“He is not here; he has risen!” (Luke 24.6). To modern ears – tuned to the frequency of atheistic materialism – the claim that Jesus rose from the dead sounds ridiculous.
But, from the very beginning this has been the central claim of the Christian faith: Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, was raised to life “on the third day” (1 Cor 15.3-4). There is no denying that this is a theological claim: the Christian faith declares that it was God who raised Jesus to life. But it is also, irreducibly, a historical claim – a claim that something happened in time and space, something palpable, something witness-able, something real. Like any other claim about events in the ancient past, this claim is open to rational investigation. It is, of course, not possible to prove beyond all doubt that Jesus rose from the grave. Much less is it possible to prove from the resurrection that God exists. Historical evidence, on its own, simply isn’t capable of such a task. Nevertheless, the historical evidence for Jesus’ resurrection is remarkably strong. Examining it may, in God’s kindness, give some who have abandoned the idea of God cause to reconsider.
1. The rise of early Christianity needs to be explained
The place to begin is with the most obvious and uncontroversial piece of evidence – the rise of the early church. According to Rodney Stark, Distinguished Professor of the Social Sciences at Baylor University, the growth of the Christian church in the first three centuries is one of the most remarkable phenomena in human history. By the year AD250, Christianity had grown from a small group of disheartened disciples in Roman Palestine to a mass movement of over one million followers spread across the entire Roman world. This growth would be remarkable enough on its own. It is, however, made all the more striking by the twin facts that Christianity began as a messianic movement within ancient Judaism, and that Jesus, the movement’s founder, was executed as a messianic pretender. We know of several other ancient Jewish messianic movements from this period, but none of them survived the death of its founder. The reason for this is simple. In first century Judaism, a claim to be “the Messiah” was a claim to be the rightful king, not only of the Jews, but also of the entire world. It’s obvious that you can’t have a dead Messiah. Especially, you cant have a dead Messiah who was executed by Rome. And yet, that is exactly where the Christian movement began. Somehow, we need to explain the remarkable rise of early Christianity.
The historical evidence for Jesus’ resurrection is remarkably strong. Examining it may, in God’s kindness, give some who have abandoned the idea of God cause to reconsider.
2. The early Christians claimed that Jesus rose
The early Christians had a very clear explanation for the rise of their movement: it did not die with Jesus, they said, because Jesus did not stay dead. In making this claim the early Christians did not mean merely that Jesus lived on in their memories and imaginations, or that his influence continued, like when someone says “Elvis lives”. Neither did they mean that Jesus lived on in some non-material dimension, that he was “in heaven with God,” or something like that. No. That is not what the word “resurrection” regularly meant in the ancient world, and it is not what the early Christians meant by it either. When they claimed that Jesus had been raised from the dead, they meant that God had brought Jesus back to life in a body or, more precisely, in his body – the same body in which he died. The tomb was empty, because Jesus had risen bodily from the grave (Matt 28.6; Mark 16.6; Luke 24.3, 6; John 20.2, 5-9). According to the earliest Christians, Jesus’ bodily resurrection was the reason why the “Jesus movement” did not die with its founder. Unlike other first-century messianic movements, this one was raised to new life, they said, when Jesus rose from the grave.
3. Seven reasons why the Christian claim demands attention
A claim that Jesus rose is, of course, not the same thing as an actual resurrection. Other explanations for the remarkable rise of Christianity can be, and have been, offered. But the early Christian claim is difficult to dismiss. Here are seven reasons why it demands attention.
(i). The earliest reports are close to the events
First, the earliest surviving written reports of Jesus’ resurrection are very close to the events themselves. Jesus was most likely crucified in AD33. The letters of the apostle Paul, some of which date from the late 40s and early 50s AD – within 20 years of Jesus’ crucifixion – contain repeated and explicit references to Jesus’ resurrection (eg. 1 Thess. 1.9-10; 4.14; Gal. 1.1; 1 Cor. 15.1-7). The four New Testament Gospels, which contain much fuller accounts, are not much later than this. It is quite possible that all four Gospels were completed by AD70. At the latest, they were completed by the mid 90s AD. Indeed, all of the New Testament documents were written during the lifetimes of the original eye-witnesses. By comparison, the earliest surviving written reports we have of the exploits of Alexander the Great date from more than 200 years after his death. The earliest surviving reports of Jesus’ resurrection are very close to the events themselves.
(ii). The earliest reports are based on eye-witness testimony
Second, the earliest reports of Jesus’ resurrection are based on eye-witness testimony. Paul refers to a group of more than five hundred people who claimed that Jesus had appeared to them (1 Cor. 15.6). The Gospel writers, likewise, appeal to the eye-witness testimony of a large number of named individuals who were alive at the time of their composition and who could testify to the truth of the events narrated (e.g. Luke 1.1-4). Richard Bauckham, now retired Professor of New Testament at the University of St Andrews, has demonstrated that, just as modern history writing identifies its sources by the use of footnotes and bibliographies, the Gospels indicate their sources according to the ancient convention of naming the individuals who witnessed the events (e.g. Mark 1.16 and 16:7: Simon Peter; 3.13-19: the twelve disciples; 5.22: Jairus; 10.46: Bartimaeus; 15.21: Simon, Alexander, and Rufus; 15:40 and 16:1: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome; 15:43: Joseph of Arimathea).
Certainly, the resurrection narratives in the four Gospels take precisely the form we would expect from reliable eye-witness testimony. They tell substantially the same story, but from different points of view. This means that, on the surface, the Gospel narratives present a number of inconsistencies (e.g. How many women went to the tomb? What happened to the stone sealing the tomb?). On closer inspection, however, the reports can not only be reconciled, but compellingly tell the same story. Far from undermining the reliability of the accounts, the surface level inconsistencies, within a common framework, demonstrate the authenticity of the sources. This is exactly the kind of thing we would expect from independent eye-witness testimony.
(iii). There are many independent early reports
Third, the earliest surviving written reports of Jesus’ resurrection are both widespread and largely independent of each other. No less than eighteen first-century documents from within the New Testament explicitly refer to Jesus’ resurrection. This is remarkable. For many ancient events we have only one or two surviving witnesses. The only surviving account of Julius’ Caesar’s conquest of Gaul, for example, comes from that Roman General’s own hand (The Gallic Wars). The historical value of the early Christian reports, however, is found not only in the relatively large number of them, but also in what historians call “multiple independent attestation” – the fact that many of these reports do not rely on each other and so provide independent testimony to the same events.
(iv). The earliest reports include embarrassing details
Fourth, the reports of Jesus’ resurrection in the Gospels do not hide potentially embarrassing elements in the story. In a male-dominated culture, for example, all four Gospels record that it was women who were the first eye-witnesses of the empty tomb, or of the risen Jesus himself (Matt 28.1-10; Mark 16.1-8; Luke 24.1-12; John 20.1, 11-18). The first century Jewish historian, Josephus, reflects the general attitude of the day when he says, “From women let no evidence be accepted, because of the levity and temerity of their sex” (Jewish Antiquities 4.219). In this context, we have to ask why the Gospel writers would have chosen women as the first eye-witnesses of the resurrection, unless that’s what actually happened? The inclusion of this kind of potentially embarrassing detail provides strong evidence for the reliability of the accounts.
(v). The earliest reports are remarkably restrained
Fifth, the reports of Jesus’ resurrection are remarkable for their restraint. It is significant that none of the New Testament reports actually narrates the moment of the resurrection. These earliest sources stand out, therefore, when compared to later would-be Christian writings, which freely provide the “missing” details. For example, the so-called Gospel of Peter, from the late second century, narrates – with the best of tabloid sensationalism – how the stone rolled itself away from the tomb, how Jesus emerged accompanied by two men whose heads “reached to heaven,” and how a flying cross hovered above the risen Jesus and spoke of his completed mission! In contrast, the New Testament accounts do not report Jesus’ exit from the tomb. They report only what the eye-witnesses actually saw. They are remarkably restrained and so all the more believable.
(vi). The earliest reports are hard to explain on the basis of contemporary parallels
Sixth, the reports of Jesus’ resurrection are difficult to explain on the basis of parallels in first century Graeco-Roman or Jewish culture. In the Graeco-Roman world the most widespread view was that, at death, people simply ceased to exist. This was reflected in the common epitaph: “I wasn’t, I was, I am not, I don’t care”. Even in those strands of Graeco-Roman culture which entertained some idea of an afterlife, this was thought of in terms of a shadowy disembodied existence in “Hades”. In the Jewish world, likewise, the idea of bodily resurrection was discounted by the Sadducees (eg. Mark 12.18; Acts 23.6-8). The Pharisees and Essenes, for their part, did look forward to bodily resurrection, but they expected the resurrection of all of God’s people at the end of history, not the resurrection of one man, ahead of the rest, in the middle of history. The reports of Jesus’ resurrection, therefore, cannot easily be explained on the basis of parallels in first century culture.
(vi). The early Christians were willing to die for their claim that Jesus rose
Finally, the authors of the earliest Christian reports of the resurrection clearly believed what they wrote. Paul, whose letters provide the earliest surviving witness to the resurrection, was executed in Rome under the emperor Nero. Peter, whose teaching was the primary source for the Gospel of Mark, was likewise martyred. Indeed, nearly all of Jesus’ first disciples were persecuted and even executed for their confession. We have to ask ourselves: if these earliest followers of Jesus knew that he had not been raised, why would they die for a lie? They had little to gain and everything to lose from their claim that Jesus was alive. Their lives, and their deaths, lend authenticity to the records they left behind.
If these earliest followers of Jesus knew that he had not been raised, why would they die for a lie?
Resurrection and the question of God
None of this evidence “proves” that Jesus rose from the dead. But it does mean that the possibility that Jesus actually rose cannot be dismissed out of hand.
As the Jewish theologian Pinchas Lapide once wrote: “If the defeated and depressed group of disciples overnight could change into a victorious movement of faith, based only on autosuggestion or self-deception—without a fundamental faith experience—then this would be a much greater miracle than the resurrection itself”. The rise of early Christianity as a messianic movement within Judaism, even despite the execution of its founder, requires historical explanation. The explanation provided by the earliest Christians was that Jesus did not stay dead, but was raised to life. This historical claim demands attention. The evidence for its reliability is strong. The resurrection of Jesus, therefore, remains the best historical explanation for why the “Jesus movement” continued even after his crucifixion. It is too much to claim that this historical evidence proves the existence of God. But it is, perhaps, not too much to hope that it might provide at least some cause for reflection. If an atheistic worldview cannot account for the evidence before us, perhaps the foundations of that worldview should be reconsidered.
The explanation provided by the earliest Christians was that Jesus did not stay dead, but was raised to life. This historical claim demands attention. The evidence for its reliability is strong.
The Resurrection of Jesus: a Jewish Perspective. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1983, 126.
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.