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The Historicity of the Resurrection

This long-read article was written by sixth-former Alexander Norris.

Estimated read time: 8 minutes

This long-read article was written by sixth-former Alexander Norris.

Estimated read time: 8 minutes

As we celebrate Easter, some may, in the abundance of tacky eggs and bunnies, forget the Christian roots of this festival – either by accident or design! This widely celebrated feast is in fact based on a very controversial question: the issue of the Resurrection.

The reason this is such a controversy is because of its practical implications, both for the 2.2 billion adherents of Christianity, the world’s largest religion, and for those who reject the message of the Gospel. This has been admitted from very early on, with St Paul writing to the Corinthians in the first century AD that ‘if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile, and… we [Christians] are of all men most to be pitied.’

This demonstrates the crucial importance of the Resurrection as the touchstone of the Christian faith, since the choice is a clearly binary one – if it happened, Christians are right; if it didn’t, they’re wrong. In other words, the claimed Resurrection was either the greatest miracle the world has ever seen, or the greatest hoax in the history of mankind. There is no middle way.

Indeed, what makes this an even more contentious matter is the fact that it is theoretically possible, using historical research, either to prove it beyond reasonable doubt or to utterly debunk it, hence the paramount importance of such an investigation.

The Facts

Completely apart from the Gospels sympathetic to Christ and his followers, we have a large number of Jewish and Roman sources who mention this man’s claims from a sceptical point of view, giving their testimony particular value for historians. There are Roman sources (such as Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, Suetonius, Lucian of Samosata, Celsus, Thallus, and Phlegon) and Jewish sources too, which include Josephus, Toledot Yeshu, the Talmud, and Mara Bar-Serapion. The number of sources makes it impractical to fully analyse them in a brief essay such as this, but what we can ascertain from their agreement are the following historical facts:

  • Jesus of Nazareth claimed to be the Messiah foretold by the Jewish scriptures
  • He was arrested by the Jewish authorities and handed over to the Romans to be tried
  • He was tried by the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, and crucified as a political criminal
  • Three days after his death, several women disciples of his alleged that his body had disappeared from the tomb
  • His disciples claimed that God had raised him from the dead, and that he appeared several times to them before ascending into heaven

Security Precautions

We know more than this, though, from the context of his death, especially given the fact that he had apparently predicted his death and Resurrection beforehand – in any case, the Jewish authorities were taking no chances of making him a martyr.

According to the Gospels, he underwent six trials to ensure his condemnation: one before Annas (the previous High Priest), one before Caiaphas (the present one), and one before the Sanhedrin of Jewish elders, before being handed over to the Romans, who tried him before Pilate (who could not find any grounds for condemning him) then passed to the nominal authority of King Herod Antipas, before finally being sentenced by Pilate again under pressure from the Jews. The final sentence was as follows: he was found guilty of claiming the title of ‘King of the Jews’ and so setting himself up in political opposition to the authority of Tiberius Caesar, the Roman emperor at the time – this was the crime of treason, and as such merited death by crucifixion.

Crucifixion itself was so gruesome and degrading a torture that Roman citizens could not legally be crucified, hence why most crucifixions were reserved for slaves in uprisings. Here is a brief description of the typical process:

  • Before crucifixion the victim would be whipped with a flagella – a whip with multiple ends, into which were sewn pieces of rock, bone and metal – which would uncover the muscles and some bones of his back. The flagellation usually ceased when the victim was deemed to be near to death.[15]
  • After this, the victim would have had to carry a crossbar of c.50 kg to the place of his execution (which in this case was just under a kilometre away) – this crossbar was so heavy and he was so weak that he had to be helped by a passer-by, as the Romans did not want him to die before they could torture him. He would then be stripped of his clothes and nailed to the cross.
  • Even then, death would only come after a lengthy period of torture: the prisoner would suffer incredibly painful cramps, which would make him unable to push himself up with his legs, his muscles would become paralysed, so that he could inhale but not exhale air, carbon dioxide would build up in the lungs and the body would make spasmodic movements up, so he could exhale; this process was repeated for many hours, sometimes taking days.
  • Death would be from suffocation; and the legs were usually broken to terminate torture when the guards had had enough.

The Gospel accounts are in this respect completely accurate as to the process of crucifixion, and even included the detail that Christ’s legs were not broken because he was already dead. They also mention that blood and water flowed from his heart when the centurion pierced it – not only would this spear thrust have killed him had he not already have been dead, but in deaths by torture, clear pericardial fluid (what would have looked like water) builds up around the heart only after death. Furthermore, the Roman governor could only hand over the body to be buried once death had been certified by four professional executioners. This all serves to demonstrate the certainty of his death.

Christ would then have been taken down from the cross and buried in a tomb, whose entrance  would be c.4-5 feet high; this again is verified by the Bible which says that St John had to stoop to enter. He was buried with 100 lb of spices in myrrh (not an unusual quantity for the time) smeared under the burial cloths as a kind of glue so that they could not be taken off very easily. Moreover, investigations of the weight of the stone shows it would have weighed between 1½ and 2 tons – it would have been rolled in place by gravity on a slope, and thus could not be removed without intense physical exertion.

As it happens, the Jews requested a Roman guard for the tomb to stop the body being stolen – this would typically have consisted of sixteen men, four on each side, which theoretically could hold 36 square feet against an entire battalion by utilising the space to their advantage. When they slept in turns, they slept in such positions so that nobody could get past without stepping on them and waking them up. Desertion and falling asleep on duty both required the death penalty by Roman law, so the possibility of this is minimal. Finally, the tomb would also have been sealed with the Roman governor’s seal, which represented the authority of Rome, and thus breaking it would be considered treasonous too.

What Happened?

Therefore, there are certain things that must have happened for the Resurrection even to be a possibility:

  • Someone/something broke the governor’s seal, invoking the penalty of death if they were caught (to avoid this punishment all Jesus’ disciples had fled, and even their chief, St Peter, had denied any association with him three times).
  • Someone/something rolled away the stone (requiring a great deal of manpower).
  • Someone/something removed the body (if they hadn’t, then the Jewish authorities could have produced it as evidence of the disciples’ mendacity, especially given the fact that they began to preach in Jerusalem itself where the grave was).
  • Someone/something caused the Roman guard to flee (desertion was punishable by death, hence they must have had a pretty good motive for doing so!)
  • Someone/something left the graveclothes neatly folded (an unusual twist).
  • Someone/something convinced a huge number of people that they had seen the risen Christ (this included Mary Magdalen, two disciples on the road to Emmaus, the apostles in the locked room, and even 500 people at once, all of which were recorded by St Paul 30 years later who added that they were still alive – in effect, saying ‘Ask them yourselves if you don’t believe me!’) with a large variety of backgrounds (mourning, scepticism, open hostility) and various emotional responses (passion, fright, incredulity).
  • Women claimed to have seen him first (also seemingly unreliable since they were unable to testify in a court of law, which is why the other disciples refused to believed them at first).

Theories about the Resurrection

There are many theories about what happened, so here I’ll outline them as succinctly as possible, and show why so many of them contain major inconsistencies:

  • Nobody knew where Jesus was buried – although crucified men were usually buried in a common grave, there is archaeological evidence that this did not always happen, especially when the man had a large group of family and friends; in this case Jesus was laid in the private tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, which was clearly well known to both his disciples (who had laid him there) and the Romans (who stationed a guard there).
  • The women went to the wrong tomb – similarly, although most tombs would be fairly indistinguishable, this was a private burial ground; indeed, this relies on everyone (including St Peter, St John, the Roman guard and the Jewish authorities) all independently going to the wrong tomb. Also, if his body was present anywhere the whole story could have been nipped in the bud immediately by showing it.
  • The resurrection was a legend invented long after Jesus’ death – this is untenable given the accounts we have from the mid-first century AD by which point the story had already become well-established, especially St Paul’s mention in 56 of over 500 witnesses still alive who could verify it.
  • Jesus’ disciples hallucinated – firstly, hallucinations tend to occur to either paranoids or schizophrenics, and the disciples were neither of these (they had a wide range of personalities and came from a large variety of backgrounds); secondly, hallucinations are very private and not only did Christ appear to a large number of people, but ate with them, and invited them to examine his wounds; thirdly, most of the appearances were in broad daylight (there were fifteen of these, at one point to over 500 people); fourthly, hallucinations require an anticipating spirit which was not present, since the disciples thought that Christ was permanently dead and at first refused to believe that it was he (St Mary Magdalen went to anoint his dead body); fifthly, not only did the hallucinations happen irregularly and ceased at a fixed point (Christ’s Ascension), they also do not square with the reaction of the Roman Guard and chief priests, or with the empty tomb and broken seal.
  • The disciples stole the body – this was the most common accusation at the time, despite the issues already described which stopped them getting to the tomb in the first place (especially the Roman guard, every trained soldier of which could have easily finished off the whole band of simple fishermen); also, it fails to explain why ten of the original twelve apostles died horrible deaths as martyrs, without there being records of a single one of them admitting that it was all a lie.
  • The Roman or Jewish authorities stole the body – they could have done this to stop it being used as a relic, but given the damage it did them they could easily have presented the body at any point together with witnesses to its removal to disprove the disciples’ story; there is no evidence that anything of the sort was ever even suggested.
  • Jesus fainted on the cross and recovered in the tomb – this theory assumes that: (1) Jesus managed to survive the immense torture of scourging, lifting his cross-bar (which he could not even do on his own), nailing to the cross, and crucifixion; (2) when a spear was thrust into his side on the cross, eyewitnesses were wrong that blood and water came out, a sign of death; (3) his death was confirmed by four experienced Roman executioners, who must all have been mistaken; (4) over 100 lb of spices and linen encased his body, he must have breathed through it all; (5) in this state he managed to burst out of his garments, (6) roll the stone away from the inside (impossible for a strong man to do on his own, let alone one so weak) and (7) fight off the guards, then (8) appear in this almost-dead state to his disciples and convince them that he was the triumphant Lord of Life. This would in fact be more miraculous than a resurrection, and requires more faith to believe, especially since such an appearance of Jesus as a man badly in need of food, water and medical aid would hardly have cheered them up, and certainly would not have filled them with enthusiasm to dedicate their lives to preaching about his Resurrection.

As has been shown, all of these theories contain major problems, to the extent that to believe them requires a greater leap of faith than has often been ascribed to Christians.

Conclusion

So what was it that transformed the lives of the disciples, turned them from despair to hope, from fear to courage, and gave them the ability to die fearlessly for their beliefs when beforehand they had been cowering behind locked doors, afraid of their lives?

What was it that changed this small group of penniless fishermen, tax collectors and peasants into the oldest institution in human history, and the one with the most numerous followers?

What changed the most ardent persecutor of this tiny sect into the greatest missionary of the global Universal Church of Christ?

In the words of Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle, ‘when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth’. Only one adequate theory therefore remains: that as the Gospels narrate, Christ rose from the dead.

By Alexander Norris

I am a Classics undergraduate at St John's College, Oxford.

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