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The Resurrection Stands Firm:
A Response to Farrell Till
by Matthew Perman

1996 / November-December

After reading Till's response to my article defending Christ's resurrection (both appeared in the July/August issue of TSR), I was surprised to see him reuse Dan Barker's argument for the "evolution of a myth" (Barker argued this in a debate with Michael Horner). He argued that "the Christian belief in a bodily resurrection [of Christ] was a result of doctrinal evolution that had begun with belief in only a spiritual resurrection." Thus, Till argued that my data are better explained by this myth theory, not an actual, bodily resurrection of Christ. But before responding to the Till/Barker claim for the "spiritual resurrection myth," I first want to address some of Till's general comments concerning my article.

Till repeatedly claimed that I was "always argu[ing] from the assumption that the New Testament records are historically accurate" when presenting the evidence to back up my six historical "facts" that critical scholars accept. (My points included the empty tomb, the resurrection appearances, etc.) First, we must note Aristotle's dictum that "the benefit of the doubt should be delegated to the document itself, not arrogated by the critic to himself." What right does Till have to operate from the extreme assumption that the New Testament is fundamentally unreliable? He says that the gospels are "blatantly biased documents." However, all historical records are "biased" -- no one wants a disinterested historian. But this doesn't render their records completely unreliable. A Jew who was writing about the events of the Holocaust would not be discredited just because he was a victim of it and passionate over the issue, would he? In fact, this would seem to establish his credibility. There are also numerous good reasons that do establish the general reliability of the New Testament (but that's another article).

Second, and most important, I am emphatically not arguing from the premise that the New Testament documents are reliable in everything. In each case where I assert something that the New Testament claims (such as that the tomb was empty), I give specific reasons why we should accept what it says on this specific point. For example, I appeal to Matthew 28:11-15 to show that the earliest Jewish propaganda admits the empty tomb. Till says that this is a "flagrant assumption that Matthew's record is historically accurate." But in my article I give two specific reasons for accepting the accuracy of this specific report from Matthew.

This leads to my next point of clarification. I specifically wrote the article to show that one can give good evidence for the resurrection without establishing that the New Testament is inerrant, or even very trustworthy. That's why I said that I would "examine six facts that virtually all critical scholars... accept." Till seems to think that by "critical scholars" I mean "most fundamentalists," but that is not the case. My article clearly says that even virtually all "critical non-Christian scholars" who address Christ's resurrection accept my six points. I mean that these data are accepted by serious scholars (whether Christian or not) across a broad spectrum of beliefs who "apply to the Bible the same investigative methods that they use in evaluating the accuracy of secular history" (this quote is from "Did Marco Polo Lie?" on page 1 of the July/August issue, where it is claimed that Christians are afraid to apply to the Bible the same historical methods applied to secular history). This puts my case on firm basis, not an "unwarranted assumption" that the New Testament is "always trustworthy" (though I believe it is). Now I can turn to Till's attempt to explain away my six facts with his myth theory.

I'm glad that Till is willing to admit that the creed recorded by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3ff is very early. We will return to this later. But he asks why such an early account would leave out so many of the details that the gospels record. The reason is that the formula of this creed was simply meant to be a summary, or brief outline, of the core of Christian beliefs. There are many early, short creeds recorded in the New Testament (Rom. 1:3-4; 10:9; Phil. 2:6ff, 1 Tim. 3:16, etc.), and none of them go into great detail because they are only intended to be concise summaries of beliefs, not detailed records as the gospels were.

Till points out that Paul used the word thapto, which means "burial." He insists that thapto carries with it no connotation of sepulchre, or tomb, and that this probably meant that Paul understood the body to have been thrown into a common grave. But let's look at Acts 2:29. It reads "Brothers, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried (thapto), and his tomb is here to this day (NIV)." The KJV replaces "tomb" with "sepulchre." So for Till (following Barker) to assert that there is no connection between sepulcher, tomb, and thapto is simply incorrect. Of course, Paul does not use mnema (tomb) or mnemeion (sepulchre)! Would the following make sense: "He died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, and was sepulchered"? Till's theory also fails to account for the wealth of evidence supporting the burial of Jesus in a tomb. (1) Archaeology supports that the crucifixion victims were buried in tombs. Look, for example, at the case of Yohanon, who was discovered in Tomb #1 at Giv'at ha-Mitvar, As el-Masaref, by Tzaferis. Yohanon was from the first-century, and was found to have his heel bones transfixed by a large iron nail and his shins broken. "Death by crucifixion" reported Dr. N. Haas after examining him. Further, (2) Jewish holy men (as was Jesus) were buried in tombs so their grave could be preserved, (3) the burial story lacks legendary development (as even Bultmann agrees in The History of the Synoptic Tradition, 2 ed., trans. John Marsh, p. 274, and most agree with him), (4) archaeology confirms the description of Christ's tomb in the gospels and (5) the phrase "first day of the week" reveals an early date for the story since it fell out of use by the late 30s (or so) to be replaced with "on the third day." Lastly, (6) the inclusion of Joseph of Arimathea strongly supports the burial record (we will see why later). This all suggests that the burial story is very early and accurate. Since it is so early, there is simply not enough time for legend to replace the historical core.

Till's second point was that anistimi means "to be raised," while egeiro means "to awaken" and sometimes lacks physical connotations. Paul used egeiro, so Till reasons that Paul is implying a spiritual resurrection. If Paul had intended a physical resurrection, says Till, Paul would have used anistimi. Now, whether or not we agree with the gospels on the resurrection or not, both skeptic and Christian can be certain that Matthew, Luke, and John record that Jesus appeared physically and bodily. Matthew 28:9 says that "they clasped his feet." Luke 24:39 says, "Touch me and see, a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see I have them." John 20:27 says, "Put your fingers here; see my hands." Whatever may be said about his, they are reporting physicality. However, these same gospels also describing raising as egeiro, which is the same term Paul used. Matthew 28:6-7 says "He is not here, he has risen (egeiro) just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. He has risen (egeiro) from the dead." Luke 24:6 says, "He is not here, he has risen (egeiro)!" And John 21:14 says "...he was raised (egeiro) from the dead." The point is clear: the writers of Matthew, Mark, and Luke saw no contradiction in affirming that Jesus was alive bodily and physically with the word egeiro the same word that Paul used.

Later on Till examines Paul's use of the word opethe. He argued that this word is used to describe visions in the New Testament, and therefore Paul was not recording physical appearances in 1 Corinthians 15. However, let's go back once again to the gospel writers who did believe that He appeared physically. "There you will see (opethe) him" (Matt. 28:7); "(T)he Lord has risen (egeiro) and has appeared (opethe) to Simon" (Luke 24:24). "(T)hey will look (opethe) on the one they have pierced" (John 19:37). Did John believe they were having a vision of Jesus on the cross? Luke 24:24 is sufficient evidence alone to show that egeiro can mean both raised or waken, and that opethe can refer to a vision or a physical appearance.

Till also tried to show, mainly from his exegesis of 1 Corinthians 15:40-44, that Paul believed Christians would experience only a "spiritual resurrection," not a physical one, and therefore Christ was only raised spiritually, not physically. But when Paul says of a believer's body in verse 42 that "it is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption," he is not saying that our bodies will be taken from materiality, but from mortality. Till thinks he has found further support in verse 44. However, this verse most forcefully teaches the traditional doctrine of the resurrection. "It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body." Clearly Paul teaches a continuity between the "natural body" and the "spiritual body," for it is the same "it" in both cases. He is referring to the same physical body in different states, not a change in substance. And virtually all commentators agree that "spiritual" does not mean "made out of spirit," but "directed by and orientated to the Spirit." It is just like when we say someone is a "spiritual" person. Paul uses the word in this way in 1 Corinthians 2:15: "The spiritual man judges all things...." Clearly Paul does not mean "immaterial, invisible man" here but "man oriented to the Spirit." And look at 10:4, where Paul refers to a "spiritual rock." Does Paul mean "immaterial rock"?

In verses 35-37, where Till also finds "support," Paul says, "What you sow is not made alive unless it dies. And what you sow, you do not sow that body that shall be, but mere grain." But he is not even referring to the substance of our future bodies. And Paul does teach a continuity between our bodies now and in the future in saying that the thing that is sown is made alive if it dies; there is continuity between the seed to the plant (they are the same organism), yet there is also change. And certainly both the seed and the plant are both physical! Christians do not have "the body that shall be" because we are not immortal yet. In support of Paul's view of a physical resurrection, look at Romans 8:21-23. He teaches that the whole creation will be transformed into freedom, but not nonmateriality. He then says our bodies will likewise be "redeemed." Since creation will be transformed, yet remain physical, and our bodies are part of creation, they will also be transformed, yet still be continuous with our old bodies and remain physical. Finally, Paul's belief in the personal return of Christ (1 Thess. 4:14-17) also implies that he believed in a physical resurrection.

It is also difficult to see, using Till/Barker's hypothesis, why the following "legendary developments" about the burial, empty tomb, and appearances would take place: (1) The use of women to discover the tomb. The testimony of women was not considered credible in first century Judaism. So if the resurrection is simply a large legendary evolution, why didn't the early Christians have the disciples discover the tomb instead? Also, (2) why was Joseph of Arimathea used in the burial story? The members of the Sanhedrin were too well known for someone to place a fictional member on it or to spread a false story about one of its members burying Jesus. And (3) why weren't the "hopeless contradictions" in the resurrection appearances harmonized if it was all a legend? While it does harmonize, if the whole thing was made up, shouldn't it harmonize a little easier?

Lastly, Jewish New Testament scholar Pinchas Lapide has examined Jewish thought of the first century and found that all schools of thought held to a notion of a physical resurrection (Lapide, The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish Perspective, pp. 44-65). The early Christians were Jewish (including Paul). A resurrection without the body would have been nonsense to them. This in itself should put an end to any notion of a "spiritual resurrection" myth.

Clearly Till's attempt at my challenge to "explain all these facts" with his myth theory has failed. If, as some atheists are saying, this is the best argument against the resurrection, then Christianity will remain intellectually strong. Now we will briefly turn to his specific treatment of my six facts.

Till says that no non-Christians sources corroborate the New Testament record of the crucifixion. Till disputed my reference to the non-Christian Thallus on this point, but did not deal with the fact the in the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 43a does record the crucifixion of Christ. He also thinks that my belief in the empty tomb must be based on the assumption that the New Testament documents are reliable, so let me give some more reasons to believe in this specific New Testament point. First, my arguments supporting Jesus's burial also apply here, for if the burial story is accurate, the empty tomb story likely is accurate as well, since linguistic ties indicate that they form one continuous narrative from the pericope. Second, in his record of the empty tomb, Mark used a source which originated before AD 37. Scholars know this because the high priest is referred to without using his name. Caiphas (the high priest during Christ's death) must have therefore still been the high priest when this story began circulating since there was no need to mention his name in order to distinguish him from the next high priest. Caiphas's term ended in 37, so that is the last possible date for the source's origination. Thus, the evidence for the empty tomb is so near to the events themselves that it is hard to argue that legend could sweep in and replace the hard core historical facts. This also confirms early Christian belief in a bodily resurrection, for clearly the gospel of Mark teaches a bodily resurrection. Lest Till claim that the empty tomb is only accepted by "fundamentalists," I have a list of 47 critical scholars in front of me (nonfundamentalists) who accept the empty tomb (such as Blank, Delorme, Lapide, Schwank, Strobel, etc.). Till of course will say that an empty tomb proves nothing, but all natural attempts to explain it have been rejected by critics. As Craig says, "They are self-confessedly without any theory to explain it."

There are also sources outside the New Testament which support the empty tomb. In his Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, Justin Martyr states, without fear of being disputed by his Jewish opponent, that the Jewish leaders had sent men around the Mediterranean to further the teaching that the body had been stolen. This presupposes an empty tomb.

Concerning the resurrection appearances, Till calls into question the traditional authorship of the gospels, claiming that they were not written by eyewitnesses. But even if this were true, it would not hurt my case. First, there is still the eyewitness testimony of 1 Corinthians 15:3ff to establish the resurrection appearances (which Till admits is very early). Second, while it is true that there is a "formidable body of critical works" that reject the traditional authorship of the gospels, most of these same scholars still find a large amount of eyewitness testimony behind the gospels (Robert Grant, Cranfield, Hunter, Brown, John A.T. Robinson. Who would call these guys "fundamentalists"?). Even Raymond Brown, a skeptic who wrote a significant commentary on John, held that the apostle John was a major source behind the gospel of John.

Till calls into question the apostles' martyrdom and very existence. He then says that the rapid spread of early Christianity is only recorded in "biased" Christian sources, and so he seems to reject the notion (and the sources) altogether. But on what basis can he just reject Christian sources because in his opinion they are biased? Again, no historian is disinterested, but as I said earlier, this is no reason to discredit the possibility of finding genuine history from them. Till is not just accusing the early Christians of bias; he is accusing them of blatant dishonesty (especially when he rejects the main events of the New Testament record)! But on what grounds can he do this, especially since the early Christians considered moral integrity and honesty more important than life itself? As secular governor Pliny the Younger said around AD 112: "They... bound themselves by a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft or adultery, never to falsify their word..." (Pliny, Letters, vol. II, X:96). Now we can consider this early quote from Tertullian: "But go zealously on.... Kill us, torture us, condemn us, grind us to dust. . . . The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed." And even the secular Tacitus (AD 55-120) "speaks of an "immense multitude" of Christians, who were murdered in the city of Rome alone during the Neronian persecution in 64. To this must be added the silent, yet most eloquent testimony of the Roman catacombs... and are said to contain nearly seven millions of graves..." as historian Philip Schaff reports (History of the Christian Church, pp. 79-80). The catacombs alone are clear, reliable evidence to the rapid spread and resulting great persecution of the early church. As to whatever doubt some may have about the martyrdom of the apostles, we must ask this question: if the students were willing to die for their faith, how much more their teachers? Further, Eusebius is considered generally accurate in what he reports (see Schaff), and he records how each apostle died. Also, in a passage almost universally considered authentic, Josephus records the martyrdom of James. Critical scholars even acknowledge that the apostles were willing to die for their faith.

Apparently Till thinks that I said that just because the apostles were martyred, Christianity must be true. But that is not my argument. This is my argument: 1 Corinthians 15:3ff is an early creed in which Paul records the resurrection appearances. Even Till agreed to this. We have also seen that these appearances were clearly physical. Paul received this creed from Peter and James (as virtually all critical scholars agree), who are listed in this creed as eyewitnesses to the resurrection of Christ. So, in other words, Jesus's original disciples claimed to have seen Him alive again after His death. Even the most skeptical New Testament scholars admit that the disciples really believed they saw Jesus (see Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, 44-45; Fuller, Resurrection Narratives, 27-49; Pannenberg, Brown, etc.).

We have two options if Jesus did not rise: either the disciples believed their claim that they saw Him and were mistaken, or they did not believe their own claim and were therefore deliberately lying. I clearly showed in my first article how the disciples could not have been mistaken. But the only other option forces us to concede that the apostles died, not just for a lie they mistakenly believed to be true, but for a lie that they knew was a lie! While martyrs of other religions have died for what they sincerely believed was true, the difference is that the disciples would have been dying for what they sincerely knew was a lie! As I said in my article, "Ten people would not all give their lives for something they know to be a lie." Therefore, we must conclude that the disciples believed that Jesus rose and appeared to them because Jesus really did rise and appear to them! That is the only explanation for their claim. Taken along with our evidence for the early belief in Christ's physical resurrection and our evidence for the empty tomb, we can conclude that the resurrection still stands tall. The testimony of 1900 years of history bears this out, and Christ continues to say today, "Whoever hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life" (John 5:24).

(Matthew Perman, 1120 Dancer Hall, Cedar Falls, IA, 50613; e-mail permanm4888@uni.edu)

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