The doctrine of the Resurrection is central to Christianity—so much so that St. Paul states:
"If there is no [R]esurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith." —1 Corinthians 15:13-15
But are there any ways of verifying the claims made by the Christian church about Jesus’ Resurrection in glory? As a matter of fact, there are. Through the use of historical criteria, exegetes such as N.T. Wright and Gary Habermas have found five historical ways of verifying the claims made by the Christian church about Jesus’ Resurrection:
- The common elements in the Gospel narratives about Jesus’ risen appearance to the apostles.
- The historical evidence of the Resurrection in the writings of St. Paul.
- N.T. Wright’s argument based on the remarkable rise of Christian Messianism
- N.T. Wright’s historical analysis of the Christian Mutation of Second Temple Judaism
- The historical status of the empty tomb.
Historical Evidence of Jesus' Resurrection #1: The Gospel Accounts
The Gospel accounts show substantial agreement about Jesus’ transformed embodiment in His risen appearances. Though described in different ways, several characteristics of these accounts are quite similar. For instance, Matthew, Luke, and John all indicate that in His risen appearances, Jesus was divinely and spiritually transformed.
Furthermore, this transformation outshone His former corporeality—so much so that the apostles at first had doubts about whether Jesus was in this divine-spiritual appearance. Jesus overcame these doubts by revealing His identity (and continuity with His former embodiment) through the marks of His Crucifixion (Luke and John 20) and through His communication with and missioning of them (Matthew and John 21).
Hence, there are common elements in the three different Resurrection narratives that help us verify the claim that Jesus really did resurrect after His death. Matthew, Luke, and John all affirm that, after His Crucifixion and death, Jesus appears in a divine-like glory, power, and spirit in which He showed continuity with His former embodiment.
Historical Evidence of Jesus' Resurrection #2: The Writings of St. Paul
St. Paul’s testimony about the Resurrection (1 Corinthians 15) gives scholars of all subsequent generations the opportunity to test the historicity of his and the other witnesses’ claims. Paul seems to be acquainted with many of the witnesses he lists, and he is aware that these witnesses are still alive. While writing within living memory of the Resurrection, St. Paul challenges his Corinthian audience to “check out the facts” and investigate Paul’s claim through the testimonies of the living witnesses.
We can also verify the claims made about Jesus’ Resurrection through St. Paul’s witness dilemma (1 Corinthians 15:14-32), which goes as follows:
First side of the dilemma: “. . . if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are also found to be false witnesses of God because we witnessed before God that He raised Christ. . .”
The other side of the dilemma: “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied. . . . Why am I in peril every hour? . . . I die every day! What do I gain if, humanly speaking, I fought with beasts at Ephesus? If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die’”
Paul uses this dilemma to show (in a legal fashion) that he and the other witnesses have everything to lose and nothing to gain by bearing false witness to the Resurrection of Christ. If the witnesses lacked authentic motives for preaching the Resurrection, they would have had self-interested ones.
However, as Paul shows, they could not have had self-interested motives because false preaching of the Resurrection would have led either to risking their salvation for undermining God’s will (if they believed in God) or to persecution for nothing (if they did not believe in God and a Resurrection).
Historical Evidence of Jesus' Resurrection #3: The Rise of Christian Messianism
We can verify the claims made about Jesus’ Resurrection through two important arguments made by N.T. Wright. The first is the growth of the Christian messianic movement after the public persecution of its messiah (as discussed in Wright’s volume, Jesus and the Victory of God).
After the public humiliation, persecution, and execution of their messiah, the disciples maintained their identity and did not replace Jesus as the true leader of their community. Wright points out that no other messianic movement displayed this behavior:
". . . In not one case do we hear of any group, after the death of its leader, claiming that [H]e was in any sense alive again, and that therefore Israel’s expectation had in some strange way actually come true."
We are now led to N.T. Wright’s probative questions. Why didn’t the Church follow the patterns of other groups whose leaders had been persecuted? Why did it (uniquely) consider Jesus as its continued leader? Why did it consider Jesus (after the Crucifixion) to be the fulfillment of Israel’s destiny?
Furthermore, why did it organize itself so uniquely? Why did it worship Jesus as the Lord and endure persecution for that worship? How, with a publicly humiliated and executed “Messiah” as its sole leader, did it become one of the most inspired and dynamically expansive missionary organizations in the history of religions?
The powerful cause of this unique phenomenon would seem to be the post-Resurrection appearances of Jesus in combination with Jesus’ gift of the Holy Spirit, which enabled the apostles (along with other missionaries) to perform miracles in the name of Jesus.
Historical Evidence of Jesus' Resurrection #4: The Christian Mutation of Second Temple Judaism
Wright’s second and more extensive argument for the historicity of the Resurrection appearances stems from several Christian mutations of the Jewish doctrine of Resurrection prevalent at the time of Jesus (Second-Temple Judaism). In his book, The Resurrection of the Son of God, Wright shows through a study of the New Testament that Christianity changed the dominant Jewish view of “Resurrection” in five major ways:
- The Jewish picture of Resurrection was a return to the same kind of bodily life as the one experienced before death (except in a new world with the righteous). Christian views always entailed transformation into a very different kind of life—incorruptible, glorious, and spiritual while still maintaining embodiment.
- In Second Temple Judaism, no one was expected to rise from the dead before the initiation of the final age by Yahweh. However, Christians claimed that this occurred with Jesus.
- No one connected the Messiah to the Resurrection or the Jewish doctrine of the Resurrection to the Messiah prior to Christianity.
- For the Jewish people, the eschatological age was in the future; for Christians, the eschatological age had already arrived (and would be completed in the future).
- The doctrine of Resurrection is central to the earliest writings of Christianity, central to the writings of Paul and all the Gospel writers, and is the interconnecting theme among early Christian doctrines. Second Temple Judaism does not place the Resurrection in any such central role.
What could explain this radical change in the Jewish doctrine of the Resurrection? Could it be the preaching of Jesus? This is not tenable because Jesus does not put the Resurrection at the center of his doctrine, but rather the arrival of the kingdom. Furthermore, he does not connect the Resurrection to His Messiahship, and he certainly does not talk about the Resurrection being transformed embodiment, which is evident in the early Christian doctrine.
The obvious explanation would be that many witnesses saw the risen Jesus in a transformed embodied state (manifesting at once a spiritual transformation that had the appearance of divine glory and power and some form of embodiment which was continuous with Jesus’ embodiment in His ministry).
Historical Evidence of Jesus' Resurrection #5: The Empty Tomb
The empty tomb does not give as much direct evidence of Jesus’ Resurrection and spiritual transformation as His risen appearances do; however, it gives indirect corroboration of His Resurrection and an indication of His continuity with His former embodiment.
We have reason to believe Jesus’ body was originally in the tomb based on the accusation made by the Jewish authorities. The accusation claims that Jesus’ disciples had stolen His body, indicating the existence of a real missing body.
We are now in a position to reconstruct the events surrounding the Jewish authorities’ accusation of the apostles’ theft of Jesus’ body. The moment the apostles started preaching that Jesus had appeared to them (and began making converts on the basis of that preaching), their adversaries would have likely made every attempt to produce a body that would disprove (or undermine) the apostolic claim. Apparently, they could not do this.
We might infer from this that the authorities made every attempt to find out where the body was laid, located the site of the grave/tomb, and found the body gone. If the body had not been put into an identifiable place (e.g., a tomb), the charge of theft would not have been necessary. Now, if the authorities could have identified where the body was, we must suppose that His followers could do the same. Given this, it is likely that the women and other apostles witnessed the empty tomb, and shortly thereafter, Jesus appeared to them—spiritually transformed.
Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus
Through these historical studies mentioned above, Christians can verify the extremely important claim that Christ really did rise from the dead. The Resurrection of Jesus signals God’s Divine authority and power. Furthermore, the Resurrection proclaims that Christ did not leave us at death but, on the contrary, came back to life to be with us always.
Note: this article is a summary of Father Spitzer’s “Historical Evidence of Jesus’ Resurrection."