Historical Proof of Jesus & the Resurrection
By Christopher Jethro
Last Updated: Dec 13, 2017
Last Updated: Dec 13, 2017
Evidence of Jesus’ life
The historical Jesus appears in many writings. The first of these are biographies written individually by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John which form the “Gospels” of the New Testament. Matthew, Mark, and John held eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. (The Gospel according to Mark is apostle Peter’s account of Jesus’ ministry; Mark, a later convert, functioned as Peter’s scribe.) While Luke was not a firsthand witness of Jesus’ ministry, he was a historian and physician during this time period who carefully compiled eyewitness accounts (oral testimonies) of Jesus’ ministry into what we now call “the Gospel according to Luke”. Luke actually makes this very clear in beginning of his letter, stating, “Inasmuch as many have taken in hand to set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also having had perfect understand of all things from the very first, to write to you an orderly account, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the certainty of those things which you were instructed” (Luke 1:1-4).
Besides these accounts, the historical Jesus also appears in several other writings. Most notably, Jesus appears in the early writings of Flavius Josephus (a Jewish historian of the time period), Cornelius Tacitus, and several Talmudic passages. Based on these authentic documents, historians make no doubt of His historical existence, ministry, crucifixion, and empty tomb. Jesus also appears in many later writings, including letters by Lucian of Samosata, Mara Bar-Serapion, Pliny the Younger, Suetonius, Emperor Trajan, Emporer Hadrian, Phlegon, Clement, Ignatius, Quadratus, Justin Martyr, Julius Africanus, Tallus, and Hyppolytus. It is obvious that Jesus of Nazareth was a real historical Person. In fact, there are almost no atheist historians that deny the historicity of Jesus. The only people who argue that Jesus is just a "myth" are militant atheists whose theory has no place in the real world of historians.
Reliability of the Gospels
Occasionally, an uninformed skeptic makes the silly claim that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John don't count as evidence because they are a part of the Christian Bible. Such a person does not understand that the Christian New Testament was not some religious book written by one person to compile Christian beliefs. The New Testament is simply a collection of real historical documents and letters written by several individuals. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are regarded by historians and scholars as authentic historical documents written by different people at different times who had genuine firsthand knowledge of Jesus of Nazareth. Since Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were closest so the source (Jesus), their records are considered not only authentic and reliable, but are some of most important documents regarding the historical Jesus.
Part of what makes the New Testament one of the most reliable documents in history is because it has been better preserved and with more copies than any other manuscripts of other ancient writings. The writings of the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle, as well as Homer, were written and preserved in the exact same way the New Testament manuscripts were. If the manuscripts of the New Testament are in any way considered “unreliable” by desperate skeptics, this means we must also completely nullify and discredit the writings of Plato and Aristotle as well since they were preserved in the same manner. However, when compared to the writings of Plato, Aristotle, and Homer, the New Testament manuscripts are far greater in both quality and quantity. There are nearly 6,000 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament each written with amazing consistency and accuracy.
The New Testament Gospels do not always seem to align perfectly with each other. Skeptics have pointed to this as evidence that they are unreliable because of apparent contradictions (the “contradictions” have been easily explained by Bible scholars for that matter). Ironically, the variations between the Gospel records actually strengthen their authenticity! This is because, throughout history, when people deliberately fabricate a story or event, they coincide with each other to make sure they are going to proclaim the exact same story, according to the exact same details. Mirror replication of the same story is a suspicious occurrence for historians and lawyers. If each Gospel account was written close to exact same way, historians would have accused the authors of collusion.
Because the New Testament Gospels contain fair variations regarding the chronological order and details of the same events, historians regard this as a mark of authenticity that they were genuinely wrote by different people faithfully recording the events as they remembered and experienced them. In conclusion, Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John were clearly not collaborating together to fabricate and proclaim the same story but were separately recording the ministry of Jesus according to their own unique perspectives.
Pontius Pilate has, of course, been directly related to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. A lack of evidence for Pontius Pilate may dilute the historical evidence for Jesus, but evidence of him would only further strengthen the historical crucifixion of Jesus.
Some of the evidence for Pontius Pilate includes the historical writings of Josephus and Tacitus who detail Pontius Pilate, the geological finding of a plaque with his name and title on it, collections of coins dating between A.D. 29 to A.D. 31 with his name engraved on them, and letters wrote by Pontius Pilate himself still preserved to this day.
While there are other writings about Pilate, in Cornelius Tacitus's writings he wrote about both the persecution of the Christians and the death of Christ because of Pontius Pilate's decree. While you could debate this does not convince you, this evidence has been considered sufficient by historians to conclude that Pontius Pilate, as well as Jesus Christ, were real historical people.
Jesus fulfilled many prophecies during His lifetime that cannot be wrote off as merely coincidental. These prophecies were written hundreds, in some cases thousands, of years before Jesus was even born. Admittedly, the skeptic could choose to argue that some of these Old Testament prophecies are either too vague, too generic, or regard a spiritual principle that can't be proved (such as prophecies regarding His anointing and Deity). For this reason, I have chosen to highlight a few of the significant prophecies that cannot be ignored due to their specific historical details fulfilled by Christ exactly...
In the Old Testament, it was prophesied that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2), enter Jerusalem riding on a donkey (Zechariah 9:9), betrayed by a friend who shared bread with him for exactly thirty pieces of silver (Psalm 41:9, Zechariah 11:12-13), He would be pierced in His hands and feet (Psalm 22:16), He would be given gall and vinegar to drink (Psalm 69:21), people would gamble for his clothes (Psalm 22:18), and He would be buried in a rich man's tomb (Isaiah 53:9).
Jesus fulfilled every one of these specific prophecies – Jesus was born in Bethlehem, entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey, betrayed by a close friend (Judas), whom shared bread with him at the Passover meal, for exactly 30 pieces of silver, Jesus was pierced during the crucifixion in His hands and feet, He was given gall and vinegar to drink while hanging on the cross, soldiers gambled for His stripped garments, and He was buried in a rich man’s tomb! The fulfillment of such specific Messianic prophecies is too significant to dismiss as coincidental. It is also unrealistic that Jesus could have altered circumstances to give the illusion of their fulfillment (He could not have made sure the priests would offer His betrayer 30 silver coins, He did not request death by crucifixion, and He could not have requested burial in a rich man’s tomb since He was dead at the time the decision was made). In conclusion, Jesus’ detailed fulfillment of Messianic prophecies prove that He was not just a man, but the foretold Messiah, the Son of God.
Evidence of the Resurrection
Mystery of the Empty Tomb
The events of the public death, tomb burial, and missing body of Jesus have all been historically proven and universally accepted by Christians and non-Christians alike. These events are validated by not only the Gospels, but also the writings of Josephus and several Talmudic passages.
In light of His death and burial, the great question is: what happened to the body? The missing body of Jesus of Nazareth is actually considered one of the greatest mysteries in history for the secular scholar. If you don’t believe that Jesus really rose from the dead, then you must ask, is there an alternative rational explanation that fits with the historical evidence? There isn’t.
Could the disciples have stolen the body?
The theory that the disciples stole away Jesus’ body is an obsolete argument in today’s time; Bible scholars and critics have abandoned this argument since the 18th century.
The idea that the disciples stole away and hid the body of Christ in secret, and then lied about His resurrection, is implausible considering the motives behind it and aftermath of the account. Jesus’ fulfillment of the Messianic role was quite different than what the first century Jews had in mind; the Jews were expecting a Messiah that would conquer their enemy Rome and rule the world as Israel’s king. Jesus’ brutal death was an unexpected and depressing experience for the disciples, leaving them in a stupor of doubt. How could Jesus be the real Messiah who would conquer and reign in Jerusalem if He is dead?
The inability for Jesus to now fulfill those Messianic prophecies would have left the disciples in severe doubts about His Messiahship. For this reason, it does not make sense that Jesus’ disciples could remain so convinced of His Messiahship that they would go to extreme measures to fake His resurrection out of the "good" motive to deliberately deceive more into believing He was the Messiah.
Furthermore, the idea of resurrection from the dead for any individual before the Day of Judgment and establishment of the Kingdom of God on Earth was totally foreign to Jewish thought. The Jews believed that resurrection from the dead would be a global event; no individual could be raised from the dead or leave the grips of Sheol (the underworld) before this day. For Jesus’ Jewish disciples, declaring His resurrection from the dead would both not make sense in their very own theology and, more importantly, would have no benefit in convincing people of His Messiahship because it only further contradicts Jewish understanding of the Messiah and resurrection theology.
Could the disciples have hallucinated Jesus’ post-death appearances?
Again, the idea of individual resurrection from the dead before the global resurrection event was foreign to Jewish thought. Since hallucinations are based on a person's subconscious thoughts, the disciples could not have hallucinated Jesus’ resurrected body because the very concept would not have been in their minds. At best, they could have imagined Jesus in a peaceful state in the spiritual realm of Gan Eden (the place Jews believed the righteous go upon death), but certainly not a physical resurrection where He is walking on the Earth! If the skeptic were to propose that His disciples had the idea of His resurrection in mind based on Jesus’ prediction of coming back to life, this argument would be utterly self-defeating because a) it would require total acknowledgement that Jesus did indeed predict both His death and His resurrection from the dead before the events and b) in acknowledgement that Jesus’ body is still missing, only gives credibility to the possibility that He did rise from the dead.
We must also consider the fact that the disciples were previously filled with severe doubts after Jesus’ death. Thomas, for instance, would not believe that Jesus really rose from dead unless he could physically interact with Him. James was not even a believer in Jesus – not a disciple – and only came to believe in Jesus as the Messiah after seeing Him rise from the dead. However, all of the disciples became so convinced of Jesus’ physical resurrection from the dead that each of them faced brutal martyrdoms for their testimonies. The evidence indicates that Jesus’ disciples were sincerely convinced that they saw Jesus resurrected from the dead. If they had any doubts, they would not have been willing to face the horrendous martyrdoms which they did. Simon Peter and Philip, for instance, were crucified upside down. Bartholomew was crucified upside down as well, after he was flayed alive. Put yourself in their shoes: you had a brief mental image that Jesus rose from the dead and slowly convinced yourself it might have been real in order to give you hope against all of your doubts. Would you be willing to die from an upside-down crucifixion for this testimony? How convinced would you have to be that it really happened? On the contrary, the disciples would not be willing to face brutal deaths unless they were positive that Jesus really did rise from the dead.
Most importantly of all, this theory doesn't explain away the missing body! If Jesus’ disciples experienced illusions that He rose from the dead and began to proclaim His miraculous resurrection, what good would their "visions" do if Jesus’ dead body is still in the tomb? The authorities could have simply flashed His dead body to the public, both refuting their lies and embarrassing the disillusioned disciples. Because this theory only offers an explanation about why the disciples believed Jesus rose from dead, but does not actually explain why the body was missing, the theory serves no functional purpose.
What if Jesus didn't really die on the cross?
The idea that Jesus didn't really die on the cross, but merely became unconscious during the crucifix and later awoke in the tomb, escaped, and appeared to His disciples, is the worst possible theory for explaining the missing body. In all reality, the only person who would possibly suggest this theory is a naive conspiracist inspired by The Da Vince Code movie. This movie was based on “the Gospel of Judas”, a Gnostic writing that has been universally rejected by scholars as unauthentic having absolutely no credibility in the real world.
Roman executioners of this time period were trained professionals – the victim's death was guaranteed so the theory ends here. But even if we ignored this impossibility and suggested that Jesus survived it after all, the theory is still terribly weak. In such a hypothetical scenario, Jesus would have been suffering so much from His brutal scourging and crucifixion that He would have died within a short amount of time without serious medical attention. The idea that Jesus could have survived His execution is not only medically implausible, but ludicrous if we imagine Him presenting His bloody, beaten body appearing to His disciples, trying to convince them He had just miraculously risen from the dead.
Authenticity of the Resurrection Account
The accounts of the resurrection of Jesus are also missing any legendary marks. When one examines any other mythological or legendary stories at the same time period, they are always blown up with flamboyant language which is absent from the New Testament accounts.
It’s also important to notate that the first witnesses of the resurrection of Jesus were women. This might not sound important until you understand the historical significance of this. In this time period, the testimony of women was considered completely unreliable so that women were not even allowed to be used as a witness in a Jewish court of law. If the disciples of Jesus were making up this story, it would make absolutely no sense for them to write that women were the first witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection. At this time period, such a claim would never be considered as authentic evidence; therefore, it is only probable to conclude that the disciples were not fabricating the resurrection story but were simply writing out the events as they actually occurred.
Conversion of Paul and James
Two-thirds of the New Testament was written by Paul; it is a collection of the letters he wrote during his imprisonment. Paul was a real historical person, who was known as Saul of Tarsus. Paul was a Jewish Pharisee who ruthlessly persecuted Christians and was responsible for the death of hundreds of Christians by his own hands. This being said, Paul actually converted to the very faith he so strongly persecuted and became a radical Christian evangelist. What could have led to Paul's radical transformation? There is simply no logical naturalistic explanation for this overnight conversion.
Paul's radical transformation can only be explained in the book of Acts; which states that Paul encountered Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus. Out of fear and awe, Paul obeyed Christ who spoke to Him. Paul became a Christian and went on to suffer many things for his new claims and radical conversion. In as zealous as he was before for persecuting Christians, Paul became a Christian with a zeal that cost him everything - his job, his reputation, his health, and even his death. You simply cannot explain why Paul became such a zealous Christian without believing that He did in fact encounter the risen Christ.
Jesus of Nazareth was a real historical person. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are not biased documents written by a single individual or even collaborating individuals, but each is regarded by scholars as authentic, reliable biographies written individually by people who knew Jesus personally or who had contact with others with firsthand knowledge of Him. Jesus' public death, tomb burial, and missing body three days later are historical facts accepted universally by historians and scholars. Jesus’ fulfillment of multiple specific prophecies are difficult to overlook seeing the unlikelihood of their fulfillment by coincidence or deliberation, giving strong credibility to His claim to be the Messiah.
Given all the evidence, all contemporary secular scholars of the New Testament are unable to historically explain how Christianity arose and how the body went missing. As the fictional character Sherlock Holmes once said, "Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth." It is actually biased to refuse to consider the possibility that Jesus really did rise from the dead. Every historical hypothesis of a stolen body, hallucinating His resurrection, etc., have been universally rejected by even non-Christian historians. As such, no matter how difficult you may find it to believe, it is the only option available.
Case in point, you simply cannot logically explain the origin of Christianity without the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. If you approach the historical evidence from an unbiased viewpoint, the physical resurrection of Jesus is the simply the only explanation. If Jesus didn’t really rise from the dead, the officials would have flashed his dead body and stopped the spread of Christianity dead in its tracks. In light of how Jesus predicted His death and resurrection, if Jesus really rose from the dead, that means He was who He claimed to be – the divine Son of God (God in flesh).