In our series on the positive case, we have come to the point where we are nearly done examining our source material, the gospels. To review our case, we have noted initially that Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15 establishes the death of Christ as the primary evidence in support of the Christian faith. To explain it another way, the resurrection is a point at which the Christian Faith is testable, if perhaps not provable. Before dealing with the argument, we needed to examine the general historic value of our source materials, specifically the accounts found in Scripture. Again, we are not arguing for inspiration, infallibility or inerrancy. These are issues that, while early in the discussion of systematic theology, are difficult to accept without faith. That doesn’t mean Scripture is useless in witnessing to others. Many come to Christ due to the persuasion of the Holy Spirit, which reaches beyond the mind into the whole heart to convict men of sin and of righteousness and of judgment. However, to the sceptic asking questions, this is an unnecessary hurdle to jump. If we cannot prove inspiration, we can at least demonstrate a high degree of historical reliability. Here we will lay little new track, while there is a great deal about internal rules of evidence, rather than becoming too obscurantistic, we will largely sum up the case we have made, and hint at additional arguments.
The case for the gospels
As we have noted in the past few years, the common idea that the gospels are late documents preserving legends, is at best, inaccurate. The evidence suggests that the gospels are from the second half of the first century, written at a time when aging eyewitnesses were still available for consultation, or for refutation. We have also noted that the gospels are in line with the archeological data and historical data from the first century. This is most impressive with the gospel of John and the book of Acts. John has detailed information about Jerusalem before its fall in AD 70 that are apparent despite the actual sites being buried for an extensive period of time. Additionally, he seems to well understand first century Judaism, and its customs. The book of Acts, as we have noted, was accounted by a major nineteenth century archeologist as being a written by a “historian of the first rank.” This indicates that we should likewise consider the author’s previous work, the gospel of Luke, to be similarly valuable. This implies that the author had a source of information that was an eyewitness to the events.
In addition to the evidence adduced above, lets look for a moment at the literature itself. Historians have numerous rules, or canons, that they use for evaluating the evidentiary value of an ancient document. Some of those evidence are external, whether details are correct or incorrect (as first century frauds rarely took the time to carefully research the period which they are working), the dating of the work, etc. There are numerous internal canons, as well. We will consider two of them, though, in general, the gospels meet the criteria surprisingly well.
Criteria #1 the Criteria of “Embarrassment”
The first criteria is the criteria of embarrassment. The element here is does the account or source contain material that would be embarrassing to the subjects. The New Testament, as well as the old, meets this criteria well, though many Christians would find this to be surprising. Acts, for example, does not always represent Peter in the best light. This is would seem rather unlikely from a later writer, because Peter was both a notable church leader and an apostle. It is difficult to concieve of a second or third generation Christian making up details about Peter’s denial of the Lord, or even referring to him as Satan. Likewise, the gospel accounts contain two evidences, among others, we will look at. The first is the well-known passage of Christ’s examination of the fig tree that did not have fruit, despite the size of its leaves. This pericope is a “difficulty” to theologians, because it is hard to account for within the epistles discussion of the person of Christ (for example, in part due to this passage, some including this author, believe that Christ in His humanity did not use the omniscience of His Deity, others believe that Christ knew the facts, but pretended not to know for the lesson He sought to impart, etc). A second element of the “criteria of embarrassment” is the women who first found the empty tomb. This is not a big thing today, (nor should it be construed that I am a sexist in suggesting it), but to the Jewish establishment of the first century, it would be considered very embarrassing (my own belief is that Christ revealed Himself to the women first in order to “thumb His nose” at said establishment). Women could not testify in court (hence the lack of reference in 1 Corinthians 15 to the women coming to the tomb first), and were considered not merely to be subject to their husbands, but generally inferior.
One of the bigger facts that the criteria of embarassment demonstrates is the unbelief of James. If Jesus was the perfect, sinless Messiah, then the unbelief by his family members is certainly difficult to account for. A second century Christian, if making these accounts up, would have instead painted the brothers of Jesus as preaching the gospel, and testifying to Jesus miracles as a child, not to their embarrasment by His preaching. Therefore, the conversion of James, like the conversion of Paul is an example of someone accepting Jesus who was not inclined to accept his diety.
Criteria “The pointless details”
Just as we noted that there are the factors of “embarrassment” there are also criteria that deal with the style of the writing. Simply put, there are details noted in genuine accounts that aren’t important to the point the author is making, that tend to be absent in falsified reports. For example, we have references in the gospel accounts to the color of the grass, who arrived at the tomb first between Peter and John, John’s unwillingness to enter the tomb, the way the grave clothes were arranged, etc. These details don’t make major points about the subject, but they are the type of incidental things people remember when they discuss events they have witnessed. I sould emphasis that this is an indication of eye witness testimony, not a second hand report (this also I believe is a minor evidence that the fathers who connect Mark with Peter are probably correct, though Church history does record that Mark’s family were earlier followers of Christ’s).
This is an admittedly small sampling of this class of evidence, but it should provide some understanding of the basics. Next issue we will cover our last aspect of this part of the positive case for the resurrection: we will examine various alternate theories and rejections. Due to the fact that some of the objections I have in mind will not be those the reader will find important, I am opening up this section to questions.