Next to God’s creation ex nihilo, His raising Jesus Christ from the grave is the greatest, most important event in human history. If the resurrection of Jesus can be shown to have occurred it should change the lives of every person who learns of it. On the other hand, if the resurrection is false then Christianity is also false. Saint Paul writes, “if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty.” Paul doesn’t stop there though, he goes on the explain that if it can be shown that Christ Jesus has not be resurrected then we are false witnesses of God and our “faith is futile,” being still in our sins, that we as Christians should be pitied above all men. On the pages that follow I will provide a historical case for the resurrection of Jesus that will appeal to an increasingly secular, postmodern audience. We will first look at the historical documents testifying to the resurrection to see if they can even be trusted. From there we will examine the historical bedrock pertaining to the resurrection of Jesus; which consists of four events that are universally considered historically trustworthy. We will then explore how history is done, by defining and understanding important criteria applied by historians when trying to explain a historical event. Finally, we will apply these criteria to the historical bedrock in an attempt to come to a conclusion as to the best explanation of events.
1. Trusting Historical Documents
We live in interesting times, a time in which technology has given us almost unlimited access to unlimited information, on an unlimited scale. We no longer have to turn to experts and purchase expensive books in the search for answers to our questions. We only have to “Google” a few terms and voila, we have thousands of resources to choose from; what would have been equivalent to hours of research has been accomplished in seconds. We also live in a post-modern world, where physicalism and naturalism rule the day. Where secularism is increasingly popular and the supernatural is routinely dismissed as superstition at best or worse, delusional. As a result the very existence of truth has come into question. When these philosophies are translated into a historiographical approach in order to study the past the results are devastating. Doing history one must rely on evidence of events in the past, and in the case of the events pertaining to Jesus, 2000 years in the past. So before we can look at the events from antiquity themselves, we first need to see if the documents we are relying on are an accurate representation of what really happened. As opposed to what the relativist amerced in postmodernity might say we can know with a fair amount of certainty what happened in the past, even the distant past.
For the most part we are going to be relying on the documents making up the New Testament [NT] to gain information about the events surrounding the resurrection of Jesus. However it is important to note that we are not assuming that the NT is the inspired Word of God, instead we will simply being treating them as every historian would, 27 individually written historical narratives.
When historians study history they use certain criteria in order to establish an event as having happened. They look for eyewitness accounts, multiple independent accounts, consistent and corroborative accounts, and accounts that are recorded close to the time of the event. We will see that the New Testament documents satisfy these criteria.
We are able to conclude that the New Testament is accurate and reliable because we can compare a multitude of manuscripts. This is a line of argument all but ignored by postmodernists and skeptics. Between the first and fifteenth centuries more than 24,000 partial and complete New Testament manuscripts were reproduced. Around 5,600 of these copies date to less than 100 years of the actual events. Compared to each other we see amazing accuracy and likeness. From a historians perspective this satisfies the criteria of multiple, independent, and consistent accounts.
Even more amazing is time that transpired between the original writings and the first copies. We have most of the New Testament manuscripts dated within 200 years of the events. We have some books dating to within 100 years of the events. We also have one fragment that comes within a generation of the events themselves. Also, awaiting publishing is a fragment of Mark’s Gospel believed to date to the first-century. The closeness of these sources to the events is simply amazing, giving historian’s confidence that what is recorded is accurate and true to the actual events as they happened.
Also, compared to any other ancient text the New Testament stands in a class of its own due to the number of manuscripts, whole or partial that exists. “Not only are there thousands more manuscripts and portions of the New Testament than other ancient books, but the oldest New Testament manuscript portions are centuries earlier,” as compared to say the Iliad, etc. This results in the ability to reconstruct the original documents with a greater degree of accuracy than any other ancient book. If one is to doubt the authenticity of the New Testament documents then one must also doubt all ancient writing. Dr. Clay Jones, author and professor at Biola University writes (http://www.clayjones.net/), “Since the New Testament manuscripts outstrip every other ancient manuscript in sheer number and proximity to the autographs, then the New Testament should be regarded as having been accurately transmitted.”
- Graphic from Visual Unit via http://thinkingmatters.org.nz/2012/05/visualizing-the-reliability-of-the-new-testament-compared-to-other-ancient-texts/
Dr. Jones introduces us to an important topic above. The process used in determining to what degree any ancient document corresponds to its original is called textual criticism. Lower criticism deals the authenticity of the text. Textual critics try to recreate the original texts of the lost document by comparing copies of the writings, in this case the ancient New Testament documents. The results? We can be confident “that the Bible has not only been preserved in the largest number of manuscripts of any book from the ancient world, but that it also contains fewer errors in transmission.” Of these errors only 10 percent affect the meaning of the passage, none relating to the death, burial or resurrection narratives.
In light of these evidences and the work of textual critics, historians can be certain that what we’re reading today, “line for line, word for word, and even letter for letter”, is what was originally written. As such we can be confident that it is an accurate record of events. Relating these things to our larger topic Mike Licona writes,
We have reports that Jesus has been raised from the dead from at least one eyewitness (Paul) and probably more (the Jerusalem apostles preserved in the kerygma). These reports are very early and provide multiple independent testimonies, as well as testimony from one who had been hostile to the Christian message previous to his conversion experience. The canonical Gospels probably contain some traditions that go back to the original apostles… To the extent one is convinced that Clement of Rome and Polycarp knew one or more of the apostles, their letters may yield valuable insights pertaining to the apostolic teachings.
From here we are now going to see how this relates to the resurrection of Jesus by exploring the historical bedrock the event rests firmly on.
2. Historical Bedrock
There are four historical facts regarding the events surrounding Jesus’ death, all of which are almost universally agreed upon by historians across religious, political and philosophical lines. The death of Jesus of Nazareth by crucifixion, the empty tomb where Jesus was laid after the crucifixion, the postmortem appearances of Jesus to the disciples and their willingness to die for that belief, and the conversion of Paul on the road to Damascus. Below we will look at these four events as attested to in the historical documents and agreed upon by every serious scholar.
2.1. The death of Jesus by crucifixion
Jesus’ death by crucifixion is attested to by a good many sources and is considered one
of the best-known facts of all history. “No serious historian of any religious or nonreligious stripe doubts that Jesus of Nazareth really lived in the first century and was executed…” Very good, independent sources are available for commentary on this. Dr. Licona writes, “From the late first century B.C. through the end of the first century A.D., Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Livy, Philo, and Josephus report of people being… crucified.”
As far as evidence for Jesus death by crucifixion there are a number of lines of evidence in support of it. First and foremost there are multiple attestations by a number of ancient sources. Let’s first list the nonChristian sources. In Antiquites of the Jews 18.3 Josephus reports of Jesus’ crucifixion, “Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man…Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross.” Lucian, Tacitus and Mara bar Serpion all offer commentary on the crucifixion of Jesus. Lucian even testifies that Jesus was crucified in Palestine in his Peregr. In The Annals while discussing Nero’s treatment of Christians Tactitus explains that “Christus, from whom the name [Christians] had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius and the hands of one of our procurators, Pantius Pilatus.”
As far as Christian sources reporting the event, well obviously they are many. All four Gospels report of Jesus being crucified and dying. Mark reports “And they crucified him [Jesus]. Dividing up his clothes, the cast lots to see what each would get. It was the third hour when they crucified him… With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.” Saint Matthew writes in agreement with Mark, “When they had crucified him, the divided up his clothes by casting lots. And sitting down they kept watch over him there… And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.” And the apostle John records, “Finally Pilate handed him [Jesus] over to them to be crucified. So the soldiers took charge of Jesus… he went out to the place of the Skull. Here they crucified him… With that, Jesus bowed his head and gave up his spirit.”
“Jesus death and/or crucifixion are also abundantly mentioned in noncanonical
literature.” For example, in Acts 2:36 Luke writes “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified…” Paul mentions Jesus’ death in 1 Corinthians and in Galatians. Also, these passages are very early indeed, giving us a report of Jesus’ death by crucifixion at or around 55 A.D. This mean Paul was preaching the crucifixion just 21 years after Jesus’ death. According to the perspective of a historian this is extremely rare and valuable.
As far as Jesus dying on the cross, modern science has even commented. The Journal of the American Medical Association published an article saying that “interpretations based on the assumption that Jesus did not die on the cross appear to be at odds with modern medical knowledge.” In fact the overwhelming majority of scholars agree that Jesus died on the Roman cross. Even Bart Ehrman in his first debate with Mike Licona said, “There are some things we can say for certain really happened… We can say for certain that Jesus was crucified on orders of the Roman prefect Pontius Pilot.”
2.2. The empty Tomb
The second line of evidence to explore as part of our historical bedrock is the empty tomb as according to friendly and unfriendly sources. The burial of Jesus “is one of the best-established facts about Jesus.” For the sake of time and space we will concentrate not on the evidence for the burial of Jesus but for the empty tomb. However, it should not go unmentioned that there are very early and independent sources supporting all aspects of the burial. It is in fact a very well established fact of history.
With that said, there are a number of lines of reasoning that lead us to the knowledge that the tomb was empty, the first of which is the simple fact that we know with a fair amount of certainty the location for Jesus burial, as did the disciples. Jesus was executed in public and buried in Jerusalem. Were the tomb not empty not only would the disciples have never claimed he was raised, it would have been incredibly easy for the Sanhedrin to squash the rumors that ultimately lead to the flourishing of Christianity. All they would have had to do is exhume the body and display it, squashing any theory of a risen Jesus. But instead the Sanhedrin, admitting the tomb was empty, accused the disciples of stealing it, trying to explain the missing corps. But we can be sure that the accusations were as empty as the tomb. In fact this is scene in the historical documents we have testify to this.
Following the narrative in Matthew we see that a Roman guard sealed the occupied tomb and stood watch. History tells us that the Romans were loyal to death, had anyone tried to remove the body from the tomb they would have faced an elite band of soldiers. But most convincingly in Matthew 28 we read that the guards, finding an empty tomb went to Jesus’ accusers to inquire about what should be done. The chief priests “gave the soldiers a large sum of money, telling them, ‘You are to say, His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.”
You see, all knew that the tomb was empty, so what were the possible explanations of this? As the Sanhedrin hypothesized, the disciples of Jesus could have stolen the body. But as we saw above this could not of happened. But for argument sake if the disciples had somehow distracted the Roman guards, rolled away the massive stone sealing the tomb and then taken the body, they themselves would have known that Jesus had not risen. They would have known it was a hoax. And they certainly would not have been willing to suffer and die for what they knew to be false as discussed above.
Please understand that scholars unfriendly to the Christian story agree that the tomb was empty. Allison, Bostock, Carnley, Ehrman, Fisher, Grant, and Vermes all grant that the tomb being empty is as close to a historical certainty as we can ever get. In light of this we can be confident that Jesus was buried in a specific tomb and later that tomb was found to be empty.
2.3. Postmortem appearances of Jesus to the disciples and their willingness to be martyred
“Shortly after Jesus’ death, his disciples asserted he had returned to life and appeared to some of them in both individual and group settings.” The earliest Christian evangelists cite hundreds of eyewitnesses; many of these witnesses also documented their experiences, which we can examine. Perhaps the most significant of these is found 1 Corinthians 15:3-8.
For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that He was seen by Cephas [which is Peter], then by the twelve. 6 After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. 7 After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. 8 Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time. 
Here Paul gives us a summary of events that have multiple attestations by the other evangelists. In verse 3 Paul reports on the death of Jesus, which is also reported in strikingly similar fashion in many of the other evangelists writings. Jesus’ burial in verse 4 can be found in all the canonical Gospels. And most important to our discussion, Paul’s report of Jesus’s posthumous appearance is found in a number of different sources. This last point deserves a little more attention.
Paul gives us a list of witnesses to Jesus resurrection. As with many of the appearances listed in the New Testament records, this one in 1 Corinthians is multiply attested to which speaks to its reliability. The appearances in verse 5, to Peter may also be alluded to in Mark 16:6 and even more is mentioned specifically in Luke 24:34. This is an example of a postmortem appearance of Jesus, attested to by three independent sources written fairly close to the events themselves. Another example is Paul’s mention of Jesus’ appearance to the twelve found in that same verse. Both Luke and John make mention of this appearance in their writings. Licona, agreeing with Dr. Craig and Dr. Wright believes that “the appearance to the more than five hundred is the appearance in Galilee mentioned in Matthew 28:16-18.”
In order to offer a summary of the 1 Corinthians passage it is important to note that it is very early (A.D. 55), more likely than not based on eyewitness testimony, and very accurately attests to the events of Jesus’ death, burial and postmortem appearances/resurrection. What is found in this passage in light of the other New Testament documents is a historians dream! What we have in this passage is a certifiable, formal, and official proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.
It is also important to understand that claiming the risen Christ was not without consequence. Many times we take for granted our freedom to claim Jesus as our savior. We must be reminded that eyewitnesses willingly and resolutely were subjected to torture and death in defense of their claim to have seen Jesus resurrected. Knowing this we can be sure of their sincerity and be confident that they were telling the truth and not perpetuating an elaborate hoax. Looking at the historical record found in Acts 4:1-17, Pliny’s Letters to Trojan and others, early believers could have ended their suffering my simply renouncing the faith and claim of seeing Jesus post-resurrection, however this was not the case. Most endured suffering to the point of death while claiming the risen Jesus.
You might object that martyrdom, while testifying to someone’s wholehearted belief, does not validate that belief. And this is true, but the early Christian martyrs are an exception because they knew whether they were professing the truth or not. They either saw a resurrected Jesus or they didn’t and this is extraordinary. If it were a lie why would so many people defend it? There was no social, political or financial benefit. In fact claiming this only lead to persecution, imprisonment, torture and/or death. What they were claiming to have seen was either true or not, and they were willing to die for that claim. Considering the large number of witnesses present eventually someone would have confessed to the truth once they or their family members fell victim to the Roman cross, sword, spear or Emperor Nero’s fires. But the fact is that even in the face of horrible suffering and persecution to this day we don’t have one record of an early Christian denouncing the faith in an attempt to end the suffering. Instead we have numerous accounts of Jesus appearing post-resurrection and hundreds of eyewitnesses willing to suffer and even die for that claim.
In order to gain a complete understanding of the effects of seeing Jesus resurrected we should look to the Apostles specifically. They all underwent undeniable change after the appearances of the post-resurrected Jesus. These were not the bravest of men, directly following Jesus’ capture and crucifixion they ran and hid in fear. But following Jesus’ resurrection they started boldly confessing Christ and the resurrection in the face of persecution. There is no explanation for this other than that they believed what they had witnessed to be true. Instead of any worldly gain these men gave up everything they had for this belief, eventually giving their lives! We are now going to turn our attention to a contemporary of Jesus who was not only a skeptic but persecutor of the early church. Through an experience he then converted and dedicated his life to preach the Gospel. We now briefly look at the conversion of Paul.
2.4. The conversions of Paul
The last part of the historical bedrock is the unlikely conversion of Paul. Paul’s conversion is of particular interest because of the nature of his testimony. Paul’s reports are very early, as mentioned above, but he was also an enemy of the church. This means we get early historical narratives not only from friendly sources “but also by at least someone who was a vehement foe at the time of the experience.” Paul personally admitted to being a “blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man,” specifically toward Christians and the early church. In fact he was partially responsible for and present at the stoning of Steven. Following an encounter with what he claimed to be the resurrected Christ Paul was immediately and drastically changed. He was a rabbi, a Pharisee, a respected Jewish leader. He hated the Christian heresy and was doing everything in his power to stamp it out. He was even responsible for the execution of Christian believers. Then suddenly he gave up everything… and became a Christian missionary: he entered a life of poverty, labor, and suffering. He was whipped, beaten, stoned and left for dead, shipwrecked three times… and was martyred for his believe in the risen Christ at Rome.
Paul was willing to give everything up, including his own life in order to preach the Gospel. One must understand that Paul was not a fisherman or lay person, Paul was a Pharisee, from wealth, highly educated. He truly had everything to lose. Paul’s conversion stands out because unlike common conversations of people from one religion to another Paul did not change due to second party sources. No, he had what he claimed to be an authentic experience with the risen Jesus Christ, who appeared directly to him. These things are universally accepted among scholars.
Now that we have these well attested to facts regarding Jesus’ death, burial and postmortem appearances/resurrection what do we do with them? This is where method becomes important as we apply it to the facts and begin to see that God raising Jesus from the grave is the best explanation.
There is a formal method historians use when assessing events in pursuit of an accurate picture and historical truth of an event. When weighing hypotheses to explain a given data set often times historians use what’s known as the argument from best explanation. This method uses the following set of criteria to explain which hypothesis best fits the set of events.
Explanatory Scope – the greater the number of facts accounted for by a hypotheses, the greater the explanatory scope.
Explanatory Power – the hypothesis that explains the data with the least amount of effort, vagueness and ambiguity has greater explanatory power.
Plausibility – the more independent sources that corroborate the hypothesis gives it greater plausibility.
Less Ad Hoc – when a hypothesis enlists non-evidenced assumption, when it goes above and beyond what is already known the more ad hoc it becomes.
“Rather than providing a magical formula for discovering the past, these criteria define how a fair-minded critical examination of the data may be conducted.” What the historian does here is look at the knowable historical facts, as we’ve done above, and from these facts he tries to figure out what historical condition would most likely produce them. This process is similar to the way a physician diagnoses a patient; by looking at the symptoms and finding a diagnosis that most easily and best fits all the symptoms. The more criteria the hypothesis satisfies the better it is.
We will apply the argument from the best explanation to the four historical facts discussed above in the context of two different hypotheses. First we will look at the most common naturalistic hypothesis offered today, the hallucination hypothesis. In this hypothesis Jesus dies brutally and quite suddenly as reported in the biblical texts. This causes confusion and grief among the followers of Jesus and as a result the experience hallucinations of a risen Jesus.
This hypothesis perfectly explains Jesus death on a Roman cross seeing as though it is exactly what is reported in the historical texts. It would also explain the individual appearances of Jesus to one person at a time. For example it would explain his appearance to Peter because Peter would have probably been in a state of tremendous stress, guilt, grief and despair, creating a scenario where a hallucination would not be out of the ordinary. However it would not explain Jesus appearance to the masses because medical knowledge tells us that hallucinations are individual experiences and are not shared among groups of people. And this also would not account for the appearance to Paul because Paul hated the Christians and was a persecutor of the early church. He most certainly was not grieving Jesus death or any of the surrounding events. Positing a hallucination does nothing to explain the empty tomb, unless the hallucinations were to be shared also by the Roman guard and Sanhedrin asking the guard to lie. So in accessing the hallucination hypothesis we would have to say that it is less ad hoc because it can explain the death of Jesus and possibly the individual appearances and there does not seem to be any non-evidence based assumptions. But this hypothesis lacks explanatory scope because it only accounts for one of the four historical facts; it lacks explanatory power because it would have to posit groups of a people sharing the same hallucinations at the same time which we know does not happen; it lacks plausibility because there is no literature or research in support of group hallucinations within the medical community and as such in an unknown phenomenon. So of the four criteria used by historians the hallucination hypothesis satisfies one.
Now let’s examine the hypothesis that God raised Jesus from the dead. This is the resurrection hypothesis and is simply that Jesus died, God raised him from the dead and then Jesus appeared to others in group and individual settings. Well it’s easy to see that this hypothesis accounts for all of the events making up our historical bedrock. It accounts for Jesus death by crucifixion. The empty tomb is accounted for because Jesus was raised by God. This hypothesis perfectly accounts for why a number of people, friendly and unfriendly, would report to have an experience of Jesus appearing to them. “After all, if Jesus rose and appeared to them we would expect people to have these kinds of experiences wouldn’t we? And have the beliefs that Jesus rose and appeared to them.” And similarly this hypothesis would explain the conversion of Paul. If Paul had indeed experienced Jesus as he describes in the historical record then one would expect such a radical change. Actually, it would be difficult to think of another hypothesis that could explain this. So, as we see the resurrection hypothesis has great explanatory scope because it accounts for all four of our historical facts; it has good explanatory power because there is no pushing or straining trying to make the facts fit; the weakest of the criteria would be plausibility because there isn’t much in the way of literature regarding resurrections but this is not a negative point because there is nothing saying that God cannot raise someone from the dead either; and there is most certainly nothing ad hoc. So, as compared to today’s most popular explanation of the historical bedrock, the hallucination hypothesis, the resurrection hypothesis far ought weighs it in all the criteria used by historians to ascertain what actually happened.
In conclusion we have seen that it is possible to trust historical documents and that the biblical texts are among the most trusted from antiquity. What’s more is that from these and other documents historians are able to come to an agreement on events surrounding the resurrection of Jesus that are agreed upon by virtually every scholar in the world studying the subject. We have seen the resurrection hypothesis crushes the most popular naturalistic explanation of the events in terms of its explanatory scope, power, and plausibility while being less ad hoc. Using this same exercise with every other naturalistic explanation we come to the same conclusion. God raising Jesus from the dead is historical fact.
 1 Corinthians 15: 14 (NKJV).
 Mike Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVasity, 2010), 172, 275.
 N. Geisler and W. Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible. (Chicago, Moody Press, 1986). 385
 Clay Jones, “The Bibliographical Test Updated,” unpublished as of writing this paper though expected in Philosophia Christi during 2013.
 Mike Licona, Summer Session Lecture Series, The Resurrection. Biola, La Mirado, 2012.
 Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus, 275-276.
 C.A. Evans via Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus, 63 (ft. 125).
 Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus, 303.
 Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews translated by Shlomo Pines.
 Joel Green, The Gospel of Luke: New International Commentary on the New Testament. (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1997), 168.
 Mark 15:24-37 (NIV).
 Matthew 27:35-50 (NIV).
 John 19:16-37 (NIV).
 Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus, 305.
 Edwards, Gabel and Hosmer (1986), 1463 via Licona The Resurrection of Jesus, 313.
 William Lane Craig, On Guard. (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2010), 222.
 Habermas, Gary, “The Historical Jesus”
 Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus, 462.
 The New King James Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1982), 1 Co 15:3–8.
 Habermas, Gary, “The Historical Jesus” Defending the Faith Lecture Series, (Biola University, La Mirada, CA, 2010) and Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus, 318-339.
 Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus, 322.
 Craig, Reasonable Faith, 339.
 Montgomery, History, Law and Christianity, pgs. 55-59
 Craig, Reasonable Faith: pgs. 338-340
 Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus. 437.
 1 Timothy 1:13 (NIV).
 Craig, Reasonable Faith: p. 380.
 Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus, 108-114.
 Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus 479-795.