The Resurrection: Historical Reliability

Ray Heiple

He is not here; for He is risen, as He said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay.

 Mat. 28:6NKJV

Very early in the second century, a Roman historian named Publius Cornelius Tacitus referred to the resurrection of Christ as a “pernicious superstition.”  Gaius Suetonius, another Roman historian writing about the same time, called it a “new and mischievous superstition.”  The great Jewish writer, Flavius Josephus, may have affirmed the fact of Christ’s resurrection in the late first century, but the authenticity of the passage is disputed.  The dispute is not because of any conflicting manuscript evidence—for there is none—but because the passage appears to some critics to be too Christian!  Outside the Bible and the writings of early Christians, there are very few other references to Christ from the late first and early second centuries.  Should that bother us?  No, not at all!  For two reasons: first, the total extant literature from this period would fill a very small section of one ordinary bookshelf, so it is not surprising if there is little about Christ.  Second, the resurrection of Christ is amply proven from many other facts.  Here are twelve of them:

1. The Old Testament prophesied hundreds of years before Christ that Israel’s messiah would be killed and then rise from the dead (Psa. 16:10; Isa. 53; Hos. 6:2).

2. The Old Testament contains many specific predictions about the lineage, birth, life, ministry, betrayal, and manner of death of the Messiah (see Psa. 22), which could not have been staged by Jesus or His supporters.  Even the exact time of Christ’s life was prophesied (Dan. 9:24-27).

3. Jesus predicted His betrayal, crucifixion, and resurrection so often that even His enemies knew of the three days (Mar. 14:58; 15:29; Mat. 27:63).

4. After dying Jesus appeared to His disciples on ten distinct occasions over a period of forty days.  He was with them for hours at a time.  He spoke with them, ate with them, they touched Him and saw His hands and feet. This was no mistaken identity.

5. The disciples were slow to believe.  They rejected the testimony of the women at the tomb, and even when He appeared to ten of them in the upper room, after several minutes of conversation and showing them His hands and feet, Scripture says “they still did not believe for joy” (Luk. 24:41)!  This unreadiness to believe rules out all hallucination and delusion.

6. Jesus’ disciples were proclaiming His resurrection a mere fifty days later in the very city in which He was condemned, and yet none of His opponents could or even attempted to produce His body to refute the claim (Acts 2).

7. All eleven disciples lived the rest of their lives declaring His resurrection without any one of them ever changing their story.  And for their faith they never achieved any earthly gain, but on the contrary they were persecuted, tortured, and killed because of it, even though “coming clean” would have certainly brought much fame and earthly rewards.  Why would they all choose suffering and death all their lives to further what they knew was a lie?  Especially when Jesus repeatedly taught them how important it was to tell the truth (Joh. 14:6; 16:13; 18:37).

8. The disciples were not delusional madmen, but as their writings prove, they were sober, peaceful, charitable men who taught that Christians should do good and show love to all.

9. Paul was establishing churches throughout the Roman Empire a mere twenty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection.  He pointed to the hundreds of eyewitnesses, who were still alive and could be checked out, as proof that Jesus really did rise from the dead (1 Cor. 15).   

10. Paul himself was a known enemy and persecutor of the Church who became its greatest supporter, giving up a position of power, wealth, and influence among his own people for a life of being hated, persecuted, imprisoned, and eventually killed for his faith.

11. All of the books of the New Testament were completed within the lifetime of Jesus’ contemporaries, yet there was no attempt by the enemies of Christianity to try to claim that Jesus did not live, or do miracles, or was crucified, for no one could deny these facts about Him until everyone who witnessed them was dead.  And even when they denied His resurrection, they had to admit they had no body (Mat. 28:13).

12. The Church of Jesus Christ survived and prospered through the most intense and prolonged period of persecution ever brought to bear on a people.  In one generation it spread to every land, race, class, and culture, though it had no money, power, might, influence, or support of any human organization of any kind.

I pray that your faith in the risen Lord Jesus Christ will grow as you consider the proof that He is risen indeed!

Ray Heiple (M.Div. RPTS, D.Min. RPTS) is the Senior Pastor of Providence Presbyterian Church (PCA), host for the TV program Origins (CTVN), teacher of Bible and Apologetics at Robinson Township Christian School (RTCS), and author of Preaching with Biblical Motivation (P&R, 2017), and Pocket History of the PCA (CDM, 2017).

Ray Heiple