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Whitehead examines resurrection via legal, historical evidence

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (BP)–While the resurrection of Jesus Christ needs to be examined as a religious event in studies in Sunday schools and seminaries, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary Vice President Mike Whitehead noted it also can be studied from an historic perspective, much like the consideration legal experts give to evidence presented in court.

He provided a Feb. 11 chapel audience with the same evidence of the historicity of the resurrection that transformed a skeptical agnostic jurist like Simon Greenleaf into a convinced Christian. Greenleaf wrote a three-volume treatise on the laws of evidence that has shaped the rules by which the legal profession operates today.

Whitehead received his juris doctor degree from the University of Missouri and later served as chief counsel for the Southern Baptist Convention’s Christian Life Commission before becoming vice president for business administration and assistant professor of church and law at Midwestern. He was co-counsel in the religious liberty case of Widmar v. Vincent before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1981.

Whitehead recounted the irritation Greenleaf initially expressed toward law students of the mid-1800s who repeatedly used Scripture in classroom discussions. When challenged to consider the case for the resurrection as an historic event, Greenleaf applied his rules of evidence to the Bible, focusing his inquiry on what Whitehead described as the linchpin of the Christian religion.

Whitehead said Greenleaf regarded the dare as a simple case, easily proven. “It required this sophisticated Harvard law professor to prove that dead men stay dead. If he can’t win that case, he should hang up his law shingle, put up a notary public and live bait sign and just get into some other line of work.”

And yet Greenleaf, like England’s former chief justice, Lord Darling, concluded that because of the overwhelming evidence, “No intelligent jury in the world could fail to bring in a verdict that the resurrection story is true,” Whitehead said. In 1846, Greenleaf wrote his conclusions in “Evidence of the Historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus.” “It didn’t just change their minds and become the subject for an interesting academic tome in a book,” Whitehead said. “It changed Greenleaf’s life when he concluded the resurrection story is a fact of history.”

Just as lawyers take depositions from eyewitnesses, Whitehead looked to the testimony of Scripture to consider what happened to the body of Jesus and during the events of the resurrection. Even ancient events such as those recorded in the Bible can be introduced as evidence since the genuineness of the documents pass legal standards, he explained.

Whitehead asked students to take their “copies of the deposition” in his mock trial, referring them to John 19:38-42 for testimony of the preparations given to the body of Jesus following the crucifixion. Expert testimony from archaeologists confirm the burial custom of the day would result in a body cast that often weighed more than 100 pounds once the spices, myrrh and aloes had been woven into the linen strips.

From Mark 15:46 and 16:4, Whitehead submitted testimony of protections made for the body by Jesus’ friends — the rock-hewn tomb with only one entrance and the boulder rolled across the opening to protect against wild animals and grave robbers. Testimony from engineers who have studied the weight of a stone required to fill a four and a half foot diameter opening indicate it would weigh one and a half to two tons. Furthermore, a copyist’s note in one manuscript indicated it was a rock so big it would require 20 men to lift it, Whitehead added.

The precautions taken by Jesus’ enemies to make sure the dead body stayed in the tomb are described in Matthew 27:62-66, Whitehead said. “The enemies of Jesus were concerned about an actual grave robbery and pretended resurrection, saying, ‘This faker, preacher magician has been telling people if he’s killed he’ll rise again from the dead.'” They were worried Jesus’ friends would steal away his body and claim there was a resurrection,” Whitehead said.

To secure the tomb, the Roman governor authorized assignment of a guard unit. Modern-day pictures and paintings of this scene show “two or three little soldiers wearing mini-skirts and holding wooden spears,” Whitehead said. “No, no. Picture the Green Berets!” He turned to expert military historians who testified that the Roman custodia was a four- to 16-man security unit capable of defending a city gate against a battalion of invading enemy soldiers.

Whitehead also pointed to the seal of Rome being affixed to the grave entrance as further evidence of security precautions. The civil law punished any grave robbery, Whitehead submitted, adding if the seal of Rome were broken, the entire guard unit would suffer the penalty of death under the rules of military discipline.

Jesus’ death is a fact of history, Whitehead said, noting what Peter and John discovered was an undisturbed body cast. “Your question is to resolve what happened to the body,” Whitehead told the “jury” audience. “You must account for all these facts.”

He refuted the “body snatcher’s theory,” calling its testimony “self-impeaching” since it doesn’t fit the facts of the event concerning the plausibility of the guard unit falling asleep. The more commonly cited “swoon theory” made popular by “The Passover Plot” ignores evidence of a heavyweight body cast restricting the movement of an allegedly revived Jesus.

The only satisfactory explanation for the empty tomb is found in Jesus’ testimony that he came back from the dead because he is God, Whitehead submitted.

“The importance to Simon Greenleaf and others who’ve looked at it is the realization that if Jesus walked out of the tomb in 33 AD because he is God, he’s still alive today. He can still walk into my life today,” Whitehead insisted.

“I know in speaking to a seminary audience, you’ve made this decision based on faith,” Whitehead said. “You don’t need science, history, law and logic to convince you what you’ve already discovered by the final proof — the best proof — personal experience. After you’ve seen all of the history and evidence, you’ve made the decision by personal faith in Christ and Christ has proved himself to be alive and real to you.”

Whitehead added the real question that must be answered by every person is: “What will you do with the risen person of Christ?” Those who have received Christ are commissioned to go out and preach the gospel, he said.

Because God has given a gospel that can be embraced with the heart, spirit and mind, Whitehead said, “There can be no intellectual barrier to accepting Christ. There can be only intellectual excuses.”

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  • Tammi Ledbetter