This blog post was originally written on May 3rd 2015. It was revised and expanded on Agust 30th 2019. Think of this as like the equivalent of the second edition of a book.
If Jesus of Nazareth claimed to be God, and then he died on the cross and rose from the dead, then that is pretty good evidence that he was telling the truth. Why do I say that? Because if Jesus claimed to be God, but He wasn’t, then he was a lying cult leader like David Koresh or Jim Jones. He was either intentionally deceiving the masses into worshipping him or he truly believed his false claims, which would mean he was insane. Either way, if Jesus claimed to be God but wasn’t, there’s no way God The Father would raise Jesus from the dead. God would never raise a heretic and a blasphemer. God would never raise someone who committed identity theft against Him. However, if God did raise Jesus from the dead, then that means that God must approve of what Jesus said and did. By raising Jesus from the dead, God put His stamp of approval on Jesus’ ministry, including His claims to be divine.
In that case, whatever Jesus taught carries a lot of weight. If Jesus taught that angels and demons are real, then we can believe they’re real simply because He said so. After all, who would be in a better position to know what goes on in the unseen realm than the One who created the unseen realm? If Jesus taught that Heaven and Hell are real, then we can believe they’re real simply because He said they were. After all, who would be in a better position to know if Heaven and Hell are real if not God incarnate? If Jesus taught that The Old Testament was the divinely inspired and authoritative word of God, then we can accept everything The Old Testament says as fact. After all, who would be in a better position to judge whether or not The Old Testament is divinely inspired and authoritative if not God Himself? In this blog post, we’ll look at the historical evidence for Jesus’ death and resurrection. That Jesus claimed to be God is addressed in other blog posts on this site.
Understanding Historical Methodology
It’s important that you understand the procedure for how I arrive at my conclusions regarding the historical Jesus. If you don’t understand the reasoning process undergirding my inference to the resurrection, then you won’t be convinced by my arguments and you’ll rebut them with a straw man argument.
In the following sections, I will certainly look at what extra-biblical documents have to say about Jesus, but I’ll also be appealing to the New Testament documents. However, while I’ll be using The New Testament, I won’t be treating it as divinely inspired scripture that’s inerrant and infallible.
When I appeal to The New Testament documents, I will treat them as I would any other work of ancient literature: as a group of writings that claim to tell us about historical events. I will apply the same tests or “criteria of authenticity” that historians use when examining secular texts.
What are “the criteria of authenticity”, you ask? Well, when historians are examining texts and are trying to discern whether what those texts say is true, they’ll apply various principles to the text. If one of these principles can be applied to a certain event or saying in the document(s), then the historian will conclude that it’s more likely than not that that particular event or saying really happened.
I will describe what these Criteria (or Principles) Of Authenticity are as follows
1: The Principle Of Multiple Attestation — If an event is mentioned in 2 or more independent documents, it is far more likely that the event occurred. The odds of multiple different sources all conjuring up the same fiction and then proceeding to treat it as history is very low.
2: The Principle Of Embarrassment — If a recorded event is embarrassing to the author, hurts an argument he’s trying to make, or embarrasses someone he cares about, then it’s very likely to be true. This principle is based on the common sense notion that if someone is going to lie about himself or a loved one, they’ll make themselves look good or get themselves out of trouble. They won’t lie to make themselves look bad or get themselves into trouble.
3: The Principle Of Early Testimony — The earlier a document is relative to the event it records, the more reliable it is, as there’s less of a chance for things to get distorted.
4: The Principle Of Historical Fit — If a recorded incident fits well with known and established historical facts of the particular time and place that the historical document talks about, then that favor’s the document’s event’s historicity, since it shows that the writers were at the time and place that they said they were.
5: The Principle Of Enemy Attestation — If someone who is hostile to a person or cause says something positive about that person or that benefits the cause said person is hostile to, it’s more likely than not that this is the truth. If people who hate you are going to lie about you, they’d make up lies to make you look bad or hurt your cause, not the other way around.
These are just a few of the minimal facts historians use when examining documents. Hopefully, you can see that when I cite a New Testament document, I’m not “Quoting from The Bible to prove The Bible”. I treat The New Testament just as I would any other document from ancient history; applying the historical principles of authenticity and seeing what data can be established. I am not presupposing the divine inspiration or even the historical reliability of the text.
What Is A Minimal Facts Approach?
Concerning the case for the resurrection, I will be making an inference from 5 facts. “The Minimal Facts” approach is discussed in Habermas’ and Licona’s book The Case For The Resurrection Of Jesus. In this book, they define 2 criteria that a fact must meet in order to be a minimal fact. The facts must (1) be very well evidenced, and (2) be accepted by nearly all scholars and historians who study the subject, even the skeptical non-Christian scholars.
Minimal Fact 1: Jesus Died By Crucifixion
First of all, how do we know that Jesus died by crucifixion? In my book My Redeemer Lives, I go into 9 independent arguments that establish Jesus’ crucifixion as a historical fact. Space does not permit me to go into all of those reasons here, but let me mention the one that I find the most compelling.
REASON 1: JESUS’ DEATH IS MULTIPLY ATTESTED
Jesus’ death by Roman crucifixion is independently attested in 9 different sources. 4 of those sources are secular in nature, 1 of them is an anti-Christian Jewish source, and 3 of them are from The New Testament. Let me proceed to list those sources.
Source 1: Flavius Josephus
Flavius Josephus was a Jewish historian born in 37 A.D. In about 90 A.D, he composed his work The Antiquities Of The Jews. In this work, we find a reference to Jesus and his death by crucifixion. 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 from him, are not extinct at this day.”
(Josephus, Antiquities Of The Jews, 18.3.3)
Here we have a first century, non-Christian historian saying that a man named Jesus existed, drew a crowd of people who listened to His teachings, but was killed by Roman crucifixion under the governor Pontius Pilate at the request of “some of the principal men among us”. This is historical evidence for the crucifixion of Jesus coming from a source with no theological axe to grind.
Now, some skeptics will object that this passage, known as “The Testimonium Flavianum”, really isn’t good historical evidence for the crucifixion because the passage seems to have been interpolated by a Christian scribe. I would agree that it has clearly been interpolated by a Christian scribe to some extent. The Church Father Origen informs us that Josephus did not believe Jesus to be the messiah,1 so it would be highly unlikely that he would say things like “If it be lawful to call him a man” for such a sentence implies that Jesus was more than human, or that Josephus would say “He was the Christ” as this is an explicit declaration that Jesus is the Messiah, a statement only a Christian would make. What’s worse is that near the very end of this passage, Josephus says that Jesus rose from the dead! Again, only Christians believe Jesus rose from the dead. Josephus, being a non-Christian, would never make these statements. This passage was obviously altered by a scribe who did believe these things; a Christian scribe.
But while I agree with the skeptic that the Testimonium Flavianum was altered by a Christian, I don’t believe it follows that we can’t use this passage as extra-biblical evidence for the death of Jesus. The majority of scholars today hold the position that The Testimonium Flavianum was only partially interpolated. That is to say; most of the passage is legitimate. Only certain phrases were inserted by a Christian scribe. There are two primary arguments that historians give for adopting this “Partial Interpolation” view. Let me mention just one of them.
*When You Remove The Obvious Christian Additions, The Passage Remains Coherent
Christopher Price wrote “Perhaps the most important factor leading most scholars to accept the partial-authenticity position is that a substantial part of the TF reflects Josephan language and style. Moreover, when the obvious Christian glosses — which are rich in New Testament terms and language not found in the core — are removed or restored to their original the remaining core passage is coherent and flows well. We can be confident that there was a minimal reference to Jesus . . . because once the clearly Christian sections are removed, the rest makes good grammatical and historical sense. The peculiarly Christian words are parenthetically connected to the narrative; hence they are grammatically free and could easily have been inserted by a Christian. These sections also are disruptive, and when they are removed the flow of thought is improved and smoother.”2
I think that Price is right. Compare the clearly interpolated version of the Testimonimum Flavianum which I included above with the version below:
“Now, there was about this time, Jesus, a wise man, for he was a doer of wonderful works,–a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.”
You can see that the flow of thought isn’t bothered by the removal of the obvious Christian additions. How often is it that you can erase whole sentences from a paragraph and still have it make complete sense? On this basis, therefore, it’s highly probable that there was an original passage about Jesus’ crucifixion and it did not include phrases that expressed belief in his messiahship and resurrection.
For this and other reasons, most scholars think that the Testimonium Flavianum is an authentic passage. If it’s an authentic passage, then we can certainly use it as evidence for the existence and crucifixion of Jesus. However, even if the Testimonium Flavianum couldn’t be used, that wouldn’t hurt our case very much as we would still have many other sources that record the event, as you’ll see below.
Source 2: Tacitus
Tacitus was a Roman historian writing in the early second century. In the 15th volume of his work Annals, Tacitus recounts the terrible burning down of Rome by Emperor Nero and mentions how he tried to get the suspicions off of himself and onto the Christians by unleashing a terrible persecution against them. It is in this passage that he makes a reference to Jesus’ crucifixion. The Annals of Tacitus dates to AD 115. Tacitus writes “Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign Of Tiberius…” (Cornelius Tacitus, Annals, 15:44)
Source 3: Mara Bar Serapion
Mara Bar-Serapion was a Syriac stoic philosopher in the Roman province of Syria. At some point, he was arrested, and while in prison, he wrote a letter to his son. In this letter, he mentions how wise teachers who were persecuted and killed for their teachings were eventually avenged by God. He rhetorically asked what the Athenians gained from putting Socrates to death and then mentioned how famine and plague came upon them, for example. As for Jesus, Mara wrote: “What did the Jews gain from murdering their wise king? It was after that that their kingdom was abolished.”3
About this passage, Josh and Sean McDowell write “Though Mara never uses Jesus’ name, we can be certain he is referring to him because no one else at that point in history would fulfill the requirements of being known as a “wise king” who was killed by the Jews shortly before they were driven from the land. Jesus is obviously in view.”4
Source 4: Lucian Of Samosata
Lucian Of Samosata was a second-century Greek satirist. In one of his works, he wrote of the early Christians as follows: “The Christians . . . worship a man to this day–the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account. . .” (Lucian of Samosata, from the book The Passing Peregrinus)
Source 5: The Talmud
Doctor Gary Habermas explains that “The Jews handed down a large amount of oral tradition from generation to generation. This material was organized according to subject matter by Rabbi Akiba before his death in AD 135. His work was then revised by his student , Rabbi Meir. The project was completed around AD 200 by Rabbi Judah and is known as the Mishnah. Ancient commentary on the Mishna was called the Gemaras. The combination of the Mishnah and the Gemaras form The Talmud. It would be expected that the most reliable information about Jesus from The Talmud would come from the earliest period of compilation — AD 70 – 200, known as The Tannatic Period.”5
A very significant quotation is found in Sanhedrin 43a, dating from just this early period.
“On the eve of the Passover Yeshu was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, ‘He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy. Any one who can say anything in his favour, let him come forward and plead on his behalf.’ But since nothing was brought forward in his favour he was hanged on the eve of the Passover!”
As you may know, “Jesus” is the Greek name for Joshua, which is also Yeshua. Yeshu is shorthand for Yeshua, sort of like how Josh is short for Joshua. Although the Talmud was not officially comprised until about 500 years after the first century, the material contained in the Talmud (i.e the Mishnah and Gemaras) dates early enough for us to consider it trustworthy material when it reports on events in the first century.
Source 6: The Gospel Of Mark
Everyone knows that the synoptic gospels (i.e Matthew, Mark, and Luke) refer to the crucifixion of Jesus, so I don’t see any need to unpack this sub-subsection any further. I will clarify one thing though. Sometimes I will throw the synoptic gospels together as a single source because many scholars believe that Luke borrowed material from Matthew who in turn borrowed from Mark. There is some good evidence that this is the case. However, scholars recognize that this is not always the case. Sometimes, Matthew and Luke write independently of Mark regarding some event, and sometimes they write independently even of each other! In the case of Jesus’ crucifixion, it is believed that Matthew and Luke drew from a source independent of Mark. I’ll unpack this in the sub-subsection below.
Source 7: The Gospels Of Matthew and Luke
So, what makes scholars think Matthew and Luke’s accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion are independent of Mark’s? One reason is that Luke 23 says that one of the thieves who was crucified with Jesus repented and asked Jesus to remember him when Jesus entered into His kingdom. Jesus told him that he would be with him in paradise on that very day. This detail is not mentioned by Mark, suggesting that Luke is relying on a different source. Matthew 27 also mentions the thieves, albeit he omits the repentance of the one. This suggests that whatever source Luke was working on, Matthew was working on. Additionally, Luke records a whole paragraph of Jesus speaking to “the daughters of Jerusalem” (23:27-32). This is completely absent from Mark’s passion narrative and therefore, Luke cannot be drawing on Mark as a source here.
Source 8: The Gospel Of John
The gospel of John likewise tells us that Jesus died by Roman crucifixion. Most scholars believe that John was writing independently of the other 3 gospels. Therefore, I treat John as an independent source.
Source 9: The Epistles Of Paul
Paul’s epistles mention the crucifixion of Jesus (e.g 1 Corinthians 15:3, Philippians 2).
In all, we have at least 9 early sources that state that Jesus died by Roman Crucifixion. 4 of those sources are secular in nature, 1 of those sources is a non-Christian Jewish source, and 4 of them come from The New Testament.
According to the principle of multiple attestation, this makes it extremely, extremely probable that Jesus’ death on a Roman cross at the hands of Pontius Pilate was a real event of history. The principle of multiple attestation says that if you find any event mentioned in two or more independent sources, it is more likely that the event actually occurred. This is because the more and more independent sources an event is mentioned in, the less and less likely it is to be made up. Think about it: how likely is it that NINE INDEPENDENT SOURCES all made up the same fictional story? Nine independent historians! Do you honestly expect me to believe that nine independent writers all just happened to make up the same thing? It is statistically impossible for 9 independent writers to all make up the same event and treat it as history!
Minimal Fact 2: The Empty Tomb
The next minimal fact in our case is Jesus’ empty tomb. There are many different strands of evidence to support this minimal fact. Here, I’ll only mention 3. For the others, check out my book My Redeemer Lives: Evidence For The Resurrection Of Jesus.
REASON 1: THE JERUSALEM FACTOR
Jesus’ resurrection was first publicly proclaimed in Jerusalem. This is according to the early sermon summary in Acts 27 and Tactitus’8 independent report that Christianity got its start in Judea (the region the city of Jerusalem existed in). Given that both the book of Acts and Tacitus independently report that Christianity got its start in this part of the world, it is multiply attested and therefore is a historical fact.
Now, given that Jesus was crucified in that very same city, if Jesus’ body were still in the tomb, preaching on the resurrection could never have gotten off the ground. Christianity had a lot of enemies. If anyone wanted to disprove the resurrection, all they would have had to do would be to go down to the tomb, pluck the body out of the tomb and parade it down the streets for all to see. They could even go so far as to string Jesus’ corpse up in a high place so that even more people could get a glimpse at it. Everyone who got a look at Jesus’ body would have known that the disciples’ message was false. If the enemies of Christianity had done this, Christianity would have died before it even got off the ground. However, Christianity didn’t die. It’s still one of the most prominent religions today. How is this to be explained? Why didn’t the enemies of Christianity (such as the Pharisees or Sanhedrin) go down to Jesus’ tomb and exhume his corpse for all to see, dismantling Christianity from the get go? I think the reason they didn’t take Jesus’ body out of the tomb is because there was no body to be taken out.
They would have plucked His body out of the tomb and paraded it down the street if they could have, but they were unable to. Why? Because the tomb was empty. There was no body to be exhumed. That’s the only reasonable explanation I can come up with for why they didn’t do that.
REASON 2: ALL FOUR GOSPELS FEATURE WOMEN AS WITNESSES TO THE EMPTY TOMB
All four gospels feature women as the first witnesses to Jesus’ empty tomb. Now, why is that significant? Women were considered second class citizens in the first century. Talmud Sotah 19a says “Sooner let the words of the law be burnt than delivered to women”! The Talmud also contains a rabbinic saying that goes like this: “Blessed is he whose children are male, but woe to him whose children are female”! And according to the Jewish historian Josephus, their testimony was considered so untrustworthy that they weren’t even permitted to serve as witnesses in a Jewish court of law (except as a last resort, when no male witnesses were available)!
In light of this fact, how remarkable it is that it is women who are said to be the chief witnesses to the empty tomb. If the gospel authors were playing fast and loose with the facts, they surely would have made male disciples such as Peter or John the chief witnesses to the empty tomb. The fact that it is women instead of men who are said to be the first witnesses to the empty tomb is best explained by the fact that the empty tomb narratives in the gospels are true!
By the principle of embarrassment, we have good reason to believe the tomb was empty.
REASON 3: THE JEWISH POLEMIC AGAINST THE RESURRECTION PRESUPPOSES THE EMPTY TOMB
When a child tells his teacher that the dog ate his homework, that presupposes that the homework is not in the child’s possession. When the enemies of Christianity had to resort to accusing the disciples of stealing the body, that presupposes that there was no body in the tomb.
“While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, telling them, ‘You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.’ So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.” – Matthew 28:11-15
This is powerful evidence due to The Principle Of Enemy Attestation. Now, you might be wondering why we should view this as good evidence for the empty tomb, since it’s comes from Matthew’s gospel and not directly from the Jewish leadership themselves. Couldn’t Matthew have made this up simply to make the empty tomb story seem more credible? Well, no. I don’t think so. I say that for three reasons.
First, consider the fact that Matthew says “This story has been widely circulated to this very day”. Clearly, Matthew is saying that the opponents of Christianity were running around spreading this story even at the very time period that he was penning these words! They were making this claim to potential converts even during the very time period that Matthew was writing his gospel. If the anti-Christian Jews were not making that accusation, then Matthew could have easily been falsified. People could have gone to the Jewish leadership and asked them “We read in the gospel of Matthew that you deny Jesus rose from the dead. You explain his empty tomb by saying they stole the body. Is this true?” If it wasn’t true, the Jewish leadership could have denied it. Would Matthew really open himself up to such easy falsification?
Secondly, people don’t usually respond to accusations unless someone actually made that accusation of them. Imagine you walk into your front yard and discover that your car is missing. In a panic, you cry out “My car is gone! My car is gone! What happened to it!? Dude, where’s my car!?” and then your friend shows up and says “Gee, that’s a shame. I don’t know what happened to your car, but it’s not like I stole it or anything!!!” You would look at your friend funny and say “I never said that you stole my car. Wait a minute, is there something you’re not telling me?” People simply don’t respond to accusations unless there is truly an accuser. In those rare moments that they do respond to non-existent accusations, they cause themselves to look guilty of the very thing they’re denying.
Thirdly, the claims of the opponents of Christianity is multiply attested. In Justin Martyr’s “Dialogue With Trypho”, he responds to this accusation from the Jews, and Tertullian rebuts it as well in his work “De Spectaculous”. This implies that the enemies of Christianity really were making this claim. It originated in the first century, and persisted throughout the second and third.
We have established that the tomb of Jesus was empty that first Easter morning. Former Oxford University church historian William Wand writes, “All the strictly historical evidence we have is in favor of [the empty tomb], and those scholars who reject it ought to recognize that they do so on some other ground than that of scientific history.”9 According to Jacob Kremer, a New Testament critic who has specialized in the study of the resurrection: “By far most scholars hold firmly to the reliability of the biblical statements about the empty tomb.”10
Minimal Fact 3: The Postmortem Appearances To The Disciples
If all we had was an empty tomb, we would not be justified in concluding that Jesus rose from the dead. Why? Because an empty tomb, by itself, can be explained in a variety of different ways. It will only be when the empty tomb is combined with the minimal facts we’ll look at in the rest of this chapter that we’ll see that the inference to the resurrection is justified.
In this subsection, we will examine the historical evidence for the third minimal fact: Jesus’ disciples believed that He appeared to them alive after His death.
REASON 1: THE EARLY CREED CITED IN 1 CORINTHIANS 15
The first piece of evidence in favor of postmortem appearances I want to look at is Paul’s list of appearances in 1 Corinthians 15. Most scholars of all theological stripes agree that Paul is citing an early creed in verses 3-8 and that this creed dates to within 5 years of the crucifixion of Jesus. They also believe that Paul received this creed from the apostles Peter and James just a few years after his conversion. If these scholars are right, this provides us with early and eyewitness testimony to the resurrection of Jesus. But what does the creed say? How do we know it’s a creed? How do we know it dates to within 5 years of the crucifixion? How do we know that Paul got it from Peter and James? Let’s look at the reasons why historians have reached these conclusions.
This is what the creed says: “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.” – 1 Corinthians 15:3-8
How do we know that this a creed? Maybe this is just doctrine that Paul is teaching in his own words. Scholars have come to believe that this is a creed on the basis of the following reasons.
1: Paul Alerts Us That He’s Not Writing In His Own Hand Here.
In verse 3, Paul says outright that his words are not his own. He writes “For what I received, I passed on to you as of first importance.” Paul essentially says “I received this information from someone else. It’s not a list of things I came up with. Now, I’m going to pass on what I’ve received to you.” So, he’s outright telling us that the information he’s about to cite is something he himself received and is about to pass on to his readers. Additionally, “received” and “passed on” were typical terms used by rabbis who were passing along holy tradition.11
2: The Language In Verses 4-7 Are Non-Pauline
Joachim Jeremias, a leading authority on this issue, notes that phrases such as “For our sins”, “According to the scriptures”, “The Twelve”, “The Third Day”, and “He was raised”, are non-Pauline.12 That is to say, Paul doesn’t usually talk like this, employing these phrases. This implies that Paul is quoting something rather than teaching resurrection facts in his own words.
3: Parallelism Is Apparent In The Text.13
Parallelism is a type of wording that was commonly found in oral traditions. The purpose of parallelism was to aid memorization. Parallelism involves writing several lines that go by the pattern of the first line being long followed by a short line followed by another long line and then another short line. Long sentence, short sentence, long sentence, short sentence. When you examine 1 Corinthians 15, this is exactly what you find.
“Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,” (long)
“and that He was buried” (short)
“and that He was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures” (long)
“and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve…” (short)
“After that, he appeared to more than 500 brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.” (long)
4: The Repeated Use Of The Phrase “And That” Suggests This Is A Creed14
Just as Parallelism was a wording style to make memorization of creeds easier, putting a common repetitive phrase in creeds also helped aid memorization. In this case, the repetitive phrase is “and that”.
“and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve.”
For these reasons, we have good grounds for affirming that the material cited in verses 4-7 are part of a creed. Paul received the creed somewhere and then proceeded to cite it to his Corinthian readers. What this means is that the material in 1 Corinthians 15:4-7 predates the actual writing of 1 Corinthians, which virtually all scholars date to around 55 A.D.
But how much earlier does this material date? Well, as I said earlier in this chapter, most scholars believe that Paul got this creed directly from the apostles Peter and James, just 5 years after his conversion. In Galatians 1, Paul is recounting his conversion from skepticism. He describes how he persecuted the church (verses 13-14) that God revealed his son to him (verses 15-16), and then he says that he went away into Arabia and then went to Damascus (verse 17). Paul then writes “Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days. I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother.” (verses 18-19). This seems like the most likely place and time for Paul to have received the 1 Cor. 15 creed. First of all, two of the explicitly named individuals that appear in the creed (Peter and James) are also the two individuals Paul was talking to. Secondly, As New Testament Historian Dr. Gary Habermas pointed out; “Paul’s use of the verb historesai (1:18), is a term that indicates the investigation of a topic.15The immediate context both before and after reveals this subject matter: Paul was inquiring concerning the nature of the Gospel proclamation (Gal. 1:11-2:10), of which Jesus’ resurrection was the center (1 Cor. 15:3-4, 14, 17; Gal. 1:11, 16).” 16
These seem like very good indications that this was indeed when and where Paul received the creed. In that case, the information in the creed dates to within just a few years of Jesus’ death! By the principles of early attestation, this makes 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 extremely reliable material. This is because there was no time whatsoever for legend or embellishment to creep in. The apostles were proclaiming that Christ rose from the dead within only a few years of His crucifixion!
The creed cited in 1 Corinthians 15 dates back so early, well within the lifetimes of the eyewitnesses, that anyone curious about whether or not Paul was telling the truth could have traveled over to Jerusalem and interviewed the people mentioned in the creed to see if they really did believe Jesus appeared to them.
In fact, some have argued that Paul is essentially daring the Corinthians to interview these people if they are in doubt by mentioning that “some of them are still living, though some have fallen asleep.”17 It’s as if Paul is saying “If you don’t believe that Jesus appeared to these individuals, go talk to them yourselves! Some of them have died, but others are still around to affirm what I’ve said.”
REASON 2: THE APOSTLE PAUL HAD DIRECT CONTACT WITH THE 12 DISCIPLES AND AFFIRMED THAT THEY CLAIMED THAT JESUS ROSE FROM THE DEAD
As I said earlier, most scholars believe Paul got the 1 Cor 15 creed from Peter and James when he visited with them just a few years after his conversion, and I gave some of the reasons why scholars have come to those conclusions. But let’s say you disagree with the scholars. Let’s say you don’t think that the two arguments which are given in favor of Paul receiving the creed during the trip mentioned in Galatians 1:18-20 are sufficient. Nevertheless, the creed still dates to no later than 50 A.D, just 20 years after the death of Jesus. The creed could have been received 2 years or 20 years, but no earlier and no later. So my arguments above still stand that this is an early source within the lifetimes of the eyewitnesses who could have falsified the postmortem appearances if they hadn’t occurred.
Secondly, even if Paul didn’t receive the creed in the Galatians 1 trip, we still know that he had firsthand contact with the original twelve disciples and were therefore in the perfect position to know what they believed.
Paul makes 2 trips to Jerusalem. The first trip occurs 5 years after his conversion (Galatians 1:18-20), and the second one takes place more than 14 years after (Galatians 2:1-2). Paul makes two trips, and he’s there at +5 years and +18 years after the cross. Both trips are very early and he talks to the eyewitnesses. What are they discussing? The gospel. In 2:2 he specifically says “I went in response to a revelation and, meeting privately with those esteemed as leaders, I presented to them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. I wanted to be sure I was not running and had not been running my race in vain.” In other words, Paul is essentially saying “I just wanted to double check and make sure that I’m preaching the same message as my fellow apostles are. I just want to be absolutely sure that we’re on the same page and that I’m not wasting my time here. I gave them the gospel I preached and wanted to cross-reference it with the one they preach.” What was the result of such an inquiry? Paul says in 2:6 “They added nothing to my message.” Then he said “On the contrary, they recognized that I had been entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been to the circumcised. For God, who was at work in Peter as an apostle to the circumcised, was also at work in me as an apostle to the Gentiles. James, Cephas, and John, those esteemed as pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the circumcised.” (verses 7-10)
Probably the best thing Paul contributes to our case is interviewing the other eyewitnesses and giving us the data. Paul said that he and the other apostles preached the same message. In Galatians 1 and 2, he’s talking with the twelve disciples and in Galatians 2:6-10, he affirms that what he’s teaching is what they’re teaching. If the disciples were not claiming that Christ had risen from the dead and had appeared to them, that would not be the case. Also, in 1 Corinthians 15:11, just after citing the creed, he basically says “I don’t care if you go to them, I don’t care if you go to me, we are preaching the same message about Jesus’ appearances.”
REASON 3: THE DISCIPLES OF THE DISCIPLES AFFIRMED THAT THEY PREACHED JESUS’ RESURRECTION
The early church fathers lived and wrote in the first, second, third, and fourth centuries. When you investigate the writings of these guys, you find that some of them had physical contact with the apostles. Given this fact, just as we can trace the disciples’ teachings back to them through Paul, we can trace the teachings of the disciples back to them through the church fathers!
The early church father Clement (c. 30– 100) wrote to the Corinthian church in 95 AD. Around 185, Irenaeus gave us some extra info about this Corinthian epistle. Irenaeus wrote: “Clement was allotted the bishopric. This man, as he had seen the blessed apostles, and had been conversant with them, might be said to have the preaching of the apostles still echoing, and their traditions before his eyes. Nor was he alone, for there were many still remaining who had received instructions from the apostles. In the time of this Clement, no small dissension having occurred among the brothers at Corinth, the Church in Rome dispatched a most powerful letter to the Corinthians.”.18 Around 200, the African church father, Tertullian wrote, “For this is the manner in which the apostolic churches transmit their registers: as the church of Smyrna, which records that Polycarp was placed therein by John; as also the church of Rome, which makes Clement to have been ordained in like manner by Peter.”19 According to Irenaeus and Tertullian, Clement engaged in fellowship with the apostles. Clement writes of their belief in the resurrection thusly; “Therefore, having received orders and complete certainty caused by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ and believing in the Word of God, they went with the Holy Spirit’s certainty, preaching the good news that the kingdom of God is about to come.” 20 Clement said that the apostles believed in the resurrection of Jesus! If he knew the apostles (as Irenaeus and Tertullian say he did), Clement would be in the best position to know whether or not they were truly teaching that Christ got out of His grave. Irenaeus wrote that Polycarp (c. 69– c. 155) knew the disciples. He said: “But Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna, whom I also saw in my early youth, for he tarried [on earth] a very long time, and, when a very old man, gloriously and most nobly suffering martyrdom, departed this life, having always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles.”21
Irenaeus wrote a letter to a person named Florinius. In this letter, Irenaeus also talked about Polycarp. Unfortunately, the letter that Irenaeus wrote to Florinius was annihilated by the sands of time, but while the letter itself is gone, the early church historian Eusebius quoted a portion from it; “When I was still a boy I saw you in Lower Asia with Polycarp when you had high status at the imperial court and wanted to gain his favor. I remember events from those days more clearly than those that happened recently . . . so that I can even picture the place where the blessed Polycarp sat and conversed, his comings and goings, his character, his personal appearance, his discourses to the crowds, and how he reported his discussions with John and others who had seen the Lord. He recalled their very words, what they reported about the Lord and his miracles and his teaching— things that Polycarp had heard directly from eyewitnesses of the Word of life and reported in full harmony with Scripture.” 22
Given the fact that Polycarp knew the apostles personally, he would have been in the best position to know what the disciples believed. Polycarp mentioned the resurrection 5 times in his letter to the church in Philippi.
So, through Polycarp and Clement, we can trace the claims of the resurrection right back to the disciples themselves. We therefore have 3 independent sources (Paul, Polycarp, Clement) saying the disciples proclaimed Jesus’ resurrection!
“But!” the skeptic may object “Just because the disciples were claiming that Jesus rose from the dead, that doesn’t mean that He actually did. Maybe the disciples were making the whole thing up! Maybe they were lying about having seen the risen Jesus”. I have never found any attempt by non-Christians to make the disciples out to be bald faced liars very convincing. This is because church history is unanimous in claiming that all of the disciples (with the exception of John) died brutal martyrs deaths. Why would they die for a lie? Why would they die for something that they knew wasn’t true?
Some of the sources that record the disciples’ martyrdoms are:
*Clement Of Rome – reported sufferings and martyrdoms of Peter and Paul.23
*Polycarp – Reported the sufferings and martyrdom of the disciples in general.24
*Tertullian – Reported the martyrdom of Peter and Paul (and specifically says that Peter was crucified and that Nero beheaded Paul). 25
*Book Of Acts — Reports martyrdom of James the son of Zebedee (beheaded by Herod Agrippa).26
*Eusebius — Says in his Ecclesiastical History that all of the apostles were martyred, and says that Peter was crucified upside down.
At this point, skeptics usually respond by saying “Well that doesn’t prove anything. Other religions have martyrs. Does that mean their religious beliefs are true?” This rebuttal simply shows that the objector has misunderstood the argument. I am not arguing that because the disciples died martyrs deaths that this proves that Jesus rose from the dead. What I’m arguing is that their willingness to suffer and die proves that they sincerely believed what they were claiming rather than trying to pull the wool over peoples’ eyes. Martyrdom doesn’t prove a claim is true, it simply proves sincerity on the part of the one making the claim. Since almost all of the disciples were willing to die (some in horrible, slow, torturous, and gruesome ways), only an idiot would continue to say “Nah, they were simply spouting bald face lies.”
It’s also worth pointing out that the apostles differ from modern day martyrs in that they were in a unique position to know for sure whether or not Jesus rose from the dead. The resurrection proclamations originated with them. If it’s made up, then they’re the ones who made it up. And yet, they died horribly for making this claim. Most martyrs, including Christian martyrs of today, die on the basis of secondary evidence (e.g the minimal facts approach) or no evidence (blind faith). The disciples came to believe Jesus rose from the dead because they claimed that He appeared to them personally, that is, primary evidence! They claimed to have seen him! This places their martyrdom in a totally separate category than all of the ones you read about in “Voice Of The Martyrs”.
What all of this means is that through Paul and the church fathers Polycarp and Clement, we can affirm that the twelve disciples of Jesus claimed Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to them. Through the fact that they all died brutal deaths when they could have saved themselves by recanting means that they really believed what they were claiming.
We have established that Jesus’ 12 disciples believed that they saw him alive after his crucifixion.
The evidence is so strong that even non-Christian historians admit it. Atheist scholar Gerd Ludemann has said “It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus’ death in which he appeared to them as the risen Christ”27
The atheist scholar E.P Sanders said “That Jesus’ followers (and later Paul) had resurrection experiences is, in my judgment, a
fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know.”28
Minimal Fact 4: The Conversion Of The Church Persecutor Paul
Probably one of the more profound of the appearances is that of Paul. We have excellent historical evidence that Paul was a persecutor of the early Christian church, but became a Christian evangelist who suffered greatly and on an ongoing basis because of his Christian faith, and ended up being martyred for the sake of the gospel.
How do we know Paul was a persecutor? First off, Paul mentions in his letter to the Corinthian church (15:9), his letter to the Galatian church (1:13), and his letter to Timothy (1 Timothy 1:13), that he was a persecutor of Christians. From Paul’s own pen he tells us that he killed some Christians and had others imprisoned. We know Paul is telling the truth based on the principle of embarrassment. If you’re writing a letter to someone, are you just going to conjure up lies about how you killed innocent people? I don’t think so. Even if you did kill innocent people, you most likely wouldn’t own up to it. But you especially wouldn’t mention it if it were not true. Based on the principle of embarrassment, I’m highly inclined to believe that Paul was telling the truth when he said that he was a persecutor of the church.
We also know that he persecuted the church based on the principle of multiple attestation. Not only does Paul say that he was an enemy of Christians, but Luke mentions it as well in the book of Acts. Paul and Luke are independent sources, and therefore, there is multiple attestation. It’s unlikely that both Paul and Luke would make up the same thing.
We know also that Paul became a Christian evangelist and suffered horribly for the gospel, and eventually was killed for it. Paul himself lists some of his sufferings for the sake of the gospel in his epistles, but Luke records some of Paul’s sufferings as well in the book of Acts. Again, Paul and Luke are independent sources, and therefore, there is multiple attestation. Paul’s martyrdom is mentioned by several of the early church fathers. Tertullian, who wrote just before A.D 200, reports the martyred deaths of Peter and Paul. Clement of Rome also reports the martyred deaths of Peter and Paul. Polycarp mentions Paul’s martyrdom. Origen also mentions the martyrdom of Paul, and so does Dionysis of Corthinth. In all, we have seven independent sources that attest to the suffering and martyrdom of Paul. Therefore, Paul’s suffering and martyrdom is multiply attested, and therefore, very, very likely to be a historical fact.
Now, how do we account for Paul’s radical, sudden change from Christian destroyer to Christian leader? From someone who caused martyrs deaths to someone who died a martyr’s death himself? I can think of no other explanation than the one Paul himself gave, “Then he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.” (1 Corinthians 15:8)
Minimal Fact 5: The Conversion Of The Skeptic James
The Gospels tell us that Jesus had several siblings. Jesus’ siblings included James, Jude, Simon, plus some sisters whose names were never given. James and his other brothers, we are told, were not believers during Jesus’ lifetime.
How do we know this? We know that Jesus’ brother James was a skeptic based on the principle of embarrassment. It was embarrassing for a rabbi’s family to not accept him back in those days.29 So this isn’t very flattering for Jesus, but it gets worse! Jesus’ family thinks he’s crazy! In fact, in one instance, they come to seize him and take him home! This doesn’t paint Jesus or His family in a very good light, given the stigmatism back then. Therefore, it’s highly unlikely that the gospel writers would have invented skepticism on the part of Jesus’ brother James.
In fact, we have one rather nasty story where Jesus’ brothers try to goad him into a death trap by showing himself publicly at a feast when they knew that the Jewish leaders were trying to kill him! This is in John 7. Why in the world would John place Jesus’ brothers in such an ugly light if such an event never took place?
Moreover, we can affirm that James was a skeptic on the basis of multiple attestation. For not only does Mark mention it (chapter 3), but John mentions it as well (chapter 7). Mark and John are independent sources and therefore, James’ skepticism is multiply attested. So, we’ve established that James was a skeptic.
Even though James was a skeptic, we know that later in the early church, James emerges as one of the pillars of the New Testament church, and one of the leaders of the church. This is mentioned in both the book of Acts as well as by Paul in his letter to the Galatians. Again, Paul and Luke are independently reporting this. Thus, we know this on the principle of multiple attestation. Moreover, we have the testimony of Flavius Josephus, Hegesippus, and Clement Of Alexandria that James was martyred for his belief in his brother as the risen Christ.30 James’ martyrdom is multiply attested in these three sources. Now, how is this to be explained? 1 Corinthians 15 tells us that Jesus appeared to him. I think this is the best explanation for why James would be skeptical of his brother initially and then become a follower soon after his death.
Reginald H. Fuller, a New Testament critic says
“Even if there were not an appearance to James mentioned by Paul, we should have to invent one to explain the transformation that occurred in James between the time of his unbelieving days when Jesus was alive and his time of leadership in the early church”31
We therefore have powerful historical evidence that James, the brother of Jesus, converted to Christianity because he believed he encountered his brother after he died.
These are 5 historical facts that are affirmed by the majority of scholars, both Christian as well as non-Christian. In Part 2 of this blog post, we will examine a plethora of possible explanations that might account for these 5 historical facts.
1: Origen, Contra Celsum, 1:47
2: From the online article “Did Josephus Refer To Jesus?” by Christopher Price —- http://bede.org.uk/Josephus.htm
3: British Museum, Syriac Manuscript, Additional 14,658
4: McDowell, Josh; McDowell, Sean. Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Life-Changing Truth for a Skeptical World (p. 150). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.
5: Gary Habermas, “The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence For The Life Of Christ”, pages 202-203, College Press.
6: A Brief Introduction to the New Testament by Bart D. Ehrman 2008 ISBN 0-19-536934-3 page 136
7: Acts 2 — https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Acts+2&version=NIV
8: “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 procurators, Pontius Pilatus, 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 centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind.” – Tacitus, Annals 15:44 (emphasis mine)
9: William Wand, Christianity: A Historical Religion? (Valley Forge, Pa.: Judson, 1972), 93– 94.
10: Jacob Kremer, Die Osterevangelien—Geschichten um Geschichte (Stuttgart: Katholisches Bibelwerk, 1977), 49–50
11: See Reginald Fuller, “Resurrection Narratives”, page 10; Wilkens, “resurrection”, page 2; Rudolph Bultmann, “Theology”, vol. 1, p. 293; C.H Dodd, “Apostolic Preaching”, pp. 13-14; “Risen Christ”, p. 125; Neufeld, “Confessions”, p. 27
12: Joachim Jeremias, “The Eucharistic Words”, Hymns Ancient and Modern ltd, April 30th 2012, pp. 101-102
13: See especially Fuller, “Resurrection Narratives”, pp. 11-12; Weber, “The Cross”, p. 59, Jeremias, “The Eucharistic Words”, pp. 102-103
14: Pinchas Lapide, “Resurrection”, pp. 101-102
15: Several studies on the meaning of historesai in Gal. 1:18 have reached similar conclusions. See William Farmer, “Peter and Paul, and the Tradition Concerning `The Lord’s Supper’ in I Cor. 11:23-25,” Criswell Theological Review, Vol. 2 (1987), 122-130, in particular, and 135-138 for an apostolic, Petrine source for the pre-Pauline tradition. Also helpful is an older but still authoritative study by G.D. Kilpatrick, “Galatians 1:18 historesai Kephan” in New Testament Essays: Studies in Memory of Thomas Walter Manson, A.J.B. Higgins, editor (Manchester: Manchester University, 1959), 144-149. Paul Barnett reports that this same term appears in Herodotus, Polybius, and Plutarch, for whom it meant to inquire (41). Similar ideas are contained in J. Dore, “La Resurrection de Jesus: A L’Epreuve du Discours Theologique,” Recherches de Science Religieuse, Vol. 65 (1977), 291, endnote 1
16: Gary Habermas: “Experiences of the Risen Jesus: The Foundational Historical Issue in the Early Proclamation of the Resurrection”, Originally published in Dialog: A Journal of Theology, Vol. 45; No. 3 (Fall, 2006), pp. 288-297; published by Blackwell Publishing, UK.
17: See the online article “Authenticating The Resurrection Of Jesus: The Corinthian Creed”, May 3rd, 2012, http://www.thefaithexplained.com/blog/authenticating-the-resurrection-of-jesus-the-corinthian-creed/
18: Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.3.3, c. 185. Taken from A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, and A. C. Coxe, eds. and trans., The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325 (Oak Harbor, Ore.: Logos Research Systems, 1997).
19: Tertullian, The Prescription Against Heretics, 32. In ibid.
20: Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.3.4.
22: Irenaeus, To Florinus, cited by the fourth-century church historian, Eusebius, who regarded Irenaeus as a reliable source (Ecclesiastical History 5.20). See To Florinus in Roberts, Donaldson, and Coxe, eds. and trans., The Ante-Nicene Fathers. See Eusebius, Eusebius: The Church History, Paul L. Maier, ed. and trans. (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1999), 195–96.
23: “Because of envy and jealousy, the greatest and most righteous pillars have been persecuted and contended unto death. Let us set the good apostles before our eyes. Peter, who because of unrighteous envy endured, not one or two, but many afflictions, and having borne witness went to the due glorious place. Because of envy and rivalries, steadfast Paul pointed to the prize. Seven times chained, exiled, stoned, having become a preacher both in the East and in the West, he received honor fitting of his faith, having taught righteousness to the whole world, unto the boundary on which the sun sets; having testified in the presence of the leaders. Thus he was freed from the world and went to the holy place. He became a great example of steadfastness.” – Clement Of Rome, First Clement 5: 2– 7,
24: “They are in the place due them with the Lord, in association with him also they suffered together. For they did not love the present age. . . .” – Polycarp, “To The Philippians”, 9.2
25: “That Paul is beheaded has been written in their own blood. And if a heretic wishes his confidence to rest upon a public record, the archives of the empire will speak, as would the stones of Jerusalem. We read the lives of the Caesars: At Rome Nero was the first who stained with blood the rising faith. Then is Peter girt by another, when he is made fast to the cross. Then does Paul obtain a birth suited to Roman citizenship, when in Rome he springs to life again ennobled by martyrdom.” – Tertullian,
26: Acts 12:1-2
27: Gerd Lüdemann, What Really Happened to Jesus?, trans. John Bowden
(Louisville, Kent.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), p. 80.
28: E.P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus, page 280
29: See J.P Moreland’s Interview with Lee Strobel in “The Case For Christ”, Zondervan, page 248
30: Josephus, Antiquities Book 20, Chapter 9, Hegesippus as cited in “Eusebius. Church History Book II Chapter 23. The Martyrdom of James, who was called the Brother of the Lord”, Clement Of Alexandria, also cited by Eusebius in ibid.
31: Reginald H. Fuller, The Formation of the Resurrection Narratives (New York: Macmillan, 1980), 10.