Naturalistic Responses to the
Historical Reliability of the Resurrection of Jesus:
Specific Analysis in Regards to the Lost Tomb of Jesus
Taylor E. Terzek
No item of the Christian faith is of more pivotal importance than the miraculous resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul speaks to this plainly in 1 Corinthians 15:14-15, “And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised.” Not only are Christianity’s preaching, research, and academia in vain, but also Christians’ proclaimed justification before God is threatened. Paul, in the book of Romans, states the purpose of the resurrection of Jesus is “for our justification.” This proposition is not only affirmed in the scriptures itself, but Gary Habermas states, “There is widespread agreement among scholars today across a broad theological spectrum that the resurrection of Jesus is the central claim of Christianity.” The weight of the issue brings no levity to the Christian faith from the scholastic community; the resurrection of Jesus is the foundation to the Christian life. Furthermore, the resurrection is the distinguished characteristic of Jesus as the Christ. N.T. Wright explains, “[It was] Jesus’ own resurrection which constituted him as Messiah, and, if Messiah, then Lord of the world.” The refutation of the Jesus’ rising from the dead would be detrimental to the Christian faith.
The debate surrounding the historical reliability of the resurrection is still vibrant. Key ideas and ideologies that usually mold the historical debate hinge and consist of these foundational topics: the historical reliability of the Gospels, historical accounts outside of the Gospels, and the rationale of miracles. These are the major battlegrounds that preface the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus dispute. More importantly noted, naturalistic responses to the assumed supernatural event dominate the debate. This area will be the item of analysis in specific regards to the supposed discovery of the Lost Tomb of Jesus and its relation to the resurgence of hallucination theories.
THE JESUS TOMB
The proposition of the Jesus Tomb claims to have found the bones of Jesus of Nazareth and his family. “On February 26, 2007, a major press release given by two well-known figures in the film industry claimed to have possibly discovered the family tomb of Jesus of Nazareth.” This tomb was scattered with bone boxes labeled with prominent biblical character’s names: Jesus son of Joseph, Mary, Matthew, Judah son of Jesus, etc. However, 2007 was not the time of the initial discovery of the tomb. The Talpiot Conspiracy claims that the tomb was discovered in 1980, but kept a secret by the Israeli government, to protect tourism and Christian conspirators, as to preserve their faith from historical refutation.
The Implications and Influence
The implications are easily deduced, but to be blunt, if Jesus’ bones were found, then there was no physical bodily resurrection. “Statistics were offered to show that this was Jesus’ family tomb and thus that Jesus probably rose spiritually, not physically.” Reading the Bible with the presupposition of a spiritual resurrection implies a hidden and mysterious exegetical skill necessary to reading the Bible. Furthermore, if the Talpiot conspiracy were true, than Christians were more interested in protecting their faith rather than seeking the truth, which assimilates Christianity to a belief system that despises skepticism. The cultural setting of the Jesus tomb finding was ready for reception given the 2003 publication of the The Da Vinci Code. Dan Brown’s novel had prefaced the culture’s mind with a prejudice against Christianity, viewing it as slightly inclined to conspiracy. Gibson adds, “This trickle of questions about non-canonical texts became a downpour with the 2003 publication of Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code, which was made into a successful motion picture in 2006.” That being noted, when news of the Jesus tomb saturated the mainstream media, the culture was very receptive to the idea of a conspiring Christianity. Therefore, the Jesus tomb fueled the rejection of the literal, physical, and authoritative reading of the Bible, specifically in regards to the resurrection, as well as the tradition of the Christian faith and church.
First, in addressing the validity of whether it was indeed the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth. Analyzing the life of Jesus historically, he was of a poor class. He wandered from place to place quite frequently during his ministry, and presumably lived homeless. Given his acquired disciples and followers, it would not be hasty to suggest that his needs were provided by these people, and not of his own wealth, or more specifically, that of his family’s wealth. So this begs the question: what were the burial traditions of middle to lower class Jews? If Jesus were in fact a traditional Jew that performed nothing of the miraculous, his burial would align with that tradition. Magness reveals that, “Poorer classes of Jewish families normally buried their dead in simple individual trenches dug into the ground. Sometimes a small rough tombstone was placed at one end.” Habermas also adds that the Talpiot tomb was located in an “upper class crypt” or “[had] to have been a very expensive one” which is inconsistent with Jesus’ family’s standing.
Building upon Jewish tradition, L.Y. Rahamni states, “In Jerusalem’s tombs, the deceased’s place of origin was noted when someone from outside Jerusalem and its environs was interred in a local tomb.” Seeing that Jesus was not born in Jerusalem, it would have been noted on the inscription that he was in fact from Galilee. Concluding this is indeed a primitive part of Jewish burial tradition, “the burden of proof is on those who claim that the Talpiot tomb belonged to a Galilean family like that of Jesus of Nazareth, since the place of origin does not appear on any of the inscriptions.” Within the perspective of Jewish custom, it is not the Christian’s obligation to negate the contrasting hypothesis, but it is the responsibility of the opposition to affirm the irregularity.
Thirdly, finding an ossuary with an inscription of “Jesus son of Joseph” is not a rarity. “In fact an ossuary with the inscription ‘Jesus son of Joseph’ was found more than fifty years earlier than the Talpiot ossuary.” Habermas notes, “‘Jesus appears in at least 99 tombs and on 22 ossuaries. ‘Joseph’ appears on 45 ossuaries.” Given the other muted findings, this exemplifies the serious insignificance and triviality of the discovery. The supposed Christian and Israeli conspiracy proposed by James Cameron’s documentary is not as much a conspiracy as it is a negligence of already addressed issues. In light of the “secret” finding in 1980, it was not hidden from the media at all: “immediately after the Talpiot discovery in 1980 Joseph Gat, the leading archaeologist on the team, published the discovery in 1981 in the Jerusalem journal Hadashot Arkheologiyot.” Lopez continues to suggest, “it becomes difficult to prove that Israeli authorities and Christians conspired to keep the Talpiot tomb a secret. The publications soon after the discovery and subsequent media coverage hardly support the idea of an attempted cover-up.” Habermas also noted that BBC did a documentary on the tomb in 1996.
Not only does Jewish burial practices contradict the hypothesis of the Jesus tomb, but the scientific data put forward, held in high esteem by Cameron in his documentary, offers no conclusive or even slighted evidence towards it being Jesus of Nazareth’s tomb. “The only thing the DNA evidence establishes positively is that this ‘Jesus’ and this ‘Mariamene’ found in the tomb are not maternally related.” From that one conclusive item of evidence, many ran with this, and molded it somehow into that this ‘Jesus’ and ‘Mariamene’ were married. There is no historical evidence at all that supports the claim that Jesus was married and had children.
Maybe the largest fallacy contained in the Jesus Tomb theory is that of the recorded witnessed sightings of Jesus by the disciples, Peter, Paul, 500 witnesses, and James. Where do these eyewitness accounts come into play? There is no room for a literal resurrection or reading of the account within the Jesus Tomb theory. One either has to disregard the apostles as malignant liars or victims of hallucination. Given the brutality of the apostles’ martyrdom and persecution, hallucination theories are the most prevalent of conclusions among naturalist scholars.
Habermas states, “About 100 years ago, the hallucination hypothesis was the most popular critical position.” He continues to emphasize it’s readdress in the scholastic community today: “[There has been] increased popularity of this hypothesis, focusing chiefly on the views of scholars during the past decade or two.” One theory, that encompasses the philosophical weight behind all theories in this category is that proposed by Gerd Ludemann. Ludemann asserts that Paul’s use of the Greek word opthe means an actual sight of “his own active sensual perception.” So, not only was this a spiritual perception of the inclined will, but it was an actualized physical sighting: a hallucination. But Ludemann emphatically makes it “clear that nothing literally happened to Jesus himself.” Ludemann continues in explaining how this stimulation produced “enthusiasm… religious intoxication… and ecstasy” for Peter. Then, like a plague, these visions produced a chain reaction for the apostles, the 500 witnesses, and James. All these witnesses experienced collective subjective visions that led to a “mass ecstasy.” There are a variety of theories that utilize naturalistic means and hallucinations as logical replacements to the supernatural, but Ludemann’s foundational values are the prime area of analysis.
The central point of debate within hallucination theories is whether it is possible for “collective hallucinations” to occur. Most psychologists dispute any such possibility, but say if it were to happen, it would be prefaced with intense expectation and emotional excitement. From here they deduce that the disciples, in their longing to see their teacher raised from the dead, collectively hallucinated the longing into history. But this is simply inconsistent with the gospel narratives and the book of Acts: “There is no indication that either James or Paul longed to see Jesus. Their unbelief is a poor basis for producing hallucinations! James a skeptic and Paul the persecutor are exceptionally tough obstacles for the hallucination thesis.”
It is obvious that hallucination theorist seek to expel any historical event that does not fit their naturalistic tendencies; there is no regard for the supernatural, no explanation viewed outside the realm of their reality, and religious folks most certainly must be bonkers. To assert that the only people who could have possibly experienced collective subjective visions were the religious fanatics is narrow and prejudiced, in total disregard for historical evidence. The true frailty of these theories is expressed in the observation of their very own liberal scholars refuting them. After analysis of the hallucination theories, philosopher Stephen T. Davis concludes, “The alternative theories that have been proposed are not only weaker, but far weaker at explaining the available historical evidence.”
At their philosophical base, naturalistic views strip away the possibility of the miraculous, turning the character of Jesus, and the Bible, into a mythological whim of history no different from Zeus or Athena. It strips the power from the beliefs of Christianity, making them only modes of thought and desire rather than historical and tangible events of impact, which appears to be the aim. The argument then must move to a different arena. The debate goes beyond the historical authority of the resurrection, and focuses on miracles’ part in history as a whole. The Jesus Tomb discovery, if true, results in two possible conclusions: 1) a naturalist view of falsified manuscript evidence inspired by hallucinations or malignant lies by the apostles, or 2) an emphatic metaphor of the spiritualization of the resurrection. Both claims revert to a historical Jesus that is different than understood by the Christian community and Biblical teaching.
Davis, Stephen T. “Is Belief in the Resurrection Rational?” Philo 2 (1999) 57-58. http://www.philoonline.org/library/davis_2_1.htm (accesed February 25, 2012)
Habermas, Gary R. “Explaining away Jesus’ resurrection: the recent revival of hallucination theories.” Christian Research Journal 23, no. 4 (January 1, 2001): 26-31.
________, Gary R. “The late twentieth-century resurgence of naturalistic responses to Jesus’ resurrection.” Trinity Journal 22, no. 2 (September 1, 2001): 179-196. =
________, Gary R., “The Lost Tomb of Jesus: A Response to the Discovery-Channel Documentary” (2007). Faculty Publications and Presentations. Paper 3.
Jodi Magness, “Has the Tomb of Jesus Been Discovered?” http://www.sbl- site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleId=640, 2007
Joseph Gat, “East Talpiyot,” Hadashot Arkheologiyot 76 (1981): 24-25.
Landry, David T. “Noncanonical texts: The Da Vinci Code and beyond.” Word & World 29, no. 4 (January 1, 2009): 367-379.
Levy Yitzhak Rahmani, A Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries in the Collections of the State of Israel, ed. Ayala Sussmann and Peter Schertz (Jerusalem: Israel Antiquities Authority, 1994), 222-24.
López, René. “Does The Jesus family tomb disprove his physical resurrection?.” Bibliotheca Sacra 165, no. 660 (October 1, 2008): 425-446
Wright, N T. 2008. “Jesus’ resurrection & Christian origins.” Stimulus 16, no. 1: 41-50.
 Gary R. Habermas, “Jesus’ resurrection and contemporary criticism: an apologetic.” Criswell Theological Review 4 (1989), 160.
 N. T. Wright, “Jesus’ resurrection & Christian origins.” Stimulus 16 (2008), no. 1, 45.
 René López, “Does The Jesus family tomb disprove his physical resurrection?” Bibliotheca Sacra 165, no. 660 (2008), 425.
 Ibid., 427
 Ibid., 426
 David T. Landry, “Non-canonical texts: The Da Vinci Code and beyond.” Word & World 29, no. 4 (2009), 368.
 Jodi Magness, “Has the Tomb of Jesus Been Discovered?” http://www.sbl- site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleId=640, (2007).
 Gary R. Habermas, “The Lost Tomb of Jesus: A Response to the Discovery-Channel Documentary” (2007). Faculty Publications and Presentations. Paper 3. 3.
 Levy Yitzhak Rahmani, A Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries in the Collections of the State of Israel, ed. Ayala Sussmann and Peter Schertz (Jerusalem: Israel Antiquities Authority, 1994), 223.
 Lopez, Jesus Tomb, 430
 Rahmani, Jewish Ossuaries, 77.
 Habermas, Jesus Tomb, 3.
 Joseph Gat, “East Talpiyot,” Hadashot Arkheologiyot 76 (1981): 24-25.
 Lopez, Jesus Tomb, 428.
 Habermas, Jesus Tomb, 2.
 Ibid., 3.
 Habermas, 27
 Gary R. Habermas, “The late twentieth-century resurgence of naturalistic responses to Jesus’ resurrection.” Trinity Journal 22, no. 2 (2001), 187.
 Gary R. Habermas, “Explaining away Jesus’ resurrection: the recent revival of hallucination theories.” Christian Research Journal 23, no. 4 (2001), 30
 Ibid., 30.
 Ibid., 30.
 Ibid., 28
 Stephen T. Davis, “Is Belief in the Resurrection Rational?” Philo 2 (1999) 57-58.