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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 preposterous:

"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 service.

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. --

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