Tuesday, April 12, 2011

"No Eyewitnesses to the Resurrection"?

This is a continuation of a response to Michael Martin's article, "Why the Resurrection is Initially Improbable," Philo, 1, no. 1 (Spring-Summer 1998): 63-73.

In recent years, I have heard people make the claim that there were "no eyewitnesses to the resurrection". Mr. Martin also makes that claim. This claim is common enough among skeptics, but it is misleading.

The "no eyewitnesses" claim is, if you think about it, spectacularly wrong. One of the earliest written accounts of the events, recorded by Paul in his first letter to the people of Corinth, mentions that there were over 500 eyewitnesses. Later, more detailed accounts mention appearances where Jesus spoke with people -- some of the conversations are recorded for us -- and even ate with people after rising from the dead. Even the latest written account that appears in the New Testament is written by someone who personally claims to have been an eyewitness of Jesus' resurrection himself, to have talked with Jesus on a number of occasions after he rose from the dead.

So how do skeptics make so bold as to claim that there were no eyewitnesses to the resurrection? It seems to be a bit of a sleight-of-hand: Are we discussing the event of the resurrection - the precise moment when Jesus became alive again inside the tomb - or the enduring fact of the resurrection: that Jesus was alive again? No one else was in the tomb with Jesus when he rose from the dead, but many people saw him alive afterwards. The fact that they were not in the tomb at the moment when Jesus rose to life again does not invalidate their testimony that Jesus had risen from the dead. They remain eyewitnesses to the fact of the resurrection, if not the event of the exact first moment of the resurrection.

To take the example from the other side, if nobody had seen Lincoln assassinated, but many had seen him later dead, it would be nonsense to claim that there were no eyewitnesses to Lincoln’s death and imply that therefore he might be alive. Lincoln’s death was an event, but also an enduring fact; anyone who saw Lincoln dead was a valid eyewitness of the fact of his death, if not the event of his death. They may not be able to say, "I saw him die," but they can say, "I saw him dead." They are witnesses of the fact of his death.

So with Jesus, the many who saw him alive again are eyewitnesses of the fact of his resurrection, if not the event of his return to life inside the tomb. They may not be able to say, "I saw him begin to breathe again, saw him draw the first breath of his new life and take off the funeral shroud," but they can say, "I saw him alive." They may not be able to say, "I saw him rise," but then can say, "I saw him risen." They are witnesses of the fact of his resurrection, and there were many of them.

I would give Mr. Martin the benefit of the doubt as to whether he was misleading deliberately; it could have been accidental ambiguity. Still, the claim that "there were no eyewitnesses of the resurrection" is misleading, bordering on deceptive; in fact many people saw Jesus alive again and were eyewitnesses of the resurrection in a very real and factual sense.

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