The Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ
Here's my brief case for the historicity of Jesus’ death and resurrection appearances.
The Death of Jesus
We have excellent reasons for the conclusion that Jesus actually died due to the rigors of crucifixion. Numerous ancient historical sources record Jesus’ death. We have the testimony of:
1. Several primitive, highly respected traditions that actually predate the New Testament books in which they appear. The ones that receive the most scholarly attention are Acts 2:23–24; 3:13–15; 4:10; 5:29–30; 10:39; 13:28–29; 1 Corinthians 11:26; 15:3; and Philippians 2:8. Others include Romans 4:25 and 1 Peter 3:18.
2. The rest of the New Testament (and the gospel narratives, in particular), as well as a dozen extra-biblical, non-Christian references to this event. Examples include Roman historian Tacitus, Jewish sources like Josephus and the Talmud, as well as other ancient writers like Thallus, Lucian, Phlegon, and Mara Bar-Serapion.
Several crucial medical facts indicate that death by crucifixion is clearly ascertainable:
1. Crucifixion victims essentially died of asphyxiation, complicated by other medical factors. Hanging in the low position on the cross insured death, and anyone who occupied that posture for more than a few minutes began to asphyxiate.
2. Ancient sources relate that final blows were sometimes administered to crucifixion victims to speed up or guarantee their deaths. The description and nature of Jesus’ spear wound reveals that the weapon punctured his heart, insuring his death.
3. If the spear also pierced one of Jesus’ lungs, and he were not already dead, a fairly loud sucking sound would have signaled his executors that he had not yet died.
Since the work of David Strauss in the 19th century, another reason has been the most influential in persuading scholars that Jesus had truly died. Critics have long accepted the fact that the earliest disciples at least believed that Jesus had been raised from the dead. But this belief would have been defied by the sight of a Jesus who had not died on the cross. If he had shown himself to his followers a few days after the crucifixion, as the early sources indicate, he would have been in horrible physical condition: bruised, beaten, bloody, pale, limping, and in obvious need of medical assistance. But such a condition would have disallowed the view that he had been raised from the dead in a resurrected body. He would have been alive (barely) but not raised! Further, there would be no impetus for the prominent conviction that believers would someday be raised just like Jesus. Who would want a body like this sickly one! In short, the swoon theory actually contradicts the disciples’ belief that Jesus had truly been raised. For reasons such as these, very few scholars today doubt that Jesus died by crucifixion.
Marcus Borg likewise in his book Jesus: A New Vision: Spirit, Culture, and the Life of Discipleship also lists Jesus’ execution as “the most certain fact about the historical Jesus.”
The Resurrection Appearances of Jesus
As strange as this claim is to many, that Jesus was seen after his death is confirmed by a large array of data:
1. The most widely discussed New Testament text on the subject of the historical Jesus is 1 Corinthians 15:3–8. Virtually all scholars, whatever their theological persuasion, agree that Paul here records a primitive Jewish tradition that is not his; he received it from another source. There are many literary indications of this, such as:
- the use of “delivered” and “received,” which are not only technical terms for passing along tradition, but are Paul’s direct comment that this is not his material.
- the Jewish parallelism and stylized accounts.
- the proper names Cephas and James.
- the triple “and that” (hoti) clauses, which are typical of Hebrew narration.
- the two references to scripture being fulfilled.
- the possibility of an Aramaic original also point in this direction.
- the terminology, diction, and structure are all non-Pauline.
This creedal testimony is exceptionally early. Not only is it older than 1 Corinthians, but it very likely predates even Paul’s conversion! The predominant view is that Paul probably received the material from Peter and James (the brother of Jesus), when he visited Jerusalem, around 33–38 a.d. (Galatians 1:18–20). Of course, those who gave it to Paul had it before he did. Thus, Paul received the data from someone he, an apostle, deemed to be a trustworthy source.
2. Not to miss another significant factor, Paul personally witnessed an appearance of the risen Jesus. The apostle provides his own testimony in more than one place (1 Corinthians 9:1; 15:8; cf. Galatians 1:16). He did not have to rely on the word of others, because the risen Jesus had also appeared to him. Three times in the book of Acts (9:1–9; 22:1–11; 26:9–19) we find non-Pauline accounts of this occurrence.
3. That Paul was accurate in his report of Jesus’ appearances to others is provided on more than one front. Paul actually sought out the apostolic leaders for the purpose of checking out the nature of the gospel (including the resurrection, 1 Corinthians 15:1–4) that he preached (Galatians 2:1–10). The apostles Peter, John, and James the brother of Jesus specifically approved Paul’s proclamation (vv. 6–10). Some substantiation of this last claim is also provided in Acts 15:1–31, even though it is debated whether this is the same occasion that Paul describes in Galatians 2 or another similar conference. Either way, Paul’s message of the gospel was confirmed by other apostles according to more than one source.
4. Further indications confirm the resurrection reports made by the other apostles too. Paul testifies that the other apostles were preaching the same message that he was preaching in regard to Jesus’ appearances (1 Corinthians 15:11, 14–15). The pre-Pauline creed reports the crucially important information that Jesus appeared to groups that included apostles, plus over 500 persons at one time. Paul’s statement that most of these last witnesses were still alive (1 Corinthians 15:6) implies that he may have known some of them. Paul knew personally some of the individuals in the list. In each of these ways, Paul is tied to the mainline apostolic reports of Jesus’ appearances. The gospels also describe these appearances to the Twelve and to others (Matthew 28; Luke 24; John 20–21; cf. Mark 16:6–7). Any confirmation of these separate narratives would argue for this same point from another non-Pauline perspective.
5. Jesus’ brother James was an ardent unbeliever during Jesus’ public ministry. This family skeptic also witnessed the risen Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:7). Critics need to explain this special appearance too.
6. An additional pointer concerning the apostolic witness to the postmortem appearances of Jesus comes from a number of creedal statements in the book of Acts (1:21–22; 2:22–36; 3:13–16; 4:8–10; 5:29–32; 10:39–43; 13:28–31). Many scholars think that these speeches reflect some of the earliest Christian preaching in that they are brief proclamations that are theologically unadorned. The resurrection is at the center of each of these portions. This would certainly give us one of our best insights into the apostolic message after Pentecost.
7. That Jesus’ tomb was empty does not by itself prove a resurrected body, but it would strengthen the case in that direction. For one thing, it makes naturalistic theories much more difficult to formulate, whether for Jesus’ appearances or for the vacant tomb itself. Here are a few of the many evidences that the tomb was unoccupied that first Easter morning:
- the earliest report in 1 Corinthians 15:3–4 strongly implies an empty tomb. As part of the triple hoti clause, and especially in a Jewish context, the progression from Jesus’ death, to his burial, to his resurrection indicates that something happened to his body.
- the early creedal proclamation in Acts 13:29–30, 36–37 also declares that the tomb in which Jesus was buried was later empty.
- not only did the Jewish leaders not disprove the witness concerning the empty tomb, but their polemic even admitted it (Matthew 28:11–15). One well-known principle of historical research generally recognizes what one’s enemies admit. That the Jewish leadership could not even eliminate this physical component of the early proclamation is itself an indictment.
- that the Gospels tell us the women were the earliest witnesses to the open sepulcher (Matthew 28:1–10; Mark 16:1–8; Luke 24:1–10; John 20:1–2) is another reason to believe the authenticity of the report. Since the testimony of women was not allowed in a law court, why would they be cited as witnesses unless that is what happened?
- the city of Jerusalem is the last place the disciples should have preached the gospel message if Jesus’ grave was still occupied. Producing the body would have quieted the message.
8. The transformation of the witnesses, even to the point of being willing to die for their faith, is an additional indicator of the strength of their convictions that they had seen their risen Lord. It is true that people are often transformed for false causes that they also believe in, but there is a qualitative difference here. Both the disciples and the others who are willing to die share a sincere belief. But very much unlike the others, the disciples were willing to suffer not just for their belief concerning who Jesus was, but precisely because they had seen him after his death. In brief, their transformation was not simply based on beliefs about Jesus, like so many others, but on the knowledge that they had seen him alive after his crucifixion.
9. That the resurrection of Jesus was the central component of early Christian belief is also a helpful indicator of its truth. The resurrection being the pivotal doctrine led to increased amounts of attention, with investigations by the earliest witnesses increasing their faith rather than revealing any obstacles. Paul knew that there was no Christian faith apart from the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:14, 17), so he visited the apostles Peter and James in Jerusalem to discuss the nature of the gospel proclamation (Galatians 1:18–20). So important was this theme that he returned 14 years later to repeat a similar procedure before more church leaders (Galatians 2:1–10). Luke explains that the resurrection was the chief proclamation in the early church, leading to the disciples’ persecution (Acts 4:1–3, 33). Peter tells us that it secures heaven for believers, allowing them to rejoice during suffering (1 Peter 1:3–5).
A number of other evidences for the resurrection appearances might be mentioned as well. But given that we are speaking here about ancient documents, it must be admitted that there is certainly a surprising amount of data, all pointing to the fact that Jesus appeared to his followers on several occasions after he died by crucifixion. Critics typically respect such findings too.
Reginald Fuller in his book The Foundations of New Testament Christology rather boldly proclaims about the early Christian belief in the resurrection: “That within a few weeks after the crucifixion Jesus’ disciples came to believe this is one of the indisputable facts of history.”
Fuller notes that the traditional cause for this belief is Jesus’ appearances, then he concedes: “That the experiences did occur, even if they are explained in purely natural terms, is a fact upon which both believer and unbeliever can agree.”
Along the same line, James D. G. Dunn in his book The Evidence for Jesus says the fact that the first believers had experiences they thought were postmortem appearances of Jesus “is almost impossible to dispute.”
After his detailed study of the sources, Jewish scholar Pinchas Lapide in his book The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish Perspective concluded that Jesus actually rose from the dead, appearing to his followers soon afterward!
The resurrection of Jesus is such that the naturalistic strategy denies it, rather than attempting to interpret it within its own natural system. If an explanation is attempted at all, naturalists sometimes suggest alternative accounts that ignore any supernatural causation. These efforts have failed for several reasons:
1. Perhaps the chief theoretical reason for rejecting miracle-claims and seeking alternative explanations is the work of David Hume (and others who have followed him). But Hume’s response has been heavily criticized by many scholars. For example, see Richard Swinburne in his book The Concept of Miracle. To mention just a few of the more prominent issues:
- it is improper to reject the possibility of miracles in an a priori manner (a critical response that comes in many forms) without viewing the possible evidence for a miracle-claim.
- no allowance is made for a potentially supernatural exception to nature’s regularity that would actually supersede the normal lawful explanation at that moment, due to the exercise of a greater power. The most highly evidenced miracles may have certain recognizable characteristics, such as being one-time events, without meaningful explanation by new expressions of the law in question.
- an actual, heavily evidenced case for a miracle-claim would be difficult to explain, whether it came from the past or the present. Each possibility would have its own advantages.
2. Each naturalistic theory concerning the resurrection falls prey to numerous rebuttals, even if one only uses data that are verifiable and admitted by virtually all critical scholars. In fact, these hypotheses are plagued by so many refutations that, in public debates, critics frequently even avoid choosing one of them because of the possibility that they will be forced into a corner.
Two intriguing trends in contemporary critical thought illustrate this. In 19th century theological liberalism, during the heyday of the naturalistic theories against the resurrection, the critics took turns decimating one another’s hypotheses. For example, David Strauss dealt the most influential blow to the swoon theory (see above) of Friedrich Schleiermacher, Heinrich Paulus, and others. Strauss’s hallucination theory, in turn, was disproved by Theodor Keim. The legend theory was demolished by critical studies that isolated early New Testament texts like the creeds. In this manner, the skeptics themselves revealed many of the weaknesses in these suppositions. Thus, 20th century critics have been even more radical, basically rejecting wholesale the naturalistic theories aimed at the resurrection. Comparatively seldom are these alternative hypotheses proposed today.
3. In almost all cases, no single alternative view can answer all of the factual data for the resurrection. At least two theories are needed. But since each is opposed by many facts, the critic actually has the difficult role of having to overcome the need for more than one improbable theory. Perhaps an example would be helpful. I have outlined above some of the persuasive data that have basically caused even a generation of critical scholars to be convinced that the original followers of Jesus at least believed they had visual experiences of the risen Jesus. We may recall that Reginald Fuller termed the early Christian belief in the resurrection an “indisputable fact,” concluding that both believers and unbelievers could agree that visual experiences of some sort occurred. Thus, a successful natural response needs to account for this information. The most typical option is to charge that the disciples experienced hallucinations. However, hallucinations are private experiences, being “seen” by one person alone. But the appearances of Jesus were frequently to groups of people, as witnessed by sources such as the early creeds in 1 Corinthians 15:3–8 and the Acts passages, as well as the gospel accounts. Another major problem regarding hallucinations is that while these incidents are fairly rare, Jesus appeared to a wide variety of persons: men and women, hard-headed Peter, soft-hearted John, devoted Mary Magdalene, and others. Jesus also appeared in a wide variety of circumstances: singly and in groups, in Jerusalem and in Galilee, outdoors and indoors. To conclude that all of these persons were in just the right frame of mind for this rather uncommon phenomena appears to be incredulous. Briefly, the details we have are almost the opposite of what is needed for hallucinations. Thus, hallucinations are rooted in the preconditions of one’s hopeful expectations, but the disciples despaired at the death of Jesus and did not expect him to rise. Their best friend of 3 years, to whom they had devoted their recent lives, had suddenly been taken from them. They had to have been distraught. This is simply good psychology, but it militates against these subjective occurrences. It is also highly unlikely that hallucinations could produce the radical personal transformations of the disciples, causing them to be willing to die for their faith. Then what about family skeptic James (Jesus’ brother) and church persecutor Paul? Could it be seriously charged, apart from any historical data whatsoever, that these two critics longed to see the risen Jesus? Finally, hallucinations have nothing to say concerning an empty tomb, so the body should still be there! At several of these points, the critic needs another thesis. Many other critiques can be leveled at the hallucination hypothesis and other similar subjective suggestions. As Wolfhart Pannenberg in his book Jesus--God and Man concludes, “These explanations have failed to date.”
We are justified in rejecting the naturalistic hypotheses that seek to explain the resurrection in nonsupernatural terms. Even the majority of critical scholars agree that these attempts are seriously flawed. Even Raymond Brown concluded that, not only have critical scholars rejected these theories themselves, but new renditions of them are deemed to be unrespectable.
The Minimal Facts
Even most skeptical scholars admit a minimal core of facts pertaining to Jesus’ death and the following events. Some of the above citations indicate a general direction. Virtually no one doubts Jesus’ death by crucifixion. It is also recognized that the disciples despaired, due to losing their friend to whom they had dedicated their lives. As well recognized as any New Testament fact is that, shortly after Jesus’ death, these followers had experiences that they believed were appearances of the risen Jesus. As a result, they were transformed from being in a state of fear to being willing to die for their faith. Very soon afterward, the disciples proclaimed Jesus’ death and resurrection as their central message in Jerusalem and the surrounding area, and the church was born. Two skeptics, Jesus’ brother James and Saul (Paul), became believers after they also believed that Jesus had appeared to them. The strength of this core is that these few facts are capable, in themselves, of both disproving the naturalistic hypotheses, as well as providing the best arguments for the resurrection. Yet they do so with a minimal amount of ascertainable data, so they cannot be rejected just because someone does not believe that the New Testament is a good source. It meets critics on their own (common) grounds, using their presuppositions and their methodology.