The man Jesus of Nazareth has provoked more books, more conversation, more controversy, and more hope than any man in human history. When we use the term amazing, it should be reserved for very special occasions. The story of Jesus and His life, death, and resurrection and the effect it has had on mankind is truly amazing. He came upon the scene with a mission of critical importance, working miracles and signs the likes of which had never been seen before, proclaiming a divine mission and unique relationship with God. He came into history with a sense of divine authority like no other.
There are four pieces of evidence regarding Jesus which are relatively uncontested by the majority of New Testament scholars:
1.Jesus was buried in a tomb by a man named Joseph of Arimathea.
2.Jesus’s tomb was found empty by women followers.
3.There were numerous post-mortem experiences of Jesus by His disciples and others.
4.The original disciples believed that they had in fact seen Jesus alive after His death, despite having every predisposition to the contrary.
These four claims about Jesus are relatively uncontroversial even by the most skeptical New Testament scholars as far as their historicity. And by most I mean more recent studies show around 75% or more of New Testament critical scholars, not just evangelicals. (1)
1. Jesus was buried in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea.
All four gospels mention Jesus being buried by a man named Joseph of Arimathea (Matt 27: 57-61, Mark 15: 42-47, Luke 23: 50-56, and John 19: 38-42). (KJV) In some Gospels he is referred to as a rich man, an honorable counselor, even a disciple of Jesus. The fact he is spoken of being a member of the Sanhedrin makes it extremely unlikely this claim is a Christian invention.
While the place of Arimathea is currently lost to history, there are a few hypotheses as to where it may have been located. In Luke it is referred to as being a city of the Jews. In John’s gospel Nicodemus is mentioned as being present with Joseph at the time of Jesus’ interment. The consistency of all four gospels alluding to this specific man taking Jesus’ body after he died and having it entombed lend large plausibility that this is a true historical account of what happened. Interestingly the empty tomb story gives much credence to the plausibility of the burial story because it means all parties knew where He was buried.
The burial is also attested to by multiple sources. We have at our disposal some highly reliable, very early accounts of the burial story. In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians we have an early oral tradition dating back to the first few years after Jesus’ resurrection. This appears to us in Chapter 15: 3-5 and is a “pre-Pauline” highly stylized four-line formula of Greek that was received by Paul, most likely at the Jerusalem fellowship when he first met Peter and James, the brother of the Lord (Galatians 1).
The four line formula goes as follows:
“that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures;
and that he was buried;
and that he arose on the third day according to the Scriptures;
and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve: (KJV)
each article here begins with the Greek word hoti (that) and four are connected by the Greek kai (and). The structure of the passage changes after verse 5.
This tradition goes back to probably at least within five years after Jesus’ death when he spent two weeks with Peter and James in Jerusalem. This timeframe after Jesus’ death makes it idle to speak of legend. It’s also used from very old sources of Mark’s passion story. Many New Testament scholars claim the passion narrative in Mark also dates within a few years of Jesus’s death, referred to as the Pre-Markan passion story. The evidence for this is the rather random order of the original Greek narratives within the Gospel of Mark, which abruptly changes to a smooth, continual narrative during the last week of Jesus’ life.
More evidence for the historicity of the burial story is there is no reason for the Gospel writers to invent the story that Jesus’s body was interred by a member of the Sanhedrin. The fact there was an empty tomb does imply there was a burial. There are also no competing burial stories from that time period which would lend evidence to it being anybody else than Joseph taking Jesus down from the cross and having Him interred. The burial story is now one of the earliest and best attested facts about Jesus.
2. Jesus’ tomb was discovered empty on the third day by a group of His women followers
The empty tomb story is also multiply attested to in other resources, such as the pre-Markan passion source, cited above. One story with the passion, Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (chapter 15), “that he was buried and that he was raised” (KJV) implies a vacant grave was there.
Mark’s story of the empty tomb is simple and lacks legendary embellishment. Look at the apocryphal gospels for a counter to this. The apocryphal Gospel of Peter is a great example. Mark is stark in his simplicity compared to that apocryphal writing.
The fact that womens’ testimony was less trustworthy than men in ancient Jewish culture is multi-attested. The great Jewish historian Josephus speaks of womens’ testimony being inadmissible in judicial proceedings. (2). And for this narrative it is a strength for the historicity of the story as it meets what historians call the criterion of embarrassment. This is a criteria that historians will look at in regards to helping them make decisions on the historicity of documents. If a text has content which is embarrassing to its proponents and yet is included in the text, then it is more plausibly true. Any later legendary account would have definitely made it out to be men that found the tomb empty.
The earliest Jewish allegation that the disciples had stolen the body shows the body was in fact missing from the tomb (Mt 28: 12-14). That is the only account we are given in the New Testament on how we understand how the Jews explained away the empty tomb. And we have no evidence from Jewish or Roman historians that there was anything but an empty tomb where Jesus had previously been laid. But what would the disciples have to gain by stealing his body?
Historically, there are a few other hypotheses as to why the tomb was empty but they are so embarrassing and fraught with speculation and conjecture, that we won’t mention them here. Regardless, I encourage you to explore N. T. Wright’s comprehensive book, The Resurrection of the Son of God. (3)
3. On multiple occasions and under various circumstances, different individuals and groups of people experienced Jesus alive after His death.
How do we best explain these post-mortem experiences? The list of eyewitnesses to His resurrection appearances guarantees that such appearances occurred. Again, a reference to 1 Cor 15 is appropriate for this. The appearance traditions in the gospels provide multiple and independent attestation of these appearances (Matt 28, Mark 16:14, Luke 24: 13-53 (Emmaus), and John 20: 11-31, and 21).
Certain appearances have earmarks of historicity. Jesus’s brothers’ history of not believing in Him is a good example of this (John 7:5). They did not become active followers of Christ until after His resurrection (Acts 1:14). James, who incidentally was considered as one of the pillars of the Jerusalem church, was martyred for his faith during the mid AD 60’s. Josephus also recalls the death of James, the brother of the Lord, in his chronicles of the Jewish history. (4) Tell me, what would it take to convince you that your brother was the Lord, so much so that you were willing to die for that belief?
Some skeptics believe the disciples and others hallucinated seeing Jesus, and not His physical appearance. Hallucinations do happen within individual experiences but have never been chronicled among a group of individuals. This theory is pretty much discarded anymore because it is so implausible.
4. The original disciples believed that Jesus was raised from the dead despite having every predisposition to the contrary.
What does predisposition to the contrary mean? Let’s put ourselves in the mindset of a 1st century Palestinian Jew. Their leader was dead. The man they followed for three years and believed to be the Messiah was dead. First century Jews had no expectation of a defeated or dying Messiah. The eminent New Testament scholar and resurrection expert N. T. Wright says this about self-proclaimed messiahs of those days. How did the Romans handle these messiahs? They killed them. And how did the followers react? They either “went home or found another messiah.”(3) The Jewish people understood Messiah to be one who would usher in the re-establishment of David’s throne on earth. In short, an earthly king. So what was Messiah supposed to look like and do?
Messiah was to:
-Bring the Jewish people back to Israel and restore Jerusalem. Isaiah (Isa) 11:11-12, Jeremiah (Jer) 23:8, 30:3, Hosea 3:4-5
-Establish a government in Israel that will be the center of all world government Isa 2:2-4, 11:10, 42:1
-Rebuild the temple and re-establish its worship. Jer 33:18
-Restore the religious court system of Israel and establish Jewish law as law of the land. Jer 33:15
According to Jewish law, Jesus’ execution by crucifixion showed him to be a heretic, under the curse of the law (Deut 21:23). How is a kosher Jew supposed to take this insult? And to think they followed a heretic? Do you think they felt safe?
Now the Pharisees, one component of the Jewish religious leadership of the day, believed in the resurrection of the dead. But it’s important to understand what their conception of the resurrection of the dead looked like and how it was different from Jesus. Jewish beliefs of the afterlife precluded anyone’s rising from the dead before the end of the world (general resurrection). The idea was for His disciples to be able to preserve his bones in an ossuary for the end of the world. The Jewish concept of resurrection was a corporal resurrection at the end of the world, not an individual resurrection without the end of the world (Psalms 71:20, Is 26:19, Ezekiel 37:14, Daniel 12:2).
But despite every predisposition to the cultural time and how they understood the scriptural role of Messiah, the disciples believed in and were prepared to die for this new, counter-cultural belief that Jesus was in fact raised from the dead.
So…What is the best explanation of these four facts?
In his book “Justifying Historical Descriptions”, C. Behan McCullagh proposes six tests for historians for validating hypotheses; in our case “God raised Jesus from the dead.” (5)
1.Great explanatory scope-explains why the tomb was found empty, why the disciples saw post-mortem appearances of Jesus, and why the Christian faith came into being.
2.Great explanatory power-explains why the body was gone, why they saw Him alive despite His earlier public execution.
3.Plausible given the context of Jesus’ life and claims, resurrection serves as confirmation of those claims
4.It is not ad hoc or contrived. It requires only one additional hypothesis, that God exists.
5.It is in accord with accepted beliefs.
6.It far outstrips any of its rival hypothesis in meeting conditions 1-5.
The hypothesis above meets and exceeds the criteria for these tests. Other theories of what may have happened to Jesus’ body have for years been greatly refuted as none of them meet the criteria above the way Jesus actually being resurrected from the dead does.
And think about this for a minute, the disciples’ leader, their messiah, was dead; killed by a kangaroo court bent on getting rid of a political usurper, a threat to their identity, their priesthood, and their standing in the temple and among the people. Would one really expect the explosion of Christianity to begin in Jerusalem, where their leader was crucified? I think N.T. Wright was correct when he concluded these “messiah” followers would either go home, or look for a new messiah. But never would you expect the followers to continue to spread His message within the very walls of the city He was crucified in! Humans just don’t do that, unless of course what they claimed was real, that Jesus had truly risen from the dead.
Another point of all of this that I find equally fascinating is that nobody then, or now, disputes the tomb was empty. There has never been any story otherwise where a corpse had been revealed. So we can say with high confidence the tomb was empty. You do the work; where did the body go and why did His followers, despite confusing His message while He was alive and showing themselves to be uneducated, bumbling men; all of a sudden risk life and limb to spread the message of Christ? Does this make any sense if He hadn’t risen from the dead? How is one to understand this remarkable change in behavior? And then one has to tackle the conversion of Paul, a kosher Jew, highly educated and with means, once being a Christian persecutor, having a revelation on the road to Damascus which changes his heart to Christ and eventually goes to his death proclaiming the truth of Christianity (Acts 9:1-19, 22:6-16, 26:12-20, 1 Cor 15:3-8, Gal 1:11-16)?
(1) Gary R. Habermas, Resurrection Research from 1975 to the Present: What are Critical Scholars Saying? (Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, Sage Publications, 2005)
(2) Flavius Josephus, The Works of Flavius Josephus (translated by William Whiston. Auburn & Buffalo, NY, 1895)
(3) N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2003)
(4) Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews (translated by William Whiston. Book XX, Chapter 9)
(5) C. Behan McCullagh, Justifying Historical Descriptions (Cambridge University Press, 1984)
(KJV) Bible: King James Version