Now that’s not to say we couldn’t pare the claim down and make it more truly minimal and “publicly verifiable.” We could bracket out the concept “resurrection” altogether and investigate something like, whether “Jesus’ followers and friends experienced him physically after they had seen his death.” Even this might not get far enough beyond its New Testament shoring. But actually, the weird thing is, a statement like that has lost most of what makes “resurrection” exciting in the first place. Without all the (thoroughly un-public and untestable) assumptions that render Jesus’ re-appearance the cornerstone of Christian life and hope, we’re left with a strange event: a strange event susceptible to a variety of other theoretical explanations. Why wasn’t Jesus’ reappearance an act of the Nigerian god Olorun? Why wasn’t it aliens? Why wasn’t it a heretofore unexplained natural event?
This isn’t just playing the devil’s advocate a bit extravagantly. These examples illustrate that when my friend and others make an argument for Jesus’ resurrection by public evidences, what they are doing is making a case for Jesus’ reappearance (or something) – and assuming the coincident correctness of the New Testament beliefs that give it meaning and mooring. The problem is twofold: they think they’ve scientifically confirmed something that actually imports a lot of scientifically opaque assumptions, and they are unaware that the piece that may be (!) scientifically verifiable is theologically underdetermined. To wit: they think they’ve done more than they have. While it may well be that the New Testament’s theological ship needs this theoretically shrunken, empirically attestable reappearance of Jesus to get out of harbor, all the rest of the New Testament’s theological interpretation of this reappearance must be “right,” too, for Christian belief to subsist. I give as my parade example here the (unusual) Israeli historian Pinchas Lapide, who accepted the resurrection of Jesus as a bodily reality and an act of God. But he just thought that the New Testament got the significance of this event wrong – Jesus isn’t Messiah, and certainly doesn’t share in the identity of God. The interpretation the New Testament gives to Jesus’ reappearance is what makes it the “resurrection” we believe in – an interpretation that is, I imagine, scientifically out-of-bounds. Of course, it makes a certain amount of sense to credit the interpretation that lies closest at hand to the event – the understanding of Jesus’ disciples intuitively seems more plausible than Olorun or extraterrestrials. That may be (though we regularly understand events differently than even their eyewitnesses). But my general point is that these two things, the event of Jesus’ reappearance (or whatever) and the New Testament preaching about the promissory resurrection of our Lord – they do not hang together inevitably. So when my scientist friends have done their work, they shouldn’t pat themselves on the back too hard for having “proven the resurrection.”