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Contemporary Scholarship and the Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ

By Professor William Lane Craig

This article is abridged. For the complete text with footnotes, see Prof. Craig's web site.

Top of page Why the Resurrection Is Important

"Man," writes Loren Eisley, "is the cosmic Orphan." He is the only creature in the universe who asks, Why? Other animals have instincts to guide them, but man has learned to ask questions. "Who am I?" he asks. "Why am I here? Where am I going?"

Ever since the Enlightenment, when modern man threw off the shackles of religion, he has tried to answer these questions without reference to God. But the answers that came back were not exhilarating, but dark and terrible. "You are an accidental by-product of nature, the result of matter plus time plus chance. There is no reason for your existence. All you face is death. Your life is but a spark in the infinite darkness, a spark that appears, flickers, and dies forever."

Modern man thought that in divesting himself of God, he had freed himself from all that stifled and repressed him. Instead, he discovered that in killing God, he had also killed himself.

Against this background of the modern predicament, the traditional Christian hope of the resurrection takes on an even greater brightness and significance. It tells man that he is no orphan after all, but the personal image of the Creator God of the universe; nor is his life doomed in death, for through the eschatological resurrection he may live in the presence of God forever.

This is a wonderful hope. But, of course, hope that is not founded in fact is not hope, but mere illusion. Why should the Christian hope of eschatological resurrection appear to modern man as anything more than mere wishful thinking? The answer lies in the Christian conviction that a man has been proleptically raised by God from the dead as the forerunner and exemplar of our own eschatological resurrection. That man was Jesus of Nazareth, and his historical resurrection from the dead constitutes the factual foundation upon which the Christian hope is based.

Top of page The Decline of Skepticism

Of course, during the last century liberal theology had no use for the historical resurrection of Jesus. But a remarkable change has come about during the second half of the 20th century. A new quest of the historical Jesus had begun. By 1968 the old skepticism was a spent force and began dramatically to recede. So complete has been the turnabout during the second half of this century concerning the resurrection of Jesus that it is no exaggeration to speak of a reversal of scholarship on this issue.

What are the facts that underlie this remarkable reversal of opinion concerning the credibility of the New Testament accounts of the resurrection of Jesus? It seems to me that they can be conveniently grouped under three heads: the resurrection appearances, the empty tomb, and the origin of the Christian faith. Let's look briefly at each.

Top of page The Resurrection Appearances

First, the resurrection appearances. Undoubtedly the major impetus for the reassessment of the appearance tradition was the demonstration by Joachim Jeremias that in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 Paul is quoting an old Christian formula which he received and in turn passed on to his converts.

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas [Peter], and then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as it were to one untimely born, He appeared to me also. (1 Cor. 15:3-8)

According to Galatians 1:18 Paul was in Jerusalem three years after his conversion on a fact-finding mission, during which he conferred with Peter and James over a two week period, and he probably received the formula at this time, if not before. Since Paul was converted in AD 33, this means that the list of witnesses goes back to within the first five years after Jesus' death. Thus, it is idle to dismiss these appearances as legendary.

Let us look briefly at each appearance with a view toward its historical attestation.

  1. The appearance to Peter. We have no story in the gospels telling of Jesus' appearance to Peter. But the appearance is mentioned here in the traditional formula, and it is vouched for by the apostle Paul himself. As we know from Gal. 1:18, Paul spent about two weeks with Peter in Jerusalem three years after his Damascus road experience. So Paul would know personally whether Peter claimed to have had such an experience or not. In addition to this, the appearance to Peter is mentioned in another ancient formula found in Luke 24:34: "The Lord is risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon [Peter]!" So although we have no detailed story of this appearance, it is quite well-attested. As a result, even the most skeptical New Testament critics agree that Peter experienced something which he called an appearance of Jesus alive from the dead.
  2. The appearance to the Twelve. This is the best attested resurrection appearance of Jesus. We have stories of this appearance in Luke 24:36-43 and in John 20:19-20. Undoubtedly the most notable feature of these stories is the traditions passed on by Luke and John of the physical demonstrations of Jesus showing his wounds and eating before the disciples. The purpose of the physical demonstrations is to show two things: first, that Jesus was raised physically and second, that he was the same Jesus who had been crucified. Thus, they served to demonstrate both corporeality and continuity of the resurrection body. There can be little doubt that such an appearance occurred, for it is attested in the formula, vouched for by Paul, who had personal contact with the Twelve, and described by both Luke and John.
  3. The appearance to the 500 brethren. The third appearance comes as somewhat of a shock: then he appeared to more than 500 people at one time! This is surprising since we have no mention whatsoever of this appearance elsewhere in the New Testament. This would make one inclined to be rather skeptical about this appearance; but it comes from old information which Paul had received and Paul himself apparently had personal contact with these people, since he knew that some had died. This is seen in Paul's parenthetical comment "most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep." Why does Paul add this remark? The great New Testament scholar of Cambridge University, C. H. Dodd, replies, "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.'" Notice: Paul could never have said this if the event had not occurred. He could not have challenged people to interrogate the witnesses, if the event had never taken place and there were no witnesses. But evidently there were eyewitnesses to this event, and Paul knew that some of them had died in the meantime. Therefore, the event must have taken place. Since the gospels [Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John] tend to focus their attention on the appearances in Jerusalem, we do not have any story of this appearance to the 500 because it occurred in Galilee.
  4. The appearance to James. The next appearance is one of the most amazing of all: he appeared to James, Jesus' younger brother. What makes this amazing is that neither James, or any of Jesus' younger brothers, apparently believed in Jesus during his lifetime (see Mark 3:21, 31-5; John 7:1-10). They did not believe he was the Messiah, or a prophet, or even anybody special. But after the resurrection, Jesus' brothers unexpectedly pop up in the Christian fellowship in the upper room in Jerusalem (Acts 1:14). There is no further mention of them until Acts 12:17. This is the story of Peter's deliverance from prison by the angel. What are Peter's first words? —"Go, tell this to James." In Gal. 1:19 Paul tells of his two week visit to Jerusalem about three years after his Damascus Road experience. He says that besides Peter, he saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord's brother. Paul at least implies that James was now being reckoned as an apostle. When Paul visited Jerusalem again 14 years later, he says there were three "pillars" of the church in Jerusalem: Peter, John, and James (Gal. 2:9). Finally, in Acts 21:18, James is the sole head of the Jerusalem church and of the council of elders. We hear no more about James in the New Testament, but from Josephus the Jewish historian we learn that James was stoned to death illegally by the Sanhedrin sometime after AD 60 for his faith in Christ. Not only James, but also Jesus' other brothers became believers and were active in Christian preaching, as we see from 1 Cor. 9:5: "Do we have the right to be accompanied by a wife, as the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?" How is this to be explained? On the one hand, it seems certain that Jesus' brothers did not believe in him during his lifetime. On the other hand, it is equally certain that they became ardent Christians active in the church. Most of us have brothers. What would it take to make you believe that your brother is the Lord, so that you would die for this belief, as James did? Can there be any doubt that the reason for this remarkable transformation is to be found in the fact that "then he appeared to James"? Even the skeptical New Testament critic Hans Grass calls the conversion of James one of the surest proofs of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
  5. The appearance to all the apostles. This appearance was probably to a limited circle somewhat wider than the Twelve. For such a group, see Acts 1:21-22. Once again, the facility of this appearance is guaranteed by Paul's personal contact with the apostles themselves.
  6. The appearance to Saul of Tarsus. The final appearance is just as amazing as the appearance to James: "last of all," says Paul, "he appeared also to me." The story of Jesus' appearance to Saul of Tarsus (or Paul) just outside Damascus is related in Acts 9:1-9 and is later told again twice. That this event actually occurred is established beyond doubt by Paul's references to it in his own letters. This event changed Paul's whole life. He was a Rabbi, a Pharisee, a respected Jewish leader. He hated the Christian heresy and did everything in his power to stamp it out. He was even responsible for the execution of Christian believers. Then suddenly he gave up everything. He left his position as a respected Jewish leader and became a Christian missionary. He entered a life of poverty, labor, and suffering. He was whipped, beaten, stoned and left for dead, shipwrecked three times, in constant danger, deprivation, and anxiety. Finally, he made the ultimate sacrifice and was martyred for his faith in Rome. And it was all because on that day outside Damascus, he saw "Jesus our Lord" (1 Cor. 9:1).

We can try to explain these appearances away as hallucinations if we wish, but we cannot deny they occurred. Paul's information makes it certain that on separate occasions various individuals and groups saw Jesus alive from the dead. According to Norman Perrin, the late NT critic of the University of Chicago: "The more we study the tradition with regard to the appearances, the firmer the rock begins to appear upon which they are based." This conclusion is virtually indisputable.

At the same time that biblical scholarship has come to a new appreciation of the historical credibility of Paul's information, however, it must be admitted that skepticism concerning the appearance traditions in the gospels persists. This lingering skepticism seems to me to be entirely unjustified. It is based on a presuppositional antipathy toward the physicalism of the gospel appearance stories. But the traditions underlying those appearance stories may well be as reliable as Paul's. For in order for these stories to be in the main legendary, a very considerable length of time must be available for the evolution and development of the traditions until the historical elements have been supplanted by unhistorical [elements].

The writings of Herodotus furnish a test case for the rate of legendary accumulation, and the tests show that even two generations is too short a time span to allow legendary tendencies to wipe out the hard core of historical facts. When Professor Sherwin-White turns to the gospels, he states for these to be legends, the rate of legendary accumulation would have to be 'unbelievable'; more generations are needed. All NT scholars agree that the gospels were written down and circulated within the first generation, during the lifetime of the eyewitnesses. Indeed, a significant new movement of biblical scholarship argues persuasively that some of the gospels were written by the AD 50's. This places them as early as Paul's letter to the Corinthians and, given their equal reliance upon prior tradition, they ought therefore to be accorded the same weight of historical credibility accorded Paul.

Top of page The Empty Tomb

Second, the empty tomb. Once regarded as an offense to modern intelligence and an embarrassment to Christian theology, the empty tomb of Jesus has come to assume its place among the generally accepted facts concerning the historical Jesus. Allow me to review briefly some of the evidence undergirding this connection.

(1) The historical reliability of the burial story supports the empty tomb. Jesus' burial is described in the earliest gospel in the following way:

And when evening had already come, because it was the preparation day, that is, the day before the Sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea came, a prominent member of the council, who himself was waiting for the kingdom of God; and he gathered up courage and went before Pilate, and asked for the body of Jesus. And Pilate wondered if he was dead by this time, and summoning the centurion, he granted the body to Joseph. And Joseph brought a linen cloth, took Him down, wrapped Him in the linen cloth, and laid Him in a tomb which had been hewn out in the rock; and He rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb. And Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joseph were looking on to see where He was laid. (Mark 15:42-47)

If the burial account is accurate, then the site of Jesus' grave was known to Jew and Christian alike. In that case, it is a very short inference to historicity of the empty tomb. For if Jesus had not risen and the burial site was known:

  • The disciples could never have believed in the resurrection of Jesus. For a first century Jew the idea that a man might be raised from the dead while his body remained in the tomb was simply a contradiction in terms.
  • Even if the disciples had believed in the resurrection of Jesus, it is doubtful they would have generated any following. So long as the body was interred in the tomb, a Christian movement founded on belief in the resurrection of the dead man would have been an impossible folly.
  • The Jewish authorities would have exposed the whole affair. The quickest and surest answer to the proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus would have been simply to point to his grave on the hillside. For these three reasons, the accuracy of the burial story supports the historicity of the empty tomb.

Unfortunately for those who wish to deny the empty tomb, however, the burial story is one of the most historically certain traditions we have concerning Jesus. Several factors undergird this judgment. To mention only a few:

The burial is mentioned in the third line of the old Christian formula quoted by Paul in 1 Cor. 15:4.

  • It is part of the ancient pre-Markan passion story which Mark used as a source for his gospel.
  • The story itself lacks any traces of legendary development.
  • The story comports with archeological evidence concerning the types and location of tombs extant in Jesus' day.
  • No other competing burial traditions exist.

For these and other reasons, most scholars are united in the judgment that the burial story is fundamentally historical. But if that is the case, then as I have explained, the inference that the tomb was found empty is not very far at hand.

(2) Paul's testimony supports the fact of the empty tomb. Here two aspects of Paul's evidence may be mentioned.

  • In the formula cited by Paul the expression "he was raised" following the phrase "he was buried" implies the empty tomb. A first century Jew could not think otherwise. As E. I. Bode observes, the notion of the occurrence of a spiritual resurrection while the body remained in the tomb is a peculiarity of modern theology. For the Jews it was the remains of the man in the tomb which were raised; hence, they carefully preserved the bones of the dead in ossuaries until the eschatological resurrection. There can be no doubt that both Paul and the early Christian formula he cites presuppose the existence of the empty tomb.
  • The phrase "on the third day" probably points to the discovery of the empty tomb. Very briefly summarized, the point is that since no one actually witnessed the resurrection of Jesus, how did Christians come to date it "on the third day?" The most probable answer is that they did so because this was the day of the discovery of the empty tomb by Jesus' women followers. Hence, the resurrection itself came to be dated on that day. Thus, in the old Christian formula quoted by Paul we have extremely early evidence for the existence of Jesus' empty tomb.

(3) The empty tomb story is part of the pre-Markan passion story and is therefore very old. The empty tomb story was probably the end of Mark's passion source.

And when the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, bought spices, that they might come and anoint Him. And very early on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb when the sun had risen. And they were saying to one another, 'Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?' And looking up, they saw the stone had been rolled away, although it was extremely large. And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting at the right, wearing a white robe; and they were amazed. And he said to them, 'Do not be amazed; you are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who has been crucified. He has risen; He is not here; behold, here is the place where they laid Him. But go, tell His disciples and Peter, "He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him, just as He said to you."' And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had gripped them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. (Mark 16:1-8)

As Mark is the earliest of our gospels, this source is therefore itself quite old. In fact the commentator R. Pesch contends that it is an incredibly early source. He produces two lines of evidence for this conclusion:

  • Paul's account of the Last Supper in 1 Cor. 11:23-5 presupposes the Markan account. Since Paul's own traditions are themselves very old, the Markan source must be yet older.
  • The pre-Markan passion story never refers to the high priest by name. It is as when I say "The President is hosting a dinner at the White House" and everyone knows whom I am speaking of because it is the man currently in office. Similarly the pre-Markan passion story refers to the "high priest" as if he were still in power. Since Caiaphas held office from AD 18-37, this means at the latest the pre-Markan source must come from within seven years after Jesus' death. This source thus goes back to within the first few years of the Jerusalem fellowship and is therefore an ancient and reliable source of historical information.

(4) The story is simple and lacks legendary development. The empty tomb story is uncolored by the theological and apologetical motifs that would be characteristic of a later legendary account. Perhaps the most forceful way to appreciate this point is to compare it with the accounts of the empty tomb found in apocryphal [fake] gospels of the second century. For example, in the gospel of Peter a voice rings out from heaven during the night, the stone rolls back of itself from the door of the tomb, and two men descend from Heaven and enter the tomb. Then three men are seen coming out of the tomb, the two supporting the third. The heads of the two men stretch up to the clouds, but the head of the third man overpasses the clouds. Then a cross comes out of the tomb, and a voice asks, "Has thou preached to them that sleep?" And the cross answers, "Yea". In the Ascension of Isaiah, Jesus comes out of the tomb sitting on the shoulders of the angels Michael and Gabriel. These are how real legends look: unlike the gospel accounts, they are colored by theological motifs.

(5) The tomb was probably discovered empty by women. To understand this point one has to recall two facts about the role of women in Jewish society.

  • Women occupied a low rung on the Jewish social ladder. This is evident in such rabbinic expressions as "Sooner let the words of the law be burnt than delivered to women" and "Happy is he whose children are male, but woe to him whose children are female."
  • The testimony of women was regarded as so worthless that they were not even permitted to serve as legal witnesses in a court of law. In light of these facts, how remarkable must it seem that it is women who are the discoverers of Jesus' empty tomb. Any later legend would certainly have made the male disciples to discover the empty tomb. The fact that women, whose testimony was worthless, rather than men, are the chief witnesses to the empty tomb is most plausibly accounted for by the fact that, like it or not, they were the discoverers of the empty tomb and the gospels accurately record this.

(6) The earliest Jewish polemic presupposes the empty tomb. In Matthew 28, we find the Christian attempt to refute the earliest Jewish polemic against the resurrection. That polemic asserted that the disciples stole away the body. The Christians responded to this by reciting the story of the guard at the tomb, and the polemic in turn charged that the guard fell asleep. Now the noteworthy feature of this whole dispute is not the historicity of the guards, but rather the presupposition of both parties that the body was missing. The earliest Jewish response to the proclamation of the resurrection was an attempt to explain away the empty tomb. Thus, the evidence of the adversaries of the disciples provides evidence in support of the empty tomb.

One could go on, but perhaps enough has been said to indicate why the judgment of scholarship has reversed itself on the historicity of the empty tomb. According to Jakob Kremer, "By far most exegetes hold firmly to the reliability of the biblical statements concerning the empty tomb" and he furnishes a list, to which his own name may be added, of twenty-eight prominent scholars in support. I can think of at least sixteen more names that he failed to mention. Thus, it is today widely recognized that the empty tomb of Jesus is a simple historical fact. As D. H. van Daalen has pointed out, "it is extremely difficult to object to the empty tomb on historical grounds; those who deny it do so on the basis of theological or philosophical assumptions." But assumptions may simply have to be changed in light of historical facts.

Top of page The Explosion of the Christian Faith

Finally, we may turn to that third body of evidence supporting the resurrection: the very origin of the Christian way. Even the most skeptical scholars admit that the earliest disciples at least believed that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Indeed, they pinned nearly everything on it. Without belief in the resurrection of Jesus, Christianity could never have come into being. The crucifixion would have remained the final tragedy in the hapless life of Jesus. The origin of Christianity hinges on the belief of these earliest disciples that Jesus had risen from the dead.

The resurrection of Jesus is therefore the best explanation for the origin of the Christian faith. Taken together, these three great historical facts—the resurrection appearances, the empty tomb, the origin of the Christian faith—seem to point to the resurrection of Jesus as the most plausible explanation.

Top of page Other Explanations

But of course, there have been other explanations proffered to account for the resurrection appearances, the empty tomb, and the origin of the Christian faith. In the judgment of modern scholarship, however, these have failed to provide a plausible account of the facts of the case. This can be seen by a rapid review of the principal explanations that have been offered.

  1. The disciples stole Jesus' corpse and lied about the resurrection appearances. This explanation characterized the earliest Jewish anti-Christian polemic and was revived in the form of the conspiracy theory of eighteenth century Deism. The theory has been universally rejected by critical scholars and survives only in the popular press. To name only two considerations decisive against it: (a) it is morally impossible to indict the disciples of Jesus with such a crime. Whatever their imperfections, they were certainly good, earnest men and women, not imposters. No one who reads the New Testament unprejudicially can doubt the evident sincerity of these early believers. (b) It is psychologically impossible to attribute to the disciples the cunning and derring-do requisite for such a ruse. At the time of the crucifixion, the disciples were confused, disorganized, fearful, doubting, and burdened with mourning - not mentally motivated or equipped to engineer such a wild hoax. Hence, to explain the empty tomb and resurrection appearances by a conspiracy theory seems out of the question.
  2. Jesus did not die on the cross, but was taken down and placed alive in the tomb, where he revived and escaped to convince the disciples he had risen from the dead. Today, however, the theory has been entirely given up: (a) it would be virtually impossible medically for Jesus to have survived the rigors of his torture and crucifixion, much less not to have died of exposure in the tomb. (b) The theory is religiously inadequate, since a half-dead Jesus desperately in need of medical attention would have elicited in the disciple's worship of him as the exalted Risen Lord and Conqueror of Death. Moreover, since Jesus on this hypothesis knew he had not actually triumphed over death, the theory reduces him to the level of a charlatan who tricked the disciples into believing he had risen, which is absurd. These reasons alone make the apparent death theory untenable.
  3. The disciples projected hallucinations of Jesus after his death, from which they mistakenly inferred his resurrection. The hallucination theory became popular during the nineteenth century and carried over into the first half of the twentieth century as well. Again, however, there are good grounds for rejecting this hypothesis: (a) it is psychologically implausible to posit such a chain of hallucinations. Hallucinations are usually associated with mental illness or drugs; but in the disciples' case the prior psycho-biological preparation appears to be wanting. The disciples had no anticipation of seeing Jesus alive again; all they could do was wait to be re-united with him in the Kingdom of God. There were no grounds leading them to hallucinate him alive from the dead. Moreover, the frequency and variety of circumstances belie the hallucination theory: Jesus was seen not once, but many times; not by one person, but by several; not only by individuals, but also by groups; not at one locale and circumstance but at many; not by believers only, but by skeptics and unbelievers as well. The hallucination theory cannot be plausibly stretched to accommodate such diversity. (b) Hallucinations would not in any case have led to belief in Jesus' resurrection. As projections of one's own mind, hallucinations cannot contain anything not already in the mind. But we have seen that Jesus' resurrection differed from the Jewish conception in two fundamental ways. Given their Jewish frame of thought, the disciples, were they to hallucinate, would have projected visions of Jesus glorified in Abraham's bosom, where Israel's righteous dead abode until the eschatological resurrection. Thus, hallucinations would not have elicited belief in Jesus' resurrection, an idea that ran solidly against the Jewish mode of thought. (c) Nor can hallucinations account for the full scope of the evidence. They are offered as an explanation of the resurrection appearances, but leave the empty tomb unexplained, and therefore fail as a complete and satisfying answer. Hence, it seems that the hallucination hypothesis is not more successful than its defunct forebears in providing a plausible counter-explanation of the data surrounding Christ's resurrection.

Thus, none of the previous counter-explanations can account for the evidence as plausibly as the resurrection itself. One might ask, "Well, then how do skeptical scholars explain the facts of the resurrection appearances, the empty tomb, and the origin of the Christian faith?" The fact of the matter is, they don't. Modern scholarship recognizes no plausible explanatory alternative to the resurrection of Jesus. Those who refuse to accept the resurrection as a fact of history are simply self-confessedly left without an explanation.

These three great facts—the resurrection appearances, the empty tomb, and the origin of the Christian faith—all point unavoidably to one conclusion: The resurrection of Jesus. Today the rational man can hardly be blamed if he believes that on that first Easter morning a divine miracle occurred.

Craig adds this in his book Reasonable Faith: "If these three facts can be historically established with a reasonable degree of confidence (and it seems to me that they can) and if alternative naturalistic explanations for these facts can be shown to be implausible (and the consensus of scholarship is that they can), then unless the resurrection hypothesis is shown to be even more implausible than its failed competitors (and my experience in debating the comparative merits of the hypothesis convinces me that it cannot), then the preferred explanation ought to be the one given in the documents themselves: God raised Jesus from the dead. The significance of this event is then to found in the religio-historical context in which it occurred, namely, as the vindication of Jesus' own unparalleled claim to divine authority. I think the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is such that a well-informed investigator ought to agree that is more likely than not to have occurred."

 

For additional articles on the evidence for the resurrection, see Craig's web site http://www.reasonablefaith.org/site/PageServer. While at the site, under Search this Site, enter "resurrection." We also recommend these books: Reasonable Faith by William Lane Craig, and Evidence that Demands a Verdict by Josh McDowell. These sources dig even deeper into the evidence for the resurrection and counter charges by skeptics.

Here is an article about corroborative evidence for Jesus' resurrection from Jewish and Roman sources:

Corroborative Evidence

And here is an article about the logic of the resurrection:

Empiricism and the Resurrection