Resurrection skeptics on thin ice
The Hamilton Spectator
2 April 2005
The Hamilton Spectator
Copyright (c) 2005 The
I did a lot of thinking about Jesus's resurrection over the Easter weekend. While I did re-read of the gospels' account of Christ's passion, it was actually two other texts, The Da Vinci Code and The Pagan Christ, that gave me the most food for thought.
For years, liberal theologians have argued that the idea of Jesus's literal resurrection is a tremendous stumbling block to would-be converts. They say that multitudes would flock to Christianity if its philosophy of unconditional love and forgiveness were divorced (or would it have to be annulled?) from the more intellectually untenable elements of its theology.
Now, to the joy of liberal Christians, it seems the stumbling block of Jesus' resurrection is slowly being worn away. Thanks to books like The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown and The Pagan Christ by Canadian religion writer Tom Harpur, Christianity has become accessible (and respectable) to the most rational rationalist and empirical empiricist.
The Da Vinci Code ascended the New York Times bestseller list in 2004 and now its message is being preached to all people. Simply, the book's theological message is this: Jesus was a shrewd political aspirant who tried to wrest power from the ruling Jewish elite. His actions got him killed ... and he stayed dead. Prior to his demise he impregnated Mary Magdalene who then hightailed it to
In The Pagan Christ (released last year at Easter) Harpur trumps Brown by making the superlative claim that Jesus, the person, never existed at all. According to Harpur, the gospel accounts about Jesus are no more than fabricated stories based on ancient Egyptian myths. Furthermore, he states, the writers of the gospel stories never meant for them to be interpreted as depicting real events.
It is not surprising that even traditional Christians are abandoning a belief in a literal resurrection in order to embrace Brown's or Harpur's take on Christ's life and resurrection. Most of us in the developed world are not often confronted by the supernatural and thus, the explanations that Brown and Harpur offer appear far more credible.
Ironically, they are not.
When one uses the methods of modern scholarship it becomes clear that the story of Jesus's resurrection has a stronger historical foundation than those accounts that deny it.In fact, believing in the literal resurrection may be the most logically sound position.
To determine which stories about Jesus describe real historical events, modern Biblical historians employ several criteria. One criterion is "dissimilarity": reports that diverge from normal customs, practices, and teachings of the day are unlikely to have been made up. A second criterion is "multiple attestation": reports that turn up in several sources are more likely to be true than those found in a single source. A final rule of thumb is that in cases where two reports conflict, the more ancient of the reports is deemed more reliable.
The story of Jesus's resurrection meets the criterion of "dissimilarity" because it falls outside the norms of first century Judaism. While many Jews at the time believed in a physical resurrection, they envisioned it as a collective event at which time all the dead would rise to face the final judgment of God. The idea that God would raise one man from the dead was (and still is) a concept foreign to Judaism.
Neither Brown's nor Harpur's accounts meet the criterion of dissimilarity because their accounts are not at odds with the mindset of ancient (or modern) people.
Accounts of Jesus's resurrection are multiple and very ancient. The first reference appears in the letters of the Apostle Paul roughly 20 years after the event (though it is clear from the context that Paul is relaying a much earlier oral account). Other accounts are found in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John -- each of which was produced before the end of the first century by a different community of believers in a different part of the
Though Brown cites several works including the novel Holy Blood Holy Grail, the ideas about Jesus found in the Da Vinci Code can ultimately be traced back to one source: the Dossier of Secrets. Hardly an ancient text, this work of fiction is a collection of documents produced by Frenchman Pierre Plantard during the 1950s and '60s. In the 1970s, one of Plantard's confederates admitted to helping him create the materials, including genealogical tables that portrayed Plantard as a descendant of Jesus and Mary Magdelan. In the 1990s, Plantard's fraudulent writings brought him before the courts at which time he himself admitted that everything he had written about Jesus was either a product of his imagination or had been lifted from other works of fiction.
The sources Harpur used to write The Pagan Christ are just slightly more plentiful and a little more "ancient" then Brown's, but they are equally as tenuous. Harpur uses the writings of two 19th century authors, Godfrey Higgins and Gerald Massey, and one from the 20th century, Alvin Boyd Kuhn, to bolster his claim that the life of Jesus was a fiction based on Egyptian myths. While the works of these authors corroborate one and other, no one else seems to agree with their facts.
The academic legitimacy of these authors and their works was first called into question by W. W. Gasque, professor of early Christianity and co-founder of
Conducting a survey of world's leading Egyptologists, Gasque discovered not one "had ever heard of Kuhn, Higgins or Massey!" Further investigation of Harpur's sources and research methods revealed that "[v]irtually none of the alleged evidence for the views put forward in the Pagan Christ is documented by reference to original sources ... The notes abound with errors and omissions. If you look for supporting evidence for a particular point made by the author, it is not there."
Even though the orthodox Christian claim that Jesus rose from the dead is more credible than either Brown's or Harpur's claims, some people will still choose to believe what they read in The Da Vinci Code and The Pagan Christ because, on the surface, it seems the most rational, intellectually viable option. They might be surprised to learn: when it comes to a leap of faith it is actually those who deny the resurrection that have to jump the furthest.