Evidence for the Resurrection


Co-published with permission. Originally published on Psephizo.


When considering the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection, we need to separate two issues. First, what are the historical facts that require an explanation? And, second, what is the best, most plausible, explanation for those facts?

What are the facts to consider in relation to the resurrection?

First, Jesus died on the cross, a victim of Roman execution as a common criminal. The Romans were very experienced at this, and knew how to check that someone was dead. If they had not died soon enough, then they broke the legs of the victim who would then suffocate, unable lift themselves up on their legs to take a breath. In John’s gospel, this is recording in some detail.

Now it was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. Because the Jewish leaders did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down. The soldiers therefore came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with Jesus, and then those of the other. But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water. (John 19.31–34)

What is fascinating about this account is that the writer sees the water and blood as having symbolic significance; it proves that Jesus promises, of giving ‘living water’ to those who believe (John 4.10) and that ‘living water will come from his side’ (John 7.38). We now see this as medical evidence of Jesus’ death, as the red blood cells and serum have separated after the heart has stopped beating—which John has quite inadvertently recorded.

Secondly, Jesus was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy and influential member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling Jewish Council, who was also a secret follower of Jesus. This is attested in all four gospels, in slightly different ways (Matt 27.57Mark 15.43,Luke 23.51John 19.38). This would have been an odd thing to make up; if Joseph were invented, or Jesus not buried here, then it would have been an easy thing to refute. Given that the Council were hostile to the early Jesus movement, it would also be an unlikely invention.

Thirdly, on the Sunday morning the tomb was found to be empty. There are several striking things about this fact and the way that it is related in the gospel accounts.

First, the tomb was guarded by Jewish temple guards; in Matt 27.65 Pilate tells the Jews to post their own guard, and in Matt 28.11 the guards report back to the Jewish leaders. This was quite understandable; anyone who looked as though they might lead a rebellion against Roman rule could cause real trouble. Such a rebellion in 66–70 led to the destruction of the temple, and another in 136 led to the expulsion of all Jews from the land of Judea. Matt 28.11–15 recounts the bribing of the guard to say that Jesus’ disciples stole the body—but this is never subsequently brought up as an accusation, in NT or Jewish literature of the time. And if the disciples had gone to the wrong tomb, the Jewish leaders could simply have produced the body from the right tomb to end the movement.

Secondly, it is clear from the gospel accounts that, despite Jesus’ teaching, none of his followers expected to find anything other than his dead body in the tomb when they went to anoint it. This is not surprising; their expectation is that the dead would be raised at the end of the age (see John 11.24 for a typical expression of this), which would involve all of humanity. No-one expected an individual to be raised from the dead now. All the signs were that Jesus’ death meant the end of all their hopes (see Luke 24.19–21)

Thirdly, John’s account includes a curious note about the cloths that had been used to bind Jesus’ body in the customary way.

Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen. (John 20.6–7)

AUFERSTapostelNot much is made of this, and it appears to be an allusion to the earlier account of Lazarus being brought back to life in John 11.44. But it is a sign of what had happened to the body; if it has been stolen, then there would be no grave clothes, or they would have been taken off and left together. The fact that the soudarion from Jesus’ head was separate from the othonion, the linen shroud for his body, meant something else must have happened. Each piece of material was still in the place that it would have been when wrapped around Jesus.

Fourthly, all the gospel accounts agree that women were the first eyewitnesses to the empty tomb, and that they reported this to the male disciples. In a culture where women’s testimony was not accepted in court, this would have been a silly thing to have made up—their word counted for nothing.

In recounting all this, it is striking that the four gospel accounts of the empty tomb are quite different, each with their own perspective. In fact, their reports diverge in their details more than at any other point in their recounting of Jesus’ life. Despite this, they all agree on the core details: that women went to the tomb early on the Sunday morning; that the stone had been rolled away and the guard gone; that the tomb was empty; and that various of Jesus’ followers believed that they met him, bodily alive again. This is entirely consonant with the gospels being independent accounts based on different eyewitnesses to these events. (Note, for example, the mention of ‘Peter’ in Mark 16.7; there is a strong case for reading Mark’s gospel as based on Peter’s own testimony.) And there is now an overwhelming consensus amongst scholars that all four gospels were written in the lifetime of eyewitnesses, and widely circulated amongst the early Christian communities.

Lastly, it is also striking that none of the gospel accounts actually record the resurrection—they simply record the fact of the empty tomb. A legendary fabrication of the event would surely do something else—as in fact the Gospel of Peter, an invented account written in around 125, does in some detail.

Fourthly, there was a long list of eyewitnesses who believed they had met the bodily, risen Jesus, which Paul recounts in 1 Cor 15.3–8. Paul notes that this was ‘handed to him’ as an early statement of belief, and it is most likely that he received it from Peter three years after his conversion (Gal 1.18). (Note that Paul’s experience of meeting Jesus was quite different; his was visionary, whereas the earlier witnesses all believed that Jesus was bodily, since he ate and drank with them.) Paul’s letter to the Corinthians was written in the early 50s, just 20 years after Jesus’ death, and as he notes, most of the eyewitnesses were still alive.

And the remarkable thing about these people is that, whatever they experienced, it transformed them from a small, dispirited and disillusioned group to being the start of an extraordinary movement that, within a few decades, had a following across the civilised world of its time. This group became sufficiently important that, by AD 49, they seem to have caused Claudius to expel a good number of Jews from Rome, the capital of the Empire.

JesusTomb-1200x760This raises a wider question about the Jesus movement altogether: how do you explain the rise of this religious movement, following an otherwise unknown itinerant preacher from an obscure province on the edge of the Roman Empire? When you compare this with other religious movements, it is notable that Jesus lived a short life, never travelled far, never wrote anything, left a relatively small body of teaching, died young, was executed as a criminal, never held any political or military office, and never had a large following. No other religious or political movement had such unpromising and unlikely beginnings.

So those are the historical facts, which are well attested: Jesus died; he was buried; his tomb was found to be empty; and the small group of dispirited followers were transformed into the confident beginnings of a world-wide movement in a remarkably short time.

Alternative explanations either contradict well-established facts, or they cannot explain these phenomena. The only plausible explanation is that something quite extraordinary happened, and the notion that Jesus was raised back to life is the only one that fits these facts.

8 thoughts on “Evidence for the Resurrection”

  1. I’m surprised you are the only person debating these points: I wish you a Happy Easter too, as you understand it. That’s extended to others too.

    I’m talking about after the person has died, before what the scavengers do. There are people today who take recently died people and their brains and hope that they are preserved in cold for a future time when the person can be recovered to live on under future surgery. They’re wasting their time – my point is that the end of blood flow into the brain pretty much wrecks it for future use.

    As regards what else I was debating.

    The whole point about the common grave in lime is that the bones are attacked and unrecoverable. The gospels written decades later are at a time when there is no ability to go back and look, or to check, or to find people doing what we call ‘telling the truth’ or otherwise.

    What may happen in some spirit world is not accessible to history, just as it is not to any science. I’m simply assuming Jesus is fully human, and that he obeys the limitations of being human. Otherwise he isn’t. I’m also obeying other rules of historical method, which with secondary sources have to be comparative and about the behaviours of the time and place. Biblical contradictions and the birth narratives in particular show that ‘being in the text’ isn’t good enough as evidence of happening. The texts are highly theologised and rather lightly historicised – being history-like and biography-like is a method of story-telling for theological purpose rather than being a history or a biography.

    Faith doesn’t just build around reflecting on these texts: you show, Waterangel, how important your own biography and experience is in relating to faith texts and what you regard as important in them. And they are, of course, completely precious to you in understanding your place in this cosmos and whatever powers run through it. And I wish you the best for that and, as I say, therefore, a Happy Easter.

  2. Some of what you say is true, but not all of it . Many neuroscientist would tell you that it is possible for brains to be recovered after death and also for those brains to be retrained or rewired for them to enable continued life but also not just continued life but that some parts of the brain compensate for the damaged parts, this is my direct experience, at one point after all my brain surgery I went to what was called a balance clinic where I learnt to retrain my brain in terms of balance. But I have also discovered over the years that there are many things which enable me to keep my brain going as it were I have also discovered that some people can defy the odds. Only 60 years ago I would have been left to rot and die or live in an institution but well we know now that many miracles happen, the miracle is in the inspiration of the many surgeons who dare to see the brain, like a broken bone in a sense and they repair tissue and connections like never before. But of course Jesus would not have had access to a neurosurgeon, and the idea that scavengers and animals ate jesus does not really add up with the evidence which does not say that there was any parts of a human body found, there would have been something if only one small fragment of bone. But well this even does not explain to you about the retention of consciousness. My suggestion is a simple one and that is that the spirit leaves the body first , we have had a few conversations about the spirit, we had a conversation about 3 or 4 years ago I think where we discussed how the spirit might manifest itself, we came to the conclusion that the spirit lives on through the message which is left behind in terms of maybe people having the characteristics of a person who was related to them but they had never met. Also in relation to molecules and atoms the point I was trying to make is that when a person is no longer physically alive and as you say dust to dust ashes to ashes that in my view is when rebirth takes place I am not sure if I have expressed that properly I am trying to make the distinction between human reincarnation ie a body returning in human form and the resurrection where Jesus ascended and was resurrected but then left his spirit Jesus being the only one able to do it. Most people the human living spirit leaves first and returns as I described earlier which is a resurrection of spirit. It is all very complicated and others can explain this kind of thing better than me. But as always I know what I am trying to convey ,I also know I cannot prove it, but what I cannot prove I have enough faith to believe My faith has never given me reason to doubt now people on the other hand!!

    Now trust me Pluralist the surgeons had the chance to give me a full lobotomy but they did not which is why I can share my inquisitive and intuitive brain alongside my faith and the two together somehow enable me to understand , that the biggest obstacle to life is understanding, and the greatest gift to life is acceptance. I accept that Jesus died for me and also for you but I do not understand it, of course I don’t. But I understand that many have died defending him and I equate that with goodness people should not have to die to defend their faith but many do, for they see that in the preservation of faith they preserve Hope, and with Hope many great things can be achieved, all because of Jesus we have the hope of things to come. Mind you pluralist sometimes I don’t want to wait and I wonder why Jesus cant mobilize all into doing the right thing but then where would choice be.?

    Anyway some people may think the resurrection is not able to be defended but that as we know is because we do not and cannot understand that which is too great for us.

    But I feel really sad for the Jews and the Palestians of the time imagine how confusing it must have been for them, for them it was real time.

  3. That’s a significant event and interpretation, so please understand that my response is not to take anything away from your connections made. If I saw a vertical double rainbow it would be near the horizon (may also be reflected in water) where it tangents vertically, and there is always an inner and outer rainbow. A rainbow, of course, is not ‘there’ but is your own eyes seeing sun behind reflecting and refracting in raindrops ahead. No one ever sees the same rainbow. The ancient Noah story doesn’t get it that no one ever sees ‘a rainbow’.

    However, I would not get the link between – certainly – the redistribution of atoms and molecules after the rotting and burning of death and what has to be at the core of resurrection, and that is the continuation of the self-consciousness of the individual. When it says the bodies rise again it means the people who were in them, and that their lives are transformed but nevertheless continuous. The Jesus who is said to have risen (though this ‘body’ visited hell first! In the alter tomb story) is said to be making decisions and directions to others in terms of his appearances and disappearances. He is supposed to be that person. Well, there may be a momentary hangover in quantum terms of consciousness, but most of us think that existence depends on the brain working and a destroyed brain is a destroyed person – witness the effect of dementia on reducing a person and being a thousand deaths of the one who once was effective as a person. So whilst we go back to dust I really rather doubt that our redistribution of matter and energy results in retained consciousness. But you never know. Consciousness is still quite mysterious, especially awareness of your own consciousness. But dementia suggests that consciousness and self-understanding is a slippery matter. My view then is that once Jesus died his brain was irrecoverable within seconds – as are all – and the Romans left him to be eaten by scavengers and dumped the body in the common lime pit grave. The rest was mythological interpretation and writing.

    But then many have spiritual experiences, as you report Waterangel.

  4. The issue of the interpretations of dreams and the theologising of events particularly around the loss of loved ones is covered biblically by “I will hide the word within you”. I have direct experience of what you talk about ,However the difference was this In November of 1998 I had been on a YHA weekend where we stayed at the Eyam Hostel. I was a passenger in a car on the way home on what would I guess have been early sunday evening , when two rainbows appeared vertically in the sky , it corresponded with my thoughts and prayers of what was I going to do. I did attatch meaning to the rainbows my thoughts being it was unusual to see rainbows in November and also it was unusual to see two rainbows vertically side by side , I felt a peace at that time, that I had not felt since the funeral some 11 months earlier. But the reason I mention it to you is , I was not seeking a sign as it were but more importantly I had not fully understood the biblical significance of the rainbow and the spirit, I did not find that out until a while later, so I had not attached significance of theology at that time.. The Peace of the time enabled me to make decisions which needed to be made. My understanding was that my husband had ascended, of course he would not return but he had ascended. My next course of action was to explore the scientific facts about the body, and I could only come up with the answer that he was now part of the atmosphere ” ie I am the wind that blows” and of course having established the facts of atoms and atmospheres I could then follow that with the spiritual significance. The facts are that which ever way a person leaves this world they become a part of the greater atmosphere. On this basis I feel that the narratives of the resurrection are completely viable. I have never doubted, and I have never felt the need to question that fact. I have found that it has been confirmed time and time again. What we all appear to struggle with is the human interpretation and communication of it , being different to the hermeneutics, I am talking about the relative time of it, relative time appears to be different for us all, which is why we find it so hard to understand, that is until you have experienced it, which then takes it out of the realms of faith because we know. I cannot give you what I know but I can pray that you will know. I have not experienced it since and I may never again, it only took once to convince me , I do not seek that which I have already found .That does not mean I do not seek but I no longer seek the answers of the resurrection, preferring to believe in the understanding I have been given about it, We can all only seek understanding from the accumulation of events and happenings which impact on our real time lives.

  5. There are no restrictions on the number of hallucinations, but I would agree in so far as the weight of the matter has to be on the literature – the setting of appearances is ritualised and theologised – and that the context is an expectant, last days excitement. We are told that the disciples kept well away from the death scene (ran away?) but however much there is negativity there it changes any possibility that Jesus was preparing ground for another (as much as he identified with Israel’s King) that now it can only, surely, be Jesus who is ready to return, and with the Pauline notion of a ‘spiritual body’ (we might say a square circle, like this is a nonsense, but he clearly retains the bodily aspect in his visitation reported). Ancient peoples will have had far more realist interpretation of dreams than ourselves, but even today we have a significant proportion of people who see, in bereavement, their loved one, or in religious ecstasy, the religious figure making most sense to them (the Virgin Mary being the most popular in Christian circles). It could well be that the visitation experience is Paul and a few others, but it became written as a roll-call of legitimate leadership for authority in the faith, just as it headed up the centrality ritual of the agape meal and eucharist. What matters is how the oral tales become written and what they are saying back into to those early communities.

  6. Hi Pluralist, Your version of events to me would seem to carry much less weight than Ian Pauls purely on the grounds that it is extremely unlikely that several people would hallucinate at the same time. It is very possible that mass hysteria can take place where there are large gatherings of people in a highly emotional state, but they would not all independently hallucinate the same thing. As we know the varying accounts are for various reasons. But the movement of the spirit is undeniable, to even the hardest sceptic. There is a point about historiography and it is true we are dealing with secondary sources, and we know why we have different accounts because we are dealing with different people , each with their own histories and rules of their own trade, which is the lens from which they see. The subjective theory falls down at the point where several people independently experience the same thing it is more than subjective at that point. Though I also accept that peoples exhalations can be influenced by the explanation of the first person to explain it rather than the first person to experience it. The personal experience of the spirit of the risen and ascended Christ is the explanation of variables.

  7. Just mention that I bashed out the responding comment at speed. So it was sorry *for them* regarding the explanation to early Christians for no more resurrection appearances, being now paraclete led, and that in the Luke account the appearance is made manifest in the ritual of the meal. When typing at slower speed etc. I’m saying history needs regard for historiography (the rules of the trade) and here we are dealing with secondary sources regarding Jesus and lost primary sources which are written by and for early Christian communities decades later. Thus the tomb account cannot be checked back and the resurrection appearances are, at basis, subjective.

  8. This conflates theological and historical material, which do different jobs and have different purposes. The empty tomb is not provable simply because the documents ae written so long after Jesus’s death – all that’s about is a lack of tomb ‘worship’ and identification, and the reason being (in all probability) that there never was a tomb. From the arrest onwards, the accounts don’t work as history alone and can’t. Cruficifixion was not simply about a cruel torture based death, but the carcass left on the construction to be eaten by scavengers – the denial of a death and burial. What remains is dumped into a common grave, a lime pit. There is no account throughout elsewhere of anyone, ever, being removed from a cross to be given a decent burial. There is no reason why Pilate, if he was personally involved at all, giving exception here given all accounts that he ran a particularly cruel regime, that he was a nasty individual that gave no quarter. The accounts of the tomb lead not to faith but confusion; the primary accounts are what are still experienced by about one in eight people today – hallucinations treated as real by those experiencing them of meeting loved ones or religious figures (in this case, both categories). Even these get wrapped into theological categories, thus Jesus is only recognised in the meal and then vanishes, thus being an “I get the point” and ritualised into the ritual becoming the most significant. The point is that resurrection cannot be understood except by the ascension – small, early, expectant of the end, Christian communities, being told that Jesus did appear to a leadership roll-call and ‘the congregation’ of 120/ 500, but that -sorry – he appears no longer and now it is spirit led. The Pauline influenced gospels are traditions, theologised, answering the questions of early Christians. The resurrection is itself a small-scale period prior to the Church beginning, rather like the firework lit before it went off. The explanation cannot be divorced from the belief of a small proportion of Jews and attaching Gentiles that the end time was present, that a messiah would return, that it was now Jesus who would be transformed, and a salvation figure thanks to Paul’s interpretive brilliance, and God would do it. Later the Church adapted as that return failed to materialise. The resurrection fits into that expectation and probably is little more than a few hallucinations including Paul and an explanation about why there was never any trips to a tomb. Jesus was simply killed by the authorities like others who were picked up, a casual valuing of life by a regime fearing instability at the edge of empire.

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