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Last week for Easter, I debated the NSW President of the Skeptics Society. The topic was “The Resurrection: Long on Faith, Short on Evidence”. The debate was conducted in excellent spirit. Here are the strands of evidence I find persuasive.
So why trust the New Testament documents? In brief, the documents were written close to the events they recorded. Even my debating opponent agreed most of them were written within the same generation! Multiple manuscript copies, good scribal practices and linguistic research means they were reliably transmitted and translated. And though bound together in one book, the New Testament evidence about Jesus includes multiple independent traditions, including Mark, John, James, Paul, a source common to Matthew and Luke, as well as their own unique material. This criterion of multiple attestation is important to ancient historians.
What about the resurrection of Christ? Here are three strands of evidence. Firstly, his tomb was empty. Even, the earliest anti-Christian propaganda agrees with this. Otherwise the authorities would have exhumed the body to expose the whole charade. And there was little benefit for disciples in stealing his body for a hoax that brought them much persecution.
Secondly, eyewitnesses testified that Jesus appeared to them alive after his death. The various New Testament sources record over ten appearances to individuals and groups, where Jesus was seen, heard and touched. The names of many such eyewitnesses were recorded, some who remained alive for decades after, available for cross-examination. This was an accepted method of first century historiography.
Thirdly, where did the transformation of the disciples come from? Peter changed from cowardly denier to brave proclaimer of Christ. Thomas from doubter to believer. Paul changed from persecutor to missionary. It’s hard to believe they’d have done this unless they were convinced Jesus really was alive.
We cannot ‘prove’ the resurrection like a scientific equation. Historical study allows only the balance of probability. But we should pause before dismissing this surprising historical claim.
Last year I read of the fisherman who arrived at Taronga Zoo’s Wildlife Hospital, with an injured penguin. The fisherman swore it fell from the sky, landing on him while fishing. The vet told him it was impossible, as penguins can’t fly. But the odd story became more plausible once they examined the bird’s injuries. They noticed puncture wounds consistent with sea eagle talons, and broken ribs from a fall. The Zoo team guessed the penguin was snatched from the sea then dropped by its predator. (By the way the penguin recovered!)
My point is something that looks too strange to be true can appear more realistic once the evidence is examined closely. For those interested, a podcast of the believer-skeptic debate can be downloaded from our church’s website.
[Published in The Advertiser’s ‘Rise Up’ column, Wed. 26 March 2008.]