The Historicity of Jesus’s Death and Resurrection
The Brutal Practice of Crucifixion
For Jews living under Roman occupation, there was no such thing as a wondrous cross.1 Crucifixion was an especially cruel form of public execution designed to torture its victims and terrorize the people who witnessed it.
Around the time Jesus’ family returned from Egypt, the Romans crushed a revolt led by Judas the Galilean (Acts 5:37) when they burned the city of Sepphoris (four miles from Nazareth) and publicly crucified 2,000 of its inhabitants.2 It’s hard to imagine what life must have been like for young Jesus and his neighbors as families dealt with the social and psychological trauma of these atrocities.
Jesus knew all about the pain and shame of crucifixion, having probably witnessed others dying on the cross. And our Lord lived, knowing he would someday die that same way. Early in his ministry, he told Nicodemus, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up.” (John 3:14)3 Later in the same Gospel, John records Jesus predicting his death,
All four Gospel accounts describe the death of Jesus on the cross exactly as he predicted. Mark succinctly says, “But Jesus let out a loud cry and breathed his last.” (Mark 15:37 HCSB). Soon after Jesus’s death, his followers claimed they had seen him alive again.
The extraordinary claim of Jesus’ resurrection has been doubted by many over the years, starting when rumors first began to circulate that Jesus’ disciples had stolen his body, resulting in the “empty tomb.” (Matt 28:13). Since then, other theories have been proposed to cast doubt on the miracle of the resurrection.
The Physical Death of Jesus of Nazareth
In the late 1700s, a German scholar proposed that Jesus had not died but had feigned his death through drugs (provided by his physician, Luke), only to be later resuscitated in the tomb.4 For a while, this “swoon theory” gained traction, and others began to promulgate similar explanations that Jesus did not die but had merely become unconscious.
Today, most scholars reject such an idea, given what science tells us about the effects of torture and crucifixion on the body. The scourging of our Lord’s back, followed by the piercing of the nails, hours on the cross, and a final thrust of a spear into his side would have undoubtedly proved fatal. The Journal of the American Medical Association agreed:
Clearly, the weight of historical and medical evidence indicates that Jesus was dead before the wound to his side was inflicted and supported the traditional view that the spear, thrust between his right ribs, probably perforated not only the right lung but also the pericardium and heart and thereby ensured his death. Accordingly, interpretations based on the assumption that Jesus did not die on the cross appear to be at odds with modern medical knowledge.5
Not only does modern medical interpretation point to the physical death of our Lord, but Jesus’ death was also reported by several ancient unbiased, non-Christian sources as well.6,7,8 The historical evidence for Jesus of Nazareth’s life and death is both long-established and widespread. Serious antiquity scholars agree that Jesus was a historical figure and dismiss denials of his existence as a fringe theory. 9
Evidence for the Physical Resurrection of Jesus Christ
The early teaching of the resurrection soon after Jesus’ death and burial began after his followers proclaimed he was alive and had risen from the dead. More than that, they stated he was different and now could walk through walls and even disappear at will.10,11
These sorts of claims are often dismissed as legends or stories passed down from generation to generation, with each retelling exaggerating and embellishing the true facts. However, the claims of Jesus’ followers fundamentally differ from the stories of Paul Bunyan or Johnny Appleseed in one important matter.
Unlike legends that often take multiple generations to develop, the claims of the resurrection of Jesus were recorded right away. According to Oxford academic and ancient historian A.N. Sherwin-White, “Even two generations [about seventy years total] are too short a span to allow the mythical tendency to prevail over the hard historical core of the oral tradition.”10
Scholars today agree that Jesus died around AD 30 and that some New Testament letters were written within 15 or 20 years of his death.12 The time gap between Jesus’ death and the writing of these letters (or the Gospels themselves) is too short for legend status to develop. Furthermore, when we examine 1 Corinthians 15:3-5, it becomes clear that at this point in history, the teaching about Jesus’ death and resurrection was already a doctrine of first importance; it was being taught even before these early letters were written.
In these verses, Paul says that the message he delivered to the Corinthian ecclesia was the same message he himself had previously received. We might wonder who explained to Paul that Jesus’ death and resurrection were predicted in the Jewish Scriptures. The answer may be found in Paul’s letter to the Galatians, describing the events following his conversion on the Road to Damascus. Wondering if his experience with Jesus was real, Paul says he went to Jerusalem and sought out Peter and James—two individuals who were specifically referenced to have personally seen Jesus alive.
The NET Bible records it this way,
Amazingly, this fact-finding trip occurred three to five years after our Lord’s crucifixion and is likely the source of the “doctrine of first importance” he shared with the Corinthians. Based on Paul’s corroboration with other first-hand eyewitnesses, he confidently asserted, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.”
The Christian belief in the resurrection is not a fable that developed over time but was a fundamental core belief from the beginning.
While Paul sought out Peter and James to hear their eyewitness testimony before fully committing his life to preach the Gospel, they were not the only eyewitnesses to Jesus’ resurrection. The Bible records more than ten instances when Jesus showed himself alive to individuals and groups of people. Jesus appeared first-hand to hundreds, “most of whom are still alive,” wrote Paul as if to challenge any doubters to seek out these witnesses as he himself had done.
The Gospel writers record Jesus being seen by Mary Magdalene, the women returning from the tomb, Peter, the two men on the road to Emmaus, along with the disciples on multiple occasions. Speaking about Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances, Bro. Simon Dean wrote,
Jesus was seen not once, but many times; not by one person, but by several; not only by individuals, but also by groups; not at one location, but at many; not by believers only, but by skeptics and unbelievers as well.12
Jesus was no figment of their imagination.
The testimony of these first-hand witnesses was that Jesus’ appearances were real. They were not simply visions or hallucinations. Luke records that not only did Jesus appear to them, but he “gave many convincing proofs that he was alive.” (Acts 1:3 NIV). Jesus touched people and had them touch him and inspect his wounds. Jesus ate with them and even left evidence of the occasion by leaving leftover fish and loaves half-eaten. This was no figment of their imagination.
Principle of Embarrassment
And while Jesus appeared in person and provided many convincing proofs that he was alive, not all believed. Matthew recorded one such occasion when Jesus appeared on a mountain, “but some doubted.” (Matt 28:17 ESV). Being skeptical of miracles and especially of the resurrection of the dead is normal, and that’s why it’s not surprising to read of Thomas’ skepticism. (John 20:27)
The fact that the Bible does not gloss over expressions of doubt lends credibility to the account of the resurrection. Ancient texts are often analyzed by scholars and historians using a type of analysis called the criterion of embarrassment. This principle can validate historical texts for trustworthiness, authenticity, and truthfulness. Texts that soften embarrassing, shameful, or disturbing details can lead scholars to conclude that the author was more concerned with reputation than accuracy.
The Bible’s account of the death and resurrection of Jesus includes many examples of embarrassing and shameful details. The fact that Jesus, the supposed Messiah, was executed in the most shameful manner known to the ancient world is just one example. The fact that women (who had no legal standing as witnesses in courts of law)13 discovered the empty tomb is another. Academics assume that if the account of Jesus were fabricated, the Gospel writers would have gone out of their way to exclude details like Peter denying, Thomas doubting, or the disciples despairing when Jesus did not become king.
Before the resurrection appearances, Jesus’ disciples were afraid. Matthew records that when Jesus was arrested by a large crowd carrying swords and clubs in Gethsemane, “all the disciples deserted him and fled.” (Matt. 26:56 NIV). Then, during his trial before Caiaphas, Peter, who surreptitiously followed Jesus to the court of the Sanhedrin, denied even knowing Jesus when he was identified as a possible co-conspirator. And John records that on the day of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, the disciples were hiding behind locked doors “for fear of the Jewish leaders.” (John 20:19 NIV).
Then, something changed. Men who once cowered in fear became courageous and spoke boldly about Jesus and his resurrection. In doing so, they willingly risked prison and persecution. The only thing that could account for this change in attitude and behavior is that these men were convinced they had seen Jesus alive and brought back from the dead.
Jesus’ resurrection gave them hope and assured them they, too, would be raised to life after their death, just like Jesus. Paul wrote, “If we have been united with him in death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his… Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.” (Rom 6:5, 8 NIV).
After his resurrection, Jesus sought out Peter and rebuilt his confidence following the shattering experience of denying his Lord. Peter seems to refer to this in his first letter when he writes, “In [God’s] great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade.” (1 Pet 1:3,4 NIV).
With Peter’s renewed confidence, having both seen the risen Christ and being assured of his inheritance, Peter found himself again before Caiaphas. This time, instead of fearfully witnessing the trial of Jesus from the shadows, Peter stood on trial. It was his second chance, and he spoke boldly and with great courage.
Perhaps the greatest example of the resurrection effect comes from the life of Saul of Tarsus. The Acts of the Apostles describe him as a prestigious Jew who once hunted Christians to kill them or throw them in prison. He was the greatest persecutor and threat to the early community of believers.
But then, after he experienced Jesus on the road to Damascus and heard the testimony of other witnesses, Saul became Paul the Apostle. He gave up everything that had previously been important to him. The only possible explanation is that he, too, was convinced of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus and the power of his resurrection. (Phil 3:7-11).
Following Jesus’ death by crucifixion, Jesus’ followers claimed to have seen him alive. Eyewitnesses describe him walking among the people for forty days before ascending to heaven. During that time, Jesus performed many convincing acts that proved to his despondent disciples and ardent adversaries alike that he had been raised from the dead and was alive forevermore. They were so convinced of this fact that they devoted their lives to spreading the gospel message despite real threats to their lives and livelihood.
The early result of their work is that the Christian community began to grow exponentially. Why? Because, like us, men and women of faith concluded, “It is true! The Lord has risen!” (Luke 24:34 NIV).
Boston Ecclesia, MA
- Hymn 223, Christadelphian Hymn Book, CMPA
- Eric M. Meyers, ”Sepphoris on the Eve of the Great Revolt (67–68 C.E.): Archaeology and Josephus,” in Eric M. Meyers, Galilee Through the Centuries: Confluence of Cultures, Eisenbrauns (1999), pp. 109ff., p. 114: (Josephus, Ant. 17.271-87; War 2.56–69).
- All Scriptural citations are taken from the New International Version, unless specifically noted.
- Douglas H. Shantz. Karl Freidrich Bahrdt (1740-92): Pietism, Enlightenment, and the Autonomous Self in Early Modern Germany. https://historicalpapers.journals.yorku.ca/index.php/historicalpapers/article/download/39110/35473/0 (April 19, 2023)
- W.D. Edwards, W.J. Gabel & F. E. Hosmer, “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ,” Journal of the American Medical Association, March 21, 1986, p.1463.
- Josephus. The Antiquities of the Jews, book 18, chapter 3.
- Tacitus. The Annals, book 15, chapter 44 (ca.AD 116-120).
- Mara bar Serapion letter. Van Voorst, Robert E (2000). Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence. Eerdmans Publishing. ISBN 0802843689 pp. 53–56.
- Ehrman, Bart (2012). Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. HarperOne. ISBN 9780062206442.
- A. N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament (Oxford, NY: Oxford University, 1963), 186, entire discussion pg. 186-193.
- M. Coogan, ed. The New Oxford Annotated Bible (Oxford University Press: New York, 2001), 309 NT.
- Simon Dean, Reasons: Evidence for God, Jesus and the Bible, edited by Thomas Gaston. (Willow Publications, 2011) p 218.
- Josephus. The Antiquities of the Jews, book 4, section 219