The central event of the Christian faith is the resurrection of Jesus. If Jesus stayed dead then his own predictions proved false – he was nothing more than a good man with some interesting teaching. But if Jesus rose from the dead then he is someone really special – someone worth believing. What’s more if Jesus rose from the dead then perhaps death isn’t the end – perhaps there is a way for others to overcome death too.
Jesus Resurrection 1778 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Now resurrection isn’t usual. This sort of things doesn’t just happen. Dead people do not come back to life again. So I know full well asking you to believe that Jesus rose from the dead is asking a lot – its asking you to believe in miracles. That’s a problem for some people – we’ll come back to that in Part Two. For now just consider two things: (1) if God created life then surely he is able recreate life, even after it has died, and (2) there is good reason why God might want to be resurrect Jesus, so as to prove that Jesus is God’s representative and to prove that there is life after death. So perhaps you’ll allow that this kind of miracle is a possibility. Now let’s look at the historical evidence. We can summarise the case in four points:
Firstly, Jesus died on the cross. This is not particularly controversial. It was accepted by non-Christians like Josephus, Tacitus, Lucian and the writers of the Talmud. It is, of course, also the unanimous testimony of Christian sources, like the gospels and the letters. Modern medical appraisals of crucifixion have concluded that Jesus could not have survived what he suffered and, in any case, the Romans had ways of ensuring their victims died.
14th century Byzantine Icon of the Descent from the Cross from the Church of Saint Marina in Kalopanagiotis, Cyprus. St. Joseph of Arimathea is the figure standing in the center, in blue-green robes holding the Body of Christ.Secondly, Jesus was buried in a tomb. This is also not particularly controversial. The earliest Christian preachers described Jesus being laid in a tomb (Acts 13:28-29). The gospels record how Joseph of Arimathea took the body of Jesus and laid it in his tomb (Mark 15:46; Matt 27:59-60; Luke 23:53; John 19:41-42). The early reverence of a tomb in Jerusalem (whether or not this is actually the tomb of Jesus) is another witness of the type of burial given to Jesus. And no ancient critic of Christianity – whether Jewish or pagan – ever suggested that Jesus was buried somewhere else.
Thirdly, three days later the tomb of Jesus was empty. This is important because for both Jews and pagans “resurrection” (anastasis) meant bodily resurrection – if Jesus was alive again, his tomb must be empty. Again this is a feature of the earliest Christian preaching (cf. Acts 2:29-32) and the gospel records (Mark 16:1-8; Matt 28:1-10; Luke 24:1-12; John 20:1-10). But it is also a feature of the early Jewish accounts of Jesus – from the first century onwards they claimed that the disciple stole the body (Matt 28:11-15; Justin, Dialogue 108; Tertullian, De Spectaculis 30; Toledoth Yeshu 9-10). This story presupposes that they thought the tomb was empty (they would hardly tell such a story if Jesus was still in the tomb). The fact that Caesar issued a decree against moving bodies from sealed tombs and had it inscribed on a stone in Nazareth probably indicates that he too had heard the story that the tomb of Jesus was empty (this decree is known as The Nazareth Inscription).
Fourthly, the early Christians claimed to have seen the risen Jesus. When writing a letter to the church at Corinth in the mid-50s, Paul lists those who saw Jesus after his resurrection, including the twelve disciples and Jesus’ brother James. He even says there are over five hundred other witnesses, many of whom were still alive when he wrote (1 Cor 15:5-8). These claims are also a feature of the earliest Christian preaching (Acts 2:32, 3:15, 10:39-40), the gospels (John 20:11-18; Luke 24:34; Matt 28:15-17, etc.), other New Testament texts (e.g. 1 Pet 1:3; Rom 1:4; Phil 3:10; Heb 13:20; Rev 1:18) and other first century Christian texts (Didache 10:2; 1 Clement 24:1; Barnabas 5:7).
Angelico, Fra Resurrection of Christ and Women at the Tomb Fresco, 189 x 164 cm Convento di San Marco, Florence (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
This evidence is early, based upon eyewitness testimony and has a consistent core – that Jesus died, was buried and rose again. The resurrection of Jesus is, by far, the simplest explanation of the historical evidence.
What about the alternatives? Well, a number of alternative theories have been suggested to explain the evidence but none has managed to convince the majority of scholars. Those scholars who deny the resurrection generally tend to not give a verdict on the evidence. But, for completeness, let us consider briefly just one oft-repeated alternative. It goes something like this: the disciples stole the body and then pretended Jesus was alive again to promote their new religion. After all, the first century Jews claimed that the disciples stole the body.
However, this alternative theory just does not work for a number of reasons. Firstly, if this was a conspiracy then it was a huge conspiracy (over 500 witnesses). Secondly, the disciples had no motivation for the deception – when other Jewish cult leaders and “messiahs” had met gruesome ends their followers had just disbanded. The early disciples gained neither money, status or fame from their preaching. Thirdly, the disciples had everything to lose from such a deception. They were persecuted, imprisoned and executed by both Jewish and Roman authorities. Early witnesses, like Peter and Paul, met their deaths refusing to renounce their faith. Would you die for a lie?
The simple fact is that the historical evidence is clear and consistent. And if the event in question wasn’t so controversial then I don’t think anybody would doubt it. Unfortunately it is controversial. Because if the resurrection is false then Christianity is false. And if the resurrection is true then Christianity (or at least its core claims) are also true. So a lot hangs on this question. And at the end of the day you’re going to have to make up your own mind for yourself. But if you think that resurrection is possible and if, like me, you think the historical evidence is strong, then you have good reason for thinking that Jesus rose from the dead.
Note: Lucian of Samosata
Why think that (1) … Jesus existed?
Why think that (2) … Jesus claimed to be something special
- Seeing or not seeing and willingness to find God
- Glory of God appearing in our character
- On the Nature of Christ
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- Let me keep to “first importance” things
- Nazarene Commentary Matthew 3:7-12 – Opposition and Two Baptisms
- Nazarene Commentary Matthew 3:13-17 – Jesus Declared God’s Son at His Baptism
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- What criteria do historians use to get to the minimal facts about the historical Jesus? (winteryknight.wordpress.com)
Have you ever heard Gary Habermas, Michael Licona or William Lane Craig defend the resurrection of Jesus as the best explanation for the “minimal facts” about Jesus? The lists of minimal facts that they use are typically agreed to by their opponents during the debates.
There are actually a few more reasons for believing in the empty tomb that he doesn’t go into in the debate, but you can find them in his written work. For example, in his essay on Gerd Ludemann’s “vision” hypothesis. That essay covers the reasons for all four of his minimal facts.
- Rationality of The Resurrection of Jesus (withalliamgod.wordpress.com)
Moving from historical data to the best explanation of that data Crossan and Ehrman robustly rejects resurrections hypothesis. Their rejection is not based on historical data, but on what best explain these data. It is not a historical based rejection but a philosophical one, the impossibility of miracles.
- The Resurrection is Believable (burrissblog.wordpress.com)
Opponents of Christianity and skeptical minds have always questioned the resurrection, just as they question many other teachings of Christianity. Such skeptics are more common in contemporary America, but they have always been around. What is surprising is that more and more Christians are stating their skepticism about the resurrection.
- William Lane Craig’s case for the resurrection of Jesus (winteryknight.wordpress.com)
Certain appearances have earmarks of historicity. For example, we have good evidence from the gospels that neither James nor any of Jesus’ younger brothers believed in him during his lifetime. There is no reason to think that the early church would generate fictitious stories concerning the unbelief of Jesus’ family had they been faithful followers all along. But it is indisputable that James and his brothers did become active Christian believers following Jesus’ death. James was considered an apostle and eventually rose to the position of leadership of the Jerusalem church. According to the first century Jewish historian Josephus, James was martyred for his faith in Christ in the late AD 60s. Now most of us have brothers. What would it take to convince you that your brother is the Lord, such that you would be ready to die for that belief? Can there be any doubt that this remarkable transformation in Jesus’ younger brother took place because, in Paul’s words, “then he appeared to James”?
Even Gert Ludemann, the leading German critic of the resurrection, himself admits, “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.”
Gerd Ludemann is actually an atheist new Testament historian, and he has even debated Dr. Craig on the resurrection – not once, but twice. That’s the kind of evidence Dr. Craig uses in his case. Not just what your pastor will give you, but what atheists will give you. We need to learn to debate like that.
- ‘Jesus Discovery:’ Jerusalem Archeology Reveals Birth Of Christianity (fourbluehills.com)
- What are the arguments for the histority of the empty tomb? (winteryknight.wordpress.com)
The concept of resurrection in use among the first converts to Christianity was a Jewish concept of resurrection. And that concept of resurrection is unequivocally in favor of a bodily resurrection. The body (soma) that went into the grave is the body (soma) that came out.
It’s significant that the belief in the resurrection started off in the city where the tomb was located. Anyone, such as the Romans or Jewish high priests, who wanted to nip the movement in the bud could easily have produced the body to end it all. They did not do so, because they could not do so, although they had every reason to do so.
The phrase “on the third day” probably points to the discovery of the empty tomb. Very briefly summarized, the point is that since no one actually witnessed the resurrection of Jesus, how did Christians come to date it “on the third day?” The most probable answer is that they did so because this was the day of the discovery of the empty tomb by Jesus’ women followers. Hence, the resurrection itself came to be dated on that day. Thus, in the old Christian formula quoted by Paul we have extremely early evidence for the existence of Jesus’ empty tomb.
Note how careful Craig is not to imply that the guard tradition is historical, because we can’t prove the guard as a “minimal fact”, since it doesn’t pass the standard historical criteria.
- William Lane Craig debates James Crossley on the resurrection of Jesus (winteryknight.wordpress.com)
The burial story supports the empty tomb
- the site of Jesus’ grave was known
- the disciples could not proclaim a resurrection if the body were still in it
- the antagonists to the early Christians could have produced the body
Paul was hostile to the early church when he got his appearance
there is multiple independent attestation, then it cannot be a creative fiction invented in Mark alone
regarding the women, even though Jesus respected the women, their testimony would not be convincing to others, so why invent a story where they are the witnesses
the male disciples did not flee the scene, for example, Peter was there to deny Jesus three times
- the angel is not authoritative, because the angel cannot be questioned, but the women can be questioned
there was no response on the lack of embellishment
there was no response to the earliest Jewish response implying that the tomb was empty
- The Significance of the Resurrection (spyghana.com)
The religious leaders would certainly have had enough reason for doing so. They had heard that Jesus had talked of resurrection, and were afraid of hanky-panky. So the argument runs, in order to forestall trickery, they took the precaution of confiscating the corpse. But when this is put into scrutiny, this conjecture also falls into pieces.Having placed the guards at the tomb, what would be their reason for moving the body of Jesus? If the authorities moved the body of Jesus, why didn’t they bring it when the apostles were boldly preaching about the resurrection in Jerusalem? The religious leaders did everything in their power to suppress the preaching on the resurrection. They even arrested Peter and John (Acts 4) and beat them, and threatened them in an effort to silence them.A few weeks of Jesus’ death, the disciples were boldly proclaiming the resurrection. The news spread rapidly. The new Christian movement threatened to undermine the stronghold of Judaism and disturb the peace of Jerusalem. The Jews feared conversion and the Romans detested riots. The authorities had before them one course of action. The Religious leaders could have produced the remains of the corpse of Jesus and published a statement of what they had done. They could have paraded the body of Jesus through the streets of Jerusalem, if indeed, they had it, and that would have smothered Christianity in its cradle.
- Guest Post – Jesus’ resurrection and the empty tomb (bennasmith.wordpress.com)
Why would Matthew fabricate a Jewish cover-story and falsely suggest that it “has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day” (Matt 28:15 NIV)? He wouldn’t. Clearly his Jewish audience would have already heard the cover-story. This is probably why Matthew seeks to rebut it.
It is wholly implausible that Jesus’ disciples stole his body. They were broken and confused. Their Messiah was dead and they had nothing to gain from stealing his body and then claiming he rose from the dead. Indeed, they suffered greatly for this claim.No amount of cognitive dissonance could possibly motivate every disciple to claim their Messiah was alive when they knew he wasn’t. We might at most expect them to find a new Messiah, but they didn’t.The second suspects are grave robbers hoping to make a profit. However, the Gospels of Luke and John record that Jesus’ grave clothes remaining in the tomb. Why would any grave robbers leave the clothes behind? Moving a body by itself would be incredibly messy. Those looking for burial spices would almost certainly simply have carried off the wrapped body and removed the spices in a safe place. Even the clothes themselves could have been sold later on.Perhaps instead the robbers wanted body parts for magic practices. This is unlikely since there is no evidence that stealing bodies for magical purposes was much of a problem in first-century Palestine.
- John, when he reached the tomb, saw and believed (fggam.org)
John in his first epistle testifies: What we have seen, heard, and touched we proclaim as the word of life which existed “from the beginning” (1 John 1:1-4). John bears witness to what has existed from all eternity. This “Word of Life” is Jesus the Word incarnate, but also Jesus as the Word announced by the prophets and Jesus the Word now preached throughout the Christian church for all ages to come. One thing is certain, if Jesus had not risen from the dead and appeared to his disciples, we would never have heard of him. Nothing else could have changed sad and despairing men and women into people radiant with joy and courage. The reality of the resurrection is the central fact of the Christian faith. Through the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Lord gives us “eyes of faith” to know him and the power of his resurrection. The greatest joy we can have is to encounter the living Christ and to know him personally as our Savior and Lord.the witnesses were in Jerusalem, so they were in a position to knowif the story is made up, who cares what the male disciples did, just invent them on the scene anyway