The Resurrection of Jesus: Fact or Fiction?

In our modern, educated day, we sometimes wonder if traditional beliefs, especially ones about the Bible, are only out-dated superstitions.  The Bible recounts many miracles, but probably the most incredible is the Easter story of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead after being crucified on a cross. 

Is there any logical evidence to take this account of Jesus rising from the dead seriously?  Surprising to many, a strong case can be made that the resurrection of Jesus happened and this evidence is based on historical data, not on religious belief.

This question is worth careful investigation since it directly impacts our own lives. After all, we all will die, no matter how much money, education, health and other goals we achieve in life. If Jesus has defeated death then it gives a real hope in the face of our own approaching death.  Let’s look at the main historical data and the evidence for his resurrection.

Historical Background to Jesus: Tacitus and Josephus

The fact that Jesus existed and died a public death that has altered the course of history is certain. One need not look to the Bible to verify that. Secular history records several references to Jesus and the impact he made on the world of his day. Let’s look at two. The Roman governor-historian Tacitus made a fascinating reference to Jesus when recording how the Roman Emperor Nero executed 1st century Christians (in AD 65), whom Nero blamed for the burning of Rome. Here is what Tacitus wrote in 112 AD:

‘Nero.. punished with the most exquisite tortures, the persons commonly called Christians, who were hated for their enormities. Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius; but the pernicious superstition, repressed for a time broke out again, not only through Judea, where the mischief originated, but through the city of Rome also’ Tacitus.

Tacitus. Annals XV. 44 

Nero - Wikipedia
Nero, the Roman emperor

Tacitus confirms that Jesus was: 1) a historical person; 2) executed by Pontius Pilate; 3) by 65 AD (the time of Nero) the Christian faith had spread across the Mediterranean from Judea to Rome with such a force that the emperor of Rome felt he had to deal with it. Notice that Tacitus is saying these things as a hostile witness since he considers the movement that Jesus started a ‘wicked superstition’.  He is against it, but does not deny its historicity.

Josephus was a Jewish military leader/historian writing to Romans in the First Century. He summarized the history of the Jews from their beginning up to his time. In so doing he covered the time and career of Jesus with these words: 

‘At this time there was a wise man … Jesus. … good, and … virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned Him to be crucified and to die. And those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that He had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that He was alive’

Josephus. 90 AD. Antiquities xviii. 33 

Josephus confirms that: 1) Jesus existed, 2) He was a religious teacher, 3) His disciples publicly proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.  So it seems from these glimpses back into the past that the death of Christ was a well-known event and the issue of his resurrection was being forced onto the Greco-Roman world by his disciples. 

Historical Background – from the Bible 

Luke, a physician and historian provides further details as to how this faith advanced in the ancient world. Here is his excerpt from Acts in the Bible: 

‘The priests and the captain … came up to Peter and John … They were greatly disturbed because the apostles were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead…They seized Peter and John… put them in jail…When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished… “What are we going to do with these men?” they asked.’

Acts 4:1-16 (63 AD) 

‘Then the high priest and all his associates,… arrested the apostles and put them in the public jail. …they were furious and wanted to put them to death….They called the apostles in and had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go.’

Acts 5:17-40 

We can see that the leaders went to great lengths to stop this new belief. These initial controversies occurred in Jerusalem – the same city where only a few weeks earlier Jesus had been publicly executed and buried. 

From this historical data we can investigate the resurrection by weighing all the possible alternatives and see which one makes the most sense – without prejudging by ‘faith’ any supernatural resurrection.

The body of Jesus and the tomb 

We have only two alternatives concerning the body of the dead Christ. Either the tomb was empty on that Easter Sunday morning or it still contained his body.  There are no other options. 

Let’s assume that his body remained in the tomb. As we reflect on the unfolding historical events, however, we quickly confront difficulties. Why would the Roman and Jewish leaders in Jerusalem have to take such extreme measures to stop stories of a resurrection if the body was still in the tomb, adjacent to the disciples’ public proclamations of his rising from the dead?  If the body of Jesus was still in the tomb it would have been a simple matter for the authorities to parade Christ’s body in front of everyone. This would have discredited the fledgling movement without having to imprison, torture and finally martyr them.  And consider – thousands were converted to believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus in Jerusalem at this time. If I had been one of those in the crowds listening to Peter, wondering if I could believe his incredible message (after all, it came with persecution) I would have at least taken my lunch break to go to the tomb and take a look for myself to see if the body was still there. If the body of Christ was still in the tomb this movement would not have gained any followers in such a hostile environment with such incriminating counter evidence on-hand. So Christ’s body remaining in the tomb leads to absurdities. It does not make sense. 

Did the disciples steal the body? 

Of course there are other possible explanations for an empty tomb apart from a resurrection. However, any explanation for the body’s disappearance must also account for these details:  the Roman seal over the tomb, the Roman patrol guarding the tomb, the large (1-2 ton) stone covering the tomb entrance, the 40 kg of embalming agent on the body. The list goes on. Space does not allow us to look at all factors and scenarios to explain the missing body, but the most contemplated explanation has always been that the disciples themselves stole the body from the tomb, hid it somewhere and were then able to mislead others. 

Assume this scenario, avoiding for the sake of argument some of the difficulties in explaining how the discouraged band of disciples who fled for their lives at his arrest, could re-group and come up with a plan to steal the body, totally outwitting the Roman guard. They then broke the seal, moved the massive rock, and made off with the embalmed body – all without suffering any casualties (since they all remained to become public witnesses).  Let us assume that they successfully managed this and then they all entered onto the world stage to start a religious faith based on their deception. Many of us today assume that what motivated the disciples was the need to proclaim brotherhood and love among men. But look back to the account from both Luke and Josephus and you will note that the contentious issue was “the apostles were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead”. This theme is paramount in their writings. Notice how Paul, another apostle, rates the importance of Christ’s resurrection: 

For … I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died …buried, that he was raised on the third day… he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve.. If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless … your faith is futile…If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men…. If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus for merely human reasons, what have I gained? If the dead are not raised – ‘Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die’… .

I Corinthians 15: 3-32 (57 AD) 

Clearly, in their minds the disciples placed the importance and their witness of the resurrection of Christ at the center of their movement.  Assume that this was really false – that these disciples had really stolen the body so the counter-evidence to their message could not expose them. They may then successfully fooled the world, but they themselves would have known that what they were preaching, writing and creating great upheaval for was false. Yet they gave their lives (literally) for this mission. Why would they do it – IF they knew the basis for it was false? People give their lives to causes because they believe in the cause for which they fight or because they expect some benefit from the cause. If the disciples had stolen the body and hid it, they of all people would know that the resurrection was not true. Consider from their own words what price the disciples paid for the spreading of their message – and ask yourself if you would pay such a personal price for something that you knew to be false: 

We are hard pressed on every side… perplexed… persecuted, struck down… outwardly we are wasting away…in great endurance, in troubles, hardships, distresses, in beatings, imprisonments and riots, hard work, sleepless nights and hunger… beaten … sorrowful … poor … having nothing… ..Five times I received from the Jews the 39 lashes, three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, … , I have been in danger from rivers, from bandits, my own countrymen, from Gentiles, in the city, in the country, in the sea. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep, I have known hunger and thirst… I have been cold and naked… Who is weak and I do not feel weak.

II Corinthians 4: 8– 6:10;11:24-29 

The more I consider the unshrinking heroism of all their lives (not one cracked at the bitter end and ‘confessed’), the more I find it impossible that they did not sincerely believe their message. But if they believed it they certainly could not have stolen and disposed of Christ’s body. A renowned criminal lawyer, who taught law students at Harvard how to probe for weaknesses in witnesses, had this remark to say about the disciples: 

“The annals of military warfare afford scarcely an example of the like heroic constancy, patience, and unflinching courage. They had every possible motive to review carefully the grounds of their faith, and the evidences of the great facts and truths which they asserted”

Greenleaf. 1874. An examination of the Testimony of the Four Evangelists by the Rules of Evidence Administered in the Courts of Justice. p.29 

Related to this is the silence of the enemies of the disciples – Jewish or Roman. These hostile witnesses never seriously attempted to tell the ‘real’ story, or show how the disciples were wrong. As Dr. Montgomery states, 

“This underscores the reliability of testimony to Christ’s resurrection which was presented contemporaneously in the synagogues – in the very teeth of opposition, among hostile cross-examiners who would certainly have destroyed the case … had the facts been otherwise”

Montgomery. 1975. Legal reasoning and Christian Apologetics. p.88-89

We do not have the space to consider every facet of this question. However, the unwavering boldness of the disciples and the silence of the contemporaneous hostile authorities speak volumes that there is a case for Christ having risen, and that it is worth taking a serious and thoughtful examination.  One way to do so is to understand it in its Biblical context. A great place to start are the Signs of Abraham and Moses. Though they lived over a thousand years before Jesus, their experiences were prophetic foretellings of the death and resurrection of Jesus. 

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