The majority of scholars agree on some basic events in the life of Jesus. E.P. Sanders has written, “There are no substantial doubts about the general course of Jesus’ life: when and where he lived, approximately when and where he died, and the sort of thing that he did during his public activity …” (Sanders, 11). You simply will not find any real expert denying these things.
Even the liberal Jesus Seminar scholar, John Dominic Crossan, admits that the crucifixion of Jesus is historical “as sure as anything historical can be” (Crossan, 145). It’s one of the major points of agreement between liberal and conservative Jesus scholars. For any person to deny the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, they must be ignorant of history or purposely distorting the facts. Ancient historians such as Josephus, Tacitus, Lucian, Mara Bar-Serapion, and the Jewish Talmud, mention that Jesus was crucified.
[This is an embarrassing historical blunder on behalf of the Quran, which denies that Jesus was crucified on a Roman cross (Surah 4:157-158). That’s not some insignificant textual variant or slight discrepancy in the Islamic text, that’s what you call a historical contradiction—plain and simple.]
So, let’s get the facts straight. Jesus really lived, he was crucified, he died, and he was buried. And Joseph of Arimathea let Jesus use the family tomb for the weekend (Mk 15:42-47; Matt 27:57-61; Lk 23:50-54).
II. Empty Tomb, Resurrection Appearances, & Growth of the Early Church
The empty tomb is recorded and admitted by Christians, enemies of Jesus, and skeptics alike—in ancient and modern times. All four canonical Gospels mention the empty tomb. Paul affirms the empty tomb with the early creed in 1 Cor 15:3-4, and so does Luke in Acts 13:29.
While you can find scholars today that refuse to acknowledge an empty tomb (e.g. Crossan believes that Jesus’ body was discarded with criminals and eaten by dogs), most scholars recognize the empty tomb as a historical fact. The empty tomb makes the most historical sense. If the body wasn’t missing, the early Christian message could have been easily stamped out with, “Resurrected? We have his body right here!”
The big question is ‘why was it empty?’
The Jewish polemic against the Christian message was that the disciples had stolen the body (Matt 28:11-15; Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho, 108; Tertullian’s On Spectacles, 30). Matthew writes, “And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day” (28:15). If you have a “stolen” body, then you have an empty tomb.
The swoon theory was first proposed in the eighteenth century. This theory claims that Jesus was not really dead after all, but merely slipped into a coma, later to be revived in the cold conditions of the dark tomb.
Let there be no mistake. The Romans knew how to kill condemned criminals. While there may have been an occasion where someone escaped the cross (e.g. when Romans fled the scene of battle), the historical evidence in the case of Jesus does not allow for a great escape. The medical evidence recorded in the Gospels indicates a certain death (Jn 19:34).
“. . . interpretations based on the assumption that Jesus did not die on the cross appear to be at odds with modern medical knowledge.” The Journal of the American Medical Association “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ” Vol. 255 (March 21, 1986), 1463.
David Strauss, a nineteenth century liberal scholar, was unconvinced of the swoon theory, saying that a half-dead Jesus would not have convinced his disciples of a glorified resurrection. Strauss points out that you can’t talk about the empty tomb without considering the transformation that took place with the disciples who had previously abandoned Jesus. How can we explain what they claimed they saw, and empowered them to speak the message of the risen Jesus?
According to a small few, the disciples actually had some sort of mass LSD trip, a group hallucination. Yeah, that’s the theory some have proposed—they were trippin’ with the psychedelic Christ!
After you’re done laughing, please keep reading.
There are many reasons why this theory doesn’t add up. In short, the disciples claimed to have touched him, ate with him, yet he walked through walls! Also, there has never been one documented account of an entire group of people having the same hallucinations. And the disciples would need to be under a continual psychotic delusion to face martyrdom with non-resistance, declaring that Jesus had been raised from the dead.
Other theories have been proposed: Jesus had a twin brother that dropped in after the crucifixion and appeared to the disciples; the women went to the wrong tomb; and the resurrection was only spiritual. But none of these theories can account for all of the historical evidence, what the disciples believed were resurrection appearances, the teaching of the apostles, and the growth of the early church in the face of intense persecution.
“I know in their own terms what they saw was the raised Jesus. That’s what they say and then all the historic evidence we have afterwards attest to their conviction that that’s what they saw. I’m not saying that they really did see the raised Jesus. I wasn’t there. I don’t know what they saw. But I do know that as a historian that they must have seen something.” Paula Fredriksen (Boston University) Peter Jennings interview, July 2000.
Even the late atheist, Christopher Hitchens admits that “something was going on” that Sunday morning. But what was going on? Whatever it was, it was enough to change the mind of James, the brother of Jesus, and Saul of Tarsus, a zealous Pharisee and persecutor of the church.
James becomes the leader of the Jerusalem church, and he is later martyred for his belief that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Seriously! Who is going to believe that their brother is the Son of God? James didn’t—not until some life-altering event. What could have happened to prompt the brother of Jesus to become one of the church’s greatest leaders? I think that an encounter with the risen Jesus is the most likely of all possible scenarios.
We’re told that Saul of Tarsus had a first-hand encounter with the resurrected Christ, while on his way to persecute the church in Damascus, Syria (Acts 9). Something happened to this Saul, student of the great Jewish teacher, Gamiliel (Acts 22:3). He said his transformation from persecutor to apostle was a result of being confronted by the resurrected and glorified Christ. What could change this zealous teacher of the Law? I can think of one thing, and one thing only. The apostle Paul had met the risen Jesus.
“With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus… ” Acts 4:33
The message of the resurrection of Jesus began circulating very early on in the Christian movement. And the growth of the early church steadily rose during local and empire-wide persecutions. By the early fourth century, there are estimates of about 3-5 million Christians in the Roman Empire. Was this a result of a stolen body or of a mass hallucination?
On multiple occasions, I have read and heard renowned scholar N.T. Wright make the claim that he knows nothing else that could explain the initial birth and rapid expansion of the early church, but that Jesus was really raised from the dead. I’m in agreement with Wright. The growth of the early church occurred because the church was on a mission for the resurrected Jesus. She advanced in humble service and sacrificial love, not by coercive force or religious violence.
What is most convincing to me at this point in my examination of the Gospels is the way the story of the resurrection is told. Fitting with the principle of embarrassment, the Gospel writers report that it was women who first found the empty tomb and met the risen Jesus (Matt 281-10; Mk 16:1-11; Lk 24:1-11). This is rather peculiar since women were not even considered reliable witnesses in a first century law court (Josephus, Ant. 4.219).
It’s no surprise that the disciples did not believe the report of distraught women (Lk 24:11). They would need to see Jesus for themselves.
Why would they tell it like that unless it really happened that way? If you’re making up a story about a resurrected Messiah, especially when the whole idea was foreign to Judaism in the first place, the last thing you do is have women as the first eyewitnesses to the empty tomb and resurrection. But there is no attempt made to gloss over this embarrassing episode.
I believe this account is historically accurate. I believe this adds to the credibility of the story. It’s heavy evidence in the case for the resurrection.
For this reason, and many reasons that I will not mention here, the historical narrative reads as an authentic retelling of the events. The tomb was indeed empty. I believe the physical resurrection of Jesus is the best explanation for the empty tomb, the experiences of the disciples, and the rapid growth of the early church against all odds.
D.D. Flowers, 2012.
Now Read: Why I Believe in the Resurrection of Jesus, Part III.
Limitations of Science & Boundaries of Human Reason Conclusion—Believing in the Face of Objections & Seasons of Doubt