A Contemporary Scholarly Analysis and Literature Review of the Purported Resurrection of Jesus and the Rise of Early Christianity

Scholar Dale Allison has called the resurrection of Jesus the “prize puzzle” of New Testament scholarship. The foundations of the event, whatever they be, gave rise to undoubtedly the largest and most influential religion on earth, and thus its significance cannot be understated. This published work engages in a survey of literature from primarily the Third Quest for the Historical Jesus, which originated in the late 1970s and has continued to the present day. The results indicate that the majority of scholars agree with certain facts surrounding the alleged miracle, such as Jesus’s burial, empty tomb, and resurrection appearances (with varying degrees of certainty), which led to the unique belief that he had individually been raised from the dead. Various theories have been proposed, with the subjective hallucination/vision theory being the most popular among scholars. However, despite their varying levels of acceptance all of these theories have been heavily criticized, and none have reached significant consensus from either conservative or critical scholars. Despite hundreds of years of debate, the results are still inconclusive, although alternative theories have become more frequent in recent decades.

  • Paper Presentation
  • Ancient Historiography, Classical Antiquity, New Testament Studies, Religious Studies, Philosophy
  • With the rejection of traditional religious dogma, various methods and theories have been utilized to explain the historical origins behind Christianity and the chief miracle surrounding it, the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. The presentation will seek to explain contemporary hypotheses regarding the alleged miracle and their implications.

7 thoughts on “A Contemporary Scholarly Analysis and Literature Review of the Purported Resurrection of Jesus and the Rise of Early Christianity”

  1. Very interesting to hear the many different perspectives that scholars take on the resurrection. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Very interesting presentation. I would have loved to hear more of your own take on what you believe to be the most reasonable hypothesis to account for the (purported) facts. It would also be interesting to hear why–in your eyes or the eyes of its defenders–the hallucination theory is plausible in spite of running into problems accounting for the facts you mention.

    Methodologically, can you give any context for some of the numbers you cite? At one point, you mentioned that 75% of scholars agree on a claim, and twice you described assertions as being “universally” accepted by scholars. (That’s pretty bold!) Are you borrowing these from another source, or do they refer solely to the works in your bibliography?

    1. Thank you for your comment Matthew!

      I try to stay away form personal opinions regarding research, especially in religious area, since I want to remain as objective, open minded, and unbiased as possible. I think most scholars would admit that the hypothesis that Jesus actually rose from the dead would have the widest explanatory scope, and it that regard it has much better explanatory power. However, the question is whether or not that view is actually plausible or even possible. Ultimately, my position is (like many things in history) is that we can’t know for certain, but that certain explanations are more plausible than others. I think the question really comes down to whether or not one is one to miracles. If the answer is yes, the resurrection hypothesis may be the best explanation. If you don’t think miracles are physically possible, than obviously resurrection of a corpse is impossible and can be ruled out a priori.

      The hallucination hypothesis is the most popular by far because of the factors I mentioned, such as the commonality of bereavement and religious visions. Many defenders also point out that the appearance to Paul seems to fit the description of a hallucination: he hears a voice and sees a bright light. Proponents of the theory argue that since Paul lists himself in the list of witnesses to the resurrection, then that implies that all of the appearances may have been in a similar manner. Since the Gospels were written later than Paul, most scholars see Paul’s writing as more reliable than the physical accounts presented in the Gospels.

      The 75% number comes from a study done by resurrection specialist Gary Habermas. Habermas took every article on the resurrection and/or empty tomb from 1975 to 2005 published in English, French, or German. His findings were published in the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, under the article “Resurrection Research From 1975 to the Present: What are Critical Scholars Saying?” I have read that some scholars have questioned the validity of this number, although I have seen other scholars such as Mike Licona, William Lane Craig, Jacob Kremer, and John Barclay claim that the empty tomb is accepted by a “majority”. Whether that majority is as high as Habermas claims is subject for debate, but I am not aware of any material that claims that the empty tomb is REJECTED by a majority. My educated guess is that, given multiple attestation from various works, the empty tomb is accepted by well over half of scholars, although I am not sure of what to degree. It may be a majority position, but it is certainly not a consensus position.

      And yes, my claim that the appearances are “universally” accepted is not controversial. Every scholar, whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or atheist, agrees that these happened because the source that mentions them is extremely early and actually gives the names of the witnesses. That is a rare find in ancient historiography. With the (possible) exception of scholar Robert Price (who is considered a fringe theorist in the field), every publication on the resurrection you will come across will affirm these appearances. Gerd Ludemann, who popularized that hallucination theory, states, “It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus’ death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ.”

      I hope that was not too long of an answer, but I wanted to address it thoroughly, because it is a good question. Let me know if you have any more. Thank you!

      1. Thanks for the detailed reply, Caleb!

        Just to clarify, I think that you also referred to rejection of the existence of Roman guards outside the tomb as “universally” accepted, but it’s quite possible I’m misremembering.

        Anyway, I definitely agree with your assessment that how one evaluates the strength of different hypotheses is going to be affected by one’s philosophical commitments.

        Kudos on a terrific presentation, and thanks again for such a robust response to my questions!

        1. Yes. The Matthew guard story is universally rejected, and is viewed as an apologetic response to counter the Jewish claim that the body of Jesus was stolen. There are some scholars, like William Lane Craig and a few others who uphold the story as historical, but the majority reject it.

          Thank you for your questions, Matthew!

  3. Wow! This is a great presentation Caleb! I can tell you’ve but a lot of time and research into this topic, and I really enjoyed listening to your ideas!

  4. Jonathan Bontrager

    Well done, Caleb! I appreciate your academically rigorous approach to the subject. I feel that it is more fair and balanced than what I am used to hearing, too.

    I know the focus of your presentation was centered around the event of the resurrection, but I was curious as to how much you have investigated the historicity of the person of Jesus, i.e. if he really spoke the words and did the things recorded in the gospels, who he really was/claimed to be, and even how he fits into the larger context of Jewish history and the prophesied Messiah (was he the Christ)? I know that’s a loaded question, but I was just wondering if you had studied beyond the resurrection.

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