When asked what it would take for them to believe in God, atheists often say that something miraculous, like a cut-off limb growing back, would move them to belief. They intuit that if being could be given where there is non-being, there must be a transcendent cause with enough power to create something from nothing.
What’s interesting is that the early Christians alleged that Jesus did one better: he gave life to corpses. And it’s said that he did it on several different occasions—he raised Jairus’s daughter (Mark 5:21-43), he raised the son of the widow of Nain (Luke 7:11-17), and he raised Lazarus (John 11:1-44).
But can we trust this claim about Jesus? Is it historically reliable?
One thing this claim has going for it is that it’s found in multiple, independent sources like Mark, John, and portions of Matthew and Luke’s Gospels that are independent of Mark. [i] When more than one person can attest to an event, it’s much more likely to be historical.
Another point in favor of the claim is that the Evangelists don’t exaggerate the number of these kinds of miracles. Mark, Matthew, and John all confine themselves to one case, and Luke includes two. If they were simply making up these accounts to impress their readers, you’d expect them to appeal to this kind of story more frequently.
The stories themselves also contain elements that show they’re reliable. The scope of this article doesn’t allow us to examine each of the above narratives, but let's take just one: the raising of Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:21-43). John P. Meier, in volume two of his work A Marginal Jew, gives five reasons to think this narrative is historical.
First, the high status of Jairus as a synagogue official within the region of Galilee makes the event checkable. It’s not like this miracle is being performed for some Joe in a back alley that no one ever heard of.
Identifying Jairus as a synagogue official serves another reason for this narrative’s historicity. It’s unlikely that Christians would have added this name to the oral tradition prior to the Marcan narrative, because Christians were not sympathetic to the synagogue leaders. The synagogues and their leaders banned the early Christians from their communities, putting them on Rome’s radar for persecution. It’s apologetically unappealing to add an individual from a group that was hostile to the early Christians.
This is perhaps why Matthew doesn’t even mention Jairus’s name and reduces him to a mere “ruler” (Matt. 9:18). Since including the name of a synagogue ruler would run contrary to any apologetic purposes that Mark might have had (and Luke—see Luke 8:41), yet he still includes him, it’s reasonable to conclude that it’s true.
A third reason for this event’s historicity is that it meets the criterion of embarrassment. Notice that when Jesus told the mourners that the little girl was sleeping, “they laughed at him” and Jesus “put them all outside” (v.40). People laughing at and scorning Jesus would have left a bitter taste in the mouth of the early Christians. If the early Christians weren’t concerned with truth, they wouldn’t have added this to the oral tradition. Furthermore, it’s a bit of an embarrassment to portray Jesus as giving the boot to grieving people. Therefore, it’s reasonable to conclude that this event was a part of the primitive tradition that Mark is drawing on, and that it dates back to the time of Jesus’ ministry.
The story also contains unique Semitisms, which for scholars give good reason to think that the narrative has its origin within a Palestinian community near the time of Jesus. And the closer a narrative is to the events it narrates, the more reliable it is.
Meier gives several. But one in particular is Jesus’ statement, “talitha koum,” which is Aramaic for, “Little girl, I say to you, rise” (Mark 5:41). That Mark preserves the phrase in its Aramaic form, and doesn’t translate it into Greek, suggests an authentic primitive tradition.
Not only is this phrase significant because it’s in Aramaic, but, as Fr. Robert Spitzer points out in his book God So Loved the World, it’s in popular Aramaic as opposed to formal or written Aramaic (which would have been talitha koumi). This would be akin to my saying, “y’all” versus “you all,” or “that ain’t gonna happen” versus “that will not happen.”
Why would Mark preserve talitha koum if it’s an incorrect way of speaking? Perhaps because he was trying to preserve the expression as it came from the lips of Jesus himself.
I could imagine that if I were giving a talk that was being transcribed, the transcriber wouldn’t change my Southern expressions to proper English, because such expressions identify me as a Southerner. Similarly, it’s likely that Mark doesn’t correct Jesus’ improper mode of speech because he’s trying to preserve the expression as it came from Jesus. The late Jewish scholar Géza Vermes reaches a similar conclusion:
It may also be presumed that like Peter, whose northern identity betrayed his speech [Matthew 26:73; Mark 14:70; Luke 22:59], Jesus also spoke the Galilean dialect of Aramaic. His command addressed to the “dead” daughter of Jairus is reproduced as Talitha kum (“Little girl,” or literally, “Little lamb, get up”) in the oldest codices of Mark 5:41. But kum represents Galilean slovenly speech in joining the masculine form of the imperative to a feminine subject, as against the grammatically correct kumi which we find in some of the more recent and polished manuscripts of the Gospel.
Finally, it’s worth noting the absence of Christological titles in the narrative. This would have been a perfect opportunity to highlight Jesus’ divinity with a post-resurrection title like Lord, given that he’s manifesting his power over life and death. But Mark, Matthew, and Luke all refer Jesus only as “teacher” in their account of raising Jairus’s daughter. Luke does up the ante a bit with Master (Greek, epistatēs) in his account of Jesus healing the hemorrhaging woman (Luke 8:46). But even that falls short of the divine title Lord.
So, that Jesus raised the dead is something we can trust, because the records of such deeds are historically reliable. And as long as an atheist is not ahistorical, and allows historical testimony as valid evidence for a miracle having occurred, then Jesus’ raisings of the dead provide him with the type of miracle that he’s looking for in order to believe not just in the existence of God, but in Jesus’ claims to be God incarnate.
[i] One reference (Matt. 11:5; cf. Luke 4:18) is also found in what scholars call “Q,” which refers to a hypothetical source that both Matthew and Luke shared but Mark did not use or know about. “Q” is an abbreviation for Quelle, the German word for “source.” The Q theory is not without its doubters—Mark Goodacre is just one scholar who calls it into question—but for the sake of this article we’ll go with the majority consensus.