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Why Are the Bible’s Easter Accounts Different?

Empty Tomb

Note: This is my first article for Catholic Answers Magazine Online (or CAMO for short), and I hope you enjoy it. Catholic Answers is an organization I’ve long admired, and it has been a privilege getting to know the staff there over the past year, especially during the time I guest hosted Catholic Answers Live. Many thanks to the team there for publishing this piece.

Anyone who has read the Gospels in a more than cursory manner has come across what appear to be contradictions between them as they report the words and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth. This is no less true when we consider how they describe the most important event of all: the resurrection of Christ. If this event is not historical, says St. Paul, “our preaching is in vain, and your faith is in vain” (1 Cor. 15:14).

Speaking of St. Paul: before we consider apparent contradictions in the Gospels’ Easter accounts, we must remember that the Gospels are not our earliest written accounts of Jesus’ resurrection: those would be the letters of Paul. Even if the Gospels had never been composed, there would still be plausible literary testimony of the event, evidence with which a skeptic must deal. 1 Corinthians 15, which discusses the Resurrection, was written as early as A.D. 53, most likely prior to the publishing of at least some of the Gospels. What’s more, this chapter contains an even earlier ancient “creed” of sorts, crystallizing Easter faith in just a few lines (1 Cor. 15:3–7).

Even though the Gospels are not our earliest or only written sources on Easter, discrepancies in how they report resurrection phenomena have caused many to call into question their historical authenticity.

The empty tomb accounts

In Mark (which the majority of biblical scholars contend was the first Gospel composed), when the women disciples of Jesus arrive at the tomb early on Easter Sunday, the stone has already been rolled away. A “young man” in dazzling raiment (in all likelihood an angel) is inside the tomb. In Luke’s account, two men are inside. Matthew’s account has Mary Magdalene and another Mary arriving at a still-sealed tomb, but an earthquake suddenly occurs, whereupon an angel descends and rolls back the heavy stone. Three Gospels, and seemingly three different accounts.

Mark, Matthew, and Luke also give us slightly different lists of exactly which women were present. Mark has these women respond in fear, and states that they said nothing about this to anyone. In Matthew’s account, the two women meet Jesus on their way to inform the disciples of the Easter news. Luke does not say they ran into Jesus but rather that they immediately told the disciples, who didn’t buy their story. Same Gospels, and again, the accounts seem to differ.

So, why the differences?

Ancient biographies

As much as we might want the Gospels to conform to our modern conventions of history writing, they don’t read like contemporary police reports. But that doesn’t mean they don’t contain reliable accounts. In fact, they are perfectly consonant with how the ancients recorded history. The key is to understand the literary conventions of the time, which was  the mid-first century A.D. ,  and how the Gospels fit that mold.

Read the rest here.

5 Reasons to Believe in Jesus’ Bodily Resurrection

Risen

Q. This Easter season, how can I convince my friends that Jesus physically rose from the dead? It’s been especially difficult for me to do this because my friends are either a) not Christians, or b) they don’t believe the Bible is the Word of God. They simply think it’s a merely human book that contains things Christians believe.

A. The good news is that it is possible to show your friends plausible evidence that Jesus rose bodily from the dead. And you can do this without even appealing to the authority of the Church, or to the Bible as the Word of God. It’s called the “Minimal Facts” approach, popularized by Dr. Gary Habermas. There are five historical facts concerning the Resurrection of Jesus that must be accounted for, no matter what one believes. They are:

1. Jesus died by crucifixion. This is an event of history that is recorded outside the Bible. Many non-Christian historians, such as Josephus and Tacitus, wrote about it.

2. The tomb of Jesus was empty on Easter Sunday. All parties, both Christians and the enemies of Christ, agree that Jesus’ tomb was found empty on Easter Sunday. The fact that opponents of the Christian message admit this gives us the very best type of evidence for our case, called “enemy attestation”.

3. Jesus’ disciples were willing to suffer and die for their belief in the Resurrection. While many people are willing to die for what they believe is true, no one willingly dies for what they know to be a lie. The Apostles knew whether or not they had encountered the Risen Jesus in the flesh.

4. The Church persecutor known as Saul the Pharisee converted to the Catholic Christian faith, became Paul the Apostle, and was martyred for his faith in the Risen Jesus. This is an unimpeachable historical fact.

5. The skeptic James, a relative of Jesus, converted because the Risen Jesus appeared to him. James became the Bishop of Jerusalem and a martyr.

There are many more facts that we could mention, such as the evidence of the appearances of the Risen Jesus in his physical body to various individuals and groups , including 500 people at one time. This shatters the erroneous theory that Jesus’ disciples were ‘hallucinating” when they thought they saw Jesus. Hallucinations are individual occurrences and cannot be shared. Plus, they do not account for the empty tomb.

Whatever explanation one comes up with to attempt to explain our “minimal facts” listed above, one’s explanation must account for all of these facts, and must do so more persuasively than alternative arguments. The only explanation that accounts for all of these facts in such a manner is the conclusion that Jesus was Resurrected.

On the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe

guadalupe

Matthew Leonard, Executive Director of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology:

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the native people of Mexico City suffered conquest first by the Aztecs and then by the Spanish conquistadores. It was the custom of the Aztecs to harvest the conquered people as victims for human sacrifice, offered to the snake god Quetzalcoatl (Qweztzel-coh-AH-tul). Think Mel Gibson’s movie “Apocalypto”, though it was about Mayans. Same basic, brutal principle.

By the Aztecs’ own account, this cost a quarter of a million human lives per year. In the dedication of just one temple, a celebration lasting four days, they slaughtered more than eighty thousand men and women. As you can imagine, these native peoples lived a life of natural and supernatural terror. Yet the fear of their idols kept them trapped in idolatry, and they resisted conversion to the Christian faith. The best efforts of brilliant missionaries proved basically ineffective.

Then, in 1531, the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared in Mexico City to a peasant man named Juan Diego.

Read the rest here.

In Assisi in 2005, my wife and I met an American priest named Padre Sisco. He gave me his contact information, which I, of course, misplaced. This guy was unbelievable – on the off chance any readers out there know him, I’d love to get in touch. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on homilies preached in Mexico following the appearances of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and the miraculous image she left behind.

That would make for some pretty incredible reading – over eight million Mexicans, by some accounts, converted to the faith in just a few years as news of these events spread. As Leonard notes, Mexico had been stubbornly infertile mission territory prior to 1531.

I’ve always found it fascinating that, while the Church on the Continent in the 16th century was being fractured by Luther’s revolt and the events that followed, the most effective evangelistic movement in the history of the world was taking place at the exact same time in the Americas.

Sunday Scriptures: Third Sunday of Advent 2016

matthew-11

In this Sunday’s Gospel reading (Matt 11:2-11), John the Baptist, who by this time has been imprisoned by Herod, sends messengers to ask Jesus if he is the promised Messiah. Have you ever wondered why John did that? Have you ever wondered why Jesus doesn’t simply answer, “Yes”? Read on!

Indeed, Jesus’ reply to the imprisoned John the Baptist (Matt 11:2–6; cf. Luke 7:18–23) is seen by some commentators as not Messianic. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that Jesus never personally believed he was the Messiah. When asked “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Matt 11:3), Jesus answers in what appears to be a vague manner, using words from Isaiah 61: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is he who takes no offense at me” (Matt 11:4-6).

A very important clue as to why Jesus answered the way he did was discovered in the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Scrolls were written roughly around the time of the Advent of Jesus Christ – between the last three centuries BC and the first century AD. Although they were composed by a sectarian, apocalyptic Jewish sect, they do shed light on what Jews who were roughly contemporaneous to Jesus believed about the coming Messiah.

One of the most important Scrolls that was discovered, known as 4Q521, says this:

For the heavens and the earth will listen to his Messiah…For he will honour the devout upon the throne of eternal royalty, freeing prisoners, giving sight to the blind, straightening out the twisted…and the Lord will perform marvellous acts…for he will heal the badly wounded and will make the dead live, he will proclaim good news to the meek, give lavishly to the needy, lead the exiled, and enrich the hungry.

One can easily see by comparing these two texts why it was that John asked the question about Jesus’ Messiahship, and why Jesus replied the way he did. It was assumed that when the Messiah arrived, according to 4Q521, “prisoners would be set free”. The righteous John, at this time languishing in Herod’s prison fortress at Machaerus, is wondering why Jesus hasn’t sprung him in a “prison break” of sorts. Jesus replies to John by noting that his marvellous works indeed match up with the deeds of the expected Messiah, in line with the teaching of Isaiah 61 and 4Q521. For Jesus to be any more explicit than this would arouse the attention of the secular authorities, prior to the completion of his Messianic mission. However, attentive Jews would have understood Jesus’ claims. Thus, in a culturally relevant manner, Jesus is inviting his fellow Hebrews to consider the evidence of his ministry and draw their own conclusions.

Thank You, Catholic Answers!

Cale at CA Desk

 

On Tuesday, I guest hosted Catholic Answers Live in San Diego. This organization was pivotal in my own personal journey “home to Rome”, as it were, so it was very special indeed for me to be on the air alongside Karl Keating, founder of CA, and Tim Staples, Director of Apologetics.

In case you missed it, the show is now posted in their archive. Give it a listen!

For Part 1 (with guest Karl Keating, Founder of Catholic Answers), click here.

For Part 2 (with Tim Staples, Director of Apologetics at CA), click here.

Many thanks to Darin DeLozier (Director of Radio), Christopher Check (President of CA), and the rest of the world-class team at Catholic Answers for so hospitably hosting me! My only regret? Not bringing my high-tops, so I could hoop it up in the legendary lunchtime staff pickup basketball games.

I, along with my deadly outside jumper, will be ready next time…and all of us, at all times, need to be ready to offer an answer for the hope that we have (cf. 1 Peter 3:15 ). Catholic Answers helps us to do just that.

Ancient Evidence for Jesus: Pliny the Younger

Pliny the YoungerPliny the Younger is another valuable historical source for information on Jesus and the early Church. Pliny was the governor of the Roman province of Bithynia, located in Asia Minor. In the year 112 AD, he wrote to the Emperor Trajan, asking how he should deal with those in his region who have been accused of being Christians.

In the letter, Pliny describes the practices of these “criminals”:

“They were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god, and bound themselves by a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up; after which it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble to partake of food–but food of an ordinary and innocent kind.”

From this passage, we can ascertain a number of facts about the early Church in Asia Minor:

1.Christians met on a “certain fixed day, before it was light”. This is undoubtedly a reference to Sunday worship.

2. The also “sang…a hymn to Christ, as to a God”. This worship involved worship of Jesus Christ. This is early, extrabiblical evidence of Christian belief in the Deity of Christ. In other words, the Divinity of Jesus is not a later “creation” of the Church. Who knows? Perhaps the hymn they were singing is the one St Paul quotes in Philippians 2:5-11.

3. Catholic Christianity, then as now, required adherence to the teaching of the Church on both faith (what to believe) and morality (how to live). We see the latter in Pliny’s description of the 2nd-century believers: they “bound themselves by a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up”.

4. They celebrated the Eucharist. In all likelihood, that explains the reference to their “partaking of food – but food of an ordinary and innocent kind”. Why did Pliny stress that last point? It could well be a reference to the fact that Christians were thought to be cannibals, because it was said that they ate the flesh and drank the blood of a certain individual when they met for their sacred meals. Some in Pliny’s day even spread rumors that babies were sacrificed for this purpose. This is, of course, a colossal misunderstanding of the Eucharist. Early Catholics did (as we continue to do) eat the true flesh and drink the actual blood of Christ in the Eucharist, albeit in a sacramental, unbloody manner.

All of this corroborates what we know of the beliefs and practices of the Catholic Church, as presented in the New Testament.

Ancient Evidence for Jesus: Flavius Josephus

Josephus

One of the greatest non-Christian historical references to Jesus was made by Josephus, the great Jewish historian. He lived in the first century (c. 37-100 AD), and was a contemporary of many members of the nascent Church.

There are two mentions of Jesus in Josephus’ great work entitled “Jewish Antiquities”. One refers to the condemnation of James, the relative of Jesus who became the Bishop of Jerusalem after Peter’s departure from the city: James was “the brother of Jesus, the so-called Christ”, according to Josephus (Ant. 20.9.1). Few question the authenticity of this passage.

Of course, there is the famous “Testimonium Flavianum” (so named because Josephus took on the Roman name of “Flavius”, being known as “Flavius Josephus):

“About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he . . . wrought surprising feats. . . . He was the Christ. When Pilate . . .condemned him to be crucified, those who had . . . come to love him did not give up their affection for him. On the third day he appeared . . . restored to life. . . . And the tribe of Christians . . . has . . . not disappeared” (Ant. 18.3.3).

Scholars believe that Josephus did write this passage, but that it was later edited by Christian interpolators, who added the phrases like “if indeed one ought to call him a man”, “He was the Christ”, and “On the third day he appeared…restored to life”. Josephus was not a believer in Jesus, and certainly would not have written those things.

However, the bulk of what he wrote can be trusted as authentic. This is made even more sure by the fact that an Arabic version of Josephus’ “Antiquities” has been discovered, where the passage in question is present, minus the interpolations.

Josephus corroborates much of what we know from the New Testament’s portrait of Jesus: that he claimed to be the Messiah, was a wise man who was thought to have performed “surprising feats” (miraculous deeds), and that his followers continued to be his disciples in a movement that continued despite his death.

Ancient Evidence for Jesus: 15 Facts

15

This will be the first of a series of posts regarding extrabiblical evidence for the life, teachings, and activities of Jesus. Having already dealt with the question of Jesus’ historical existence, we now turn to the question of his words and deeds. Many people wonder if the New Testament can be trusted regarding these matters.

The famous scholar E.P. Sanders, in his 1985 book, Jesus and Judaism, argued that there were eight “almost indisputable facts” about Jesus of Nazareth that were agreed upon by the majority of historians, whether these scholars were believers or not. As Greg Monette notes, in a later book called The Historical Figure of Jesus (written in 1993 for a more general audience), Sanders expanded the list of facts to fifteen:

1. Jesus was born c. 4 BC, near the time of the death of Herod the Great;
2. He spent his childhood and early adult years in Nazareth, a Galilean village;
3. He was baptized by John the Baptist;
4. He called disciples;
5. He taught in the towns, villages and countryside of Galilee (apparently not in the cities, save for some brief teaching in Jerusalem);
6. He preached “The Kingdom of God”;
7. He went to Jerusalem for Passover about AD 30;
8. He created a disturbance in the Temple area;
9. He had a final meal with the disciples;
10. He was arrested and interrogated by Jewish authorities, specifically the high priest;
11. He was executed on the orders of the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate.
12. His disciples at first fled;
13. They claimed to see him after his death;
14. As a consequence, they believed that he would return to found the Kingdom;
15. They formed a community to await his return and sought to win others to faith in him as God’s Messiah.

This list shows that Christians can have a high degree of confidence in the historical accuracy of what the New Testament says about the general contours of Jesus’ life and ministry.

One item that is strangely absent from Sanders’ list is that Jesus was a well-known healer and exorcist. This point is very well-attested. Jesus’ abilities in this regard are proclaimed on numerous occasions in the Gospel, and corroborated by historians of the times like Josephus, who calls Jesus “a doer of wondrous deeds” in his Jewish Antiquities. In a world in which a huge percentage of people were sick at any given time, this fact explains, in large part, Jesus’ popularity among the masses.

In fact, Jesus’ own enemies didn’t even bother to dispute that he did these things. Rather, they tried to explain his abilities by suggesting that Jesus was somehow in league with Satan (Jesus rightly skewers this flawed thinking in passages such as Mark 3:22-30). That Jesus was thought to be an exorcist and healer is, I think, beyond dispute from a historical perspective.

Sunday Scriptures: John 21 & The Papacy

John 21

Q. This Sunday’s Gospel is taken from John 21. Does this chapter have any implications for the papacy?

A. Other texts, like Matthew 16, are often cited in this regard, but John 21 has one of the strongest proofs for the ongoing role of the office of Peter in the universal Church. Even non-Catholic scholars recognize this.

Q. Does the miraculous catch of fish in this chapter have anything to do with the Petrine office?

A. Fishing, of course, wasn’t just the former trade of the apostles; it represents their evangelistic mission of being “fishers of men”. The unbroken net conveys the unity of the one Catholic (universal) Church. Elsewhere, when Jesus provides a miraculous draught of fish, the nets begin to break from the strain; here, the nets are intact. Peter, dragging the net ashore, evokes his leadership in bringing the Church safely home to Christ, even to the shores of Heaven itself.

Interestingly, although the catch was so big that the disciples struggled to bring the nets aboard, almost sinking their boat, Peter now easily drags the net ashore all by himself. The Greek verb in the original text that is used to describe Peter’s dragging of the net is the same one used by Jesus in John 12:32. This is where Jesus says that, as he is lifted up from the earth, he will draw all people to himself.

Q. Why does the text mention specifically that 153 fish were caught?

A. By far, the most puzzling aspect of the passage is the reference to the 153 fish. First of all, this is an authentic eyewitness detail. On a secondary level, many commentators have proffered various theories to explain what this number might symbolize (John’s Gospel functions on “two levels” – there is often a secondary, “heavenly” meaning to earthly events). Most of these interpretations suggest the idea of the universality or completeness of the catch.

So, to sum up: we have Peter, alone, dragging the unbroken net of a universal catch to the shores of heaven. This is clearly a reference to his position as leader of the Church on earth.

When you add to all of this the threefold charge of Jesus to Peter (“Feed my Sheep”) that immediately follows, the picture is complete. Peter is singularly (in the original Greek text) given this responsibility to shepherd the universal Church. Keep in mind also that this event is recounted in the same Gospel in which Jesus describes himself as the “Good Shepherd” (John 10). Before his Ascension, Jesus here reaffirms Peter’s unique leadership position, passing the earthly reins of the Church to him.

Advent and the Miraculous

Advent

We are now in Advent, preparing to celebrate the birth of Jesus at Christmas. Many modern secularists find it very difficult to believe in the possibility of miracles, such as the virginal conception of Jesus. They say that the ancients were quite gullible to believe this, and that modern humanity is far too “educated and enlightened” to fall for such “nonsense”. How can we respond to this?

At one level, this is nothing more than chronological snobbery. In a recent article, RZIM apologist Jill Carattini responds to this fallacious line of reasoning:

In his 1945 essay “Religion and Science,” C.S. Lewis exposed one of the most common false assumptions at the heart of the science/faith divide, particularly as it pertains to the nativity of Jesus. The assumption is that this “primitive” nativity was likewise filled with primitive thinkers devoid of any sort of knowledge of biology or natural reasoning. Here and elsewhere, Lewis saw that we hold our scientific advancements as something like demerits for prior generations, perpetuating the mentality that the only accurate thought is current thought, the only mind worth trusting is an enlightened one—of which I am conveniently a member.

The disciples…knew enough about the laws of physics to be completely terrified by the man walking on the water toward their boat. The crowd of mourners knew enough about death to laugh at Jesus when he insisted that the dead girl was only sleeping, and to walk away astonished when she came back to life. There were also the magi, astrologers who followed their scientific calculations to the child, Philip and Andrew who knew that the mathematics of two fish and a starving crowd were not going to divide well, Mary and Martha who knew that their brother’s death was the last word, and Thomas who knew the same after he watched Jesus crucified.

In each of these objections, I thankfully hear my own. So much so, that it would appear faith is not a turning of one’s back on the fixed laws of nature or physics or mathematics, but rather, a recognition in the very face of these laws we know and trust that something from outside the law must have reached into the picture. I find each of these scenes both remarkable and reasonable precisely because of the reactions of men and women with a grasp of natural law and the same objections that any of us would have offered had we been present. It would be blind faith indeed if we were receiving a story that wanted us at the onset to fully reject the laws of natural reasoning in replacement of something else. What we receive instead is a story filled with undeniable indications which suggest that something—or Someone—has startlingly stepped into the picture.