At the “Earnestly Contending” Apologetics conference at New Life Church in Smithfield, RI, this weekend, Professor Dr. Gary Habermas of Liberty University, an internationally known expert on the resurrection of Jesus, reported on a forthcoming work of Richard Bauckham, prolific New Testament scholar for many years at the University of St. Andrews. In it, Habermas explained, Bauckham builds on research by evangelical writer Larry Hurtado and atheist historian Gerd Ludemann, both of whom have argued that belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus must have emerged within two or three years of the death of Jesus (whether or not one believes it actually happened).
The argument goes like this. 1 Corinthians 15:3-6 contains, in credal form, a list of the eyewitnesses to the resurrection of Jesus. By including reference to Jesus’ crucifixion and burial, Paul makes it clear he is talking about bodily resurrection. But verses 1-2 describe that this is information that Paul passed on just as he had received it, using verbs that were technical terms for the transmission of oral tradition. When would Paul have first learned this information? Almost certainly as one of the very fundamentals of the Christian faith taught him when he first became a follower of the Risen Jesus–perhaps by Ananias who instructed him while he was still temporarily blind, in Damascus, after the Risen Christ appeared to him en route.
But when one compiles the most probable dates of the relevant events, based on Paul’s own information in Galatians 1-2, if Jesus was crucified in A.D. 30, the most likely date, then Paul’s conversion must have come no more than two years later, in 32. (See any standard conservative New Testament introduction for how the dates are computed). But for Paul to have been given an already established creed including resurrection witnesses, known not just in Jerusalem but also in Damascus, some time must have already elapsed for this foundational information to have been crystallized in this form and become widely known in the various locations believers lived and become widely agreed on as the kind of information to be passed on to each new convert.
Ludemann, the atheist, says this means within one to two years from Jesus’ death, it was widely agreed on that Christ had been bodily resurrected. Bauckham, according to Habermas, apparently moves that date back to within about one-half year’s time, in order for the necessary time to elapse for this to become widely standardized by the time of Paul’s conversion.
One may still choose to follow Ludemann’s antisupernaturalism (we know resurrections can’t happen) and thus opt for some version of the mass hallucination hypothesis. But the most common skeptical alternative in recent years, that the resurrection stories are just late myths in which beliefs about Jesus’ cause living on became embodied in mythological garb, simply doesn’t have the decades (or sometimes centuries) needed for it to have developed the way all other ancient myths did. At some point, one has to say that it takes more faith to believe in the alternatives to the historic, Christian conviction at this point than to believe orthodox tradition!
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