3. Evidence for the Resurrection

3. Evidence for the Resurrection

Conversation #2 – Evidence for the resurrection

Note from Phil:  While this page has some questions and bible readings to look up, on the whole it contains a lot of information to be read.  It might be best if you take turns reading the different sections together as a group and allow the material to stimulate our own questions and conversations. 

Let me begin by explaining in simple terms what it is that historians do. Historians try to establish to the best of their ability what probably happened in the past.  We can’t really know with certainty what happened in the past because we were not there.  History – especially ancient history – is our best guess at what happened using the mostly imperfect evidence available to us. 

Any discussion about the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection is always going to be difficult for a couple of key reasons:

  • The resurrection of Jesus happened nearly 2000 years ago, and the passing of time makes all evidence harder to substantiate.
  • The resurrection of Jesus is a miracle – it is not normal for people to be seen alive after they have died.  If historians try to establish what probably happened in the past then by definition miracles are very difficult to prove because they don’t normally happen.
  • While the Bible has excellent records of the resurrection of Jesus – many of the articles, books and website written about the resurrection only use the Biblical text as the evidence for the resurrection – which for some historians is problematic.

Whilst acknowledging these difficulties, there is evidence related to the resurrection which is helpful for us to be aware of, especially in our conversations with others.

Written Evidence (Biblical)

Read Matthew 28:1-10

How do we know that Jesus rose again?  The bible says so. Certainly, the writers of the New Testament want their readers to be in no doubt – Jesus died, rose from the dead and now is alive.  They talk about it over 100 times in the New Testament.  Not only is the Resurrection eyewitness accounts found in the four gospels (Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, John 20) but there is other accounts all through the New Testament (1 Corinthians 15, 1 Peter 1:3, Acts 17:31, Romans 1:3-4, Colossians 2:12-15, Romans 6:3-11, Galatians 1:1 just to name a few)

While we might trust the Bible text as truth, those who have not grown up in the faith wonder whether we can trust the writers of the Bible not to write the narrative in a way which makes Jesus or them look better.  When it comes to the gospel versions of the resurrection, scholars sometimes refer to the “Criterion of Embarrassment”.  If the resurrection was made up, then why would the writers include the parts of the story that doesn’t put them good light.  For example, there is a cultural problem at the time of having the women as the first witnesses.  Or if you were making it up, you wouldn’t include the doubt that disciples had to hearing the resurrection stories.  The fact that these were included in the narrative actually makes the writing more likely to be true.


Written Evidence (Secular)

While there is a lot of Biblical written evidence of the resurrection of Jesus.  However the life and death of Jesus is not only written in the bible but there are references in other non-biblical written sources including:

  • Roman historian Edwin Yamauch wrote in around 40 years after Jesus – “Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of … Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition…” – not only mentioning Jesus death but hinting at his resurrection.
  • Letters of Pliny the Younger (Roman governor of Bithynia) to Emperor Trajan dated 112AD, talked about Christians singing “hymns to Christ, as to a god” pointing out that unlike other gods who were worshipping, Christ was a person who had lived on earth.
  • Perhaps the most remarkable reference to Jesus outside the Bible can be found in the writings of Josephus, a first century Jewish historian. On two occasions, in his Jewish Antiquities, he mentions Jesus. The first is a passing reference when talking about the condemnation of James by the Jewish Sandhedrin and he wrote that James was “the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ.”  The in the second longer reference, Josephus wrote:
    About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he … wrought surprising feats…. He was the Christ. When Pilate …condemned him to be crucified, those who had . . . come to love him did not give up their affection for him. On the third day he appeared … restored to life…. And the tribe of Christians … has … not disappeared.

The quote is so remarkable that some scholars wonder if it was “altered” by a Christian editor later.  Either way, this is good deal of corroborating information affirming that Biblical Jesus and the historical Jesus are similar.


Physical Evidence of the Resurrection

Read John 19:38-42

Obviously, there is little surviving physical evidence of either the death or resurrection of Jesus after 2000 years.  To add to confusion, during the middle ages, Easter relics became very popular with people being able to buy wood fragment or wood from the cross – the true cross.  People claim to have the crown of thorns, the Holy Lance, even the holy sponge – all which were unlikely to survive 2000 years.   

About the only physical evidence that have a chance of surviving is the tomb itself – but we are confronted with the problem that there are three sites all claiming to be the tomb of Jesus!

1) The Talpiot Family Tomb

Located about 5km south of the Old City of Jerusalem is the Talpiot Family Tomb.  It was originally discovered in 1980, but rose to fame with the 2007 Discovery Channel documentary, “The Lost Tomb of Jesus,” which was produced by James Cameron.  People got very excited when they found a label within the tomb with “Jesus, son of Joseph.”  However, questions remain of why a poor Galilean family would have a family tomb in Jerusalem.  As one scholar said, “It makes a great story for TV but no likelihood for the tomb of Jesus”.

2) The Garden Tomb (or Gordon’s Tomb)

Popularized in 1883 by Charles Gordon (hence its alternate name – Gordon’s Tomb), its serene setting in a garden makes it a popular tourist destination who come to see the spot where Jesus was buried.  Unfortunately, archaeologists date the area around 600BCE which would not “new tomb in which no one had yet been laid” (John 19:41).  While there is perhaps value in having a tomb, which reminds people of what the original tomb setting may have been like, this is unlikely the actual tomb of Jesus.

3) The Church of the Holy Sepulchre

The site with the oldest claim as Jesus tomb is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – being mentioned in the “Life of Constantine” by Early Christian writer Eusebius.  Archaeological research has demonstrated that this was the site of a Jewish cemetery in an ancient limestone quarry outside the walls of Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’s death.  Today a shrine called the edicule surrounds the remains of the ancient tomb.  Although absolute proof of the location of Jesus’ tomb remains beyond our reach – the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the most likely of the main three.

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Psychological Evidence of the Resurrection

Read Acts 2:52-60

Some people point to the psychological state of the disciples and followers as evidence of the resurrection.  The gospels tell us the disciples were in hiding, discouraged, and disheartened. They did not at first believe the women’s report of Jesus’ resurrection. Only after Jesus appeared to them in person did they believe.

Psychologists suggest that in that state of grief and discouragement they were unlikely to concoct a story of Jesus’ resurrection, or inclined to steal Jesus’ body.  Even if they were part of a conspiracy to steal Jesus’ body and claim that he had been raised from the dead; of the original 12 disciples, ten were martyred for their faith – as well as thousands of followers throughout history.  As Origin put it, people do not risk their lives and suffer martyrdom for a lie. 

To assume that the disciples were part of a conspiracy doesn’t jive with a careful assessment of their psychological state. To suppose that the disciples of Jesus, the man of truth, would perpetrate a fraud is preposterous.  When you consider the disciples’ psychological state following Jesus’ crucifixion, only the fact of the resurrection can explain the change that took place in them.


Personal Evidence of the Resurrection

Read Philippians 3:7-10

How can we know that Jesus is alive … by knowing the risen Jesus personally.  Paul wrote to the Philippians that he wanted to know Jesus and the power of his resurrection in his life.  As one writer expressed:

Finally, I want to conclude now just by saying something about that other avenue to a knowledge of the resurrection, the experiential approach. You see, if Christ is really risen from the dead as the evidence indicates, then that means that Jesus is not just some ancient figure in history or a picture on a stained glass window. It means that he is alive today and can be known experientially. For me, Christianity ceased to be just a religion or a code to live by when I gave my life to Christ and experienced a spiritual rebirth in my own life. God became a living reality to me. The light went on where before there was only darkness, and God became an experiential reality, along with an overwhelming joy and peace and meaning that He imparted to my life. And I would simply say to you that if you’re looking for that sort of meaning, purpose in life, then look not only at the historical evidence, but also pick up the New Testament and begin to read it and ask yourself whether or not this could be the truth. I believe that it can change your life in the same way that it has changed mine.

Discussion Starter:

How do you know that Jesus is alive?

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