The Evidence of Jesus

Reference to the bodily resurrection of Jesus is also found in Roman sources written only decades after the crucifixion of Jesus. In a monumental historical work written by Josephus over many years and finished about AD 93, he recorded how disciples had reported that Jesus appeared to them alive three days after the crucifixion (Josephus, Antiquities). Although a version of this text appears to have been slightly modified by Christians and sounds as if Josephus became a Christian, a more recently discovered Arabic copy seems to reflect the original tone, noting that a resurrection of Jesus was what people reported without endorsing a belief in Jesus as the Messiah.

The Roman historian Tacitus also made reference to the claim of the resurrection of Jesus in about AD 116, writing that the “mischievous superstition” about Jesus and his resurrection had caused problems throughout the Empire, even after attempts had been made to repress Christianity and the claims about the resurrection of Jesus (Tacitus, Annals 15.44). Although neither Josephus nor Tacitus stated their belief in a physical resurrection of Jesus, their writings make it clear that people reported this event, believed it, and knowledge of it spread rapidly throughout the Roman Empire.

This suggests that not only were the resurrection claims known but that the claims had not been refuted in the several decades after Jesus. Part of the failure by the Romans and the Judean religious leaders to refute the resurrection of Jesus seems to have been a result of the missing body. The modern proposal that the corpse of Jesus was still in the tomb many days after his death is in conflict with the historical sources and logic. No ancient writing, even those highly critical of Christianity, claimed that the body of Jesus was still in the tomb days after his death. To make a resurrection claim when the Roman authorities could parade the body or refute the claims, or the curious could open the tomb and look inside, would have resulted in a swift refutation of the resurrection idea in Judea Province and beyond. Rather, as both the Gospel of Matthew and a 1st-century AD Roman edict suggest, the body of Jesus was absent from the tomb and a rumor circulated that disciples of Jesus had stolen the body and hidden it.

The Nazareth Inscription indicates that whatever had happened in Judea Province in association with the stealing of a corpse prior to the reign of Claudius had caused a significant enough problem that the Roman government intervened and enacted a new law that would attempt to prevent any repeat of this type of event. An imperial rescript issued in the regions of Judea and Galilee, and perhaps specifically set up in Nazareth, only several years after the resurrection of Jesus suggests there was widespread knowledge of the event. The Roman government seems to have reacted to the rapidly spreading story of the resurrection of Jesus in the hopes that the disciples and the message could be thwarted, and no future incidents of this nature would happen. Worship of the emperor and total obedience to Rome was in the best interest of Imperial Rome, and the belief in and worship of Jesus of Nazareth as God were seen as a threat.

Of course, the Romans were unsuccessful at stopping the spread of the message of Jesus using new laws and even harsh persecutions. This Roman edict, along with the records of Josephus and Tacitus, demonstrates that throughout the Empire it was known that the corpse of Jesus had mysteriously gone missing from the tomb. Only two explanations were offered in ancient times—either the disciples somehow stole the body of Jesus while sealed in a tomb guarded by Roman soldiers, or Jesus miraculously rose from the dead and left the tomb. The story circulated by those Roman soldiers that the disciples successfully carried out a plot to steal the body of Jesus from the tomb in order to make it look like Jesus had been resurrected and walked out himself is problematic in light of the proficiency of Roman soldiers, and especially the willingness of so many eyewitness followers of Jesus to die for their belief that he had actually been raised from the dead.

According to sources of the 1st and 2nd century AD, eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus such as Peter, Stephen, James the son of Zebedee, and even James the Just and Paul of Tarsus who converted after the resurrection, all believed so positively in the deity and resurrection of Jesus that they were prepared to die, and in fact, were executed as a result of their belief and unwillingness to deny it (Josephus, Antiquities; Ignatius, Letter to the Ephesians; Tertullian, Prescription Against Heretics; Acts 7:58-60; 12:1-2). Slightly later sources record the martyrdom of additional disciples who were also eyewitnesses (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History).

The total commitment to belief in the resurrection of Jesus by those who personally knew him, even to the point of death for many of them, does not necessarily prove that Jesus did rise from the dead, but it does demonstrate that followers of Jesus truly believed in the resurrection story and that it was not a fictitious conspiracy story that they had created. Numerous scholars have analyzed the arguments for and against the resurrection of Jesus as a historical event, and while many skeptics of varying degrees will continue to remain, there are others who suggest that the bodily resurrection of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels is the best explanation based on ancient sources, historical context, medicine, psychology, and logic. They typically focus on key aspects such as the death of Jesus by crucifixion, the empty tomb, the claims of the disciples and apostles, the conversions of James and Paul, and the willingness of eyewitnesses to die for their belief in the resurrection of Jesus. A logical analysis of the historical possibilities of the empty tomb and resurrection of Jesus combined with the available historical evidence demonstrates that the only plausible scenarios are: 1) the body of Jesus was stolen from the tomb and a claim was made that he resurrected and appeared to many people through a vast and unlikely conspiracy involving Roman soldiers, many followers of Jesus, and adherents of Judaism in Jerusalem who opposed or were skeptical towards the claims of Jesus; 2) somehow Jesus revived from death after days due to a scientific anomaly that is medically unattested; 3) Jesus was resurrected by supernatural or miraculous means that defy a materialistic worldview.

If one denies the possibility of the supernatural, then only a naturalistic cause such as a vast conspiracy or an anomalous, unattested resuscitation can be accepted, however unlikely or improbable those explanations may be. Yet, if God exists and therefore miracles are possible, then the physical resurrection of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels, the epistles, mentioned by early historians and philosophers, alluded to by a Roman edict, and testified to by the martyrdom of many eyewitness followers of Jesus is more logical, plausible, and consistent with the evidence.

T. Kennedy

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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