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Common Facts Surrounding the Resurrection
Before examining the death and resurrection of Jesus, it is appropriate to take a brief look at His life. Even though little is recorded about His life, it is remarkable in many ways. Jesus healed the lame, fed the hungry, made the blind see, and even raised the dead. But who was He? He was certainly a man; only the most blatant ignorance of historical fact would lead one to believe that He never existed. And as a man He did many wonderful things, most of which benefited others. He taught lessons of love, charity, care and concern, again providing hope to many.
He was a very good man. In fact, if there is one claim about Jesus that just about everyone can agree on, this is it: He was a good man. He was kind, generous, loving, and compassionate. Even if you believe nothing else about Him, you will likely agree with this. He claimed, however, to be more than just a man. He claimed to be the Messiah, God in the flesh, from heaven, the Son of God. Herein lies a curious dilemma. Jesus bore all the marks of a very good man, yet claimed to be the Son of God.
How can this be? If He was not the Messiah then He lied and deceived His disciples, causing many to be tortured and even die because of His audacious fraud. Additionally, He did it for no benefit, gaining only death by making this claim. It is absurd to think that Jesus would have been a good man, as the evidence bears out, and yet engage in this great deceit. Think about this for a while, particularly in the context of typical human psychology.
He could only have been who He claimed to be--the Son of God. As we move forward into a review of the resurrection of Jesus, we will see this to be the greatest of all evidence of His true identity.
There are many facts about the resurrection that are generally accepted by scholars and theologians alike. Why are these facts generally accepted? First, because they are generally believable. Most people do not have difficulty accepting historical facts that can be naturally explained and seem logical. However, when those claims start to be of a supernatural nature some scholars are quick to create alternate theories (as we will examine below) in an attempt to explain them away.
Second, these events are well documented in history. While the New Testament is a historically proven, accurate, and reliable document, there is, in many cases, corroborating secular evidence. The interpretation of these facts, however, is where most historians digress in order to avoid the fact that Christ rose from the dead. Below are the six points most commonly agreed upon by scholars.
There is an extensive body of evidence to support the existence of Christ. Both the excellent historical text of the New Testament and numerous secular historians record the events of His life. Numerous early writers reference Christ, including Thallus, Suetonius, Phlegon (known only by references of Origen), Pliny the younger, Origen, and the Jewish Talmud. In Origen's document Against Celsus, he writes,
"And with regard to the eclipse in the time of Tiberius Caesar, in whose reign Jesus appears to have been crucified, and the great earthquakes which then took place, Phlegon too, I think, has written in the thirteenth or fourteenth book of his Chronicles." 1
Origen clearly identifies Jesus as a known man during the time of Tiberius Caesar. Another popular reference is that of Josephus, a Jewish historian born just a few years after Jesus died. In his book, The Antiquities of the Jews, finished in 93 A.D. Josephus writes,
"About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Messiah. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him. On the third day he appeared to them restored to life, for the prophets of God had prophesied these and countless other marvelous things about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared." 2
Professor Gary Habermus sums up this evidence succinctly.
"Comparatively few recent scholars postulate that Jesus never lived. Such positions are usually viewed as blatant misuses of historical data." 3
Regarding His claim of deity, it is well documented and logical to believe. After all He could have been crazy, or simply lying. Regardless of how one views the claim of His Messiahship, it is well substantiated. It was thought to be heretical by the Jews, and was precisely why they wanted Him dead. Consider the following passages:
"The woman said to Him, 'I know that Messiah is coming (He who is called Christ); when that One comes, He will declare all things to us.' Jesus said to her, 'I who speak to you am He.'" (John 4:25-26)
"So Jesus said, 'When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am He, and I do nothing on My own initiative, but I speak these things as the Father taught Me. And He who sent Me is with Me; He has not left Me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to Him.'" (John 8:28-29)
"Jesus said to her, 'I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?' She said to Him, 'Yes, Lord; I have believed that You are the Christ, the Son of God, even He who comes into the world.'" (John 11:25-27)
These are just a few of the many passages showing Christ's claim as the Son of God. Again, this is not difficult to accept, as even His brutal enemies would agree. The life of Christ is a matter of historical fact, as F.F. Bruce points out,
"Some writers may toy with the fancy of a 'Christ-myth', but they do not do so on the ground of historical evidence. The historicity of Christ is as axiomatic for an unbiased historian as the historicity of Julius Caesar. It is not historians who propagate the 'Christ-myth' theories." 4
Before we go on to the other points there is an important conclusion to consider from the basic claim of Jesus' existence--whether or not you believe it. Just who was Jesus Christ? Was He really just a good man? Or was He a liar, a fake who deceived hundreds of thousands into sacrificing everything for Him? Was He a crazy man who thought He was the Messiah, but didn't know any better? Who was He? This question bears some examination.
As mentioned above, He could not have been just a good man if He lied and deceived thousands, leading them to torture and even death. Likewise, He certainly wasn't a bad man either. There were too many acts of love and kindness seemingly emanating from His very being.
Perhaps He was crazy? Some have erroneously concluded that Jesus was a lunatic, indicating that He didn't know He was lying. He thought He was the Messiah. This conclusion, however, is for those who have never bothered to read the teaching and reasoning of Jesus. He was far from crazy... He was brilliant. His encounters with the Pharisees and Jewish leaders, His encounters with the disciples... they were nothing short of brilliant.
If Jesus wasn't a myth, a lunatic, a bad man, or just a good man, who was He? There aren't many possibilities left. The final option is that He was exactly who He claimed to be--Lord and Messiah.
To many Jews, the degrading death by crucifixion was precisely the proof that He was not the Messiah. But regardless of how they interpreted His death, it was not denied. To be much more precise about His torture and death, He endured six trials, a crown of thorns, Roman scourging, and finally, His hands and feet were pierced as He was nailed to the cross. A spear was thrust into His side, and ultimately He was pronounced dead by a centurion.5
"When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who himself had also become a disciple of Jesus. This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. And Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn out in the rock; and he rolled a large stone against the entrance of the tomb and went away." (Matthew 27:57-60)
In fact, the Jews were so concerned about it that they went to Pilate to commission Roman guards to watch the tomb,
"Now on the next day, the day after the preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered together with Pilate, and said, 'Sir, we remember that when He was still alive that deceiver said, 'After three days I am to rise again.' Therefore, give orders for the grave to be made secure until the third day, otherwise His disciples may come and steal Him away and say to the people, 'He has risen from the dead,' and the last deception will be worse than the first.' Pilate said to them, 'You have a guard; go, make it as secure as you know how.' And they went and made the grave secure, and along with the guard they set a seal on the stone." (Matthew 27:62-66).
A question that has captured my interest is that of how many guards might have been present at the tomb. Was there one lone guard as depicted in some of our modern art? Or was there a large contingent monitoring the tomb? The question has been answered by many, but speculatively at best. One thing is for sure, there were at least three soldiers and likely more.
Matthew records (28:11-15) that some of the soldiers went to tell the Jewish leaders what had happened. I think all can agree what some means: more than one, but less than all. In other words, some soldiers going to the Jews, means at least two and probably at least three, as it is likely that a soldier would bring at least two witnesses. Additionally, all were not present, only some, so at least one was left behind. Again, it would not be customary for a lone soldier to be left behind, but rather for witnesses and partners to be left with him.
Finally, it is worth noting that Roman fighting units were customarily dispatched in fighting units of four. How many guards were present at the tomb? Conclusively there were three or more. Most likely there were at least four. Some have speculated as many as sixteen, as this was normally a minimum Roman fighting unit. This assertion is challenged on the basis that this was not a battle being waged. On the other hand Roman law was at stake.
As Matthew indicates above, the guards set a seal on the stone. According to Roman custom, this was a seal of soft clay, usually over straps that spanned the stone itself. If the stone were moved, the straps and the seal would be broken. The seal itself would bear the mark of Caesar, and indicate its placement by the highest authority in the land. The purpose of the setting a seal on the stone was not to literally lock it in place, but to warn would-be intruders that breaking the seal was a violation of Roman law. Hence the Roman guards were there to enforce it. Archaeological discoveries in this century have confirmed that the crime of grave robbing was punishable by death.
The mere fact that the Jewish leaders bribed the guards to say the body was stolen implies that the body was missing. The tomb was empty and the guards sought relief from punishment when this fact was revealed. This brings me to another interesting sidebar. What happened to the stone? Who moved the stone? We tend to underestimate this point, yet placing ourselves at the scene, this movement must have been peculiar, even amazing.
We know from the text that the size of the stone was substantial. According to Mark 16:1-2 there was at least three women who knew they could not move it--even though it could be rolled--because it was extremely large. How much did it weigh? We don't know exactly, but I'm sure it was near 1½ tons.
Considering that 108 cubic inches of granite weighs about 15 pounds (7.2ci per pound) we can easily estimate the weight. The size of the opening was low enough that the disciples had to stoop down, but big enough to easily get the body in--probably about three feet. Allowing for the stone to overlap the opening by six inches on each side it then measures 48 inches across, or a 24-inch radius. It must have also been thick enough so as not to tip over--minimum of 12 inches, perhaps more. The formula for calculating volume would then be πr2w--in this case 21714.68. Using the weight factor above (7.2) we can see that the stone probably weighed more than 3,000 pounds.
Keep this in mind as you read some of the alternate theories to the resurrection. Would not the soldiers have heard such a massive object being moved if they were asleep? Would a weakened Jesus, beaten and stabbed, be able to summon the strength to move it if he was not dead? Further, the position of the stone after its movement was even more interesting. Matthew, Mark, and Luke use the Greek word "apokulio"--meaning to roll away--to describe the movement of the stone. This word would indicate that the stone had been rolled away from the opening, not slightly moved. John, however, is a little more specific. In John 20:1 he uses the word "airo"--meaning to pick up and carry away--to describe the movement of the stone. This heavy rock was not moved slightly back from the opening, but rather relocated away from the opening.
There were many sightings of Christ after His death. In one case, cited by Paul, He appeared to more than 500 people. Other cases recorded in the New Testament are:
Collectively, the New Testament and other historical documents clearly indicate that many people sighted Jesus over a period of forty days after His death. He was seen in many different environments and activities indoors, outdoors, sitting, standing, walking, talking, and eating. The secular Jewish historian, Josephus, confirms the apparent resurrection of Jesus, saying,
"On the third day he appeared to them restored to life..." 6
Some have suggested that Josephus said this sarcastically, not believing it. This may be true, but even if he made this statement as a non-believing observer, it clearly corroborates the news circulating in that time.
|1||Origen. Against Celsus 2.33, from Roberts, Alexander, and Donaldson, James, eds. The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdsmans Publishing Co., 1973.|
|2||Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Loeb edition, vol. IX, 18.3.3. Translated by Lewis H. Feldman. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965.|
|3||Habermas, Gary R. Ancient Evidence for the Life of Jesus. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1987. p.131.|
|4||Bruce, F.F. The New Testament Documents. 5th Ed. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdsmans Publishing Co., p.119.|
|5||Matthew 27, Mark 15, Luke 23, John 19|
|6||Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Loeb edition, vol. IX, 18.3.3. Translated by Lewis H. Feldman. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965.|