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Resurrection at Nain (Part I)

June 7th, 2009

A Resurrection at Nain

(An Excerpt from Chapter V)

Part I of III

This excerpt contains the first full treatment of a resurrection account from the book, How to Live Forever. The authorship and reliability of source texts have been examined and verified in the first four chapters. For purposes of this essay, assume that Paul’s companion, Luke, authored the third gospel in the late 50’s AD based upon interviews with eyewitnesses indigenous to Judea; and particularly those residing in Jerusalem, the center of the earliest church. The occasion for this opportunity was provided by Luke’s role as intermediary between the elders of the Jerusalem church and the apostle Paul, during the latter’s two year incarceration at Caesarea Maritima. This essay will be provided in three parts, each demonstrating a necessary facet of authenticity. Beginning with part I:

Jean Jouvenet: The Resurrection of Lazarus

Jean Jouvenet: The Resurrection of Lazarus

And to any thoughtful person would anything appear more incredible, than, if we were not in the body, and some one were to say that it was possible that from a small drop of human seed bones and sinews and flesh be formed into a shape such as we see? For let this now be said hypothetically: if you yourselves were not such as you now are, and born of such parents [and causes], and one were to show you human seed and a picture of a man, and were to say with confidence that from such a substance such a being could be produced, would you believe before you saw the actual production? No one will dare to deny [that such a statement would surpass belief]. In the same way, then, you are now incredulous because you have never seen a dead man rise again. But as at first you would not have believed it possible that such persons could be produced from the small drop, and yet now you see them thus produced, so also judge ye that it is not impossible that the bodies of men, after they have been dissolved, and like seeds resolved into earth, should in God’s appointed time rise again and put on incorruption. –Justin’s First Apology to the Romans, xix

For we recognize that reports of resurrection do exist, and we must not delude ourselves into throwing out all such reports as a contradiction to an unproven but assumed physical law. Faithful to our new method, we will rather use these reports as the observations necessary for the formulation of our model.

First, we must separate evidence from myth. We have been examining the reliability of Luke’s report that Jesus Christ of Nazareth performed a resurrection at the gates of Nain in Judea. Based upon the historical groundwork we have laid; let us now see whether we believe a resurrection actually took place:

11Soon afterward, Jesus went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went along with him. 12As he approached the town gate, a dead person was being carried out-the only son of his mother, and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the town was with her. 13When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her and he said, “Don’t cry.”

14Then he went up and touched the coffin, and those carrying it stood still. He said, “Young man, I say to you, get up!” 15The dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother.

16They were all filled with awe and praised God. “A great prophet has appeared among us,” they said. “God has come to help his people.” 17This news about Jesus spread throughout Judea and the surrounding country.

-Luke 7:11-17

We originally stipulated three premises by which we could judge the credibility of this compilation of eyewitness reports concerning the Nain incident:

(1)  a. Luke either personally witnessed the event or;

b. Luke personally and exhaustively interviewed all available eyewitnesses and      accurately reported a compilation of their testimony, or;

c. both a. and b. above.

(2)  Nether Luke, nor his eyewitnesses, are embellishing the account, (i.e. lying,) for some unknown motive.

(3)  Neither Luke, nor his eyewitnesses are mistaken in their understanding of   events.

Taking these in reverse order we find:

(3)  Neither Luke, nor his eyewitnesses are mistaken in their understanding of   events.

The first fact to establish is that the widow’s son was truly deceased. From other period accounts of Jewish funerals we know that it was customary to bind the dead hand and foot with graveclothes, and to cover their face with a napkin[1].Often the bodies were anointed with spices as well[2]. This funeral preparation was not as elaborate as an Egyptian mummification, but still indicative of a process involving time and care with the corpse[3].

Part of the purpose for any funeral ritual is to assure that the subject is actually deceased. Ancient peoples felt much the same way about death that we do today. They knew that sometimes a person could be unconscious with few signs of life. To avoid this, unmistakable proofs of death were required.

Cessation of breathing and heartbeat are such proofs. But even more certain are the reduction of body temperature and rigor mortis that follow soon after death. If at any time during the process of wrapping and preparing the body, signs of life were manifest, then the funeral process could be halted and the body returned to the care of a physician. Even in ancient times no one wanted to be buried alive.

Jesus’ party met a funeral procession with a man bound in graveclothes on his way to be interred. The man was dead in the eyes of the law, dead to his friends and family, and dead to his widowed mother. This was no joke. If Jesus had not interrupted the ceremony the man would have been buried or entombed, and there his remains, if undisturbed, would lie today.

Could Luke’s witnesses have been mistaken? Jesus, his disciples, and the large crowd following Jesus only believed the man was dead because they met the funeral procession conveying the body to its tomb. Jesus’ followers were depending upon the fact that the man was arrayed for burial as proof of preceding death. So they, and we, are really counting upon the crowd from Nain having made certain of the man’s death before his funeral. Could the people of Nain, the dead man’s family, doctors, and funeral workers have all been mistaken?

The dead man could not have feigned death for obvious reasons. How do you “feign” cessation of heartbeat, breathing, perspiration, hunger (with grumbling stomach,) urination, etc? But could the man have suffered from some debilitating malady which reduced the body’s vital signs to such an extent as to mimic death? Could a man with drastically impaired bodily functions have slipped through the ancient screening process? This path is so speculative that I hesitate to tread upon it, lest our purpose be lost forever amidst a diversity of not quite impossible options. For the sake of our argument though, let us say that this widow’s son was either dead or afflicted with some infirmity which produced the appearance of death. We conclude that the witnesses could be mistaken only to this extent.

So far we have proven the mundane. The odds are good that you can demonstrate the subject’s death at nearly any funeral that you attend. I will leave this experiment as an exercise for your investigation, confident that your results will support our conclusions. The reason that Luke saw fit to record this account is what happened next:

14Then he went up and touched the coffin, and those carrying it stood still. He said, “Young man, I say to you, get up!” 15The dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother.

-Luke 7:14-15

For some inexplicable reason, in front of a large crowd of people, Jesus risked his reputation to speak to an apparent corpse. It is likely that the man’s mother, bereft and forlorn, had spoken to the body in terms of her love and how she would miss her beloved son. But Jesus was a stranger to Nain. From the account, it appears that he never even learned the name of the deceased.

And Jesus doesn’t speak of sorrow, or love, or an afterlife, or a reunion in the sweet by and by. Jesus instead tells the corpse of a young man to get up. And he says this in front of everyone. It is very hard to see how the witnesses could have mistaken this! If nothing had happened, who would have been surprised? In human experience, how often does a dead man get up?

But Luke tells us that his witnesses saw the dead man sit up and begin to talk. I am certain that this was unmistakable. And probably not something you would soon forget either! In all likelihood the dead man sat up still bound in graveclothes, and spoke through the napkin covering his face.

Everyone present was filled with awe and praised God. They all recognized Jesus as a great prophet. And the news of the incident spread throughout Judea. This is all very understandable given the events. But now we are face to face with the suspension of normal physical laws. A dead man, or one so sick that he seemed dead, sat up and talked at Jesus’ command.

If the man was truly dead then Jesus performed a resurrection. If the man was only deathly ill then he was instantaneously and miraculously healed at Jesus’ command. Since either of these events is equally impossible by everyday standards, it is illogical and perverse for us to assume that the witnesses were mistaken as to his death. In other words, if we are to choose between two miraculous suspensions of natural process, it is most reasonable to first assume that those present would have the most intuitive grasp of what actually occurred.

If the testimony presented in Luke 7:11-17 is true, then we have our first indisputable case of resurrection from the dead. Historically verifiable in the sense that a man may be convicted of murder based upon the testimony of a “large crowd” of witnesses, the strength of our case rests upon the trustworthiness of the witnesses. With this understanding, let us proceed to premise (1): (to be continued)


1.) Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. All rights reserved throughout the world. Used by permission of International Bible Society.

NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION® and NIV® are registered trademarks of International Bible Society. Use of either trademark for the offering of goods or services requires the prior written consent of International Bible Society.

2.) Justin Martyr, Apology:

Translated by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson prior to 1885, (the publication date of the volumes in which it appeared, The Ante Nicene Fathers)

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923. It may be copyrighted outside the U.S.

Justin at WikiSource

Justin at Christian Classics Ethereal Library

[1] Matthew 27:59-60; Mark 15:46; Luke 23:53; John 11:43-44; 20:6-7

[2] Luke 24:1

[3] Tacitus, The Histories, V, v

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