In my last post, I explored some of the specific evidence for the facts that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified, that he was buried, and that on the first day of the week following his crucifixion, his tomb was found empty.
What happened after that is where it gets really interesting.
The Resurrection Appearances
We have a number of sources indicating that after Jesus died, his disciples claimed to have seen him alive again, risen from the dead. And not only did they make this claim, but they truly appear to have believed it. They were transformed from men who fearfully denied and abandoned their master at his arrest, to men who fearlessly preached his resurrection in the face of opposition and even the threat of death. This evidence indicates that the disciples really had experiences that they took to be appearances of Jesus resurrected.
Writing a letter to the Corinthian church about 20 years after Jesus’ crucifixion, the apostle Paul lists a number of individuals and groups who experienced resurrection appearances (this list can be found in 1 Corinthians 15). It is almost universally accepted as historical by scholars that Paul knew at least some of the original disciples personally, as this is attested by Paul himself, by the book of Acts, and by other Christian writers in the first and early second centuries. So Paul is certainly in a position to accurately report what the disciples claimed.
What he reports is that he received the following teaching in the form of a creed:
“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, and to the Twelve.” – 1 Corinthians 15:3-5
Historians generally date this creed to within five years following the Jesus’ death, understanding Paul as saying that he received this teaching from the apostles (including Peter, also called by his Aramaic name, Cephas) when he visited them three years following his conversion, a meeting which he recounts in his letter to the Galatians. Paul affirms that this is what the apostles were saying: that Jesus had appeared to them after being raised from the dead.
Paul adds several other resurrection appearances that he knew of to this creed: an appearance to over 500 of Jesus’ disciples at one time (speculated by some to be the appearance recorded in Matthew 28:16-17, though only the twelve are mentioned there); an appearance to James, the brother of Jesus; an appearance to all of the apostles (which apparently included more than just the twelve closest disciples, see for example Acts 1:21-22); and last of all an appearance to Paul himself. Paul explicitly notes that many of those who had seen Jesus after his resurrection were still alive at the time when he wrote his letter to the Corinthians, and the intent of this comment is obvious: the witnesses were still available to be questioned.
The Gospel accounts of the resurrection appearances provide multiple independent attestation to the fact that the disciples had such experiences. There are independent accounts in Matthew, Luke and Acts, and John; and a resurrection appearance is hinted at in the empty tomb account in Mark (and some scholars believe that the original ending of Mark has been lost, so it may have recounted the foreshadowed appearance). Moreover, the apostolic sermons in Acts reference the resurrection, and they are held by most historians to be summaries of what was preached by the apostles themselves, or at least by the early Christians generally.
Finally, we have the writings of the early church fathers who succeeded the apostles in leading the church. Clement and Polycarp, who are reported to have personally known and learned from the apostles Peter and John, respectively, also affirm that the original disciples reported resurrection appearances.
So we have a wealth of evidence from the earliest oral and written tradition of the Christian church that the disciples claimed to have seen Jesus raised from the dead. But we also have historical evidence that they genuinely believed these claims: their lives were transformed by these experiences. The Gospels report that the disciples abandoned Jesus at his arrest. Peter denied ever having known him. It is unlikely that the Gospel writers invented these shameful, embarrassing accounts of the disciples’ weakness, so we have reason to believe did in fact respond to Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion in this fearful manner.
Yet in only a short while, these same men willingly exposed themselves to the risk of persecution, and even martyrdom, to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ – and they were willing to suffer these things not for some vague religious hope, but for maintaining their testimonies of having personally seen their risen Lord. Gary Habermas and Mike Licona, in their book The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, list seven ancient sources attesting to the disciples’ willingness to suffer for what they proclaimed: the book of Acts, Clement, Polycarp, Ignatius, Dionysius of Corinth, Tertullian, and Origen. (All these sources are from approximately the first 200 years following the crucifixion.)
So, that the disciples of Jesus were willing to suffer for their testimony is a very well-attested historical fact, and this is only reasonably explained by their genuine belief in this testimony. But that makes it almost completely certain that they really did have experiences which they took to be of the resurrected Jesus.
The Nature of the Appearances
It is important to remark on the nature of the resurrection appearances that the disciples experienced. First, they not only occurred to individuals, but also to groups of people. In fact, most of the reported experiences were to groups. There are multiple accounts of Jesus appearing to his twelve closest disciples; there is the appearance to the two disciples on the road the Emmaus, there is the reported appearance to the 500, and we have Jesus’ ascension witnessed by a group of disciples.
Second, the appearances occurred to all kinds of people. Jesus is reported to have appeared to both men and women, to his closest disciples and to those less central among his followers, and even to those skeptical or even downright hostile towards him (Thomas, his brother James, the persecutor Paul).
Third, the appearances were bodily and physical appearances. (With the one exception of the appearance to Paul, which occurred after Jesus’ ascension. Paul’s experience, however, does not undermine the bodily nature of the other appearances, for reasons explained in this link.) The Gospel accounts are unanimous on this, as are the writings of the early church fathers. Jesus demonstrated to his disciples that he was not some mere spirit, but that he had been raised with a physical body, capable of eating and drinking, capable of being touched, still bearing the wounds of the crucifixion. This point we can also reasonably take to be historical: if none of the experiences of the original disciples appeared to be physical in this way, it is inexplicable how all of the accounts of their experiences could have been corrupted by this fabrication in such a short time.
Note that the early creed cited above, along with the Jewish concept of resurrection as involving the physical body, supports the physicality of the appearances. It says that Jesus was buried and that he was raised: the reference to the burial would be irrelevant if the original disciples believed that the resurrection appearances were merely spiritual. Moreover, Paul’s doctrine of the resurrection is physical, and he links this to the resurrection of Christ (see for example Philippians 3:21).
Fourth, it is interesting to note that the belief in the resurrection of Jesus peculiarly arose among those who had no predisposition towards such a belief at all. The Jews had no conception of a messiah who would die shamefully on a cross: on the contrary, they believed such a death was a sure sign that the person had been cursed by God. They had no conception of a resurrection to eternal life in the middle of history, instead of occurring at the end of time. When other messianic claimants failed, their followers had simply dispersed. And yet, from the earliest times following his crucifixion, the disciples of Jesus came to believe that he had been raised from the dead and exalted by God.
The Conversion of Paul
The post-mortem appearances of Jesus are made particularly interesting by the fact that they were not only experienced by those who followed Jesus prior to his crucifixion – we also have at least two reports of Jesus appearing to someone who did not follow him during his earthly life. The most dramatic of these is the appearance to Saul of Tarsus, also known as Paul.
Paul changed from being a devout adherent to Judaism who zealously persecuted the early Christian movement, into a fervent member of that same movement. He went from believing that Jesus of Nazareth was a blasphemer and cursed by God, to believing that Jesus really was the Son of God and Israel’s Messiah – preaching what he once condemned as heresy. This radical conversion is attributed to an experience of the resurrected Jesus.
We have Paul’s own testimony of his conversion recounted in 1 Corinthians 15:9-10, Galatians 1:12-16, and Philippians 3:6-7. Early church fathers such as Clement, Polycarp, and Ignatius quote these letters, attribute them to Paul, and attest to his accuracy, so we have reason to take these accounts as historical. There is a hint that there was a story of Paul’s conversion circulating in the early church in Galatians 1:22-23. And the book of Acts attests to his conversion in multiple passages.
Furthermore, we have multiple early sources indicating that Paul was willing to suffer persecution and death for his testimony and for his belief in Jesus, just as the original disciples were – showing that his conversion was genuine. This is reported by Paul himself, the book of Acts, Clement, Polycarp, Tertullian, Dionysus of Corinth, and Origen.
Both Paul and the books of Acts attribute Paul’s conversion to a resurrection appearance, which occurred when he was still an enemy of the Christian movement. Paul’s conversion is significant: it occurred not because Paul was drawn to the message of Christianity, but because Paul experienced something that he took to an appearance of the risen Jesus. Which means that Jesus’ resurrection was testified to by both friend and foe.
The Conversion of James
James, the brother of Jesus, became the leader of the church in Jerusalem in the first decade or so after his brother’s death. With James, as with Paul, we have a report of a resurrection appearance leading to the conversion of someone who was not a follower of Jesus during his earthly life.
The Gospels report that Jesus had a brother named James, and James is referenced by the Jewish historian Josephus in his account of James’ martyrdom. James was reportedly a pious Jew, maintaining Jewish customs and the respect of the Jewish community even after his conversion, and he became known as James the Just in Christian tradition.
We have the following evidence that James converted to Christianity on the basis of a personal appearance from Jesus:
- The Gospels hint that Jesus’ brothers did not follow him or believe in his claims during his earthly ministry. (Matthew 13:55-57, Mark 3:21, 3:31-35, 6:3-4, John 7:3-5)
- This makes sense: as a pious Jew, James very probably would have resented his older brother’s audacious claims of being the Son of God.
- But Acts reports that Jesus’ brothers were with the disciples at Pentecost. (Acts 1:14)
- Early Christian tradition reported by Paul held that Jesus appeared to James following his resurrection. (1 Corinthians 15:3-7)
- James is identified as a leader in the early church in Jerusalem. (Acts 15:12-21, Galatians 1:19)
- That James’ belief in the resurrection was genuine is demonstrated by the fact that he became a martyr because of them. His martyrdom is attested by Josephus and in Christian tradition (reported by the fourth-century church historian Eusebius).
These references show that there are multiple early sources for James’ conversion, and given the report of the appearance to James (passed down by Paul) we can be reasonably certain that such an experience was the cause for his conversion.
Given all the above, we have good historical evidence that following Jesus’ death, a number of people, (including Jesus’ closest disciples as well as Paul and James) had experiences which they took to be appearances of Jesus raised from the dead – and that these experiences were powerful enough to convince them that the resurrection had indeed occurred.
In my next post, I will explore the evidence for one further historical fact that provides important context for the events surrounding Jesus’ death and post-mortem appearances. Then I will begin to look into how these facts might be explained.