A guest post by Jordan Esmay

On a previous post, the conversation went to the subject of Jesus and the evidence of his death.  I thought I would address this briefly.  My arguments for the life and death of Jesus are not uncommon, they’ve mostly been the same for a very long time and when good arguments hold water I think we should keep using them.  Therefore, the following, although not entirely cited (mostly because there are so many and I’m not sure where they originated), is taken from several sources.  Also the post will not be terribly.

To start, we Christians do have evidence for the death of Jesus.  Primarily the New Testament and, even more specifically, the Gospels.  The Bible is at the very least an historical text.  To simply say that it is not evidence for the death of Jesus is like saying it is not evidence for the life of Pontius Pilate.  There needs to be sound arguments for why the text is not reliable as evidence.  As I am not talking about the reliability of the New Testament I will only suggest reading scholars such as F.F. Bruce and Walter C. Kaiser for the arguments on the reliability of the Biblical Texts.

Secondly as to extra-Biblical sources, we have many.  Also for the sake of space, I will point to Philip Schaaf’s work: The Person of Christ: The Miracle of History (Collection of Testomonies of Unbelievers) for a list, citation, and brief explanation of those who mention Jesus and his death.

As to the argument of Jesus surviving the crucifixion, where is the evidence for that?  How does a man who is beaten to the point of not being able to carry his object to which he is later nailed, then being stabbed with a spear to make sure he is dead, then wrapped in cloth, then placed in a cold tomb able to recover from the trauma enough to not only stand, but to remove the cloth that is wrapped around him, fold the cloth that covered his face, leave the bandages (i.e. not use them to stop bleeding wounds) remove the stone that is in front of his tomb and finally to make not only his closest friends but 500 people believe that he rose from the dead.  I’m guessing that he wouldn’t be to shiny after all of that.  We Christians have at least the evidence above.

Finally, why would Jesus’ closest friends after seeing him in such a horrible state and recognizing that he had merely survived a horrible ordeal, go on to put there lives through torture, and ultimately death, knowing that what they were doing was a hoax.  As Paul even said, “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Corinthians 15:19).

My hope is that more discussion will follow in the comments, so please comment.

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10 thoughts on “Reply to a Friend on the Evidence of Jesus’ Death

  1. Just to clarify, I did not address all the issues that were brought up in the other post and I was also not trying to make another person’s argument for them. I took a little liberty and tried to cover a few basic ideas to broaden the spectrum. Sorry, if it sounds like I am pigeon-holing someone.

  2. I don’t feel pigeon-holed. :)

    Schaaf quotes Guizot, “The supernatural being and power of Jesus Christ may be disputed; but the perfection, the sublimity of his actions and of his precepts, of his life and of his moral law, are incontestable: and, in effect, not only are they not contested, but they are admired and celebrated enthusiastically and complacently.” Jesus’ teachings largely repeat what Hillel had already said, though, and it is incredibly unlikely that Jesus would not have known of the debates between Hillel and Shammai.

    Where Schaaf says, “The student of the unconscious prophecies of heathenism will naturally connect this expression with the famous passage in Plato’s “Republic,” where the great sage of Greece describes the ideal of a just man (δίκαιος), as one who, “without doing any wrong, may assume the appearance of the grossest injustice (μηδὲν γὰρ ἀδικῶν δόξαν ἐχέτω τῆς μεγίστης ἀδικίας);” yea, who “shall be scourged, tortured, fettered, deprived of his eyes, and, after having endured all possible sufferings, fastened to a post, and must restore again the beginning and prototype of righteousness “ (Plato’s Works, vol. iv., p. 74, sqq. ed. Ast., p. 360, E. ed. Bip.). Aristotle also says of the perfectly just man, “that he stands far above the political order and constitution as it exists; that he must break it wherever he appears.” The prophecies of Greek wisdom, and the majesty of the Roman law, here unite in a Roman lady, the wife of the imperial representative in Jerusalem, to testify to the innocence and righteousness of Christ in the darkest hour of his trial before wicked men.” I do not think Plato and Aristotle’s writings were prophetic, I think they were talking about Socrates.

    “Now, when the centurion, and they that were with him watching Jesus, saw the earthquake, and those things that were done, they feared greatly, saying: Truly this was the [a] Son of God.” ‘Son of God’ and ‘son of man’ were commonly used phrases at that time, that were used to describe more people than just Jesus. Epicurus uses them to refer to himself in The Art Of Living, a couple of centuries before Jesus. We have lost the cultural context of their meaning and I think they have come to be interpreted as more unique to Jesus than they really were.

    Schaaf says, “The confession of the despairing traitor—Ἥμαρτον παραδοὺς αἷμα ἀθῶον—may be more concisely and pointedly translated, ‘I sinned in betraying innocent blood.’ In connection with the testimony of Pilate, and that of the Sanhedrin, which could prefer no other charge against Jesus than that he had called himself the Messiah, this confession amounts to a complete vindication of the innocence of Jesus.” In other words, this means Jesus never said that he was the Messiah. I have to leave off going through this list at this point. The kids are up and so I must get on with my day.

    But to the remainder of your post… As I said, I have no evidence for Jesus specifically surviving his own crucifixion. I only think it’s possible, given that other people survived theirs, and people were not good at telling whether someone was really dead.

    “Finally, why would Jesus’ closest friends after seeing him in such a horrible state and recognizing that he had merely survived a horrible ordeal, go on to put there lives through torture, and ultimately death, knowing that what they were doing was a hoax.”

    His followers would not have thought it was a hoax. It was common that people were buried alive, even as recently as 100 years ago. Think how horrific it would be to wake up in a coffin. The “deceased’s” loved ones of 100 years ago would absolutely not bury them if they did not truly believe they were dead. Jesus’ followers were equally convinced of his death. After he had shown himself willing to die for them, could they do any less for him?

  3. I had wanted to say more about the ‘son of god’ and ‘son of man’ phrases, but was interrupted by motherly responsibilities. :)

    What they referred to was a person who sees beyond the boundaries of identity such as religion, nationality, ethnicity, etc. Jesus certainly was that, as shown by his compassion and service to people who were not Jews, and he taught others to be so, for example in his parable on the Samaritan (“who was his neighbor? the one who helped him”). A ‘son of god’ or ‘son of man’ is someone who loves all people, just because they are people. It’s what we’d now call philanthropy: “loving mankind,” from phil- “loving” + anthropos “mankind.” Originally in L.L. form; modern spelling attested from 1623. Philanthropist is first recorded 1730. Or as in another definition for philanthropy: Love to mankind; benevolence toward the whole human family; universal good will; desire and readiness to do good to all men; — opposed to misanthropy. (ref. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/philanthropy?qsrc=2446)

    Another way to think of its original meaning is similar to what President Obama referred to as our common humanity in his inauguration speech:

    “For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus – and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.”

    Jesus fits the description ‘son of God’, but in my opinion, he was not and is not the only one to do so. (Please note I am not at all comparing Obama to Jesus!! I used his speech just to illustrate the meaning of the phrases.)

    I also wanted to respond to your statement “To start, we Christians do have evidence for the death of Jesus. Primarily the New Testament and, even more specifically, the Gospels.”

    When people debate the merits of a claim, the claim itself cannot be used as evidence for itself. The way I see it, the death of Jesus – as described in the Gospels – is a claim that you are supporting and I am disputing in this conversation. The Gospels are, themselves, the claim, not evidence.

    1. Sorry, Epictetus (ca. 55 CE – ca. 135 CE), not Epicurus. I have a hard enough time keeping the names of my kids’ classmates’ parents straight, let along ancient Greek philosophers!

  4. “The Bible is at the very least a historical text.” When the standards of professional historians and scholars are applied to the Bible, especially the Gospels and even Acts (a so-called “history of the early church”) it is a mistake.

    It would be much easier to prove the exitence of Pilate than the death of Jesus for a professional historian.

    The Bible is revealed “truth”, not historical “truth”. If you believe (the keyword) in the life and death of Jesus, I don’t understand the need for the historical basis or “proof” of that.

    There will always be a “tension” between reason and faith.

  5. Sir,

    Why is it a mistake?

    I am not a historian, but I have only heard of Pilate being mentioned once in a historical text that is not associated with Jesus. I’m assuming that you are a professional historian, so it should be efficacious for us if you answer my first qusetion and respond to this paragraph.

    As Paul stated, “…if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” 1 Corinthians 15:14. Truth is truth. If Jesus did not actually die, then there is nothing to believe IN (or rather ON). I’m not really sure what you mean by the keyword being “believe”, can you elaborate on that? Believing that Jesus lived, died, and rose from that death in actual space/time is not any different than believing that if I get too close to fire I will get burned or that George Washington was the first President of the United States of America.

    I don’t really have any tension between reason and faith. I have tension between following God and sinning, but not much between reason and faith.

    Jordan

  6. Who actually wrote the Gospels and when were they written? Were the writers first-hand witnesses or writing from oral stories passed down for a generation or so? As textual scholarship has steadily improved over the last quarter century, the four Gospels are being “pushed” back into the second century, certainly after the destruction of the Temple in 69-70 c.e. Jewish uprising against Rome. Were the Gospels copied from some unknown source (Q text) as some scholars refer to?

    Just a few of many questions a historian/scholar would ask. To quote from the Bible as if it were a historical text and imply that proves the story really proves nothing from a historical perspective. You quote Paul but Biblical scholars regularly disagree on exactly what he did write and some find no “proof” he even existed outside the writings of early church “fathers”.

    But all of the above makes no difference if you believe Jesus lived and died as told in the Gospel stories.

  7. “When people debate the merits of a claim, the claim itself cannot be used as evidence for itself. The way I see it, the death of Jesus – as described in the Gospels – is a claim that you are supporting and I am disputing in this conversation. The Gospels are, themselves, the claim, not evidence.”

    Then the existence of all historical figures and events is unprovable by your reckoning.

    The claim is the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus as a historical fact; the evidence that supports the claim is the Gospel narratives: – which happen to be _the_ most reliable writings from the ancient world–a fact that is undisputed by modern scholarship.

  8. @ Cheryl
    sorry for the previously brief response, I have newborn twins and I was holding one baby while my wife has the other. Fatherly duties prevent me from delving deeper, but my comment pretty much covers it, since you yourself are relying on the testimony of the New Testament to make your own claims about Jesus, even if you do disagree with the eyewitnesses, NT authors, and Jesus’ own claims to His divinity.

    @ spiritualway
    Hi, thanks for your questions and comments! The claim that faith is divorced from reason is untenable and completely foreign to the Judeo-Christian worldview. Historically “faith” in the Judeo-Christian worldview has always been belief founded in fact, in space-time history. The Jewish people continually point back to the Scriptures, back to real historical events saying “remember; you came; you saw; you heard!”

    Some would have us believe that opinions about Jesus are a matter of indifference to faith in Jesus; that no matter what a man thinks about the person of Christ, it is maintained, he may still trust in Christ. And in response to this question J. Gresham Machen wrote an excellent little book titled “What Is Faith?” To express this, Machen gives us this example:

    “Suppose I have a sum of money to invest. It may be rather a wild supposition–but just let us suppose. I have a sum of money to invest, and not knowing much about the stock market I go to an acquaintance of mine and ask him to invest my savings for me. But another acquaintance of mine hears of it and injects a word of caution. ‘You are certainly taking a great risk,’ he says to me. ‘What do you know about the man? Are you sure that he is the kind of man that you ought to trust?’ In reply I say that I do know certain things about the man. ‘Some time ago he came to this town and succeeded in selling the unwary inhabitants of it some utterly worthless oil-stock; and if he is not in jail, he certainly ought to be there. But,’ I continue, ‘opinions about a person differ–that is merely and intellectual matter–and yet one may have faith in the person; faith is quite distinct from knowledge. Consequently I can avoid the unpleasant duty of rakin up the past of the speculative gentleman in question; I can avoid unseemly controversy as to whether he is a rascal or not, and can simply trust him all the same.’
    Of course if I talked in that way about so serious a thing as dollars and cents, I should probably be regarded as needing a guardian; and I might soon find my property better managed for me than I could manage it myself. . . . We are committing to Him [Jesus] the most precious thing that we possess–our own immortal souls, and the destinies of society. It is a stupendous act of trust. And it can be justified only by an appeal to facts.”

    Kind regards,
    Anon

  9. SW wrote: “Who actually wrote the Gospels and when were they written?”

    All of the available evidence points to the titled authors as the actual authors. There is good reason to place the writing of at least the synoptic gospels prior to the destruction of Jerusalem, with perhaps only John’s gospel coming after.

    “Were the writers first-hand witnesses or writing from oral stories passed down for a generation or so?”

    First hand witnesses and those who interviewed first hand witnesses.

    “As textual scholarship has steadily improved over the last quarter century, the four Gospels are being “pushed” back into the second century, certainly after the destruction of the Temple in 69-70 c.e. Jewish uprising against Rome.”

    A) Calling the attempts to re-date the gospels to a later epoch an “improvement” begs the question.

    B) The better scholarship acknowledges the 1st century dates that have been recognized for nearly thousands of years.

    “Were the Gospels copied from some unknown source (Q text) as some scholars refer to?”

    We have no good reason to think so (scholarly theorizing does not make a good reason) – but, again, this would really be irrelevant to the historical question.

    “Just a few of many questions a historian/scholar would ask.”

    Asking question is fine … but refusing to accept the answers is problematic.

    “To quote from the Bible as if it were a historical text and imply that proves the story really proves nothing from a historical perspective.”

    It is plain from reading the texts that they are written as historical narratives. From the perspective of an historian, they are historical documents. There’s really nothing odd about quoting from the Bible as an historical text.

    “You quote Paul but Biblical scholars regularly disagree on exactly what he did write and some find no “proof” he even existed outside the writings of early church “fathers”.”

    Disagreement among scholars is nothing surprising and shouldn’t be the basis for ignoring evidence. Even assuming that the dozen or so of his letters that have come down to us weren’t enough, we also have the testimony of the Acts of the Apostles by one of Paul’s companions. The early church fathers are additional evidence on top of the writings of Paul himself, the Acts of the Apostles (by Luke), and Peter’s second general letter (2 Peter).

    “But all of the above makes no difference if you believe Jesus lived and died as told in the Gospel stories.”

    I’m not sure it makes “no difference,” since Christianity is not merely a blind faith. As attempted criticism of historical records, those points are interesting – but we do not accept the Scriptures merely as historical documents, but as the very Word of God. That higher claim is something necessarily extra-scientific: outside the realm of the natural sciences.

    -TurretinFan

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