Evidence for the Cross and Resurrection

Evidence for the Cross and Resurrection

The message of the cross and resurrection of Jesus is so counter-cultural that it could not have been fabricated by the early church.
The message of the cross and resurrection of Jesus is so counter-cultural that it could not have been fabricated by the early church.

For anyone who desires to investigate the cross and resurrection of Christ, there are a number of solid evidences for its reality. In this article I will seek to demonstrate that there are several facts inherent in the preaching of the early Christians that, based on the society in which they lived, could not and would not have been fabricated. These facts include items that are so counter-cultural that it is not only unlikely that they would be made up, but impossible to believe that such a proclamation would be accepted by the Jewish, and Graeco-Roman society of the first century, unless there was demonstrable truth behind them. As Bible scholar Ben  Witherington III remarks, “When you know the context of the New Testament texts—the world and cultures in and to which these stories were written—you quickly realize that sometimes the incongruities and unusual aspects in the story testify to their historical veracity and authenticity” (Biblical Views: Making Sense of the Unlikely Easter Story, BAR Mar/Apr 2011).

Honor & Shame and the Cross

This graffito, found in the pagan catacombs of Rome (1st-3rd century AD) illustrates how a majority reacted to the idea of a crucified savior. It reads, "Alexamenos worshipping his god."
This graffito, found in the pagan catacombs of Rome (1st-3rd century AD) illustrates how a majority reacted to the idea of a crucified savior. It reads, “Alexamenos worshipping his god.”

The number one reason why the message of the cross could not be fabricated is because of the basic foundational values of honor and shame that pervaded all first century Mediterranean culture. I have written about the significance of this briefly elsewhere (Cross Examination: The Cross of Christ in the Roman World), and so I will only note a few important points here. Being connected with honorable people was important on every level of ancient Mediterranean culture. In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say that maintaining one’s honor was critical for any kind of quality of life (see the recent podcast on honor and shame by myself and Lindsay Kennedy at Beyond Reading the Bible). The cross was not only intended to torture its victim, but to shame them so that no one would want to be affiliated with them. This is why a person was crucified naked, was beaten, mocked, and spit upon and exposed publicly (e.g., Matt. 27:29-30). The shame of the cross is the backdrop for all of the passion narratives in the gospels and for passages such as 1 Corinthians 1:18 and Hebrews 12:2. Witherington states, “It was not seen as a noble martyrdom of any sort. People in that world believed that the manner of your death most revealed your character. On that basis, Jesus was a scoundrel, a man who committed treason against the state, a man who deserved the punishment used for slave revolts. The Romans called it ‘the extreme punishment,’ and no Roman citizen would be subjected to it” (Making Sense, cited above). The fact is, Roman crucifixion was so effective that it quelled every rebellion in the ancient world. Whether we are talking about the slave rebellion under Spartacus, which saw the crucifixion of 6000 men, or the uprisings of would-be deliverers and messiahs, every movement was put down and silenced by the use of the cross. Every movement that is…except for one! The fact that the early disciples went about preaching “Christ crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2) is an astonishing fact, given the cultural dynamics of honor and shame. No one in this society would think, “I believe I’ll start a new religion and base it on a man who was crucified.”  Again Witherington states, “It wouldn’t make sense to create a story about a crucified and risen man being the savior of the world—unless you really believe it is historically true.” Teaching about the cross offered a life of rejection and persecution for those who proclaimed it, and the New Testament bears eloquent witness to this fact. Why would anyone make this teaching a part of their new religion unless it was true? To summarize: In a society of honor and shame, with crucifixion expressing the deepest kind of shame possible, the message of the cross and the resurrection was counter-cultural to the utmost and would never have been considered viable, and would never have been preached, if it were not true.

The Resurrection On the Third Day

Dr. Bock's mobile ed course from Logos goes into various details regarding the cross and resurrection.
Dr. Bock’s mobile ed course from Logos goes into various details regarding the cross and resurrection.

The rest of the information in this article is taken from Dr. Darrell Bock’s Mobile Ed Course entitled: “Introducing the Gospels and Acts: Their Background, Nature, and Purpose,” from Logos/Faithlife Corporation. The quotations which follow will come from this source (unless otherwise noted). Dr. Bock points out that while the Jews (or at least some of them) believed in a physical resurrection at the end of time, the idea that some would be resurrected in the midst of history was a novelty. He states, “So what causes the mutation in the normal Jewish view? One could have defended Jesus and His future and His identity by simply saying, “Well, when the resurrection comes at the end of history, Jesus will run the judgment. He will be raised and exalted and run the judgment.” That would be how to do it on the basis of Jewish precedent and expectation. You wouldn’t need a resurrection in the midst of history. And yet, what we get is the resurrection in the midst of history. Something has put pressure on creating that mutation in Jewish expectation and Jewish thought.” In other words, the disciples of Jesus must have had a reason for changing normal Jewish understanding and expectation. It is much easier to accept a new religion if it falls in line with old beliefs. Why change this expectation of resurrection? Answer: Because it must have happened that way.

Graeco-Roman Philosophy and Resurrection

One of the challenges presented by taking the gospel to the Graeco-Roman world, was not only that the cross was considered a shameful way to die, but also that the Greeks and Romans did not believe in a physical resurrection. To them it was nonsense (e.g., Acts 17:32). Regarding this Dr. Bock states, “the bulk of the Graeco-Roman hope has no resurrection in it. You either died and your body decomposed and there was no hope whatsoever, or there was a belief in some type of immortality of the soul—a spiritual form of resurrection but no physical dimensions to it whatsoever. And so Graeco-Romans either had immortality of the soul or you died at death, so the resurrection would be a completely new concept . . . . a problematic concept for a lot of the Graeco-Romans. Once again we see that the gospel message of the cross and resurrection faced an uphill battle. Anyone seeking to appeal to both the Jews and Gentiles of the time would not have incorporated so many controversial ideas into a religion that they wanted to promote, unless there was some basis for them.

Women As Witnesses

Mary tells the apostles she has seen Jesus.
Mary tells the apostles she has seen Jesus.

With all deference to any women reading this post, the testimony of women in the ancient world was considered unreliable. Here is what Bock says on this subject: “It’s very important to appreciate how crucial this idea is, because in the culture of the time, women could not be witnesses and weren’t viewed as credible witnesses. The only time a woman could testify in a court case and be involved as a witness are in some cases of sexual abuse. But otherwise, she didn’t count as a witness, and we have numerous texts both in the Mishnah and in the Talmud that make the statement that a woman’s testimony is not to be taken or trusted.” How is this significant for the preaching of the resurrection? Each of the gospels testifies that it was women who first saw and proclaimed the resurrection to Jesus’ disciples (Matt. 28:1-10; Mark 16:1-7; Luke 24:1-10; John 20:1-2, 11-18). This is not the way anyone in the ancient world would seek to establish credibility for their teaching or new religion. Bock sums it up this way: “So you’re in a PR meeting, and this is going to be the case you’re going to make: ‘I’ll tell you how we keep hope alive. Let’s talk about a resurrection because Judaism expects a physical resurrection. Let’s talk about a resurrection in the midst of history. That’s a new idea. And let’s sell that idea, which is an unpopular idea. Graeco-Romans don’t have it. Let’s sell that idea by having our first witnesses be people who culturally don’t count as witnesses.’ You would never make up the story this way if it were made up. You would figure out a different way to do it. In other words, the women are in the resurrection story because the women were in the original resurrection story.”

Criterion of Embarrassment

Courtesy of kingofwallpapers.com
Courtesy of kingofwallpapers.com

The criterion of embarrassment is one of the standards used to determine whether something is historical or not. In other words, if you are making something up (i.e., a new religion) you want to put all the leaders and their actions in the best light. You do not want to tell stories that might discredit them. Yet this is exactly what the gospels do! For example, when the women return to declare to the disciples that Jesus has risen, they refuse to believe, according to Luke 24:11: “And their words seemed to them like idle tales, and they did not believe them.” You mean Peter’s initial reaction, along with the other apostles, was unbelief? We can understand this response. It actually has the ring of authenticity because you and I would react the same way. However, when you are trying to promote a new religion would you really want to put all of the leaders of the new movement in such a bad light? The gospels not only do it here, but in many other places! In fact, one of the statements that causes even skeptical scholars to accept that Jesus predicted his own death and resurrection is the account that immediately follows his prediction. After Jesus tells his disciples about his death, Peter takes him aside and rebukes him which causes Jesus to respond, “Get behind me Satan! For you are not mindful of the things of God but the things of men” (Mark 8:33; also Matt. 16:23). Having the leader called “Satan” is certainly an embarrassing fact and would certainly never have been recorded unless it had really happened. Imagine the disciples making up Christianity and in this made up story they have Peter as the leader of the apostles preaching the first sermon on that Pentecost Sunday (Acts 2). The same Peter who denied Jesus and who Jesus also called Satan! This is not the way to begin a new religion if you want your leaders to have credibility! Therefore, the criterion of embarrassment has a ring of authenticity about it. Why would such stories be made up? Although the following quote refers to the historical nature of the Old Testament, it is applicable to our discussion here. In comparing the accounts of other ancient peoples, Hoffner states, “Part of what makes Israel’s historical records so distinctive when compared with those of Egypt, Babylon, Ugarit, and the Hittites is that the kings’ mistakes and sins are so clearly and openly described and rebuked by the prophets” (Hoffner, H. A., Jr., 1 & 2 Samuel, Evangelical Exegetical Commentary, Lexham Press, 2015). In other words, it is the nature of biblical writing to be honest about its leaders and this is contrary to the written records of other peoples in the Ancient Near East.

Conclusion: The Validity of the Cross and Resurrection

When one considers the birth of the Christian message which centered around the cross and resurrection of Jesus, the deck was certainly stacked against the possibility of its success, given the social conditions of the Graeco-Roman world. The early Christians proclaimed that their Savior and God was a man who died on a Roman cross (“the emblem of suffering and shame” as one wonderful hymn puts it). This is strike one in a culture based on honor and shame–in fact, it’s really a knock-out punch all on its own. After being crucified, Christians proclaimed that this Jesus had risen from the dead, something that no Gentile in the Roman world believed in, and something that Jews only thought would happen at the end of time (for those who believed there was such a thing as resurrection!). This is strike two. “We can prove it,” say the early Christians, “because there were some women who told us it was true!” Strike number three. Your religion doesn’t have a prayer of being accepted by anyone with testimony like that. But after being down and out with three strikes, the Christians persist by saying that you should listen to Jesus’ disciples even though they all originally denied him, did not believe that he rose from the dead, and that their ring-leader was even called Satan by Jesus himself. Somebody surely needs to give these early Christians some suggestions on how to start a new religion because, clearly, they haven’t got a clue!

And yet history tells a very different story. In spite of the hundreds and thousands of other gods and religions that existed in the first century Roman empire, Christianity outlasted them all. In fact, people came to believe the message of the  cross and resurrection so fervently that they stopped worshipping other gods and all of those religions, so much more palatable to the tastes of people at the time,  disappeared. The cross, a symbol of shame and reproach, was even transformed into a symbol of victory and honor. Look at all of human history and understand that such things do not happen. The reason Christianity not only survived but thrived, was because it was true and was backed up by the power of God.

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