• “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem; and the Son of Man will be delivered to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn Him to death, and will hand Him over to the Gentiles to mock and scourge and crucify Him, and on the third day He will be raised up” (Matt. 20:18-19).

Ever since Jesus of Nazareth uttered this prophecy two thousand years ago, the whole world has been debating whether it came true. Theory upon theory has been proposed to explain away this miracle of miracles. Has a man really risen himself from the dead, never to die again? If Jesus arose, He would not be just any man, but the Possesser of the power of life. And all His claims would be proven true. He would be the long-sought Messiah of Old Testament prophesy (Is. 53; 9:6-7; Mic. 5:2, etc.), the Ransom for sinners (Matt. 20:28; Mark 10:45), and the very Creator of heaven and earth (Col. 1:16)! How fantastic, how unbelievable! And yet, the largest religion in the world shot up from nonexistence upon this very belief, that the resurrection actually happened in history.

But did it? Does the historical evidence prove or disprove the resurrection of Jesus?

Many today would wonder at hearing “historical” and “Jesus” in the same sentence. “Is not the story of Jesus a myth? How can anyone believe the Bible’s legends in the scientific age?” In fact, many scholars of the 19th and 20th centuries, especially the German higher critics, had declared that the New Testament was not written until the latter part of the 2nd century (McDowell, Resurrection Factor, pp. 24-25), much more than a hundred years after the alleged lifetime of Christ. Such a long period of time could have enabled myths to entangle the Biblical accounts in inaccuracy (Ibid., p. 24). As a result of this consensus from the 19th– and 20th-century higher critics, much of the modern world has supported some form of the “legend theory.”

However, three factors refute the Christ-myth: the witness of contemporaries, even those hostile to Christianity; the many preserved manuscript copies of the New Testament; and new discoveries in archaeology. Such discoveries all over the “Bible lands” of Judea and Asia Minor have unearthed a 1st-century civilization exactly as described by the New Testament writers, particularly Luke in his precisely detailed Acts of the disciples (McDowell, Evidence for Christianity, pp. 93-94). In fact, the numerous 1st-century references Luke makes to obscure local details, such as calling Philippian rulers praetors when scholars thought the correct term was duumuirs, have been proven right again and again as archaeologists unearth more of the Bible lands (Ibid., pp. 96-97). Such obscure details show a pervasive 1st-century, not 2nd century, background of the New Testament that has lead numerous scholars, such as the renown archaeologist Sir William Ramsay, to reverse their beliefs in the dating, and thus the reliability, of the New Testament: Instead of the late 2nd century, all New Testament books had to have been written before A.D. 64-80 by the disciples or their close contemporaries (McDowell, Resurrection, pp. 24-25 and McDowell, Evidence, pp. 93-94). Basically, the New Testament was written thirty or so years after the events of Jesus of Nazareth.

This early date combines powerfully with the vast number of surviving New Testament manuscript copies, which far surpasses the surviving copies of any other ancient written works (Morris, Many Infallible Proofs, p. 23). Preserved in multitudes of languages, the New Testament’s 24,970 manuscripts dwarf the next largest surviving group of manuscripts, the 643 of Homer’s Iliad (McDowell, Evidence, pp. 60-61). There are many ancient writings such as Herodotus’s History and Caesar’s Gallic Wars that are based on just a few manuscripts yet are never questioned in their authenticity by historians (Bruce, NTD, pp. 16-17 qtd in McDowell, Evidence, p. 64). Thus, if the New Testament is not to be trusted, then how can any other work of the ancient past be verified? If the existence of Jesus of Nazareth is questioned, then the existences of Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, and any other ancient historical figure fall into the uncertainty of myth (Jeffrey, Signature of God, p. 86).

But the factor that settles Jesus of Nazareth beyond all speculation of myth is the testimonies of the witnesses, from His closest associates to the following multitudes to His arch enemies. When the disciples wrote down the miracles of Jesus they claimed to have seen and the words of Jesus they claimed to have heard, they reminded their readers that these things had “not been done in a corner” (Acts 26:26). In fact, they wrote that Jesus had preached and performed miracles before many multitudes of people over the course of His ministry, like giving sight to the blind (Matt. 9:27-30; 21:14), healing diseases (Luke 7:21; Matt. 8:2-3), feeding thousands with just a few loaves and fishes (Matt. 14:15-21), raising the dead to life (John 11:1-45), etc. And then the disciples wrote the most fantastic feat of all, that this same Jesus was crucified, was buried, but then arose from the dead on the third day (Matt. 27-28; Mark 15-16; Luke 23-24; John 19-20). They were practically calling, “Check the tomb. He’s not there!” Because the New Testament was written within the lifetimes of the witnesses to these events, anything the disciples wrote could be tested against the memories of countless thousands.

And myriads of these thousands believed, ballooning the new faith Christianity. Soon after the New Testament was written and preached to Gentiles as well as Jews, they spread the word to their own countrymen and translated the New Testament into many languages, to be read in Sunday meetings all across the land (Jeffrey, Signature of God, p. 88). Manuscripts multiplied, making the job of a forger so much more grueling (Ibid., pp. 88-89). The impossibility of any myth-formation in the New Testament text is superbly illustrated in Grant Jeffrey’s The Signature of God:

  • Imagine that some writer wanted to create a false story in the 1990s about President Kennedy performing miracles and being raised from the dead for forty days after his tragic assassination in November, 1963. To succeed with his plan the writer would have to accomplish two impossible things: (1) He would have to simultaneously acquire every one of the millions of books and newspaper reports about the president and insert his counterfeit passages in this material without being detected by a single reader. (2) He would have to simultaneously convince millions of people around the world to accept his forgery as true, despite the fact that these people who were alive when Kennedy lived have independent recollections that contradict his invented story (p. 89).

Thus, the thousands of New Testament manuscripts ensure its reliability. And the fact that Christianity was born in Jerusalem, outside whose gates Jesus was crucified, and then rapidly grew from this epicenter to engulf the entire Roman Empire and beyond testifies to the witness of many in that generation, who saw the works of Jesus as true history, not a myth (McDowell, Resurrection Factor, pp. 106-107).

Even the Jewish religious leaders, who hated Jesus for His condemning their hypocrisy and stirring the people away from them, could not deny His miracles or the empty tomb. Instead, they claimed that He received power to heal people using Satanic magic (Mark 3:22-23). When all Jerusalem was transformed into an uproar with the discovery of the empty tomb, the Jewish leaders did not deny its existence, but accused His disciples of stealing His body in an attempt to make Jesus’ resurrection prophecy come true (Matt. 27:62-64; 28:11-13). Their lone argument against His resurrection crumbled in the years ahead: These same disciples, who had formerly forsook Jesus during His arrest and trials, now passionately preached and converted thousands of Jews and even Gentiles while suffering intense persecution from the Jewish leadership and the Roman Empire. Nearly every one of these disciples was martyred for preaching a risen Christ, yet none renounced Him (McDowell, Resurrection Factor, p. 94). Would anyone live a persecuted life and die for his own fabrication? The obvious answer has lead this “stolen body theory” of the Jews to be discounted by critics today (Strobel, Case for Easter, p. 41). Thus, the hostile witness of the Jewish leaders all the more increases the trustworthiness of the disciples’ testimony.

Even secular writings opposed to Christianity attest to the existence, life, and death of Jesus. The greatest Roman historian, Cornelius Tacitus (A.D. 55-120), mentions in his Annals that “Christus [Christ], the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate” (qtd in McDowell, Evidence, p. 171); the 2nd century Greek satirist, Lucian of Samosata, declares in his The Death of Peregrine that “the Christians . . . deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws” (qtd in Ibid., p. 172); and another ancient historian, Phlegon, wrote in his Chronicles that “during the time of Tiberius Caesar an eclipse of the sun occurred during the full moon” (Africanus, Chronography, 18.1, qtd in Ibid., p. 174), a clear allusion to the chilling darkness that befell the land during the crucifixion of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels (Matt. 27:45; Mark 15:33; Luke 23:44).

This last reference, in seeking a natural explanation for an actual, mystifying event, is disproven by science: For by its very nature, a solar eclipse can only occur during the new moon, when the moon is between the earth and the sun (Espenak, “Solar Eclipses for Beginners”). But Jesus was crucified the day before the Passover (Mark 15:42; Matt. 26:17), a holiday which occurred during the phase of the full moon (Parsons, Hebrew for Christians, “Pesach”). Thus, though secular critics of ancient times tried explaining away this strange darkness by natural means, it is nature that refutes them.

Not only do the witnesses, New Testament manuscripts, and archaeological discoveries fully refute the legend theory, but they also entangle all other theories in hopeless mazes. Many scholars, knowing the obvious fact that Jesus lived and died, have not attacked His existence but have proposed theories to explain the events recorded in the New Testament through natural circumstances. However, no theory has been able to fit each jigsaw of evidence into one coherent picture.

Consider the “wrong tomb theory,” as proposed by Professor Kirsopp Lake in The Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ (summarized in McDowell, Resurrection Factor, p. 79). This position theorizes that when Jesus was taken down from the cross, He was buried by Joseph of Arimathea, emissary of the Jewish leaders instead of a disciple of Jesus, in a tomb amidst the many tombs of Jerusalem, and the disciples and women close to Jesus were watching from afar at the moment of burial. Then on Sunday the women, who were planning to anoint His body with spices, went to the wrong tomb. A young man at this open tomb tells the astonished women “He is not here,” giving them the idea that the man was an angel proclaiming that Jesus had risen from the dead. Thus is born the resurrection tale.

Yet the plausibility of this theory is only superficial. For not only the women would have gone to the wrong tomb, the beloved grave of their Lord, but so would the disciples; the Jewish leaders; and even Joseph of Arimathea, owner of the tomb (Ibid., p. 80). Given the very short time interval, just three days, surely someone would have realized or at least suspected the error committed. Yet no one seemed even to have thought of this possibility until the modern age. Furthermore, the theory ignores the New Testament’s attestation to a guard being stationed at Jesus’ tomb by the Jewish leaders (in an attempt to prevent the disciples from stealing His body and claiming a resurrection) (Matt. 27:62-66). Surely anyone could verify the true location of Jesus’ tomb by locating the lone tomb guarded by soldiers and marked with an official seal. All rumor would have died, and Christianity, never born. Yet the faith lives on, and so does the angel’s statement: “He is not here, for He has risen” (Matt. 28:6).

Even more problems compound the more popular hallucination theory. This theory attempts to account for the appearances of Jesus after His death as hallucinations of His disciples, longing so hard for their dead Master that their minds resurrected Him in thought only. Yet if Jesus appeared in their minds only, what happened to the stationed guard, and why did the Jewish leaders acknowledge that the tomb was empty by claiming that the body was stolen (Matt. 28:11-13)? And how could thousands of Jews in Jerusalem instantly convert to Christianity at the preaching of their first sermon (Acts 2) when these Jews could have easily walked to Joseph’s tomb and verified whether it was truly empty (McDowell, Resurrection Factor, pp. 106-107)? Many of these converts would and did face persecution and even martyrdom, so witnessing for themselves the actual emptiness of the tomb would be essential (Ibid., p. 107).

Beyond even these grave problems, the theory’s key mechanism, the hallucination, just does not fit into what the disciples saw. People cannot have the same hallucination at the same time, since such visions are drawn from each individual’s unique personal experiences (Ibid., p. 84). In contrast, many different types of people saw Jesus at all times of the day (Matt. 28:1-9; Luke 24:13-32), and from one to five hundred individuals saw or conversed with Jesus (John 20:11-18; I Corinthians 15:6). Unlike a group of drug addicts, each high and each having a different hallucination, each person saw the same Jesus. Some even ate with Him (John 21) or touched His wounds (John 20:24-28); what kind of hallucination allows that? Their accounts are detailed, just as psychologists would expect of someone seeing reality (McDowell, Resurrection Factor, p. 84).

Besides, the seeing of a false image requires that a person expect to see the image (Ibid., pp. 85-86). The women and disciples were the last to expect that Jesus would rise to life (Ibid., p. 86). For the Gospels declare that on Sunday the women were bringing spices to anoint His body, obviously expecting His body to be there, and when they saw and spoke to their Lord alive in glory, they hurried and declared the stunning news to His disciples. But the defeated, dejected disciples, who had fled from their Master at His arrest and trial (Mark 14:50), rejected their testimony, having abandoned all hope since crucifixion day. Not until Jesus of Nazareth Himself appeared to them in the upper room and in subsequent places, speaking and comforting and reminding them of all the cross fulfilled in the Scriptures, did they finally believe what they saw and heard and felt was true.

This former skepticism and dejection of the disciples is one of the many factors forgotten by the proponents of another popular theory, the resuscitation or “swoon theory” (McDowell, Resurrection Factor, p. 97). It declares that the crucifixion did not actually kill Jesus. Instead, He fainted upon the cross, was presumed dead by medically-ignorant soldiers, was wrapped in graveclothes, and was placed in the tomb. The tomb’s cool air, however, revived Him despite His wounds. He walked out alive and appeared to His shocked disciples, who could not imagine that anything but a resurrection had taken place.

Yet this theory ignores what the disciples and their contemporaries knew too well about a crucifixion: its fatal brutality. It is one of the most tortuous deaths devised by man. Dr. Alexander Metherell, Ph.D., (qtd in Strobel, Case for Easter, pp. 12-24) describes what Jesus suffered on the day of His crucifixion: (1) a Roman whipping that stripped off the flesh to the bowels, causing severe blood loss and shock; (2) an arduous walk to the execution site carrying the wooden crossbar; (3) the nailing to the cross through the sensitive nerves of the wrists and feet; (4) the hanging from the cross, which pressured the chest in such a way that Jesus had to push Himself up continually in order to exhale and prevent suffocation, until total exhaustion set in; (5) cardiac arrest of the heart from the effects of shock and slow suffocation; and (6) the spear thrust into Jesus’ side, which let out a great volume of blood and water from a ruptured heart. How can anyone survive this ordeal? Many prisoners die even at the beating stage. Jesus could not have even “played dead,” for who can pretend for long not to breath? As Dr. Metherell so adamantly declares, there is no way that Jesus could have survived this ordeal.

But perhaps the greatest testimony to Jesus’ actual death and resurrection would be the skeptical disciples themselves (summarized in McDowell, Resurrection Factor, pp. 98-99, and Strobel, Case for Easter, pp. 24-26). For if by some “miracle” Jesus naturally swooned back to consciousness, unwrapped Himself from the hundred pounds of wrappings and spices wound tightly around Him, rolled the massive tombstone away, and fought or eluded the Roman guards; as the anti-Christian theologian David Strauss admitted, how could this weakened, gashed, and mutilated person, having just suffered the worst torture and agony a man can experience, so transform all the lives of the hopeless, cowardly disciples that they fan across from Jerusalem to the farthest reaches of the Roman Empire proclaiming the absolute fact of Jesus risen in glory and Conquerer of death, to the very second of their martyrdoms? What else could vanish all their fear of death, than the actual sight of their Lord risen from the dead to a glorious heavenly body, one without injury or decay?

For the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is not just the pivotal event of history, but the transformer of lives. Only an actual resurrection could explain the massive growth of Christianity in the very city where Jesus’ crucifixion took place. And because Jesus resurrected, we can be certain that He was who He claimed to be, the Christ, the Son of God, the very Creator incarnated in humanity to pay the penalty for men’s sins and save them. Because He rose, we can know that He is trustworthy and His promises are true. Because He conquered death, so we know that those who believe will not molder forever in the grave, but be resurrected also to life everlasting and be with our Lord and our God in His heavenly kingdom. For Jesus Christ is the Truth of the resurrection.

 

 

 

Works Cited

 

 

The Holy Bible. New American Standard Version.

 

Espenak, Fred. “Solar Eclipses for Beginners” MrEclipse.com. Sept. 26, 2009. Web. June 15, 2010.

 

Jeffrey, Grant R. The Signature of God: Astonishing Biblical Discoveries. Toronto: Frontier Research Publications, Inc., 1996.

 

McDowell, Josh D. Evidence for Christianity: Historical Evidences for the Christian Faith. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2006.

 

McDowell, Josh [D.] The Resurrection Factor: Does the Historical Evidence Support the Resurrection of Jesus Christ? Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1981.

 

Morris, Henry Madison, Ph.D. Many Infallible Proofs: Practical and Useful Evidences for Christianity. El Cajon, CA: Creation Life Publisher, Inc., 1974.

 

Parsons, John J. “Pesach – The Feast of Freedom.” Hebrew for Christians. Web. June 15, 2010.

 

Strobel, Lee. The Case for Easter: A Journalist Investigates the Evidence for the Resurrection. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003.

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