Sometime last fall I was asked by my church to give a presentation on the changing historical views of the Resurrection of Jesus, to be timed for the appropriate season of the church calendar. Why they asked me in particular I’m not sure, given my shoddy attendance record, but it was nice of them and it sounded like an interesting topic, so I said I would do it.
Fast forward to this spring, when the deadline was drawing nigh and I had pretty much gotten nowhere on the project, and it became clear that the presentation was taking me in a different direction. Sometimes projects do that – you start off with one thing in mind, and when you finish you are quite some distance away. So when the minister emailed me to check in, I asked him if the new topic would work for him. He said it would, and so I gave the presentation this past weekend.
It seemed to go over well.
It’s not a talk I will likely ever give again, so I figured I’d post it here.
I’ve been asked here today to discuss the question of just what a historian can actually tell you about the Resurrection. It turns out that this is a surprisingly complicated question, actually, because it speaks to some very fundamental differences in what humans are and are not able to know, differences that are themselves interesting.
The short answer to the question is that as a historian I can in some sense tell you both everything and nothing about the Resurrection. The long answer, well, takes time. It requires us to understand what exactly history is and what it can and cannot tell you about the world.
One of the running jokes in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series – a series full of all sorts of running jokes – concerns the alien metaphysician Oolon Colluphid, author of the “trilogy of philosophical blockbusters,” Where God Went Wrong, Some More of God’s Greatest Mistakes, and Who is This God Person Anyway?
For his fourth book, Well, That About Wraps It Up For God, Colluphid describes the existence of the Babel Fish – a small animal that lives on thought waves and when inserted into your ear instantly allows you to translate any language in the universe – and then he uses this to demonstrate conclusively that God cannot exist.
“The argument goes something like this,” writes Adams. “‘I refuse to prove that I exist,’ says God, ‘for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.’ 'But,’ says Man, ‘the Babel fish is a dead giveaway, isn’t it? It could not have evolved by chance, it proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don’t. QED.’ 'Oh dear,’ says God, ‘I hadn’t thought of that,’ and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic, ‘Oh, that was easy,’ says Man, and for an encore goes on to prove that black is white and gets himself killed on the next pedestrian crossing.”
Which only goes to show you the dangers of taking metaphysical speculation too far.
Like any parable, there are lessons to be drawn here, and perhaps the most obvious one, and the one that is most relevant here today, is the notion that faith and knowledge are different things. They speak to different realms of the human experience, and confusing the two will only get you into trouble.
The distinction between faith and knowledge has a long tradition in Western thought.
It emerges among the ancient Greeks even before the time of Christ. While not dominant it nevertheless remained surprisingly strong even through the medieval period, which often comes as something of a surprise to modern audiences.
We have reduced the word “medieval” to an insult today – nobody ever says “I’m gonna get Renaissance on you!” – and we often forget how sophisticated medieval thought actually was.
The distinction re-emerged in strength with the Renaissance of the 14th through 16th centuries and the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries. In many ways the distinction between knowledge and faith remains one of the bedrock characteristics that separates Western civilization from Eastern civilization, which tends to take a rather more holistic approach to such things.
Further, not only are faith and knowledge different things, but also there is a fairly impermeable boundary between them. We are on one side of it and the Divine is on the other, and trying to cross that boundary will only lead to trouble. Again, this is an old idea in Western thought.
John Locke, for example, spent a great deal of time arguing this very point.
Locke was one of the premiere thinkers of the Enlightenment, and he is best known today as the creator of the theory of political liberalism to which each and every one of you subscribe whether you call yourself liberal or conservative today. The Locke we are most familiar with today is the Locke of The Second Treatise on Government, where he lays all this out.
But in the 17th and 18th centuries he was better known for other works, such as An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, and Letters Concerning Toleration. Using the reasoning developed in the Essay, Locke spent the Letters arguing that the realm of the divine was not accessible to human reason – that the former was the province of faith and the latter was the realm of knowledge – and thus attempts by humans to legislate their religious beliefs onto others by force were both politically unwise and bordering on blasphemous. You couldn’t know that sort of thing – knowledge is simply incapable of crossing that divide. All you can do is have faith.
This, when you get down to it, is a profoundly humbling realization. It speaks to limits on the human animal – limits we can neither transcend nor fully grasp. We are not godlike beings of infinite capacity, the way we like to think ourselves and the way we so often pretend to be. We are, instead, creatures of a defined space that we cannot escape. A grand and glorious space, of course, and one whose extent we have not yet even begun to sketch out. But not an infinite one. Not divine.
From this we get a sense also of what, exactly, faith is. The science-fiction author Philip K. Dick once observed that “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” The flip side of that is faith. Not that faith is somehow unreal, necessarily, but rather that faith is in fact what does go away when you stop believing in it, regardless of what doesn’t. Faith is that which you believe when you don’t have the certainty of knowledge to back you up. It’s what you believe despite the lack of evidence, or even despite the evidence itself.
To the rationalist, this is an argument for discarding faith, for equating it with delusion and condemning it as something to be outgrown and tossed aside with other childish things. But from a Lockean perspective it is simply the recognition that there are limits to what humans can know. That beyond them we can only have faith. That we should accept this demarcation with the humility and grace that is appropriate. And that we should not allow the claims of the one side to determine the truth of the other.
You can fine-tune that line of thought any number of ways and probably make a decent living doing so, but there’s the heart of it.
That’s a lot to pack into a throwaway joke in a 40-year-old sci-fi novel, but that’s why The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is still popular today when most of the things that passed for culture in the 1970s have long since passed into oblivion
As a historian, I deal in knowledge rather than faith, and a very specific type of knowledge at that. In order to see what history is, it helps to remember what it isn’t.
First of all, history is not the past. The past is what actually happened. History is simply what we can know and say about what happened, which is not the same thing. There are a lot of things we cannot know or say. There are limits.
Second, history is not memory. Memory is simply what people think might have happened once upon a time. It has no rules. There is no way to check it. It is completely unreliable. “Once you’ve heard two eyewitness accounts of a motor accident you begin to worry about history,” said John McNab, more about memory than history. People do tend to get very angry when you point this distinction out, but the bottom line is that memory is not history.
So what is history?
History is a discipline. And more to the point, it is an activity – it is something that you do. In particular, it is something that you do in very specific ways. It has rules about what you can and cannot know and how you can and cannot know about those things
There are two questions in history. The first of which is the most basic: “What?” What happened? When? Who? How many? The sorts of questions any journalist would ask. Names, dates, places, peoples, battles, statistics, generals, and so on. The facts, or as historians like to call it, the evidence.
Historical evidence has certain characteristics, most notably for us today that it is naturalistic. History is a discipline of this world, and the evidence that historians consider valid is concerned with the things that make sense in the secular world. All valid historical explanations are naturalistic and conform to the expectations of this world. If you can’t explain things that way – if you have to resort to supernatural explanations – you have left the realm of history and entered into something else.
This is a key issue when it comes to things like the Resurrection, which – by definition – is not naturalistic. Miracles, divine intervention, spiritual matters and the like – all are outside the realm of history. This is not to deny categorically that they happened. They may have. They may not have. But remember – history is not the past. History is a discipline that tells us what we can know for sure about the past and how we can know it. And when you leave the realm of history, you enter into something else: memory, faith, or something yet beyond, but not history.
Historians get this evidence from what are called primary sources. Things that are first-hand information – “primary” – about the story you’re telling. These are usually documents – written records such as letters, journals, accounts, and the like – but they don’t have to be. Objects, songs, images, and so on count too. So long as they are part of the story you’re trying to tell, they count.
This brings up the rather knotty problem, particularly here in the US, of using the Bible as a primary source. Most of the specific details that we rely on for the story of the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ are recorded in only one place – or, depending on how you look at the different books within it, several places all rolled into one place – and that is the Bible.
For some Christians the Bible is the inerrant Word Of God, literally true in all ways. And if you are one of these people, well, good on ya. Such is your right and your faith, and I certainly will not try to talk you out of it.
For me as a Christian, I tend to side with the rather older view that the Bible is parable, higher truth, and not a newspaper article to be fact-checked. If I want to read the Word of God, I look around at Creation and see what He has made.
Or the creatures created in His image.
This distinction is important for me as a historian. Because as a historian, I see the Bible not as the inerrant Word of God but instead as a millennia-long record of humanity’s attempt to come to grips with the Divine, to recognize the Divine in the world and to understand what this presence means to us in our lives. From this perspective the Bible is thus both sacred and very, very human.
It is this which makes it approachable as a primary source document. If you assume the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, handed down perfect and eternal from on high and not to be doubted in any way, then you cannot use it as a historical document. It is a supernatural thing, and beyond the scope of history.
This is especially important because historians approach primary source documents in very specific ways. In particular, we do so with a fair amount of skepticism. Any document, no matter how old or venerated, needs to be checked against other sources to confirm its validity, and if no other source is available then it has to be checked against the general run of what else we know about the times.
Much of what we find in the Bible can in fact be confirmed this way, or at least finds echoes in other similar sources. The story of Noah and the Flood, for example, has parallels all over ancient sources. Something happened to spark those stories, though what exactly is not clear from this distance in time. And many of the long histories of the Hebrews that fill most of the Old Testament are fairly well substantiated by archaeological evidence and other records.
Again, note the focus on the naturalistic from the historian. The stories of Creation and the personal interactions with God and the angels fall outside of that scope, and would have to be taken on faith.
So the bottom line here is that the Bible can be a very useful primary source for telling us much about the Resurrection – notably the events leading up to it and the events leading away from it – but as we’ll see, from a historical perspective, which focuses on the things of this world, there is a gap right where the event itself exists.
The second question of history – the interesting question as far as history is concerned – is “So What?” Who cares? Why is this important? What does this mean? It takes the evidence as a starting point and tries to put that evidence into some kind of coherent narrative, an argument, or, as historians call it, an interpretation.
This we can certainly do with the Resurrection, from a historical perspective. Whether it happened or not – again, remember, that’s a question that history is incapable of answering – the fact is that people thought it happened, they based their lives on the assumption that it did happen, and this had consequences for the world at large. Historians can and do argue over those consequences in an attempt to persuade others that their interpretation is the best one.
Not the right one, you will note.
With evidence you can be right or wrong – you have your facts or you don’t. But interpretations are judged better or worse, depending on how much of the evidence they explain. Again, we come back to that humbling sense that there are limits to our knowledge and our certainty, and that we ignore them at our peril.
So, given all that, the question then becomes just how much can such a historian tell you about the Resurrection, after all. The answer is, well, quite a bit. Though perhaps not what you really want to know.
What historians are good at is context – at placing events within the larger spectrum of other things that either led up to them, surrounded them, or resulted from them. From that perspective, there’s a lot to tell.
First of all, we know a fair amount about the human being at the center of this story, one Yeshua ben Yosef – Joshua, son of Joseph, known commonly to us as Jesus of Nazareth – a Jewish man living on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea some 2000 years ago. Because whatever people of differing faiths (or lack thereof) may argue about the divinity of Christ, the fact that there was such a human being – that a man calling himself Jesus of Nazareth existed and walked the earth at that time and place – is utterly noncontroversial. We know this secular fact fairly well. And we know a lot about this man from a historical perspective.
While we have few records of Jesus’ daily life in particular, we know a fair amount of how young Jewish men of his era lived and can draw a few conclusions with a high degree of confidence. Among them, that as a young Jewish male he would have learned to read and write within his own family, and would have absorbed the history of the Jewish people and kingdoms by hearing the commentaries on the holy texts that were proclaimed each Shabbat in the local synagogue. He would have learned how to sing psalms and recite prayers, and likely did not shave the hair of his temples. Religion was of central importance to the Jews of the period, and Jesus would have been thoroughly educated in the precepts of the Jewish faith and the practice of their rituals
He most likely lived in a small house with an inner courtyard where most of the cooking and social activities took place, on a street lined with pebbles.
We know that Joseph was a builder (most buildings of the period were stone, so “builder” is probably a more accurate translation than “carpenter”) – a respected trade during a prosperous era with a lot of new construction – and as a young man Jesus would probably have received some training in this trade as well.
The economy of the region centered on trade and commerce, particularly in the northern regions where Jesus was raised. It was a lush area famous for its agriculture, and it was a fairly cosmopolitan place, with all sorts of travelers and merchants on the roads and in the inns.
We even have a fair idea of what he probably looked like, given the anthropological, archeological, and historical evidence that exists today.
No, not like that. That fair-skinned blue-eyed man is clearly Swedish.
Definitely not that either.
Not exactly this, of course, but probably close enough. This was the man whose body went into that tomb to be Resurrected.
We also know that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, in the Hebrew kingdom of Judea, the surviving kingdom of the Jews, and while much of his ministry took place in Galilee, where he was raised, all of the events of Holy Week including the Resurrection took place in Judea.
As near as we can tell, the Hebrew tribes arrived on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea sometime around the 1500s BCE and spent the next several centuries under the rule of imperial Egypt. By around 1000 BCE they had united to form their own independent kingdom, which lasted less than a century before splitting into two pieces: a northern kingdom known as Israel, and a southern kingdom known as Judea
The kingdom of Israel was overrun by the Assyrians in 722 BCE and its peoples scattered and merged into the Assyrian empire, but Judea lasted until it was conquered by the Chaldeans in the late 600s BCE. When the Chaldeans themselves were conquered by Persians in 538 BCE the Persians allowed Judea to reconstitute itself, and it remained an independent kingdom until being absorbed into the Roman Empire in 63 BCE, where it would remain through the events of the Resurrection.
By that point, the area looked pretty much like this:
It would be the occupying colonial power of Rome that would be the main secular actor in the events leading up to the Resurrection. Rome had grown from a small city-state into a vast empire over the previous 700 years. It started out as a kingdom around the year 753 BCE, but by the time it took over Judea it had been a republic for nearly five centuries, and at the time of the Resurrection it was an Empire, having made that transition in 31 BCE.
Under the early emperors – notably Octavian, who ruled from 31 BCE to 14 CE and is referred to in the Bible as Caesar Augustus – the Empire was remarkably stable, and for the next 200 years the Mediterranean was a Roman lake. It would not be as safe again until after WWII. Trade flourished, piracy was largely eradicated, and travel was relatively risk-free. The larger world in which the Resurrection happened, in other words, enjoyed an era of peace and prosperity that would not be equaled until the modern era, at least at the center of the empire.
Rome was an expansionist power, and throughout its history it fought wars of conquest against its neighbors on the fringes of the empire.
By the time of Jesus’ birth Rome controlled all of the shores of the Mediterranean, western Europe up to the North Sea, the northern shore of Africa (including all of Egypt), and most of the modern middle east. It would continue to expand for most of the next two centuries.
Judea, in other words, was a small province on the fringes of a vast cosmopolitan empire and in a world where nothing moved faster than 3mph over any distance – not people, not goods, not information, nothing – controlling this empire was tricky.
The genius of Roman expansion was not so much that they were able to defeat their enemies and take their territory – many civilizations had figured out that part, some far more effectively than the Romans. The genius of Roman expansion was instead that they figured out how to incorporate these territories into a functioning empire by converting enemies and subjects into friends, allies and, eventually, citizens. They figured out that if they wanted to control this empire, they had to do so fairly loosely and with more carrots than sticks.
They offered the lure of Roman citizenship to many of those who would submit to Roman rule, and even those areas and people that did not fall under this offer were often treated with a level of tolerance that was uncommon in the ancient world. They were generally free to run their own local affairs, maintain their own cultures, languages and religions, and generally carry on as they had before, provided, of course, that they acknowledged Roman overlordship, contributed soldiers to the Roman army as requested, and paid whatever taxes the Romans demanded – taxes that, by the standards of the day, were not especially burdensome
The local authorities who ran these provinces on a day-to-day basis would technically be subservient to a Roman colonial governor and at the time and place of the Resurrection that job was filled by a man named Pontius Pilate.
Pilate also appears in a number of other records besides the Bible, and his historical existence is unquestioned. He became the prefect – or governor – of Judea in 26CE, a post he held for 11 years before being recalled back to Rome as punishment for an unduly harsh suppression of a Jewish uprising in the territory. His job was simply to keep the peace, to monitor the local authorities for compliance with Roman rule, and to collect the taxes. He also had a small judicial role as the local arbiter of Roman power and the secular authority to whom the local rulers and priests could appeal, and it is in that capacity that he appears in the story of the Resurrection.
For all that loose control and general tolerance, however, the Romans could be brutal when challenged – just because they offered a lot of carrots didn’t mean the Romans lacked sticks with which to beat recalcitrant provinces – and Judea was a constant challenge to them.
The situation in Roman-controlled Judea was not a happy one, mostly on religious grounds. Roman religion was based largely on the Greek pantheon. It was polytheistic, and each Roman god corresponded more or less to one of the Greek gods, such as the war god Mars (formerly the Greek Ares).
Perhaps for this reason, the Romans were generally tolerant of other people’s gods. They allowed the worship of native gods and goddesses throughout their provinces and they even adopted some of those local gods into their own pantheon.
In return they expected from their subject peoples the same tolerance of their gods. They did not get this from the Jews.
Jewish religion was stringently monotheistic by time the Romans got there, and the Jews defined themselves as a people largely through their religious beliefs. As such, they refused to have anything to do with the Roman gods, and the Romans came to regard the Jews as troublesome and ungrateful subjects.
This was exacerbated by the fact that the Jews themselves were deeply divided by religious differences at this time, with many different sects competing to have their version of the Messiah that they believed had been promised to them by their God deliver them from the Romans, and they probably spent more time fighting among themselves than they did fighting against the Romans. If you’ve ever seen Monty Python’s Life of Brian, that’s a lot of what goes on in the film.
None of these sects were particularly receptive to the claims of Yeshua ben Yosef, whom they regarded as a troublemaker.
We know that all of this eventually comes down to a series of trials judged first by the Jewish authorities and then by the Roman overlords. According to the Bible Jesus was first tried by the Sanhedrin, a religious body and, at the time of the trial, an ad-hoc sort of committee rather than a standing court.
He was convicted of blasphemy, but the Sanhedrin did not have the power to impose the death penalty and so he was eventually brought before Pontius Pilate and tried as a secular criminal.
Romans took legal matters very, very seriously, and they developed a number of legal practices that would form the bedrock of Western law, such as the idea that everyone, regardless of wealth or social position, should be equal before the law, the idea that the burden of proof was on the accuser, not the defendant, and the idea that only the individual defendant could be tried for a specific crime, and not the entire family, clan or tribe of the accused.
Jesus’ trial before Pilate is well described in the Bible, and many of those characteristics appear. The Roman prefect seems not to have cared about Jesus’ social status or worried about his family. Throughout the trial he constantly asks for proof from the accusers that a crime warranting execution has been committed here. Ultimately, however, Pilate was a political figure more than a judicial one, and he chose to pacify the local authorities rather than worry about the fate of one accused criminal. He thus ordered Jesus’ execution.
The means of execution chosen for Jesus was crucifixion, a particularly painful and horrifying form of punishment meant to deter witnesses from repeating the crimes for which the condemned had been convicted.
It was an ancient practice, used by civilizations as diverse as Persia, Carthage, Macedonia, and even Judea itself in the decades prior to Roman occupation. Under Roman law it was also meant to demonstrate the low social status of its victims. Generally those crucified were slaves, lower classes, or rebels of some kind.
The condemned would usually first be whipped, which often led to significant blood loss and shock, and then be forced to carry at least the horizontal beam of the cross to the execution site. The entire cross could weigh up to 300lbs and was thus often impractical for the condemned to carry. The victim would be nailed to the cross with large, heavy spikes, and often their legs would be broken in order to hasten death, which could take anywhere from several hours to several days, and could result from any number of specific causes, among them heart failure, shock, suffocation, infection, dehydration, or – if the victim survived long enough – animal predation. Jesus died fairly quickly according to the Bible, after several hours.
We know that Jesus was then taken down off the cross and prepared for burial.
There were any number of rituals that observant Jews of the period would have had to go through in order to do this. The body would be washed and perhaps anointed with oil or spices, and then wrapped in shrouds, all of which the Bible reports as well. Unless the deceased was an unmarried girl, their hair would be trimmed. Jewish custom was particularly adamant that the dead be buried immediately, as leaving a body unburied overnight was considered extremely disrespectful. This was especially important since Jesus was executed on a Friday and the following day was the Sabbath, on which no work could be done.
All four of the Gospels then describe the body of Jesus being placed in a “rock-hewn tomb” by Joseph of Arimethea in front of which a stone was rolled to seal the grave until after the Sabbath, when further preparations of the body could be made.
But when they reopened the tomb on Sunday, there was no body.
We have a fair idea of what happened afterward. There were reports from people who claimed to have seen the Jesus after having witnessed his death. These appear in several places in the Gospels, and from that moment you can trace the emergence of Christianity as a religion and, eventually, as a powerful force in Western civilization.
So we know an awful lot, we historians, about the Resurrection – the things that led up to it, the events that surrounded it, the consequences that it had. But there’s that gap, right there in the middle, where the event itself should be. There’s a gap that is exactly the size of the tomb.
The tomb is a black box as far as history is concerned. You know the input, you know the output, but the process of how you get from the one to the other is opaque. Computers are black boxes to me. I type things in, I get things out, and don’t even ask me how you get from the one to the other. The tomb is just this – the body of Jesus goes in on Friday, the tomb is empty on Sunday, and how you get from that input to that result is a mystery.
There are any number of things you can fill that black box with, my personal favorite at the moment being this:
If you think that’s weird, a quick internet search will lead you to all sorts of ideas that are even weirder. That Jesus didn’t really die – he was simply unconscious and later escaped from the tomb with or without the help of his disciples. That he had a secret twin brother who took his place, hid the body, and claimed to be him after the burial. That Jesus was actually an alien whose colleagues collected him after the burial – either the body or the living alien, depending on which theory you care to buy.
And, of course, there is the story related by the Bible, which may be the weirdest of all when you sit and think about it. That Christ died and was buried, and on the third day he rose again and ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father, from whence he shall come again in glory to judge the quick and the dead.
None of this is anything that historians can account for, and the Biblical story in particular is beyond the scope of history altogether. It is not naturalistic. It is a Deus Ex Machina explanation, one which literally requires a miracle to occur. It is simply not within the realm of history
And yet if we wish to be Christians, we have to go there. We must go beyond knowledge, and make the leap into faith. It is essential to Christianity that we do this. It is, after all, the main reason Christianity is a religion and not a philosophy.
There is a point beyond which knowledge cannot take you, and on the other side of that is faith. That’s what faith is, after all, the belief in things that you cannot truly know. That is why faith requires humility. You can never know for sure. You can never be sure. It requires you to remain humble before God and Man and simply declare your beliefs.
This is one of the things I have always loved about the Episcopal Church, that it is a church that does not claim to read the mind of God the way many churches do these days. We don’t know. We can never know. It’s simply a matter of faith.
And when we take the leap into faith, we are leaving certainty and history behind.
So, the bottom line is that as a historian I can tell you almost everything you want to know about the Resurrection except what actually matters, and beyond that, I cannot go. Beyond that, you will have to consult your minister, and – in the fine Protestant tradition that demands that every believer be their own priest – your own faith.