Part 1. Historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus
by Carey Johnson
The third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven, and is seated on the right hand of God the Father almighty.
(from The Apostles’ Creed)
(This series is taken from a Sunday School class I taught at Connect Church in Lawrence, KS.)
Christians believe that Jesus rose from the dead, that he appeared in the afterwards to many of his followers, and that he now reigns as the risen Lord. What is the basis for the Christian belief in the resurrection of Jesus? Is belief in the resurrection solely a matter of faith, or is there good historical evidence for it? And if it actually happened, what difference does it make?
This three-part series will seek answers to these questions. In Part I I will look at historical evidence found in the gospels. Part II will address evidence from the letters of the Apostle Paul. And in Part III, the question will be: what difference does it make?
Let’s start with the gospels, the first four books of the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. These books were written in the form of ancient biography. Most scholars place the dates of their writing somewhere between 50 and 100 AD, that is within one to two generations of Jesus’ death. They seem to contain eye-witness accounts of what Jesus said and did.
What do the gospels tell us about the resurrection? We could ask that question from two points of view. Believers might approach the question from the perspective that the gospels are scripture inspired by God. That’s an important approach for Christians, but, whether believer or not, we can all ask the question from the second viewpoint: What do we find if we regard the gospels as ancient historical documents, which they surely are? That’s the approach I want to take here.
All four gospels agree that Jesus was crucified and buried in Jerusalem. All four agree that on the third day after Jesus’ death, in the morning, some women visiting the tomb found it empty. And three of the four gospels recount that many people (the women, the eleven apostles, the Emmaus disciples) reported that they had met, interacted with, even eaten with, the risen Jesus. (The fourth gospel, Mark, ends abruptly in the most reliable manuscripts in a way that suggests that the original ending has been lost. We can only guess what the original ending may have recounted.) Together these features explain why the early Christians believed in Jesus’ resurrection.
Most Christian readers will take it as given that the gospels recount actual historical events. But there is good reason for non-believers to accept the gospels as reliable accounts as well. Recent studies of the gospels (see suggestions for further reading below) conclude that the gospel stories of the resurrection are based on eyewitness accounts—the best historical evidence we could have.
Several features of the gospel texts support the conclusion that the resurrection accounts go back to eyewitnesses:
- The first witnesses were women, whose testimony would not have been accepted as reliable in the patriarchal culture of the time. Although we now find this aspect of 1st-century Jewish/Greek culture troubling, it also suggests that anyone making up the story would not have made it up this way.
- The response of the disciples to the events surrounding the resurrection is puzzlement and fear, not responses that cast them in a particularly favorable light. Again, if early Christians were making up the story, they likely would have portrayed their earliest leaders more positively.
- Differences in detail and wording between the gospel accounts suggest sources in independent oral traditions, just as eyewitness accounts of events today tend to vary in detail.
To quote Bible scholar N.T. Wright, “Irrespective of when the gospels reached their final form, the strong probability is that the Easter stories they contain go back to genuinely early oral tradition.” (N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, pg. 612).
To summarize: the gospels present the resurrection as an event in history. The primary evidence for the resurrection is historical. Historical evidence is not (and cannot be) proof in the mathematical or scientific sense. Rather, it leaves us with the question: what best explains the historical evidence?
What is the best explanation of the gospel reports? For millions of Christians (including me) the best explanation is that Jesus did, in fact, rise from the dead and appear to his disciples. For others, the belief that someone actually defeated death and rose with a transfigured body is too much of a hurdle. This is where faith comes in. It is not blind faith, in the sense of belief despite the evidence. I and many others have concluded that sufficient evidence is there. (See N.T. Wright again.) It is faith supported by strong evidence. It is accepting that the actual resurrection of Jesus is the best explanation of the evidence.
I suspect that the issue for many of us is not whether there is sufficient evidence, but rather what the implications of accepting the evidence are. These are not historical accounts such as, say, the assassination of Julius Caesar, which really make no difference to our lives. These are historical accounts which, if true, demand something from us. Jesus claimed to be the true Lord of the world and asked people to follow him, even at the cost of careers, relationships, or, for some, life itself.
Jesus’ resurrection is a story of renewal, of new possibilities, of new creation. It is a where the protagonist comes back from the greatest deficit imaginable (he was dead!) to defeat the most powerful opponent imaginable—death itself! It is a story of promise: Jesus promises new life to us as well as we follow him.
Up next: I Believe in the Resurrection, Part II. We will examine what one of the earliest Christian writers, the Apostle Paul, adds to the historical evidence for the resurrection.
NOTE: I owe the thoughts presented here to the work of Bible scholars such as N.T. Wright, Gary Habermas, and Justin Bass. Here are some suggestions if you want to read further:
N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope (Harper One, 2008)
N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of Man (SPCK, 2003)
Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Eerdmans, 2006, 2017)
Justin Bass, The Bedrock of Christianity (Lexham Press, 2020)