Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Historical Evidence for the Resurrection

My last post explained the centrality of Christ's resurrection within the Christian faith. In this post, I wish to survey the historical evidence that shows that Jesus truly did rise from the dead.

At the beginning, however, I want to remind all who are reading this: if you have comments or questions, please post them up as comments. I will respond. This blog is intended to be an interactive site, particularly geared to those who are in my Sunday School class. So please feel free to ask questions or make comments - I love the opportunity to interact and dialogue.


So, what are the historical and logical reasons to believe that Jesus really rose from the dead? At the outset, I want to stress three things. First, I am not going to be able to go in-depth into any one of these lines of evidence. Last year I taught a three-month Sunday school course on the resurrection of Jesus Christ at our church, and we still didn’t exhaust the materials! So please understand that this is a greatly condensed presentation of the evidences supporting the resurrection.

Second, each of the historical and evidential lines of support for the resurrection which I am going to mention has extremely broad, nearly universal support amongst scholars. That is, over 95% of all scholars who study in this area (especially speaking here of ancient history and biblical studies) grant the truth of each line of evidence that I will present (except one, which we will discuss). This scholarly consensus includes biblical scholars who reject the truth of the resurrection, even the most radical and sceptical scholars out there. In other words, the level of support for these lines of evidence is truly astounding.

Third, the evidence I will present does not presume the inspiration of the Bible. I personally believe that the Bible is God’s inspired, inerrant, authoritative Word revealed to us. But the arguments I will present do not depend upon that view of the Bible (although I would argue that true Christianity generally does). This is why even critical and skeptical scholars can embrace the truth of each of these lines of evidence. With all that said, let’s look at the six lines of historical evidence.

I. Historical Evidence for the Truth of the Resurrection

There are six lines of evidence which I want to briefly present, all of which are like planks in an argument. Each plank points with greater or lesser strength towards the truth of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. But when you put them all together, the conclusion that Jesus truly rose from the dead is nearly inescapable. There is no other logical conclusion. Let’s look briefly at these six lines of historical evidence supporting our rational belief that Jesus Christ rose from the dead.


This might seem somewhat obvious. Obviously, Jesus’ death is a prerequisite to His resurrection. And virtually no one outside of the Islamic faith today doubts that Jesus died by crucifixion sometime around the year AD 30. The Gospels all record the death of Jesus Christ – and ancient historians accept the general historical reliability of the Gospel accounts. Furthermore, Jesus’ death is referred to in extrabiblical accounts – the Jewish historian Josephus, the Roman historian Tacitus, the Greek satirist Lucian, and the Jewish Talmud all reference Jesus’ death by crucifixion. His death is also affirmed by a truly countless number of early Christian writings. There really is no doubt that Jesus rose from the dead, Muslim protestations to the contrary.


Presently, we are going to discuss the reality of the empty tomb. Well, for a tomb to be “found empty”, it has to have been previously occupied. And so the second historical plank in our rational argument for the resurrection is that Jesus was buried in a tomb. If He is never buried, there is no tomb to be discovered empty. If He is buried, then there is a tomb to check up on. For the burial of Jesus, we are dependent upon the biblical accounts in the gospels and 1 Corinthians. But again, with respect to the burial of Jesus, biblical scholars are almost unanimously agreed that there is no reason to doubt that it really happened. John Dominic Crossan (of the Jesus Seminar) is one of an exceptionally small number of scholars who cast doubt upon the burial. And Crossan himself has to violate his own critical methodologies in order to reject the burial. Despite the fact that Jesus’ burial by Joseph of Arimathea occurs in every gospel, in even the most ancient strata of the gospels, Crossan nonetheless rejects it as an unhistorical invention by later Christians. His counter-argument? That Jesus was never buried at all, but that His body was cast into a shallow grave and eventually eaten by wild dogs. Sadly for Crossan, there is simply no evidence which supports this thesis, and it is rejected by almost every biblical scholar and ancient historian.


Given the death and burial of Jesus, the other physical prerequisite to the resurrection would have to be the discovery of the empty tomb. Of the six facts that I am talking about this morning, the reality of the empty tomb is the only one that does not have nearly-unanimous agreement amongst biblical scholars. Still, over two-thirds of critical scholars accept that the tomb that Jesus was buried in on Good Friday was found empty on Easter Sunday. While not unanimous, this level of scholarly support is astounding, given the importance of the empty tomb in arguments for the resurrection. Why ought we to believe that the tomb was, in fact, found empty on Easter Sunday?

On the one hand, the Gospel accounts, and the other New Testament letters, all state and presume that Jesus’ tomb was found empty. Each Gospel has an account of the tomb being found empty. But there are other reasons as well.

First, you have the reality that Jesus was crucified and buried in Jerusalem. As Gary Habermas writes, “It would have been impossible for Christianity to get off the ground in Jerusalem if the body had still been in the tomb. His enemies in the Jewish leadership and Roman government would only have had to exhume the corpse and publicly display it for the hoax [of the resurrection] to be shattered. Not only are Jewish, Roman, and all other writings absent of such an account, but there is a total silence from Christianity’s critics who would have jumped at evidence of this sort.” In other words, as soon as the disciples began preaching that Jesus was raised from the dead, their opponents (including Saul/Paul) would have leaped at any opportunity to produce Jesus’ corpse in order to debunk the resurrection claims. But they could not.

Instead, opponents of Christianity acknowledged that the tomb was found empty – and then accuse the disciples of having stolen Jesus’ body. Matthew 28:11-15 reports that the chief priests concoct a plan to accuse the disciples of stealing Jesus’ body. While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, telling them, "You are to say, 'His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.' If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble." So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.

The 2nd-century Christian writer Justin Martyr writes, in Dialogue with Trypho, that the Jews were still circulating the same rumor in 150 AD (more than 100 years later) – that the disciples had stolen Jesus’ body. In other words, even the enemies of Christianity acknowledged that Jesus’ tomb was empty – they did not argue that Jesus hadn’t been buried at all (as the historical revisionist Crossan argues), or that Jesus’ body was still in a tomb somewhere. They admitted that the tomb was empty, and accused the disciples of stealing the body.


The apostles universally claimed to have seen Jesus, after His crucifixion, death, and burial – no longer dead, but alive and walking about in a resurrected body. Again, the ancient creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 – For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. The resurrection appearances of Jesus Christ are not all at the same time, nor in the same place. Rather, they occur over the course of about 40 days, in Jerusalem, but also in Galilee. Some of the resurrection appearances are recorded in the New Testament – Matthew 28:8-10, 28:16-20; Luke 24:13-52; John 20-21; Acts 9 – while other resurrection appearances are not, for example the appearance to James, which we are told happened but is not described.

There are a few significant things about the appearances of the risen Jesus to the disciples. First, He appears not just to isolated individuals, but to groups, and even to at least one large group of about 500. That means that these are not delusions or personal visions experienced by the disciples.

Second, He appears to His half-brother, the skeptic James, who did not believe in His identity as Messiah prior to His crucifixion and death (see Jn. 7:5; Mt. 12:46; Mk. 3:20-21). James subsequently becomes a believer, and emerges as a key leader of the church in Jerusalem.

Third, He appears to Saul (we know him as Paul), an ardent persecutor of the Christian Church – a man who believed that Jesus died as a false prophet cursed by God. Subsequent to seeing the risen Jesus (an experienced described in Acts 9, and recounted again in Acts 22 and Acts 26), Paul becomes a follower of Jesus, and later emerges as a key leader, especially in the evangelistic missionary movement throughout the Roman Empire.

Fourth, the appearances of the risen Jesus are unapologetically physical in nature. The risen Jesus is no mere ghost or ephemeral spirit – He appears in a flesh and blood resurrected body.

Thus, in John 20:24-28, we see Jesus invite Thomas to touch the nail-holes with his fingers, to touch the wound in his side with his hand. Jesus says, Stop doubting and believe! Thomas touches Jesus, and exclaims, My Lord and my God! In Luke 24:36-43, we see Jesus insisting: Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have. The resurrection appearances of Jesus to the disciples are explicitly claimed to be physical, bodily appearances. We are not left the option of somehow assuming or concluding that the resurrection appearances are ghostly, or immaterial, or metaphorical, or anything other than literal, physical, bodily appearances. The Gospels all make it exceedingly clear – what the disciples claim to see is the risen bodily Jesus. But at this point, all that we have are professed resurrection appearances – the disciples claiming to have seen the risen Jesus. How do we know that they are telling the truth?


A popular argument against the real resurrection of Jesus Christ often has to do with supposing that the disciples made up the story of the resurrection – maybe they stole the body and invented the resurrection; or at the very least, when the tomb was inexplicably found empty, they made up stories of having seen the risen Lord Jesus. The truth that we are about to contemplate destroys such theories.

Call to mind the state of mind of Jesus’ disciples after He was arrested, tried, crucified, died, and buried. First, the disciples all desert Jesus and flee when He is arrested (Mt. 26:55-56). Peter denies even knowing Jesus, calling down curses upon Himself (Mt. 26:69-75). In Matthew 27, Judas is overcome with grief and sorrow and commits suicide (Mt. 27:3-5). With the sole exception of John, the disciples are nowhere to be found at the scene of the crucifixion – they have all run away and are cowering in fear. John 20:19 presents the disciples on Easter Sunday as gathering together in an upper room with the doors locked for fear of the Jews.

Simply put, the disciples were a disillusioned, despondent, and fearful group. Shortly thereafter, however, subsequent to Jesus’ death by crucifixion, His disciples were radically transformed from fearful, cowering individuals who denied and abandoned him at his arrest and execution into bold proclaimers of the gospel of the risen Lord. They remained steadfast in the face of imprisonment, torture, and martyrdom.

From fleeing in terror during the trial of Jesus, the disciples are transformed into men who fearlessly preach that Jesus has been raised from the dead. Acts 4, beginning in verse 8:

Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to [the rulers of the Jews]: “Rulers and elders of the people! If we are being called to account today for an act of kindness shown to a cripple and are asked how he was healed, then know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed. He is ‘the stone you builders rejected, which has become the capstone.’ [Ps. 118:22] Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.”

When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.

Peter has been transformed – he is no longer cowering in fear, denying that he even knows Jesus. Rather, he is boldly proclaiming the name of Christ. The Sanhedrin warns Peter, v. 18:

Then they [the Sanhedrin] called them [Peter and John] in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John replied, “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.”

What causes that transformation in Peter? The simplest explanation, and the right one, is that they saw Jesus, risen from the dead, and that this changed their lives. The martyrdom of Stephen in Acts 7 does not reduce the disciples’ resolve; nor does the martyrdom of Peter, Paul, James, and all of the other disciples except John. Indeed, Stephen’s martyrdom scatters the early Christians, but everywhere they go, they continue to preach the Good News of Jesus crucified and risen.
Again, it is good to remember that all of the historical sources that we have record the martyrdom of all of the original disciples except John – and even John suffered exile and deprivation on account of the Gospel. If the disciples made up the story of the resurrection appearances, don’t you think that they would have given up the story at some point along the road rather than going to their death for it?

At this point a skeptic might point out that people die for causes all the time, and often the causes that they die for are lies. There is, however, a crucial difference. People will die for a lie that they believe to be true; but people do not willingly die for something they know to be a lie—it simply doesn’t happen. So, on the one hand, Muslim mujahaddin will die for Islam, believing that Islam is the true religion, the straight path, and that dying for Allah will grant them immediate entrance into paradise. They are, from our viewpoint, dying for a lie—sometimes believing that their suicide bombings of targets like the World Trade Center or a nightclub in Bali are earning God’s eternal favor. They are dying for a lie. But the key is that they are convinced that they are dying for the truth.

People will die for a lie that they believe to be the truth, but they will not die for a lie that they know to be a lie. Here’s the kicker. The disciples knew whether Jesus had been raised from the dead or not. After all, they were the witnesses to the fact! Acts 2:32 puts it very succinctly and plainly – “God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact.” The disciples did not die for something that they mistakenly thought was true; they did not die for something they knew to be a lie. Rather, they died for their absolute conviction, their personal experiential knowledge, that Jesus is risen. It is good at this point also to note that the disciples were not persecuted and martyred for proclaiming some sort of mystical, spiritual, or metaphorical resurrection of Jesus Christ – nobody would have much cared if that is what they were preaching – rather, they were persecuted for proclaiming their sole allegiance to a King who had conquered death through His physical resurrection. And they died for a belief that they knew to be either true or false – either they had seen the risen Jesus, or they had not. If they had not, it is simply inconceivable that they would have all willingly suffered and died for what they knew to be a false claim. The only rational conclusion is that they in fact died for something – the resurrection of Jesus Christ – which they knew to be true.


Finally, let’s consider the birth of the Christian Church. Jesus of Nazareth was arrested, tried, and crucified in Jerusalem – the center of the Jewish religion and the Israelite people. Where was the Christian Church born? In Jerusalem. Within 2 months of Jesus’ death, the disciples began preaching publicly. Let’s read just a sampling from Acts 2 – Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost.

Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge, and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him … God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact.

One of the central tenets of the early preaching of the Christian Church was the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. And this message was preached in Jerusalem, the very city where Jesus had so recently been put to death. Again, all of the historical sources that we have relate the early and public preaching of the Gospel; they all indicate that the Church began in Jerusalem, and that the resurrection was a core element of that preaching.

If the resurrection never happened; if Jesus’ body was still lingering in some tomb, or if it had been buried in a common grave for criminals, Jerusalem is the last place that the Christian Church would have sprouted. It would have begun in some backwater like Galilee, where no one could have checked up on the facts concerning the burial and tomb. In Jerusalem, there was so much publicity, so much awareness, that it was not possible to fool the authorities or the people. But the church not only begins in Jerusalem, it expands exponentially. There is rapid growth, which is not checked by the breakout of intense persecution as recorded in Acts 7-9.

II. Putting it all Together: The Rational Conclusion

Let’s quickly put these six lines of evidence together. First, Jesus is crucified in Jerusalem. Second, He is buried in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea. Third, His tomb is found empty on third day. Fourth, the disciples (including James and Paul) claim to have experiences where they see the risen Jesus. Fifth, the disciples are transformed from fearful cowards into bold and fearless proclaimers, suffering and even dying for the message that Jesus died for our sins and rose again on the third day. Sixth, the Gospel message is preached within months of the death and resurrection of Jesus, in the very city and place where these events happened.
There is much more to the argument. The Christian Church is born in Jerusalem, and immediately begins preaching the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. But these early Jewish Christians (followers of Jesus who had been faithful God-fearing Jews) have their entire worldview and religious practice changed. We’re not going to look deeply into it, but take note of a few things that change.

First, they not only go to synagogue on the Sabbath (Saturday) to worship the Lord, they also begin, very early on, gathering for Christian worship on the first day of the week (Sunday), in recognition and celebration of Christ’s resurrection.
Second, they begin praying in Jesus’ name, and worshiping Jesus as God – something inconceivable within a Jewish worldview. Third, they profess the secondary nature of the Jewish temple rituals which had been central to their Jewish religion. In short, everything changes. N. T. Wright, in his massive study The Resurrection of the Son of God, concludes that there is only one rational conclusion to come to when all of the evidence is considered and weighed. There is only one thing that explains the change in the disciples, that accounts for the discovery of the empty tomb, and that can make sense of the rapid rise of a Christian Church with a radically new religious worldview. There is only one reasonable conclusion, and it is the same conclusion that orthodox Christians have universally believed for over 1900 years. Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God, who died on the cross in order to atone for our sins and wrongdoing, was raised from the dead on the third day by God the Father. There is no other rational, clear-headed conclusion.

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