(NOTE TO READER: We are going to do something special for Easter and attempt to encourage each other instead of getting into eternal debates which need heavy moderation (which we have already done on the non-revised version of this article). I want everyone to comment, believer and skeptic alike. But all I want you to post is what you personally find to be the most convincing evidence about the resurrection. It could be something listed here or it could be something else. All comments that don’t follow this rule will not be approved.)
Just as we test the historicity of any event, not through emotional conviction, but with historical evidence, I would like to devote some time to laying out a brief historical case for the Resurrection of Christ, the central issue of the Christian faith. If Christ rose from the grave, it is all true and we just have to work out the details. If Christ did not raise from the grave, Christians are to be pitied (1 Cor. 15:13-19).
Here is what we need:
1. Internal Evidence: Evidence coming from within the primary witness documents.
In this case, the primary witness documents are the twenty-seven works that make up the corpus that Christianity has traditionally called the New Testament with the most particular emphasis on the Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Please not that these works stand or fall individually from an historical standpoint. The corpus or canon called the “Bible,” the “Scriptures,” or “the New Testament” is a theological designation, and one the historian must ignore. Therefore, they provide twenty-seven sources of documentation, not one.
2. External Evidence: Collaborative evidence coming from outside the primary witness documents.
This includes writings that substantiate historical claims through cross-referencing, archeological witness, and the witness of cultural impact. Some historians may include the non-Gospel works of the New Testament in this category (i.e. 1 Peter, Pauline epistles, etc.). However, since most of the works seem to come from eye-witnesses of the events in question, it is proper to keep them primary.
- Irrelevant Details
- Public Extraordinary Claims
- Lack of Motivation for Fabrication
I am not going to spend the time up front to catalogue references to the bodily resurrection of Christ, explicit and implicit, in the primary witness documents. While there are some who would dispute that a bodily resurrection is even being proclaimed, they are such a minority that it is not worth mentioning in this short defense. Let us just assume that the authors of the Gospels and Acts, the Pauline epistles, and the general epistles (including Revelation) proclaim and assume a resurrected Jesus.
One option to explain the rise of the resurrection story is that they are all embellishments. In this case, everyone involved fabricated this story in the first century. Therefore, it is a lie.
However, genrally speaking. a hallmark of embellishments and fabrications is that they display people (usually the author[s] along with associates of the authors) in a positive light, focusing primarily on their successes and triumphs. A hallmark of true history, on the other hand, is that it will often contain accounts that might cause some embarrassment. This is what we find in our own life. Rarely do people confess to a short-coming that is not true. If a student confesses to her teacher that she cheated on the test, the teacher has every reason to believer her and not accuse her of lying. However, when a teacher confronts a student, asking them if they have cheated, and the student says they have not, there is often continued reason to suspect foul play as people are more apt to covering up their sin rather than bringing them to light.
Let me back up for a moment and talk about the nature of the majority of the Scriptural witness, both Old and New Testament. With the possible exception of a couple of books the Scriptures are incredible transparent and very often self-indicting. It records both successes and failures of the heroes. It never paints the glorious picture that you often expect from embellished material, but shows the authors and their close associates in all their worst moments. The Israelites whined, David murdered, Peter denied, the apostles abandoned Christ in fear, Moses became angry, Jacob deceived, Noah got drunk, Adam and Eve disobeyed, Paul persecuted, Solomon worshiped idols, Abraham was a bigamist, Joseph was a bragger, Lot committed incest, John the Baptist—the greatest man who ever lived according to Christ–doubted in his final hour, Abraham doubted and lied, Sarah doubted and laughed at God, Nicodemus doubted, Thomas doubted, Jonah ran, Samson . . . I don’t know how Samson made the cut, and John, at the very end of the story, when he should have had it all figured out, worshiped an angel (Rev 22:8). I love it! I have never seen or heard of such a pitiful history as the book of Judges. It is very rare that historical embellishments would consistently claim such negative character indictments, especially when it is the Jews, who normally come across as very prideful, who wrote these books about their own history and then accepted them into their religious canon.
In addition (continuing with all the Scriptures), the most faithful are seen as suffering the most (Joseph, Daniel, Job, and Lazarus), while the wicked are seen as prospering (the rich man). In the case of the Gospels, the disciples who recorded it claimed to have abandoned Christ and did not believe in His resurrection when told. Whether one believes that it is the disciples who wrote it or not, this is still remarkable as it does not produce good character witnesses. Even after the resurrection, the disciples are still presented as completely ignorant of God’s plan (Acts 1:6-7). Women are the first to witness the resurrection which has an element of self-incrimination since a woman’s testimony was not worth too much in the first century. If someone were making this up, why include such an incriminating detail?
(The primary departure from this, although in the OT, is 1 and 2 Chronicles which does hide some of King David’s failures. But, even then, the accounts are not promising for Israel as a whole).
One last thing that I think belongs in this category: None of the Gospel writers give their names. In other words, the reason why we believe Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (two disciples and two colleagues of the disciples) wrote the Gospels is due to early tradition. Even John simply refers to himself as “the one whom Jesus loved.” Initial reaction is one of skepticism (even though the traditions are very early). Why didn’t they include their names? Some take this as evidence that they did not write these books. However, there is another way to look at this. I believe that it is a significant mark of genuineness. The MO of the day, many believe, was to write pseudopigrapha. Pseudopigrapha are writings that seek to gain credibility by falsely attributing their work to another of more prominent stature. It would be like me writing a book and saying it was by Chuck Swindoll in order for it to sell more copies. Pseudopigrapha normally came late (hundreds of years) after the death of the supposed author. However, since the Gospel writers did not include their name, it demonstrates that they were not following this model of fabrication. This actually adds another mark of historical credibility. Why would they leave their names out if it was a fabrication? If these works were not really by them, they would have no hope of acceptance.
Irrelevant Details: The Gospel writers (especially John) include many elements to their story that are really irrelevant to the big picture. Normally, when someone is making up a story, they include only the details that contribute to the fabrication. Irrelevant details are a mark of genuineness in all situations.
Notice this small segment of the Gospel of John 20:1-8 (adapted from Gregory Boyd):
“Early on the first day of the week (when? does it matter?), while it was still dark (who cares?), Mary Magdalene (an incriminating detail) went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one who Jesus loved (John’s modest way of referring to himself—another mark of genuineness) and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb and we don’t know where they have taken him!” (note her self-incriminating lack of faith here). So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. They were running, but the other disciple out ran Peter and reached the tomb first (who cares who won the race? a completely irrelevant detail). He bent over (irrelevant, but the tomb entrance was low—a detail which is historically accurate of wealthy people of the time—the kind we know Jesus was buried in) and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in (why not? irrelevant detail). Then Simon Peter, who was behind him, arrived and went into the tomb (Peter’s boldness stands out in all the Gospel accounts). He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus’ head (irrelevant and unexpected detail—what was Jesus wearing?). The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen (somewhat irrelevant and unusual. Jesus folded one part of his wrapping before he left!). Finally the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went inside (who cares about what exact order they went in?)
The best example I can think of is the polar bear. What? Okay, only those of you who watched the television series Lost will get this. In the first season, there was a polar bear in the show. We all wondered why it was there on the island. How did it get there? What is the meaning of the polar bear? How is it going to fit into the big picture of the story? These are all legitimate questions that many of us sat on the edge of our seat for five seasons waiting to get the answers to. However, the polar bear (along with so many other incidentals) were never explained. There was a great outcry because there were so many questions left unanswered. So many irrelevant details that remained irrelevant. The reason why the outcry was legitimate was because in fictional (or fabricated) stories, details are never irrelevant. They are written into the script and have a purpose that supports the whole of the fictional story. However, if the show Lost were not fictional but historical, the irrelevant details would be expected. True history does not have to work itself out into a paradigm of the story arch. When irrelevant details are present, while not conclusive, it does speak to the historicity of the story.
Related to this are all the obscurities that go unanswered. Why did Jesus intend to pass the Apostles when walking on water? What does Paul mean about “those baptized for the dead”? What exactly are the keys to the kingdom that Peter is given? Why did Jesus say that Nicodemus should have known about the new birth concept? Why was there this “Messianic Secret” that Christ attempted to kept close to himself? Why didn’t Christ correct legitimate misunderstanding about his teachings? Many of these can be answered once we look for the answers in the entire canon, but they don’t make much sense if each story is an individual embellishment.
Harmony: The four Gospel writers claim to have witnessed the resurrected Christ. The same is the case for most of the other writers of the NT. The four Gospel writers all record of the same event from differing perspectives. Although they differ in details, they are completely harmonious to the main events surrounding the resurrection, and all claim that it is an historical event. This is important as many will claim that the differences in the resurrection narratives discredit the whole of the story. But this is not how a historian looks at the evidence. The historian expects there to be significant differences, sometimes seemingly beyond reconciliation. But when there is harmony in the main events, this adds credibility to those main events. If every Gospel looked exactly the same with perfect face-value harmonization, this would actually discredit the story some as it would look like the authors collaborated in order to get their “story” straight. The Gospel writers contain just enough disharmony to give it a mark of genuine historicity.
Public Extraordinary Claims: The Bible records that the resurrection of Christ happened and gives the time, place, people involved, and it names many of the witnesses. In other words, the extraordinary claims were not done in secret as would be the case if it were fabricated. Look to all the ancient myths and you will see how obscure the mythology has to be in order to claim historicity (when and if it does). Why? Because if you give too many details of times, people, and places it can be easily disproven. If it was a fabrication, the author should have said only one person knew about it. He should have said it happened in a cave or a place no one has ever heard of. We have those type of stories that start religions. It produces an element of non-falsefiability.
I made this graphic last month that caused quite a bit of a stir. It is appropriate to post it here:
As Paul says to King Agrippa, “For the king knows about these matters [concerning the resurrection of Christ], and I speak to him also with confidence, since I am persuaded that none of these things escape his notice; for this has not been done in a corner (Act 26:26). The idea was that to make such extraordinary claims that were so easy to falsify would be foolish. The publicity and the nature of the miracle creates an historic falsifiability that is nearly impossible to explain within the embellishment framework.
Lack of Motive for Fabrication: Just about every fabrication, lie, or wrong doing has a motive. This is why finding the motive in criminal cases for a crime is very important. However, with the originators of the resurrection story, there is no reasonable explanation as to why the Apostles (or anyone for that matter) would have made up such a story. They had no popularity, power, or riches to gain from it if it was a lie. They were in constant persecution because of their confession, and finally, most met a terrible death, sealing their testimony in blood.
Beyond this, it was culturally unacceptable at all levels to have a crucified and resurrected Messiah. The Jews certainly were not expecting their Messiah to be crucified. The Greek world would have nothing but disdain for the idea of a bodily resurrection since, from their perspective, the material body was something from which we desire to escape. Therefore, for this idea to arise as a fabrication at this time in history and to have spread this message into a Hellenized world would have been about the most counterproductive story anyone could have made up.
Because of the overwhelming evidence that the resurrection story was not made up, many have gone a different route, believing that the Apostles and Paul shared a common existential experience or an illusion. But this would take more blind faith than believing that Christ rose. There is simply no credible case of two people having the same illusion, much less dozens. Besides this, the mass illusion story would just be rejecting one miracle that demands transcendence (Christ’s resurrection) for another miracle that demand divine transcendence (mass illusions).
Others think the Apostles just thought that Christ rose, but who they saw was not really Christ. This would have been a case of mass mistaken identity. However this theory fails to explain how this many witnesses could be mistaken about seeing someone dead and buried, and then seeing the same person alive three days later. These guys were with Christ for many years. How could they have made such a big mistake and then wasted their entire lives on something as simple as a mistaken identity. This fails to find any parallel in human history and, like the other alternatives, presents bad history and even greater blind faith.
And it could not be that Christ did not really die, since the Romans were expert executioners, and many people helped in the burial process, wrapping Christ in burial cloths as was their custom. It is very unlikely that it could not have been made up since all the objectors (and there were plenty of them) had to do was to produce a body.
While the internal evidence looks to the evidence coming from within the primary witness documents, the external evidence seeks to find collaborative evidence coming from outside the primary witness documents.
For the resurrection of Christ, I submit this line of external evidence:
- Preservation of the Documents
- Extra-biblical Attestation
- Survival in a Hostile Environment
Preservation of the Documents:
This has to do with the manuscript evidence of the New Testament, the primary source documents concerning the resurrection. While we don’t have any of the originals in our possession (nor should we expect to), the manuscript evidence for the New Testament is very strong. According to top text critic Daniel Wallace, “We have an embarrassment of riches.” Not only do we have many of manuscripts that date before the fifth century, we also have many quotations from the early church fathers that alone could be used to reconstruct most of the New Testament. All of this tells us that the accounts that we read are essentially the same as the accounts that were originally given. While there are some differences among the manuscripts, even Bart Erhman, former Fundamentalist, text critic, and critic of Christianity, says that no major doctrine is effected by the differences.
In addition, and very significantly, the manuscript evidence tells us that the Gospel accounts of the resurrection were all written within a generation of the events which they record, giving evidence for their claims of eye-witness testimony. There has just been a new manuscript discovery of the Gospel of Mark that dates all the way back to the first century! This is incredible as it does away with so many of the alternative theories which have been held so tightly by skeptics over the centuries. There simply is not enough time for legendary material to arise.
The witness of archeology has continually confirmed the scriptural data. When there has been doubt in the past about the Gospel accounts (e.g., the existence of King David, etc.), later archaeological and historical finds seem to always confirm the Scriptures to be historically accurate.
As well, it cannot be overlooked that Christ’s remains were never found. This is an issue of archeology. Combined with the understanding that Christianity arose very early under the claim of Christ’s resurrection and that there were many detractors, the archaeological evidence of the historically empty tomb is important. Those who denied the resurrection in the first century could not produce a body (much less can those who deny it today). While this carries no independent substantive weight, it does collaborate with the resurrection story.
Over 39 sources outside of the twenty-seven in the New Testament corpus attest to more than 100 facts regarding the life and teachings of Jesus. Besides all of the early Apostolic Fathers (whose witness cannot be dismissed simply because they believed that Christ rose from the dead) are the Jewish and Roman historians.
There are numerous first and second-century extra-biblical writings that witness to the fact that Christians believed that Christ did extraordinary things, died on a cross, and rose from the grave: Josephus, Clement, Papias, Didache, Barnabas, Justin Martyr, Ignatius, Irenaeus, Hermas, Tatian, Theophilus, Athenagoras, Clement of Alexandria.
In reality though, “extra-biblical attestation” is not really the best word for this line of evidence. Really, it should be “collaborative attestation” since it is not attestation that is outside the Bible or even the New Testament that we are looking for, but collaborative evidence outside the respective document that is under historical investigation. Therefore, the New Testament itself provides more than enough collaborative support for the events of the resurrection since each of the twenty-seven documents must be seen as pieces of individual evidence that stand on their own. There is no reason, at this point, as I said at the beginning, to put them together in a single corpus called “The New Testament” and say that the corpus must find its own collaborative support. Mark supports Luke. John supports Matthew. Paul supports Acts. The point is that every New Testament book individually provides very strong collaborative evidence for the historicity of the resurrection.
As a side note, I am often humored by those who say that Christians must produce “secular” support for the resurrection, defining “secular” as those who are not believers. It is as if those who believed in the resurrection have less credit than those who did not believe in it. It would be like saying that in order for me to believe in the assassination of John F. Kennedy, I have to have evidence from those who do not believe that he was assassinated and that those who do not believe it are more credible than those who do. However, as in the case of the resurrection, if it truly happened, then we would expect the closest people to the evidence to believe it rather than not believe it. Therefore, to deem “secular” or “skeptical” support as necessary and more trustworthy evidences is a bias that is too bent to come to objective conclusions.
Survival in a Hostile Environment:
The very fact that Christianity could have survived with such public and extraordinary truth claims is offered as a line of external evidence. That Christianity had its hostile objectors is supported by all the evidence, internal and external. The objectors of Christianity had every opportunity to expose the fabrication of the resurrection if it were truly a fabrication. The fact that those who were hostile to Christianity did not put forth a substantial or unified case against it adds to its historicity.
According to Gregory Boyd,
“Christianity was born in a very hostile environment. There were contemporaries who would have refuted the Gospel portrait of Jesus—if they could have. The leaders of Judaism in the first century saw Christianity as a pernicious cult and would have loved to see it stamped out. And this would have been easy to do—if the ‘cult’ had been based on fabrications. Why, just bringing forth the body of the slain Jesus would have been sufficient to extinguish Christianity once and for all. In spite of this, however, Christianity exploded. . . . Even those who remained opposed to Christianity did not deny that Jesus did miracles, and did not deny that His tomb was empty.” (Gregory Boyd, Letters from a Skeptic [Colorado Springs, CO: Cook Communication Ministries, 2003], 85-86).
And the witness of cultural impact in the first century is incredibly strong. In other words, if all of this occurred and there was not some type of impact such as the spread of this remarkable story, the conversion of people to its implication, and an ongoing sustained growth, then we might ask why such an event did not sustain a wave of effect equal to its claims. However, the spread and the sustained growth of Christianity evidences exactly what we would expect if the resurrection is true. And this has to be distinguished from the growth of other religions such as Islam since the central event that gave birth to the religion was not public, rested in the testimony of one man, and was not falsifiable. Many charismatic characters have been able to make cultural impacts, but this is not just a character we are talking about; it is a claim of a historic event that, if it happened, proves Christianity true.
Considering the internal and external arguments for the resurrection of Christ, I don’t ask anyone to look to one of these lines of evidence alone, but to consider the cumulative case. It is very impressive. If the resurrection indeed occurred, it would be hard to expect more evidence. In fact, what we would expect is exactly what we have.
Of course, alternatives to each one of these could be and have been offered. Alternatives to many well established historical events have been offered as well, including the Holocaust, the landing on the moon, and the death of Elvis. However, in most cases the alternatives go against the obvious. In the end, all alternatives explanations for the resurrection, while possible, are not probable and take a greater leap of faith than believing that Christ rose from the grave. The simplest explanation is always the best. The simplest explanation to the historic data here is that Christ did rise from the grave. Those who deny the resurrection do so not on the basis of the evidence, but because they have other presuppositions that won’t allow them to believe. The historical evidence is simply too strong.
I believe that any objective historian must look to the evidence for the resurrection of Christ and concluded that he is indeed risen.