The Resurrection of Jesus and Conspiracy Theories

I wrote this post to share some brief arguments for the resurrection of Jesus as a historical event. This is by no means a comprehensive defense of the resurrection, a defense of the Bible (whatever that could possibly mean…) or a minimal facts approach to the event. If you really want to dig into the apologetics surrounding the life and death of Jesus, I suggest William Lane Craig, Mike Licona, Gary Habermas, or NT Wright. Those guys are way more experienced at this stuff than I am.
                                                                                                                                                                                                   Paul’s Credal Statement in 1 Corinthians 15
 

The acceptance of Paul’s authorship of 1 Corinthians by scholars is nearly universal. The letter was most likely written in AD 55 after Paul first visited Corinth in AD 51-52. The relevant portion of the letter occurs at 15:3-8:
” For I delivered to you [b]as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to [c]James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as [d]to one untimely born, He appeared to me also.”
Paul starts the chapter by explaining his desire to remind the recipients of the gospel he had preached to them. “He then states that he had delivered to them what he had also received (verse 3). These verbs are the equivalent Greek words for the technical rabbinic terms, which were used to describe the handing on of a formal, word of mouth, memorised, formulaic teaching.”[1] Verses 3-5 contain a creed that predates the letter itself. In the next few verses, Paul lists others whom Jesus appeared to—500+ Christians, James, and the apostles. It is possible that some of verses 6-7 may have been a part of the original creed, but we cannot know for sure. “…most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep” is unquestionably Paul’s own commentary. (Sidenote: This important phrase serves an apologetic purpose. Paul did not write that line just because it he felt like it. Paul claimed that Jesus appeared to more than 500 other believers at one time and that some of them are still alive. Paul essentially invited the Corinthians to investigate the claim themselves and ask around. Whether he was correct or not, Paul certainly believed that his claims would be supported by further questioning and evidence.)
                                                                                                                                                                                                       The Date of the Creed 
 
In the beginning of Galatians, Paul discusses his conversion experience. Then, 3 years later (could also mean “in the third year”, i.e. Paul converted end of AD 33, meets beginning of AD 35. Matt 22:63, Mark 8:31, and 1 Cor 15:4 make similar use of this style of counting by regarding Jesus’s death late Friday and rising early Sunday as three days), he goes to Jerusalem to investigate and research the new faith, spending 15 days with Peter and seeing James (Gal 1:13-24). After a 14 year interval, Paul goes back to Jerusalem to ensure his gospel is correct (Gal 2:1-10). There are differing viewpoints as to whether the second visit coincides with the visit recorded in Acts 11:27-29 or the later meeting in Acts 15 dubbed the Jerusalem Council. For the sake of argument (and because I lean towards this conclusion), I will assume the second visit coincides with the later Jerusalem Council. This meeting is typically dated around AD 49. Now we can work backwards to Paul’s first meeting in Jerusalem. 49 – 14 = 35. Assuming Paul is not 5 or more years off in his counting, he met with Peter around AD 35. This was not merely a casual visit either, as Paul began to preach the faith in Syria and Cilicia afterwards (Gal 1:23). It is highly probable that Paul received the creed cited in 1 Cor 15 during this initial visit, if he had not already received it from believers in Damascus. It is also significant that Peter and James are the only people mentioned directly in the creed, as Paul would have received it from them.
                                                                                                                                                                                                      Oral Tradition
 
How far back the creed originates and when Paul received it provide important details about the oral tradition existing at the beginning of the new faith movement. If Paul received the creed in AD 35, then the belief that Jesus had risen from the dead was already a part of the belief and tradition of the church. This is significant since the death of Jesus occurred in either AD 30 or 33. The belief in the resurrection of Jesus then is remarkably close to when the event itself supposedly occurred, and the belief originates well within the life expectancy of those who would have witnessed it first hand. Compared to the reliability of pretty much anything in ancient history (more on this later), the disciples’ belief in the resurrection of Jesus is arguably the second most credible fact right after the crucifixion of Jesus. (Tacitus, a Roman historian, mentions the crucifixion of Christ in his work Annals published in AD 115.)
                                                                                                                                                                                                   Belief vs History
 
All of the previous material only serves to establish the fact that those who preached the resurrection of Jesus were also alive during his life, death, and supposed post-mortem appearances. It does not concretely establish that Jesus actually rose from the dead. The evidence still demands a verdict though. Did Jesus actually rise from the dead, or were the original witnesses mistaken? Perhaps it was a massive conspiracy…a lie? Maybe the disciples stole the body and claimed Jesus had risen from the dead. Various theories have been proposed over time attempting to explain these events. I want to mainly address the theory of a conspiracy—the idea that the disciples stole the body. One rule of conspiracies is that of numbers; the greater number of people involved in a conspiracy, the more difficult it is to maintain. According to the creed, Peter and “the twelve” would have been involved in the conspiracy. The odds would not be great for their ability to maintain the lie, especially as pressure to deny Christ increased from the Sanhedrin. Another stumbling block to the conspiracy theory would be the motivations of the conspirators. What would motivate the disciples to steal the body and start a world-altering lie? Power, money, or sex? Maybe the desire for a social change or cause? The problem with discussing the potential motivations for a conspiracy on behalf of the disciples is that the disciples truly had little to gain by a lie. They would be opposed by the Jewish and Roman leadership that crucified Jesus. They would be ridiculed by Jew and Greek alike due to their claim. In fact, the claim that a Jew rose from the dead would have been the most unbelievable movement-starting event they could have ever invented. The Gentile world, with their philosophical belief in the liberation of the spirit from the body after death, would have scoffed at the idea of a bodily resurrection. (We see this exact reaction when Paul visits the Areopagus in Athens, Acts 17) The Jewish world, with those who believed in the doctrine of a resurrection holding the idea of a final resurrection of all people, would have no concept of a single person being resurrected apart from the final resurrection. To further the argument, the man who apparently rose from the dead would be regarded as cursed by God (Deut 21:22-23) for hanging on a tree. To say that a man who was cursed by God also happened to have risen from the dead would sound like utter nonsense to any Jew. If the disciples wanted to fabricate a lie, they fabricated the worst, most unbelievable story of all time. If you are a first century Jew following a man who claims to be the promised Messiah—the anointed one of God chosen to liberate Israel from Roman rule—and this Messiah dies by crucifixion, you do not go around telling the story that he was raised from the dead. You find another Messiah or go back to fishing.
Not only would the story be unbelievable and therefore probably not invented, it would also be a poor and easily falsifiable argument. The entire Christian faith (or reformed Jewish faith at the time) stands on the resurrection of Jesus. So…how do you disprove a resurrection? Just present the body! If he was buried, then those in power would know where the tomb was. They could easily take down this budding faith movement by presenting the body to the public. If you are going to start a movement based on a lie, you do not craft the lie in such a way that it can be easily disproved. Of course, the disciples could have stolen the body, but, going back to the discussion in the paragraph above, why would they do that? It would be incredibly stupid.
There are other alternative theories besides those discussed in this post. Examples include the Swoon Theory, Hallucination Theory, or the theory that the disciples borrowed from other religions to formulate their ideas about the resurrection of Jesus. If you so desire, I encourage you to examine these alternatives and come up with your own conclusion. For those who do not want to read beyond this ridiculously long blog post, I will save you the trouble of research and tell you that the problem with all of these alternative theories is that they lack the explanatory power of the resurrection hypothesis or lack a reasonable motivation on the part of the disciples. To put it another way, the other theories suck.
                                                                                                                                                                                                    What if Paul was a Liar?
 
One possible explanation still remains. What if Paul lied about his connections to the Jerusalem church? This is certainly a possibility. Paul could have made up everything about his past and his contact with Peter and James. He could have created the creed himself and hijacked the new movement. The consequence of this for us is that it would undermine the extremely early dating of the tradition in 1 Cor 15 as well as the accuracy of the content. Again, to return to the arguments against the original disciples conspiring together, what possible motivation would Paul have for making this up? If we take Paul at his word, he did not have much going for him:
2 Corinthians 11:23-28 “Are they servants of Christ?—I speak as if insane—I more so; in [h]far more labors, in [i]far more imprisonments, [j]beaten times without number, often in danger of death. 24 Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep. 26 I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren; 27 I have been in labor and hardship, [k]through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and [l]exposure. 28 Apart from such [m]external things, there is the daily pressure on me of concern for all the churches.”
The greater problem, more difficult to explain away, is that, if Paul wanted to create a story for any reason, he created the most unbelievable story of all time. This is the exact same problem that the original disciples encountered. Not only is he preaching a bodily-resurrected Jew in a foreign Gentile world, he even stakes his entire ministry on the event:
1 Corinthians 15: “Now if Christ is preached, that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised; 14 and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain. 15 Moreover we are even found to be false witnesses of God, because we testified [f]against God that He raised [g]Christ, whom He did not raise, if in fact the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; 17 and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.”
Paul, after reminding the recipients of the gospel he first delivered to them through the creed, then makes the bold statement that all of his preaching is in vain if Christ was not raised. To return once again to an earlier argument, Paul is relying on an event that would be easily proven wrong. If you want to start a new faith or movement, you do not make an easily falsifiable argument the foundation. Furthermore, Paul was willing to put himself under oath in Galatians 1:20 while explaining his past interactions with Peter and James. In 1 Cor 15:15, Paul was willing to make the statement that he and the other believers would be false witnesses of God if Christ was not raised. Sure, these two statements can easily be lies, but they do add to the cumulative evidence that supports the conclusion of Paul not making this up.
                                                                                                                                                                                             Historical Reliability
 
Of course, all of this arguing could be avoided if we would simply afford the gospels the same benefit of the doubt that we afford everything else when constructing ancient history. All four gospels agree on a core story that makes a historical claim:
“Jesus of Nazareth was crucified in Jerusalem by Roman authority during the Passover Feast, having been arrested and convicted on charges of blasphemy by the Jewish Sanhedrin and then slandered before the governor Pilate on charges of treason. He died within several hours and was buried Friday afternoon by Jospeh of Arimathea in a tomb, which was shut with a stone. Certain female followers of Jesus, including Mary Magdalene, having observed his interment, visited his tomb early on Sunday morning, only to find it empty. Thereafter, Jesus appeared alive from the dead to the disciples, including Peter, who then became proclaimers of the message of His resurrection.”[2]
This is a remarkable claim considering the gospel writers used previous tradition and sources to write their accounts 35-60 years after the events occurred. (In the case of John, more than 60 years after) It is also important to note how the documents we call the New Testament stand up to scrutiny in comparison with other ancient texts:
*This is by no means a comprehensive chart. Just a brief visual way to get my point across.
The gospels are ultimately more accurate, reliable, and traceable than anything else in ancient history. What about Paul’s letters though? “The oldest manuscript of Paul’s letters, known as Papyrus 46 is held in the Chester Beatty collection in Dublin. The handwriting is the main clue to its date. It is believed to have been written in Egypt around AD 200, only 150 years after the original.”[1] Furthermore, we can trace the letters through the writings of the early church. Some writers make allusions to or quote from Paul’s letters and the gospels. In other cases, communities or individual people put together a canon list, such as the Marcion canon in AD 140 (which included most of the letters attributed to Paul), the Muratorian canon in AD 170, or Origen’s list in the first half of the third century. The point of all this is simply to demonstrate that the core historical story of the gospels is more reliable than anything else in ancient history.
                                                                                                                                                                                          Concluding Thoughts
 
The new faith movement referred to as Christianity had to emerge from somewhere, and the oral tradition that predates Paul’s letters and the gospels had to have had some initial inspiration for its origin. And, from what we can glean from 1 Cor 15, the central aspect of the tradition originates extremely close to the events themselves. Am I claiming then that the story is ultimately true because the idea of it being fabricated is too incredible to believe? Yes. As far as I can reason, there simply is not a credible theory that can explain the emergence of a resurrection account within 2-5 years of Jesus’s death as well as the disciples’ claims to have seen the crucified Jesus post-death. The resurrection theory ultimately has the most explanatory power out of all the competing theories.
[2] On Guard, William Lane Craig
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