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Jewish Disciples Wouldn’t Have Created the Idea of the Resurrection, So It Must Have Really Happened… Right?

If you’ve discussed the resurrection with Christians before, then you’re probably familiar with the above argument. Since first century Jews didn’t believe in a bodily resurrection like Jesus’s, then they’re no way the disciples would have believed it without actually witnessing it for themselves. William Lane Craig has used this argument several times:

He made the case again in a 2005 debate at California State University. At the 29 minute mark, he says that Jews like the Pharisees believed in a resurrection that would happen to everyone at the end of time. They never believed that an individual could have a bodily resurrection within the course of human history.

But recently, while I was reading Crossan’s The Historical Jesus, he pointed out something that I hadn’t thought of before. It turns out that there are a couple of New Testament passages that really throw a wrench in Craig’s claim. For instance, Mark 6:14-16 says:

King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some said, “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead. That is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.” But others said, “He is Elijah.” And others said, “He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”

Here, we have a number of people who are ready to believe that Jesus is actually a resurrected John the Baptist, Elijah, or some other prophet from antiquity. And we find similar passages in both Matthew and Luke as well. So now we have a problem. Either Craig’s argument is totally false, and the idea of a bodily resurrection from the dead is something that people in Jesus’s time were ready to believe with virtually no evidence, or the writers of the synoptic gospels were lying or mistaken. Either way, it illustrates how an actual resurrection is the least likely explanation for the resurrection story.

If you’d like to read about other issues with the resurrection, you can check out this article.

110 thoughts on “Jewish Disciples Wouldn’t Have Created the Idea of the Resurrection, So It Must Have Really Happened… Right?”

  1. I think you might be giving WLC’s position more credit than is due. He’s arguing that simply because most Jews didn’t believe in a resurrection, the disciples wouldn’t have talked about it. The problem with this is that there’s an even more plausible explanation that hasn’t been explored: cults begin with pretty fantastic claims.

    Take any recent cult in the last 100 years, and you’ll find people accepting big claims at face value. Go back a little further, and you could even argue the LDS church is simply a cult that managed to grow fast enough to develop a doctrinal inertia of its own.

    Why can’t the New Testament be that inertia for Christianity? All you need is a few guys going around telling everyone they swear up and down that they knew this dude came back from the dead. Congratulations, that’s how it spreads, and it wouldn’t be the first time people made false claims to become famous. In fact, just based on the sheer volume of people lying for fame alone, one could argue that it’s entirely almost certain that these people were just making stuff up to promote their cult.

    Finally, WLC is trying to shift the burden. It’s his job to actually show that someone coming back from being dead for three days is more plausible than naturalistic hypotheses. At best, he’s guessing along with everyone else as to what happened. The simple fact is that we don’t know what happened back then, except that some people who followed a rabbi came out of Judea with a message that slaves really identified with.

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  2. I agree with SB’s point. There’s a whole slew of arguments centered around the basic premise that the ancient Christians wouldn’t have bought this if it wasn’t true. Nevermind that there was a real shortage of reliable, publicly accessible records back then, and fact checking was something of an undiscovered art. Nevermind that people back then believed any number of things that no modern Christian would accept, like the entire Greco-Roman pantheon, and things that you think could be easily disproved even by their standards, like that malaria could be cured by binding a nail from a crucifixion to your forehead and sprinkling the whole mess with cow manure. Nevermind that even with all our improved access to records and data, Scientology happened. Even without a direct disproof, the whole proposition is a bit shaky, is what I’m saying.

    But all that said, I still really love this counterargument.There’s something beautiful about a person being proven wrong by the very document they are trying to defend.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Nate, when I read this post, I wondered: (1) Was the situation back then so simple that there were just two views, individual resurrection or no individual resurrection? (2) Does Nate think things were so simple? I’ll leave you to answer the second question, but I thought I’d do some research on the first.

    First, it is questionable whether we should call Herod a Jew, or representative of Jewish thought. Josephus calls him an Idumean, and the historians say he embraced Graeco-Roman culture. So we may need to look at both Graeco-Roman and Jewish views of resurrection to understand what Herod may have thought

    Historian NT Wright has undertaken perhaps the most comprehensive recent survey of first century views on resurrection, so I had a look at his Jesus’ Resurrection and Christian Origins. And it doesn’t take long to see that there were many different views on resurrection in the ancient world.

    The Greeks had a word for resurrection, so they obviously thought about it, but Wright reports that ” whenever the question of bodily resurrection is raised in the ancient world the answer is negative”. If they had hope at all, they tended to believe more in immortality, whether via superstition, hope, mythology or the view that the emperor lived on.

    Among the Jews, there was a “spectrum” of belief about life after death, from total disbelief to resurrection, which was a specific type of belief in the afterlife, not a general view as you may have taken it (i.e. there were other, non-bodily, views of the afterlife). It generally was part of a belief that God would resurrect and restore the entire nation sometime in the future. Those who died in the meantime were not immediately resurrected, but in some intermediate state. The possible return of Elijah or other prophets was part of Jewish folklore and some rabbinical texts, but these were special cases – in any case, Elijah didn’t die but was “taken up”, so he couldn’t have been resurrected. Wright stresses that Jewish beliefs about resurrection were at that time quite fuzzy and only partly formed.

    In contrast, christians almost 100% believed from the beginning that Jesus was individually and bodily resurrected, and that believers would be too (though in a slightly different way).

    So Craig (who you might recall has a PhD in New Testament) got it pretty right. The Jews did, in the main, believe in a different sort of resurrection, or in none at all. Herod’s comment may not have referred to resurrection at all as the Jews normally understood it (after all, Jesus was clearly old enough to have been alive while John was still alive, so couldn’t have been resurrected in the sense we are talking about), and it was in any case an aberrant and minority view. Herod doesn’t express a view much like the later christian view. There is no contradiction.

    So your argument depends on two implicit assumptions, that Herod spoke a representative Jewish view and that there were just two binary views among Jews. Once we see that neither of those assumptions is true, the argument ceases to be an argument. It is no wonder that most secular scholars believe in several of the following – that Jesus’ tomb was empty, that his disciples had some form of visions of Jesus after he died, that belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus goes back to the very earliest days for christianity and that it formed a significant basis for the expansion of the faith.

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  4. Hi Unklee,

    Some issues:

    “In contrast, christians almost 100% believed from the beginning that Jesus was individually and bodily resurrected, and that believers would be too”

    I’m pretty sure this is not true, but shall claim that I’m probably ignorant. You have sources to back you up on this?

    “So your argument depends on two implicit assumptions, that Herod spoke a representative Jewish view and that there were just two binary views among Jews. Once we see that neither of those assumptions is true, the argument ceases to be an argument.”

    I’m assuming you’re referring to Nate’s argument. But I think this cuts both ways – similarly if Jews back then had a spectrum of belief about Resurrection, then WLC’s initial argument will have zero merit.

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  5. I made this statement on unkleE’s blog a while back, “Here is what “The Eleven” thought when the women told them of the empty tomb. “Luke 24: 9 When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others. 10 It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles. 11 But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense. 12 Peter, however, got up and ran to the tomb. Bending over, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves, and he went away, wondering to himself what had happened.”

    unkleE’s reply,”I think it can be said objectively that most historical scholars accept that the tomb was known to be empty and/or Jesus’ followers had visions of him alive after his death, which led to very early belief that he had been resurrected (not on the first day, as described in the passage you quote, but within months maybe, certainly a few years). We may take those things as probable historical facts.

    Give a rumor months or a few years and there will be Elvis sightings ! Oh wait , I think that already happened ! 🙂

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  6. Hi Powell,

    “You have sources to back you up on this?”

    Yes, you can find any number of scholars who say that – e.g. Hurtado (who says it is probably now the majority view), Casey, Bauckham and (I think) Ehrman – and not that many I’ve come across who’d say differently.

    “if Jews back then had a spectrum of belief about Resurrection, then WLC’s initial argument will have zero merit”

    But this doesn’t logically follow from the facts. A fair summary is that the majority of Jews believed,as I have already said, “in a different sort of resurrection, or in none at all.” So WLC’s argument that the christians weren’t predisposed to belief in resurrection of the kind believed by christians is quite accurate. And certainly, if there is any argument against that, Herod’s statement, which cannot logically imply resurrection since Jesus and John were contemporaries, is obviously not it.

    “Zero merit” is a very strong statement! 🙂 And unjustified! 😦

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  7. Hi UnkleE,

    Powell said exactly what I was thinking, and I think the point still stands. Like you, I don’t think the beliefs about resurrection were binary back then, and that’s why I agree with Powell’s critique: I don’t see how Craig can claim that the early Christians wouldn’t have been predisposed to the belief. How could he know that? The passages in question don’t just talk about what Herod thought — they supposedly report the thoughts of a number of people at the time: some thought that John had been resurrected, some thought Elijah, and some thought it was another prophet. If true, this shows how readily some people entertained the notion of resurrection.

    And I’m afraid I don’t understand your point about Jesus and John being contemporaries. I get the impression that they didn’t know who Jesus was, but did know who John was. So it’s not that they were trying to conflate the two people — they just thought that this person going around preaching was John back from the dead.

    Anyway, thanks for the comments!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. @Unklee,

    Thanks for the link! Will check them out and correct my misconception.

    With regards to WLC:

    I think “zero merit” is the same degree as “the argument ceases to be an argument” so I will stand by that 🙂

    Also, what Nate said.

    Cheers

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  9. Hi Nate,

    The point about Herod is twofold.

    (1) He doesn’t represent a significant view in first century Judaism. Wright, Jeremias (who WLC quotes) and others have said that there was very little, perhaps nothing, in Judaism that points to the christian view of resurrection. Herod’s view is not representative.

    (2) John & Jesus were both contemporaries and both famous, and it is inconceivable that Herod didn’t keep tabs on potential troublemakers like them. So how could he have thought John had literally come back to life as Jesus since Jesus was around when John was alive? So Herod must have been thinking of something else other than what the christians claimed about Jesus. Ergo, the christians didn’t copy from any idea that Herod had.

    So both these points make your argument from Herod quite untenable. There may be a similar argument somewhere, but this surely isn’t it. So far WLC’s argument isn’t touched. If you want to make a successful argument, you have to find an example that parallels the christian claims, and then show how, even if it was a minority view, a learned Pharisee like Paul, an educated gentile like Luke and faithful Hebrews like James and Peter were all influenced by this obscure idea.

    If that idea was tenable, I suppose scholars would have taken it up, but I’m not aware of any who have done so (though I’m not saying there aren’t any). That is perhaps why mainstream scholars like Sanders, Casey, Ehrman and many others believe the disciples had visionary/hallucinatory experiences of Jesus after he died, and this led to their belief in the resurrection and in his divinity – because that seems to be the only explanation that fits.

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  10. Hi Powell, I only gave you one reference, but you can find what the others I mentioned say in their books:

    Hurtado – How on earth did Jesus become God?
    Casey – Jesus of Nazareth
    Bauckham – A very short introduction to Jesus
    Ehrman – How did Jesus become God (original title!)

    You can look most of these up on Amazon, Look Inside and get a bit of an idea without buying them (though I have 3 of the 4 and have read them right through). Thanks.

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  11. Is there a time in human history when resurrections were the order of the day? Has human nature changed so drastically since that time that now any story of an alleged resurrection is treated with skepticism while then it seems to have been the norm.

    No eyebrows are raised when Jesus raised Lazarus and none, as far as I can tell were raised when Elijah? Elisha raised a dead boy. The resurrection of Jesus is odd still. There is no witness to the actual event and even then, it is the report of one telling the others that it has happened. One must be credulous to believe it happened.

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  12. Carrier’s viewpoint gives yet a different slant on this whole question. The first gospel – let’s call it the first comic book of the genre – was written by “Mark”, and the textual fingerprints indicate he wasn’t a Jew (errors in geography + customs). His geographical errors were later repaired by Matthew, who seems to actually have known the layout of Judea and was a Jew.

    Mark was the first writer to firmly place Jesus as a historical earthly figure, and to claim an earthly type of resurrection. He wasn’t Jewish.

    The question of what the disciples believed about bodily earthly resurrection presumes quite a lot up front. It presumes the first comic book encapsulates what the first-gen disciples really said and did at all. Forty years after the fact.

    Resurrection, the atonement, the life and work of Jesus, etc., may all have been “heavenly/celestial” events. The book of Hebrews says essentially that. Paul’s authentic letters are ambiguous. Euhemerization of celestial figures to give them earthly histories was common fare at the time for Greco-Roman culture. And that is the culture from which Mark comes.

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  13. I think something Matt said is key:

    The question of what the disciples believed about bodily earthly resurrection presumes quite a lot up front. It presumes the first comic book encapsulates what the first-gen disciples really said and did at all. Forty years after the fact.

    And unkleE, I think this is where WLC’s argument is problematic, and yours as well. You probably feel the same way about my points, too.

    WLC claims that the most likely explanation for a first century belief in Jesus rising from the dead is that an actual resurrection occurred. It’s fine for Christians to believe in the resurrection, but to claim that it’s the most likely scenario is going way too far. Furthermore, he’s arguing for this by saying that the idea of a resurrection like Jesus’s simply wouldn’t have been tenable to them.

    I’m sorry, but these passages just show that that isn’t true — unless the synoptic writers were mistaken, of course. They were prepared to believe that Jesus was a resurrected individual, and there’s nothing in the text to tell us what type of resurrection they were talking about. Nor does it probably matter. We already know that there were many different views about Jesus’s resurrection, too, which shows how open people were to many different ways that someone could be resurrected. To say that Herod’s view that Jesus was John means he was thinking of something very different than the kind of resurrection attributed to Jesus is just an assumption. It’s an assumption to say that Herod knew who Jesus was — in fact, I’d say the context indicates that Herod did NOT know who Jesus was, which explains why they were trying to figure out who he was.

    I feel like I’m simply taking WLC’s argument to its logical conclusion — so if you have problems with what I’m saying, wouldn’t that mean you have problems with WLC’s claims, too?

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  14. The entire project of apologetics on such issues requires a dismissal of what a lapse of 40 years really means. People need to get a lot more honest about the source documents. What I mean by that is that the gospels don’t pass as *histories* at all. They fail to disclose:

    1. Who their authors were
    2. Who the authors talked to in order to obtain the information related
    3. How those sources knew what they were talking about

    They have no pedigree, to be blunt.

    They aren’t histories. People should read Herodotus or similar to see just how differently ancient *histories* actually were. They were nothing like the gospels.

    So a 40 year lapse is a big deal, precisely because the pedigrees are so very shabby. Folks want to dismiss this and say that it was short by ancient standards. Perhaps – if we’re talking about ancient histories that included dates, authors, sources, etc. We’re not talking about that. Thus, comic books. (Except we usually know who wrote comics, LOL)

    The reason for reluctance in the community to admit of such a first line error is that Historical Jesus scholars would have little industry remaining if they admitted to having almost no historical datum. The writings of Paul are some of the only authentic, pedigreed documents we have. They aren’t histories either, and they disclose precious little about the life of Jesus. Bankruptcy is a difficult admission. We had a first comic book written, anonymously and without sources. 40 more comics followed, similarly anonymous (or forged) and similarly unsourced.

    Typically blog comments have better pedigrees than the gospels. 🙂

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  15. I like the comic book analogy. It works on so many levels. Just look at the protagonist: can read people’s thoughts, can heal people, can turn one substance into another, can fly, and has a fantastic healing factor. Rabbi JC and the C-Men.

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  16. Hi Nate,

    I don’t want to draw this out too much, but I think the argument looks weaker the more it is examined.

    1. WLC bases his argument on the “minimal facts” accepted by most scholars. Part of this is the apparent fact that many scholars, I think probably a majority, and not all of them christians (e.g. Casey, Ehrman, Sanders) believe the disciples had visions/hallucinations of Jesus after his death, and this led to them believing he had been resurrected in a way quite different to normal Jewish belief, and thus led to them believing he was divine. You can verify this is what these scholars conclude, and you can decide if you want to oppose their conclusions.

    2. He argues that the “Jewish concept of resurrection” was different to the christian one and quote Joachim Jeremias that there is no concept like the christian concept of resurrection in all the “literature of ancient Judaism”. He could have quoted NT Wright saying the same thing. Again, you can accept what these scholars say, or not. But notice he doesn’t say that there were no other ideas around, only that the literature and Judaism don’t contain the christian concept. So WLC was correct.

    3. Herod was not considered a Jew by many, he was hated by Jews generally, he certainly doesn’t represent “Judaism” and I’m not aware of him writing about christian-style resurrection. So he’s outside what WLC was describing. We don’t know exactly what he believed, just a throw-away line, and if he had heard of Jesus before this (I think he would have, you think not, but it is only a small point anyway) we can rule out the christian concept of resurrection. But in any case, it sounds like a minor superstition.

    4. So for your argument to work, you’ve got to explain how a superstitious offhand comment by a hated despot somehow indicates a wider Jewish viewpoint not reported anywhere in the literature, yet it nevertheless caused an educated Pharisee like Paul and faithful Jews like James and Peter to suddenly come up with a radical belief about Jesus. You haven’t shown any of that, and you certainly haven’t shown that anything WLC was actually wrong. You idea sounds pretty unbelievable, and makes WLC’s argument seem stronger to me, but then I’m already convinced! 🙂

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  17. As Matt points out, Mark’s Gospel contains geographical errors later corrected by Matthew. A reputable scholar such as Raymond E Brown notes a number of these Markan errors in his Introduction To The New Testament.

    This type of issue does not prove the Gospels are non divine, but, and it is a very big but, they should cause the devout to question.

    Why would an all powerful deity allow errors in his testimony to humanity which was intended to cause them to believe?

    Liked by 2 people

  18. UnkleE, I’m kind of surprised we see this so differently. To your points:

    1) I don’t have a big disagreement with this. My objection is to WLC’s more extreme claim that no one at the time would have thought of a resurrection like the one attributed to Jesus unless it had actually happened. And as you point out, that’s not the consensus of most scholars either.

    2) I’m not sure exactly what “ancient Jewish literature” they were talking about, but the OT has a story about both Elijah and Elisha raising children from the dead. And there’s another story about a dead man’s body touching Elisha’s bones and immediately coming back to life. All 3 of those stories are remarkably similar to Jesus’s resurrection. And according to Hebrews 11:17-19, Abraham thought God would bring Isaac back to life. I don’t believe the writer could have known that, of course, but the claim is more problematic for many Christians.

    3) Why can we rule out the Christian concept of resurrection? How do you know he wasn’t thinking something like that? It’s not that crazy a concept — the OT gives examples of it, and plenty of non-Jewish religions had similar stories, too. People have been fantasizing about coming back to life or living forever as long as people have had imaginations. I’m not saying that all the Jews had strong beliefs that resurrections were going to occur. But WLC’s comment is that the concept would have been so foreign and extreme to them, that the best explanation for Jews accepting that such an event had happened is that it really happened. That’s a far more extreme statement than what I’m saying, especially when some New Testament passages seem to back up my point.

    4) I’m not saying that someone like Paul simply invented the resurrection story. But I can see how some of Jesus’s early followers might have begun to believe such a thing had happened without an actual resurrection having occurred. In other words, my biggest problem with WLC’s argument is his pretense that an actual resurrection is the only viable explanation for the disciples’ beliefs.

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  19. @ Nate

    I think Unklee would agree with your points, however just differ in the conclusion.

    Technically WLC is correct – and I would agree – most likely there wasn’t a resurrection belief for the messiah. There were resurrections for other people, but these are not counted.

    Hence the conclusion for WLC and also Unklee is that therefore resurrection for Jesus did occur because it would be impossible/or unbelievable hard for Christians to come out with this narrative.

    Obviously we disagree, and don’t think it’s such a huge leap between John the baptist rising again, or Lazarus, or the boy Elijah raised and then Jesus raising.

    @Unklee

    I’m not sure why you keep hammering the point on the fact that Herod’s views are not the mainstream Judaism view. Why does it even matter? Even if it’s not the mainstream view, this fact alone showed that people OTHER than mainstream Judaism saw resurrection as a possibility. Incidentally, I would say the 12 disciples are also not mainstream Judaism? In fact, mainstream Judaism today continue to reject Jesus as the messiah.

    So either way, whether the resurrection concept is a mainstream Judaism belief does not matter. If it were, it would prove WLC wrong, if it weren’t why does it even matter? It’s like me saying that you can’t believe the bible is inerrant because you are a protestant since that is the mainstream belief. (IIRC you are a protestant right?, correct me if I’m wrong)

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  20. Thanks Powell. You’re probably right about their focus on things being different for the Messiah. I wasn’t really thinking about that…

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  21. I’ll throw in a couple more cents. In the video clip WLC doesn’t really offer evidence for why Jesus’ resurrection is “radically different” from the Jewish conception, but in ‘Reasonable Faith’ he focuses on two points:
    1) Jesus’ resurrection was an individual event whereas the Jewish conception was a corporate event.
    2) Jesus’ resurrection was ‘in history’, whereas the Jewish conception was at the end of days.

    OK, but here’s the kicker: Christianity was a messianic cult that was expecting Jesus to usher in the end of days. As far as they were concerned, the general resurrection was at hand. Consider 2 Baruch 50-51 (a Jewish text from about 100 CE). It describes the resurrection as occurring over time. In the first stage, the dead are returned to their original body and join the living in ordinary human form. Some time after this the judgement commences and then they are bestowed with an angelic body. So is it really so crazy to think that an apocalyptic sect might interpret the death of their messiah as culminating in the “first-fruits”, as Paul puts it, of what is otherwise an imminent event? I don’t see why we should think that is so improbable.

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