In my last post I observed that because the claim that Christ rose from the dead is extraordinary, it calls for an extraordinary level of evidence. I noted that the Bible contains both eyewitness and forensic evidence. In this post we begin to work with the eyewitness evidence.
People don’t always tell the truth. Sometimes they lie, and sometimes they’re just mistaken. (Just think of all your Facebook friends who regularly post things you know to be flatly untrue—and they really believe the nonsense. And think of how many of them are professing Christians.) Because the legal system knows of this problem, it has instituted requirements for witnesses, to weed out the crooks and the well-intentioned bozos:
- Witnesses must be competent.
That is, they must have actually seen something. “My brother told me that he saw … “ will get a witness thrown out on the basis of a sustained objection to hearsay. We have no time for people just passing along stories they’ve heard. What have you seen?
The biblical record includes witnesses like that—people who saw and heard the resurrected Christ. Eyewitnesses like Mary, who initially thought that Jesus was the gardener but realized during the ensuing conversation that he was the one she had known so well (Jn 20.11-18). And his eleven disciples, who had lived with him for three years and knew him intimately, and who actually sat and ate with him at least twice after the resurrection (Lk 24.33-43; Jn 21.1-14), and likely a lot more than that (Ac 1.1-3). And James (1Co 15.7), his next-younger brother (Mt 13.55), who had not believed in him during his earthly ministry (Jn 7.5).
These are competent eyewitnesses. They’ve seen, and they know what they’ve seen.
Are there other explanations for what they’ve seen? Anything other than a resurrection?
Well, it couldn’t be a case of mistaken identity; these witness knew Jesus well and interacted with him extensively during the 40 days after the resurrection.
And despite lots of frantic theories, there’s no evidence that Jesus had a twin brother—especially since his birth is described in great detail (Mt 1-2; Lk 1-2) without any mention of a twin. Now you’re just getting desperate.
Further, these eyewitnesses rule out the most obvious counter-explanation—that the resurrection is just a myth, a natural consequence of stories accreting unlikely details over time, like the fish that gets bigger every time the fisherman describes him.
How do these witnesses rule out the myth theory?
Well, they stood together, made the claim, and identified themselves publically as eyewitnesses less than 2 months after the event (Ac 2.32), in the very city where it allegedly happened, and no one—including a lot of influential and empowered people who wanted desperately to put the kibosh on the whole thing (Ac 4.6-7, 15-18)—was able to refute their story. That’s not how myths develop; they don’t spring up immediately, when opposing eyewitnesses would be available to serve as first-century mythbusters. The silence is deafening.
Now, if you’re thinking objectively, you’ve probably thought of a weakness with what I’ve done here.
How do we know about these eyewitnesses? From the Bible. And how do we know the account is true? How do we really know there were any witnesses at all?
Good question. I’m glad you’re thinking in an engaged way. (Teachers love it when students do that.)
That’s a big-boy question, and it requires a big-boy answer, not one you can present in a blog post or two. In short, I find the Scripture to be reliable on the basis of a great number of evidences and in the absence of any credible exclusionary evidence. I’ve laid out my thinking in that regard in a previous series of posts, but even those posts barely scratch the surface. I can recommend all kinds of books—big, thick, sometimes but not always dry and dusty books. Let me know if you want a list.
Next time, we’ll look at the second qualification for an eyewitness. And maybe a third, depending on how verbose I get.