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.
Here is what we need:
1. Internal Evidence: Evidence coming from within the primary witness documents, the New Testament.
2. External Evidence: Collaborative evidence coming from outside the primary witness documents.
- Irrelevant Details
- Public Extraordinary Claims
- Lack of Motivation for Fabrication
The entire Bible records both successes and failures of the heroes. I have always been impressed by this. It never paints the glorious picture that you would expect from legendary material, but shows them 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, Lot committed incest, John the Baptist doubted, Abraham doubted, Sarah doubted, Nicodemus doubted, Thomas doubted, Jonah ran, Samson self-served, 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! (ahem).
And these are the Jews who wrote the Bible!
In addition, the most faithful are seen as suffering the most (Joseph, 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. Even after the resurrection, they still present themselves 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 anything in the first century. If someone were making this up, why include such an incriminating detail? (I am glad they did—what an Easter message this is for us today!)
The Gospel writers (especially John) contain many elements to their story that are really irrelevant to the big picture. Normally, when someone is making a story up, 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 (HT: Gregory Boyd, but modified):
“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 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 write 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. Many people are disturbed by the seeming disharmony among the Gospels since the Gospel writers do not include all the same details. However, this is actually a mark of historicity since if they all said exactly the same thing, it would be a sign that they made it up. However, 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. 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.
Lack of Motive for Fabrication:
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. Therefore, for this idea to arise as a fabrication at this time in history would have been about the most counterproductive story anyone could have made up.
It could not have been an illusion, for illusions do not happen in mass over time. It could not have been a case of mistaken identity (i.e., they merely thought they saw Christ), since it is impossible 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. 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 could not have been made up since all the objectors (and there were plenty of them) had to do was to produce a body.
Next I will cover the external evidence.
C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger.
Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I’m a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]