Jesus’ Resurrection is History

There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many skeptical men have accepted as true on its own merits.

– J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy Stories

Divisions of historical knowledge are useful in keeping us from going insane but there is no divorce between “sacred history” and “secular history;” there is simply, history. Of course some historical events are more important than others. Plenty of people have crossed the English Channel, but not all of them landed on the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944 amidst the largest invasion force the world had ever seen.

In any historical investigation, data must precede interpretation. And in the case of Christianity, the data is remarkable. The historical evidence for the central events in the life of Jesus (and thus the Christian faith) are overwhelming, more so than any other event in the ancient world, not to mention all other world religions. History is a blessing, not a curse to Christianity.

Christianity is both historically veracious and verifiable; but it is also falsifiable. In 1 Corinthians 15 St. Paul rests the entire Christian faith on one inseparable series of historical events: the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. If Christ is not raised from the dead – our preaching, teaching and faith are all in vain. Not to mention we’re still in our sins and worse yet, we’ve been found to be misrepresenting God.

The Christian must answer the question posed by St. Paul. What if Christ did not rise from the dead? If Jesus’ resurrection did not happen Christianity is meaningless. We’re better off being atheists; it’s easier.

But the skeptic must also answer the question in reverse: what if Christ did rise from the dead? What would that mean? That would mean Christ’s promises are fulfilled. His claims to be the Messiah and Savior of the world have been vindicated along with all he said and did. It would mean that Jesus not a liar or a lunatic, but Lord.

In the words of Tolkien, in the Jesus’ resurrection, history and legend have met. There are not two histories but one. Here are some solid facts to start building a case with the skeptic. Gary Habermas calls this the “minimal facts” approach or the core resurrection data, a series of points which even secular and critical scholars attest to. The approach is clear and practical. And although it’s far from exhaustive, it provides building blocks for a more complex argument.
The following list is from an essay entitled The Core Resurrection Data in Tough-Minded Christianity: Honoring the Legacy of John Warwick Montgomery.

1.      Jesus died due to the process of Roman crucifixion.

Friday was not the Romans’ first crucifixion. The account of Jesus’ death from the four Gospels is also corroborated by medical science.  A ground-breaking medical study from the Journal of the American Medical Association, entitled, On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ is worth reading. The Biblical accounts are confirmed by numerous secular sources as well, namely, Tacitus, Josephus, the Talmud, Mara Bar-Serapion and Thallus. Not to mention several early Christian witnesses outside the Biblical record: Justin Martyr, Clement of Rome, Ignatius and Barnabas, just to name a few.

2.     Once a persecutor of Christians, Paul became a believer because of an experience that he believed was an appearance of the resurrected Jesus.

What makes Paul turn from being a Pharisee of Pharisees into a great missionary? Paul attributes his conversion and transformation to his encounter with the resurrected Lord (1 Corinthians 9 and 15; Acts 9, 22 and 26). The apostles also confirmed Paul’s experience and work in the Gospel (Galatians 2; Acts 15). Both non-Christian and Christian scholars agree that the epistles of Paul are among the earliest New Testament writings. Thus, he proves an excellent eyewitness being so close to the events in question.

3.     The disciples had already experienced what they also thought were actual appearances of the risen Jesus.

The four Gospels both record such events as the women at the tomb, the upper room appearances, the road to Emmaus, the 500 Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians 15, etc. In addition to the clear and concordant accounts of the Bible, there are extra-biblical reports from Josephus, Tacitus, Clement of Rome, Justin Martyr among others.

4.     The apostles’ proclamation of the resurrection dates from an exceptionally early time after Jesus’ death.

The epicenter of apostolic proclamation was Christ crucified and risen. Paul says he received what was handed down to him (1 Corinthians 15). So where did Paul get his information? Paul was converted, transformed and given a history lesson from Peter and James (Gal. 1). The fact that this is done early, in all likelihood within months of Jesus’ death, means that there was less time for conspiracy theories and legends to crop up and become popular. The closer the apostles’ proclamation was to the events in question the better. There’s also good reason to hold that nearly all the New Testament was written early, before 70 A.D.

5.     James, the brother of Jesus and a skeptic, was converted after experiencing what he also thought was an actual appearance of the risen Jesus.

James’ doubt and conversion is well documented in the New Testament (John 7, Mark 3, Gal. 1, Acts 15). However, the main non-Christian reason for including this among the core resurrection data is simple: embarrassment. “In light of his high position of leadership in the Jerusalem church, it is exceptionally unlikely that these early church documents would charge James with disbelieving the Savior…unless it was true.” (Habermas, 398).

6.     The disciples were utterly transformed by their conviction that they had seen the risen Jesus, even willing to die for this belief.

 What made these disciples go from scared and hiding to resolute and preaching publicly? Sure, plenty of people die for things they believe are true but are, in fact, false. However, it is unlikely that they would be willing to die for something they knew to be false. “Here’s the key: the disciples alone were in the best positions to know whether they had really seen Jesus after his death. Their answer to that question was their passionate change, since, apart from the resurrection experiences, there would have been no transformations or martyrdoms.” (Habermas, 398).

 Want more information? Check out the following resources:

About Pastor Sam Schuldheisz

Pastor Schuldheisz serves as Pastor at Redeemer Lutheran Church, Huntington Beach, CA. He graduated in 2004 from Concordia University Irvine. And he is a 2008 graduate of Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Indiana. Pastor Schuldheisz is also blessed in marriage to his wife of 7 years, Natasha. Together they enjoy the blessings of parenthood with their daughter Zoe. And when he’s not writing sermons or changing diapers, he enjoys reading and writing about the works of the Inklings and other belletristic literature, and Christian apologetics. He’s even been known to answer to Pastor Samwise on occasion.


Jesus’ Resurrection is History — 8 Comments

  1. #2 makes me wonder… do we have any secular corroborating evidence to the pre-conversion behavior of Paul, in terms of persecuting Christians? Because if not, it really sounds like we’re begging the question here, using our sources to prove the validity of their own claims. Just saying, any skeptic will spot that circular logic miles away and use it to justify their unbelief. If the answer is no, I really think we ought to drop that line of defense. Our case does not hinge on that one point and the rest of the points make a convincing enough case on their own without it.

  2. Nathan,

    Yes, Pr. Fisk’s interview on Issues was excellent as was his article in Higher Things magazine cited in the above piece. Thanks for the link!

  3. Thank you for writing.
    A friend sent me a lengthy article from an old Journal of the American Medical Association, which described the crucifixion at length in medical detail. (The author of the Passion (movie) must have read it!)

    He remarked that a scientific explanation for the Resurrection was less likely.
    True, “scientifically” but I referred him to this for the historical comments.

  4. Miguel,

    Great question. My immediate answer is, I don’t know. I assume by “secular” you mean extra-Biblical. I’ll have to do some research on that question in more detail.

    Space constrictions prevented me from unloading a large amount of what Habermas says about this and evidence he cites from both orthodox and critical scholars regarding Paul and his conversion. Here’s a bit more of what Gary Habermas, the one who uses this line of argumentation in his “bare minimum” approach, says about this point:

    “1. There is an amazing unanimity among even skeptical scholars that Paul certainly had an experience that he thought was an appearance of the risen Jesus. As an eye witness, Paul provides the strongest testimony to this occurrence, as noted by atheistic philosopher Michael Martin, and Jesus Seminar member Roy Hoover adds: “Paul’s testimony is the earliest and the most reliable evidence about the resurrection of Jesus we have.” He adds, “The most important evidence about the resurrection with which Paul provids us is…a direct claim that he has seen the risen Jesus. A) Paul reports his eyewitness testimony to a resurrection apperance of Jesus in 1 Cor. 9:1 and 15:8-11 (cf. Gal. 1:16). B) Non-Pauline confirmation of this testimony also appears three times (Acts 9:1-9; 22:1-11; 26:9-19).

    2. The other apostles confirmed Paul’s experience and his teaching that Jesus’ resurrection was an indispensable part of the gospel message. A) Paul made at least 2 trips to Jerusalem to counsel with the apostolic leaders in order to inquire of them regarding the gospel message that he was preaching…In his second trip to Jerusalem (Gal. 2:1-10, Paul met with the chief apostles, namely, Peter, James the brother of Jesus, and John…the other apostles approved his message (2:6-10)…B) additional substantiation that the other apostles confirmed Paul’s message is the subject of Acts 15:1-31.
    …Critical scholars acknowledge the approval of Paul’s gospel message by the other major apostles. Hans Dieter Betz speaks for many when he notes, ‘the positive result consists of the fact that his gospel and mission were officially acknowledged by the Jerusalem apostles..a recognition of Paul and his gospel as theologically valid.'”

    You can find more of Habermas’ view in detail in the book, 5 views on Apologetics, where he tackles evidential apologetics using this method. He also does it in a book called The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus.

    Now, if we only had Paul’s letters, I would agree, that would be a weak link in building an argument with a skeptic, for fear of begging the question. However, since we have non-Pauline sources substantiating his claim. And if the necessary work is done of demonstrating that the individual books of the New Testament are reliabled (Gospels, Paul’s epistles, Acts, most especially) then we would not be assuming our conclusion before we arive. Furthermore, the fact that critical scholars, who are more like hostile witnesses than biased disciples, side on favor of the evidence in this issue cannot be understated. While it’s not an extra-Biblical source, it is rather close given the source of the scholarship.

    That being said, you are also correct in stating that it’s not the only point (nor the most important one) one which the case for the resurrection rests. And without it you can certainly make a good argument.

    Again, a good question that bears some more thought and exploration. Thanks for reading and adding to the discussion.

  5. Helen,

    You are quite welcome. Thanks for reading! I pray this is a useful resource for those of us who engage the non-Christian and for those who are referred here, such as your friend. I always tell people the evidence is here if they’re not too close-minded to take a look.

    This will be a topic for another piece, however, there’s really not too much difference between the historical method used to determine if any event happened in history and the scientific method. Of course the exception is the repition. However, when it comes to historical investigation, we don’t ask that the events of ________________ historical event are repeated to test whether or not they happened. Again, we’ll cover the historical method in more detail later.

  6. Pastor Schuldheisz,

    I have been going through the vast amount of books my dad owned. There are so many, and some really good ones.
    I was flipping through this one when I read your article.

    In N.T. Wright’s book The Resurrection of the Son of God he writes:
    “History matters because human beings matter, human beings matter because creation matters; creation matters because the creator matters. And the creator, according to some to some of the most ancient Jewish beliefs, grieved so much over creation gone wrong, over humankind in rebellion, over thorns and thistles and dust and death, that he planned from the beginning the way by which he would rescue his world, his creation, his history, from its tragic corruption and decay; the way, therefore, by which he would be most truly himself, would become most truly himself. The story of Jesus of Nazareth which we find in the New Testament offers itself, as Jesus himself has offered his public work and words, his body and blood, as the answer to this multiple problem: the arrival of God’s kingdom precisely in the world of space, time and matter,the world of injustice and tyranny, of empire and crucifixions. This world is where the kingdom must come, on earth as it is in heaven. What view of creation, what view of justice, would be served by the offer merely of a new spirituality and a one-way ticket out of trouble, an escape from the real world? “

  7. Andrew,

    Sorry for the delayed response. Simply splendid, that quote from N.T. Wright. I haven’t read too much of his stuff. But that book is now on my amazon list for sure. Thanks for sharing that. I might be using that in an upcoming post. Thanks again for reading and replying.

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