The Resurrection Case in 1969

By the late 1960s, following the work of Wolfhart Pannenberg and other post-Bultmanneans, the main elements of the contemporary case for the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus began to fall into place. This development is illustrated by an article that appeared in 1969 that was written by a Catholic scholar, Joseph J. Smith, S.J. The article, “Resurrection Faith Today” (J Theological Studies; Sep 1, 1969; 30:3), presents an overview of contemporary theological interpretations of the resurrection, then provides a 13-page section detailing an “Investigation of the Evidence.” This overview of the historical evidence for the resurrection as an event in history would be largely recognizable to a present-day reader of the works of William Lane Craig, who in fact was familiar with Smith’s article, as indicated by two citations of it in the footnotes of Craig’s book, Assessing the New Testament Evidence for the Historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus. Both of Craig’s citations of the article are in the context of discussions of the nature of the resurrection body (on pages 93 and 105 of the 2002 edition of Craig’s book). However, the parallels between the content of Smith’s article and the substance of Craig’s arguments is more extensive than just that one issue. Many major elements of the arguments used by Craig are presented by Smith, and Smith also cites many of the same scholars (frequently German) that Craig refers to in his arguments.

One element similar to Craig’s arguments that appears in the theological section of Smith’s article, and points to the influence of Pannenberg and other post-Bultmann scholars on Craig, is the meaning of the resurrection for the message of Jesus. Summarizing the opinions of these scholars, Smith says that “The authentication of Jesus’ claim and person was only given through the Resurrection appearances” (p. 398) and that “the dominant concern of the earliest preaching of the Resurrection was not that Jesus who had died had come to life, but that Jesus who had died had now had His preaching eschatologically authenticated by His resurrection” (p. 399). These assertions resemble Craig’s claim ( that “The resurrection is God’s vindication of Jesus’ radical personal claims to divine authority.”

As is traditional in defenses of the historicity of the resurrection, and also similar to Craig, Smith starts with Paul’s account of the resurrection appearances in 1 Cor 15. From that point onward, many striking parallels with Craig’s arguments appear. Here are some of them:

Paul’s account of the resurrection as a pre-Pauline creedal statement.

“It is generally agreed today that at least in 1 Cor 15: 3-5 we are dealing with material from kerygmatic and catechetical tradition which had a fixed form before Paul made use of it. Most would say that the passage is a stereotyped formula from its repetition, rhythm, and parallelism. Non-Pauline phrases and Semitic formulations point to an Aramaic or Hebrew original behind the present Greek text.” (p. 404)

Paul’s implied assumption of an empty tomb.

Summarizing the work of various scholars, Smith says that “even if Paul knew of no definite report of an empty tomb, he more probably assumed that there had been a true transformation and glorification of the dead body and thus also an ‘emptying’ of the grave.” Further, he quotes J.A.T. Robinson in saying that “The notion that a man might be ‘spiritually’ raised while his body lay on in the tomb would have seemed to the Jew an absurdity. In whatever form the Resurrection was first proclaimed by the apostles, it must have implied an empty sepulchre.” (p.405)

The “third day” motif.

Quoting Gerhard Delling: “the term ‘on the third day’ is evidently associated from the first with the announcement of the fact of the resurrection. The discovery of the empty tomb is firmly associated with the third day according to the synoptic tradition, and this is the basis of the catechetical statement ‘raised on the third day.‘” (p. 407)

Paul’s direct acquaintance with the resurrection witnesses.

“Paul knew not only Peter but also James personally, and at the beginning of his Christian activity had visited Jerusalem (Gal 1: 18). Paul therefore was informed at first hand about that which he now passed on.” (p. 409)

The presence of women, who were generally believed in first century patriarchal culture to be unreliable witnesses, as an element that would not have been invented in the empty tomb story, and which therefore serves as evidence of the authenticity of the account.

“Women had no official status as witnesses in Jewish law.” (p.410)

If the empty tomb narrative had been a late development, Smith asks, then “why did it come to be framed almost exclusively in terms of women witnesses, who were invalid witnesses according to the Jewish principles of evidence.” (p. 414)

The unlikelihood that Joseph of Arimathea was invented.

Quoting scholar P. Benoit: “If the Christians had afterwards imagined the burial of Jesus by the hands of friends, they would have attributed it to Peter or to James or to some other personage of the Gospels. Where except in real life did they find this Joseph of Arimathea who is named nowhere else?” (p. 411)

The impossibility of the disciples preaching the resurrection of Jesus if his tomb were not empty.

“First of all, the disciples of Jesus would not have been able to preach His resurrection if they could be refuted by the presence of the tomb of Jesus in which His body was present. This is especially true in view of the popular Pharisaic notion of resurrection. The Resurrection kerygma [quoting P. Althaus] ‘could not have continued in Jerusalem one day, one hour, if the emptiness of the grave was not firmly established as a fact for all involved.’” (p. 414)

The existence of the so-called “Jewish Polemic” that allegedly assumed the reality of the empty tomb.

It is a fact that the early Jewish polemic against the Christian message of the Resurrection, which has left traces in the Gospels themselves, gave various explanations for the emptiness of the tomb. They first said the disciples stole the body (Mt). They later said the gardener had taken it (Jn). But they never objected that the grave of Jesus was intact. Jewish polemic would have had every interest in emphasizing such an objection if it could have been maintained. On the contrary, they shared with their Christian opponents the conviction that the grave of Jesus was empty and never hinted at the contrary. They contented themselves with explaining the emptiness of the tomb in a way other than resurrection.” (p. 414)