Historical hope or hoax?
Did Jesus really rise from the dead?

By Allen J. Baumgarten
The Good News
—Evidence from the New Testament and other
historical sources offer proof for the Resurrection

Imagine the surprise on that first Easter morning.

Jesus had been entombed just a few days. And His very public execution had destroyed any hope that He was Israel’s long-awaited Messiah.

A casual bystander at the crucifixion scene asked how Jesus could save anyone from their sins if He could not even save Himself.

Didn’t His death prove that He had really been nothing more than a false prophet cursed by God? Would God forgive the disciples for the heresy of having followed a false prophet?

Jesus’ humiliating demise seemed to settle these questions and seal His legacy of failure forever.

But something unexpected happened.

In the cool morning of that first Easter Sunday, Jesus’ female followers went to the tomb to finish His burial rites. But to their dismay, they discovered that His tomb was empty!

Not long after, the once fearful and scattered disciples would go on to proclaim through their own eyewitness testimony that Jesus had conquered death by rising from the dead.

But is such a story nothing more than fanciful myth?

History seems to say otherwise. Powerful facts beg for explanation … facts that can only be explained by Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.

The historical Jesus
Where can we find information about Jesus? One could start with the New Testament (NT) and read detailed reporting about what happened to Jesus.

Surprisingly, however, there are about 45 other ancient sources from within the first 150 years after Christ which also speak about Jesus.1

For example, 17 secular sources report on the life, teachings, death and, possibly, resurrection of Jesus. Five non-NT Christian sources, written shortly after the close of the writing of the NT, corroborate many of the facts reported earlier. Three or four archeological findings also appear to shed light on First Century crucifixion methods and possibly Jesus’ empty tomb.

Finally, there are some 20 oral traditions, or memorized sayings, recorded in the NT which were circulated among the early Christian community. In a day when writing material was expensive, these traditions were used to preserve information about Jesus’ teachings and ministry prior to the NT.

Virtually all critical scholars consider these oral sources to be extremely valuable historically because they are very ancient, recorded considerably earlier even than the NT books themselves, and provide the earliest information about Jesus.

One important tradition is reported by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 which recounts Jesus’ death and resurrection appearances to Peter, James and more than 500 people at once. Moreover, according to Paul, most of those original eyewitnesses were still alive when he reported it. Scholars routinely date the formation of this oral material to within only a few years after the crucifixion and believe that Paul himself received this material around A.D. 35, a mere five years after the crucifixion.

To keep this discussion brief, we will consider only critically ascertained facts that are accepted by virtually all scholars, agreed upon by both Christian and non-Christian scholars alike. These are known as “minimal facts” and are called such because they are both well-attested historically and are agreed upon by 90 percent to 95 percent of all scholars who have published on this subject over the last 30 years in English, German and French.2 One additional fact that will be discussed is the empty tomb of Jesus which, though not a minimal fact per se, is still agreed upon by an impressive 70 percent of contemporary scholarship.

How did Jesus die?
The first minimal fact is Jesus’ death by crucifixion. That Jesus died on a Roman cross is seldom questioned and is confirmed from a variety of angles. First, several sources report it, including the four NT gospels, 10 secular sources, several early oral traditions and three non-NT Christian sources.

Second, modern medical experts who have studied Jesus’ death have reached a consensus that He died on the cross by asphyxiation.3 Other ancient sources report that occasionally a final “killing stroke,” such as a spear-thrust or breaking the victim’s legs, was administered by executioners to ensure death.

The first eyewitnesses
A second widely accepted fact, though not a minimal fact, is the discovery of Jesus’ empty tomb by a group of His women followers. First, in ancient Israel, a woman’s testimony was considered inferior to that of a man’s. But why, historians ask, would the earliest Christian writers record the rather embarrassing detail that the first witnesses to the empty tomb were women rather than the disciples unless the writers were reporting truthfully?

Embarrassing details are not typically repeated – unless those details are true.

Second, the tomb was located in Jerusalem. But in Jerusalem, the unbelieving Jewish leadership was in the best position and had the strongest motive to check out the facts for themselves. Yet, they never reported that Jesus’ body was still in the tomb.

The testimony of the disciples
The third fact is that Jesus’ disciples believed and proclaimed that He had appeared to them alive from the dead. This fact is widely accepted with a consensus of agreement among scholars at just over 99 percent! Multiple lines of evidence support it. First, we have the weighty written testimony of the apostle Paul’s own personal encounter with the risen Jesus, independently corroborated three times in the Book of Acts. Paul’s authority is acknowledged by five apostolic church fathers soon after the completion of the NT, citing him over 20 times in their writings.

Second, very early oral tradition such as in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, provides information that is traceable to early (probably eyewitness) testimony. This kind of testimony is unheard of elsewhere in ancient historical studies.

Third, written tradition, including a few secular sources and some non-NT Christian sources, also attests to the appearances to the disciples.

Other supporting facts would include the conversion of James, the empty tomb and the failure of the Jewish leadership to debunk the disciples’ claims that Jesus had risen. In short, the disciples’ belief that Jesus had risen is reported in seven sources while their proclamation of His resurrection is reported in nine.

Life-changing and life-endangering conversions
The last two facts are the conversion of the apostle Paul and the conversion of James, the half-brother of Jesus, to Christianity, respectively. Historians ask what could cause Paul, a die-hard critic of Christianity, or James, an unbelieving half-brother of Jesus, to convert to Christianity unless they were firmly convinced that Jesus had risen. Second, James’ conversion is recorded by one Christian source, Clement of Alexandria, and two secular sources, namely Josephus and Hegesippus.

Overwhelming evidence
In conclusion, the historical evidence for Jesus’ resurrection is both plentiful, found in about 45 sources, and is reported soon after these events happened. Interestingly, the Roman emperor in power during Jesus’ lifetime is mentioned in about only 10 sources. Agreed upon by both Christian and non-Christian scholars alike, these facts present solid reasons for believing that Jesus rose from the dead. So solid are these facts that naturalistic theories consistently fail to explain them.

One should ask, what best explains these facts? Could it be that Jesus really did rise from the dead and desires a relationship with us today? If Jesus rose from the dead and is the Lord of Life, what does this mean for us this Easter season?

1 Data gleaned from The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ by Gary R. Habermas.
2 Also see The Risen Jesus and Future Hope by Habermas and The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus by Habermas and Michael R. Licona.
3 Journal of Medicine, 1995, Journal of the American Medical Association, 1986, as cited in Habermas.