By David Kwabi and Tout Wang
This is a guest post written by David Kwabi, a PhD candidate in mechanical engineering at MIT, and Tout Wang, a PhD candidate in physics at Harvard University. Both men are interested in exploring the intersection between science and faith.
This past Sunday, Christians around the world celebrated Easter. The occasion recalls a time two thousand years ago when, according to the New Testament accounts, a man named Jesus was condemned to death by crucifixion in Jerusalem. It would be strange to make a celebration out of such an event, except the accounts also record that three days later, Jesus rose from the dead, leaving behind an empty tomb and an initially bewildered but ultimately emboldened group of disciples who began announcing his resurrection to the rest of the world.
On a campus committed to rigorous scholarship, an occasion like Easter raises questions for believers and skeptics alike. What are we left with, for instance, when we read a holy book like the Bible under the unforgiving light of rationalism instead of according to religious dogma? Does the resulting portrait of Jesus look anything like that of Christian tradition? How are we to think about the resurrection of Jesus, which lies at the very heart of the celebration of Easter but which defies our scientific understanding of how the world works?
By the standards of a modern biography, we know almost nothing about Jesus. We have no descriptions of his appearance, nor do we know much about his family life beyond the names of his parents and four brothers. The New Testament accounts describe his birth, include a lone anecdote about a childhood episode at the temple, and then skip ahead by more than two decades to the final few years of his life. With so much lacking in the portrait we have of Jesus, there are those who would go as far as to suggest that he was an entirely mythical figure, conjured out of thin air as a deity not unlike one of the Greek gods.
Yet in the context of serious historical research, we know more about Jesus than about any other individual from that era. Whereas we derive our knowledge of ancient rulers sometimes from just a single coin inscription or a scrap of papyrus, there are more than forty different authors who mention Jesus within 150 years of his life—the writers of the New Testament, early church figures, a prominent Jewish historian named Josephus, several Roman intellectuals, and more. To put this in perspective, we have many more sources writing about Jesus than about the Roman emperor at the time, Tiberius Caesar. Moreover, in perhaps one of the great ironies of history, the only mention by any Roman historian of Pontius Pilate, the governor of Palestine, was in reference to his role in the crucifixion of Jesus. Consequently, the consensus among credible scholars of the New Testament is that there was most certainly a man named Jesus who roamed the region of Palestine, teaching, preaching, amassing a substantial following, and eventually being condemned to death by crucifixion as an enemy of Rome. This is as much a fact of history as anything from the ancient world can be.
Beyond this consensus, there are many who consider the real Jesus to be a very different individual from the Jesus of Christian tradition. The most prominent among these scholars is Bart Ehrman from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who has written books like Misquoting Jesus and has appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. For Ehrman, the historical Jesus was not, as Christians might say, the son of God, or the savior of humanity. Rather, he was simply a Jewish prophet who predicted the imminent end of the world and who became enough of an enemy of Rome to be put to death on a cross. Afterward, his followers formed the notion of his divine nature and invented the narrative of the resurrection to give legitimacy to the continuing movement.
Ehrman’s position is representative of that of scholars who are skeptical of the authenticity of the New Testament accounts about Jesus. Their suspicion is that many of the more spectacular elements of his biography were invented decades after the crucifixion to validate church doctrines and settle theological feuds. The result, from this perspective, is a text full of discrepancies that cast doubt on who Jesus really was.
However, other distinguished scholars have countered that the earliest New Testament documents date to within a generation of Jesus, which means that they were written within communities consisting of individuals who had firsthand experiences of the events being recorded. Such a setting leaves little room for the invention of legendary accounts of Jesus. Moreover, the enormous number of ancient fragments we have of the New Testament vastly exceeds what is available for other literary works of the time that are taken to be authentic. For the late classical scholar Sir Frederic Kenyon, given the manuscript evidence, “the last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed” (The Bible and Archaeology, p. 288).
Looking at the texts themselves, one finds the Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus to be sprinkled with accurate details of people and places that have been confirmed by archaeological discoveries. They are also corroborated by the writings of Paul, whose letters to the early churches in places like Galatia, Corinth, and Thessalonica make up what scholars agree to be the oldest pieces of the New Testament. But the Gospel accounts are also notable for what they do not include. The disciples are not depicted in a favorable manner but are instead portrayed as clueless, impetuous, cowardly, and often selfish individuals who figured out only after the resurrection what Jesus was really doing. The recorded teachings of Jesus also do not touch on any of the most fractious topics debated in the first centuries of the Christian church, making it unlikely that the original text was embellished to suit the purposes of later religious communities.
At this point, it is important to acknowledge one objection to the integrity of the original Gospel texts. Skeptics point out that there are discrepancies in the narrative, such as how many women were at the empty tomb on Easter morning. However, historians accept that different ancient witnesses will record slightly different details of the same event, and this reality does not undermine the authenticity of the recorded event itself. What is remarkable is that, even when considering all the textual variants of the New Testament documents being debated in the world of scholarship today, there is no apparent discrepancy that calls into question any of the pillars of the Christian worldview. In particular, in the case of the women at the tomb, regardless of how many were there, all the manuscripts record that they were witnesses to the resurrection.
Understandably, it is the resurrection of Jesus that presents the ultimate challenge to the credibility of the New Testament. Surely we know that dead people do not come back to life again! To say otherwise would amount to a rejection of science. However, belief in the resurrection of Jesus simply implies that at one singular point in time, God supernaturally restored life to one individual, while still being the creator of the universe and the author of its natural laws. This confronts a purely materialistic worldview that excludes supernatural phenomena or divine activity, but it is not a confrontation that can be resolved using the tools of the natural sciences, which probe only phenomena that can be subjected to repeated testing.
Instead, the issue is one of history, and it must be addressed by considering how the various hypotheses for what happened at Easter account for the historical facts. The consensus among scholars is that shortly after the crucifixion of Jesus, his followers did indeed discover his tomb to be empty and thus became convinced that their Lord had risen from the dead. They also insisted that they had encountered the risen Jesus in person. Soon after these encounters, the disciples were transformed from fleeing cowards into fearless pillars of the early church.
Skeptics have wondered whether the disciples were simply coping with the grief of losing their teacher, but their convictions about the resurrection took them down a brutal road of persecution, often to the point of death, all because of their refusal to renounce the risen Jesus as the true Lord and King of the world. While people have been known to embrace martyrdom for a set of abstract beliefs, the earliest Christians died for insisting on the reality of their personal experience.
Another possibility is that the disciples were hallucinating, but we know from historical evidence that from the earliest days of the church, there were known to be hundreds of people who had shared the same, consistent experience of encountering Jesus after his crucifixion. So if it were a hallucination, it would be an unprecedented example of one happening to an enormous number of people at the same time.
Finally, even unsympathetic sources from the time acknowledge the presence of the empty tomb, suggesting only that the disciples must have stolen the body.
These considerations do not prove that the resurrection of Jesus happened just as the Christian Easter narrative says it did, because historical evidence alone can perhaps never prove that a supernatural event happened. What they might suggest, however, is that the question of whether the resurrection happened is not so easily dismissed as an anti-science fantasy, but that it lingers even in the face of careful historical examination. Thus, for serious Christians who are simultaneously committed to serious scholarship, the New Testament accounts of Jesus remain as compelling as ever in light of rationalism, and rumors of an Easter resurrection echo still.