Is the Easter Story Reliable? Fact or Fiction - Hope 103.2

Is the Easter Story Reliable? Fact or Fiction

The Easter events. Did they actually, historically happen? Of course these events are well documented in the Bible, but is that our only historical source to the claims that the man Jesus died, was buried, and then was raised again from the dead three days later? Does that all really stack up historically? In fact, if […]

By Leigh HatcherSaturday 26 Mar 2016FaithReading Time: 13 minutes

The Easter events. Did they actually, historically happen? Of course these events are well documented in the Bible, but is that our only historical source to the claims that the man Jesus died, was buried, and then was raised again from the dead three days later? Does that all really stack up historically? In fact, if there’s any doubt about the resurrection, surely the entire Christian faith would crumble.

Doctor Paul Barnett, former anglican bishop, and honorary visiting fellow in ancient history at Macquarie University, and a teaching fellow at Regent College in Canada answers your questions about the Easter story.

Paul, can we begin with a bit of a look at, for want of a better term, the geopolitical setting of the Easter events? Where are we? What was happening at the time?

Paul: The setting of the gospels is quite specific politically. Herod had been king of Israel for quite a long period, but he died in 4 B.C. And then his kingdom was split three ways, to Judea, to Galilee, and to Gaulanitis. And then ten years later, the Romans had had enough of Archelaus, who was ruling Judea, and they converted his region into a province. Now that was a momentous event, because that meant for the first time, a part of the holy land came under direct Roman jurisdiction.

But the Romans didn’t do the same thing with Galilee. They left that in the hands of one of Herod’s sons, in fact his youngest son, who was only about 17 or 18 when he assumed power. So that meant therefore that Jesus lived in two worlds, two political worlds, that is. He lived in the world of Galilee, which was ruled by Herod Antipas, that son of Herod. But whenever he traveled into Judea, he moved into a Roman jurisdiction, which was complicated further by the fact that within Judea was the holy city of Jerusalem, which in turn was ruled over by the high priest.

So really it was quite a complex geopolitical situation that Jesus lived in.

The Easter events are of course well-documented in the Bible, but what about non-Biblical sources?

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Paul: Well, we’re very fortunate, in that we have a number of non-Christian sources, from approximately the period just a little bit later than the gospels. And we’re even more fortunate in the fact that they are not neutral, but hostile. So it’s a very interesting thing that you have independent, hostile sources.

So it’s important for them to be hostile?

Paul: It is. Because people rightly question whether it’s good enough just to have Christian sources, which are our main sources, but they are corroborated in all important details by sources that are credible sources, but are hostile sources. And the three main sources really, are

  • Josephus, a Jewish man, and
  • Tacitus, who was the greatest of the historians for the first century Roman history, and
  • Pliny, his companion, who was governor of one of the provinces.

These three sources between them really corroborate the raw facts that Jesus was active in the holy land, that he was executed by Pontius Pilate in the time of the Roman emperor Tiberius, so that pins the time down to a 10-year period, and the location, that unexpectedly the movement that he founded didn’t die out, but broke out afresh as Tacitus says. And Pliny and Tacitus make it quite clear between them that within a few years it had spread in considerable number to Rome, the center of the empire.

In fact, the Christians were sufficiently numerous that the emperor could blame them for the fall of Rome, that destroyed nearly all the city. At the same time, these people are also very, very numerous in the Black Sea province of Bithynia by the turn of the century. So, those three sources between them are very, very helpful, all the more so, because they are not only independent but hostile.

Yes, they weren’t converts. What didn’t they like?

Paul: They weren’t converts. In fact, they speak about Christianity as a disease, a spreading disease that’s affecting the whole empire.

What they didn’t like above everything else was that people who were followers of Jesus put him first, whereas in the Roman empire, you put someone else first, the emperor. And so therefore, it is a clash between Christ and Caesar. And this was the thing about Christians that they gave their first allegiance to Christ. Now they prayed for the empire, but they didn’t pray to the emperor.

You know the holy land very well yourself, and in Jerusalem especially. Can you give us a bit of a virtual tour of where those events were played out, the Easter events. Are we able to confidently still able to see where they were played out?

Paul: To a degree, we are. But there is a difficulty, in that subsequent civilizations of Romans and then Ottomans, Turkish people, have built upon the ancient city of Jerusalem, so that in fact the streetscape of Jesus’ day is about 10 feet, about 3 meters below, the Jerusalem that you walk on today. But there are various points at which you can get an idea of what the city would have been like.

Now there are two main views as to where the trial of Jesus occurred. The traditional view is it occurred in the Antonia Fortress, and that’s where the procession to the Holy Sepulchre, the Stations of the Cross, traditionally begins, for Roman Catholic people in particular.

I don’t think that’s the correct location. I think it’s much more likely that the trial of Jesus occurred within the courtyard of what had been Herod’s great palace, which the Romans commandeered when they took over the province. It’s very interesting that Josephus records another trial by a Roman governor some years later, and it is very similar to the trial of Jesus. There are accusers, there is the Roman judge, there is the accused, and there is a verdict, and so on. In that particular case, the accused person was let off.

But apart from the outcome of the trial, all the other details are remarkably similar to the gospels. Now that trial occurred within the courtyard of Herod’s palace. Now if that is correct, it is very significant, because it probably means that the trial of Jesus in that courtyard was not the big public event that I suppose we have traditionally thought. It was more like, in any case, it was very early in the morning, I suspect most people were asleep when the Roman trial was going on. What you have there are the accusers, and I suspect a rent-a-crowd, and Jesus.

And the thing is done and dusted before most people in Jerusalem are aware that it’s happening. So the question is often asked, “How was it that the people who cheered Jesus on Palm Sunday called out ‘Crucify’ on Good Friday?” It is often said, “Oh, that just shows how fickle the crowds were.” I don’t think that’s a true understanding of it at all. And I think it has led to a mischievous understanding in Christian cultures that the Jews were chiefly responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus.

Whereas the better understanding is that it was the Jewish hierarchy, in cahoots with the Romans, who did. And that the rest of the population were basically not involved.

Paul, one of the very significant figures in these events was Pilate. Again, from non-Biblical sources, was he a figure of history, where we can be certain about that?

Paul: Judea was a small, but very important province. And it was well understood that it was very volatile, and that the Jewish people were unpredictable in terms of how they might respond. Although it was a relatively important, though small province, it’s interesting that we know nothing about Pontius Pilate, apart from his time there. We don’t have any idea of what happened to him beforehand, and we don’t know what happened to him afterwards. But for the time that he was associated with Judea, we do in fact have extensive information.

We have the writings of Philo, who was a contemporary, who was a Jewish scholar, who describes Pilate in very bitter terms, as a cruel and vindictive and corrupt man. We have a less violent, but still negative report about him from Josephus. And we also have a passing reference to him by Tacitus, once again. So the three very good historical sources give us quite a lot of information about Pilate’s time in Judea. But then, very excitingly, in 1961, the Italian archaeologists working in Caesarea Maritima, they discovered a plaque, a foundation stone, that actually had the name of Pontius Pilate on it.

So really, in terms of the literary sources, and the archaeological sources, then put alongside the Biblical information, we have very, very extensive information.

How are we to view him, do you think, in the position that he was in? Again, there’s the great contrast. As with the crowds, he doesn’t find any reason to kill Jesus, but in the end he sends him to be crucified. How should we view that, and him?

Paul: I think despite his theoretical power, he was quite vulnerable. The accusation against Jesus was really treason. The Jewish, the high priest’s accusation against Jesus was that he was the Christ, the Messiah. But that meant nothing to the Romans. “What’s a Messiah? What’s a Christ? Who knows?”

They wouldn’t know that. So they converted the accusation from the Christ to the King of the Jews. Now that really was understood. Now, there was only one King of the Jews, and that was the Roman emperor. He was the king of everything.

And so therefore, the Jewish high priest is saying, “Well, unless you do something with this man, you’re not the friend of Caesar.” You see, the word “friend” meant that you had Caesar as your patron. The word “friend” meant someone who was in a client-patron relationship. He owed his job to the emperor, to the Caesar. And therefore, if he didn’t act on the impulse of the Jewish leadership, he was “no friend of Caesar,” not worthy of the job.

And so there’s a sense that even though Pilate himself was a brute, he was effectively bullied by the high priest into unwillingly, admittedly, but going through with their requirements.

Can you give us some history of crucifixion at the time? It was a very common mode of execution by the Romans, and incredibly barbaric.

Paul: Crucifixion was something that was devised by the Etruscans, who were powerful in Italy before Rome came to power. But the Romans, as it were, adopted it. And they used it as a brutal means of executing slaves and difficult non-citizen. It wasn’t something you did to a Roman citizen. The thing about crucifixion, not only was it brutal for the victim, the slave, the non-citizen, the trouble-maker, because you were nailed up and struggling to get your breath, and you died by asphyxiation over a period of time.

But not only was it brutal to the person, it was also humiliating, and very public. Very public. We put people in prisons today, and they’re out of sight, out of mind in a sense, if they’ve broken the law. But in that day, you placarded the malefactor. You put him in a position very public, and Jesus was crucified near the walls of Jerusalem because the people were able to read the sign that was attached to the cross, “The King of the Jews.” And that was a very clear message, “Do not rise up against Rome, or this is the sort of thing that will happen to you.”

And it took a long time to die, often.

Paul: Sometimes it did. Sometimes it took days. And crucified people were left out there in the open, there was no guards, and the animals, wild animals, ripped up, ripped at the body parts of the unfortunate person who was writhing in agony there. It was just an unmentionable. In fact, the Roman writer Seneca says that “You must never mention crucifixion in polite company.” It was such a dreadful, dreadful way of killing people.

Paul, in the accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we read that when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, three hours. Is there an explanation for what went on there? How do you view that?

Paul: It sounds like an eclipse, doesn’t it? But I don’t know that you can get an eclipse at Passover time, which is I think a time of full moon. So Christian writers in the ancient world were greatly taken by this. And there are slight evidences, historically speaking, that some sort of unexpected darkening occurred at this very time. But it is later, and it’s not altogether solid. But theologically speaking, I think, in terms of an understanding of what was going on, it represents the separation from the son of God from his father.

What you might call a rupture in the God-head. And this is deeply mysterious, and you have this darkness, and there’s this terrible cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me out of the darkness?” And I think there are hints in the letters of the New Testament that in that death, Christ became a curse for those who break the law of God. And who doesn’t? We all do.

And that is, the apostle Paul said, “He was without sin, but God made him sin for us, that we might become the righteous of God in Him.” So it does appear that the tearing of the temple, the curtain of the temple from the top to the bottom, the darkness, and the terrible, terrible, terrible cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” from the lips of one who had such an intimate relationship with his God, his Abba, his father.

The critical thing about the Easter story is not just the crucifixion, but of course the resurrection of Jesus, for without that, as I said before, the Christian faith probably falls. How certain can we be historically that that was an event that took place?

Paul: I think the best evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is the very early testimony to it in the writings of the apostle Paul in the first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 15. Where he’s not at all attempting to prove the fact of the resurrection, but is simply referring to it, to reassure the Corinthians about some other point of Christian behavior.

But in that text, which he says he did not himself formulate, but received from others, and from a time that was probably within a year or so of the events, he says, “Christ died for our sins, he was buried, he was raised to life again, and he appeared, in fact appeared to many hundreds of people, alive from the dead.”

Now that simple outline is essentially followed in the four gospels, where those four events, his death, his burial, his resurrection, and the appearances, are narrated in a low-key kind of way, to make it quite clear that we actually have the names of people who were witnesses to each of those events. We actually have the names of people. And that’s written sufficiently close to the events that you can go and check up. And one of the names of the people mentioned is in fact a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, a man named Joseph of Arimathea, “You can go and talk to him,” you know?

So these four events, the death, the burial, the resurrection, the appearances, as it were, undergird both the gospels, the four gospels, and this quotation of the apostle Paul. But then of course, there is the undeniable reality of the fact of the emergence of early Christianity. It’s an undeniable fact that even the non-Christian sources point to. Why do you have the sudden rise of a movement like this?

And a spectacular rise.

Paul: A spectacular rise. And the fact that you can track the careers of some of the leaders like James and Peter and Paul for the next 20 or 30 years, you can see what they’re doing. You can see that they are changed men, who are prepared to die for what they believe. And so for reasons like this I think, it’s I think almost impossible from the point of view of historical honesty, to reject the resurrection, difficult as it might be as an idea. But I think historically it’s very, very strong.

There was a story about a very eminent ancient history professor who was once asked, “If an essay was set as to the credibility of the resurrection, what would the history professor expect the students to say, based on the evidence that there was?” And he said, “I would expect on the evidence that there was for people to acknowledge the historicity of the resurrection.”

How revealing. Can I ask you one question that’s entirely separate from the historical question, because this, at the end of the day is Christian faith, it’s something not entirely definable in historical terms. But personally, independent of the history, what has that faith meant for you?

Paul: For me, personally it has meant the access to God, in a personal way. Of the assurance of being acceptable to God, and therefore being at peace with God. The assurance that one’s prayers to God are heard, and answered. The hope, the certainty that one has upon death that one will be in the presence of God, and acceptable to Him. The sublime ethical teachings of Jesus, as an inspiring inspiration for a way of living, a way of trusting in God, a way of not being vengeful towards other people, a way of forgiving as one has been forgiven, and so on. Altogether, they represent a world-view and a way of life that I think is just wonderful.

Do you have one particular Easter in your life that stood out from the rest?

Paul: You mentioned the fact that I’ve had the privilege of visiting the Holy Land on a number of occasions. One such occasion was a visit to a place that is called Mensa Christi. It’s quite close to Capernaum. There’s a little church there, there’s a little pebbly beach. And it is a traditional and quite likely historical location, that’s recorded and reported in John chapter 21, where Jesus appears on the beach, and the guys are out there fishing, without success. Now would you believe it? On the very day we were there, about 50 meters from this little pebbly beach was this absolute swarm of fish. As it happens, there’s hot springs nearby, and when the hot springs empty out into that part of the lake, apparently you do get swarms of fish. I have a photograph of these rather large fish breaking the surface and it was just a rather awesome moment that took us back exactly to the narrative of John chapter 21. It was an Easter event.