It’s Lent and we are edging perilously near to that special season of the year when a few under-informed commentators write newspaper articles telling us that Jesus didn’t really rise from the dead.
Terence de Vere White, a former literary editor of the Irish Times, remarked, “Elsewhere Easter is celebrated as the Feast of the Resurrection. In Dublin it is celebrated as the Feast of the Insurrection”.
So before it all begins let’s treat the New Testament documents just as historical records. Some undeniable facts emerge – four stand out
1. Jesus was dead and buried.
He was killed by professionals who knew their business and made extra sure about it. But he wasn’t thrown into an un-marked grave. In fact he was buried in a very marked grave. It belonged to a member of the Ruling Council (Joseph of Arimathea).
Six weeks later the disciples began to talk openly about a risen Jesus. The Ruling Council people who opposed them would have had no difficulty in stopping them if it only required nipping round the corner to show Jesus body in the grave belonging to their colleague. And the records about Jesus’ burial are universally acknowledged to be amongst the oldest sources used in the gospels.
2. The tomb was empty.
Again, the ancient record tells us that the women who went to the tomb got the fright of their lives when they didn’t find Jesus (wouldn’t you?). A remarkable aspect of the story is that they were women.
An ancient writer of fiction trying to invent a story of resurrection certainly wouldn’t have women as the key witnesses since their testimony would not even have been accepted in a court of law. Sorry about that, girls!
You’ve got to hand it to those women. Jesus appeared to them first and they stuck by their story until the men caught up with them (literally), went to the tomb and saw for themselves. Fair play, girls!
The whole empty tomb business was an outsize embarrassment for the Council. During that morning the story leaked out to the Council members who promptly offered the soldiers extra pocket money if they would just say that the disciples had stolen the body. Thus an eloquent voice was added to the witnesses – that of the Council themselves.
Jacob Kremer, emeritus professor of New Testament studies at the University of Vienna, said, “By far most exegetes hold firmly to the reliability of the biblical statements concerning the empty tomb.” You can see why.
3. Christ appeared to disciples for forty days.
You already know how long that is – it’s the length of Lent. Quite a long time. His appearances covered a geographical scope of 80 kilometres, to a wide range of people, in groups varying from a handful to over 500 and at different times of the day. These occasions are recorded by all the major players in New Testament writing – Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter and Paul.
When Paul was writing over 20 years later he makes the point that there were still at least 250 eye-witnesses you could go and check with.
4. The disciples were changed entirely.
Peter is famous for a couple of things (a) denying Christ before the Jews, about which he was so ashamed and (b) preaching his heart out on the day of Pentecost to those same Jews, telling them that they had put God’s man to death “by nailing him on a cross”. That was quite a switch. His own explanation? “You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this”.
It would have taken a lot of convincing, not just to change Peter’s story, but to motivate him to live and eventually die for that story. It looks like all of the disciples, except John, died that way.
In one fell swoop these disciples had answered the objection of David Hume, the 18th century the Scottish philosopher, centuries before he made it. Hume said that since people don’t rise from the dead, then neither did Jesus. The disciples’ answer? – since Jesus did rise from the dead, then others may also.