by Gary R. Habermas
During my several decades of specializing in studies regarding the resurrection of Jesus, many theological and philosophical trends have come and g one. Why broad changes take place is any field of study is an intriguing study in itself, though h this is not the
emphasis of this essay. Rather, in this article, we will demarcate a half dozen new “resurrection-conducive emphases” that have emerged fairly recently, most of which have contributed to the more positive, scholarly assessment of this e vent.
To begin with a couple of examples from personal experience, while attending graduate school in the early 1970s, if a classmate believed in the empty tomb and/or bodily appearances of Jesus, that individual could not only be numbered among a small minority of researchers, but could often be identified as either an evangelical or a conservative Catholic. On the other hand, not too many years later, both views now seem to be the majority stances ! Did new data emerge during this time ? Did the times simply change? Perhaps neither, both, or still other reasons can best account for these shifts, but something definitely has been happening .
As noted, we will enumerate a half dozen of these new directions that have dominated research in recent years. Tog ether, the y will help to explain some of the developments throughout the current theological and philosophical terrain.
CHALLENGES TO NATURALISM
While not necessarily the case throughout the rest of the world, philosophical Naturalism has been the dominant world view expressed in western universities for quite some time. Along with this outlook there was often a disparaging of certain religious, metaphysical, or related positions, especially those that accept the reality of supernatural occurrences.
However, during the last two or three decades, both scientific and popular developments that oppose the dominant Naturalistic views have made the news frequently. Some of these include the hug e popularity of Near-Death Experiences, documentaries and videos on the intricate levels of design in nature, several detailed studies of unexplained medical healing s, at least a couple of successful double- blind prayer experiments, as well as cognitive studies dealing with what some researchers have dubbed the “God spot” in the human brain that seems to be consistent with the desire for religious experiences. As recent polls have indicated, the cumulative effect of these and other developments has been to wear down the confidence that there is no reality beyond this world.
In spite of what the y may be taught in their college classes, students today are increasingly much more religious, though not in an institutional sense. Perhaps some of this has to do with the apparent aggregate influence of these recent developments in the West, elevating the positive level of belief in supernatural or religious topics such as God’s existence, life after death, the importance of morality, prayer, worship, and at least a greater interest in the belief in miracles. In turn, these attitudes have no doubt created more of an open atmosphere when Christians have proclaimed beliefs like the resurrection.
THE THIRD QUEST FOR THE HISTORIC AL JESUS
During the early to mid-twentieth century, many of the most influential theological voices, such as Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann, frequently disparaged any interest in historical Jesus studies. Often dubbed the “No Quest” period, historical studies and especially the study of any evidences for faith were often treated with near-disgust. In the middle of the century, this negativity gave way to a more limited and short-lived movement known as the Second Quest for the Historical Jesus, largely instigated by Bultmann’s own students, who recognized that history was still a necessary cognate of faith, at least in the Judeo – Christian tradition.
Out of this milieu, the last quarter of the century witnessed the birth of the Third Quest for the Historical Jesus. Beg inning with several studies by major scholars, this movement has bloomed into the dominant topic in contemporary theological and historical studies. Engaging liberal, moderate, and conservative scholars across the board, the chief idea uniting this widespread trend is to anchor Jesus within the Jewish history, culture, and practices of his day. As was the case in the nineteenth century during the dominant reign of the First Quest for the Historical Jesus, a plethora of books have been published in recent years with the words “Historical Jesus” located somewhere in the title.
With the current emphasis on what can be known historically about Jesus’s life and teaching s, virtually no subject is off limits. Good arguments and insights get published no matter how liberal or conservative the author may be. Yet another example that tended to single out conservative graduate students in the 1970s was considering Jesus to be a miracle-worker and exorcist. Yet at present, this realization is currently conceded in some sense by virtually every scholar writing today, no matter how skeptical ! So the atmosphere is quite open to resurrection studies, as well.
THE CURRENT STATE OF GOSPEL STUDIES
While the scholarly opinion regarding the four canonical Gospels is still not close to the level of critical preference for Paul’s “authentic epistles,” there seems to be a g rowing recognition emerging , that the Gospels are at least better historical sources than was often acknowledged in earlier decades. Largely augmented by the implementation and application of the historical rules known as the critical criteria—in spite of some recent doubts concerning these—the situation beg an looking up, at least slightly.
Cambridge University scholar Richard Bauckham’s volume Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (2008) probably provided the greatest boost here, indicating that more than just American evangelicals and conservative Catholic scholars alone were involved in these sorts of historical studies. Along with Bauckham’s work is an earlier text by another British author, Richard Burridge’s What are the Gospels? (1992), which championed the argument that all four Gospels are closer to Greco -Roman biographies than previously thought, bringing these texts more into a recognizable historical setting .
Strangely enough, a hint in a different direction was contributed by a few agnostic and other wise quite skeptical New Testament commentators who have moved back the date for one or more of the Synoptic Gospels. Mark’s date of composition has been placed as far back as 40 AD or a little later, with Matthew being dated not long after ward. To be sure, these last developments are certainly minority moves, at least at present, and do not insure widespread agreement on the Gospel dates. Yet overall, the combined upshot of these developments may still portend a thaw in the treatment of the Gospels, creating an atmosphere that is even more conducive to resurrection studies.
EARLY NEW TESTAMENT CREEDS
This trend beg an a little earlier than the others, and takes a little more detail to unpack . One of the most exciting questions that can be asked regarding the embryonic church concerns the nature of the earliest apostolic preaching and teaching prior to the writing of the very first New Testament book . Our best windows into this approximately t went y-year period of time are the dozens of early creedal texts that made their way chiefly into the New Testament epistles, but which actually date from much earlier.
While not exactly synonymous terms, these creeds or traditions are generally brief saying s that were easily memorized and passed on, even in illiterate cultures. That was crucial in that it is now thought that the majority of Jesus’s listeners were probably illiterate. So these creeds served in different capacities, such as preaching and teaching , along with liturgical and confessional situations where the y could be remembered easily.
Being able to locate these passages as the y are embedded in New Testament texts comes from a variety of signs such as sentence structure, cadence, syntactical breaks, words not used elsewhere by the same author, and sometimes even a direct introductory comment that identifies these words specifically as traditions (such as used by Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:23 and 15:3).
Perhaps amazingly to some, scholars pretty much agree where these creedal texts are located. Key examples include Romans 1:3-4 and 10:9, along with 1 Corinthians 8:6 and 15:3-7. A long er text is found in Philippians 2:6-11, frequently held to be an early Christian hymn. Brief sermon summaries are located in Acts 1-5, 10, 13, and 17.
The importance of these brief reports can hardly be overestimated. Even agnostic and other skeptical New Testament scholars regularly date some of these traditional passages back into the 30s AD, often within just a year or two after the crucifixion itself ! Further, in the vast majority of cases, the subject matter of these snippets concerns the gospel message of the deity, death, and resurrection of Jesus, precisely at the center of the Christian faith.
For example, the creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 is almost always treated as being pre-Pauline, indicating that it actually predates Paul’s conversion, placing it at only one or two years after Jesus’s crucifixion. Agnostic New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman asks how we can get any closer to the eyewitnesses than this?1 Together, these items combine to provide the strong est testimony available for the resurrection appearances of Jesus. Combined with a few of the Acts sermon summaries, this is quite a powerful combination.
THE EMPTY TOMB
We have remarked that, just a few decades ago, the empty tomb was widely thought to be a legendary report and had few defenders beyond evangelical and more conservative Catholic scholars. Today it is the majority position among contemporary New Testament commentators that the tomb in which Jesus was buried was discovered empty just slightly later.
What accounts for this rather drastic scholarly shift? A large portion of the new attitude is due to the reassessment of the Gospels mentioned above. More particularly, the application of the critical criteria revealed several major considerations that favor the facility of the empty tomb. Most notably, no one attempting to tell this story later and wishing to be believed would make the women their chief witnesses, due to the low esteem in the ancient Mediterranean world for women as official witnesses. It would simply have been too embarrassing of a move.
This is especially the case when one could just as easily have written the apostles or even the Jewish leaders into the original script as the discoverers of the empty tomb. Further, the fact that four out of four Gospel authors took the same route is absolutely unfathomable! In fact, most researchers conclude that it can basically signify only one thing: the authors told the story that way because that is exactly what happened!
As a result, this insight provided by the fact of the female testimony became one of the chief reasons why most scholars have come to recognize the strength of the empty tomb accounts. But even beyond this case of embarrassment, there are many additional critical pointers to the historicity of the empty tomb that have also emerged from the application of these critical rules along with other factors.2Similar sorts of reasons also have been recognized on behalf of Jesus’s resurrection appearances.3
THE BODILY NATURE OF JESUS’S RESURRECTION APPEARANCES
The other example mentioned earlier was that of Jesus’s bodily appearances. A few decades ago, perhaps the most popular view among critical scholars was that Jesus really rose from the dead and actually appeared to his followers, though he did so in less than a fully physical body. Perhaps Jesus’s appearances looked more like holograms or some sort of light visions. It is questionable according to such a notion whether or not Jesus’s body could have been touched by his followers. Nonetheless, while Jesus was truly there with his disciples and was really alive, he did not possess a physical body.
But today the dominant view seems to have shifted in the direction of bodily appearances. A mediating position, chiefly among critical scholars who personally reject the resurrection e vent itself, is that at least the New Testament writers themselves believed that Jesus’s appearances occurred in a real body. Even this is also a change from where scholarship was not long ago.
This shift to affirming the bodily nature of Jesus’s appearances also occurred for a variety of reasons, perhaps chief among them being studies on the influence of the majority Jewish position at that time regarding the bodily resurrection of the righteous dead, as well as the emergence of several major studies championing the position that many key New Testament texts strongly supported this position regarding Jesus’s resurrection body, as well.
None of these studies was more influential that N.T. Wright’s hundreds of pages devoted to a painstaking analysis that detailed the meaning of the term “resurrection” and its cognate terms in the ancient world. Wright concluded after a meticulous search that whenever these words were employed throughout the period from prior to the rise of Christianity up until the end of the second century AD, whether among Christians, Jews, or others, the terms always referenced bodily events. While other views of the afterlife were certainly held during this time, the word “resurrection” was not used to describe those other positions, as it was reserved for bodily life.4
Influential New Testament historian E .P. Sanders described the overall consensus critical position by providing a list of the historical items that are regularly postulated regarding Jesus’s life. Among the facts that Sanders lists is the majority critical concession that Jesus actually appeared to his followers in some form after his death!5
Although Sanders may be overly optimistic here, this general milieu is still a long way from the majority position in the scholarly arena just a few decades ago. But these changes have been embraced due to some of the scholarly developments that we have described in this article.
We have attempted here to outline some of the main contributions to the changing scene of resurrection studies in recent decades. The upshot of these and other developments generally has been quite favorable towards the historicity of this e vent, which has produced some fertile g round for ongoing studies. This is a good time to be studying the subject of Jesus’s resurrection.
About the Author
GARY R. HABERMAS, PhD, is Distinguished Research Professor and chair of the Department of Philosophy at Liberty University. He has also written more than 100 publications on the historical Jesus.
1Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Harper Collins, 2012), 144-148, especially 145.
2 GaryR . Habermas, The Risen Jesus and Future Hope (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield,
4Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Harper Collins, 2012), 144-148, especially 145.
5The Historical Figure of Jesus (London: Penguin, 1993), 11, 13, 278, 280.
[Editor’s Note: Resurrection image from Luca Giordano’s Resurrection, c. 1665, found at Wikipedia Commons.]