Historical evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus

“I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.”” (John 10:14-18 ESV)

In the passage above, Jesus makes some very startling and explicit statements regarding his death. Not only does he mention that he will lay his life down, but he emphatically states he will take it up again. There have been, and continue to be, many who have given themselves sacrificially for a worthy cause. Many of my personal heroes are those who gave themselves on the field of battle defending freedom, justice, and faith. While they willingly gave the greatest sacrifice for a worthy cause, none of them had the audacity to suggest they had the power and authority to overcome death. Yet, Jesus did…

As we prepare to remember and celebrate the glorious resurrection of our Lord, next week, I want to challenge you to consider the following evidence for the resurrection.

There are three facts about the resurrection that even skeptics concede are historical and indisputable.

1.The tomb in which Jesus was buried was discovered empty by a group of women on the Sunday following the crucifixion.

2.Jesus’ disciples had real experiences with one whom they believed was the risen Christ.

3.As a result of the preaching of these disciples, which had the resurrection at its center, the Christian church was established and grew.

Now, these facts certainly don’t prove the resurrection but they give us a starting point at which to consider the evidence. If even skeptics concede these points as factual, we may be able to use them to work our way towards sufficient and convincing evidence for believing in the resurrection.

Empty Tomb Discovered by Group of Women:

They say the best place to start is at the beginning, so let’s start there. Immediately following the resurrection we find two specific things happened. 1) There is a group of women who discover Jesus’ tomb empty, and report it to the remaining disciples. 2) The Jewish leaders claim the disciples stole Jesus’ body.

Here are the scriptures that tell that story…

“When the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. And they were saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?” And looking up, they saw that the stone had been rolled back—it was very large. And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe, and they were alarmed. And he said to them, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” (Mark 16:1-8 ESV)(also see: John 20:1-2; Luke 23:54- 24:11; Matthew 28:1-8)

The importance of these women being the first witnesses who discovered the empty tomb cannot be overstated. Women in first century Israel were considered second class citizens. While the OT law doesn’t specify gender regarding witnesses, first century interpretation certainly did. A woman’s testimony in a first century court of Jewish law was essentially worthless. It was considered to be less than half as reliable as a man’s testimony.

So, why is this such a big deal? It may sound like I’m discounting the scriptural support for the resurrection. On the contrary, the fact that the New Testament not only recognized the witness of these women, but make it the first and primary testament to the resurrection event makes this passage of scripture unquestionably factual. If you’re making up a story about some alleged event, you don’t weaken the story by citing questionable witnesses, you’d make someone like the Sanhedrin leader, Joseph of Arimathea, be the first person to arrive on the scene. The very fact that all of the gospels recognize the women as the first and primary witnesses of the resurrection is a huge step in affirming the truth of the resurrection story.

In addition, the Jewish leaders also lend support to the historical accuracy of the gospel accounts of the resurrection, because they include and affirm the fact of the empty tomb. The gospel accounts report (Matt. 28:13-15) that the Jewish leaders responded to the guards’ report by bribing them and telling them to report that the disciples “stole his body.” This is confirmed by extra-biblical historical records that state this very claim regarding the “alleged” empty tomb story regarding Jesus but again, it sounds like that is a negative report. It is, but it is also an affirmation of the accuracy and reliability of the gospel accounts. The gospel writers didn’t just make up stories about the resurrection event, they recorded an accurate and truthful representation of the facts. All of the facts. Even those facts that some might wish were left out.

Second, the message of the gospel which hinges on the empty tomb and the resurrection was first proclaimed in Jerusalem. If the actual evidence for the empty tomb was really non-existent or flimsy, this would have been the LAST place you would have begun telling this incredible story and preaching this new message. The Jews would have successfully quashed this new religious movement if they had physical evidence that discredited the gospel claims. In fact, the very reason the Sanhedrin hired Saul was to find and stop these Jesus followers and put a stop to the incredible growth occurring among their numbers.

Third, the Gospel of Mark is the oldest of the gospels (approximately 20 years after the events) and it contains materials regarding the tomb and resurrection from an even older/earlier source (about 7-8 years after the events) and the Apostle Paul cites an even older credal statement in 1 Cor 15…

“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.” (1 Corinthians 15:3-7 ESV)

It appears Paul received this creed from the Apostles during the Jerusalem Council. The Jerusalem Council occurred only 5-6 years after the crucifixion, so the establishment of this belief in the resurrection of Jesus was not a late addition to the beliefs and creeds of the early church as so many liberal scholars attest. It was, in fact, tied to their earliest beliefs, practices and preaching of the church. Why is that important? Because the people who could refute these claims and effectively stop the church were still alive and in a position of political and religious power.

Fourth, you don’t include prominent and wealthy Jewish leaders as key witnesses in false stories. The fact that Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus are included in the post crucifixion accounts not only lends credence to the story, but puts these two prominent Jewish leaders at risk for reprisal from the Sanhedrin. If these two men had not become true disciples who endorsed the gospel accounts of the resurrection, they would not have stood idly by and allowed their names to have been sullied by false beliefs and teachings.

Fifth, the tomb of Jesus was never venerated as a shrine until after the crusades. This is more significant than it might seem. During the time of the gospels, there were 50 such sites in and around Jerusalem honoring the bones of other Jewish holy men but, Jesus bones were never venerated because they were not there.

Sixth, the gospel accounts, and specifically Mark’s account, are simple and do not bear the telltale marks of legend or myth. This can be easily seen when Mark’s account is contrasted by an account that appeared about 150 AD and is written pseudonymously as though by Peter.

Here’s a synopsis: It states that a large crowd of Jewish leaders and Sanhedrin gathered at the tomb early on the morning of the third day. As the guards and the crowd watched, two men descended from heaven and the stone rolled back. They entered the tomb and then came out supporting a third man and a cross followed them. The two men’s heads reached to the clouds, but the third man’s head was above the heavens. A voice called from heaven, “have you preached to those who are dead?” The cross replied, “Yes.” The guards decided they needed to go report what they’d seen to Pilate, and he declared this was surely the Son of God and he was innocent of his blood and the Jewish leaders were responsible for his death.

This account is clearly embellished and bears the obvious telltale signs of legend but Mark’s account is simple and quite brief. It carries none of the obvious embellishments that the outrageous legend, above, bears. The most telling fact regarding Mark’s account is the use of the women as the first and primary witnesses (see note, above).

Finally, the last thing I want to mention as one of the strongest arguments for the truth of the gospel and the resurrection is the conversion of Saul. Saul was hired to prosecute and stomp out this radical new religious group.

His first encounter with them is indicative of his mission: “Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him [Stephen]. But he [Stephen], full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.” (Acts 7:54-60 ESV)

Saul was being quite effective at finding, arresting and persecuting the disciples of Jesus. In fact, he was being so effective that they began to leave Jerusalem in droves (see Acts 8:3-4). Saul quickly seeks and receives permission to pursue Jesus’ disciples to the outlying areas and, soon, plans a trip to Damascus. It is during this trip that the pursuer becomes the pursued and he encounters overwhelming evidence for the resurrection and deity of Jesus.

According to Luke’s account in Acts 9, Saul is suddenly confronted by the resurrected Jesus. While skeptics still say they doubt the resurrection, they can’t deny the unbelievable changes that occurred in Saul’s life. The church’s feared persecutor has suddenly and inexplicably become their most prolific preacher of the gospel. Prior to this encounter, Saul was absolutely certain that Jesus was simply a dead, pretender, wannabe Messiah but now he’s just as certain that Jesus is the living Son of God.

In fact, this is how Saul now views Jesus: “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” (Philippians 3:7-11)

While I believe in the resurrection and that Saul’s conversion is one of the strongest pieces of evidence for that belief, in the end, belief in Jesus as the resurrected Son of God is still a matter of faith. The best explanation for the evidence is, in my opinion, physical resurrection of Jesus is factual but, you must weigh the evidence and decide for yourself. The religious leadership of Jesus’ day killed him to silence his message. Little did they realize his blood would cause a small seed to sprout and become an unstoppable force of God transforming the world…

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