Having established the historicity of the four events: Jesus’ death by crucifixion, the disciple’s sincere belief in Jesus’ post-mortem appearances, the empty tomb and the origin of the Christian faith, we can now proceed to examine the possible explanations for this set of facts — conspiracy, hallucination or resurrection.
According to the conspiracy hypothesis, Jesus’ disciples stole his body from the tomb and lied about their resurrection experiences. This view finds zero support in contemporary scholarship. It also suffers from many problems.
1. It is highly unlikely that a resurrection conspiracy could have been conceived
The conspiracy hypothesis requires that the disciples fabricated a lie (i.e. the resurrection of Jesus) that was foreign within their Jewish worldview. How likely is it that the disciples would have invented the idea of a resurrection of a single individual within history and prior to the end of the world? It is much more likely that the disciples would have fabricated a lie that was familiar within their Jewish worldview (e.g. visions, spiritual assumption or bodily assumption) because it was a conceivable occurrence to them and their fellow Jews. If they wanted to vindicate Jesus from his death and defeat, they would have resorted to any of the above-mentioned possibilities. The fact that the disciples proclaimed resurrection however strongly indicates that they did witness something that sincerely convinced them that Jesus rose from the dead (e.g. an empty tomb and post-mortem appearances).
Anyway, in the points to follow below, I will assume that such a radical lie was able to be conceived on the end of the disciples.
2. A conspiracy being started and sustained by the disciples is highly implausible
The idea of a conspiracy being started and sustained by the disciples after the execution of Jesus is highly implausible. To see why this is so, let us consider three background facts.
One, Jesus’ execution by the Romans should have signaled the beginning of the end of his movement and confirmed that he was not the Messiah — since the idea of a Messiah killed by pagans (i.e. the Romans) ran counter to Jewish Messianic expectations. As noted by scholar Wright:
“a first-century Jew, faced with the crucifixion of a would-be messiah, or even of a prophet who had led a significant following, would not normally conclude that this person was the Messiah and that the kingdom had come. He or she would normally conclude that he was not and that it had not”.
In his book, “Jesus and the Victory of God”, Wright discusses other Messianic movements around the time of Jesus (which were armed movements against Rome) and notes that all of them faded away after the death of their leaders. The fact that the Christian movement did not follow this otherwise unanimous trend is historically remarkable. As scholar Wright notes regarding the followers of Judas the Galilean, Simon, Athronges, Eleazar ben Deinaus and Alexander, Menahem, Simon bar Giora and bar-Kochba, after the death of their leader, they were either “rounded up” by Rome or “melted away into the undergrowth”.
Two, a conspiracy response by the disciples is highly unlikely because planning one would mean challenging those in power, that is, the Jewish leadership, who had just engineered the death of their leader for a lie. By conspiring to proclaim a risen Christ, the disciples would be putting themselves in the center of danger and controversy, an action that would strongly go against every human’s instinct for survival and self-preservation (especially after witnessing the arrest, suffering, and execution of their leader).
Three, the disciples were earnest Jews who would not tell a lie of such immense gravity— that God had raised Jesus from the dead when He did not do so.
From these three background facts, it is extremely difficult to see how a conspiracy could have “gotten off the ground” in the first place. If a conspiracy occurred, then it must have started with one person, who had the idea of proclaiming a resurrection — stealing Jesus’ body from the tomb and lying about the risen Jesus appearing to them. How could this person bring himself to suggest something so outrageous to others? How could this person gather enough disciples to buy into his conspiracy plan given the three background facts discussed earlier? Moreover, if this person opened up about his conspiracy plan to other disciples, who he planned to include in his conspiracy group, then it would only take one rejection to strike a great blow against his planned conspiracy — since there would be one disciple who would know about it and be willing to blow the whistle to others and the Sanhedrin should it actually happen. Several rejections, on the other hand, would certainly kill any ideas of conspiracy.
Furthermore, even assuming that a conspiracy was able to launch (against all likelihood), it is still highly unlikely that it would have been sustained once persecution hit from the Jews. All it would have taken was one confession to deal a serious blow to the conspiracy, giving the Jewish leadership (1) evidence to bring before those deceived by the resurrection hoax and (2) increased morale to further crackdown on the movement and cause it to unravel. As the esteemed Blaise Pascal (who was himself a devout Catholic) commented:
“The apostles were either deceived or deceivers. Either supposition is difficult, for it is not possible to imagine that a man has risen from the dead. While Jesus was with them, he could sustain them; but afterwards, if he did not appear to them, who did make them act? The hypothesis that the Apostles were knaves is quite absurd. Follow it out to the end, and imagine these twelve men meeting after Jesus’ death and conspiring to say that he has risen from the dead. This means attacking all the powers that be. The human heart is singularly susceptible to fickleness, to change, to promises, to bribery. One of them had only to deny his story under these inducements, or still more because of possible imprisonment, tortures and death, and they would all have been lost. Follow that out” (Pensees, 322).
To illustrate how hard it is for a conspiracy to be maintained, the Watergate scandal, in which former U.S. President Nixon and his aides employed dirty tactics on the opposing political party in order to secure re-election and tried covering up the evidence, only lasted a few weeks under external pressure. As Chuck Colson, special counsel to President Nixon during Watergate scandal testifies:
“I know how impossible it is for a group of people, even some of the most powerful in the world, to maintain a lie. The Watergate cover-up lasted only a few weeks before the first conspirator broke and turned state’s evidence”.
Lookingat history, the earliest Christians proclaimed a risen Jesus boldly, in the light of the three background facts discussed earlier, and later on, in the face of enemy persecution. There is zero evidence that any Christian confessed that the resurrection was a lie. On the contrary, the evidence points towards enduring and unwavering faith, which is why it is recognized in scholarship that the disciples sincerely believed that Jesus appeared to them. The fact that Paul was unable to crush the early Christian movement despite his best efforts (and later on, converted himself) is a testament to the disciples’ deep convictions and credibility. All of this strongly argues against the Christian movement being a conspiracy and points towards other hypotheses that stem from genuine belief on the end of Jesus’ disciples (e.g. hallucination or resurrection).
3. The disciples would not have disrespected Jesus’ body
A conspiracy is unlikely because it would have required the disciples to disrespect Jesus’ body. Transferring Jesus’ body from a tomb to a ditch, the location of which would have to remain undiscovered and be forgotten would be extremely disrespectful. Yet, this is what the disciples would have to do if they were planning to maintain their resurrection hoax. The love and respect that the disciples had for Jesus would strongly argue against them doing this.
4. The disciples were earnest Jews
Four, if the disciples proclaimed that God raised Jesus from the dead when He did not do so, then we would have to say that they were insincere, non-God fearing Jews. However, the fact that they followed Jesus because they thought he was the Messiah indicates that they were earnest Jews. Furthermore, as shown by the New Testament texts, they preached the importance of loving God and one’s neighbor, upholding the 10 commandments, cultivating virtue and avoiding sin.
Historical evidence also indicates that they strove to live as they preached. The apostolic and early Church fathers referred to the moral character of the disciples favorably, with Clement calling Peter and Paul “righteous pillars” and Polycarp saying that the apostles “ran…with faith and righteousness” and that “they did not love the present world”. James, the brother of Jesus, was so renowned for his moral character that he was given the title “the Just”. The New Testament epistles also show that the first generation Christians used a “race” as a metaphor for the Christian life – signifying the sacrifice, discipline and perseverance it entailed (Heb 12:1, 1 Cor 9:25-27, Gal 5:7, Phil 2:16 and 2 Tim 4:7). In doing so, they compared themselves to athletes, again, referring to the discipline and perseverance they would have to imbibe as a practicing Christian. These athletic metaphors would also be taken up by other apostolic and early Church fathers in their writings.
In the end, the historical evidence points firmly to the conclusion that the disciples were earnest and conscientious Jews. They would not have been capable of carrying out and maintaining a “resurrection conspiracy” that would be such an affront to God.
5. The sincere belief of the disciples strongly argues against a conspiracy
As mentioned earlier in part 1 of this series, the evidence for the disciple’s sincere belief in Jesus’ post-mortem appearances is powerful — which is why there is a virtual consensus in scholarship that the disciples had experiences which caused them to believe that the risen Jesus had appeared to them.
The disciples traveled great distances preaching a risen Jesus, endured hardship and persecution, and in some cases, suffered martyrdom. This is firm evidence for genuine belief, not a conspiracy. As liberal scholar E.P. Sanders comments on the possibility of fraud:
“I do not regard deliberate fraud as a worthwhile explanation. Many of the people in these lists were to spend the rest of their lives proclaiming that they had seen the risen Lord, and several of them would die for their cause”.
6. A conspiracy would have resulted in more appealing narratives
If the disciples conspired in proclaiming the resurrection, why did they not do a better job in fabricating the empty tomb and resurrection narratives? Why are the accounts of the empty tomb so restrained? Why do they contain embarrassing elements? Why, for example, was the resurrection not witnessed in the account of the empty tomb? Why is Jesus’ resurrected body not described? Why were the events at the tomb witnessed solely by women? Why is the honor of Jesus’ first post-mortem appearance given to Mary Magdalene and the women? If the disciples lied about the resurrection, it is likely that they would have fabricated a more impressive and appealing account.
7. A conspiracy would not explain the conversions of James and Paul
A conspiracy would not explain the conversion of James, from skeptic to believer in Jesus.
It would also not explain the conversion of Paul, a respected Pharisee and a fierce enemy of the early Church to Christianity.
According to the hallucination hypothesis, the resurrection appearances were merely hallucinations on the end of the disciples. This theory enjoys the most support among skeptical scholars today. Like the conspiracy theory, it also suffers from many problems.
1. The hallucination theory does not explain the empty tomb
One, the hallucination theory does not account for the empty tomb. To account for the empty tomb under this hypothesis, we would have to assume that an individual stole the body of Jesus for some reason.
If it were a follower of Jesus or someone who held him in high regard, it is difficult to see why he or she would have carried out such an action that was disrespectful to Jesus – taking his body out of its resting place where it could be visited by those who knew him, and transferring it somewhere else. Such an action would also be inexplicable because if this person held Jesus in high regard, he or she could simply visit his tomb like everyone else. Grave robbery also faces difficulty as a possibility because it was considered a serious crime in the time of Jesus (in antiquity, tombs were held in high regard), and thus warranted significant penalties.
On the other hand, if the person who stole the body was not a follower of Jesus or did not hold him in high regard, then it is puzzling as to why he was so interested in robbing his corpse which had no value, and risk serious punishment in attempting to do so. A grave robber would have been interested in valuable goods interred with a corpse but not the corpse itself.
2. It requires us to posit a fantastic series of hallucinations
The hallucination theory requires us to posit a fantastic series of events wherein multiple hallucinations occurred to Jesus’ followers, as individuals and in groups, sincerely convincing them that he rose from the dead and appeared to them. The group appearances in particular are especially difficult to account for because hallucinations are private and subjective experiences, no two people can see the exact same hallucination. As clinical psychologist Garry Collins explains:
”Hallucinations are individual occurrences. By their very nature only one person can see a given hallucination at a time. They certainly are not something which can be seen by a group of people … Since a hallucination exists only in this subjective, personal sense, it is obvious that others cannot witness it”.
Another clinical psychologist, Garry Sibcy, who has studied the possibility of group hallucinations extensively, states:
“I have surveyed the professional literature (peer-reviewed journal articles and books) written by psychologists, psychiatrists, and other relevant healthcare professionals during the past two decades and have yet to find a single documented case of a group hallucination, that is, an event for which more than one person purportedly shared in a visual or other sensory perception where there was clearly no external referent”.
In response to this, skeptical scholars put forward the explanation that although the disciples did not share the exact hallucination of Jesus as a collective, they did experience individual hallucinations of him in group settings (see Ludemann, Goulder and Vermes as examples). The likeliness of such a fantastic series of events happening however is extremely low.
3. The appearance traditions in the gospels pose more difficulties for proponents of the hallucination theory
The appearance traditions in the gospels pose more difficulties for proponents of the hallucination theory.
One, according to the gospels, the appearances witnessed by the disciples were both auditory and physical. This would make great sense since the appearances of Jesus sincerely convinced the disciples that he had risen and appeared to them. It is difficult to imagine how visual but non-auditory or auditory but non-visual appearances of Jesus would have convinced the disciples that He had risen, and that what they saw before them was an actual living encounter (“in the flesh”). If one of these elements were missing, these appearances would seem more like hallucinations or visions. However, if the appearances of Jesus were visual and auditory, then we would have to raise the already high improbability of the posited series of hallucinations even higher. Hallucinations usually occur in a single mode (e.g. visual, auditory, olfactory, etc). As medical experts Laroi and Aleman note in their book “Hallucinations: The Science of Idiosyncratic Perception” (published by the American Psychological Association), multimodal hallucinations are more rare.
Two, in the gospel appearance traditions, Jesus would have lengthy conversations with his disciples, something that would be improbable for a hallucination to do (considering that the hallucinations of the disciples, James and Paul were not rooted in mental illnesses).
Three, the accounts in the gospels clearly portray Jesus’ appearances as physical and bodily. In these accounts, Jesus offers his disciples to touch his risen body and eats a broiled fish in their presence (Lk 24:36-43), some of the disciples grab hold of his feet in worship (Matt 28:9-10) and the disciple Thomas touches the wounds of Jesus (Jn 20:24-29). In the end, in addition to being visual and auditory, the appearances of Jesus in the gospels are also tangible, and Jesus lets his disciples know it: “Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have” (Luke 24:39). These accounts accord well with Acts 1:1-3, which states that after Jesus’ death, he appeared to his disciples and provided “many convincing proofs that he was alive”.
The problem with these previous two points, capable of lengthy conversations and displaying clear physicality, is that they are very difficult or impossible to account for through hallucinations.
Four, in the gospels, the appearances of Jesus were diverse. They happened to men and women of different ages, to individuals of different personalities and state of minds, at different times of the day and occurred indoors and outdoors. However, even if we were to put aside the gospel accounts, a variety of individuals and circumstances are already attested to in the 1 Corinthians 15 tradition. As a result, it has to be factored in. In the end, the variety in individuals and circumstances increases the unlikelihood of our posited series of hallucinations even higher.
4. It is highly unlikely that hallucinations of Jesus would have produced resurrection belief
It is highly unlikely that hallucinations of Jesus, even with an empty tomb, would have produced resurrection belief. The idea of Jesus’ resurrection was a completely foreign concept within Jewish thought. As mentioned earlier, if the disciples discovered that Jesus’ tomb was empty and experienced hallucinations of him, they would have concluded that he was bodily assumed into heaven, from where he appeared to them. The concept of a resurrection to an isolated individual within history and prior to the end of the world simply did not exist within Judaism. As a result, it is highly unlikely that the disciples would have conceived of and settled on resurrection as an interpretation.
With that said, in the points to follow below, I will assume that Jesus’ resurrection, despite being a foreign concept within Judaism, could have come to mind on the part of the disciples and therefore, could have potentially become established as an interpretation of what they had seen and experienced.
5. Skepticism and discernment would greatly diminish the possibility of hallucinations being interpreted as resurrection
If the disciples approached the extraordinary appearances of Jesus before their eyes with skepticism and discernment (e.g. assessing what they were seeing critically, attempting to converse with the appearance at length to determine its nature or meaning, or if the idea of resurrection came to mind, deciding to touch the appearance) then the chances of them attributing hallucinations as resurrection decreases greatly. There are three reasons why the disciples approached their resurrection experiences with skepticism and discernment.
One, doubt, skepticism and curiosity are all part of the human condition. We have always had it as a species. On the issue of doubt and skepticism in particular, there are multiple passages in the Old and New Testament that show this. Focusing on the New Testament alone, doubt and disbelief are found during Jesus’ ministry (Mk 5:35-42; 9:24-25, Matt 13:54-57; 14:22-31, Jn 6:32-68; 7:5) during the empty tomb and resurrection accounts (Lk 24:9-11, Lk 24:40-43, Jn 20:24-28, Matt 28:16-17) and during the post-Easter missionary efforts regarding the resurrection and others (Gal 1:18-20, 1 Cor 1:22-23, Acts 17:31-32). The above verses show that doubt and skepticism have always been with us, and that even ancient people knew the difference between the ordinary and the extraordinary (and were skeptical and discerning of the latter). If the disciples witnessed an appearance of a seemingly alive Jesus before their eyes, it is certain that they would have tried to understand the nature and meaning of the appearance through their rational faculties (discernment), and at least some of them would have been doing so in disbelief of what was happening (skepticism). Furthermore, if the radical idea of Jesus’ resurrection came to their minds, it is also possible, especially for those skeptical about what they were seeing, that they would have used their physical tools to probe the appearance of Jesus before them — reaching out to touch it.
Two, as just stated, the gospels themselves attest that there was skepticism on the part of Jesus’ disciples regarding the empty tomb and post-mortem appearances.
Three, the fact that the disciples unanimously proclaimed resurrection strongly implies discernment. The fact that the early Church proclaimed that Jesus rose from the dead, despite such an interpretation being a foreign concept within Judaism, and over other known possible interpretations that coheres with an empty tomb (hallucinations and visions of a bodily assumed Jesus) indicates that they had very good reasons for specifically proclaiming resurrection.
For all of the above reasons, it is almost certain that the disciples viewed their resurrection experiences with skepticism and discernment. The fact that resurrection was the explanation they unanimously settled on, passing their skepticism and discernment, points towards the conclusion that they truly did encounter the risen Jesus.
6. It is extremely difficult to see how belief in group resurrection appearances could have arisen
It is extremely difficult to see how sincere belief in group resurrection appearances arose among Jesus’ disciples.
First, let us consider the possibility of a group hallucination occurring. If one of the disciples started having a hallucination of Jesus and told others near him about what he was seeing, do you think that the other disciples would have begun to see a hallucination of Jesus as well? Of course not. In all likelihood, the other disciples would have seen nothing, and the first disciple would have been alone in his hallucination.
Second, let us grant that a group of disciples, somehow, managed to experience multiple hallucinations of Jesus as a collective. If this happened, how could the individuals in the group not realize the discrepancies in what they were seeing and what others were seeing? If you considered or believed that you were experiencing an extraordinary phenomenon as a group, you would be aware of how the other people in the group reacted and responded to what you were seeing because you would view yourselves as possible or actual collective witnesses. This would especially be the case when it comes to a possibly supernatural appearance from Jesus. With that said, there are many ways through which the disciples could have realized that there was a discrepancy between what they were seeing and what others were seeing during a “collective hallucination”.
One, if the hallucinations of Jesus these individuals were seeing were not located in the same spot in the room or vicinity, or if the hallucination of Jesus moved and those who saw a moving hallucination reacted accordingly, then this would have provided a good opportunity for individuals in the group to realize that they were not seeing the same thing (as they saw the actions of others and compared it to what they were seeing).
Two, if Jesus spoke to some people but not to others in these individual hallucinations, and those who Jesus spoke to responded back, then this would have been another good opportunity for those in the group to notice the obvious discrepancies in what was happening. Those whom Jesus did not speak to could see that the group was not seeing the same thing, since Jesus said nothing to them but something to others. On the other hand, those whom Jesus did speak to could see the obvious disconnect in their responses, since individual hallucinations of Jesus would not have said the same thing to each person.
Three, if a group of disciples experienced individual hallucinations of Jesus, it is highly likely that these hallucinations would not have ended at the same time. If one person in the group’s hallucination ended early and he saw others around him still seeing Jesus, he would realize that they never saw the same thing as a group in the first place. Others in the group whose hallucinations would end earlier before the rest would also follow in this realization.
Four, if the group of disciples asked each other afterward if they really saw the same thing and assess their experiences together then this would be another good opportunity for them to realize the discrepancies in what they witnessed — and it is highly likely that they did do this. Discussing, comparing and assessing experiences with each other after collectively witnessing something extraordinary is natural and expected (again, especially after witnessing a possibly supernatural appearance of Jesus). If the disciples did this, however, then it is highly unlikely that they would have proclaimed resurrection since they would realize through discussion that they did not witness the same thing (e.g. differences in the appearance of Jesus, what he did, what he said, etc). This would prove to them that the appearance they witnessed was not a resurrection but something else.
In the end, if individuals in the group realized that there were discrepancies in what they saw and what others were seeing, then they would not have proclaimed resurrection, since a resurrection appearance would have to be physical and bodily, objective, and “real in the world”. They would have instead, proclaimed something else (e.g. visions of a bodily assumed Jesus).
For all of the above reasons, it is extremely difficult to see how belief in group resurrection appearances could have emerged from hallucinations among the disciples. This strongly argues against hallucinations being the catalyst behind the early Christian resurrection proclamation.
7. It would not easily explain the conversion of James
A hallucination would not easily explain the conversion of James, from skeptic to believer in Jesus.
First, we would have to add James to the posited multiple series of hallucinations among the disciples, increasing the already high improbability of this hypothetical. The unlikelihood of a hallucination of Jesus occurring to James is enhanced by the fact that he did not believe in Jesus, and was not involved in his ministry. In fact, after the crucifixion, James must have felt even more assured in his belief that Jesus was not the Messiah and that his death was, unfortunately, “his own making”.
Second, since James was skeptical of Jesus during his ministry, he would have viewed the appearance of Jesus before him with an especially critical eye. Furthermore, if he heard stories from family members or Jesus’ disciples that Jesus rose from the dead and that he was appearing among them, it is very likely (given his skepticism) that he would have made sure that what he was seeing before him was truly his risen cousin — likely by touching him.
8. It would not explain the conversion of Paul
A hallucination would not easily explain the conversion of Paul, a Pharisee and fierce enemy of the early Church to Christianity.
First, we would have to add Paul to the posited series of hallucinations among the disciples and James, increasing the already high improbability of this hypothetical further. The unlikelihood of a hallucination of Jesus occurring to Paul is enhanced by the fact that (1) he was not a follower or relative of Jesus (so he was lacking in a fraternal or familial connection that would have made a hallucination more plausible) and (2) as noted by scholar Stendahl, Paul was “a very happy and successful Jew…He experiences no troubles, no problems, no qualms of conscience, no feelings of shortcomings…”, and so it is difficult to see what could have caused him to hallucinate. Paul was a respected figure in Jewish circles. He fervently persecuted Christianity because he saw the group as a heresy and an affront to God whom he loved. Given Paul’s situation, it is very difficult to imagine what could have triggered a hallucination for him in the first place.
Second, as an educated man, devout Jew and fierce enemy of Christianity, Paul would have viewed the appearance of Jesus before him with even greater skepticism than James. His sharp intellect would also have helped him discern if his experience was a product of the mind or an authentic encounter with Jesus. In the end, the fact that the appearance Paul witnessed sincerely convinced him that he encountered the risen Jesus is historically impressive.
According to the resurrection hypothesis, Jesus rose from the dead, as the earliest Christians proclaimed.
This theory enjoys a preponderance of evidence in its favor — the sincere belief of the disciples in Jesus’ post-mortem appearances, the empty tomb and the origin of the Christian faith all point to the conclusion that Jesus rose.
The resurrection hypothesis also fits in with the evidence seamlessly, that is, it faces no problems or difficulties unlike the conspiracy and hallucination hypotheses. In the end, the resurrection hypothesis…
Explains the post mortem appearances and empty tomb with zero difficulties.
Best explains the sincere belief of the disciples — why they traveled great distances preaching a resurrected Christ, why they endured hardship and persecution, and in some cases, suffered martyrdom (hallucinations typically do not bring about such confidence, zeal and inspiration).
Explains why the disciples proclaimed Jesus’ resurrection despite it being a foreign concept within Judaism, and over other known explanations that would have cohered with an empty tomb (e.g. visions of a bodily assumed Jesus)
Coheres with the earnest Jewish faith of the disciples.
Coheres perfectly with the appearance accounts in the gospels and Acts.
Best explains the conversion of James from skeptic to believer in Jesus.
Best explains the conversion of Paul, a respected Pharisee and fierce enemy of the early Church to Christianity.
The resurrection hypothesis, enjoying a preponderance of evidence in its favor and possessing zero problems or difficulties is without question, the “best explanation for the evidence”. The hypothesis only requires two presuppositions, (1) that God exists and that (2) He revealed Himself to the Jewish people. The former presupposition is supported by impressiveevidence from natural theology, while the latter is supported by the Jewish conception of God (which is consistent with the findings of natural theology) and the striking history of its people.
In the end, by raising Jesus from the dead, God confirms Jesus, his ministry and his claims about his identity like a “divine stamp of approval” — that He is indeed, His Son in the flesh.
104. “Today, however, this explanation [the conspiracy hypothesis] has been completely given up by modern scholarship”. (Craig, Reasonable Faith, pg. 371)
111.The Nazareth Inscription (dated around 20 BC) attests to how tombs were held in high regard in the ancient world, and how grave robbery accorded one significant punishment:
Edict from an unnamed Caesar: “It is my decision [concerning] graves and tombs—whoever has made them for the religious observances of parents, or children, or household members—that these remain undisturbed forever. But if anyone legally charges that another person has destroyed, or has in any manner extracted those who have been buried, or has moved with wicked intent those who have been buried to other places, committing a crime against them, or has moved sepulcher-sealing stones, against such a person I order that a judicial tribunal be created, just as [is done] concerning the gods in human religious observances, even more so will it be obligatory to treat with honor those who have been entombed. You are absolutely not to allow anyone to move [those who have been entombed]. But if [someone does], I wish that [violator] to suffer capital punishment under the title of tomb-breaker”.
As scholarMetzger notes: “In any case, the inscription contributes yet another testimony to what we knew already concerning the sanctity with which tombs were generally regarded in antiquity and the variety of penalties against violatia sepulchri.” (The Nazareth Inscription Once Again” in New Testament Studies: Philological, Versional, and Patristic, pg. 91)
113. Habermas attained this testimony through personal correspondence with Sibcy at the request of Licona, who was doing research on hallucinations (The Resurrection of Jesus, A New Historiographical Approach, pg. 484).
114.Ludemann, in his work “The Resurrection of Christ: A Historical Inquiry”, explains the group appearances by saying that they were “shared hallucinatory fantasies” (pgs. 166, 175 and 176) and in the case of the appearance to the 500, that it was a “mass ecstasy” (pg. 108).
Licona summarizes Goulder’s view in his book The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach before responding to it. According to Licona, Goulder explains the group appearances as “communal delusions” (pg. 482).
Licona also summarizes Vermes’ view stating that he explains the individual and group appearances as “visions” and “apparitions” (pg. 477).
115. Licona, using Aleman and Laroi’s “Hallucinations: The Science of Idiosyncratic Perception” as his source says that hallucinations can be experienced in a number of modes such as auditory, visual, olfactory, kinesthetic, etc — but that they are generally experienced in a single mode. Multimodal or compound hallucinations are more rare.
116. Scholar Michael Licona, in a web article entitled “Are the New Testament Gospels historically reliable accounts of Jesus?”, relates the experiences his friends at the U.S. Navy who experienced hallucinations during one of their toughest training weeks before being initiated as a SEAL. They called this week, “Hell Week”. The experiences of Licona’s friends at the US Navy show that hallucinations are not “contagious”. If an individual experienced a hallucination and told others about it, he would in all likelihood be alone in it — his friends would not see anything. Quoting Licona narrating the experiences of his friends:
“Years ago, I lived in Virginia Beach. Since half of the Navy SEALS are stationed in that area, I had the privilege of meeting many of them and even befriended several. SEALS are some of the most impressive people I’ve ever met. Their physical abilities and mental toughness are truly enviable and go beyond what I would have thought to be humanly possible.
There are several steps candidates must successfully complete prior to becoming a SEAL. One of the first steps is to complete “Hell Week.” This week begins on a Sunday evening and end Saturday morning. During that week, candidates are subjected to conditions that test their physical and mental toughness to their outermost edges. Most do not make it through the week and drop out. Candidates get only about 3–5 hours of sleep during the entire week — not every night but the entire week. Due to the sleep deprivation, a significant number of the candidates experience hallucinations during the week. Many told me they had experienced a hallucination during an exercise called “Around the World” in which small teams in rafts row to a buoy in the ocean, then return. The team finishing first gets to sit out the next race and rest.
One SEAL told me he thought he saw an octopus come to the surface and wave at him. Another told me he thought he saw a train coming toward them. When he warned the others of the approaching train, they told him there are no trains running on the Pacific Ocean! But they were unable to convince him. So, he rolled out of the raft to avoid being hit by the train. Another SEAL told me about a guy who was in his raft who began swatting his paddle at something in the air. When asked what he was doing, he answered he was trying to hit the dolphins that were jumping over their raft! What’s of interest is that no one else saw the octopus or the train or the dolphins. They were all in the same frame of mind. And many of them were experiencing hallucinations. Yet, pointing out what one was seeing did not lead others to see the same things. That’s because hallucinations are private experiences in the mind of an individual. They are neither contagious nor collective. And some people are not prone to hallucinate”.
Philosophical arguments point to the existence of an uncaused first cause (that is, God) with the following attributes: immutability, immateriality, omnipotence, omniscience, oneness or invisibility, perfect goodness and necessary existence (Flew, There is A God, pg. 92).
When it comes to the striking history of the Jews, I am referring to their long-held belief that God revealed Himself to them and made them His chosen people, the Old Testament texts, their long line of prophets from Abraham to Malachi, and of course, the person of Jesus himself.
The third event to be examined in our historical examination is the empty tomb. That Jesus’ tomb was found empty shortly after his death is recognized by the majority of scholars. There are eight arguments supporting this event’s historicity.
1. Multiple Attestation
Thefirst argument is that Jesus’ burial in a tomb is attested to in multiple independent sources.
First, the empty tomb is implied in Paul’s letters. If you recall, Paul conveys a primitive tradition in 1 Corinthians 15 and in verse 4 Jesus’ empty tomb is implied: “that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures”. When the above tradition states that Jesus “was buried” and that he “was raised”, it implies an empty tomb (or grave, which coheres perfectly with an empty tomb). There are four arguments supporting this position. One, as scholar Wright noted, the mention here of “buried then raised” no more needs to be amplified than one would need to amplify the statement “I walked down the street” with the qualification “on my feet”. The words “buried” and “raised” stand in deliberate juxtaposition, with the latter undoing the former. Two, the expression “on the third day” implies an empty tomb. As Craig notes:
“since no one actually saw Jesus rise from the dead, why did the early disciples proclaim that he had been raised ‘on the third day’? Why not on the seventh day? The most likely answer is that it was on the third day that the women discovered the tomb of Jesus empty; and so naturally, the resurrection itself came to be dated on that day”.
Three, the disciples and Paul certainly believed that Jesus’ grave was empty, since Jewish belief in the resurrection was physical and bodily. As scholar Earle Ellis comments:
“It is very unlikely that the earliest Palestinian Christians could conceive of any distinction between resurrection and physical, ‘grave-emptying’ resurrection. To them an anastasis (resurrection) without an empty grave would have been about as meaningful as a ‘square circle’”.
Four, there is a remarkable correspondence between the 1 Corinthians 15 tradition, the gospel narratives (as represented by Mark, which is held to be the earliest gospel) and the sermon in Acts 13:28-31. As seen in the chart below, the four elements of “died”, “buried”, “raised” and “appeared” are all present, with the second line of the 1 Corinthians 15 tradition corresponding to Jesus’ burial in a tomb.
This impressive correspondence of independent traditions is compelling evidence that the burialmentioned in the 1 Corinthians 15 tradition refers to the event in the gospels and Acts that is Jesus’ burial in a tomb.
In addition to Paul’s letters, the empty tomb is also attested in Mark’s early passion source. It is widely held among scholars that Mark drew upon an earlier source in composing his passion narrative. The primary reason for this belief is that Mark’s Gospel, which is held to be the earliest written (around 70 AD), consists of short anecdotal stories about Jesus strung like “pearls on a string” but when we get to the final week of Jesus’ life we get a continuous narrative of events from the Jewish plot during the Feast of Unleavened Bread until the empty tomb. According to prominent scholar James Dunn:
“The most obvious explanation of this feature is that the framework was early on fixed within the tradition process and remained so throughout the transition to written Gospels. This suggests in turn a tradition rooted in the memory of the participants and put into that framework by them”.
When it comes to the earliness of Mark’s passion source, scholars date it within 30 AD to 60 AD (though it is held by many that this source is to be dated no later than the 40s). In addition to the earliness of this source, there are also strong indicators that it originated in Jerusalem due to its familiarity with its topography and its surrounding areas, the naming of individuals who were a part of the Jerusalem church, the semitisms (traces of Aramaic) and its knowledge of the Hebrew Bible.
Although a reconstruction of Mark’s early passion source cannot be accomplished with certainty, it is highly likely that the account of the discovery of the empty tomb was a part of it. There are a number of reasons behind this position. One, it is hard to believe that the early passion source would end with Jesus’ death and defeat with no mention of the empty tomb or resurrection. As scholar Wilckens rightly noted the passion story would be incomplete without victory in the end. Furthermore, the disciples proclaimed the resurrection shortly after Jesus’ death in 30 AD. Whatever historical occurrences caused the early Christians to proclaim a risen Christ, be it the empty tomb, resurrection experiences, or both, must have been mentioned in the early passion source to at least some degree — because whatever they were, they were already “being told”. Two, if the empty tomb narrative was included in the passion source, then there would be a correspondence between the primitive Christian creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 and Mark 15:37-16:7 — Jesus died, was buried, rose and appeared — all of these elements would be present in both accounts (including Jesus’ appearance, which is mentioned as a future event in Mark 16:7). Given that the 1 Corinthians 15 creed is foundational, it would make great sense for the four-element formula of died, buried, rose and appeared to be present in the early passion source as well. Three, Mark’s account of the discovery of the empty tomb is simple and unadorned. It is not colored by apologetical or theological developments that one would expect from a later legend. As atheist scholar Rudolf Bultmann noted:
“Mark’s presentation is extremely reserved, in so far as the resurrection and the appearance of the risen Lord are not recounted”.
Nauck, another scholar, also observes that many theological motifs that might be expected are lacking in the story. According to Nauck, the only theological motif that is present in the narrative is “the crucified is risen”. These suggest that the empty tomb narrative is not a later legend but an old tradition. For all of the above reasons, it is highly probable that the empty tomb narrative was a part of Mark’s early passion source. It must also be noted that even if the passion source ended prior to the empty tomb, the discovery of the empty tomb would still be attested to by Mark.
In addition to Mark, the empty tomb is also attested to in the other remaining gospels — Matthew, Luke and John. Although Matthew and Luke are said to have used Mark as one of their sources in composing their gospels, their gospels also contain independent traditions that presuppose the empty tomb (Matt 27:62-66; 28:11-15 and Luke 24:13-15). John on the other hand, is generally held to be separate from the synoptic gospels (i.e. Mark, Matthew and Luke), so his attestation to the empty tomb is independent. However, John also contains an independent tradition that presupposes the empty tomb (John 20:1-10; 11-18).
Lastly, the empty tomb is also attested to in Acts in the form of recounted apostolic sermons. Jesus’ burial in a tomb is attested to in Acts 13:28-31 and its emptiness after the resurrection is also implied (“they took him down from the cross and laid him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead…”). The empty tomb is also implied in Acts 2:29-32 and 13:36-37.
In the end, the empty tomb of Jesus strongly satisfies the criterion of multiple attestation. Historians see two independent attestations as good evidence for an event’s historicity. However, when it comes to the empty tomb, we have a surplus of independent attestations beyond this number.
2. Jesus’ entombment by Joseph of Arimathea is highly probable
The second argument is that there is strong evidence that Jesus’ burial in a tomb by Joseph is historical. There are seven arguments supporting this event’s historicity.
One, Jesus’ burial in a tomb by Joseph is multiply attested. The event is mentioned in all 4 gospels, that is at least attestation in two independent sources — Mark (early passion source) and John. In addition to the gospels, Jesus’ entombment is also attested to in Acts 13:28-31.
Two, if the burial story were invented, it would be odd for a Christian fabricator to invent a fictional character and give him a name (Joseph), a place of birth in Judea (Arimathea), and claim that he was a member of a high profile group like the Sanhedrin (which was the Jewish leadership). This oddity is further enhanced if the fabricator was Mark because providing names is not standard fare in his gospel — so providing Joseph’s name was something that could easily have been avoided. However, Mark does provide a name. This suggests that Joseph of Arimathea belongs to historical memory like other names in Mark (e.g. John the Baptist, Peter, Andrew, James, John, Judas, James the brother of Jesus, Mary the mother of Jesus, Herod Antipas and Pilate). In the end, by providing a name and Judean place of birth to Joseph’s character, and placing him in the Jewish Sanhedrin, the hypothetical Christian fabricator makes his burial narrative much easier to falsify, and on the positive end, confirm. When it comes to the idea of falsifying an invented burial narrative, this would especially be of interest to Jewish leaders and critics of Christianity, who had every motive to disprove any fabricated Christian claims and tarnish the reputation of the early Church. Knowing fully well what happened to Jesus some time ago as engineers of his execution, and as a major event in their past, they would have been fully equipped to shoot down a fabricated narrative.
Three, it is highly unlikely that a Christian fabricator would invent a member of the Sanhedrin, portray him as doing a kindness to Jesus, and give him the honor of burying Jesus. The early Church placed the blame on the Jewish leadership for maliciously engineering the death of their leader, and this can be seen in the passion narratives. As a result, any Christian invention would likely not end up giving credit to the Sanhedrin. As noted by critical scholar Raymond Brown:
“That the burial was done by Joseph of Arimathea is very probable, since a Christian fictional creation from nothing of a Jewish Sanhedrist who does what is right is almost inexplicable, granted the hostility in early Christian writings toward the Jewish authorities responsible for the death of Jesus…While high probability is not certitude, there is nothing in the basic pre-Gospel account of Jesus’ burial by Joseph that could not be plausibly be deemed historical”.
Four, the naming of Joseph of Arimathea strongly suggests that Jesus’ burial place was well-known. As scholar Catchpole comments:
“It is extremely difficult to believe that the recollection of his (Joseph’s) name would persist in connection with something he had done, while at the same time the location where he had done it remained unknown. It is easier to associate a known agent of burial with a known place of burial, and therefore to be open to the possibility that there was indeed a specific tomb available for visiting shortly after Jesus’ death”.
Five, Mark’s burial narrative is simple and unadorned. It can be described as told “matter of factly”. As scholar Bornkamm comments: “The report of Jesus’ funeral is concise, unemotional and without any bias”. This argues against the account being a later legend.
Six, the burial account in the gospels accords well with archaeological and historical evidence regarding 1st century Jewish burial practices. As noted by Jew and renowned archaeologist, Jodi Magness, who is particularly an expert on 1st century Jewish burial practices (Magness herself affirms the historicity of Jesus’ entombment by Joseph):
“[T]he Gospel accounts describing Jesus’ removal from the cross and burial accord well with archaeological evidence and with Jewish law. The source(s) of these accounts were familiar with the manner in which wealthy Jews [like Joseph of Arimathea] living in Jerusalem during the time of Jesus disposed of their dead”.
Seven, there are no competing burial traditions. If the burial narrative in the gospels were a later legend, we should expect other accounts or attestations of how Jesus was actually buried. However, all of our sources affirm that Jesus was buried in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea.
In the light of the strong evidence for Jesus’ burial by Joseph of Arimathea, liberal scholar John A.T. Robinson concludes that Jesus’ burial by Joseph is “one of the earliest and best attested facts about Jesus.”
3. Mark’s account is simple
The third argumentis that as mentioned earlier, Mark’s account of the empty tomb is simple and lacks legendary development. Since legends are created out of nothing, they tend to be optimized for convenience and richly developed. This however, is not the case in Mark’s account. In it, the resurrection is not witnessed or described, there is no description of the risen Jesus, no reflection on Jesus’ triumph over sin and death, no use of Christological titles, etc. Some critics might stumble at the presence of an angel but as Craig notes, there is no reason to think that the tradition ever lacked an angel. Furthermore, as Craig also notes, the angel may be chosen to be excised, to appease those with skeptical palettes, as a purely literary figure which provides the interpretation of an empty tomb. Anyway, in order to appreciate how restrained Mark’s account is, one has only to read the Gospel of Peter, which describes Jesus’ triumphant exit from the tomb, supported by angels, followed by a talking cross, and witnessed by guards and the Jewish leadership. Another forgery would be The Ascension of Isaiah 3:16, in which Jesus emerges out of the tomb sitting on the shoulders of the angels Michael and Gabriel. These are what real legends look like. The simplicity of Mark’s account is further evidence that the empty tomb account is not a later legend, but an old tradition.
4. “On the first day of the week” reflects ancient tradition
The fourth argument is that the phrase “on the first day of the week” reflects ancient tradition. According to Mark, the empty tomb was discovered by women “on the first day of the week”. On the other hand, the primitive 1 Corinthians 15 tradition, dates Jesus’ resurrection “on the third day”. As scholar E.L. Bode notes, if the empty tomb story were a late legend, it would almost certainly have been formulated in terms of the accepted and widely spread third-day motif. The fact that Mark uses “on the first day of the week” indicates that this tradition is very old. This fact is confirmed by the linguistic character of the phrase in question As Craig explains:
“although ‘the first day of the week’ is very awkward in the Greek (te mia ton sabbaton), employing a cardinal instead of an ordinal number and ‘Sabbath’ for ‘week’, the phrase when translated back into Aramaic is perfectly natural”.
This impressive semitism, linked to the day in the week of the discovery of the empty tomb, is evidence that the empty tomb tradition is not a late-developing legend but an old tradition that originated in a Palestinian setting.
The semitism “on the first day of the week” also strengthens the position that the empty tomb is implied in the 1 Corinthians 15 tradition when it says that Jesus rose “on the third day”. This is because the third day after Jesus’ death, which took place on a Friday, was the “first day of the week” — Sunday. They are both referring to the same date. The Jewish day of worship and rest, called “the Sabbath”, took place on a Saturday. So Sunday, being the first day after the Sabbath, was the “first day of the week”.
5. Only an empty tomb, together with post-mortem appearances, could have produced resurrection belief
The fifth argument is that the empty tomb, only in unison with the post-mortem appearances, could have produced resurrection belief. Jewish beliefs on the resurrection, despite the varyingviews on the matter, agreed on a single point — that the resurrection was a physical and bodily phenomenon. Therefore, resurrection belief presupposes an empty tomb.
Without confirmation that the tomb was empty, realistic sightings of Jesus would have been classified as hallucinations or visions, which, as scholar Wright notes, were well-known enough in the ancient world. Visions, in fact, are mentioned in the Old and New Testament (see Dan 7:13-14, Acts 9:12, Rev 9:17, etc). Furthermore, if we are talking about interpreting an appearance of Jesus with no confirmation of an empty tomb as some sort of vindication of his personhood or identity, then this very likely would have been interpreted as spiritual assumption. As critical scholar Dave Alison explains:
“[P]erceived encounters with a postmortem Jesus would not, by themselves, have supplied such reason [belief in resurrection]. For there was more than one way for Jews to speak about postmortem vindication and to interpret the presence of one dead. Given the widespread dualism of the time, we would expect Jesus’ disciples to think in terms of the triumph of his soul or spirit and to imagine his resurrection, like that of everyone else dead and buried, as still belonging to the immediate future [The Jews believe that everyone would be raised by God on the last day. They call this event the “general resurrection”].
The ascent of a soul to heaven and its vindication were not the same as resurrection of the dead. As already observed, the Testament of Job relates that its hero’s soul was taken to heaven immediately after his death, while his body was being prepared for burial (52:20-12). The story of Moses’ end in Deut. Rab. 11:10 is similar, and in later church history we find that when people see the souls of saints, they speak of ascension, not resurrection. The first Christians, to the contrary, did something else. They proclaimed that an individual had already been raised from the dead, that the general resurrection had begun (1 Cor 15:23). Why? One good answer to the riddle is that they believed his tomb was empty. If there is another good answer, I have yet to stumble across it”.
On the other hand, if there were no post-mortem appearances and only an empty tomb, this would not produce resurrection belief either. It would have been interpreted, of course, as evidence of grave robbing. However, with an empty tomb and post-mortem appearances of Jesus, we have a strong and coherent reason for the emergence of resurrection belief in the earliest Christian community.
However, as I will argue later in the section “Origin of the Christian Faith”, an empty tomb and post-mortem appearances would still not be sufficient to produce resurrection belief — if the post mortem appearances were hallucinations or visions.
6. The resurrection was proclaimed in Jerusalem
The sixth argument is that the resurrection was proclaimed and belief in it flourished in Jerusalem — the very city where Jesus was executed and buried. This could not have been possible unless Jesus’ tomb was empty. The Jewish leadership would have done everything in their power to produce Jesus’ body in order to squash early Christian proclamation in the resurrection. As scholar Paul Althus notes, the resurrection “could not have been maintained in Jerusalem for a single day, for a single hour, if the emptiness of the tomb had not been established as a fact for all concerned…In Jerusalem, one could not think of the grave as empty without being certain, without there being testimony, that it had been found empty”. The fact that the resurrection was proclaimed and belief in it flourished in Jerusalem, is compelling evidence that the Jewish leadership was unable to produce Jesus’ body, because his tomb was empty.
7. The discovery of the empty tomb by women is highly probable
Theseventh argument is that it is highly likely that the discovery of the empty tomb by women is historical. There are three reasons supporting this event’s historicity.
One, if the empty tomb narrative were fabricated, it is much more probable that more prominent disciples of Jesus would have been chosen to make the discovery. However, instead of Peter or any of the other Eleven discovering the empty tomb, we have Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and other women. As scholar Allison comments:
“That it should be these devoted but humble and relatively insignificant followers who are given the credit for the discovery in every gospel is historically impressive”.
Two, in Jewish culture, women were viewed in a lowly light and occupied a low rung on the social ladder. To illustrate this point, consider the following Jewish writings, which show that women were held in low esteem, so much so that (according to the latter two writings) their testimony was considered unreliable and inadmissible in a court of law (per the Jewish historian Josephus, and the Talmud, with the latter source even equating the testimony of a woman to a robber).
“Sooner let the words of the Law be burnt than delivered to women.” (Talmud, Sotah 19a)
“The world cannot exist without males and without females — happy is he whose children are males, and woe to him whose children are females.” (Talmud, Kiddushin 82b)
“But let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex, nor let servants be admitted to give testimony on account of the ignobility of their soul; since it is probably that they may not speak truth, either out of hope or gain, or fear of punishment.” (Josephus, Antiquities 4.8.15)
“Any evidence which a woman [gives] is not valid, also they are not valid to offer. This is equivalent to saying that one who is Rabbinically accounted a robber is qualified to give the same evidence as a woman.” (Talmud, Rosh Hashannah 1.8)
If the empty tomb were a Christian invention, it is extremely difficult to see why women were made the primary witnesses. As scholar Wright notes, the idea of making women primary witnesses to the empty tomb is, “from the point of view of Christian apologists wanting to explain to a skeptical audience that Jesus really did rise from the dead, like shooting themselves in the foot”. However, Wright continues “But to us as historians, this kind of thing is gold dust. The early Christians would never, never have made this up”. If the empty tomb narrative were created for apologetic purposes (i.e. proof of the resurrection), men would have been made the main witnesses, since their testimony was credible and would pose no unnecessary difficulties in evangelization efforts. It must be noted that women were also viewed lowly in Roman culture (they were viewed so in the ancient world by and large). In fact, in the second century, the gospel accounts of the discovery of the empty tomb was derided by pagan and fierce critic of Christianity, Celsus, who said that the testimony of the event came from a “half-frantic woman” (referring to Mary Magdalene, who as a witness, is portrayed most prominently among the contingent of women in the gospels).
Three, if the empty tomb narrative were invented, it is difficult to see why it would paint the female disciples in a favorable light in contrast to the male disciples — for the appearance of the women coincides with the disappearance of men. Why would a fabricator, as a member of the early Church, show women disciples being the first to visit Jesus’ tomb, carrying out an act of piety while the male disciples, for whatever reason, remained indoors (possibly lying low in fear of the Jews). Why would a fabricated narrative paint the male disciples, the leaders of the early Church, in a less than optimal light – behind the superior behavior of the women even? The fact that women followers of Jesus, and not men, are recognized as being the first to visit Jesus’ tomb is another point in favor of this event’s historicity.
8. Early Jewish polemics presuppose the empty tomb
The eight argumentis that early Jewish polemics presuppose the empty tomb. Matthew records that the response of the Jewish leadership to the early Christian movement was that the disciples stole Jesus’ body (Matthew 28:13). This accusation is further attested to in two more sources. The first of these sources is Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho the Jew (ca. 155-170 AD). In this Christian apologetic against Judaism, Justin captures the Jewish perception of Christianity through Trypho:
You have sent chosen and ordained men throughout all the world to proclaim that a godless and lawless heresy had sprung from one Jesus, a Galilaean deceiver, whom we crucified, but his disciples stole him by night from the tomb, where he was laid when unfastened from the cross, and now deceive men by asserting that he was risen from the dead and ascended to heaven”.
The second source is Tertullian’s De Spectaculis (ca. 197-202 AD), in which he also mentions the Jewish accusation that the disciples stole Jesus’ body:
“This is He whom His disciples secretly stole away, that it might be said He had risen…”.
Interestingly, Tertullian also mentions another amusing theory circling around in Jewish circles during his time, that a gardener stole Jesus’ body in order to protect his plants from visitors:
“…or the gardener abstracted, that his lettuces might come to no harm from the crows of visitants!”.
As amusing as the gardener theory is, a variant of it is also used in the 6th-11th century Jewish polemic, Toledot Yeshu, which aimed to defame Jesus. In the end, the fact that all early Jewish polemics presuppose an empty tomb provides significant support for the event’s historicity.
Conclusion on the empty tomb
All in all, the above 8 arguments come together to form a very potent case for the historicity of the empty tomb and it is for this reason that its historicity is granted by the majority of scholars.
As noted by prominent scholar James Dunn:
“As a matter of historical reconstruction, the weight of evidence points firmly to the conclusion that Jesus’ tomb was found empty and that its emptiness was a factor in the first Christians’ belief in the resurrection of Jesus”.
Scholar Geza Vermes, a non-religious Jew, comments:
“In the end, when every argument has been considered and weighed, the only conclusion acceptable to the historian must be that the opinions of the orthodox, the liberal sympathizer and the critical agnostic alike – and even the disciples themselves – are simply interpretations of the one disconcerting fact: namely that the women who set out to pay their last respects to Jesus found to their consternation, not a body, but an empty tomb”.
Historian Paul Meier comments:
“If all the evidence is weighed carefully and fairly, it is indeed justifiable, according to the canons of historical research, to conclude that the tomb in which Jesus was buried was actually empty on the morning of the first Easter”.
Atheist historian and classicist Michael Grant comments:
“Even if the historian chooses to regard the youthful apparition as extra-historical, he cannot justifiably deny the empty tomb”.
D. The origin of the Christian faith
The emergence of belief in Jesus’ resurrection within the earliest Christian community must also be explained, since it differed radically from Jewish resurrection belief. Although Christians may point to Jesus’ resurrection as an event in history as the origin of the disciples’ resurrection belief, critics must explain how belief in Jesus’ resurrection emerged among the disciples given their Jewish worldview. As mentioned earlier, Jesus’ resurrection differed from Jewish resurrection belief radically. Explaining Jewish resurrection belief, Craig says:
“In Jewish thought, the resurrection always occurred (1) at the end of the world, not within history, and (2) concerned all people, not just an isolated individual”.
The Jews referred to this future resurrection event by God at the end of the world and to all people as the “general resurrection”. Jesus’ resurrection, in contrast to this belief, occurred within history and to a single person. In this sense, Jesus’ resurrection was conceptually, a dramatic departure from Jewish belief.
When it comes to the first point, of Jewish belief in the resurrection as occurring at the end of the world, this is seen in the gospels themselves. In John 11, Jesus assures Martha that Lazarus would rise again and Martha responds by saying “I know he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day” (John 11:24). Hearing Jesus’ words, Martha was thinking about the general resurrection. In another instance, in Mark 9:9-10, after Jesus’ transfiguration, Jesus foretells his own resurrection, but his words flew over the heads of his disciples who did not yet understand what he was saying:
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. They kept the matter to themselves, discussing what “rising from the dead” meant. And they asked him, “Why do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?”
The disciples here were rightfully confused because the general resurrection was an event that would happen at the end of history. Yet, Jesus was telling them not to tell anyone what they had just seen (e.g. his transfiguration) until he had risen from the dead. The disciples were wondering how they could even tell anyone of their witness to Jesus’ transfiguration if they would be dead until the general resurrection. The fact that they were thinking of the general resurrection in the light of Jesus’ statements is confirmed by their followingquestion to Jesus: “Why do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?” (Mark 9:11). In Judaism, the prophet Elijah is said to have been bodily assumed into heaven, where he would remain until his return prior to Judgement Day. The disciples could not grasp the idea of a resurrection occurring within history and prior to the end of the world — because such a concept simply did not exist in Judaism. As noted by prominent scholar Joachim Jeremias:
“Ancient Judaism did not know of an anticipated resurrection as an event of history. Nowhere does one find in the literature anything comparable to the resurrection of Jesus. Certainly resurrections of the dead were known, but these always concerned resuscitations, the return to the earthly life. In no place in the late Judaic literature does it concern a resurrection to glory as an event of history”.
As for the second point, in Jewish thought, resurrection always referred to a future event that pertained to all people. They had no conception of the resurrection of an isolated individual. As noted by another major scholar, Ulrich Wilckens:
“For nowhere do the Jewish texts speak of the resurrection of an individual which already occurs before the resurrection of the righteous in the end time and is differentiated and separate from it; nowhere does the participation of the righteous in the salvation at the end time depend on their belonging to the Messiah, who was raised in advance as “First of those raised by God” (1 Cor. 15:20).
In the above quote, Wilckens also observes that there was no connection between the individual believer’s future resurrection and the Messiah’s prior resurrection in ancient Judaism — because there existed no belief or expectation that the Messiah would rise from the dead. This is why we find no similar cases to those of the disciples for Jesus. As noted by scholar Wright, the followers of Jewish messianic movements around the time of Jesus (which were armed movements against Rome) had followers who were strongly committed to the cause but in no case did we hear from any of these groups, following the execution of their leader, that he had been raised from the dead and that he really was the Messiah after all. Wright invites us to suppose that the disciples were convinced, despite his execution and on other grounds, that Jesus was the Messiah:
“This would not have led the early disciples to say he had been raised from the dead. A change in the meaning of “Messiah”, yes (since nobody in the first century supposed that the Messiah would die at the hands of pagans); but not an assertion of his resurrection. No second-Temple Jewish texts speak of the Messiah being raised from the dead. Nobody would have thought of saying, “I believe that so-and-so really was the Messiah; therefore he must have been raised from the dead”.
In the end, Jesus’ resurrection within the worldview of Judaism was a completely foreign concept. As Canadian polymath Allister Mcgrath comments:
“The sheer oddness of the Christian proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus in human history, at a definite time and place, is all too easily overlooked by modern critics, even though it was obvious at the time. The unthinkable appeared to have happened, and for that very reason demanded careful attention. Far from merely fitting into the popular expectations of the pattern of resurrection, what happened to Jesus actually contradicted it. The sheer novelty of the Christian position at the time has been obscured by two thousand years’ experience of the Christian understanding of the resurrection – yet at the time it was wild: unorthodox and radical”.
As a result, belief in Jesus’ resurrection begs the question — from where did this belief come from? Is a combination of an empty tomb and realistic hallucinations of Jesus enough to produce resurrection belief? As Craig compellingly argues, the answer is no.
“The answer is no, since hallucinations, as projections of the mind, can contain nothing new. Therefore, given the current Jewish beliefs about life after death, the disciples, were they to project hallucinations of Jesus, would have seen Jesus in heaven or in Abraham’s bosom, where the souls of the righteous dead were believed to abide until the resurrection. And such visions would not have caused belief in Jesus’ resurrection. At the most, it would have only led the disciples to say Jesus had been translated or [bodily] assumed into heaven, not raised from the dead. In the Old Testament, figures such as Enoch (Genesis 5:24;Hebrews 11:5) and Elijah (2 Kings 2:11-18) were portrayed as not having died but as having been translated directly into heaven”.
The disciples, seeing an empty tomb and realistic hallucinations of Jesus, would have concluded that he had been bodily assumed into heaven, from where he appeared to them. They would not have concluded that a resurrection occurred within history, prior to the end of the world, and to a single person — since such an idea was completely unheard of within their Jewish worldview. The fact that they did proclaim resurrection, however, is amazing. As noted by scholar Dunn:
“For them to have understood that they were seeing the crucified Jesus as risen from the dead rather than as (simply!) translated or glorified was quite extraordinary. That it led them to the conclusion that God had raised Jesus from the dead, that Jesus had been raised as the beginning of the end-time general resurrection of the dead, was exceptional and unprecedented. That is why I am [confident] that this first Christian interpretation deserves a very high respect, and that Christians, on its basis, need have no qualms about affirming their faith in Jesus as risen.
In the end, it seems then that on this point, critics are left with an unsolved puzzle.
55. In his 2004 survey of scholarship on the empty tomb, Habermas records that roughly 75 percent of scholars favor one or more arguments for the empty tomb, while 25 percent favor one or more arguments against it (Habermas included scholars who appear to be leaning in either direction even with an absence of a direct statement for their own position). Interestingly, Habermas also notes that the listings of scholars on this issue are divided along theological “party lines”. Commenting on this, scholar Licona notes: “This may indicate that scholars are allowing their horizons to exert excessive influence on their historical work — an observation that does not surprise us in our investigation of the resurrection of Jesus” (The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, pg. 462).
Although there is a respectable number of scholars who dissent against the empty tomb, Licona classifies it as a “second-order fact” due to the fair-moderate majority in favor of the empty tomb, as well as the small but noteworthy group of scholars who recognize the historicity of the empty tomb but argue for a natural explanation for it in their works.
56. The reason why the empty tomb is not explicitly stated in the 1 Corinthians 15 tradition is because it is a summary statement of the basic events of Jesus’ passion and resurrection. This is why the specifics of the events (e.g. how Jesus died, how he was buried, what happened during the instances wherein he appeared after his death, etc) are not explained. Elaboration of the events would be carried out elsewhere (in preaching or in other writings that intend to give fuller accounts).
As the esteemed scholar Dave Allison notes: “1 Cor 15:3-8 must be a summary of traditional narratives that were told in fuller forms elsewhere” (Resurrecting Jesus, pg. 235).
Martin Hengel, another major scholar comments: “A Jew or Gentile God-fearer, hearing this formal, extremely abbreviated report for the first time, would have difficulty understanding it; at the least a number of questions would certainly occur to him, which Paul could only answer through the narration and explanation of events. Without clarifying delineation, the whole thing would surely sound enigmatic to ancient ears, even absurd” (Begrabnis, pg. 127).
57. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, pg. 321 58. Craig, On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision, pg. 225 59. Ellis, The Gospel of Luke, New Century Bible, p. 273
60. Craig in a Youtube video entitled “Pre-Markan Source and the Resurrection of Jesus” says: “Most scholars today agree with this [that Mark had a source he used]. Any reconstruction of this source is controversial, and not widely accepted… That Mark was using and relied upon a pre-Markan passion story is one that is widely accepted by most scholars today, and because it goes back so early it is probably based upon eyewitness testimony”.
61. Craig, #103 Independent Sources for Jesus’ Burial and Empty Tomb, par. 4. Retrieved from: https://www.reasonablefaith.org/writings/question-answer/independent-sources-for-jesus-burial-and-empty-tomb/
62. Dunn, Jesus Remembered, pg. 765-766.
63. Bauckham notes that many scholars date the pre-Markan passion source very early, and at the latest, the 40s (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, 243).
It is also worth noting the views of scholar Pesch, who dates the early passion source within 7 years after the death of Jesus — for his reasons for doing so are interesting. In the early passion source, the high priest Caiphas is not mentioned by name, he is simply referred to as “the high priest” (unlike Matthew and Luke). This happens in a passion narrative that is replete with names, while in Mark’s gospel, the naming of individuals is not standard fare. Caiphas not being named implies, nearly necessitates even according to Pesch, that Caiaphas was still the high priest when the pre-Markan story was formulated, since back then, there would have been no need to mention his name as a result of familiarity. It would be like how someone could refer to “the President” today as a matter of familiarity since everyone would know who “the President” was. Since Caiaphas was the high priest from 18-37 A.D., Mark’s early passion source must be dated within 7 years after the death of Jesus. Pesch also notes that this familiarity with Caiaphas in the early passion source is also found with Pontius Pilate — who is referred to as “Pilate” without his title of governor being stated (unlike Luke and Matthew). If Pesch is correct, then the value of this early passion source as historical evidence is extremely valuable, similar to that of the 1 Corinthians 15 tradition.
64. Scholar Rudolph Pesch, an expert on the gospel of Mark in particular, notes these reasons in his Das Markusevangelium for the early passion source originating in Jerusalem (Kok, “A Passion Narrative from the Jerusalem Church”, par. 1) .
65. Wilckens, Auferstehung, pg. 61: “The passion story could not have ended with the death and burial of Jesus without assurance of victory; the discovery of the empty tomb by the women was part of the passion story”.
66. Bultmann, History, pg. 309
67. There is also more evidence from word usage and variances in the accounts that the empty tomb is multiply attested.
As Craig says when it comes to word usage: “In general, only 35 of Matthew’s 136 words in the empty tomb are found in Mark’s 138 words. Similarly, only 16 of Luke’s 123 words are found in Mark’s account. Moreover, Matthew and Luke have only a dozen words in common, which shows the independence of their traditions” (Reasonable Faith, pg. 366).
As scholar Stein says on the variances in the empty tomb accounts: “The very variation in the different narratives of the empty tomb, which are in one sense embarrassing, argues that these accounts stem from separate and independent traditions, all of which witness to the tomb’s being empty” (Was the Tomb Really Empty?).
68. Allison, Resurrecting Jesus, pg. 320
69. See Acts 2:29-32 and 13:36-37 below:
“Fellow Israelites, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. Seeing what was to come, he spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah [referring to Psalm 16:8-11], that he was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it (Acts 2:29-32).
“Now when David had served God’s purpose in his own generation, he fell asleep; he was buried with his ancestors and his body decayed. But the one whom God raised from the dead did not see decay (Acts 13:36-37).
Acts 2:29-32 says that Jesus’ body did not see decay and that “God has raised this Jesus to life. The mention of Jesus’ body “not decaying” implies an empty tomb because the reason why Jesus’ body did not decay is because he was raised up — no longer being dead but alive, and leaving an empty tomb behind him. There is also a possible parallel in the verses in question between King David being buried in a tomb and Jesus being buried in a tomb.
In Acts 13:36-37, King David is again related to Jesus. In these verses, King David is mentioned to have been buried, and his body is said to have suffered decay. However, in contrast to David, the verses state that the “one whom God raised from the dead did not see decay”. Like the previous passage in Acts, the mention of Jesus’ body not decaying implies an empty tomb for the same reason, Jesus’ body did not decay because he rose from the dead, leaving an empty tomb behind him.
70. There is good evidence, however, of further independent attestation for Jesus’ burial by Joseph in Matthew and Luke.There are differences in the accounts that are not easily explained as editorial changes (e.g. Mark’s “tomb which had been hewn out of rock” vs. Matthew’s “tomb which he hewed in the rock”). There are also instances wherein Matthew and Luke agree in their wording against Mark (e.g. “This man went in to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus” and “wrapped it in linen”).
71. Brown, The Death of the Messiah, 1240-41
72. Catchpole, Resurrection, 199.
Reinforcing this point by Catchpole, other scholars put forward other reasons for why the location of Jesus’ tomb must have been known. These reasons are (1) the Crucifixion was a public event and (2) Jesus was a religious sensation whose Crucifixion would have been watched by many, and whose death and resulting burial would have been the subject of street gossip. As noted by prominent scholars Brown and Allison:
“It is inconceivable that they showed no concern about what happened to Jesus after his arrest…The crucifixion itself was public, and nothing suggests that the burial was secret. (Brown, The Death of the Messiah, pg. 14)
“There is, finally, a general presumption that probably favors Mark’s tradition about Joseph of Arimathea. Crucifixions were public events. Intended as deterrents, they were set up to call attention to themselves. Surely it was not otherwise with Jesus: he was publicly displayed as crucified in order “to deter resistance or revolt.” When one adds that Jesus was surely some sort of religious sensation whose fate would have been of interest not just to sympathizers, that his torture would even have been of entertainment value to some, it is hard to imagine that there was no cloud of witnesses. That the Gospels say there were passersby is no reason to think that there were not. It is instead quite likely that people, friendly, hostile, and indifferent, witnessed Jesus’ end and its immediate aftermath, and that his crucifixion and burial became immediately the stuff of street gossip, so that anyone who wanted to learn what happened could just have asked around. Crossan [an agnostic scholar] says that those who knew did not care and that those who cared did not know. My guess is that most everyone knew whether they cared or not”. (Allison, Resurrecting Jesus, 362)
73. Bornkamm, Jesus of Nazareth, 168
74. Magness, Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit: Jewish Daily Life in the Time of Jesus, pg. 171
75. Robinson, The Human Face of God, 1973 76. Craig, Reasonable Faith, pg. 367 Bode, Easter, pg. 161 77. Gospel of Peter 8:35-42 78. Bode, Easter, pg. 161 79. Craig, Reasonable Faith, pg. 366
80. Allison, Resurrecting Jesus, pg. 324: “Within Judaism was a variety of eschatological beliefs and so no “norm”; but when Jews in the Holy Land spoke of resurrection, they were, from everything we know, thinking about corpses and bones, graves and ossuaries”.
81. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, pg. 686: “Sightings of an apparently alive Jesus, by themselves [without an empty tomb], would have been classified as visions or hallucinations, which were well known enough in the real world”.
Wright, Surprised by Hope, 69: “If the disciples had simply seen, or thought they had seen, someone they took to be Jesus, that would not by itself have generated the stories we have. Everyone in the ancient world took it for granted that people sometimes had strange experiences involving encounters with the dead, particularly the recently deceased. They knew at least as much as we do about such visions, about ghosts and dreams (elsewhere, Wright specifically states that “ancient literature is full of it”) — and the fact that such things often occurred within the context of bereavement or grief . They had language for this, and it wasn’t “resurrection”.
82. Allison, Resurrecting Jesus, The Earliest Christian Tradition and Its Interpreters, pg. 325 83. Althaus, Die Wahrheit des kirchlichen Ostergaluens, pgs. 25-26 84. Allison, Resurrecting Jesus, The Earliest Christian Tradition and Its Interpreters, pg. 326
85. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, pg. 207.
The strength of this argument, however, cannot be understated. Listing other prominent scholars on the issue:
Adela Yarbro Collins, The Beginning of the Gospel, pg. 127: “[On the empty tomb] The status of women in the ancient world was such that a story fabricated as proof or apology would not be based on the testimony of women”.
James Dunn, Jesus Remembered, pg. 832-833: “Mary has the honour of reporting the empty tomb to the other disciples — apostola apostolorum. Yet, as is well known, in Middle Eastern society of the time women were not regarded as reliable witnesses… Why then attribute such testimony to women — unless that was what was remembered as being the case? In contrast, can it be seriously argued that such a story would be contrived in the cities and/or village communities of first-century Palestine, a story which would have to stand up before public incredulity and prejudice?”
C. F. D. Moule, The Significance of the Message of the Resurrection for Faith in Jesus Christ, pg. 9: “…it is difficult to explain how a story that grew up late and took shape merely in accord with the supposed demands of apologetic came to be framed in terms almost exclusively of women witnesses, who, as such, were notoriously invalid witnesses according to Jewish principles of evidence. The later and the more fictitious the story, the harder it is to explain why the apostles are not brought to the forefront as witnesses.”
86. Allison, Resurrecting Jesus, pg. 327
Atheist scholar Bart Ehrman notes the impressiveness of Mary Magdalene being named in different independent sources: “As a historian, I am struck by a certain consistency among otherwise independent witnesses in placing Mary Magdalene both at the cross and at the tomb on the third day. If this is not a historical datum but something that a Christian storyteller just made up and then passed along to others, how is it that this specific bit of information has found its way into accounts that otherwise did not make use of one another? Mary’s presence at the cross is found in Mark (and in Luke and Matthew, which used Mark) and also in John, which is independent of Mark. More significant still, all of our early Gospels—not just John and Mark (with Matthew and Luke as well) but also the Gospel of Peter, which appears to be independent of all of them—indicate that it was Mary Magdalene who discovered Jesus’ empty tomb. How did all of these independent accounts happen to name exactly the same person in this role? It seems hard to believe that this just happened by a way of a fluke of storytelling. It seems much more likely that, at least with the traditions involving the empty tomb, we are dealing with something actually rooted in history” (Peter, Paul & Mary Magdalene: The Followers of Jesus in History & Legend).
The fact that Mary features prominently in the accounts indicates that she did stand out in an event in history (i.e. informing the disciples about what had happened at the tomb and witnessing the first post-mortem appearance of Jesus), and was, as a result, remembered and recognized for it by the early church.
87. Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, chapter 108 88. Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, chapter 108 89. Tertullian, De Spectaculis, chapter 30
90. “Diligent search was made and he [Jesus] was not found in the grave where he had been buried. A gardener had taken him from the grave and had brought him into his garden and buried him in the sand over which the waters flowed into the garden” – Toledot Yeshu quoted by Butt, “The Case of The Empty Tomb”, par. 4. Retrieved from: https://www.apologeticspress.org/apcontent.aspx?category=10&article=896
91. Dunn, Jesus, The Evidence, pg. 68 92. Vermes, Jesus the Jew, pg. 41
93. Independent, Press-Telegram, Long Beach, Calif., Saturday, April 21, 1973, p. A-10.
94. Grant, Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels, pg. 176
95. The fullest and most sophisticated development of this point (the origin of the Christian faith) is N.T. Wright’s “The Resurrection of the Son of God”. In this magisterial work, Wright argues for the historicity of the post-mortem appearances and the empty tomb from the fact of the origin of the Christian faith alone. This understates the evidence for both the post-mortem appearances and the empty tomb but it does go to show how powerful this fourth point is.
96. Craig, The Son Rises: The Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus, pg. 129
97. Jeremias, Die alteste Schicht der Oseruberlieferung, pg. 194 98. Wilckens, Auferstehung, Themen der Theologie 4, pg. 131
99. Wright, videotaped lecture presented at Asbury Theological Seminary, November 1999.
It must be noted that these messianic movements were both perceived and claimed, though mostly the former. The only leader of these messianic movements who we can say definitively claimed to be the Messiah is Simon bar Kochba.
100. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, pg. 25. 101. McGrath, The Resurrection, par. 4. Retrieved from: https://www.bethinking.org/resurrection/the-resurrection 102. Craig, The Son Rises, pg. 132 103. Dunn, In Grateful Dialogue, pg. 321-322.
Christianity is a religion that is deeply rooted in history, and at its heart is the resurrection — an event proclaimed by Jesus’ disciples, who claimed that he appeared to them shortly after his death. The resurrection is the bedrock of the Christian faith. If the resurrection did not happen, then Christianity is false. Likewise, if the resurrection did happen, then Christianity is true. As St. Paul wrote the Christian community at Corinth some 2,000 years ago: “And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is worthless, and so is your faith” (1 Cor 15:14). As a result, whether or not the resurrection happened should concern every Christian and every seeker of truth.
However, to this, someone might say: “This is an event that supposedly happened some 2,000 years ago, how can we be certain that it did or did not happen?”. The answer to this, of course, is that we cannot know with certainty if the resurrection did or did not happen. As it is with other events of history, we are dealing with probabilities and likelihoods. This does not mean, however, that we cannot come to a confident conclusion as to what likely happened. By examining the historical evidence we have available to us and weighing the possible explanations for a given set of historical facts, we can come to the conclusion — assuming that the evidence points firmly in one direction — that a historical hypothesis clearly is “the best explanation of the evidence”. As I will argue in this series of posts, that Jesus rose from the dead is clearly the best explanation of the evidence as to what happened that first Easter Sunday. The resurrection hypothesis enjoys a preponderance of evidence for it. Furthermore, unlike the resurrection hypothesis, all other possible explanations suffer from serious difficulties when subjected to critical scrutiny.
Catering to a skeptical audience, we will not assume the reliability of the gospels for this argument. The argument to be presented will work even if we view the gospels with skepticism. This is possible because we will work with four events that are recognized by the majority of scholars as historical, and put forward evidence and historical reasoning to establish their historicity (i.e. viewing the gospels as regular historical documents that can be examined). These events are (1) Jesus’ death by crucifixion, (2) the sincere belief of Jesus’ disciples in his post-mortem or “after-death” appearances, (3) that Jesus’ tomb was found empty shortly after his burial and (4) the emergence of resurrection belief among Jesus’ disciples, which will be later referred to as “The Origin of the Christian Faith”. After providing the evidence for the above four events and establishing their historicity, we will then examine the possible explanations for the above four facts: (a) conspiracy, (b) hallucination or (c) resurrection — weigh the merits of the above explanations, and show why the resurrection truly does stand out as a superior hypothesis following a historical examination of the evidence.
Before I lay out the historical evidence, I would like to point out that the evidence for the resurrection has been recognized by Christians and non-Christians alike as potent and impressive. Frank Morrison, an English writer and atheist, and inspired by the liberal biblical criticism of his time, set out to write a book to prove the story of Jesus’ resurrection as a myth. After examining the gospels critically, he ended up converting to Christianity. His book, “Who Moved the Stone”, ended up arguing for the historicity of the resurrection and is now a classic apologetic work. Leading Catholic Thomist philosopher Edward Feser and Canadian polymath Allister McGrath (theologian, historian, scientist and public intellectual) both noted how the evidence for the resurrection played a significant role in their conversion to Christianity from atheism. After surveying the historical evidence, Jewish scholar Pinchas Lapide also came to recognize the historicity of the resurrection saying:
“I accept the resurrection of Jesus not as an invention of the community of disciples, but as an historical event”.
One more example would be Anthony Flew, one of the most influential atheist philosophers in the 20th century and convert to deism in 2004 (particularly, to the God of Aristotle). Prior to his death in 2010, Flew had been studying Christianity and he ended up developing a profound respect for the religion, saying:
“I think that the Christian religion is the one religion that most clearly deserves to be honoured and respected whether or not its claim to be a divine revelation is true. There is nothing like the combination of a charismatic figure like Jesus and a first-class intellectual like St. Paul…If you’re wanting Omnipotence to set up a religion, this is the one to beat”.
On the resurrection in particular, Flew commented:
“The evidence for the resurrection is better than for claimed miracles in any other religion. It’s outstandingly different in quality and quantity”.
With all that said, let us proceed to examine the historical evidence.
II. ESTABLISHING THE FACTS
A. Jesus’ death by crucifixion
Jesus’ death by crucifixion is strongly supported by a number of Christian and non-Christian sources. When it comes to Christian sources, the four gospels, Acts and the New Testament epistles all mention Jesus’ death and crucifixion. As for non-Christian sources, historians Josephus (Jewish) and Tacitus (pagan) both report that Jesus was crucified by the order of Pontius Pilate. In the end, Jesus’ death by crucifixion is recognized by virtually all scholars. As agnostic scholar John Dominic Crossan notes: “Jesus’ death by crucifixion under Pontius Pilate is as sure as anything historical can ever be”.
B. The sincere belief of the disciples in Jesus’ post-mortem appearances
In discussing the historicity of the disciples’ sincere belief in Jesus’ post mortem appearances, I will discuss the evidence for (1) the post-mortem appearances of Jesus, (2) the sincere belief of Jesus’ disciples in these appearances and (3) Paul’s exposition in 1 Corinthians 15 regarding the reality of the resurrection — followed by a conclusion.
The evidence for the above three points combine to form a powerful case for the disciple’s sincere belief in Jesus’ post mortem appearances — so much so that there is a virtual consensus among scholars (even skeptical ones) that the disciples did not lie about their “resurrection experiences” but experienced them, and genuinely came to believe in their authenticity.
1. The post-mortem appearances
Following Jesus’ death, many of his followers, as individuals and in groups, had experiences wherein Jesus appeared to them. This is supported by a number of Christian sources: Matthew, Luke, John, Acts and 1 Corinthians. The earliest and most valuable of these sources is the appearance tradition found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7. However, for the purposes of completeness, I will include Paul’s testimony in verse 8 in the quotation below (Pauline additions are italicized):
3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures,
4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures,
5 and that he appeared to Cephas [Peter], then to the twelve.
6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.
7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the Apostles.
8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.
When it comes to the above verses, scholars recognize that Paul is passing on tradition. This is because Paul himself says as much in the first half of 1 Corinthians 15:3. In doing so, Paul uses the words “delivered” (paredoka) and “received” (parelabon), which were known technical words in rabbinical circles and Hellenistic schools during Paul’s day for the receiving and handing on of tradition.
The reason 1 Corinthians 15 is our most valuable source for Jesus’ post mortem appearances is because of its origin in the Jerusalem church (which was the first “headquarters” of the early Church) and its very early dating, 2-3 years after the death of Jesus. The value of the tradition is also enhanced because it comes to us from Paul, who knew other eyewitnesses and was deep within the Christian movement.
In the discussion of the post-mortem appearances below, let us examine the 1 Corinthians 15 tradition (its Jerusalem origin, 2-3 year dating after the death of Jesus and its being conveyed by Paul), Paul’s testimony in 1 Corinthians 15:8 and the other appearance traditions in the gospels and Acts. Afterward, we will close with a conclusion on the post-mortem appearances.
1 Corinthians 15:3-7 and its roots in the Jerusalem Church
It is widely held among scholars that the 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 tradition finds its roots in the Jerusalem Church. There are a number of reasons behind this position.
When it comes to 1 Corinthians 15:3-5, virtually all scholars agree that these verses contain a primitive Christian creed that finds its roots in the Jerusalem Church. This is because a) the verses are written in stylistic form, which aids in memorization, b) there are traces of Aramaic in these verses, the language of the Jerusalem church and c) the verses display many non-Pauline characteristics. These include, “for our sins”, “according to the Scriptures”, “he has been raised”, “on the third day”, “he was seen”, and “by the Twelve”.
As for 1 Corinthians 15:6-7, some scholars include these verses in the creed while others believe that Paul is combining other traditions he received. In any case, there is also widespread agreement among scholars that the tradition in 1 Corinthians 15:6-7 finds its roots in the Jerusalem Church. There are a number of reasons for this behind this position. One, there is good evidence that 1 Corinthians 15:6-7 is also a part of the creed. Two, Paul’s information-gathering trip to Jerusalem three years after his conversion is the most likely period when he received these traditions. As Paul says in Galatians 1:15-19, he goes to Jerusalem three years after his conversion to visit Peter and gather information, and he stays with him for over two weeks:
“But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by His grace, was pleased to reveal His Son in me so that I might preach Him among the Gentiles, I did not rush to consult with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to the apostles who came before me, but I went into Arabia and later returned to Damascus. Only after three years did I go up to Jerusalem to confer with Cephas, and I stayed with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James, the Lord’s brother”.
The term Paul uses to describe what he did during his trip to Jerusalem, “historesai” (which is translated to “confer” in English in the above-quoted passage), literally means “to visit and get information”. Whatever information Paul sought to obtain by visiting Peter, the leader of the apostles, after his conversion, it certainly had to do with Jesus and the Christian movement. Jesus’ resurrection appearances, which stand at the center of the Christian movement, must have been talked about, especially since Paul witnessed an appearance from Jesus himself. In addition to meeting Peter during this trip, it must also be noted that Paul mentions meeting James, the same disciple and leader in the Christian movement who is mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15:7 (“Then he appeared to James…”). Three, right after listing the appearance traditions in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, Paul indicates in 1 Corinthians 15:9-11 that his preaching is in line with those of the apostles:
9For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.
10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.
11 Whether, then, it is I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.
In verse 11, Paul refers to the apostles (“they”, and the apostles together with himself, “we”) and states that they preach the same message. This points towards a Jerusalem origin for the traditions and Paul’s unity with the Jerusalem Church. Four, Paul held tradition in high regard and had ample opportunity to receive and verify tradition from leaders and members of the Jerusalem Church. Paul’s high regard for tradition is evident throughout his writings. He stresses the importance of holding firmly to tradition (1 Corinthians 11:2, Philippians 4:9 and 2 Thess 2:15) and is even careful in distinguishing his opinion from tradition (1 Cor 7:10-13). Paul even describes himself back when he was a Pharisee as being “extremely zealous” in the traditions of his fathers (Gal 1:14). Paul also had many opportunities to receive and verify tradition from leaders and members of the Jerusalem Church. In addition to his initial trip to Jerusalem, we know from his own letters and Acts that Paul spent considerable time with Barnabas and Silas (Acts 11:25-30; 12:25-16:40; 15:40-17:14; 18:5-11), leaders in the early Christian movement who were among the Jerusalem Christians. We also know that he met Peter when he visited Antioch (Gal 2:11) and that he visited Jerusalem at least two more times, one of them being to attend the first Church council of Jerusalem (Acts 11:27-30; 15:1-29 and Gal 2:1-10). Paul’s high regard for tradition and his familiarity with leaders and members of the Jerusalem church highly guarantee that the 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 tradition comes from and is in line with the Jerusalem church. As scholar Michael Licona said on Paul:
“his constant interaction with these leaders in and outside of Jerusalem coupled with his high regard for tradition virtually guarantees that the details of the traditions in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 are precisely in line with what the Jerusalem leadership was preaching”.
For all of the above reasons, it is widely held among scholars that the 1 Corinthians 15:1-7 tradition stem from the Jerusalem Church.
1 Corinthians 15:3-7 and its dating 2-3 years after the death of Jesus.
As for the dating of the 1 Corinthians 15 tradition, it is also widely held among scholars to date within 2-3 years after the death of Jesus. This 2-3 year dating period is supported by two “markers” which point towards such an early dating.
The first marker is Paul’s initial trip to Jerusalem. The reason why scholars date the 1 Corinthians 15 tradition no later than 5 years after the death of Jesus is because, as mentioned earlier, the most likely period where Paul received this tradition was when he went to Jerusalem three years after his conversion to visit Peter and gather information. As a result, the tradition must be dated before Paul’s trip to Jerusalem. Assuming the majority view that Jesus died in 30 AD and that Paul converted in 32 or 33 AD, Paul’s trip to Jerusalem would be placed, at the latest, at 36 AD. Since the tradition must have been in circulation prior to Paul’s trip to Jerusalem, 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 must date within 5 years after the death of Jesus. It must also be noted that if Paul did not receive the tradition during his initial trip to Jerusalem, as held by the vast majority of scholars, then the next likely place where he received the tradition would be immediately after his conversion experience in Damascus, 2-3 years after the death of Jesus (even earlier!).
The second marker is Paul’s conversion. The reason why the 1 Corinthians 15 tradition dates within 2-3 years after the death of Jesus is because Jesus’ post mortem appearances had already taken root in the Christian community by the time Paul converted in 32 or 33 AD. This is precisely why Paul was persecuting the early Christian movement, their proclamation of a risen Christ. As stated by agnostic scholar and co-founder of the radical Jesus seminar Robert Funk:
“The conviction that Jesus had risen from the dead had already taken root by the time Paul was converted about 33 C.E. On the assumption that Jesus died about 30 C.E., the time for development was thus two or three years at most”.
As a result, the 1 Corinthians 15 tradition must be dated prior to Paul’s conversion — within 2-3 years after the death of Jesus. Furthermore, according to the New Testament texts, Jesus’ post mortem appearances took place over a period of forty days almost immediately after his death, with the exception of Jesus’ appearance to Paul, which is the only appearance to take place outside of and after this period. This would make Jesus’ appearance to Paul the last. It is no surprise then that after Paul conveys the 1 Corinthians 15 tradition, he ends by mentioning Jesus’ appearance to him saying: “Last of all, as to one untimely born…”, indicating that Jesus’ appearance to him followed all others. In the end, the evidence firmly points towards the elements in the 1 Corinthians 15 tradition dating within 2-3 years after the death of Jesus. As stated by prominent atheist scholar Gerd Ludemann:
“the elements in the tradition are to be dated to the first two years after the crucifixion of Jesus…not later than three years…the formation of the appearance traditions mentioned in 1 Cor.15.3-8 falls into the time between 30 and 33 CE”.
1 Corinthians 15:3-7 — conveyed by Paul
The value of the 1 Corinthians 15 tradition is further enhanced by the fact that it comes to us from Paul, who personally knew other eyewitnesses and was deep within the Christian movement. This means that Paul had the opportunity to verify these traditions and learn more about the events behind them.
Related to this point of Paul knowing other eyewitnesses and being deep within the Christian movement is Paul’s knowledge of most of the 500 brothers who had witnessed Jesus appear to them on one occasion in 1 Corinthians 15:6, as still being alive some 25 years after the supposed event (1 Corinthians was written between 53-57 A.D.). As Paul himself comments: “…most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep”. As scholar Richard Bauckham notes:
“The explicitness of this detail — which looks like one that Paul has added to the traditional form — shows that he intends it to be a kind of authentication: if anyone wishes to check this tradition, a very large number of eyewitnesses are still alive and can be seen and heard”.
Scholar C.H. Dodd similarly comments:
“There can hardly be any purpose in mentioning the fact [that most of the 500 are still alive] unless Paul is saying, in effect, ‘The witnesses are there to be questioned”.
In addition to Paul’s use of an authentication, Paul knowing that most of the 500 brothers are still alive is also an example of “in-group knowledge”, or knowledge that is known to members of a group. A good analogy of this would be a young professional several years out of college knowing that most of his batchmates have gotten married, though some still have not gotten married. The young professional is aware of this information because he is in touch with his high school batch and everyone in the group is interested in such information (it is a subject of importance and relevance to the group). If a member in the batch proposes or is proposed to, information of that proposal will spread within the group. Similarly, when the marriage actually happens, knowledge of this information will spread within the group as well. In the same way that this young professional knows how many of his batchmates are married and not married, Paul knew that most of the 500 brothers who had seen the risen Jesus on one occasion, were still alive some 25 years later — due to his being a member of the Christian movement. The subject of how many eyewitnesses to Jesus’ resurrection were still alive was an important subject within the early Church not only because they knew each other in friendship, but also because the death of eyewitnesses had important implications for the early Church. It meant, particularly, a decrease in capacity to provide firsthand testimony about Jesus and his resurrection, and also, an increase in urgency to put into writing what they knew about him.
Conclusion on 1 Corinthians 15:3-7
In conclusion, the strength of the 1 Corinthians 15 tradition — its Jerusalem origin, its 2-3 year dating after the death of Jesus, and the fact that it comes to us from Paul, an individual who knew other eyewitnesses and was deep within the Christian movement — is very impressive. As leading scholar N.T. Wright put it, 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 is ”the kind of foundation-story with which a community is not at liberty to tamper”. It is “unalterable Christian bedrock”.
The appearances in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7
According to the 1 Corinthians 15 tradition, Jesus appeared to many people, as individuals and in groups.
He appeared to Cephas. In addition to being mentioned in the 1 Corinthians 15 tradition, the appearance to Cephas (or Peter), is also mentioned in a tradition embedded in the account of Jesus’ appearance to two disciples on the road to Emmaus — Luke 24:34 — “The Lord has really risen, and has appeared to Simon!” (Jesus renamed Simon name to Peter, see Matt 16:17-19). It is also vouched for by Paul himself, who personally met Peter and stayed with him for over two weeks.
Then to the Twelve. This refers to the original group of 12 disciples who had been chosen by Jesus during his ministry minus Judas, whose death did not affect the group’s formal title. Besides being mentioned in the 1 Corinthians 15 tradition, this group appearance is also attested to in the gospels of Luke and John (Luke 24:36-42 and John 20:19-20). It is also vouched for by Paul, who had personal contact with at least some members of the Twelve (e.g. Peter and John) as he himself states in Galatians 1:18 and Galatians 2:9.
Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time. In addition to being mentioned in the 1 Corinthians 15 tradition,this appearance to an impressive group of people is vouched for by Paul who knew other eyewitnesses and was deep within the Christian movement. As mentioned earlier, Paul’s comment on the tradition, “most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep”, serves to underscore its reliability and is also a display of “in-group knowledge”.
Then he appeared to James. This is one of the most amazing appearances of all. What makes this appearance so amazing is that James and the other brothers of Jesus (cousins, see footnote 29) were skeptical of Jesus and his ministry (Mark 3:20-34, Mark 6:1-4 and John 7:2-9). As stated succinctly in John 7:5: “For even his own brothers did not believe in him”. This strongly satisfies one particular criterion of historicity — the criterion of embarrassment. The accounts in Mark and John of Jesus’ own brothers not believing in him are embarrassing details that are not flattering to Jesus. As a result, the likelihood of their historicity is high. In any case, after the resurrection, we see James suddenly assuming a key role in the early Church, as leader of the church in Jerusalem (Acts 21:18). Paul also notes James’ importance in the Church in his letters, saying that he is one of the “three pillars” of the Jerusalem church (Gal 2:9).
Paul’s mention of Jesus’ brothers in 1 Corinthians 9:5 also suggests that at least some of Jesus’ brothers (and at most, all of them) became believers. Jesus’ brothers in general are also mentioned in Acts 1:12-14 as being found praying with the apostles and other followers of Jesus after the resurrection. Outside of the New Testament, we also have testimony from two early Church fathers, Hegesippus and Eusebius, that two other brothers of Jesus, Simon and Judas (who are mentioned in Mark 6:1-3), became Christians. As a result, we have strong evidence for the conversion of James and at least some of Jesus’ other brothers from skeptics to followers of Jesus.
In closing, the appearance to James, in addition to being mentioned in the 1 Corinthians 15 tradition, is also vouched by Paul who met James personally. For the above reasons, the majority of scholars recognize the historicity of the appearance to and conversion of James.
Then to all the apostles. This refers to an appearance or a series of appearances to a wider group of Jesus’ followers beyond the Twelve. Once again, this appearance is vouched for by Paul who was deep within the Christian movement and knew many of its leaders and members. This appearance may be attested to wholly — in the case of Luke 24:50-51 and Acts 1:1-10 — or partially, in a number of the appearance traditions in the gospels and Acts (that is, overlapping).
1 Corinthians 15:8 — Jesus’ appearance to Paul
Like the appearance to James, the appearance to Paul is one of the most amazing appearances of all. What makes this appearance so amazing is that Paul, a devout Jew and respected Pharisee, was a fierce enemy of the early Church. As Paul himself admits in his letters, he strongly persecuted the early Christian movement (Galatians 1:23). Acts also recounts the first persecution of Christians by the Jews and Paul’s involvement in it (Acts 8:1-4 and Acts 9:1-2).
According to Paul, he converted to Christianity because Jesus appeared to him. As he testifies in 1 Corinthians 15:8: “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” An account of Paul’s conversion experience along the road to Damascus is also recounted in Acts (Acts 9:1-19).
Looking at the way Paul lived the rest of his life, the strength and authenticity of his faith is also evident. He left his position as a respected Jewish leader due to what he perceived to be an authentic appearance of Jesus to him, to join what was then a small, persecuted and controversial movement — early Christianity. After joining the movement, Paul would endure great suffering and persecution (1 Cor 15:30-32, 2 Cor 4:8-12; 6:3-10; 11:23-28; 12:5-10, etc), and work tirelessly to promote the gospel. Eventually, he would die a martyr’s death during the persecution of Christians by Nero in 64 A.D.
In the end, the conversion of Paul, a respected Pharisee and fierce enemy of the early church to Christianity is a historical fact that is recognized by virtually all scholars. The appearance to Paul is likewise historically undisputed.
Other appearances outside of 1 Corinthians 15:3-8
Besides the appearances mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, the gospels of Matthew, Luke and John, as well as Acts, record other appearances of Jesus to his followers. These include an appearance to women disciples (Matt 28:9 and John 20:11-17), an appearance to two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Mark 16:12 and Luke 24:13-31), an appearance to the apostles with Thomas (John 20:24-29), an appearance to the disciples on a mountain in Galilee (Mark 16:7 and Matthew 28:16), an appearance to seven disciples on the Sea of Galilee (John 21:1-13) and an appearance near Bethany prior to his assumption (Luke 24:50-51 and Acts 1:1-10). Lastly, although not an appearance account, Acts begins with a summary of what happened after Jesus’ death — that Jesus “presented himself” to his apostles, “gave [them] many convincing proofs that he was alive” and “spoke to them about the kingdom of God” — and that all of this occurred over a period of forty days (Acts 1:3).
2. The sincere belief of Jesus’ disciples
Jesus’ disciples also displayed a sincere belief in their resurrection experiences. This is evidenced by the fact that they suffered serious hardship and persecution, and in some cases, martyrdom for their beliefs. As liberal scholar E.P. Sanders put it himself, when it came to the disciples and Jesus’ resurrection: “they believed this, they lived it, and they died for it”.
When it comes to the sincere belief of Jesus’ disciples, we will examine the two persecutions experienced by the first generation of Christians (one by the Jews and another by the Romans under Nero), as well as the martyrdoms that occurred during these efforts. Afterward, we will look into the suffering the first generation of Christians endured as attested to by the apostolic and early Church fathers. Then, we will examine the hardships the first generation of Christians undertook in their tremendous missionary efforts.
Persecution by the Jews
Acts 9:1-3 mentions how the murder of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, marked the beginning of a great persecution against the early Christian movement by the Jews:
“On that day [the day Stephen was stoned] a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison”.
This persecution by the Jews was also mentioned by Paul himself, who admits his own participation in it in his letter to the Galatians:
“For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it” (Gal 1:13).
As a result of this persecution, the early Christian movement suffered greatly.
Acts mentions how the apostles of Jesus were persecuted (e.g. beaten, flogged, imprisoned, driven out of towns, etc) for preaching a resurrected Christ (Acts 4:1-3; 5:33-42; 13:48-51; 14:19-20, etc) — a message that was met with strong hostility and controversy by many Jews. Ironically, after converting to Christianity, Paul would become subject to persecution from his fellow Jews as well, and in his letters, he would recount the sufferings he endured (2 Cor 11:24-31). Lastly, we also have testimony from Josephus, Hegesippus and Clement of Alexandria that James the brother of Jesus and leader of the Jerusalem church, was martyred by the Sanhedrin.
Persecution under Nero
Then, three decades after the persecution of Christians by the Jews began, Emperor Nero led another terrible persecution against the early Christian movement, blaming them for a fire that broke out in Rome. As Roman senator and historian Tacitus reports in his Annals:
Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations [cannibalism for the eucharist and incest for the practice of calling fellow Christians “brothers and sisters in Christ”], called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name has its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired (Annals, XV.44).
This brutal persecution of Christians by Nero resulted in the martyrdoms of Peter and Paul, as recorded by several Christian writers — Clement of Rome, Dionysius of Corinth, Tertullian and Origen.
Apostolic and early Church fathers: the hardships and suffering of Jesus’ disciples
Having discussed so far the persecutions of Christians by the Jews and by the Romans under Emperor Nero, let us now examine writings from the apostolic and early church fathers on the suffering the first generation of Christians experienced.
Clement (ca. 30-100), the bishop of Rome and a second generation Christian who knew the apostles (he was even ordained by Peter), reports the sufferings Peter and Paul endured in their lives, as well as their martyrdoms:
“[L]et us take the noble examples of our own generation. Through jealousy and envy the greatest and most righteous pillars of the Church were persecuted and contended unto death. Let us set before our eyes the good apostles: Peter, who because of unrighteous jealousy suffered not one or two but many trials, and having thus given his testimony went to the glorious place which was his due. Through jealousy and strife Paul showed the way to the prize of endurance; seven times he was in bonds, he was exiled, he was stoned, he was a herald both in the East and in the West, he gained the noble fame of his faith, he taught righteousness to all the world, and when he had reached the limits of the West he gave his testimony before the rulers, and thus passed from the world and was taken up into the Holy Place, the greatest example of endurance”.
Polycarp (ca. 69-155), the bishop of Turkey and a second generation Christian who was instructed by the apostles as well, urges the Philippian church in a letter to practice “unlimited endurance”, as the Christians before (e.g. Paul, the apostles, and others) and among them have exercised:
Let us, therefore, become imitators of his (Jesus’) patient endurance, and if we should suffer for the sake of his name, let us glorify him. For this is the example he set for us in his own person, and this is what we have believed.
I urge all of you, therefore, to obey the teaching about righteousness and to exercise unlimited endurance, like that which you saw with your own eyes not only in the blessed Ignatius and Zosimus and Rufus but also in others from your congregation and in Paul himself and the rest of the apostles. Be assured that all these did not run in vain but with faith and righteousness, and that they are now in the place due them with the Lord, with whom they also suffered. For they did not love the present world but the one who died on our behalf and was raised by God for our sakes.
Ignatius (ca. 35-108 AD), bishop of Antioch and a second generation Christian, also notes that the disciples of Jesus did not fear death as a result of their resurrection experiences. As he says in his letter to the church in Turkey (where Polycarp was bishop):
“And when [Jesus] came to those with Peter, he said to them: ‘Take, handle me and see that I am not a bodiless demon’. And immediately they handled him and believed, having known his flesh and blood. Because of this they also despised death [like Jesus did]; but beyond death they were found”.
As scholar Gary Habermas notes, the Greek word for “despised” which Ignatius uses above is better translated as “cared nothing for” or “disregarded”.
It is also worth noting (since they are mentioned already) that the two individuals just quoted above, Polycarp and Ignatius, were themselves martyred during the third persecution of Christians by Rome under Emperor Trajan. Ignatius’ above-quoted letter to the church in Turkey was written, literally, en route to his martyrdom in Rome. Although neither Polycarp nor Ignatius are first generation Christians (they are second generation Christians), the strength of their convictions reflects well on the witness of the first generation of Christians who preceded them in terms of the testimony that they gave and the way that they lived their life.
Origen (ca. 184-253 AD), an early church father, also notes in his Contra Celsum the danger the disciples assumed in preaching the gospel and their fearless disposition in doing so:
“But clear and unmistakable proof of the fact I hold to be the undertaking of His disciples, who devoted themselves to the teaching of a doctrine which was attended with danger to human life…[the disciples] not only prepared others to despise death, but were themselves the first to manifest their disregard for its terrors”.
Origen, later in the same work, also notes:
“Jesus, who has both once risen Himself, and led His disciples to believe in His resurrection and so thoroughly persuaded them of its truth, that they show to all men by their sufferings how they are able to laugh at all the troubles of life, beholding the life eternal and the resurrection clearly demonstrated to them in both word and deed”.
In the end, the disciples publicly proclaimed a risen Christ, despite the danger and suffering it entailed for themselves. This is very strong evidence that they genuinely believed that Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to them. As stated by scholar Licona:
“After Jesus’ death, the disciples endured persecution, and a number of them experienced martyrdom. The strength of their conviction indicates that they were not just claiming Jesus had appeared to them after rising from the dead. They really believed it. They willingly endangered themselves by publicly proclaiming the risen Christ.”
Tremendous missionary efforts
In addition to the persecution experienced by Jesus’ disciples as a result of their missionary efforts, they also spent tremendous amounts of effort in propagating the gospel. The esteemed academician Fr. Robert Spitzer S.J. noted the impressiveness of the early Church in this regard:
“[after the death of Jesus] the early Church organized herself into a missionary community that not only went beyond the boundaries of Israel but also to the very frontiers of the Roman Empire…With a crucified Messiah as her head, the early Church formed one of the most dynamically expansive communities in history”.
Looking at Paul and his letters, for example, we know that his missionary journeys took him to portions of the Middle East, Europe and Asia. This exemplifies how seriously the early church took its missionary work, at a time where traveling was much more arduous and dangerous than it is today too. As a result of these missionary efforts, Christianity grew “rapidly”.
From the point of view of a Christian believer, the tremendous missionary efforts of the disciples also call to mind the Great Commission, where Jesus, in an appearance to the Eleven in Galilee, calls them to spread the gospel to “all nations” (Matt 28:16-20).
3. Paul’s exposition on the resurrection: 1 Corinthians 15
In addition to discussing Jesus’ post mortem appearances and the sincere belief of Jesus’ apostles, let us examine the exposition Paul puts forward in 1 Corinthians 15, in order to stress the reality of the resurrection to the Christians at Corinth. In doing so, Paul also shows that he and the apostles are sincere and trustworthy witnesses.
“If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God because we testified of God that he raised Christ…
If the dead are not raised at all…why am I in peril every hour? I protest, brethren, by my pride in you which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die every day! … If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die”. (1 Corinthians 15:14-15; 30)
The most trustworthy witness, as dictated by law and common sense, is one who has nothing to gain and everything to lose. In the above verses, Paul shows that he and the apostles are credible witnesses of this sort.
First, Paul says that if Christ had not been raised, then his preaching and those of the apostles are in vain. That is to say that all of their missionary efforts would be worthless. Likewise, if Christ had not been raised, Paul also says that the faith of their Christian audience would also be worthless. In the end, Paul is saying that if Christ has not been raised then “all of this” would be “a big waste of time”.
Second, and even worse, Paul says that if Christ had not been raised, then he and the apostles would be guilty of misrepresenting God. Assuming deliberate misrepresentation, they would be guilty of a lie of such immense gravity, saying that God raised Jesus from the dead when He did not do so, that it would make any earnest Jew tremble — not only out of love for not wanting to offend God but also out of fear of His judgment, and the serious jeopardy it would put one’s salvation in. Assuming non-deliberate misrepresentation, they would still be making a grave mistake, spreading falsehood about Jesus and God and leading others into serious religious error.
Third, Paul also asks why he and the apostles (who are in the same situation as he is) would expose themselves to so much danger just to proclaim the gospel — if Christ had not been raised? Why would they proclaim a risen Christ when doing so opened one up to persecution and controversy? Why would they travel great distances with all the risks and dangers it entailed? As Paul said, his proclaiming a risen Christ put him constantly in danger — “I am in peril every hour”.
In laying out the above arguments, Paul shows that his testimony and those of the apostles are true and genuine. Why, after all, would they be testifying that Christ had risen if they had nothing to gain and everything to lose by doing so? The resurrection really did happen, and this is what Paul is trying to get across.
Conclusion: the sincere belief of the disciples in Jesus’ post-mortem appearances
For all of the above reasons (the evidence for Jesus’ post-mortem appearances, the disciple’s sincere belief in them and Paul’s exposition), that the disciples of Jesus had experiences that convinced them that the risen Jesus had appeared to them is recognized by virtually all scholars. As atheist scholar Bart Ehrman states:
“It is undisputable that some of the followers of Jesus came to think that he had been raised from the dead, and that something had to have happened to make them think so. Our earliest records are consistent on this point, and I think they provide us with the historically reliable information in one key aspect: the disciples’ belief in the resurrection was based on visionary experiences”.
Atheist scholar Gerd Ludemann also comments:
“It may be taken as historically certain that the disciples had experiences after Jesus’ death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ”.
Liberal scholar E.P. Sanders also notes:
“That Jesus’ followers (and later Paul) had resurrection experiences is, in my judgment, a fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know”.
Liberal Jewish scholar Paula Fredrickson comments:
“I know in their own terms what they saw was the raised Jesus. That’s what they say and then all the historic evidence we have afterwards attest to their conviction that that’s what they saw. I’m not saying that they really did see the raised Jesus. I wasn’t there. I don’t know what they saw. But I do know that as a historian that they must have seen something”.
In his conversion account in “Faith and Reason: Philosophers Explain Their Turn to Catholicism”, Edward Feser states that the historical evidence for the resurrection, particularly as presented by Christian philosopher William Lane Craig, played a significant role in his conversion to Christianity.
Allister McGrath, in an article in Christianity Today, noted the same: “My early concern was to get straight what Christians believed, and why they believed it. How does the Resurrection fit into the web of Christian beliefs? How does it fit into the overall scheme of the Christian faith? After several years of wrestling with these issues, I came down firmly on the side of Christian orthodoxy. I became, and remain, a dedicated and convinced defender of traditional Christian theology. Having persuaded myself of its merits, I was more than happy to try to persuade others as well” (The Resurrection: A Bridge Between Two Worlds, par. 8).
Lapide, The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish Perspective.
Flew and Varghese, “There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind”, pgs. 185–186
Habermas, “My Pilgrimage from Atheism to Theism: An Exclusive Interview with Former British Atheist Professor Antony Flew” (2004).
Josephus mentions Jesus’ crucifixion in his Antiquities of the Jews XVIII.3.4: “Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, for he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. And when Pilate at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day”.
Tacitus’ also mentions Jesus’ crucifixion in his Annals XV.44: “Consequently, to get rid of the report [the rumor among the Roman population that the great fire in Rome was ordered by Nero so that he could rebuild the city to his liking], Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judæa, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular”.
Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, pg. 145
“I reiterate that historians may conclude that subsequent to Jesus’ execution, a number of his followers had experiences, in individual and group settings, that convinced them Jesus had risen from the dead and had appeared to them in some manner. This conclusion is granted by nearly unanimous consensus of modern scholars and may therefore be added to our ‘historical bedrock” (Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus, A New Historiographical Approach, pg. 372).
It is interesting to note that the post-mortem appearances of Jesus combine prosaic and supernatural elements. For example, Jesus eats a fish and has long conversations with his disciples and so is clearly present in the physical and ordinary way. However, at the same time, Jesus also freely appears in locked rooms. In addition to this, the disciples also noticed something different about Jesus. This is why in a number of the appearance traditions, the gospel authors note that the disciples did not recognize Jesus immediately (Lk 24:28-32, Jn 20:14-16 and Jn 21:4-8). That Jesus was somehow different was again observed by his disciples in In John 21:12, though they struggled to express this difference “None of them dared ask, Who are you? They knew it was the Lord”. Commenting on this passage, scholar Wright says that it “only makes sense if Jesus is, as well as the same, somehow different…Somehow he had passed through death and into a strange new world where nobody had ever been before…His body was no longer subject to decay and death. What might that have been like?” (John for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 11-21, pg. 161). Wright suggests that while the resurrection body of Jesus was unquestionably physical we must also think of it as being, in some obscure way, transphysical.
Mark ends abruptly with the discovery of the empty tomb by women disciples. However, an appearance of Jesus is mentioned as a future event in Mark 16:7. If one were to include this, the post-mortem appearances would be attested to in all 4 gospels.
“The vocabulary of handing on a receiving was used in the ancient world by philosophical schools…and rabbinic circles to designate important traditions that were carefully passed down from teacher to student” (Meier, The Circle of the Twelve: Did It Exist during Jesus’ Public Ministry?).
Earlier in 1 Corinthians, Paul also uses the same vocabulary in conveying the Last Supper tradition. As he states in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26: “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread,and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes”.
As stated by esteemed scholar Larry Hurtado: “It is widely accepted, however, that the tradition Paul recites in 15:1-7 must go back to the Jerusalem Church” (Lord Jesus Christ, pg. 168).
Licona,The Resurrection of Jesus, A New Historiographical Approach, pg. 318.
Kirk MacGregor, “1 Corinthians 15:3B-6A, 7 And The Bodily Resurrection of Jesus” (2006).
Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus, A New Historiographical Approach, pg. 319: “Differences of opinion also exist over whether 15:5b-7 is part of the same tradition or that Paul has combined two or more traditions”.
MacGregor, “1 Corinthians 15:3B-6A, 7 And The Bodily Resurrection of Jesus” (2006).
Turner in his paper, “An Analysis of the Pre-Pauline Creed in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11”, notes that most scholars hold that Paul received the tradition in Jerusalem. To illustrate how widely held this position is, even atheist scholar John Dominic Crossan (who has a reputation for being radical) affirms this: “Paul wrote to the Corinthians from Ephesus in the early 50s C.E. But he says in 1 Corinthians 15:3 that ‘I handed on to you as of first importance which I in turn received.’ The most likely source and time for his reception of that tradition would have been Jerusalem in the early 30s when, according to Galatians 1:18, he went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas [Peter] and stayed with him fifteen days” (Crossan, Excavating Jesus: Beneath the Stones, Behind the Texts, pg. 254).
Licona speculates what probably occurred to Paul after his conversion: “Paul’s conversion experience had turned his world down. He was now convinced he had experienced a personal encounter with the risen Christ, and it now forced him to rethink everything he had learned and thought about the Messiah, Jewish praxis, and theological matters including atonement, the kingdom of God, eschatology and even the nature of God. He had spoken about his new views of Jesus in the synagogues and debated with his Jewish countrymen [at Damascus after his conversion as stated in Acts]. But Paul had much work ahead of him. He would study these matters through an intensive examination of the Scriptures in order to make sense of what he now regarded as reality. Emerging from his three-year sabbatical in Arabia, we can imagine Paul wanting to complete his task by interviewing one or more of the people who had traveled with Jesus. There were no better sources for Paul than the Jerusalem apostles. There he would talk with Peter and learn about Jesus’ teachings. He would ask him what it was like to travel with Jesus. He would have the heavy theological discussions he so much valued during which he would share and hone his findings. This, I admit, is mere speculation. However, from what we appear to know about Paul, it may not be very far from what actually occurred” (The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, pgs. 230-231).
Kirk MacGregor, “1 Corinthians 15:3B-6A, 7 And The Bodily Resurrection of Jesus” (2006).
Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, pg. 232
On the issue of 1 Corinthians 15:1-7 being dated within 2-3 years after the death of Jesus, scholar Michael Licona surveys scholarly opinions on the matter in his book, “The Resurrection of Jesus A New Historiographical Approach” (pg. ). He finds that most scholars date 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 within 2-3 years after the death of Jesus. Impressively, those who affirmed a 2-3 year dating included Robert Funk and most members of the Jesus Seminar. Licona also finds that other scholars date the tradition “a few years” after the death of Jesus or within 5 years after the death of Jesus. He also notes that other scholars talk about how early the tradition is in general such as Ulrich Wilckens, who says that the tradition “indubitably goes back to the oldest phase of all in the history of primitive Christianity” or Joachim Jeremias who calls it “the earliest tradition of all”. He also mentions James Dunn, a major scholar who even dates the tradition within months after the death of Jesus. As for scholars who disagreed with a dating within 5 years after the death of Jesus, Licona only found one, Marxen, who called the tradition “ancient”.
Turner in his paper, “An Analysis of the Pre-Pauline Creed in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11”, examines the three possible locations where Paul received the 1 Corinthians 15 tradition: Damascus, Jerusalem or Antioch. He notes that Jerusalem is the most likely place where Paul received the tradition followed by Damascus, with “a number of scholars” arguing this latter position. As for Antioch being the location, 13 years after Paul’s conversion, Turner notes that only “a few scholars” would exclusively argue this position.
Hoover and the Jesus Seminar, The Acts of Jesus, pg. 466.
Ludemann, The Resurrection of Jesus, pgs. 171-172.
“The credibility of this tradition is enhanced…because in the case of Paul we have the testimony of an eye-witness who knew many of the other eyewitnesses” (Theissen and Merz, Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide, 490).
Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, pg. 308
Dodd, More New Testament Studies, pg. 128
Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, pg. 319
It is worth noting that the appearance to the Twelve is the best-attested appearance of Jesus (three independent sources: 1 Corinthians, Luke and John).
As scholar Catchpole comments, the appearance to the Twelve is “in fact the best attested to of all the appearances, and cannot be easily set aside as dependent…The appearance to the group is a central feature of early Christian resurrection claims”.
Scholar Theissen and Merz also comment: “There is no doubt that it really happened” (The Historical Jesus, pg. 496).
In ancient Aramaic, there was no distinct word for cousins or close family members, and this wider usage was common during Jesus’ time. The brothers of Jesus mentioned in the gospels were his cousins, and this is attested to by the gospels themselves and the early Church fathers. To begin our discussion, let us look into Matthew’s mention of the “brothers” and “sisters” of Jesus (though only the brothers are named) in Matthew 13:53-57:
When Jesus had finished these parables, he moved on from there. Coming to his hometown, he began teaching the people in their synagogue, and they were amazed. “Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers?” they asked. “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? Aren’t all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” And they took offense at him.
Matthew names James, Joseph, Simon and Judas as Jesus’ brothers. However, the gospels also mention that two of these brothers were Jesus’ cousins. Matthew notes that James and Joseph were sons of “another Mary”, who was also present at Jesus’ entombment by Joseph of Arimathea. John identifies this Mary as “Mary the Wife of Clopas”. See the quotes below:
Many women were there [at the cross], watching from a distance. They had followed Jesus from Galilee to care for his needs. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of Zebedee’s sons (Matt 27:55-56).
Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock. He rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb and went away. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting there opposite the tomb (Matt 27:59-61).
Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene (John 19:25).
As seen in the above verses, the gospels identify two of Jesus’ brothers, James and Joseph, as sons of Mary, the wife of Clopas. Moreover, John 19:25 is further proof that the gospel writers used adelphos (brother) and adelphi (sister) broadly, because it is highly unlikely that Mary would have had another sister named Mary: “Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas…”. However, this would not be surprising if Mary were a cousin. It is also possible that “sister” may have been used because the two are (as we shall see later) sisters in law.
Outside of the New Testament we also have evidence from the early Church fathers regarding “Jesus’ brothers”, illuminating this issue further. One, Hegesippus and Eusebius attest that James and Simon (another one the 4 “brothers of Jesus” in Matt 13:53-57) were cousins of Jesus, and state that Simon was the “son of Clopas”. They also say that Simon succeeded James as leader of the Jerusalem Church because he was also a cousin of the Lord. Two, Hegesippus attests that Clopas was the brother of Joseph. This means that Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Mary the mother of James, Joseph and Simon were sisters in law. Three, Hegesippus also calls Judas (another one the 4 “brothers of Jesus” in Matt 13:53-57) a “so-called brethren” of the Lord and says that he lived a long time, surviving the Roman persecution under the reign of Domitian. See the quotes below:
“After James the Just had suffered martyrdom for the same reason as the Lord, Simeon (Simon), his cousin, the son of Clopas was appointed bishop, whom they all proposed because he was another cousin of the Lord” (Church History 4.22.4).
“After the martyrdom of James and the capture of Jerusalem which immediately followed, the story goes that those of the Apostles and of the disciples of the Lord who were still alive came together from every place with those who were, humanly speaking, of the family of the Lord, for many of them were then still alive, and they all took counsel together as to whom they ought to adjudge worthy to succeed James, and all unanimously decided that Simeon, son of Clopas, whom the scripture of the Gospel also mentions, was worthy of the throne of the diocese there. He was, so it is said, a cousin of the Saviour, for Hegesippus relates that Clopas was the brother of Joseph” (Church History 3.11-12).
“The same writer says that other grandsons of one of the so-called brethren of the Savior named Judas survived to the same reign after they had given in the time of Domitian the testimony already recorded of them in behalf of the faith in Christ. He writes thus: “They came therefore and presided over every church as witnesses belonging to the Lord’s family…” (Church history 3.32.1-6).
In the end, the gospels and the early Church fathers identify the “brothers of Jesus”, James, Joseph, Simon and Judas as his cousins. With at least three of them — James, Simon and Joseph, as being sons of Cleopas (the brother of Joseph) and Mary.
Lastly, the fact that Jesus entrusts Mary, his mother, to John at the cross (John 19:25-27), is also evidence that he was the only child because if Jesus had siblings, then this action would have been extremely disrespectful.
See scholar Brant Pitre’s video on Youtube, The “Brothers” of Jesus: A Fresh Look at the Evidence.
See quotes by Eusebius and Hegesippus in footnote 28 above.
According to Licona, the majority of critical scholars who have commented on the appearance to and conversion of James recognize its historicity (The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, pg. 461). Licona also observes that there is “significant heterogeneity” within this group that includes “atheists, agnostics, cynics, revisionists, moderates and conservatives”. However, Licona observes that although the group of scholars who grant the historicity of James is impressive, it is also small. For this reason, Licona classifies the conversion of James as a “second-order fact”.
According to scholars, Paul’s appearance to Jesus was different from the others because it occurred after Jesus’ ascension into heaven.
“Perhaps no fact is more widely recognized than that early Christian believers had real experiences that they thought were appearances of the risen Jesus. In particular, virtually all scholars recognize Paul’s testimony that he had an experience that he believed was an appearance of the risen Jesus…” (Licona and Habermas, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, pg. 74).
Licona highlights an important point on the martyrdoms among the the apostles: “Moreover, there is an important difference between the martyred apostles and those who die for their beliefs today [e.g. muslim terrorists]. Modern martyrs act solely out of their trust in beliefs passed along to them by others. The apostles died for holding to their own testimony that they had personally seen the risen Jesus. Contemporary martyrs die for what they believe to be true. The disciples of Jesus suffered and were willing to die for what they knew to be either true or false” (The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, pg. 371).
On the issue of martyrdoms, I also want to add that Acts attests to the martyrdom of James the Greater by Herod (Acts 12:2) while Revelation mentions the martyrdom of Antipas (Rev 2:13). I could not incorporate these martyrdoms in the flow of argument earlier so I will mention them here.
Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus, pg 280.
As testified by Josephus: “Therefore, understanding the situation [that the Sadducees are tougher than other Jews in judging others] Ananas recognized an opportunity because Festus had died and [his replacement] Albinus was still on his way. He assembled the Sanhedrin of judges and brought forth James the brother of Jesus who was called Christ and some others as lawbreakers. Having accused them, he delivered them to be stoned.
Licona commenting on this says: “Josephus reports that James was executed for being a lawbreaker, this could mean that James was executed for crimes he committed such as robbery or murder. However, in the New Testament, Christians were often regarded as lawbreakers by the Jewish authorities because they were perceived as promoting ideas that were contrary to Jewish law (Acts 6:13; 18:13; 21:28). Darrel Bock asks, “What Law was it James broke, given his reputation within Christian circles as a Jewish-Christian leader who was careful about keeping the Law? It would seem likely that the Law had to relate to his christological allegiances and a charge of blasphemy. This would fit the fact that he was stoned, which was the penalty for such a crime, and parallels how Stephen was handled as well” (The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, pg. 456).
Hegesippus and Clement of Alexandria give similar testimonies (though Clement corroborates Josephus in saying that the Jews were emboldened to kill James due to the death of Festus), but quoting Hegesippus since he lived much closer to the time event:
“James, the brother of the Lord” had been known for a long time as a pious man and was highly regarded by the people. Indeed, some became Christians in spite of the Jewish authorities because of James’ testimony concerning Jesus. Therefore, many of the Jewish leaders came to James and asked him to lead the people away from Jesus. They encouraged him to stand at the temple pinnacle so that all may see and hear him, for many were present at that time celebrating the Passover. They took him to the pinnacle and asked him what he thought of Jesus. But he confessed that Jesus is the Son of Man who will come in judgment. As a result of this confession, a number believed in Christ. The Jewish leaders then threw James off the pinnacle. But James did not die from the fall. So, they began to stone him, at which point James prayed for forgiveness. Hearing Jame’s prayer, one of the priests told them to stop. But a fuller took one of his clubs and hit James in the head, killing him. James was buried on that spot. And immediately afterward, Vespasian besieged the city” (Hist. eccl. 2.23.1-18).
Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity by Everett Ferguson, pgs. 504-596.
Tertullian, Scorpiace, 15: “That Paul is beheaded has been written in their own blood. And if a heretic wishes his confidence to rest upon a public record, the archives of the empire will speak, as would the stones of Jerusalem. We read the lives of the Caesars: At Rome Nero was the first who stained the blood of the rising faith. Then is Peter girt by another, when he is made fast to the cross. Then does Paul obtain a birth suited to Roman citizenship when in Rome he springs to life again ennobled by martyrdom”.
The other attestations mentioned have been lost to history but Eusebius, who had access to these sources during his time, notes that the martyrdoms of Peter and Paul were attested to in their writings (Habermas and Licona, The Case For the Resurrection of Jesus, 59).
As early church father Irenaeus (ca. 130-202 AD) says about Clement: “Clement was allotted the bishopric. This man, as he had seen the blessed apostles, and had been conversant with them, might be said to have the preaching of the apostles still echoing, and their traditions before his eyes. Nor was he alone, for there were many still remaining who had received instructions from the apostles. In the time of this Clement, no small dissension having occurred among the brothers at Corinth, the Church in Rome dispatched a most powerful letter to the Corinthians” (Against Heresies, 3.3.3).
Tertullian (ca. 155-220 AD), another early church father, says of Clement: “For this is the manner in which the apostolic churches transmit their registers: as the church of Symrna, which records that Polycarp was placed therein by John; as also the church of Rome, which makes Clement to have been ordained in like manner by Peter” (The Prescription Against Heretics, 32).
In addition to attesting to the sufferings and martyrdoms of Peter and Paul, Clement also says in a letter to the Corinthian church, that the disciples were fully assured by Jesus’ resurrection: “Therefore, having received orders and complete certainty caused by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ and believing in the Word of God, they went with the Holy Spirit’s certainty, preaching the good news that the kingdom of God is about to come” (First Clement 42:3).
This is very valuable testimony coming from someone who personally knew the apostles. Clement’s testimony that the disciples received “complete certainty” supports the statement in Acts 1:3 that Jesus appeared to his disciples and gave “many convincing proofs that he was alive”. It also coheres with the evidence we examined for the disciples’ sincere belief in Jesus’ post-mortem appearances: the hardships and persecution they endured, and in some cases, the martyrdoms they suffered for preaching a risen Christ.
First Clement 5:2-7
Irenaeus on Polycarp: “But Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna, whom I also in my early youth, for he tarried [on earth] a very long time, and, when a very old man, gloriously and most nobly suffering martyrdom, departed this life, having always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles” (Against Heresies, 3.3.4). Take note that Irenaeus says that he met Polycarp during his youth.
Irenaeus also mentions Polycarp in a letter to Florinus, “When I was still a boy I saw you in Lower Asia with Polycarp, when you had high status at the imperial court and wanted to gain his favor. I remember events from those days more clearly than those that happened recently…so that I can even picture the place where the blessed Polycarp sat and conversed, his comings and goings, his character, his personal appearance, his discourses to the crowds, and how he reported his discussions with John and others who had seen the Lord. He recalled their very words, what they reported about the Lord and his miracles and his teaching — things that Polycarp had heard directly from eyewitnesses of the Word of life and reported in full harmony with Scripture” (Irenaeus, To Florinus, cited by fourth-century church historian Eusebius).
The early church father Tertullian also states that Polycarp was ordained by John (The Prescription Against Heretics, 32).
Polycarp, To the Philippians 9:2
Ignatius, To the Smyrnaeans 3:2
Habermas and Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, pg. 57
Habermas and Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, pg. 57
Origen, Contra Celsum, 2.56
Origen, Contra Celsum, 2.77
Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, pg. 366.
Fr. Robert Spitzer, SJ, God So Loved the World: Clues to Our Transcendent Destiny from the Revelation of Jesus, pg. 165
As scholar Williams notes after examining sources on early Christianity: “One thing on which Christian and non-Christian sources agree is the rapid growth of Christianity” (Can We Trust the Gospels?).
Ehrman, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee, pgs. 183-184.
Ludemann, What Really Happened? pg. 80
Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus.
ABC, Interview in The Search for Jesus w/ Peter Jennings (June 26, 2000)