“The evidence for the resurrection is better than for claimed miracles in any other religion.
It’s outstandingly different in quality and quantity.” – Antony Flew 
::: Can the Resurrection of Jesus be historically substantiated? Yes, and every other explanation fails.
The evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is quite solid on historical grounds. Even though I will be mainly focusing on the historical evidence supporting the claim that God raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead, I have noticed even solid historical evidence has a tough time overpowering people’s philosophical objections to the resurrection. These I cannot address here, since we are mainly looking at the historical – and not the philosophical – validity of the resurrection.
How can we know the resurrection of Jesus has any historical validity? I offer three considerations:
ONE: The Nature and Literary Genre of the Gospels
A major consideration often overlooked in these discussions is the nature of the Gospels. It is not appropriate to call them biographies in the purest sense; they have elements that were common to the genre of ancient biographies, sometimes called bios. Those who want to write the Gospels off as mere ‘myths for the faithful’ have to ask themselves why were the faithful the faithful in the first place? They also have to deal with how the Gospels describe themselves (as historical documents); this is most explicit in the highly formalized Greek prologue of Luke:
“Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.” (ESV)
Here, the author is claiming to have done research for the sake of certainty – this is not how one begins a religious myth. Not only that, but there are certain incidental details – many of which we are just now discovering – which are rooted and embedded in a first century Jerusalem context. One example in regards to the resurrection is the kind of tomb mentioned in connection with the burial of Jesus. It was an acrosolia or a bench tomb; these tombs were used by notables – such as Joseph of Arimethea – in Jesus’ day.
Another key point is the inclusion of women as the first witnesses to the resurrection. The testimony of women was not well regarded in first century Jewish society. If the narratives are legendary, why then would the authors include testimony by people who were not seen as credible by their peers? On a related note, if the authors were writing stories to bolster people’s faith, why would they portray all the early leaders of the church at that time as cowards and doubters? Per what historians call the ‘criterion of embarrasment’, both of these factors point to the historical veracity of the resurrection accounts.
TWO: The Religio-Historical Background of the Resurrection Accounts
One handicap some people face in talking about the historical Jesus – and hence the resurrection narratives – is they are not up on current scholarly literature. If one were to glean their information about Jesus from the Internet, one may come away with the impression that the historical Jesus sits squarely within the Hellenistic motif of ‘divine men’ or some such variation. If one thought this, one would be incorrect in their understanding of the historical Jesus and the accounts of his resurrection. From decades of recent research, we can see Jesus’ historical context is in a first century Semitic (specifically Jewish) context. This means we now understand better than ever the ‘Jewishness’ of Jesus – any other framework will not do. For more information on this fact, Ben Witherington’s book The Jesus Quest, details the quest(s) for the historical Jesus and its findings. Before any meaningful discussion about the resurrection can begin, one must understand the ancient Semitic fabric of the life, death and resurrection (the last point being debated here, of course) of Jesus of Nazareth.
I mention this because it is precisely at this point that many critiques of the resurrection fall flat. Many critics of the resurrection as history insert non-Semitic theology and Greco-Roman views of religion into the resurrection narratives and then make false parallels in an effort to discredit the resurrection of Jesus as the unique event that it was. One reason this is such a massive error is because most Greeks absolutely shunned the idea of a bodily resurrection. How can one match the Platonic view of the body – that the material element was undesirable – with the Christian teaching that because Jesus received a new resurrection body, one day Christians will, too? This collision of worldviews is illustrated in Paul’s Mars Hill discourse in Acts 17. As soon as Paul told the assembled Athenians of his hope in a bodily resurrection, they mocked and ridiculed him. The Greeks viewed the body as a prison for the soul and wanted to be rid of it, not receive it anew in the afterlife!
The tales of so-called ‘resurrections’ you so often hear about are no such thing; the attempted parallels are false and the supposed similarities are stretched beyond the point of recognition. For one, many of these gods’ so-called resurrections are post-dated after the rise of Christianity and could not have influenced it. If Tim wants to claim Greco-Roman myths played a role in formulating Christian resurrection belief, he is going to have to give us a rock solid date prior to Christianity. Further, he is going to have to demonstrate there was a transfer of ideas that can be traced from said pre-Christian source. Lastly, he is going to have to explain away any competing ‘resurrection’ tales about whatever god he may choose to use as his resurrection model. We are going to need specific details if he decides to go this route, we cannot blindly take his word on it.
THREE: The Cause of the Birth and Growth of the Early Christian Church
One can show resurrection belief arose very early in Christianity. NT scholars will tell you the earliest Kerygma (‘proclamation’ or ‘preaching’) was centered on the bodily resurrection of Jesus. There are several different strands of resurrection tradition found within the NT itself. To understand this, we must recall the NT was not originally one book but rather a collection of the earliest Christian testimony and later bound together. This means we have various literary witnesses to the resurrection from different sources within the one work we now refer to as the NT. Even the most skeptical form and source critics recognize this.
On a related note is the birth and growth of the early church itself. Here’s what I mean: how does one account for first century Jews changing their eschatological views without the resurrection of Jesus? Most Jews of this era believed there would be a general resurrection of the righteous dead at the eschaton (‘the end of the age’), not during history. Not only that, but this event would not be of one individual but of all the faithful. This belief can be seen in a statement made by Martha of Bethany in John 11:24. Since all the first Christians were Jewish, why did they suddenly start talking about and writing about a resurrection of one individual – the Messiah, no less – within space and time? This is a huge question that must be answered, since Christian resurrection belief cannot be accounted for within the Judaism of that time. If there was no resurrection, how did this belief arise?
There were other major changes in Jewish practice and doctrine for early Christians. Here are just a few of those changes:
- Changing the Sabbath to worship on Sunday
- Worshipping Jesus ‘in addition to’ than Yahweh
- Loosening up or abandoning dietary restrictions
- Accepting Gentile believers as brothers and sisters
- Worshipping anywhere, as opposed to only a synagogue or in Jerusalem
British scholar N.T. Wright gives more reasons for Jewish views changing regarding the resurrection, which can be read at Shawn White’s post here.
From this information, we can see the NT has a variety of important source material supporting the resurrection. We can also see that pagan mythologies are not a valid explanation for the accounts we have of the resurrection. We can also see that any alternative explanation for the resurrection has to be able to give us a reason for the birth and growth of the early church, especially when we can see the amazing fact that early Jewish Christians transformed many of their central beliefs and practices. To defend his position, Tim must not only discredit the evidence I have laid out but also give us a more plausible explanation. I think history will not be in his favor in this effort.