For most people in the UK, Easter means bank holidays, student exam period 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 resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth in 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)
The entire Christian faith hangs on the claim that the historical Jesus died on a cross, and then rose from the dead three days later. So is it true?
The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus
In their book "The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus" New Testament scholars Gary Habermas and Michael Licona survey the historical literature and contend that there are three key facts concerning the death of Jesus that are accepted by at least 90% of contemporary ancient historians. These three facts are:
Jesus died by crucifixion
Jesus' disciples genuinely believed they had seen him risen
Some of Jesus' sceptics genuinely believed they had seen him risen
Let us look at each of these in turn.
1. Was Jesus really crucified?
As one would expect, all four gospels recount the crucifixion of Jesus- how he was arrested and publicly executed outside the city walls of Jerusalem by the Roman authorities in AD 33. However, these events are also corroborated by a 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 rare for a single event in Ancient History to be corroborated by such a range of different writers. As Haberamas and Licona argue, the crucifixion of Jesus is therefore a historical fact that is widely accepted historians.
2. Did Jesus’ followers believe they had seen Him risen?
This is the second fact that Habermas and Licona argue is widely 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; below is a list complied by Josh McDowell (5):
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
The leading German critic of the resurrection, Gert L¸demann, admits (in spite of his atheism) “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) The disciples appeared 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, the apostle 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 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, potentially during his first meeting with the apostles in Jerusalem in 35 AD(8). 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! 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 towards many 1st Century Christians testifying to the fact that they had seen the physically risen Jesus.
3. 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 opposed to Jesus' teaching, 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. Saul was, by any definition, an enemy of Christianity. He was a Jewish Pharisee who persecuted and imprisoned Christians because of their faith (9). He also witnessed and approved of the stoning of the apostle Stephen for preaching the gospel (10). 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 Jesus(11). 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 Jerusalem (14). And as previously mentioned, he was willing to be beaten to death for his faith in his brother Jesus, whom he calls "The Lord Jesus Christ" in his epistle (15).
The transformations of sceptics indicate that they experienced something extraordinary and unmistakeable; they claimed to have had a personal meeting with the resurrected Jesus.
This is the third of Habermas and Licona's facts that historians widely agree on: some of Jesus’ sceptics genuinely believed that they had seen the risen Jesus.
The Minimal Facts Argument
In "The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus", Habermas and Licona then go on to try to draw the most logical conclusion from these three facts. What is the best explanation of these facts?
There are many theories that try to explain away the resurrection. Below are some of the most popular theories:
Body Theft Theory
We can take each of these theories in turn and ask if they satisfy the three historical facts laid out by Habermas and Licona, that are agreed upon by over 90% of historians.
Theory 1: Did the disciples steal the body?
This is a common theory to explain away the resurrection, and one that first appeared within days of the crucifixion of Jesus(16). We can test this theory against our 3 facts, to see if it fits the evidence.
1. 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.
2. 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 absurd 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.
3. 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, how likely is it that the disciples could have faked Jesus' resurrection appearance so convincingly as to convert Jesus' fierce sceptics?
Theory 2: Were the post-mortem appearances just hallucinations?
It is a recognised medical phenomenon that people whose loved-ones die can sometimes hallucinate appearances of the deceased.
1. Does Hallucination Theory fit with the crucifixion?
2. Does Hallucination Theory fit with the testimonies of Jesus’ followers?
No. Hallucinations are rare and when they occur, they are usually experienced by one person. The idea that Jesus’ post-mortem appearances were hallucinated by all eleven faithful disciples is medically implausible, notwithstanding the 500 people that Paul wrote about in 1 Corinthians. As former author Lee Strobel puts it: “500 people hallucinating Jesus’ [post-mortem] appearance would have been a bigger miracle than the resurrection!”(17)
3. Does Hallucination Theory fit with the testimonies of sceptics?
No. Hallucinations of the deceased are generally experienced by those close to or familiar with the individual. However, it seems unlikely 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 assertion that Jesus did not die on the cross.
Qur’an 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 Sunni Muslims believe that Judas Iscariot was this substitute.
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
1. 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 crucifixion(20). In addition, the Roman executioners would have crucified Jesus in the knowledge that Jesus had been previously claiming that He would die and rise again(21). Therefore, the idea that they mistakenly let him survive is 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 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)
2. 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 seems unlikely.
3. 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.
Theory 5: The Resurrection
But there is one more theory we have not yet discussed: the theory that Jesus really died, and then was really brought back to life.
1. Does Resurrection Theory fit with the crucifixion?
Yes. The resurrection requires Jesus to have definitely died. The crucifixion provides this certainty.
2. Does Resurrection Theory fit with the testimonies of Jesus’ followers?
Yes. If Jesus rose and appeared to His followers for long enough for them to verify it was Him, this would explain their confident proclamations of Jesus’ resurrection.
3. 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.
A common question that I have heard asked in Q&As is: “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 God(23).
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) Peter explains that 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.
The message of Easter is either the one of the most outlandish and deceptive claims in mythology, or the greatest news in human history. The key question is, where does the evidence point?
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
g. Philippians 1:21
John 7:5 (NIV)
Mark 3:20-21 (NIV)
Hegesippus, 5th book of Commentaries
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)
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)