The Bible as History and The Empty Tomb

I was asked on Friday what I thought the most compelling arguments for God to use against atheists were. I cited two: Aquinas’ First Cause argument (although upon further reflection, his First Mover argument is probably better); and the evidence from the empty Tomb.

The First Cause/First Mover line of argumentation is cosmological and deals with the origins of the universe. For certain people, it’s a very compelling argument, but for others, it’s too foreign to even grasp (we generally don’t spend much time wondering about the origin of matter, time, and space, so trying to imagining a point in which there is no “before” stretches the imagination to its limit). The empty Tomb may be the stronger argument due simply to the fact it’s easier to understand. I’ll address First Cause/Mover later. Now, let’s look at the empty Tomb argument. I’m going to do this in two parts. Today, I’ll lay the foundation, establishing the Bible’s bona fides as a worthwhile collection of historical documents.

I. Laying the Foundation: The New Testament as History

Laying the groundwork for examining the New Testament evidence is important. There are a few things to consider:

  1. The New Testament views itself as history.
  2. The Books of the New Testament date back to the mid- to late- first century.
  3. There were Christians from the mid-first century, who believed and followed Christ, and were considered a sect distinct from Judaism by no later than 70 A.D.
  4. Christianity at this time had many opponents, and many of these opponents’ accounts still survive, at least partially.

(1) The first thing to recognize is that the New Testament doesn’t view itself as a myth. That is, it’s not the authors’ intentions to tell legendary, inspiring fictional accounts. Luke begins his Gospel (Luke 1:1-4),

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.

So he’s acknowledging both that his own Gospel, and those accounts which preceeded his, strive to be historical, evidentiary, and built upon eyewitness accounts. John vouches for his own Gospel in John 19:35 by writing, “The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe.” And 2 Peter 1:16 expressly rejects the notion of religious mythos as the basis for the New Testament, saying, “We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.

It’s too much to expect an atheist to take the New Testament as inspired just because it claims to be, but it’s at least worth establishing at the outset that the authors aren’t trying to tell an interesting story, but a true one. They may be wrong, they may even be lying, but they’re not Aseop writing fables, nor are they even writing religious parables.

(2) The dating of the New Testament always involves a certain amount of guesswork. But as archeology has advanced, so too has the certainty with which we can date the Books of the Bible. And quite frankly, as the evidence improves, so too does the case for an early Biblical date. The last decade has been an enormous blessing on this front. Sir Frederic G. Kenyon, in 1912, knew of 14 ancient Biblical papyri (pages of papyrus). Today, we have 127.

The oldest of these is Rylands Papyrus 457 . It’s an early scrap of papyrus, containing a chunk of John 18:28-38, and which can be dated back to the early second century… that is, somewhere between 100-150 A.D. (I imagine that they have a narrower range than that, but I don’t know what it is). This scrap of papyrus automatically disproves, by the way, those lunatics who think John’s Gospel is a post-Nicene attempt to recreate Jesus the Man as Christ the God-Man: this page from his Gospel is probably a good two centuries or more older than the Council of Nicea. And it was found in the ruins of a town in Egypt, quite a ways from Israel. No one’s claiming that this scrap of papyrus is a first edition of John’s Gospel. So that means John’s Gospel had to be written long enough before this 100-150 A.D. date that it was accepted by Christian communities, copied, and spread to places like Egypt (and presumably, beyond).

I found a website providing a list of the various dates provided for the dating of the Books of the New Testament, a summary of various scholars’ attempts to construct an accurate historical chronology. It lists the various estimations here, and then averages them here. I don’t claim that it’s any sort of accurate methodology, but it at least provides a pretty good rough timeline for those curious. In short, there’s still controversy over a handful of the New Testament’s books, but for the Gospels and the New Testament protocanon, even the sane non-Christian scholars acknowledge that the NT is as old as it presents itself.

This is, of course, completely consistent with the internal New Testament evidence. Much of the New Testament claims to be written by eyewitnesses, as I mentioned, so to be credible, it needs to be first century. And it certainly seems to be. The authors have a mastery of Hebrew, are familiar with pre-Diaspora Jewish customs (remember, the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 A.D., yet the authors are intimately familiar with it), as well as the politics between the Romans and Jews, etc (the Zealots, a movement which was crushed entirely by 73, are referenced). The Zealots, the Sadducees, the Essenes (whose practices are referenced, and while they are never mentioned), etc,. are all Second Temple phenomena. After 70 A.D., they’re gone.

Finally, remember the Early Church Fathers. They refer to the Apostles, they quote from the New Testament, and so on. There’s a clear shared knowledge of the New Testament account, and frequently, they seem to be quoted or referencing documents, not simply a commonly-known history.

(3) Even if we didn’t have the Bible, we would know from the external accounts that there was an early Christian community. The Didache, Jewish Christian poetry, the epistle of Barnabas, and so on have all be reliably dated to the first century. The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, who died in the year 100 A.D., finds the Christians notable enough to include in his Jewish history: the quotes about Christians we have today have almost certainly been tampered. His original assessment of Jesus was apparently negative, and some scribes “fixed” it to read like a Christian, rather than a Jew, wrote it. Special no thanks for that forgery. Still, whatever it was he originally wrote, there’s no real question that he wrote something about the Christians, meaning that they were noteworthy. Accounts of the First Jewish-Roman War (66-70 A.D.) mention the role played by Christians.

So there’s no serious question that from the early to mid-first century onwards, there are Christians, both in Jerusalem and throughout the Roman Empire. The core feature of Christianity — believing in the Resurrected Jesus Christ as Lord — is present from the very beginning, without a doubt, as numerous early documents attest. The Christian theology is already something radically different from the non-Christian Jewish theology.

(4) Finally, just remember that the first century Catholic Christian community is surrounded by much more powerful foes. Prior to 67 A.D., they’re still weaker than the Jewish establishment in Jerusalem, a fact which John 20:19 references. Both the Jews and the Christians are at the mercy of the oft-brutal Romans. And the Catholic Christians are now dealing with heretics like the Gnostics who purport to be the “true” Christians. It’s St. Ignatius of Antioch, who was martyred in 110 A.D., who first used the term Catholic to distinguish the Church from heretical imposters — the fact that he needed to so quickly is significant.

Meanwhile, the Christians proclaim Jesus as God, King, and Messiah. The first of these was an awful scandal to non-Christian Judaism, since it reeked of blasphemy to them. The second was an affront to the divine supremacy of the Roman Emperor. And the third claim managed to upset both Jews and Romans. This found them, as the Book of Acts reports, frequently in trouble with both Jewish and Roman authorities.

II. What This Means

Now, none of the above four claims are very controversial. A couple of them are denied, but not credibly. The weight of evidence in favor of all four is pretty overwhelming. The reason that this groundwork is so important is that it means that the Books of the New Testament are historical Documents, recounting very recent history. The Documents are embraced as inspired by the Holy Spirit by the Christian communities, and are examined rigorously (you should read some of the debates on canonicity: they paid very close attention to detail). If the authors are simply making up history, they’d be refuted almost immediately. The movement simply wouldn’t have caught on.

For example, in Acts 2, St. Luke writes that St. Peter stood up i Jerusalem on Pentecost, a mere fifty days after the Resurrection, and proclaimed the Death and Resurrection of Christ, to an almost completely Jewish audience (assembled for the Jewish Feast of First Fruits). He says in Acts 2:22-24,

You who are Israelites, hear these words. Jesus the Nazorean was a man commended to you by God with mighty deeds, wonders, and signs, which God worked through him in your midst, as you yourselves know. This man, delivered up by the set plan and foreknowledge of God, you killed, using lawless men to crucify him. But God raised him up, releasing him from the throes of death, because it was impossible for him to be held by it.

He then contrasts Jesus to King David, of whom he says in Acts 2:29, “My brothers, one can confidently say to you about the patriarch David that he died and was buried, and his tomb is in our midst to this day. ” And going further, he says in Acts 2:32, “God raised this Jesus; of this we are all witnesses. ” So Peter is saying, in Jerusalem to the Jews, that Jesus is greater than King David (and is David’s Lord, see Acts 2:34-35), and that we know this in part because Jesus, unlike David, was Resurrected. And that Peter and those with him were eyewitnesses. There are three possibilities which I see:

  1. Luke is making the story of Peter’s Sermon up.

    Luke is the one who I noted above describes himself as a painstaking research, relying upon eyewitness accounts (Luke 1:1-4). He’s not just adding flowery details. He’s either lying, or he’s actually got evidence to prove this. And it’s incredibly unlikely he was lying. He’s describing Pentecost, the day on which Jerusalem became aware of the previously-timid Church. It’s often celebrated as a birthday of sorts for the Church, and it was an important day from the start. It also occurred on a previously existing religious feast, so people could easily remember where they were on Pentecost. Certain days have been seared into our collective memories: usually negative ones, like 9/11/01, or December 7, 1941, or the day Kennedy was shot. For Christians, Pentecost was that, but as a postive: it was the day Christianity suddenly caught Fire, and added thousands of new members in a day, due to the Holy Spirit.

    For many of them, “where they were” was on the way to the Temple in Jerusalem. So Luke is describing an event which literally thousands of Christians living at the time of Luke witnessed. Luke acknowledges that there were 3000 present for the speech who were Baptized (Acts 2:41), and that just includes “those who accepted his message.” Now Peter’s message included accusing his listeners of killing Jesus, and referring to the Romans as “lawless men,” so I’ll venture that many people weren’t immediately enthusiastic about what he was saying. Also, all of them were observant Jews, in town to celebrate a Jewish religious feast, and this is a street preacher proclaiming what seems like blasphemy. So thousands of eyewitnesses, Christians, Jews and pagans, experienced the event Luke is describing, and it happened on a major feast in the central city of Judaism.

    Finally, Luke is describing some pretty memorable stuff, like speaking in tongues, and a public rebuke of both Jewish and Roman passerby.

    This would, in other words, be almost impossible to make up. And had he tried to, thousands of then-living people would have called his bluff. Even other Christians would have rejected the Book of Acts (as they did the numerous phony books), since they’d be able to remember their own experience on that day, or the dozens of accounts they’d almost certainly heard prior to Luke’s.

  2. Peter is making the story of the Resurrection up.

    Peter’s describing an Empty Tomb some seven and a half weeks after the Death of Christ. This isn’t the first time that the Empty Tomb has been mentioned (more on that tomorrow), but it is one of the most prominent mentions. If Jesus’ Body is in the Tomb, He’d be an easy Person to track down. We even know the name of the person who owned the Tomb in which He was laid. All four Gospels mention it: Joseph of Arimathea (Matthew 27:57, Mark 15:43, Luke 23:50, John 19:38). So if you couldn’t find the Empty Tomb on your own, just find Joseph of Arimathea, who Mark 15:43 describes as a “prominent member” of the Sanhedrin. In other words, an easy guy to find in Jerusalem, where the Sanhedrin sat. But Joseph of Arimathea wasn’t the only one who knew where the Tomb was. So did the Roman soldiers who were guarding the Tomb. In fact, the Tomb’s being empty would have been career suicide (since it made them seemingly the worst guards in the world, because they couldn’t stop a dead Body from coming to life and leaving), so they had everything to gain from proving that the Tomb was quite occupied. They didn’t. We know they didn’t, because Christianity continued.
  3. The Tomb is Empty.

    This is the obvious answer, and I’ll go so far as to say that it’s the only realistic answer. This doesn’t automatically prove Jesus is Lord, but it certainly closes the gap quite quickly. It’ll remain for tomorrow to discuss some of the other possibilities about why the Tomb might be empty, but for now, just remember that the Disciples don’t just claim to have seen an Empty Tomb, but a Risen Christ. And we know that the rest of their testimony (about the Tomb, at least) is true.

More tomorrow! Enjoy!

Edit: A day late, but here’s part 2!

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