Is there any good historical evidence for the claim that Jesus rose from the dead? A lot of people think the main source we have which attests to the resurrection—the Bible—is so hopelessly biased that it holds no historical value.
But this is a myth. In modern historiography, there are a number of criteria that scholars use to assess the trustworthiness of a source. And when we apply these tools to the question of Jesus’ resurrection, it paints a very different picture to what we might expect. We’ll briefly look at three important criteria.
Is there any good historical evidence for the claim that Jesus rose from the dead?
1. Multiple Attestation
If an event in history is only recorded by one source, then it is harder to know if it really happened. But as soon as you have multiple independent sources recounting the same thing, you’ve got a much stronger indication that it is reliable.
And that’s precisely what we have when it comes to accounts of the resurrection. Christians tend to think of the Bible as one book, and in one way that’s true, but we have to remember that the Bible is ultimately a library—a collection of independent documents. Within the Bible, we’ve got four main accounts of the resurrection: from Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Historians treat these documents as separate primary sources.
Now, some people point out that there are differences between these four accounts. For example, in Matthew’s account, he records two women as the first witnesses of the resurrection (Matthew 28:1). But Mark records three women (Mark 16:1), and Luke says there were three “and others” (Luke 24:10).
Now, some people look at this and say, “Aha! Look at those discrepancies, you can’t trust what they’re saying!” But actually, historians see that as an indication that we can trust these sources. Why? Because it shows us that they haven’t collaborated. The authors haven’t huddled together and said, “We better get our story straight, let’s iron out the details.”
These small differences show that these are independent sources, which give us multiple attestation of the same events. It is evidence of corroboration without collaboration. In terms of historiography, the presence of those small differences (while agreeing on the main points) is actually a strong indicator of authenticity.
2. Early Sources
When historians are considering the reliability of a source, another factor they consider is the length of time between when the events occurred and when the source was written. The smaller the time gap, the better.
Mark is generally considered to be the first Gospel, written between 30-40 years after Jesus’ death (in the 60s or 70s CE). Now you might be thinking, “Thirty to forty years? That’s way too long!” But if that’s your immediate reaction, it’s time for a quick lesson in ancient history. In reality, 30-40 years is an extremely short time gap for ancient biographies.
For comparison, let’s take Alexander the Great as an example. The best biography we have of his life was written 400 years after his death—and that kind of time span is very common when we’re talking about ancient history. Compared to that, the Gospels were written extremely early. What’s more, it means that many of the eyewitnesses who met Jesus personally were still alive when the sources were written, and could cross-check what was reported.
It gets better. Not only were the Gospels composed within a short time period, but their authors used eyewitness testimony and written accounts from even earlier (see Luke 1:1-4). Not all of these sources have survived, but it shows that the gap between the events and their being recorded is actually much smaller than 30 years.
As Bart Ehrman, a scholar who describes himself as an agnostic with atheist leanings, writes,
“With respect to Jesus, we have numerous, independent accounts of his life in the sources lying behind the Gospels (and the writings of Paul) — sources that originated in Jesus’ native tongue Aramaic and that can be dated to within just a year or two of his life (before the religion moved to convert pagans in droves). Historical sources like that are pretty astounding for an ancient figure of any kind.”
Not only do we have multiple attestation, but we’ve got it from sources that are, from the standpoint of historiography, astonishingly early.
3. Criterion of Embarrassment
A third factor that historians take into account is ‘the criterion of embarrassment.’ As many people know, history is usually written by the victors, and they get to decide what they leave in and take out. So naturally, sources tend to include things that make them look good, and leave out things that make them look bad.
For example, ancient writers tend to exaggerate their military victories, but are conspicuously quiet about their defeats. It’s not too different from what we share on our Facebook and Instagram feeds! We include the things that make us look good, not the stuff that makes us look bad.
So when a historian sees an ancient writer include something that does make them look bad (or embarrass them in some way), it’s a strong indication of authenticity. Why would someone make something up that puts them in a bad light?
Yet that’s precisely what we see in the early accounts of the resurrection. For example, all four Gospels record that the first people to encounter the risen Jesus are women. That might not seem significant to us, but by ancient standards it’s striking. In the patriarchal context of the 1st century, women were not considered reliable witnesses. Sadly, women’s testimony was regarded as so worthless that they weren’t even allowed to serve as legal witness in a Jewish court of law.
Imagine that you’re a 1st century Jewish man, and you decide to make up a story about Jesus rising from the dead. If Matthew, Mark, and Luke are sitting around saying, “How are we going to make this sound legit?”, there is no way they’d have come up with this! Women would not have been included in the story, especially as the very first eyewitnesses. No, if the story was made up, it would have been Peter, or John, or a centurion who first encountered the risen Jesus. This is one of the reasons that even secular historians regard the Gospel accounts as having real historical value. These aren’t just mythical stories invented centuries after Jesus walked the earth.
If the story was made up, it would have been Peter, or John, or a centurion who first encountered the risen Jesus.
A lot of people today think that we can’t possibly trust the accounts of Jesus’ life. But the tools of modern historiography tell quite a different story. This gives us good reason to have confidence in the Gospels, not just on the basis of blind faith, but on the basis of good evidence. In my experience, when people hear about this, they’re much more likely to consider reading one of the Gospels for themselves, which most Aussies haven’t done as an adult. Maybe invite a friend to read one with you over coffee!
This article has been written in conjunction with the release of our brand new digital evangelism resource: ‘Jesus: History’s Biggest Hoax?’. You can check it out here. Plus, we’ve put together a landing page full of extra reading and resources about the historicity of the resurrection, which you can see here.