What History Says About The Resurrection Of Christ

Did Jesus really rise from the dead? It has been said that the resurrection of Christ is the best established fact of ancient history. Is this true? Is there really strong historical evidence for the resurrection of Christ? Can we find enough testimony to merit saying that it is an established fact of history?

To explore this subject in greater detail, we will look at three basic groups of evidence. First, the New Testament (more specifically the four Gospels) as history. Second, non-biblical Christian testimony (the record of early Christian writers). Third, non-biblical, non Christian testimony (the record of secular historians on the matter).

First, should we regard the New Testament writings as history? Skeptics may protest using Matthew, Mark, Luke and John to prove the resurrection since these are part of the Bible. Many will say, "If I believed the Bible, I would believe the resurrection. Using the Bible to prove the resurrection is true assumes the Bible is true. The belief in the Bible as truth is based in part on the assumption that the resurrection is true. This is circular reasoning. The resurrection is true because the Bible says so. The Bible is true because it tells of the resurrection, which is true." Should we therefore completely disregard the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John?

Let's look at it this way. Don't think of the four Gospels as part of a book we call the Bible or the New Testament. Let's think of them as four independent records that spoke of the same event. Matthew, a Jewish tax-collector and Apostle; Mark, an early disciple; Luke, likely a Greek physician; and John, an Apostle, all give consistent record of Christ's death and resurrection. There are literally thousands of ancient manuscripts, translations and quotations of these men's writings. No other historical document can boast such testimony! Surely the record is worthy of the same consideration given any other historical writing. Therefore, we do not casually dismiss their books. They are valid historians who have earned their place of integrity among first century writers. Their accounts must be reckoned with. Even most unbelievers acknowledge this fact and attempt to reconcile the Gospel record with their rejection of Christ's resurrection. So, we examine the Gospels and use their witness to contemplate the resurrection of Christ.

In Matthew 28:5-7 Matthew says, "And the angel answered and said unto the women, Fear not ye: for I know that ye seek Jesus, which was crucified. He is not here: for he is risen, as he said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay. And go quickly, and tell his disciples that he is risen from the dead..." Mark says in Mark 16:9, "Now when [Jesus] was risen early the first [day] of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had cast seven devils." In Luke 24:5-6 the angels said, "Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen..." In John 20:1-8 John tells how he and Peter went to Christ's tomb and found the empty graveclothes. At this point John believed. Thus, all four historians record the resurrection of Christ as a fact of history.

Besides their plain statements of the resurrection, let's notice some facts regarding the death of Jesus these men record, and most scholars (unbelievers included) seem to accept as true. These are;

1.) Jesus died from the rigors of crucifixion.

2.) Jesus was buried in a guarded, sealed tomb.

3.) His tomb was found empty.

4.) The disciples fell into fear and despair. For a while, none of them believed Christ had risen from the dead except John.

5.) Later, the disciples believed they saw Jesus alive.

6.) The disciples were transformed into brave champions of their cause. Most eventually dying as martyrs.

Note that none of these facts by themselves demand anything miraculous. This is why unbelieving historians generally accept them. Even the fact that the disciples believed they saw Jesus could, by itself, be explained as an ordinary hallucination caused by stress. In fact, this is the factor to which some attribute the post resurrection appearances of Christ.

As stated above, these facts independently do not demand we conclude a miraculous resurrection. However, when considered collectively, they constitute a powerful confirmation of Christ's resurrection.

If Christ died and was buried in a tomb, how could the tomb be empty three days later? Either the enemies of Jesus stole the body, the disciples stole the body, or his body left the grave on it's own power. The enemies would not have stolen the body because that would perpetuate the doctrine of Christ's resurrection, which they despised. Furthermore, if they stole it, they could have produced it later, proving the resurrection to be a hoax and stopping Christianity dead in it's tracks.

The disciples could not have stolen the body because Roman soldiers guarded the tomb. Furthermore, if they stole the body, why would they fall into despair and disbelief, then later stand up as brave martyrs, dying for a cause they knew to be untrue? This also contradicts the fact that the disciples truly believed they say Jesus alive. If they plotted a resurrection hoax and stole the body, they would have had no such visions.

Therefore, the only reasonable conclusion is that Christ's body came forth from the grave victorious over death. He presented himself alive to his disciples and hundreds of others. Faithful followers believed him and told his story for centuries until now. Others recorded the events of his life, death and resurrection, which record we now have in the pages of the New Testament. From the Gospel record we have found facts generally accepted by unbelievers, which are sufficient to prove the resurrection of Christ as a fact of history. But we have testimony beyond what the Bible says.

Dozens of Christian historians from the first and second century record Christ's resurrection as a fact of history. These were men who wrote early Christian literature and commentaries on scripture. Some of them are said to have been personal acquaintances of Christ's Apostles. Though they were Christians and their record is, therefore, biased, their testimony is still abundant. It must be given the same attention as any other testimony of history. Just because they were Christians doesn’t automatically mean their record is untrue.

Additionally, there is secular history that speaks of the death and resurrection of Christ. Josephus, the Jewish (not a Christian!) historian speaks of Christ's life, miracles, death and resurrection as a historical fact. Pagan historians such as Pliny, Tacitus and Suetonius speak of Christ's death and to some degree the belief by some that he arose from the dead. Can these non-Christian witnesses be completely ignored? Surely their record carries great weight, especially in light of what has already been proven from the Gospel record.

Add to this the fact that no first century historian testifies to the contrary. I know of no first century historian that claimed to have found the body of Jesus. I know of no first century historian that says the tomb was not empty. I know of no first century historian that was there when the disciples claimed to have seen Jesus after his resurrection and discredits their claim. We have abundant historical proof of Christ's resurrection and NO KNOWN DENIAL in early history. Truly, the resurrection of Christ is an established fact of history. You can believe it and place your hope on it's promise that someday, those faithful to God will also break forth from their graves, glorified and immortal. Or, you could join the ranks of unbelievers who deny the plain record of history and suffer the consequences at the end of time.