Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus
The Christian faith revolves around the historical fact of Jesus’ bodily resurrection. In this brief article, I outline the historical evidence supporting resurrection faith. Simply put, Jesus’ resurrection is the best explanation for five established historical facts listed below. These facts are established historical data acknowledged by virtually all (more than 95 percent of) scholars (including non-Christian scholars).
Why do scholars affirm these historical facts? Historical knowledge derives from artifacts, particularly written documents. When historians study written sources for knowledge, they look for certain qualities. (1) Early Date: is the source written close to the time of the events it discusses? (2) Eyewitness Status: does the source contain eyewitness testimony? (3) Multiple Attestation: do multiple independent sources affirm the same basic account?
The historical facts listed below (a) are confirmed by multiple independent written sources which are (b) early accounts, written soon after the death of Jesus, of (c) eyewitness testimony. Early, multiple, eyewitness attestation explains why virtually all scholars agree they are not just beliefs, but historical facts demanding explanation. I submit that these can only be reasonably explained by Jesus’ bodily resurrection.
–Fact No. 1
Jesus Death Burial
Jesus’ tomb cannot be found empty (Fact No. 2) unless He is dead and buried. It is nearly unanimously affirmed that (1) Jesus was sentenced to death by Pontius Pilate, and died upon a Roman cross on the Friday of Passover week; and (2) Joseph of Arimathea gave Jesus an honorable (though hurried) burial before the onset of the Sabbath. No ancient sources question Jesus’ death and burial.
–Fact No. 2
Women Discover the Empty Tomb
After the Sabbath, a group of women (including Mary Magdalene) came to Jesus’s sealed tomb, only to find the stone rolled away and the tomb empty. This fact alone (amongst those listed here) lacks virtually unanimous consent among scholars—about two-thirds of scholars agree that the empty tomb is a historical fact.
Why do most scholars agree the tomb was found empty? (1) Our ancient sources unanimously confirm the empty tomb. (2) Enemies of Christianity agree that the tomb was empty and accuse the disciples of stealing Jesus’s body (see Matt. 28:15). The fact of the empty tomb is undisputed; skeptics only question the cause. (3) Women discover the empty tomb, an unlikely scenario if the account is fabricated. Women’s testimony was considered unreliable (see, e.g., the disciples’ reaction in Luke 24:11). Imaginative Christians would place key disciples at the discovery of the empty tomb, not untrustworthy women. (4) The empty tomb is discovered in Jerusalem, and proclaimed in Jerusalem shortly thereafter (Acts 2). If the tomb was not empty, opponents of Christianity would have capitalized on that reality.
–Fact No. 3
Disciples Encounter the Risen Jesus
Scholars agree that the disciples had experiences they interpreted as encounters with the risen Jesus. Jesus’ resurrection appearances were unapologetically bodily (Luke 24, Matt. 28, John 20-21). Jesus appeared to individuals, small groups and large groups (see, e.g., 1 Cor. 15:5-8).
–Fact No. 4
Skeptic James, Opponent Paul
Encounter Jesus and Believe
Jesus’ brother James did not believe Jesus was the promised Messiah during His lifetime (e.g., Mark 3:20-32)—James was a skeptic. Nonetheless, James encountered the risen Jesus (1 Cor. 15:7), becoming not just a believer, but a key leader in the early church (Josephus, Acts 15). Paul was an active disbeliever and opponent of the early church before his encounter with the risen Jesus (Acts 7-9). Paul subsequently becomes a missionary to the Gentiles, and eventually is martyred for his faith (see Clement, Polycarp, Tertullian, Origen).
–Fact No. 5
Disciples Willingly Suffer and Die
for Resurrection Faith
Outside of John (and the suicidal Judas), the original disciples (plus Paul, Stephen, and others) are persecuted and ultimately martyred for their proclamation of and belief in Jesus’ resurrection. As critics often note, people die for false beliefs quite regularly. However, the disciples knew whether their resurrection faith was true or false. People die for false beliefs they believe to be true; but people do not willingly die for false beliefs they know to be false.
Fact or Fiction?
There is much more that could be said: the growth of the church; the transformation of the disciples’ worldview; worship of a crucified ‘Messiah’ as God; worship on Sunday instead of the Sabbath (Saturday). More supporting evidence could be mustered for each listed fact (see suggested reading below). What has been said demonstrates that the resurrection is not an article of blind faith—something believed despite lack of evidence. We have resurrection faith on the basis of solid historical grounds. We confidently and reasonably affirm and proclaim: Jesus is risen; He is risen, indeed.
For an in-depth readable treatment, consult Habermas & Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus; and/or Lee Strobel, The Case for Easter.