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. 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and put forward evidence and historical reasoning to establish their historicity (i.e. viewing the gospels as regular historical documents that can be examined).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 skeptical 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 and (2) the sincere belief of Jesus’ disciples in these appearances — followed by a conclusion.
The evidence for the above two points combine to form a powerful case for the sincere belief of the disciples in Jesus’ post mortem appearances — so much so that there is a virtual consensus among scholars (including skeptical ones) that the disciples truly had experiences that caused them to believe that Jesus rose from the dead appeared to them.
With that said, let us tackle the first point: the evidence for the post-mortem appearances.
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 (Pauline additions are italicized). However, for the purposes of completeness, I will include Paul’s testimony in verse 8 in the quotation below:
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 value of the 1 Corinthians 15 tradition (its Jerusalem origin, 2-3 year dating after the death of Jesus and its being conveyed by Paul), the appearances in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, Paul’s testimony in 1 Corinthians 15:8 and the other appearance traditions in the gospels and Acts.
a. 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:
9 For 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:
[H]is 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 highly probable that the 1 Corinthians 15:1-7 tradition stems from the Jerusalem Church.
b. 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, there is firm evidence for it dating within 2-3 years after the death of Jesus.
Before discussing the evidence for the 2-3 year dating, let us look into the two markers which indicate the earliness of the 1 Corinthians 15 tradition. The first of these markers is evidence of the 1 Corinthians 15 tradition dating within 6 years after the death of Jesus while the second of these markers is evidence of the tradition dating within 2-3 years after the death of Jesus. The second marker supplants the first marker in the conclusion of tradition’s dating (i.e. 2-3 years after the death of Jesus) but it is worth noting the first marker since it provides further support to the earliness of the 1 Corinthians 15 tradition independent of the second marker.
The first marker is Paul’s initial trip to Jerusalem. 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 noted by liberal scholar John Dominic Crossan:
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.
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 35-36 AD. This dates the 1 Corinthians 15 tradition within 6 years after the death of Jesus.
The second marker is Paul’s conversion. The 2-3 year dating of the 1 Corinthians 15 tradition is supported by the fact that 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 Church, their proclamation of a risen Christ. Since 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 stems from the Jerusalem church, it must go back to the earliest period. 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 (Acts 1:3), 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 that Paul says this as well, saying in 1 Cor 15:8 that Jesus’ appearance to him followed all others: “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me”. This points to 1 Cor 15:3-7 dating prior to Paul’s conversion, within 2-3 years after the death of Jesus.
In the end, there is strong evidence that the elements in the 1 Corinthians 15 tradition date within 2-3 years after the death of Jesus. As stated by prominent atheist scholar Gerd Ludemann:
[T]he 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.
Agnostic scholar and co-founder of the liberal Jesus Seminar, Robert Funk, likewise comments on the 1 Corinthians 15 tradition, saying:
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.
c. 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 (e.g. Where did Jesus appear to you? When did this happen? What happened? Etc.).
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 who had witnessed Jesus appear to them on one occasion as still being alive some 25 years after the supposed event (1 Corinthians was written between 53-57 A.D.). As Paul himself comments (1 Cor 15:6): “…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 event 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.
d. 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 prominent 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”.
e. 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).
f. 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.
g. 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).
Having discussed the first point, let us move on to discussing the second point: the evidence for the sincere belief of Jesus’ disciples.
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. Afterward, we will look into the suffering the disciples endured as attested by the apostolic and early Church fathers. Then, we will discuss the hardships they undertook in their remarkable missionary efforts. Lastly, we will examine Paul’s exposition on the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15. This exposition shows the sincerity and trustworthiness of Paul and the other apostles as witnesses.
a. 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 (Gal 1:13):
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.
As a result of this persecution, the early Christian movement clearly endured hardship.
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.
b. 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.
c. Apostolic and early Church fathers: the hardships and suffering of Jesus’ disciples
Having discussed the persecutions of Christians by the Jews and by the Romans under Emperor Nero, let us look into the suffering Jesus’ disciples endured as attested by the apostolic and early church fathers.
Clement (ca. 30-100), the bishop of Rome and a first-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 John the Apostle, urges the Philippian church in a letter to practice “unlimited endurance” just 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 first-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 were disciples of Jesus, the strength of their convictions reflects well on the disciples in terms of the testimony that they gave about the resurrection 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 bold 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.
Ultimately, 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.
d. Remarkable missionary efforts
The sincere belief of the disciples can also be seen in their remarkable efforts in propagating the gospel. 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 Asia Minor and Europe. This exemplifies how seriously the early church took its missionary work, at a time where traveling was much more arduous and risky than it is today too. As a result of these remarkable missionary efforts, Christianity grew very quickly. As scholar Peter Williams notes:
One thing on which Christian and non-Christian sources agree is the rapid growth of Christianity.
From the point of view of a Christian believer, the remarkable missionary efforts of the disciples 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).
e. Paul’s exposition on the resurrection: 1 Corinthians 15
The sincerity of the apostles can also be seen in Paul’s exposition in 1 Corinthians 15. Paul’s purpose here was to stress the reality of the resurrection to the Christians at Corinth. In this exposition, Paul also shows that he and the other 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 his 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 great 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 serious mistake, spreading falsehood about Jesus and God and leading others into 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.
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
In light of the evidence, virtually all scholars, including skeptical scholars, recognize that the disciples had experiences that convinced them that Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to them. 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.
– END OF PART 1 –
To proceed to part 2 of this series, click here.
- 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. If he did not receive it in Jerusalem, the next popular position is that he received it in Damascus after his conversion, two to three years after the death of Jesus, with “a number of scholars” taking this position. The next popular position is that he received it in Antioch, 13 years after Paul’s conversion, with “a few scholars” taking this position.
- 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
- Crossan, Excavating Jesus: Beneath the Stones, Behind the Texts, pg. 254
- Historians have been able to narrow Jesus’ death to two dates: April 7 of 30 AD or April 3 of 33 AD. For more information, check out this article by NCR: https://www.ncregister.com/blog/7-clues-tell-us-precisely-when-jesus-died-the-year-month-day-and-hour-revealed
- Ludemann, The Resurrection of Jesus, pgs. 171-172.
- Hoover and the Jesus Seminar, The Acts of Jesus, pg. 466.
- “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”.
- Although there seems to be a contradiction between Acts 9:7 and Acts 22:9, there is none when you go to the original Greek. As scholar A.T. Robertson concludes, in his Grammar of the Greek New Testament in Light of Historical Research, the accounts in Acts can be constructed as follows (skipping Robertson’s linguistic analysis): Paul saw Jesus Himself (1 Cor 9:1; 2 Cor 4:6; cf. Acts 9:27), heard His voice and understood what He was saying to him. Paul’s companions saw the light accompanying Jesus when he appeared to Paul but not Jesus himself. They also heard the voice but did not understand the distinct words Jesus spoke to Paul.
Even though Acts only describes Paul seeing a light, that light would have been understood to come from the body of Jesus. As scholar Dale Allison notes in his paper, Acts 9:1-9, 22:6-11, 26:12-18: Paul and Ezekiel, heavenly beings were understood to have emanated light when physically present in Judaism and early Christianity (e.g. Dan 10.5-6; Lk. 2.9; Acts 1.10; Rev. 10.1; 2 En. 19:1, 22.8; 3 En. 18:25; 22:4–9; 26:2–7; 35:2; Test. Ab. 7:4; 13:1 A; Jos. Asen. 14:9; Apoc. Zeph. 6:11–15). Readers of the book of Acts would infer from the light, Jesus’ words to Paul and other extra-mental details (e.g. the travelers hearing sounds and seeing lights and Paul’s physical blindness) that Jesus’ physical and heavenly body was there to appear to Paul. As scholar James Ware notes on the appearance to Paul (Paul’s Theology in Context, pg. 280):
“Paul’s postascension encounter with the ascended and glorified Christ was … an objective, physical event. This is evident in Acts, which reports that Paul’s eyes were physically blinded by the divine effulgence emanating from the Lord (Acts 9:8–9; 22:11).”
- “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)