It is commonly said that Jesus is the cornerstone of our Christian faith. This is true! Through His life, death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven, much about God and His kingdom is revealed to us. But why do we trust what the Bible says about His death and resurrection? What if Jesus had died, but did not resurrect? This article explores the historical evidence for Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Crucifixion in Roman times was considered the worst form of punishment for crime. Jesus was condemned to the cross because He claimed to be the Son of God (Mark 14:61–64), which was heresy to the Jewish priests since He was equating himself to God. They then convinced the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, that Jesus claimed to be a king (John 19:12), and so had to be executed for treason.
External (i.e. ‘extra-biblical’) evidence about Jesus’ death and resurrection come from three main sources: (1) the Roman historian Tacitus; (2) the Babylonian Talmud (Jewish law), which refers to the “hanging” (i.e. crucifixion) of Jesus; and (3) the Jewish historian Josephus, who describes Jesus in this way: “And he gained a following both among Jews and many of Greek origin. And when Pilate, because of an accusation made by leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, those who loved him previously did not cease to do so.“
These evidences allow us to reach two conclusions. Firstly, the biblical characters (namely, Jesus and Pilate) were not made up, but real people recorded in history. Secondly, even those who did not follow Jesus acknowledged Him — Tacitus is known to have hated Christians and deemed Christianity a “destructive superstition”. Therefore, their factual writings stating the crucifixion of Jesus prove that he did truly die on the cross!
In the book of John, we read an account of how Mary Magdalene visited the tomb where Jesus’ body had been laid but found it to be empty before the other disciples did (John 20:1–8). A woman thus became the first person to report about the empty tomb. But did you know that in first-century Palestine, women were not allowed to testify in court? Thus, the testimonies of Mary and also other women (Matt 28:1; Mark 16:1; Luke 24:10) were unlikely to be false. Since their testimonies would have been dismissed right away, the Gospel writers would not have included them unless they had been widely accepted as fact.
Sceptics claim that the appearances of Jesus to His disciples post-resurrection were hallucinations. However, it is unlikely that all the disciples would have shared a series of hallucinations. Furthermore, Jesus appeared to over 500 people after He resurrected (1 Cor 15:6), as well as other disciples at di erent times and different places (1 Cor 15:5, 7–8). It is recorded in the Bible that they also conversed and even ate with Him (John 21:9–14). It is highly unlikely that all those who saw Jesus were under a prolonged and shared hallucination.
The final evidence for Jesus’ death and resurrection is the transformation of His disciples. Some have accused them of concocting the story of Jesus, but the disciples would neither have lived nor died so boldly, preaching the gospel of Jesus, unless they had absolute confidence in the events they witnessed and the Person they loved and followed. They were neither delusional from hallucinations, nor such pathological liars that they could hold up a consistent narrative for zero profit. Many of them died a martyr’s death, and till the day they died, all served the church and preached Jesus wherever they went.
Still not convinced? Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands a Verdict explores this issue (and others) thoroughly. Indeed, these evidences demand a verdict! Jesus is a person in history who lived, died, and resurrected. Search the evidence for yourself and be certain of your conclusion!