Debating the Historicity of Sinai and the Resurrection

Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on Think Apologetics. Tabernacle of David considers this resource trustworthy and Biblically sound.


A few years back, I did a dialogue with a Reform rabbi on the similarities and differences between our beliefs. During the event, the rabbi noted he didn’t think it was relevant whether the Exodus event happened or not. In other words, it was irrelevant as to whether it was a ‘real’ historical event. I have heard this before. Some of my Christian friends are puzzled by such comments.  Most recently I have been reading a fabulous book called The God Who Acts in History: The Significance of Sinai by Craig Bartholomew. In this book, he notes the significance of Sinai by quoting some famous Jewish scholar

The decisive event in the spiritual history of our people was the act that occurred at Sinai. . . . It was an event that happened at a particular time and also one that happened for all time. —Abraham Joshua Heschel

It seems safe to say that the structure of Exodus 19–24 presents more unanswerable questions than any other part of the Old Testament. . . . Sinai may have been from the beginning, then, less a part of history and more a part of worship than the other traditional materials used in the Pentateuch. —Donald E. Gowen

Bartholomew goes on to note that it is by no means uncommon to find Jewish and Christian scholars affirming the unique generativity of Sinai while denying or remaining agnostic about its historicity. A question that immediately comes to the fore is, why are scholars so cagey about Sinai.  Does it matter whether or not the Sinai event happened? It seems many Jewish and Christian scholars regard its historicity as of marginal or secondary importance.

The debate over the historicity of Sinai made me think of a rabbi’s objection to the resurrection of Jesus.

Dan Cohn-Sherbock, a well-known rabbi of Reform Judaism and Jewish theologian provides his own reasons for rejecting the resurrection of Jesus. He says:

As a Jew and a rabbi, I could be convinced of Jesus’ resurrection, but I would set very high standards of what is required. It would not be enough to have a   subjective experience of Jesus. If I heard voices or had a visionary experience of Jesus, this would not be enough. Let me sketch the kind of experience that would be necessary. If Jesus appeared by hosts of angels trailing clouds of glory and   announcing all for His Messiah ship to see, this would be compelling. But it would have to take place in public domain. video cameras, shown on television, and announced in newspapers and magazines worldwide. Jesus appearance would have to be a global event, televised on CNN, and other forms of the world’s media. Further, if as a consequence of his arrival, all the prophecies   recorded in scripture were fulfilled; the ingathering of the exiles, the rebuilding of the Temple, the resurrection of all those who died, the advent of the days of the Messiah, final judgment-I would without a doubt embrace the Christian message and become a follower of the risen Christ. [1]

The comments by Rabbi Cohn-Sherbock demonstrate the attitude among many in the modern world today. He also raises some objections based on another traditional role of the Messiah in Judaism.  However, there isn’t one messianic expectation in Judaism. Also, whether certain passages are about the coming of the Messiah in the Jewish Scriptures will depend upon what the preconceived idea of the reader. What do they believe the Messiah is supposed to do? If a traditional Jewish person says the Messiah cannot suffer and die and rise from the dead, how would we expect them to interpret the Messianic passages?  It is also obvious that Rabbi Cohn-Sherbock has unrealistic explications for the evidence for the resurrection. If we were to apply the same criteria that to the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, we could never know that happened as well. After all, the giving of the Torah was not witnessed by multitudes (they saw Moses after he received it), photographed, recorded on video cameras, shown on television, and announced in newspapers and magazines worldwide.

Thus, while Jewish people like to boast of the thousands of witnesses that were at the Sinai event, both Christians and Messianic Jews can discuss the witnesses to the resurrection. However, in both cases, the testimony of the witnesses is imbedded in a written text. This means we must differentiate between direct and circumstantial evidence. The demand for direct evidence is misguided from the start, because when it comes to antiquity, no one can interview or cross-examine eyewitnesses. We have no access to the witnesses of the event. Keep in mind that this happens all the time with cold-case investigations. Jurors may accept both direct and circumstantial evidence, and many criminals are convicted based on circumstantial evidence.  Since we can’t obtain direct evidence about the resurrection of Jesus nor for the giving of the Torah/ the Sinai event, we must build a circumstantial case for both events. Therefore, both Judaism and Christianity/Messianic Judaism are supported by circumstantial evidence.

1. G. D’ Costa, Resurrection Reconsidered (London: Oneworld. 1996), 198-199.

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