Did the Resurrection Really Happen? – Program 1

By: Dr. John Warwick Montgomery, John K. Naland; ©1989
Since nearly all we know about Jesus’ resurrection comes from the New Testament, we start our discussion by examining these documents to determine if we can trust what they say.

Are the New Testament Documents Reliable?


What proof is there that Jesus Christ really rose from the dead? John’s guests for this debate are U.S. Diplomat Mr. John K. Naland, who is a foreign service officer currently assigned to the United States Embassy in San Jose, Costa Rica. Mr. Naland is skeptical about Jesus’ resurrection and has argued against the historical accounts in his article in The Free Inquiry, America’s primary secular humanist magazine.

Presenting the evidence for the resurrection will be Dr. John Warwick Montgomery, a practicing trial lawyer both in Great Britain and in America. He holds two Ph.D.s, first from the University of Chicago, and a second doctorate from the University of Strasbourg, France, plus seven additional graduate degrees in law, theology, library sciences and other fields. He has written over 125 scholarly journal articles and authored 40 different books.

We invite you to stay tuned to find out for yourself if there is solid historical evidence that will convince a skeptic that Jesus really did rise from the dead.

Dr. John Ankerberg: Welcome to our program. Tonight we’re going to be examining the questions, “Are the New Testament documents reliable? Who wrote them and when? Did the gospel writers contradict each other in describing the different places that Jesus appeared to His disciples after His resurrection?
Now, for the skeptic to disprove Christianity, he must supply proof that, first, the gospels were not written by the men who claimed to have written them – this, in spite of the fact that the Christian church in its first 300 years overwhelming attested that these men did write them.
Second, the skeptic must prove that the authors did contradict each other in their writings. It will not be enough for the skeptic to say, “It seems the writers contradicted each other,” when a plausible idea can easily harmonize the accounts. Let me illustrate.
Picture your family going to Grandma’s house for an entire day to meet with all of the relatives in order to celebrate someone’s birthday. A few days after this big event your mother, grandmother, and sister all write letters to your brother at college who wasn’t able to come home for the party. Now suppose that someone at the college read all three letters and told your brother that in his opinion, the three writers of the letters shouldn’t be believed since they all contradicted each other. Although the three writers claimed to be at the same party, they each wrote about different people and different events that took place. And such contradictions prove that the three letter writers weren’t at the same party. In fact, there never was a party at all.
Well, after reading the letters, your brother would laugh at such a ridiculous conclusion. Why? Because it would be perfectly reasonable that his mother would describe the health of Aunt Sally and Uncle Bill, and tell whether Uncle Charlie had gotten a job. He also wouldn’t be surprised that Grandma had described the different kinds of food that she had served and who gave presents to the children. And finally, he would expect his sister to write in detail about which of the cousins brought a date to the party and what they looked like. The brother at college would easily understand in reading the letters that three different points of view were being expressed and easily harmonize all of the events.
He would not expect them to describe every single person at the party, or for each of them to write about the same things the others did. Rather, he would expect them to place the emphasis on what they thought was important and because they did so, he would not think they contradicted each other.
Now apply this illustration to the writers of the four gospels. The skeptics say that if only one of the gospel writers describes the guards at the tomb, namely Matthew, and another is the only one who tells about a special message that the angels gave to Peter, namely Mark, and a third writer is the only one who gives a full account of the men who buried Jesus, namely John, then these three writers have irreconcilably contradicted themselves. Well, such thinking is ridiculous. Each of the writers was free to record what he thought was important of the events surrounding Jesus’ resurrection. And because each writer includes bits and pieces of information which the others do not, there is nothing wrong with that. It is an indication of truthful, independent reporting.
We must also keep in mind that when one of the four authors emphasizes some specific person or group, he seldom says that is the only person who was there and no one else was present. These writers usually do not say that Jesus appeared at one place and not other. Yet the critic constantly puts words into the disciples’ mouths like, “This was the only person mentioned,” or “This was the first appearance Jesus made to the disciples.” But if the disciples do not say “Only this person was present,” or “This was the first appearance of Jesus,” then they should not be forced by the critic to say so.
With this as background let’s get to our debate and here’s the very first question that I asked.

Ankerberg: Let me start you off with one.
Mr. John K. Naland: Okay.
Ankerberg: How about Thomas, okay? He’s right down your alley. He’s an honest skeptic. And listen, when I say that, I appreciate your being here tonight. And I know there’s a lot of folks that are listening tonight that are exactly in the same case. I mean, we’re kidding ourselves if we think at the universities in this country they’re all teaching Christianity. Nobody believes that. There are many professors that do believe in the faith, but as a whole, there are more people that are probably in your situation and listening attentively tonight. So I appreciate your being here and I want you to speak from your heart and feel free. You’re among friends here tonight. We can disagree, but we are going to be friends.
Now, I want to come down to this thing that we do say that we have historical evidence, and we have the testimony of a disciple who did not believe when everybody came and said, “Hey, we’ve seen Jesus!” Okay? He said, “I won’t believe until you give me the empirical evidence! I want to see the body! I want to check out the hands where the nails went in; I want to see the side where the spear went in, and I won’t believe until then.” And, you have in John 20 that Jesus, in another one of the gatherings with the disciples, appears to them, and the first thing He says is, “Hey, Thomas! Over here!” And, you know, I always wondered what Thomas was thinking right at that point. “No, that’s okay, Jesus, I’m convinced.” Then He said, “Come on over here. Check it out. Check it out.” Now, at the end of his “checking it out,” putting his hands on Jesus’ hands where the wounds were at, etc., you have his exclamation, his statement in the record: “My Lord, My God.” [John 20:28] That’s his conclusion. What do you do with Thomas’ testimony?
Naland: Okay, this is an excellent place to start because it leads to one of the points which I’d like to make tonight.
Ankerberg: Yes.
Naland: You’re talking about John 20, the appearance to the “doubting Thomas.” Now, that’s in John, the second appearance of the risen Jesus to the apostles. And the previous one was His appearance to the ten. So John 20 talks about the first appearance being to the ten. Okay? Luke, Matthew talk about the appearance to the eleven. Paul talks about the appearance to the twelve. So, right off, what I’m trying to say is, the documents are saying different things. The first appearance is to the twelve, it’s to the eleven, it’s to the ten. The first appearance is on a mountain in Galilee. No, it’s at a lake in Galilee. No, it’s in a house in Jerusalem. And so, Christians who have not studied the documents very carefully, they go to church on one Sunday and they have one version read to them; a year later they go for Easter…another version read to them. What I’m saying is, if you look at them side by side, it’s not as easy as I believe you’re pointing out.

Ankerberg: Let’s stop right here and look at this. The gospel writers record ten appearances of the risen Lord. Five occur on the first Sunday and five occur later on. Those that took place on the first Easter Sunday are Jesus’ appearance to Mary Magdalene, to the other women, to Simon Peter, and then to Cleopas and his companion on the road to Emmaus, and then to all of the disciples except Thomas. All of these resurrection appearances took place in Jerusalem except the one on the road to Emmaus.
The five later appearances include : Jesus’ appearance to the whole number of disciples when Thomas was present one week later; His appearance to the seven disciples by the Sea of Galilee; to over 500 people on a mountain in Galilee; to James in Jerusalem, and then to the disciples the last time in Jerusalem, and on Olivet. Thus, there are two appearances in Galilee and the rest apparently in Jerusalem and vicinity. The Ascension takes place at the end of 40 days in Bethany at the Mount of Olives near Jerusalem.
Now, Mr. Naland says the writer has made a mistake in recording the number of disciples who saw Jesus. Matthew says the eleven proceeded to Galilee [Matt. 28:16]; Mark says Jesus appeared to the Eleven [Mark 16:14]; Luke states, “Gathered together were the eleven and those who were with them” [Luke 24:33]; John merely states, “The disciples were present.” [John 20:19] Well, up to this point none of the four writers disagree. But a few verses later John records these words: “But Thomas, one of the Twelve called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came.” [John 20:24]
Now, three things need to be mentioned here. First, John doesn’t say the apostles numbered 12 men when Jesus appeared. He simply says the disciples were present. Second, John shows us he uses the words “the Twelve” to refer collectively to those members who were part of those called “the Twelve” whether ten, eleven or twelve of the apostles were actually present. Proof of this is in John 20:24 where John identifies only ten apostles while yet referring to them as the Twelve. As everyone knew, Judas was dead and John states that Thomas wasn’t present. This would mean ten men were left. But John still refers to them collectively as the Twelve.
Later, John describes seven disciples at the Sea of Tiberius and refers to them only as “the disciples.” [John 21] Now, Luke refers both to the Eleven and to the Twelve to indicate the apostolic body collectively. Proof of this is in Acts 2:14 where Luke refers to “the Eleven” but in the passage itself we discover not only are the original eleven apostles present, but the newly elected apostle is also present, which would total twelve men.
In Luke 24:33 Luke refers collectively to the Eleven and then adds, “There were others who were with them.” In 1 Corinthians 15:5 Paul refers to the apostles collectively as the Twelve, just as John and Luke do.
It is evident that John’s use of “the Twelve” and Luke’s use of “the Eleven” are ways of referring to the apostolic body collectively rather than exact numerical computations. Thus, there is no conflict between the writers describing how many disciples were present.

Dr. John Warwick Montgomery: I think you have a real problem on the matter of the dating of the documents. You can’t say simply that Mark was the first of the gospels and Matthew and Luke come later and then John way later than that. That’s one textual theory. But, of course, there are others. Goodspeed, for example, argued that Matthew had priority. And J. A. T. Robinson, a flaming liberal of the 1960s, finally came to the conclusion that the gospel of John was actually the first gospel. One thing is certain: all of these documents were in circulation within a generation of the events themselves. But it’s not going to be possible, it seems to me, to establish such clean priorities in relation to the four gospels that you can get rid of Thomas’ statements as coming in a gospel that was written considerably later than the rest. You’re simply going to have to face the attribution of that incident to Thomas. You’re going to have to explain it in some fashion.
Ankerberg: Mr. Naland, what I’ve read in your article is that you would attribute Thomas’ statement to a later addition of someone who, because of the attacks on Christianity, added to the gospel of John and thought that that would help out in terms of the so-called “ghost stories.” And therefore you have said that it is reasonable to believe that at a later time – you can tell me what you think is a “later time” – and what is the evidence for the fact of assuming that that particular account is an add-on. How do you know that?
Naland: Well, as I say again, I do not know that. I was not there. But to go back to what Dr. Montgomery was saying, obviously you can find scholars, hundreds of scholars, who will agree with any particular point of view. I mean, there’s a scholar which I’m sure you’re familiar with who says that Jesus never existed. Now, I think that’s ridiculous, but he’s a scholar, a Ph.D., and he says that. But it is true that there is a scholarly mainstream opinion about the dating of the books. And you quote that mainstream opinion in your book History and Christianity, page 34, although later on you have a caveat that there are other scholars who put the documents older, or younger, depending on how you want to look at it, that the documents do date, as I argue, with John coming no later than 100.
Montgomery: Oh, heavens! I have no problem at all with saying that Mark was the earliest gospel and John was the latest. But that’s not the point. The point is that the burden of proof rests upon you to show, number one, that John must be so late that when the account of Thomas is given, that account is unreliable. Now, the fact of the matter is that even if John is the latest of the gospels, there’s no difficulty at all in showing that it came from an eyewitness of the events because we have external evidence of this. We have Papias who was a disciple of John and we have Polycarp who was a disciple of John both stating that John was in fact the author of that gospel. So we have an eyewitness saying that one of the original disciples had tactile physical contact with the resurrected Christ. I think you’ve got a real problem there. You can’t just get rid of that as some kind of later addition or textual variant produced by drunken monks in the Middle Ages.
Naland: Well, I think you have a real problem because what you’re doing is you’re quoting scholars who are in the minority. If you look….
Montgomery: Well, excuse me, but I was quoting primary sources, Papias and Polycarp.
Naland: But it’s not that simple, because you have to look at the primary sources and what they said and what they really knew and what other people say. And all I can say is that, for example, I have just looked at the Encyclopedia Britannica to see what it says…
Montgomery: But that’s not a primary source. Frankly, it was not being distributed in the first century.
Naland: I’m aware of that. But it is the standard English language encyclopedia which attempts to summarize the knowledge of the Western World. You can go to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Harper’s Bible Dictionary, the Oxford Annotated Bible and they say that it is doubtful that John wrote John. Now, obviously you can quote scholars who think that John did write John.
Montgomery: I think it’s vital that we not simply try to match authorities. It isn’t a matter of trying to find out how many contemporary theologians believe that Matthew came before Mark or Mark came before Matthew. It seems to me we have to cut behind the opinions of contemporary scholarship, and certainly behind the Encyclopedia Britannica to the kinds of reasoning employed to reach conclusions here. And then, on the basis of the reasoning we can legitimately draw our own conclusions. And I think we can see why contemporary scholarship has been tending in a certain direction.
The approach to take to these documents, and I think Mr. Naland would entirely agree with this, needs to be the same kind of an approach we would take with other historical documents. There isn’t a special kind of historiography for the New Testament. The historiography is the same as we would apply to Roman remains, Greek remains and so on down the line. And if we do this, we’re going to have to determine, first of all, whether the texts, as we have them, have reached the present in substantially the condition in which they were originally written. That’s the field of textual criticism. And here, there is no question but what if we have reliable documents anywhere we have them here.
We have, for example, Sir Frederick Kenyon who was the greatest of the textual critics of the last generation who said toward the end of his life, “The trouble here is not too few sound documents, it’s too many,” so that we have a considerable difficulty in knowing just what to do with so much good stuff. The textual tradition takes us back so that we can be quite sure that what we have today is what was originally written.
Now, when was it originally written? That takes us to the second question: Was this material contemporaneous with Jesus? Or, was it written by people at a later time and presented “as if” it had been written by contemporaries? Well, here again, what we have to do is to go to the sources, particularly to any external evidence of authorship. And the reason why Albright and J. A. T. Robinson come to the conclusion that this stuff was all written within a generation of the events, all written by baptized Jews, the stuff was in circulation before the end of the century, is that we have extrinsic statements from people who actually knew the apostles, stating that the material was written by the people to whom it was traditionally attributed.
We have, as I mentioned before, Papias and Polycarp, both of them students of John, both of them stating that John wrote his gospel and giving us vital information on the production of the other gospels. For example, Matthew’s gospel, the first gospel, was written in Aramaic, says Papias, and it was written by Matthew Levi the tax collector who was one of the original apostles. So we have Matthew’s gospel and John’s gospel definitely written by people who knew Jesus personally. We’ve got Mark’s gospel written by John Mark who was a companion of Peter, and we’ve got Luke’s gospel written by a companion of Paul. And this is not based upon the Encyclopedia Britannica or the opinion of some contemporary scholar, it’s based upon those who claim that they actually did have contact with the apostolic circle.
Now, this puts us in a very, very solid position historically to be able to evaluate the statements in these documents. Of course, these people might have been engaged in some incredible fraud, but the burden of proof is going to rest upon us to show that, because documents, like people, should be considered innocent until proven guilty.
Naland: But the historical reality is not that simple. You disagree that Matthew had a copy of Mark before him. Do you disagree with that? Or do you…
Montgomery: I don’t know for certain that he did, but I would have no problems with this.
Naland: Yes… okay…
Montgomery: Certainly Luke had source material. He declares that he did. He says that he used other materials relating to Jesus in doing his own gospel. And it seems to me that when you look at the content of Luke and the content of Mark, you see that one or the other used the other as a source.
Naland: Okay, question for you: If Matthew had Mark before him, and most scholars believe that 606 of Mark’s 661 verses found their way into….
Montgomery: Give or take a verse.
Naland: …into Matthew, okay. So, here is Matthew who you believe was an eyewitness. He was at the Last Supper. If Matthew was at the Last Supper, why did he copy from Mark, who wasn’t, the description of the Last Supper?
Montgomery: Heavens! When I write up events in which I have participated, I inevitably try to get all of the stuff written by other people who were there or who had immediate contact with people who were there in order to incorporate that as best I can. That’s the whole point of getting a comprehensive picture. And Luke makes the point that he was so careful in his own presentation of Jesus that he wanted to be sure that he had covered all of the other materials that were of importance. There’s no difficulty in doing this, as long as you don’t try to misalign or mishandle the material you’re working with.
Ankerberg: Let me put Luke’s statement on the board so we can actually see what the case is here. This is just Luke 1:1-4. Luke writes, “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us [namely the earthly career of Jesus] just as they were handed down to us [so he’s not the first guy; he had stuff coming down to him] by those who from the first were eyewitnesses [eyewitnesses, he said, gave this information to him]. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also for me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” So it seems that he is saying that he’s not the only one, he is drawing from other accounts, but he also checked them out because he wants to make sure that the account is certain. Now, is there anything wrong with that?
Naland: Well, I’d like to go back just briefly to Matthew because there’s a difference between Mark and Luke, who were not eyewitnesses, to Matthew and John, who some scholars claim were. And I just, for the people watching this program, you know, ask yourself this question: If Matthew did write the book which we call “Matthew” – and in the original text it’s not titled “Matthew”; we put that title on – if Matthew did write that, and if he was at the Last Supper and a hundred other events, then why did he copy word for word what Mark, who we know was not there, wrote? I mean….
Montgomery: Ah, but hang on here. Mark was a companion of Peter. So what Mark is doing is providing Peter’s perspective on this. And wouldn’t Matthew be very much interested in what the chief of the apostles had to say about those same events?
Naland: What you’re saying is that when you do your autobiography and you’re writing about your wedding, that you would rather have the usher at the wedding provide information than you?
Montgomery: As a matter of fact, when I have written up events in my own career, I have been very careful to get hold of even the newspaper accounts of those same events, and I frequently cite them. What I want is to get the most comprehensive picture I possibly can. I can only be faulted if I pervert the data that I take from other people. And here again, the burden of proof is going to rest on you to show that Matthew, in using Mark’s material, if he did, actually perverted it. Now the fact that there is variation among these materials is not the question. You say yourself in your article that one expects this kind of thing in reporting events. The important thing is the substance, what it actually has to say about the cruciality in the events such as the resurrection.
Ankerberg: Alright. We thank you for joining us and I hope that you’ll join us next week as we look at this further.

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