My last post commenced a series exploring the historical argument for the resurrection of Jesus Christ. I will look at the evidence we have for seven facts, and then examine how we can explain them. The relevant facts are:
- Jesus was crucified.
- His body was buried.
- His tomb was found empty.
- The disciples had experiences they believed to be of the resurrected Jesus.
- Paul’s life was changed, reportedly because of an experience of the resurrected Jesus.
- James’ life was changed, reportedly because of an experience of the resurrected Jesus.
- Before his death, Jesus claimed to have a unique relationship with God.
In my last post I also presented a few reasons for accepting the historical reliability of the New Testament writings. (Only briefly, because so much has been written on that subject elsewhere.) Again, the argument is not that these writings are Scripture and therefore they are reliable – that would be circular reasoning. Rather, when we treat them as we would any other historical documents, we find that there are indications of historical reliability, so that we have reason to trust them.
The general historical reliability of the New Testament is sufficient to establish the above facts, but it is worth looking into them in more detail, so that is what I will begin doing here.
Jesus Was Crucified
We have a number of accounts of the crucifixion of Jesus, most obviously in the Gospels, but the event is also referenced in the letters of Paul, and there is really no good reason to doubt that it occurred. There are some among the “Jesus mythicism” camp who claim that the Gospel accounts are later inventions, and the early references in Paul’s letters were mythical rather than historical statements. Frankly, these mythicist claims are about as well-regarded among historians as are flat earth claims among physicists, but it is good to look at a couple of reasons why this is the case.
First, Jesus is clearly thought of as a historical figure, not a mythical figure, in the letters of Paul. Paul writes that Jesus was a man born of Jewish descent who had real flesh-and-blood brothers. Paul had even met at least one of these brothers, James, in person. (Tim O’Neill goes into more detail about Paul’s reference to James in this post on his excellent “History for Atheists” blog.) And for that matter, Jesus is also clearly represented as historical in the Gospels.
Second, the idea that Jesus was crucified is extremely unlikely to have been invented, for the simple reason that crucifixion was regarded as an incredibly shameful and humiliating way to die. Roman writer Cicero called crucifixion so horrendous that it was unsuitable for Roman citizens to even contemplate. Jews held crucifixion to be a sure sign of having been cursed by God. For early Christians to invent a crucifixion for their Christ would have been asking for ridicule.
Third, there is simply no evidence that any early “mythical” form of Christianity ever existed. We have writings of opponents of Christianity and writings defending orthodox Christian beliefs from various heresies, and none of these even come close to hinting that there was ever a time when Christians did not believe that Jesus lived and died (and lived again) in the early first century.
On top of all that, we have clear references to the crucifixion of Jesus in non-Christian accounts, principally those of Josephus and Tacitus. That these two secular historians record this event (less than a century after the fact, and corroborating details of the event such as the trial under Pilate, and also the origin of Christianity in Judea) is strong evidence of its historicity.
(Incidentally, from the information in the Gospel accounts we can place the crucifixion on Friday, April 3, 33 CE, at around 3:00pm.)
Jesus was Buried
The burial of Jesus is widely considered to be among the most well-established facts about Jesus, taking second place after the fact of his crucifixion. (His baptism takes third place, incidentally.) We have multiple early sources for the burial:
- The passion narrative (theorized to be an oral tradition forming one of the sources used in writing the Gospel of Mark, dated to within 7 years after the crucifixion) includes the account of Jesus’ burial by Joseph of Arimathea, with details about the manner of burial and the kind of tomb used.
- The additional sources used for the Gospels of Matthew and Luke corroborate the details of the burial. (These additional sources are recognized as independent from the Passion narrative by most scholars.)
- The Gospel of John corroborates the details of the burial. (John is recognized as an independent source by most scholars.)
- The early Christian creed preserved in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 (dated to within 5 years after the crucifixion) states that Jesus was buried.
- The sermons of the apostles in Acts, for example in Acts 13, mention the burial. Though written down by the same author as the Gospel of Luke, these are very likely to have been summarized from what the apostles actually preached.
There are parallels between the passion narrative in Mark, the early creed in 1 Corinthians, and the apostolic sermons in Acts which scholars take to be indications of their historicity. (They all follow the same basic outline: Jesus was crucified, he was buried, he was raised, and he appeared.) That is, these parallels make it likely that the independent oral traditions used in the different sources all developed from what was actually being said in the early first century about the burial of Jesus.
Thus, there is multiple, independent, early attestation of the burial; good odds in favour of historicity. But on top of that, one of the strongest arguments for the historicity of the burial is the identity of the person who is reported to have done it: Joseph of Arimathea.
It is highly unlikely that Joseph of Arimathea is a Christian invention. The early Christians were not really on good terms with the Sanhedrin, the Jewish religious council: they accused the religious elites of having engineered the death of Jesus by judicial murder. Hence, there is very little chance that Christians would have invented an account speaking so positively about a member of that council.
Occasionally, skeptics reject the burial account as implausible because in a typical Roman crucifixion, the body would be left to hang on a cross and rot, and then be disposed of unceremoniously in a common grave. However, we have evidence that it was normal for the Jews to have the bodies taken down and buried, a practice which developed from the command in Deuteronomy 21:22-23, and there is a passage in Josephus’ The Jewish War which gives evidence that the Romans allowed the Jews to do just that. So the burial account really is not all that implausible.
Thus, we can be reasonably certain that after his crucifixion, Jesus was buried, and moreover, that he was buried by one Joseph of Arimathea in a tomb cut into the rock, with a stone rolled over the entrance.
The Tomb Was Found Empty
The Gospels report that on the Sunday after Jesus’ crucifixion, his tomb was found empty by a group of women who were among his followers. This fact can be reasonably established as historical for the following reasons.
First, the historical reliability of the burial account supports the empty tomb account. According to the burial account the location of Jesus’ tomb was known, since he was buried by a prominent member of the Jewish religious council, and his burial was observed by some of his women followers. But in that case, Jesus’ tomb must have been empty by the time the disciples began proclaiming that he had been raised from the dead. Otherwise, their proclamation would not have gotten off the ground.
Neither the disciples nor anyone else in Jerusalem would have believed in the resurrection if Jesus’ body was still in the tomb. In his massive tome The Resurrection of the Son of God, N.T. Wright shows that the Jewish concept of resurrection was a that of a physical, bodily resurrection. Your body was an essential part of you in Jewish thought. Someone could not be raised from the dead if their body was still dead in the ground: the best that could happen to you in that case was your spirit being assumed into heaven, to await the resurrection that would happen in the end times.
So the disciples of Jesus, all of them Jews, would not have believed that Jesus had been raised from the dead if his corpse was still kicking around. And no one else would have believed them when they started preaching. Since the location of the tomb was known, it is highly implausible that no one would have gone to check it out. Even if the corpse was decayed beyond recognition, the claim that it was Jesus’ corpse would have been eminently believable – it was in his tomb, after all, and a number of features would have still been identifiable (sex, height, crucifixion wounds).
If the location of the tomb was known, the Jewish authorities would have used it to refute the resurrection claim if they could have. They were understandably concerned about the Christian movement, as we see in Acts and as is testified by the apostle Paul – just as they were concerned about Jesus himself, enough to have him crucified. But there is no record of a dispute about whether or not the tomb was empty, or about the identification of Jesus’ remains. Instead, we have a dispute about whether or not the body had been stolen! (More on that in a moment.)
So the fact that Jesus was buried in a known location provides good support for the empty tomb.
Second, the empty tomb account is itself fairly well-established. We have many of the same early, independent sources for the empty tomb account as we have for the burial account, including the passion narrative in Mark and the account in John. (This is hardly surprising, since the early Christians were not likely to circulate a story that ended with Jesus in the tomb.) Moreover, the parallels between Mark’s passion narrative, the apostolic sermons in Acts, and the early creed in 1 Corinthians 15, combined with the Jewish concept of the resurrection as a bodily resurrection, mean that the empty tomb is implicit in the latter two sources. The mention of his burial in conjunction with his resurrection would entail that the tomb did not remain occupied.
There are a couple other features of the empty tomb account in Mark that further supports its historical reliability. For one, it completely lacks the kind of legendary embellishment that we would expect to see if it was a later invention. Mark’s empty tomb account is fairly matter-of-fact, particularly when compared to the empty tomb stories in something like the Gospel of Peter. (William Lane Craig uses this as an example of what real legendary development looks like in this episode of his Defenders class. It’s quite entertaining, actually.)
For another, the phrase “the first day of the week” that occurs in Mark 16:2 is reflective of a very early tradition. If the empty tomb account was a later invention, it almost certainly would have used the more prevalent “third day” motif instead, which was already present in the early Christian creed in 1 Corinthians 15. And the “first day of the week” phrase probably represents a translation from Aramaic, the disciples’ native language: it is rendered awkwardly in Greek (like saying “the one of the Sabbath”) while it is a natural idiom in Aramaic.
So the empty tomb account is well-established by early sources.
Third, the identity of the ones who first witnessed the empty tomb provides an interesting indicator of its historicity: namely, Gospels report that the tomb was first discovered empty by women. This is relevant because women were not considered to be reliable witnesses in ancient Jewish and Roman cultures. So had the Gospel writers (or earlier traditions that the Gospels were based on) invented the empty tomb narrative, they would have given the discovery to witnesses their audience would have considered more notable and trustworthy.
Fourth, the earliest Jewish objection to the claims about Jesus’ resurrection presupposes the empty tomb. Matthew’s Gospel, in the account of the guard at the tomb, reports that the Jewish authorities accused the disciples of having stolen the body, and that this story continued to be circulated at the time when Matthew’s Gospel was written.
The account of the guard at the tomb is not accepted as historical by many scholars, though there are some indications of its historicity. (For example, it contains some language that is unusual for Matthew, suggesting prior tradition.) But even if it were an invention, the most likely rationale for inventing it implies that the tomb was empty. Namely, the story of the guard would only have been invented in response to the Jewish accusation that the disciples stole the body: and that accusation would only have arisen if the tomb was indeed unoccupied.
In other words, the account of the guard at the tomb shows a history of developing assertions and counter-assertions that likely stretches back to the earliest time of Christianity:
- First, the Christians proclaim: “He is risen!”
- Then, the Jews respond: “No he’s not! The disciples merely stole his body!” (Note that they didn’t say: “No he’s not! Look at the corpse in his tomb!”)
- The Christians: “The disciples couldn’t have stolen the body, there was a guard at the tomb.”
- The Jews: “No, the guards fell asleep.” (Note that they didn’t say: “What guard?”)
- The Christians: “No, the chief priests bribed the guards to say that!”
And since Matthew writes that the accusation against the disciples had been spread among the Jews to time of writing his Gospel, it is reasonable to believe that he was responding to what was actually being said. Otherwise his audience would have said “What empty tomb? This is news to me.” or “Well, I’ve never heard this story that you claim has been spread among the Jews to this day.” If Matthew was lying, it was a lame lie and easily falsified. But as far as we know, no one came out and falsified it.
So we have good reason to accept that the earliest Jewish response to Christianity presupposed the empty tomb – even if Matthew’s account about the guards is an invention.
For the above reasons, the majority of New Testament scholars accept the historicity of the empty tomb. Which means we can be reasonably certain, as a matter of historical fact, that Jesus was crucified and buried, and that his tomb was found empty two days later.
In my next post, I will continue to explore the evidence surrounding the origin of the Christian faith by looking at the claimed resurrection appearances of Jesus.