Monday, April 16, 2012

Jesus' resurrection - some historical thoughts by Bishop Paul Barnett

Paul Barnett, retired Anglican Bishop of North Sydney and well-known historian, is former Head of Robert Menzies College, Macquarie University, Visiting Fellow in Ancient History at Macquarie University; former lecturer at Macquarie University and University of Sydney; Teaching Fellow at Regent College, Vancouver and Moore College, Sydney; visiting lecturer Presbyterian College, Sydney; author of twenty books on the New Testament in its historical setting. He has an MA (hons) from the University of Sydney and a PhD from University of London, both in Ancient History. He served as Rector St Barnabas Broadway (Sydney), and Holy Trinity North Terrace (Adelaide), and was Bishop of North Sydney from 1990 to 2001. The following passage is from his book: Is the New Testament Reliable?: A Look at the Historical Evidence (IVP 1986) Pages 178-179. 

Without the resurrection, Jesus becomes just another prophet whose prophecies came to nothing, another mistaken dreamer, another idealistic reformer. Indeed this is all Jesus was if the resurrection did not take place. 

That Jesus can never be viewed primarily as a teacher of ethics or as a reformer of society is quite clear from Paul’s words, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we [Chrstians] are of all men most to be pitied” (1 Cor 15:19). Paul continues immediately, “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead,” something he and his fellow New Testament writers repeatedly say and universally assume. The resurrection is inextricably part of the fabric of the new Testament: destroy it or remove it and the New testament becomes an unreliable bundle of rags and tatters. 

What I am attempting to establish is that a Jesus who dies (c. 33) as no more than a teacher and reformer would have been as little known, or almost as little known, as ben Kosiba, who died a century later.

Consider some words the apostle Paul wrote to a group of people in far-away Macedonia no more than seventeen years after the execution of Jesus: “You turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he rised from the dead. (I Thess 1:9-10). 

Fundamental to what Paul told the Thessalonians was that Jesus was God’s Son and that God had raised him from the dead. The act of receiving these pieces of information established the Thessalonians as Christian believers. 

The question is: was Paul’s communication to them true or false? If it was false, either Paul was somehow deceived or he was a deliberate deceiver of others. Few people reading Paul would accept the latter view, though the former is certainly possible. To return to the courtroom analogy, Paul is only one of the witnesses – one witness among a dozen or so. If all the witnesses, independently of each other, state that Jesus was the Son of God and that he was raised from the dead, as they do, what then? I can only ask the reader to be a member of the jury and arrive at his own verdict. For my part the evidence is clear and compelling. 

The logic is simple. People became Christians on the basis of information which they were given about Jesus, The only real questions are: was the information true or untrue? Did the information correspond with, and give expression to, reality or not? The information is an effect for which there was a cause, like a ripple caused by a stone thrown into a pond. What caused the effect? Was it the stone thrown into the pond as the bystanders said, or was it something else? Was Jesus in reality the Son of God raised from the dead, as the witnesses said, or were these only words which had no basis in fact? But if what purports to be the cause - the deity and resurrection of Jesus - was not the cause, what was? The writers must all have been either deceived or cold-blooded deceivers. 

Those are the questions which I have turned over and over in my mind and looked at from many different angles. Philosophically and scientifically there are problems with a resurrection, and I feel those as keenly as most. But I cannot escape the historical question. Did the resurrection happen or not? If it happened it happened - and so much the worse for my dogmas. I certainly will not be able to regard Jesus with the indifference with which I might view other historical figures. But at that point the questions about Jesus stop, or at least slow down, and the questions about me begin.


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