This is the fifth in a series of posts on how to judge historical evidence on the life of Jesus. Please see the fourth post here. It contains links to the first three posts.
At the end of the fourth post in this series, I wrote: "The historian who rejects certain historical evidence without even subjecting it to historical study has also shown evidence of bias and prejudice, on the basis of his or her own philosophical presuppositions, but not all of the evidence has been subjected to historical scrutiny. There is no way to escape our own points of view, but all of the data must be accounted for and explained." Is the relative success of the Apostles and the other disciples evidence of the truth of Christianity? Is the fact that the Apostles and other followers of Jesus were willing to die for their beliefs data which proves the truth of the Christian message? These are popular, but problematic arguments.
Mark Hart @LT_TheBiblegeek sent out this message on Twitter, “If Jesus didn't rise, an even greater miracle happened: 12 relatively uneducated guys changed the world & were martyred to protect a lie.” As someone who believes in the resurrection of Jesus, I am interested in whether this sort of argument is valid. I have come to have my doubts about this argument, though I have even used a variation of it before in classes. There are two premises to this argument: it is “miraculous” that 12 men with little formal education changed the world; and it is “miraculous” that 12 men were martyred for something that was essentially a “lie,” i.e., that Jesus was raised from the dead. We are supposed to be led to the conclusion that Jesus’ resurrection must be true, because these two realities are inexplicable otherwise. I think both of these premises are incorrect and that someone who does not believe in the resurrection can respond to them easily.
The first premise suggests that for a small band of people to “change the world” is miraculous, especially if they are “relatively uneducated,” and underlying this argument is a claim of “success makes right.” It is not clear to me why education or its lack ought to be a criterion for world-changing success, but if we take seriously the 3-4 years the apostles spent with Jesus, this is the equivalent of an ancient Jewish education, that is, they are part of a rabbinic circle, educated in the Torah by their teacher. Is it miraculous, though, for any small group of previously insignificant people, educated or uneducated, to “change the world”? I think not, as small groups of people have done this on a regular basis historically. I will give two examples from ancient religion: the Buddha and Muhammad. Both of these men, in short periods of time, gained adherents and shifted the religious culture of their particular geographic regions. In the case of Buddha, much of Asia was transformed by his teaching, including India, China and Japan, and Buddhist influence remains powerful today. The Buddha’s teachings were brought to China by groups of missionaries and spread throughout Asia from there. Historically, the spread of Islam was faster even than Christianity, with Muhammad gaining more power and success in his lifetime than Jesus or Buddha. If “changing the world” is the key criterion for belief, or the truth of religious claims, do we not have to grant as much “miraculousness” to the success of the followers of Buddha and Muhammad? Does their success mean that their religious claims are true?
The second premise is that the resurrection must be true or that it is “miraculous” that the Apostles “were martyred to protect a lie.” This suggests, however, two things: the Apostles thought the resurrection was a lie and still died for it; or people are never wrong about the things for which they die. I see no evidence to suggest that the Apostles thought the resurrection was a lie or concocted it in order to create a religion in which they would be the preeminent leaders. All of the NT evidence suggests that the Apostles and the other disciples believed in the truth of Jesus’ death and resurrection. So, if they were martyred, as many Apostles were, does that mean that what they believed in was true? Just because people believe something to be true does not mean that it is true and the fact that early Christians were willing to die for their beliefs is not proof of the resurrection or “miraculous.” If this is the case, if martyrdom for a belief points to the truthfulness of that belief or “miraculousness,” then one would have to grant this status to other religions and beliefs, such as the belief in the rightness of a nation’s cause in war, in which people willingly go to their deaths, thousands upon thousands. The men and women who die for their country's beliefs or die for their religion's beliefs do not necessarily thereby die for the truth, but possibly for a lie, wrong beliefs, and their deaths were not miraculous just wrongheaded. Yet, even though they died for a "lie," or a belief wrongly held, does not mean they considered it a lie or a false belief when they gave their lives for it.
The success of the Christian message does not prove the truth of Jesus’ resurrection and the fact that people are willing to die for a belief, or body of beliefs, does not prove the truth of their message. Historically, the truth of the claims about Jesus are believed, or rejected, due to the validity of the witnesses who testify to the message and the evidence produced to support their claims. The witnesses are trustworthy if in testing their evidence we see that their explanations of the data are rational and cogent. This evidence is trustworthy if it accords with and makes sense of reality, no matter how successful the spread of the message is or how many people die for it.
John W. Martens
Follow me on Twitter @johnwmartens