Catholic Controversy 3 – Disputes over the Resurrection


Jesus’ resurrection is the central point of the Christian faith, and for those who hold that faith, it is the most important moment in human history. “Whether Jesus merely was or whether he also is, depends on the resurrection” the Pope writes in Jesus of Nazareth II.

Many have, however, proposed non-miraculous theories about what happened to Jesus – here are a few:

1. Stealing the body

Some of the other explanations that have been put forward as evidence against the resurrection are older than the very event they seek to discredit!

In Matthew’s Gospel, we find Pharisees talking to Pilate:

‘Your Excellency, we recall that this impostor said, while he was still alive, “After three days I shall rise again”. Therefore give the order to have the sepulchre kept secure until the third day, for fear his disciples come and steal him away and tell the people, “He has risen from the dead”. This last piece of fraud would be worse than what went before.’ (Matthew 28: 62-64)

In order for this idea of robbery to stand up to scrutiny, we would have to presume two things: first that Jesus’ followers had the will and the means to overcome guards and move the stone; and, second, that they would then have hidden the body or destroyed it, and made the rest up.

2. Jesus did not really die

Rudolf Karl Bultmann, the Lutheran theologian, looked at the idea that Jesus had been somehow resuscitated, perhaps because he had gone into a coma.

Variations on this idea have proposed that he was still alive when he was taken down from the cross – this is known as ‘The swoon theory’.

Yet Bultmann went on to conclude that even if this were possible, it would mean that Jesus had not changed existentially – he would still have died as we do, at a later date.

3. More outlandish theories

Others have little or nothing to do with the Biblical account: these include the idea that Jesus had a twin and only one of them died; and the thesis that the supposed visions of the resurrected Christ Jesus were brought on by some kind of hypnosis…

Simple facts for simple people

Yet all these mystical and spiritual explanations seem unlikely to appeal to a group of fishermen who were not particularly educated or philosophically trained.

The 19th-century Scottish archaeologist Sir William Ramsay was both of those things, and he set out to disprove the historicity of the New Testament. He concluded that Saint Luke:

“Is a historian of the first rank; not merely are his statements of fact trustworthy, he is possessed of the true historic sense, in short, this author should be placed along with the greatest of historians.”

For all that, however, the resurrection is not an historical event like others, as Pope Benedict writes:

“Jesus’ resurrection points beyond history but has left a footprint within it.

“It [the boldness of the apostolic preaching] cannot be explained on the basis of speculation or inner mystical experiences.”

It is the self-revelation of, and verbal communication with, the risen Christ that are its basis, for the apostles as well as for us.

Jesus of Nazareth, Holy Week can be purchased from CTS, priced £14.95

Of related interest:

Part 1 Jesus of Nazareth Vol. I – Pope Benedict successfully corrects certain erroneous tendencies in modern biblical scholarship which have diminished our confidence in the reliability of Scripture and in our ability to know Jesus through it.
Lent Lent: Walking towards the Resurrection- Pope Benedict’s illuminating and probing Lenten reflections on the season’s scripture and liturgies culminate in the greatest treasure of all: our personal participation in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Via Dolorosa Via Dolorosa with Pope Benedict XVI – Well-known Gospel passages, prayers and beautiful illustrations are powerfully drawn together in these probing meditations on suffering, the cross, the place of evil and sin in our world.

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