For most people in the UK, Easter means bank holidays, exam revision and buying overpriced chocolate for kids. For Christians, all those are probably true as well. But of course, Christians see Easter as a time to commemorate the most important event in the bible- the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth in Israel, AD 33.
So is there any truth to the biblical account of the first Easter story? Is the story simply a product of childish imagination and corruption over time? Or is there evidence for Easter?
The death and resurrection of Jesus is the single piece of evidence on which the apostle Paul staked his entire faith and ministry. In 1 Corinthians 15:14, Paul writes to the 1st Century church in Corinth (central Greece):
“And if Christ has not been raised [from the dead], our preaching is useless and so is your faith.”1
This is a huge claim, as the resurrection is an alleged historical event that can be tested from many angles.
Was Jesus really crucified?
The crucifixion of Jesus is a historical fact that is virtually unanimously accepted by historians. As one would expect, all four gospels recount the crucifixion of Jesus. However, this one fact is also corroborated by a huge number of extra-biblical documents from a spectrum of authors.
Josephus, the Jewish historian writes:
“About this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus… When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing among us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him.”2
Tacitus, the Roman writes:
“Christus [Greek word for Christ]… suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus”3
In the Babylonian Talmud we read:
“On the eve of Passover they hanged Yeshua the Nazarene. And an announcer went out, in front of him, for forty days [saying]: ‘He is going to be stoned, because he practiced sorcery and enticed and led Israel astray. Anyone who knows anything in his favour, let him come and plead in his behalf.’ But, not having found anything in his favour, they hanged him on the eve of Passover”4
The name “Yeshua” translates through Greek to the English as “Jesus”, and the word “hanged” was a way of referring to crucifixion.
It is almost unheard of for a single event in Ancient History to be corroborated by so many different trusted writers. The crucifixion of Jesus is therefore a historical fact that is accepted by almost every scholar of the field.
Did Jesus’ followers believe they had seen Him risen?
This is a second fact about the death of Jesus that is virtually universally accepted by historians. Upon Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, one can hardly imagine how His disciples were feeling. Their close friend had been taken away to be executed, they feared they were next and nowhere in Jewish Messianic tradition did it allow for God’s promised Messiah to die. Therefore, Jesus’ death would have demolished the hope and faith of the disciples, who had spent three years believing and preaching that Jesus was the Messiah promised in the Old Testament.
This makes the change of behaviour and attitude of the disciples post-crucifixion, truly spectacular. Three days after Jesus’ crucifixion, the disciples were proclaiming they had seen Jesus alive and history tells us that they were all prepared to suffer and die for preaching this one fact. This led to almost all of their martyrdoms; the list is harrowing5:
- Matthew – killed by stabbing as ordered by King Hircanus, c. AD 60-70
- James, son of Alphaeous – crucified, AD 45
- James, brother of Jesus – thrown down from a height, stoned and then beaten to death at the hands of Ananias, c. AD 66
- John – tortured by boiling oil, exiled to Patmos, AD 95
- Mark – burned during Roman emperor Trajan’s reign
- Peter – crucified upside-down by the gardens of Nero on the Vatican hill, c. AD 64
- Andrew – crucified on an “X” shaped cross by Aegeas, governor of the Edessenes, c. AD 80
- Philip – stoned and crucified in Hierapolis, Phrygia, AD 54
- Simon – crucified in Egypt under Trajan’s reign
- Thomas – death by spear thrust in Calamina, India, AD 70
- Thaddaeous – killed by arrows
- James, son of Zebedee – killed by sword by order of King Herod Agrippa I of Judea, AD 44
- Bartholomew – beaten, flayed alive, crucified upside down, then beheaded, AD 70
Even the leading German critic of the resurrection, Gert L¸demann, admits “It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus’ death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ.”6 We can thus be in no doubt that the disciples were totally convinced that they had seen the risen Jesus.
In addition, we also have the testimonies from the early church which indicate that many Christians believed that they had seen Jesus alive after his death. In 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, Paul writes:
“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas [Peter], and 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.”7
This little passage is very significant for a couple of reasons.
The book of 1 Corinthians was written by Paul between 55 and 57 AD. In chapter 15:3-8, Paul is quoting a creed that had been formulated by the early church and given to him, probably during his first meeting with the apostles in Jerusalem in 35 AD8. In order to have the creed formulated by the time it reached Paul, it would have originated in church teaching considerably before 35 AD. Given that Jesus was most probably crucified in 33 AD, it is likely that the creed was formulated within a few months of Jesus’ crucifixion. This is unprecedented in Ancient World history. Alexander the Great’s earliest biographies were written by Arrian and Plutarch, over 400 years after Alexander’s death in 323 BC, and yet most historians accept these as reliable. Very few events of Ancient History were documented within 100 years of the event, and (with the exception of the New Testament) there are almost none that fall within a decade, never mind within months. Therefore, the documentation of Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection and post-mortem appearances are at the highest level of historical reliability.
Paul also claims that Jesus appeared to over 500 people at once, post-crucifixion. This is a huge assertion and one which some have postulated to be a lie. Imagine if 500 witnesses testified to a crime in court; the jury would have the surest verdict in history! However, Paul (perhaps expecting scepticism) immediately follows with “most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.” This is Paul effectively saying “some of the witnesses are alive, so go check for yourselves!”
All of these point emphatically towards many 1st Century Christians testifying to the fact that they had seen the physically risen Jesus.
Did sceptics believe that they had seen the risen Jesus?
Not only do we have the testimonies of the early Christians, but we also have accounts of people who were totally opposed to Jesus, but who subsequently became (literally) diehard Christians upon claiming to have seen the risen Jesus.
One obvious testimony to mention is Saul of Tarsus, who later became the apostle Paul (the same man who wrote 1 Corinthians). Saul was, by any definition, an enemy of Christianity. He was a Pharisee who actively persecuted Christians by destroying churches, raiding Christians’ homes, and imprisoning Christians9. He also witnessed and approved of the stoning of the apostle Stephen for preaching the gospel10. However, something happened that turned this enemy of Christianity, into the most influential Christian preacher in history (bar Jesus), who was willing to be arrested and martyred for his faith in Jesus11. The explanation of his radical transformation has already been mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15- he claimed that the risen Jesus appeared to him.
Another testimony that is worth mentioning is that of James, the brother of Jesus. From the gospel accounts, we read that Jesus’ siblings did not believe he was the Messiah. John writes in his gospel “even his [Jesus’] own brothers did not believe in him”12 while Mark recounts “Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. When his family heard about his, they went to take charge of him, for they said, ‘He is out of his mind.’”13 However, a life-changing event caused James’ attitude to dramatically shift, leading him to become a church leader, and eventually the head of the Church in Jerusalem14. And as previously mentioned, he was willing to be beaten to death for his faith in his brother Jesus.
The transformations of hardened sceptics indicate that they experienced something extraordinary and unmistakeable; they claimed to have had a personal meeting with the resurrected Jesus.
This is a third fact that historians almost unanimously agree on: some of Jesus’ sceptics genuinely believed that they had seen the risen Jesus.
The Minimal Facts Argument
Prof. Gary Habermas is the world’s leading scholar on the historical crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. In his book The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, Habermas and his co-author Prof. Michael Licona established that these three facts (the crucifixion of Jesus, the testimonies of Jesus’ followers to have seen the risen Jesus, and the testimonies of sceptics to have seen the risen Jesus) are accepted as true by almost all scholars of the subject. They consequently penned the Minimal Facts Argument, which simply takes these three uncontested facts and attempts to draw the most logical conclusion. What is the best explanation of these three facts?
There are many theories that try to explain away the resurrection. Below are the most popular theories (in approximate order of popularity):
- Body Theft Theory
- Hallucination Theory
- Substitution Theory
- Swoon Theory
- Evil Twin Theory
- Super Alien Theory
Theory 1: Did the disciples steal the body?
This is the commonest theory to explain away the resurrection, and one that first appeared within days of the crucifixion of Jesus15. We can test this theory against the 3 uncontested facts, to see if it fits the evidence.
- Does Body Theft Theory fit with the crucifixion of Jesus?
Yes. Jesus was crucified, so it is possible that the disciples stole the dead body.
- Does Body Theft Theory fit with the testimonies of Jesus followers?
No. If Jesus’ disciples stole the body, they would have known that Jesus had not risen from the dead. It is therefore unthinkable that the disciples were willing to suffer and die for a claim (Jesus had risen) that they knew to be a lie. People die for causes that they think are true; no-one dies for a cause that they know is false. Or in other words, liars make bad martyrs.
- Does Body Theft Theory fit with the testimonies of sceptics?
No. Even if the disciples had stolen the body to make the tomb appear empty, they could not have made Jesus’ living body appear to sceptics.
Theory 2: Were the post-mortem appearances just hallucinations?
It is a known medical phenomenon that people whose loved-ones die can sometimes hallucinate appearances of the deceased.
- Does Hallucination Theory fit with the crucifixion?
- Does Hallucination Theory fit with the testimonies of Jesus’ followers?
No. Hallucinations are rare and when they occur, they are only ever experienced by one person. (The leading theories of hallucinations involve neurotransmitter imbalances in the brain of the individual16.) The idea that Jesus’ post-mortem appearances were hallucinated by all eleven faithful disciples is a medical impossibility, notwithstanding the 500 people that Paul wrote about in 1 Corinthians. As former legal journalist and editor Dr. Lee Strobel puts it: “500 people hallucinating Jesus’ [post-mortem] appearance would have been a bigger miracle than the resurrection!”17
- Does Hallucination Theory fit with the testimonies of sceptics?
No. Hallucinations of the deceased are experienced by those who wish the person were still alive. However, it is pretty implausible that the sceptics and enemies of Jesus would have also hallucinated Him.
Theory 3: Was Jesus replaced with someone else?
This is an interesting theory that is held by the majority of (but not all) Muslims. It stems from the Qur’an’s explicit claim that Jesus did not die on the cross. Surah 4:157 says:
“And they said we have killed the Messiah Jesus son of Mary, the Messenger of God. They did not kill him, nor did they crucify him, though it was made to appear like that to them.”18
One of the Hadith documents (teachings of Muhammad), follows up by saying:
“Just before Allah raised Jesus to the Heavens, Jesus went to his disciples… He then asked, ‘Who among you will volunteer for his appearance to be transformed into mine, and be killed in my place. Whoever volunteers for that, he will be with me [in Paradise].’ One of the youngest ones among them volunteered…and Jesus said, ‘You will be that man,’ and the resemblance of Jesus was cast over that man while Jesus ascended to Heaven from a hole in the roof of the house. When the Jews came looking for Jesus, they found that young man and crucified him.”19 Most (but not all) Muslims believe that Judas Iscariot was this substitute.
- Does Substitution Theory fit with the crucifixion?
Possibly. Although Substitution Theory could be used to explain the historical accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion, the theory is based on a view of God who partook in mass deception. This seems to run contradictory to the Islamic view of God as being of highest moral good.
- Does Substitution Theory fit with the testimonies of Jesus’ followers?
No. The arguments would be the same as Body Theft Theory. If the Hadith passage is correct, the disciples knew that Jesus did not rise from the dead, and therefore would have been martyred for a claim they knew to be false.
- Does Substitution Theory fit with the testimonies of sceptics?
No. The Hadith passage describes Jesus’ immediate ascension to Heaven, leaving no possible chance to appear to sceptics such as Saul of Tarsus and James.
Theory 4: Could Jesus have survived the crucifixion?
Swoon Theory is the theory that Jesus did not die on the cross; he was severely injured, but recovered in the tomb, and then with the help of his disciples. This is a view held by some atheists and some Muslims.
- Does Swoon Theory fit with the crucifixion?
No. Roman crucifixion was a barbaric ordeal, in which the cruellest implements and the most effective execution techniques came together to produce that highest level of pain and highest certainty of death. In the whole of human history, not a single person has been recorded to have survived a full Roman crucifixion20. In addition, the Roman executioners would have crucified Jesus in the knowledge that Jesus had been previously claiming that He would die and rise again21. Therefore, the idea that they mistakenly let him survive is decidedly doubtful.
On top of this, in 1986, William Edwards, Wesley Gabel and Floyd Hosmer published an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association investigating the medical evidence for the death of Jesus. Their unequivocal abstract read:
“Jesus of Nazareth underwent Jewish and Roman trials, was flogged and was sentenced to death by crucifixion…Modern medical interpretation of the historical evidence indicates that Jesus was dead when taken down from the cross”22
- Does Swoon Theory fit with the testimonies of Jesus’ followers?
No. Even if Jesus had survived a full Roman crucifixion, he would have come to the disciples very close to death and in need of intensive medical care. Therefore, the idea that the disciples mistook these battered remains of a man for the gloriously risen Messiah of God is pretty far-fetched.
- Does Swoon Theory fit with the testimonies of sceptics?
Highly unlikely. The transformations in the lives of Paul and James indicate spectacular and unmistakable encounters with the risen Jesus. I do not think that a man who had just about survived a full Roman crucifixion would have been capable of synthesising such spectacular encounters.
Theories 5 and 6: Evil Twin and Super Alien Theories
Once the first four theories have been answered, subsequent theories start getting quite desperate and into the realm of science-fiction. The ideas that Jesus had an evil identical twin who came into any documented evidence three days after the crucifixion, and that Jesus was a metamorphosing alien, are genuine theories I have had posed to me! I won’t go into the arguments for and against these theories here, but as you can probably imagine, they collapse very quickly under scrutiny.
Theory 7: The Resurrection
Once the above 6 theories have been exhausted, there is (in my view) only one remaining possible option: that Jesus really died, and then was really brought back to life.
- Does Resurrection Theory fit with the crucifixion?
Yes. The resurrection requires Jesus to have definitely died. The crucifixion provides this certainty.
- Does Resurrection Theory fit with the testimonies of Jesus’ followers?
Yes. If Jesus rose and appeared to all of His followers for long enough for them to verify it was Him, this would explain their confident proclamations of Jesus’ resurrection.
- Does Resurrection Theory fit with the testimonies of sceptics?
Yes. As with the followers, Jesus’ resurrection would have allowed Him to appear to sceptics in a way that enabled them to verify it was indeed Him.
I am commonly asked by sceptics of theism: “Why doesn’t God make Himself more obvious?” I think that through the resurrection of Jesus, God has made Himself very clear. However, it does stand to reason that He could make Himself clearer; perhaps He could write “made by God” on every atom, or speak audibly to everyone on the planet. However, God’s desire is not to simply prove His existence to us; He also wants to enter a relationship with us.
Jesus didn’t come to Earth to simply proclaim the existence of God; He came with a bigger message. Jesus explained that all human beings are sinful, and the punishment for sin is death and eternal separation from God23.
However, in 1 Peter 2:24, Peter writes “He (Jesus) himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.”24 On the cross of crucifixion, Jesus took our sin upon himself, and with it, the punishment of death that we rightly deserve. By going to the cross, Jesus granted us the gift of forgiveness, so that we may be reconciled with God and live with Him in paradise for eternity.
So what are we to do with this message? John 1:12 says “to all who did receive Him (Jesus), He gave the right to become children of God”25. The gift of forgiveness is free and available to all who accept Jesus. And Jesus taught that we accept Him by repenting26– which means turning away from our sinful way of living, and asking Jesus to be our Saviour, Friend and King. So here’s one final question to end this little article: could you accept Jesus into your life?
- 1 Corinthians 15:14 (NIV)
- Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews, 63-64
- Tacitus, Annals, 15.44
- The Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 43a
- List compiled by Josh McDowell, Holman Bible Dictionary, cit. pp. 118-122
- Gerd L¸demann,What Really Happened to Jesus?, trans. John Bowden (Louisville, Kent.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), 80.
- 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 (NIV)
- Craig Blomberg interview with Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ, 44
- Acts 8:1-3
- Acts 7:54-8:1
- g. Philippians 1:21
- John 7:5 (NIV)
- Mark 3:20-21 (NIV)
- Hegesippus, 5th book of Commentaries
- Matthew 28:11-15
- Key papers:
- Laruelle, A. Abi-Dargham, C.H. van Dyck, et al. (August 1996). “Single photon emission computerized tomography imaging of amphetamine-induced dopamine release in drug-free schizophrenic subjects”. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 93(17): 9235–40.
- M. Jones, L.S. Pilowsky (2002). “Dopamine and antipsychotic drug action revisited”. British Journal of Psychiatry 181: 271–275
- Lee Strobel, Is it Reasonable to Believe Jesus Rose? Lecture, at Thrive Conference (2013)
- Qur’an Surah 4:157 (Sahih International)
- Al-Nasa’I, Al-Kubra, 6:489
- As argued by Nabeel Qureshi, Did Jesus Really Rise From the Dead?, event at Emory University (10th April, 2014)
- Matthew 12:38-40
- William D. Edwards, Wesley J. Gabel, Floyd E. Hosmer, On the Physical Death of Jesus, JAMA (March 21 1986) Vol 255, No. 11 (emphasis added)
- Romans 3:23, Matthew 13:40-43, John 3:5-8
- 1 Peter 2:24 (NIV)
- John 1:12 (NIV)
- Luke 5:31-32, Luke 24:46-47