Affirming the Resurrection via ‘historical bedrock’-Pt. 1

The Resurrection of Jesus Christ is the corner stone, the foundation, the historical bedrock of the Christian faith. As Paul so definitively put it, “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins….but in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. (1 Corinthians 15:17-20) It is not surprising then that attacks on the veracity of the Resurrection account, via naturalistic explanations, have been waged since it took place via the works of the pagan philosopher Celsus (AD 178) and philosopher Lucian of Samosata (AD 115-200), and continue to be brought to bear on the event even today via the works of David Hume, Bertrand Russell, and the New Atheists ‘four horsemen.’

The purpose of such anti-supernatural explanations is to discredit and nullify the historicity of the event. It is for this reason that “Resurrection apologtics” is one of the strongest affirmations of the truth of the Christian worldview, a branch of apologetics that every apologist, and Christian for that matter, should be well-versed in so as to “always be ready to give a defense to anyone who asks them for the reason of the hope that is in them…” (1 Pet. 3:15)

What is ‘historical bedrock’?

Michael Licona offers the following definition:

“By ‘historical bedrock’ pertaining to the fate of Jesus, I am referring to
(1) Jesus’ death by crucifixion,
(2) the beliefs of Jesus’ disciples that he had risen from the dead and had appeared to them in both individual and group settings, and
(3) the conversion of a persecutor of the Christian church later known as Paul based on an experience he perceived was an appearance of the risen Jesus to him.”

Thus, it is on this firm foundation, this “historical bedrock,” that Jesus’ resurrection is affirmed. [1]

But what of the competing naturalistic explanations? Are they founded on ‘historical bedrock,’ or is it the case that each of these explanations is built on ‘historical sand?’ Let’s follow the evidence and see where it leads.

In comparing the naturalistic explanations and the historicity of the resurrection, Michael Licona states, “…if the resurrection hypothesis is superior to the naturalistic explanations, the context will serve to strengthen the hypothesis that the resurrection of Jesus was historical and that the event was a miracle. Moreover, it is important to remember that our commitment to using only the historical bedrock serves as a safeguard from confusing urban legend with fact.” [2]  

Top Four Naturalistic Explanations for the Resurrection

The top four naturalistic explanations offered for the Resurrection are as follows:

1) The Swoon Theory
2) The Theft Theory
3) The Hallucination Theory
4) The Wrong Tomb Theory

British attorney, J. N. D. Anderson, understands the importance of the reliability and truthfulness of evidence when assessing the truth claim of any event. As per the testimony of the historicity of the resurrection he offers the following criteria for assessment:

“A point which needs stressing is that the evidence must be considered as a whole. It is comparatively easy to find an alternative explanation for one or another of the different strands which make up this testimony. But such explanations are valueless unless they fit the other strands in the testimony as well. A number of different theories, each of which might conceivably be applicable to part of the evidence but which do not themselves cohere into an intelligible pattern, can provide no alternative to the one interpretation which fits the whole.”[3]

I will cover each of these in brief with a list of resources at the end of this article for those who are interested in further study.

The ‘swoon’ theory

The swoon theory postulates that although Jesus was nailed to the cross, he was taken down from the cross while still alive. He was then placed in the tomb and the cool air of the tomb revived him and he rose up and departed from the tomb under his own strength. Another version of the theory also adds the “reviving effects of the spices with which He had been embalmed.” [4]

There have been a number of refutations by New Testament scholars (ranging from conservative to skeptic) to this theory, so I will refer only to what I consider to be the most definitive:

Again, attorney J. N. D. Anderson states, “This theory does not stand up to investigation.” [5]

T. J. Thorburn observes, “It would be difficult to imagine even the most powerful of men, after enduring all these, not succumbing to death. Moreover, it is recorded that the victims of crucifixion seldom recovered, even under the most favorable circumstances….Then there is the most impossible thing of all; the poor, weak Jesus, with difficulty holding Himself erect, in hiding, disguised, and finally dying—this Jesus an object of faith. Of exalted emotion, of the triumph of His adherents, a risen conqueror, and Son of God! Here in fact, the theory begins to grow paltry, absurd, worth only of rejections.”[6]

Then we have the most convincing refutation of the swoon theory by skeptic David Friedrich Strauss. Strauss’ refutation has become known as the ‘nail in the coffin’ of the theory. Although a non-believer in the resurrection, Strauss saw the absurdity of the swoon theory and offered the following refutation:

It is impossible that a being who had stolen half-dead out of the sepulchre, who crept about week and ill, wanting medical treatment, who require bandaging, strengthening and indulgence, and who still at last yielded to his sufferings, could have given to the disciples the impression that he was a Conqueror over death and the grave, the Prince of Life, an impression which lay at the bottom of their future ministry. Such a resuscitation could only have weakened the impression which he had made upon them in life and in death, at the most could only have given it an elegiac voice, but could by no possibility have changed their sorrow into enthusiasm, [or] have elevated their reverence into worship. [7]


What is the ‘swoon theory’ and is it true?

What about the “swoon theory?”-Gary Habermas

The Theft/Conspiracy Theory

In this view it is understood that the disciples came during the night and stole the body from the tomb. The Jewish leaders, upon hearing that the tomb was found empty, perpetrated the ‘theft and/or stolen body’ theory/story in order to discredit the resurrection:

While they were going, behold, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests all that had taken place. And when they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave a sufficient sum of money to the soldiers and said, “Tell people, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ And if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story has been spread among the Jews to this day. (Matthew 28:11-15 ESV)

Wilbur M. Smith comments:

It should be noticed first of all that the Jewish authorities never questioned the report of the guards. They did not themselves go out to see if the tomb was empty, because they knew it was empty. The guards would never have come back with such a story as this on their lips unless they were reporting actual, indisputable occurrences, as far as they we able to apprehend them. The story which the Jewish authorities told the soldiers to repeat was a story to explain how the tomb became empty.[8]

According to the writings of Justin Martyr in his Dialogue with Trypho (AD 130) states that the Jewish authorities had dispatched representatives throughout the Mediterranean to explain Jesus’ followers had stolen Jesus’ body.

Albert Roper writes:

Let us be fair. We are confronted with an explanation which to reasonable minds simply cannot explain; a solution which does not solve. When the chief priests induced Pilate to “command…that the sepulchre be made sure until the third day,” the factual record justifies the conclusion that the sepulchre was in very truth made “sure.” Reasoning, therefore, from that record, we are inescapably faced with the conclusion that the measures taken to prevent the friends of Jesus from stealing His body now constitute unimpeachable proof that they could not and did not steal it.[9]

E. Le Camus reasons thus in refuting the theft/stolen body theory:

If Jesus, who had been laid in the tomb on Friday, was not there on Sunday, either He was removed or He came forth by His own power. There is no other alternative. Was He removed? By whom? By friends or by enemies? The latter had set a squad of soldiers to guard Him, therefore they had no intention of causing Him to disappear. Moreover, their prudence could not counsel this. This would have made the way too easy for stories of the resurrection which the disciples might invent. The wisest course was for them to guard Him as a proof. Thus they could reply to every pretension that might arise: “Here is the corpse, He is not risen.” As for His friends, they had nether the intention nor the power to remove Him.[10]

The conspiracy theory was refuted by the early church historian, Eusebius of Caesarea in his Demonstratio evangelica(314-18AD). Eusebius argues that it would be inconsistent to hold that the disciples were on one hand followers of Jesus with His high moral teaching and yet on the other hand such base liars as to invent all these miraculous stories about Jesus. It makes no sense to say that the men who learned and then taught the ethics of Jesus would themselves be deceivers.

Not only that, Eusebius continues, but it is inconceivable that such a conspiracy could ever be formed or hold together. Eusebius composes a wonderfully satirical speech, which he imagines to have been delivered when the disciples first joined together in this conspiracy:

“Let us band together,” the speaker proclaims, “to invent all the miracles and resurrection appearances which we never saw and let us carry the sham even to death! Why not die for nothing? Why dislike torture and whipping inflicted for no good reason? let us go out to all nations and overthrow their institutions and denounce their gods! And even if we don’t convince anybody, at least we’ll have the satisfaction of drawing down on ourselves the punishment for our own deceit.”

Through this satire, Eusebius wants to show how ridiculous it is to imagine that the disciples invented the whole thing. But even if they had, he continues, the plot would never have held together. How could so many persona agree unanimously to lie about these things? Could such an enterprise engineered by liars ever endure? Eusebius pints out that these men went to their deaths testifying to the truth of what they believed. It is unbelievable that they would suffer and die for nothing. And how could the testimonies of all these deceivers agree? The disciples gave up family, worldly pleasures, and money to out into foreign lands to preach what they believed. They could not have been liars. Eusebius, himself a great historian, emphasizes that if we distrust these men. then we must distrust all writers of history and records. If we accept the testimony of secular historians, then we must be the same standard also accept the reliability of the disciple’ testimony to the resurrection.[11]

Was Jesus’ Body Stolen?-William Lane Craig

Could the Disciples Have Stolen Jesus’ Body?-A lawyers perspective

In Part 2, we’ll take a look at the hallucination and wrong tomb hypothesis.

[1] Michael R. Licona, Historians and Miracle Claims, Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, 12 (2014), pgs.106-129
[2] Michael R. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus-A New Historiographical Approach, IVP, 2010, pg. 302
[3] J.N.D. Anderson, A Dialogue on Christ’s Resurrection, Christianity Today, April 1968
[4] Ernest F. Kevan, The Resurrection of Christ, 1961, pg. 9
[5] Ibid, J.N.D. Anderson
[6] Thomas J. Throburn, The Resurrection; Narratives and Modern Criticism, London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co. Ltd., 1910, pgs. 183-85
[7] David Friedrich Strauss, The Life of Jesus for the People, 2d ed. Vol. 1, London: Williams and Norgate., 1879, pg. 412
[8] Wilbur M. Smith, Therefore Stand: Christian Apologetics, Grand Rapids; Baker Book House, 1965, pg. 375-76
[9] Albert Roper, Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?, Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1965, pg. 34
[10]E. Le Camus, The Life of Christ, Vol. 3, New York; The Cathedral Library Association, 1908, pg. 482
[11] William Lane Craig, The Son Rises-The Histoical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus, Wipf & Stock, 2000, pgs. 24-25

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