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The Shroud of Turin

Debate Continues Over Jesus Christ’s Resurrection

April 11, 2009 08:00 AM
by Mark E. Moran
As Christians prepare to celebrate one of the religion’s most important holidays, debate persists over evidence of Jesus Christ's resurrection.

Proving Christianity’s Core Belief

Belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ three days after he died is one of Christianity’s key tenets. Throughout history believers and skeptics alike have sought physical evidence to support what the Bible says.

The latest example of this is a column in Friday's The Daily Beast, from retired Dartmouth English professor Jeffrey Hart called, “10 Reasons the Resurrection Really Happened.”

Most of Hart's reasons are based on the conclusions of scholar Ian Wilson’s 1978 book about the Shroud of Turin, believed by many to be Jesus’ burial cloth. One reason disputes a 1988 report that used carbon dating techniques to conclude that the Shroud of Turin dates to the medieval era, more than 1,000 years after the death of Jesus. Others have also attacked the validity of that report. The provenance of the shroud has been the subject of intense debate ever since reports of it first surfaced in the sixth century.
In 2007, Discovery News reported that fresh scientific evidence indicated that a tomb in Jerusalem may have belonged to Jesus and his family. Discovery reported that there were indications that he and Mary Magdalene may have had a son. The tomb was originally excavated in 1980, after a construction crew working on an apartment complex discovered the tomb. Of the 10 ossuaries, “or limestone bone boxes,” in the tomb, five were inscribed with the names Jesus, Mary, Matthew, Joseph and Mary Magdalene.
The report is not consistent with the life of Jesus as revealed in the New Testament.  As with all discoveries of this nature, skeptics abound.

Background: Resurrection beliefs through the centuries

Debate over all aspects of Christ's life, death and beyond has raged for centuries. During a 2006 debate at Holy Cross College the moderator, Dr. William Shea, spoke about a 13th century debate in Spain between a Dominican friar and a Rabbi about whether Jesus was the messiah. Dr. Shea said that "the Rabbi won the debate, the Friar lost and Christians burned Jewish homes and businesses." 

But in America, belief in Jesus' resurrection is prevalent. In 2007, the Washington Post reported that polls generally showed that “65 to 80 percent of Americans believe Jesus—body and soul—rose from the dead on Easter Sunday.” Of course, the percentage of believers in the resurrection varies from country to country.

For instance, in Wales, a March 2008 survey by the think tank Theos showed that 35 percent of respondents believe Jesus physically rose from the dead, while 24 percent believe in a spiritual resurrection.

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Opinion & Analysis: Miracle or metaphor?

A March 2006 debate at Holy Cross College asked "Is There Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus?" The Website offers a 38-page transcript of the debate, with substantial evidence supplied by each party to the debate.

The end of the debate considered whether ancient writings supported evidence of the resurrection. Dr. William Lane Craig, a philosophy professor at Talbot School of Theology, said "in the case of the empty tomb and the burial, we’ve got like five or six independent sources for this," and added "there’s no good reason for denying the historical core to those narratives."

Craig compared the reliability of the evidence of Jesus’ resurrection favorably to the attestation of the death of Caesar Augustus in AD 7814 and the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, as well as other commonly accepted events in ancient history. 

Bart D. Ehrman, professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, noted that Craig only referred to canonical Christian sources. He asserted that “non-canonical pagan sources in fact never refer to the resurrection of Jesus until centuries later.”

Non-canonical Christian sources discussing the resurrection, he said, “don’t believe that Jesus was physically, bodily raised from the dead.”

One of the earliest non-Christian sources to refer to Jesus is the work of ancient historian Flavius Josephus, a Roman of Jewish origin, in his work "Antiquities of the Jews" (93-94 AD). Many construe the few facts included in his account as consistent with those presented in the Gospels; but Professor Ehrman asserts that Josephus did not himself believe in the resurrection.

In a recent LiveScience article about Jesus the man, history columnist Heather Whipps reports that scholars are “in agreement over some elements of Jesus of Nazareth's life and hotly divided on others.”

Marcus Borg, a current fellow of the Jesus Seminar, an academic group that debates the facts of Jesus’ life, told Whipps that what is generally accepted as fact about Jesus is “less than some Christians think, but more than some skeptics think … the evidence that he [existed] is persuasive to the vast majority of scholars.”

Borg told LiveScience that the facts generally agreed upon by scholars include his birth around 4 B.C. in Nazareth; that he was Jewish; that as an adult he was baptized by John the Baptist and experienced a divine vision; that he was known as a healer, teacher and prophet; that he was executed by the Romans; and that his followers “experienced him after his death. It is clear that they had visions of Jesus as they had known him during his historical life.”

But, as Borg told PBS News Hour in 1997, he believes in the resurrection, but doesn’t know what happened to Jesus’ corpse or tomb. Not knowing the details, though, doesn’t matter. The resurrection’s meaning, he said, “is that His followers continue to experience Him as a living reality, a living presence after His death.”

On the contrary, James Emery White, president of the Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, told the Washington Post that, "There's no sense that any of the earliest followers had the remotest sense that this was metaphorical."

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