The resurrection is vital to Christianity. It’s like a form of litmus test, where if the resurrection is shown to be false, then the rest of Christianity follows as false. If the resurrection is shown to be true, then Jesus’ teachings, including the inerrancy of the Bible and sole means of salvation through Him, follows as true. Unfortunately, the Romans of the first century AD did not have cameras to provide a photographic or video record of the resurrection. We’ll have to rely on the study of the past to answer that question. So, can we use historical information to show Christ rose from the dead?
How do historians study the past?
Let’s take a look at how historians study the past, looking at source criticism. Dictionary.com defines it as
The analysis and study of the sources used by biblical authors.
In “A Guide to Historical Method” Garraghan and Delanglez have divided this concept into six parts
When was the source, written or unwritten, produced (date)?
Where was it produced (localization)?
By whom was it produced (authorship)?
From what pre-existing material was it produced (analysis)?
In what original form was it produced (integrity)?
What is the evidential value of its contents (credibility)?
This idea was deepened in “An Introduction to Historical Methods” by Bernheim and Langlois & Seignobos. In the context of a procedure for contradictory sources, they devised a seven-step procedure
If the sources all agree about an event, historians can consider the event proved.
However, majority does not rule; even if most sources relate events in one way, that version will not prevail unless it passes the test of critical textual analysis.
The source whose account can be confirmed by reference to outside authorities in some of its parts can be trusted in its entirety if it is impossible similarly to confirm the entire text.
When two sources disagree on a particular point, the historian will prefer the source with most “authority”—that is the source created by the expert or by the eyewitness.
Eyewitnesses are, in general, to be preferred especially in circumstances where the ordinary observer could have accurately reported what transpired and, more specifically, when they deal with facts known by most contemporaries.
If two independently created sources agree on a matter, the reliability of each is measurably enhanced.
When two sources disagree and there is no other means of evaluation, then historians take the source which seems to accord best with common sense.
Finally, in seeking to determine core principles for determining reliability, Olden-Jørgensen and Thurén developed the final seven principles we’ll look at
Human sources may be relics such as a fingerprint; or narratives such as a statement or a letter. Relics are more credible sources than narratives.
Any given source may be forged or corrupted. Strong indications of the originality of the source increase its reliability.
The closer a source is to the event which it purports to describe, the more one can trust it to give an accurate historical description of what actually happened.
An eyewitness is more reliable than testimony at second hand, which is more reliable than hearsay at further remove, and so on.
If a number of independent sources contain the same message, the credibility of the message is strongly increased.
The tendency of a source is its motivation for providing some kind of bias. Tendencies should be minimized or supplemented with opposite motivations.
If it can be demonstrated that the witness or source has no direct interest in creating bias then the credibility of the message is increased.
The first set of principles from A Guide to Historical Method, as they relate to the Bible, were covered in another post on its reliability. For any other Roman or secular documents mentioned, they will be those that have already been accepted by main stream scholars as trusted.
I think the relevant criteria with which historians would judge the resurrection are contained in the second and third sets of principles above. These will be touched on throughout the rest of the post.
Can we prove Jesus rose from the dead using the historical method?
Once the logical theories which oppose the supernatural resurrection are shown to be false, the conclusion Christ rose on the third day will follow as true. Any further illogical theory would simply not hold any weight. However, if you feel I’m missing a theory which does carry weight, please let me know. I’d love to have a discussion.
Again, I believe the second and third sets of principles discussed above will also follow within the reasoning below.
We will be looking into the veracity of four main area
- Jesus’ death on the cross and burial in a tomb.
- The tomb was empty three days later and no one ever produced His body.
- Those who saw Jesus resurrected from the dead in multiple post ressurection appearances.
- The origin of Christianity, spread by disciples who were transformed following their resurrection observations.
Death on the cross and burial in a tomb
Christ’s death by crucifixion is perhaps the best attested historical fact of His life. The existence of Jesus as a real historical figure was covered at length in another post. Within that post multiple non-Christian sources were cited, many discussing the crucifixion. This is in addition to the accounts in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John and the letters of Paul.
Additionally, Roman soldiers would face death if they allowed a prisoner to survive crucifixion. I doubt the soldiers would have been mistaken when removing Jesus from the cross if their lives depended on it. It’s something they had done before. If the soldiers noticed the prisoners still appeared to be alive, they would break the prisoners legs to ensure death would follow. This occurred for the two other prisoners who were crucified with Jesus. Jesus, thought to be already dead, did not have his legs broken. Instead, the soldiers piecered his side. When Jesus’ side was punctured, water and blood came out. This combination of fluids medically supports that Jesus died on the cross.
Therefore, theories that say Jesus was not dead and managed to survive to later recover in the tomb do not hold weight. Furthermore, given the torture Jesus endured, there is no way three days later He could have been up, looking healthy, and walking around as described.
The burial and subsequent empty tomb can be shown to be the most likely conclusion through a variety of means. Rudolph Pesch, a German theologion who has intently studied Mark, has determined the empty tomb account is based on a source that originated within seven years of the resurrection. This is unbelievably early by historical standards. His reasoning dealing with the high priest of that time
This implies that Caiaphas, who we know was high priest at that time, was still high priest when the story began circulating.” For “if it had been written after Caiaphas’ term of office, his name would have had to have been used to distinguish him from the next high priest. But since Caiaphas was high priest from A.D. 18 to 37, this story began circulating no later than A.D. 37, within the first seven years after the events,
Can we say for sure Jesus’ body was placed in the tomb?
The source used by Mark mentioned above also confirms this and goes on to confirm the empty tomb as well. Additionally, Joseph of Arimathea is not the type of person the disciples would have used if they were concocting a story. They would have been far more likely to shift blame to the Jewish council rather than having someone step up to provide their tomb. Therefore, the likely conclusion is Christ’s body was indeed placed inside the tomb of Jospeh of Arimathea. Even Atheist Jeffrey Jay Lowder concludes in “Historical Evidence and the Empty Tomb Story: A Reply to William Lane Craig”
the burial of Jesus by Joseph of Arimathea has a high final probability
The empty tomb
Given the confidence in Christ’s death and burial, there are only a few theories which could carry any weight regarding the empty tomb which stand in opposition to what’s found in the Bible. These theories are that someone stole the body or the body was still in the tomb.
Couldn’t the body have been stolen? This is incredibly unlikely. The Roman and Jewish authorities would have had absolutely nothing to gain by removing the body. It was in their best interest to keep it there and provide proof that Jesus was dead. They were aware He had said He would rise. If the body was stolen, it could have only been by Jesus’ disciples. The Roman authorities had placed guards at the tomb to prevent this from happening.
The disciples were in hiding and fearing for their lives. They were not about to provoke a fight for the tomb, nor do any records exist, from the Bible or the Romans that cite a fight at the tomb.
We have multiple sources confirming the discovery of the empty tomb in the Gospels. But couldn’t the disciples have made their stories up? The veracity of the Gospels is covered in another section. That aside, the Gospels record a group of women discovering the empty tomb.
In those times, women had many less rights than they do now. They weren’t even trusted as witnesses in a court of law. It then follows as illogical the disciples would pen these details unless they were recording actual events. If you were making the story up to persuade people of your time, rather than recording what you saw happen, would you make up that the women were brave enough to venture near the Roman guards while the men cowered in hiding?
If the body had still been in the tomb, the Roman and Jewish authorities would have immediately produced it to disprove what the apostles were saying. They were never able to. The local people would have easily known if the apostles were lying.
The only logical conclusion is that Christ was buried and, three days later, was no longer within the unraided tomb.
Appearances after death in a resurrected body
There are many independent accounts of single people and groups of people seeing Jesus after the crucifixion. Within the following verse, Paul writes what scholars recognize as a creed said by early Christians. This creed dates within only a few years of the event.
Regarding this creed, Jewish Scholar Pinchahs Lapide said, it
may be considered the statement of eyewitnesses.
This early creed also prevents there to be time for the development of myth or legend to be associated with these accounts as some theories would suggest. An Oxford historian specializing in ancient Roman and Greek history studied how myth and legend are spread and evolve in the ancient world. He concluded even two generations are not adequate to wipe out historical facts. There were simply too many witnesses and records, especially given the incredibly rapid spread immediately following the resurrection.
The only conclusion would be that the apostles either recorded what they saw or lied. The hypothesis that the apostles lied and made up the resurrection falls apart once we observe what happened to the apostles. There are eleven early sources which attest to the suffering and death the apostles faced. Why, if they knew they were making it up, would the apostles face horrible deaths? All they would have to do is admit they were lying about the resurrection and they would be spared. Many have died for what they believed to be true, regardless of the actual truth behind their beliefs. However, people aren’t willing to be martyred for something they know they’ve invented. Would you give up your life for a lie? Are we to believe ten of the apostles did just that, or is the more logical conclusion being they truly believed they saw the risen Christ and it transformed their lives?
The apostles could have honestly believed they saw Jesus when they wrote their accounts, but what if they were hallucinating or saw an imposter? Both of these scenarios follow as incredibly unlikely to be true once examined. There have never been any reported group hallucinations, ever. Additionally, these would have to be widespread in terms of who had them, how long they had them, and when they had them while also being identical in nature. That is a preposterous idea. Furthermore, if it was a hallucination, what happened to the body of Jesus?
The imposter scenario is also unlikely for a few reasons. First, the imposter would have had to look, sound, and act incredibly like Jesus. Given there were no recordings of Jesus, this person logically would have had to follow Christ around to gain this knowledge. Therefore, I think the apostles would already be familiar with such an individual. Jesus showed where the nails had pinned him to the cross. Hard to fake and hard to believe someone would pierce their own legs and wrists, let alone be able to heal so fast in a way that would match whats found in the Gospels. The imposter also could not have done things like suddenly appear in a locked room.
Finally, Jesus shared further teachings with the apostles after the resurrection. No one would have a better grasp on the material than the apostles. An imposter would have made mistakes they would have caught on to. All of this suggests the theories of an imposter or hallucinations could not be true.
The spread of Christianity
Christianity spread incredibly rapidly out of first century Israel. Within a generation, Christianity had spread over Europe, Asia, and Africa. Scholars are in agreement with these facts. Interestingly, not all those close to Jesus were completely convinced of who He was until after the resurrection. Jesus’ own half brother James did not become a believer until after he saw Christ resurrected. He ended up being martyred for this belief. What other event, besides seeing Christ alive again, would cause these men to devote the short rest of their lives to spreading this message? Scholars agree the disciples saw something. I believe once the evidence and thoughts above are taken into consideration, the fact that they saw Christ risen is the most probable and best describes what we know. They, in most cases, went to their deaths declaring the message of the Gospel. The exception being John who was banished to an island for the remainder of his life.
The resurrection has an incredibly strong record surrounding it. Multiple, early sources with conflicting interests record the same events. Christ died on the cross and His body was no longer in the tomb it was buried in three days later. Within that small region, these matching accounts flowed out accompanied by the testimony of over 500 people to having seen Jesus risen.
The Gospels represent multiple eyewitness accounts of the same event. We have them through letters, manuscripts, and scrolls rather than just passed down narrative. As covered in depth within another post, these accounts are consistent with an eyewitness account of observed events. Not only that but, as laid out in another post, we know we’re reading what the apostles actually wrote.
The Gospels are consistent with the apostles having observed Jesus die and rise again. The theories in opposition fall apart upon further analysis. If you can accept the supernatural aspect, everything else falls directly in place as the most logical, common sense conclusion.
Christ has risen!
Repent and be saved!