Evidence for the Resurrection of Christ (Part 1a of 4: Historical Evidences)

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Evidence for the Resurrection of Christ

Part 1 of 4: Historical Evidence

 Pastor Brian Chilton

The resurrection of Jesus is the pivotal moment of history.  If the resurrection is an event of history, then life is much different than anyone could ever imagine.  If the resurrection is true, then there is further evidence of God’s power on earth.  If the resurrection is true, then there is evidence that hope in life exists.  If the resurrection is true, then there is evidence that there exists a life beyond this one…as some like to call an “afterlife.”  As Paul writes, “Then, when our dying bodies have been transformed into bodies that will never die,* this Scripture will be fulfilled: “Death is swallowed up in victory.* 55 O death, where is your victory?  O death, where is your sting?*” 56 For sin is the sting that results in death, and the law gives sin its power. 57 But thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ.”[1]

The core question to ask is this; did Jesus resurrect from the dead?  Evidence seems to suggest that He did.  J. Warner Wallace, cold case investigator, writes in his book Cold Case Christianity, “If we approach the issue of the resurrection in an unbiased manner…and assess it…, we can judge the possible explanations and eliminate those that are unreasonable.  The conclusion that Jesus was resurrected (as reported in the Gospels) can be sensibly inferred from the available evidence.  The resurrection is reasonable.”[2]  So what are some evidences we have for believing the resurrection of Christ?  Well, we have, I believe, 11 evidences supporting the resurrection of Christ (note: some of these evidences will be expounded in more detail in future posts): 1) biblical manuscript evidence, 2) early patristic manuscript evidence, 3) extra-biblical manuscript evidence, 4) archaeological evidence, 5) traditional evidence, 6) crucifixion evidence, 7) empty tomb evidence, 8) embarrassment evidence, 9) psychological evidence, 10) Shroud of Turin evidence, and 11) modern resurrection evidence.

I.          Biblical Manuscript Evidence

The greatest wealth of testimony, and that which is most important in understanding the life and resurrection of Jesus Christ, comes from the New Testament.  Within the New Testament, we have at least 5 if not 7 independent sources to know about the life of Christ and the resurrection of Christ.  (We will deal with this issue in more detail in our next post.)

First, we have the Matthean source, or the source that arises from the testimony of Matthew the apostle.  Internal and external evidence suggests that Matthew was the author of the majority, if not all, of the Gospel that bears his name.  Matthew mentions the resurrection appearances of Christ in great detail.

Second, we have the Johannine source, or the source that arise from the eyewitness testimony of John the apostle.  John mentions the resurrection appearances of Christ in great detail even mentioning the Peter’s reinstating to the ministry at the Sea of Galilee.

Third, we have the Petrine source, or the source that arises from the eyewitness testimony of Simon Peter, the apostle.  A great amount of evidence suggests that John Mark documented the words of Simon Peter in his gospel.  In addition, we have two letters from Simon Peter, as well.

Fourth, we have the testimony of Paul the apostle in his letters.  Paul incorporates many ancient creeds, hymns, and formulations that date to the earliest church in his letters.  The most famous of these creeds is found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-9.

Fifth, we have the eyewitness testimonies found in Luke’s gospel.  These testimonies are independent from other testimonies concerning the life and resurrection of Christ.  Evidence suggests that Luke may have even obtained some of his information from Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Sixth, we have the testimony of James, the half-brother of Jesus.  Although James does not reference the resurrection explicitly, we can see references to it through James’ reference to Jesus as the “Lord of Sabaoth”[3] and in his teaching about the “coming of the Lord.”[4]

Seventh, we also have the testimony of Jude, another half-brother of Jesus.  Jude, like James, does not explicitly reference the resurrection of Christ, but he does write, “keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life.”[5]  So, I think we have a seventh implied reference to the resurrection of Christ as Jude seems to indicate that Jesus is the giver of eternal life.

II.        Early Patristic Manuscript Evidence

Not only do we have evidence from the New Testament, but we also have evidence through the early church fathers.  The church fathers were second, third, and fourth generation church leaders.  Some of these leaders, such as Polycarp and Papias, were direct students of John the apostle.  These early church leaders, some dating to the end of the first century, reference the resurrection of Christ and also quote extensive form the pages of the New Testament documents.  Josh McDowell writes, “Ignatitus (AD 70-110) was Bishop of Antioch and was martyred.  He knew well the apostles.  His seven epistles contain quotations from: Matthew, John, Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, James, and 1 Peter…Geisler and Nix rightly conclude that ‘a brief inventory at this point will reveal that there were some 32,000 citations of the New Testament prior to the time of the Council of Nicea (325).  These 32,000 quotations are by no means exhaustive, and they do not even include the fourth-century writers.  Just adding the number of references used by one other writer, Eusebius, who flourished prior to and contemporary with the Council of Nicea, will bring the total number of citations of the New Testament to over 36,000.'”[6]  To all the above you could add Augustine, Amabius, Laitantius, Chrysostom, Jerome, Gaius Romanus, Athanasius, Ambrose of Milan, Cyril of Alexandria, Ephraem the Syrian, Hilary of Poitiers, Gregory of Nyssa, and so forth.”[7]  There are other manuscripts that add to the validity of the resurrection of Christ.  Extra-biblical manuscripts also speak of Christ and may hint at His resurrection.

III.       Extra-biblical Manuscript Evidence

Jesus of Nazareth was mentioned not only by those who loved Him, but also by those who did not.  Roman and Jewish historians reference Jesus of Nazareth.  Tacitus, a first-century Roman historian, writes of Jesus and the early church.  He writes,

“Consequently, to get rid of the report, 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 procurator, Pontius Pilate, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judea, 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.”[8]

Other writers such as Suetonius, Pliny the Younger, and even the Babylonian Talmud mention Jesus of Nazareth.  Many record the belief of the early church that Jesus had been resurrected back to life.  Lucian of Samosata, a second-century comedian, wrote a satire about Christians even stating that Christians thought themselves to be immortal…pointing to the resurrection of Christ implicitly.

Perhaps one of the most popular early extra-biblical citations of Jesus of Nazareth came from Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian.  Some debate the authenticity of Josephus’ words, but there are no reasons to do so.  First, Josephus was not popular among fellow Jews.  The only reason his writings survived was due to the Christians who preserved his histories due to the reference to Jesus, James, and John the Baptist.  Second, Josephus mentions James the brother of Jesus and James’ death.  Why would he refer to James being the brother of Jesus if he had not mentioned Jesus prior to that statement?

Josephus writes,

“Now there was about this time, Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a 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.  He was [the] Christ; 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.  For he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named after him, are not extinct to this day.”[9]

Therefore, evidence in the church and outside of the church shows the validity to not only Jesus of Nazareth’s life, but also to His glorious resurrection.  But, there also exists another form of evidence pertaining to the resurrection of Christ…that of archaeology.

IV.       Archaeological Evidence

Two or three things stand out to me as far as archaeological evidence pertaining to the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth: an ancient edict from the Caesar, symbols on ancient tombs/ossuaries, and early churches/synagogues.

First, there is the evidence given in an ancient edict from the Caesar of Rome.  Geisler explains the artifact,

“A slab of stone was found in Nazareth in 1878, inscribed with a decree from Emperor Claudius (AD 41-54) that no graves should be disturbed or bodies extracted or moved.  This type of decree is not uncommon, but the startling fact is that here ‘the offender {shall} be sentenced to capital punishment on {the} charge of violation of a sepulcher (Hemer, BASHH, 155).  Other notices warned of a fine, but death for disturbing graves?  A likely explanation is that Claudius, having heard of the Christian doctrine of resurrection and Jesus’ empty tomb while investigating the riots of AD 49, decided not to let any such report surface again.  This would make sense in light of the Jewish argument that the body had been stolen (Matthew 28:11-15).  This is early testimony to the strong and persistent belief that Jesus rose from the dead.”[10]

Second, Christian symbols found on early Christian tombs found in Rome and in Jerusalem depict belief in the resurrection of Christ and the hope that the Christian will too experience resurrection.  Third and finally, early Christian churches, sometimes found in abandoned synagogues, also depict these same form of symbols: primarily the cross, images of Jesus being the shepherd…leading them through death and into life, and the fish are among some of these early Christian symbols.  But, there also exists evidence in the form of a change of traditions.

V.        Traditional Evidence

Many tend to view the Bible according to their own culture.  This is, however, a great mistake.  In order to understand the content of Scripture, one must undertake the more difficult task to understand the writer’s intentions and culture in order to understand what the writer seeks to communicate instead of what the reader would like to interpret.

It is important to remember that Jesus and the early church were Jewish.  The church did not begin to change its’ ethnic shape until it grew to distant lands.  Therefore, it is important to understand that Jesus and the disciples did not celebrate Christmas and Easter during the earthly ministry of Christ.  They celebrated Passover, Sabbath on Saturdays, Yom Kippur, Pentecost, Hanukkah, Sukkot, and other Jewish festivals and holidays.

However, after the resurrection of Christ, changes were made in the way Christians worshipped.  They still kept the Jewish festivals during the early years of the church.  However, now they celebrated Easter Sunday (or Resurrection Sunday as some would like to call it) and moved their Sabbath day from Saturdays to Sundays.  This was huge!!!  Why would they move the Sabbath?  They did so because Jesus resurrected on a Sunday.  This would have been a huge change for early Christians.  Evidence also suggests that communion was celebrated often, maybe perhaps at every service, and that baptisms were normally performed early on Easter Sunday…in celebration of Christ’s resurrection.  These changes in traditions cannot be overstated.  These were huge moves for early Jewish believers.

Look for the 2nd installment of “Evidence for the Resurrection of Christ: Historical Evidence.”  It will appear on a separate post here on this same website.  God bless.

[1] All Scripture unless otherwise noted comes from Tyndale House Publishers, Holy Bible: New Living Translation, 3rd ed. (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2007), 1 Corinthains 15:54–57.

[2] J. Warner Wallace, Cold-Case Christianity (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook Publishers, 2013), 50.

[3] James 5:4.

[4] James 5:7.

 [5] Jude 21.

[6] Norman L. Geisler and William E. Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible (Chicago: Moody Press, 1986), quoted in in Josh McDowell, The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999), 44-45.

[7] Josh McDowell, The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999), 44-45.

[8] Tacitus, Annals and the Histories 15.44, In Great Books of the Western World, ed. by Robert Maynard Hutchins, Vol. 15, The Annals and the Histories by Cornelius Tacitus, (Chicago: William Benton, 1952).

[9] Flavius Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 18.3.3.

[10] Norman Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1998), 48.


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