Is the resurrection account of Jesus true? Skeptic will say no. They hold the resurrection of Christ is fiction, created either by intentional fabrication or through an accumulation of legends, mistakes, and misunderstandings (or some combination of the two). I've recently looked again at why the resurrection could not be an intentional fraud, but what about the possibility of legend?
There are several reasons that place the legend theory in doubt. First of all, it is a concept that runs contrary to the Jewish mindset of that day, yet Jews were the first to accept and spread the belief. Why would such a legend develop if it bucks the expected conventions of the very people who are supposedly falling for it? Secondly, the resurrection accounts themselves appear pretty early after the time the resurrection was said to take place.
There's another point that I don't hear much about in these discussions, though. Even before the Gospel accounts were relatively early, there is a source of information that connects the events as they happen to the Gospel writers' pens. That is the testimony of Jesus's very closest disciples, known in the Gospels as "the Twelve."
In his article "The Circle of the Twelve: Did It Exist During Jesus' Public Ministry?" John P. Meier argues that this circle of twelve people who made up Jesus's most entrusted followers could not be a later invention or legendary. Meier offers several lines of evidence for his view:
- Unlike the term apostle
(meaning "one who is sent") that is applied to Paul, Barnabas, and others in the
epistles, the use of the term "the Twelve" is very specific and is used by the
Gospel writers, especially Mark and John, to very specifically to refer to those
disciples who were closest to Jesus.1 This means from a
historical standpoint, attestation of the Twelve exists across multiple sources;
it has a stronger level of support.
The list of names of the Twelve is remarkable consistent across the different
gospels, not only are eleven of the twelve names identical, but even the
grouping of the names are always displayed in three sets of four. The only name
that has some question behind it is Thaddeus who is called Jude of James in
Luke's gospel.2 Meier sees this as evidence for an oral
tradition for the Twelve that pre-dates the written accounts of the Gospels.
- Meier places special emphasis
on the Gospel of John's mention of the Twelve: "The fact that the Twelve are
mentioned in John is all the more weighty because John has no special interest
in the group called the Twelve. The Johannine tradition names important
disciples or supporters of Jesus (e.g., Nathaniel and Lazarus) who are not
listed in the Synoptic catalogues of the Twelve; and the anonymous "disciple
whom Jesus loved," the model of all discipleship, does no apparently belong to
the Twelve. The few references to the Twelve that occur in John thus have the
air of being relics or fossils embedded in primitive Johannine tradition."3
- The presence of Judas as
Jesus's betrayer also argues for the existence of the Twelve for how else does
one explain his betrayal? Without the existence of the Twelve, Judas's
appearance is out of place, disjointed. But as Meier notes, the fact that Judas
was numbered among the Twelve and the fact that he handed Jesus over to the
authorities is multiply attested. Further, it's highly embarrassing for Jesus to
be betrayed not simply by a follower, but by one of his own inner circle, the
very one with whom he entrusted the ministry finances.4
- Lastly, emphasis on the Twelve is much more prevalent in the period during Jesus's earthly ministry than it is in the first generation of Christians after Jesus's ascension. Meier writes, "In his epistles, Paul alludes to his interaction with or compares himself to other church leaders… What is glaringly absent in Paul's letters is any mention of the Twelve" with the exception of the 1 Corinthians 15:5, which is a Christian creed formulated within a few years of the resurrection itself.5
As Richard Bauckham has developed in his book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, it is the members of the Twelve who provide the link between Jesus, his ministry and resurrection, and the gospel accounts. It is a chain of custody establishing that eyewitness testimony is the thing establishing the resurrection accounts. Because legends cannot explain the existence of the Twelve, they also cannot explain the testimony of the resurrection eyewitnesses.
2. Meier, John P., 1997. 647.
3. Meier, John P., 1997. 652.
4. Meier, John P., 1997. 665-670.
5. Meier, John P., 1997. 670.