When I went to a secular graduate school three years ago to study critical New Testament scholarship, I was not expecting much food for my faith. I am not a fundamentalist, but like most believing Catholics, I have always taken the Bible pretty much at face value, especially the New Testament. Critical scholarship, on the other hand, is all about not taking the Bible at face value. I am not just talking about people who do not believe Jesus walked on water, but about those who do not believe he was born in Bethlehem, or chose twelve special disciples, or delivered the Sermon on the Mount (the exact list varies from scholar to scholar).
What I was not expecting was what some of these same scholars have to say about the Resurrection. Critical thinking can cut both ways, and there is no escaping the fact that, explain it as you will, something really big happened shortly after the crucifixion.
Founding of Christianity
One of the first books recommended to me was Helmut Koester's two-volume Introduction to the New Testament (Walter De Gruyter). Koester, a Harvard professor, is a highly learned man, and his work on the historical background of early Christianity is very useful. Still, you probably would not hire him to lead your parish Bible study. Among other things, he is suspicious about the Twelve Apostles, he thinks the Sermon on the Mount is an editorial job by Matthew and he rejects the Bethlehem story outright.
But the Resurrection is different. It "cannot very well be questioned," he writes, that Jesus appeared to his followers after his death. That - and not his ministry or his crucifixion - is responsible for the founding of Christianity.
Koester does not commit himself to an orthodox Christian belief in the Resurrection, but this is still a far cry from what he has to say about so many other parts of the Gospel story. And he is not alone.
Two other important commentators who come to mind are Paula Fredriksen, now of Boston University (From Jesus to Christ, Yale), and E. P. Sanders of Duke, one of the biggest names in current New Testament studies (Jesus and Judaism, Augsburg Fortress; The Historical Figure of Jesus, Viking Penguin). They, too, paint non-traditional pictures of the "real" Jesus, and question many details of the Gospel accounts. Yet they both very calmly refer to the Resurrection as an unexplained but quite genuine fact.
Now, what is happening here? Why should such a far-fetched idea - a man rising from the dead - draw so much respect from people who do not even seem to believe the easy things in the Gospels?
The answer is that the evidence for the Resurrection is surprisingly good for such a far-fetched idea. The biggest piece of evidence is simply the survival of Christianity. By human standards, it should not have happened. Scholars argue about whether Jesus claimed to be the Messiah, and he certainly changed the concept. But it was as a would- be Messiah that the Romans crucified him.
There were a lot of self-proclaimed "messiahs" in and around the first century AD. They all ended up dead, and nobody but historians even remembers their names. As of sunset on the first Good Friday, Jesus was, to all appearances, just one more failed messiah.
He did not stay a failed messiah, though. A great many of his followers, plus a couple of previous non-believers (Jesus's relative James, and later Paul of Tarsus; see 1 Cor 15:78) saw him alive again. Paul, writing 20 years later, but reporting testimony from the very earliest days of Christianity, mentions an appearance to "more than 500 brothers at once, most of whom are still living" (1 Cor 15:6) - a very dangerous claim to make unless it was true.
Hardly any scholar doubts that, at the very least, many of these people honestly believed they had seen the risen Lord.
Of course, some would say the Resurrection was all hallucination or wishful thinking, even if the early Christians did die for it. ("People have died for a lot of things," one of my professors pointed out.) But 500 people is several hundred too many for hallucination, and wishful thinking only works for things you think about and wish for.
The fact is, the disciples were not expecting Jesus to rise. Jesus did not talk much about his resurrection, and there is no indication the disciples understood the idea at all (see Mk 9:10). As first-century Jews, they would have believed, at most, in a general resurrection of all the righteous on the last day (see Jn 11:24), not in the raising of one individual. When they met the risen Lord, their whole mental world turned upside down.
What really happened on the first Easter? Nothing in the New Testament actually describes the Resurrection itself. It is clear, though, that it was not like the raising of Lazarus or Jairus's daughter, a miracle restoring a corpse to ordinary human life. Rather, the risen Jesus had a different sort of body, that appeared and disappeared, and he was sometimes hard to recognise (See Lk 13:31, Jn 20:26).
But the empty tomb shows that it was his body, not a ghostly substitute, that the disciples saw. And the empty tomb, too, is well- substantiated. All four Gospels say the tomb was found empty by women. The testimony of women was not worth much under the laws of the time, so nobody inventing such a story would have had women making the discovery. And Jewish ideas of a general resurrection involved the body; disciples preaching that Jesus was risen could have been refuted by producing his body, if it had in fact still been in the tomb.
Make no mistake about it, the Resurrection is absolutely decisive for the whole Christian message, in the first century or the 21st. Without it, the disciples would have had nothing to say; they would have died of old age, like all the other retired fishermen in Galilee. Every book in the New Testament is implicitly or explicitly about the risen Lord. Paul was not exaggerating when he told the Corinthians that "if Christ has not been raised, your faith is vain" (1 Cor 15:17). And the same is true for us today.
Did Jesus really rise from the dead? It is hard to believe. It was hard even for the disciples, who were there. And for many people, no amount of evidence could prove something so amazing. But still, there is an amazing amount of evidence. We have, indeed, a reason for the hope that is in us.
Richard Dunstan is a Canadian Catholic writer. His article (here abridged) first appeared in the American journal 'Our Sunday Visitor.'