The Resurrection: Myth or Fact?

While working on his doctorate degree, BJ wrote an excellent article on the resurrection. Excerpts follow.

The reality of the resurrection can either validate or discredit Christianity. The apostle Paul understood the utter importance of the resurrection to a believer’s faith and wrote the following to the church at Corinth,

“But if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith is also in vain.” (I Corinthians 15:13,14).

The resurrection is part of the foundation of Christianity; without it the Christian faith will topple.

The claim that Jesus rose from the dead is not merely given on the assumption of faith, but on the grounds of historical objective testimony and evidence. As a result one must approach the resurrection on the same grounds that he would any other historical claim. He must allow the empirical evidence to determine the outcome and not his preconceived beliefs. He must be like a juror and listen to the evidence and opposing opinions then make an honest inference to the best explanation. The final decision that one makes should be based, not upon philosophical speculation, but upon one’s own historical investigation of the facts.

It is a difficult task sometimes to find sufficient information about people who lived before or during the time of Jesus. For instance, all that one knows about the great philosopher Socrates is what his famous student Plato wrote about him. Of course, this should not be a great shock to anyone considering that writing was not very common at or before the time of Jesus. In fact, the Jews at the time of Jesus relied more upon oral tradition than written tradition. However, in spite of living in an oral culture, there is a good amount of historical information about Jesus Christ. Not only does the New Testament document the life of Jesus, but He is also alluded to by many other notable historians of His time (Josephus, Tacitus, and Suetonius).

Most of the historical knowledge about Jesus deals with His last week here on earth. It was during this week that the four Gospels give a detailed account of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. These Gospel accounts are so specific that one has before him conclusive documentation of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. “Let it simply be said that we know more about the details of the hours immediately before and the actual death of Jesus, in and near Jerusalem, than we know about the death of any other one man in all the ancient world.”

A Prophecy Fulfilled

In Luke 18:31-33 there are five specific details Jesus predicts in regards to His resurrection. The first is that He would be handed over to the Gentiles. This was fulfilled when the Jewish leaders handed Jesus over to Pontius Pilate. The second detail that Jesus mentions is that He would be mocked, mistreated, and spat upon. This was fulfilled when the Roman soldiers twisted a crown of thorns upon the head of Jesus and placed a purple robe on His back. In addition to being mocked and beaten, the third detail is that He would be scourged. This also was fulfilled when Pilate had Jesus scourged before He was crucified. The next detail that Jesus predicts is that they (Gentiles) would kill Him. Once again, this too was fulfilled when Pilate ordered Jesus to be crucified. The final detail that Jesus predicts is not merely that He would resurrect, but the very day on which it would occur – the third day.

Was Jesus Dead?

Many have tried to prove that Jesus did not actually die. This particular view has become known as the swoon theory and was first formulated in the nineteenth century by a German rationalist named Venturini. “Venturini proposed that Jesus simply fainted, or swooned, and was taken down from the cross alive, only to revive in the cold dark tomb. After awakening he unwrapped himself, moved a one to two ton stone, slipped by the Roman soldiers, returned to his disciples and convinced them that he had been resurrected.” However, one can be assured that the account in the Gospels that Jesus was indeed dead is far more logical and a superior explanation than the swoon theory. This will be supported from both a historical and medical standpoint.

According to the Gospels, there are several things that prove conclusively that Jesus was in fact dead. First, Jesus went through an extensive trial where he was beaten, scourged, and had a crown of thorns placed upon His head. The scourging in itself would have been enough to kill Jesus. Dr. Alexander Metherell describes this brutal punishment and the effects that scourging/flogging can have upon a person:

“Roman floggings were known to be terribly brutal. They usually consisted of thirty-nine lashes but frequently were a lot more than that, depending on the mood of the soldier applying the blows. The soldier would use a whip of braided leather thongs with metal balls woven into them. When the whip would strike the flesh, these balls would cause deep bruises or contusions, which would break open with further blows. And the whip had pieces of sharp bone as well, which would cut the flesh severely. The back would be so shredded that part of the spine was sometimes exposed by the deep, deep cuts. The whipping would have gone all the way from the shoulders down to the back, the buttocks, and the back of the legs. It was just terrible.”

In addition to the scourging, Jesus also endured other forms of brutal treatment by the Roman soldiers. The Gospel of John records the following,

“And the soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on His head, and put a purple robe on Him; and they began to come up to Him and say, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ and to give Him slaps in the face.” (19:2-3).

All of this occurred after Jesus was already in a weakened state from being scourged. The crown of thorns that was placed upon His head would have been extremely painful, causing blood to run down His head and into His eyes. The exact type of thorns is unknown, but the following is a brief description of two possible options.

Which thorn or type of thorn was used is uncertain. One comes from a plant called the Syrian Christ thorn, a shrub about 12 inches high with two large, sharp, recurved thorns at the bottom of each leaf. This plant is common in Palestine, especially around the site of Golgotha where Christ was crucified. Another plant, simply called the Christ Thorn, is a dwarf-sized shrub. Its thorns are easy to pick. The branches also can be bent easily to form a crown, and the thorns, in pairs of different lengths, are stiff – like nails or spikes.

After being beaten by the Roman soldiers, Jesus was forced to carry His own crossbar to the place where He would be crucified. The carrying of the crossbar was a common procedure for criminals. It weighed about 100 pounds and was placed upon the individual’s shoulders. Jesus was so weakened by the previous abuse that He was unable to carry His own crossbar. Dr. Metherell makes the following observation about the medical condition of Jesus at this point: “Jesus was in hypovolemic shock as he staggered up the road to the execution site at Calvary, carrying the horizontal beam of the cross. Finally Jesus collapsed, and the Roman soldier ordered Simon to carry the cross for him. Because of the terrible effects of this beating, there’s no question that Jesus was already in serious to critical condition before the nails were driven through his hands and feet.”

The Crucifixion

Jesus endured one of the worst and most barbaric forms of execution. In fact, crucifixion was so cruel that the Romans would usually exclude Roman citizens from it and reserve this form of execution only for slaves. The ancient Jewish historian Josephus witnessed firsthand the cruelty of crucifixion and described it as a miserable procedure and an act of cruel treatment. After the victim carried his crossbeam to the place of execution, the following is an account of what happened next:

“Then on the ground he was fastened to the beam with arms outspread, usually by ropes, less commonly by nails. The beam and body were then lifted into place on the upright. A small wooden block (sedicula) or a wooden peg positioned midway on the upright supported the body weight as the buttocks rested on it. This feature was extremely important in cases of nailing since it prevented the weight from tearing open the wounds. Once the condemned was thus immobilized he was left alone, unable to attend to bodily functions, unprotected from inclement weather or flies, and, because the place of execution was usually some public street or prominent place, subjected to abusive words and mockery from passersby.”

According to the Gospel accounts the Romans used nails in the crucifixion of Jesus. Many have questioned the historical accuracy of a person being nailed to the cross. This challenge to the accuracy of the Gospel accounts was quickly disproved by archeological evidence. “Ossuary remains from a first-century A.D. tomb unearthed at Giv’at ha-Mivtar in Jerusalem surprisingly included the two heel bones of a crucifixion victim still fastened together by a single iron nail.” This evidence sheds a great deal of light upon the probability that Jesus had nails about 5-7inches in length driven into His hands and feet.

After being nailed to the cross the victim’s body would then be raised in the air. As he hung on the cross he would be in extreme agony and pain. Every movement of his muscles would bring him closer to death. Most of these victims would die from suffocation that was brought about by fatigue. Dr. Metherell gives a description of this agonizing death:

“Once a person is hanging in the vertical position… crucifixion is essentially an agonizingly slow death by asphyxiation. The reason is that the stresses on the muscles and diaphragm put the chest into the inhaled position; basically, in order to exhale, the individual must push up on his feet so the tension on the muscles would be eased for a moment. In doing so, the nail would tear through the foot, eventually locking up against the tarsal bones. After managing to exhale, the person would then be able to relax down and take another breath in. Again he’d have to push himself up to exhale, scraping his bloodied back against the coarse wood of the cross. This would go on and on until complete exhaustion would take over, and the person wouldn’t be able to push and breathe anymore. As the person slows down his breathing, he goes into what is called respiratory acidosis — the carbon dioxide in the blood is dissolved as carbonic acid, causing the acidity of the blood to increase. This eventually leads to an irregular heartbeat. In fact, with his heart beating erratically, Jesus would have known that he was at the moment of death, which is when he was able to say, ‘Lord, into your hands I commit my spirit.’ And then he died of cardiac arrest.”

To speed this process up, it was customary for the Roman executioners to break the legs of the victim. However, in the case of Jesus this was not done. The reason this was not done was because the executioners observed that Jesus had already died. Instead, seeing that Jesus was in fact dead,

“… one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out.” (John 19:34).

The sight of blood and water gives good medical evidence that the thrust of the spear pierced both the lung and heart of Jesus, bringing about pericardial effusion from His body. The above trauma that the body of Jesus had to endure gives conclusive evidence, for authority figures like Dr. Metherell, to come to the following conclusion, “There was absolutely no doubt that Jesus was dead.”

Not only is there medical evidence to support the death of Jesus, but there is also historical evidence. First, the efficiency of crucifixion by the Romans was very well known at the time of Jesus. The entire trauma that a person had to endure from the scourging, to the carrying of the crossbeam, to the crucifixion with nails, demonstrates that the Roman soldiers had an effective way of executing people. Dr. Paul Maier asserts the following about Roman crucifixions, “Romans were grimly efficient about crucifixions: Victims did not escape with their lives.” Secondly, Pilate wanted certification from the Roman executioners that Christ was indeed dead before he would allow His body to be handed over for burial. It was not until he received this notice that he allowed Jesus to be removed from the cross. The historical and medical evidence points to the fact that Jesus was indeed dead. The idea that He somehow resuscitated in the tomb ignores a significant amount of evidence.

The Resurrection

The third evidential proof for the reality of the resurrection is the empty tomb.

“But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb bringing the spices which they had prepared. And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.” (Luke 24:1-3).

Many various theories have been proposed to explain why the tomb was empty. The Pharisees began to spread the idea that the disciples came and stole the body. Others have argued that the women simply went to the wrong tomb and then claimed that Jesus had risen. The following historical evidence shows that among all the explanations the resurrection is the best one that answers the question why the tomb was empty. It is important to keep in mind that the evidence below must be looked at as pieces in a puzzle. Each piece of evidence supports the other pieces and they all testify as a whole to the fact that Jesus did rise from the dead.

The first piece of evidence that needs to be considered is the manner in which Jesus was buried. According to the Gospels, once the Roman centurion had confirmed Jesus’ death, Pilate granted permission to Joseph of Arimathea to take the body of Jesus and bury Him. Joseph along with Nicodemus buried Jesus according to the burial customs of the Jews. (Joseph and Nicodemus are important characters to the Gospel accounts because both were members of the Jewish council which initiated the execution of Jesus. If there was any fabrication in the Gospel accounts about these men it would have been easy for the enemies of Jesus to show the inaccuracy of those who were testifying of Christ’s resurrection.) The fact that Jesus was buried in this manner is significant because it would have made it virtually impossible for someone to steal the body. The body of Jesus would have been wrapped in linen and prepared with a variety of spices equaling the weight of almost 100 pounds. Being buried in this manner creates problems for theories, such as the swoon theory and the theory that Jesus’ body was stolen. Although this alone does not prove the resurrection, the burial procedure allows it to be a logical explanation.

The second piece of evidence is the great stone that was in front of the entrance of the tomb. The Gospels record that after being prepared for burial the body of Jesus was placed inside a tomb with a massive stone covering the entrance. The size of this stone is described in the Gospel of Mark, “Very early on the first day of the week, they (Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome) came to the tomb when the sun had risen. They were saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?’ Looking up, they saw that the stone had been rolled away, although it was extremely large.” (16:2-4). The size of this stone, preventing three women from being able to move it, is not unbelievable. In fact, tombstones at this time needed several strong men to roll them back. Recognizing the fact that the stone was moved before the women arrived leaves only three options: the disciples stole the body, the chief priests hid the body, or Jesus resurrected. The following will clearly show that the third option best fits all of the historical evidence.

The third piece to the puzzle is the fact that the tomb site was not difficult to find. Many critics have argued that the women simply went to the wrong tomb. However, there are at least three reasons why this theory is historically and logically inaccurate. First, the women followed Joseph to the tomb so that they would know exactly where it was when they came the next day to anoint the body. “Now the women who had come with Him out of Galilee followed, and saw the tomb and how His body was laid.” (Luke 23:55). Secondly, several features uniquely marked the tomb. The location of the tomb is described in John 19:41, “Now in the place where He was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid.” Not only was this tomb located in a garden, but it was also marked by a Roman seal and had guards posted at it. With all of these features it seems highly improbable that the women went to the wrong tomb. Finally, the enemies of Jesus could have easily ended any talk about Him resurrecting. All they had to do was to go to the correct tomb and show the body, thereby terminating all claims of the resurrection.

The behavior of the disciples is the fourth piece of evidence. According to the Gospels, the disciples left Jesus and fled when the authorities came for Him at the Garden of Gethsemane. During the trial of Christ, Peter is recorded as denying Him three times. Also, after the crucifixion the disciples were hiding in a room in fear with the doors locked. This type of behavior does not indicate a group of people who would have tried to steal the body of Jesus. They were concerned for their own lives. Even after the women had told them that Jesus had risen they still doubted. The disciples were in no position to steal the body of Christ or fabricate a story that He had resurrected. These men were devastated when Jesus was crucified and it took the actual appearance of Him to convince them that He had actually overcome death. Another piece of information is important here. It was common at this time for disciples to venerate the tomb of a holy man or great prophet. However, there is no indication that there was any veneration at the tomb of Jesus.

The fifth piece of evidence is the security precautions taken to ensure that Jesus’ body was not stolen.

“Now on the next day, the day after the preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered together with Pilate, and said, ‘Sir, we remember that when He was still alive that deceiver said, “After three days I am to rise again.” Therefore, give orders for the grave to be made secure until the third day, otherwise His disciples may come and steal Him away and say to the people, “He has risen from the dead,” and the last deception will be worse than the first.’ Pilate said to them, ‘You have a guard; go, make it as secure as you know how.’ And they went and made the grave secure, and along with the guard they set a seal on the stone (Matthew 27:62-66).”

In this passage there are two key security precautions that were taken. The first was the stationing of guards at the tomb. Many argue that only a Temple guard was placed. If this is the case it does not downplay the tight security for “… the military discipline of the Temple guard was quite good. In fact, at night, if the captain approached a guard member who was asleep, he was beaten and burned with his own clothes. A member of the guard also was forbidden to sit down or lean against something when he was on duty.” However, the text seems to point more to the fact that it was the Roman guard who was placed at the burial site. Who exactly was the Roman guard?

“A Roman guard unit was a 4 to 16 man security force. Each man was trained to protect six feet of ground. The 16 men in a square of 4 on each side were supposed to be able to protect 36 yards against an entire battalion and hold it. Normally what they did was this: 4 men were placed immediately in front of what they were to protect. The other 12 were asleep in a semi-circle in front of them with their heads pointing in. To steal what these guards were protecting, thieves would first have to walk over those who were asleep. Every four hours, another unit of four was awakened, and those who had been awake went to sleep. They would rotate this way around the clock.”

The above gives good reason as to why the Roman unit was considered “one of the greatest offensive and defensive fighting machines ever conceived.” Whether it was the Temple guards or Roman guards protecting the tomb, both were highly trained and effective in what they did. In addition, both parties knew that their lives were at stake if they did not carry out their posts in an appropriate manner.

The Roman seal was the second security precaution that was taken. The existence of this seal is another indicator that the Roman guard was there because it was only in their presence that the seal could be placed on the stone. There are three purposes for the seal. First, the seal would prevent people from trying to vandalize the tomb. Secondly, the seal would show that Roman authority was protecting the body of Jesus. Finally, the seal would stand as a warning that Roman law would punish anyone who broke it. The presence of the guards and the seal would have discouraged anyone from trying to steal the body of Jesus. Certainly the disciples, hiding behind locked doors, were in no state of mind to challenge an elite Roman or Temple guard unit.

The final piece of the puzzle is the recognition of the chief priests that the tomb was indeed empty. The Gospel of Matthew tells us that the guards went to the chief priests and told them all that had happened. The response by the chief priests was to bribe the soldiers with money and to have them say that the disciples came and stole the body (28:11-15). The fact present is that the chief priests acknowledged that the tomb was empty and had to therefore find some type of explanation as to what happened. However, as the above pieces of evidence have shown, the disciples were not in any position to steal the body. The very fact that they were proclaiming the resurrection weeks later, in front of the enemies of Jesus, adds more weight to the fact that they indeed witnessed the resurrected Jesus. All the pieces are together, and the question of why the tomb was empty can only be answered by the resurrection. “The empty tomb is that silent testimony to the resurrection of Christ which has never been refuted. The Romans and Jews could not produce Christ’s body or explain where it went, but nonetheless, they refused to believe. Not because of the insufficiency of evidence but in spite of its sufficiency do men still reject the resurrection.”

Jesus Appears

The final evidential proof to be looked at is the postmortem appearances. In the Gospels there are numerous accounts of eyewitnesses who testify that Jesus appeared to them after His death. Many theories have been proposed to explain these appearances. Before looking at them there are a few key points that need to be made about these appearances. First, these appearances were not secluded to a few people, but to a vast number of people from different geographical locations. The apostle Paul says that Jesus appeared to over 500 people, “… and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time… then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all,… He appeared to me also.” (I Corinthians 15:4-8). Secondly, these appearances were not of the same manner. For example, Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene outside the tomb, while on another occasion He appeared to Thomas with the other disciples behind closed doors. Third, these appearances brought about different responses from those who saw Jesus. Mary Magdalene responded in joy as she clung to Jesus, while in other appearances people responded in fright thinking they had seen a spirit. The fact that the appearances cannot be harmonized gives credence to the idea that they were not fabricated. Fourth, the resurrection appearances are reported without mystical and fanciful descriptions. Fifth, the witnesses testified to these appearances in spite of Jesus’ enemies being present. Finally, these appearances immediately changed the lives of the disciples (and others) to the extent that they were willing to give up their lives. The disciples extraordinarily changed from men of fear and doubt to men of boldness and courage as they openly proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus Christ. “The only thing that can account for this immediate and miraculous change is that they were absolutely convinced they had encountered the bodily resurrected Christ.”

The numerous eyewitness accounts stand as compelling evidence that Jesus did in fact resurrect. As a result theories have been proposed to try and interpret these appearances in a way that discredits the resurrection. The following are three different alternatives given to explain why these appearances were not of the resurrected body of Jesus Christ.

The first alternative argues that the appearances were merely hallucinations. However, this theory does not line up with the idea as to what the disciples would have believed in regards to the resurrection. According to Jewish sources two fundamental beliefs were held in regard to the resurrection. Jewish belief recognized a resurrection at the end of the world, not in the middle of history. Also, the Jews recognized a general resurrection of people and not an isolated resurrection of an individual person. These background beliefs that the disciples held are opposed to the idea of the resurrection of Jesus.

The notion that Jesus resurrected prior to God bringing about the end of the world would have been foreign to them. The disciples were in no way expecting Jesus to resurrect for it was foreign to their belief system. Taking this into account it is easier to understand why the disciples were confused when Jesus predicted His own resurrection (Luke 18:34, Mark 9:9,10). If the disciples had any hallucinations they surely would not have been of Jesus resurrecting. Rather, the disciples would have pictured Jesus translating (direct transporting to heaven) which would have been in line with their Jewish understanding.

The idea that the disciples merely saw a ghost is the second alternative theory that challenges the postmortem appearances. According to this theory, Jesus did not physically rise from the dead. Instead, the disciples merely had a vision or saw an aberration. However, this theory ignores a significant amount of historical evidence. First, the Gospels record every resurrection appearance of Jesus as being physical. “See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself; touch Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (Luke 24:39). The Gospels also record Jesus eating physical food, and being able to be touched, seen, and heard. Secondly, the New Testament makes a distinction between an appearance and a vision of Jesus. “The postresurrection encounters with Christ are usually described as literal ‘appearances’ (I Cor. 15:5-8), and never as visions. The difference between a mere vision and a physical appearance is significant. Visions are of invisible, spiritual realities, such as God and angels. Appearances are of physical objects that can be seen with the naked eye. Visions have no physical manifestations associated with them; appearances do.”

The final alternative theory not only challenges the resurrection appearances but the entire resurrection accounts. According to some, such as Rabbi Tovia Singer, the resurrection narratives in the Gospels are unreliable. As a result, it is more likely that the resurrection narratives are fabricated stories or myths. This view of the resurrection narratives fails on three grounds. First, there is an insufficient time frame in which a legend or myth could develop. Normally, it would take about two generations for a myth or legend to develop. However, the actual time of the events to the written accounts does not encompass this time frame. Thus, “… the unanswered difficulty for this viewpoint has been that the temporal and geographical distance between the events and the accounts is insufficient to allow for such extensive development.”

Secondly, the presence of an eyewitness would have thwarted any effort by someone who was trying to formulate a false report about the resurrection. The apostles were present to prevent anyone from trying to add any fictitious features in the resurrection narratives. Also, the enemies of Jesus were present and they would have completely stopped the spread of the resurrection story if even the smallest detail was made up.

Lastly, the narratives themselves contain no legendary material but have a high degree of being historically accurate. For instance, the fact that the women were the ones who found the empty tomb is quite significant, especially since they did not qualify as legal witnesses in Jewish society. The fact that their presence is documented shows that the Gospel writers were simply attempting to describe exactly what happened. In addition, the resurrection appearances themselves are not described in mystical terms. Instead, they are documented with people who respond cautiously and with reserve (Matthew 28:17). The above points show that the resurrection narratives are not legendary, but were trustworthy accounts written to accurately display what took place.

James thought His (half) brother Jesus was crazy. Why did he eventually give his life for Him? Paul was a successful Jewish leader who headed up the persecution of the early Church. Why did he endure beatings, being stoned, shipwrecked, and imprisoned for the very name that he sought to destroy? Dr. Frank Morrison sought to disprove the resurrection as a fairy tale. Why did he eventually write one of the most powerful books that bears witness to the fact that Jesus rose from the dead? The only thing that can attest to the remarkable change in their lives is that Jesus did in fact rise from the dead. The evidence is compelling.

Knowing that the core of my faith is based upon reliable evidence motivates me to grow stronger in my faith. The resurrection gives me zeal and confidence to share the Gospel message with others. It gives me stability to stand strong in a world of pluralistic ideas. I do not have to fear that my faith cannot stand up to philosophical challenges. It challenges me to seek to know God in a more intimate way. It also gives me hope of the Lord’s Second Coming and the eventual resurrection of all believers. As a result, I strive to live a life that glorifies my Lord and share with all people the confident hope I have of a future resurrection and eternal life with Jesus Christ.