(image courtesy ChristArt)
By Spencer D Gear
“Pastor, I don’t know what to believe about Christ anymore. I’ve just read a leading magazine and I now believe that you and my Christian parents have not been telling the truth about what happened to Jesus at the cross.” These words from a disillusioned 23-year-old in your church might knock the spiritual wind out of your theological sails. They did for me when a bright young Christian openly confessed this.
What did he learn from Time?
Jesus – a peasant nobody – was never buried, never taken by his friends to a rich man’s sepulcher. Rather, says Crossan, the tales of entombment and resurrection were latter-day wishful thinking. Instead, Jesus’ corpse went the way of all abandoned criminals’ bodies: it was probably barely covered with dirt, vulnerable to the wild dogs that roamed the wasteland of the execution grounds.
What will you do pastor, Christian leader, or parent with this kind of news through the mass media? John D. Crossan goes even further. In speaking of the resurrection of Christ, he wrote that “in I Corinthians 15 Paul begins by enumerating all the apparitions of the risen Jesus.” While now retired, Crossan, a fellow of the radical Jesus Seminar, taught biblical studies for 26 years at the Roman Catholic DePaul University in Chicago.
What’s an apparition? It’s a phantom, a ghost. Jesus’ resurrected body was not real flesh but he claims that “the resurrection is a matter of Christian faith.” Jesus “was buried, if buried at all, by his enemies, and the necessarily shallow grave would have been easy prey for scavenging animals.”
For him, the resurrection of Christ is really a spiritual resurrection among believers – whatever that means!
If that person were listening to ABC radio’s, “Sunday night with John Cleary,” he would have heard an interview with a leading church figure who stated:
I live on the other side of Albert Einstein, and I know what relativity means in all of life, and so I can no longer claim that I possess objective and revealed truth and it’s infallible, or it’s inherent, those become claims out of the past that are no longer relevant for 21st century people.
Spong believes that
God is very real. I believe that I live my life every day inside the reality of this God. I call this God by different words. I describe God as the source of life and the source of love and the ground of being. I engage God when I live fully and love wastefully and have the courage to be who I am. That’s the God I see in Jesus of Nazareth.
Yet Borg & Crossan are so provocative as to state “that probably more people have left the church because of biblical literalism than for any other reasons.” The contrary is true with Spong. His liberal views seem to be associated with people leaving his diocese in droves.
With the freely available blogs on the www, Christian people are likely to encounter more doubting religious statements like those.
What evidence will you give to those who are questioning?
When it comes to Christmas or Easter times and the mass media want a controversial or alternate view of the birth, death, or resurrection of Christ, to whom will they turn? Billy Graham, John MacArthur, Peter Jensen, Bill Newman, or your pastor? Hardly!
If they want to rattle the cages of Bible-believing Christians, they turn to scholars or prominent religious people with a very different outlook. People like John Dominic Crossan, a co-founder of the unorthodox Jesus Seminar, will be in their sights. Marcus Borg & Crossan co-authored a book last year that gives a daily account of Jesus’ final week in Jerusalem.
it is difficult to imagine that this story is speaking about events that could have been videotaped. . . This story is the metaphoric condensation of several years of early Christian thought into one parabolic afternoon. Whether the story happened or not, Emmaus always happens Emmaus happens again and again—this is its truth as parabolic narrative.
According to these expert scholars, Jesus’ appearing, after his resurrection, to two people on the road to Emmaus was not an actual event. It was metaphor of Christian thought! We could be tempted to respond, “What nonsense!” and leave it there. Where does that leave questioning young believers and older Christians who are shattered by such comments?
Compulsory ministry of apologetics
Following the death of the apostles, early leaders of the churches were people who were converted from paganism and needed to defend the faith (apologists) and correct false doctrine (polemicists). They included Justin Martyr (born ca. 100), Irenaeus (b. 120) , Tertullian (b. 160) and Clement of Alexandria (b. after 150).
Why was it necessary for the early church to defend the Christian faith and correct false teachings? The New Testament exhorted us that this would be the case. When the apostle Paul was in Athens, he “reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace ever day with those who happened to be there” (Acts 17:17). Why did he need to do this? The Epicurean and Stoic philosophers who engaged with him, accused him of being a “babbler” and “a preacher of foreign divinities” (v. 18). Why? “Because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection” (v. 18). Then he debated the philosophers on the Areopagus (Acts 17:22ff).
Why was this necessary? First Peter taught that all Christians should be “always prepared to make a defense (Gk. apologia) to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (I Pt. 3:15 ESV).
Paul warned that “the time is coming when people will not endure sound [or healthy] teaching” and “will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (1 Tim 4:3-4).
I am convinced that Christians will be shaken by the heresy of people like Crossan, Borg, and the doubters who are reported in our mass media, if the church does not prepare them as apologists who “make a defence” of their faith. Since the ministry gifts of apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor and teacher are “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:12), church leaders have an obligation to equip believers as apologists in our hostile world.
Our topic is one of the challenges of the first and twenty-first centuries: How do we respond to people like Crossan, Borg and others who deny the bodily resurrection of Christ and want to write it off as a “metaphoric condensation of several years of early Christian thought”?
I thank God for the ministry gift of Christ to the church in Richard Bauckham, who challenges the historical Jesus’ critics of the twenty-first century who are “attempting to reconstruct the historical figure of Jesus in a way that is allegedly purely historical, free of the concerns of faith and dogma” and not according to the Jesus as recorded in the New Testament. Bauckham considers that this enterprise “has been highly problematic for Christian faith and theology.”
What is happening here?
For some historians’ judgements today, such as Crossan, Borg, the late Robert Funk, and other Jesus’ seminar fellows, there is “a Jesus reconstructed by the historian, a Jesus attained by the attempt to go back behind the Gospels and, in effect, to provide an alternative to the Gospels’ construction of Jesus.”
Crossan claims that the “Cross Gospel attempts to write, from prophetic allusions, a first ‘historical narrative about the passion of Jesus. Hide the prophecy, tell the narrative, and invent the history.’” Do you understand the magnitude of what he is saying? The Cross Gospel is the Gospel material that applies to the cross of Christ and he describes it as hiding prophecy and inventing history.
Crossan’s presupposition is that “Jesus, as magician and miracle worker, was a very problematic and controversial phenomenon not only for his enemies but even for his friends.” What about those whom Jesus resurrected such as Lazarus? “A story about a miraculous or physical raising from death could be used or created as a symbol for baptismal or spiritual raising from death,” according to Crossan.
What are these liberal theological scholars doing with the biblical witness and evidence? Bauckham rightly believes that whenever historians consider that biblical texts are “hiding the real Jesus from us,” they at best give us a version of the historical Jesus “filtered through the spectacles of early Christian faith.” At worst, they are developing “a Jesus constructed by the needs and interests of various groups in the early church.” Also, I consider that they are inventing a Jesus who suits their own beliefs. They do not want the biblical texts to speak for themselves and be believed on face value. Crossan regards Christ’s empty tomb stories, not as an event that happened in past history, but as “parables of resurrection, not the Resurrection itself.”
Surely it is reasonable to conclude that when people saw the risen Christ that this evidence should be enough to verify that this actually happened. That’s not how it is for those who attack Christ’s resurrection.
Crossan, for example, rejects the claim that the appearances of Jesus after his resurrection were visions because “they have no marks that you would expect—no blinding lights, no heavenly voice, nobody knocked to the ground.” The stories in John 20 of the race by the two disciples to the empty tomb (Peter and the Beloved Disciple) in addition to that of Mary Magdalene and the other Mary (Matt. 28:8-10) “tell us absolutely nothing of historical value about the origins of Christian faith. But they tell us a great deal about the origins of Christian authority. . . They are dramatizations about where power and authority rest in the early Church.”
This kind of conclusion causes me to question the integrity of the one who wrote it. What can we say to those who want to create a Jesus out of their own presuppositions and contrary to the Gospel content?
One of the keys to understanding the Gospels as being authentic and reliable is similar to, but not identical with, our standard for the law courts of Australia. The importance of eyewitnesses can not be over-stated in the courts and in the evidence for the credibility of the truthfulness of the Gospels.
Eyewitness testimony is best
How do we obtain reliable evidence of something that happened in the past such as the German Holocaust of World War 2, the Twin Towers catastrophe of 11th September 2001, the Fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, or the life and times of Jesus Christ and the early church? Samuel Byrskog’s assessment hits the mark:
The major Greek and Roman historians who comment on their own and/or others’ practice of inquiry and sources adhered to Heraclitus’ old dictum. Eyes were surer witnesses than ears. The ancient historians exercised autopsy [eyewitnesses] directly and/or indirectly, by being present themselves and/or by seeking out and interrogating other eyewitnesses; they related to the past visually.
Instead of leaving history to be constructed according to the creative imagination of the scholar, it is better to go to the texts themselves (in this case the New Testament) to “see to what extent they provide a portrayal which identifies certain persons as capable of being eyewitnesses and informants in line of the emerging gospel tradition.”
The Gospels & eyewitness evidence
Let’s check out the evidence. When we search the Gospels for eyewitness testimony to the events and interpretation of Jesus’ life, what do we find?
1. Women as witnesses of the Christ
One of the surprising pieces of eyewitness testimony for an empty tomb of Jesus is the women as witnesses. Rabbi Judah used to praise God daily that he was not created a woman. In a Jewish culture which regarded the witness of a woman as insignificant, it is important to observe that some of the foremost witnesses of the resurrected Christ are women.
All four Gospels include women as witnesses but the males are given more prominence. In Luke, the women who had followed Jesus were there at the burial with spices (23:55-56) and on resurrection morning, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James and other women reported the empty tomb to the apostles (24:10-12).
At Mark 15:40, particularly, he has women as eyewitnesses in focus at Christ’s crucifixion: “There were also women looking on from a distance, among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome.” It is important to note that this “looking” by the women is more than a gaze at a distance. The verb, “looking on” is not some passing glimpse but means “to look at, observe, perceive.” Their purpose as eyewitnesses is accentuated by their being mentioned by name.
2. Luke’s Gospel & eyewitnesses
On the human level, Luke explains how he compiled his Gospel under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit,
Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught (Luke 1:1-4).
While these verses have come in for a lot of scholarly discussion, the concept being communicated about evidence from “eyewitnesses” is not like that in the law courts of the land. Instead, the autoptai (eyewitnesses)
are simply firsthand observers of the events. (Loveday Alexander offers the translations: “those with personal/firsthand experience: those who know the facts at first hand.”) But the concept expressed in the words, “those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses” is clearly the same as in Acts 1:21-22 and John 15:27.
Luke 24:33-34 confirms the importance of eyewitnesses after Christ’s resurrection: “And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem. And they found the eleven and those who were with them gathered together, saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!’ I Cor. 15:5 confirms that Christ “appeared to Cephas [Peter], then to the twelve.”
Peter, the apostle, was a reliable eyewitness of Christ’s resurrection and of other evidence (see Acts 1:22; 2:32; 3:15). He was a firsthand observer of the events. The Gospel reliability is confirmed by eyewitness accounts of participants in these unique events of the first century.
Since Luke was not one of the 12 apostles, it is important that one of the sources for his Gospel is that of those who had first hand knowledge of the events in Jesus’ life – the eyewitnesses.
However, let’s not overlook the fact that eyewitness testimony is only as good as the integrity of the eyewitness.
3. John’s Gospel & eyewitnesses
John’s Gospel provides special evidence for the importance of eyewitnesses through John the Baptist:
And John [the Baptist] bore witness: “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God” (John 1:32-34).
The first followers of Jesus, including the apostle John himself, were important eyewitnesses of Jesus’ ministry (see: John 15:27; 19:35; 21:24).
In one of the most detailed recent commentaries on the Gospel of John, Andreas Köstenberger has emphasized the importance of eyewitnesses in the Gospel records:
This role of eyewitness is both vital and humble. It is vital because eyewitnesses are required to establish the truthfulness of certain facts. Yet it is humble because the eyewitness is not the center of attention. Rather, eyewitnesses must testify truthfully to what they have seen and heart—no more and no less. The Baptist fulfilled this task with distinction. The last time he is mentioned in this Gospel, it is said of him that “all that John said about this man [Jesus] is true” ([John] 10:41).
4. Papias & the importance of eyewitnesses
Reading the writings of Papias may not be one of your favourite bedtime stories, but in the writings of this early Christian leader is evidence for the importance of eyewitnesses testimony.
Papias was a bishop of Hierapolis in the Roman province of Asia, close to Laodicea and Colossae, in what is Turkey today. He wrote an important work in the early second century AD, Exposition of the Oracles of the Lord, in five books. While a full copy of the works has not survived, fragments of it are preserved in one of the writings of the very earliest church historians, Eusebius of Caesarea’s, Ecclesiastical History. Notice carefully what Papias wrote:
But I shall not hesitate also to put down for you [singular] along with my interpretations whatsoever things I have at any time learned carefully from the elders and carefully remembered, guaranteeing their truth. For I did not, like the multitude, take pleasure in those that speak much, but in those that teach the truth; not in those that relate strange commandments, but in those that deliver the commandments given by the Lord to faith, and springing from the truth itself.
If, then, any one came, who had been a follower [or, goes closely with, attends] of the elders, I questioned him in regard to the words of the elders—[that is] what [according to the elders] Andrew or what Peter said, or what was said by Philip, or by Thomas, or by James, or by John, or by Matthew, or by any other of the disciples of the Lord, and what things Aristion and the presbyter John, the disciples of the Lord, say. For I did not think that what was to be gotten from the books would profit me as much as what came from the living and abiding voice.
In order to understand what Papias is driving at, we need to note the four categories of people he mentions:
(1) those who “had been in attendance on the elders,” i.e. people who had been present at their teaching; (2) the elders themselves; (3) the Lord’s disciples, consisting of Andrew, Peter, Philip, Thomas, James, John, Matthew, and others; (4) Aristion and John the Elder, who are also called “the Lord’s disciples.”
Based on Papias’ two verbs used in categories (3) and (4), aorist tense (“said”) present tense (“say”), we know that those in category (3) were dead, while Aristion and John the Elder were still teaching. This means that “Papias could learn from their disciples what they were (still) saying. These two had been personal disciples of Jesus but at the time of which Papias speaks were prominent Christian teachers in the province of Asia.” The Apostle John had died but, John the Elder, was alive and teaching in the churches of Asia.
I enthusiastically recommend a read of Richard Bauckham’s, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, to refute those who are suggesting that the Gospels include “creative fiction.”
Why this emphasis on eyewitness testimony?
Perhaps you are questioning why I am placing such emphasis on the record of eyewitness testimonies in the New Testament and particularly in the Gospels.
My point is simple. Some of today’s doubters about the integrity of the Gospels are claiming that the Gospels included creations by the Gospel writers. Crossan admits, “Sometimes people are shocked at the notion that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John might have elaborated upon actual events or even created stories and sayings about Jesus from scratch” by using “creative freedom.”
However, the evidence from Scripture is that the Gospels contain eyewitness accounts of the death, empty tomb, and appearances of the resurrected Jesus.
The doubters are raising considerable questions that may unsettle those who are new in the faith or those whose faith is weak. There is an obligation on Christian leaders to equip God’s people to deal with the attacks on Jesus and the Gospels.
When it is stated by prominent scholars that “eighty-two percent of the words ascribed to Jesus in the gospels were not actually spoken by him, according to the Jesus Seminar,” what are Christian leaders who are concerned about God’s people to do? If only 18% of Jesus’ words in the Gospels are authentic according to these researchers, how can church leaders respond?
At the time of the writing of the Gospels, eyewitness testimony was available that could have been checked with the original apostles, such as Peter and John, and with other eyewitnesses. Generally, people are less willing to question the authenticity of writing or oral tradition if there are witnesses available to verify what has been stated.
There is also an urgent call today for Christian leaders to be engaged in equipping Christians for the ministry of apologetics (see I Peter 3:15; Acts 17:22ff).
Which one will you choose?
(1) “Hide the prophecy, tell the narrative, and invent the history,” OR,
(2) “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.”
 Ostling, R. N. 1994, ‘Jesus Christ: Plain and simple’, Time, 10 January, Available from: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,979938-3,00.html [cited 7 July 2007]
 Bishop Shelby Spong, “Sunday Nights with John Cleary,” 17 June 2001, available from: http://www.abc.net.au/sundaynights/stories/s815368.htm [cited 7 July 2007].
 D. Marty Lasley 1999, “Rescuing Christianity from Bishop Kevorkian”, Anglican Voice, 2 June, available from: http://listserv.virtueonline.org/pipermail/virtueonline_listserv.virtueonline.org/1999-June/000415.html [cited 31 July 2011].
 Spong in “Sunday Nights with John Cleary,” 17 June 2001, available from: http://www.abc.net.au/sundaynights/stories/s815368.htm [cited 7 July 2007].
 Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, vol. 3, ch. 39, vs. 3-4, available from New Advent at: http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/250103.htm [cited 15 July 2007].
Copyright © 2012 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 14 April 2016.