by Graham Veale
To begin, we must be entirely clear on what the case for the Resurrection is not. No one is arguing that some historically reliable documents report a resurrection, and that we should therefore believe that a resurrection occurred. Rather, the historical method is used to establish certain facts, and a miracle is inferred as the best explanation of those facts. In this article we focus on three:
(1) Jesus’ closest followers believed that they had seen Jesus alive after the Crucifixion; (2) these same witnesses believed that Jesus had been resurrected; and (3) the first Christians confirmed that Jesus’ tomb was empty.
Some explanation of these facts is sought; and it seems that the only adequate explanation is that God raised Jesus from the dead.
Some sceptics, like the philosopher Michael Martin, make great play of the fact that the Gospels were written some thirty to fifty years after the events that they describe. Furthermore, the Gospels were not written by the primary witnesses themselves – Mary of Magdala, the other women at the tomb, Thomas, Clopas or Peter.. If Christians argue that the apostles John and Matthew are responsible for the Gospels that bear their names, the sceptic merely points out that this is highly controversial. The argument is that the Gospels are secondary and not primary sources. Therefore, we should not count the evidence from the Gospels when considering the resurrection.
Historians, on this view, should just go through primary sources, stroke out what seems unreliable and what is left is history. This is ill-informed nonsense. The sceptic is advocating what Roger Collingwood called a “scissors and paste” approach to history; an approach that historians reject. Philosopher of history Mark Day makes this clear:
The key to critical history is not so much that one excludes testimony, as that one reasons from the evidence to produced statements about the past that are in addition to anything testified. The historian includes in their account passages which cannot be found in any source.
Historian John Tosh explains what differentiates history from source criticism.
…the procedure is rather to amass as many pieces of evidence as possible from a wide range of sources – preferably from all the sources that have a bearing on the problem in hand. In this way inaccuracies and distortions of particular sources are more likely to be revealed, and the inferences drawn by the historian can be corroborated.
If we were to follow the sceptic’s methodology, most of ancient history would find its way to the wastepaper basket. Luke Pitcher points out ancient historians did not use modern scholarly apparatus like footnotes. We often do not know the exact source that an Ancient Historian like Arrian or Thucydides is using to reconstruct the past. Pitcher calls this the “action of the swan”.
Modern writers of history …usually let the reader see the processes by which their narrative of events progesses. Ancient historians often do not. Like a swan, the narrative of the work of ancient history glides ever forwards. But the processes which sustain its momentum remain submerged and invisible.
However, while we must read ancient history critically, Pitcher reminds us that ancient historians had access to good sources. Arrian, who wrote his history of Alexander the Great’s campaigns (The Anabasis) centuries after the great man’s death, relied on the works eyewitnesses like Aristobulus and Ptolemy. Tacitus could rely on sources like the Acta Senata when writing about events that occurred long before his birth. Perhaps the Gospels were written 30 years after the events that they describe. This misses the point. We need to ask if the Gospel writers accessed earlier material; and the presence of memorable oral traditions, anachronisms, embarrassing material, and a general verisimilitude suggests that they had.
As it happens, we do have the eyewitness testimony of at least one person – the Apostle Paul. When we read what Paul actually says we can see that his testimony provides important evidence for the resurrection. But, frankly, this skeptical demand for a note signed by an eyewitness is more than a little puzzling…
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