In a previous article, I explained why historians cannot reject the possibility of miracles. A historian ought to evaluate the historical record and follow the evidence wherever it leads, rather than dismiss one set of possible explanations—namely, divine intervention—by default.
This Sunday is Easter or Resurrection Sunday, a perfect opportunity to practice the principle outlined above. The linchpin of the Christian faith is that Jesus rose from the dead after he was executed by Roman authority. Herein lies the strength (or weakness) of the Christian message: Jesus’s resurrection is a historical claim, and on historical investigation, it stands or falls.
In this article, I present the historical data surrounding the death and alleged resurrection of Jesus, using Gary Habermas’s book The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus. Habermas, a historian and New Testament scholar at Liberty University, uses a minimal facts approach; that is, he lists facts which the overwhelming majority of scholars—from liberal atheists and skeptics to conservative theists—agree to be historical. The work of any honest thinker must be to infer the best explanation for these facts.
Below, I have summarized the five facts regarding Jesus that any judgement of the resurrection’s historicity must take into account.
Fact #1: Jesus died by crucifixion.
Historians agree that Jesus was crucified between 30-33 A.D. Not only do all four Gospel accounts record Jesus’s crucifixion under Pontius Pilate, but five sources outside the New Testament corroborate it as well. Because of the multiple, independent attestations to Jesus’s crucifixion, even skeptic John Dominic Crossan of the Jesus Seminar argued that the contention that Jesus “was crucified is as sure as anything historical can ever be” (Habermas 49).
Fact #2: Jesus’s disciples believed that he rose and appeared to them.
We can be certain that the resurrection was integral to the original disciples’ message, given (1) the testimony of Paul, who knew the original disciples and states that they claimed to have seen Jesus risen; (2) oral tradition, which predates the writings of the New Testament and reports that disciples proclaimed the resurrection; and (3) written tradition, which shows or assumes that the disciples claimed to see Jesus after his death.
Moreover, the original disciples proved they believed their claim of Jesus’s resurrection by willingly suffering for it. The original disciples suffered persecution, imprisonment, torture, and death because they preached that Jesus had appeared to them after His death. Paula Fedrikson of Boston University (a skeptic) concludes: “I know in [the disciples’] own terms that they saw the raised Jesus. That’s what they say and then all the historical evidence we have afterwards attest to their conviction that that’s what they saw. I’m not saying that they really did see the raised Jesus. […] But I do know as a historian that they must have seen something” (Habermas 60).
Fact #3: Paul, a church persecutor, suddenly changed.
By Paul’s own writings, he was a Pharisee who thought that Jesus was a blasphemer and that all Christians should be condemned to die. He arrested many Christians and approved of the mob killing of Stephen, an early leader of the Church. Then, Paul suddenly became a Christian. Why? He claims Jesus appeared to him. For Paul’s conversion and subsequent preaching that Jesus had risen, Paul was imprisoned, whipped, beaten, stoned, and ultimately beheaded. Paul went from being an enemy of Jesus to a devoted follower after, as Paul claims, Jesus appeared to him alive.
Fact #4: The skeptic James, the brother of Jesus, suddenly changed.
James went from being skeptical of Jesus during Jesus’s lifetime to a Christian leader after Jesus’s death. Why? Jesus reportedly appeared to James alive after his crucifixion. Scholars agree that James’s conversion is strongly supported by the evidence, because (1) the Gospel accounts record that James did not believe in Jesus while Jesus was alive, (2) early creeds report that Jesus appeared to James after his death, and (3) Paul identifies James as a church leader. James confirmed his commitment to Jesus by dying for his newfound faith. The conversions of both Paul and James—neither one an original disciple of Jesus—show that enemies and skeptics also came to believe that Jesus rose from the dead after claiming that Jesus appeared to them. These conversions were based on personal appearances of Jesus after he died.
Fact #5: A group of Jesus’s women followers found his tomb to be empty.
This fact does not enjoy the same overwhelming consensus as the other four. Still, 75% of scholars accept as historical at least one of the following evidences for the empty tomb:
1) It would be impossible for Christianity to flourish in Jerusalem had the tomb been occupied.
Jesus was publicly executed in Jerusalem, the exact place where his resurrection was first proclaimed. If the tomb had been occupied, would not Jesus’s Jewish and Roman opponents have exposed the “nasty superstition” by parading his body through the streets? Jesus’s enemies did not produce a body because there was no body to produce.
2) The empty tomb is enemy attested.
When the disciples first proclaimed that Jesus rose from the dead, Jesus’s enemies accused the disciples of stealing Jesus’s body. This accusation implicitly admits that his body was no longer in the tomb.
3) Women’s testimony as the primary witnesses for the empty tomb is an unlikely invention.
Both Jews and non-Jews at this time thought that women were untrustworthy. Their testimony was not admissible in the courts. The fact that the disciples’ accounts include the detail that women first discovered the empty tomb lends vitality to their claim. Why would the disciples include what their culture considered an embarrassing detail if they desired only to start a movement and not record accurate history?
In summary, the historical picture is clear: Jesus died on the cross. Shortly after, his disciples and even enemies and skeptics came to sincerely believe that Jesus had appeared to them alive. There are also good reasons to believe Jesus’s tomb was found empty three days after his death. The job of any intellectually honest thinker is to infer the best explanation. In other words, what theory best accounts for what we know to be true based on the historical record? The resurrection of Jesus is the best explanation of these facts. Jesus died, his body stayed dead for three days, he resurrected, he left his tomb empty, and he physically interacted with people and convinced disciples, enemies, and skeptics that he was alive. All historical details are accounted for. Alternate theories have to deny one or more of these facts, and they lack evidential support.
Could the disciples be lying? This theory must deny Fact #2. The disciples claimed that Jesus had appeared to them alive after his death, and they proved their sincerity by suffering for it. No one willingly suffers for something he knows is false. In addition, this theory cannot account for the conversions of Paul and James, which were not based on the disciples’ testimony but on post-crucifixion appearances.
Could the disciples, Paul, and James all be hallucinating? Hallucinations are not group occurrences, and the earliest reports say that Jesus appeared to groups of people, even up to 500 people at once! The hallucination theory fails to adequately explain Jesus’s group appearances or the empty tomb.
Could Jesus have merely fainted on the cross? The Swoon theory may explain the post-resurrection appearances and the empty tomb. But because this theory denies Fact #1, it is almost universally rejected today.
Could the resurrection have resulted from legendary development? Scholars date the creed in 1 Corinthians 15—which lists Jesus’s resurrection appearances—back to within two to three years of the cross. The Church preached the resurrection very early on, much too early for legend to wipe out historical fact. In addition, the legend theory cannot account for the switch from Saturday to Sunday worship in the early Church. The first Christians were faithful Jews. Why change their day of worship on a whim?
The best explanation for the five facts remains the resurrection hypothesis. If the disciples, James, and Paul were not mad, mistaken, or lying, then they must have been telling the truth. Jesus had appeared to them after his death, and it was their confidence that they had seen Jesus that allowed them to preach so boldly in the face of persecution and death.The linchpin of Christianity rests on solid ground. Not only is the resurrection a reasonable inference given the historical record, it is the most reasonable inference anyone has come up with for the past two thousand years.
*The views expressed in this article solely represent the views of the author, not the views of the Chicago Thinker.