Arts & Humanities Features Philosophy & Theology

The Historicity of the Resurrection

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.


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.

Arts & Humanities Classics

Alliance to Empire: A Study of the Delian League

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

Estimated read time: 7 minutes

The Delian League was formed in 478 BC as an alliance of Greek city-states in the immediate aftermath of the Persian Wars, primarily for the purpose of mutual military support against their common enemy, the Persians.  By 454, however, when the League’s treasury with all its contents was moved from the eponymous island of Delos to Athens, after which all meetings of the League’s assembly were held there too, it had de facto ceased to be a confederation of free states, but rather had become a federation under Athenian control, which would later be known as the ‘Athenian Empire’.  What this essay will demonstrate is that the transition of the Delian League from alliance to empire was essentially through a centralisation on Athens, caused in part by growing Athenian imperial ambitions and in part by the misjudgement and inaction of the League’s other members. 

Ostensibly, the Athenians’ reason for the League’s formation was, as Thucydides writes, ‘to take revenge for their losses by devastating the Persian King’s territory.’1  However, the word Thucydides uses for ‘reason’ – ‘πρόσχημα’ – can more accurately be translated as ‘pretext’ or ‘excuse’.  In fact, it literally means ‘a screen in front of [something]’ so Thucydides would seem to be implying that in his view this was not the real reason for establishing the League, as Hunter R. Rawlings makes clear.2  The implication is that the Athenians had imperialistic ambitions from the very formation of the League, being concerned less with fighting the Persians than with furthering their own interests.3  One explanation for this is that Thucydides – writing fifty years later – would have been able to see the Athenians’ later, much more blatant, imperialism, and consequently may have assumed it always to have been present.  He could nonetheless acknowledge the Athenians’ point of view as when he reports them as claiming, ‘Fear was our first motive; afterwards honour, and then interest stepped in’4, hinting that they only began trying to gain power for themselves once they realised they had the opportunity of doing it, having set up the League originally for quite a different purpose.  

Thucydides indicates, moreover, that the nature of the League (ostensibly a defensive anti-Persian alliance) was more aimed at conquering other Greek city-states than at taking revenge on the Persians; for example, in the expeditions against Skyros, Carystus and Naxos.5  This contrasts strongly with the ‘pretext’ of the League (as Rawlings has again pointed out)6 and makes it appear that the Athenians used all their new-found military might to add to their dominions within Greece. Nonetheless, it’s possible (as with the analysis of their primary intentions) that Thucydides merely chose to lay particular emphasis on these events to demonstrate how shocking their actions were as abuses of their authority, as A. French has argued.7  This would suggest that such campaigns were not only not the norm, but far from it. 

The role individual city-states played in the early League is ambiguous, insofar as that Thucydides’ accounts of how the voting systems were organised are unclear – thus, he describes the allies’ voting as ‘κοινῶν ξυνόδων’, ‘πολυψηφίαν’ and ‘ἰσοψήφους’ (‘in a common assembly’, ‘[with] an excess of votes’ and ‘equal in vote’)8 from which it appears that they had theoretically the same power as the Athenians, although this could mean that each city-state including Athens had one vote in a common assembly, or alternatively it could signify – as Meiggs has suggested9 – a bicameral assembly whereby an assembly of the allies had collectively the same power as the Athenian assembly.  On one hand, the bicameral arrangement had contemporary precedent, with Sparta using a similar system for its allies, whereas a ’one state, one vote’ policy could have been humiliating for the Athenian assembly, placing it on a par with each of the other states; on the other hand, though, such an arrangement would have been in turn resented by the stronger states which felt Athens was growing too powerful, and the Athenians would have known that they would be able to influence the voting of the smaller states, and so wield far more actual power in that environment than in one where there was a clear distinction between Athenians and non-Athenians – this seems the most convincing explanation. 

Athens was clearly the pre-eminent member state of the League from its formation, but actual hegemony of the League is less clear so early on – the reason Athens was chosen over Sparta, which was renowned for its military capabilities and so would seem to be the natural leader of anti-Persian military action (as indeed it was in the Persian Wars) was because of the arrogant behaviour of Pausanias.10   In theory, the Hellenic League from the war continued under Spartan leadership until 46111  and so it is notable that states felt so repelled by Pausanias’ behaviour that they started another alliance. Of course, after the great land power of Sparta, the naval power of Athens was the logical leader (as can be seen by the oaths sworn to them and their allies rather than to the League per se12).  By the time of the Athenian Empire, though, there were undertones of political sovereignty which were not evident at the beginning of the League, with Pericles in 449 proposing a ’Congress Decree’ that would have asserted Athenian superiority in no uncertain terms, and the use of imperialistic language such as the inscription: ‘The cities which the Athenians rule.’13  How this developed was in large part due to a development of the economic functioning of the League. 

The premise on which the League was founded was that member states would pay a certain sum (‘φόρος’) into a common treasury which was located on the island of Delos, collected either in ships or in money, depending on the state.14  This φόρος would be accumulated by Athenian officials called ‘ἑλληνοταμίαι’ and given to the Assembly to deploy against the Persians.  The actual amount states would have paid originally is disputed, since while Thucydides claims the first collection was in total worth 460 talents15  this seems unrealistically high, although Meiggs has pointed out that it could have been lowered in later years for that very reason.16  Furthermore, given the large amount of money that had accumulated in Delos by 454 – 8,000 talents according to Diodorus Siculus17 – it doesn’t seem improbable for the Athenians to have requested such a large amount.  As it turned out, much of that went to rebuilding Athens after it had been ravaged by the Persians in 480, but the other members of the League had little control over this.  The extraction of tribute from League members was certainly important in ensuring the Athenians had a solid financial foundation for their empire, but it should be remembered that the tribute was agreed by the League’s members, as opposed to other forms of authority which Athens wielded arbitrarily; these are far more significant in turning the League into an empire. 

The interference of the Athenians in the member states of the League developed gradually, since at the beginning Meiggs has shown that ‘the autonomy of members was taken for granted and there was no question of their leader interfering in political cases.’18  However, by the time the Old Oligarch was writing he made the point that the Athenians ‘force the allies to sail to Athens for judicial proceedings’19  even going so far as to refer to them as ‘οἱ σύμμαχοι δοῦλοι τοῦ δήμου τῶν Ἀθηναίων’ (’the ally slaves of the people of Athens’).20  Therefore, it is fundamental to understand how the Athenians were able to interfere, judicially and politically, in the affairs of other states. 

The judicial interference of which the Old Oligarch speaks is well documented in the later Chalcis Decree of 446, where autonomy was granted to states ‘except in cases involving exile, death, and loss of rights’ and also required the inhabitants to take an oath ‘to be obedient to the Athenian demos.’  Another instance of this was the Phaselis Decree of c.469, where in much the same way judicial cases were transferred to Athens – a apparent violation of their judicial autonomy.  Alternatively, though, it could be viewed as merely a form of judicial standardisation, and de Ste. Croix has argued that this arrangement actually favoured Phaselis because the Athenian polemarch’s court was known for giving preference to foreigners.21  The Athenians prided themselves on their legal impartiality (as Thucydides himself claimed: ‘In Athens the laws [are] impartial’22) and the legal standardisation of the League could have benefited all its members.  Nonetheless, regardless of the potential benefits of such an imposition, it remains clear that by doing so the Athenians aided their influence and ultimately the formation of the Athenian Empire.  More significant than this, though, was the Athenians’ interference into the political functioning of other states. 

In terms of political interference, while member states of the League comprised a large variety of seemingly autonomous political systems, there are also examples of the Athenians imposing democracy on them – for example, the Decree of Erythrae in 453.  Further instances of political interference include states being forced to join the League (such as happened to Naxos, Melos and Calystus) and the establishment of cleruchies (for example, in Scylos or Melos) – the most significant interference, though, was in states’ forced change of financial status in the League from naval (ship-paying) to tributary (money-paying) such as Thasos in 465.  This is significant because Athens had much more control over the use of money than of ships, and hence much greater influence over the tributary states.  According to de Ste. Croix, moreover, this was stressed by Thucydides, who consistently ‘conceived the condition of the tributary allies, whom he describes as “ὑποτελεῖς φόρου, φόρῳ ὑπήκοοι”23 as one of “δουλεία” but except on one occasion he is willing to call the naval allies “αὐτόνομοι” and “ἐλεύθεροι”.’24  De Ste. Croix admits that there was no official distinction between the levels of autonomy a state enjoyed since each case was dealt with on its own basis25, but nonetheless the way Athens was able to force states to agree to terms that they had never originally accepted through the influence that supremacy in the League gave them was fundamental in the League’s transition from alliance to empire. 

In conclusion, therefore, it was this centralisation of the League’s resources that enabled the Athenians to turn it into an empire, as a result of both Athenian ambitions and fear.  As Thucydides has the Athenians say to the Spartans, ‘You turned against us and begun to arouse our suspicion: at this point it was clearly no longer safe for us to risk letting our Empire go, especially as any allies that left us would go over to you’26, and later adds about the Empire that, from Pericles’ point of view, ‘it may have been wrong to take it; it is certainly dangerous to let it go.’27  A third factor crucially comes into play here, and that is the League’s members’ inaction in providing checks and balances to Athenian – this too is highlighted by Thucydides, when he states of the Empire that ‘for this position it was the allies themselves who were to blame’28 implying that had they acted they may have been able to thwart Athenian aspirations.  Their inaction allowed the Athenians to centralise their power, which ultimately resulted in the transferral of the League’s treasury to Athens in 454, after which it was managed by the Athenian assembly alone.  Thus, the transition of the Delian League from alliance to empire occurred through the concentration of the League’s authority in Athens, which in turn was facilitated by the inertia of the League’s members and their failure to curb Athenian power.