Roughly 2,000 years ago Jesus of Nazareth caused the greatest shift in thinking in human history. Amidst the clash of the Roman and Jewish mindsets emerged a figure that would change the course of human history and among other things establish the intrinsic worth of every person. Days after he was crucified by the Romans, his followers claimed the resurrection of Jesus; that this Jesus had appeared to them in the flesh. As miraculous as it may seem, the reasons for their attestations are consistent with many of the reasons why we can trust that Jesus of Nazareth had come back to life in the flesh. What follows are the most broadly accepted facts across the different viewpoints by scholars of various convictions giving us compelling reasons to believe in this most miraculous event in human history.
All credible historians agree that Jesus of Nazareth ben Joseph did exist in the first century and was indeed crucified by the edict from Pontius Pilate as a result of the pressure from Jewish authorities.
A. Josephus ben Mattathias (c. AD 37–100), the Romanized Jewish historian writes,
“Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, for he was a doer of wonderful works, 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 principle men among 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 to this day.” 1
B. Suetonius, the Roman historian and court official under Hadrian writes,
“As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus [variation of Christus, Christ], he [Claudius] expelled them from Rome.” 2 (In the biblical narrative, Luke refers to this event, which took place in AD 49, “There he met a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all the Jews to leave Rome. Paul went to see them . . .” (Acts 18:2)
C. Cornelius Tacitus (c. AD 55-120) writes,
“But not all the relief that could come from man, not all the bounties that the prince could bestow, nor all the atonements which could be presented to the gods, avail to relieve Nero from the infamy of being believed to have ordered the conflagration, the fire of Rome. Hence to suppress the rumor, he falsely charged with the guilt, and punishment with the most exquisite tortures, the persons commonly called Christians, who were hated for their enormities. Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius: but the pernicious superstition, repressed for a time, broke out again, not only through Judea, where the mischief originated, but through the city of Rome also.” 3
D. Lucian of Samosata (Greek satirist) writes,
“The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day – the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account . . . You see, these misguided creatures start with the general conviction that they are immortal for all time, which explains the contempt of death and voluntary self-devotion which are so common among them; and then it was impressed on them by their original lawgiver that they are all brothers, from the moment that they are converted, and deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws. All this they take quite on faith, with the result that they despise all worldly goods alike, regarding them merely as common property.” 4
These are just four extra-biblical references. The actual list of references is rather overwhelming.
Among the key lines of evidence for this is Paul’s testimony about his experience with Jesus and the testimony of the disciples, oral traditions that passed through the early church and the written works of the early church. It is clear from his writings that Paul knew the apostles and was clear that their claims were unanimous: Jesus had come back from the dead.
Some have proposed mass hallucinations as a way of explaining how and why the disciples could have claimed that they experienced the living Christ after His death. While certainly possible as an explanation for one isolated incident, or even two or three, no amount of hypersensitivity could account for mass hallucinations of more than 510 people, who were said to have all witnessed the risen Christ at different times in different places in very different ways. And what of the content of their hallucinations? Is it possible for a people hallucinate virtually the same exact thing at different times and places? This is unlikely at best, but much closer to an impossibility. Also, hallucinations are typically relegated to certain personality disorders and do not stop abruptly. Yet Christ appeared to people of all kinds who were not expecting it, and the appearances also ceased rather abruptly. None of these factors are indicative of hallucinations. The disciples were sad and disappointed when Christ died, and though they had been given much information about what would ensue, they were still not completely aware that Christ would raise himself from the dead within a matter of days. This is why they were so surprised and did not initially believe the report that the tomb was empty and that the resurrection of Jesus was likely. The point is that they were not expecting to see Christ. Since expectations are one of the key components of hallucinations, this makes it even less probable. Add this to the fact that so many of these people were willing to die for their assertion that Christ had indeed really appeared to them in the flesh after His death, and it is clear that the hallucination hypothesis also fails to explain the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ appearances adequately.
Oral traditions have been copied into the NT in the form of creeds, hymns and sermon summations. These are creeds written down only about 20 years after their origin. Many scholars hold that Paul received some of these creeds from Peter and James while visiting with them in Jerusalem only five years after Christ’s crucifixion. It is significant that we can trace these beliefs to only a few years after the of the event that gave rise to them, especially when the events happened such a long time ago. The witnesses of the events were so convinced that Jesus had risen from the grave that they endured horrible tortures and deaths persisting in their beliefs.
But how is this different from the modern day Islamic Fundamentalists (IF), who are so convinced that Allah is God that they are willing to strap bombs onto themselves and give up their lives for this conviction? While this is a fair question on the surface, there are major category differences. First, the Christian doctrine of personal grace is widely accepted as supreme to the IF doctrine of “convert to Islam or be killed.” Why is this so? Could it be that at our very core we understand the fundamental moral law of intrinsic human worth? We know to treat people like we would want to be treated. Therefore, grace, love, and kindness we hold to highest esteem and philosophies which echo these sentiments seem more genuine to us. These virtues are also widely accepted as supreme to the more rigid and forceful ideologies of IF.
Secondly, the modern day IF have their convictions not because of witnessing anything, but merely by being taught certain doctrines, namely jihad – the wiping out of all infidels who oppose Allah. This is vastly different from those who, with the tide of historical evidence, actually witness events they were professing to be true and proclaiming them even as they are being executed. The writers of the NT were either direct eyewitnesses to the events surrounding Jesus or were close friends with those who were. When we look at those writers, we see a combined sum of complete confidence in the resurrection of Jesus. The disciples were unified in their complete confidence.
Saul of Tarsus (later known as the apostle Paul) was once a Jewish rabbi and a persecutor of Christians. He organized Christian stonings and perhaps even participated in them. Paul was utterly transformed after he experienced the risen Christ. Not only did he have a complete change of heart about the Christian claims, but became one himself and preached the Gospel resolutely for the rest of his life. Within weeks of Jesus’ resurrection, an entire community numbering more than 10,000 people were willing to give up their cultural and theological heritage. As Hank Hanegraaff put it, “What happened as a result of the Resurrection is unprecedented in human history. In a span of a few hundred years, a small band of insignificant believers succeeded in turning an entire empire upside down.” 5
Paul’s testimony itself is a persuasive argument for the historicity of the resurrection. Paul was an orthodox Jew and was openly persecuting Christians, handing them over to be stoned to death. The sudden change of heart that Paul exhibited through his experience, during which he encountered Jesus after His death, must have a logical explanation. Paul’s change of heart does not have any reasonable explanation other than the truthfulness of his claim. Early historians, such as Luke, Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Tertullian, Dionysius of Corinth and Origen also verify this and add that Paul was willing to suffer continuously and even die for his beliefs after Paul became convinced of the resurrection of Jesus.
The once-dejected followers of Christ, who were despondent after the Roman guards took Jesus into custody in the garden of Gethsemane, took on the image of persistence after the third day. After Jesus’ resurrection and appearances, those same followers became so convinced of His deity that they willingly went to their graves, suffering the most inhumane of punishments for their belief. They persisted to their deaths in proclaiming Jesus was God.
Someone once said that “liars make poor martyrs.” Paul, along with many other early Christians, routinely insisted on what he believed, even to the point of torture and death. It is a well-known fact that the Roman empire was harsh to the early Christians as they continually refused to worship Caesar and instead proclaimed that Jesus Christ was the only true God. Christians were dipped in oil and set alight like candles; were stripped naked, wrapped in animal skins and sent to the lions to be eaten. For the early Christians to suffer such savagery and persist in their belief demonstrates their conviction in their insistence on the resurrection of Jesus.
During most of Jesus’ life, His half-brothers and sisters (Joseph and Mary had other children) were utterly ashamed of Him. They did not believe in Him and dared Him to perform the miracles in front of them. Though it would be particularly embarrassing for a rabbi not to have His own family follow Him, these facts were recorded in the NT writings anyway. This lends further credence that, though the fact was embarrassing, it was recorded nonetheless. Its authenticity is furthered by its admission.
Imagine growing up with a brother who at some point begins to claim that He is God. Most of us would in their position act the same way, rolling our eyes with every such statement and urging Jesus to be quiet so as not to embarrass us. His half-brother, James is especially intriguing. Though he showed the same shame during Jesus’ ministry after His resurrection, James calls himself “a bond-servant . . . of the Lord Jesus Christ” (James 1:1).
What happened to James to cause such a turnaround? What would it take for someone to believe that his brother was the Messiah? The Bible tells us that Jesus appeared to James after His death (I Corinthians 15). As a result, not only did James start believing in Jesus, but he subsequently became the leader of the Jerusalem church in AD 62 and died insisting that Jesus was God. Josephus tells us that James was illegally charged and stoned. Eusebius of Caesarea says that James was also thrown from the pinnacle of the temple and, as he clung to life, was stoned to death. These accounts paint for us a picture of death that James would have been able to avoid had he told those who were persecuting him what they wanted to hear – that Jesus was merely a man and that the resurrection of Jesus did not happen. Yet, he insisted on the facts to the point of his death.
Then there is the empty tomb itself. Several weeks after the crucifixion, Peter publicly declared to a crowd, “God has raised Jesus to life, and we were all witnesses of that fact” (Acts 2:32). It would have been impossible for Christianity to get off the ground if Jesus’ body were still in the tomb. It would have been very easy for the Jewish or Roman authorities to open the tomb and display the corpse for all to see, in order to kill off the early Christian movement, which was quite an annoyance to them. But they couldn’t do this because there was no corpse. Instead, we have an enemy attestation of the empty tomb, amid claims that the disciples stole the body. Now, if the tomb had a corpse why would the Christian enemies claim that the disciples had stolen the body? This is an implicit admission of the fact that the tomb was empty. Could the disciples have stolen the body at night, while the Roman guards had fallen asleep? Not only is it not possible but it is utterly ridiculous. Are we to believe that the disciples stole and hid Jesus’ body, then pretended that they had these supernatural experiences, abandoned their heritage, wrote about all of this with fervor, persisted in their beliefs and even died for what they knew to be a lie?
How easy would it have been for someone to kidnap Jesus’ corpse? Roman soldiers were keeping guard at Christ’s tomb at the request of the Jewish authorities who appealed to Pilate. This was done to ensure that Jesus’ body could not be stolen by the disciples. The depression and cowardice of the disciples give us a hard-hitting argument against this supposed sudden bravado to face well-trained Roman soldiers at the tomb. When we consider the utter competence of Roman soldiers, we cannot be so cavalier as to suggest that the body was simply moved during the night. Roman soldiers were extremely good at what they did. They were well-trained and knew that their failure to keep guard would most likely result in their own deaths. Thus they would have been attentive and alert, taking turns throughout the night to make sure no one came close to Jesus’ tomb.
The stolen corpse hypothesis also has major issues in explaining the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus that the disciples had witnessed. This explanation actually finds its source in a sixteenth-century Jewish mystic, centuries after the events it purportedly explains. There is no historical corroboration.
We can also put to bed a whole slew of other possible explanations for Jesus’ resurrection. Some have suggested that Jesus did not die on the cross, but simply fainted and was later revived. However, the best medical minds of ancient and modern times have demonstrated beyond the shadow of a doubt that Christ’s physical trauma was fatal. The Romans were very good carrying out crucifixions. They’d been perfecting it for centuries. A scourging, followed by a crucifixion and subsequent piercing of the heart by one of the Roman soldiers to ensure death, would not have been survivable. This is why Jesus’ bones were not broken, as was customary to bring on a quicker death.
And what of the earliest Jewish responses to the disciples’ claim that Jesus had risen from the dead? Well, instead of arguing that the tomb was not empty, they claim that the disciples had stolen the body. Thus, even those antagonistic towards early Christianity clearly indicated that the tomb was indeed empty. Those who attested to Christ’s appearances did so against the grain. If we accept that the disciples were making up a story, we need to answer some tough questions. For example, is it conceivable that they would be willing to die for what they knew to be a lie? As one of the greatest American authorities on common law evidence of the nineteenth century, Harvard Royal Professor of Law Simon Greenleaf, clarifies,
“The great truths which the apostles declared were that Christ had risen from the dead, and that only through repentance from sin, and faith in Him, could men hope for salvation. This doctrine they asserted with one voice, everywhere, not only under the greatest discouragement, but in the face of the most appalling terrors that can be presented to the mind of man. Their master had recently perished as a malefactor, by the sentence of a public tribunal. His religion sought to overthrow the religions of the whole world. The laws of every country were against the teachings of His disciples. The interests and passions of all the rulers and great men in the world were against them.
Propagating this new faith, even in the most inoffensive and peaceful manner, they could expect nothing but contempt, opposition, revilings, bitter persecution, stripes, imprisonment, torments, and cruel deaths. Yet this faith they zealously did propagate; and all these miseries they endured undismayed, nay, rejoicing. As one after another was put to a miserable death, the survivors only prosecuted their work with increased vigor and resolution. The annals of military warfare afford scarcely an example of the like heroic constancy, patience, and unblenching courage. They had every possible motive to review carefully the grounds of their faith, and the evidence of the great facts and truths which they asserted and these motives were pressed upon their attention with the most melancholy and terrific frequency.
It was therefore impossible that they could have persisted in affirming the truths they have narrated, had not Jesus actually risen from the dead, and had they not known this fact as certainly as they knew any other fact. If it were morally possible for them to have been deceived in this matter, every human motive operated to lead them to discover and avow their error. To have persisted in so gross a falsehood, after it was known to them, was not only to encounter, for life, all the evils which man could inflict from without, but to endure also the pangs of inward and conscious guilt; with no hope for future peace, no testimony of a good conscience, no expectation of honor or esteem among men, no hope of happiness in this life, or in the world to come.
Such conduct in the apostles would moreover have been utterly irreconcilable with the fact that they possessed the ordinary constitution of our common nature. Yet their lives show them to have been men like all others of our race; swayed by the same motives, animated by the same hopes, affected by the same joys, subdued by the same sorrows, agitated by the same fears, and subject to the same passions, temptations, and infirmities as ourselves. And their writings show them to have been men of vigorous understandings. If then their testimony was not true, there was no possible motive for their fabrication.” 6
Of great importance, though often overlooked, is the fact that the ones who found the empty tomb on the third day were women. Considering the first-century Jewish and Roman cultures concerning women, it is quite surprising that the account would involve women who initially stumbled onto the empty tomb. Women were not highly esteemed, and their testimony was questionable and usually not even admissible. It would then seem irrational to invent a story that highlights women finding the empty tomb. If we were inventing stories, we would not have had women as the star witnesses. Only if it were true and we were very interested in preserving an accurate account of events, would we record the fact that women found the tomb empty? This admission gives us good reason to think that the events were genuinely recorded as they were experienced instead of an intentional fabrication, pointing to yet another reason to trust in the resurrection of Jesus.
The reasons outlined here are but a small sampling of persuasive reasons to trust in the resurrection of Jesus. However, there will always be those who would object to certain lines of evidence. While some of those objections may have some merit, the vast majority are misguided and fallacious.
Some will say that the resurrection is an extraordinary event and then maintain that extraordinary events are extraordinary claims and require extraordinary evidence. However, that is demonstrably false. Extraordinary claims do not require extraordinary evidence.
Some will argue that there are historians, such as Robert M. Price, who don’t accept that Jesus even existed. While this is true, the issue is not really whether a very small minority rejects the notion, but why such a small minority rejects it. People may claim that Price has no bias and that since the vast majority of NT scholars are dealing with a “religious” subject matter, that this means that these are the ones with the bias when arguing for the existence of Jesus. However, when one reads materials from people like Price, the overt bias of unbelief leaps off the page. Let’s recognize that bias cuts both ways and at the end is irrelevant. What is relevant are the reasons that are employed to argue for the position, and here Price’s denial of Jesus’ existence has no footing. One need only to read the transcript of any of his debates on the topic. And this is the real reason why Price is in such a minute minority with his position. Even most scholars who are not sympathetic to all the claims of Christianity accept the existence of Jesus. Why is this? Oh, that’s right – they must be biased.
Some will cast doubt on the quote(s) from Tacitus because of the scant manuscripts we have and the gaps between the dating of those manuscripts and the events Tacitus recorded. However, casting doubt on Tacitus merely on the subject matter of the existence of Christ is silly. By all accounts, Tacitus was without a doubt one of the best historians. The history recorded by Tacitus is many times corroborated by other historians and events we have good reason to believe actually took place. To then discredit Tacitus only because he mentions names and events one is trying to disprove is quite revealing. Regardless of the topic, but especially in light of this particular topic, Tacitus cannot be easily dismissed. If one insists on rejecting the works of Tacitus merely on the basis of long gaps between manuscripts and the autograph, they must be willing to reject almost all of historical works of antiquity.
Arthur is an author, a former agnostic, and current ambassador of Jesus of Nazareth who loves to share the best of reasons for God's ultimate reality. His love and passion are helping skeptics and Christians grow in their faith and knowledge of God through accessible materials.