An historian examines the resurrection

This extract from the Life of Jesus documentary considers the evidence for the resurrection.



The criterion of embarrassment


This extract from the Life of Jesus documentary considers the evidence for the resurrection.

In this short clip from Life of Jesus, John Dickson explains that while there’s no hard proof for the resurrection of Jesus, we do have the sort of historical evidence that a resurrection would leave behind.


JOHN DICKSON: The garden tomb is a popular site for pilgrims wanting to see where Jesus may have been buried. What motivates a person to visit a place like this is not so much firm proof, as a personal conviction based on a whole range of things. I mean, evidence will play a part for many of these pilgrims, but so will the deeper philosophical questions such as ‘Is there a god?’, and ‘Would God do such a thing as raise someone from the dead?’ Historians though, ask much simpler questions. How early is the evidence for claims about Jesus’ resurrection? Was there an empty tomb in the first place? And who were the eyewitnesses? 

This is one of the many ancient family tombs cut into the local limestone here in Jerusalem. This one was probably emptied by grave-robbers centuries ago. Most scholars agree that Jesus’ tomb was likewise empty shortly after his burial. Now this is partly because we have several independent reports from the first century that mention Jesus’ empty tomb. But it’s also because we know of an early rumour, spread about by the Jerusalem leadership, that the disciples of Jesus actually stole his body from the tomb. This at least tells us that even the early critics of Christianity conceded there was an empty tomb. They just disputed how it got that way. 

But an empty tomb can be explained in a number of ways. In the end, what inspired the early Christians to believe that Jesus really was alive again was not an empty tomb but the claim of his disciples that they had seen him with their own eyes. 

ACTOR (1 CORINTHIANS 15:3-8): For what I received I passed onto you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the twelve. After that he appeared to more than 500 of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

JOHN DICKSON: The incredibly early date of this summary of Christian teaching rules out any suggestion that the resurrection story was part of a slowly developing legend. No scholar thinks that. It’s just an unavoidable fact of history that from the very beginning, people were claiming to have seen Jesus, alive from the dead. 

Paul’s letter mentions six separate individuals or groups who saw the risen Jesus. Many of these ended up dying for their testimony. But there’s another group of witnesses that has to be taken just as seriously: Jesus’ female disciples. 

All four gospels have women as the first witnesses of the resurrection. Now, modern scholars find this remarkable because – and I hate to say it – the testimony of women in this period was not highly valued. The first century Jewish historian Josephus wrote: “From women, let no evidence be accepted, because of the levity and temerity of their sex.” And a statue from ancient Palestine declares: “The law governing an oath of testimony applies to men and not to women; to those who are suitable to bear witness and not to those who are unsuitable.” 

If you were writing up a story about a resurrection and you wanted first century people to believe it, you would not include women as the first witnesses unless, somewhat embarrassingly, that really was the case. 

There is no hard proof for the resurrection of Jesus. But we do have just the sort of evidence a resurrection would leave behind: an empty tomb, and the testimony of numerous eyewitnesses (many of whom died for their claim). 

This is why historians take the resurrection story far more seriously than many of us realise. They all agree that something very strange happened that first Easter. As one scholar memorably put it, “There is a resurrection-shaped dent in the historical record, and it’s quite a puzzle working out how it got there.”