The Resurrection: Applying History To Conquer Scepticism

The discipline of the historian is based on a very simple premise: No records – No history. Legends, myths and oral traditions may abound. But they do not supply substance to history although they may add some context.

So, what are the nuts, screws, bolts, bricks and mortar of history – primary source material, as it is called? Documents, reports, letters, artefacts, buildings, photographs, recordings, gravestones – such relics constitute the essential stuff of history. Our world is full of such relics to which all archival repositories attest. Grand examples of that heritage are, of course, castles, churches, ships and houses. Westminster Abbey in England is 1,000 years old and houses the tombs of several English monarchs. Mount Vernon in Virginia, USA, is the preserved stately home of George Washington. In such examples, history and heritage are indelibly and indisputably bound up.

Yet no such personal, physical relics exist as far as Jesus is concerned. He left no personal writings or artefacts. We do not know the exact location of his birth in Bethlehem nor do we know whereabouts in Nazareth he lived. Even the exact location of Calvary and the tomb in which he was laid are subjects of debate. Of course, there is a substantial primary source – the Bible. But even that is the subject of query by sceptics, particularly the New Testament and specifically about the most significant event of all time: the Resurrection of Jesus after his crucifixion.

Despite that scepticism, the reality is that Jesus is the most referenced, noted and enduring figure in the world. Our very dating and chronological reckoning takes its cue from his birth. Outside of the Far East and parts of the Middle East, there is not a village, town or suburb in a city that does not have a structure glorifying Jesus. Churches, as we call them.

So, how do we dispose of doubt and scepticism that continues to question who Jesus is and what his mission on Earth involved? How do we rebut the challenges of the sceptics and detractors who claim that the Biblical record of Jesus has flaws and inconsistencies?

Old Testament

Part of the answer is to match the prophecies of the Old Testament with the accounts of the New Testament. As the saying goes, the Old Testament is the New Testament concealed and the New Testament is the Old Testament revealed. Beyond that, one needs to rely on the forensic skills of writers like Lee Strobel who closely interrogates the ministry, character, conviction, passion, death and resurrection of Jesus in his book The Case for Christ.

For nearly a thousand years before Jesus came on Earth, prophecies foretold of the Anointed One and as such, created a fingerprint, an historical DNA, that only the true Messiah could fit. Only Jesus, through all those prophecies matched and fulfilled the fingerprint. According to Max Lucado, in his time on Earth, Jesus fulfilled 332 prophecies.

I am neither qualified nor do we have the time to list and consider those 332 prophecies. But before coming to the crux of this discussion, the Resurrection, let us briefly consider nine random Old Testament references as beacons attesting to the life and existence of Jesus.

Let’s commence with David’s Psalm 22 from which Jesus quoted when he was on the cross and which foretold what crucifixion entailed some 700 or more years before some demented mind devised it. Psalm 72 written by Solomon spoke of the “royal son” to whom the kings of Tarshish, Sheba and Seba would bring gifts at his birth. 700 years before Joseph and Mary with the baby Jesus had sought refuge in Egypt from the evil intent of Herod, Hosea wrote “out of Egypt I called my son,” (11; 1). Isaiah (49:7) foretold how the Redeemer and Holy One of Israel would be despised. At the Last Supper, Jesus quoted from Psalm 41 (verse 9) when identifying Judas as his betrayer – “He who shares my bread has lifted up his heel against me.” In chapter 53 Isaiah provides graphic details of Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion – again centuries before that gruesome form of execution was known. Zechariah writing in 520 BC prophesied Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday with the words: “See, your king comes to you…. gentle and riding on a donkey” (9:9). Zechariah also forecast the grief and mourning that would occur in Jerusalem for “the one they have pierced” (12:10). Micah foretold of Bethlehem producing “one who will be ruler over Israel” and “whose greatness will reach to the ends of the Earth” (5: 2; 4). Of course, Jesus himself reminded the two disciples he accompanied to Emmaus on that day of his resurrection that “beginning with Moses and the Prophets what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke: 24:27).

In that the very cornerstone of our Christian faith and belief is Jesus’ Resurrection following his suffering and death for our redemption, it is the aspect which attracts the most critical attention from naysayers and sceptics. For as Paul states emphatically in 1 Cor. 15:17, “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” So, to use a popular expression, let us join the dots to make our case.

That Jesus would rise from the dead was foretold by David nearly a thousand years prior to the event. In Psalm 16, verse 10, he wrote: “because you will not abandon me to the grave nor will you let your Holy One see decay.”

New Testament

The starting point for those who dispute the Resurrection is, as CS Lewis has noted, that nobody actually saw Jesus revive, remove his burial clothes and walk out of the tomb. All four gospels refer to the empty tomb and, with the exception of John’s account, the evangelists record the presence of an angel or angels stating that Jesus had risen from the dead. In her state of shock, Mary Magdalene suggested that Jesus’ body had been removed and hidden. Which was the angle that the Jewish authorities exploited in their attempt to explain how the closely guarded tomb came to be found open and empty.

Confusion and dismay at the disappearance of Jesus’ body from the tomb preoccupied the Jewish chief priests and elders. As Matthew tells us (28: 12-15), they concocted the story that Jesus’ disciples came in the night and stole his body. Anxious to ensure that their story prevailed, they bribed the tomb guards into silence. As an early example of fake news, it was intended to discredit the view circulating that Jesus had risen from the dead. But the key point in all this is that nobody denied that the tomb was empty.

In rebutting the sceptics of the Resurrection, what source evidence do we have? Lee Strobel lists nine appearances by Jesus that are recorded collectively from the four gospels. A tenth one is listed by Paul in 1 Cor: 15: 6 and will be discussed later. There were also several sightings referred to in Acts 1-5 and 10-13.

Briefly, the details of the nine are as follows: Jesus first appeared to Mary Magdalene outside the tomb on that Easter Sunday (John: 20:14-18). Then He appeared to the other women who were returning from the tomb after an angel had informed them that Jesus was alive and would see them in Galilee. They clasped his feet and worshipped Him (Matt. 28:8-10). The third appearance was when Jesus accompanied Cleopas and another disciple who were walking to Emmaus. When Jesus supped with them and broke bread they recognised Him (Luke: 24:13-32).

The fourth appearance occurred when Jesus appeared in the midst of the apostles and others who were gathered in a room in Jerusalem. Rebuking them for thinking he was a ghost, he asked them to touch his hands and feet and ate a piece of fish before opening their minds to what the Scriptures had stated about him (Luke: 24: 36-46).

Although the fifth encounter seems similar to the fourth one, the context is different. John 20: 19-23 relates how Jesus appeared to the disciples who were in a locked room for fear of the Jews. He showed them his hands and his side. He then breathed on them, infused them with the Holy Spirit and empowered them to forgive sins.

The sixth occasion is well-known because from it the expression “doubting Thomas” was coined. Thomas, called Didymus, had not been present previously when Jesus appeared to his apostles and had famously declared that unless he could put his finger into the marks where the nails had pierced Jesus’ hands, he would not believe. A week after Jesus had appeared to the ten apostles, Thomas was present when Jesus came into their midst. After allowing Thomas to inspect the wounds of his crucifixion, Jesus rebuked him for doubting and blessed those who believed in his resurrection without the benefit of first-hand experience (John: 20: 24-29).

The shore of the Sea of Tiberias was the location of the seventh occasion that Jesus was in the presence of his disciples. Peter and five others had been out fishing but had not caught anything. When Jesus urged them to cast their net to the right side of the boat, to their amazement it filled to breaking point with large fish – 153 in all. They then shared a meal ofgrilled fish with Jesus (John: 21: 1-14).

The mountain or hilltop in Galilee, where Jesus had directed his apostles to gather, was the location of the eighth appearance (Matthew 28: 16:20). There Jesus instructed them on their evangelising mission to the world.

Jesus’ ascension from the Mount of Olives, 40 days after his resurrection, was the final occasion that the apostles were gathered in his presence (Luke: 24: 50-52).

As Lee Strobel relates, these encounters and occasions were not about some shadowy, fleeting figure observed by only one or two people. They were substantial; they involved physical contact and the consumption of food. As such, Jesus’ multiple appearances devastate the sceptics’ denial of the Resurrection. Twice John implicitly mocks the sceptics when he states that the risen Jesus “did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples which are not recorded in this book” (20: 30) and that if every one of them was recorded, they would fill many books (21: 25).

The Acts of the Apostles are also “littered with references to Jesus’ appearances,” as Strobel observes (p. 317) and are found in the first five chapters and from chapters 10 to 13. In Acts 3:15, Peter was emphatic when he told the Jews: “You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this.” Paul twice refers to his personal encounters with the resurrected Jesus (1Cor: 9:1; 15:8)

The appearance of Jesus to a crowd of 500 is mentioned only by Paul in 1 Cor: 15:6. The fact that the four gospels omit reference to it has caused sceptics to reject it as an authentic event, claiming Paul probably fabricated it. Biblical scholar Dr Gary Habermas, in defence of the appearance to 500, points out that if Paul was fabricating the event, he would not have invited people to check on the fact by stating that many of the 500 who saw Jesus on that occasion were still alive.

The Jews

Although Jesus appeared to many during the 40 days before his Ascension, the news of his resurrection was not openly proclaimed by the apostles. Fear of reprisals by the Jewish authorities caused them to keep a low profile. During that time, the Chief priests and elders stuck to their fake news story that the apostles had stolen Jesus’ body. That was the spin they put on the fact that the tomb was empty. And Jesus himself advised the apostles not to leave Jerusalem until “the gift” of the Holy Spirit had come upon them (Acts: 1:4).

As we read in the second chapter of Acts, the infusion of the Holy Spirit emboldened the apostles. On that Pentecost day, they burst forth loudly proclaiming Jesus as Lord and Saviour in a multitude of languages. Again the sceptics tried to denounce them claiming they were drunk, a charge Peter promptly rejected as he launched into an authoritative and moving address citing the Prophet Joel and quoting Psalm 16 at length while attesting to the apostles as direct witnesses of the risen Jesus. There in the heart of Jerusalem under the very eyes of the Jewish Sanhedrin, on that day, 3,000 people accepted Jesus.

In the weeks and months that followed, the Jewish religious elite saw their fake news about Jesus shredded as thousands more accepted the teaching of the apostles. Coupled with Peter’s miraculous healing of the crippled beggar and the scriptural authority the apostles displayed, the Jewish establishment found itself on the back foot. Their plot to terminate Jesus in the most gruesome fashion – crucifixion – produced an outcome that continues to reverberate 2,000 years later.

Non-Christian Sources

Returning to the point raised about the validity and credibility of sources in determining historical truth, the case for Christ’s existence on Earth is strengthened by the corroboration of at least 10 non-Christian sources and writers who mention Jesus within 150 years of his time on Earth. They are: Josephus, Tacitus, Pliny, Thallus, Suetonius, Lucian, Celsus, Phlegon, Mara-Bar-Serapion and the Jewish Talmud (Beyond Today, April 2016, p.13).

Those writers supply anecdotal information which corroborates Gospel sources. For example, Phlegon, a Greek author, noted that in a year which, transposed from the pagan Greek calendar, works out to 33AD, the likely year in which Jesus died, “there was the greatest eclipse of the sun; it became night at the sixth hour of the day [i.e. noon] so that the stars even appeared in the heavens. There was a great earthquake in Bithynia and in Nicaea.” (Bithynia and Nicaea were in northwestern Turkey near the Black Sea, that is, about 1,000 kms north of Jerusalem.) What Phlegon described was also observed in Rome, Athens and other places around the Mediterranean according to essayist Tertullianus (see: Strobel, p. 111). The gospels tell us that from the sixth hour to the ninth, darkness came over all the land and that when Jesus died the earth shook and rocks split. (Matt: 15:45; 51; Mark: 15: 33; Luke: 23:44-45).

The Talmud, an important Jewish work completed in 500 AD makes reference to Jesus, albeit in a negative way, as a false messiah who practised magic and was justly condemned to death (Strobel, p.113). Roman historian Tacitus, writing of the persecution of Christians by Emperor Nero around AD 66, noted that the Christians took their name from Christus who had “suffered the extreme penalty at the hands of the procurator Pontius Pilatus.” Significantly, Tacitus remarked that those Christians were willing to die for their belief in Jesus (Strobel, p. 107; 109).
Biblical scholar Dr Edwin Yamauchi of Miami University has remarked, “We have better historical documentation for Jesus than for the founder of any other ancient religion,” (Strobel, p. 114). In contrast, Mohammed claims he went into a cave and had a religious experience in which Allah revealed the Quran to him. There were no witnesses to that nor are there any corroborative sources. Moreover, Mohammed offered no miraculous signs to certify anything (Strobel, p. 336).

To conclude: the willingness and determination of Stephen, Peter, Paul, James and the early church leaders to persevere against the menacing political order of that time in propagating the Christian message and to be martyred for their belief in Jesus, surely serves as an additional reason to accept the resurrection of Jesus and all that is based on that event.

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