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Defending the Faith: Evidence of Jesus Christ's resurrection

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 14 2011 6:08 p.m. MDT

Many skeptics lightly dismiss the story of Christ's resurrection from the dead as merely ancient folklore, a tall tale that emerged and grew with the retelling over generations.

But several lines of evidence and argument demonstrate this dismissal to be untenable. I will briefly outline one of them.

In 1 Corinthians 15:1, the apostle Paul tells his audience in the Greek city of Corinth that he's going to summarize for them the gospel (in Greek, the "good news") that he had already preached to them.

He then explains, in 15:3-8, that "I handed on to you, as of primary importance, what I had in turn received, that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, and that he was buried and was raised from the dead on the third day, according to the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas (that is, to Peter), then to the Twelve.

"Thereafter, he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at once, most of whom are still alive, although some have died. Afterwards, he appeared to James, and then to all the apostles.

"Last of all, as if to one untimely born, he appeared to me, also."

It's generally agreed among historians that 1 Corinthians was written from Ephesus in A.D. 54 or 55. Jesus was crucified somewhere between A.D. 30 and 33. That leaves a period of only 25 years or less between Christ's resurrection and Paul's strong affirmation of it. (Paul's own conversion, resulting from a dramatic vision along the Damascus road, had occurred somewhere between A.D. 33 and 35.)

Thus, the resurrection of Jesus fell easily within the range of living memory. And, indeed, Paul cites specific people — Peter, James, the other apostles, and "more than five hundred brothers" — most of whom were still alive and, therefore, along with numerous other contemporaries who lived through the events, in a position to contradict him.

Notice, incidentally, the reference to "brothers," and not to "sisters." Perhaps there were no women present on that otherwise unknown occasion when Christ appeared to so large a crowd.

But some obvious names are absent from Paul's list. Where, for example, is Mary Magdalene, probably the first witness to the Resurrection? Where are the other women who came to the tomb that Sunday morning?

Paul was a Pharisee by training, and the testimony of women wasn't considered credible in ancient Jewish legal proceedings. (See his own restrictive comments about the role of women in early Christian worship just a few verses before, in 14:34-35.) Ironically, this actually increases the plausibility of the resurrection accounts: If the gospel writers had simply invented the story, they wouldn't have chosen women as the first witnesses. That they identify those first witnesses as women strongly suggests that they're telling what actually happened.

But the interval between the resurrection and Paul's testimony of it can be reduced even further, because his first letter to the Thessalonians, which also mentions Christ's emergence from the tomb (see 1:10 and 4:14), is typically dated to A.D. 50 or 51, approximately 20 years (or less) afterward.

In fact, that letter was probably written from Corinth, where Paul lived for roughly a year and a half beginning in late A.D. 50 or 51. It was, obviously, during that stay that he first preached the message of Christ's resurrection to the Corinthians.

And when did Paul "receive" the gospel as he summarized it in 1 Corinthians 15? During the summer of A.D. 49 (or possibly A.D. 50), he participated in the so-called Council of Jerusalem with Peter, James, and John, discussing, among other things, the question of circumcision for Gentile converts (Acts 15:1-29; Galatians 2:1-10). And he visited Jerusalem again, perhaps in A.D. 52 or 53 (Acts 18:18-22). But he had already spent 15 days in the city with Peter and John during the spring or summer of A.D. 36 or 37 (Acts 9:26-29; Galatians 1:18-19).

In other words, Paul was converted to Christianity within two to five years of Christ's death, and he almost certainly heard the story of Christ's resurrection directly from its principal apostolic eyewitnesses at Jerusalem within, at the very most, six or seven years of the event itself, and perhaps within roughly half that time.

The interval between the claimed resurrection of Jesus and Paul's learning about it seems far too short for a mere legend to have evolved.

Daniel C. Peterson is a professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at BYU, where he also serves as editor in chief of the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative and as director of outreach for the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. He is the founder of MormonScholarsTestify.org.

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