Why Jesus being raised from the dead matters historically
If you are interested in a detailed study of the reasons “Jesus was raised from the dead” can be taken seriously as an ancient historical claim, The Resurrection of Jesus by N. T. Wright is a great resource – all 800+ pages. Here I just want to summarize a few of the points Wright and others have treated far more exhaustively. A few of my own nuances are included in this survey, but mostly they reflect work done far more extensively by many others.
(1) If God did not raise Jesus from the dead, someone needs to offer a thesis that is at least as coherent and consistent explaining where the power came from that allowed a group of relatively small and disempowered Jewish believers to cross every imaginable boundary in creating new communities. The early Jesus Movement crossed social, religious, class, economic, educational, political, familial, ethnic, and gender boundaries in a manner that was fully unique in the ancient world. (I think the cult of Isis out of Egypt probably ranked second in this regard, but wasn’t really close.) Some groups crossed a few of these boundaries, no other community came close to crossing all of these boundaries in the manner that almost all historians agree was accomplished by the early followers of Jesus. If the energy and empowerment for this did not come from an experience of meeting Jesus of Nazareth whom God had raised from the dead as they claimed, where did it come from?
(2) The claim that the early inner circle of Jesus’ followers faked a resurrection is actually on pretty weak grounds. Remember, these early believers were not the CIA or the KGB wielding powers of disinformation and police control. Neither did they wield the power of Rome nor of the High Priestly clan in Jerusalem. They were people who mostly had no power within the ancient Roman/Jewish structures of informational dissemination, judicial or political or religious structures, etc. It is one thing to claim an informational conspiracy has been pulled off by those who control the military, the police, the courts, the prisons, the channels of official information, etc. It is a totally different claim to maintain that a disempowered group managed to fake a claim concerning a space-time event when this claim is being opposed by the people who controlled all of the power structures. Even more difficult would be to pull off such a hoax when it also embarrasses and shames those who wield the power that would be used to shut it all down.
(3) Conceding that people risk their lives for all kinds of things, it is still difficult to imagine a reason why the early leaders of the Jesus Movement would have consistently been willing to risk their lives for their claim that God had raised Jesus from the dead and made him Lord of history. Almost all historians agree that many of these early believers gave their lives for claiming that Jesus, not Caesar, is appointed “Lord” by God. If recanting this claim would save one’s life, where did the power come from that pretty consistently led to a refusal to recant even in the face of torture and brutal executions?
(4) Contrary to popular opinion, the fact that the writings we have originated some 30 to 50 years after the claimed historical event — that God raised Jesus from the dead — is not a serious weakness in the claim. In fact, it may be a strength instead. First, this would coincide with the point at which the original generation of eyewitnesses began to die off. Suddenly, even in a basically oral culture, it starts to become evident that there can only continue to be eyewitness testimony if it is recorded in writing. As I write this, we are seeing this kind of scrambling by various authors to get the first person stories of both the remaining Freedom Riders of the Civil Rights Movement, participants with Martin Luther King in his work, and the early leaders of the modern feminist movement. All of these are being focused upon because it is clear that the “I was there” sources will not be available much longer. Of course, not all of these testimonies about what happened agree in every detail, but they agree about the big picture historical events they represent. A few years ago, this same kind of 30-60 year window led to a spate of historical works presenting the Native American point of view concerning the “winning of the West,” and the stories of the last few people who had actually been slaves, or children of slaves, prior to the emancipation. Second, in an oral culture, the fact that it was not written down earlier actually lends credence, not discredit, to the fact that the proponents believed it really happened. If it had been a fabrication, it might well have needed to be written earlier.
(5) The event of Jesus being raised from the dead is better attested than any of the ancient claims that we pretty much take for granted as valid events in world history. Many writers have explored this so I will not elaborate. I still find Who Moved the Stone by Morrison to be one of the most intriguing explorations of this reality, though not as scholarly as Wright and others.
(6) It is not true that it would have been easy to convince 1st century people that God had raised Jesus from the dead because they were expecting something like this to occur. In fact, as far as any literary records show, absolutely no one expected an “end of the ages” type resurrection to occur “right in the middle” of this age of history. It is true that many Jewish believers expected a final general resurrection, but no one expected a “downpayment” on that promise to occur in the middle of history. The claim that God had begun the final resurrection, but would only complete it much latter, was totally unexpected and demanded a lot of convincing evidence to people who did not at all expect it.
(7) Finally, the New Testament writers explicitly claim a bodily resurrection of the man Jesus of Nazareth who continues to be Jesus of Nazareth but is now appointed by God to an entirely new role in human history (Acts 2:20-41). They had a language for “spiritual experiences” and for “contacts by the spirits of the deceased,” but they explicitly choose another language: the language of a fully unique resurrection that differs not only from “immortal souls” language, but also from previous resurrection language. Everyone else who had ever been raised from the dead by prophets, Jesus, or perhaps others in the world, were raised to die again. Jesus was raised by God to move history toward God’s next stage of “humans in the image of God.” The “firstfruits of many brothers and sisters.” This is not the language of group hallucination or group spiritual contact with the spirit of the dead. This is the language of the inauguration of the beginnings of the future.
Do these arguments mean an honest person can have no doubts? Of course not. Any honest person probably will have doubts about any truth claim, and certainly one as old as this one. However, an honest person might also be inclined to acknowledge that the claims about God raising Jesus from the dead are rather “dug in” to human history and cannot easily be dismissed as fabrication by an honest inquirer. Of course, an inquirer may have already made up her/his mind that “it couldn’t happen.” But, that is not an historical claim, that is an apriori philosophical assumption.