Jesus' Resurrection is the Most
"That Jesus’ followers (and later Paul) had resurrection experiences is, in my judgment, a fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know"--E.P. Sanders (THFJ:280).
Posted: July 12, 2005
Last Updated: September 11, 2006
The case for Jesus' resurrection presented below does not depend on the inerrancy or inspiration of the Bible. The case is built solely on facts that are both well-evidenced and granted by virtually every scholar who studies the historical Jesus. This case also does not depend on the reliability of the four canonical Gospels. Rather, this case provides data that pre-dates the Gospels by decades and can even be traced back to the time of eyewitnesses.
Five Well-Evidenced Facts Granted by Virtually All Scholars Who Study the Historical Jesus: 1
1. Jesus' death by crucifixion
2. Jesus' followers sincerely believed Jesus rose from the dead 2
3. Early Eye-Witness Testimony to Belief in Jesus' Resurrection
4. The conversion of Jesus' skeptical brother, James
5. Saul, a major enemy of Christianity, became Paul, an Advocator for Christianity
1. Jesus' death by crucifixion:
- Jesus’ death is multiply attested to in a variety of sources including:
- The four Canonical Gospels
- Non-Christian texts:
- Tacitus (Annals 15:44)
- Josephus (Antiquities 18:3)
- Lucian of Samosata (The Death of Peregrine 11-13)
- Mar Bar-Serapion (letter, British Museum, Syriac manuscript)
- Thallus (from a Julius Africanus fragment)
- the so-called lost Acts of Pilate (Justin Martyr, First Apology 35)
- Gnostic Christian texts:
- The Gospel of Truth (20:11-14, 25-29)
- The Gospel of Thomas (45:1-16)
- The Treatise on Resurrection (46:14-21)
- The Philosophical Argument Put forth by Atheist David Straus:
- Even if Jesus had survived, His appearance would have been so revolting that His disciples would have offered to get Jesus a doctor before they declared Him resurrected from the dead.
- The New Testament scholar Dr. James D. Tabor wrote:
- "I think we need have no doubt that given Jesus’ execution by Roman crucifixion he was truly dead and that his temporary place of burial was discovered to be empty shortly thereafter" (TJD:230).
2. Jesus' followers sincerely believed Jesus rose from the dead:
New Testament Scholar E.P. Sanders wrote:
- That Jesus’ followers (and later Paul) had resurrection experiences is, in my judgment, a fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know” (THFJ:279-280).
- “I do not regard deliberate fraud as a worthwhile explanation. Many of the people in these lists were to spend the rest of their lives proclaiming that they had seen the risen Lord, and several of them would die for their cause. Moreover, a calculated deception should have produced great unanimity. Instead, there seem to have been competitors: ‘I saw him first!’ ‘No! I did.’ Paul’s tradition that 500 people saw Jesus at the same time has led some people to suggest that Jesus’ followers suffered mass hysteria. But mass hysteria does not explain the other traditions. (THFJ:279-280).
- “Finally we know that after his death his followers experienced what they described as the ‘resurrection’: the appearance of a living but transformed person who had actually died. They believed this, they lived it, and they died for it.” (THFJ:280).
Peter Carnley wrote:
- "It seems clear enough that, on the basis of these alleged experiences, the disciples were convinced that they had seen the raised Christ" (TSORB:64).
New Testament scholar Bart D. Ehrman wrote:
- "It is a historical fact that some of Jesus' followers came to believe that he
had been raised from the dead soon after his execution. We know some
of these believers by name; one of them, the apostle Paul, claims quite
plainly to have seen Jesus alive after his death. Thus, for the
historian, Christianity begins after the death of Jesus, not with the
resurrection itself, but with the belief in the resurrection" (TNT:276).
3. Early Eye-Witness Testimony to Belief in Jesus' Resurrection:
Peter Carnley wrote:
- "In this respect the evidence of the appearances is quite different from that relating to the empty tomb for there is little doubt that the appearances of the raised Christ constituted part of the Easter proclamation from the start" (TSORB:62).
Peter Carnley also wrote:
- "Even if the appearance narratives in the later gospels have a strong legendary and apologetic character which marks them as 'late' relative to the origin of faith, this cannot be said of this outline of the kerygma recorded by Paul (1 Cor. 15:3-8). This makes it difficult to argue that the proclamation of the fact of the appearances was a late or legendary development, the product of faith rather than the ground of it" (TSORB:63-64).
An Early Oral Tradition in 1 Corinthians 15 (1 Cor. 15:3-8):
According to New Testament scholar John P. Meier, oral creeds were the “mode of speaking of the primitive pre-Pauline church, and basically Paul adopted it as his own” (AMJRTHJ:126).
Most scholars today believe that Paul quotes an early oral creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, which places the date of the belief in Jesus’ resurrection very early in the lifetime of eyewitnesses.
New Testament scholar Stephen L. Harris wrote:
- "For exceptions, see Jesus' words of institution at the Last Supper [1 Cor. 11:23-26] and the received tradition about the postresurrection appearances [1 Cor. 15:3-7] (TNTASI:86).
In his book Jesus the Christ, Walter Kasper wrote:
- "The most famous and important formula is found in 1 Cor. 15:3-5: ‘Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, he was buried, he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures and he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve’. This formula inserted by Paul as a tradition which he had already been given. We have here therefore in an ancient text, perhaps in use by the end of 30 AD in the oldest missionary communities, probably in Antioch" (JTC:125).
New Testament Scholar Alan R. Segal wrote:
- “There is no doubt that this is the earliest Christian teaching with regard to the resurrection: it is part of the primitive kerygma or proclamation of the church” (PTARIJC:414).
The co-founder of the Jesus Seminar, John Dominic Crossan, wrote:
- "Paul wrote to the Corinthians from Ephesus in the early 50s C.E. But he says in 1 Corinthians 15:3 that “I handed on to you as of first importance which I in turn received.” The most likely source and time for his reception of that tradition would have been Jerusalem in the early 30s when, according to Galatians 1:18, he “went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas [Peter] and stayed with him fifteen days” (EJ:254).
Peter Carnley also wrote:
- "At the same time he (Paul) disclosed that what he had preached then had in turn been at an even earlier time handed on to him, a fact which is corroborated by the apperance of un-Pauline language in this passage. Paul lists those to whom Jesus had appeared in chronological order, beginning with the first appearance to Peter and ending with the appearance which he himself witnessed on the Damascus Road" (TSORB:62-63).
New Testament scholar Dr. James D. Tabor also wrote:
- “Actually our earliest account of ‘sightings’ of Jesus is not in the New Testament gospels but in the letter of Paul we call 1st Corinthians, written around A.D. 54. In the course of defending his own vision of Jesus, Paul reports that he had received the tradition and passed it on to his converts that Jesus died, was buried, and rose on the ‘third day’” (TJD:231).
Historical Jesus scholar E.P. Sanders also wrote:
- “Paul’s letters were written earlier than the gospels, and so his reference to the Twelve is the earliest evidence. It comes in a passage that he repeats as ‘tradition’, and is thus to be traced back to the earliest days of the movement. In 1 Corinthians 15 he gives the list of resurrection appearances that had been handed down to him” (THFJ:120).
Paul Taught the Same Message as Jesus' Followers:
Paul probably received this creed, or tradition, when Paul went to visit Cephas (Peter). In Galatians 1:18-19 Paul wrote:“Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days; but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother” (Galatians 1:18-19 NRSV).
Paul met with the eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life and the other post-mortem appearances of Jesus. In Galatians 2:2 Paul wrote, “I went up in response to a revelation. Then I laid before them (though only in a private meeting with the acknowledged leaders) the gospel I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure that I was not running, or had not run, in vain.”
Paul Continued in Galatians 2:6-9:
"And from those who were supposed to be acknowledged leaders (what they actually were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)-those leaders contributed nothing to me. On the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel for the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel for the uncircumcised, (for he who worked through Peter making him an apostle to the circumcised also worked through me in sending me to the Gentiles), and when James and Cephas and John, who were acknowledged pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised."
In light of Paul’s multiple visits to Jerusalem to meet with Cephas, James, and John, scholars are able to trace the resurrection appearance traditions back to eyewitnesses…Jesus’ disciples and Jesus’ brother, James.
Paul also wrote the following regarding Jesus' resurrection:
"Whether it was I or they, so we preach and so you have believed" (1 Cor. 15:11).
4. The conversion of Jesus' skeptical brother, James:
According to the oral creed discussed previously, in 1 Corinthians 15:7, Jesus appeared to James. James, the brother of Jesus, was an unbeliever and perhaps even a skeptic during Jesus’ public ministry (John 7:5; Mark 3:21). Later in history James became a leader in the Jerusalem church (Gal 1:18-19; Acts 15:13-21).
James’ sudden conversion from being a skeptic of his brother’s ministry to an important leader of a movement in his brother’s honor is easily explained by James having an experience in which the Risen Jesus appeared to him.
5. Saul, a major enemy of Christianity, became Paul, an advocator for Christianity:
Prior to his conversion, Paul had been an enemy and persecutor of Christianity (1 Cor 15:9; Gal 1:13-14; Phil 3:4-7). It is crucial to consider what could have caused Paul to change from a major enemy of early Christianity to one of Christianity's greatest promoters.
Paul refers to an experience he had which he perceived to be an appearance of the Risen Jesus in his letters (1 Cor 15:9-10; Gal 1:12-16, 22-23; Phil 3:6-7).
Dr. Bart Ehrman, who was mentioned earlier, wrote the following regarding Paul’s experience:
- Whatever Paul experienced at this moment, he interpreted it as an actual appearance of Jesus himself. We don’t know how long this was after Jesus’ death (several months? several years?) or how Paul, when he saw whatever he saw, knew it to be Jesus, but there is no doubt that he believed that he saw Jesus’ real but glorified body raised from the dead. Indeed, as we will see later, one of the reasons that he believed Christians would eventually experience a bodily resurrection from the dead is that he ‘knew’ that Jesus did. For him, Jesus was the ‘first fruit’ of those who would be raised (1 Corinthians 15:20) (TNT:294-295).
Dr. Ehrman made a superb observation when he observed that Paul believed he had seen Jesus’ glorified body, causing him to conclude that Christians would be raised from the dead with a glorified body someday as well.
In the absence of any plausible naturalistic explanation, Jesus resurrection is the most plausible explanation for the known data.
1. Habermas, Gary R. & Michael Licona. The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus. Grand Rapids MI : Kregel Publications, 2004.
2. Wright, N.T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003.
1. Some New Testament specialists, theologians, historians, and philosophers who grant these facts include:
1. Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, 1:44-46, 52, 60, 80-83.
2. Tillich, Systematic Theology, 2:153-58.
3. John Hick, Death and Eternal Life (Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), 171-77.
4. Bornkamm, Jesus of Nazareth, 179-86.
5. Koester, Introduction to the New Testament, 2:84-86, 100.
6. Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. 4, part 1, 334-36, 351-53.
7. Emil Brunner, Dogmatics, 3 vols., trans. Olive Wyon (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1950-79), 2:363-78.
8. Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 165-66, 172, 197-202.
9. C.H. Dodd, “Appearances of the Risen Christ,” 124-25, 131-33.
10. Perrin, Resurrection according to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, 78-84.
11. Robinson, Can We Trust? 113-29.
12. Fuller, Formation of the Resurrection Narratives, 27-49.
13. Grant, Jesus, 174-79.
14. Pannenberg, Jesus: God and Man, 88-106.
15. Wilckens, Resurrection, 6-16, 112-14.
16. Jeremias, “Easter,” 300-311.
17. Werner Georg Kummel, The Theology of the New Testament: According to its Major Witnesses: Jesus—Paul—John (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1973), 102-5.
18. Brown, Virginal Conception, 80-82, 128.
19. Goppelt, “Easter Kerygma,” 35-37, 43-53.
20. Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (New York: Random House, 1979), 3-12.
21. Marcus Barth and Verne H. Fletcher, Acquittal by Resurrection (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964), part 1 (Barth), 11-15, 37-39.
22. Paul Van Buren, The Secular Meaning of the Gospel: Based on an Analysis of its Language (New York: Macmillan, 1963), 126-34.
23. Wand, Christianity, 51, 59, 84, 93, 108.
24. Hunter, Jesus: Lord and Saviour, 98-107.
25. Ramsey, The Resurrection of Christ, 35-45.
26. W.T. Jones, A History of Western Philosophy, 5 vols, 2nd ed., (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1969), 2:34-35, 39.
27. Ladd, I Believe in the Resurrection, 36-43, 93, 109-11.
28. Daniel Fuller, Easter Faith and History (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1965), 208-29
29. Thielicke, “The Resurrection Kerygma,” 59-62, 86-91.
30. Osborne, The Resurrection Narratives, 231-33, 276-77, 281-88.
31. Perkins, Resurrection, 84-95, 196-210.
32. Kee, What Can We Know?, 1-2, 21-23, 60-61, 85-86, 90.
33. Lapide, Resurrection of Jesus, 91-99, 125-31.
34. Sheehan, The First Coming, 101-18.
35. Barnett, Jesus and the Logic of History, 115-34, 159-61.
36. Craig, Assessing, 36-38, 53-82, 163-96, 379-420.
37. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus, 10-13, 125-26, 133-36, 277-81.
38. O’Collins, Jesus Risen, 99-147.
39. Johnson, The Real Jesus, 110-22, 133-36.
40. Spong, Resurrection: Myth or Reality? 47-56, 239-43, 255-60.
41. Drane, Introducing the New Testament, 77-107.
42. Funk, Honest to Jesus, 33-40, 260, 267-75.
43. Murray Harris, Raised Immortal: Resurrection and Immortality in the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1983), 5-11, 60.
44. Ludemann, What Really Happened to Jesus, 9-17, 102-5, 125-34.
45. Lorenzen, Resurrection and Discipleship, 131-36, 141-44, 184-87.
46. Clark, Interpreting the Resurrection, 89-101.
47. Maier, In the Fullness of Time, 164-88, 204-5.
48. John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1991), 372-75, 397-98.
49. Crossan, Jesus, 135, 145, 154, 165, 190.
50. Davis, Risen Indeed, 15, 177-85.
51. Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 227-31.
52. Meier, A Marginal Jew, 3:67-71, 146-47, 234-35, 251-52, 625.
53. Wedderburn, Beyond Resurrection, 4-15, 47, 113-17, 188.
54. Wright, The New Testament, 111, 353-54, 400-401.
55. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 109-12, 480, 487, 551-52, 659.
2. Some critical scholars, including very skeptical scholars, who believe that Jesus’ disciples, had genuine experiences that led them to conclude that they saw appearances of the risen Jesus include:
1. Koester, Introduction to the New Testament, 2:84.
2. Goulder, “The Baseless Fabric,” 48.
3. Borg, “Thinking about Easter,” 15.
4. Crossan, Jesus, 190.
5. Funk, Honest to Jesus, 40, 266.
6. Hoover, “A Contest,” 131, 92-97, 111, 141.
7. Rudolf Pesch, “Zur Entstehung des Glaubens an die Auferstehung Jesu: Ein neuer Versach,” Freiburger Zeitschrift fur Philosophie und Theologie 30 (1983): 87.
8. Anton Vogtle in Vogtle and Rudolf Pesch, Wie kam es zum Osterglauben? (Dusseldorf, Germany: Patmos-Verlag, 1975), 85-98.
9. John Galvin, “Resurrection as Theologia Crucis Jesu: The Foundational Christology of Rudolf Pesch,” Theological Studies 38 (1977): 521-23.
10. Conzelmann, Corinthians, 258-66.
11. Perrin, The Resurrection, 80-83.
12. Ludemann, The Resurrection of Jesus, 37, 50, 66.
13. Kent, Psychological Origins, 18-19.
14. James Keller, “Response to Davis,” Faith and Philosophy 7 (1990): 114.
15. Hans Werner Bartsch, “Inhalt und Funktion des Urchristlichen Osterglaubens,” New Testament Studies 26 (1980): 180, 194-95.
16. James M. Robinson, “Jesus from Easter to Valentinus (or to the Apostles’ Creed),” Journal of Biblical Literature 101 (1982): 8, 20.
17. Wells, Did Jesus Exist? 32, 207.
18. Martin, The Case against Christianity, 83, 90.
19. Spong, Resurrection, 51-53, 173.
20. Sheehan, The First Coming, 91.
21. Elliot, “The First Easter,” 209-10, 220.
22. Wedderburn, Beyond Resurrection, 47, 188.
23. Karl Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Idea of Christianity, trans. William V. Dych (New York: Seabury Press, 1978), 265, 277.
24. Wolfhart Pannenberg, “Die Auferstehung Jesu: Historie und Theologie,” Zeitschrift fur Theologie und Kirche 91 (1994): 320-23.
25. Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 172-73.
26. Brown, Virginal Conception, 125-29.
27. Dunn, The Evidence for Jesus, 75.
28. Johnson, The Real Jesus, 136.
29. Kasper, Jesus the Christ, 124-25.
30. Davis, Risen Indeed, 182.
31. Staudinger, “Resurrection of Jesus Christ,” 312, 318-20.
32. Cranfield, “The Resurrection of Jesus Christ,” 169.
33. Williams, Resurrection, 97, 117-19.
34. Alsup, Post-Resurrection Appearance Stories, 274.
35. Fuller, Formation of the Resurrection Narratives, 47-49, 181.
36. Jacob Kremer, Die Osterevangelien—Geschichten um Geschichte, 2nd ed. (Stuttgart, Germany: Verlag Katholisches Bibelwerk, 1981), esp. 153-55.
37. Meyer, The Aims of Jesus, 60.
38. Meier, A Marginal Jew, 3:70, 235, 252.
39. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus, 10-13, 278-80.
40. Wright, “Christian Origins,” 118.
41. Joseph Dore, “Croire en la Resurrection de Jesus-Christ,” Etudes 356 (1982), 532.
42. Fiorenza, “Resurrection of Jesus,” 238, 243-47.
43. O’Collins, Jesus Risen, 118-19.
44. Craig, Assessing, esp. part 3.
45. Robinson, Can We Trust? 120-27.
46. Philip Jenkins, Hidden Gospels: How the Search for the Historical Jesus Lost its Way (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 78.
47. Grant, Jesus, 176.
48. Drane, Introducing the New Testament, 101-04.
49. Charles Austin Perry, The Resurrection Promise (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1986), 4.
50. Lindars, “Resurrection and the Empty Tomb,” in The Resurrection of Jesus Christ, 127.
51. Lapide, Resurrection of Jesus, 125-28.
52. Samuel, Making Room,” 108-10.
53. Hansjurgen Verweyen, “Die Ostererscheinungen in fundamentaltheologischer Sicht,” Zeitschrift fur Katholische Theologie 103 (1981): 429.
54. Lorenzen, Resurrection and Discipleship, 123, 130-32.
55. Goergen, Death and Resurrection, 127-28, 261.
56. William P. Loewe, “The Appearances of the Risen Lord: Faith, Fact and Objectivity,” Horizons 6 (1979): 190-91.
57. Kee, What Can We Know? 1-2, 23, 86, 113.
58. Witherington, “Resurrection Redux,” 131-32.
59. John Pilch, “Appearances of the Risen Jesus in Cultural Context,” Biblical Theology Bulletin 28 (1998):59.
60. Adrian Thatcher, “Resurrection and Rationality,” in The Resurrection of Jesus Christ, 180.
61. Traugott Holtz, “Kenntnis von Jesus und Kenntnis Jesu: Eine Skizze zum Verhaltnis zwischen historisch-philologisher Erkenntnis und historisch-theologischem Verstandnis,” Theologische Literaturzeitung 104 (1979): 10.
62. Peter Stuhlmacher, Was geschah auf Golgotha? Zur Heilsbedeutung von Kreuz, Tod und Auferweckung Jesu (Stuttgart, Germany: Calwer Verlag, 1998), 58-64.