SAN DIEGO — If the so-called “Jesus Family Tomb” proves anything, it’s that efforts to discount the resurrection continue. It’s a mystery that remains a stumbling block for many.
Last month, the Discovery Channel aired James Cameron’s documentary on the “Jesus Family Tomb,” claiming the discovery of a tomb with ossuaries bearing the names of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and “Judah son of Jesus.”
Scholars and archaeologists disproved Cameron’s findings, saying that the text on the Mary Magdalene ossuary actually read “Mary and Martha,” and that the tomb was more than likely the tomb of St. Paul’s friend, another Jesus, who was also known as Justus, son of Joseph. Following the revelation, Discovery pulled its planned repeat of the program.
Yet, according to several Catholic theologians and apologists, there’s a new trend in Scripture scholarship. That trend is away from the skepticism and suspicion of the past four decades toward an acceptance of the Gospels and toward the fact that Christ’s resurrection is the only explanation that makes sense.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “the mystery of Christ’s resurrection is a real event, with manifestations that were historically verified, as the New Testament bears witness” (CCC 639).
Pope Benedict XVI has said as much.
“I trust the Gospels,” he wrote in the introduction to his forthcoming book on Christ, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration.
“Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event,” he said in his first encyclical letter, Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love).
Protestants often turn to other sources for proof. The popular Evangelical speaker and author Josh McDowell writes about the significance of the moved stone and the grave clothes.
That’s natural, says Steve Ray, an Evangelical convert to the Catholic faith.
“In the Catholic world, we trust in the authority of the Church,” he said. “Evangelicals are always looking for facts. If all you have is the book, you’re constantly trying to prove that the book is true. We believe when the Church told us that Christ rose from the dead, the Church is the voice of Christ in the world today, and we can trust it. It’s a whole different methodology because of what we see as our source of authority.”
“What puzzles the world, and its wise philosophers and fanciful pagan poets, about the priests and people of the Catholic Church is that they still behave as if they were messengers,” wrote the British Catholic convert G.K. Chesterton in The Everlasting Man. “A messenger does not dream about what his message might be, or argue about what it probably would be; he delivers it as it is.”
“The Church would never use things like the Shroud of Turin or the gravestone to try to prove the resurrection,” said Michael Barber, professor of theology at John Paul the Great Catholic University in San Diego, Calif. “There is a distinction between public and private revelation. The shroud is not part of the deposit of faith.”
Instead, Catholics rely on the authority of the Church, the Biblical evidence, and tradition that has been passed on.
“The compelling evidence for me is the unanimous testimony of all the apostles and even a former persecutor like St. Paul,” said Brant Pitre, assistant professor of theology at Our Lady of Holy Cross College in New Orleans. “There was no debate in the first century over whether Jesus was resurrected or not.”
Scholars say that the witnesses to Christ’s resurrection are compelling for a variety of reasons.
“People will seldom die even for what they know to be true. Twelve men don’t give up their lives for a lie,” said Ray, who recently returned from France, where he was filming his “Footprints of God” series at the amphitheater in Lyon, the site of a persecution in A.D. 177. “The martyrs of Lyon underwent two days of torture and all they would say is, ‘I am a Christian.’ They knew the resurrection was true and didn’t question it.”
Barber also highlighted the diversity of sources and how they include different details as well as passages that do not paint the disciples in the best light.
“In the Road to Emmaus story, they write that they didn’t recognize him,” said Barber. “Our Biblical accounts are our best evidence.”
Several of the scholars pointed to 1 Corinthians, where Paul states that Christ appeared to 500 people.
“Some want to shy away from the Gospels because they say they were written later,” explained Barber. “If you want to believe that they were written later, then why wouldn’t the Gospels have made use of this piece of evidence from 1 Corinthians?” asked Barber.
Barber also pointed to two non-Christian sources that make reference to Christ. The first is Tacitus. The second is the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, who, noted Barber, actually mentions the resurrection.
“In Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18, Chapter 3, paragraph 3, Josephus references Jesus’ resurrection,” said Barber. “The problem is that most scholars think it’s a later Christian addition to Josephus. We don’t have his original work.”
Belief in resurrection was not completely foreign to Judaism.
“A belief in the resurrection of the dead is a major element of traditional Judaism,” said Jon Levenson, professor of Jewish studies at Harvard. “According to the Mishnah, the first rabbinic law code, belief that God would resurrect the dead is an obligation, not an option, for Jews.”
But, as Barber pointed out, such a belief was only found in one segment of Judaism at the time of Christ.
“The Pharisees believed in resurrection; the Sadducees didn’t,” said Barber. “But along with that belief was that with the resurrection would come the dawning of the restoration of the Davidic kingdom.”
Barber also points to the fact that Christ’s resurrection is not the only resurrection attested to in the Gospels.
He referenced the resurrections of Lazarus and Jairus’ daughter.
And in the Gospel of Matthew (27:52-53), when Jesus dies, “tombs were opened, and the bodies of many saints who had fallen asleep were raised. And coming forth from their tombs after his resurrection, they entered the holy city and appeared to many.”
“The fundamental conviction in a scientific age with our post-enlightenment views is that these things didn’t happen,” said Barber. “People have determined that any source that talks about resurrection is unreliable and rule it out. What kind of science is that? You don’t just dispense with evidence that you don’t like.
“Many scholars are now recognizing that one should not so easily dismiss the reliability of the Gospel of John,” added Barber. “Some have compared the Gospel of John with the Pauline epistles and found numerous points of contact, so it’s very plausible that John’s Gospel may have been written earlier than previously thought by many historical critical scholars.”
Gone are the days where the Jesus Seminar dominated. The Jesus Seminar is a research team of New Testament scholars founded in 1985 by the late Robert Funk and ex-priest John Dominic Crossan to use historical methods to determine what Jesus may or may not have said or done. The seminar’s reconstruction of Jesus portrayed him as a wandering sage who did not found a religion or rise from the dead.
According to Barber, there’s an alignment of scholars in support of the original Gospel texts.
“The dominant strain in mainstream Biblical scholarship is from those who are convinced that the Gospels are indeed reliable,” said Barber. He cited the work of N.T. Wright, Craig Evans, Craig Blomberg and Richard Bauckham as some examples.
“These people are not on the fringes. They are in the mainstream,” said Barber. “At the Society of Biblical Literature gathering in Atlanta last year, Eerdmans Books sold out of all of Wright’s book before the three-day conference was over.”
“In The Resurrection of the Son of God, Wright argues that the bodily resurrection of Jesus is the best historical explanation for what happened, given the evidence,” said Pitre. “Whenever others posit alternative scenarios, such as that the body was stolen or that people only saw his spirit, you have to discount all kinds of evidence from the Gospel. Those alternatives lack evidence to back them up.”
Skeptics discount the resurrection, said Catholic apologist Dave Armstrong, because no one saw the event itself. Yet, Armstrong pointed out, “not many people witness murders, either, but we manage to scrounge up enough evidence to punish murderers. Nobody witnessed the Big Bang or the whole process of macroevolution, but atheists and agnostics have no trouble believing in those things.”
Finally, all of the scholars agreed that Christ’s resurrection ran counter to Jewish monotheism. Therefore, they wonder, how else can you account for the rise of Christianity aside from the resurrection?
“Look at all the data from the Gospels and the eyewitnesses, and there is no other way to account for the rise of Christianity than the rising of Jesus from the tomb on the third day,” said Barber. “There’s no other way to make sense of the data we have.”
No matter what evidence we have, noted Barber, we’ll always come up short.
“The resurrection is a mystery. We can’t demonstrate the mysteries of faith empirically. We don’t know all the details, we just know the tomb was empty,” said Barber. “The mysteries go beyond reason.”
Tim Drake writes from
St. Joseph, Minnesota.