Not long ago I watched a television documentary that dismissed the Gospels because “believers with a religious agenda” wrote them.
Is this a good reason to dismiss the Gospel accounts? Both prosecutors and defense attorneys have agendas, and yet we don’t dismiss them on that basis. Rather, we are told to examine the evidence, to evaluate the trustworthiness of the various witnesses, and to make our conclusions after thinking through these issues.
To dismiss either side because they have an agenda is simply lazy thinking. Everyone has an agenda, a worldview, a foundational starting point. The question is whether our current ideas about the world actually fit with the world that is. In other words, are we willing to have our ideas challenged?
If these Gospels are reporting real historical events and not merely the ideas of the early Christian disciples, why would the resurrected Jesus only show himself to his disciples, rather than to unbelievers? This particular objection rests on a false premise that can be easily detected by thinking through the implications of 1 Corinthians 15.
Throughout this blog series, I’ve been arguing that Paul cites an early Christian creed in verses 3 through 7, which he received from the early Christian community in Jerusalem, and that this creed dates to the mid 30s AD. In the final line of this creed we find the phrase, “then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.”
So let’s talk about James for a second. He’s one of the few New Testament characters who also appears in the writings of the first century historian Josephus. Here is the account of his martyrdom in Jerusalem:
With Festus now dead, and Albinus traveling; Ananus the high priest assembled the Sanhedrin, and brought before them James the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, along with some of his companions, and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them over to be stoned; …when he found out about this, King Agrippa took the high priesthood from him, when he had ruled but three months, and made Jesus, the son of Damneus, high priest (Ant. 20.9.1).
So what made James such a firm believer in the idea that his older brother was in fact the divine messiah? In the gospels we find that he, along with his other brothers, rejected this idea outright:
John 7:5 For not even his brothers believed in him.
In Mark 3:21, the issue is put even more strongly: And when his family heard [what Jesus was saying], they went out to seize him, for they were saying, “He is out of his mind.”
But things have changed by the time we get to Acts chapter 1. Here the disciples were gathered in the upper room and were devoting themselves to prayer, “together with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.”
What had happened was that James and his brothers became believers after the resurrection. Though it is true that the authors of the New Testament documents are not writing history for the sake of history, they do have a theological agenda. In other words, they are writing so “that you may believe,” as John admits at the end of his gospel (20:31).
But this in no way invalidates their claims. The question is whether these particular beliefs are justified. Did the resurrection happen, or did it not? Those who said that they witnessed the resurrection ended up taking sides, and tried to convince others, which is what you would expect if it really happened.
What about the claim that Jesus only appeared to his followers? The evidence simply does not support this. James is a great example. If a prophet is not accepted in his hometown, how much worse is the case inside his own family. This is the testimony that we find in the gospels. Even Jesus’ own brothers did not believe him. Later, after the resurrection, after “Jesus appeared himself to them alive by many proofs,” we find these unbelieving brothers meeting with the disciples in the upper room.
Jesus also appeared at other times to believers. The New Testament is filled with accounts of his appearances after the resurrection. Remember Doubting Thomas who would not believe the report of Christ’s resurrection until he put his hands in Jesus’ nail prints and side? Matt 28:17 reads, “And when they saw the risen Jesus they worshiped him, but some doubted.” Or the time when some of the female disciples try to tell the others about the empty tomb, but their report is rejected as “an idle tale” (Luke 24:11).
According to the gospels, Jesus did not show himself to merely believers, but to many different kinds of unbelievers. And the best example of all: that of the Apostle Paul.
Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God (1Cor 15:8-9).
By this point in 1 Corinthians 15, the content of the early Christian creed has likely ended. Paul is now adding his own eyewitness testimony and apostolic appointment to what’s already been recited. Verse 9 is a good reminder that Paul was in fact a hostile witness before he saw the risen Lord. Yet, like James before him, we know that something convinced him to do a complete reversal, and this is not in dispute by even skeptical historians. What is disputed is the claim that it was the resurrection of Jesus that changed his disposition.
As we have seen, this isn’t a story that has grown bigger over time. Here we have an early Christian creed in all likelihood dating to around 33 AD, just a few years after the crucifixion. This creed claims that a particular Jewish rabbi has died for our sins, was raised on the third day, was the subject of Old Testament prophecy, and appeared before believers and hostile eyewitnesses alike.
In the seventh and final blog post in this series, I’ll walk through the implications of Paul’s arguments in verses 10 through 19, in which he claims that “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is useless and your faith is in vain.”