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Historians Can't Prove the Resurrection

[A interviewer once asked theologian N.T. Wright,  "How do you, as a historian, approach the resurrection?"  His reply...]

Well, we know quite a lot about first-century Jewish movements, many of which ended with the leader’s death. I’ve tried to imagine myself in the world of someone like Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian. He hears about the demise of a messianic leader or prophetic leader, and is told that this leader has been raised from the dead. He is going to ask: What do you mean he’s been raised from the dead? And he will not be satisfied if the answer is: Well, I had this vision, or I felt my heart warmed, or I felt that God had forgiven me for letting the leader down. He would say, "Well, fine, I’m glad you had that experience. But why did you say he’s been raised from the dead?" My point is that resurrection is something that had a quite clear meaning at that time. It was something that every pagan knew doesn’t happen. And a lot of Jews (the Sadducees and some others) believed it doesn’t happen. Those who did affirm the resurrection did not think it was just away of saying, "He is Lord."

The historian has to offer a plausible hypothesis of why the disciples used the language of resurrection. My hypothesis is that there were two things: an empty tomb and sightings of Jesus. An empty tomb by itself doesn’t mean that much, nor do visions -- many people have had visions, particularly after somebody they love has just died. Given the accounts of the empty tomb and of the sightings, however, I think the historian is faced with two parts of an arch with the piece in the middle -- the resurrection -- missing. The question is: Are these just two isolated phenomena?

The historian cannot prove the resurrection in the same way that one can prove that Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD. But I think the historian can say: Here are the plausible explanations. And there is an extreme implausibility of virtually all the rival suggestions, such as the one that James, the brother of the Lord, was walking around in the garden at the same time, and because he looked rather like Jesus, the women saw him in the half light. That story is not going to last more than an hour or two.

- N.T. Wright, "Resurrection Faith: N. T. Wright Talks About History and Belief," The Christian Century, December 18-31, 2002.