Where do critical scholars stand on the resurrection?

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In a BBC article released Sunday, a poll was cited showing that 25% of people identifying as Christians in Great Britain did not believe in a literal resurrection of Jesus. Broken down by how often they attended church, only about 57% of “active” Christians (attended weekly) believed in the Bible’s version of the resurrection.

In the article, Reverend Dr. Lorraine Cavanagh suggested the numbers were a result of recent scholarship on biblical texts as well as academic consensus on the implausibility of the biblical account.

“Science, but also intellectual and philosophical thought has progressed. It has a trickle-down effect on just about everybody’s lives,” Cavanagh said.

While public opinion on the historicity of the resurrection is conflicted or trending against the biblical account, critical scholarship may be trending the other way.

In a survey of 1,400 German, French, and English academic publications on the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth over the last 30 years, Dr. Gary R. Habermas noted that roughly 75% of scholars favor one or more arguments for an empty tomb.

“Thus, while far from being unanimously held by critical scholars, it may surprise some that those who embrace the empty tomb as a historical fact still comprise a fairly strong majority,” wrote Habermas.

In his analysis, the most cited scholarly argument in favor of the biblical account is that women were listed as the initial witnesses. Habermas opposes the common conservative talking-point that testimonies of first century women were always rejected in legal settings, “but given the general reluctance in the Mediterranean world at that time to accept female testimony in crucial matters, most of those scholars who comment on the subject hold that the Gospels probably would not have dubbed them as the chief witnesses unless they actually did attest to this event.”

The majority of publications also agree that the resurrection event would indicate evidence to the truth of certain Christian theology. As a representative sample, Habernas cites Willi Marxsen, a German scholar who rejects the historicity of the resurrection, but who nevertheless does not believe the Christian faith can hold without it: “What happened . . . was that [in the resurrection] God endorsed Jesus as the person that he was: during his earthly lifetime Jesus pronounced the forgiveness of sins to men in the name of God. He demanded that they commit their lives entirely to God. . . . I could easily add a whole catalog of other statements.”

The late Christopher Hitchens, atheist and author of God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, agreed that those who claim to be Christian but reject the resurrection misunderstood the heart of the Christian faith.

In a Q&A session following a debate in Portland, a member of the audience and Unitarian minister informed Hitchens that her Christian beliefs did not involve a literal reading of the Bible:

“The religion you cite in your book is generally the fundamentalist faith of various kinds. I’m a liberal Christian, and I don’t take the stories from the scripture literally. I don’t believe in the doctrine of atonement (that Jesus died for our sins, for example). Do you make a distinction between fundamentalist faith and liberal religion?”

Hitchens’ response was surprising and brash.

“I would say that if you don’t believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and Messiah, and that he rose again from the dead and by his sacrifice our sins are forgiven, you’re really not in any meaningful sense a Christian.”

While a majority of scholars hold to an empty tomb, the fact that holds near universal acceptance among historians is that the disciples of Jesus did see something after his crucifixion that they all would die defending, and that started a movement.

“The nearly unanimous consent of critical scholars is that, in some sense, the early followers of Jesus thought that they had seen the risen Jesus,” observes Habernas.

Of the alternative theories suggested to account for this fact, the most common is that Peter and the other disciples had a grief-induced hallucination in which they were comforted in the recent loss of their “messiah” by a sense of his continued love and presence, which was spiritual and not a physical appearance. The early church and later, the New Testament, according to this theory, adopted the language of resurrection to describe Jesus “being alive” and continuing in an intermediate state with God.

Oxford lecture and leading New Testament scholar N.T. Wright, in anticipation of the release of his 817 page analysis of the resurrection, argued that this theory fails to account for Jewish culture at the time. Wright suggests such an idea required “enormous credulity to suppose that, even allowing Peter and Paul to have had such fantasies or hallucinations they would have generated more than a passing comment of sympathy among their colleagues or contemporaries.”

Wright contends that “resurrection language” wasn’t loosely used by the early believers, and points to the disciples’ reaction following what they thought was Peter’s death in Acts 12: “First-century Jews knew about post-mortem visitations from recently deceased friends, and they already had language systems for speaking of such phenomena. ‘It must be his angel,’ they said, when they thought they were having a visit of just this sort from Peter. They did not say that Peter had been raised from the dead.”

Given the empty tomb and the post-burial experiences of the disciples, Wright suggests the conclusion of resurrection to be obvious:

“Were it not for the astounding, and world-view-challenging, claim that is thereby made, I think everyone would long since have concluded that this was the correct historical result. If some other account explained the rise of Christianity as naturally, completely and satisfyingly as does the early Christians’ belief, while leaving normal worldviews intact, it would be accepted without demur.”