Books are a great way to learn deeply about God and Christianity. Since there is literally so much to learn from, I will list a number of recommended books per category. Feel free to check them out. Most of these books that I will list have ebook versions available so you can get them anytime you wish.
A dive into Christian history reveals a rich miracle tradition. From the ministry of Jesus to the succeeding apostolic age, and down the centuries to the present day, miracles have always been present. They are signs that God is truly with us — that He loves us, cares about us and is with us always (Matt 28:19-20).
Christianity’s miracle tradition is copious, varied and extremely impressive. Its credibility has only increased in more modern times, ever since the Church further strengthened its investigative approach towards miraculous claims — a process that includes employing modern science, consulting relevant professionals, seeking formal witness testimony, collecting documentation, etc.
It will take a series of posts to cover each aspect of Christianity’s miracle tradition more deeply and do it justice. For now, in this blog post, we will examine the evidence for miraculous healings, particularly healings as a result of the intercession of the saints — our brothers and sisters in Christ who have gone ahead of us and now enjoy God’s full presence in Heaven. Although they have finished their earthly journey, these friends of ours continue to intercede for us (Rev 5:8; 8:3-4 and Heb 12:1), the church militant, for the sake of our well-being and so that ultimately, we will “finish our race”. Since these men and women lived lives of exemplary virtue, their prayerscarry great weight with God, making them powerful intercessors (James 5:16).
With that said, let us get into our discussion on the topic!
A Cautious Church
Those familiar with the Church’s approach to miraculous claims know that they proceed with great caution and skepticism. In order for a healing to be approved as a formal miracle and used in the beatification or canonization process, it has to pass several stages. The first is a local investigation led by an uninvolved doctor, who is appointed by a bishop. If the case passes the local investigation, a comprehensive report on the healing is forwarded to the medical commission for the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in Rome, a panel of 62 doctors in various specialties. In order for the case to be approved by the committee, it must meet seven criteria:
The disease must be serious and impossible, or at least very difficult, to cure by human means.
The disease must not be in a stage at which it is liable to disappear shortly by itself.
Either no medical treatment must have been given, or it must be certain that the treatment given has no reference to the cure.
The cure must be spontaneous (this refers to the rate of recovery)
The cure must be complete
The cure must be permanent
The cure must not be preceded by any crisis of a sort which would make it possible for the cure to be wholly or partially natural.
If a healing, however extraordinary, does not meet all seven criteria, the Church, while not denying that it may be supernatural in origin, withholds the formal title “miracle” to avoid the slightest taint of promoting spurious miracles. It must also be noted that no “religious tests” are done on the doctors assessing these cases of healing. The only criterion the Church cares about is the doctor’s competency in assessing the medical case in question.
If the panel decides that a healing meets all seven criteria and is “scientifically inexplicable”, they provide a report and recommendation to theologians, who assess whether the healing is due to supernatural factors — specifically the result of the intercession of the saint in question. After this step, the healing is evaluated by a special commission of cardinals and bishops, who review the findings of the doctors and theologians. If everything checks out, it is passed to the desk of the Pope, who signs off on the case in an official act of authentication. In the end, one can say that the process is a thorough examination of a possible miracle by two judges — science and faith.
The cautiousness, skepticism and thoroughness of the Church towards miraculous claims have been recognized by many outside of it, who are familiar with its processes.
Bill Briggs, a journalist for NBC News, described the Church’s process as “rigorous”. Commenting further, Briggs says:
“I think what would surprise people outside the church is how very dubious investigators are. To examine these claims, they look at hundreds, if not thousands, of medical records and other pieces of evidence. It’s the furthest thing from a rubber stamp”.
Dr. Richard Ferrara, a dermatologist, was asked to participate in a local investigation of Paula Zarate’s healing of ichthyosis, a genetic skin disease, by the intercession of Solanus Casey (this case will be discussed later in the article). He was tasked with looking for holes in the account and searching existing literature. Ultimately, he considered the process “very in-depth and involved”.Commenting on the process and the expectations of the Church, Ferrera said:
“It was a very interesting, touching process. They want us to be very impartial, to hold it up to scrutiny”.
Another medical professional and atheist, Jacalyn Duffin, also attests to the rigor of the Church’sinvestigation process. In a New York Times Op-Ed, she recounts her experience of being asked to do a blind reading, which she would later find out was for the Vatican. She also recalls her experience in later visiting the Vatican archives, to examine their documentation for miraculous healings used in the canonization process. Quoting her article at length:
Kingston, Ontario — THERE was no mistaking the diagnostic significance of that little red stick inside a deep blue cell: The Auer rod meant the mystery patient had acute myelogenous leukemia. As slide after slide went by, her bone marrow told a story: treatment, remission, relapse, treatment, remission, remission, remission.
I was reading these marrows in 1987, but the samples had been drawn in 1978 and 1979. Median survival of that lethal disease with treatment was about 18 months; however, given that she had already relapsed once, I knew that she had to be dead. Probably someone was being sued, and that was why my hematology colleagues had asked for a blind reading.
Imagining an aggressive cross-examination in court, I emphasized in my report that I knew neither the history nor why I was reading the marrows. After the work was submitted, I asked the treating physician what was going on. She smiled and said that my report had been sent to the Vatican. This leukemia case was being considered as the final miracle in the dossier of Marie-Marguerite d’Youville, the founder of the Order of Sisters of Charity of Montreal and a candidate to become the first Canadian-born saint”.
The “miracle” involving d’Youville had already been overturned once by the Vatican’s medical committee, unconvinced by the story of a first remission, a relapse, and a much longer second remission. The clerics argued that she had never relapsed and that her survival in first remission was rare but not impossibly so. But the panel and her advocates agreed that a “blind” reading of the evidence by another expert might provoke reconsideration. When my report confirmed what the Ottawa doctors found, that she had indeed had a short remission and then relapsed, the patient, who had prayed to d’Youville for help and, against all odds, was still alive, wanted me to testify.
The tribunal that questioned me was not juridical, but ecclesiastical. I was not asked about my faith. (For the record, I’m an atheist.) I was not asked if it was a miracle. I was asked if I could explain it scientifically. I could not, though I had come armed for my testimony with the most up-to-date hematological literature, which showed that long survivals following relapses were not seen.
When, at the end, the Vatican committee asked if I had anything more to say, I blurted out that as much as her survival, thus far, was remarkable, I fully expected her to relapse some day sooner or later. What would the Vatican do then, revoke the canonization? The clerics recorded my doubts. But the case went forward and d’Youville was canonized on Dec. 9, 1990.
That experience, as a hematologist, led me to a research project that I conducted in my other role, as a historian of medicine. I was curious: What were the other miracles used in past canonizations? How many were healings? How many involved up-to date treatments? How many were attended by skeptical physicians like me? How did all that change through time? And can we explain those outcomes now?
Over hundreds of hours in the Vatican archives, I examined the files of more than 1,400 miracle investigations — at least one from every canonization between 1588 and 1999. A vast majority — 93 percent over all and 96 percent for the 20th century — were stories of recovery from illness or injury, detailing treatment and testimony from baffled physicians.
Perversely then, this ancient religious process, intended to celebrate exemplary lives, is hostage to the relativistic wisdom and temporal opinions of modern science. Physicians, as nonpartisan witnesses and unaligned third parties, are necessary to corroborate the claims of hopeful postulants. For that reason alone, illness stories top miracle claims. I never expected such reverse skepticism and emphasis on science within the church.
Now almost 40 years later, that mystery woman is still alive and I still cannot explain why. Along with the Vatican, she calls it a miracle. Why should my inability to offer an explanation trump her belief? However they are interpreted, miracles exist, because that is how they are lived in our world.
In the end, Duffin’s detailed testimony, coming from someone who does not even believe in Christianity, is powerful.
Cases of Miraculous Healings
After discussing the Church’s cautious approach towards miraculous healings as a result of the intercession of the saints, let us now examine actual examples. Out of the eight examples, we will look at in this article, seven were used in the process of beatification or canonization, meaning that they passed the seven criteria of the Church. One of the examples on the other hand, the healing of Dafne Gutierrez by the relic of St. Charbel, occurred after the saint’s canonization. However, this case of healing is just as extraordinary. It also underwent and passed a local investigation.
All pictures used here are actual photos of the healing recipients, with the exception of Peter Smith. Instead of Peter, the photo used was of his brother F.X., who continues to share the incredible healing of his now-deceased brother, with others.
For our first case, let us examine the healing of Dafne Guiterrez.
1. Cured of blindness by the relic of St. Charbel
When Dafne Gutierrez was 13 years old in 1999, she was diagnosed with the medical condition idiopathic intracranial hypertension (IIH). One effect of this condition can be another one called papilledema, where the pressure in the brain is greatly increased. This pressure affects the optic nerves, which in some cases such as Daphne’s eventually results in complete blindness.
In 2014, Dafne lost vision in her left eye completely. In 2015, Dafne lost vision in her right eye as well, leaving her in total darkness. Her doctors declared her condition “permanent and medically irreversible”. Dafne also experienced “vise-like” headaches, seizures, tinnitus (ringing in the ears), vomiting and dizziness.
However, what broke Dafne’s heart the most was her inability to take care of her three children. In fact, she could not even take care of herself. As a result, she was approved for admittance to a nursing home.
Then, in 2016, Dafne heard a Spanish radio news report that the relics of St. Charbel Makhlouf were on a pilgrimage, honoring the Lebanese saint’s 50th beatification anniversary, and were going to a nearby church (St. Joseph Maronite Catholic Church in Phoenix) in an upcoming weekend. Neither Dafne nor her family heard of St. Charbel before but interestingly, later that same day, Dafne’s sister-in-law called and told her that she saw an announcement on the visit of the relics and suggested that Dafne and her husband go with her.
During the day of their visit and on the way to church Dafne prayed: “Please God heal me — if not for me, then do it for my kids! I’m tired of going to You praying and asking You to heal me…I am giving in. If You don’t want to do it for me, then do it for my kids”. Then when she arrived at the church she prayed again to God and then to St. Charbel saying: “I don’t know who you are, but please help me”.
After mass and during the veneration of St. Charbel’s relics, Dafne was blessed with holy oil “touched to” the relics by Fr. Wissam Akiki. Fr. Akiki prayed for Dafne to be cured of her condition. As this was happening Dafne felt “very strongly” that someone was standing next to her. After the blessing of the oil and prayer, Dafne asked her sister-in-law “Who was that standing next to me, on my right side?”. Her sister-in-law replied that there was no one standing next to her other than Fr. Akki. To this day, Dafne is not sure who was standing next to her at that moment, but she is certain that “someone” was there.
From the moment Dafne was blessed and prayed after, she says that she started to feel different: “I can’t explain it but my body felt different”.
The next day, Sunday January 17, 2016, Dafne went again to St. Joseph for the 3:00 pm Mass, and to venerate the relic of St. Charbel once more.
Early the next day at 4:00 am she suddenly awoke with her eyes “burning”: “They were like burning — really burning”. Her head also hurt “like after an operation”. Dafne woke up her husband to tell him about what she was feeling in her eyes. In response, her husband remarked how that was impossible since she had no sensation in her eyes. Then, her husband placed his hands over her eyes and noted that they were “vibrating and moving”. He also noticed a strong smell like “burning meat”. After this, Dafne realized that she could actually see her husband very vaguely, like a shadow. She shouted, “I can see you! I can see you with both of my eyes!”. Dafne started to cry. She wiped her eyes and then opened them to see if she could really see. She could.
Within three days, Dafne’s sight was restored to a perfect 20/20 vision. This sudden and remarkable healing was confirmed by an ophthalmologist and later by several other physicians.
In the end, a medical committee led by Dr. Borik, carried out a thorough review of Gutierrez’s medical records, as well as repeated examinations. The committee concluded: “After a thorough physical exam, extensive literature search and review of all medical records, we have no medical explanation and therefore believe this to be a miraculous healing through the intercession of St. Charbel.”
2. An incurable illness vs. the late Pope John Paul II
Sister Marie-Simon-Pierre, a French nun, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2001. By 2005, the nun’s condition had deteriorated greatly. She could barely move her left side. She had difficulty writing legibly with her right hand (the only functioning one at this point), moving around easily and driving more than short distances. She was in such pain, in fact, that she could hardly sleep. Looking towards the future, Sr. Simon Pierre knew that she would eventually pass away. Parkinson’s had no cure. Knowing the inevitability of her condition’s degeneration, she could not bear to watch her beloved Pope John Paul II appear on television, because he too was suffering from Parkinson’s: “It reminded me of what I would be in a few years’ time, I had to listen to his broadcasts rather than watch them”, the French nun said.
Even if Sr. Simon-Pierre was suffering and struggling greatly, she still continued to work. She considered it very important to her and had always felt a calling to serve in maternity.
Shortlyafter the death of John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI’s waiver to open the sainthood Cause of his predecessor became official. Immediately, Sr. Simon-Pierre’s community, the Congregation of the Little Sisters of Catholic Motherhood, united in asking John Paul II to intercede for their sister’s healing. Even their one foreign mission in Africa joined in the effort. However, despite the community’s prayers, Sr. Simon-Pierre’s condition continued to worsen. In less than three weeks after Pope Benedict opened John Paul II’s Cause, Sr. Simon-Pierre had given up on striving to work. The pain and exhaustion was too much. Now, the tremors in her right hand were so severe that writing (which was necessary for her work in healthcare) was becoming impossible.
Sr. Simon-Pierre approached her superior, Sr. Marie Thomas Fabre, and asked for permission to resign from her professional work. Hearing this and not understanding the gravity of Sr. Simon-Pierre’s deterioration, Sr. Thomas Fabre reminded her that the community was sending her to Lourdes, a Catholic Marian shrine known for healing, in August, and told her that she should try to endure until then. She also added “John Paul II has not yet said his last word”. When Sr. Simon-Pierre tried to explain that writing using her right-hand was becoming impossible, Sr. Thomas Fabre asked her to write the name of John Paul II on a piece of paper. Sr. Simon-Pierre did not want to show what her writing had become but since she was repeatedly asked by her superior to write, she did. The scrawl was far from her once clear handwriting (a graphologist who later examined it described it as the writing of someone near death). As her superior looked at the paper, she realized how bad Sr. Simon-Pierre’s condition had become. The two looked at each other then simply sat for a time praying. After doing so, Sr. Simon-Pierre made her way out of her superior’s office.
Some hours later, between 9:30 – 9:45 pm, Sr. Simon-Pierre went to her office before going to her room, feeling an unusual need to pick up a pen and write. As she recounts: “something in my heart seemed to say ‘Take up a pen and write”. Sr. Simon-Pierre did so, writing some scripture, but to her surprise her handwriting was clear, completely legible, normal. Utterly surprised, she did not know how to take in what had just happened. She continued her routine and went to bed.
At 4:30 am in the morning, Sr. Simon-Pierre awoke “fully alive”. She felt no pain or stiffness, and interiorly she felt “much different”. She also remembered being in awe that she actually slept well since the pain caused by her condition prevented her from doing so.
Dressing up without any difficulty, she hurried to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament and spent an hour expressing her gratitude and joy for the changes in her body. She then went to the community chapel and joined her fellow sisters for mass. Sr. Simon Pierre — who for a long time had not been able to stand steadily enough to do the scripture readings volunteered to do so, and she did so just fine. It was only after she had received the Eucharist that she realized that she had truly been healed. She did not take her medicines any longer. During her next regular medical check-up, her neurologist was speechless — Sr. Simon-Pierre showed no signs of Parkinson’s.
Sr. Marie Thomas Fabre reported the healing to the postulator of John Paul II’s Cause, Monsignor Slawomir Oder. A couple of months later, Oder makes two trips to visit the sisters in Puyricard, France. He asks the local bishop, Archbishop Claude Feidt, to investigate the events. A thorough investigation was conducted. An expert neurologist who was not Sr. Simon-Pierre’s doctor, came up with questions that needed to be answered. Other professionals were also consulted including other neurologists, professors of neurology, a neuropsychiatrist, a plain psychiatrist and a handwriting expert (handwriting is an important gauge of Parkinson’s). This investigation lasted a year and in the end, Sr. Simon-Pierre’s healing was declared scientifically inexplicable. Her healing was accepted for Pope John Paul II’s beatification.
In 2007, Sr. Marie Pierre was interviewed before TV cameras at a press conference with Archbishop Feidt during which she said: “I am cured. It is the work of God, through the intercession of Pope John Paul II”.
3. An immediate healing followed by the odor of sanctity
One day, as Melissa Villalobos was getting ready for work and ironing her clothes, she stumbled across an EWTN program talking about Cardinal John Henry Newman. As Villalobos recounts: “These priests and scholars were talking about him and his life and what a holy man he was, and what a tremendous influence he had on the church and on other people in his life…I was really taken by it and I thought, ‘This man is so amazing’”.
In 2011,Villalobos’ husband brought home a couple of prayer cards of then Bl. John Henry Newman. Villalobos placed one card in the living room and the other in her bedroom. She started developing a relationship with John Henry Newman, considering him aclose spiritual friend: “I would pass his picture in the house and I would say little prayers to him for whatever our family’s needs were at the time – the children, my husband, myself. I really started to develop a very constant dialogue with him”, Melissa said.
In 2013, Melissa became pregnant. A troubling sign, however, arose. She found herself bleeding significantly during the 1st trimester of her pregnancy. Melissa went to the doctor who performed an ultrasound on her. She was informed that she had developed a condition called subchorionic hematoma, a blood clot between the placenta and the uterine wall that causes the former to be partially ripped and detached from the latter. Simply put, there was a hole in her placenta and it was allowing blood to escape. In Melissa’s case, the blood clot that caused this hole was two and a half times the size of her baby. Her condition was serious. There was no cure to be found in medicine or surgery. The best Melissa could do was what her doctor recommended — strict bed rest, for the sake of her health (to protect herself against the possibility of hemorrhaging to death) and in order to give her baby the best possible chance.
On Friday, May 10, 2013, Melissa went to the emergency room because her bleeding was worse. Once again, her doctor told her that she should confine herself to strict bed rest, but this was difficult to imagine given that she had four small children and a husband who had to work. The doctor also told Melissa and her husband that a miscarriage was likely, but that if the baby survived the pregnancy, she would likely be born prematurely because she would be small.
As if the situation was not stressful enough, Melissa’s husband, David, had to leave for a mandatory business trip — leaving her alone in the house with her children.
On Wednesday morning, Melissa woke up in bed in a pool of her own blood. At this time, her husband was already in an airplane on his/the way to Atlanta. Thinking about what she should do, Melissa chose to put off calling 911 because she did not know who would take care of her kids if she was taken in an ambulance to the hospital. She made her kids breakfast and told them to stay put before going upstairs. After going upstairs, her condition greatly worsened and she collapsed in the bathroom. As Melissa recounts: “Now the bleeding was really bad because I had just gone up the stairs, which I really shouldn’t have done. I kind of collapsed on the bathroom floor out of weakness and desperation.”
Melissa laid on the floor, thinking that she should now call 911. However, she realized that she did not have her cellphone. She also knew that the exertion of yelling for her kids would cause more damage and bleeding. As she lay on the bathroom floor Melissa was hoping that one of her children would wander into the room so she could ask him or her to call 911 but none of them came. She heard nothing from her children and the silence made her even more worried.
With thoughts of losing her unborn baby, worry for her children downstairs and wondering if she would die, Villalobos uttered a prayer to Cardinal Newman: “Please, Cardinal Newman, make the bleeding stop”. Right after she finished that prayer, her bleeding stopped immediately. As Villalobos recounts: “Just then, as soon as I finished the sentence, the bleeding stopped.”
Villalobos got off the floor, confirmed that there was no bleeding and thanked Cardinal Newman. After doing so, a scent of roses filled the bathroom. As Villalobos testifies, it was “the strongest scent of roses I’ve ever smelled”. In Christian history, the scent of roses has been associated with saints and the stigmata. As a mystical phenomenon, it is called the “odour of sanctity”.
That very afternoon, Villalobos’ cure was confirmed by an ultrasound, with the doctor telling her that everything was “perfect” and that there was no more hole in the placenta. As a result, Villalobos was able to resume her full active life as a mom. On December 27, 2013, Melissa gave birth to Gemma after a full pregnancy. Gemma weighed 8 pounds and 8 ounces. She had no medical problems.
After Gemma was born, Melissa reported her healing to the promoters of Cardinal Newman’s canonization. In the fall of 2014, representatives of Newman’s Cause visited Chicago to meet with Villalobos and her husband. Officials from the Archdiocese of Chicago carried out a local study of the healing and forwarded the case to the Vatican for another series of investigations. On February 13 2013, Pope Francis announced that the miracle was accepted and that Cardinal Newman would be canonized.
4. Revived after 61 minutes and a complete recovery
In 2010, Bonnie Engstrom found herself pregnant again. As she and her husband thought of what they were going to name their third child, they decided on the name James, after the Christian saint. For their child’s middle name on the other hand, they decided on the name Fulton, after the late American bishop and renowned evangelist Fulton Sheen. The couple decided to name their child in part after Sheen because they knew that their local diocese in Peoria had opened a Cause for Sheen’s sainthood (Sheen grew up in Peoria and was also ordained as a priest there). They also looked up to Fulton Sheen and believed that he was in Heaven, and that it was only a matter of time until he would be canonized. As a result, they asked Fulton Sheen in prayer to intercede for their unborn baby. However, the day of Bonnie’s delivery several months later was anything but easy.
On the morning of September 16, 2010 Bonnie Engstorm had gone into labor. As planned, a midwife and her assistant arrived at her home. With her husband Travis by her side, Bonnie delivered James Fulton Engstrom at around 3 a.m. However, when the midwife put the newborn on Bonnie’s chest, they noticed trouble. He was not breathing or moving, and his arms and legs hung loosely. Within seconds, the midwife grabbed the infant and began CPR while the assistant called 911. The paramedics arrived in a flash (they were stationed just down the block) but the baby’s condition went beyond their expertise, so an ambulance was called from Eureka. As this was happening, Bonnie turned to prayer towards Fulton Sheen, repeating his name: “Fulton Sheen. Fulton Sheen. Fulton Sheen”. Her husband, on the other hand, would send out requests to all of their friends and network to pray to Fulton Sheen for their son.
As Bonnie and Travis later found out, their baby’s umbilical cord had knotted, which can happen during pregnancy or during birth, and cut off blood supply. When it came to their baby, the knot had stopped his heartbeat.
As they waited for the ambulance to arrive, the midwife continued CPR. Once it did, James Fulton was hurried into it. Travis rode in the front seat and glanced back as the paramedic continued CPR. His baby had been hooked up to a heart monitor which showed no pulse. Bonnie was taken in another ambulance as a precaution since she had just given birth.
James Fulton’s ambulance arrived at OSF Saint Francis Healthcare Medical Center in Peoria in 20 minutes. Bonnie, having just given birth, was taken in another direction, while Travis followed medical personnel rushing their son to the emergency department. The medical team tried to get the baby’s heart going. After 15 minutes with no effect, a doctor told the team: “We’ll try for 5 more minutes. Then we’ll call the time of death”. Five minutes passed and Jame’s heart still showed no activity. The medical team stopped trying to resuscitate James. They took their hands off his lifeless body and began to prepare a certificate of death. Shortly afterward, James’ heart shot up to 148 beats per minute — just like any healthy newborn.
Although the doctors were astonished by James’ inexplicable return from dead, their attitude was still grim. 61 minutes had expired between James’ birth and his first heartbeat. As a result, he must have suffered severe organ damage due to a lack of blood circulation (which is essential for the oxygen to reach the different parts of the body). Their opinion was that James would die within a few hours or before the weekend ended. If he did survive, against great odds, he would be severely disabled — being blind, having cerebral palsy, and not even being able to talk or eat. They bluntly informed his parents of the situation, who in turn, continued to pray to Fulton Sheen. In the end, the predictions of the doctors never came to pass as James’ recovery turned out to be complete. He suffered zero negative effects.
Soon after, the couple submitted their son’s healing to the Fulton J. Sheen Foundation in Peoria. An investigation was launched. As Bonnie Engstorm recounts: “Travis and I turned over all of the medical records; we and 15 other people were interviewed. Everyone had to answer the same list of questions for consistency’s sake—James’s doctors, the midwife, friends, pastors—to build the evidence for the miracle. The evidence was gathered and sent to Rome”.
In the end, James’ revival and complete healing was deemed scientifically inexplicable. The case was formally approved as a miracle, paving the way for Fulton Sheen’s beatification.
On March 14, 1921, Peter Smith was born in a newly built annex to Columbus Hospital on 34th Streetin Manhattan. The hospital was a charity institution founded by Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini to provide free service to the poor immigrant population of New York. When Peter was born, the hospital was still staffed by the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, who were established by Mother Cabrini back in Italy in 1880.
The newborn was handed to his mother Margaret Smith and quickly given to Mae Redford, one of the lay-nurses, to be cleaned. Back then, it was a common method to put a one percent solution of silver nitrate into a newborn’s eyes to protect him from any bacterial infections that could have occurred during birth. However, the nurse, in a hurry, made a terrible mistake — she ended up applying a 50 percent solution into the baby’s eyes.
Young Peter Smith’s face was blackened and badly burnt, pus exuded from his tiny nostrils, and worst of all, where his eyes should be were two grotesque endemic swellings. Redford ran down the halls screaming and asking for help from a doctor.In the hours following the terrible accident, the baby was examined by three doctors and an eye specialist but unfortunately, it was a lost cause. The acid had already ravaged the baby’s eyes. Indeed, by the time the last doctor arrived at the scene, Dr. Horan, he could not even open the baby’s eyes because they were so swollen. They also started to exude puss like the nose. The doctors also noted that if the baby lives, he would be badly disfigured, since the acid solution which streamed down his eyes had burned through the layers of the skin, leaving his body incapable of repairing itself with new skin but only with scar tissue.
The Superior, Mother Teresa Bacigalupo, however, knew that there was still something that could be done. She got Mother Cabrini’s relic, who had just died less than 4 years ago, and made it touch the baby’s eyes. Then she pinned the relic to his nightgown. She, together with the other sisters then spent the entire night praying in the hospital’s chapel, begging for Mother Cabrini to intercede for the baby’s healing.
At nine o’clock the next morning, two doctors arrived at the nursery. To their astonishment, they found baby Peter’s eyelids much less swollen and pussy. One of the doctors, Dr. Kearney,opened the baby’s eyelids but instead of seeing the ravages of the deadly acid, he saw, looking back at him, two perfect eyes. The two doctors were stunned and as other doctors and nuns arrived on the scene, they too shared the same reaction. When nurse Mae arrived at the scene and learned of the healing she sobbed with great gratitude. Amid the joy and amazement in the room, someone points out something else inexplicable: the horribly charred skin which was supposed to leave young Peter disfigured for life was healing to smooth infant satin, instead of blistering and contracting. In the room, no smiles were as broad as the nuns. They knew Mother Cabrini’s sanctity personally, and now the Lord had affirmed it by this stunning miracle through her intercession.
In the end, however, the acid did leave some traces on Peter’s face. As he left the hospital, he had two scars from where the silver nitrate ran down his eyes. These however woulddissipate as he grew older.
Fourteen years later, the Smith family had another boy. They named him John Frances Xavier Smith after Mother Cabrini, in thanksgiving for her intercession for his older brother. John Francis Xavier Smith would be affectionately called F.X. throughout his life. In the end, Peter Smith and F.X. ended up becoming priests, and the healing of the former would be approved as a miracle, leading to the beatification of Mother Cabrini.
Fr. Peter Smith died at the age of 70 in 2002. Fr. F.X. on the other hand is still alive today. At the age of 84, he continues to offer Sunday Mass in New York at two different parishes.
6. Another “incurable” disease
Manuel Nevado Rey, a Spanish doctor and specialist in orthopedic surgery, exposed himself frequently tox-rays due to his work since 1956. In 1962, the first symptoms of radiodermatitis began to appear, a skin disease caused by exposure to x-raysthat leads to cancerous growths that ultimately metastasize. By 1984, Rey had to limit his activities to minor operations because his hands were gravely affected. In 1992, he stopped operating completely. Since radiodermatitis is incurable and irreversible, Ray never sought treatment and only followed his doctor’s suggestion of using Vaseline or lanolin to soothe his skin.
Towards the beginning of November 1992, Rey went to the Ministry of Agriculture since he had some questions about farming, a big hobby of his. As Rey was trying to find the person he had an appointment with, he ended up meeting Luis Eugenio Bernardo Carrascal, an agronomic engineer who worked at the Ministry. Carrascal kindly looked after Rey as he waited for the person he was meant to see but in so doing, he noticed Rey’s hands and asked what had happened to them. Rey explained his condition, saying that he had advanced chronic radiodermatitis. Upon hearing this, Carrascal gave him a prayer card of Josemaria Escriva and recommended that he seek his intercession. Rey did so and his hands began to improve, and his trip to Vienna a few days later only made him pray much harder.
During this trip to Vienna to attend a medical conference, he was very impressed to find prayer cards of then Bl. Josemaria Escriva in the churches he visited. As a result, he invoked his intercession more often. Within 2 weeks of placing himself under the care of Josemaria Escriva, Rey was completely cured of radiodermatitis. He was able to performsurgical operations again.
In the end, after investigating the case, the Medical Committee of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints unanimously established the following diagnosis: a “cancerous state of chronic radiodermatitis” in its third stage; with a certain prognosis of “infaust” (without hope of a cure). The total cure of the lesions, confirmed by the objective examinations carried out on Rey in 1992, 1994 and 1997, was declared by the committee to be “very rapid, complete, lasting, and scientifically inexplicable”. Rey’s healing was approved, resulting in Josemaria’s canonization in 2002.
7. Traces of the healing on the floor
Paula Medina Zarate, a retired teacher from Panama, made her way to St. Bonaventure Monastery in Detroit in 2012. She did so after the urging of Detroit-based Capuchin friars, who had ministered in her hometown parishes near Panama city.
At the monastery, Zarate did not recognize the tomb before her eyes, which was surrounded by so many people: “What’s that? A table?”, Zarate told her Capuchin friend Rev. Jozef Timmers. Timmers told her that it was a tomb, explaining how pilgrims came to the resting place of Solanus Casey to pray for healings. On little paper slips, they wrote down their requests and left them on top of it. Hearing this, Zarate filled out 14 pieces of paper for the sick and troubled people she visited in her parish volunteer work back in Panama. After doing so, she heard a voice saying: “What do you need for you?”. In response, Zarate got back down on her knees and placed herself on the tomb. She asked mercy for herself and for the condition on her legs and arms.
Since birth, Zarate had suffered from a genetic condition called ichthyosis. The condition causes thickened, scaly skin. It appeared on Zarate’s legs, arms and sometimes on her scalp, making her skin crack and bleed. Panama’s heat would only enhance the irritation and discomfort it caused Zarate.
As she knelt there, Zarate says that she felt an intense heat all over her body, from her feet and upward. She was interrupted however by Timmers who urged her to join him in the monastery’s dining room for lunch. Zarate told him that she did not have an appetite and explained the heat she was feeling in her legs. She excused herself and went to her guest room at the monastery. She examined her legs under her pants and what she saw made her afraid. As Zarate recounts: “What I saw made me afraid. I touched my legs and the scales were falling on the floor”. Since her skin condition often caused cracking and bleeding, Zarate worried that could be happening. Fortunately, she thought wrong.
That night, Zarate could not sleep as her body continued to shed sheets of scaly patches. In the morning, the newly revealed skin was as “smooth as a baby’s” and the sheets of diseased skin that fell off her body were seen by Capuchin staffers. After learning of the healing, Capuchin priests quickly prepared for an official investigation with medical and church experts — recording Zarate’s testimony.
As the investigation commenced some time later, the Capuchins paid for the flights of Zarate and her Panamanian dermatologist to visit Detroit and testify before an Archdiocese tribunal, a church court tasked with investigating the healing. Detroit Msgr. Ronald Browne, who presided over the tribunal, said of Zarate: “Paula was one of the humblest people I ever met. It’s definitely a heartfelt and moving story. When she’s relating it, you definitely see the sincerity of her”. However, the tribunal also needed medical facts. Zarate was examined by three metro Detroit dermatologists, including an expert on ichthyosis. Biopsies were taken of her skin.
When the tribunal finished its report of Zarate’s case, a thick document was sealed in red wax by Detroit Archbishop Allen Vigneron, and a Capuchin priest hand-delivered it to the Vatican. Eventually this healing was approved as a formal miracle, resulting in the beatification of Bl. Solanus Casey.
Zarate, her mother, her dermatologist and about 20 other relatives, friends and coworkers were present during Solanus Casey’s beatification ceremony in 2017, which drew over 70,000 faithful at Ford Stadium, Detroit.
8. “Flesh reconstructing anatomy”
On February 1974, 14 year old Robert Gutherman developed a terribly severe earache. He had been to a series of doctors, who treated it as a normal ear infection. However, the problem persisted and Guntherman was in grave pain.
As Robert was suffering from this infection, a sister from the motherhouse of the Blessed Sacrament in Bensalem, Pennsylvania, spoke to Robert’s mother. The sister had heard from some of Robert’s brothers, who were doing cleaning work at their motherhouse, that their brother was not well. The sister told Robert’s mother to pray to Mother Katharine that her son’s pain would either become more tolerable or go away completely. She told Robert’s mother that they believed that their foundress was in Heaven, and that their community would also be praying for Robert. Robert’s mother acceded to her advice and asked Mother Katharine for her intercession, asking her to help them as she would “a good neighbor in times of trial”. She also reminded Mother Katharine that Robert had often been an altar server in a chapel she had built.
Since Guntherman’s ear infection and severe pain continued, he was hospitalized in Saint Christopher’s Hospital, Philadelphia. His doctor conducted an exploratory operation to assess his ear infection. It turned out that his ear infection was not a regular one but a very serious one that needed immediate treatment. The operation revealed that two of the three bones in Robert’s ear that were essential to hearing, as well as several other nerves, were completely destroyed. The ear infection had also penetrated so deep into his ear that it was about to enter his brain. The doctor informed Guntherman that he would never be able to hear again. The damage was done. He also told him that two more “repair operations” still needed to be carried out in the future but that these could not restore his hearing.
Knowing the gravity of Guntherman’s condition, the doctor acted right away. Medical procedures were carried out to clean out the disease and these were successful. Fortunately for Guntherman, a stunning recovery lay ahead for him.
A few days after his exploratory operation, Robert was resting in his ward, with his good ear on his pillow and his bad ear covered in bandages. Someone in the corridor called his name, “Bobby”. He heard it clearly. Guntherman told his mother this and she told the doctor, but the doctor dismissed it saying that was “impossible”. The doctor did not investigate further and Robert was discharged from Saint Christopher’s.
During his next check-up, his doctor was astounded. Upon examining Robert’s ear, he found that Robert’s body was “reconstructing its anatomy” — the flesh was “fusing together” to repair the hole in the eardrum. He told Robert that if his ear continued to heal as he observed, he would not have to go through the planned reconstructive surgeries. On the boy’s record sheet the doctor wrote: “Child reconstructing anatomy. Could this be possible?”. He had no explanation for what was happening to Robert.
In the end, none of the planned surgeries would come to pass. The healing of Robert’s ear ended up being complete. Even the two bones that were totally destroyed were restored, perfectly. As Robert himself testifies: “Yes. My doctor testified that those two bones were gone, and then returned. I mean, say you lost an arm in an accident. Would it ever grow back? No. Well, two bones in my right ear did”. Robert’s case was forwarded to the Vatican. It was deemed “scientifically inexplicable” and approved for the beatification of Katharine Drexel.
In an interview with the National Catholic Register, Robert Guntherman reflected back on his miracle saying: “It’s been more than 40 years, but thinking about it still gives me the chills. It has given me a clearer understanding of the presence of God. I know that Jesus loves and cares about me, and that He’s still working miracles”.
The evidence for Christian miraculous healings is very impressive, even limiting our examination to healings as a result of the intercession of the saints. Although the cases we examined here are a solid sampling, they are far from exhaustive. Further cases can easily be added, literally, by the thousands. The testimony is voluminous from people around the world. These things simply happen. The only thing one has to consider is how to interpret these stunning healings.
The healings in question are extraordinary, rapid and scientifically inexplicable (e.g. Dafne being cured of her blindness, Sr. Simon Marie Pierre being healed of her Parkinson’s overnight, Peter Smith’s eyes being restored from irreversible acid damage, etc). They also occur in a clear Christian religious context (i.e. prayer to a saint to heal their disease). A number of accounts also contain indicators that further point to a supernatural origin for these healings. Among the examples we discussed, these include:
Dafne strongly sensing that someone was beside her when she was blessed with oil touched to St. Charbel’s relic and prayed after by a priest, and her being “certain” of this.
Sr. Simon-Pierre’s feeling an unusual urge to pick up a pen and write, and being able to do so clearly and normally.
Melissa smelling “the strongest scent of roses” (i.e. the odour of sanctity) after uttering words of gratitude to John Henry Newman.
Zarate hearing a voice asking for “what she needed” after she filled out petitions for the sick and troubled people she knew back in Panama.
In the end, the evidence for Christian miraculous healings provides powerful testimony for the truth of Christianity and the effectiveness of the intercession of the saints in Heaven, Christian men and women who have displayed exemplary virtues during their earthly lives. As it says in James 5:16:“The prayer of a righteous man has great power to prevail”.
The word “pray” finds its roots in the Latin word precari, which means to entreat or ask (e.g. “I pray thee”). When we pray to the saints in Heaven, we are asking them to intercede for us to God. We are asking them to pray for us, in the same way that we ask our friends to pray for us in our daily lives. Having lived lives of exemplary holiness however, the prayers of the saints have greater efficacy with God.
Although the saints may be deceased from an earthly perspective, they are actually “more alive” than we are in Heaven.
Another point to clarify is that anyone who is in Heaven is a “saint”. However, the Church formally recognizes someone as a saint if he or she lived a life of exemplary holiness (the process for determining this is a whole other matter, I will discuss it in a future post on the saints), and if God works miracles tied to the individual.
Catholic theology divides the Church, the mystical body of Christ, into three states: the Church triumphant (those in Heaven), Church suffering (those in purgatory) and Church militant (the Church on earth). To learn more about the three states of the Church, see this Aleteia article.
Miraculous healings also occur outside intercession of the saints — prayer to God, healings at Marian shrines and healings from Christian saints who had the gift of healing. I will discuss the latter two in future blog posts. Healings at Marian shrines are best discussed alongside the apparitions, while healings from Christian saints who had the gift of healing are best discussed alongside the other mystical phenomena in their lives.
To learn more about the history of the canonization process see Michael O Neill’s “Exploring the Miraculous”. For brevity’s sake,I will say that caution and care has always been an attribute of the process. In early Christianity, before any outward signs of recognition could take place (e.g. the building of an altar over the saint’s tomb, translating the saint’s relics to a church, promoting a prayer. etc) a formal inquiry into the holiness of the individual and any miracles to have occurred through his or her intercession must be undertaken. So at its very essence (i.e. an investigation into the holiness of the individual and any alleged miracles that occurred through his or her intercession), the canonization process today and then remains the same. In early Christianity however, the canonization process was carried out and determined at a local level (local diocese or region) — though this recognition could spread elsewhere as the saint’s cultus grew. It was only during the Middle Ages that canonizations were decided by the Holy See, to make the recognition more official and more known to the universal Church. As the centuries passed and with the advent of modern science, the canonization process increased in rigor, leading us to the current process.
O’Neill, Exploring the Miraculous, pg. 90.
This criterion refers to the rate of recovery. As stated by O’Neill in a personal correspondence (email): “In practice the Catholic Church relies on the opinions of doctors who will consider something without natural explanation when the rate of healing far exceeds what is typical or even within the range of possibilities. Diseases are different so the expected rate of recovery is different. The essential point to this criterion is that the miraculous healing must happen very quickly…”.
This criterion involves ruling out possible natural explanations in the healing. As O’Neill told me in a personal correspondence (email): “This criterion rules out the possibility that there was another factor in the cure. If there is any possible natural explanation for the healing, it will not be declared a miracle”.
Treece, Nothing Short of a Miracle: God’s Healing Power in Modern Saints, loc. 410 (ebook).
Theologians look into the case to see if it can be established that the healing occurred exclusively as a result of the intercession of the saint in question. As O’Neill explains: “One of the most challenging aspects of identifying a worthy miracle is first establishing that it was worked exclusively through the intercession of the would-be saint. It is not uncommon for a person who needs help to ask many friends for a hand, so it seems reasonable that someone facing a life-and-death situation would call on the entire litany of saints if not his or her personal and most effective favorites. Even if the miracle were to be approved as worthy of belief as being beyond natural causes, not being able to pinpoint which saint interceded in the miracle would make it ineligible for use to establish someone’s cause for canonization” (Exploring the Miraculous, pg. 91).
Someone pondering about the Christian belief in relics may find it macabre and wonder: “Why do these people believe in this?”. The answer to this question is that it is attested to in the Bible and that it has simply worked historically.
The Bible attests to the efficacy of relics many times. When the corpse of a man was touched to the bones of the prophet Elisha, the man came back to life (2 Kings 13:20-21). A woman with a hemorrhage was healed of her condition by simply touching the hem of Jesus’ cloak (Mk 5:25-34). The signs and wonders worked by the apostles were so great that people lined the streets with the sick so that when Peter walked by at least his shadow might “touch” them (Acts 5:12-15). When handkerchiefs or aprons that had been touched to Paul were applied to the sick, people were healed and evil spirits were exorcised (Acts 19:11-12).
The efficacy of relics are also attested to by Christians down the ages. See for example, the testimony of St. Ambrose and St. Augustine in the 4th and 5th century AD. Both of these men were superb thinkers, each being recognized as one of the thirty-six doctors of the Church:
“You know—nay, you have yourselves seen—that many are cleansed from evil spirits, that very many also, having touched with their hands the robe of the saints, are freed from those ailments which oppressed them; you see that the miracles of old time are renewed, when through the coming of the Lord Jesus grace was more largely shed forth upon the earth, and that many bodies are healed as it were by the shadow of the holy bodies. How many napkins are passed about! How many garments, laid upon the holy relics and endowed with healing power, are claimed! All are glad to touch even the outside thread, and whosoever touches will be made whole” – St. Ambrose (letter XXII).
“For even now miracles are wrought in the name of Christ, whether by His sacraments or by the prayers or relics of His saints; but they are not so brilliant and conspicuous as to cause them to be published with such glory as accompanied the former miracles [of Christ]” – St. Augustine (The City of God, Chapter 8).
In the end, scripture and history both attest that God acts through relics, especially in terms of healing. He does so in order to draw our attention to the saints asmodels and intercessors.
Dafne’s healing had a substantial influence on Dr. Borick, convincing her of the efficacy of prayer. Borick, telling the National Catholic Register: “It has changed my practice! It has changed how I relate to patients. Now (referring to her relationship with those entrusted to her care) prayer is such an important part of what we do.”
Treece, Nothing Short of a Miracle: God’s Healing Power in Modern Saints, loc. 410-936 (ebook).
Later, Sr. Thomas Fabre said that she hoped that she had not embarrassed Sr. Simon Pierre: “Unconsciously, I wanted to verify that she could still write, it was not the end, and that she should not give up” (Treece, Nothing Short of a Miracle, loc. 697).
Glynn, P. (2003). Healing Fire of Christ: Reflections on Modern Miracles – Knock, Lourdes, Fatima. Ignatius Press.
According to Duffin, she examined over 1,400 miracle investigations, at least one from every canonization between 1588 and 1999. The number of actual approved miraculous healings by the Vatican is of course much higher. Here are a number of points that increase the count higher than Duffin’s examination of 1,400 cases.
Duffin did not examine miracles used in the beatification process.
John Paul relaxed the number of miracles needed for beatification and canonization from at least two (for each process) to onebecause he wanted Christians around the world to have as many role models as possible — for different professions, ages, personalities, etc. As a result, a large number of the canonization processes mentioned by Duffin have at least 2 miraculous healings in support.
Duffin’s list is incomplete since Duffin only examined cases up to 1999. Plenty of canonizations occurred between 2000-2020.
This may come as a surprise to you but there is a virtual consensus among scholars, including skeptical scholars, that the historical Jesus was a miracle-worker — particularly that he was a healer and exorcist, who performed deeds during his ministry that were considered by his contemporaries (i.e. his disciples and others) as “miracles”. However these “miracles” are interpreted though (e.g. authentic miracles as a result of divine power or healings of psychosomatic illnesses) is another matter. With that said, yes, the evidence is that good!
In this three-part article, we will examine the historical evidence for Jesus as a miracle-worker in part I, look at and address the responses of skeptics to this fact about Jesus in part II and come to a conclusion to our entire discussion in part III.
Ultimately, in this article, I will argue that the miracles of Jesus are best explained as a result of divine power and that naturalistic explanations (e.g. healings of psychosomatic illnesses and the result of the placebo effect) fail to completely and compellingly account for the evidence. With that said, let us begin our look at the evidence — seeing how Jesus’ miracles satisfy the criteria of authenticity as used in scholarship.
I. The Historical Evidence
Jesus’ miracles satisfy the criteria of authenticity in varying degrees, with all of them coming together to form a powerful case for the fact that he was historically a miracle-worker. These criteria include the criterion of multiple attestation of sources and forms, the criterion of coherence, the criterion of dissimilarity, the criterion of embarrassment, and others. There is also, remarkably, strong evidence that Jesus claimed and was believed by his contemporaries (i.e. his disciples and others) to have healed the lame, the blind, lepers, and even raise people from the dead during his ministry.
In the sub-sections below, we will examine (1) how Jesus’ miracles satisfy the historical criteria of authenticity and (2) the evidence for Jesus’ healings of the lame, the blind, lepers, and his raisingsof the dead. Then, we will end part I with a conclusion on the historical evidence for Jesus’ miracles.
Having laid out the structure for part I, we now proceed to our discussion on how Jesus’ miracles satisfy the different criteria of authenticity, tackling first, the criterion of multiple attestation of sources and forms.
A. Multiple attestation of sources and forms
Jesus’ miracles are attested to in every gospel source (Mark, Q, M, L and John). In the gospels, there are fifteen non-overlapping healing accounts, seven non-overlapping accounts of exorcism and three non-overlapping accounts of raising the dead. In addition to these accounts, Jesus’ miracles are also attested to in several summary statements (e.g. Mk 1:32-34, Matt 4:23, Lk 6:17-19, etc). Outside of the gospels, Jesus’ miracles are also attested to by the Jewish historian Josephus (ca. 37 – 100 AD), who in his Antiquities, states that Jesus was a doer of “paradoxical deeds”:
“At this time [the rule of Pontius Pilate as prefect of Judea] there appeared Jesus, a wise man. For he was a doer of paradoxical deeds, a teacher who received the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and among many of Gentile origin. And when Pilate at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day”.
The word Josephus uses to describe the miracles of Jesus, “paradoxa”, can be translated to “startling” or “wondrous” in English. It is also the same word he uses in another work to describe the miracles of the Jewish prophet Elisha. In the end, historians see attestation in two independent sources as good evidence for historicity. When it comes to the miracles of Jesus, we have attestation in a stunning six independent sources.
When it comes to the miracles Jesus performed, he is also said to have performed healings (including raising the dead), exorcisms and nature miracles — resulting in attestation in multiple literary forms. Jesus’ miracles are also attested to in various sayings attributed to him in the gospels, in which he refers to, or speaks in the context of, his miracle-working. These sayings reflect a number of different form-critical categories: e.g., the parable of the strong man (Mk 3:22-27), the dispute story in which Jesus answers the charge of his healing powers coming from the devil with two conditional sentences, one a rhetorical question and the other a declaration of fact (Matt 12:27-28), biographical statements that summarize his own activity in terms of miracle-working (Matt 11:5 and Lk 7:22), his instruction concerning the exorcist who is not one of his disciples (Mark 9:38-40) and others.
In the end, Jesus’ miracles strongly satisfy the criterion of multiple attestation of sources and forms. As the preeminent scholar on the historical Jesus, John Meier, states:
“the historical fact that Jesus performed extraordinary deeds deemed by himself and others to be miracles is supported most impressively by the criterion of multiple attestation of sources and forms … The miracle traditions about Jesus’ public ministry are already so widely attested in various sources and literary forms by the end of the first Christian generation that total fabrication by the early church is, practically speaking, impossible”.
In addition to multiple attestation of sources and forms, Jesus’ miracles also satisfy the criterion of coherence. This criterion refers to how well the words and deeds of Jesus (1) mesh well with each other and (2) cohere with other known facts about his life. When it comes to the words and deeds of Jesus meshing well with each other, scholar Meier comments, after looking at the miracle narratives and sayings of Jesus in the gospels:
“Our initial inventory of narratives and sayings has made it clear that we have here a grand example of various actions and sayings of Jesus converging, meshing, and mutually supporting each other … What is remarkable in all this is how deeds and sayings cut across different sources and form-critical categories to create a meaningful whole. This neat, elegant, and unforced “fit” of the deeds and sayings of Jesus … argues eloquently for a basic historical fact: Jesus did perform deeds that he and some of his contemporaries considered miracles”.
When it comes to Jesus’ miracles cohering with other known facts of his life, Jesus’ miracles cohere with the fact that he was known to have drawn large crowds of people during his ministry. According to all four gospels and Josephus, a combination of miracles and compelling teaching were the causes of his success in this regard. Another fact that coheres with Jesus’ miracle-working was his eventual execution, as engineered by the Jewish Sanhedrin. Although Jesus’ miracles were not the primary reason for his execution, they were likely an aggravating circumstance towards this result. In the end, Jesus’ miracles strongly satisfy the criterion of coherence.
When it comes to the criterion of dissimilarity, a number of aspects of Jesus’ miracle-working are distinct from Jewish and pagan miracle traditions. This unique style of miracle-working, consistently found in all five gospel sources, argues for them originating from a single common source — Jesus himself. The unique aspects of Jesus miracle-working are as follows: (1) he performed miracles by his own authority, (2) he combined teaching with miracles, (3) faith played an important role in his healings and (4) Jesus’ miracles were not ends in themselves (e.g. to glorify him), they had an eschatological significance. The criterion of dissimilarity may also be applied to the person of Jesus, who was certainly a unique individual. With that said, let us discuss the four unique aspects of Jesus’ miracle-working.
One, Jesus performed miracles by his own authority. The Old Testament prophets did not do anything like this. They believed themselves to be only mediators of God’s power, and so needed to ask God to help them and work through them. In contrast, Jesus carried out miracles through his own power and word. As the esteemed scholar Raymond Brown notes:
[Unlike the Old Testament Jewish prophets] [t]he lines of demarcation between Jesus and God in this intervention are very vague. The kingdom comes both in and through Jesus. The power to do the healings and other miracles belongs to God but also to Jesus”.
Two, Jesus combined teaching with miracles. He did not simply heal and exorcise, but also incorporated lessons about faith, the forgiveness of sins, salvation, the Kingdom of God, etc in doing so. As scholar Brown notes:
“Jesus is remembered as combining teaching with miracles intimately related to his teaching, and that combination may be unique”.
Three, faith played an important role in Jesus’ miracles. Looking at the gospel accounts, faith was important in the healing of an individual. Jesus also used these healings as opportunities to teach about, call forth, and encourage faith. As scholar Meier notes:
“the emphasis on faith (e.g., ‘your faith has saved you’), which is found in many Gospel miracle stories of healing or exorcism or in their larger context, is for the most part lacking in pagan or Jewish parallels”.
Four, Jesus’ miracles were not ends in themselves (e.g. to glorify him) but had an eschatological significance. During his ministry, Jesus went about proclaiming “the Kingdom of God” (e.g. Matt 12:28, Lk 8:1, Jhn 3:3-5 etc). This phrase is tied to Daniel’s prophecy of the Messiah establishing God’s kingdom (Dan 2:39-45; 7:13-14). By proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand, Jesus was saying that the Kingdom referred to in Daniel had arrived. Jesus’ healings and exorcisms had an eschatological significance related to the establishment of this kingdom. According to Meier, Jesus’ exorcisms are “dramatic presentations and partial realizations of God’s exchatological triumph over Satan and the powers of evil through the actions of Jesus. They are a preliminary experience of the future kingdom of God, already present and victorious to some degree in Jesus’ ministry (Mark 3:27 parr.; Luke 11:20 par.).” Jesus’ healings on the other hand according to Meier “fulfill the prophecies of Isiah concerning the time of Israel’s definitive salvation. Hence they are also an implicit call to believe in the message and mission of the miracle-worker (Matt 11:5-6 par.).” When it comes to the eschatological significance of Jesus’ miracles, scholars Theissen and Merz state:
“The uniqueness of the miracles of the historical Jesus lies in the fact that healings and exorcisms which take place in the present are accorded an eschatological significance … Nowhere else do we find a charismatic miracle worker whose miraculous deeds are meant to be the end of an old world and the beginning of a new one”.
Lastly, the above distinct aspects of Jesus’ miracle-working may also be seen in light of the unique totality of his person. As noted by scholar Meier:
“the overall configuration, pattern, or Gestalt of Jesus as popular preacher and teller of parables, plus authoritative interpreter of the Law and teacher of morality, plus proclaimer and realizer of the eschatological kingdom of God, plus miracle-worker actualizing his own proclamation has no adequate parallel in either the pagan or the Jewish literature of the time”.
In the end, the criterion of dissimilarity provides further support for the historicity of Jesus’ miracle-working.
When it comes to the criterion of embarrassment, Jesus’ miracles are attested to in an early Jewish polemic recorded in Mark and Q (Mk 3:20-30, Matt 12:22-32 and Lk 11:14-23). This polemic is especially valuable because it shows how Jesus’ enemies viewed him. They did not deny that he possessed remarkable powers. On the contrary, they affirmed it, but attributed its origins to the devil: “He is possessed by Beelzebul! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons” (Mk 3:22). As scholar E.P. Sanders comments: “Jesus’ enemies did not suspect him of fraud, but of healing by calling on a demonic power.”
This polemic is likely historical (in addition to multiple attestation) because it is unlikely that the early Church would have invented the negative accusation that Jesus’ powers came from the devil, an accusation that puts him in an ambiguous light, unless that was indeed the charge leveled against him. It is no surprise that Jesus’ response to this charge is also recorded: “If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand? … ” (Mk 3:23-24). In the end, as scholar Wright comments:
“We must be clear that Jesus’ contemporaries, both those who became his followers and those who were determined not to become his followers, certainly regarded him as possessed of remarkable powers. The church did not invent the charge that Jesus was in league with Beelzebul; but charges like that are not advanced unless they are needed as an explanation for quite remarkable phenomena”.
E. Other Criteria of Authenticity
Other criteria of authenticity include (1) the presence of semitisms, (2) the naming of individuals and specific places that can be checked within living memory of Jesus and (3) the presence of elements that reflect the environment of Palestine at the time of Jesus.
The presence of semitisms, or traces of Aramaic, indicate that a tradition is old and originated in a Palestine setting.
On the other hand, identifiable names and places in miracle narratives may indicate detail retention from an earlier tradition, since details are often lost during a tradition’s transmission. Furthermore, since many of these details can be checked within living memory of Jesus, they also argue in favor of the event’s historicity. Communities in antiquity were smaller and tighter-knit. It is also highly likely that an extraordinary event such as curing blindness, a paralytic, or raising the dead would be known and remembered in a particular town or village.
The presence of elements that reflect the environment of Palestine at the time of Jesus also points towards the historicity of individual miracle narratives. The environment of the early Church, with its post-resurrection faith and extensive ministry to the Gentiles (non-Jews), became increasingly detached from the spirit and culture of Palestine at the time of Jesus. However, the gospel narratives do preserve not only the customs and actions of Palestinian Judaism but also expressions (e.g. “Son of David” or “He is a prophet”) that would have been replaced by other titles or expressions in the post-resurrection Church. Miracle stories that contain elements that show this Palestinian-Jewish reflection at the time of Jesus are likely to be historical.
In the end, it must be noted that the criteria mentioned so far in sections A to E do apply in assessing both the global historicity of Jesus’ miracle-working (e.g. did Jesus perform healings and exorcisms in general? Was he believed to have healed the lame, the blind, lepers and raise people from the dead in general?) and the historicity of individual miracle stories. However, further indicators of historicity and more nuanced reasoning are taken into account when it comes to assessing the historicity of individual miracle stories. Nevertheless, the criteria discussed so far are the main basis for assessing the historicity of Jesus’ miracles.
F. Healing the lame, the blind, lepers and raising the dead
Remarkably, there is strong evidence that Jesus did heal the lame, the blind, lepers, and raise people from the dead during his ministry. Jesus healing the lame, the blind, lepers, and raising the dead all enjoy multiple independent attestation. Examining individual accounts of the above types of healings also reveals that many bear remarkable indicators of historicity. These include two stories of healing paralysis (Mk 2:1-12 and Jhn 5:1-9), all three stories of healing the blind in the gospels (Mk 8:22-26; 10:46-52 and Jhn 9) and one story of raising the dead (Mk 5:21-43). All of the types of healings in question are also attested to by Jesus’ summary of his ministry in Q (Matt 11:5 and Lk 7:22), which has strong indicators of being authentic as well, and suggests that Jesus healed multiple cases of the above conditions. In light of the evidence for these types of healings, scholar Meier takes the position that the historical Jesus claimed and was indeed thought by at least some of his contemporaries to have healed the lame, the blind, lepers, and even raise people from the dead during his ministry. As scholar A.M. Harvey states, the historical evidence for these types of dramatic cures is “excellent”.
G. Conclusion on Jesus as a miracle worker
In the end, the evidence from the criteria of historicity come together to form a powerful case for the fact that the historical Jesus was a miracle worker. As leading scholar on Jesus’ miracles Graham Twelftre concludes on the subject:
“In answer to the question ‘Did Jesus perform miracles?’ we have to reply with an unequivocal and resounding ‘Yes!’ … The necessary conclusion, in light of our inquiry, is that there is hardly any aspect of the life of the historical Jesus which is so well and widely attested as that he conducted unparalleled wonders”.
Twelftre then notesthat the fact that Jesus was a miracle-worker is affirmed by almost all contemporary scholars:
“There is now almost unanimous agreement among Jesus questers that the historical Jesus performed mighty works”.
Being clear, this virtual consensus includes skeptical scholars such as Borg, Bultman, Crossan, Fredrickson and Vermes, to give a number of notable examples — all of whom affirm this fact about Jesus. See their following statements below:
“Despite the difficulty which miracles pose for the modern mind, on historical grounds it is virtually indisputable that Jesus was a healer and exorcist.” – Marcus Borg
“[T]here can be no doubt that Jesus did such deeds, which were, in his and his contemporaries’ understanding, miracles … Doubtless he healed the sick and cast out demons.” – Rudolf Bultmann
“Jesus was both an exorcist and a healer.” – John Dominic Crossan
“[A]cts of healing and exorcism were seen as tangible confirmation of the validity and compelling character of his teaching.” – Geza Vermes
“[W]e note that Jesus as exorcist, healer (even to the point of raising the dead), and miracle worker is one of the strongest, most ubiquitous, and most variously attested depictions in the Gospels. All strata of this material–Mark, John, M-traditions, L-traditions, and Q–make this claim. This sort of independent multiple attestation supports arguments for the antiquity of a given tradition, implying that its source must lie prior to its later, manifold expressions, perhaps in the mission of Jesus himself … Yes, I think that Jesus probably did perform deeds that contemporaries viewed as miracles.” – Paula Friedrickson
This then brings us to the question, how do skeptics respond to this historical fact about Jesus?
II. The Skeptical Response
When it comes to Jesus’ miracles, skeptics fire back in a number of ways (in our discussion below, I will also include popular objections). One, they call attention to the fact that there were other known miracle-workers around the time of Jesus. Two, they point out that Muhammad, Islam’s prophet, was also said to have performed miracles. Three, they claim that ancient people were gullible and accepted miracle claims uncritically. Four, they say that the illnesses Jesus healed had psychosomatic roots. Five, they say that Jesus’ healings were the result of the placebo effect. Six, they say that the individuals Jesus raised from the dead were not actually dead but apparently dead, being in a state of coma or catalepsy. However, as we shall see, all of these attempts to downplay and explain Jesus’ miracles under a naturalistic worldview have serious problems. Let us look into and respond to these objections one by one below.
A. Objection 1: There were other miracle-workers around the time of Jesus
The first thing to point out here is that the number of miracle-workers around the time of Jesus is extremely small. As scholar Twelftree notes:
“In the period of two hundred years on each side of the life of the historical Jesus the number of miracle stories attached to any historical figure is astonishingly small“.
We have, in total, a number of four claimed miracle-workers around the time of Jesus. These are Honi the Circle-Drawer, Hanina ben-Dosa, Vespanian and Apollonius of Tyana.
Honi the Circle-Drawer (1st century BC) and Hanina ben-Dosa (1st century AD) belong to the Jewish tradition. The miracles attributed to these men are attested in the Mishna, which is a 3rd century written collection of Jewish oral traditions. According to the Mishna, people asked Honi to pray for rain during a drought. Honi did so but his prayers were not answered, so he proceeded to draw a circle around him and vowed not to leave it until God answered his prayer for rain. When it began to drizzle, Honi prayed that the rain was not enough and so it started to pour. Honi then asked God to make the rain more calm, then it began to rain normally. Based on this account, Honi appears to be able to get anything he wants from God through prayer. As for Hanina ben-Dosa, the Mishna indicates that he was remembered for having a special ministry of praying for the sick, and having the ability to know which of his prayers for healing would be answered and which would not.
Vespanian (9-79 AD), a Roman emperor (from 69-79 AD), was also known to have performed a healing miracle. According to Roman historians Suetonius and Tacitus, while Vespanian was in Alexandria on the way to Rome to assume the throne (ca. 69 AD) he was approached by two men, one blind and one lame, who threw themselves in front of him and asked for healing. At first Vespanian scoffed, but the men persisted, saying that the local deity, Sarapis, had sent them. Hearing this and having already received prophecies about his good fortune, Vespanian complied with their request and attempted to heal them — and they were healed.
Most startlingly, Apollonius of Tyana (ca.15-97 AD), was a pagan preacher and philosopher who was said to have healed the sick, cast out demons and raise the dead like Jesus did. These deeds of Apollonius are attested to in a work by the Greek sophist Philostratus in the early 3rd century.
In the sub-sections below, we will analyze these miracle-worker claims further. Particularly, we will discuss the dates of their written attestations the problems their claims possess. Afterwards, we will also discuss their coherence with a Christian worldview — that is, how these miracles truly pose no problem for the Christian even if they did occur.
1. Written attestation
The written attestions to Jesus’ miracles are much closer to the time of the said events in comparison to almost all other miracle-workers in question.As noted by scholar Meier:
“the early dating of the literary testimony to Jesus’ miracles, i.e., the closeness of the dates of the written documents to the alleged miracles of Jesus’ life, is almost unparalleled for the period”.
Going by the standard dating, the first gospel, Mark, was written approximately 40 years after the death of Jesus. Matthew and Luke, the next two gospels, were written within 50-55 years after the death of Jesus. Lastly, John was written within 60-70 years after the death of Jesus. In the end, all 4 gospels were written within living memory of the events they recount. As stated by prominent scholar Richard Bauckham:
“The Gospels were written within living memory of the events they recount. Mark’s Gospel was written well within the lifetime of many of the eye-witnesses, while the other three canonical Gospels were written in the period when living eyewitnesses were becoming scarce, exactly at the point in time when their testimony would perish with them were it not put into writing. This is a highly significant fact, entailed not by unusually early datings of the Gospels but by the generally accepted ones.“
Compare the case of Jesus to Honi the Circle Drawer, who is mentioned in the Mishna over 250 years after his death, or Hanina ben-Dosa, who is mentioned in the Mishna over 100 years after his death. Compare this also to Apollonarius of Tyana, who we know hardly anything about prior to the writing of his biography by Philostratus around 217-220 AD — approximately 120 years after the death of Apollonius. The only individual whose attestation to performing miracles surpasses that of Jesus is Vespanian, whose healing was first recorded by Suetonius some 30 years after the supposed event.
In the end, the earliness of the sources for Jesus’ miracles far surpasses those of Honi, Hanina and Apollonius. As a result, the strength of their witness is much superior.
2. Problems with miracle-worker claims in question
When examined further, more problems arise for the miracle-working claims of Honi, Hanina, Vespanian and Apollonius.
When it comes to Honi, Josephus mentions him in his writings 100 years earlier than the Mishna (and 150 years after the death of Honi) and his account of Honi is much more simple. In his Jewish Antiquities 14.2.1, Josephus mentions a certain Onias (Honi in Greek), “a just man and beloved of God, who once during a drought prayed that God would bring the drought to an end. Listening to [Onias’ prayer], God caused rain to fall”. As Meier says, the account of Honi in the Mishna is an embellished tradition that has gone a long way from what we read in Josephus’ account. Stripping away the embellishments, the enduring core of the story is that Honi was known for having his prayer answered in an extraordinary way in a time of drought. Another problem with Honi’s claim is that his fame came as a result of a single incident. If we were to grant Honi’s single remarkable case of answered prayer as sufficient to make him a miracle-worker, then as Meier states, the number of miracle-workers in history would rise incredibly.It is not a reasonable nor accurate standard. Lastly, Honi is not a miracle-worker in the strict sense as Jesus is, he does not directly perform a miracle by giving certain commands or carrying out certain gestures but turns to God in prayer.
As for Hanina ben-dosa, he is also not a miracle worker in the strict sense. Like Honi, he was also known for his effective prayers. As Meier states:
“…Jesus knowingly and freely works the miracle himself. He is in this strict, rigorous sense a miracle-worker. Not so Honi and Hanina, especially in the earliest traditions. In the Onias/Honi-story in Josephus and in the Hanina story m. Ber. 5:5, what is central is the holy man’s prayer to God. Neither holy man directly works a miracle”.
Ultimately, due to the late attestation for Honi and Hanina, Meier concludes saying:
“…in the end one must admit that all the written sources are later than Jesus and almost all of them centuries later. I would venture to claim that, beyond the fact that around the turn of the era there existed two Jews in Palestine named Honi and Hanina, both of whom were famous for having their prayers answered in extraordinary ways, nothing definite can be said”.
When it comes to Vespanian, his miracle story suffers from two problems, with the first being critical. One, in all likelihood, it was made up. Vespanian did not belong to the rightful line of emperors (i.e. the line of Caesar) and so was in serious need of legitimacy — which this miracle provided. As scholar Meier notes:
“Suetonius and Tacitus seem to tell the whole story with a twinkle in their eyes and smiles on their lips, an attitude probably shared by Vespasian. The whole event looks like a 1st-century equivalent of a “photo opportunity” staged by Vespasian’s P.R. team to give the new emperor divine legitimacy”.
Two, this is also the only known miracle that Vespanian was said to have performed. As a result, the dubiousness of his claim is increased further.
As for Apollonius of Tyana, his claim suffers from four serious problems. One, genre-wise, Philostratus’ work is a blend of bios and romance (romance can be compared to today’s fictional novels). This can be seen in the rhetorical devices employed in the work which according to Meier are:
“…supernatural portents [or omens], short dialogues on popular issues of the day [during the time of Philostratus], colorful archaelogical lore, magic and/or miracles, rapid scene changes, descriptions of fabled far-off lands, travelogues and erotic episodes (often with homoerotic overtones). Imaginary ‘official’ letters, inscriptions, and edicts which help to create the illusion of sober history”.
Compare this to the gospels which belong solely to the genre of bios. Second, there is strong evidence that Philostratus’ main source for his biography (and supposedly, the only primary one as well), the diary of Damis, is a fiction of Philostratus or the work of an earlier pseudepigrapher. This is in fact the position of “a clearly greater number of scholars”. According to scholar Howard Kee Clark, the reason for this is because “…the material allegedly drawn from Damis is so full of historical anachronisms and gross geographical errors that one could not have confidence in Damis as a reporter if there actually were a diary”. Three, there is good evidence that Philostratus borrowed miracle stories from the Christian gospels to flesh out his portrait of Apollonius. A number of accounts in his work resemble reports from the Christian gospels, which were known and well in circulation during his time. To give one example, the story of Apollonius resuscitating a young Roman bride looks suspiciously like it combined the Gospel stories of the raising of the daughter of Jairus (Mk 5:21-43) and the raising of the son of the widow of Nain (Lk 7:11-17). Four, the world that Philostratus writes about in The Life strongly reflects his own era as opposed to the 1st-century world of Apollonius. As scholar Kee notes:
“what Philostratus reports tells us a great deal about the author and his time — that is, at the turn of the third century — but provides no unassailable evidence about Apollonius and his epoch”.
This is a serious point that casts doubt on the reliability of Philostratus’ work as a whole. In the end, Philostratus’ work on Apollonius is very dubious, which is why leading scholar Bosworth says that its “historical nucleus is small and unusable”. Relating Jesus to Apollonius, scholar Meier says that “the serious questions that arise about the sources and historical reliability of the Life of Apollonius make it difficult to speak in any detail of the 1st century Apollonius as a parallel figure to Jesus of Nazareth. The miracle stories in the Life are indeed useful for ahistorical, synchronic comparisons of literary patterns found in miracle stories and places; as a basis for historical judgments about 1st-century figures they are very shaky”.
3. Coherence with a Christian worldview
Even if we were to grant that the aboveindividuals performed or effected miracles through prayer, it would still pose no problem for the Christian. Christians affirm the existence of God, the devil and the reality of the spiritual world. When it comes to the existence of the spiritual world in particular, Christians also recognize that people have and continue to interact with it.
Honi and Hanina ben-dosa fit in the Christian worldview because Christians worship the same God as the Jews. Christianity affirms the truth of the Jewish tradition and their special relationship with God. Furthermore, the case of Hanina ben-dosa also coheres well with the Christian miracle tradition, which has many saints who were able to heal people as a result of effective prayer as well — see Bl. Solanus Casey and Francis Houle for example.
Assuming that Apollonius was some sort of pagan magician who possessed remarkable powers, this would still pose no problem within a Christian worldview since his healings could be said to stem from the devil — who according to Christianity, is active in the world. In fact, Acts itself mentions how St. Paul was able to exorcise a demonic spirit of divination out of a woman (Acts 16:16-18). Acts also mentions a pagan magician, Simon, who was able to amaze people with his sorcery, but after seeing the apostles and the miracles they performed in the name of Jesus, as well as being told by Peter that his soul was in a poor state, ended up converting to Christianity (Acts 8:9-25). Revelation 16:13-16 also mentions the devil’s capability to produce counterfeit signs. A lot can be said on Christianity and demonic activity but ultimately the Church condemns engaging in the occult (CCC 2116-2117), not only because it is a violation of the first commandment (Exo 20:3; Deut 19:9-12) but also because it puts one at risk of demonic infestation, obsession, oppression, and possession. It is the main avenue through which demons can enter the lives of individuals. The Church also affirms that the devil possesses preternatural abilities and that these can and do manifest in occult activities.
In the end, this objection does not pose problems for the Christian. Even if he were to grant that Honi, Hanina and Apollonius did what they were said to have done, their actions would fit within his worldview.
B. Objection 2: The Miracles of Muhammad
Another objection to Jesus’ miracles is that Muhammad, Islam’s prophet, also performed miracles.
The problem with this objection is that the Koran explicity states that Muhammad never performed any miracles. In fact, the Koran recounts people questioning Muhammads’ lack of miracles — “Why has no sign been sent down upon him [Muhammad] from his Lord?” (Q 6:37), “If only a miracle could come down to him from his Lord (we will then believe)” (Q 13:7), and comparing Muhammad to an Old Testament prophet, “Why has he not been given the like of that Moses was given?” (Q 28:48).
In response to questions about his lack of miracles, the Koran records Muhammad saying that miracles are for God alone and that he is just a “warner” (Q 29:50). The Quran also criticizes unbelievers for not believing in Muhammad due to his lack of miracles — because the Koran itself is the miracle: “Is it not enough of a miracle that we sent down to you this book [the Quran]?” (Q 29:51). According to the Koran, the reason why Allah did not send miracles to support Muhammad is that previous generations had rejected them: “What stopped us [Allah] from sending the miracles is that the previous generations have rejected them” (Q 17:59).
The miracles of Muhammad that the skeptics refer to come from biographies written much later after the death of Muhammad, one or two centuries later. Ultimately, they were invented to strengthen the credibility of Islam and its prophet. As stated by Ayman S. Ibrahim, a post-doctoral fellow of Middle Eastern History at Haifa University:
“In the classical Muslim period … Muslim authors decided to write the Biography of Muhammad, a century or two after his death, and added various miraculous elements, such as him feeding crowds after the multiplication of food, healing sick people, and even manifesting authority over nature. The similarities with pre-Islamic sacred writings are evident. There was a need (as Islam presented itself in a multi-religious context in the conquered lands) of a specific depiction of Muhammad with certain characteristics that appealed to that era”.
In the end, the miracles of Muhammad are not only dubious for the above reasons but they also go against the clear witness of the Quran.
C. Objection 3: Ancient people were gullible
Another objection against Jesus’ miracles is that ancient people were gullible and so accepted miracle claims uncritically. This objection suffers from a number of problems.
One, this objection displays an incredible amount of chronological snobbery. Doubt and skepticism are a part of the human condition and we have always had it as a species. In fact, there are multiple passages about doubt and skepticism in the Bible. Focusing on the New Testament alone, doubt and skepticism are found during Jesus’ ministry (Mk 4:35-41; 5:35-42; 6:1-3; 9:19-25, Matt 13:54-57; 14:22-31 and Jn 6:32-68; 7:5) during the empty tomb and resurrection accounts (Matt 28:16-17, Lk 24:9-11; 24:40-43 and Jn 20:24-28,) and during the post-Easter missionary efforts regarding the resurrection and others (Gal 1:18-20, 1 Cor 1:22-23, Acts 17:31-32). It must be also noted that the importance of faith was stressed by Jesus in his ministry — in his teaching as well as his miracle-working. Faith could not have been a major theme if doubt were not a common phenomenon. All of these clearly demonstrate that ancient people were capable of doubt and skepticism and that they knew the difference between the ordinary and the extraordinary in their lives (and for this reason, had doubts of the latter).
Two, any person suffering from an illness would know if he was healed or not. A person who was blind, paralyzed, had leprosy, or any other condition that needed healing would know if that condition had truly been cured, as someone who intimately experienced the condition. This person, ecstatic about the healing he received and the extraordinary experience that occurred to him, would also likely testify about what had happened to him to others.
Three, Jesus’ ministry was public and his healings took place in the presence of his disciples, large crowds, and his enemies. Healings that Jesus were well-attested to have done (e.g. the lame, the blind, lepers, and raising the dead) are also of the type that could be witnessed externally by observers. Jesus’ healings, in general, could also be attested to by the disciples themselves and by those who knew the recipient of the healing (i.e. his family members and other members of his community) and saw him after it took place.
In the end, not only were ancient people capable of doubt and skepticism but, being contemporaries of Jesus (who could be met and observed) and living at a time where eyewitnesses to Jesus’ deeds were at their highest, they had excellent reasons for believing that he performed miracles and healed certain people. This would especially be the case for the disciples, who were his followers and were able to see his healings and exorcisms up close countless times.
D. Objection 4: Jesus’ healings had psychosomatic roots
The fourth objection raised against Jesus’ miracles is that the illnesses he healed had psychosomatic roots (i.e. they stemmed from internal conflict such as stress, anxiety, etc). When it comes to Jesus’ healing of the lame and the blind, skeptics say that these were cases of a category of psychosomatic illness called “conversion disorder”. As for his healings of leprosy, they say that these illnesses were not actually leprosy, but some sort of psychosomatic illness that gave the appearance of leprosy. When it comes to Jesus’ raisings of the dead, they say that these individuals were not actually dead but apparently dead — being in a state of coma or catalepsy. Lastly, when it comes to Jesus’ exorcisms of those who were demon-possessed, skeptics attribute this to conversion disorder (seizures) and dissociative identity disorder (or multiple personality disorder). There are five problems with this objection.
One, as scholar Keener says, the gospel reports bear little resemblance to psychotherapy — the avenue through which Jesus would have healed assuming he cured psychosomatic illnesses. Jesus effectively healing psychosomatic illnesses entails that he employed (directly or indirectly) some sort of psychotherapy on those he healed. The problem with this is that the gospel accounts hardly paint anything like psychotherapy. Jesus is not described as asking probing questions to understand the internal or psychological struggles of those he healed. In the same way, recipients of Jesus’ healing do not share personal information about their supposed internal conflict. We also do not see Jesus giving specific advice or comfort per individual regarding their supposed internal conflict — because the individual does not share any personal information of the sort. In fact, when you look at the healing narratives in the gospels, the interaction between Jesus and the recipient can be described as “brief” and “very surface-level”. Even if we were to grant the assumptions of skeptics, that the recipients of healings in these accounts had illnesses that were psychosomatic and that they had particular internal conflicts that were touched by Jesus’ words or actions, it does beg the question — would such a deep internal conflict (to the point that it manifests as an illness) be effectively addressed by such a brief and general encounter? In the end, the idea that Jesus was some sort of excellent proto-psychotherapist does not enjoy inspiring support from our sources.
Two, the idea that Jesus only healed psychosomatic illnesses does not cohere with the fact that he was said to have been a prolific healer. If Jesus only healed psychosomatic illnesses, then he would have failed in the great majority of his healing attempts since most illnesses are organic and not psychosomatic. This, however, does not square with the Jesus as attested to in our sources. As scholar Meggit comments on the illnesses Jesus healed:
“it seems unlikely that their aetiologies were predominantly psychosomatic, the earliest records that we possess of Jesus’ healing ministry do not indicate that he gained his reputation by only healing a small percentage of those that came to him. Yet, it is clear that if the success of Jesus was limited to those individuals that have a psychosomatic basis alone surely such a pattern should be discernible in the records”.
Three, a number of conditions in the gospels cannot have been psychosomatic. John 9:1-34 specifically states that the man Jesus healed was born blind, so he could not have been psychosomatic. All accounts of Jesus raising of the dead (Mk 5:21-23/Matt 9:18-26/Lk 8:40-56, Lk 7:11-17 and Jhn 11:1-45) also cannot be psychosomatic, since death is not a psychologically induced state.
Four, other illnesses in the gospels were also said to have been suffered by the individual for a very long time (Mk 5:24-34/Matt 9:20-22/Lk 8:43-48, Mk 9:21-27 and Jn 5:1-9). It is highly likely that illnesses that are chronic or long-term are organic and not psychosomatic.
Five, when you look at Jesus’ healings in the gospels, they were carried out instantly. Take for example, the healing of the paralytic at the pool at Siloam in John 5:9 (“At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked…”) or the healing of Bartimaeus in Mark 10:52 (“…Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road”). Psychosomatic healings often take time but when Jesus healed, it was instantaneous.This characteristic of Jesus’ healing argues against naturalistic explanations for his miracles because repeated instantaneous cures of different psychosomatic illnesses (e.g. blindness, “leprosy”, “demon-possession”, etc) beggars belief. As noted by scholars Henriksen and Sandnes, appeals to psychotherapy or the placebo effect fail to account for the immediacy of Jesus’ healings:
“Analogies from psychotherapy or placebo may offer partial help in understanding the phenomenon of healing, but both approaches fail to come to terms with the immediacy of Jesus’ healings. The analogies are conditioned on time and gradual change”.
E. Objection 5: Jesus’ healings are the result of the placebo effect.
Another objection to Jesus’ miracles is that they were the result of the placebo effect — people believed Jesus could heal them and so they “psyched themselves” into recovery. There are three problems with this objection.
One, (assuming organic conditions) Jesus wasbelieved by his contemporariesto have healed dramatic ailments such as blindness, paralysis, and leprosy. These are not the type of conditions that people recover from via the placebo effect.
Two, Jesus was also believed to have raised people from the dead, a state which cannot be reversed via the placebo effect.
Three, this objection fails to account for the immediacy of Jesus’ healings. This is because healings by the placebo effect take place gradually over time.
F. Objection 6: Jesus’ raisings from the dead were cases of coma or catalepsy
Since Jesus’ raisings of the dead cannot be explained as a healed psychosomatic illness or the result of the placebo effect, skeptics say that these individuals were not actually dead, but apparently dead — being in a state of coma or catalepsy. These explanations, however, also face difficulty from the immediacy of Jesus’ healings, since coma and catalepsy are deep states beyond the control of the individual, who may not even be conscious. It must also be noted that the immediate recovery described in the gospels shows the recipients talking and moving around(i.e. sitting up, standing up and walking) right away (Mk 5:41-42, Lk 7:14-15 and Jhn 11:41-44). This does not cohere with recoveries from coma or catalepsy since it takes time for the bodies to wake up from such deep inactivity (and in the case of coma, recover from serious damage as well).
Although it is possible, in the case of catalepsy, for a person’s body to have begun to awake prior to Jesus’ visit and then for the individual to show signs of life at the moment of Jesus’ healing, it would still be an incredible coincidence that would make one wonder if it were even repeatable. This brings us to the next problem with this skeptical objection — Jesus was believed to have raised the dead multiple times during his ministry.
The vast majority of people who are believed to be dead are actually dead. Cases of people organically waking up in morgues are incredibly rare. Now, in order to affirm this skeptical explanation, we are supposed to believe that these incredibly rare cases coincided with the exact moment following Jesus’ commands and that this occurred multiple times? This is literally a stretch but even if we were to assume that this happened, its coherence with the remarkable recovery as described in the gospels is still questionable — “Immediately the girl stood up and began to walk around…” (Mk 5:42) or “The dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother” (Lk 7:15).
III. Conclusion on Jesus’ Miracles
In the end, the historicity of Jesus’ miracles must be confronted. As scholars Chilton and Evans state:
“Any fair reading of the Gospels and other ancient sources (including Josephus) inexorably leads to the conclusion that Jesus was well known in his time as a healer and exorcist. The miracle stories are now treated seriously and are widely accepted by Jesus scholars as deriving from Jesus’ ministry. Several specialized studies have appeared in recent years, which conclude that Jesus did things that were viewed as “miracles”.
Stunningly, the evidence for Jesus’ miracles is so good that we can even say, more specifically, that he claimed and was believed by his contemporaries (i.e. his disciples and others) to have healed the lame, the blind, lepers and raise people from the dead during his ministry.
Comparing the evidence for Jesus’ miracles with that of other claimed miracle-workers around his time, we also see that the evidence for Jesus’ miracles is far superior in terms of a) number of sources, b) earliness of sources and c) satisfaction of other criteria of authenticity. Furthermore, examined more closely, we find that some claimed miracle-workers do not classify as such in the strict sense like Jesus, while dubious claims and sources cast serious doubt on the historicity and strength of other miracle-worker claims.
When it comes to naturalistic explanations put forward by skeptics for the miracles of Jesus (e.g. psychosomatic illnesses, the placebo effect, and coma and catalepsy) we find that they suffer from serious difficulties. The possibility that Jesus only healed psychosomatic illnesses faces difficulty from the facts that (1) the gospels bear little resemblance to psychotherapy, (2) Jesus was said to have been a prolific healer, (3) a number of conditions in the gospels cannot have been psychosomatic, (4) other illnesses in the gospels are unlikely to be psychosomatic and (5) that Jesus’ healings were said to immediate. On the other hand, the possibility that Jesus’ healings were the result of the placebo effect faces difficulty from the facts that (1) Jesus was believed to have healed lameness, blindness, and leprosy, (2) Jesus was believed to have raised people from the dead and that (3) his healings were said to be immediate. The explanation that Jesus’ raisings of the dead were cases of comatose or catalepsy also faces tension with (1) the immediacy of Jesus’ healings and (2) the fact that he was believed to have raised the dead multiple times during his ministry.
In the end, our survey of skeptical explanations shows that they possess tension with the evidence and fail to completely and compellingly explain the data.
On the other hand, Jesus’ being a prolific healer, his healings of the lame, the blind, lepers and his raisings of the dead, the immediacy of his healings, his positive perception among his disciples who observed his healings and exorcisms up close multiple times and concluded that they were miracles, and the charged religious context in which these miracles took place — being carried out by the Jesus, who claimed to be Israel’s long-awaited Messiah, God’s Son in some unique sense (e.g. Mk 14:60-64, Matt 11:27/Lk 10:22, Matt 16:16-20, etc) and strove to proclaim and realize His kingdom — all of these point towards Jesus’ miracles being the result of divine power, as well as the truth of the Judeo-Christian tradition. This explanation faces no tension with evidence and succeeds in explaining the data fully and compellingly.
As stated by leading scholar on Jesus’ miracles, Graham Twelftree: “There is now almost unanimous agreement among Jesus questers that the historical Jesus performed mighty works” (The Face of New Testament Studies, pg. 206).
Scholar Graham Stanton also notes that those who doubt this fact about Jesus are few: “Few doubt that Jesus possessed unusual gifts as a healer, though of course varied explanations are offered” (Stanton, The Gospels and Jesus, pg. 67).
The evidence is so firm that as scholar Luke Timothy Johnson states: “Even the most critical historian can confidently assert that a Jew named Jesus worked as a teacher and wonder-worker in Palestine during the reign of Tiberius, was executed by crucifixion under the prefect Pontius Pilate and continued to have followers after his death” (The Real Jesus, pg. 121).
2. Behind the four gospels lie 5 independent traditions — Mark, Q, M (Matthew special), L (Luke special) and J (the independent Johannine tradition). Currently, the majority view in scholarship is that Mark was the first gospel written, followed by Matthew and Luke, and then followed by John. M refers to material in Mark. Q refers to a shared common source that Matthew and Luke drew upon in composing their gospels that Mark did not know about. M and L refer to unique sources that Matthew and Luke had that are not found in either Mark or Q. Lastly, J refers to material found in John.
Going beyond early attestations to Jesus’ miracles (Mark, Q, M, L, J and Josephus), Jesus’ miracles are also attested to in early Christian writings (2nd century), the writings of Celsus (2nd century) and the Babylonian Talmud (6th century).
When it comes to early Christian writings, Jesus’ miracles are attested to in works by Quadratus and Irenaeus. Although these writings of theirs as a whole have been lost to time, the passages in them which attest to Jesus’ miracles have been preserved by the 4th century Church historian Eusebius, who had access to their works during his time and quoted them in his Ecclestical History.
Quadratus was an early Christian apologist who was born in the second half of the first century and died around 129 AD. He states that some of those healed by Jesus lived into his lifetime: “But the works of our Saviour were always present, for they were true, those who were cured, those who rose from the dead, who not merely appeared as cured and risen, but were constantly present, not only while the Saviour was living, but even for some time after he had gone, so that some of them survived even to our own time” (Hist. eccl. 4.3.1).
Irenaeus (ca. 130-202 AD) was an early Church father, and in a letter to Florinus, he recalls how he listened to bishop Polycarp during his youth and how Polycarp spoke about Jesus’ miracles as told to him by the disciples:
“When I was still a boy I saw you [Florinus] in Lower Asia with Polycarp, when you had high status at the imperial court and wanted to gain his favor. I remember events from those days more clearly than those that happened recently…so that I can even picture the place where the blessed Polycarp sat and conversed, his comings and goings, his character, his personal appearance, his discourses to the crowds, and how he reported his discussions with John and others who had seen the Lord. He recalled their very words, what they reported about the Lord and his miracles and his teaching — things that Polycarp had heard directly from eyewitnesses of the Word of life and reported in full harmony with Scripture” (Hist. eccl. 5.20).
Polycarp (ca. 69-155) was a second-generation Christian and bishop who was instructed by the apostles. He was even ordained by the apostle John himself (who was said to have lived a long life). As Church father Tertullian states in his work “The Prescription against Heretics”, chapter. 32, nos. 1-2:
“If there be any heresies which are bold enough to plant themselves in the midst of the apostolic age, that they may thereby seem to have been handed down by the apostles because they existed in the time of the apostles, we can say: Let them produce the original records of their churches; let them unfold the roll of their bishops, running down in due succession from the beginning in such a manner that [that first bishop of theirs] shall be able to show for his ordainer and predecessor some of the apostles or of apostolic men, — a man, moreoever, continued stedfast with the apostles. For this is the manner in which the apostolic churches transmit their registers: as the church of Smyrna, which records that Polycarp was placed therein by John; as also the church of Rome, which makes Clement to have been ordained in like manner by Peter”.
Celsus, a fierce pagan critic of Christianity, says that Jesus’ miracles were the result of magic in his work “The True Word” (ca. 177-180 AD): “It was by magic that [Jesus] was able to do the miracles which he appears to have done” (Contra Celsum 1.6 38 68). Celsus’ work has also been lost to time but passages of his work have been preserved by the Church Father Origen, who responds to his critique of Christianity in his Contra Celsum. On the other hand, the Babylonian Talmud states that Jesus practiced “sorcery” and that he “enticed and led Israel astray” (b. Sanh. 43a).
3. The 15 stories of healing miracles in the gospels can be divided into five categories — healing of paralytics (4 cases), healing of the blind (3 cases), healing of leprosy (2 cases), raising the dead (3 cases) and general (6 cases). This general category includes a variety of illnesses: a healing of fever of Peter’s mother in law (Mk 1:29-31/Matt 8:14-15 /Lk 4:38-39), a woman with hemorrhage (Mk 5:24-34/Matt 9:20-22/Lk 8:43-48), a deaf-mute (Mk 7:31-37), a servant with a grave illness (Matt 8:5-13/Lk 7:1-10), dropsy (Lk 14:1-6) and a cut-off ear (Lk 22:51).
4. Testimonium Flavianum (Ant. 18.3.3). Although the passage in this work by Josephus was tampered by a Christian interpolator, the passage I quoted is widely agreed on by scholars (even skeptical scholars) to be authentic. The portions of interpolation are obvious and clumsy, and a Christian interpolator would not have used the word “paradoxical” to describe Jesus’ miracles (paradoxōn is only used once in the New Testament, in Lk 5:26, and it is also a fairly neutral term) but “signs” or “wonders”. As mentioned already, Josephus also uses the word paradoxōn in another work when describing the miracles of the Jewish prophet Elisha. Other portions of the agreed-upon authentic core also have very good reasons for being legitimate. For example, the beginning “Now about this time …” is used by Josephus as a way of introducing a new topic many times in his work. There are also no early Christian parallels that refer to Jesus merely as “a wise man”, but this is a term used by Josephus several times, such as for Solomon and Daniel. The use of the word φῦλον (“phylon” – “race, tribe”) is also not used by Christians about themselves in any works of the time, but Josephus uses it elsewhere when he talks about nations or other distinct groups. All of the above elements mentioned are distinctively Josephean.
5. As for Jesus’ nature miracles, they are disputed among scholars because they more readily indicate supernatural events. For a book on this subject see “The Nature Miracles of Jesus: Problems, Perspectives and Prospects” (edited by Graham Twelftree), which features essays from different scholars on both sides of the aisle, for and against.
It is worth noting that among the nature miracles in the gospels, Meier finds that the story of the feeding of the multitude possesses remarkable historical indicators and likely goes back to some event during Jesus’ ministry (pgs. 959-967). It is the only miracle story in the gospels other than the resurrection to be recounted in all four gospels, and it is also recounted twice in Mark and Matthew — the feeding of the 5,000 and 4,000 (though other scholars see these as two separate events). In terms of attestation, it is independently attested to in Mark and John, and according to Meier, two variant forms of the tradition lying behind Mark’s gospel, which suggests, a long tradition history “reaching back to the early days of the first Christian generation”. As a result, the feeding of the multitude is supported by “an unusually strong attestation of multiple sources”. In addition to this, the miracle account also strongly satisfies the criterion of coherence. As Meier says, Jesus regularly spoke of the kingdom of God under the image of a banquet and was known for dining with others, including sinners (Mk 2:15-17, Matt 11:18-19, Lk 7:33-34; Lk 15:1-2;19:1-10). In the end, this habit and characteristic of Jesus culminates in the Last Supper itself.
Ultimately, Meier states: “In my opinion, the criteria of both multiple attestation and coherence make it likely that, amid the various celebrations of table fellowship Jesus hosted during his ministry, there was one especially memorable one: memorable because of the unusual number of participants, memorable also because, unlike many meals held in towns and villages, this one was held by the Sea of Galilee … What, more precisely, happened at this memorable meal of fellowship among Jesus and his followers by the Sea of Galilee has been a subject of great speculation, some highly imaginative, by modern exegetes … Whether something actually miraculous took place is not open to verification by the means available to the historian. A decision pro or con will ultimately depend on one’s worldview, not on what purely historical investigation can tell us about the event.
6. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, pg. 622.
7. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, pg. 630.
When it comes to Meier, who I relied on significantly in this article, I want to point out that while he is a Catholic priest, his approach towards the historical Jesus is moderate (neither conservative nor liberal). He defines his approach as imagining a Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Agnostic scholar locked in the basement of the Harvard Divinity school library and not being allowed to emerge until they hammer out a document of agreement about the historical Jesus. According to Meier, each scholar will not be completely satisfied and will have to make concessions. Ultimately, his approach is a solid academic exercise at compromise among people who passionately disagree with each other. As a result, the fact that Meier comes to the conclusions that he does regarding the evidence for Jesus miracles is very impressive — given his reputation and approach.
8. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, pg. 622 and 623
9. As scholar James Tabor notes: “Huge crowds gathered to hear him preach and to witness the reported healings and exorcisms.” (The Jesus Dynasty).
Paula Friedrickson, another scholar, comments: “An ability to work cures, further, coheres with another datum from Jesus’ mission: He had a popular following, which such an ability helps to account for” (Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews).
10. Spitzer, God So Loved The World, pg. 201-202.
11. Brown, Introduction to New Testament Christology, pg. 65
12. Brown, An Introduction to New Testament Christology, pg. 63
13. In some cases, however, Jesus is also moved to heal without being asked (Mk 1:21-28, Lk 7:11-17; 14:1-6 and Jhn 5: 1-9; 9:1-34; 11:17-44).
14. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, pg. 624
15. Brown, Introduction to the New Testament Christology, pgs. 63-65.
Scholar Brown notes that although Jesus’ miracles caused people to wonder and admire, this was only a secondary effect. When there is an attempt by others to make them primary, by urging Jesus to show off miracles, he is pictured as refusing (e.g. Mk 8:11-13; 15:31-32 and Matt 4:5-7; Matt 12:38-12). This is another aspect in which Jesus’ miracles differ from those of Apollonius in Philostratus’ The Life.
16. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, pg. 622
17. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, pg. 622-623
18. Theissen and Merz, The Historical Jesus, pg. 309
19. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, pg. 624
20. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus, pg. 160
21. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, pg. 187
22. The impressive reflection of the gospels to the Palestinian-Jewish milieu of the period of Jesus (as confirmed by history, archaeology and literature) is also a significant point in favor of the historicity of the Gospels in general. As stated by Latourelle, who well-summarizes the work of highly respected scholar Beda Rigaux (former president of SNTS, an international society of New Testament scholars): “The evangelical description [of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John] of the human environment (work, habitation, professions), of the linguistic and cultural environment (patterns of thought, Aramaic substratum), of the social, economic, political and juridical environment, of the religious environment especially (with its rivalries between Pharisees and Sadducees, its religious preoccupations concerning the clean and the unclean, the law and the Sabbath, demons and angels, the poor and the rich, the Kingdom of God and the end of time), the evangelical description of all this is remarkably faithful to the complex picture of Palestine at the time of Jesus” (Finding Jesus through the Gospels: History and Hermeneutics, pg. 227).
23. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, pgs. 685, 698, 706 and 774.
Healing the paralyzed or crippled is attested to in Mark, Q, L and J; healing the blind in Mark, Q and J; lepers in Mark, Q and L and raising the dead in Mark, Q, L and J.
24. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, pgs. 969-970.
It must be noted that other miracle stories may have fair indicators of historicity as Meier himself recognizes (for example, he even inclines towards the other two accounts of Jesus raising the dead in the gospels as going back to his ministry). However, the particular miracle stories mentioned pertaining to Jesus’ healings of the lame (Mark 2:1-12 and John 5:1-9), the blind (Mark 10:46-52, Mark 8:22-26 and John 9) and raising the dead (Mark 5:21-43) are those that have sufficient indicators to make him come to a more firm positive conclusion that these likely go back to the historical Jesus.
25. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, pg. 833
26. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, pgs. 685, 686, 698, 706, 832 and 837.
It must be noted that the saying of Jesus in Q (Matt 11:2-6/ Lk 7:18-23) is a significant piece of evidence in favor of Jesus being known to have healed the blind, the lame, lepers and raise the dead during his ministry. Upon his analysis, Meier deems its core as authentic.
“…we saw good reason for accepting the core of the periscope (Matt 11:2-6 II Luke 7:18-23) as historical. There is no need to repeat the analysis of the pericope here. All that need be said is that when Jesus desired to sum up in a few words his miracle-working activity, “the lame walk” (choloi peripatousin) stood out in his mind as one of the five types of miracles that especially characterized his ministry of healing — which in turn symbolized and partially realized God’s coming rule and kingdom. The generalizing plural “the lame walk” correlates well with the prominence of four or five Gospel narratives dealing with paralyzed or crippled people. Whatever our judgement about this or that individual story, this type of miracle is firmly rooted in the earliest traditions of Jesus’ ministry” (pgs 685-686).
“All in all, the tradition that Jesus healed the blind stands alongside the tradition that he worked exorcisms as one of the best attested miracle traditions in the Four Gospels” (pg. 698).
“I think that Mark, Q, and L do allow us to state that during his ministry Jesus claimed to heal lepers and was thought by other people to have done so” (pg. 706).
“The early church did not invent the picture of Jesus raising the dead out of thin air. The multiple attestation of sources and forms argues strongly that Jesus raised the dead — whatever we think of the truth of that claim — goes back to the public ministry and to Jesus himself. Apparently early Christians believed that Jesus raised the dead because his disciples believed it during his public ministry” (pg. 832).
“Unless we wish to throw the criteria of historicity overboard in favor of a protean Jesus who always confirms to the religious predilections of every individual, the criteria impose on us the picture of a 1st-century Palestinian Jew who performed startling deeds that both he and at least some of his audience judged to be miraculous power. To Jesus’ mind these acts — including what he claimed to be acts of raising the dead — both proclaimed and actualized, however imperfectly, the kingdom of God … To excise these acts from the ministry of the historical Jesus is to excise a good deal of what he was all about” (pg 837).
27. Hunter, Jesus: Lord and Saviour, pg. 63: “No Christian with a respect for his intellectual integrity need doubt that Jesus restored sight to the blind, helped deaf men to hear again, enabled lame men to walk, cleansed lepers, cured those thought to be possessed by evil spirits, and brought back to life those apparently dead. For these miracles the historical evidence is excellent”.
28. Twelftree, Jesus the Miracle Worker, pg. 345
29. Twelftree, The Face of New Testament Studies, pg. 206
30. Borg (liberal Protestant “Christian” and member of the Jesus Seminar), Bultman (atheist), Crossan (“Catholic”, very radical and member of the Jesus Seminar), Vermes (non-religious Jew) and Paula Fredricksen (liberal Jew). 31. Borg, Jesus, A New Vision: Spirit, Culture, and the Life of Discipleship, pg. 61
32. Bultman, Jesus, pg. 124.
Even Bultman could not deny this fact about Jesus during his time, when the scholarship was much more skeptical (operating under a lot more skeptical assumptions).
33. Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, pg. 332
34. Vermes in his The Religion of Jesus the Jew (1993).
35. Paula Fredriksen, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, p. 114.
36. Twelftree, Jesus: The Miracle Worker, pg. 247
37. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, pg. 624
38. Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth, pg. 74-76.
However, when it comes to John in particular, Ehrman (an atheist scholar himself) holds to a dating of 90-95 AD.
39. Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, pg. 7
Disciples during the time of Jesus were typically in the range of late teens-20s age-wise. Assuming that a disciple was 25 years old when Jesus died, he would be 65-95 years old during the period the gospels were written (70-100 AD). Witnesses to Jesus’ ministry, including recipients of his healing, also stretched different age groups — including those of the disciples and younger. Furthermore, while eyewitnesses were getting scarce during the writing of Matthew, Luke and John, it must be noted that the second Christian generation (i.e. those instructed by the apostles) would have been very much alive.
It must also be noted that we are assuming the standard dating here. The gospels could have been written earlier than 70 AD. The standard dating is based on (1) the two source hypothesis (the theory that Mark wrote first, Matthew and Luke drew upon Mark, a shared source named Q as well as their own unique sources) and (2) the assumption that Jesus could not have predicted the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 AD. When it comes to the latter point, since Mark, Matthew and Luke record Jesus’ prediction, these predictions of his in the gospels must have been “predictions after the fact” — written first by Mark after the destruction occurred or at the least or slightly before it, when such an event could have been anticipated. As a result of this dating for Mark’s gospel, and assuming the truth of the two-source hypothesis, Matthew and Luke’s gospels are dated around 80-85 AD, in order to give enough time for Mark to be copied, recopied and circulated throughout the Roman Empire and find their way to the other two evangelists. Then follows John, the last gospel written, though unlike Matthew and Luke, John wrote independently ca. 90-100 AD.
As you can see, assuming the truth of the two-source hypothesis, the datings of the other three gospels depend on Mark — so if Mark is moved earlier, then the rest follow. If the two-source theory is incorrect, then this would also change the dating range since the dependency of the sources would be different (e.g. the Farrer theory, which has gained good support in the last few decades, states that Mark wrote first, Matthew wrote second and that Luke used them both). A lot can be said on the two-source hypothesis and alternative theories, as well as the dating of the gospels, pre or post 70 AD (I will write a post on the dating of the gospels in the future), but for now, it is enough to note two things.
One, the synoptic problem (i.e. the order in which Mark, Matthew and Luke were written) is, as the highly respected scholar Joseph Fitzmeyer noted, “insoluble”. There are literally dozens of theories out there (e.g. the Augustinian theory, Griesbach theory, Farrer theory, etc) and scholars cannot agree on which one is correct. Although the two-source theory enjoys a lot of support from the evidence and is currently the majority view, it is also far from perfect — possessing serious problems and coming under substantial fire even in recent decades (see Mark Goodacre’s “The Case Against Q”).
Two, bracketing anti-supernaturalist presuppositions (e.g. that Jesus could not have predicted the destruction of the Jerusalem temple), there is objectively very good evidence that Mark, Matthew, and Luke were written before 70 AD. I will not discuss the evidence that favors a pre-70 dating now but to start — consider the fact that the destruction of the Jerusalem temple is never mentioned as a past event in Mark, Matthew or Luke and that the prediction of the Temple’s destruction in Mark and Matthew contain details that would make much more sense if they were warnings before the event:
But when you see the abomination of desolation set up where it ought not to be (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains…Pray that it may not happen in winter. (Mark 13:14; 18)
So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains … Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a Sabbath (Matt 24:15, 20).
Why would Mark and Matthew exhort their readers to pray that the destruction of the Temple would not happen in the winter when they already knew that it happened in the late summer? Why would Matthew add that his readers pray that it would not happen on the Sabbath when they already knew the day of the week in which it happened?
For this and other very good reasons, you have many scholars dissenting against the standard dating. The late Larry Hurtado for example, one of the best scholars of our generation, dates Mark between 50-75 AD. John A.T. Robinson, a prominent liberal Christian scholar, dates Mark between 45-60 AD. James Crossley and Maurice Casey, both respected atheist scholars, stunningly date Mark within 10 years after the death of Jesus, no later than 40 AD.
Danny Zacharias, at his blog, also surveys the datings for Matthew in standard New Testament textbooks and in major commentaries of the gospel. In his limited survey, he finds that textbooks lean more towards the later standard dating while commentaries lean more towards pre-70 AD datings (according to to Zacharias’ survey, Carson, Morris, Blomberg, Gundry, Hagner, Nolland, France and Evans date Matthew pre-70 AD in their commentaries).
In the end, the dating of the gospels is really an open field. Bracketing the assumption that Jesus could not have predicted the destruction of the Jerusalem temple, there are very good reasons for a pre-70 datings. Even if we were to operate under a naturalistic worldview, it is possible for the destruction of the Jerusalem temple to have been “correctly prophesized” — it was destroyed before after-all by the Babylonian Empire, and this is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible itself (2 Kings 25:8-10). The only thing we do know, due to ancient manuscript discoveries of the gospels other indicators, is that Mark, Matthew, and Luke were all written within the 1st century and that John very probably was as well.
40. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, pg. 582-583.
In his work, Meier discusses Honi’s embellished account in the Mishna in more detail.
41. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, pgs. 582.
Meier says that he could even “provide a few names from personal experience”.
42. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, pgs. 587-588.
43. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, pg. 581
44. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, pg. 625
45. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, pg. 578
46. France, The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text, pg. 5: “Fifty years ago we were drilled in the critical orthodoxy of the form-critical school which insisted that the gospels were not to be seen as biographies, but since then there has been a massive swing in scholarly opinion on this point, and increasingly sophisticated study of the nature of biographical writing in the ancient world has led to a general recognition that, for all the distinctiveness of its Christian content and orientation, in terms of literary form Mark’s book (and those of Matthew, Luke and John) would have seemed to an educated reader in the first century to fall into roughly the same category as the lives of famous men pioneered by Cornelius Nepos and soon to reach their most famous expression in the ‘Parallel Lives’ of Plutarch”
47. Keener, Christobiography: Memory, History and the Reliability of the Gospels (2019): “A clearly greater number of scholars, however, contend that even Damis is a fiction of either Philostratus or (as I think somewhat more likely) an earlier pseudepigrapher”.
48. Kee, Miracle in the Early Christian World, pg. 256.
49. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, pg. 580
50. Keener, Christobiography: Memory, History and the Reliability of the Gospels: “A number of his accounts of Apollonius even resemble reports from Christian Gospels, though most frequently of the apocryphal variety … Given the relative dates, Christian stories would have been at least among the significant potential influences on his storytelling approach (offering literary fodder for miracle stories)”.
51. Kee, Miracle in the Early Christian World, pg. 257
52. Bosworth, Pseudo-Calllisthenes.
53. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, pg. 580-581
54. Strictly speaking, these individuals are not saints but I wanted to give more modern examples. Solanus Casey is beatified, one step away from sainthood while Francis Houle’s case for canonization was opened in 2018.
For Francis Houle, see this article at the National Catholic Register.
In the future, I plan on tackling on my blog (among other topics, when it comes to the historical evidence for Christianity) Christian miraculous healings, as well as the mystical gifts and religious experiences of Christian saints. When these cases are examined in detail, they are very compelling.
When it comes to healings in particular, we have many cases of healing in modern times. As a result, we have testimony and information on the illnesses these healed individuals suffered from (e.g. diagnosis by doctors and documentation), allowing us to rule out the possibility of the conditions being psychosomatic.
Anyone familiar with the Church’s modus operandi when it comes to miraculous claims knows that they adopt a very skeptical and cautious approach. When it comes to the Church’s investigations into miracles for canonization in particular, see thetestimony of atheist scientist Jacalyn Duffin, who was asked to do a blind reading for a possible miracle for canonization and also, afterward, looked into the Vatican archives herself to see the Church’s documentation on the miraculous healings it approved for its canonization processes.
According to Adam Christian Blai (MA in psychology), a theological consultant in religious demonology and exorcism for the Diocese of Pittsburgh: “The Church generally defines three types of extraordinary demonic activity: demonic infestation, oppression/obsession, and possession. Infestation is when demons have the right to do extraordinary things in a place. Oppression and obsession are both translated from the Latin obsessio; it means a personal extraordinary attack on a person. Possession is when the demon has gained the rights to take over the body but not the soul”. 56. See, for example, the testimony of Jane Porter, who experienced a false healing through an Amazon pagan rite. Shortly afterward, her illness returned, and along with it, demonic activity in her life.
See also the testimonies of former occult practitionersJulie Frame andLianne Douglas when it comes to the devil’s preternatural abilities manifesting in the occult. Julie and Lianne are now Christians.
Julie Frame: “As I started to become more interested and studying and learning more about that stuff I started having experiences which I thought [(emphasis)] were good experiences, I felt like I was in communication with angels and I felt like I was in communication with dead loved ones that were in Heaven and wanted to send a message to the people they loved and I began getting those messages. I actually started taking classes and I actually started doing mediumship for a short time and you know I would be in a session with someone and be sitting there and in my mind spiritually I would receive information which I felt like was coming from an angel or spirit guide and that kind information ranged from, you know, the name, the exact name, the date of birth, the age, I was receiving all the information about who they were, and then giving messages that I felt I was receiving and I did that for a little while uh I was shocked by the fact that I would sit down with this person and I would know everything about their dead loved one…”
Lianne Douglas (narrating an experience as she was getting closer to Christ): “One of the things that I did was I asked my spirit guides something because my spirit guides have been getting a lot more quiet in the past few weeks. They have been getting really quiet. And just the other day, I said to my spirit guides, “show me yourselves, in the name of Jesus Christ…show me yourselves”. And one of them just starts laughing…laughing, laughing, laughing…the other one showed me themselves as some kind of reptilian creature. I am shaking, shaking the minute talking about this because it’s like everything that I thought I knew … it’s like it’s crumbling away and I’m being slowly being delivered to the real truth. There are so many different new age practices that I’ve tried to learn and get involved in and I didn’t realize that they can take you away from [God]”.
As Christian Blai says: “Demons usually start with a con game. They may pretend to be a dead loved one, a holy angel, the spirit of a child in distress, or another spirit … Later, when the person is getting in too deep, the demons stop acting like a harmless servant and start dictating what the person can and cannot do … Demons never give what they promise, not really, and it’s all taken away once the person is in too deep to back out on their own”.
There are many more testimonies on Youtubeby former new age practitioners who converted Christianity, detailing their experiences in the occult and warning others not to engage in it.
58. Other healings in the gospels pose further complications to the idea that Jesus healed through psychotherapy. The gospels record Jesus healing “at a distance” a number of times (Mk 7:24-30/Matt 15:21-28, Matt 8:5-13/Lk 7:1-10 and Jhn 4:46-54). These are cases wherein a person asks Jesus to heal someone they love or care about at home (in two of the three cases, the recipients of the healing were gravely ill), and then, upon returning to check on them, the petitioner finds the recipient healed. These healings could not have been healed by Jesus through some sort of psychotherapy because he and the recipient did not interact (possibly, the recipient may not have even known that someone was asking for their healing).
59. Keener, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts: “…the Gospel reports bear little resemblance to psychotherapy (or modern medicine)”.
60. Meggit, The Historical Jesus and Healing, pg. 31.
Scholar Meggit continues, saying that the sole case of Jesus only being able to heal a few people is in his visit to Nazareth in Mark and Matthew, and that this one case is not what we would expect if he only failed psychosomatic illnesses: “The earliest records that we possess of Jesus’ healing ministry do not indicate that he gained his reputation by nly healing a small percentage of those that came to him. Yet, it is clear that if the success of Jesus was limited to those individuals presenting with symptoms that have a psychosomatic basis alone surely such a pattern should be discernible in the records. However, only in the tradition about Jesus’ healings in Nazareth do we get the indication that Jesus could only heal a few of those that came to him (Matt 13:58, Mark 6.5)”
Scholar Keener raises the same question in his discussion on the possibility of psychosomatic cures for Jesus’ healings: “…many have attributed Jesus’ healing miracles to psychic abilities or the ailments cured to psychosomatic causes … If Jesus merely discerned which illnesses were psychosomatic, his widespread reputation as an extraordinary healer becomes more difficult to explain. Among the categories of disorders that multiple attestation suggests that Jesus cured are blindness, skin disorders (“leprosy”), and occasionally death. Some summaries (e.g. in Q, Matt11:5//Luke 7:22), not to mention specific cases, suggest that Jesus healed multiple cases of blindness, deafness, leprosy, inability to walk and death. Would he have encountered so many psychosomatic cases, and primarily psychosomatic cases, of such dramatic ailments, in a one-to three-year ministry in Galilee? Some suggest that Jesus’s cures of blindness, paralysis, and the like reflect his cure of a particular psychiatic disorder; yet how many psychiartists regularly cure cases of these afflictions (especially publicly and immediately)? If Jesus meanwhile would have regularly failed with irreversible organic cases of blindness and leprosy, yet could not distinguish which cases were organic beforehand, would we not find more defensive explanations (like the one in Nazareth, Mark 6:5-6)? Some detractors of the psychic powers line of explanation also find it interesting that some observers are prepared to allow unproved psychic powers for humans that they reject as unacceptable violations of nature’s uniformity if assigned to God” (Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts).
According to Mark, the reason why Jesus could not heal in Nazareth, his hometown, was because of the lack of faith people had there. Specifically, the people could not believe that Jesus, whose family they knew and who lived in such proximity to them, was exhibiting such remarkable wisdom (in his preaching) and powers (in his miracles). This is why Jesus responds to the situation saying: “no prophet is without honor is his own hometown, his own people and his own home” — communicating his rejection at Nazareth, as well as the tendency of the prophets in the Old Testament to be rejected by those close to them as well. Jesus himself touches on this pattern again in Luke 4:23-27: “… And you will tell me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum. Truly I tell you,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian”. Psychologically, those who are more familiar with a person and have known them for a long time tend to see them as more human than those who only know their public face. So while Jesus was well-received in other places, it does make sense for him to have been met with doubt and disbelief at Nazareth.
61. Meggit, The Historical Jesus and Healing, pg. 31
62. Keener, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts
63. Strobel Interview with Dr. Gary Collins (Strobel, The Case for Christ, pg. 160).
64.As prominent scholar CraigKeener comments in an interview: “[Y]ou offset multiple attestations for certain kinds of miracles, like the curing of blindness, the raising of the dead, and so on, and those are not the kinds of things that, raising from the dead certainly doesn’t work for psychosomatic explanations, the curing of blindness—maybe gradually, or something like that, but on multiple occasions, instantly, in public? … on the normal grounds we would use to reconstruct evidence from the first century, we have very good evidence for trusting that Jesus was known for these things, Jesus was experienced in this way, and unless you start with the premise that miracles can’t happen, I think miracles are the best explanation for this side of his public ministry”.
Having established the historicity of the four events: Jesus’ death by crucifixion, the disciple’s sincere belief in Jesus’ post-mortem appearances, the empty tomb and the origin of the Christian faith, we can now proceed to examine the possible explanations for this set of facts — conspiracy, hallucination or resurrection.
According to the conspiracy hypothesis, Jesus’ disciples stole his body from the tomb and lied about their resurrection experiences. This view finds zero support in contemporary scholarship. It also suffers from many problems.
1. It is highly unlikely that a resurrection conspiracy could have been conceived
The conspiracy hypothesis requires that the disciples fabricated a lie (i.e. the resurrection of Jesus) that was foreign within their Jewish worldview. How likely is it that the disciples would have invented the idea of a resurrection of a single individual within history and prior to the end of the world? It is much more likely that the disciples would have fabricated a lie that was familiar within their Jewish worldview (e.g. visions, spiritual assumption or bodily assumption) because it was a conceivable occurrence to them and their fellow Jews. If they wanted to vindicate Jesus from his death and defeat, they would have resorted to any of the above-mentioned possibilities. The fact that the disciples proclaimed resurrection however strongly indicates that they did witness something that sincerely convinced them that Jesus rose from the dead (e.g. an empty tomb and post-mortem appearances).
Anyway, in the points to follow below, I will assume that such a radical lie was able to be conceived on the end of the disciples.
2. A conspiracy being started and sustained by the disciples is highly implausible
The idea of a conspiracy being started and sustained by the disciples after the execution of Jesus is highly implausible. To see why this is so, let us consider three background facts.
One, Jesus’ execution by the Romans should have signaled the beginning of the end of his movement and confirmed that he was not the Messiah — since the idea of a Messiah killed by pagans (i.e. the Romans) ran counter to Jewish Messianic expectations. As noted by scholar Wright:
“a first-century Jew, faced with the crucifixion of a would-be messiah, or even of a prophet who had led a significant following, would not normally conclude that this person was the Messiah and that the kingdom had come. He or she would normally conclude that he was not and that it had not”.
In his book, “Jesus and the Victory of God”, Wright discusses other Messianic movements around the time of Jesus (which were armed movements against Rome) and notes that all of them faded away after the death of their leaders. The fact that the Christian movement did not follow this otherwise unanimous trend is historically remarkable. As scholar Wright notes regarding the followers of Judas the Galilean, Simon, Athronges, Eleazar ben Deinaus and Alexander, Menahem, Simon bar Giora and bar-Kochba, after the death of their leader, they were either “rounded up” by Rome or “melted away into the undergrowth”.
Two, a conspiracy response by the disciples is highly unlikely because planning one would mean challenging those in power, that is, the Jewish leadership, who had just engineered the death of their leader for a lie. By conspiring to proclaim a risen Christ, the disciples would be putting themselves in the center of danger and controversy, an action that would strongly go against every human’s instinct for survival and self-preservation (especially after witnessing the arrest, suffering, and execution of their leader).
Three, the disciples were earnest Jews who would not tell a lie of such immense gravity— that God had raised Jesus from the dead when He did not do so.
From these three background facts, it is extremely difficult to see how a conspiracy could have “gotten off the ground” in the first place. If a conspiracy occurred, then it must have started with one person, who had the idea of proclaiming a resurrection — stealing Jesus’ body from the tomb and lying about the risen Jesus appearing to them. How could this person bring himself to suggest something so outrageous to others? How could this person gather enough disciples to buy into his conspiracy plan given the three background facts discussed earlier? Moreover, if this person opened up about his conspiracy plan to other disciples, who he planned to include in his conspiracy group, then it would only take one rejection to strike a great blow against his planned conspiracy — since there would be one disciple who would know about it and be willing to blow the whistle to others and the Sanhedrin should it actually happen. Several rejections, on the other hand, would certainly kill any ideas of conspiracy.
Furthermore, even assuming that a conspiracy was able to launch (against all likelihood), it is still highly unlikely that it would have been sustained once persecution hit from the Jews. All it would have taken was one confession to deal a serious blow to the conspiracy, giving the Jewish leadership (1) evidence to bring before those deceived by the resurrection hoax and (2) increased morale to further crackdown on the movement and cause it to unravel. As the esteemed Blaise Pascal (who was himself a devout Catholic) commented:
“The apostles were either deceived or deceivers. Either supposition is difficult, for it is not possible to imagine that a man has risen from the dead. While Jesus was with them, he could sustain them; but afterwards, if he did not appear to them, who did make them act? The hypothesis that the Apostles were knaves is quite absurd. Follow it out to the end, and imagine these twelve men meeting after Jesus’ death and conspiring to say that he has risen from the dead. This means attacking all the powers that be. The human heart is singularly susceptible to fickleness, to change, to promises, to bribery. One of them had only to deny his story under these inducements, or still more because of possible imprisonment, tortures and death, and they would all have been lost. Follow that out” (Pensees, 322).
To illustrate how hard it is for a conspiracy to be maintained, the Watergate scandal, in which former U.S. President Nixon and his aides employed dirty tactics on the opposing political party in order to secure re-election and tried covering up the evidence, only lasted a few weeks under external pressure. As Chuck Colson, special counsel to President Nixon during Watergate scandal testifies:
“I know how impossible it is for a group of people, even some of the most powerful in the world, to maintain a lie. The Watergate cover-up lasted only a few weeks before the first conspirator broke and turned state’s evidence”.
Lookingat history, the earliest Christians proclaimed a risen Jesus boldly, in the light of the three background facts discussed earlier, and later on, in the face of enemy persecution. There is zero evidence that any Christian confessed that the resurrection was a lie. On the contrary, the evidence points towards enduring and unwavering faith, which is why it is recognized in scholarship that the disciples sincerely believed that Jesus appeared to them. The fact that Paul was unable to crush the early Christian movement despite his best efforts (and later on, converted himself) is a testament to the disciples’ deep convictions and credibility. All of this strongly argues against the Christian movement being a conspiracy and points towards other hypotheses that stem from genuine belief on the end of Jesus’ disciples (e.g. hallucination or resurrection).
3. The disciples would not have disrespected Jesus’ body
A conspiracy is unlikely because it would have required the disciples to disrespect Jesus’ body. Transferring Jesus’ body from a tomb to a ditch, the location of which would have to remain undiscovered and be forgotten would be extremely disrespectful. Yet, this is what the disciples would have to do if they were planning to maintain their resurrection hoax. The love and respect that the disciples had for Jesus would strongly argue against them doing this.
4. The disciples were earnest Jews
Four, if the disciples proclaimed that God raised Jesus from the dead when He did not do so, then we would have to say that they were insincere, non-God fearing Jews. However, the fact that they followed Jesus because they thought he was the Messiah indicates that they were earnest Jews. Furthermore, as shown by the New Testament texts, they preached the importance of loving God and one’s neighbor, upholding the 10 commandments, cultivating virtue and avoiding sin.
Historical evidence also indicates that they strove to live as they preached. The apostolic and early Church fathers referred to the moral character of the disciples favorably, with Clement calling Peter and Paul “righteous pillars” and Polycarp saying that the apostles “ran…with faith and righteousness” and that “they did not love the present world”. James, the brother of Jesus, was so renowned for his moral character that he was given the title “the Just”. The New Testament epistles also show that the first generation Christians used a “race” as a metaphor for the Christian life – signifying the sacrifice, discipline and perseverance it entailed (Heb 12:1, 1 Cor 9:25-27, Gal 5:7, Phil 2:16 and 2 Tim 4:7). In doing so, they compared themselves to athletes, again, referring to the discipline and perseverance they would have to imbibe as a practicing Christian. These athletic metaphors would also be taken up by other apostolic and early Church fathers in their writings.
In the end, the historical evidence points firmly to the conclusion that the disciples were earnest and conscientious Jews. They would not have been capable of carrying out and maintaining a “resurrection conspiracy” that would be such an affront to God.
5. The sincere belief of the disciples strongly argues against a conspiracy
As mentioned earlier in part 1 of this series, the evidence for the disciple’s sincere belief in Jesus’ post-mortem appearances is powerful — which is why there is a virtual consensus in scholarship that the disciples had experiences which caused them to believe that the risen Jesus had appeared to them.
The disciples traveled great distances preaching a risen Jesus, endured hardship and persecution, and in some cases, suffered martyrdom. This is firm evidence for genuine belief, not a conspiracy. As liberal scholar E.P. Sanders comments on the possibility of fraud:
“I do not regard deliberate fraud as a worthwhile explanation. Many of the people in these lists were to spend the rest of their lives proclaiming that they had seen the risen Lord, and several of them would die for their cause”.
6. A conspiracy would have resulted in more appealing narratives
If the disciples conspired in proclaiming the resurrection, why did they not do a better job in fabricating the empty tomb and resurrection narratives? Why are the accounts of the empty tomb so restrained? Why do they contain embarrassing elements? Why, for example, was the resurrection not witnessed in the account of the empty tomb? Why is Jesus’ resurrected body not described? Why were the events at the tomb witnessed solely by women? Why is the honor of Jesus’ first post-mortem appearance given to Mary Magdalene and the women? If the disciples lied about the resurrection, it is likely that they would have fabricated a more impressive and appealing account.
7. A conspiracy would not explain the conversions of James and Paul
A conspiracy would not explain the conversion of James, from skeptic to believer in Jesus.
It would also not explain the conversion of Paul, a respected Pharisee and a fierce enemy of the early Church to Christianity.
According to the hallucination hypothesis, the resurrection appearances were merely hallucinations on the end of the disciples. This theory enjoys the most support among skeptical scholars today. Like the conspiracy theory, it also suffers from many problems.
1. The hallucination theory does not explain the empty tomb
One, the hallucination theory does not account for the empty tomb. To account for the empty tomb under this hypothesis, we would have to assume that an individual stole the body of Jesus for some reason.
If it were a follower of Jesus or someone who held him in high regard, it is difficult to see why he or she would have carried out such an action that was disrespectful to Jesus – taking his body out of its resting place where it could be visited by those who knew him, and transferring it somewhere else. Such an action would also be inexplicable because if this person held Jesus in high regard, he or she could simply visit his tomb like everyone else. Grave robbery also faces difficulty as a possibility because it was considered a serious crime in the time of Jesus (in antiquity, tombs were held in high regard), and thus warranted significant penalties.
On the other hand, if the person who stole the body was not a follower of Jesus or did not hold him in high regard, then it is puzzling as to why he was so interested in robbing his corpse which had no value, and risk serious punishment in attempting to do so. A grave robber would have been interested in valuable goods interred with a corpse but not the corpse itself.
2. It requires us to posit a fantastic series of hallucinations
The hallucination theory requires us to posit a fantastic series of events wherein multiple hallucinations occurred to Jesus’ followers, as individuals and in groups, sincerely convincing them that he rose from the dead and appeared to them. The group appearances in particular are especially difficult to account for because hallucinations are private and subjective experiences, no two people can see the exact same hallucination. As clinical psychologist Garry Collins explains:
”Hallucinations are individual occurrences. By their very nature only one person can see a given hallucination at a time. They certainly are not something which can be seen by a group of people … Since a hallucination exists only in this subjective, personal sense, it is obvious that others cannot witness it”.
Another clinical psychologist, Garry Sibcy, who has studied the possibility of group hallucinations extensively, states:
“I have surveyed the professional literature (peer-reviewed journal articles and books) written by psychologists, psychiatrists, and other relevant healthcare professionals during the past two decades and have yet to find a single documented case of a group hallucination, that is, an event for which more than one person purportedly shared in a visual or other sensory perception where there was clearly no external referent”.
In response to this, skeptical scholars put forward the explanation that although the disciples did not share the exact hallucination of Jesus as a collective, they did experience individual hallucinations of him in group settings (see Ludemann, Goulder and Vermes as examples). The likeliness of such a fantastic series of events happening however is extremely low.
3. The appearance traditions in the gospels pose more difficulties for proponents of the hallucination theory
The appearance traditions in the gospels pose more difficulties for proponents of the hallucination theory.
One, according to the gospels, the appearances witnessed by the disciples were both auditory and physical. This would make great sense since the appearances of Jesus sincerely convinced the disciples that he had risen and appeared to them. It is difficult to imagine how visual but non-auditory or auditory but non-visual appearances of Jesus would have convinced the disciples that He had risen, and that what they saw before them was an actual living encounter (“in the flesh”). If one of these elements were missing, these appearances would seem more like hallucinations or visions. However, if the appearances of Jesus were visual and auditory, then we would have to raise the already high improbability of the posited series of hallucinations even higher. Hallucinations usually occur in a single mode (e.g. visual, auditory, olfactory, etc). As medical experts Laroi and Aleman note in their book “Hallucinations: The Science of Idiosyncratic Perception” (published by the American Psychological Association), multimodal hallucinations are more rare.
Two, in the gospel appearance traditions, Jesus would have lengthy conversations with his disciples, something that would be improbable for a hallucination to do (considering that the hallucinations of the disciples, James and Paul were not rooted in mental illnesses).
Three, the accounts in the gospels clearly portray Jesus’ appearances as physical and bodily. In these accounts, Jesus offers his disciples to touch his risen body and eats a broiled fish in their presence (Lk 24:36-43), some of the disciples grab hold of his feet in worship (Matt 28:9-10) and the disciple Thomas touches the wounds of Jesus (Jn 20:24-29). In the end, in addition to being visual and auditory, the appearances of Jesus in the gospels are also tangible, and Jesus lets his disciples know it: “Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have” (Luke 24:39). These accounts accord well with Acts 1:1-3, which states that after Jesus’ death, he appeared to his disciples and provided “many convincing proofs that he was alive”.
The problem with these previous two points, capable of lengthy conversations and displaying clear physicality, is that they are very difficult or impossible to account for through hallucinations.
Four, in the gospels, the appearances of Jesus were diverse. They happened to men and women of different ages, to individuals of different personalities and state of minds, at different times of the day and occurred indoors and outdoors. However, even if we were to put aside the gospel accounts, a variety of individuals and circumstances are already attested to in the 1 Corinthians 15 tradition. As a result, it has to be factored in. In the end, the variety in individuals and circumstances increases the unlikelihood of our posited series of hallucinations even higher.
4. It is highly unlikely that hallucinations of Jesus would have produced resurrection belief
It is highly unlikely that hallucinations of Jesus, even with an empty tomb, would have produced resurrection belief. The idea of Jesus’ resurrection was a completely foreign concept within Jewish thought. As mentioned earlier, if the disciples discovered that Jesus’ tomb was empty and experienced hallucinations of him, they would have concluded that he was bodily assumed into heaven, from where he appeared to them. The concept of a resurrection to an isolated individual within history and prior to the end of the world simply did not exist within Judaism. As a result, it is highly unlikely that the disciples would have conceived of and settled on resurrection as an interpretation.
With that said, in the points to follow below, I will assume that Jesus’ resurrection, despite being a foreign concept within Judaism, could have come to mind on the part of the disciples and therefore, could have potentially become established as an interpretation of what they had seen and experienced.
5. Skepticism and discernment would greatly diminish the possibility of hallucinations being interpreted as resurrection
If the disciples approached the extraordinary appearances of Jesus before their eyes with skepticism and discernment (e.g. assessing what they were seeing critically, attempting to converse with the appearance at length to determine its nature or meaning, or if the idea of resurrection came to mind, deciding to touch the appearance) then the chances of them attributing hallucinations as resurrection decreases greatly. There are three reasons why the disciples approached their resurrection experiences with skepticism and discernment.
One, doubt, skepticism and curiosity are all part of the human condition. We have always had it as a species. On the issue of doubt and skepticism in particular, there are multiple passages in the Old and New Testament that show this. Focusing on the New Testament alone, doubt and disbelief are found during Jesus’ ministry (Mk 5:35-42; 9:24-25, Matt 13:54-57; 14:22-31, Jn 6:32-68; 7:5) during the empty tomb and resurrection accounts (Lk 24:9-11, Lk 24:40-43, Jn 20:24-28, Matt 28:16-17) and during the post-Easter missionary efforts regarding the resurrection and others (Gal 1:18-20, 1 Cor 1:22-23, Acts 17:31-32). The above verses show that doubt and skepticism have always been with us, and that even ancient people knew the difference between the ordinary and the extraordinary (and were skeptical and discerning of the latter). If the disciples witnessed an appearance of a seemingly alive Jesus before their eyes, it is certain that they would have tried to understand the nature and meaning of the appearance through their rational faculties (discernment), and at least some of them would have been doing so in disbelief of what was happening (skepticism). Furthermore, if the radical idea of Jesus’ resurrection came to their minds, it is also possible, especially for those skeptical about what they were seeing, that they would have used their physical tools to probe the appearance of Jesus before them — reaching out to touch it.
Two, as just stated, the gospels themselves attest that there was skepticism on the part of Jesus’ disciples regarding the empty tomb and post-mortem appearances.
Three, the fact that the disciples unanimously proclaimed resurrection strongly implies discernment. The fact that the early Church proclaimed that Jesus rose from the dead, despite such an interpretation being a foreign concept within Judaism, and over other known possible interpretations that coheres with an empty tomb (hallucinations and visions of a bodily assumed Jesus) indicates that they had very good reasons for specifically proclaiming resurrection.
For all of the above reasons, it is almost certain that the disciples viewed their resurrection experiences with skepticism and discernment. The fact that resurrection was the explanation they unanimously settled on, passing their skepticism and discernment, points towards the conclusion that they truly did encounter the risen Jesus.
6. It is extremely difficult to see how belief in group resurrection appearances could have arisen
It is extremely difficult to see how sincere belief in group resurrection appearances arose among Jesus’ disciples.
First, let us consider the possibility of a group hallucination occurring. If one of the disciples started having a hallucination of Jesus and told others near him about what he was seeing, do you think that the other disciples would have begun to see a hallucination of Jesus as well? Of course not. In all likelihood, the other disciples would have seen nothing, and the first disciple would have been alone in his hallucination.
Second, let us grant that a group of disciples, somehow, managed to experience multiple hallucinations of Jesus as a collective. If this happened, how could the individuals in the group not realize the discrepancies in what they were seeing and what others were seeing? If you considered or believed that you were experiencing an extraordinary phenomenon as a group, you would be aware of how the other people in the group reacted and responded to what you were seeing because you would view yourselves as possible or actual collective witnesses. This would especially be the case when it comes to a possibly supernatural appearance from Jesus. With that said, there are many ways through which the disciples could have realized that there was a discrepancy between what they were seeing and what others were seeing during a “collective hallucination”.
One, if the hallucinations of Jesus these individuals were seeing were not located in the same spot in the room or vicinity, or if the hallucination of Jesus moved and those who saw a moving hallucination reacted accordingly, then this would have provided a good opportunity for individuals in the group to realize that they were not seeing the same thing (as they saw the actions of others and compared it to what they were seeing).
Two, if Jesus spoke to some people but not to others in these individual hallucinations, and those who Jesus spoke to responded back, then this would have been another good opportunity for those in the group to notice the obvious discrepancies in what was happening. Those whom Jesus did not speak to could see that the group was not seeing the same thing, since Jesus said nothing to them but something to others. On the other hand, those whom Jesus did speak to could see the obvious disconnect in their responses, since individual hallucinations of Jesus would not have said the same thing to each person.
Three, if a group of disciples experienced individual hallucinations of Jesus, it is highly likely that these hallucinations would not have ended at the same time. If one person in the group’s hallucination ended early and he saw others around him still seeing Jesus, he would realize that they never saw the same thing as a group in the first place. Others in the group whose hallucinations would end earlier before the rest would also follow in this realization.
Four, if the group of disciples asked each other afterward if they really saw the same thing and assess their experiences together then this would be another good opportunity for them to realize the discrepancies in what they witnessed — and it is highly likely that they did do this. Discussing, comparing and assessing experiences with each other after collectively witnessing something extraordinary is natural and expected (again, especially after witnessing a possibly supernatural appearance of Jesus). If the disciples did this, however, then it is highly unlikely that they would have proclaimed resurrection since they would realize through discussion that they did not witness the same thing (e.g. differences in the appearance of Jesus, what he did, what he said, etc). This would prove to them that the appearance they witnessed was not a resurrection but something else.
In the end, if individuals in the group realized that there were discrepancies in what they saw and what others were seeing, then they would not have proclaimed resurrection, since a resurrection appearance would have to be physical and bodily, objective, and “real in the world”. They would have instead, proclaimed something else (e.g. visions of a bodily assumed Jesus).
For all of the above reasons, it is extremely difficult to see how belief in group resurrection appearances could have emerged from hallucinations among the disciples. This strongly argues against hallucinations being the catalyst behind the early Christian resurrection proclamation.
7. It would not easily explain the conversion of James
A hallucination would not easily explain the conversion of James, from skeptic to believer in Jesus.
First, we would have to add James to the posited multiple series of hallucinations among the disciples, increasing the already high improbability of this hypothetical. The unlikelihood of a hallucination of Jesus occurring to James is enhanced by the fact that he did not believe in Jesus, and was not involved in his ministry. In fact, after the crucifixion, James must have felt even more assured in his belief that Jesus was not the Messiah and that his death was, unfortunately, “his own making”.
Second, since James was skeptical of Jesus during his ministry, he would have viewed the appearance of Jesus before him with an especially critical eye. Furthermore, if he heard stories from family members or Jesus’ disciples that Jesus rose from the dead and that he was appearing among them, it is very likely (given his skepticism) that he would have made sure that what he was seeing before him was truly his risen cousin — likely by touching him.
8. It would not explain the conversion of Paul
A hallucination would not easily explain the conversion of Paul, a Pharisee and fierce enemy of the early Church to Christianity.
First, we would have to add Paul to the posited series of hallucinations among the disciples and James, increasing the already high improbability of this hypothetical further. The unlikelihood of a hallucination of Jesus occurring to Paul is enhanced by the fact that (1) he was not a follower or relative of Jesus (so he was lacking in a fraternal or familial connection that would have made a hallucination more plausible) and (2) as noted by scholar Stendahl, Paul was “a very happy and successful Jew…He experiences no troubles, no problems, no qualms of conscience, no feelings of shortcomings…”, and so it is difficult to see what could have caused him to hallucinate. Paul was a respected figure in Jewish circles. He fervently persecuted Christianity because he saw the group as a heresy and an affront to God whom he loved. Given Paul’s situation, it is very difficult to imagine what could have triggered a hallucination for him in the first place.
Second, as an educated man, devout Jew and fierce enemy of Christianity, Paul would have viewed the appearance of Jesus before him with even greater skepticism than James. His sharp intellect would also have helped him discern if his experience was a product of the mind or an authentic encounter with Jesus. In the end, the fact that the appearance Paul witnessed sincerely convinced him that he encountered the risen Jesus is historically impressive.
According to the resurrection hypothesis, Jesus rose from the dead, as the earliest Christians proclaimed.
This theory enjoys a preponderance of evidence in its favor — the sincere belief of the disciples in Jesus’ post-mortem appearances, the empty tomb and the origin of the Christian faith all point to the conclusion that Jesus rose.
The resurrection hypothesis also fits in with the evidence seamlessly, that is, it faces no problems or difficulties unlike the conspiracy and hallucination hypotheses. In the end, the resurrection hypothesis…
Explains the post mortem appearances and empty tomb with zero difficulties.
Best explains the sincere belief of the disciples — why they traveled great distances preaching a resurrected Christ, why they endured hardship and persecution, and in some cases, suffered martyrdom (hallucinations typically do not bring about such confidence, zeal and inspiration).
Explains why the disciples proclaimed Jesus’ resurrection despite it being a foreign concept within Judaism, and over other known explanations that would have cohered with an empty tomb (e.g. visions of a bodily assumed Jesus)
Coheres with the earnest Jewish faith of the disciples.
Coheres perfectly with the appearance accounts in the gospels and Acts.
Best explains the conversion of James from skeptic to believer in Jesus.
Best explains the conversion of Paul, a respected Pharisee and fierce enemy of the early Church to Christianity.
The resurrection hypothesis, enjoying a preponderance of evidence in its favor and possessing zero problems or difficulties is without question, the “best explanation for the evidence”. The hypothesis only requires two presuppositions, (1) that God exists and that (2) He revealed Himself to the Jewish people. The former presupposition is supported by impressiveevidence from natural theology, while the latter is supported by the Jewish conception of God (which is consistent with the findings of natural theology) and the striking history of its people.
In the end, by raising Jesus from the dead, God confirms Jesus, his ministry and his claims about his identity like a “divine stamp of approval” — that He is indeed, His Son in the flesh.
104. “Today, however, this explanation [the conspiracy hypothesis] has been completely given up by modern scholarship”. (Craig, Reasonable Faith, pg. 371)
111.The Nazareth Inscription (dated around 20 BC) attests to how tombs were held in high regard in the ancient world, and how grave robbery accorded one significant punishment:
Edict from an unnamed Caesar: “It is my decision [concerning] graves and tombs—whoever has made them for the religious observances of parents, or children, or household members—that these remain undisturbed forever. But if anyone legally charges that another person has destroyed, or has in any manner extracted those who have been buried, or has moved with wicked intent those who have been buried to other places, committing a crime against them, or has moved sepulcher-sealing stones, against such a person I order that a judicial tribunal be created, just as [is done] concerning the gods in human religious observances, even more so will it be obligatory to treat with honor those who have been entombed. You are absolutely not to allow anyone to move [those who have been entombed]. But if [someone does], I wish that [violator] to suffer capital punishment under the title of tomb-breaker”.
As scholarMetzger notes: “In any case, the inscription contributes yet another testimony to what we knew already concerning the sanctity with which tombs were generally regarded in antiquity and the variety of penalties against violatia sepulchri.” (The Nazareth Inscription Once Again” in New Testament Studies: Philological, Versional, and Patristic, pg. 91)
113. Habermas attained this testimony through personal correspondence with Sibcy at the request of Licona, who was doing research on hallucinations (The Resurrection of Jesus, A New Historiographical Approach, pg. 484).
114.Ludemann, in his work “The Resurrection of Christ: A Historical Inquiry”, explains the group appearances by saying that they were “shared hallucinatory fantasies” (pgs. 166, 175 and 176) and in the case of the appearance to the 500, that it was a “mass ecstasy” (pg. 108).
Licona summarizes Goulder’s view in his book The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach before responding to it. According to Licona, Goulder explains the group appearances as “communal delusions” (pg. 482).
Licona also summarizes Vermes’ view stating that he explains the individual and group appearances as “visions” and “apparitions” (pg. 477).
115. Licona, using Aleman and Laroi’s “Hallucinations: The Science of Idiosyncratic Perception” as his source says that hallucinations can be experienced in a number of modes such as auditory, visual, olfactory, kinesthetic, etc — but that they are generally experienced in a single mode. Multimodal or compound hallucinations are more rare.
116. Scholar Michael Licona, in a web article entitled “Are the New Testament Gospels historically reliable accounts of Jesus?”, relates the experiences his friends at the U.S. Navy who experienced hallucinations during one of their toughest training weeks before being initiated as a SEAL. They called this week, “Hell Week”. The experiences of Licona’s friends at the US Navy show that hallucinations are not “contagious”. If an individual experienced a hallucination and told others about it, he would in all likelihood be alone in it — his friends would not see anything. Quoting Licona narrating the experiences of his friends:
“Years ago, I lived in Virginia Beach. Since half of the Navy SEALS are stationed in that area, I had the privilege of meeting many of them and even befriended several. SEALS are some of the most impressive people I’ve ever met. Their physical abilities and mental toughness are truly enviable and go beyond what I would have thought to be humanly possible.
There are several steps candidates must successfully complete prior to becoming a SEAL. One of the first steps is to complete “Hell Week.” This week begins on a Sunday evening and end Saturday morning. During that week, candidates are subjected to conditions that test their physical and mental toughness to their outermost edges. Most do not make it through the week and drop out. Candidates get only about 3–5 hours of sleep during the entire week — not every night but the entire week. Due to the sleep deprivation, a significant number of the candidates experience hallucinations during the week. Many told me they had experienced a hallucination during an exercise called “Around the World” in which small teams in rafts row to a buoy in the ocean, then return. The team finishing first gets to sit out the next race and rest.
One SEAL told me he thought he saw an octopus come to the surface and wave at him. Another told me he thought he saw a train coming toward them. When he warned the others of the approaching train, they told him there are no trains running on the Pacific Ocean! But they were unable to convince him. So, he rolled out of the raft to avoid being hit by the train. Another SEAL told me about a guy who was in his raft who began swatting his paddle at something in the air. When asked what he was doing, he answered he was trying to hit the dolphins that were jumping over their raft! What’s of interest is that no one else saw the octopus or the train or the dolphins. They were all in the same frame of mind. And many of them were experiencing hallucinations. Yet, pointing out what one was seeing did not lead others to see the same things. That’s because hallucinations are private experiences in the mind of an individual. They are neither contagious nor collective. And some people are not prone to hallucinate”.
Philosophical arguments point to the existence of an uncaused first cause (that is, God) with the following attributes: immutability, immateriality, omnipotence, omniscience, oneness or invisibility, perfect goodness and necessary existence (Flew, There is A God, pg. 92).
When it comes to the striking history of the Jews, I am referring to their long-held belief that God revealed Himself to them and made them His chosen people, the Old Testament texts, their long line of prophets from Abraham to Malachi, and of course, the person of Jesus himself.
The third event to be examined in our historical examination is the empty tomb. That Jesus’ tomb was found empty shortly after his death is recognized by the majority of scholars. There are eight arguments supporting this event’s historicity.
1. Multiple Attestation
Thefirst argument is that Jesus’ burial in a tomb is attested to in multiple independent sources.
First, the empty tomb is implied in Paul’s letters. If you recall, Paul conveys a primitive tradition in 1 Corinthians 15 and in verse 4 Jesus’ empty tomb is implied: “that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures”. When the above tradition states that Jesus “was buried” and that he “was raised”, it implies an empty tomb (or grave, which coheres perfectly with an empty tomb). There are four arguments supporting this position. One, as scholar Wright noted, the mention here of “buried then raised” no more needs to be amplified than one would need to amplify the statement “I walked down the street” with the qualification “on my feet”. The words “buried” and “raised” stand in deliberate juxtaposition, with the latter undoing the former. Two, the expression “on the third day” implies an empty tomb. As Craig notes:
“since no one actually saw Jesus rise from the dead, why did the early disciples proclaim that he had been raised ‘on the third day’? Why not on the seventh day? The most likely answer is that it was on the third day that the women discovered the tomb of Jesus empty; and so naturally, the resurrection itself came to be dated on that day”.
Three, the disciples and Paul certainly believed that Jesus’ grave was empty, since Jewish belief in the resurrection was physical and bodily. As scholar Earle Ellis comments:
“It is very unlikely that the earliest Palestinian Christians could conceive of any distinction between resurrection and physical, ‘grave-emptying’ resurrection. To them an anastasis (resurrection) without an empty grave would have been about as meaningful as a ‘square circle’”.
Four, there is a remarkable correspondence between the 1 Corinthians 15 tradition, the gospel narratives (as represented by Mark, which is held to be the earliest gospel) and the sermon in Acts 13:28-31. As seen in the chart below, the four elements of “died”, “buried”, “raised” and “appeared” are all present, with the second line of the 1 Corinthians 15 tradition corresponding to Jesus’ burial in a tomb.
This impressive correspondence of independent traditions is compelling evidence that the burialmentioned in the 1 Corinthians 15 tradition refers to the event in the gospels and Acts that is Jesus’ burial in a tomb.
In addition to Paul’s letters, the empty tomb is also attested in Mark’s early passion source. It is widely held among scholars that Mark drew upon an earlier source in composing his passion narrative. The primary reason for this belief is that Mark’s Gospel, which is held to be the earliest written (around 70 AD), consists of short anecdotal stories about Jesus strung like “pearls on a string” but when we get to the final week of Jesus’ life we get a continuous narrative of events from the Jewish plot during the Feast of Unleavened Bread until the empty tomb. According to prominent scholar James Dunn:
“The most obvious explanation of this feature is that the framework was early on fixed within the tradition process and remained so throughout the transition to written Gospels. This suggests in turn a tradition rooted in the memory of the participants and put into that framework by them”.
When it comes to the earliness of Mark’s passion source, scholars date it within 30 AD to 60 AD (though it is held by many that this source is to be dated no later than the 40s). In addition to the earliness of this source, there are also strong indicators that it originated in Jerusalem due to its familiarity with its topography and its surrounding areas, the naming of individuals who were a part of the Jerusalem church, the semitisms (traces of Aramaic) and its knowledge of the Hebrew Bible.
Although a reconstruction of Mark’s early passion source cannot be accomplished with certainty, it is highly likely that the account of the discovery of the empty tomb was a part of it. There are a number of reasons behind this position. One, it is hard to believe that the early passion source would end with Jesus’ death and defeat with no mention of the empty tomb or resurrection. As scholar Wilckens rightly noted the passion story would be incomplete without victory in the end. Furthermore, the disciples proclaimed the resurrection shortly after Jesus’ death in 30 AD. Whatever historical occurrences caused the early Christians to proclaim a risen Christ, be it the empty tomb, resurrection experiences, or both, must have been mentioned in the early passion source to at least some degree — because whatever they were, they were already “being told”. Two, if the empty tomb narrative was included in the passion source, then there would be a correspondence between the primitive Christian creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 and Mark 15:37-16:7 — Jesus died, was buried, rose and appeared — all of these elements would be present in both accounts (including Jesus’ appearance, which is mentioned as a future event in Mark 16:7). Given that the 1 Corinthians 15 creed is foundational, it would make great sense for the four-element formula of died, buried, rose and appeared to be present in the early passion source as well. Three, Mark’s account of the discovery of the empty tomb is simple and unadorned. It is not colored by apologetical or theological developments that one would expect from a later legend. As atheist scholar Rudolf Bultmann noted:
“Mark’s presentation is extremely reserved, in so far as the resurrection and the appearance of the risen Lord are not recounted”.
Nauck, another scholar, also observes that many theological motifs that might be expected are lacking in the story. According to Nauck, the only theological motif that is present in the narrative is “the crucified is risen”. These suggest that the empty tomb narrative is not a later legend but an old tradition. For all of the above reasons, it is highly probable that the empty tomb narrative was a part of Mark’s early passion source. It must also be noted that even if the passion source ended prior to the empty tomb, the discovery of the empty tomb would still be attested to by Mark.
In addition to Mark, the empty tomb is also attested to in the other remaining gospels — Matthew, Luke and John. Although Matthew and Luke are said to have used Mark as one of their sources in composing their gospels, their gospels also contain independent traditions that presuppose the empty tomb (Matt 27:62-66; 28:11-15 and Luke 24:13-15). John on the other hand, is generally held to be separate from the synoptic gospels (i.e. Mark, Matthew and Luke), so his attestation to the empty tomb is independent. However, John also contains an independent tradition that presupposes the empty tomb (John 20:1-10; 11-18).
Lastly, the empty tomb is also attested to in Acts in the form of recounted apostolic sermons. Jesus’ burial in a tomb is attested to in Acts 13:28-31 and its emptiness after the resurrection is also implied (“they took him down from the cross and laid him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead…”). The empty tomb is also implied in Acts 2:29-32 and 13:36-37.
In the end, the empty tomb of Jesus strongly satisfies the criterion of multiple attestation. Historians see two independent attestations as good evidence for an event’s historicity. However, when it comes to the empty tomb, we have a surplus of independent attestations beyond this number.
2. Jesus’ entombment by Joseph of Arimathea is highly probable
The second argument is that there is strong evidence that Jesus’ burial in a tomb by Joseph is historical. There are seven arguments supporting this event’s historicity.
One, Jesus’ burial in a tomb by Joseph is multiply attested. The event is mentioned in all 4 gospels, that is at least attestation in two independent sources — Mark (early passion source) and John. In addition to the gospels, Jesus’ entombment is also attested to in Acts 13:28-31.
Two, if the burial story were invented, it would be odd for a Christian fabricator to invent a fictional character and give him a name (Joseph), a place of birth in Judea (Arimathea), and claim that he was a member of a high profile group like the Sanhedrin (which was the Jewish leadership). This oddity is further enhanced if the fabricator was Mark because providing names is not standard fare in his gospel — so providing Joseph’s name was something that could easily have been avoided. However, Mark does provide a name. This suggests that Joseph of Arimathea belongs to historical memory like other names in Mark (e.g. John the Baptist, Peter, Andrew, James, John, Judas, James the brother of Jesus, Mary the mother of Jesus, Herod Antipas and Pilate). In the end, by providing a name and Judean place of birth to Joseph’s character, and placing him in the Jewish Sanhedrin, the hypothetical Christian fabricator makes his burial narrative much easier to falsify, and on the positive end, confirm. When it comes to the idea of falsifying an invented burial narrative, this would especially be of interest to Jewish leaders and critics of Christianity, who had every motive to disprove any fabricated Christian claims and tarnish the reputation of the early Church. Knowing fully well what happened to Jesus some time ago as engineers of his execution, and as a major event in their past, they would have been fully equipped to shoot down a fabricated narrative.
Three, it is highly unlikely that a Christian fabricator would invent a member of the Sanhedrin, portray him as doing a kindness to Jesus, and give him the honor of burying Jesus. The early Church placed the blame on the Jewish leadership for maliciously engineering the death of their leader, and this can be seen in the passion narratives. As a result, any Christian invention would likely not end up giving credit to the Sanhedrin. As noted by critical scholar Raymond Brown:
“That the burial was done by Joseph of Arimathea is very probable, since a Christian fictional creation from nothing of a Jewish Sanhedrist who does what is right is almost inexplicable, granted the hostility in early Christian writings toward the Jewish authorities responsible for the death of Jesus…While high probability is not certitude, there is nothing in the basic pre-Gospel account of Jesus’ burial by Joseph that could not be plausibly be deemed historical”.
Four, the naming of Joseph of Arimathea strongly suggests that Jesus’ burial place was well-known. As scholar Catchpole comments:
“It is extremely difficult to believe that the recollection of his (Joseph’s) name would persist in connection with something he had done, while at the same time the location where he had done it remained unknown. It is easier to associate a known agent of burial with a known place of burial, and therefore to be open to the possibility that there was indeed a specific tomb available for visiting shortly after Jesus’ death”.
Five, Mark’s burial narrative is simple and unadorned. It can be described as told “matter of factly”. As scholar Bornkamm comments: “The report of Jesus’ funeral is concise, unemotional and without any bias”. This argues against the account being a later legend.
Six, the burial account in the gospels accords well with archaeological and historical evidence regarding 1st century Jewish burial practices. As noted by Jew and renowned archaeologist, Jodi Magness, who is particularly an expert on 1st century Jewish burial practices (Magness herself affirms the historicity of Jesus’ entombment by Joseph):
“[T]he Gospel accounts describing Jesus’ removal from the cross and burial accord well with archaeological evidence and with Jewish law. The source(s) of these accounts were familiar with the manner in which wealthy Jews [like Joseph of Arimathea] living in Jerusalem during the time of Jesus disposed of their dead”.
Seven, there are no competing burial traditions. If the burial narrative in the gospels were a later legend, we should expect other accounts or attestations of how Jesus was actually buried. However, all of our sources affirm that Jesus was buried in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea.
In the light of the strong evidence for Jesus’ burial by Joseph of Arimathea, liberal scholar John A.T. Robinson concludes that Jesus’ burial by Joseph is “one of the earliest and best attested facts about Jesus.”
3. Mark’s account is simple
The third argumentis that as mentioned earlier, Mark’s account of the empty tomb is simple and lacks legendary development. Since legends are created out of nothing, they tend to be optimized for convenience and richly developed. This however, is not the case in Mark’s account. In it, the resurrection is not witnessed or described, there is no description of the risen Jesus, no reflection on Jesus’ triumph over sin and death, no use of Christological titles, etc. Some critics might stumble at the presence of an angel but as Craig notes, there is no reason to think that the tradition ever lacked an angel. Furthermore, as Craig also notes, the angel may be chosen to be excised, to appease those with skeptical palettes, as a purely literary figure which provides the interpretation of an empty tomb. Anyway, in order to appreciate how restrained Mark’s account is, one has only to read the Gospel of Peter, which describes Jesus’ triumphant exit from the tomb, supported by angels, followed by a talking cross, and witnessed by guards and the Jewish leadership. Another forgery would be The Ascension of Isaiah 3:16, in which Jesus emerges out of the tomb sitting on the shoulders of the angels Michael and Gabriel. These are what real legends look like. The simplicity of Mark’s account is further evidence that the empty tomb account is not a later legend, but an old tradition.
4. “On the first day of the week” reflects ancient tradition
The fourth argument is that the phrase “on the first day of the week” reflects ancient tradition. According to Mark, the empty tomb was discovered by women “on the first day of the week”. On the other hand, the primitive 1 Corinthians 15 tradition, dates Jesus’ resurrection “on the third day”. As scholar E.L. Bode notes, if the empty tomb story were a late legend, it would almost certainly have been formulated in terms of the accepted and widely spread third-day motif. The fact that Mark uses “on the first day of the week” indicates that this tradition is very old. This fact is confirmed by the linguistic character of the phrase in question As Craig explains:
“although ‘the first day of the week’ is very awkward in the Greek (te mia ton sabbaton), employing a cardinal instead of an ordinal number and ‘Sabbath’ for ‘week’, the phrase when translated back into Aramaic is perfectly natural”.
This impressive semitism, linked to the day in the week of the discovery of the empty tomb, is evidence that the empty tomb tradition is not a late-developing legend but an old tradition that originated in a Palestinian setting.
The semitism “on the first day of the week” also strengthens the position that the empty tomb is implied in the 1 Corinthians 15 tradition when it says that Jesus rose “on the third day”. This is because the third day after Jesus’ death, which took place on a Friday, was the “first day of the week” — Sunday. They are both referring to the same date. The Jewish day of worship and rest, called “the Sabbath”, took place on a Saturday. So Sunday, being the first day after the Sabbath, was the “first day of the week”.
5. Only an empty tomb, together with post-mortem appearances, could have produced resurrection belief
The fifth argument is that the empty tomb, only in unison with the post-mortem appearances, could have produced resurrection belief. Jewish beliefs on the resurrection, despite the varyingviews on the matter, agreed on a single point — that the resurrection was a physical and bodily phenomenon. Therefore, resurrection belief presupposes an empty tomb.
Without confirmation that the tomb was empty, realistic sightings of Jesus would have been classified as hallucinations or visions, which, as scholar Wright notes, were well-known enough in the ancient world. Visions, in fact, are mentioned in the Old and New Testament (see Dan 7:13-14, Acts 9:12, Rev 9:17, etc). Furthermore, if we are talking about interpreting an appearance of Jesus with no confirmation of an empty tomb as some sort of vindication of his personhood or identity, then this very likely would have been interpreted as spiritual assumption. As critical scholar Dave Alison explains:
“[P]erceived encounters with a postmortem Jesus would not, by themselves, have supplied such reason [belief in resurrection]. For there was more than one way for Jews to speak about postmortem vindication and to interpret the presence of one dead. Given the widespread dualism of the time, we would expect Jesus’ disciples to think in terms of the triumph of his soul or spirit and to imagine his resurrection, like that of everyone else dead and buried, as still belonging to the immediate future [The Jews believe that everyone would be raised by God on the last day. They call this event the “general resurrection”].
The ascent of a soul to heaven and its vindication were not the same as resurrection of the dead. As already observed, the Testament of Job relates that its hero’s soul was taken to heaven immediately after his death, while his body was being prepared for burial (52:20-12). The story of Moses’ end in Deut. Rab. 11:10 is similar, and in later church history we find that when people see the souls of saints, they speak of ascension, not resurrection. The first Christians, to the contrary, did something else. They proclaimed that an individual had already been raised from the dead, that the general resurrection had begun (1 Cor 15:23). Why? One good answer to the riddle is that they believed his tomb was empty. If there is another good answer, I have yet to stumble across it”.
On the other hand, if there were no post-mortem appearances and only an empty tomb, this would not produce resurrection belief either. It would have been interpreted, of course, as evidence of grave robbing. However, with an empty tomb and post-mortem appearances of Jesus, we have a strong and coherent reason for the emergence of resurrection belief in the earliest Christian community.
However, as I will argue later in the section “Origin of the Christian Faith”, an empty tomb and post-mortem appearances would still not be sufficient to produce resurrection belief — if the post mortem appearances were hallucinations or visions.
6. The resurrection was proclaimed in Jerusalem
The sixth argument is that the resurrection was proclaimed and belief in it flourished in Jerusalem — the very city where Jesus was executed and buried. This could not have been possible unless Jesus’ tomb was empty. The Jewish leadership would have done everything in their power to produce Jesus’ body in order to squash early Christian proclamation in the resurrection. As scholar Paul Althus notes, the resurrection “could not have been maintained in Jerusalem for a single day, for a single hour, if the emptiness of the tomb had not been established as a fact for all concerned…In Jerusalem, one could not think of the grave as empty without being certain, without there being testimony, that it had been found empty”. The fact that the resurrection was proclaimed and belief in it flourished in Jerusalem, is compelling evidence that the Jewish leadership was unable to produce Jesus’ body, because his tomb was empty.
7. The discovery of the empty tomb by women is highly probable
Theseventh argument is that it is highly likely that the discovery of the empty tomb by women is historical. There are three reasons supporting this event’s historicity.
One, if the empty tomb narrative were fabricated, it is much more probable that more prominent disciples of Jesus would have been chosen to make the discovery. However, instead of Peter or any of the other Eleven discovering the empty tomb, we have Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and other women. As scholar Allison comments:
“That it should be these devoted but humble and relatively insignificant followers who are given the credit for the discovery in every gospel is historically impressive”.
Two, in Jewish culture, women were viewed in a lowly light and occupied a low rung on the social ladder. To illustrate this point, consider the following Jewish writings, which show that women were held in low esteem, so much so that (according to the latter two writings) their testimony was considered unreliable and inadmissible in a court of law (per the Jewish historian Josephus, and the Talmud, with the latter source even equating the testimony of a woman to a robber).
“Sooner let the words of the Law be burnt than delivered to women.” (Talmud, Sotah 19a)
“The world cannot exist without males and without females — happy is he whose children are males, and woe to him whose children are females.” (Talmud, Kiddushin 82b)
“But let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex, nor let servants be admitted to give testimony on account of the ignobility of their soul; since it is probably that they may not speak truth, either out of hope or gain, or fear of punishment.” (Josephus, Antiquities 4.8.15)
“Any evidence which a woman [gives] is not valid, also they are not valid to offer. This is equivalent to saying that one who is Rabbinically accounted a robber is qualified to give the same evidence as a woman.” (Talmud, Rosh Hashannah 1.8)
If the empty tomb were a Christian invention, it is extremely difficult to see why women were made the primary witnesses. As scholar Wright notes, the idea of making women primary witnesses to the empty tomb is, “from the point of view of Christian apologists wanting to explain to a skeptical audience that Jesus really did rise from the dead, like shooting themselves in the foot”. However, Wright continues “But to us as historians, this kind of thing is gold dust. The early Christians would never, never have made this up”. If the empty tomb narrative were created for apologetic purposes (i.e. proof of the resurrection), men would have been made the main witnesses, since their testimony was credible and would pose no unnecessary difficulties in evangelization efforts. It must be noted that women were also viewed lowly in Roman culture (they were viewed so in the ancient world by and large). In fact, in the second century, the gospel accounts of the discovery of the empty tomb was derided by pagan and fierce critic of Christianity, Celsus, who said that the testimony of the event came from a “half-frantic woman” (referring to Mary Magdalene, who as a witness, is portrayed most prominently among the contingent of women in the gospels).
Three, if the empty tomb narrative were invented, it is difficult to see why it would paint the female disciples in a favorable light in contrast to the male disciples — for the appearance of the women coincides with the disappearance of men. Why would a fabricator, as a member of the early Church, show women disciples being the first to visit Jesus’ tomb, carrying out an act of piety while the male disciples, for whatever reason, remained indoors (possibly lying low in fear of the Jews). Why would a fabricated narrative paint the male disciples, the leaders of the early Church, in a less than optimal light – behind the superior behavior of the women even? The fact that women followers of Jesus, and not men, are recognized as being the first to visit Jesus’ tomb is another point in favor of this event’s historicity.
8. Early Jewish polemics presuppose the empty tomb
The eight argumentis that early Jewish polemics presuppose the empty tomb. Matthew records that the response of the Jewish leadership to the early Christian movement was that the disciples stole Jesus’ body (Matthew 28:13). This accusation is further attested to in two more sources. The first of these sources is Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho the Jew (ca. 155-170 AD). In this Christian apologetic against Judaism, Justin captures the Jewish perception of Christianity through Trypho:
You have sent chosen and ordained men throughout all the world to proclaim that a godless and lawless heresy had sprung from one Jesus, a Galilaean deceiver, whom we crucified, but his disciples stole him by night from the tomb, where he was laid when unfastened from the cross, and now deceive men by asserting that he was risen from the dead and ascended to heaven”.
The second source is Tertullian’s De Spectaculis (ca. 197-202 AD), in which he also mentions the Jewish accusation that the disciples stole Jesus’ body:
“This is He whom His disciples secretly stole away, that it might be said He had risen…”.
Interestingly, Tertullian also mentions another amusing theory circling around in Jewish circles during his time, that a gardener stole Jesus’ body in order to protect his plants from visitors:
“…or the gardener abstracted, that his lettuces might come to no harm from the crows of visitants!”.
As amusing as the gardener theory is, a variant of it is also used in the 6th-11th century Jewish polemic, Toledot Yeshu, which aimed to defame Jesus. In the end, the fact that all early Jewish polemics presuppose an empty tomb provides significant support for the event’s historicity.
Conclusion on the empty tomb
All in all, the above 8 arguments come together to form a very potent case for the historicity of the empty tomb and it is for this reason that its historicity is granted by the majority of scholars.
As noted by prominent scholar James Dunn:
“As a matter of historical reconstruction, the weight of evidence points firmly to the conclusion that Jesus’ tomb was found empty and that its emptiness was a factor in the first Christians’ belief in the resurrection of Jesus”.
Scholar Geza Vermes, a non-religious Jew, comments:
“In the end, when every argument has been considered and weighed, the only conclusion acceptable to the historian must be that the opinions of the orthodox, the liberal sympathizer and the critical agnostic alike – and even the disciples themselves – are simply interpretations of the one disconcerting fact: namely that the women who set out to pay their last respects to Jesus found to their consternation, not a body, but an empty tomb”.
Historian Paul Meier comments:
“If all the evidence is weighed carefully and fairly, it is indeed justifiable, according to the canons of historical research, to conclude that the tomb in which Jesus was buried was actually empty on the morning of the first Easter”.
Atheist historian and classicist Michael Grant comments:
“Even if the historian chooses to regard the youthful apparition as extra-historical, he cannot justifiably deny the empty tomb”.
D. The origin of the Christian faith
The emergence of belief in Jesus’ resurrection within the earliest Christian community must also be explained, since it differed radically from Jewish resurrection belief. Although Christians may point to Jesus’ resurrection as an event in history as the origin of the disciples’ resurrection belief, critics must explain how belief in Jesus’ resurrection emerged among the disciples given their Jewish worldview. As mentioned earlier, Jesus’ resurrection differed from Jewish resurrection belief radically. Explaining Jewish resurrection belief, Craig says:
“In Jewish thought, the resurrection always occurred (1) at the end of the world, not within history, and (2) concerned all people, not just an isolated individual”.
The Jews referred to this future resurrection event by God at the end of the world and to all people as the “general resurrection”. Jesus’ resurrection, in contrast to this belief, occurred within history and to a single person. In this sense, Jesus’ resurrection was conceptually, a dramatic departure from Jewish belief.
When it comes to the first point, of Jewish belief in the resurrection as occurring at the end of the world, this is seen in the gospels themselves. In John 11, Jesus assures Martha that Lazarus would rise again and Martha responds by saying “I know he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day” (John 11:24). Hearing Jesus’ words, Martha was thinking about the general resurrection. In another instance, in Mark 9:9-10, after Jesus’ transfiguration, Jesus foretells his own resurrection, but his words flew over the heads of his disciples who did not yet understand what he was saying:
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. They kept the matter to themselves, discussing what “rising from the dead” meant. And they asked him, “Why do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?”
The disciples here were rightfully confused because the general resurrection was an event that would happen at the end of history. Yet, Jesus was telling them not to tell anyone what they had just seen (e.g. his transfiguration) until he had risen from the dead. The disciples were wondering how they could even tell anyone of their witness to Jesus’ transfiguration if they would be dead until the general resurrection. The fact that they were thinking of the general resurrection in the light of Jesus’ statements is confirmed by their followingquestion to Jesus: “Why do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?” (Mark 9:11). In Judaism, the prophet Elijah is said to have been bodily assumed into heaven, where he would remain until his return prior to Judgement Day. The disciples could not grasp the idea of a resurrection occurring within history and prior to the end of the world — because such a concept simply did not exist in Judaism. As noted by prominent scholar Joachim Jeremias:
“Ancient Judaism did not know of an anticipated resurrection as an event of history. Nowhere does one find in the literature anything comparable to the resurrection of Jesus. Certainly resurrections of the dead were known, but these always concerned resuscitations, the return to the earthly life. In no place in the late Judaic literature does it concern a resurrection to glory as an event of history”.
As for the second point, in Jewish thought, resurrection always referred to a future event that pertained to all people. They had no conception of the resurrection of an isolated individual. As noted by another major scholar, Ulrich Wilckens:
“For nowhere do the Jewish texts speak of the resurrection of an individual which already occurs before the resurrection of the righteous in the end time and is differentiated and separate from it; nowhere does the participation of the righteous in the salvation at the end time depend on their belonging to the Messiah, who was raised in advance as “First of those raised by God” (1 Cor. 15:20).
In the above quote, Wilckens also observes that there was no connection between the individual believer’s future resurrection and the Messiah’s prior resurrection in ancient Judaism — because there existed no belief or expectation that the Messiah would rise from the dead. This is why we find no similar cases to those of the disciples for Jesus. As noted by scholar Wright, the followers of Jewish messianic movements around the time of Jesus (which were armed movements against Rome) had followers who were strongly committed to the cause but in no case did we hear from any of these groups, following the execution of their leader, that he had been raised from the dead and that he really was the Messiah after all. Wright invites us to suppose that the disciples were convinced, despite his execution and on other grounds, that Jesus was the Messiah:
“This would not have led the early disciples to say he had been raised from the dead. A change in the meaning of “Messiah”, yes (since nobody in the first century supposed that the Messiah would die at the hands of pagans); but not an assertion of his resurrection. No second-Temple Jewish texts speak of the Messiah being raised from the dead. Nobody would have thought of saying, “I believe that so-and-so really was the Messiah; therefore he must have been raised from the dead”.
In the end, Jesus’ resurrection within the worldview of Judaism was a completely foreign concept. As Canadian polymath Allister Mcgrath comments:
“The sheer oddness of the Christian proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus in human history, at a definite time and place, is all too easily overlooked by modern critics, even though it was obvious at the time. The unthinkable appeared to have happened, and for that very reason demanded careful attention. Far from merely fitting into the popular expectations of the pattern of resurrection, what happened to Jesus actually contradicted it. The sheer novelty of the Christian position at the time has been obscured by two thousand years’ experience of the Christian understanding of the resurrection – yet at the time it was wild: unorthodox and radical”.
As a result, belief in Jesus’ resurrection begs the question — from where did this belief come from? Is a combination of an empty tomb and realistic hallucinations of Jesus enough to produce resurrection belief? As Craig compellingly argues, the answer is no.
“The answer is no, since hallucinations, as projections of the mind, can contain nothing new. Therefore, given the current Jewish beliefs about life after death, the disciples, were they to project hallucinations of Jesus, would have seen Jesus in heaven or in Abraham’s bosom, where the souls of the righteous dead were believed to abide until the resurrection. And such visions would not have caused belief in Jesus’ resurrection. At the most, it would have only led the disciples to say Jesus had been translated or [bodily] assumed into heaven, not raised from the dead. In the Old Testament, figures such as Enoch (Genesis 5:24;Hebrews 11:5) and Elijah (2 Kings 2:11-18) were portrayed as not having died but as having been translated directly into heaven”.
The disciples, seeing an empty tomb and realistic hallucinations of Jesus, would have concluded that he had been bodily assumed into heaven, from where he appeared to them. They would not have concluded that a resurrection occurred within history, prior to the end of the world, and to a single person — since such an idea was completely unheard of within their Jewish worldview. The fact that they did proclaim resurrection, however, is amazing. As noted by scholar Dunn:
“For them to have understood that they were seeing the crucified Jesus as risen from the dead rather than as (simply!) translated or glorified was quite extraordinary. That it led them to the conclusion that God had raised Jesus from the dead, that Jesus had been raised as the beginning of the end-time general resurrection of the dead, was exceptional and unprecedented. That is why I am [confident] that this first Christian interpretation deserves a very high respect, and that Christians, on its basis, need have no qualms about affirming their faith in Jesus as risen.
In the end, it seems then that on this point, critics are left with an unsolved puzzle.
55. In his 2004 survey of scholarship on the empty tomb, Habermas records that roughly 75 percent of scholars favor one or more arguments for the empty tomb, while 25 percent favor one or more arguments against it (Habermas included scholars who appear to be leaning in either direction even with an absence of a direct statement for their own position). Interestingly, Habermas also notes that the listings of scholars on this issue are divided along theological “party lines”. Commenting on this, scholar Licona notes: “This may indicate that scholars are allowing their horizons to exert excessive influence on their historical work — an observation that does not surprise us in our investigation of the resurrection of Jesus” (The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, pg. 462).
Although there is a respectable number of scholars who dissent against the empty tomb, Licona classifies it as a “second-order fact” due to the fair-moderate majority in favor of the empty tomb, as well as the small but noteworthy group of scholars who recognize the historicity of the empty tomb but argue for a natural explanation for it in their works.
56. The reason why the empty tomb is not explicitly stated in the 1 Corinthians 15 tradition is because it is a summary statement of the basic events of Jesus’ passion and resurrection. This is why the specifics of the events (e.g. how Jesus died, how he was buried, what happened during the instances wherein he appeared after his death, etc) are not explained. Elaboration of the events would be carried out elsewhere (in preaching or in other writings that intend to give fuller accounts).
As the esteemed scholar Dave Allison notes: “1 Cor 15:3-8 must be a summary of traditional narratives that were told in fuller forms elsewhere” (Resurrecting Jesus, pg. 235).
Martin Hengel, another major scholar comments: “A Jew or Gentile God-fearer, hearing this formal, extremely abbreviated report for the first time, would have difficulty understanding it; at the least a number of questions would certainly occur to him, which Paul could only answer through the narration and explanation of events. Without clarifying delineation, the whole thing would surely sound enigmatic to ancient ears, even absurd” (Begrabnis, pg. 127).
57. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, pg. 321 58. Craig, On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision, pg. 225 59. Ellis, The Gospel of Luke, New Century Bible, p. 273
60. Craig in a Youtube video entitled “Pre-Markan Source and the Resurrection of Jesus” says: “Most scholars today agree with this [that Mark had a source he used]. Any reconstruction of this source is controversial, and not widely accepted… That Mark was using and relied upon a pre-Markan passion story is one that is widely accepted by most scholars today, and because it goes back so early it is probably based upon eyewitness testimony”.
61. Craig, #103 Independent Sources for Jesus’ Burial and Empty Tomb, par. 4. Retrieved from: https://www.reasonablefaith.org/writings/question-answer/independent-sources-for-jesus-burial-and-empty-tomb/
62. Dunn, Jesus Remembered, pg. 765-766.
63. Bauckham notes that many scholars date the pre-Markan passion source very early, and at the latest, the 40s (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, 243).
It is also worth noting the views of scholar Pesch, who dates the early passion source within 7 years after the death of Jesus — for his reasons for doing so are interesting. In the early passion source, the high priest Caiphas is not mentioned by name, he is simply referred to as “the high priest” (unlike Matthew and Luke). This happens in a passion narrative that is replete with names, while in Mark’s gospel, the naming of individuals is not standard fare. Caiphas not being named implies, nearly necessitates even according to Pesch, that Caiaphas was still the high priest when the pre-Markan story was formulated, since back then, there would have been no need to mention his name as a result of familiarity. It would be like how someone could refer to “the President” today as a matter of familiarity since everyone would know who “the President” was. Since Caiaphas was the high priest from 18-37 A.D., Mark’s early passion source must be dated within 7 years after the death of Jesus. Pesch also notes that this familiarity with Caiaphas in the early passion source is also found with Pontius Pilate — who is referred to as “Pilate” without his title of governor being stated (unlike Luke and Matthew). If Pesch is correct, then the value of this early passion source as historical evidence is extremely valuable, similar to that of the 1 Corinthians 15 tradition.
64. Scholar Rudolph Pesch, an expert on the gospel of Mark in particular, notes these reasons in his Das Markusevangelium for the early passion source originating in Jerusalem (Kok, “A Passion Narrative from the Jerusalem Church”, par. 1) .
65. Wilckens, Auferstehung, pg. 61: “The passion story could not have ended with the death and burial of Jesus without assurance of victory; the discovery of the empty tomb by the women was part of the passion story”.
66. Bultmann, History, pg. 309
67. There is also more evidence from word usage and variances in the accounts that the empty tomb is multiply attested.
As Craig says when it comes to word usage: “In general, only 35 of Matthew’s 136 words in the empty tomb are found in Mark’s 138 words. Similarly, only 16 of Luke’s 123 words are found in Mark’s account. Moreover, Matthew and Luke have only a dozen words in common, which shows the independence of their traditions” (Reasonable Faith, pg. 366).
As scholar Stein says on the variances in the empty tomb accounts: “The very variation in the different narratives of the empty tomb, which are in one sense embarrassing, argues that these accounts stem from separate and independent traditions, all of which witness to the tomb’s being empty” (Was the Tomb Really Empty?).
68. Allison, Resurrecting Jesus, pg. 320
69. See Acts 2:29-32 and 13:36-37 below:
“Fellow Israelites, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. Seeing what was to come, he spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah [referring to Psalm 16:8-11], that he was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it (Acts 2:29-32).
“Now when David had served God’s purpose in his own generation, he fell asleep; he was buried with his ancestors and his body decayed. But the one whom God raised from the dead did not see decay (Acts 13:36-37).
Acts 2:29-32 says that Jesus’ body did not see decay and that “God has raised this Jesus to life. The mention of Jesus’ body “not decaying” implies an empty tomb because the reason why Jesus’ body did not decay is because he was raised up — no longer being dead but alive, and leaving an empty tomb behind him. There is also a possible parallel in the verses in question between King David being buried in a tomb and Jesus being buried in a tomb.
In Acts 13:36-37, King David is again related to Jesus. In these verses, King David is mentioned to have been buried, and his body is said to have suffered decay. However, in contrast to David, the verses state that the “one whom God raised from the dead did not see decay”. Like the previous passage in Acts, the mention of Jesus’ body not decaying implies an empty tomb for the same reason, Jesus’ body did not decay because he rose from the dead, leaving an empty tomb behind him.
70. There is good evidence, however, of further independent attestation for Jesus’ burial by Joseph in Matthew and Luke.There are differences in the accounts that are not easily explained as editorial changes (e.g. Mark’s “tomb which had been hewn out of rock” vs. Matthew’s “tomb which he hewed in the rock”). There are also instances wherein Matthew and Luke agree in their wording against Mark (e.g. “This man went in to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus” and “wrapped it in linen”).
71. Brown, The Death of the Messiah, 1240-41
72. Catchpole, Resurrection, 199.
Reinforcing this point by Catchpole, other scholars put forward other reasons for why the location of Jesus’ tomb must have been known. These reasons are (1) the Crucifixion was a public event and (2) Jesus was a religious sensation whose Crucifixion would have been watched by many, and whose death and resulting burial would have been the subject of street gossip. As noted by prominent scholars Brown and Allison:
“It is inconceivable that they showed no concern about what happened to Jesus after his arrest…The crucifixion itself was public, and nothing suggests that the burial was secret. (Brown, The Death of the Messiah, pg. 14)
“There is, finally, a general presumption that probably favors Mark’s tradition about Joseph of Arimathea. Crucifixions were public events. Intended as deterrents, they were set up to call attention to themselves. Surely it was not otherwise with Jesus: he was publicly displayed as crucified in order “to deter resistance or revolt.” When one adds that Jesus was surely some sort of religious sensation whose fate would have been of interest not just to sympathizers, that his torture would even have been of entertainment value to some, it is hard to imagine that there was no cloud of witnesses. That the Gospels say there were passersby is no reason to think that there were not. It is instead quite likely that people, friendly, hostile, and indifferent, witnessed Jesus’ end and its immediate aftermath, and that his crucifixion and burial became immediately the stuff of street gossip, so that anyone who wanted to learn what happened could just have asked around. Crossan [an agnostic scholar] says that those who knew did not care and that those who cared did not know. My guess is that most everyone knew whether they cared or not”. (Allison, Resurrecting Jesus, 362)
73. Bornkamm, Jesus of Nazareth, 168
74. Magness, Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit: Jewish Daily Life in the Time of Jesus, pg. 171
75. Robinson, The Human Face of God, 1973 76. Craig, Reasonable Faith, pg. 367 Bode, Easter, pg. 161 77. Gospel of Peter 8:35-42 78. Bode, Easter, pg. 161 79. Craig, Reasonable Faith, pg. 366
80. Allison, Resurrecting Jesus, pg. 324: “Within Judaism was a variety of eschatological beliefs and so no “norm”; but when Jews in the Holy Land spoke of resurrection, they were, from everything we know, thinking about corpses and bones, graves and ossuaries”.
81. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, pg. 686: “Sightings of an apparently alive Jesus, by themselves [without an empty tomb], would have been classified as visions or hallucinations, which were well known enough in the real world”.
Wright, Surprised by Hope, 69: “If the disciples had simply seen, or thought they had seen, someone they took to be Jesus, that would not by itself have generated the stories we have. Everyone in the ancient world took it for granted that people sometimes had strange experiences involving encounters with the dead, particularly the recently deceased. They knew at least as much as we do about such visions, about ghosts and dreams (elsewhere, Wright specifically states that “ancient literature is full of it”) — and the fact that such things often occurred within the context of bereavement or grief . They had language for this, and it wasn’t “resurrection”.
82. Allison, Resurrecting Jesus, The Earliest Christian Tradition and Its Interpreters, pg. 325 83. Althaus, Die Wahrheit des kirchlichen Ostergaluens, pgs. 25-26 84. Allison, Resurrecting Jesus, The Earliest Christian Tradition and Its Interpreters, pg. 326
85. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, pg. 207.
The strength of this argument, however, cannot be understated. Listing other prominent scholars on the issue:
Adela Yarbro Collins, The Beginning of the Gospel, pg. 127: “[On the empty tomb] The status of women in the ancient world was such that a story fabricated as proof or apology would not be based on the testimony of women”.
James Dunn, Jesus Remembered, pg. 832-833: “Mary has the honour of reporting the empty tomb to the other disciples — apostola apostolorum. Yet, as is well known, in Middle Eastern society of the time women were not regarded as reliable witnesses… Why then attribute such testimony to women — unless that was what was remembered as being the case? In contrast, can it be seriously argued that such a story would be contrived in the cities and/or village communities of first-century Palestine, a story which would have to stand up before public incredulity and prejudice?”
C. F. D. Moule, The Significance of the Message of the Resurrection for Faith in Jesus Christ, pg. 9: “…it is difficult to explain how a story that grew up late and took shape merely in accord with the supposed demands of apologetic came to be framed in terms almost exclusively of women witnesses, who, as such, were notoriously invalid witnesses according to Jewish principles of evidence. The later and the more fictitious the story, the harder it is to explain why the apostles are not brought to the forefront as witnesses.”
86. Allison, Resurrecting Jesus, pg. 327
Atheist scholar Bart Ehrman notes the impressiveness of Mary Magdalene being named in different independent sources: “As a historian, I am struck by a certain consistency among otherwise independent witnesses in placing Mary Magdalene both at the cross and at the tomb on the third day. If this is not a historical datum but something that a Christian storyteller just made up and then passed along to others, how is it that this specific bit of information has found its way into accounts that otherwise did not make use of one another? Mary’s presence at the cross is found in Mark (and in Luke and Matthew, which used Mark) and also in John, which is independent of Mark. More significant still, all of our early Gospels—not just John and Mark (with Matthew and Luke as well) but also the Gospel of Peter, which appears to be independent of all of them—indicate that it was Mary Magdalene who discovered Jesus’ empty tomb. How did all of these independent accounts happen to name exactly the same person in this role? It seems hard to believe that this just happened by a way of a fluke of storytelling. It seems much more likely that, at least with the traditions involving the empty tomb, we are dealing with something actually rooted in history” (Peter, Paul & Mary Magdalene: The Followers of Jesus in History & Legend).
The fact that Mary features prominently in the accounts indicates that she did stand out in an event in history (i.e. informing the disciples about what had happened at the tomb and witnessing the first post-mortem appearance of Jesus), and was, as a result, remembered and recognized for it by the early church.
87. Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, chapter 108 88. Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, chapter 108 89. Tertullian, De Spectaculis, chapter 30
90. “Diligent search was made and he [Jesus] was not found in the grave where he had been buried. A gardener had taken him from the grave and had brought him into his garden and buried him in the sand over which the waters flowed into the garden” – Toledot Yeshu quoted by Butt, “The Case of The Empty Tomb”, par. 4. Retrieved from: https://www.apologeticspress.org/apcontent.aspx?category=10&article=896
91. Dunn, Jesus, The Evidence, pg. 68 92. Vermes, Jesus the Jew, pg. 41
93. Independent, Press-Telegram, Long Beach, Calif., Saturday, April 21, 1973, p. A-10.
94. Grant, Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels, pg. 176
95. The fullest and most sophisticated development of this point (the origin of the Christian faith) is N.T. Wright’s “The Resurrection of the Son of God”. In this magisterial work, Wright argues for the historicity of the post-mortem appearances and the empty tomb from the fact of the origin of the Christian faith alone. This understates the evidence for both the post-mortem appearances and the empty tomb but it does go to show how powerful this fourth point is.
96. Craig, The Son Rises: The Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus, pg. 129
97. Jeremias, Die alteste Schicht der Oseruberlieferung, pg. 194 98. Wilckens, Auferstehung, Themen der Theologie 4, pg. 131
99. Wright, videotaped lecture presented at Asbury Theological Seminary, November 1999.
It must be noted that these messianic movements were both perceived and claimed, though mostly the former. The only leader of these messianic movements who we can say definitively claimed to be the Messiah is Simon bar Kochba.
100. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, pg. 25. 101. McGrath, The Resurrection, par. 4. Retrieved from: https://www.bethinking.org/resurrection/the-resurrection 102. Craig, The Son Rises, pg. 132 103. Dunn, In Grateful Dialogue, pg. 321-322.
Christianity is a religion that is deeply rooted in history, and at its heart is the resurrection — an event proclaimed by Jesus’ disciples, who claimed that he appeared to them shortly after his death. The resurrection is the bedrock of the Christian faith. If the resurrection did not happen, then Christianity is false. Likewise, if the resurrection did happen, then Christianity is true. As St. Paul wrote the Christian community at Corinth some 2,000 years ago: “And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is worthless, and so is your faith” (1 Cor 15:14). As a result, whether or not the resurrection happened should concern every Christian and every seeker of truth.
However, to this, someone might say: “This is an event that supposedly happened some 2,000 years ago, how can we be certain that it did or did not happen?”. The answer to this, of course, is that we cannot know with certainty if the resurrection did or did not happen. As it is with other events of history, we are dealing with probabilities. This does not mean, however, that we cannot come to a confident conclusion as to what likely happened. By examining the historical evidence we have available to us and weighing the possible explanations for a given set of historical facts, we can come to the conclusion — assuming that the evidence points firmly in one direction — that a historical hypothesis clearly is “the best explanation of the evidence”. As I will argue in this series of posts, that Jesus rose from the dead is clearly the best explanation of the evidence as to what happened that first Easter Sunday. The resurrection hypothesis enjoys a preponderance of evidence for it. Furthermore, unlike the resurrection hypothesis, all other possible explanations suffer from serious difficulties when subjected to critical scrutiny.
Catering to a skeptical audience, we will not assume the reliability of the gospels for this argument. The argument to be presented will work even if we view the gospels with skepticism. This is possible because we will work with four events that are recognized by the majority of scholars as historical, and put forward evidence and historical reasoning to establish their historicity (i.e. viewing the gospels as regular historical documents that can be examined). These events are (1) Jesus’ death by crucifixion, (2) the sincere belief of Jesus’ disciples in his post-mortem or “after-death” appearances, (3) that Jesus’ tomb was found empty shortly after his burial and (4) the emergence of resurrection belief among Jesus’ disciples, which will be later referred to as “The Origin of the Christian Faith”. After providing the evidence for the above four events and establishing their historicity, we will then examine the possible explanations for the above four facts: (a) conspiracy, (b) hallucination or (c) resurrection — weigh the merits of the above explanations, and show why the resurrection truly does stand out as a superior hypothesis following a historical examination of the evidence.
Before I lay out the historical evidence, I would like to point out that the evidence for the resurrection has been recognized by Christians and non-Christians alike as potent and impressive. Frank Morrison, an English writer and atheist, and inspired by the liberal biblical criticism of his time, set out to write a book to prove the story of Jesus’ resurrection as a myth. After examining the gospels critically, he ended up converting to Christianity. His book, “Who Moved the Stone”, ended up arguing for the historicity of the resurrection and is now a classic apologetic work. Leading Catholic Thomist philosopher Edward Feser and Canadian polymath Allister McGrath (theologian, historian, scientist and public intellectual) both noted how the evidence for the resurrection played a significant role in their conversion to Christianity from atheism. After surveying the historical evidence, Jewish scholar Pinchas Lapide also came to recognize the historicity of the resurrection saying:
“I accept the resurrection of Jesus not as an invention of the community of disciples, but as an historical event”.
One more example would be Anthony Flew, one of the most influential atheist philosophers in the 20th century and convert to deism in 2004 (particularly, to the God of Aristotle). Prior to his death in 2010, Flew had been studying Christianity and he ended up developing a profound respect for the religion, saying:
“I think that the Christian religion is the one religion that most clearly deserves to be honoured and respected whether or not its claim to be a divine revelation is true. There is nothing like the combination of a charismatic figure like Jesus and a first-class intellectual like St. Paul…If you’re wanting Omnipotence to set up a religion, this is the one to beat”.
On the resurrection in particular, Flew commented:
“The evidence for the resurrection is better than for claimed miracles in any other religion. It’s outstandingly different in quality and quantity”.
With all that said, let us proceed to examine the historical evidence.
II. ESTABLISHING THE FACTS
A. Jesus’ death by crucifixion
Jesus’ death by crucifixion is strongly supported by a number of Christian and non-Christian sources. When it comes to Christian sources, the four gospels, Acts and the New Testament epistles all mention Jesus’ death and crucifixion. As for non-Christian sources, historians Josephus (Jewish) and Tacitus (pagan) both report that Jesus was crucified by the order of Pontius Pilate. In the end, Jesus’ death by crucifixion is recognized by virtually all scholars. As skeptical scholar John Dominic Crossan notes: “Jesus’ death by crucifixion under Pontius Pilate is as sure as anything historical can ever be”.
B. The sincere belief of the disciples in Jesus’ post-mortem appearances
In discussing the historicity of the disciples’ sincere belief in Jesus’ post mortem appearances, I will discuss the evidence for (1) the post-mortem appearances of Jesus, (2) the sincere belief of Jesus’ disciples in these appearances and (3) Paul’s exposition in 1 Corinthians 15 regarding the reality of the resurrection — followed by a conclusion.
The evidence for the above three points combine to form a powerful case for the disciple’s sincere belief in Jesus’ post mortem appearances — so much so that there is a virtual consensus among scholars (even skeptical ones) that the disciples did not lie about their “resurrection experiences” but experienced them, and genuinely came to believe in their authenticity.
1. The post-mortem appearances
Following Jesus’ death, many of his followers, as individuals and in groups, had experiences wherein Jesus appeared to them. This is supported by a number of Christian sources: Matthew, Luke, John, Acts and 1 Corinthians. The earliest and most valuable of these sources is the appearance tradition found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7. However, for the purposes of completeness, I will include Paul’s testimony in verse 8 in the quotation below (Pauline additions are italicized):
3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures,
4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures,
5 and that he appeared to Cephas [Peter], then to the twelve.
6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.
7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the Apostles.
8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.
When it comes to the above verses, scholars recognize that Paul is passing on tradition. This is because Paul himself says as much in the first half of 1 Corinthians 15:3. In doing so, Paul uses the words “delivered” (paredoka) and “received” (parelabon), which were known technical words in rabbinical circles and Hellenistic schools during Paul’s day for the receiving and handing on of tradition.
The reason 1 Corinthians 15 is our most valuable source for Jesus’ post mortem appearances is because of its origin in the Jerusalem church (which was the first “headquarters” of the early Church) and its very early dating, 2-3 years after the death of Jesus. The value of the tradition is also enhanced because it comes to us from Paul, who knew other eyewitnesses and was deep within the Christian movement.
In the discussion of the post-mortem appearances below, let us examine the 1 Corinthians 15 tradition (its Jerusalem origin, 2-3 year dating after the death of Jesus and its being conveyed by Paul), Paul’s testimony in 1 Corinthians 15:8 and the other appearance traditions in the gospels and Acts. Afterward, we will close with a conclusion on the post-mortem appearances.
1 Corinthians 15:3-7 and its roots in the Jerusalem Church
It is widely held among scholars that the 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 tradition finds its roots in the Jerusalem Church. There are a number of reasons behind this position.
When it comes to 1 Corinthians 15:3-5, virtually all scholars agree that these verses contain a primitive Christian creed that finds its roots in the Jerusalem Church. This is because a) the verses are written in stylistic form, which aids in memorization, b) there are traces of Aramaic in these verses, the language of the Jerusalem church and c) the verses display many non-Pauline characteristics. These include, “for our sins”, “according to the Scriptures”, “he has been raised”, “on the third day”, “he was seen”, and “by the Twelve”.
As for 1 Corinthians 15:6-7, some scholars include these verses in the creed while others believe that Paul is combining other traditions he received. In any case, there is also widespread agreement among scholars that the tradition in 1 Corinthians 15:6-7 finds its roots in the Jerusalem Church. There are a number of reasons for this behind this position. One, there is good evidence that 1 Corinthians 15:6-7 is also a part of the creed. Two, Paul’s information-gathering trip to Jerusalem three years after his conversion is the most likely period when he received these traditions. As Paul says in Galatians 1:15-19, he goes to Jerusalem three years after his conversion to visit Peter and gather information, and he stays with him for over two weeks:
“But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by His grace, was pleased to reveal His Son in me so that I might preach Him among the Gentiles, I did not rush to consult with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to the apostles who came before me, but I went into Arabia and later returned to Damascus. Only after three years did I go up to Jerusalem to confer with Cephas, and I stayed with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James, the Lord’s brother”.
The term Paul uses to describe what he did during his trip to Jerusalem, “historesai” (which is translated to “confer” in English in the above-quoted passage), literally means “to visit and get information”. Whatever information Paul sought to obtain by visiting Peter, the leader of the apostles, after his conversion, it certainly had to do with Jesus and the Christian movement. Jesus’ resurrection appearances, which stand at the center of the Christian movement, must have been talked about, especially since Paul witnessed an appearance from Jesus himself. In addition to meeting Peter during this trip, it must also be noted that Paul mentions meeting James, the same disciple and leader in the Christian movement who is mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15:7 (“Then he appeared to James…”). Three, right after listing the appearance traditions in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, Paul indicates in 1 Corinthians 15:9-11 that his preaching is in line with those of the apostles:
9For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.
10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.
11 Whether, then, it is I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.
In verse 11, Paul refers to the apostles (“they”, and the apostles together with himself, “we”) and states that they preach the same message. This points towards a Jerusalem origin for the traditions and Paul’s unity with the Jerusalem Church. Four, Paul held tradition in high regard and had ample opportunity to receive and verify tradition from leaders and members of the Jerusalem Church. Paul’s high regard for tradition is evident throughout his writings. He stresses the importance of holding firmly to tradition (1 Corinthians 11:2, Philippians 4:9 and 2 Thess 2:15) and is even careful in distinguishing his opinion from tradition (1 Cor 7:10-13). Paul even describes himself back when he was a Pharisee as being “extremely zealous” in the traditions of his fathers (Gal 1:14). Paul also had many opportunities to receive and verify tradition from leaders and members of the Jerusalem Church. In addition to his initial trip to Jerusalem, we know from his own letters and Acts that Paul spent considerable time with Barnabas and Silas (Acts 11:25-30; 12:25-16:40; 15:40-17:14; 18:5-11), leaders in the early Christian movement who were among the Jerusalem Christians. We also know that he met Peter when he visited Antioch (Gal 2:11) and that he visited Jerusalem at least two more times, one of them being to attend the first Church council of Jerusalem (Acts 11:27-30; 15:1-29 and Gal 2:1-10). Paul’s high regard for tradition and his familiarity with leaders and members of the Jerusalem church highly guarantee that the 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 tradition comes from and is in line with the Jerusalem church. As scholar Michael Licona said on Paul:
“his constant interaction with these leaders in and outside of Jerusalem coupled with his high regard for tradition virtually guarantees that the details of the traditions in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 are precisely in line with what the Jerusalem leadership was preaching”.
For all of the above reasons, it is widely held among scholars that the 1 Corinthians 15:1-7 tradition stem from the Jerusalem Church.
1 Corinthians 15:3-7 and its dating 2-3 years after the death of Jesus.
As for the dating of the 1 Corinthians 15 tradition, it is also widely held among scholars to date within 2-3 years after the death of Jesus. This 2-3 year dating period is supported by two “markers” which point towards such an early dating.
The first marker is Paul’s initial trip to Jerusalem. The reason why scholars date the 1 Corinthians 15 tradition no later than 5 years after the death of Jesus is because, as mentioned earlier, the most likely period where Paul received this tradition was when he went to Jerusalem three years after his conversion to visit Peter and gather information. As a result, the tradition must be dated before Paul’s trip to Jerusalem. Assuming the majority view that Jesus died in 30 AD and that Paul converted in 32 or 33 AD, Paul’s trip to Jerusalem would be placed, at the latest, at 36 AD. Since the tradition must have been in circulation prior to Paul’s trip to Jerusalem, 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 must date within 5 years after the death of Jesus. It must also be noted that if Paul did not receive the tradition during his initial trip to Jerusalem, as held by the vast majority of scholars, then the next likely place where he received the tradition would be immediately after his conversion experience in Damascus, 2-3 years after the death of Jesus (even earlier!).
The second marker is Paul’s conversion. The reason why the 1 Corinthians 15 tradition dates within 2-3 years after the death of Jesus is because Jesus’ post mortem appearances had already taken root in the Christian community by the time Paul converted in 32 or 33 AD. This is precisely why Paul was persecuting the early Christian movement, their proclamation of a risen Christ. As stated by agnostic scholar and co-founder of the radical Jesus seminar Robert Funk:
“The conviction that Jesus had risen from the dead had already taken root by the time Paul was converted about 33 C.E. On the assumption that Jesus died about 30 C.E., the time for development was thus two or three years at most”.
As a result, the 1 Corinthians 15 tradition must be dated prior to Paul’s conversion — within 2-3 years after the death of Jesus. Furthermore, according to the New Testament texts, Jesus’ post mortem appearances took place over a period of forty days almost immediately after his death, with the exception of Jesus’ appearance to Paul, which is the only appearance to take place outside of and after this period. This would make Jesus’ appearance to Paul the last. It is no surprise then that after Paul conveys the 1 Corinthians 15 tradition, he ends by mentioning Jesus’ appearance to him saying: “Last of all, as to one untimely born…”, indicating that Jesus’ appearance to him followed all others. In the end, the evidence firmly points towards the elements in the 1 Corinthians 15 tradition dating within 2-3 years after the death of Jesus. As stated by prominent atheist scholar Gerd Ludemann:
“the elements in the tradition are to be dated to the first two years after the crucifixion of Jesus…not later than three years…the formation of the appearance traditions mentioned in 1 Cor.15.3-8 falls into the time between 30 and 33 CE”.
1 Corinthians 15:3-7 — conveyed by Paul
The value of the 1 Corinthians 15 tradition is further enhanced by the fact that it comes to us from Paul, who personally knew other eyewitnesses and was deep within the Christian movement. This means that Paul had the opportunity to verify these traditions and learn more about the events behind them.
Related to this point of Paul knowing other eyewitnesses and being deep within the Christian movement is Paul’s knowledge of most of the 500 brothers who had witnessed Jesus appear to them on one occasion in 1 Corinthians 15:6, as still being alive some 25 years after the supposed event (1 Corinthians was written between 53-57 A.D.). As Paul himself comments: “…most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep”. As scholar Richard Bauckham notes:
“The explicitness of this detail — which looks like one that Paul has added to the traditional form — shows that he intends it to be a kind of authentication: if anyone wishes to check this tradition, a very large number of eyewitnesses are still alive and can be seen and heard”.
Scholar C.H. Dodd similarly comments:
“There can hardly be any purpose in mentioning the fact [that most of the 500 are still alive] unless Paul is saying, in effect, ‘The witnesses are there to be questioned”.
In addition to Paul’s use of an authentication, Paul knowing that most of the 500 brothers are still alive is also an example of “in-group knowledge”, or knowledge that is known to members of a group. A good analogy of this would be a young professional several years out of college knowing that most of his batchmates have gotten married, though some still have not gotten married. The young professional is aware of this information because he is in touch with his high school batch and everyone in the group is interested in such information (it is a subject of importance and relevance to the group). If a member in the batch proposes or is proposed to, information of that proposal will spread within the group. Similarly, when the marriage actually happens, knowledge of this information will spread within the group as well. In the same way that this young professional knows how many of his batchmates are married and not married, Paul knew that most of the 500 brothers who had seen the risen Jesus on one occasion, were still alive some 25 years later — due to his being a member of the Christian movement. The subject of how many eyewitnesses to Jesus’ resurrection were still alive was an important subject within the early Church not only because they knew each other in friendship, but also because the death of eyewitnesses had important implications for the early Church. It meant, particularly, a decrease in capacity to provide firsthand testimony about Jesus and his resurrection, and also, an increase in urgency to put into writing what they knew about him.
Conclusion on 1 Corinthians 15:3-7
In conclusion, the strength of the 1 Corinthians 15 tradition — its Jerusalem origin, its 2-3 year dating after the death of Jesus, and the fact that it comes to us from Paul, an individual who knew other eyewitnesses and was deep within the Christian movement — is very impressive. As leading scholar N.T. Wright put it, 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 is ”the kind of foundation-story with which a community is not at liberty to tamper”. It is “unalterable Christian bedrock”.
The appearances in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7
According to the 1 Corinthians 15 tradition, Jesus appeared to many people, as individuals and in groups.
He appeared to Cephas. In addition to being mentioned in the 1 Corinthians 15 tradition, the appearance to Cephas (or Peter), is also mentioned in a tradition embedded in the account of Jesus’ appearance to two disciples on the road to Emmaus — Luke 24:34 — “The Lord has really risen, and has appeared to Simon!” (Jesus renamed Simon name to Peter, see Matt 16:17-19). It is also vouched for by Paul himself, who personally met Peter and stayed with him for over two weeks.
Then to the Twelve. This refers to the original group of 12 disciples who had been chosen by Jesus during his ministry minus Judas, whose death did not affect the group’s formal title. Besides being mentioned in the 1 Corinthians 15 tradition, this group appearance is also attested to in the gospels of Luke and John (Luke 24:36-42 and John 20:19-20). It is also vouched for by Paul, who had personal contact with at least some members of the Twelve (e.g. Peter and John) as he himself states in Galatians 1:18 and Galatians 2:9.
Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time. In addition to being mentioned in the 1 Corinthians 15 tradition,this appearance to an impressive group of people is vouched for by Paul who knew other eyewitnesses and was deep within the Christian movement. As mentioned earlier, Paul’s comment on the tradition, “most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep”, serves to underscore its reliability and is also a display of “in-group knowledge”.
Then he appeared to James. This is one of the most amazing appearances of all. What makes this appearance so amazing is that James and the other brothers of Jesus (cousins, see footnote 29) were skeptical of Jesus and his ministry (Mark 3:20-34, Mark 6:1-4 and John 7:2-9). As stated succinctly in John 7:5: “For even his own brothers did not believe in him”. This strongly satisfies one particular criterion of historicity — the criterion of embarrassment. The accounts in Mark and John of Jesus’ own brothers not believing in him are embarrassing details that are not flattering to Jesus. As a result, the likelihood of their historicity is high. In any case, after the resurrection, we see James suddenly assuming a key role in the early Church, as leader of the church in Jerusalem (Acts 21:18). Paul also notes James’ importance in the Church in his letters, saying that he is one of the “three pillars” of the Jerusalem church (Gal 2:9).
Paul’s mention of Jesus’ brothers in 1 Corinthians 9:5 also suggests that at least some of Jesus’ brothers (and at most, all of them) became believers. Jesus’ brothers in general are also mentioned in Acts 1:12-14 as being found praying with the apostles and other followers of Jesus after the resurrection. Outside of the New Testament, we also have testimony from two early Church fathers, Hegesippus and Eusebius, that two other brothers of Jesus, Simon and Judas (who are mentioned in Mark 6:1-3), became Christians. As a result, we have strong evidence for the conversion of James and at least some of Jesus’ other brothers from skeptics to followers of Jesus.
In closing, the appearance to James, in addition to being mentioned in the 1 Corinthians 15 tradition, is also vouched by Paul who met James personally. For the above reasons, the majority of scholars recognize the historicity of the appearance to and conversion of James.
Then to all the apostles. This refers to an appearance or a series of appearances to a wider group of Jesus’ followers beyond the Twelve. Once again, this appearance is vouched for by Paul who was deep within the Christian movement and knew many of its leaders and members. This appearance may be attested to wholly — in the case of Luke 24:50-51 and Acts 1:1-10 — or partially, in a number of the appearance traditions in the gospels and Acts (that is, overlapping).
1 Corinthians 15:8 — Jesus’ appearance to Paul
Like the appearance to James, the appearance to Paul is one of the most amazing appearances of all. What makes this appearance so amazing is that Paul, a devout Jew and respected Pharisee, was a fierce enemy of the early Church. As Paul himself admits in his letters, he strongly persecuted the early Christian movement (Galatians 1:23). Acts also recounts the first persecution of Christians by the Jews and Paul’s involvement in it (Acts 8:1-4 and Acts 9:1-2).
According to Paul, he converted to Christianity because Jesus appeared to him. As he testifies in 1 Corinthians 15:8: “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” An account of Paul’s conversion experience along the road to Damascus is also recounted in Acts (Acts 9:1-19).
Looking at the way Paul lived the rest of his life, the strength and authenticity of his faith is also evident. He left his position as a respected Jewish leader due to what he perceived to be an authentic appearance of Jesus to him, to join what was then a small, persecuted and controversial movement — early Christianity. After joining the movement, Paul would endure great suffering and persecution (1 Cor 15:30-32, 2 Cor 4:8-12; 6:3-10; 11:23-28; 12:5-10, etc), and work tirelessly to promote the gospel. Eventually, he would die a martyr’s death during the persecution of Christians by Nero in 64 A.D.
In the end, the conversion of Paul, a respected Pharisee and fierce enemy of the early church to Christianity is a historical fact that is recognized by virtually all scholars. The appearance to Paul is likewise historically undisputed.
Other appearances outside of 1 Corinthians 15:3-8
Besides the appearances mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, the gospels of Matthew, Luke and John, as well as Acts, record other appearances of Jesus to his followers. These include an appearance to women disciples (Matt 28:9 and John 20:11-17), an appearance to two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Mark 16:12 and Luke 24:13-31), an appearance to the apostles with Thomas (John 20:24-29), an appearance to the disciples on a mountain in Galilee (Mark 16:7 and Matthew 28:16), an appearance to seven disciples on the Sea of Galilee (John 21:1-13) and an appearance near Bethany prior to his assumption (Luke 24:50-51 and Acts 1:1-10). Lastly, although not an appearance account, Acts begins with a summary of what happened after Jesus’ death — that Jesus “presented himself” to his apostles, “gave [them] many convincing proofs that he was alive” and “spoke to them about the kingdom of God” — and that all of this occurred over a period of forty days (Acts 1:3).
2. The sincere belief of Jesus’ disciples
Jesus’ disciples also displayed a sincere belief in their resurrection experiences. This is evidenced by the fact that they suffered serious hardship and persecution, and in some cases, martyrdom for their beliefs. As liberal scholar E.P. Sanders put it himself, when it came to the disciples and Jesus’ resurrection: “they believed this, they lived it, and they died for it”.
When it comes to the sincere belief of Jesus’ disciples, we will examine the two persecutions experienced by the first generation of Christians (one by the Jews and another by the Romans under Nero), as well as the martyrdoms that occurred during these efforts. Afterward, we will look into the suffering the first generation of Christians endured as attested to by the apostolic and early Church fathers. Then, we will examine the hardships the first generation of Christians undertook in their tremendous missionary efforts.
Persecution by the Jews
Acts 9:1-3 mentions how the murder of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, marked the beginning of a great persecution against the early Christian movement by the Jews:
“On that day [the day Stephen was stoned] a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison”.
This persecution by the Jews was also mentioned by Paul himself, who admits his own participation in it in his letter to the Galatians:
“For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it” (Gal 1:13).
As a result of this persecution, the early Christian movement suffered greatly.
Acts mentions how the apostles of Jesus were persecuted (e.g. beaten, flogged, imprisoned, driven out of towns, etc) for preaching a resurrected Christ (Acts 4:1-3; 5:33-42; 13:48-51; 14:19-20, etc) — a message that was met with strong hostility and controversy by many Jews. Ironically, after converting to Christianity, Paul would become subject to persecution from his fellow Jews as well, and in his letters, he would recount the sufferings he endured (2 Cor 11:24-31). Lastly, we also have testimony from Josephus, Hegesippus and Clement of Alexandria that James the brother of Jesus and leader of the Jerusalem church, was martyred by the Sanhedrin.
Persecution under Nero
Then, three decades after the persecution of Christians by the Jews began, Emperor Nero led another terrible persecution against the early Christian movement, blaming them for a fire that broke out in Rome. As Roman senator and historian Tacitus reports in his Annals:
Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations [cannibalism for the eucharist and incest for the practice of calling fellow Christians “brothers and sisters in Christ”], called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name has its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired (Annals, XV.44).
This brutal persecution of Christians by Nero resulted in the martyrdoms of Peter and Paul, as recorded by several Christian writers — Clement of Rome, Dionysius of Corinth, Tertullian and Origen.
Apostolic and early Church fathers: the hardships and suffering of Jesus’ disciples
Having discussed so far the persecutions of Christians by the Jews and by the Romans under Emperor Nero, let us now examine writings from the apostolic and early church fathers on the suffering the first generation of Christians experienced.
Clement (ca. 30-100), the bishop of Rome and a second generation Christian who knew the apostles (he was even ordained by Peter), reports the sufferings Peter and Paul endured in their lives, as well as their martyrdoms:
“[L]et us take the noble examples of our own generation. Through jealousy and envy the greatest and most righteous pillars of the Church were persecuted and contended unto death. Let us set before our eyes the good apostles: Peter, who because of unrighteous jealousy suffered not one or two but many trials, and having thus given his testimony went to the glorious place which was his due. Through jealousy and strife Paul showed the way to the prize of endurance; seven times he was in bonds, he was exiled, he was stoned, he was a herald both in the East and in the West, he gained the noble fame of his faith, he taught righteousness to all the world, and when he had reached the limits of the West he gave his testimony before the rulers, and thus passed from the world and was taken up into the Holy Place, the greatest example of endurance”.
Polycarp (ca. 69-155), the bishop of Turkey and a second generation Christian who was instructed by the apostles as well, urges the Philippian church in a letter to practice “unlimited endurance”, as the Christians before (e.g. Paul, the apostles, and others) and among them have exercised:
Let us, therefore, become imitators of his (Jesus’) patient endurance, and if we should suffer for the sake of his name, let us glorify him. For this is the example he set for us in his own person, and this is what we have believed.
I urge all of you, therefore, to obey the teaching about righteousness and to exercise unlimited endurance, like that which you saw with your own eyes not only in the blessed Ignatius and Zosimus and Rufus but also in others from your congregation and in Paul himself and the rest of the apostles. Be assured that all these did not run in vain but with faith and righteousness, and that they are now in the place due them with the Lord, with whom they also suffered. For they did not love the present world but the one who died on our behalf and was raised by God for our sakes.
Ignatius (ca. 35-108 AD), bishop of Antioch and a second generation Christian, also notes that the disciples of Jesus did not fear death as a result of their resurrection experiences. As he says in his letter to the church in Turkey (where Polycarp was bishop):
“And when [Jesus] came to those with Peter, he said to them: ‘Take, handle me and see that I am not a bodiless demon’. And immediately they handled him and believed, having known his flesh and blood. Because of this they also despised death [like Jesus did]; but beyond death they were found”.
As scholar Gary Habermas notes, the Greek word for “despised” which Ignatius uses above is better translated as “cared nothing for” or “disregarded”.
It is also worth noting (since they are mentioned already) that the two individuals just quoted above, Polycarp and Ignatius, were themselves martyred during the third persecution of Christians by Rome under Emperor Trajan. Ignatius’ above-quoted letter to the church in Turkey was written, literally, en route to his martyrdom in Rome. Although neither Polycarp nor Ignatius are first generation Christians (they are second generation Christians), the strength of their convictions reflects well on the witness of the first generation of Christians who preceded them in terms of the testimony that they gave and the way that they lived their life.
Origen (ca. 184-253 AD), an early church father, also notes in his Contra Celsum the danger the disciples assumed in preaching the gospel and their fearless disposition in doing so:
“But clear and unmistakable proof of the fact I hold to be the undertaking of His disciples, who devoted themselves to the teaching of a doctrine which was attended with danger to human life…[the disciples] not only prepared others to despise death, but were themselves the first to manifest their disregard for its terrors”.
Origen, later in the same work, also notes:
“Jesus, who has both once risen Himself, and led His disciples to believe in His resurrection and so thoroughly persuaded them of its truth, that they show to all men by their sufferings how they are able to laugh at all the troubles of life, beholding the life eternal and the resurrection clearly demonstrated to them in both word and deed”.
In the end, the disciples publicly proclaimed a risen Christ, despite the danger and suffering it entailed for themselves. This is very strong evidence that they genuinely believed that Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to them. As stated by scholar Licona:
“After Jesus’ death, the disciples endured persecution, and a number of them experienced martyrdom. The strength of their conviction indicates that they were not just claiming Jesus had appeared to them after rising from the dead. They really believed it. They willingly endangered themselves by publicly proclaiming the risen Christ.”
Tremendous missionary efforts
In addition to the persecution experienced by Jesus’ disciples as a result of their missionary efforts, they also spent tremendous amounts of effort in propagating the gospel. The esteemed academician Fr. Robert Spitzer S.J. noted the impressiveness of the early Church in this regard:
“[after the death of Jesus] the early Church organized herself into a missionary community that not only went beyond the boundaries of Israel but also to the very frontiers of the Roman Empire…With a crucified Messiah as her head, the early Church formed one of the most dynamically expansive communities in history”.
Looking at Paul and his letters, for example, we know that his missionary journeys took him to portions of the Middle East, Europe and Asia. This exemplifies how seriously the early church took its missionary work, at a time where traveling was much more arduous and dangerous than it is today too. As a result of these missionary efforts, Christianity grew “rapidly”.
From the point of view of a Christian believer, the tremendous missionary efforts of the disciples also call to mind the Great Commission, where Jesus, in an appearance to the Eleven in Galilee, calls them to spread the gospel to “all nations” (Matt 28:16-20).
3. Paul’s exposition on the resurrection: 1 Corinthians 15
In addition to discussing Jesus’ post mortem appearances and the sincere belief of Jesus’ apostles, let us examine the exposition Paul puts forward in 1 Corinthians 15, in order to stress the reality of the resurrection to the Christians at Corinth. In doing so, Paul also shows that he and the apostles are sincere and trustworthy witnesses.
“If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God because we testified of God that he raised Christ…
If the dead are not raised at all…why am I in peril every hour? I protest, brethren, by my pride in you which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die every day! … If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die”. (1 Corinthians 15:14-15; 30)
The most trustworthy witness, as dictated by law and common sense, is one who has nothing to gain and everything to lose. In the above verses, Paul shows that he and the apostles are credible witnesses of this sort.
First, Paul says that if Christ had not been raised, then his preaching and those of the apostles are in vain. That is to say that all of their missionary efforts would be worthless. Likewise, if Christ had not been raised, Paul also says that the faith of their Christian audience would also be worthless. In the end, Paul is saying that if Christ has not been raised then “all of this” would be “a big waste of time”.
Second, and even worse, Paul says that if Christ had not been raised, then he and the apostles would be guilty of misrepresenting God. Assuming deliberate misrepresentation, they would be guilty of a lie of such immense gravity, saying that God raised Jesus from the dead when He did not do so, that it would make any earnest Jew tremble — not only out of love for not wanting to offend God but also out of fear of His judgment, and the serious jeopardy it would put one’s salvation in. Assuming non-deliberate misrepresentation, they would still be making a grave mistake, spreading falsehood about Jesus and God and leading others into serious religious error.
Third, Paul also asks why he and the apostles (who are in the same situation as he is) would expose themselves to so much danger just to proclaim the gospel — if Christ had not been raised? Why would they proclaim a risen Christ when doing so opened one up to persecution and controversy? Why would they travel great distances with all the risks and dangers it entailed? As Paul said, his proclaiming a risen Christ put him constantly in danger — “I am in peril every hour”.
In laying out the above arguments, Paul shows that his testimony and those of the apostles are true and genuine. Why, after all, would they be testifying that Christ had risen if they had nothing to gain and everything to lose by doing so? The resurrection really did happen, and this is what Paul is trying to get across.
Conclusion: the sincere belief of the disciples in Jesus’ post-mortem appearances
For all of the above reasons (the evidence for Jesus’ post-mortem appearances, the disciple’s sincere belief in them and Paul’s exposition), that the disciples of Jesus had experiences that convinced them that the risen Jesus had appeared to them is recognized by virtually all scholars. As atheist scholar Bart Ehrman states:
“It is undisputable that some of the followers of Jesus came to think that he had been raised from the dead, and that something had to have happened to make them think so. Our earliest records are consistent on this point, and I think they provide us with the historically reliable information in one key aspect: the disciples’ belief in the resurrection was based on visionary experiences”.
Atheist scholar Gerd Ludemann also comments:
“It may be taken as historically certain that the disciples had experiences after Jesus’ death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ”.
Liberal scholar E.P. Sanders also notes:
“That Jesus’ followers (and later Paul) had resurrection experiences is, in my judgment, a fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know”.
Liberal Jewish scholar Paula Fredrickson comments:
“I know in their own terms what they saw was the raised Jesus. That’s what they say and then all the historic evidence we have afterwards attest to their conviction that that’s what they saw. I’m not saying that they really did see the raised Jesus. I wasn’t there. I don’t know what they saw. But I do know that as a historian that they must have seen something”.
In his conversion account in “Faith and Reason: Philosophers Explain Their Turn to Catholicism”, Edward Feser states that the historical evidence for the resurrection, particularly as presented by Christian philosopher William Lane Craig, played a significant role in his conversion to Christianity.
Allister McGrath, in an article in Christianity Today, noted the same: “My early concern was to get straight what Christians believed, and why they believed it. How does the Resurrection fit into the web of Christian beliefs? How does it fit into the overall scheme of the Christian faith? After several years of wrestling with these issues, I came down firmly on the side of Christian orthodoxy. I became, and remain, a dedicated and convinced defender of traditional Christian theology. Having persuaded myself of its merits, I was more than happy to try to persuade others as well” (The Resurrection: A Bridge Between Two Worlds, par. 8).
Lapide, The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish Perspective.
Flew and Varghese, “There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind”, pgs. 185–186
Habermas, “My Pilgrimage from Atheism to Theism: An Exclusive Interview with Former British Atheist Professor Antony Flew” (2004).
Josephus mentions Jesus’ crucifixion in his Antiquities of the Jews XVIII.3.4: “Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, for he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. And when Pilate at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day”.
Tacitus’ also mentions Jesus’ crucifixion in his Annals XV.44: “Consequently, to get rid of the report [the rumor among the Roman population that the great fire in Rome was ordered by Nero so that he could rebuild the city to his liking], Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judæa, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular”.
Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, pg. 145
“I reiterate that historians may conclude that subsequent to Jesus’ execution, a number of his followers had experiences, in individual and group settings, that convinced them Jesus had risen from the dead and had appeared to them in some manner. This conclusion is granted by nearly unanimous consensus of modern scholars and may therefore be added to our ‘historical bedrock” (Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus, A New Historiographical Approach, pg. 372).
It is interesting to note that the post-mortem appearances of Jesus combine prosaic and supernatural elements. For example, Jesus eats a fish and has long conversations with his disciples and so is clearly present in the physical and ordinary way. However, at the same time, Jesus also freely appears in locked rooms. In addition to this, the disciples also noticed something different about Jesus. This is why in a number of the appearance traditions, the gospel authors note that the disciples did not recognize Jesus immediately (Lk 24:28-32, Jn 20:14-16 and Jn 21:4-8). That Jesus was somehow different was again observed by his disciples in In John 21:12, though they struggled to express this difference “None of them dared ask, Who are you? They knew it was the Lord”. Commenting on this passage, scholar Wright says that it “only makes sense if Jesus is, as well as the same, somehow different…Somehow he had passed through death and into a strange new world where nobody had ever been before…His body was no longer subject to decay and death. What might that have been like?” (John for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 11-21, pg. 161). Wright suggests that while the resurrection body of Jesus was unquestionably physical we must also think of it as being, in some obscure way, transphysical.
Mark ends abruptly with the discovery of the empty tomb by women disciples. However, an appearance of Jesus is mentioned as a future event in Mark 16:7. If one were to include this, the post-mortem appearances would be attested to in all 4 gospels.
“The vocabulary of handing on a receiving was used in the ancient world by philosophical schools…and rabbinic circles to designate important traditions that were carefully passed down from teacher to student” (Meier, The Circle of the Twelve: Did It Exist during Jesus’ Public Ministry?).
Earlier in 1 Corinthians, Paul also uses the same vocabulary in conveying the Last Supper tradition. As he states in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26: “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread,and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes”.
As stated by esteemed scholar Larry Hurtado: “It is widely accepted, however, that the tradition Paul recites in 15:1-7 must go back to the Jerusalem Church” (Lord Jesus Christ, pg. 168).
Licona,The Resurrection of Jesus, A New Historiographical Approach, pg. 318.
Kirk MacGregor, “1 Corinthians 15:3B-6A, 7 And The Bodily Resurrection of Jesus” (2006).
Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus, A New Historiographical Approach, pg. 319: “Differences of opinion also exist over whether 15:5b-7 is part of the same tradition or that Paul has combined two or more traditions”.
MacGregor, “1 Corinthians 15:3B-6A, 7 And The Bodily Resurrection of Jesus” (2006).
Turner in his paper, “An Analysis of the Pre-Pauline Creed in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11”, notes that most scholars hold that Paul received the tradition in Jerusalem. To illustrate how widely held this position is, even atheist scholar John Dominic Crossan (who has a reputation for being radical) affirms this: “Paul wrote to the Corinthians from Ephesus in the early 50s C.E. But he says in 1 Corinthians 15:3 that ‘I handed on to you as of first importance which I in turn received.’ The most likely source and time for his reception of that tradition would have been Jerusalem in the early 30s when, according to Galatians 1:18, he went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas [Peter] and stayed with him fifteen days” (Crossan, Excavating Jesus: Beneath the Stones, Behind the Texts, pg. 254).
Licona speculates what probably occurred to Paul after his conversion: “Paul’s conversion experience had turned his world down. He was now convinced he had experienced a personal encounter with the risen Christ, and it now forced him to rethink everything he had learned and thought about the Messiah, Jewish praxis, and theological matters including atonement, the kingdom of God, eschatology and even the nature of God. He had spoken about his new views of Jesus in the synagogues and debated with his Jewish countrymen [at Damascus after his conversion as stated in Acts]. But Paul had much work ahead of him. He would study these matters through an intensive examination of the Scriptures in order to make sense of what he now regarded as reality. Emerging from his three-year sabbatical in Arabia, we can imagine Paul wanting to complete his task by interviewing one or more of the people who had traveled with Jesus. There were no better sources for Paul than the Jerusalem apostles. There he would talk with Peter and learn about Jesus’ teachings. He would ask him what it was like to travel with Jesus. He would have the heavy theological discussions he so much valued during which he would share and hone his findings. This, I admit, is mere speculation. However, from what we appear to know about Paul, it may not be very far from what actually occurred” (The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, pgs. 230-231).
Kirk MacGregor, “1 Corinthians 15:3B-6A, 7 And The Bodily Resurrection of Jesus” (2006).
Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, pg. 232
On the issue of 1 Corinthians 15:1-7 being dated within 2-3 years after the death of Jesus, scholar Michael Licona surveys scholarly opinions on the matter in his book, “The Resurrection of Jesus A New Historiographical Approach” (pg. ). He finds that most scholars date 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 within 2-3 years after the death of Jesus. Impressively, those who affirmed a 2-3 year dating included Robert Funk and most members of the Jesus Seminar. Licona also finds that other scholars date the tradition “a few years” after the death of Jesus or within 5 years after the death of Jesus. He also notes that other scholars talk about how early the tradition is in general such as Ulrich Wilckens, who says that the tradition “indubitably goes back to the oldest phase of all in the history of primitive Christianity” or Joachim Jeremias who calls it “the earliest tradition of all”. He also mentions James Dunn, a major scholar who even dates the tradition within months after the death of Jesus. As for scholars who disagreed with a dating within 5 years after the death of Jesus, Licona only found one, Marxen, who called the tradition “ancient”.
Turner in his paper, “An Analysis of the Pre-Pauline Creed in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11”, examines the three possible locations where Paul received the 1 Corinthians 15 tradition: Damascus, Jerusalem or Antioch. He notes that Jerusalem is the most likely place where Paul received the tradition followed by Damascus, with “a number of scholars” arguing this latter position. As for Antioch being the location, 13 years after Paul’s conversion, Turner notes that only “a few scholars” would exclusively argue this position.
Hoover and the Jesus Seminar, The Acts of Jesus, pg. 466.
Ludemann, The Resurrection of Jesus, pgs. 171-172.
“The credibility of this tradition is enhanced…because in the case of Paul we have the testimony of an eye-witness who knew many of the other eyewitnesses” (Theissen and Merz, Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide, 490).
Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, pg. 308
Dodd, More New Testament Studies, pg. 128
Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, pg. 319
It is worth noting that the appearance to the Twelve is the best-attested appearance of Jesus (three independent sources: 1 Corinthians, Luke and John).
As scholar Catchpole comments, the appearance to the Twelve is “in fact the best attested to of all the appearances, and cannot be easily set aside as dependent…The appearance to the group is a central feature of early Christian resurrection claims”.
Scholar Theissen and Merz also comment: “There is no doubt that it really happened” (The Historical Jesus, pg. 496).
In ancient Aramaic, there was no distinct word for cousins or close family members, and this wider usage was common during Jesus’ time. The brothers of Jesus mentioned in the gospels were his cousins, and this is attested to by the gospels themselves and the early Church fathers. To begin our discussion, let us look into Matthew’s mention of the “brothers” and “sisters” of Jesus (though only the brothers are named) in Matthew 13:53-57:
When Jesus had finished these parables, he moved on from there. Coming to his hometown, he began teaching the people in their synagogue, and they were amazed. “Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers?” they asked. “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? Aren’t all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” And they took offense at him.
Matthew names James, Joseph, Simon and Judas as Jesus’ brothers. However, the gospels also mention that two of these brothers were Jesus’ cousins. Matthew notes that James and Joseph were sons of “another Mary”, who was also present at Jesus’ entombment by Joseph of Arimathea. John identifies this Mary as “Mary the Wife of Clopas”. See the quotes below:
Many women were there [at the cross], watching from a distance. They had followed Jesus from Galilee to care for his needs. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of Zebedee’s sons (Matt 27:55-56).
Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock. He rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb and went away. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting there opposite the tomb (Matt 27:59-61).
Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene (John 19:25).
As seen in the above verses, the gospels identify two of Jesus’ brothers, James and Joseph, as sons of Mary, the wife of Clopas. Moreover, John 19:25 is further proof that the gospel writers used adelphos (brother) and adelphi (sister) broadly, because it is highly unlikely that Mary would have had another sister named Mary: “Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas…”. However, this would not be surprising if Mary were a cousin. It is also possible that “sister” may have been used because the two are (as we shall see later) sisters in law.
Outside of the New Testament we also have evidence from the early Church fathers regarding “Jesus’ brothers”, illuminating this issue further. One, Hegesippus and Eusebius attest that James and Simon (another one the 4 “brothers of Jesus” in Matt 13:53-57) were cousins of Jesus, and state that Simon was the “son of Clopas”. They also say that Simon succeeded James as leader of the Jerusalem Church because he was also a cousin of the Lord. Two, Hegesippus attests that Clopas was the brother of Joseph. This means that Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Mary the mother of James, Joseph and Simon were sisters in law. Three, Hegesippus also calls Judas (another one the 4 “brothers of Jesus” in Matt 13:53-57) a “so-called brethren” of the Lord and says that he lived a long time, surviving the Roman persecution under the reign of Domitian. See the quotes below:
“After James the Just had suffered martyrdom for the same reason as the Lord, Simeon (Simon), his cousin, the son of Clopas was appointed bishop, whom they all proposed because he was another cousin of the Lord” (Church History 4.22.4).
“After the martyrdom of James and the capture of Jerusalem which immediately followed, the story goes that those of the Apostles and of the disciples of the Lord who were still alive came together from every place with those who were, humanly speaking, of the family of the Lord, for many of them were then still alive, and they all took counsel together as to whom they ought to adjudge worthy to succeed James, and all unanimously decided that Simeon, son of Clopas, whom the scripture of the Gospel also mentions, was worthy of the throne of the diocese there. He was, so it is said, a cousin of the Saviour, for Hegesippus relates that Clopas was the brother of Joseph” (Church History 3.11-12).
“The same writer says that other grandsons of one of the so-called brethren of the Savior named Judas survived to the same reign after they had given in the time of Domitian the testimony already recorded of them in behalf of the faith in Christ. He writes thus: “They came therefore and presided over every church as witnesses belonging to the Lord’s family…” (Church history 3.32.1-6).
In the end, the gospels and the early Church fathers identify the “brothers of Jesus”, James, Joseph, Simon and Judas as his cousins. With at least three of them — James, Simon and Joseph, as being sons of Cleopas (the brother of Joseph) and Mary.
Lastly, the fact that Jesus entrusts Mary, his mother, to John at the cross (John 19:25-27), is also evidence that he was the only child because if Jesus had siblings, then this action would have been extremely disrespectful.
See scholar Brant Pitre’s video on Youtube, The “Brothers” of Jesus: A Fresh Look at the Evidence.
See quotes by Eusebius and Hegesippus in footnote 28 above.
According to Licona, the majority of critical scholars who have commented on the appearance to and conversion of James recognize its historicity (The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, pg. 461). Licona also observes that there is “significant heterogeneity” within this group that includes “atheists, agnostics, cynics, revisionists, moderates and conservatives”. However, Licona observes that although the group of scholars who grant the historicity of James is impressive, it is also small. For this reason, Licona classifies the conversion of James as a “second-order fact”.
According to scholars, Paul’s appearance to Jesus was different from the others because it occurred after Jesus’ ascension into heaven.
“Perhaps no fact is more widely recognized than that early Christian believers had real experiences that they thought were appearances of the risen Jesus. In particular, virtually all scholars recognize Paul’s testimony that he had an experience that he believed was an appearance of the risen Jesus…” (Licona and Habermas, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, pg. 74).
Licona highlights an important point on the martyrdoms among the the apostles: “Moreover, there is an important difference between the martyred apostles and those who die for their beliefs today [e.g. muslim terrorists]. Modern martyrs act solely out of their trust in beliefs passed along to them by others. The apostles died for holding to their own testimony that they had personally seen the risen Jesus. Contemporary martyrs die for what they believe to be true. The disciples of Jesus suffered and were willing to die for what they knew to be either true or false” (The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, pg. 371).
On the issue of martyrdoms, I also want to add that Acts attests to the martyrdom of James the Greater by Herod (Acts 12:2) while Revelation mentions the martyrdom of Antipas (Rev 2:13). I could not incorporate these martyrdoms in the flow of argument earlier so I will mention them here.
Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus, pg 280.
As testified by Josephus: “Therefore, understanding the situation [that the Sadducees are tougher than other Jews in judging others] Ananas recognized an opportunity because Festus had died and [his replacement] Albinus was still on his way. He assembled the Sanhedrin of judges and brought forth James the brother of Jesus who was called Christ and some others as lawbreakers. Having accused them, he delivered them to be stoned.
Licona commenting on this says: “Josephus reports that James was executed for being a lawbreaker, this could mean that James was executed for crimes he committed such as robbery or murder. However, in the New Testament, Christians were often regarded as lawbreakers by the Jewish authorities because they were perceived as promoting ideas that were contrary to Jewish law (Acts 6:13; 18:13; 21:28). Darrel Bock asks, “What Law was it James broke, given his reputation within Christian circles as a Jewish-Christian leader who was careful about keeping the Law? It would seem likely that the Law had to relate to his christological allegiances and a charge of blasphemy. This would fit the fact that he was stoned, which was the penalty for such a crime, and parallels how Stephen was handled as well” (The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, pg. 456).
Hegesippus and Clement of Alexandria give similar testimonies (though Clement corroborates Josephus in saying that the Jews were emboldened to kill James due to the death of Festus), but quoting Hegesippus since he lived much closer to the time event:
“James, the brother of the Lord” had been known for a long time as a pious man and was highly regarded by the people. Indeed, some became Christians in spite of the Jewish authorities because of James’ testimony concerning Jesus. Therefore, many of the Jewish leaders came to James and asked him to lead the people away from Jesus. They encouraged him to stand at the temple pinnacle so that all may see and hear him, for many were present at that time celebrating the Passover. They took him to the pinnacle and asked him what he thought of Jesus. But he confessed that Jesus is the Son of Man who will come in judgment. As a result of this confession, a number believed in Christ. The Jewish leaders then threw James off the pinnacle. But James did not die from the fall. So, they began to stone him, at which point James prayed for forgiveness. Hearing Jame’s prayer, one of the priests told them to stop. But a fuller took one of his clubs and hit James in the head, killing him. James was buried on that spot. And immediately afterward, Vespasian besieged the city” (Hist. eccl. 2.23.1-18).
Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity by Everett Ferguson, pgs. 504-596.
Tertullian, Scorpiace, 15: “That Paul is beheaded has been written in their own blood. And if a heretic wishes his confidence to rest upon a public record, the archives of the empire will speak, as would the stones of Jerusalem. We read the lives of the Caesars: At Rome Nero was the first who stained the blood of the rising faith. Then is Peter girt by another, when he is made fast to the cross. Then does Paul obtain a birth suited to Roman citizenship when in Rome he springs to life again ennobled by martyrdom”.
The other attestations mentioned have been lost to history but Eusebius, who had access to these sources during his time, notes that the martyrdoms of Peter and Paul were attested to in their writings (Habermas and Licona, The Case For the Resurrection of Jesus, 59).
As early church father Irenaeus (ca. 130-202 AD) says about Clement: “Clement was allotted the bishopric. This man, as he had seen the blessed apostles, and had been conversant with them, might be said to have the preaching of the apostles still echoing, and their traditions before his eyes. Nor was he alone, for there were many still remaining who had received instructions from the apostles. In the time of this Clement, no small dissension having occurred among the brothers at Corinth, the Church in Rome dispatched a most powerful letter to the Corinthians” (Against Heresies, 3.3.3).
Tertullian (ca. 155-220 AD), another early church father, says of Clement: “For this is the manner in which the apostolic churches transmit their registers: as the church of Symrna, which records that Polycarp was placed therein by John; as also the church of Rome, which makes Clement to have been ordained in like manner by Peter” (The Prescription Against Heretics, 32).
In addition to attesting to the sufferings and martyrdoms of Peter and Paul, Clement also says in a letter to the Corinthian church, that the disciples were fully assured by Jesus’ resurrection: “Therefore, having received orders and complete certainty caused by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ and believing in the Word of God, they went with the Holy Spirit’s certainty, preaching the good news that the kingdom of God is about to come” (First Clement 42:3).
This is very valuable testimony coming from someone who personally knew the apostles. Clement’s testimony that the disciples received “complete certainty” supports the statement in Acts 1:3 that Jesus appeared to his disciples and gave “many convincing proofs that he was alive”. It also coheres with the evidence we examined for the disciples’ sincere belief in Jesus’ post-mortem appearances: the hardships and persecution they endured, and in some cases, the martyrdoms they suffered for preaching a risen Christ.
First Clement 5:2-7
Irenaeus on Polycarp: “But Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna, whom I also in my early youth, for he tarried [on earth] a very long time, and, when a very old man, gloriously and most nobly suffering martyrdom, departed this life, having always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles” (Against Heresies, 3.3.4). Take note that Irenaeus says that he met Polycarp during his youth.
Irenaeus also mentions Polycarp in a letter to Florinus, “When I was still a boy I saw you in Lower Asia with Polycarp, when you had high status at the imperial court and wanted to gain his favor. I remember events from those days more clearly than those that happened recently…so that I can even picture the place where the blessed Polycarp sat and conversed, his comings and goings, his character, his personal appearance, his discourses to the crowds, and how he reported his discussions with John and others who had seen the Lord. He recalled their very words, what they reported about the Lord and his miracles and his teaching — things that Polycarp had heard directly from eyewitnesses of the Word of life and reported in full harmony with Scripture” (Irenaeus, To Florinus, cited by fourth-century church historian Eusebius).
The early church father Tertullian also states that Polycarp was ordained by John (The Prescription Against Heretics, 32).
Polycarp, To the Philippians 9:2
Ignatius, To the Smyrnaeans 3:2
Habermas and Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, pg. 57
Habermas and Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, pg. 57
Origen, Contra Celsum, 2.56
Origen, Contra Celsum, 2.77
Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, pg. 366.
Fr. Robert Spitzer, SJ, God So Loved the World: Clues to Our Transcendent Destiny from the Revelation of Jesus, pg. 165
As scholar Williams notes after examining sources on early Christianity: “One thing on which Christian and non-Christian sources agree is the rapid growth of Christianity” (Can We Trust the Gospels?).
Ehrman, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee, pgs. 183-184.
Ludemann, What Really Happened? pg. 80
Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus.
ABC, Interview in The Search for Jesus w/ Peter Jennings (June 26, 2000)