It is possible to make a case for the resurrection of Jesus even if we totally ignore the Bible, and use only historical and often non-Christian documents as evidence. To make our case we must consider four points:
1. The death of Jesus
2. The burial of Jesus
3. The empty tomb
4. The eyewitnesses
The Death of Jesus
To prove that Jesus was resurrected, a good place to start is to prove that He died. Josephus, a first century Roman Jewish historian wrote:
‘When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us, had condemned him to be crucified’.
Tacitus, a second century Roman historian and senator wrote:
‘Christus... suffered the extreme penalty [ie crucifixion] during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of out procurators, Pontius Pilatus’.
These along with other sources make it fairly clear that Jesus existed, and was condemned to crucifixion by Pontius Pilate. In spite of this, some people claim that Jesus may have survived crucifixion. This is a fairly weak argument. It requires Jesus to have been beaten and whipped with a flagrum, an ordeal so painful that many died in the process - indeed Jesus was in so much pain afterwards that He was unable to carry His Cross up the hill. It then requires Him to be crucified, whilst wearing a crown of thorns, by a professional crucifixion team who, not only had they done this countless times before, but risked being put to death themselves if a victim survived. It requires Him to then survive a spear in the side (most likely into the heart), again by a professional execution team, and to have been transported to the tomb, where He woke up and managed to unwrap Himself from heavy cloths soaked in spices, which almost certainly would have suffocated Him had He still been alive. He then had to move a stone so heavy it took a team of Romans to roll into place, then overpower between two and fourteen hardened, trained and armed roman soldiers, and then run off and appear to his disciples.
However, some may cite Josephus’ account of a man who survived crucifixion. It is important to note that this man was one of three who were friends of Josephus. Upon seeing their execution he asked the roman governor, Titus, to take them down, and all three of them received the best medical attention of the day. Only one of them survived, and that was with medical attention and without having a spear thrust into his side.
The Burial of Jesus
Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, obtained Jesus’ body from Pilate for burial in Joseph’s own tomb. We know this from all four Gospels, but we can be fairly sure this is true as it is unlikely that the disciples would have invented the story that Jesus was buried by a well known person, whom people knew and check the account with. It’s especially unlikely it was invented seeing as he was a member of the Sanhedrin, who sentenced Jesus to death, so would have every reason to rebuke the disciples account if it were not true.
According to the record He was buried in Joseph’s private tomb, and his burial was witnessed by the women from Galilee and the two Marys. The tomb was new, so there could be no confusion about the body. It is also highly unlikely that the location of the tomb was lost. It was in Joseph of Arimathea’s private garden, and with the burial being witnessed by both Joseph and Joanna, wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household. With such important and intelligent people involved, it is unlikely that the location of the tomb was confused.
Finally, Jesus was wrapped in burial cloths containing up to 25kg of spices. If Jesus were alive then He almost certainly would have been suffocated by the cloths, and if He hadn’t been it is highly unlikely that He would have been able to unwrap Himself from them in His post-crucifixion state. The tomb was secured by Joseph by a large disc shaped stone that fitted into a groove in the side of the tomb. Fairly easy to roll into place, but requiring several men to roll away. The Jewish leaders had the stone officially sealed, and had a number of guards placed at the entrance of the tomb. This seems extremely likely, for a start the Jewish authorities circulated a story about the guards falling asleep when Jesus’ body went missing - which if anything proves there were guards and proves the tomb was empty. It also makes sense as something the authorities would do, they were very nervous about any claims that Jesus might not be dead.
The Empty Tomb
All four of the Gospels agree that the tomb was found empty when the Christian women came early in the morning on the first day of the week, so as to finish encasing Jesus’ body in spices. The gospels also agree that the disciples, upon investigating the women’s claims, also found the tomb empty. From this we gather that when early Christians talked of the resurrection of Jesus, they meant He had been genuinely resurrected in the same body - not a new and unconnected body. This is important as some theologians argue that Christian reports of the resurrection may be no more than mystical accounts of a spiritual resurrection - we know from the Gospels and from historical evidence that this is not what Christians claimed.
Next, what is interesting about the empty tomb is that the first people who told the world that the tomb was empty were the Jewish authorities - the last people who wanted it to be the case!
Matthew 28: 11 - While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. 12 When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, 13 telling them, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ 14 If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” 15 So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.
Although some argue about the authenticity of this story, saying that it may have been a myth created later, this is unlikely to be the case. We know that it was probably published around 60 AD, and it also has all the marks of being created for circulation among Jews (as indeed does the entire Gospel of Matthew). It would have been circulated around Jerusalem and beyond, so if it was a myth then people could easily check for themselves by checking the tomb to see if it’s empty or not. Assuming the story is true, then the only reason the Jewish authorities would have circulated the story if it was indeed true that the tomb was empty. If it hadn’t been, then they could simply have produced the body and Christianity would have been crushed there and then - Jesus was a celebrity after all.
However, what if the story is true, what if the guards did fall asleep? Well, it’s scarcely conceivable that the authorities would have trusted such a sensitive job to guards who would fall asleep on the job. We know there were up to 14 guards, so the idea that they all fell asleep at once makes this even more unlikely. And in any case, if they had fallen asleep then how would they have known what happened, and been able to identify the disciples as the culprits? This propaganda by the Jewish authorities is extremely compelling evidence for the empty tomb, they simply had absolutely no conceivable reason to lie about the tomb being empty if it wasn’t.
As a side note, an inscription found in the nineteenth century, dating to AD 30-40, contains the ‘Edict of Nazareth’ which proclaimed robbery or desecration of a tomb to be punishable by the death penalty. Historians believe that something pretty unusual must have happened around this time for such a severe edict to be issued - perhaps the robbery of Joseph’s tomb?
Next, we can consider the disciples explanation of the empty tomb. It cannot be emphasised enough how important this point is. These disciples died excruciating deaths, and most of them were Jews of the highest moral character. Is it really conceivable that they came up with the worlds most elaborate conspiracy theory, and died excruciating deaths for this belief? Well, people die for things they believe in all the time, a disbeliever might say - look at suicide bombers. But that’s exactly the point! People die for things they believe in, not lies they concocted.
Finally, the people involved make it even more unlikely that the disciples made up the story. The Gospels describe women, the two Marys and Salome. Seeing as women couldn’t even testify in a court at this time, it’s highly unlikely that if the story was made up that women would have been chosen as the first witnesses - it’s rather an embarrassing fact, which the disciples probably only put in because it was true.
As a final note, we can consider the physical evidence at the tomb, such as the grave cloths. Grave robbing was common in the ancient world, however the idea that Jesus’ tomb was robbed seems incredibly unlikely. Ignoring the armed guards outside, there is no reason for tomb robbers to have stolen Jesus’ body but to leave the grave cloths which were soaked in extremely valuable spices. Even if for some strange reason the tomb robbers had just wanted the body, then there’s no real reason for them to go to all the trouble of unwrapping Jesus’ body before taking it.
It is important to remember this third point very well. In the words of the historian, Sir Norman Anderson, “The empty tomb, then, forms a veritable rock on which all rationalistic theories of the resurrection dash themselves in vain.”
Christians did not, however, just assert that the tomb was empty. They claimed that Jesus had risen from the dead, and that they had seen, spoke to and even eaten with Him. Seeing as Jesus appeared to over 500 people it is almost certain that people believed there to be resurrection appearances - when Paul references them He encourages people to go and check with these people. However, atheists might say that these people had hallucinations. There are four reasons this is unlikely:
- Hallucinations usually appear to people of an imaginative temperament, but all the disciples were very different - from fishermen to tax collectors.
- Hallucinations tend to be of expected events, however the disciples did not expect to see Jesus - many of them were in hiding for example.
- Hallucinations tend to occur over a prolonged period, either increasing or decreasing. However Christ’s appearances occurred frequently over a period of 40 days then abruptly stopped. This is not consistent with normal hallucinations.
- Most importantly, many people saw Jesus at the same time on different instances. This would require a mass hallucination, which is absolutely not possible. By its nature a hallucination is in the mind, and so there is no way for someone else to share the experience. For 500 people to experience the same thing from a collective hallucination is absurd, as collective hallucinations have never been recorded. For one person, Jesus might be floating on a cloud, for another, he might be riding a donkey - however everyone saw the same thing!
“Any theory of hallucination falls down on the fact that on three separate occasions the hallucination was not immediately recognized as Jesus.” (Luke 24:13, John 20:15, 21:4)
- Saul's transformation to Paul on the road to Damascus.
- Many eyewitnesses named, so they could be checked by people
- Close but not exact testimonies.
- Resurrection predicted in the Old Testament.
Credits - John Lennox (much of the research material)