The Historicity of Jesus's Resurrection

June 22, 2020 | Pr. Finny Samuel |

Did the historical Jesus Christ really rise from the dead? How can a Christian be sure that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is not a theological myth or superstition? Can we reconcile this miracle with a modern mindset that is well informed by all the scientific advancements in the 21st century?

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the foundational truth of the Christian faith. The whole of Christian doctrine is built upon the historicity and veracity of this theologically profound miracle. Apostle Paul himself says this:

If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain.

1 Corinthians 15:14

Over the course of history, many have tried in vain to refute the credibility of Christ's resurrection. Even a few Christian theologians such as Rudolph Bultmann and R. H. Fuller argued against the historicity of Jesus's supernatural resurrection from the dead. However, the fact of the empty tomb of Jesus Christ is, in principle, historically verifiable ​[1]​!

Resurrection, indeed, is a miracle and a Christian worldview has no difficulty in accepting the possibility of an Omnipotent Perfect Being intervening in human history in a miraculous, supernatural way in order to reveal Himself. Since the historical existence of Jesus is a matter verifiable by scientific-historical methods (See the article Historicity of Jesus Christ in this blog), the death of Jesus Christ by crucifixion is a fact verifiable by biblical and extra-biblical evidence as well. However, some who cannot accept the miracle of resurrection suppose Jesus survived his crucifixion either because he had not enough time to die or because he drank a drug at the cross which simulated death. This assumption, which despite its unpopularity in scholarly circles is influential in popular culture, is commonly known as the 'swoon hypothesis.' Most scholars accept the death and even the burial in a known tomb, which was one of the earliest and best-attested facts about Jesus.​[2]​ Hence, some critics have proposed that the apostles were either deceived by hallucination or they deliberately deceived others by devising a myth or conspiracy.

What data Christians should consider for a reasonable defense of the historicity of the resurrection? The Christian evidence for resurrection can be categorized into documentary evidence, eyewitness evidence, logical evidence and theological evidence.

Documentary Evidence

The mutually independent testimonies of four Gospel writers constitute the primary documentary evidence for the resurrection. This Christian source is both inerrant and reliable (See articles on The Infallible and Inerrant Bible - Part 01 and Part 02). Specifically, the canonical writings of the New Testament are historical reliable not only because of the astounding integrity of its thousands of ancient handwritten manuscripts (manuscript proximity factor and manuscript number factor) and the testimonies/quotations by early Church fathers but also due to the archeologically verifiable historical accuracy of many of its contents. Both internal and external evidence point to the authenticity of the apostolic authorship of the four Gospels. These four different narratives by four different authors, do not contradict each other despite the clear absence of any attempt to hide apparent discrepancies and appropriately display the known personalities of the traditional authors. The contents of the text also show that the date of the original manuscript must be prior to AD 65.

As for the veracity of the narratives, did the apostles have sufficient means, method, and motive for willfully deceiving such a large number of early Christians? Means?: The disciples were neither highly educated nor wealthy. How could they have come up with such an elaborate and creative conspiracy and not get caught? Their words matched their deeds and it is clear that they have experienced a resurrected Jesus in their lives given their dedication unto their death. Methods?: The Jews and Romans would have produced a body to refute this story if they were able to do so. How could have the unarmed apostles overpowered the Romans to steal Jesus's body, in the first place, as the authorities accused? The adversaries of Christianity had all the means and power to unearth and expose the disciples had the story of resurrection been a conspiracy. Also, if Jesus appeared to around 500 people, an extraordinary consensus is required among this large group of people to keep a secret of conspiracy. It would have taken only just one person to recant the story under severe torture, imprisonment, and persecution by the enemies of Christianity. Motives?: What possible motive could the disciples have for creating such a lie? What advantage did they see in such a conspiracy especially since they were well aware that they will be severely persecuted and killed if they continue following Jesus?

The historical facts about the terrible persecutions Christians had to go through in the immediate time period that followed Jesus's death do not support the argument that the narratives of the resurrection of Jesus were fabrications or conspiracies. For obvious reasons, one may not find the reports of resurrection in extrabiblical sources. However, some of the biblical accounts of the circumstances surrounding the death of Jesus are corroborated in secular writings. For example, a history of the eastern Mediterranean area written by a historian named Thallus in AD 52 reports the sudden darkness that fell upon the land (Luke 23:44) as a solar eclipse, which in fact was unusual as it was the time of the full moon. Also, the Jewish historian Josephus, in his book Antiquities of Jews, mentioned: "Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first, did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day"​[3]​.

The 'Swoon hypothesis' does not stand a chance before the abundance of literary evidence of crucifixion.

  • Since the strict Roman law imposed the death penalty on anyone who let a convict escape, no soldier would dare bungling crucifixion and help Jesus to survive.
  • The blood and water that came from Jesus's pierced side (John 19:34-35) shows his lungs had collapsed and Jesus died of asphyxiation.
  • If Jesus was not dead, the soldiers would have broken his legs as they did to the other two crucified convicts (John 19:31-33).
  • The New Testament gives plenty of details about Jesus's entombment and later physical appearances.
  • Neither a swooning half-dead man nor the unarmed disciples could have overpowered the well-equipped Roman soldiers either at the cross or at the door of the tomb.

The earliest Christians knew the narrative of resurrection was not a myth either. A successful myth requires many years to be established and popularized. Christianity started right after the death and resurrection and Christians were admonished against believing any sort of myths (1 Tim. 1:4; 4:7; 2 Tim. 4:4; Titus 1:14; 2 Pet. 1:16). Paul's recounting of the resurrection of Jesus as the old Christian formula in the content of earliest apostolic preaching (1 Cor 15) makes it evident Christians believed resurrection as a historical fact right from the beginning of Christianity! Paul probably received this tradition while he visited Jerusalem in AD 36 if not earlier. One can see this traditional four-part formula of Christ "died-buried-raised-appeared" repeated in the mutually independent early NT writings of Luke (Acts 13:28-31), Mark (Mark 15:37-16:7), and Paul (1 Cor. 15:3-5)!

Eyewitness Evidence

The eyewitness evidence can be categorized into (1) The Case of Empty Tomb and (2) The Case of Physical Appearance of Jesus.

(1) The Case of Empty Tomb

A group of Jesus's women followers found his tomb empty on the first day of the week following his death at the cross. The reliability of this testimony is marked by several related facts.

  • Jesus was buried in a well-known tomb: The disciples could not have preached about an empty tomb unless it was true because anyone could do a fact-check by visiting the tomb. Who would have believed the disciples if they preached about a resurrected Jesus while his body was still in the tomb? The historicity of the empty tomb was one of the foundations of the faith of early believers. For example, in 1 Cor. 15, when Paul mentions the historical "died-buried-raised-appeared" formula of the resurrection, he implies the then-common knowledge of an empty tomb! The semantics of the Greek words ἐγείρω (egeírō - getting up or arising to stand) and ἀνίστημι (anístēmi - raising up) Paul used here implies "a physical motion upward from the state of sleep, lying down or death – in contexts where individuals are sleeping, lying down or dead."​[4]​ In addition, based on Jewish texts dated as far as second BCE, the concept of resurrection in ancient Judaism involves the rising up of people (physical body) from the dead. Cook says that the idea of "the resurrection of the spirit" is categorically inappropriate for ancient Jewish or Pagan texts. Hence it is clear that the resurrection in the early faith is a physical one rather than a metaphor or spiritual sense. Since Jesus was buried in a place everyone knew, the phrase 'he was buried' followed by 'he was raised' ultimately should mean a verifiable (verified) empty tomb and that proclamation was crucial in early evangelistic preaching.
  • Discovery of Jesus's empty tomb by the Women: All four Gospel writers mention that the tomb of Jesus Christ was found empty by several women, Peter, and another disciple (probably John) - (Matthew 28:1-7; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-8; John 20:1-9). These accounts are simple and straight-forward and lack any theological, apologetic, or prophetic embellishments which corroborate the plausibility of factuality. Also, even as the Jews of that day preserved the bones of their loved ones in anticipation of the resurrection and venerated the tombs of the saints and great leaders, the New Testament Church chose to celebrate an empty tomb ​[2]​. Had it not been true, the Church would have so much difficulty to go in this direction for a wider following. The fact that the discovery of an empty tomb is attributed to women is another pointer towards the improbability of the creation of an artificial legend. In the highly patriarchal Jewish society of the first century, where a woman's testimony is not usually considered as a legal witness, none of the Gospel writers tried to hide or distort the fact that women were the chief witnesses of the empty tomb. This nature of the narrative can be explained only if the whole narrative is factually true ​[5]​.
  • The necessity of a Jewish Polemic: According to Matthew 28:11-15, the unbelieving Jews circulated an explanation for the empty tomb that the body was stolen by the disciples. The evangelist says, "this story was widely spread among the Jews, and is to this day." Even the Jewish polemic agreed about the empty tomb. Their disaster-management policy was to create a hopeless and absurd story to explain it. Since this proof comes from the enemies of Christianity, it should be regarded as one of the strongest pieces of evidence for the physical resurrection of Jesus.

In an attempt to reconcile with the fact of the empty tomb some critics accuse that Jesus was revived in the tomb as he was not "properly" dead when taken down from the cross and convinced the disciples that he was resurrected. This variation of swoon theory founders as it cannot explain how a (half-dead?) man sealed inside a tomb guarded by Roman soldiers can escape by moving the stone all by himself and overpowering the outnumbering soldiers. Also, the postmortem appearances of Jesus were with his perfectly healthy and glorious body. Another critical hypothesis is that the women got to the wrong tomb. On account of the fact of the well-known private tomb of Joseph of Arimethea, this Wrong Tomb Hypothesis also does not stand a chance as it has no explanatory power on the physical appearances of Jesus and how others could not correct the women's mistake.

(2) The Case of Physical Appearance of Resurrected Jesus

Apostle Paul boldly claims that many among the original list of eyewitnesses of Jesus's postmortem appearances (which comes to more than 500) were still alive and available for fact-checking while he was writing the first epistle to the Corinthian Church (1 Cor. 15:3-8). According to the New Testament, between the morning of his resurrection and his ascension forty days later, there were at least ten distinct appearances in front of different people at different places. Evidently, those people were eyewitnesses for the resurrected Jesus, and there were simply so many of them. The fact that these appearances were independently testified by others adds to the credibility of the narrative. From all the accounts, it is also evident that the nature of these appearances speaks of the visitations of Jesus in his physical body, not as a disembodied person. He was able to walk with the disciples, eat with them, and teach them with his voice. The resurrected Jesus was with a body that can occupy physical space, be seen, heard, and touched. In addition, a semantic analysis of Paul's doctrine of resurrected body shows that he implies a physical body in resurrection ​[5]​. The visitations, thus, were not just visions or spiritual feeling, but distinct physical experiences.

The eyewitness testimony is not without resistance, though. Some critics dismiss the narratives of Jesus' appearances believing that these were mere hallucinations on the part of his followers. The Hallucination Hypothesis also has a very narrow explanatory scope as it requires one to deny the empty tomb. If apostles went around and spread these hallucinations, why did the Jewish leaders not present the physical body and put an end to it instead of defending it with another story? The Hallucination Hypothesis is even difficult to explain psychologically as shown below

  • The accounts of the appearances are so diverse and distinct which is highly unlikely for a case for hallucinations. Jesus appeared to both single persons and groups in different places and acted the same as he did before his death.
  • Since hallucinations are extremely private and subjective, this hypothesis cannot explain how multiple people (in one instance, over 500 people - 1 Cor. 15:6) had the same experiences.
  • The content of hallucinations often are attached to feelings or wants that comes from within the person's mind. The accounts of appearances were surprising and unexpected. In some instances, even the disciples did not believe what they were seeing and Jesus had to prove that he was not a ghost or a vision as they presumed (Lk 24:36-43).
  • The appearances stopped abruptly after 40 days after his ascensions. Had it been hallucinations, it should have occurred over a long period of time with some kind of regularity ​[6]​.
  • Hallucinations cannot explain how Jesus ate (the physical consumption of food - Lk 24:42-43; Jn 21:1-14) and how his disciples were able to touch him ((Mt 28:9; Lk 24:39; Jn 20:27).

Logical Evidence

There are several circumstantial evidence that could support the arguments in the documentary and eyewitness testimonies. Logically, these reasons add more value to the veracity of the resurrection tradition.

  1. The Transformation of the Disciples: The disciples had not grasped the depth of Jesus's numerous allusions to his resurrection during his lifetime. Their sudden change of attitude and confidence was based on the fact of their experience of Jesus' resurrection. As Groothuis puts it, "The actual resurrection of Jesus is the best explanation for the disciples’ transformation from cowardice, despair, and confusion to confident proclamation and the willingness to suffer persecution, hardship and even martyrdom for the sake of Jesus and his gospel.​[2]​" The transformational power of the message of resurrection was not only historical but also contemporary. Millions of people continue to bear witness for this miracle even today in a personal way.
  2. The Origin of Christian Church: The new movement of Christianity was not the result of any Jewish or Pagan influences in the disciples. Though Christianity rapidly changed to a worldwide scope its origins can easily be traced to Israel around A.D 32. The preaching of the apostles had a tremendous influence on the people that time all because they preached about a resurrected Jesus Christ. Acts 17:6 says the apostles "have upset the world" with the message of resurrection. The initial audience of the gospel were not at all removed from the historicity of the resurrection as it was a verifiable truth at that time. The factual veracity of resurrection is the only explanation the Church gives for the rapid rise and expansion of Christianity.
  3. The Early Worship of Jesus Christ: The resurrection from dead played a crucial role in the early church esteeming Jesus as a divine being worthy of worship. Phil. 2:5-8 accounts for the Christian creed that speaks of Jesus's preexistence, his incarnation, and his resurrection. Most of the early Christians are from a Jewish background that boasts a zealous monotheistic tradition. A report from Pliny the Younger (governor of Pontus during AD 111-113) to the Roman emperor Trajan complains about Christians: "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." The beliefs and practices that exalted Christ are extremely difficult to explain apart from Jesus's resurrection ​[2]​.
  4. Christian Baptismal Formula: The doctrine of Christian water baptism which is dated to the beginning of Christianity is yet another piece of circumstantial evidence. Romans 6:3-4 says that the water baptism symbolizes the believer rising to a new life in Christ just "as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father." This teaching clearly presupposes the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Without the resurrection, the content of Christian Water Baptism is meaningless. If the early Christian had not believed the factuality of the resurrection not only baptism but also the sacrament of the Lord's Supper "would have been a complete travesty. ​[2]​"
  5. The fact of Christian Day: The practice of setting aside Sunday as the day of Christian worship can also be historically traced back to the beginning of the Chrisitan movement (Acts 20:7). Since the early Christians were Jews, this monumental shift of the worship day from the Jewish Sabbath on the seventh day must have been a result of something cataclysmic. The resurrection on the first day of the week could explain why the early church challenged a core practice in their original Jewish faith to decide Sunday as the worship day even when Jesus did not advocate a new Holy day in his teachings.

Theological Evidence

Though the arguments in the preceding sections may very well be used in an evidential (classical) and historic approach of Christian Apologetics, to a regenerated intellect, the most convincing and prudent argument for the resurrection of Jesus arise from a theological point of view. The resurrection makes perfect sense for a Christian since it was necessary and indispensable for God's eternal plan of salvation. This Christian reason does arise from the necessity of resurrection in the grand scheme of soteriological (theology of Salvation) history as narrated by the Word of God. Yet, without a proper answer to the question of 'what' and why', the answers to the 'how' for the resurrection is not complete.

The resurrection of Jesus is necessary for the salvation of human souls from sin because through his resurrection, Jesus defeated death that was originally the result of sin. Death is not just an event of physical bodies decaying, but it is the entire process of God's curse ​[7]​. Through the disobedience of Adam, all are 'dead' in him (Rom. 5:12) which expands the definition of death as 'a state of being under the curse of God.' The purpose of the incarnation of the Son of God was to reverse this curse in creation as promised by God in Gen 3:15. Jesus overcame the death in the resurrection thus beginning the removal of this curse in the world and in all who are united with him by faith. Thus, the eternal life provided by Jesus's defeat of death is the blessing that undoes the curse of sin (Rev. 20:6). Just as physical death is the climactic expression of the curse of death in general, so also is Christ's resurrection the climactic expression of the reversal of that curse ​[7]​.

The resurrection of Jesus is also the first of many in the eschatological (study of end times) plan of God. Apostle Paul says Christ is the firstfruit of all those who are to be resurrected (1 Cor. 15:20). It is the hope of all Christians that just as Christ is resurrected from the dead, God will bring those who are united in Christ to eternal life through a resurrection at His appointed time (1 Thess. 4:14). Unless Jesus was historically resurrected, this hope is meaningless. Since the whole content of Christianity is the eternal fellowship with God in the eternal life, the resurrection of Jesus is theologically unavoidable in God's revelation of Himself! In other words, it is not just a miracle, it is a necessary miracle for God and God's Word to be true.

Thus, as Apostle Paul argues in 1 Cor 15:17 and 19, "if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins!" and "If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied."

Conclusion

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is a historical event with historical proof. Given the time and circumstances of its happening, the audio-visual evidence may be limited. Even with this challenge, as shown above, the resurrection is provable with historical, logical, and theological arguments. However, many a time, human predispositions, biases, and other commitments may be more stubborn than facts! Like many other topics in Apologetics, an otherwise committed skeptic could bring about many "seemingly convincing" quotations and arguments against this evidence and choose not to accept its factuality. During his ministry on the earth, Jesus brought 3 persons [Widow of Nain's Son (Luke 7:11-17), Jairus' Daughter (Luke 8:49-56), and Lazarus (John 11:1-44)] back from the dead. If even that could not make them believe his own resurrection from the dead, only a regeneration by the Holy Spirit can open the intellectual and logical eyes of such people. However, for a believer, the veracity of resurrection is the content of ultimate hope and confidence!

Bibliography

  1. [1]
    W. L. Craig, “The historicity of the empty tomb of Jesus,” New Testament Studies, vol. 31, no. 1, pp. 39–67, Jan. 1985, [Online]. Available: http://ezproxy.liberty.edu/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lsdar&AN=ATLA0000943595&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
  2. [2]
    D. Groothuis, Christian apologetics: a comprehensive case for biblical faith. InterVarsity Press, 2011.
  3. [3]
    P. B. Ewen, Faith on Trial: Analyze the Evidence for the Death and Resurrection of Jesus. B&H Publishing Group, 2013.
  4. [4]
    J. G. Cook, “Resurrection in Paganism and the Question of an Empty Tomb in 1 Corinthians 15,” New Testament Studies, vol. 63, no. 1, pp. 56–75, 2017, doi: DOI: 10.1017/S002868851600028X.
  5. [5]
    W. L. Craig, Reasonable Faith (3rd edition): Christian Truth and Apologetics. Crossway, 2008.
  6. [6]
    P. E. Little, J. F. Nyquist, and B. Graham, Know Who You Believe. InterVarsity Press, 2009.
  7. [7]
    K. S. Oliphint and J. S. Holcomb, Know Why You Believe. Zondervan Academic, 2017.

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