Was Jesus a real historical person? Did he die on a cross? Did he rise from the dead? How do we know?
Many historical sources document the existence of Jesus who is called the Christ. These include, but are not limited to, the Biblical Gospels.
In this article, I will first explain the picture of the crucifixion of Jesus from the four written accounts in the Gospels- Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in the Bible. Detectives say that we need several different witnesses’ perspectives to establish the reliability of the evidence.1 The four Gospels all provide a detailed account of the crucifixion, but all of them provide some detail that is not recorded by the other three witnesses. Secondly, I will explain why the New Testament, which includes the four Gospels is a reliable source of historical information. Thirdly I will quote ancient texts outside the Bible and summarize the details they provide us. Finally, I will outline the minimal facts approach, popularized by Dr. Gary Habermas, to examine the resurrection of Jesus. If you appreciate this article, please tell me.
The combined Gospel’s account of the Crucifixion of Jesus
Jesus was arrested by the chief priests and elders, who hated who he claimed to be. (Mark 14.61-62) They didn’t have authority to kill people, so they sent Jesus the Roman Governor, Pilate. Pilate asked Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus replied, “You have said so.” Although Pilate didn’t want to kill Jesus, he eventually gave in to the crowd and had Jesus scourged and delivered him over to be crucified. (Matthew 27, Mark 15.15, John 19.1). Scourging was “A Roman judicial penalty, consisting of a severe beating with a multi-lashed whip containing imbedded pieces of bone and metal.”2 The Roman soldiers then mocked Jesus (Matt 27) and led him out to crucify him.
After the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they cast lots to decide who would get his clothing. (Matthew 27.35) The soldiers mocked Jesus on the cross, daring him to save himself. (Mtt 27.40-43, Mark 15). Jesus said, “Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they do.” (Luke 23.34) There was darkness over the whole land, from the sixth hour until the ninth hour, then Jesus cried out loudly and stopped breathing. (Matthew 27, Mark 15.37, Luke 23.44) The curtain in the temple tearing in two (Mtt, Mark, Luke), and there was a great earthquake. (Mtt 27.45-54). Later in the day, the Roman soldiers saw Jesus was dead but one of them pierced Jesus’ side with a spear and out came blood and water. (John 19.31-35).
When it was evening, a rich disciple of Jesus went to Pilate and asked for his body. (Mtt 27.58, Mark 15, Luke 23.5, John 19). Pilate was surprised to hear that Jesus had already died, so he asked the centurion who confirmed it. (Mark 14.44). Pilate ordered the body be given, and Joseph of Arimathea took it and laid it in his own new rock tomb, rolling a big stone against the entrance. The next day the chief priests arranged for Roman guards to watch the tomb in case Jesus’ disciples stole Jesus’ body and claimed he rose from the dead like he said he would.
After the holiday, very early in the morning on the Sunday, women went to see the tomb. (Matthew 28.1, Mark 16.1, Luke 24.1) There was a great earthquake, and an angel came down from heaven and rolled away the stone, and the guards trembled and became like dead men. (Matthew 28). The angel/s told the women that Jesus had risen from the dead, to look at the empty tomb and to go and tell his disciples. (Matthew, Mark, Luke) and that Jesus would meet the disciples in Galilee. After this the women met Jesus in the garden. (Matthew 28.9, John 20.11). Two of Jesus’ friends ran to the tomb and found it empty too. Later Jesus appeared to his disciples in various situations for 40 days. (John 21)
Why we can trust the New Testament
Now I will explain why we can trust the New Testament. This includes the four Gospel accounts of what happened in Jesus’ life. John claims that his Gospel is eyewitness testimony (John 19.35). If we trust ancient historical works contemporary to the New Testament such as Homer (Iliad, 900 BC), Plato and Julias Caesar, we also have to trust the accuracy of the New Testament writings. Ancient writers often wrote their works 450 years before the first copy was written that we have today.3 Almost all Biblical scholars agree that the New Testament was originally written before 100AD.3 New Testament papyri manuscripts are classed as either early (before 300AD) or late (after 300AD).4 The entire New Testament text is accounted for in manuscript form within 300 years of the original writing (cf. Chester Beatty Collection, Bodmer Collection, Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus).5 We have more than 5,800 Greek New Testament manuscripts, and these have internal consistency to 99.75%, according to many textual criticism schollars.6 If the Gospels contain the testimony of people who lived with Jesus, especially if the original copies were written within the lifetime of other people who lived with Jesus and could object, then the Bible contains reliable evidence of Jesus’ life. No evidence exists of anyone factually disagreeing with the New Testament. We have many letters from early church fathers confirming the details of the New Testament, and even quoting the majority of the text in independent letters. Debate on the accuracy of the text of the New Testament. Make your own mind up.
“The fact that the gospels have the women finding Jesus is massive and I cannot underscore that enough. If they were fake accounts or fabricated you would have women finding Jesus in that time period because women were non-people in the Jewish world. As such, their testimony was never taken as valid and the testimony of one man was taken over any testimony of a woman or women for that matter. So you would actually never have women finding Jesus if you were creating an account of a resurrection that did not happen. The presence of these women in the text shows that it actually did occur. This is something that is known in scholarly circles and shows up in commentaries.”Stowe Campbell, masters in theology, Dallas seminary
Ancient texts which give accounts of Jesus
A number of ancient non-Christian sources refer to Jesus, and they are often hostile to the Christian account. Many of them deny miraculous explanations of Jesus life, and some contain a violent tone toward the early Christians. But they can all provide us with valuable details about what happened which are additional to the Bible.
An ancient secular Roman historian Thallus, lived between AD 5-60. His works are no longer existent, but another historian, Julius Africanus who wrote in AD 220 mentions Thallus. In the Gospel of Mark 15.33, we read, “And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour.” Julius writes, “This darkness Thallus in the third book of his History, calls, as appears to me without reason, an eclipse of the sun…. Phlegon records that, in the time of Tiberius Ceasar, at full moon, there was a full eclipse of the sun from the sixth hour until the ninth- manifestly that one of which we speak.”7
Titacus who was a Roman historian and senator writing in the early second century, mentioned Christ, his execution by Pontius Pilate and the existence of early Christians in Rome in his final work, Annals (c. AD 116), book 15, chapter 44.
“Hence to suppress the rumor, he Falsely charged with the guilt, and punished Christians, who were Hated for their enormities. Christus, the founder of the name, was Put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign Of Tiberius: but the pernicious superstition, repressed for a time Broke out again, not only through Judea, where the mischief Originated, but through the city of Rome also, where all things Hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their Center and become popular.“8
Plinny the Younger was governor over Pontus/Bythinia from 111-113AD. We still have his letters to the Emperor Trajan. In one of them he describes the practices of the early Christians.
“…They were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food–but ordinary and innocent food.”9
Unfriendly Jewish sources such as the Babylonian Talmud also refer to Jesus by his Hebrew name, Yeshu, and to the method of his execution. This is a baraita from TalBab Sanhedrin 43a, quoted from the London Soncino translation (Nezikin volume 3.281):
“On the eve of Passover Yeshu was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, ‘He is going forth to be stoned because he has practised sorcery and enticed Israel to apostacy. Anyone who can say anything in his favour, let him come forward and plead on his behalf.’ But since nothing was brought forward in his favour he was hanged on the eve of Passover.”10
In summary, these ancient texts tell us that Jesus was called Christ by the early Christians, and that he was crucified under Pontius Pilate by the Romans by hanging [on a wooden cross] on the evening before Passover. The first text and two references tell us that there was an unusual darkness around noon when he died. The early Christians were disliked and falsely accused and hated because they were very influential. Their early practices were innocent, they had a high moral code and they worshipped Jesus as God.
The minimal facts approach to examining the resurrection
The minimal facts approach uses the four main facts of the resurrection story. These facts need to be explained by everybody:
- Jesus died on the cross and was buried.
2. Jesus’ tomb was empty and no one ever produced the body.
3. Jesus’ disciples believed that they saw Jesus resurrected from the dead.
4. Jesus’ disciples were transformed following their alleged resurrection observations.
Most of these minimal facts require Jesus to have risen from the dead. The minimal facts approach is fully explained in a book by Dr. Gary Habermas and Professor Mike Licona titled “The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus.” I am going to use his reasoning around the first point, (1.) to briefly talk about various explanations of this well-established part of the resurrection story.
One explanation of (1.) is that the disciples were wrong about Jesus’ death. Some skeptics propose that the disciples were mistaken, that Jesus actually survived the beating and the crucifixion and appeared to the disciples after he recovered. #Problems: When Jesus’ friends went to take his body off the cross, they would have looked for signs of life such as breathing, temperature loss and rigidity. Dead people don’t moan or flinch when touched. The Roman soldiers pierced Jesus side, and blood and water came out. It is interesting that John noted this detail, and we know now about effusion which is water pooling around the bottom of a victim’s heart or lungs as a result of “circulatory shock” before they die. Effusion can happen if a person is injured to the point of death and blood cannot get to the major organs before they die. The observation that blood and water came out of Jesus’ side is consistent with the fact that he was already dead. If Jesus had simply recovered from his injuries (beating, crucifixion and stabbing) when he appeared to his disciples 3 days later, he would have been limping. However, he is not recorded to have been in any pain, and although he showed them his wounds, he appeared to be healed. First century and early second-century unfriendly sources affirmed Jesus was crucified and died, including Roman sources (Thallus, Titacus, Mara Bar-Serapion, and Phelgon) and Jewish sources (Josephus and the Babylonian Talmud). Jesus disappears from historical records after the crucifixion and resurrection. In Roman times, soldiers were executed if they did not kill a person condemned to crucifixion.
- Quotation at the top of https://pressbooks.bccampus.ca/criminalinvestigation/chapter/chapter-7-witness-management/, 4/1/2021
- Footnote Mtt 27.26, Holy Bible ESV by Crossway, text edition 2011.
3. Table Biblical Manuscripts Compared to Selected Ancient Sources. https://defendinginerrancy.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/DI-holden-stewart-Aug2019.png, 5/1/2021
4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_New_Testament_papyri, 5/01/2021, down the bottom of the tables of papyri.
5. Joseph M. Holden, PhD & Don Stewart, MA (New Testament), https://defendinginerrancy.com/were-nt-mss-copied-accurately/, 4/1/2021
6. “Other notable Bible scholars, such as Ezra Abbot, figured the copies of the New Testament manuscripts are 99.75 percent accurate.16”- 16. B.B. Warfield, An Introduction to Textual Criticism of the New Testament (London, UK: Hodder & Stoughton, 1886), 13-14.
7. Thallus and The Darkness At Noon https://www.reasonablefaith.org/question-answer/P70/thallus-on-the-darkness-at-noon, 19/1/2021
8. Tacitus on Jesus. https://www.tektonics.org/jesusexist/tacitus.php 19/1/2021 Also Wikipedia on ancient texts which refer to Jesus.
9. Pliny and Tarjan on the early Christians. https://faculty.georgetown.edu/jod/texts/pliny.html 21/1/2021
10. The Babylonian Talmud and Jesus. https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/new-testament-studies/article/abs/babylonian-talmud-on-the-execution-of-jesus/388B24580C8815C013F8C2E2D96196DE 19/1/2021