15. Jan, 2016

Introduction 

  • Can we really believe the stories we are told about Jesus?  Lots of followers of Jesus will tell you that following him has given meaning to their lives and resulted in them experiencing his peace and joy as an ongoing reality. 

  • The big problem with this is that there are lots of religions and movements that claim to give us meaning, peace and joy, so the question we are left with is: ‘How can we decide which one(s) are true and worth taking seriously and which are not?’  

  • Christianity is unique among world religions in that it tells the story of how God has broken into our world in history and communicated with us through actual events in the life of a man called Jesus.  It has many stories about him, what he did, what he thought, what he said, and how he died.  

  • From the very beginning Christians have encouraged us to examine the evidence for Jesus, to consider it carefully, and then decide for ourselves whether he really was the genuine article, the unique and divine Son of God. 

  • That is the purpose of this blog – to give you arguments and evidence to help you decide about Jesus.   

  • Many of you will find the material quite factual, even intellectual, because I will be trying to show that to believe in Jesus you do not have to commit intellectual suicide.  I want to demonstrate that there is solid historical, factual, circumstantial and documentary evidence, which gives many of us huge confidence that we really can believe that this Christian faith is true. 

  • I will be trying to answer the question, why should I believe in Jesus, compared to the teaching we find in all the other world religions.  Why should I trust what Jesus says, compared to Buddha or Mohammed or Krishna or Confucius?  

  • All religious believers are asked to take a great deal on trust, but what I find unique about Christianity is that it invites me to look at the evidence for Jesus and to weigh it up, just like in a court of law both sides present evidence to the jury and they have to decide who is telling the truth.  

  • I cannot offer you scientific proof because scientific proof is only possible if it can be demonstrated to be true again and again under test conditions usually in a laboratory; however proving that God exists and that Jesus was God’s son in a unique and special way is like proving to you that my wife loves me.  I cannot scientifically prove that she loves me, but because of all the evidence she has given me over the years I do not believe I would have any difficulty in convincing a sceptical jury that she loves me. 

  • And I think this is a particularly good analogy when it comes to Jesus, because above all what he came to tell us and to show us is that God is love and that he loves us. His teaching can be summed in the well-known words at John 3:16. ‘God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son so that whoever puts their trust in him will not perish but have eternal life.’ 

  • Without question the reason why I am a Christian is because of Jesus – because I find the evidence for his life, death and resurrection very compelling.  

  • About three years ago the New Statesman devoted two of its weekly editions to religion; in one it included a number of testimonies from leading scientists and public figures who were Christians, and in another a number of testimonies from atheists. Here are some of the atheists’ comments:  

  • Philip Pullman the author wrote this: ‘The main reason I don’t believe is the missing evidence.  There could logically be no evidence that he doesn’t exist, so I can only go by the fact that, so far, I’ve discovered no evidence that he does.’ 

  • Here’s Richard Dawkins’s comment: ‘I don’t believe in leprechauns, pixies, werewolves, jujus, Thor, Poseidon, Yahweh, Allah or the Trinity.  For the same reason in every case; there is not the tiniest shred of evidence for any of them.’ 

  • Jennifer Bardi, Editor of the Humanist:  ‘The short and easy answer is the lack of evidence.’ 

These are typical of what many of the atheists say - the lack  of evidence is key.  Now let me read you three of the believers' testimonies:   

  • Peter Hitchens, the well-known journalist: ‘Having chosen belief in God over unbelief because it offers an explanation for many of the mysteries of the universe, I find the Christian gospels more persuasive and the Christian moral system more powerful than any other religious belief.’ 

  • Professor Derek Burke, a biochemist, ‘My belief is strengthened by reading the New Testament especially, with the accounts of that amazing person Jesus, his teaching, his compassion, his analysis of the human condition, but above all by his resurrection.’ 

  • Denis Alexander, director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at Cambridge, ‘I am intellectually persuaded by the historical life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, that He is indeed the Son of God.  Jesus is most readily explicable by understanding him as the Son of God.’ 

  • Notice the striking contrast between the two: the atheists are clear that there is no evidence, whereas the Christians say there is evidence and the most persuasive evidence relates to Jesus.                                                                                          

I need to say I do not understand the atheists’ position. Whilst they see little or no evidence I see a great deal of evidence.  Putting aside Jesus for the moment let me read you some words from Anthony Flew in his book ‘There is a god’.  He describes himself on the cover of the book as the world’s most notorious atheist, and the book describes how he came to change his mind.  Let me read you some words he spoke at a symposium in New York in 2004. (pp. 65-76) 

  • “(I was asked if recent work on the origin of life pointed to the activity of a creative Intelligence...I said) Yes I now think it does…almost entirely because of the DNA investigations.  What I think the DNA material has done is that it has shown, by the almost unbelievable complexity of the arrangements which are needed to produce life, that intelligence must have been involved in getting these extraordinarily diverse elements to work together.”

At the back of this book is an appendix written by Tom Wright who at the time was Bishop of Durham, which Anthony Flew describes as ‘by far the best case for accepting Christian belief that I have ever seen.’  I draw on a lot of Tom Wright’s material in this blog. 

  • Going back to Denis Alexander’s testimony, the key word for me is ‘intellectually’.  I am a Christian because above all I am persuaded by the evidence.  Whatever experience I have had of God – and over the years I have had some wonderful times of joy and peace and a tangible sense of God’s presence – experience can be explained away by such arguments as – ‘well that’s your thing’ – ‘it suits your personality’ – ‘you must have some inner inadequacy which means you need to believe in God’ etc. etc. etc.  Over the years I have heard many comments like these. 

  • My answer is always ‘Don’t look at me – I am a very fallible human being – but look at Jesus, the evidence for his life death and resurrection and make your decision on the basis of this, not on anything I or any other Christian may say.’ 

  • Jonathan Sacks, the recently-retired Chief Rabbi, writes this in his book “The Great Partnership: God, Science and the Search for Meaning”: ‘The search for God is the search for meaning.  The discovery of God is the discovery of meaning.  And that is no small thing, for we are meaning-seeking creatures.  It is what makes us unique.  To be human is to ask the question “Why?”….The meaning of a system lies outside the system.  Therefore the meaning of the universe lies outside the universe…Only something or someone outside the universe can give meaning to the universe.’ 

Some Key Questions 

Here are the key questions this blog will try to answer: 

  1. When were the stories about Jesus which we find in the Bible (especially the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) written? 

  2. Can we be confident we have the original words of the four men who wrote them (‘Matthew’, ‘Mark’ ‘Luke’ and ‘John’)? 

  3. What other evidence is there for Jesus, apart from the Gospels? 

  4. How confident can we be that the picture they give us of Jesus is true? 

  5. What can help us believe that Jesus really was/is the divine, unique Son of God? 

  6. What can help us believe that he really bodily rose from the dead?               

1. When were the stories about Jesus in the Bible (especially the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) written? 

  • Papias (70-163 AD), Bishop of Hierapolis (in Turkey), who knew the apostle John, tells us that Mark, having been Peter’s interpreter, wrote down accurately all that Peter remembered, whether doings or sayings of Jesus, not however in order.  As Peter was crucified by Nero c.64 AD, Mark’s gospel is likely to have been written before this date. 

  • Two bishops, Polycarp (69-156 AD), Bishop of Smyrna (who was a disciple of the apostle John), and Ignatius (35-117AD), Bishop of Antioch, both quote from the gospels, so most scholars conclude that all four gospels were written well before 100 AD. 

  • Luke tells us in researching for his gospel he had talked to those who were eyewitnesses of the events.  Eyewitnesses of the last three years of Jesus’s life (27-30AD) would not have been around for long (perhaps no more than 30-50 years), so it is likely Luke was written during this time.  Many of them of course would have been killed in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD. 

  • According to a number of early traditions the Bishops of Asia Minor requested John, in his old age, to write a gospel in response to heresies that had arisen within the church. 

  • JAT Robinson, a very radical scholar who became notorious in the 60s as the ‘atheistic’ Bishop of Woolwich, wrote a book in the 1976 where he argued that everything in the NT was written before 70AD. 

2.  Can we be confident we have the original words of the four men who wrote them (‘Matthew’, ‘Mark’ ‘Luke’ and ‘John’)? 

Sir Frederick Kenyon, one-time Director and Principal Librarian of the British Museum, has concluded that because of the wealth of early manuscripts, "the last foundation of any doubt that the scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed.  Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may  be regarded as finally established." 

Here are some of the early manuscripts he is thinking of: 

  • In early 20th century over 50 papyrus fragments containing sayings of Jesus and parts of the NT were found in a rubbish dump at Oxyrhynchus in Egypt, dated middle of 2nd century. 

  • A fragment with John 18:31-33/37-38 was found in Egypt dated c.130AD 

  • A papyrus dated 200 AD contains the 1st 14 chapters and bits of the last 7 chapters of John, and a codex dated 200 AD contains parts of Luke and John 

  • Earliest full manuscripts are dated c.350 AD e.g. Codex Sinaiticus in British Museum 

  • In total there are over 5,000 Greek, 10,000 Latin, and 9,300 other manuscripts. 

Compare the existing manuscripts for Tacitus, a leading Roman historian who wrote c.100AD.  There are only three copies of his work and these are dated between 800 and 1,000 years later, and lots of material is missing. 

3.  What other evidence is there for Jesus, apart from the Gospels? 

  • Josephus (born 37AD), a Jewish historian and commander of Jewish forces in Galilee in 66AD writes: “At this time there was a wise man called Jesus…and many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples.  Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die.  And those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship.  They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive.” 

  • Tacitus (born 52-54AD), a Roman historian, writes: “Christus was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius, but the pernicious superstition, repressed for a time, broke out again not only through Judea where the mischief originated but through Rome also.” 

  • Suetonius (born 120AD), another Roman historian, writes:  “As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, Nero expelled them from Rome.” 

  • Pliny (61-113AD), governor of Bithynia, writing to his uncle the emperor, reports that Christians “sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ as to a god…persons of all ranks and ages and of both sexes are involved…for this contagious superstition is not confined to the cities only but has spread to the villages and rural districts.”  He also says that the temples had been almost deserted, sacred festivals discontinued, and the demand for sacrificial meat curtailed. 

  • In 1st/2nd century Jewish writings we find that Jesus of Nazareth was a transgressor in Israel, who practiced magic, scorned the words of the wise, led the people astray, and said he had not come to destroy the Torah but to add to it.  He was hanged on Passover Eve for heresy and misleading the people.  His disciples of whom 5 are named, healed the sick in his name. 

  • In these Jewish writings he is also called ‘Son of Pantera’ – this is likely to be a reference to the belief in Jesus’ virgin birth because Pantera is similar to Parthenos which means a virgin in Greek.  It is therefore an implied insult, reminding the reader of the dubious circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth. 

  • Thallus wrote in 52AD a history of Greece.  Words of his are quoted by Julius Africanus, a later Christian writer: ‘Thallus, in the 3rd book of his histories, explains away the darkness as an eclipse of the sun – unreasonably as it seems to me.’  Here is external corroboration for the darkness that fell on Jerusalem when Jesus died on the cross. 

  • A Syrian Mara Bar-Serapion (not a Christian) writing to his son inc.73AD: ‘What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise king?  It was just after that that their kingdom was abolished.  God justly avenged (this wise man) – the Jews ruined and driven from their land, live in complete dispersion…but the wise king did not die for good; he lived on in the teaching which he had given.’  

4. How confident can we be that the stories they tell us about Jesus are true? 

Factors that give us confidence the writers believed what they were writing was true and of huge significance include the following:  

  • The amount of effort they put in to ensure the events of Jesus’ life were recorded – we have four long gospels!  (Compare the very limited information about Bar Kochba who lived 100 years later and was believed to be the Messiah by a leading rabbi of the day.) 

  • The rise of Christianity is widely credited with the development of codices, which have writing on both sides of the papyrus. 

  • Why would they have gone to all this effort when all they got for their trouble was persecution, exclusion from their communities, ridicule and death?  There can surely be no doubt that they were utterly convinced that what they were claiming about Jesus was true. 

  • The fact that two of the gospels (Luke and Mark) are attributed to two non-eyewitnesses suggests strongly that they are the true authors.  Why else would the first Christians give them the credit? 

  • Given the strong parallels we see between the first three gospels, a number of scholars have suggested that the way the Christians passed on the stories of Jesus was like the ‘patterns of memorization and paraphrase dominant in rabbinic circles in the centuries following the birth of Christianity,’ e.g. many rabbis had the entire OT and much of the oral tradition committed to memory!  

  • In the culture of that time it was common for rabbis to gather round them disciples who were devoted to their rabbi, their teacher, taking careful note of everything he taught and trying to remember as much of his teaching as they could. So when it comes to the disciples of Jesus, we need to remember this is the environment within which they lived.

  •  And when we add to this the fact that they came to believe that their rabbi was the Messiah, the Christ, and not only that but he was also in some unique sense the divine Son of Yahweh, and not only that, but he claimed an authority for his teaching that no other rabbi would ever dare to claim: e.g. ‘If you hold to my teaching you will know the truth and the truth will set you free’, ‘Heaven and earth may pass away but my words will never pass away.’ ‘If you listen to my words and obey them you will build your life on a firm foundation, but if you listen to my words and fail to obey them, your life will end in disaster.’

  •  When we consider all this is it even faintly credible that these same disciples of Jesus would dare for a second to put words in his mouth that he had not said, or suggest he had done things which he had not done?  Such behaviour would fly in the face of the culture of their day.   

  • 80% of the sayings of Jesus are in an easy-to-remember format, with images and figures of speech found in Hebrew poetry and other middle-eastern tradition. 

  • Yugoslavian folk singers have been found to memorize stories of up to 100,000 words.  The plot, the characters, all the main events and the majority of the details stayed the same every time the stories were retold or sung.  Members of the community were sufficiently familiar with them to correct the singer if he erred in any significant way.  Yet anywhere from 10% to 40% of the precise wording could vary from one performance to the next, similar to the variation found in the synoptic gospels. 

  • The Jews were used to copying carefully all the words of the OT, especially the first five books.  All the scrolls in the synagogues for these books are hand-written, and if any mistake is made, it is considered not fit for use. 

  • We know from the Dead Sea Scrolls that they were meticulous in copying.  For example a copy of Isaiah, 1,000 years earlier that the earliest existing manuscript at the time, is almost exactly the same as the much later version. 

  • In last 25 years we have seen a growing confidence among scholars about how much we can know about the Jesus of history and how reliable the gospels are; this is because the religious environment in Israel prior to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, which can be seen in the Dead Sea Scrolls (and other recently discovered documents), exactly mirrors the religious environment presented in the gospels. 

  • Robin Lane Fox, University Reader in Ancient History at Oxford University, writes that ‘the beloved disciple was, I believe, the author of the fourth gospel…it is historically the most valuable…what we have is a gospel which knows exact details of Jewish life and piety before 70 AD… a primary source (i.e. an eyewitness) was the author.” 

  • Given that the gospel writers clearly believed that Jesus was the Messiah, the divine and unique Son of God, they report some surprising details which suggest they were concerned to write what actually happened even if these details might cause some to question whether Jesus really was the divine Son of God: -

  1. (Mark 3:21) ‘When Jesus’ family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind”…and the teachers of the Law who came down from Jerusalem said “He is possessed by Beelzebub, the prince of demons.”’  
  2. (Matthew:19) ‘The Son of Man came eating and drinking and they say “Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners.”’                                     
  3. (Mark 6:5) ‘Jesus could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them.  And he was amazed at their lack of faith.’                                
  4. (Matthew 11:20) ‘Then Jesus began to denounce the cities in which most of his miracles had been performed because they did not repent.’                                             
  5. (John 7:5) ‘For even his own brothers did not believe in him.’                                     
  6. (Luke 22:42-44) ‘”Father if you are willing take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”…And being in anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.’                                                                            
  7. He never comments on issues that eventually became big issues in the early church, e.g. ‘Should non-Jews be circumcised?’ ‘Should we eat food that has been offered to idols?’  ‘How important is speaking in tongues?’  ‘What is the definition of an apostle?’

Given at the time of writing Jesus’ disciples would have been highly respected leaders of the church and some may have already been martyred, some of the things they write about the disciples are surprisingly honest, suggesting again that the gospel writers were concerned to write down what actually happened, even if the information could have been highly embarrassing: -

  1. (Matt 16:23) Jesus says to Peter:Get behind me Satan! You are a stumbling block to me.
  2. (Matt 17:14-18) ‘In response to disciples inability to heal an epileptic boy, Jesus says “O unbelieving and perverse generation…how long shall I put up with you?”
  3. (Matt 20:20ff) The mother of James and John tried to persuade Jesus to give her sons special recognition: “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.”
  4. On many occasions Jesus appears to get frustrated at the disciples’ failure to understand what he was saying: e.g. Mark 8:17 “Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened?”  
  5. Peter denied three times that he knew Jesus, Judas betrayed him to the authorities, Thomas refused to believe in resurrection, and they all abandon Jesus when he is arrested. 
  6. (Matt 28:17) ‘some doubted’ at Jesus’s most majestic moment when he claimed to have all authority in heaven and on earth!

  5.  What can help us believe that Jesus really was/is the divine, unique Son of God? 

  • All the first Christians were Jews, who believed in one God (Yahweh).  Twice every day they would say the ‘Shema’ prayer.  “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one.”   They were as fiercely monotheistic as the devout Muslims are today.  What persuaded them that Jesus was his unique and divine Son?  And more than that, what persuaded them to risk ostracism from the synagogues and death by stoning for making openly the offensively blasphemous claim that Jesus was Yahweh’s unique and only Son? 
  • Jesus’ self confidence that he was in a unique sense the divine Son of God can be found woven into many aspects of his teaching:

  • Matthew 5:11-12:  "Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and say all kinds of evil against you because of me.  Rejoice and be glad because...in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you."    Here Jesus is equating his followers with the prophets who were persecuted for claiming to speak the very words of God, and equating himself with God and his words with God's words.
  • Matthew 5:17:   "Do not think I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets.  I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them."   Here Jesus is claiming to be the fulfilment of all the Jewish scriptures, and in support of his claim scholars have found over 300 prophecies in the Jewish scriptures that were fulfilled by Jesus.
  • Mark 14:36:  "Abba Father, everything is possible for you."  Jesus here uses the word for Father that Aramaic children used to address their Dad.  It is so unique that Mark here records the actual Aramaic word.  Who but the unique divine Son of God would be so bold, particularly in a fiercely monotheistic, Jewish culture, where God is never directly addressed as 'Father', to address him in this familiar, intimate way?
  • Matthew 7:21-23:  "(On Judgement Day) Not everyone who says to me 'Lord, Lord' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father in heaven." Here Jesus is claiming he is going to be the Judge of us all at the end of time, and will be the one who will decide who is allowed into heaven.
  • Luke 19:28ff:   On the first Palm Sunday Jesus enters Jerusalem riding on a donkey, clearly demonstrating to every Jew that he believed he was the fulfilment of a prophecy in Zechariah, written over 500 years earlier:  Zechariah 9:9:  "Rejoice greatly O Daughter of Zion!  See your king comes to you...gentle and riding on a donkey."
  • Mark 14:61-62:  "Again the high priest asked him: 'Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?'  'I am' said Jesus, and you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.'  The high priest tore his clothes. 'Why do we need any more witnesses?' he asked. 'You have heard the blasphemy.'                                                                                                           
  • Here Jesus is referring directly to a passage in Daniel written at least 200 years earlier which describes God's throne in heaven:  Daniel 7:9-14:  "As I looked thrones were set in place and the Ancient of Days took his seat...and there before me was one like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven.  He was given authority, glory and sovereign power;  all peoples, nations, and men of every language worshipped him.   His dominion is an everlasting kingdom that will not pass away and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed."
  • Luke 10:22  Jesus taught "All things are committed to me by my Father.  No-one knows who the Son is except the Father and no-one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him."
  • John 10:22-33  "When Jesus said 'I and the Father are One' the Jews picked up stones to stone him, and said 'We are stoning you for blasphemy because you, a mere man, are claiming to be God.'"
  • John 14:1-11  "Jesus said 'I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.  No-one comes to the Father except through me...Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.'" 

When scholars who understand the highly volatile religious and political climate in first century Palestine read these words of Jesus they often say they are amazed that Jesus survived as long as he did, and was not despatched quietly and quickly. 

  • CS Lewis came to this conclusion: “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things that Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher.  He would either be insane or else he would be the devil of hell.  You must make your choice.  Either Jesus was and is the Son of God or else he was insane or evil, so let us not come up with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher.  He has not left that open to us.  He did not intend to.”                                                                                              

6. What can help us believe that he really bodily rose from the dead? 

  • We now come to the claim which is central to the Christian faith that after almost two days lying dead in a rocky cave, his body disappeared, leaving the grave clothes in which it had been wrapped, and Jesus began appearing to his disciples in such a concrete way that they became convinced he had risen from the dead. 
  • It took this huge miracle to convince monotheistic Jews that Jesus really was the unique, divine Son of God.
  • Paul the apostle who wrote most of the New Testament writes at Romans 10:9 ‘If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.’ 
  • Pope Benedict in his book Jesus of Nazareth (Vol 2) says this: “The resurrection accounts certainly speak of something outside our experience…of something new…a new dimension of reality that is revealed.  Does this contradict science?  Can there really only ever be what has always been? ...If there really is a God, is he not able to create a new dimension of human existence, a new dimension of reality altogether? 

Here are seven arguments to help us believe this really happened: 

 a)  People at that time were sceptical about miracles, just as we are today: 

  • ‘Nothing can happen without a cause; nothing happens that cannot happen, and when what was capable of happening has happened, it may not be interpreted as a miracle.  So there are no miracles…what was incapable of happening never happened and what was capable of happening is not a miracle.’ (Cicero, Roman Philosopher and Orator) 

  • This was written 50-60 years before Jesus, and what Cicero wrote then has become the dominant view in our post-modern, sceptical, materialistic society.  Miracles are for the fairies, only to be believed in by children and certainly not by mature, intelligent human beings. 

  • When Paul went preaching to Athens, one of the leading philosophical and academic centres of the ancient world, and started talking about the resurrection of Jesus, they were extremely rude to him, calling him an idle babbler and sneering at the crazy things he was saying.  (Acts 17) 

  • He had sceptical reactions in Corinth even within the Christian community there.  Hence he writes (1 Corinthians 15:12ff) “How can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?  If there is no resurrection of the dead then not even Christ has been raised.  And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.”  

  • Remember Thomas, one of the 12 closest followers of Jesus.  He initially refused to believe any nonsense about a resurrection, and made the quite rude and angry comment that unless he could stick his fingers into the nail prints in Jesus’ hands and thrust his hand into the wound in his side he would never believe it. 

b) The remarkable change in the close followers of Jesus.  

  • Prior to the resurrection they constantly failed to understand much of what Jesus taught about himself, to the point where Jesus seems to have got quite frustrated at their lack of understanding; Judas Iscariot betrayed him to the authorities, Peter denied he ever knew him three times, and when Jesus was arrested they all left him and fled, terrified of also being arrested and killed. 

  • Without question what changed them, what persuaded them that Jesus really was the divine son of God, the presence of God among them, was that they became convinced a huge miracle had taken place and that Jesus had in fact been raised from the dead into an eternal existence where he would never die again. 

  • The two factors above all that persuaded them were the empty tomb – the body had gone never to be found again – and the concrete nature of the appearances, at one time to over 500 people. 

  • And so convinced were they that this was true most of them gave their lives as martyrs, so courageous and determined were they to proclaim Jesus as the divine son of God who could offer forgiveness to any who turned to him and put their trust in him. 

c)  We have hard evidence that the first followers of Jesus were believing in Jesus' resurrection within a very few years of the death of Jesus, much too early for any myth to develop 

  • The Greeks and Romans knew all about myths - their religions were full of them and students still study them at school and university.  They were stories that no –one, perhaps apart from children and the very naïve, believed were factually correct; rather they sought to teach truths that were important. 

  • However when we read the accounts of the resurrection in the NT, there is no suggestion anywhere in these early documents that the first Christians thought that the story of Jesus’ resurrection was a myth.  

  • 1 Corinthians 15: ‘For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance, that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day, according to the scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter and then to the twelve.  After that he appeared to more than 500 of the brothers are the same time, most of whom are still living although some have fallen asleep.’ 

  • We can we be confident that these are early writings because at Acts 18 Luke tells us that Paul visited Corinth when a ‘Gallio’ was proconsul of Achaia.  Proconsul of Achaia or Governor of Greece was an important job in the Roman empire, but in none of the early historical writing do we find any reference to a Gallio holding this position, so for years many thought that Luke had got this wrong, until an inscription was found early last century in Delphi in Greece, which states clearly that a Gallio was proconsul of Achaia in the tenth year of the reign of the emperor Claudius – 50-51AD. 

  • Therefore beyond reasonable doubt we can be sure that Paul was in Corinth in 50-51AD proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus – and notice too that he says he passed on to them what he himself had received even earlier.  This takes belief in Jesus’ bodily resurrection back into the 40s AD, only 10-15 years after the crucifixion of Jesus. 

d) The surprising uniqueness of the Jewish Messianic sect started by Jesus.  

  • One of the most interesting developments that we find in Israel at this time is the number of what are called Messianic sects that emerged, under a charismatic leader.  Their sole purpose was to resist the Roman occupation and free the population from their domination.  With the exception of the Jesus sect they all died out when their leader was killed. 

  • Professor CFD Moule, formerly Regius Professor of New Testament Studies at Cambridge University: “From the very first the conviction that Jesus had been raised from death has been that by which the existence of the first Christian community has stood or fallen.  There was no other motive to account for them, to explain them…At no point in the New Testament is there any evidence that they stood for an original philosophy of life or an original ethic.  Their sole function is to bear witness to what they claim as an event- the raising of Jesus from among the dead…and the consequent estimate of him as in a unique sense Son of God.” 

  • Tom Wright, writer and historian, who until recently was Bishop of Durham: “We know of lots of other messianic and similar movements in the Jewish world roughly contemporaneous with Jesus.  In many cases the leader died a violent death at the hands of the authorities.  In not one single case do we hear the slightest mention of the disappointed followers claiming that their hero had been raised from the dead…A Jewish revolutionary whose leader had been killed had two options:  give up the revolution or find another leader.  We have evidence of people doing both.  Claiming that the original leader was alive again was simply not an option…unless of course he was.” 

e)  No one was expecting the Jewish Messiah to rise from the dead until Jesus came along 

  • There  are many prophecies - some have found over 300 - in the Old Testament, which were fulfilled by Jesus - amazing prophecies, but none of them make it clear that the true Messiah would rise from the dead.  And it was only after the resurrection, when the first Christians searched the Old Testament for some clues, that they found one or two verses that might refer to a resurrection of the Messiah, but no-one for a moment saw this before Jesus’ resurrection. 

  • The reaction of the disciples to meeting the risen Jesus also shows that seeing him alive was the last thing they expected.  They usually do not recognise him, and if they do they think he is a ghost.  Pope Benedict argues that Jesus’ appearances are “presented quite clumsily in the narratives, and it is this that manifests their veracity.   Had it been necessary to invent the resurrection, then all the emphasis would have been placed on full physicality, on immediate recognisability…But in the internal contradictions characteristic of all the accounts of what the disciples experienced…we see reflected a new form of encounter, one that from an apologetic standpoint may seem rather awkward but that is all the more credible as a record of the experience.” 

f) We have four accounts of the resurrection of Jesus in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and they are all very different.  

  • This is very surprising because we see quite a lot of overlap in the gospels, showing certainly that Matthew and Luke used similar sources - except when it comes to the story of Jesus’ resurrection.  And here they all give different details, and use different words. 

  • There clearly has been no collusion whatsoever.  They haven’t got together to check their facts, and what this suggests is that these accounts are very, very early.  It suggests they were written down as quickly as possible so that nothing was lost or forgotten about something so important.  

  • One of the things that Tom Wright points is that there are no OT quotations in any of the accounts - suggesting that they were written before the Christians had had time to study the OT and find the quotations they were to use later. 

g)  All the first witnesses to the resurrection were women. 

  • Now this is not something that strikes us in our society where a woman’s word is considered equal to that of a man - not so in the ancient world.  Women were not allowed to give evidence in a law court because their word was considered unreliable and of no value.  So it is absolutely amazing the first witnesses to the resurrection were all women.  Not something anyone is going to make up, is it, unless it happens to be true? 

Conclusion 

So convincing is the evidence that many people have become Christians simply because they have become convinced of the truth of the resurrection.  For example Frank Morison who wrote the book “Who moved the stone?” 

Here are two memorable testimonies from Luke and John: 

Luke (24:36-43) “While they were still talking Jesus himself stood among them and said to them ‘Peace be with you.’  They were startled and frightened thinking they saw a ghost.  He said to them ‘Why are you troubled and why do doubts arise in your minds?  Look at my hands and my feet.  It is I myself!  Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see I have.” 

John (20:24-31) “Now Thomas was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him ‘We have seen the Lord!’  But he said to them ‘Unless I see the nail marks on his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.’  A week later his disciples were in the house again and Thomas was with them.  Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said ‘Peace be with you.’  Then he said to Thomas ‘Put your finger here, see my hands.  Reach out your hand and put it into my side.  Stop doubting and believe.’ Thomas said to him ‘My Lord and my God.’” 

I would like to finish with important words from Pope Benedict: 

“It is part of the mystery of God that he acts so gently, that he only gradually builds up his history within the great history of mankind; that he becomes man and so can be overlooked by his contemporaries and by the decisive forces within history; that he suffers and dies and that, having risen again, he chooses to come to mankind only through the faith of the disciples to whom he reveals himself; that he continues to knock gently at the door of our hearts and slowly opens our eyes if we open our doors to him. 

And yet – is not this the truly divine way?  Not to overwhelm with external power, but to give freedom, to offer and elicit love.  And if we really think about it, is it not what seems so small that is truly great?  Does not a ray of light issue from Jesus, growing brighter across the centuries, that could not come from any mere man and through which the light of God truly shines into the world?  Could the apostolic preaching have found faith and built up a worldwide community unless the power of truth had been at work within it?”