If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith
(1 Cor 15:14).
Jesus’ resurrection is the cornerstone of Christianity. On it, the Christian faith either stands or falls. It signals the defeat of death (1 Cor 15:26, 55), presents Jesus as the first fruits of the coming resurrection (1 Cor 15:14), and displays the ultimate importance of every human being (1 Cor 15:22). While most of us readily agree that Jesus’ resurrection is central to our faith, how many of us could explain to a non-Christian friend why we believe that the resurrection actually happened?
If the thought of defending the resurrection of Jesus to a friend or family member makes your stomach turn, fear not. There are lots of reasons why we know that we can trust what the Bible teaches us. Here are just a few that you may find helpful.
The Reliability of the New Testament:
The New Testament documents and in particular the gospels, are records of eyewitness or first hand accounts of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus (1 Cor 15:8; Acts 2:22, 26:24-26; Jn 19:35). Luke begins his gospel by telling his readers that “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good to me to write an orderly account … so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught” (Lk 1:1-4).
So just how reliable are these New Testament documents and how do they compare to other historical documents written around the same time?
There are a number of documents we could examine, but for our purposes we only need to focus on two; “The Jewish War” written by Josephus around A.D 78 and the “Annals of Imperial Rome” composed by Tacitus around A.D 109.
Archaeologists have recovered only 9 manuscripts of “The Jewish War” and these copies were made during the fifth century – about 422 years after the original was written. Only two partial manuscripts of “Annals of Imperial Rome” have been found and these copies date from the middle ages – at least 1000 years after the original was written. Despite the fact that the earliest existing manuscripts date between 400 -1500 years after they were originally written, classical scholars consider both of these works to be historically reliable.
By way of comparison, the New Testament documents are both well preserved and more numerous than other ancient documents composed around their time. There are more than 5,686 known manuscripts of the New Testament and almost 25,000 copies of portions of the New Testament in existence today. One fragment of John 18: 31-33 dates from A.D 117-138. Given that most conservative scholars hold that John’s gospel was written before A.D 70, this particular manuscript has been preserved from within 70 years of the composition of the original.
Given this, it is easy to see why the New Testament is considered to be a reliable historical account of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
The Content of the New Testament
Now that we have seen that the New Testament record is reliable, we can move on to look at it’s actual content. The New Testament states that that Jesus died and was buried in a tomb (Matt 27:50, Mk 15:37, Lk 23:46, Jn 19:30). Paul wrote to the church in Philippi saying of Jesus: “And being found in appearances as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross.“ (Phil 2:8)
The New Testament, however, maintains that Jesus was not simply killed and buried; he was raised from the dead and appeared to many witnesses. This is an element agreed upon by all four gospels, Acts and the epistles. The gospel accounts make clear that three days after the burial of Jesus, Mary and some others attended the tomb and discovered it empty (Jn 20:1-9). Jesus then appeared in bodily form to numerous witnesses (Jn 20:19-23, Acts 1:1-11).
It is clear then, that the New Testament teaches that Jesus was in fact killed, buried and raised to life on the third day. Conservative scholars date the Gospels between about A.D 50 – 100 and the epistles of Paul between about A.D 50 – 66. A period of time where other eyewitnesses to these events were alive and able to refute the disciples’ claims. Surely, if these records were inaccurate, someone – perhaps one of the soldiers who witnessed the crucifixion – would have publicly challenged the validity of the disciples’ claims. Perhaps they could have recovered Jesus’ body and located it in a public place (a tactic often employed by the Romans), so that all would know that the resurrection stories were false. But no one came forward.
Other Historical Materials
The New Testament is not the only document that speaks of the resurrection of Jesus. Clement of Rome, writing somewhere between A.D 67 and A.D 97 proclaimed:
“Having therefore received their orders, and being fully assured of the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and established in the word of God, with full assurance of the Holy Ghost, they went forth proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand.”
The Jewish historian Josephus wrote concerning the resurrection:
“Now, there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works – a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was (the) Christ, and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principle men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again on the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this time.”
When Tacitus describes the Christians in his Annals, he makes mention of a “most mischievous superstition”:
“Christus, from whom the name had it’s 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.”
It seems reasonable to assume that that the “most mischievous superstition” that Tacitus refers to is the resurrection. If this be the case, Tacitus neither promotes belief in the resurrection, nor does he condemn it. He simply records the belief held by some that Jesus rose from the dead.
The drastic change that occurred in the lives of Jesus disciples’ shows that they genuinely believed that what they had experienced was real. The gospels make clear that James did not originally believe his brother to be the messiah (Mk 3:21; Jn 7:1-10). James’ life, however, was dramatically changed following his encounter with the risen Christ (1 Cor 15:7), and in time he emerged as a leader of the early church (Acts 12:17; Gal 1:19). So firm was James’ conviction and so strong his faith that we learn from Josephus that James was martyred for his faith in Christ.
The Apostle Paul was once the great enemy and persecutor of the church. He actively sought out and persecuted Christians (Acts 8:1). When Paul met the risen Lord on the road to Damascus his life was transformed (Acts 9). His new life, as a disciple of Jesus, brought him persecution, imprisonment, shipwreck, and beatings. Regarding the sufferings that he endured, the Apostle Paul proclaimed:
“Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked; I spent a night and a day in the open sea. I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers.” (2 Cor 11:24-26)
Surely Paul’s Damascus road experience was genuine, for no man would willingly endure the sufferings that Paul endured, to perpetuate a story he knew was a lie.
Transformed lives, however, were not unique to the first disciples. Polycarp (A.D 70-156) was a disciple of John who was martyred at 86 years of age. He was well known for his relentless devotion to the scriptures and Christ. When asked to recant his faith, Polycarp stated:
“Eighty and six years have I served him, and he hath done me no wrong. How can I speak evil of my king who saved me?”
Tertullian tells of the Christian martyr Perpetua. A 22 year old mother with an infant child, martyred for her Christian faith. After numerous opportunities to deny or recant, officials allowed her father to visit Perpetua’s prison cell in a last ditch attempt to avoid her martyrdom. Despite her father’s desperate pleas, Perpetua refused to recant her faith. Perpetua records:
“And when the day of the exhibition drew near, my father, worn with suffering, came to me, and began to tear out his beard, and to throw himself on the earth, and to cast himself down on his face, and to reproach his years, and to utter such words as might move all creation.”
Such a stubborn faith can only be the result of a life transformed by Christ.
In 1555 as bishops Latimer and Ridley were being burned at the stake for their commitment to Christ, Latimer is reported to have turned to his companion and said to him:
“Be of good comfort Master Ridley and play the man; we shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England as I trust shall never be put out.”
… and it never was.
If you’re like me, you’ll struggle to remember all of these points when explaining your faith to a friend. But perhaps, by the grace of God, the Holy Spirit will use our stumbling words and inadequate explanations to draw our friends to himself. And to be one of the channels through whom God works? Well, what could be more exciting?
By Dr Sheree Archbold is Principal of Berea Bible College.