As I write this, we will celebrate tomorrow the 1,979th anniversary of the resurrection of Jesus Christ after his crucifixion. For atheists, agnostics, and skeptics, the resurrection account cannot possibly be true. They hold this opinion for varied reasons, but probably the two most common are:

  • An anti-supernatural presuppostion or bias against someone resurrecting from the dead. A purely naturalistic worldview does not allow for anti-natural or super-natural events to occur.

  • The belief that Christianity is founded upon other pre-existing pagan myth belief systems which also had a god-man who was crucified and subsequently resurrected.

For Muslims, the rejection of the resurrection originates in the Qur'an, which denies that Jesus was crucified (Sura 4:157-158). If there was no crucifixion, if Jesus never died as the Qur'an asserts, then there is no need for a resurrection. if however there was a resurrection of Jesus from the dead, then the Qur'an is in error.

Did Jesus really die, and if so did he rise from the dead? How strong is the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus? To answer this question, I will use the minimal facts approach of Gary Habermas and Mike Licona.

The minimal facts approach considers only those data that are so strongly attested historically that they are granted by nearly every scholar who studies the subject, even skeptical ones. These are the two criteria for proposing what are called minimalist facts:
  • They are well attested historically
  • They are accepted by the vast majority of scholars, including skeptics

Given this approach, what are the facts surrounging the resurrection of Jesus?

THE MINIMAL FACTS

  1. Jesus died by crucifixion.
  2. Jesus' disciples believe that he rose and appeared to them
  3. The church persecutor Saul was suddenly changed.
  4. James, the skeptic and brother of Jesus, was suddenly changed.
  5. The tomb was empty
JESUS DIED BY CRUCIFIXION

The crucifixion of Jesus is one of the best attested facts of history. I have already written about this in another post. But to recap:
  • Eyewitnesses: The centurion in charge of Jesus, the authorities who scourged him, his mother, other women who knew him, his disciples.
  • Hostile extra-biblical witnesses: Thallus, Tacitus, Lucian of Samosata
  • Other sources: "The Acts of Pilate", Flavius Josephus, The letter from Mara bar Serapion, The Jewish Talmud, and even skeptic and Jesus Seminar John Dominic Crossan
JESUS' DISCIPLES BELIEVED HE ROSE AND APPEARED TO THEM

This fact is agreed upon by all scholars, including skeptics. The conclusion comes from two main factors to consider:
  1. The disciples themselves claim that the risen Jesus had appeared to them.
  2. Subsequent to Jesus' death by crucifixion, his disciples were radically transformed from fearful, cowering individuals who denied and abandoned Jesus 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. It is very clear they sincerely believed that Jesus rose from the dead.
The Risen Jesus Appears to the Disciples
  • 1Cor. 15:3   For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. 6 After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. 7 After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. 8 Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time.
  • Luke 24:36   Now as they said these things, Jesus Himself stood in the midst of them, and said to them, “Peace to you.” 37 But they were terrified and frightened, and supposed they had seen a spirit. 38 And He said to them, “Why are you troubled? And why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39 Behold My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself. Handle Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have.” Luke 24:40   When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His feet. 41 But while they still did not believe for joy, and marveled, He said to them, “Have you any food here?” 42 So they gave Him a piece of a broiled fish and some honeycomb. 43 And He took it and ate in their presence.
  • John 20:19   Then, the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in the midst, and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 20 When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.

Now a skeptic might claim, "This is from the Bible, and I don't believe the Bible," as though you are using the Bible to prove the Bible. But realize that we are not using the Bible here as a source of theology, but simply as an historical text. The Bible is as much an historical text as other works of history; in fact, some universities use the Bible as a history textbook because it's history has been proved accurate. Further, the New Testament is, if nothing else, a collection of 27 letters or separate texts composed by a number of different authors.

Someone might say to you, “but the disciples would have been writing with a specific purpose in mind (meaning evangelism), so we cannot trust them to be giving the truth. They might be reporting what they believe, but how do we know that what they said was the truth?” Historians understand that ancient writers usually wrote with a specific purpose in mind, and that most writings contain factual errors and propaganda. However, they can still use parts of those documents to find historical truths. If they eliminated ancient sources due to bias and error, they would have basically no knowledge of any part of the ancient past. This is the same process that is used in the minimal facts approach, which is why the Bible is included as a source along with non-Biblical documents.

Now, I recognize that just because the disciples think they saw Jesus doesn’t automatically mean that they really did. There are three possible alternatives:

  • They were lying
  • They hallucinated
  • They really saw the risen Christ

Which of these is most likely? Were they lying?

On this view, the disciples knew that Jesus had not really risen, but they made up this story about the resurrection. But then why did 10 of the disciples willingly die as martyrs for their belief in the resurrection? People will often die for a lie that they believe is the truth, like an Islamic martyr. But if Jesus did not rise, the disciples knew it. Thus, they wouldn’t have just been dying for a lie that they mistakenly believed was true. They would have been dying for a lie that they knew was a lie. Ten people would not all give their lives for something they know to be a lie.

Because of the absurdity of the theory that the disciples were lying, we can see why almost all scholars today admit that, if nothing else, the disciples at least believed that Jesus appeared to them. But we know that just believing something to be true doesn’t necessarily make it true. Perhaps the disciples were wrong and had been deceived by a hallucination?

The hallucination theory is untenable because it cannot explain the physical nature of the appearances. The disciples record eating and drinking with Jesus, as well as touching him. This cannot be done with hallucinations. Second, it is highly unlikely that they would all have had the same hallucination. Hallucinations are highly individual, and not group projections. Imagine if I came to you and said, “Wasn’t that a great dream I had last night?” You would think me to be crazy. Hallucinations, like dreams, generally don’t transfer like that. Further, the hallucination theory cannot explain the conversion of Paul, three years later. Was Paul, the persecutor of Christians, so hoping to see the resurrected Jesus that his mind invented an appearance as well? And perhaps most significantly, the hallucination theory cannot even deal with the evidence for the empty tomb.

Since the disciples could not have been lying or hallucinating, we have only one possible explanation left: the disciples believed that they had seen the risen Jesus because theyreally had seen the risen Jesus.

Saul was dramatically and suddenly changed

Paul was an unlikely convert to Christianity. He had been a known persecutor of Christianity and yet his conversion was based on what he perceived to be an experience of the risen Jesus. His conversion was based on primary evidence, not secondary evidence, such as believing what others told him about Jesus. This testimony carries no little weight. Paul’s writings in 1 Corinthians 15 are considered some of the earliest writings from the New Testament and are therefore closest to the events themselves. Due to the early nature of these writings, scholars grant much of what Paul reports to be historically reliable. What can be shown from this material is 1) an ardent enemy of Christianity converted to Christianity based on an experience he believed to be the risen Jesus 2) the convert’s name was Paul and he recorded these experiences himself (a primary source) and 3) He testified to the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus.
His belief that he had witnessed the risen Christ was so strong that he, like the original disciples, was willing to suffer continuously for the sake of the gospel, even to the point of martyrdom.

James, brother of Jesus and skeptic, was suddenly changed

Paul also wrote about another foe Jesus appeared to, which was James, Jesus’ brother.

  • Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. 1 Corinthians 15:7-8

The information regarding James’ status as an “enemy” of Christ comes from the reports in the Gospels (Mark and John). However, this material would not be seen as favorable to the cause of Christ by including it in these books. In fact, Jesus’ own brother’s disbelief in him is rather embarrassing testimony to the faith. Later on, however, James was identified as the leader of the church in Jerusalem after the alleged resurrection of Jesus. He eventually was martyred for his commitment to the Christianity as reported by Josephus, Hegesippus, and Clement of Alexandria. Paul gives an account of the appearance of Jesus to James as part of an early creedal statement in making a defense of the resurrection.

The Tomb was empty, and remains empty today

The empty tomb is granted by 75% of the scholars writing on the resurrection. Though this is not the 95% or better of the other three facts, it is still a rather high consensus of scholarship. The reason behind the percent of agreement concerning this controversial fact can be broken down into three areas:

  1. The Jerusalem Factor
  2. Enemy attestation
  3. The testimony of women.

1. The Jerusalem Factor

First, the resurrection was preached in the same city where Jesus had been buried shortly before. Jesus’ disciples did not go to some obscure place where no one had heard of Jesus to begin preaching about the resurrection, but instead began preaching in Jerusalem, the very city where Jesus had died and been buried. They could not have done this if Jesus was still in his tomb–no one would have believed them. No one would be foolish enough to believe a man had raised from the dead when his body lay dead in the tomb for all to see. As Paul Althaus writes, the resurrection proclamation “could not have been maintained in Jerusalem for a single day, for a single hour, if the emptiness of the tomb had not been established as a fact for all concerned.”

Second, the earliest Jewish arguments against Christianity admit the empty tomb. In Matthew 28:11-15, there is a reference made to the Jew’s attempt to refute Christianity be saying that the disciples stole the body. This is significant because it shows that the Jews did not deny the empty tomb. Instead, their “stolen body” theory admitted the significant truth that the tomb was in fact empty. The Toledoth Jesu, a compilation of early Jewish writings, is another source acknowledging this. It acknowledges that the tomb was empty, and attempts to explain it away. Further, we have a record of a second century debate between a Christian and a Jew, in which a reference is made to the fact that the Jews claim the body was stolen. So it is pretty well established that the early Jews admitted the empty tomb. 

2. Enemy Attestation

If testimony about an event or person is given by a source who does not sympathize with the person, message or cause that benefits from the affirmation, then there is reason to believe the testimony’s authenticity. For example, if my mother were to say I am an honest person, you may think she is biased because she is my mother. But if an enemy of mine were also to say I am an honest person, his testimony would be more credible, because as my enemy his tendency would tend toward bias against me.

The empty tomb can be found either implicitly or explicitly stated in the works of Josephus, Justin Martyr’s “Dialogue with Trypho,” Tertullian’s “On Spectacles,” and in the Jewish Toledoth (a derogatory version of Jesus’ life in Jewish tradition). Even to imply that Jesus was raised or that his tomb was empty is certainly damaging to the case against the resurrection if reasoning from the offensive. 

3. Testimony of Women

If I had an intention of creating a story to make myself (or my story) look good, I would most likely not include information that would be damaging or embarrassing to the credibility of my story. By that standard, it would be an odd invention to have the women as the first witnesses of the empty tomb. In the accounts of the empty tomb, the women are exactly that, the first witnesses, in all four gospel accounts. This report would most likely be damaging to the case for the empty tomb when taken in context of the first century socio-cultural norms. The testimony of a woman was not regarded as highly as the testimony of a man. Habermas and Licona quote a few Jewish writings on this matter:

  • Sooner let the words of the Law be burnt than delivered to women. (Talmud, Sotah 19a)
  • But let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex…..; since it is probable that they may not speak truth, either out of hope of gain, or fear of punishment. (Joshephus, Antiquities 4.8.15)
  • Any evidence which a woman [gives] is not valid (to offer), also they are not valid to offer. This is equivalent to saying that one who is Rabbinically accounted a robber is qualified to give the same evidence as a woman. (Talmud, Rosh Hashannah 1.8)[xiv]

Why would the gospel writers include women as the number one witnesses to the empty tomb when it would behoove their cause to use men instead? The reason would be because they were reporting the truth; embarrassing as that may be.

Alternative theories?

I’m sure you’ve heard of the various theories used to explain away the empty tomb, such as that the body was stolen. But those theories are laughed at today by all serious scholars. In fact, they have been considered dead and refuted for almost a hundred years. For example, the Jews or Romans had no motive to steal the body–they wanted to suppress Christianity, not encourage it by providing it with an empty tomb. The disciples would have had no motive, either. Because of their preaching on the resurrection, they were beaten, killed, and persecuted. Why would they go through all of this for a deliberate lie? No serious scholars hold to any of these theories today. What explanation, then, do the critics offer, you may ask? Craig tells us that “they are self-confessedly without any explanation to offer. There is simply no plausible natural explanation today to account for Jesus’ tomb being empty. If we deny the resurrection of Jesus, we are left with an inexplicable mystery.” The resurrection of Jesus is not just the best explanation for the empty tomb, it is the only explanation in town!

References:

Gary Habermas and Michael Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, Kregel Publications, 2004

Michael Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, IVP Academic Publishers, 2010.

Special thanks to MaryJo Sharp of Confident Christianity for much of her synthesis of the Habermas/Licona work, from which a good portion of the above was taken.

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