The Historicity Of The Resurrection — Dewayne Bryant, Ph.D.

The resurrection of Jesus is one of the central tenets of Christianity. The apostle Paul ties it to the saving work of Christ (1 Cor. 15:14, 17) and includes it as a non-negotiable aspect of the Christian faith (1 Cor. 15:3). It plays a part in the life of every Christian because Jesus’ resurrection is not merely a one-time event, but a future reality for all believers (1 Cor. 15:20).

Opponents of Christianity throughout the ages have tried to dismiss the resurrection by using different tactics. Some claim that because it is a miracle, such an event cannot occur naturally. Others might say that the most improbable natural explanation for the resurrection is better than a supernatural one. Others argue that the biblical writers stole the idea of resurrection from pagan sources. Still others have taken the report of the empty tomb at face value but claim that someone took the body. Implausible explanations appear from time to time, such as the claim that that the resurrection resulted from a mass hallucination or that Christ was drugged during his execution to fool the Roman soldiers into taking him off the cross before he expired.

Can The Gospel Accounts Be Trusted?

The New Testament Gospels include several things that establish their credibility. First, the resurrection does not have the marks of an event that would have been created by the early church, primarily because it would not have met Jewish expectations easily. Many Jews believed that there would be a general resurrection at the end of time. We see this expectation expressed by Mary in John 11 just before Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. When Jesus tells Mary that her brother will rise again, she says, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day” (John 11:24). This belief may also have had a part to play in the Pharisees’ misunderstanding of Jesus’ assertion that he would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days (John 2:19-21; Matt. 26:61). Both Jesus’ death and his subsequent resurrection seemed to have been incomprehensible to his disciples (Mk. 9:32). Only with hindsight did they understand what Jesus had predicted (John 2:22).

Second, the Gospel writers indicate that a group of women first saw the empty tomb. A writer trying to sell readers on the idea of a resurrected Christ would have used witnesses considered more trustworthy. Women were not regarded as reliable in a court of law (Rosh Hashanah 1.8). The Jewish historian Joseph expressed similar sentiments (Antiquities 4:219). A fictional account would have had the future apostles—or even the authorities—discovering the tomb first.

Third, the Gospels were published at a time when living witnesses could dispute the accounts. Luke sought out living witnesses (Lk. 1:1-4). Peter and John identified themselves as such (2 Pet. 1:16; 1 John 1:1-2). While modern readers could dispute these references, we also have to consider that Paul claimed that hundreds of witnesses could testify about their experience with the risen Christ (1 Cor. 15:9). We may safely assume that hostile agents could have quickly refuted the testimony of the gospel accounts if the resurrection never happened.

Fourth, opponents of early Christians did not deny the tomb was empty. They came up with an alternative explanation for the vacant tomb, claiming that the disciples stole the body (Matt. 28:13). A version of the story still circulated as late as the Medieval Period in the form of the Toledoth Yeshu, which told the story of a Jewish gardener stealing the body of Jesus.

Is The Resurrection A Copycat Myth?

A popular fringe objection to the resurrection is that it is not a unique occurrence and that ancient mythology contains many examples of resurrected gods. Popular examples include Mithras, Osiris, Adonis, and more than a dozen other figures drawn from different cultures around the world. This claim is quite mistaken despite its popularity on atheist websites.

Some gods claimed to have resurrected remained dead. Adonis, Attis, and Orpheus never revived in the ancient myths. Others, such as Mithras and Horus, never died in the first place. Only the Egyptian Osiris came back to life after his death—however, he never returned to the land of the living and remained in the underworld as the lord of the dead (thus calling into question his “resurrection” when he failed to reenter the land of the living). Dionysus was killed and later reborn, but not resurrected.

We must also question why Jewish writers—pious, Second Temple Jews who could be decidedly anti-Gentile (cf. Lk. 9:54; Gal. 2:12)—would draw from pagan source material for a Jewish messiah. All things considered, there is not a single instance of any god in ancient mythology paralleling the resurrection of Jesus.

Christ Still Lives

If Jesus did not rise from the grave, then we must explain a number of things.  First, the Gospels give the appearance of being trustworthy sources.  They do not look like carefully-crafted propaganda designed to fool readers into believing something untrue.  Second, the resurrection did not come from mythological sources.  The biblical writers could not plagiarize a story that did not exist.  These considerations leave us with a final question: what would make someone invent this unique story, pass it off as historical fact when it would have been seen as unusual at best and ludicrous at worst, and establish it as an indispensable part of the gospel message?

Modern readers should be impressed with the staying power of the Christian message when others like it so quickly faded into historical obscurity.  It is perhaps the mystery of his resurrection that cemented Jesus in the hearts and minds of early believers and continues to do so today.  Messianic figures came and went nearly every other decade in the first couple of centuries AD.  Only one of them proved that he could defeat sin, death, and the grave.

Dewayne is a minister at the New York Ave. Church of Christ in Arlington, TX. He serves as a staff writer for The Daily Apologist, Apologetics Press and the Apologia Institute, and as a professional associate for the Associates for Biblical Research.

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