by Films for Christ.

References and Footnotes

  1. Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus Christ and Mythology (Scribner's, 1958). [up]

  2. John A.T. Robinson argues that, given its silence on the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D., the New Testament must have been written prior to that date. For since the demise of the Temple in Jerusalem would have fueled Christian preaching that Jesus had replaced the Temple sacrificial system (John 1:29, Hebrews 10:11f), the New Testament would certainly have referred to its destruction as a past event, and distinguished it from the end of the world (Luke 21:25-28), had it already happened. [John A.T. Robinson, Redating the New Testament (SCM Press, 1976).]

    John Macquarrie writes, "Myth is usually characterized by a remoteness in time and space… as having taken place long ago." By contrast the Gospels concern "an event that had a particularly definite location in Palestine… under Pontius Pilate, only a generation or so before the New Testament account of these happenings." [John Macquarrie, God-Talk: An Examination of the Language and Logic of Theology (Harper, 1967), pp. 177-180.]

    A.N. Sherwin-White writes, "The agnostic type of form-criticism would be much more credible if the compilation of the Gospels were much later in time… than can be the case… Herodotus enables us to test the tempo of myth-making, [showing that] even two generations are too short a span to allow the mythical tendency to prevail over the hard historic core." [A.N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament (Oxford University Press, 1963), pp. 189-190.] [up]

  3. See Reginald Fuller, Foundations of New Testament Christology (Scribner's, 1965), p. 142. [up]

  4. See Frederick Fyvie Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (Downer's Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1972), pp. 11f, 14f. [up]

  5. Eta Linnemann, writes, "The eyewitnesses [both hostile and sympathetic] did not disappear from the scene in a flash after two decades. [Many are] likely to have survived until the second half of the A.D. 70's… Who at the time would have dared to alter the ‘first tradition’ beyond recognition?" [Eta Linnemann, Is There a Synoptic Problem? (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1992), p. 64.] Interestingly, Dr. Linnemann was previously a negative critic of the New Testament in the line of Rudolf Bultmann. Having renounced her former position she now urges readers to “trash” her earlier works. [up]

  6. Michael Grant writes, "Modern critical methods fail to support the Christ-myth theory [Osiris, Mithras, etc.]. It has again and again been answered and annihilated by first-rank scholars." [Michael Grant, Jesus: An Historian's Review of the Gospels (Scribner's, 1977), p. 200.] [up]

  7. Michael Green, The Empty Cross of Jesus (Downer's Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1984), p. 115. [up]

  8. M. Grant. writes, "Judaism was a milieu to which doctrines of deaths and rebirths of mythical gods seems so entirely foreign that the emergence of such a fabrication from its midst is very hard to credit." [Michael Grant, Jesus: An Historian's Review of the Gospels (Scribner's, 1977), p. 199.] Oxford's N.T. Wright demolishes Spong's assertion that the Gospels are Jewish midrash and therefore fantasy in N.T. Wright, Who Was Jesus? (Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 1992). The two are different literary genres. And midrash is not fantasy anyway, but “tightly controlled and argued” material (p. 71f). See also Paul Barnett, Peter Jensen and David Peterson, Resurrection: Truth and Reality: Three Scholars Reply to Bishop Spong (Aquila, 1994). [up]

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