Historical Evidence for Jesus' Resurrection
These subjects have been treated of in hundreds of books and articles written by people far more knowledgeable and qualified than I. However, I seek here to enumerate some of my favorite arguments in favor of the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.
ONE CRITICAL METHODOLOGY ACCORDING TO WHICH HISTORIANS DERIVE JESUS’ RESURRECTION
Biblical scholar Gary Habermas argues that New Testament apologists should first establish a minimum number of critically-ascertained facts about Jesus upon which all virtually scholars agree. These facts should be derived through the criteria of authenticity/historicity (the criteria according to which historians evaluate the historical reliability of a document):
1. the criterion of multiple/independent attestation or coherence/consistency (which stipulates that if 2 or more sources that are independent from one another source present similar information, it is more likely that the information is true [or that the sources are relaying information from a tradition that pre-dates the sources themselves]).
Example: Details that are present in 3 or 4 of the Gospels (such as the crucifixion itself) have a higher chance of being true than details that are present in 1 or 2 of the Gospels.
In ancient history, we frequently only have 1 source about a person or event - so, to have multiple historically-reliable sources about Jesus is a big deal.
2. the criterion of embarrassment (which stipulates that a detail that is embarrassing to the author is more likely to be true).
Example: Jesus’ crucifixion (the shameful death of a criminal) would have been very embarrassing to the Gospel authors who were trying to spread the Good News about Jesus to their literary audiences and convince them that he was God incarnate!
3. the criterion of discontinuity/dissimilarity (which stipulates that if a detail about Jesus is different from the Jewish traditions of his time and also from the early Church that followed him, it is more likely to be historically accurate - this is similar to the criterion of embarrassment).
Example: Language about eating a human’s body and drinking his blood would have been completely dissimilar from previous Jewish thought, violating Jewish purity laws. (This language would have also been incredibly embarrassing to the Jewish authors of the Gospels.)
The main facts about Jesus that nearly all New Testament scholars agree upon are:
1. Jesus died by crucifixion (if he died, he had to have lived!)
2. Very soon after the crucifixion, Jesus’ followers had real experiences that they thought were actual appearances of the risen Jesus
3. Not just these followers’ lives, but the entire world, were changed as a result of point #2
4. The resurrection was taught very early on after the crucifixion (Christianity was based around Jesus’ resurrection, NOT primarily his teachings)
(Some scholars have claimed that the resurrection was taught much later and that Christianity was originally based around Jesus’ teachings. These claims, however, do not hold up to scrutiny.)
5. Jesus’ apostle James became a Christian due to his experience with what he thought was the risen Jesus
6. Christian persecutor Paul (formerly Saul of Tarsus) also became a believer after a similar experience.
Note that these 6 facts do not include anything about miracles that Jesus executed or the parables/pericopes that Jesus told. Even from just these 6 facts, Habermas argues, you can get the resurrection.
Note that in order to obtain these facts, Habermas uses over 100 pieces of data from:
the 4 Gospels
6 of Paul’s 13 letters - virtually all scholars agree that Paul wrote these 6 epistles
the book of Acts
(Archaeologist Sir William Ramsey after lifelong study of this book, stated: “Further study…showed that the book could bear the most minute scrutiny as an authority for the facts of the Aegean world, and that it was written with such judgment, skill, art and perception of truth as to be a model of historical statement.”)
IN ADDITION: in order to obtain these facts, Habermas only uses what nearly all scholars agree are the most reliable passages in those books. When Habermas talks about “species of reliability” of the Gospels texts, this is what he is talking about. This is a bottom-up approach, instead of a top-down one (in which a text is generally considered to be true, and then everything in the text is used in making a case).
A brief note on the New Testament being considered widely in the academy as evidence: any time a scholar wants to disprove the resurrection, they refer to the New Testament (the 4 Gospels/Acts/Paul’s letters). Therefore, it is fair that any time a scholar wants to argue for the resurrection, they can use the same documents.
Then, Habermas asks: what is the best explanation for these 6 minimum facts? Here are some of the main naturalistic explanations that have been proposed in the academy, ever since the 19th century:
1. Jesus had a secret, identical twin brother about whom nobody knew - this idea is clearly laughable and warrants no further treatment.
2. The “swoon hypothesis”- the idea that Jesus did not really die on the cross.
This is medically impossible, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association. (We also have no historical documents about anyone ever surviving a full Roman crucifixion, like the one that Jesus underwent.)
3. Mass hallucination - the idea that hundreds of people (simultaneously) hallucinated, simply imagining that they were viewing a resurrected Jesus.
This ridiculous-sounding theory has also been widely medically refuted (although there is some debate in the medical community about the legitimacy of mass hysteria/hallucination/etc.).
4. Dogs ate Jesus’ body.
Dogs could only have eaten Jesus’ body if he was put into a mass grave, which is what happened to most people (especially, though, at the time of Roman emperor Nero, who ruled from 58 AD to 68 AD, which is decades after Jesus’ death).
However, virtually all scholars now agree that Jesus was put in a tomb and that it somehow became empty (yet Habermas did not even need to use this in his 6 minimum facts argument above!). For if Jesus’ tomb was in fact NOT empty, then why didn’t the authorities just go fetch Jesus’ dead body and put it on display, in order to squash the claims that he had resurrected? Because there was no body to fetch.
There is also a very early tradition of locating Jesus’ tomb. Around 125 AD, the Roman emperor Hadrian built a temple of the spot that was traditionally venerated by Christians as the site of Jesus’ tomb. Then, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (which still stands today) was built over this spot.
Besides, even if dogs did eat Jesus’ body out of a mass grave on Friday, that would still not affect whether or not the resurrection happened on Sunday. (For example, when people are cremated, even if their ashes are scattered, the Catholic Church teaches that these people will still get their bodies back in the final resurrection of the dead at the Last Judgment [if they are righteous]).
5. The disciples/women went to the wrong tomb (finding it empty).
This is implausible. Joseph of Arimathea would have told these individuals exactly where he put Jesus. Besides, even if the women HAD gone to the wrong tomb, all the Roman and Jewish authorities had to do was go to the RIGHT tomb and display Jesus’ body to prove that he was dead.
6. The disciples stole the body from the empty tomb - this theory falls apart on many levels:
A. There was no one guarding Jesus’ tomb, making it easy for the disciples to steal Jesus’ body.
The New Testament tells us that when Jesus died, Pilate authorized a four-man guard in order to guard the tomb. This is absolutely what a Roman governor would have done, historically. Pilate NOT sending guards to the tomb would have been a historical anomaly.
B. The guards broke the seal of the tomb, making it easy for the disciples to steal Jesus’ body.
The guards would not have broken the seal of the tomb, because they would have faced severe punishment if they did. Roman guards NOT suffering extreme punishment for this act would be another historical anomaly.
C. The guards fell asleep while guarding the tomb, making it easy for the disciples to steal Jesus’ body.
The punishment for falling asleep on watch was death. So, I think not. Besides, it is inconceivable that the disciples could have moved such a heavy stone without waking the sleeping guards. Besides, if the guards were sleeping, how could they identify that the disciples took the body? Yet if the guards were awake, how would the theft have succeeded in the first place?
D. The disciples were able to fight off the guards, making it easy for them to steal Jesus’ body.
There is no way that these dejected, militarily-untrained Jewish men would have been able to successfully take on trained Roman soldiers.
If the disciples really stole Jesus’ body, they would have had to do so at night, of course. However, ancient Jewish ritual purity laws, which were concerned with defilement of the land, forbade contact with a corpse after sunset - especially with Saturday (the Sabbath) being the day after Jesus’ Friday death. The ancient Jewish 1st-century historian Josephus writes that Jewish criminals who were executed by Rome were permitted by other Jews to be “buried before sunset.” This is consistent with the biblical account that Jesus was crucified on a Friday afternoon and that Jewish man Joseph of Arimathaea brought Jesus down from the cross that day and put him in the tomb.
The Gospels say that Jesus’ burial linen was neatly folded. If the disciples had stolen Jesus’ body, they would have been in a rush and would not have spent time neatly folding his burial linen.
The disciples would not have all been willingly martyred for something that they knew was a hoax (the theft of Jesus’ dead body). We have 1st-century sources regarding the martyrdoms of Peter, Paul and James, the three “biggest names” in early Christianity. Either Jesus truly resurrected, or the disciples all truly believed that he resurrected.
The Gospels also say that Mary Magdalene mistook Jesus for a gardener - it is extremely unlikely that Mary saw a gardener and mistook him for Jesus. At the time, women’s testimony was not accepted in court or other contexts. Regarding the aforementioned criteria of authenticity, Mary Magdalene’s testimony that Jesus had risen reflects major discontinuity and embarrassment to the Gospel authors. People either really believed Mary OR believed in Jesus’ resurrection DESPITE Mary’s testimony. Either case strengthens the probability of Jesus’ resurrection.
(It makes sense that Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene first. She appears to have been an important part of his ministry. Her name is mentioned in the Gospels 12 times - more than most of each of the apostles.)
Besides, stealing Jesus’ dead body still does not explain the fact of so many people claiming to have seen a risen Jesus after his death.
None of the 6 naturalistic reasons are successful in explaining the 6 minimum facts about Jesus upon which virtually all New Testament scholars agree. Habermas says that less than 25% of anti-resurrection scholars in the last 25 years still espouse any of these naturalistic theories. Thus, by process of elimination, we arrive at a consideration of the idea that Jesus really did resurrect.
Resurrection is of course only possible if there is an afterlife (not even necessarily eternal life). Regarding empirical evidence for the existence of an afterlife, Habermas argues that we have 30 million documented NDEs (near death experiences) in North America, England and Europe alone. Even if this number is exaggerated and the number is only, say, 20 million, this is a serious body of empirical data with which to contend. Habermas knows of 300 NDE accounts in which what is reported has been empirically verified. The recently-retired University of Virginia Medical School professor Bruce Grayson, a leading NDE expert, published 100 peer-reviewed NDE articles in medical and psychological journals. Many of these NDEs happen to people who have no measurable heart or brain activity, which means we are talking about consciousness beyond the initial point of heart/brain death.
In one evidenced NDE case, a woman was looking down on herself being operated on, and on the top of a medical device that was in the room was a unique 12-digit number. When the woman came to on the operating table, she told the nurse to write the number down. Later, when the medical team was moving the apparatus out of the room, the nurse compared the number she had written down to the number on the top of the medical device and saw that the 2 numbers matched. When someone has cardiac arrest with ventricular fibrillation, they have no measurable heart waves, and within an average of 15 seconds, they have no brain waves. If the woman was out of her body for as long as 5 minutes, she theoretically had no heart or brain waves - how could she have known what the 12-digit number was?
In another NDE case, a man was above his body, watching himself being operated on, and he went through a wall to the next surgical ward and watched another man have his leg amputated. When the man came to, he gave a detailed explanation of the other man’s leg amputation. How could the man have known what was happening in the other room if he was exclusively on his hospital bed being operated on and not out of body?
In yet another NDE case, a woman’s pin fell off her dress, a doctor stepped on it, and the near-death person said they knew who lost the pin and could name the doctor who stepped on it. How could the ND person have known this information unless they were out of body?
“Now,” says Habermas, “can we talk about resurrection?”
Philosopher Richard Swinburne puts Jesus’ resurrection at 97% probability. Swinburne does this even while putting the probability of God’s existence as low for those who think it is low. Methodologically, Swinburne uses a prior reliability hypothesis. Basically, he starts out with arguments for:
1) God’s existence (such as, for example, Catholic philosopher/theologian Thomas Aquinas’ Aristotelian five proofs for the existence of God),
2) an afterlife,
thereby raising the probability of the likelihood of a resurrection event.
MEDICAL EVIDENCE FOR JESUS’ DIVINE CAUSE OF DEATH
Crucifixion itself was actually not designed to kill anyone - it was designed to make people suffer. Historical accounts tell us that Romans would kill crucifixion victims by breaking their legs - this is known as crucifracture (it took 5-10 minutes to break someone’s shin bones by beating them with a spear). A person with broken legs could not pull up to exhale - asphyxiation thereby took place in 4-6 minutes. However, the biblical accounts tell us that unlike the two thieves next to Jesus on the cross, the Romans did not need to break Jesus’ legs, because he was dead already.
How could Jesus, a healthy, active (itinerant, preaching) young man, have been dead already? We know that he did not die of blood loss. Romans scourged crucifixion victims like Jesus in the early morning, so that the cold air would shrink their capillaries and minimize blood loss. The Romans also figured out that if they drove nails right through the center of the wrist, they could avoid hitting any arteries (such as the radial artery or veins.) (The Hebrew word for “hand” includes the fingertips up to where a wristwatch would be.) We also know that the Romans learned that if they nailed spikes in between the 1st and 2nd metatarsal bones of the feet, they could miss the dorsalis pedis artery, thereby also minimizing blood loss.
Jesus also does not seem to have died of being in shock - his seven last words on the cross were coherent, and he identified his mother and John correctly (“behold your mother; woman, behold your son”).
The spear was also not Jesus’ cause of death - Jesus was already dead before the soldier thrust the spear into his right side. We know that people can survive .22 gunshot wounds in the left side of the heart, but if a person is shot in their heart’s right side (where inferior/superior vena cava empty into), he or she is dead in 20-30 seconds. Romans were highly trained killers - they would’ve stabbed Jesus in his right side, as the Bible says.
The Bible relates that blood and water came out of Jesus’ side, meaning that he had already been dead for at least 45 minutes. (The spear would’ve penetrated between Jesus’ 7th and 8th intercostal space. If you take a unit of blood, drain it out of a person’s body, put it in a quart jar and set it on a desk, in 30 minutes the red blood cells begin to settle out, and plasma rises to top. Plasma separates from red blood cells.) Indeed, the Book of Zechariah says that “they may look upon him whom they pierced” - Jesus’ spear wound fulfills this biblical prophecy.
The Gospel of John says that Jesus “gave up his spirit” (a choice that only a divine person can make). Indeed, from a medical analysis of his crucifixion, this seems to be the case. IF Jesus made the divine choice of “giving up his spirit”, could he not make the divine choice of resurrecting?
If Jesus was simply a man, he would have just recanted, in order to avoid this horrible death. Jesus’ 1st trial was before the Jewish Sanhedrin, for the crime of blasphemy (saying “I and the Father are one”, etc.) His 2nd trial was before the Romans, for the crime of treason (calling himself the “King of the Jews”). Of course, Jesus meant this title spiritually, not politically. Josephus is clear that it was only Romans who crucified anyone - not Jews.
If Jesus had been killed by Jews, he would have been stoned, but that would have violated psalm 34, which states that none of the Messiah’s bones would be broken (indeed, Jesus’ shin bones were not broken, as the Bible relates). Jesus hinted at his death in John 3:14 - “the Son of Man must be lifted up” - interpreted as figurative AND literal (double meaning). In John 12:32, Jesus “and I, when I am lifted up from the Earth, will draw everyone to Myself.”
BIBLICAL PROPHECIES REGARDING THE MESSIAH THAT WERE FULFILLED IN THE PERSON OF JESUS OF NAZARETH
The book of the prophet Daniel is set in the 6th century BC (while the Israelites were under Babylonian oppression), but it may have been written in the 2nd century BC (while the Israelites were under Roman oppression). If we compare facts about world history to Daniel’s content, we notice the following from biblical scholar Brant Pitre’s book The Case for Christ: