Author: Steve Adams
Saturday 31st March 12:41pm.
In the previous blog entry in this series, we noted that the resurrection is the necessary hinge on which all of Christianity turns. Even the Bible itself acknowledges that if Jesus wasn't actually raised, that Christianity is futile and we should be pitied above all people. If the resurrection is so tantamount to the legitimacy of the entire Christian faith, surely there must be substantial reasons why people believed (and gave their life) that Jesus was actually raised from the dead on the third day after His crucifixion. Josephus was a first century Jewish historian who also served the Roman emperor Vespasian. Neither his religious convictions nor workplace environment afforded him any reason to speak too favourably of Jesus - especially His resurrection.
Josephus (1st Century Jewish Historian) - Antiquities 18.3
At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. His conduct was good and (he) was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. But those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion, and that he was alive; accordingly he was perhaps the Messiah, concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders.
It must be noted that Josephus does not claim that Jesus had risen from the dead but he does acknowledge that the followers of Jesus claimed that they had seen Him after he was raised. This might seem a fairly insignificant insight into history. After all, wouldn't it makes sense that Jesus' followers would naturally be convinced that Jesus would be raised from the dead like He claimed He would on at least three occasions? Well, this is where the Biblical accounts are quite embarrassing. Despite the fact that the Gospels record on numerous occasions that Jesus told His followers that He would be raised on the third day, absolutely none of His followers appeared to have actually expected it to happen. On that first Easter Sunday morning, Jesus followers were hiding away in a locked room for fear of the Jews because of their association with Jesus. Even when the women who went to the tomb (expecting to embalm His dead body but found that He had gone) reported to Jesus followers that He had risen, they thought it was a joke. Something must have happened in order to change Jesus' followers from their state of fearfulness and skepticism to their bold fanaticism in proclaiming His resurrection amidst harsh persecution. A brief look at the options may show that the most feasible conclusion is that Jesus' followers actually did see the risen Christ.
So who actually saw Jesus risen from the dead? I have friends who claim to have seen all sorts of things that I am quite unconvinced of. If it were just twelve disciples in a closed room claiming to have seen Jesus, we'd all be a little suspicious. However, the Apostle Paul says this in 1 Corinthians 15.
1 Corinthians 15:3-6 (ESV)
3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.
If only twelve disciples claimed to have seen Jesus, it's possible to conclude they were delusional. It's very unreasonable to conclude that more than five hundred people had the same delusion. This just doesn't happen. Paul, who is writing in the first century says that most of these five hundred are still alive. Therefore, there were hundreds of people alive at the time of his writing that you could speak to and ask. There was nothing to gain but persecution (and possibly death) for claiming that Jesus was alive. What sort of fool is willing to risk their life for a lie?
The claims that Jesus had risen from the dead didn't just cause religious conflict but also civil unrest. Both the Jews and the Romans wanted to silence these claims that Jesus had risen from the dead. However, Jesus' followers refused to be quiet. When we look at how Christians were treated for claiming that Jesus was risen, we see something of how passionately the Romans were to bring this to an abrupt end.
Cornelius Tacitus (1st Century Roman Historian) - Annals 15.44
Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.
This "superstition" which was being reported was that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Those who pleaded guilty for spreading such news were torn apart by dogs, crucified or burnt to death. If the Romans were so keen to bring this "superstition" to a complete end, there was one obvious solution - produce a dead body. It is often claimed that Jesus cannot be raised from the dead because it is not verified by any other historical source other than the Bible. It is equally true, that there is no historical evidence to refute the claim that Jesus was raised from the dead. There are many early writings of people claiming that Jesus was raised but no historical writings showing those claims to be false. Despite the great hostility from the Jews and the Romans, there has never been a plausible reason (other than Jesus actually being raised as the Bible says) for the empty tomb. Of course, there have been many attempts but as we examine them below, we will see that they are all harder to sustain than the belief in the resurrection.
1. THE DISCIPLES STOLE THE BODY OF JESUS
In Matthew 27:62-66, we see that the Pharisees remembered that Jesus said he would be raised from the dead so they asked Pilate for a guard of Roman soldiers to be placed so that the Disciples would not steal the body.
Matthew 27:62-66 (ESV)
62 The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate 63 and said, “Sir, we remember how that impostor said, while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise.’ 64 Therefore order the tomb to be made secure until the third day, lest his disciples go and steal him away and tell the people, ‘He has risen from the dead,’ and the last fraud will be worse than the first. 65 Pilate said to them, “You have a guard of soldiers. Go, make it as secure as you can. 66 So they went and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone and setting a guard.
So Pilate provides a guard of Roman soldiers and has the tomb sealed. Lets remember what Jesus' disciples were doing between His arrest and this third day. They were hiding our of fear and didn't expect him to be risen on the third day at all. Do you honestly believe that the same followers who were hiding in fear of being persecuted would come and take on Roman guards, steal the body so they could claim He was raised when they didn't believe that He would be?
2. THE WOMEN AND DISCIPLES WENT TO THE WRONG TOMB
We must not ignore the fact that the Bible says that the women followed the men who took Jesus body and saw where He was buried. They knew exactly which tomb they were going to that Sunday morning. If this were the true explanation, it is also be the easiest for the Romans to stop the spread of the news of Jesus resurrection. The Romans had no qualms about displaying dead bodies of those they crucified. All they needed to do would be to go to the "right" tomb, produce the body and the claims of the Christians were moot and the hostility that had risen would have been crushed.
3. JESUS NEVER ACTUALLY DIED. HE WAS JUST VERY WEAK WHEN HE WAS PLACED IN THE TOMB.
Any first century historian can tell you how good Romans were at killing. There's no way they would have given a body for burial unless they were convinced the person was dead. In fact, the Biblical account records what happens when Joseph of Arimathea asks Pilate for Jesus' body.
Mark 15:43-45 (ESV)
43 Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself looking for the kingdom of God, took courage and went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. 44 Pilate was surprised to hear that he should have already died. And summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he was already dead. 45 And when he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the corpse to Joseph.
Pilate made sure he confirmed that Jesus was dead before allowing Joseph to take the body. Even if you were still convinced that Jesus wasn't fully dead, you would then need to presume that somehow after Jesus had been flogged, then crucified, then placed in a tomb without food or water for a couple of days somehow made a comeback, smashed through the rock sealed over the tomb and then single-handedly took on all of the Roman soldiers. You might accept that in a Sylvester Stallone movie but I don't think anyone would accept that as a historical fact.
4. THE DISCIPLES WERE SO CONVINCED THAT JESUS WOULD RISE THAT THEY TALKED THEMSELVES INTO BELIEVING IT HAPPENED.
Let's not underestimate the power of the mind. There have been countless people who have convinced themselves into believing something to be true that really isn't. As stated earlier, nowhere in history has there been disillusionment on such a grand scale as having over five hundred people all claiming to see the same delusions. Then add to this the Biblical record that embarrassingly states that NONE of Jesus's followers actually expected Jesus to be raised on the third day. You can hardly conclude then that they were so convinced and therefore talked themselves into believing it. They were only convinced AFTER seeing Jesus risen. Only an actual encounter with Jesus risen from the dead makes sense of why this group of followers turn from cowards hiding from people because of their association with Jesus to boldly proclaiming in public before crowds of the Resurrection of Jesus. Of the disciples, all expect John were killed because of their faith. They attempted to kill John by boiling him in oil but he survived. If you were making it up, you'd change your story before being placed in hot oil, burnt or crucified. But the truth of Jesus' resurrection was a truth even more valuable than their own lives.
I get it. The idea that someone would be killed and come back to life on the third day with no medical intervention doesn't rationally make sense. If I was to go to a funeral on a Friday and then saw someone who looked identical to the deceased on the Sunday, I would not naturally presume I was looking at the person whose funeral I had attended. But if Jesus is the Son of God, God in the Flesh as He claimed to be, the proof of those claims would need to be His power and authority over things such as life and death. If you conclude that the evidence points more heavily towards Jesus actually being raised from the dead, then the rest of what Jesus did and said deserves a more thorough examination. In our next (and final entry) in this series we will look at why Jesus death and resurrection has important implications for all of us.