When considering a matter in court, a judge will first seek to establish the facts pertaining to the alleged offence and then to establish a verdict on the matter in relation those facts.
I find this to be a useful distinction to make in discussion of other matters too, including the question of Jesus’ resurrection.
In the first blog post in this series exploring the resurrection of Jesus, I set out the question which we’re seeking to establish, as well as the criteria which I have considered to be appropriate in making such an assessment.
If you haven’t already read it, or have lost track of where we got to, I’d encourage you to have another brief skim through the material in that post which you can find here at the link below.
In this post we will take a look at the original manuscripts which report the events surrounding the death of Jesus and seek to establish certain facts concerning those events. These will help us to make a clearer assessment of the hypothesis that God raised Jesus from the dead.
Without further ado, there are five primary historical facts related to the death and resurrection of Jesus, which appear to be accepted by the majority of New Testament scholars today. Each of these facts relate to part of the sequence of events occurring around the time of the reported death and resurrection of Jesus.
They are as follows:
- Jesus’ death on a Roman cross
- Jesus’ burial by Joseph of Arimathea.
- The tomb being found empty, after his death
- Reports of appearances of Jesus alive, after his death
- Jesus’ disciples belief that Jesus had risen from the dead
Let’s take a look at each of these in turn.
1. Jesus was most certainly dead
The Romans were master executioners and torturers, and crucifixion was their most brutal form of punishment. Before Jesus’ crucifixion, he was flogged by Roman soldiers. These floggings usually consisted of thirty-nine lashes, but often the soldiers would strike more depending on their mood. The soldiers would use whips of braided leather thongs with metal balls woven into them which would cause deep bruises or contusions that would pierce the skin causing it to break open with further blows.
The whipping would extend from the shoulders down the back and buttocks to the back of the legs. Sometimes convicted criminals would die from this kind of beating alone, even before reaching their place of crucifixion.
The third century historian Eusebius described a flogging as follows:
“The sufferer’s veins were laid bare, and the very muscles, sinews and bowels of the victim were open to exposure.”
Before his crucifixion, Jesus’ wrists would have been nailed in an outstretched position to a horizontal beam, piercing the median nerve. His shoulders would have dislocated and after several hours of torment Jesus’ breathing would have slowed from exhaustion.
Before death, the convicted criminal would have development respiratory acidosis resulting in an irregular heartbeat. This is an increase in the blood’s acidity as a result of increased levels of carbon dioxide. Before death, hypovolemic shock would have led to a sustained rapid heart rate, resulting in pericardial effusion — a collection of fluid in the membrane around the heart.
Since the Pharisees wanted Jesus’ body to be taken down before the Sabbath in keeping with Jewish Law, upon coming to Jesus they found that he was already dead and so pierced his side just to be sure.
John records that after Jesus’ death, his was pierced with a spear causing some fluid — the pericardial effusion — to emanate from his side, followed by large amounts of blood.
“The soldiers therefore came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with Jesus, and then those of the other. 33 But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. 34 Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water. 35 The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe.”John 19:32–35
As Alexander Metherell comments in Lee Strobel’s book, The Case for Christ,
‘There was absolutely no doubt that Jesus was dead.’
The fact of Jesus’ death is perhaps the best established fact about his life and as we’ll see in the next blog post in this series, it’s fundamental to establishing his resurrection.
2. Jesus was buried in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea
Some scholars have suggested in recent years that since the bodies of most criminals were thrown into mass graves after crucifixion, that this is most likely the case in Jesus’ case. However, such suggestions lack any serious evidence in the historical records and indeed run contrary to the eye-witness testimony that we do have.
One of Jesus’ disciple’s was a guy named Mark who records in his biography of Jesus’ life that he was buried in a tomb owned by a Jew by the name of Joseph of Arimathea.
44 Pilate was surprised to hear that he was already dead. Summoning the centurion, he asked him if Jesus had already died. 45 When he learned from the centurion that it was so, he gave the body to Joseph. 46 So Joseph bought some linen cloth, took down the body, wrapped it in the linen, and placed it in a tomb cut out of rock. Then he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb. 47 Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joseph saw where he was laid.Mark 15:44–47
He’s not the only ancient source to record such an observation, and it provides strong evidence that Jesus’ burial site was known by Jew and Gentile alike.
Joseph of Arimathea was a member of the Jewish court in Jerusalem and would therefore have been a widely recognised figure among the early witnesses. The respected historian Luke, in chapter 23 of his gospel, notes that Joseph “had not consented to their decision and action” as he “was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews”. Joseph was a secret follower of Christ and did not consent to Jesus’ crucifixion.
It is therefore highly unlikely that he is a Christian invention as such a claim would have been easy to discredit by those who knew him. If the burial account were fictitious, for Mark to refer to a person of such prominence by name would have undermined his entire account as it would have been discredited by other accounts.
In his gospel, Mark described Joseph of Arimathea as being “a prominent member of the Jewish Council”. This was the council who voted to condemn Jesus. Quite understandably, there was a high degree of resentment against the Jewish council in the aftermath of Jesus’ death as Paul describes in 1 Thessalonians 2:15. So were the first century Christians to have invented a burial narrative, they would surely have used an unfamiliar gentile, rather than a well-known Jew.
In addition, the narrative of Jesus’ burial is contained with a very old poetic form which is quoted by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15.
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas…
Modern scholarship has dated this quotation as originating within the first few years after Jesus’ death.
Not only are there included two typical rabbinical terms ‘received’ and ‘delivered’ contained within it, but the structure contains several non-Pauline techniques, which collectively have convinced scholars that he is quoting an old tradition which was widely used in early Christian churches, most likely which was picked up during his visit to Jerusalem around AD 36, when he spent two weeks with Cephas and James (Galatians 1:18).
This being the case, the tradition originated within 3 years of Jesus’ death, providing very early support for the burial of Jesus by Joseph of Arimathea.
This is evidence that the burial of Jesus was widely accepted across the church from very early on, and appears to be uncontroversial among its contemporaries.
There are no competing burial stories on record. Indeed, had the burial story been fictitious one would expect to find archaeological or historical evidence of what really happened to Jesus’ body. No such evidence has ever been observed.
The simple observation therefore, is that they record a Joseph as burying Jesus, because that is what happened.
These reasons provide us with a good foundation for accepting Jesus’ burial by Joseph of Arimathea as a well established fact at the time.
For the reasons stated above, historian John A.T Robinson of the University of Cambridge, in his book The Human Face of God, describes the burial of Jesus in Joseph’s tomb as:
‘one of the earliest and best attested fact about Jesus’
3. The tomb was later found empty
The empty tomb is one of the central facts relating to the events surrounding Jesus death, and perhaps the primary observation which the gospel authors are at pains to convey the significance of.
Jesus was known or heard about from right across Jerusalem and the surrounding regions of Israel. The gospels describe large crowds in attendance at Jesus’ trial and his crucifixion, and many people also knew the location of his burial site.
Mark records the process of Jesus burial by Joseph of Arimathea, who “laid him in a tomb that had been cut out of the rock. And he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb”.
Describing in simple, descriptive, language a fact which surprised the disciples, the Romans and the Jewish authorities, the gospel writer Luke recounts that:
“On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus”Luke 2:2–3
Similar stories are found in the other gospels, each with their minor (and mutually compatible) differences in the details, yet remarkable consistency in the main events, giving historians confidence of their authenticity and reliability.
Historians have testimonies of the empty tomb from both Jews and Romans. In his gospel, Matthew specifically states that the Roman soldiers guarding the tomb falsely claimed that
“His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep”Matthew 28:12–13.
There would naturally have been no need for such a statement if the tomb had not been empty, since in order to put a stop to early Christianity, the Romans would simply have had to produce the body.
As it happens, Jesus’ body was never found and it would have been impossible for the early church to preach the risen Jesus unless the tomb truly was empty.
4. Hundreds thought they saw Jesus alive after his death
In fact, to say that Jesus’ body was never found is slightly misleading. While indeed no dead body was ever found, we have multiple independent and trusted sources which describe occasions when Jesus appeared alive, after his death.
Each of the gospel writers, as well as Paul, describe various situations in which Jesus appeared to individuals and groups at different points in time and under various circumstances.
The New Testament records of at least 10 separate occasions during the 40 days after his resurrection in which Jesus appeared to people alive, after his death.
As I was exploring these occasions, I spent hours examining them for signs of authenticity and mutual support among the different accounts. Below, I’ve provided a brief overview of some of the key appearances.
He appeared first to the women who discovered the empty tomb:
8 So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9 Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”Matthew 28:8–10
Matthew records that Jesus later appeared to Mary Magdalene who had returned to the tomb:
16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.”
She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).
17 Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”18 Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.
As recorded by Luke, He appeared to Simon Peter:
33 They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together 34 and saying, “It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.” 35 Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognised by them when he broke the bread.Luke 24:34
Jesus also appeared to Cleopas on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13–35), to the disciples in the upper room (Luke 24:36–43); once again to the disciples a week later when Thomas was present (John 20:26–29); to seven disciples by the Sea of Galilee (John 21:1–22); and to the eleven on a mountain near Galilee (Matthew 28:16–20).
The appearance on the mountain may also have been the occasion on which he appeared to more than five hundred disciples at one time as described by Paul:
“After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.”1 Corinthians 15:6
Paul also records that Jesus appeared to his brother, James (1 Corinthians 15:7), and again to the eleven disciples on the occasion of his ascension into heaven (Luke 24:44–52; Acts 1:4–9; 1 Corinthians 15:7).
These appearances are in many cases, multiply and independently supported in the gospels. For example, the appearances to the Twelve are attested by both Luke and John.
The fact that these appearances are mentioned in a range of different accounts is itself strong grounds for their authenticity. But there is one particular sign of authenticity which stands out for me.
While describing Jesus’ appearance to the crowd of 500, Paul adds a small detail at the end of his statement. He reminds his readers that, at the time of his writing:
‘most of whom are still living’
It is effectively an invitation for his readers to go and check it out for themselves. In case any of them were in doubt that Jesus was alive, Paul was encouraging his readers to ask the eye witnesses — the disciples, the 500 witnesses on the mount.
Why would Paul include such a statement if he were not confident that such witnesses existed and that they were willing to give an account of what they saw?
According to the doctor and physician who authored the book of Acts, the appearances of Jesus alive are precisely the kind of evidence which supports the resurrection.
“He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.”Acts 1:3
The Greek word translated proofs (τεκμήριον or tekmērion) denotes evidence that causes someone to know for certain. It’s the term that was used for the strongest type of legal evidence.
These claims that hundreds of people saw Jesus alive after his death have been taken seriously by millions of others down the centuries. I’d suggest they deserve to be taken seriously by us as well.
These accounts lead even Gerd Lüdemann, a leading German critic of the resurrection, to admit that
‘It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus’ death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ.’
5. Jesus’ disciples came to believe He was risen
The resurrection of Jesus is the central event in the gospels and the New Testament is saturated with its theological significance for the church.
For those early Christians, this event was the climax of their personal experience of Jesus’ life of miracles and it proved to be the defining event in their understanding of Jesus’ identity and his significance for their lives. Such a significant event, and the explosion in the size of the early church which followed, demands a satisfying explanation.
On the basis of his resurrection, the early church came to love and worship Jesus as Lord — the one who, at the end of time, would come to judge all mankind. From as early as the churches written to by Paul, the tendency of the so-called ‘Christians’ to think of Jesus as God was already present. Indeed, within the first twenty years after Jesus’ death, Christians revered him as divine.
Critics of the early church argue that they would have been predisposed to belief in Jesus’ resurrection on the basis that beliefs in resurrection were common at that time. From amongst this argument emerges the subtle — but bold — assertion, that the resurrection narrative is merely symbolic and emerged out of the disciples’ jumping to the obvious conclusion that, obviously, he must have been raised from the dead.
However, there are a number of problems with this hypothesis. Jewish scholarship at the time — particularly that of the Sadducees — interpreted Jewish law to preclude any possibility of a resurrection.
After his crucifixion but before his resurrection, Jesus’ disciples faced an embarrassing situation. Their leader was dead, and based on the messianic prophecies, they did not believe in a Messiah who would die a painful and humiliating death. Instead, their expectation of Jesus was that he would restore Israel and its tribes, and bring about peace.
Deuteronomy 21:23 makes it clear that such a man would be quite literally under the curse of God:
“You must not leave the body hanging on the pole overnight. Be sure to bury it that same day, because anyone who is hung on a pole is under God’s curse. You must not desecrate the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance”
This is a fact which Paul would later go on to exploit in his discussions with the Sadducees and Pharisees in Acts 23:6–7:
6 Then Paul, knowing that some of them were Sadducees and the others Pharisees, called out in the Sanhedrin, “My brothers, I am a Pharisee, descended from Pharisees. I stand on trial because of the hope of the resurrection of the dead.” 7 When he said this, a dispute broke out between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. 8 (The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, and that there are neither angels nor spirits, but the Pharisees believe all these things.)
Even the Pharisees — as Paul was — didn’t believe that a resurrection would occur until the general resurrection at the end of history itself. Therefore, Jesus’ disciples would have been extremely sceptical of Jesus’ resurrection as it went against their deeply held beliefs and inclinations.
Whether through over-familiarity with the stories, or through a motive somewhat more sinister, modern scholarship often fails to observe how radical the idea of a resurrection would have been for first century Jews. Indeed, rather than being consistent with expectations at the time, the claim that Jesus rose from death actually appeared to contradict what was widely held.
Yet despite having every predisposition to reject such a claim, Jesus’ disciples came to believe that Jesus had risen miraculously from the dead.
There seems to be overwhelming evidence to support the Biblical claim that the disciples had lost faith in Jesus and doubted his claims, which they were once convinced about. Peter’s denial of Jesus is a notable case in point. Yet despite this, Peter, and the other disciples, not only eventually came to the belief in his resurrection, but many were eventually put to death because they were unwilling to denounce him as their Lord.
Some have argued that simply being willing to die for a cause does not amount to that cause being true, per se. After all, people have been willing to die for things which at the time they believed to be true, but which we know today were always unfounded. So why should this case be any different?
Now, of course this is the case, but I think it misses the point. The mere fact that I’m willing to die for something doesn’t render that thing true. However, the point we’re seeking to establish at this stage, isn’t whether the resurrection is true, but whether they thought it was true. And why would someone die for something that they knew was a lie?
Let’s take just one example. James, a brother of Jesus, did not believe in his brother’s claims to divinity and rejected him as the son of God throughout his life:
“For even his own brothers did not believe in him”John 7:5
I’m sure it would take a lot to become convinced that one’s own brother was God!
However, over a short period of time following Jesus death, even James became convinced that Jesus was risen and alive. What other explanation can be given for this radical change in his position, unless, in Paul’s words:
“then he appeared to James”1 Corinthians 15:7
There is now no doubt that James, the brother of Jesus, became a follower of Jesus after his death and later became leader of the Jewish church. In fact, according to the first century historian Josephus, James was eventually martyred in the late 60's for his faith in Jesus as his risen saviour.
There should be no doubt that this radical transformation was not the product of deceptive ideas which arose in first century Jerusalem. Only what he perceived as a personal encounter with the risen Jesus can explain this extraordinary change in James’s personal beliefs.
It seems the obvious answer would be that Jesus’ disciples were indeed completely convinced that Jesus had indeed appeared to them alive from the dead.
As Dr Pinchas Lapide, a leading ancient historian from Germany and a devout Jew, concludes in The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish Perspective:
‘the resurrection belongs to the category of the truly real’
That may be the conclusion of Lapide, but it’s certainly not the conclusion of all New Testament scholars. Indeed a plethora of arguments attacking the credibility of the resurrection hypothesis have been raised by sceptics the world over in recent decades.
While it would be uncontroversial to say that most have been deemed implausible, there are some explanations of the five facts which we’ve been exploring, which are particularly notable in their influence.
They’re the same arguments which I explored while deciding what I thought about Jesus’ resurrection.
If I could try may hardest to accept a set of naturalistic explanations of these facts and still came to the conclusion that the resurrection hypothesis was more plausible, I’d be standing on good grounds in trusting Jesus.
That’s what we’ll be taking a look at in the next blog post — so stay tuned!
Again, if you’ve found this post helpful and would like to read more, please do subscribe to my newsletter. Do also get in touch to let me know what you thought.
It really helps to know whether these posts are helpful to some people!
Tom Bell Newsletter
Join the newsletter to receive the latest updates in your inbox.