One of the most common positions of the scholarly community over the past one hundred years is to distinguish between the “Jesus of history” from the “Christ of faith.” The “Jesus of history” was the walking, talking historical Jesus of Nazareth who was born of Mary, preached in Galilee and Judea and was killed by the Roman authorities. The “Christ of faith,” on the other hand, is the creation of the early Christian community – especially St. Paul – and does not necessarily have any connection with Jesus of Nazareth. Any “appearances” of Jesus after his death are seen as possible apparitions and/or visions (or even hallucinations), but they are not appearances of a resurrected Jesus.
Many of the scholars who posit this theory even claim to be Christian believers. They believe that God really did work through Jesus during his life and confirmed Jesus as His messenger by giving the early Christian community these visions of a glorified, heavenly Christ. But to think that the actual physical body of Jesus of Nazareth was reanimated in some way is preposterous.
There is a major, glaring problem with this theory: the empty tomb.
If the first Christians had simply claimed to see visions of Jesus, but one could find his body rotting in the tomb, then all would realize that they mean purely heavenly visions. But one of the central themes of the early Christian preaching was that the tomb was empty and that they had seen the Lord and even touched him and ate with him. Every Gospel account emphasizes the empty tomb (Matt. 28:1-9, Mark 16:1-8, Luke 24:1-8, John 20:1-9), and Matthew even tells us that a common attack against the early Christians was that they had stolen the body of Jesus (Matt. 28:11-15), again focusing on the historical fact that the tomb was empty. If the Gospel writers or first Christians were lying about the empty tomb, then it would have been easy enough to call their bluff and prove them wrong: just check the tomb.
But perhaps they did steal the body? Perhaps this was all an elaborate ruse foisted on the public by distraught followers of a disgraced would-be Messiah. This brings us to another striking feature of the early accounts of Christ’s resurrection: they don’t actually recount his resurrection. All of the accounts follow this pattern: (1) Jesus died on the cross; (2) his dead body was placed in a tomb; (3) three days later his tomb was empty; and (4) after that some people encountered Jesus in a physical, yet different, body.
If the first Christians had stolen the body and invented tales of resurrection, surely they would have included actual tales of resurrection, wouldn’t they? But instead they are silent about the most vital part of the story: the rising of his dead body to life. This indicates veracity, for an invented tale is much more likely to fill in an important detail like that. But if it actually happened as they claimed, then the first Christians would be unable to recount the actual resurrection, as there was no eyewitness to that event. They would have been bound to be truthful about what really happened.
Ultimately, the theory that there is no direct connection between the “Jesus of history” and the “Christ of faith” needs to be buried in its own tomb. All of the evidence points to the fact that the first Christians believed wholeheartedly – and enough to give their lives for the belief – that the historical Jesus of Nazareth was raised from the dead and is the Christ in which they trust for their salvation.