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Eye-witness Evidence of Christ Resurrection

The central message of Christianity is the historical event of Jesus Christ resurrection from the grave. Peter preached this vigorously. “And we are witnesses of all things which he did both in the land of the Jews, and in Jerusalem; whom they slew and hanged on a tree: Him God raised up the third day, and shewed him openly; Not to all the people, but unto witnesses chosen before of God, even to us, who did eat and drink with him after he rose from the dead. (Acts 10:39-41) John also emphasized this message. “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life;  (for the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and shew unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us;)  that which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ. And these things write we unto you, that your joy may be full.” (1 John 1:1-4) Glenn W. Barker comments on this passage: “The unusual nuance of feeling and thought present in the Greek of this Preface to the letter is difficult to catch in translation. Even to untangle its syntactical structure takes special effort. The four verses represent a single periodic sentence in Greek. But the main verb and subject ‘we proclaim’ (apangellomen), which controls the whole sentence, does not appear until v. 3…”1)Glenn W. Barker, The Expositors Bible Commentary (ed. Frank E. Gaebelein), Zondervan (Grand Rapids, MI: 1981), Vol. 12, p. 306 The apostles proclaimed a bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ of which they were eyewitnesses.

A bodily resurrection was not a culturally acceptable message in the first century Roman empire. N. T. Wright indicates, “The immediate conclusion is clear. Christianity was born into a world where its central claim [i.e. resurrection] was known to be false. Many believed that the dead were non-existent; outside Judaism, nobody believed in resurrection.”2)N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God: Christian Origins and the Question of God, vol. 3, Fortress Press (Minneapolis, MN: 2003), p. 35 He expressly states,  “Nobody in the pagan world of Jesus’ day and thereafter actually claimed that somebody had been truly dead and then come to be truly, and bodily, alive once more.”3)N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God: Christian Origins and the Question of God, vol. 3, Fortress Press (Minneapolis, MN: 2003), p. 76 Tertullian (A.D. 160-230) converted out of paganism indicated how the resurrection was something of ridicule when he was a pagan:

…as being about at the end of all to adjudge His worshippers to everlasting life, and the wicked to the doom of fire at once without ending and without break, raising up again all the dead from the beginning, reforming and renewing them with the object of awarding either recompense. Once these things were with us, too, the theme of ridicule.4)Tertullian, Apology 18 in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Edited by Alexander Roberts, D.D., & James, Donaldson, LL.D., Hendrickson Publishers, 2012, Vol. 3, p. 32

This causes us to ask the question, “Why would people lying make up a story that nobody would be willing to believe?” Obviously, lies are invented with the intentions that they will be believed and accepted, not mocked and ridiculed.

Craig Keener further explains the culture milieu of the first century.

…Palestinian Jews did not speak of nonbodily ‘resurrection’…

Nor would anyone have persecuted the disciples for simply affirming that they had seen someone who had been dead; apart from the bodily character of the resurrection—the sort that would leave behind an empty tomb—people would merely assume that they were claiming to have seen a ghost, a noncontroversial phenomenon in antiquity.5)Craig S. Keener, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. (Grand Rapids, MI: 2009, 2012), p. 342-343

If the apostles preached anything less than a bodily resurrection they would not have been persecuted for their message. The first century Jewish historian Josephus records a Roman general who thought he saw ghosts. “But as to Catullus… He was not only afflicted in body, but the distemper in his mind was more heavy upon him than the other; for he was terribly disturbed, and continually cried out, that he saw the ghosts of those whom he had slain, standing before him.”6)Josephus, Wars of the Jews, 7.11.4; in The Complete Works of Flavius Josephus the Jewish Historian (trans. William Whiston), Kregel Publications (Grand Rapids, MI: 1960, 1981), p. 606 This fact implies that ghosts, visions, or apparitions, would have been more acceptable message than the bodily resurrection. If the apostles were make up a lie they surely would have sought something more acceptable for their own benefit and safety.

Michael Licona discussed how the persecution that the apostles suffered speaks volumes for the reality of their proclamation.

The disciples’ willingness to suffer and die for their beliefs indicates that they certainly regarded those beliefs as true….

The apostles died for holding to their own testimony that they had personally seen the risen Jesus. Contemporary martyrs die for what they believe to be true. The disciples of Jesus suffered and were willing to die for what they knew to be either true of false.7)Michael R. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, InterVarsity Press (Downer Grove, IL: 2010), p. 370

Clement of Rome (A.D. 95) who personally knew the apostles Peter and Paul, wrote to the effect of their suffering as martyrs. “But not to dwell upon ancient examples, let us come to the most recent spiritual heroes. Let us take the noble examples furnished in our own generation. Through envy and jealousy the greatest and most righteous pillars have been persecuted and put to death. Let us set before our eyes the illustrious apostles. Peter, through unrighteous envy, endured not one or two, but numerous labours; and when he had at length suffered martyrdom, departed to the place of glory due to him. Owing to envy, Paul also obtained the reward of patient endurance, after being seven times thrown into captivity, compelled to flee, and stoned. After preaching both in the east and west, he gained the illustrious reputation due to his faith, having taught righteousness to the whole world, and come to the extreme limit of the west, and suffered martyrdom under the prefects. Thus was he removed from the world, and went into the holy place, having proved himself a striking example of patience.”8)Clement of Rome, The First Epistle of Clement, chapt. 5; in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Edited by Alexander Roberts, D.D., & James, Donaldson, LL.D., Hendrickson Publishers, 2012, vol. 1, p. 6 The disciples were willing to die for what they said they were eyewitnesses of.

Furthermore, Paul wrote: “For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures:  and that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve: after that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep. After that, he was seen of James; then of all the apostles. And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time. (1 Corinthians 15:3-8) Hans von Campenhausen spoke to the high standard of historiography evident in this passage of Paul’s. “This account meets all the demands of historical reliability that could possibly be made of such a text.”9)Hans von Campenhausen, “The Events of Easter and the Empty tomb,” Tradition and Life in the Church, Fortress Press (Philadelphia, PA: 1968), p. 44 This message of the bodily resurrection was not some late developed mythology produced long after the historical event. “Virtually all scholars agree that in these verses Paul records an ancient creed, or tradition, that dates before the writing of 1 Corinthians (mid-50 A.D.)…. It is believed that Paul received this creed when he visited Peter and James in Jerusalem three years after his conversion, which was one to four years after the crucifixion of Jesus (see Gal. 1:18-19).”10)Josh and Sean McDowell, Evidence for the Resurrection, Regal (Ventura, CA: 2009), p. 195-196 The creedal formula of the resurrection comes from such an early date to not allow time for legendary accounts to develop and is evident of the most reliable of historical claims possible.

Craig Keener presented reasons for the high level of historical validity this passage offers us.

In court of law and certainly in history, testimonies may vary on details due to memories and perspectives. The substance, however, is normally what is most important.

On any account, two matters are plain and a third likely follows: (1) the differences in accounts demonstrate that the Gospel writers were aware of a variety of independent traditions. The likely diversity and number of such traditions precisely here… suggest a variety of initial reports, not merely later divergences in an originally single tradition….

(2) The independence of the traditions thereby underlines the likelihood of details the accounts share in common. These divergent traditions overlap significantly, hence independently corroborate the basic outlines of the story. (3) Given the likely variety of initial reports, explaining the similarities and differences in terms of multiple witnesses surrounding a core historical event appears plausible and indeed probable. This is the same way that we would approach other historical reports from antiquity.11)Craig S. Keener, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. (Grand Rapids, MI: 2009, 2012), p. 332

The Gospel accounts are evident of independent reports, not a single corroborated story. This was not a conspiracy devised by the apostles (2 Peter 1:16). Put another way to express how strong the account of Christ’s resurrection would stand in the court of law, “If each of these 500 people were to testify in a courtroom for only six minutes each, including cross-examination, you would have an amazing 50 hours of firsthand eyewitness testimony. Add to this the testimony of the many other eyewitnesses and you could well have the largest and most lopsided trial in history.”12)Josh and Sean McDowell, Evidence for the Resurrection, Regal (Ventura, CA: 2009), p. 196 The number of eyewitnesses is overwhelmingly convincing.

Norman Anderson said, “In these words he put his whole credibility at stake; for what he wrote, was in effect, an implicit invitation to any who doubted his statement to put it to the test, since the majority of five hundred witnesses were still available to be questioned. And in the ancient world it would not have been a terribly difficult task to contact some of them.”13)Norman Anderson, Jesus Christ: The Witness if History, Inter-Varsity Press (Downers Grove, IL: 1985), p. 121 Truly, the very claim has put the resurrection to the test as would be according to the ancient historians method.

 For the Greeks, the very term used for research or investigation, ἱστορια (historia), left “no doubt possible about what was early considered the defining characteristic of the genre…. The method… consisted basically of the interrogation of witnesses and other informed parties” and then weaving their responses into a cohesive narrative. Even if some writers failed to travel to all the places their narratives covered, travel was apparently a familiar component of historical research. Herodotus initiated this emphasis on research (Hdt. 1.1), traveling widely; Thucydides, who cross-examined his sources, assumed this approach as the standard (Thucyd. 1.22.2; 5.26). Diodorus Siculus claims to have visited the sites of his history in Asia and Europe, complaining that even some of the best historians err when they do not visit the sites in question (Diod. Sic 1.4.1). Appian (Hist. rom. Pred. 12) claims to have checked out his reports by traveling to Carthage, Spain, Sicily, Macedonia, and elsewhere. Likewise, the later historian Herodian insisted that he accepted nothing secondhand without tracking down all the facts (Hdn. 1.1.3). Although most of Philostratus’s sophistic subjects were long deceased, he interviewed some who still lived, even on multiple occasions (Vit. soph. 2.23.606)….

Polybius avers that investigation is “the most important part” of writing history (Polyb. 12.4c.3)…. Although interviews were impossible when one was dealing with the distant past, writers preferred them when living witnesses remained available. Greek historians often traveled to the locations of events and consulted those who were considered reliable oral sources.14)Craig S. Keener, Acts An Exegetical Commentary: Introduction and 1:1-2:47, Baker Academic (Grand Rapids, MI: 2013), Vol. 1, p. 183-184

Truly, the marks of sound ancient historiography is evident in the gospel accounts. Josephus gives a similar argument as an eyewitness of the Jewish wars giving him creditably to write on such matters while others undertaken such topics were unqualified.

…since they see some of the present generation bold enough to write about such affairs, wherein they were not present, nor had concern enough to inform themselves about them from those that knew them; examples of which may be had in this late war of ours, where some persons have written histories, and published them, without having been in the places concerned, or having been near them when the actions were done; but these men put a few things together by hearsay, and insolently abuse the world, and call these writings by the name of Histories.

As for myself, I have composed a true history of that whole war, and of all the particulars that occurred therein, as having been concerned in all its transactions; for I acted as general of those among us that are named Galileans, as long as it was possible for us to make any opposition. I was then seized on by the Romans, and became a captive. Vespasian also and Titus had me kept under a guard, and forced me to attend them continually. At the first I was put into bonds, but was set at liberty afterward, and sent to accompany Titus when he came from Alexandria to the siege of Jerusalem; during which time there was nothing done which escaped my knowledge; for what happened in the Roman camp I saw, and wrote down carefully; and what information the deserters brought [out of the city], I was the only man that understood them. Afterward I got leisure at Rome; and when all my materials were prepared for that work, I made use of some persons to assist me in learning the Greek tongue, and by these means I composed the history of those transactions. And I was so well assured of the truth of what I related, that I first of all appealed to those that had the supreme command in that war, Vespasian and Titus, as witnesses for me, for to them I presented those books first of all, and after them to many of the Romans who had been in the war….

How impudent then must those deserve to be esteemed that undertake to contradict me about the true state of those affairs! who, although they pretend to have made use of both the emperors’ own memoirs, yet could not they be acquainted with our affairs who fought against them. (Against Apion 1. 45-51, 56)15)Josephus, Against Apion, 1.45-51, 56; in The Complete Works of Flavius Josephus the Jewish Historian (trans. William Whiston), Kregel Publications (Grand Rapids, MI: 1960, 1981), p. 609-610

Notice how Josephus comments that: 1) he was an eyewitness to the events which makes him a better testimony for accuracy of details; 2) being personally involved in the event did not bias his testimony but made him more reliable; 3) he was able to question people who escaped Jerusalem to investigate what was occurring behind the walls inside the city; 4) he used the emperors memoirs as documents to compare his own notes with; 5) Josephus’ own written account was presented to others that were present at the event to verify that what he wrote was accurate; and 6) those who have written on the same subject that did not have the same qualifications as he did were not considered reliable “histories”. These very same marks confirming the accuracy and authenticity of Josephus’ records are the same qualifications the authors of the gospels acclaim for themselves.

“Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us, even as they delivered them unto us, which from the beginning were eyewitnesses, and ministers of the word; it seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus,  that thou mightest know the certainty of those things, wherein thou hast been instructed.” (Luke 1:1-4)

St. Luke, as usual, is entirely silent respecting his own proceedings. There are, however, the strongest reasons for believing that, during the two years of St. Paul’s imprisonment at Caesarea, he composed his Gospel.

There are several indications in that work which tend to prove that it was written in Judea….

I infer from these indications that St. Luke’s Gospel was written in Judea; but if so, it must have been written before he quitted it with St. Paul on his voyage to Rome, for there is no later period to which its composition can be referred. It was therefore written between A.D. 58 and A.D. 60, under circumstances of all others the most favorable for historical investigation, of the spot where the transactions took place, and with constant opportunities of intercourse with those chiefly engaged in them. …every means of information at that time in the possession of living witnesses must have been accessible.16)James Smith, The Voyage ad Shipwreck of St. Paul (Fourth Edition)Baker Book House (Grand Rapids, MI: 1880, 1978), p. 13-14

Another early Christian author was mentioned because the values of what he has written for us “And these things are borne witness to in writing by Papias, the hearer of John, and a companion of Polycarp, in his fourth book; for there were five books compiled by him.” 17)Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 5.33.4; The Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson; 1885-1887, Hendrickson, 1994, Vol. 1, p. 563

Papias wrote: “But I shall not be unwilling to put down, along with my interpretations, whatsoever instructions I received with care at any time from the elders, and stored up with care in my memory, assuring you at the same time of their truth. For I did not, like the multitude, take pleasure in those who spoke much, but in those who taught the truth; nor in those who related strange commandments, but in those who rehearsed the commandments given by the Lord to faith, and proceeding from truth itself. If, then, any one who had attended on the elders came, I asked minutely after their sayings — what Andrew or Peter said, or what was said by Philip, or by Thomas, or by James, or by John, or by Matthew, or by any other of the Lord’s disciples: which things Aristion and the presbyter John, the disciples of the Lord, say. For I imagined that what was to be got from books was not so profitable to me as what came from the living and abiding voice.18)Papias, Fragments of Papias, 1; The Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson; 1885-1887, Hendrickson, 1994, Vol. 1, p. 153 Apparently Papias was one who took Paul’s challenge to seek out those eyewitnesses of the resurrection. Aristion is not a name we find in the New Testament and must be one of the unnamed witnesses among those five hundred.

Furthermore, it is evident that the event of Christ’s resurrection did not occur in an unknown era making it impossible to verify. It was in Jerusalem, the capital of Israel which is the country linking three separate continents together so that the entire known world could travel to if they desired to investigate the claims to confirm its historical truth. Tertullian also identified that this was well known of by the Caesar of the Roman empire.

[Emperor] Tiberius accordingly, in whose days the Christian name made its entry into the world, having himself received intelligence from Palestine of events which had clearly shown the truth of Christ’s divinity, brought the matter before the senate, with his own decision in favour of Christ. The senate, because it had not given the approval itself, rejected his proposal. Cæsar held to his opinion, threatening wrath against all accusers of the Christians. Consult your histories; you will there find that Nero was the first who assailed with the imperial sword the Christian sect, making progress then especially at Rome. But we glory in having our condemnation hallowed by the hostility of such a wretch.19)Tertullian, Apology, chap. V; The Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, Hendrickson Pub. (Peabody, MA, 2012) Vol. 3, p 21-22

This factor is further borne by evidence from archaeology. Discovered in 1878, this decree written by Caesar Claudius (A.D. 41-54) was posted in the obscure Israeli village of Nazareth.

Ordinance of Caesar. It is my decision  graves and tombs remain perpetually undisturbed for those who have made them for the cult of their ancestors or children or members of their house. If, however, anyone charges that another has either demolished them, or has in any other way extracted the buried, or has maliciously transferred them to other places in order to wrong them, or has displaced the sealing on other stones, against such a one I order that a trial be instituted, as in respect of the gods, so in regard to the cult of mortals. For it shall be much more obligatory to honor the buried. Let it be absolutely forbidden for anyone to disturb them. In case of violation I desire that the offender be sentenced to capital punishment on charge of violation of sepulchre.20)as cited by Josh McDowell and Bill Wilson, He Walked Among Us: Evidence for the Historical Jesus, Thomas Nelson Publishers (Nashville, TN: 1993), p. 224-225

Why would such an edict containing a law that is punished with capital punishment be posted in Nazareth, an insignificant Galilean village, instead of a major city like Jerusaelm? Presumably because Nazareth was the home town of Jesus Christ, whose empty tomb the Caesar heard of. The opponents of Christianity called it “the sect of the Nazarenes” (Acts 24:5), because it was questionable whether anything good could come out of Nazareth (John 1:46). The emperor apparently received a report of the empty tomb with such a derogatory expression about this Nazarene causing Claudius to confuse the empty tomb to be in Nazareth.

Surely the empty tomb was strong evidence that the body of the Lord Jesus Christ did not remain in the tomb. But the empty tomb by itself means very little without the claims of the eyewitnesses of the resurrected Lord. As N. T. Wright proposed:

An empty tomb without any meetings with Jesus would have been a distressing puzzle, but not a long-term problem. It would have proved nothing; it would have suggested nothing, except the fairly common practice of grave-robbery…. Nobody in the pagan world would have interpreted an empty tomb as implying resurrection; everyone knew such a thing was out of the question. Nobody in the ancient Jewish world would have interpreted it like that either; ‘resurrection’ was not something anyone expected to happen to a single individual while the world went on as normal. Certainly – a point often ignored by critics – the disciples were not expecting any such thing to happen to Jesus. Had the tomb been empty, with no other unusual occurrences, no one would have said that Jesus was the Messiah or the lord of the world.21)N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God: Christian Origins and the Question of God, vol. 3, Fortress Press (Minneapolis, MN: 2003), p. 688-689



Heath Henning
Heath Henning
Heath heads the Set Free addictions ministry on Friday nights at Mukwonago Baptist Church and is involved in evangelism on the University of Wisconsin Whitewater campus, offering his expertise in apologetics at the weekly Set Free Bible Study every Tuesday evening. He currently lives in East Troy, Wisconsin with his wife and nine children. Read Heath Henning's Testimony

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