Interior Image of a Roman Cathedral

The Resurrection: Thin Evidence


It’s Easter weekend, and I hope my Christian friends are celebrating in whatever way appeals to their notions of what it’s all about.

I used to be one of you, but that ended about twenty years ago when I realized theistic believe didn’t make sense for me. Becoming an unbeliever (atheist, if you prefer) was my personal choice; I don’t expect anyone to do the same simply on my word. If belief works for you, that’s great. It’s your life, live it in the best way you know how.

What follows is my skeptical take regarding a minor, though commonly made, claim about the historical veracity of Jesus’ death and, by implication, his resurrection. If this bothers you, being so close to Easter, then don’t read it. I’ll soon be back with more pet portraits and poop jokes.

Ready? Here we go.

Each morning before setting out on my morning hike with the dogs, I sit for a few minutes on the porch listening to the radio. At that time of day the station is set to pick up The Glenn Beck radio broadcast. Normally I’ll listen for ten minutes or so (Glenn is a leading fear peddler, and I enjoy feeling superior in my optimism after listening), but this week I made it past thirty seconds on only one day because I guess it was Glenn’s Easter Crusade and every guest and every topic was blathering on about God, Jesus, and/or Belief.

The exception came on the day he was talking to Jeremiah Johnston about his book, Body of Proof: The 7 best reasons to believe in the resurrection of Jesus and Why it matters today (why oh why can’t anyone write a short title anymore?).

I listened to a few minutes of the interview and thought it might be an interesting book to read, if only to see if I missed something when I left Christianity.

I do that occasionally, running myself through counter arguments to the life I’ve chosen. It’s a way for me to stay honest to myself.

So I bought the book, and in the very first chapter I was surprised to see Dr. Johnston make the following well-known, and specious, claim:

“Jesus’ death by Roman crucifixion is the best established fact of the ancient world.”

In which he follows up in the very next paragraph by writing:

“Only the Roman emperors themselves are better attested in history.”

I actually laughed out loud when I read that. It seems the second sentence refutes quite explicitly the first. Logically, if the existence of Roman emperors is better attested to than the death of Jesus, then it follows that the death of Jesus is NOT the best established fact of the ancient world. In the accompanying footnote Dr. Johnston digs his hole even deeper, saying:

The main difference is that, in the case of most of the emperors (probably all), we have extant correspondence to them and from them that is genuine and so dates to their time in office. We also have official government documents that announce their decrees or other matters, and again, these are genuine. Thanks to the papyri found in Egypt, we actually have autographs of officials discussing imperial business, decisions of emperors, and so on. We have nothing like this with regard to Jesus. Jesus wrote nothing and nothing was written to him. Also, statues and inscriptions in honor of the emperors were erected during their respective reigns. That cannot be said of Jesus. However, discussion of Jesus, by his first followers and then later followers (say, the first three hundred years) approximate and in some cases exceeds that of most of the Roman emperors. Nothing like this can be said for a non-emperor person in the Roman Empire.”

This brings to mind a constant problem I have when reading apologetics. The continuous special pleading for the “factual” nature of Gospel stories in the face of obvious and irrefutable historical facts to the contrary.

Up to Constantine, there were nearly 70 Roman emperors. So there are - at least - seventy people better established historically than Jesus’ death. All documented independently by various means (decrees, statues, writings to and from, etc.). Additionally, any ancient person who wrote, was written to, or mentioned by a contemporary who knew them is better attested to than Jesus.

The claim that the existence is certain of a man who "wrote nothing, and nothing was written to him" and who was never mentioned by a plausible eyewitness is ludicrous.

Jesus' resurrection is attested to in no contemporary eye witness accounts. The earliest known manuscript of the earliest gospel, Mark, doesn't even include an appearance of the risen Jesus! It ends abruptly at Mark 16:8 with the disciples in the empty tomb being told by a young man that Jesus was risen, “But they going out, fled from the sepulcher: for a trembling and fear had seized them. And they said nothing to any man: for they were afraid.” (Douay-Rheims)

Nothing about seeing a resurrected Jesus. No probing his wounds, no eating fish. Nothing. The longer ending was tacked on at a much later date (see quote from Celsus below for a theory on why such changes may have been necessary).

Since he didn't even see fit to include an appearance of the resurrected Jesus in his gospel, there is no reasonable claim to be made the writer of Mark ever saw the resurrected Jesus.

Nearly 80% of the Gospel of Mark is repeated in Matthew, and about 65% in Luke. This suggests to me that the anonymous (yes, there’s no proof those names are accurate) writers of Matthew and Luke depended on Mark for most of their stories. This further suggests that none of these writers were eyewitnesses to the events they present.

Paul (not an eyewitness to the resurrection) speaks of Jesus having been “raised up” but there are good questions as to what he meant by that in terms of a historical event in an earthly setting. Paul seems to be quite ignorant of the life and teachings of Jesus and writes a lot like a believer in early mystery religions.

No serious claims can be made for contemporary eye witness accounts of the death and resurrection of Jesus. All of the other accounts of and by, as Johnston puts it “his first followers and then later followers” are simply repeating what they have read and heard. This is hearsay, not evidence, and Johnston – and every apologist who uses the same argument – should know better.

I’ll chug along, reading the book but if the above is any indication, he’s already lost me early in the first chapter. Stay tuned, he just might piss me off enough for another post, or maybe I'll just toss the book out of disgusted disappointment at the weak arguments.

On a slightly different note:

There are writings by people mocking the early Christians. One of the most interesting is, to my mind, Celsus, whose writings only survive because Origen wrote arguments against them and quoted them a bit. Here’s an interesting quote from Celsus:

"It is clear to me that the writings of the christians are a lie, and that your fables are not well-enough constructed to conceal this monstrous fiction: I have heard that some of your interpreters...are on to the inconsistencies and, pen in hand, alter the originals writings, three, four and several more times over in order to be able to deny the contradictions in the face of criticism." (37).

He makes a fair point, as I can (and maybe shall in a future post) show many instances of Christian scribes altering and re-writing passages to conform to new “orthodox” doctrinal developments. So much for the inerrancy of Holy Scripture!

But back on topic…

It seems to me the historical evidence for Jesus’ resurrection is thin at best, and completely bogus at worst. If you are a believer, you may wish to base your belief on subjective things that can’t be disproven, beliefs that have deep, personal meanings to you. Those are the only beliefs that will remain impervious to the claims and arguments of assholes like me.

Alternatively, a believer may continue to believe because it makes him feel good. That is a perfectly reasonable way of living. But believers can't really claim to "know" in an objective way, that matters of belief are true facts.

It’s called “faith” for a reason.

Happy Easter!

Steve in 2021
About the Author

Topdog is Steve Merryman, a retired graphic designer, illustrator, and unrepentant asshole. Steve can usually be found working on a portrait commission or some other artwork. Steve fills his days by painting, writing, shootin' guns, cuttin' trees, hiking with his dogs, and savoring a beer or two, all while searching for the perfect cheeseburger. He studiously avoids social media and is occasionally without pants.