Wednesday, 11 April 2001 18:57 (ET)

Faith: Historians say Resurrection a Reality
By UWE SIEMON-NETTO, UPI Religion correspondent

WASHINGTON, April 11 (UPI) - "If Christ is not risen, then our preaching
is empty and our faith is also empty," the Apostle Paul wrote only a few
years after the Crucifixion (1 Corinthians 15:14).
The Resurrection narrative in all four gospels is the one story on
which all Christian hope is fixed. Is it a ruse? Was it the figment of
the scared disciples' hysterical imagination that Jesus appeared to them
after his execution?
The late Pinchas Lapide, a Jewish New Testament scholar, considers
this suggestion of 19th and early 20th-century liberal theologians
"This band of disciples was beaten and weary. Yet almost overnight
it transformed itself into a victorious faith movement," he wrote.
"If this had occurred simply on the basis of auto-suggestion and
self-deceit, it would have been a much greater miracle than the
Resurrection itself."
In a dramatic turnaround from post-Enlightenment skepticism,
historians are now inclined to give much more credence to the New
Testament accounts of the Resurrection than their predecessors.
"There is so much evidence pointing to its veracity," wrote professor
Juergen Spiess of Marburg University in IDEA, a German Protestant news
According to Spiess and several other historians, Christ was probably
crucified on April 7 of the year 30. If this is so, the Resurrection
occurred on April 9, a Sunday.
There have always been doubters claiming that Jesus never died on the
cross. Mohammed denied it. But the Biblical passion stories are backed
up by at least one irreproachable secular source:
The Roman historian Tacitus (55-120 A.D.) wrote that the "founder of
this sect (the Christians) was executed during the reign of (emperor)
Tiberius by the Governor Pontius Pilate" (Tacitus, annals XV). "This
corroborates Scripture," Spiess explained.
"Historians work like lawyers," he continued, "They reconstruct
past events on the basis of sources, evidence and eyewitness accounts."
Helga Botermann, a professor at Goettingen University, has shown that
in researching the Good Friday and Easter events, the evangelist Luke
followed the same methodology used by modern historians.
Luke, a Greek physician, "endeavored to present the facts as they had
happened. He used eyewitness accounts and -- in the Book of Acts -- his
own recollections."
Botermann went on to state, "Luke wrote for his contemporaries, who
were capable of judging his account of these facts with which they were
familiar either from their own experience or the reports of others.
"Thus there is no justifiable reason to approach his rendering of
history with prejudicial skepticism ... Luke's sources were also his
critics. This makes it very unlikely that he embellished his story
willfully with his own prejudices or intentions."
Spiess sees Christ's empty grave as a key piece of evidence for the
veracity of the Resurrection story. Here he agrees with William Lane
Craig, arguably one of America's finest Christian apologists.
In an article published in Truth Journal, Lane pointed out that even
"the earliest Jewish polemic presupposed the empty tomb." It simply
interpreted this phenomenon differently.
"In Matthew 28, we find the Christian attempt to refute (this),"
Craig wrote. "That polemic asserted that the disciples stole away the
body. The Christians responded ... by reciting the story of a guard at
the tomb, and the polemic in turn charged that the guard fell asleep."
The long and the short of this dispute is, though, that both sides
provided evidence for the empty tomb, Craig said.
Pinchas Lapide, the Jewish scholar, added another point favoring the
Resurrection account. The first people to find the grave empty and
encounter the risen Christ were women. But women had such a low
standing in Hebrew society at that time that their testimony would not
have even been considered in court. Hence, Lapide reasoned that anybody
trying to fake a story in 1st-century Palestine would hardly have
presented women as his prime witnesses.
Another argument against the Resurrection narrative survived in
multiple variations for almost 2,000 years and was eagerly picked up by
rationalist German scholars of the late 18th and 19th centuries.
Christ, they averred, did not actually die on the cross, but was
taken down and placed alive in the tomb. He escaped to convince his
disciples that He had risen from the dead.
Even Friedrich D. E. Schleiermacher, the father of modern theology,
embraced this theory no serious scholar believes anymore. Craig
fields two arguments against it:
"1. It would have been virtually impossible medically for Jesus to have
survived the rigors of his torture and crucifixion, much less not to
have died of exposure in the tomb.
"2. A half-dead Jesus desperately in need of medical attention would
not have elicited in his disciples worship of him as the exalted Risen
Lord and Conqueror of death."
Apart from that, the Risen Christ had too many eyewitnesses for the
Resurrection story to have been invented. Many saw him between his
Resurrection and his Ascension. All four gospels, the Book of Acts and
Paul's first Epistle to the Corinthians relate their stories. "Can one
invent this?", asked Spiess, the Marburg historian.
Half a century ago, liberal theology's attacks on the veracity of the
Resurrection story began to die down. This occurred at Marburg
University where theologian Ernst Kaesemann took issue with the
historical skepticism against Jesus, a skepticism ardently promoted by
his own teacher, Rudolf Bultmann.
Kaesemann's new approach was much later echoed by the late New
Testament scholar Norman Perrin of the University of Chicago:
"The more we study the tradition with regards to the appearances, the
firmer the rock begins to appear upon which they are based."
"If one wants to have assurance, one must read the New Testament,"
Marburg University's Juergen Spiess wrote.
Commented William Lane Craig: "The resurrection of Jesus is the best
explanation for the origin of the Christian faith."

Copyright 2001 by United Press International. All rights reserved.