“The evidence for the resurrection is better than for claimed miracles in any other religion. It’s outstandingly different in quality and quantity.”
Today I want to explore the most important idea behind being a Christian. If true, it changes everything we believe about the type of world we live in. And if false, roughly one third of the world’s population should be ‘the most pitied of all men’ (1 Cor 15:12-20).
Tim Keller put it this way – “If Jesus rose from the dead, then you have to accept all that he said; if he didn’t rise from the dead, then why worry about any of what he said? The issue on which everything hangs is not whether or not you like his teaching but whether or not he rose from the dead.”
Tim Challies explores this idea more here.
So – did Jesus rise from the dead?
How might we explore such a question?
Did it happen too long ago? Are our sources reliable? How much evidence would we need to say that Jesus’ resurrection is more probable than not?
Very briefly, we need to clarify the idea of proof vs evidence. Proof is certainty, however it is only found in the realm of pure mathematics. We can prove very, very little about the world around us. So trying to ‘prove’ the resurrection is not going to be possible as it’s the wrong measuring stick to use. Also, a historical investigation doesn’t involve mathematics.
So what does a historical investigation involve? How do we find out if something actually happened in history, when it happened so long ago?
Historians have a number of principles that they use to determine if an event is historical or not. Some of these principles are more art than science, but it’s important to quickly run through them. These principles are what we use to analyse the evidence.
Firstly, multiple sources are important. It’s easy to make something up but getting a few people to collude is more difficult. Early sources are also important – the closer the source to the event, the less time for faulty memory and legendary development. Enemy sources are also important – if you and your enemy are agreeing on the same thing it’s pretty likely you’re both telling the truth. Embarrassment is also a key principle – why make up something embarrassing about yourself?
So using these principles, historians have come to a somewhat agreed upon set of ‘minimal facts’. These minimal facts are established by scholarly evidence and usually by several independent lines of arguments, and the vast majority of scholars in these fields acknowledge the historicity of these facts. Furthermore, we’re not assuming the Bible is the word of God for the purposes of this argument. We’re just treating the New Testament as it is: a collection of historical documents.
The Minimal Facts
1) Jesus’ death by crucifixion.
Jesus’ death by crucifixion is probably one of the most certain facts we have in ancient history. There are very very few, if any, historians with doctorates that believe Jesus didn’t die by crucifixion.
- Recorded outside the Bible by the Jewish historian Josephus, the Greek satirist Lucian of Samosata, Mara Bar Serapion, and the Roman historian Tacitus. These sources were enemies of Christianity, which means they are historically more likely to be telling the truth.
- Recorded by the four gospel authors, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
- Referenced by the early Pauline creed (1 Corinthians 15:3-8) which many scholars date to within 3 years of the resurrection itself.
- Fits the criteria of embarrassment – crucifixion was a horrible, agonising, humiliating way to die, which is important particularly in an honour shame society. So why would the early Christians make up a fact that embarrasses them? (more on this here.)
2) The disciples believed that they had experiences of Jesus after his death.
Many scholars will also accept that Jesus’ disciples suddenly became bold martyrs for their faith not long after Jesus’ death, and the evidence suggests this is because the disciples had some kind of post-death experiences of Jesus. This is talked about by Paul and recorded in early church oral and written tradition. So what could cause the disciples to go from disciples that had lost hope, fleeing Jerusalem, to suddenly become bold and fearless, preaching the resurrection and willing to die for their faith?
– The disciples made the claim that Jesus rose from the dead.
- Recorded by Paul and the disciples’ testimony (1 Cor 15:3-8)
- Talked about in oral and written works of the early church – Clement and Polycarp refer to the disciples claim.
– The disciples had a radical transformation from dejected disciples to bold martyrs
- Paul’s dramatic transformation from persecutor and murderer of Christians to apostle for Christianity
- References from Clement, Polycarp, and Ignatius. Tertullian, Origen, and Eusebius for the martyrdoms of Peter and Paul.
3) James was a skeptic but suddenly became a martyr, willing to die for his faith.
James was one of Jesus’ brothers, and all through the gospels he is referenced as a skeptic – after all, who could believe their brother was God? But all of a sudden after Jesus’ crucifixion we have James becoming a bold martyr and being a key part of the Jerusalem church, eventually becoming a martyr for what he believed. What could cause James to do this?
The evidence for James’ unbelief:
- Mark 3:21, 31,
- Mark 6:3-4
- John 7:5
The evidence for James’ conversion:
- Historical writings from Josephus, Hegesippus, and Clement (Habermas and Licona 2004, 59).
- Galatians 1:19, Acts 15:12-21
4) Paul was against Christianity but had a radical conversion.
Paul’s conversion is also incredibly well evidenced, and unique as we actually have an auto-biographical account of what happened. Paul goes from persecuting Christians to all of a sudden preaching the Gospel and risking his life to spread the message of Jesus’ resurrection. What could have caused such a radical conversion?
- Paul’s conversion recorded by himself in 1 Corinthians 15:9-11, Galatians 1:13-16, Philippians 3:6-7
- Conversion experienced recorded in Acts 9, 22, and 26.
- Suffering and martyrdom talked about in 2 Corinthians 11:23-28, Philippians 1:21-23, Acts 14:19, 16:19-24
- Recorded by the early church fathers: Clement of Rome (1 Clem. 5:2-7), Polycarp (Pol. Letter to the Philippians 9:2), Tertullian (Scorpiace 15), etc.
5) The empty tomb (roughly 75% of scholars agree)
There are three main reasons a significant number of scholars (roughly 75%) believe the tomb was empty a few days after Jesus’ death by crucifixion. The empty tomb is incredibly important – if you can establish Jesus’ died by crucifixion, his tomb was empty, and disciples believed they saw him after his death, a resurrection is starting to look pretty likely. A resurrection looks even more likely when you also add in the radical transformation that happened to both James and Paul. So do historians agree the tomb was probably empty? And if so, why? There are three key reasons: the Jerusalem factor, enemy attestation, and the testimony of women.
- The Jerusalem factor: The early Christians taught Jesus’ resurrection in Jerusalem. The Gospels, Acts, and Paul’s letter to the Galatians all agree on this. How could Christianity have survived preaching in Jerusalem if Jesus tomb wasn’t empty? All the authorities had to do to stop the early Christian movement was show off Jesus’ dead body.
- Enemy attestation: The earliest writings from enemy sources imply an empty tomb. Matthew 28:12-13 says “And when they had assembled with the elders and consulted together, they gave a large sum of money to the soldiers, and said, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole Him away while we were asleep.’” Also referenced by Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 108; Tertullian, De Spectaculis 30).
- Testimony of women: Early Jewish culture had no respect for women. Their word was not valid in court. So why would the early Christian community make up a story about women finding the tomb? If Christians wanted to make converts, the fact that women found Jesus’ tomb empty was an embarrassing fact.
It might be fair to ask at this point – so what? Does it matter if lots of scholars agree on these facts? And don’t all these scholars come from bible institutes anyway so they’re biased?
If the evidence supporting the resurrection was only that a lot of scholars believe in the facts, it wouldn’t be a good argument. Appealing to consensus is not how we determine truth (take that, Wikipedia). However, if the majority of scholars learned in their discipline agree, AND there seems solid evidence to support the facts, we should take their arguments very seriously.
So how do people explain these facts? Not all historians are Christians, so how do they make sense of these facts? What is the best explanation?
We’ll look at some competing explanations of these facts and look at what seems to be the best explanation in Part 2!