Religion and Spirituality

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The Shroud of Turin

Debate Over Jesus Christ’s Resurrection—Miracle or Metaphor?

April 02, 2010 07:00 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

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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. Conversely, even some Christian scholars who adhere to Jesus' teachings believe that biblical reports of his resurrection were written metaphorically, and not meant literally.

One stout defense of the traditional Christian view comes from retired Dartmouth English professor Jeffrey Hart, who a year ago wrote an article for the Daily Beast titled, “10 Reasons the Resurrection Really Happened,” and then parried with commenters to the story.

Most of Hart's 10 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.

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."

A similar debate was reported in the Dallas News around Easter 2007. The paper quotes Stephen T. Davis, a philosphy professor at Claremont McKenna College, as saying that where a person stood on the Resurrection depended on how he interprets the Bible. Davis, a literal believer, addresses some contradictions in the New Testament: "Some are easy and some I don't know how to reconcile....They were different stories that got talked about and talked about, so it's not surprising there would have been some discrepancies. But there's tremendous agreement on the basic facts."

In September 2009, Religion Writer for the BBC Michael Symmons Roberts examined the evidence for several miracles attributed to Jesus Christ, as well as for the physical resurrection of his body. He writes that without the resurrection, Christianity "would be just a minor cult in first-century Judaism. This one miracle - more than any other - changed the world."
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