Historians and scholars agree that Jesus of Nazareth was executed by the Roman authorities in Jerusalem sometime between 29 AD and 36 AD, with 33 being the most commonly accepted date. As we all know, following his execution the followers of Jesus began to claim that he had risen from the dead and had appeared to them. Having scattered in fear after the arrest of Jesus, these disciples, within days of his death, now began boldly and fearlessly preaching that Jesus was alive.
Of course most scholars contend that there was no resurrection. The followers of Jesus fabricated it, they contend, in an attempt to explain how, despite his death, their crucified rabbi was indeed the messiah. Some scholars contend that the disciples merely believed they had seen Jesus alive, but that in fact they were suffering from hallucinations that were a product of their grief and stress. And the historical argument for the actual resurrection of Jesus isn’t helped by the fact that the gospels (which give narratives of the life and death of Jesus) were written many years after his death, and are seemingly inconsistent in their resurrection accounts.
But what is often not given enough credit in this discussion is Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. It is Paul’s letters, not the gospels, that are the earliest Christian documents. The first letter to the Corinthians (1st Corinthians in the New Testament) was written sometime between 51 and 55 AD. It was written, therefore, between 15 and 26 years after Jesus’ death. In contemporary terms, that’s like 1990 to us today.
And what does Paul say in that letter about the resurrection of Jesus?
For what I received I passed on to 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 five hundred of the brothers 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.
In other words, at the time this letter was written, Paul could identify hundreds of eye-witnesses to the resurrection. These were not fabricated accounts created many years after the death of the supposed witnesses, but rather were testimonies of living people, who had seen the resurrected Jesus with their own eyes.
The claim was bold, and the claimant was not afraid to identify specific people who could verify it.
As historical proof of events occuring thousands of years ago goes, it is compelling. Many facts that appear in history books describing events of this era hang on far less evidence than exists for the resurrection of Jesus.
Of course, from a purely secular and historical perspective, the biblical accounts of the resurrection, Paul’s letters, and the rapid increase in Christian believers immediately following the crucifixion, do not in and of themselves prove the historical truth of the resurrection. But they certainly give rational historical support to the proposition.
Normally it is unfair to ask a skeptic to prove a negative. So normally one might think it unfair to demand proof that Jesus did not rise from the dead.
But here that proof would not have been difficult to produce. Once the Jesus-followers began stirring up trouble in Jerusalem by insisting that their rabbi rose from the dead, it would have been a simple matter for the religious authorities to have simply exhumed the corpse, presented it to the crowd and defused the whole thing.
Of course we know that they were unable to do so, because the tomb was empty. Empty, they insisted, because the disciples had stolen the body.
Did the disciples steal the body, then proclaim that Jesus rose from the dead? Did they commit a fraud and help create a religion based on a lie, to promote the teaching of a man who called for honesty and truth? Every one of those disciples was eventually put to death for his beliefs. Did they give their lives for a lie?
Too much to cover in a blog post, of course. For my part, the best evidence of Christ’s resurrection is transformed lives of believers, not a 2,000 year old letter.
But there is that letter.