Believe on the Evidence: "Raised on the Third Day"
Updated: Jan 5
“... Jesus of Nazareth... was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God
and all the people. The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place. In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they did not see Jesus.” - Luke 24:19-33
The claims of the resurrection of Jesus greatly complicate an already fantastic Biblical narrative. For anyone in the 1st century AD Roman world it would be difficult to believe all that Jesus did – his teaching, his miracles, and his condemnation of the Jewish leaders. The resurrection takes all that to a new level, and demands evidence that can satisfy understandably skeptical people. As seen in the statement of Cleopas in Luke 24, Jesus’ resurrection “amazed” even his followers.
Why is this? The first reason is the unanticipated nature of his resurrection. The Greeks and Romans did not expect there to be any physical resurrection from the dead, while only some of the Jews (for example, the party of the Pharisees) accepted a physical resurrection. Even then, the Pharisees believed in a communal resurrection (c.f. Ez. 37:1-4; Is. 26:26-31) where all the righteous are resurrected at the same time. No one had anything like Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection in mind.
A second reason comes from the cause of his death. Crucifixion was one of the most shameful and disrespectful ways to be killed. The Romans reserved this method for hardened criminals, treasonous opponents of the State, and rebellious slaves. To be condemned to crucifixion was to have one’s personhood eliminated: while Romans typically cremated their dead, and Jews preferred entombment; the bodies of the crucified were frequently abandoned to wild animals in fields and garbage dumps.
What evidence can we seek for Jesus’ resurrection? One wouldn’t expect to find much physical evidence if the story of Jesus’ resurrection and ascent to heaven are true. However, we can look at the consistency of the resurrection testimony and the response of the Roman and Jewish leaders to the resurrection claims to establish the credibility of Jesus’ resurrection.
We can look along several lines of inquiry:
When did the resurrection story first appear, and did the disciples modify it through time?
Can the details of the resurrection story be refuted?
Did the Roman and Jewish authorities claim responsibility for Jesus death?
The Consistency of the Resurrection Story
Beginning with the first line of inquiry, we have the Gospel accounts of Jesus death, burial and resurrection (Mt. 26-28; Mk. 14-16; Lk. 22-24, Jn. 18-20), which were likely written down between 60 and 90 AD from older oral accounts. Continuing the history of the Jesus movement from the Gospels is The Acts of the Apostles, with the resurrection a prominent feature of the preaching of the apostles from the beginning of the church (Acts 2 & 4). The book of Acts is believed written between 80 and 110 AD, such that we can state that the story of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus was well-established within about 30 years after Jesus’ death.
But we have an even older Biblical reference that pre-dates the Gospels/Acts and aligns completely with them on the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. Paul wrote a letter to the church in Corinth, called 1 Corinthians, from Ephesus, likely in 53 or 54 AD. In the fifteenth chapter he writes:
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures He was buried He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures He appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve”
After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
- 1 Corinthians 15.3-8 (formatting by the author)
The section of four lines indented above are universally held by Bible scholars to be a quotation, not an original writing by Paul. This quotation appears in a poetic form that has a much older origin in the church, and Paul quotes it to the Corinthians as a reminder of the significance, the “first importance”, of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus.
We surmise then that this quotation was familiar to the Corinthians, either as a hymn, or a response in communal worship, or perhaps even as a public statement of faith, such as the testimony given by a person receiving baptism. Paul was likely taught this saying shortly after his conversion; his mention of Cephas (the Aramaic version of Peter) and of James, the brother of Jesus, is likely a reference to his trip to Jerusalem three years after his conversion (Galatians 1:18-20), or sometime around 36 AD; that is, within five years after Jesus’ death.
That timing is significant, because it demonstrates that the story of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus was not a late-forming legend or superstition of the first-century Christians, but rather the foundation for the Jesus movement. The first Christians owned the resurrection and made it the core of the gospel that spread around the world.
Can the details of the death, burial or resurrection of Jesus be refuted?
While the consistency of the story of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection is important evidence as to its historicity and truthfulness, so are the details of the story. Can they be corroborated? Can they be refuted? Were the details disputed, and when were they disputed?
Below is a short summary of those key details with their refutable points:
Jesus is Accused. All four Gospels state that Jesus was accused before the Jewish high priest; Matthew and John state that Caiaphas was that high priest, and John further states that Jesus was taken first to Annas (or Ananus), Caiaphas’ father-in-law, and then appeared before Caiaphas. The names of these men, their possession of the office of high priest, their relation to one another, and their presence at Jesus’ trial are all refutable details of the resurrection story.
The Gospel claims are true, at least regarding Caiaphas and Annas. The Roman historian Josephus lists Caiaphas as the high priest from 18-36 AD, during which time Jesus was killed, and that Ananus, his father-in-law, also served as high priest from 6-15 AD, confirming the statements in the Gospels.
Jesus is Condemned. All four Gospels agree that Jesus was led from the Jewish council of elders and leaders, called the Sanhedrin, to be condemned by the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. This was done because the Jews did not have authority to condemn anyone (John 18:31), although it is also likely that they wanted the Romans to have responsibility for Jesus’ death. Pilate offers the crowd to release Jesus or Barabbas, a condemned insurrectionist. Luke also mentions that before Barabbas is released, Jesus was sent by Pilate to Herod, who had jurisdiction over Galilee.
The appearance of the Jewish leaders before Pilate, Pilate’s condemnation of Jesus, Jesus before Herod, Barabbas’ insurrection, capture and release, and the names and offices of Pilate and Herod, are all refutable details – ones that could be corroborated or disputed by numerous eye witnesses. Once again, Josephus provides much of this corroboration: Pontius Pilate was the Roman governor of the province of Judea from 26-37 AD, while Herod Antipater was the Tetrarch of Galilee and Perea from 4 BC to 39 AD.
Jesus is Crucified. All four Gospels claim that Jesus was condemned by Pilate to be executed by crucifixion, and further claim that this was done at a place called “The Skull”, or Golgotha in Aramaic. Due to the gruesome nature of crucifixion and the Jewish abhorrence of dead bodies, “The Skull” was undoubtedly outside of the walls of the Jerusalem. All four Gospels describe the effects of crucifixion and the long, painful death of Jesus.
The sentence of Pilate for Jesus to die by crucifixion, and the existence of a place near Jerusalem called “The Skull” are refutable claims. The death of Jesus by crucifixion as ordered by Pontius Pilate is asserted by Josephus, Tacitus and other Roman historians as fact, and is regarded by modern historians to be as certain as any other ancient fact. As for the existence of a place called “The Skull”, where horrible executions were purportedly conducted, one can imagine that this might be one of the easiest Biblical claims to refute.
Jesus is Buried. All four Gospels assert that Jesus was buried in a rock-cut tomb owned by a man named Joseph who was from the Judean town of Arimathea. Mark and Luke claim that Joseph was a member of the Sanhedrin and that he was “waiting for the kingdom of God”, while Matthew and John claims he was a disciple of Jesus. After receiving permission from Pilate to take Jesus’ body, Joseph buys a linen shroud, while his fellow disciple Nicodemus (see John 3:1) buys 75 pounds of spices to prepare the body for burial. Jesus is wrapped in the linen with the spices, and placed in a new tomb (that is, it contained no other bodies) that was nearby.
Although not every Gospel contains each of the details, the refutable claims here are many: the names of members of the Jewish ruling council (Joseph and Nicodemus), the name and existence of a Judean town named Arimathea, that Pilate released Jesus’ body to Joseph, that Joseph and Nicodemus prepared Jesus’ body for burial according to Jewish customs, and that Jesus was buried in an unused tomb that was “nearby” the crucifixion site called “The Skull."
The early Christians passed down a tradition that a pagan temple had been built on the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial; this temple was later replaced by the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in 326 AD. The tomb where Jesus was believed to be buried is a single-chamber tomb carved into a limestone hill during the 1st century AD, in keeping with the Gospel accounts. The tomb is located about 90 feet from a rock formation that tradition holds to be “The Skull."
The Tomb is Empty. All four Gospels agree that early on the first day of the week after Jesus was crucified that some women (Mary Magdalene, the “other Mary”, Salome and perhaps more) went to the tomb to apply more spices to Jesus’ body. When they arrive, they find the blocking stone covering the entrance has been moved, and that Jesus’ body in not there. In Matthew, Mark and Luke, a man or angel (Luke and John state two, not one) appears and tells them that Jesus is risen, and that he will appear to the disciples again.
The accounts of the empty tomb might at first appear to offer few refutable details – no public events, figures or places - but it’s the alternative, non-miraculous explanations of the empty tomb that can be refuted. The first explanation is that the disciples stole the body. In Matthew 27:62-66, the writer claims that the chief priests and Pharisees went back to Pilate to request a guard for the tomb. The guard was needed because Jesus had claimed he would rise in three days, and the Jews were concerned his disciples would steal the body to perpetrate this hoax.
Pilate agrees and sends a guard with them (a praetorian guard, since Pilate was the military governor of Judea).
When the tomb is found empty on the third day, the soldiers are in a tight spot:
While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they 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.’ If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day. - Matthew 28:11-15
The Jewish leaders’ fear of a missing body now becomes their explanation for that missing body, but rather than repress the story they need to widely circulate it so as to discredit the disciples. This is a refutable claim, since if the body-theft story wasn’t well-known amongst the Jews, the resurrection story could gain credence. This will be touched on in a later section.
The other alternative would be if someone else, a non-disciple, took the body and moved it to another location. In John 20:11-15, Mary (apparently Mary Magdalene) sees the empty tomb and then the risen Jesus. In her attempt to process this strange sequence of events, she assumes Jesus is the gardener and that he had moved the body somewhere else. This alternative explanation begs the question: Why would anybody do that? As the tomb was cut into a rock formation, probably limestone, there would likely be other tombs around it, and this would necessitate a gardener to maintain the area, much like a cemetery groundskeeper would. The gardener might move a body to protect it from wild animals or grave robbers. This alternative will also be looked at in a later section, but it should be refutable whether there was a gardener, if he moved the body, and to where he moved it.
Without going into more detail here, notice how the alternatives center around the fact that Jesus died, was buried in a tomb, but the body was later found to be missing.
The Resurrected Jesus is Seen. All four Gospels claim that after the resurrection, Jesus appeared to his disciples at different times and in different places, from Jerusalem to Galilee. (The post-resurrection appearance in Mark is not included in the earliest manuscripts).
Luke claims in Acts 1:3 that Jesus “presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days”, which is a refutable statement, both for the claim he appeared and that this occurred over such a specific period. Paul’s mention in 1 Corinthians 15:6 of the many witnesses, numbering in the hundreds, who saw the risen Christ, “most of whom are still living”, is also a refutable
statement. Doubtless, any visitors to Jerusalem from the Corinthian church would have sought the opportunity to meet some of these witnesses, as Paul must have done himself.
The Absence of Historical Refutation
In the above outline of the story of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus, there can be easily identified at least 35 refutable claims in the Gospel accounts, with dozens more potentially in sight. Refuting even one of these claims would be sufficient to cast doubt on the entire story.
Before exploring the ancient Jewish and Roman writings that touch on the resurrection story, it’s important to start with an unavoidable fact:
There isn’t a single historical record from the first two centuries after Jesus’ death that presents any evidence refuting any of the death, burial or resurrection claims.
As will be seen, the Jewish and Roman writers attempt to dispute the logical sense of the resurrection of Jesus, or try to impugn the character and motives of Jesus and the disciples, or offer alternative accounts that have no historical value due to anachronisms or lack of evidence. These attempts were anticipated by Paul:
... we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. - 1 Corinthians 1:23-24
The Response to the Death, Burial and Resurrection from the Jews
In the years following the Babylonian Exile (597 BC) a substantial Jewish theology had arisen around the role of the Messiah, the Anointed One. The Messiah would destroy Israel’s enemies (whether the Persians, the Seleucids or the Romans), restore the Kingdom of David, reign over a revitalized Israel, and ultimately lead the general resurrection of the Righteous at the end of the world. In these points Jesus did not meet the expectations; in fact, his death by crucifixion meant that he was cursed by God (Deuteronomy 21:22-23), disqualifying him altogether. The crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus were a “stumbling block” the Jews could not get past.
Not surprisingly, in the late 1st and early 2nd centuries there arose polemics about Jesus that denigrated his life and mocked his death. These were at first transmitted orally, with new scandalous details added over time, but generally adhering to the following summary:
Jesus (Yeshu) was not the result of a virgin birth but of an adulterous affair by his mother Mary (Miriam). He grows and becomes a rabbinical student but fails at this due to his disrespectful behavior, so he flees to the Galilee.
Jesus gains miraculous powers by surreptitiously learning the “Ineffable Name” of God. He attracts followers and claims he is the Messiah, deceiving them with a miraculous healing. When the Sanhedrin hear this, they invite him to Jerusalem, where he confounds them with his miraculous powers.
Ultimately, the Sanhedrin have Judas Iscariot (Judah Iskarioto) learn the Ineffable Name and perform similar miracles. Judas and Jesus struggle, during which they both lose their powers. Jesus returns to Jerusalem at Passover to regain his powers; he enters seated on a donkey to the acclaim of the deceived crowd. Judas betrays him; Jesus is seized and hung from a tree (confirming that he is cursed). He dies and then is buried outside the city. On the first day of the week, his followers declare Jesus must be the Messiah, because his tomb is found empty. An order is given to find Jesus’ body; after a frantic search the gardener responsible for the tomb confesses that he took the body so that Jesus’ followers could not steal it. The rediscovered body is dragged through Jerusalem in a public display that Jesus was not resurrected, but the disciples still go out into the world to deceive people with the resurrection lie.
This tale appeared in different forms over the years (for example, Jesus learns sorcery in Egypt to do his miracles), with some parts mentioned in several places in the Talmud between 300 and 600 AD, until it was codified in the Middle Ages in a writing called Sefer Toledoth Yeshu. While the alternative Jesus story is light on refutable details, it includes one that is fatal to its veracity: Jesus is born during the reign of the Hasmonean King Alexander Jannaeus (that is, about 90 BC), and is tried before Alexander’s widow Salome Alexandra (called Helene in the tale) who ruled Judea after Alexander’s death from 76 to 67 BC. This would place Jesus’ death over 100 years before it actually happened. Incidentally, neither the Romans nor any other foreign power appear in Sefer Toledoth Yeshu.
Today, historians are unanimous that the apparent references to Jesus in the Talmud or the story of his life, death and stolen body have no historical value.
The Response to the Death, Burial and Resurrection from the Romans
The foolishness of a crucified savior made the resurrection almost immaterial to the Romans. Josephus, Tacitus, and Pliny – the Romans owned Jesus’ crucifixion without reservation. However, as Christianity grew rapidly in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD the Roman rejection of Jesus needed something more than just the crucifixion.
The earliest alternative view of Jesus and his resurrection appears to be in a 2nd century AD work called The True Doctrine by the Roman philosopher Celsus. All manuscripts of Celsus’ work are lost, but The True Doctrine is quoted at length by the Christian writer Origen in his work Against Celsum from 246 AD.
Celsus seems to be familiar with Christianity as well as the alternative stories of Jesus life similar to Sefer Toledoth Yeshu: Jesus illegitimate birth, his miraculous powers from sorcery, his claim to be a God, his death (in this case, by crucifixion by the Romans), his mistaken resurrection and the spread of his followers teaching a lie.
Like the Jewish account of Jesus life, Celsus’ alternative biography of Jesus is also light on refutable claims, and he offers no evidence refuting any of the Gospel claims. On the contrary; Celsus starts from a position that the Gospel accounts of Jesus don’t make sense, and offers a view of how a true God would come to earth and lead his followers. His Jesus would have appeared to the ruling classes and acquired the power and prestige that would legitimate his claim to be the Son of God. The teaching of Jesus - that power comes from humility and honor from submission - was completely lost on Celsus.
In time, the Romans even used the resurrection against the Christians. During 109-113 AD, the Roman official Pliny the Younger, Governor of Bithynia and Pontus in what is now Northwestern Turkey, corresponded with the Emperor Trajan about how to handle the trials of those accused of being Christians. The believers were being accused by others because of their failure to worship the imperial cult, as all citizens were required to do. But Pliny questioned whether the Christians were actually guilty of a conspiracy against the Roman state, rather than just believing an “extravagant superstition”. He likened the Christian threat to that of the worshipers of Bacchus, whose religion the Roman Republic had banned in 176 BC, with a long persecution of the Bacchants that followed.
The question naturally arises: Why did the Romans of the late 1st and early 2nd centuries draw a parallel between Christians and the Bacchants from the 2nd century BC? The comparison was not made on a moral basis, as the Bacchants, with their depraved Bacchanalia of drunkenness and sexual indulgence, practiced little restraint of their physical appetites. Instead, the Romans saw vague parallels between the two groups: the Bacchants worshipped a god who “died” and was “resurrected” with the withering and flourishing of the grape vines, they drank his “blood” and ate his “flesh” in the wine and the grapes, and they focused so much on their worship (held at night like the early Christians) that they were apolitical in Roman civil society. The Bacchants’ lack of civic duty had been considered traitorous in its day, and the same condemnation was now heaped on the Christians.
With this equivalence between Bacchus and Christ, the Romans had no need to disprove the resurrection of Jesus; rather, the Christian confession of the resurrection now became a confession of treason and was punished accordingly.
The story of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus was not a late invention of the Christian community but rather existed from the very beginning of the church. It could be summarized in a creedal form that likely all Christians knew, and was expanded in scope with refutable details as told in the oral and written Gospels.
There are no examples of any ancient Jewish or Roman writer refuting any of the Gospel details; on the contrary, the criticism from non-believers was focused more on discrediting the intelligence, credulity and civic duty of the Christians.
Either the Gospel narratives of the resurrection are an audacious fraud, an elaborate work of historical fiction, or they are the simple truth without addition or exaggeration.
The Works of Flavius Josephus, translated by William Whiston, Baker Book House, 1974. Toledot Yeshu: The Life Story of Jesus, Peter Schaefer and Michael Meerson. Tubinger: Mohr Siueck, 2014. Gaius Plinius, The Letters of Younger Pliny, Translated by Betty Radice, Penguin Group, 1969.
The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon, Penguin Press. Origen, Celsus, and the Resurrection of the Body, Henry Chadwick, Harvard Theological Review, Volume 41, Issue 2, pp. 83-102, 1948.
All Bible references from the New International Version (NIV) Art Shirley November, 2020