Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Was the Resurrection of Jesus Really an Historical Event?

The Objection

For many, the Christian teaching of the resurrection of the dead is an intellectual stumbling block that is difficult to surmount. That a body could rise again seems to fly in the face of our every experience with death: corpses do not typically reanimate before our very eyes! Many skeptics would attempt to attack the Christian faith in its entirety by endeavoring to show that the resurrection of Jesus Christ was impossible. In this article, I will consider the following objection: That Christianity is founded upon the impossible premise that a man, Jesus of Nazareth, actually rose from the dead some time around the year 33AD.

Of course, the entirely of the Christian faith does rest largely upon the doctrine of Jesus Christ’s resurrection from the dead. The skeptic is right to suppose that, if it could be shown that Jesus did not rise, most of our doctrine would crumble, as would the spiritual authority of the New Testament. Nevertheless, we take this Scriptural teaching to be an historic fact—Jesus Christ literally rose from the dead on the third day after His crucifixion. For this reason, we do not understand the Gospel accounts to be any kind of fanciful or mythological account. Rather, we, like the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15, rest the whole of our faith on the fact of the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

First Reply: The Gospel Accounts

Let us first consider that the oldest and most reliable documents pertaining to these events are the Gospels themselves. Far from being “removed” from the actual events, the Gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are indeed the most reliable accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus. All of the Gospels were written by either eye-witnesses to the ministry of Jesus (Matthew and John were His disciples) or by the direct protégés of such (Mark and Luke were students of Peter and Paul respectively).

That these Gospels are chalked full of specific names and hometowns of dozens of eyewitnesses  to these events (Joseph of Arimathea, Simon of Cyrene, Mary of Magdala, Lazarus and Martha of Bethany, Pontius Pilate etc.) further underscores that these documents are verifiable source material, and not later reconstructions. Many of these eyewitnesses were still alive at the time of composition, as each of the Gospels was written within the first and second generations of those who lived with Christ. So many eyewitnesses to the resurrection still lived during the time of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians that he can state without blinking an eye:
"For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that 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. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living" (1 Corinthians 15:3-6, emphasis added).
While many ancient works have very few copies and manuscripts, the Gospels contain by far more manuscript evidence than any other ancient document. For instance, there are over 20,000 extant manuscripts (or fragments) of the NT, as compared to only 9 of Homer’s Illiad. This makes the NT by far the most copied and transcribed document of the ancient world.

Among the eyewitness documents themselves, there is no discrepancy of fact. Without any hesitation, we can say that ALL of the Gospel accounts invariably testify that the resurrection of Jesus is an historic fact. NT writers took great pains to ensure the accuracy of their renderings. Luke for instance writes,
“Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:1-4).
Second Reply: The Faithful Martyrs

Secondly, we must consider that, if Jesus did not literally rise from the dead, we have no explanation as to why most of his followers were willing to pay such a great price for their faith, nor do we have an explanation for the rapid growth of Christianity in the first three centuries.

Eleven of the original twelve disciples (excluding Judas) suffered for their testimony of Jesus’ cross and resurrection. Of those eleven, ten died a martyr’s death, while John was merely banished. If Jesus did not rise from the dead, we would have to assume that these disciples were willing to suffer brutal deaths at the hands of their murders for what they knew to be a lie.

Not only does the Bible tell us many of the stories of those who suffered for the fact of the resurrection, but extra-biblical literature supports these historic events. Without any doubt, Christians suffered tremendously under the regime of Emperor Nero (and others). While given the chance to preserve their own lives by simply acknowledging “Caesar is Lord,” thousands of Christians preferred to meet their fate at the burning stake or in the arena because they could not deny what they knew to be true.

Secular sociologist Rodney Stark acknowledged that it was the Early Christians’ adamant belief in the resurrection that allowed for their meteoric rise in growth in the first three centuries. Writing about the plagues of 165 AD, he states, “Once death lost its power over life, life itself took on new meaning for believers." Stark states, “The Romans threw people out into the street at the first symptoms of disease, because they knew it was contagious and they were afraid of dying," says Stark. "But the Christians stayed and nursed the sick. You could only do that if you thought, 'So what if I die? I have life eternal'." (1) 

The Apostle Paul, himself once a great opponent of Christianity, was overcome by the reality of Jesus raised from the dead (See Acts 9). Nevertheless, because of his experience of the risen Christ, he was willing to endure tremendous suffering for the event on which he based the rest of his life. Standing before Governor Felix, Paul, radically changed by the Gospel could proclaim, “It is concerning the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial before you today” (Acts 24:21). How else can we explain such a dramatic change in his life and character?

Third Reply: Opponents' Testimony

Finally, we can conclude our case by consulting the early opponents of Christianity. We might expect, of course, that the data left by followers of Jesus Christ would support our conclusions, but what of the writings of those who persisted in opposing the Gospel? If we can find that the writings of early opponents actually support the evidence of the resurrection, we can begin to rest our case.

Indeed this is exactly what we find. Josephus is widely regarded to be an authoritative historian of the ancient Jewish people. He was by no means a believer in Christ. Yet his writings actually confirm the Gospel accounts. The most ancient version of Josephus’ history (the Arabic version) states,
“At this time there was a wise man named Jesus. His conduct was good and [he] was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. But those who became his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion, and that he was alive; accordingly he was perhaps the Messiah, concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders. And the tribe of the Christians, so named after him, has not disappeared to this day.”

Governor Pliny wrote to Emperor Trajan further underscoring the Christian narrative,
“They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god… I therefore postponed the investigation and hastened to consult you. For the matter seemed to me to warrant consulting you, especially because of the number involved. For many persons of every age, every rank, and also of both sexes are and will be endangered. For the contagion of this superstition has spread not only to the cities but also to the villages and farms.”
Finally, the Babylonian Talmud, written in AD 217 states,
“On the eve of Passover Yeshu was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, "He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy. Any one who can say anything in his favor, let him come forward and plead on his behalf." But since nothing was brought forward in his favor he was hanged on the eve of the Passover! - Ulla retorted: Do you suppose that he was one for whom a defense could be made? Was he not a “Mesith” [enticer].”
What is interesting about each of these three hostile accounts is that they do NOT seem to conflict with the Christian gospels as regards the basic elements of the Christian story. On the contrary, they seem to actually support that chronology of the Gospel accounts: viz. that Jesus Christ was a miracle worker (Talmud: “practiced sorcery”), claimed to be God (Pliny: “as to a god”), exhibited Messianic credentials (Josephus: “perhaps the Messiah”), was crucified (Talmud: “On the eve of Passover Yeshu was hanged”) and rose again (Josephus: “But those who became his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion”).

In other words, the early opponents of Christianity objected to the convictions of early Christians but not to their facts. So, then the most vigorous opponents of Christianity do not dispute the narrative of chronological events but rather corroborate them, though them predictably arrive at other conclusions.


In conclusion, then, I would submit that the burden of proof lies not upon the shoulders of the Christian who asserts that Jesus rose, but upon the shoulders of any who would deny the historicity of the most ancient and authoritative accounts (i.e. the Gospels). We leave the skeptic with the following questions with which to grapple:
  • If Jesus did not rise, how does one explain the tremendous growth of Christianity in the first three centuries?
  • If Jesus did not rise, how does one reckon with the documentary evidence that says He did?
  • If Jesus did not rise, how does one explain the dramatic conversion of the Apostle Paul who hated the Church and sought to destroy it?
  • If Jesus did not rise, how does one explain the willingness of so many early Christians to suffer for their convictions?
  • If Jesus did not rise, how does one explain the absence of any physical corpse?

Matthew Everhard is the Senior Pastor of Faith Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Brooksville, Florida

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