The Resurrection of Jesus: Why is the Christian Claim Unique & What Role does Historical Evidence Play in Christian Apologetics

By Elias Ayala (M.A.T. & Mdiv)

Role of Historical Evidence:

First, I want to discuss the role of historical evidence in Christian apologetics. It is important to recognize that historical argumentation does not lead one to absolute certainty regarding the event in question. Demonstrating that an event has occurred is not the same as demonstrating something with mathematical certainty. This is important lest we present the historical evidence for the resurrection in such a way that gives the impression that our conclusion based solely upon historical analysis gives one the kind of certainty that is logically undeniable. From the nature of historical investigation itself, 100% certainty is impossible; however, I do believe one can know that the Christian worldview is true with 100% certainty, but not based solely upon a presentation of the historical facts. It must be recognized that the Christian faith is a unit, a system that is not isolated from other considerations and hence, while a look at the historical data is immensely important, the demonstration of the Christian worldview is best defended as a unit.

So what is the role of historical evidence in Christian apologetics. It is important to recognize that among the many claims of the Christian perspective, one of its central claims is that Jesus of Nazareth rose bodily from the dead. The claim is that this event occurred within space and time. God has in essence left his fingerprint in history and in such a fashion that the data can be investigated. In our case, what is the data to be investigated? Well, upon a historical basis, what we have are the documents of the New Testament. The reliability of these documents are of paramount importance. Furthermore, we need not appeal to sources outside the New Testament (although we can) given the fact that when investigating the historical data, the earliest sources are typically the most important. If a document we are handling is far removed from the events they record, the task of getting back to the event becomes more difficult. While the external sources for the historical Jesus are helpful, they are not the earliest, nor do they tell us anything new, but rather mention what the earlier sources provide but much more robustly. Furthermore, extra-biblical sources are not only later sources, but they often reflect theological developments that are out of touch with earliest Christianity and the teachings of Jesus (i.e. Gnostic Material). So as we approach the data of the New Testament, we understand that the New Testament is the best source of information concerning the relevant facts of Jesus and most importantly his resurrection.

What is Resurrection?

As always it is important to define our terms. What is the nature of the Christian claim? First we want to recognize that the word for resurrection within the 1st century context was not at all ambiguous. It was clear what was meant when early Christians proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus; and the 1st century world already had a context in which they categorized such a notion. Consider the following by New Testament scholar N.T. Wright:

The basic tenet of human existence and experience is accepted as axiomatic throughout the ancient world; once people have gone by the road of death, they do not return…’resurrection’ was not one way of describing what death consisted of. It was a way of describing something everyone knew did not happen: the idea that death could be reversed, undone, could as it were, work backwards. Not even in myth was it permitted” (N.T. Wright, Resurrection of the Son of God, p.33).

Notice that resurrection was clearly understood, and was openly rejected by the ancient world. This allows us to understand the uniqueness of the Christian claim that Jesus was bodily raised from the dead. Furthermore, it allows us to see how such a doctrine would not have been invented with the hope of acceptance given the fact that it was for the most part completely rejected, even within the context of myth itself. Hence, the uniqueness of the claim gives it some plausibility from a historical perspective and cries out for an explanation as to why the early followers of Jesus would have taught such a notion if it weren’t true. However, critics could respond that the notion of resurrection was not at all unique given the fact that even within the Bible itself, persons were “resurrected”, even prior to Jesus. Furthermore, the Old Testament even provides instances of what appears to be resurrection accounts. Consider the following:

  • Elijah raised the son of Zarephath’s widow in 1 Kings 17:17-24
  • Elisha raised the son of the Shunamite woman in 2 Kings 4:35
  • Jesus raises the son of a widow in Luke 7:13-15
  • Jesus raises Jairus’ daughter in Matthew 9:25
  • Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead (Luke 11:43, 44)

However, it must be pointed out that these accounts are fundamentally different than the claim concerning Jesus being raised bodily from the dead. For those individuals were raised only to die again. However, Jesus was raised never to die again. He was raised with a glorified body. It is for this reason that elsewhere in scripture Jesus is called the “first fruits” of the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:23).

Survey of the Evidence:

As I have said elsewhere, there is no neutrality when it comes to interpreting the historical data (or any data for that matter). However, if we were to take the “accepted” historical methodology concerning how an event in history is established and we apply it to the person of Jesus of Nazareth as he appears in the New Testament, not only do we find the New Testament itself to be historically reliable, certain facts about the historical Jesus as found within the New Testament become apparent. The following facts are generally accepted by the majority of scholarship in this area. This being said, the controversy arises not so much in the established facts themselves, but in the interpretation and implications of those established facts. At this point also, it is important to point out that what I am not saying is that because these facts are accepted by the majority of scholars in the field that therefore this establishes that Jesus Rose from the dead. I readily grant that even though the facts to be explained are generally accepted, the interpretation of those facts differ across the scholarly spectrum. So what are these fact that need to be explained?

  1. After his crucifixion Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea in his personal tomb.
  2. On the Sunday following the crucifixion, the tomb of Jesus was found empty by a group of his women followers.
  3. The original disciples believed that Jesus was risen from the dead despite their having every reason not to. (William Lane Craig, Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?, p. 26-28).

The above points make up some of the generally accepted facts concerning the person of Jesus. For in- depth defense of the historicity of the above points and why they are generally accepted by most scholars, I would point the reader to the books the information is quoted from which go into more depth. Nevertheless, the next task for the historian is to take the data and form a hypothesis so as to see which hypothesis best explains these facts. The best hypothesis will be the one that explains all of the data. When compared to the naturalistic explanations of these facts, the Christian can be confident that the resurrection hypothesis far exceeds the naturalistic explanations in its explanatory power and scope hence giving the Christian good grounds historically that Jesus rose from the dead.

Now granted, as I have said before, the nature of historical analysis does not get one to 100% certainty of the event under consideration, however, one can get to a conclusion that is beyond reasonable doubt. For one to get to the certainty of the Christian faith as a whole, further argumentation is required. However, the historical evidence is definitely one of the many strengths in favor of the Christian proclamation of the resurrection. While this article merely scratches the surface of these issues, the goal is to encourage interest in looking deeper into the historical nature of the Christian faith so as to find that the Christian claim is rooted in history, and as such can be investigated by the interested seeker.

Point 1: Demonstrates that the location of the body of Jesus was known, given the fact that it was put in the tomb by a well known and respected member of the Sanhedrin. Hence, if the claim that Jesus was raised were not true, all that was needed was to produce the body from the tomb whose location could have been easily located.

Point 2: The fact that Jesus tomb was found empty by women fulfills the historical criteria of embarrassment. Given the lowly status of women in the first century, if persons wanted to make up a story about Jesus being raised from the dead, they would not have made women the key witnesses to the empty tomb since the knee jerk reaction of the time was to not believe the testimony of women.

Point 3: Interestingly enough, there was no belief among the Jews of a dying and rising Messiah. And the belief concerning the resurrection was that resurrection occurred at the end of the world. Hence, the idea that Jesus had been raised from the dead bodily would have gone against their accepted theological categories. Hence, we need to provide an explanation as to why the disciples would have preached the radical message that Jesus of Nazareth was raised bodily from the dead, against all their theological expectations.

The hypothesis that Jesus was raised from the dead explains all of the data in a way that the competing naturalistic hypotheses do not even come close. The Christian has good historical grounds for the resurrection of Jesus and hence they should become more acquainted with the data so as to share with those who may be skeptical off the central claim of the Christian faith.

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