Visit the legacy site here. Until the next election season rolls around, please take a moment to read my pastor’s essay.
The Historical Case for Christianity
One of the strongest arguments in favor of the truth of Christianity is the historical evidence for the existence of Jesus Christ and his resurrection. The historical evidence that supports Christianity is unique when compared to all other religious worldviews. And this is not just my opinion as a Christian Pastor. This is something that even some scholarly and academic unbelievers grant. This is how atheist Anthony Flew put it:
The evidence for the resurrection is better than for claimed miracles in any other religion. It’s outstandingly different in quality and quantity. (1)
And so in this paper, we are going to be looking at the historical evidence for the existence of Jesus and for his resurrection which would cause a skeptic of Christianity like Anthony Flew to make the shocking statement that I just quoted.
I want to begin this paper by briefly going over how clear it is that Jesus Christ existed as a historical figure. After I do this, I will go over the historical evidence that Jesus performed miracles and then finally, I argue that he rose from the dead authenticating his radical claims which are at the center of the Christian worldview.
Part 1: Outside Sources
The Academic Consensus On The Existence of Jesus
Although there are internet atheists who make the claim that Jesus never existed, this view is not taken seriously in the academic world. This is how agnostic skeptical scholar Bart Erhman puts it:
I should say at the outset that none of this literature is written by scholars trained in New Testament or early Christian studies teaching at the major, or even the minor, accredited theological “seminaries, divinity schools, universities, or colleges of North America or Europe (or anywhere else in the world). Of the thousands of scholars of early Christianity who do teach at such schools, none of them, to my knowledge, has any doubts that Jesus existed. (3)
Bart Erhman goes on to stress how he has no ax to grind when it comes to the existence of Jesus because he is not a Christian:
What I do hope is to convince genuine seekers who “really want to know how we know that Jesus did exist, as virtually every scholar of antiquity, of biblical studies, of classics, and of Christian origins in this country and, in fact, in the Western world agrees. Many of these scholars have no vested interest in the matter. As it turns out, I myself do not either. I am not a Christian, and I have no interest in promoting a Christian cause or a Christian agenda. I am an agnostic with atheist leanings, and my life and views of the world would be approximately the same whether or not Jesus existed. My beliefs would vary little. The answer to the question of Jesus’s historical existence will not make me more or less happy, content, hopeful, likable, rich, famous, or immortal. (4)
The reason why Bart Erhman says this is because we have more evidence that Jesus existed than we do for other historical figures like Alexander the great. Have you ever notice that no one questions whether Alexander the great existed or not? And yet, the earliest accounts of Alexander the Great are written over 250 years after he existed. For Jesus Christ, on the other hand, we have an abundance of early sources most of which are recorded 5 to 100 years after he died. Some of these sources are not even in the Bible, but also outside secular sources recording his existence.
Secular Sources Support The Existence of Jesus
I want to start off listing some sources outside of the Bible that we have on Jesus. Now I want us to keep in mind that Jesus died around 33 AD, so that when I am citing a source from 95 AD, that source is only around 60 years after his death.
The first quote is from Suetonius who lived from 69 to 140 AD. He wrote this section that I am about to quote around 115 AD but he lived close to the time when Jesus lived. He writes:
Because the Jews at Rome caused constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus (Christ), he (Claudius) expelled them from the city (Rome). (5)
We do not get much from Suetonius other than Jesus existed and he was called the Messiah (Christ). And the fact that Jesus was called the Messiah easily explains why views about him would cause a Jewish disturbance. But thankfully we get more information from Tacitus, an ancient Roman historian. Tacitus lived from AD 56 to 120 AD. He writes:
Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. (6)
We get more facts from Tacitus about Jesus than we do from Suetonius. Two facts we get from Tacitus is that Jesus was called the Christ and he was crucified. But there seems to be another implied fact that Tacitus refers to as “a most mischievous superstition”. This is mentioned directly after the death of Christ and seems to be a pejorative term of the Christian belief in resurrection of Jesus. So, from Tacitus we can infer that Jesus is the Christ, that he was crucified, and that he was believed to have been resurrected from the dead.
Now I want to look and turn to Josephus, an ancient Jewish historian. He wrote much of first century Judaism and on the Jewish War which occurred in the first century. A particular passage about Jesus from Josephus was likely added onto by Christian scribes.
And so here is a reading of Josephus that has those rather obvious Christian edits taken out of the quote. This was written around 93 AD in Josephus’s Antiquity of the Jews 18.3.3, he writes:
Now around this time lived Jesus, a wise man. For he was a worker of amazing deeds and was a teacher of people who gladly accept the truth. He won over both many Jews and many Greeks. Pilate, when he heard him accused by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, (but) those who had first loved him did not cease (doing so). To this day the tribe of Christians named after him has not disappeared. (7)
We learn the following about Jesus from this passage: he was a wise teacher, he did miracles, and he was crucified.
Josephus briefly references Jesus elsewhere in his writings as if he has already fully described him or least introduced him. One such reference is found in Antiquities 20.9.11 and it says with reference to Jesus’ brother James: “The brother of Jesus, who is called the Messiah.”
And so for those who want to deny that Josephus mentions anything about Jesus previous to this reference, then I have some questions for them: Who is this Jesus he is mentioning here? How is the reader of his work suppose to know about him? Why does he mention him? These questions do not have good answers to them unless Josephus has already introduced his readers to Jesus and given some information about him. And so it is for this and other reasons that most scholars accept that Josephus did mention something about Jesus even though later Christian scribes doctored it somewhat. As Bart Erhman writes,
The majority of scholars of early Judaism, and experts on Josephus, think that it was the former—that one or more Christian scribes “touched up” the passage a bit. (8)
And so because this quotation is widely accepted by majority of scholarship, then it is fair to say that we learn the following new facts about Jesus: Jesus had a brother, Jesus was crucified by Pilate, Jesus was considered a wise teacher and even said to do miraculous things.
Summary: What We Know From Outside Sources
Now there are other Christian and secular sources outside of the Bible, but these are the earliest and best. I summarize what we learn about Jesus from these outside sources:
- Jesus existed.
- Jesus had a teacher.
- Jesus had a significant following that remained after his death.
- Jesus was called the Messiah.
- Jesus was a miracle worker.
- Jesus was crucified.
- Jesus was believed to have rose from the dead.
In my opinion as an academic, this is an impressive list of details by a brief sampling of the most prominent secular sources about Jesus. So, I believe it is safe to assume that academic research supports that Jesus did in fact exist.
Part 2: New Testament
The New Testament Is More Than Just One Reliable Source
Often, skeptics will make the remark along the lines of: Well I don’t believe that the Jesus that Christians say they follow today ever existed at all. Rather I just believe there was a man who was a regular first century Jew who existed and anything remotely miraculous must be a later myth or a later development. So that the miracle working Jesus followed by Christians today did not exist.
And so I want to look at the New Testament to see that the historical evidence is not supportive of this. Before we begin it is worth pointing out that historians also trust the transmission of the Bible. We have no evidence that suggests the message of the Bible was significantly corrupted. The reason why is that it has more manuscripts and earlier manuscripts than any ancient document ever. Even Bart Ehrman admits that the Bible is the best attested book in all ancient history (9).
The reason why textual scholars say this is that for any ancient text, we have about 5 to 100 manuscripts if we are lucky… but for the New Testament we have over 5,600 Greek manuscripts making it more reliable in terms of transmission than any ancient document that has ever been passed down.
There was no compiled book called the “New Testament” in the first century. Rather, the books of the New Testament were separate Greek documents about Jesus and Christianity in the first century when they were written. They were not together in one book like we have today, but had separate authors and sources.
Criteria of Multiple Attestation
There are different criteria that secular historians employ to show that something likely happened historically. The one method I will be using the to start with is what is called the criteria of multiple attestation. This criteria says that an event is more likely to be historical if it has two sources rather than just one source, with all things being equal. Under this criteria, the more sources you have, the more it increases the likelihood of something taking place historically rather than not. Paul Maier, a historian of antiquity, affirms this method when he writes “Many facts from antiquity rest on just one ancient source, while two or three in agreement generally render the fact unimpeachable.” (10)
Jesus as a Miracle Worker
The gospels of Matthew, Luke, Mark, and John are all generally treated as independent sources. There are two miracles that happened in all four Gospels: feeding of the 5,000, and Jesus walking on water.
But we have more support for the proposition that Jesus was a miracle worker in general than just the four Gospels. We have the book of Acts which gives us an independent first century tradition that Jesus was a miracle worker from his followers, look at Acts 2:22:
Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know.
Now one might be tempted to say Luke is the writer of a Gospel and just using the same source material that he used for the Gospel. But this is not plausible according to Ehrman, who writes:
Some of the speeches in Acts contain what scholars call preliterary tradition: oral traditions that had been in circulation from much earlier times that are found, now, only in their written form in Acts…..These traditions are quite emphatic that Jesus was a Jewish man who lived, did spectacular deeds, taught, and was executed. (11)
So far then that makes it five first century sources supporting the conclusion that Jesus was a miracle worker.
We have the epistles in the New Testament which also serve as sources to Jesus as a miracle worker. And the epistle of Hebrews serves as another early independent source of the miracles of Jesus. Look at how Hebrews 2:3-4 puts it:
How shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.
Hebrews is arguably dated prior to 70 AD because it never mentions once or suggests the destruction of Jerusalem temple which is something we’d expect from a book that is focused on arguing that the temple system of sacrifices is now completely obsolete.
An easy way for the author of Hebrews to shut down followers of Jesus going back to the Jewish temple ceremonies is to say “Hey folks the entire temple has been destroy and Judaism as you’ve know it for your whole life is in complete chaos so why are you even drawn to going back to the old ways? There are not more temple ceremonies for you to even observe anymore!” For that reason, I would date it sometime before the Jewish war took place, sometime around the early sixties.
The book called 2nd Peter is most likely written after Hebrews, but it still is certainly a good first century source from a follower of Christ. Let us look at what this disciple said in 2 Peter 1:16-18:
For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain.
The reference to power and majesty is likely a reference to the miracles of Jesus that this Christ follower is indirectly mentioning which would just be another additional independent source of the miracles of Jesus.
What do scholars say?
If we treated the New Testament like any other ancient first historical document, we find that there is an abundance of evidence that Jesus was a miracle worker. This is not just my opinion. This is something that skeptical atheist and agnostic New Testament historians affirms. In the words of radically liberal atheist New Testament scholar John Crossan:
Jesus was both an exorcist and a healer. (12)
One of the most radical and liberal critics of all time in New Testament scholarship is Rudolf Bultmann, and he writes:
Most of the miracle stories contained in the gospels are legendary or at least are dressed up with legends. But there can be no doubt that Jesus did such deeds, which were, in his and his contemporaries’ understanding, miracles, that is, deeds that were the result of supernatural, divine causality. Doubtless he healed the sick and cast out demons. (13)
And perhaps a more contemporary and well known critic Bart Ehrman admits this:
Whatever you think about the philosophical possibility of miracles of healing, it’s clear that Jesus was widely reputed to have done them. (14)
And then radical liberal critic of the Jesus Seminar, Marcus Borg concedes:
Despite the difficulty which miracles pose for the modern mind, on historical grounds it is virtually indisputable that Jesus was a healer and exorcist. (15)
Secular scholars have no difficulty with granting that Jesus was a miracle worker, given the vast abundance of sources we have in the New Testament documents.
At the end of the day, the reason why we have so many skeptical non-Christian scholars making such stunning claims about Jesus as if they were Christians is because, as I have pointed out, there are just so many early historical sources in support of Jesus existing and him being a miracle worker.
If one were to count the early historical sources supporting Jesus existing as a miracle worker, then they would find that there are over 10 sources. I think Christian New Testament scholar Craig Keener summarizes the situation nicely when he writes:
Although the evidence is limited concerning most particular miracles, all of the many ancient sources that comment on the issue agree that Jesus and his early followers performed miracles: Q, Mark, special material in Matthew and Luke, John, Acts, the Epistles, Revelation, and non-Christian testimony from both Jewish and pagan sources. (16)
And so with Jesus, we have over five times that amount of evidence required for an unimpeachable fact in the ancient world. I would say that is pretty impressive, but I am not finished yet!
Part 3: Resurrection
Now the ironic thing about the miracles of Jesus is that the miracle that has the strongest and earliest evidence supporting is the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is truly remarkable because the Resurrection is the central miracle of Christianity.
There is no miracle in the New Testament that is given more weight than the Resurrection of Jesus—everything hinges on it! As the Apostle Paul acknowledges himself in 1 Corinthians 15:13-19:
But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.
So if the resurrection is false then Christianity is false. But if the resurrection is true then it follows that Christianity is true, according to the Apostle Paul himself. So let us finally examine the evidence for the resurrection.
1 Corinthians 15
I want to begin by quoting the earliest dated part of the entire New Testament 1 Corinthians 15:1-3, first let us look at the first three verses:
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you– unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures.
This is a significant section of scripture that is often overlooked by the lay person but which is paid very close attention to by the New Testament scholars.
Delivered and Received Language
This delivered and received language we see here in 1 Corinthians 15:3 is used to indicate that starts at verses 3 and continues through 7 was an ancient creed-like tradition that was passed on to Paul. This would have been something that the earliest Christian memorized and passed on to others.
There exists academic consensus that these verses represent an early Christian creed that dates around 5 years after the death of Jesus. Scholars know this for a variety of reasons, but here is just one quick reason that is clear to those of us who read Greek: The style of writing and Greek word choice shows this is a memorized early tradition passed down to Paul; the words that are used here is not how Paul writes and the phrases used indicate that this is a very early creed. As skeptical agnostic historian Gerd Ludemann puts it:
the elements in the tradition are to be dated to the first two years after the crucifixion of Jesus… not later than three years… (17)
And again Michael Goulder, another skeptical non-Christian scholar, confirms this when he writes:
goes back at least to what Paul was taught when he was converted, a couple of years after the crucifixion. (18)
Crucifixion of Jesus
Over seven sources confirm that Jesus died by crucifixion. So established is the death of Christ by crucifixion that non-Christian New Testament Scholar, Marcus Borg, who I quoted earlier, concluded that:
some judgments are so probable as to be certain; for example, Jesus really existed, and he really was crucified, just as Julius Caesar really existed and was assassinated. …. We can in fact know as much about Jesus as we can about any figure in the ancient world. (19)
Robert Funk of the radically liberal Jesus seminar went so far as to say that the death of Jesus by crucifixion is an “indisputable fact” about Jesus. (20)
We will now look at the evidence that shows that Jesus was buried and that the tomb was empty in 1 Corinthians 15:4 - the same ancient creed we looked at earlier - we find two more foundational historical facts about Jesus:
that he (Jesus) was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.
The second fact implied by this verse is that the tomb on Easter Sunday was empty. For any first century Jew, to say that of a dead man “that he was buried and that he was raised” is to imply a bodily resurrection meaning the tomb was empty. Another reason why most critical scholars accept the empty tomb is that it is attested for by all four Gospels in addition to 1 Corinthians 15 which I’ve just quoted.
Criterion of Embarassment
Another piece of evidence for the empty tomb is that in every Gospel the empty tomb was found by women. Now why do the first witnesses of the empty tomb being women give strong evidence that tomb was empty? The reason is that testimony of women was not admitted in a court of law in the first century.
And so if the disciples were just making up the empty tomb narrative, they would have made the first witnesses of the empty tomb men instead of women. Instead, the Gospel writers put down what for them would have been an embarrassing truth: The tomb was empty and the first eyewitnesses of this fact were women.
This is a historical method that historians use called the criterion of embarrassment: if the writers reveal embarrassing information then it is much more likely that they are telling the truth rather than just fabricating something.
This is what Jacob Kremer, an Australian specialist on the resurrection, says about the empty tomb:
By far most exegetes hold firmly to the reliability of the biblical statements concerning the empty tomb. (20)
Appearances of Christ
The last and most important fact comes from the 1 Corinthians 15:5-9 creed:
and that he appeared to Cephas (Aramaic name for Peter), then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.
I want us to remember that all of these creeds date no more than six years after Jesus’ death and that is just phenomenal in terms of ancient history.
Summarizing the evidence
I want to now briefly summarize the evidence we have that Jesus appeared to both individuals and groups of people with four simple points:
- Exceedingly early source material in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7. Jesus appeared to many groups of people which he says is over 500 people. And what gives Paul even more historical credibility is he says that most of those people are still alive, so you guys can check it out and verify this if you want.
- The appearance of Christ in his resurrection body is in all four of the Gospels which means that we have multiple independent early sources of this.
- Jesus appeared to even to skeptics. James, Jesus’ brother, rejected him during his life and then came to accept Christ and become a leader in the church. It would certainly take a miracle to believe that your brother was the son of God!
- Paul’s testimony compels all historians to accept the appearances of Christ. How do you go from persecuting Christians to becoming a Christian yourself? There must have been something that happened which brought this major transformation in the life of Paul, and it is best explained by the line “he also appeared to me.”
What do Secular Scholars Say?
The non-Christian skeptical scholar Gerd Ludemann concedes that Jesus certainly appeared to his disciples:
It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus’ death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ. (21)
Skeptical critical scholar, Helmut Koester, also concedes:
Jesus appeared to others (Peter, Mary Magdalene, James) cannot very well be questioned. (22)
The evidence is so strong that Jesus appeared to his disciples, secular scholars strangely start sounding like Christian preachers.
Best Explanation of the Facts
So then how do secular scholars explain the empty tomb and the appearances of Jesus? Is there any predominantly held secular theory that tries to explain these facts? The answer is no.
All the secular theories like the mass hallucination theory or the apparent death theory have been nearly universally rejected by secular scholarship. And so the most likely way that secular scholars deal with the compelling evidence for the resurrection is by saying they don’t know how to explain what was going on!
This is how non-Christian New Testament historian E.P. Sanders puts it:
That Jesus’ followers (and later Paul) had resurrection experiences is, in my judgment, a fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know. (23)
If one believes that God exists, then it seems like the most obvious theory is that God raised Jesus from the dead. This explains the empty tomb and the appearances of Jesus to individuals and groups of people. So the best explanation of the facts is that God raised Jesus from the dead. And if God raised Jesus from the dead, then Christianity is true.
And if Christianity is true then you should devote your life to trusting and following Jesus Christ. As Jesus once remarked in the Gospel of John:
The truth will set you free.
And my hope is that the evidence and facts presented in this paper will help you see what is true and that it will change your life!
1) Gary Habermas, “My Pilgrimage from Atheism to Theism: An Exclusive Interview with Former British Atheist Professor Antony Flew.” Available from the Web site of Biola University at www.biola.edu/antonyflew
2) Two Dozen (or so) Arguments for God: The Plantinga Project. Editors Jerry Walls, Trent Dougherty
3) Did Jesus Exist? Bart D. Ehrman. Pg. 7-8 (Electronic)
4) Did Jesus Exist? Bart D. Ehrman. Pg. 16-17 (Electronic)
5) Life of Claudius, 25:4
6) Cornelius Tacitus, the Annals, 15.44
7) John Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus: The Roots of the Problem and the Person
8) Did Jesus Exist? Bart D. Ehrman. Pg. 172 (Electronic)
9) Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (OUP, 2016), 29.
10) Paul L. Maier, In the Fullness of Time: A Historian Looks at Christmas, Easter, and the Early Church (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1991), 197.
11) Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? (Harper One, 2012) 109 (book)
12) John Crossan (‘The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant.’)
13) Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus (Berlin: Deutsche Bibliothek, 1926), p. 159.
14) Bart Ehrman (‘The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings.’)
15) Marcus J. Borg, Jesus, A New Vision: Spirit, Culture, and The Life of Discipleship (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1991), 61.
16) Craig Keener (‘Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts.’)
17) [The Resurrection of Jesus, trans. by Bowden (Fortress, 1994), 171-72.]
18) “The Baseless Fabric of a Vision,” in Gavin D’Costa, editor, Resurrection Reconsidered (Oneworld, 1996), 48.]
19) Marcus Borg, Professor of Religion and Culture at Oregon State University, in The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions
20) Robert Funk, Jesus Seminar videotape.
21) J. Kremer, Die 0ster- evangelien-Geschichten um Geschichte, Stuttgart, 1977, pp. 49-50
22) Gerd L¸demann, What Really Happened to Jesus?, trans. John Bowden (Louisville, Kent.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), p. 80.
23) Helmut Koester, History and Literature, 84.
24) E.P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus, page 280