The Historicity of Jesus' Resurrection
The Resurrection of Jesus Christ is a credible historical event supported by various types of evidence. Jesus surely died upon the cross, as evidenced by Cicero's testimony to crucifixion's brutality and the confirmation of Jesus' death by Roman soldiers to Pontius Pilate. We can also be certain of Jesus' death because of the piercing of his side, medical opinion on the "blood and water" that rushed out after the piercing, modern medical knowledge, and the corroboration by ancient non-Christian texts. The biblical account of Jesus being buried by Joseph of Arimathea is also authentic. This is because the burial was done in accordance with Jewish law and is referred to in the very early Christian creed recorded in 1 Corinthians 15. Also, the type of tomb reportedly used was in use in Jesus' day, and no alternate burial story exists. Jesus' tomb was discovered empty Sunday morning because it is inferred to in the 1 Corinthians 15 creed, was first discovered by women, and was not venerated like that of other Jewish holy men. Additionally, the earliest Jewish polemic presupposes the tomb was empty, the apostles' preaching focused on the Resurrection and not the empty tomb, and preaching the Resurrection in the very city where it occurred would have been impossible had the tomb been occupied. Jesus was seen alive after his crucifixion, as evidenced by the non-legendary nature of the appearance reports in 1 Corinthians 15, that most who saw Jesus after death were alive at the time of 1 Corinthians' writing, and because the appearance reports were written down within one generation of their occurrence. Furthermore, skeptics admit that the disciples thought they saw Jesus, the appearances transformed men, and an ancient Jewish historian attests that Jesus' followers thought they saw him after death. The disciples could not have stolen Jesus' body from the grave because the tomb was sealed with a large stone and guarded by Roman soldiers. The soldiers could not have all fallen asleep on duty, the disciples were obviously sincere about their faith, and skeptics no longer claim this explanation for the empty tomb. Jesus' posthumous appearances could not have been hallucinations, because the disciples did not have mental illness, Jesus was not always recognized at first, and a hallucination would not have been of an individual Resurrection. In addition, other people ate and talked with Jesus, and hallucinations by definition are subjective and individual. First we must establish the historicity (historical fact) of his death. Jesus really died upon the cross. Roman orator Cicero attested to crucifixion's brutality when he stated, "Even the mere word, cross, must remain far not only from the lips of the citizens of Rome, but also from their thoughts, their eyes, their ears" (McDowell, 222). How can we expect someone to survive a method of execution so horrific that it should not be discussed? Still, there is plentiful evidence of Jesus' death. Pontius Pilate, Roman governor of Judea, asked for and received confirmation from a Roman centurion that Jesus was dead (Mark 15:44-45). Roman executioners were very good at their work, and to allow a condemned man to get off the cross - alive - would lead to their own deaths. Thus the testimony of the centurion helps verify Jesus' death. When the Roman soldiers came to Jesus' body, one of them pierced his side with a spear, and "blood and water" rushed out (John 19:33-34). This spearing, a common Roman practice, ensured death (Habermas, 69). According to University of Dublin physiologist Samuel Houghton, heart rupture combined with crucifixion was the cause of Jesus' death, as shown by the blood flow following the piercing (McDowell, 224-25).
Many doctors and physiologists say that to claim Jesus was alive is unscientific. In a 1986 Journal of the American Medical Association article, Dr. William Edwards writes "Accordingly, interpretations based upon the assumption that Jesus did not die on the cross appear to be at odds with modern medical knowledge" (McDowell, 224). We trust doctors in medical matters that are much less clear-cut than in Jesus' death, why not now? In the acclaimed book Jesus Under Fire, Prof. Edwin Yamauchi writes that ancient Jewish and Roman texts record that Jesus was indeed dead (Moreland/Wilkins, 212-13, 216). In the ancient world, to suggest that Christ was still alive was strange, at best. After Jesus died upon the cross, he was buried.
The Gospel account of Jesus' burial by Joseph of Arimathea, a secret follower and member of the ruling Jewish Sanhedrin, is historically accurate. The haste of the burial makes sense when viewed in the light of Jewish law. When a man was put to death by hanging (which later also applied to crucifixion), Torah law prohibited the Jews to leave his body hanging overnight, and required them to bury him the same day (Deut. 21:22-23, Gal. 3:13). On the day of Jesus' death, Passover would begin at sunset. If a Jew touched a dead body during the Passover, they would be ceremonially unclean and unable to participate in Passover festivities until a month afterwards (Numbers 9:4-11). The desire to not be excluded from Passover festivities explains the haste in which Jesus was buried. A very early Christian creed, recorded in St. Paul's letter of First Corinthians, agrees that Jesus was buried:
"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." (1 Corinthians 15:3-5)
Gary Habermas, D.D. writes that Paul received this creed within 3 to 8 years of the Crucifixion, which in and by itself is amazingly early by ancient standards. He received this from the disciples, who were eyewitnesses to the events of the first Easter. The creed was formed before that. Because of this very, very early date, there is no way that it could be legendary (43). Professor William Lane Craig writes "the story comports with archeological evidence concerning the types and location of tombs extant (in existence) in Jesus' day." (Contemporary). Though this detail is small, it helps support the general trustworthiness of the biblical burial story. Also, there is no rival burial story. Unlike other aspects of Jesus' life, his burial was not contested at all by nonbelievers, which attests to its historicity. When several women followers of Jesus went to his tomb Sunday morning to anoint him, they found it empty.
Jesus' tomb was indeed empty Sunday morning. The empty tomb is inferred by the creed in 1 Corinthians, when it states that Jesus "was buried" and "was raised on the third day" (1 Corinthians 15:4). In the mindset of first-century Jews, this could only mean a physical resurrection of Jesus' body. To say that he could have resurrected while still physically in the grave was, in Craig's words, "simply a contradiction of terms" (Contemporary). Thus, the 1 Corinthians creed infers the empty tomb. Next, women, the same women who observed Jesus' burial on Friday evening (Mark 15:47), discovered the tomb first. In that culture, women were virtual second-class citizens; their testimony was not accepted in courts and was considered worthless. In a contribution to Jesus Under Fire, Craig writes "Why would the Christian church humiliate its leaders by having them hiding in cowardice in Jerusalem, while the women boldly carry out their last devotions to Jesus' body, unless this were in fact true?" (151). The earliest Jewish polemic (aggressive attack on the principles of others) presupposes the empty tomb (Matthew 28:15B). That the tomb was empty was uncontested by believers substantiates the historicity of it. In the magazine Christianity Today, J.N.D. Anderson writes that the preaching of the apostles as recorded in Acts focused not upon the empty tomb, but upon the Resurrection itself; that the tomb was empty was a non-issue. The question became why (McDowell, 244). Also, if the tomb was full, preaching the Resurrection in Jerusalem, the very city where it occurred, would have been impossible. The Sanhedrin or Roman authorities could easily have shown the corpse and nipped Christianity in the bud (McDowell, 281). In Jesus' day, there was a great interest in honoring the final resting places of Jewish rabbis, holy men, and prophets. There is no evidence of this ever happening to Jesus' tomb. If the tomb had contained his body, a shrine would have sprung up (Craig, Contemporary). Despite all the evidence for the empty tomb, this does not, by itself, prove the Resurrection. After all, corpses turn up missing from morgues, too. Appearances of Jesus after his death confirm his bodily Resurrection.
Following his death, others saw Jesus alive. 1 Corinthians 15 briefly lists many of these appearances:
" . . . and that he [Jesus] appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve [disciples]. 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 [died]. 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 Cor 15:5-8)
Throughout the New Testament, there are fifteen recorded bodily appearances of Christ (McDowell, 250). While most of the appearance reports are not part of the very early creed (1 Cor 15:3-5), they nevertheless are still early by ancient standards. The letter of 1 Corinthians was written within 20 years of Jesus' crucifixion. Greco-Roman historian Prof. A.N. Sherwin-White writes in his book Roman Law and Roman Society in the New Testament that the appearance reports cannot be mainly legendary. All of the New Testament was written within one generation of when the appearances happened. Roman and Greek histories are far more removed from the events they describe; yet they are trusted as being historical. Paraphrasing Sherwin-White, Craig writes "even two generations is too short a time span to allow legendary tendencies to wipe out the hard core of historical facts" (Contemporary). In verse 6 Paul states that most of the 500 who saw Jesus at once were still alive. These witnesses could easily be questioned- Paul was acquainted with them, and thus could provide names (Moreland/Wilkins, 156). A majority of New Testament critics, certainly not friends of orthodox belief, concur that Jesus' followers thought they saw the risen Christ (Moreland/Wilkins, 156). That even critics believe this helps support its historicity. Jesus' appearances transformed men, especially Thomas and James, the brother of Jesus. Before the Resurrection, Thomas was a cowering doubter, but gained courage and preached with zeal after he saw Jesus (John 20:24-28).
According to tradition, Thomas went on to India to preach and was martyred there (Strobel, 148). James had considered Jesus insane and a shame upon the family for claiming he had divine attributes (Mark 3:21, 31-32; John 7:1-5). After seeing Jesus alive, James became the head of Jerusalem's Christians and may have authored the New Testament book of James. Such a radical turnaround in men, especially James and Thomas, cannot be attributed to anything besides believing they saw Jesus. Additionally, a Jewish historian and contemporary of the disciples, Josephus, vouches that the disciples saw Jesus. In a passage from his Antiquities, a history of the Jews from the Creation to his day, Josephus writes that Jesus lived, "won over many Jews and many of the Greeks", was the Christ, was crucified, and "on the third day he appeared to them restored to life." While this passage, the Testimonium Flavianum, appears to have some Christian influence, most scholars agree it is mostly authentic. An Arabic text of the TF published in 1971 seems closer to the original, and also confirms that Jesus' followers thought they saw him (Moreland/Wilkins, 212-13). Agreement by non-Christian sources bolsters the argument that Jesus was seen alive after death. Some falsely claim that the disciples robbed Jesus' grave of his body during the night.
The "Conspiracy Theory", the idea that Jesus' followers stole his corpse from the tomb, cannot be true. This was the first Jewish polemic, and is mentioned near the end of Matthew's Gospel:
"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." (Matthew 28:12-15)
After Joseph buried Jesus, he rolled a "big stone in front of the entrance" (Matthew 27:60). Many men would have been needed to remove this stone once it had been put in place, and to do so would have been very noisy. It would not have been possible for the disciples to steal the body. Out of fear of tomb-robbing, Pontius Pilate granted a guard of Roman soldiers to watch the tomb and to make sure no one moved the stone. As Samuel Fallow writes, "How could they [the disciples] have undertaken to remove the body? Frail and timorous creatures . . . would they have dared to resist the authority of the governor? Would they have undertaken to . . . elude or overcome soldiers armed and aware of danger?" (McDowell, 266). It is also extremely unlikely for all the guards to be sleeping at once, as the polemic claims. To be caught sleeping while on guard meant death for a Roman soldier. Also, as many scholars have pointed out, the claim is inconsistent with itself: if all the guards were sleeping, how could they know what happened (McDowell, 266-67)? Additionally, the disciples were obviously sincere in their faith in the Resurrection, in that they were persecuted and died for their beliefs (Craig, Historical, 334). They had no worldly gain to expect. Skeptics no longer propose this theory. Albert Schweitzer, definitely not an orthodox theologian himself, rejected the conspiracy theory and wrote that no one has proposed it since 1768 (Habermas, 21). In a written debate with Habermas, atheist philosopher Antony G.N. Flew called it "ridiculous" (Habermas, 36). Although skeptics today concede that the disciples thought they saw Jesus after his death, some attribute them to hallucinations.
The postmortem appearances of Jesus could not have been hallucinations. Hallucinations usually occur to neurotics and psychotics, of which the disciples were neither. When hallucinations are experienced by those without mental illness, one of two conditions are usually met: the place has to have "nostalgic atmosphere", or the time lends itself to remembrance (McDowell, 276, and Stott, 57). The appearances were varied in mood, number of people seeing Jesus, and location- atypical of hallucinations. If the appearances had been hallucinations, it would not have been of Jesus' individual Resurrection. Psychiatric experts define hallucinations as "subjective experiences that are consequences of mental processes, sometimes fulfilling a purpose in the individual's mental life" (Yamauchi). That is, you can only hallucinate over what is already in your mind. The first-century Jewish mindset could only entertain one resurrection: the general resurrection at the end of the world, when everyone would be physically raised and judged by God. This was believed by Jesus' disciples and the Pharisees alike (Moreland/Wilkins, 160). The concept that one man, and only one man, could resurrect and live eternally was completely foreign.
If the disciples were to hallucinate about Jesus, it would be of him with Abraham in heaven, where all righteous Jews were thought to be, waiting for the general resurrection. This is referred to in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:22-23). C.S. Lewis notes that three different times people failed to recognize Jesus at first. This is unheard of in hallucinations. Craig writes, "they not only saw him, but touched him, conversed with him, and ate with him" (Historical, 332). Hallucinations are not that vivid. Also, by nature hallucinations are subjective and individual, as shown by the above definition. However, on several occasions Jesus appeared to groups. The idea of a group hallucinating alike is contrary to what we know about hallucinations (McDowell, 274). Few skeptics hold this position nowadays. They accept expert opinion and have abandoned it (Habermas, 21). The naturalistic explanations for the empty tomb and Jesus' postmortem appearances no longer hold water.
Jesus' Resurrection is a historical fact. He really died, as shown by Cicero's comment on crucifixion, Pilate's confirmation of his death, the piercing of Jesus' side and the resulting "blood and water" that indicated heart rupture, the testimony of modern physicians, and ancient testimony to Jesus' death. The burial accounts are historical, because they follow Jewish law, the very old creed of 1 Corinthians 15 testifies to it, the type of tomb talked about in the gospels existed at that time, and no rival burial tradition exists. The tomb was empty, as evidenced by the 1 Corinthians creed, its discovery by women, presupposition in Jewish polemic, lack of veneration, its non-issue status among the apostles and non-believers, and the likelihood of the authorities producing Jesus' body if they could. Jesus appeared after his death to others, shown by the non-legendary nature of the 1 Corinthians creed, admission by skeptics that the disciples thought they saw Jesus, attestation by Josephus, and the transformation of even the most doubtful men. Body snatching is not a feasible explanation for the empty tomb, because of its sealing with a large stone, the guard in front of the tomb, the unlikely and inconsistent nature of the theory, obvious sincerity in the disciples, and the lack of skeptical support today. The hallucination theory does not stand up, because the disciples were not typical of those who experience hallucinations, a hallucination would not have been of an individual Resurrection, and Jesus was thrice not immediately recognized. Also, the disciples interacted with Jesus, he appeared to groups, and the hallucination theory enjoys little skeptical support today. Despite ignorant and fanciful claims that "you can't prove Christianity," the Christian faith is based upon a solid bedrock of historical facts. Central to this is the main miracle of the New Testament, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ- a credible event of history.