What is the evidence for the resurrection?

JesusTomb-1200x760When considering the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection, we need to separate two issues. First, what are the historical facts that require an explanation? And, second, what is the best, most plausible, explanation for those facts?

What are the facts to consider in relation to the resurrection?

First, Jesus died on the cross, a victim of Roman execution as a common criminal. The Romans were very experienced at this, and knew how to check that someone was dead. If they had not died soon enough, then they broke the legs of the victim who would then suffocate, unable lift themselves up on their legs to take a breath. In John’s gospel, this is recording in some detail.

Now it was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. Because the Jewish leaders did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down. The soldiers therefore came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with Jesus, and then those of the other. But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water. (John 19.31–34)

What is fascinating about this account is that the writer sees the water and blood as having symbolic significance; it proves that Jesus promises, of giving ‘living water’ to those who believe (John 4.10) and that ‘living water will come from his side’ (John 7.38). We now see this as medical evidence of Jesus’ death, as the red blood cells and serum have separated after the heart has stopped beating—which John has quite inadvertently recorded.

Secondly, Jesus was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy and influential member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling Jewish Council, who was also a secret follower of Jesus. This is attested in all four gospels, in slightly different ways (Matt 27.57, Mark 15.43, Luke 23.51, John 19.38). This would have been an odd thing to make up; if Joseph were invented, or Jesus not buried here, then it would have been an easy thing to refute. Given that the Council were hostile to the early Jesus movement, it would also be an unlikely invention.

Thirdly, on the Sunday morning the tomb was found to be empty. There are several striking things about this fact and the way that it is related in the gospel accounts.

First, the tomb was guarded by Jewish temple guards; in Matt 27.65 Pilate tells the Jews to post their own guard, and in Matt 28.11 the guards report back to the Jewish leaders. This was quite understandable; anyone who looked as though they might lead a rebellion against Roman rule could cause real trouble. Such a rebellion in 66–70 led to the destruction of the temple, and another in 136 led to the expulsion of all Jews from the land of Judea. Matt 28.11–15 recounts the bribing of the guard to say that Jesus’ disciples stole the body—but this is never subsequently brought up as an accusation, in NT or Jewish literature of the time. And if the disciples had gone to the wrong tomb, the Jewish leaders could simply have produced the body from the right tomb to end the movement.

Secondly, it is clear from the gospel accounts that, despite Jesus’ teaching, none of his followers expected to find anything other than his dead body in the tomb when they went to anoint it. This is not surprising; their expectation is that the dead would be raised at the end of the age (see John 11.24 for a typical expression of this), which would involve all of humanity. No-one expected an individual to be raised from the dead now. All the signs were that Jesus’ death meant the end of all their hopes (see Luke 24.19–21)

Thirdly, John’s account includes a curious note about the cloths that had been used to bind Jesus’ body in the customary way.

Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen. (John 20.6–7)

AUFERSTapostelNot much is made of this, and it appears to be an allusion to the earlier account of Lazarus being brought back to life in John 11.44. But it is a sign of what had happened to the body; if it has been stolen, then there would be no grave clothes, or they would have been taken off and left together. The fact that the soudarion from Jesus’ head was separate from the othonion, the linen shroud for his body, meant something else must have happened. Each piece of material was still in the place that it would have been when wrapped around Jesus.

Fourthly, all the gospel accounts agree that women were the first eyewitnesses to the empty tomb, and that they reported this to the male disciples. In a culture where women’s testimony was not accepted in court, this would have been a silly thing to have made up—their word counted for nothing.

In recounting all this, it is striking that the four gospel accounts of the empty tomb are quite different, each with their own perspective. In fact, their reports diverge in their details more than at any other point in their recounting of Jesus’ life. Despite this, they all agree on the core details: that women went to the tomb early on the Sunday morning; that the stone had been rolled away and the guard gone; that the tomb was empty; and that various of Jesus’ followers believed that they met him, bodily alive again. This is entirely consonant with the gospels being independent accounts based on different eyewitnesses to these events. (Note, for example, the mention of ‘Peter’ in Mark 16.7; there is a strong case for reading Mark’s gospel as based on Peter’s own testimony.) And there is now an overwhelming consensus amongst scholars that all four gospels were written in the lifetime of eyewitnesses, and widely circulated amongst the early Christian communities.

Lastly, it is also striking that none of the gospel accounts actually record the resurrection—they simply record the fact of the empty tomb. A legendary fabrication of the event would surely do something else—as in fact the Gospel of Peter, an invented account written in around 125, does in some detail.

Fourthly, there was a long list of eyewitnesses who believed they had met the bodily, risen Jesus, which Paul recounts in 1 Cor 15.3–8. Paul notes that this was ‘handed to him’ as an early statement of belief, and it is most likely that he received it from Peter three years after his conversion (Gal 1.18). (Note that Paul’s experience of meeting Jesus was quite different; his was visionary, whereas the earlier witnesses all believed that Jesus was bodily, since he ate and drank with them.) Paul’s letter to the Corinthians was written in the early 50s, just 20 years after Jesus’ death, and as he notes, most of the eyewitnesses were still alive.

And the remarkable thing about these people is that, whatever they experienced, it transformed them from a small, dispirited and disillusioned group to being the start of an extraordinary movement that, within a few decades, had a following across the civilised world of its time. This group became sufficiently important that, by AD 49, they seem to have caused Claudius to expel a good number of Jews from Rome, the capital of the Empire.

This raises a wider question about the Jesus movement altogether: how do you explain the rise of this religious movement, following an otherwise unknown itinerant preacher from an obscure province on the edge of the Roman Empire? When you compare this with other religious movements, it is notable that Jesus lived a short life, never travelled far, never wrote anything, left a relatively small body of teaching, died young, was executed as a criminal, never held any political or military office, and never had a large following. No other religious or political movement had such unpromising and unlikely beginnings.

So those are the historical facts, which are well attested: Jesus died; he was buried; his tomb was found to be empty; and the small group of dispirited followers were transformed into the confident beginnings of a world-wide movement in a remarkably short time.

Alternative explanations either contradict well-established facts, or they cannot explain these phenomena. The only plausible explanation is that something quite extraordinary happened, and the notion that Jesus was raised back to life is the only one that fits these facts. (This article first published in 2015).

Here is Tom Wright on what difference the resurrection makes:

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8 thoughts on “What is the evidence for the resurrection?”

    • Absolutely Will and what a wonderful clip of Tom testifying and teaching. Ian, I have just completed a review of our hotel stay for Hotels.com. Might you provide something similar for your articles?? They are great for stimulating academic debate (and clearly for personal reflection too) but the less academically gifted amongst us might benefit from simpler, more structured ways of responding (without limiting the scope for further debate and discussion for those of us who need it)?

  1. You explain well the evidence for resurrection based upon the success of the early Christian movement. But I imagine the LDS church would use the same argument. Would like your comment on this.

  2. In my time as Reader I have read many studies on the resurrection that all try to explain what the women were thinking when they went to the tomb but couldn’t possibly have rolled away the stone. They all deal with the practical aspects and consider how impossible or difficult they were.

    A few years ago my cousin in Switzerland died unexpectedly.

    As I prepared to travel for the funeral the husband of his sister kindly phoned me and said they had met with the lawyers and surprisingly he had specified in his will that there should be NO family at the funeral.

    The thing about a will that is different to almost anything else is that there is NO explanation as to why the person wrote items or to what they were possibly thinking. It is written by solicitors and lawyers as a rather bland statement of facts so it offers no understanding at all as to why they have said what they have said. Thus I can offer no actual answer as to what Peter was actually thinking and, even if I did, it would be nothing but empty speculation. I can speculate – but that doesn’t actually help.

    However, the event gave me a completely surprising insight into the women going to the tomb.

    In the coming days and weeks the brother and sisters of Peter went to see his grave and said their goodbyes even though they honoured his wish and did not go to the funeral itself. They needed to say goodbye, to remember the person and acknowledge both them and their new found position in life.

    That has made me realise that many of these theological analyses of what the women were practically thinking are actually missing the point – I think, from my new found unexpected experience, that they went to the grave to remember him, to honour him, and to say their goodbyes. The reality, it seems to me, is that they were driven entirely by emotion and feelings. All the thoughts in their heads about what to do for protocol or whatever, even though it couldn’t be achieved, was irrelevant. They had to go to the grave to remember him, to honour him, and to say their goodbyes.

    I cannot say that I responded well either or gave proper statements but I did send a message to his sister (whose husband had phoned me) and recalled how I had been at their home when Peter had phoned and she had spent a long time on the phone talking to him. So I texted to her:
    I know that you loved him,
    I know that you always loved him,
    I will always know that you loved him.

  3. Those interested in this post may also be interested by “Easter Enigma: Are the Resurrection Accounts in Conflict?” by John Wenham. You can probably guess from the title that his answer is “No, they are not – in any major way”

  4. You ask, “What are the facts to consider in relation to the resurrection?” First you state as a fact that Jesus died on a cross and that the Romans were good at it. Indeed. But you do not go into Roman crucifixion practices or, more pertinently when it comes to your second point, “Jesus was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea,” their burial practices of those they had crucified. It was not normal Roman practice even to bury those they crucified. They hung on their crosses as a grisly warning of defying the Pax Romana. In this case we are told that there was a Jewish prohibition against such a thing which motivates Jesus being buried. Fair enough. But it was not normal Roman practice to go handing over the bodies of criminals who had been crucified to friends or family either. And why would it be? They could then claim they had risen from the dead! Enter Joseph of Arimathea, stage right, a person of some local standing who, it is suggested, might have been able to request the body. I wonder, let us imagine that the gospels don’t exist for a moment. Where in history is this Joseph of Arimathea now? Rather fortunate, isn’t it, that such a person, otherwise elsewhere entirely unattested in history, should fortuitously appear, and as a secret follower of Jesus to boot!? The proper doing of history might suggest that such a character was performing a necessary function in the story at this point. What function might this be? The one of facilitating a known tomb, of course, for it was normal Roman practice, if they buried their victims at all, to bury them in anonymous graves, graves with more than one body in them. These were unknown and unmarked graves, graves that even those doing the burying would quickly forget about. Fortunate, indeed, that Joseph the Otherwise Unknown should happen along to give Jesus a known burial spot. He needs one, of course, because Jesus cannot rise if no one knew where to look. This is why Joseph suddenly appears in Mark. The other three all copy his literary device. One witness, not four.

    So there is one thesis you are ignoring in your third “fact” and I entirely understand why. This thesis is that NO ONE knew where the body of Jesus was put. This accords with what we know of Roman practices as opposed to believer’s stories. Indeed, if one were not a believer believing the believer’s stories what merely historical reasons would one have for believing them? Name them. Should not historical events have to pass merely historical tests? Your account here amounts to a decision to believe a harmonized version of events not even any one gospel writer supports by himself. Guards at the tomb, for example: only according to Matthew. You introduce Paul as a witness but he equates his vision on a journey with what you say are elsewhere physical appearances. This will not do. Jesus is meant to have taught his death and resurrection all along and yet it strikes the disciples as an event out of the blue. Is that credible? You mention the empty tomb yet… where is this tomb exactly? Strange the entirety of the Christian community seems to have forgotten so that today it is an utter mystery. And if Jesus really did leave an empty tomb then why have all other others aside from the Christians not believed? Such a DEMONSTRABLE event would seem irrefutable… but only if it demonstrably occurred. What ever did occur it seems it didn’t do so very demonstrably.

    For your fourth fact you say “there was a long list of eyewitnesses”. But was there? There is a list of BELIEVERS. But so what? I would fully expect people who believe in something and that it has meaning to attest to it. Maurice Casey, a venerable New Testament scholar who taught for many years in my own home town with distinction and who was certainly not a Christian, also believed that the first Christians attested to it. However, he did so by calling upon visions and experiences of the dead as if they were still alive in his book, Jesus of Nazareth. And this would surely be enough. It was for Paul. Paul never claimed a bodily physical Jesus stood in front of him and this doesn’t downplay the authority of his testimony it seems. So what matters is not who says “I believe this happened” but if it can be demonstrated to have happened. And so Thomas was not wrong in John 20, he was actually right. Show me the body. Show me the tomb. These things are lacking and always have been. Perhaps that is why, through the cracks of the gospels, we see glimpses that even some of his followers of the time did not believe. John himself even writes of the Thomas incident “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” This is precisely the Christian position. Forget actual evidence, forget demonstration, just believe it and it will be true. Visions, as in the case of Paul, are certainly enough (lucky are those who received them – the first Christians!) and the gospels have woven fiction from religious experience which becomes (incompatible) historical narrative in the minds of subsequent believers as writing something down always does. But would an historical observed have seen these events unfold before them? Unlikely.

    “So those are the historical facts, which are (NOT) well attested.” They are attested to only by a few believers and to the uninterested disbelief of the vast majority of the people there at the time. Should this not concern us? I understand where your blog is coming from but it is extremely inadequate in the face of the real facts and the questions they motivate. It is, once more, the victory of faith over the vicissitudes of history.

  5. Truly Beautiful And Too Me Totally Per Cent Convincing Of The Absolute Truth Of The King Of King’s Life Death And Resurrection Of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
    Thank You For Filling My Mind Body Heart And Yes Soul.
    God Bless You
    Patrick geaney


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