On the Resurrection of Jesus Christ

The resurrection of Jesus Christ, in both the empty tomb and his appearances thereafter, is the ultimate evidence for the deity of Jesus; it is the foundation of our professed Christian faith. In fact, Paul thought this issue so immensely important that he claimed, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” As it is, virtually anyone can claim divine revelation, but that does not immediately elevate it to the pedestal of truth. However, if Jesus Christ is actually raised from the dead, the implications for the world are huge: his claim to divinity and the reality of eternal life are suddenly realities we cannot ignore.

The question then arises whether it is actually possible to “prove” Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. In studying historical events of antiquity, a historian must deal with the data at hand and attempt to ascertain the truth of a matter with varying degrees of certainty. Since many documentations from the ancient world are lost to us, we must attempt to reconstruct a narrative of what happened with what little is available to us. However, much of the difficulty in accepting the truth of Jesus’ claims is due to the totality of their implications, not because of the historical data; in other words, the stakes are extremely high for all of us if his claims are true. Thus, a historical survey of the resurrection is crucial; as Tim Keller aptly notes, “The issue on which everything hangs is not whether or not you like [Jesus’] teachings, but whether or not he rose from the dead.”

Did Jesus Actually Die on the Cross?

Although virtually all scholars agree that Jesus in fact died, skeptics have claimed that Jesus’ resurrection was a hoax because he did not die in the first place. This idea is found in the Qur’an and other skeptical circles such as those of Donovan Joyce, who championed the “swoon theory,” claiming that Jesus actually just fainted or feigned death on the cross, and was revived in his tomb or by his disciples. In light of this, we must briefly survey the evidence that confirms the death of Jesus.

It is almost unanimously attested to that Jesus, before his crucifixion, endured an extremely painful flogging at the hands of the Romans. Dr. Metherell, a physician and a research scientist, attests to the horrific flogging and the hypovolemic shock that would follow as a result, which would have put Jesus in a serious medical condition by the time he was carrying the cross. During crucifixion itself, the victim’s lung cavity would eventually collapse, leading to asphyxiation and death through cardiac arrest.

When all this is taken into account, it seems rather impossible that Jesus could have survived such an ordeal. It would be almost impossible to imagine any human surviving the trial, the beatings, the shame, and the crucifixion and live to tell the tale. In any case, a weak and almost-dead Jesus could have not possibly convinced his hiding disciples that he was the promised Messiah and Conqueror of death. In the words of D.F. Strauss, himself a skeptic of the resurrection, “Such a resuscitation could only have weakened the impression which he had made upon them in life and in death, at the most could only have given it an elegiac voice, but could by no possibility have changed their sorrow into enthusiasm, have elevated their reverence into worship.”

The fact that Jesus died through crucifixion is recorded not only in the four Gospels, but also in various secular accounts. Josephus, a Jewish historian writing in first-century Palestine, notes, “Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us, had condemned him to be crucified…” Tacitus, a Roman historian, writes, “Christus, from whom the name [Christians] had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate.” Other references exist in the writings of Lucian of Samosata, Mara Bar-Serapion, and the Talmud.

The Burial and the Empty Tomb

All four Gospels record that Jesus was taken and buried by a man named Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin (a group that had voted to crucify Jesus) and that he was raised again on the third day. In addition to the Gospel accounts, the burial of Jesus is mentioned in a creed cited by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3–7, which had been circulating in the early Church: “For what I received I pass onto you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures…” This creed is dated to about three to five years after Jesus’ resurrection and is thus historically reliable material. The narrative of the creed is paralleled in Mark’s account of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and actually predates Mark itself, the earliest Gospel dated to [latest] around 70 AD.

Joseph of Arimathea himself is a curious figure, for one could question why the Gospel writers would have named him the burier of Jesus when he was a member of the Sanhedrin. However, this very fact marks the Gospels as reliable accounts that attempted to tell the truth, for it is highly unlikely that they would name a member of the Sanhedrin, hated by the early Christians for their role in the death of Jesus, as the one to bury him, especially when his disciples had just deserted him.  Furthermore, Joseph of Arimathea is a figure that could have been easily cross-checked by the masses, as he was given both a town of origin and an association with the historical Sanhedrin, which makes him more of a historical figure than not.

In addition, archaeological digs in Palestine have revealed three different rock tombs utilized in the first century. In the most expensive of these tombs, a round stone could be rolled down into a miniature groove in the ground, which would hold the disc-shaped stone in place and would require multiple men to push it back up. Despite the tomb’s security, however, the earliest Christians claimed that it was actually empty, and that Jesus had somehow been seen outside the confines of his burial place. If the grave had not actually been empty, it would have been impossible for a movement based on Jesus’ resurrection to take place. As William Lane Craig astutely notes, there are three general reasons why the empty tomb was so central to the spread of early Christianity: first, the disciples themselves could never have believed in the resurrection if the tomb was occupied; second, no one else would have believed them if the tomb was occupied; and third, Jesus’ opponents would have quickly and assuredly exposed the disciples’ claims as a hoax.

This final point is significant, for if opponents of early Christianity wanted to disprove the disciples’ claims, they could have simply produced the corpse from its grave or pointed out the occupied tomb; however, all we see are attempts to explain away the empty tomb, with questions aimed at answering what happened to the body rather than actually exhuming the corpse.

Another interesting aspect of the Gospel account is the unanimous presentation of women as the first witnesses of the empty tomb. In both Jewish and Roman cultures, women were lowly esteemed, and a result their testimonies were often held in question. Given this fact, it is highly improbable that the Gospel writers would intentionally fabricate a story, only to attribute its pivotal testimony first to that of women; it seems men of high standing in Christian history would be a much more convincing choice. In light of this, it is likely that the writers were attempting to convey the truth of the resurrection rather than fabricate its occurrence.

We see that a clearly deified, resurrected view of Jesus was solidified shortly after the crucifixion. A.N. Sherwin-White, in studying ancient Greek and Roman history, concluded that a span of at least two generations was not sufficient for legends to grow out of history, or to wipe out a solid core of historical facts. The Jesus presented in the New Testaments falls quite comfortably within that range. Thus, Oxford church historian William Wand concludes, “All the strictly historical evidence we have is in favor of [the empty tomb], and those scholars who reject it out to realize that they do so on some other ground than that of scientific history.”

The Eyewitness Evidence: Did Anyone See Jesus?

Missing bodies do not immediately lead one to the conclusion that a resurrection occurred; historically, missing bodies are often found weeks, months, or even years later, but a resurrection is hardly an explanation invoked by the rational public. If Jesus were indeed resurrected, eyewitness evidence would lend direct credence to this claim.

In legal cases, eyewitness testimonies present particularly strong evidence for or against a defendant. As it is, there is a large consensus amongst scholars of the New Testament that not only did the disciples see the resurrected Jesus, but also that they sincerely believed what they saw was real. The earliest affirmation of this comes from Paul, who wrote his epistles to the churches approximately two decades after the resurrection of Christ. Because Paul claimed that he knew at least some of the disciples, including Peter and James, and also because he was considered among the “apostles” by early church fathers, what he says about concerning the apostles and Jesus himself is very significant.

Most scholars agree that a strong oral tradition existed in first century Palestine, and it was especially strong in the Jewish communities, in which Rabbis would often memorize entire books of Scripture. Additionally, they identify several instances in which oral traditions were written down into the texts that comprise the New Testament, which includes the creeds, hymns, poetry, and narratives we find all over the writings of the Gospels and Paul. One of the earliest of these oral traditions is Paul’s creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, which includes, besides a testimony of the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, a list of eyewitnesses who personally saw Jesus alive after his death and burial. 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 reads, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.”

In fact, many scholars hold that Paul received this creed when he stayed with Peter and James three years after his initial conversion, which is extremely significant, given that most ancient written works document events centuries after their occurrence. It is important to keep in mind that not only was this creed extremely early, but Paul also wrote his letter to the Corinthian church with the intent that the letter be read publicly. In essence, Paul was verifying the testimony of the early Church, and also inviting outside witnesses to affirm this truth.  John Rodgers, Dean at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry, notes, “This is the sort of data that historians of antiquity drool over.”

In addition to Paul’s letters, the writers of the Gospels record a number of different people from all blocks of life encountering the resurrected Jesus. The appearances include, but are not limited to, Mary Magdalene (John 20:10-18), Cleopas and another disciple (Luke 24:13-32), to ten apostles while Thomas was absent (John 20:19-23), and to Thomas himself, while he was with the other apostles (John 20:26-30). To be sure, this is not an exhaustive list of Jesus’ resurrected appearances, but nonetheless this grounds the claims of Christianity in the testimony of eyewitnesses, a powerful statement to its reality. Places in the Biblical record show us that the disciples claimed multiple times to be witnesses of everything they preached. In the words of theologian Carl Braaten, “Even the more skeptical historians agree that for primitive Christianity…the resurrection of Jesus from the dead was a real event in history, the very foundation of faith, and not a mythical idea arising out of the creative imagination of the believers.”

Circumstantial Affirmations of the Resurrection

With an event so significant as the resurrection was to the Christian movement, there is bound to be more than just direct evidence for this claim; indirect evidence would provide support for the historicity of the resurrection, and Church history is littered with what will be referred to as “circumstantial” evidence. There are at least three good pieces of circumstantial data that lend support to the resurrection, which, taken collectively, serve to emphasize that nothing other than the resurrection of Jesus could account for these events.

First, the lives of the disciples themselves provided a living testimony to the resurrection. After Jesus’ death and resurrection, the disciples were transformed from cowards to evangelists willing to die for the sake of the Gospel. Such a conviction is a strong indicator that they were not simply claiming that Jesus had been raised from the dead; they sincerely believed it. At least seven different outside sources testify that the disciples willingly suffered and died for their beliefs, most of which came from within a generation or two of their deaths.

Although no one questions the sincerity of martyrs of other religions, we must keep in mind that the apostles died holding onto the claim that they had personally encountered the risen Jesus. They did not die for an idea or a set of religious doctrines, as is the case for many martyrs; they died because Jesus had appeared to them in the flesh when he was thought to be dead—they died because they believed He was God Himself. In fact, this evidence was so compelling that the atheist New Testament scholar Gerd Lüdemann writes, “It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus’ death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ.”

Secondly, hardened skeptics who did not believe in Jesus prior to the resurrection were changed radically after their encounter with him. This includes Paul, who was a Pharisee and a church persecutor, and James, the brother of Jesus. Saul of Tarsus, who was given the name Paul after his conversion, himself writes in his epistles that he was a persecutor of Christians who was utterly transformed by his encounter with the risen Christ. His belief was so strong that he, along with many of the apostles, was willing to suffer and even die for their faith. This is attested to by Luke, Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Tertullian, and Origen, early church Fathers that had either known or received firsthand testimony about the disciples. James, the brother of Jesus, was a pious Jew and was an unbeliever during Jesus’ ministry. However, Josephus tells us that James became a leader of the early Church, and was actually stoned to death because of his beliefs; this is also attested to in the writings of Clement of Alexandria, Hegesippus, and Eusebius. Such a turnaround is explained in Paul’s creed of 1 Corinthians 15, in which he relates that Jesus appeared to James after his resurrection.

Thirdly, and finally, the sudden and rapid emergence of the Christian Church requires a historical explanation, as it was a major cultural shift that challenged key social structures of the Jewish community. J.P. Moreland notes that Christianity spread so rapidly it reached the Caesar’s palace in Rome within twenty years, and eventually became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Christianity was not spread by conquest or by economic and commercial interests; it grew explosively, building up churches and fellowships within a few years of the resurrection, and all this despite the constant persecution by both the Jewish leaders and the Roman Empire. As C.F.D. Moule of Cambridge University puts it, this is a belief and a movement that nothing in terms of previous historical influences can account for. According to Dr. Moule, this belief must have originated in the belief that Jesus did indeed rise from the dead: “…the birth and rapid rise of the Christian Church…remains an unsolved enigma for any historian who refuses to take seriously the only explanation offered by the Church itself.”

Conclusion

Ancient history is not an exact science, but it nonetheless gives us much insight into the events of the past. Interestingly, the resurrection of Jesus Christ is a historical event that is more attested to than many other events of history we often take for granted. Alternative explanations for the disciples’ transformation and the growth of the early Church are inadequate, and often the excuse for sidestepping the verdict of history and disregarding the historicity of the resurrection is, “I can’t believe it.” To suggest something other than the resurrection is to ignore history, or as N.T. Wright puts it, “enter into a fantasy world of our own.”

The worldwide implications of this historic event cannot be understated. Many people care deeply about social justice, ending global hunger and poverty, and restoring the environment—issues that confuse, anger, and divide individuals across political and social lines. If the resurrection is a true historical event, however, it means that there is an infinite reason for us to pour ourselves out for these issues and more. There is a reason for justice and compassion that transcends humanity. For as N.T. Wright says:

The message of the resurrection is that this world matters! That the injustices and pains of this present world must now be addressed with the news that healing, justice, and love have won… If Jesus Christ is truly risen from the dead, Christianity becomes good new for the whole world—news which warms our hearts precisely because it isn’t just about warming hearts. Easter means that in a world where injustice, violence, and degradation are endemic, God is not prepared to tolerate such things…Take away Easter and Karl Marx was probably right to accuse Christianity of ignoring problems of the material world. Take it away and Freud was probably right to say Christianity is wish-fulfillment. Take it away and Nietzsche probably was right to say it was for wimps.

But the resurrection exists. And as individual believers of this resurrection we too live with the assurance that once we die, we will live eternally in the glory of our God and in the riches of his kingdom. Jesus himself promises us, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” He invites us all to share in this eternal life with a simple question: “Do you believe this?”

 

References

[1] 1 Corinthians 15:17
[2] Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Riverhead Books, Penguin Group, 2008), 210.
[3] Gary Habermas, The Verdict of History: Conclusive Evidence for the Life of Jesus (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1988), 54-58. a
[4] Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1998), 194-195.
[5] David Friedrich Strauss, A New Life of Jesus, authorized trans. 2 vols., 2nd ed. (London: Williams and Norgate, 1907), 1:412.
[6] Gary Habermas and Michael R. Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications, 2004), 48-49.
[7] Tacitus, Annals, 15.44 (C. A.D. 115)
[8] 1 Corinthians 15:3-7
[9] F.F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?, 6th ed. (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1981), 25-60.
[10] Strobel, Case for Christ, 209-210.
[11] Craig, Knowing the Truth About the Resurrection, 48-49.
[12] Ibid., 64-65.
[13] See Matthew 28:11-15. There are also references to this from the writings of Tertullian, an early church father, and Justin Martyr.
[14] This is attested to in both Josephus’ Antiquities (4.8.15) and in the Talmud in multiple places. In terms of the Roman view of women, Suetonius testified to the lowly perspectives on women in his history of Caesar Augustus in The Twelve Caesars.
[15] Habermas, The Case for the Resurrection, 38. This is based on the “principle of embarrassment,” which says that a mark of historical authenticity is when the writer of a document attributes his source to
something that would not be expected to have a created the story, largely because this weakens the writer’s credibility and position in arguments.
[16] J.P. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City: A Defense of Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1987), 156-157.
[17] William Wand, Christianity: A Historical Religion? (Valley Forge, PA: Judson, 1972): 93-94.
[18] Galatians 1:18-19, 2:2-20.
[19] Habermas, The Case for the Resurrection, 52.
[20] See table of dates and publications of ancient literary works in J.P. Moreland’s Scaling the Secular City, 135.
[21] Keller, The Reason for God, 204.
[22] Quoted in Gary Habermas, The Case for the Resurrection, 53.
[23] Acts 5:32, 10:39
[24] Carl Braaten, History and Hermeneutics, vol. 2 of New Directions in Theology Today, ed. William Hordern (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1966).
[25] The seven sources include Luke, Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Ignatius, Dionysius of Corinth, Tertullian, and Origen.
[26] Gerd Lüdemann, What Really Happened to Jesus? A Historical Approach to the Resurrection, trans. John Bowden (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1995), 80.
[27] Habermas, The Case for the Resurrection, 65.
[28] Paul’s letter to the Galatians relates men teaching legalistic doctrines with James; these men were teaching that Christians had to keep the Jewish law in addition to their faith in Jesus. Furthermore, Hegesippus writes that James was a pious Jew who strictly followed the Jewish law.
[29] We do not have any of the actual writings of Clement or Hegesippus surrounding this issue; our knowledge of this has been drawn from Eusebius, who referenced these two earlier writers in his work.
[30] C.F.D. Moule and Don Cupitt, “The Resurrection: A Disagreement,” Theology 75 (1972), 507-19.
[31] Quote taken from William Lane Craig, Knowing the Truth About the Resurrection, 120.
[32] N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Fortress, 2003), 707.
[33] Keller, The Reason for God, 220-221.
[34] N.T. Wright, For All God’s Worth: True Worship and the Calling of
the Church (Eerdmans, 1997), 65-66.
[35] John 11:25-26a.
[36] John 11:26b.
Sam Paek is a sophomore from Buena Park, California majoring in Public Health Studies and History of Science & Technology, learning how much the world needed Jesus back then and how much it needs him now.

 

 Jesus CrucifiedImage: Detail from Jesus Crucified by Justina Lee – The Brown & RISD Cornerstone, Spring 2015.

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