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Opinion: A variety of non-Christian historical sources support the idea that Jesus rose from the dead

The eyewitnesses to the resurrection were willing to die for their faith – but who would die for a lie, writes Thomas Finegan.

Dr Thomas Finegan Lecturer in Theology

EASTER IS THE Christian celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The key written source for the resurrection claim is the New Testament, in particular the four Gospels and the letters of Paul.

Sceptics tend to deride these writings as fiction – but how credible are they in light of other historical sources?

While the New Testament makes use of figurative and symbolic language, it is also based on testimony of what historically occurred.

Many of the most important historical claims made in the New Testament are corroborated by non-Christian historical sources.

For example, Josephus, a Roman-Jewish historian, writing in around 93 AD, affirmed not only the existence of Jesus but the fact that he was a “wise man”, a “teacher” and a “doer of wonderful works”.

Josephus also makes mention of Jesus’ crucifixion and of the imprisonment and death of Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist.

The Roman magistrate Pliny the Younger wrote in around 112 AD that Christians “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 commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so.” 

In around 116 AD, Tacitus, a Roman senator and historian, wrote about how Nero tortured Christians.

He further explained that “Christus” had “suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus”.

Written sources

Other interesting sources that mention Jesus include the Greek Lucian of Samosata (around 170 AD) and the Jewish Talmud (200 AD to 500 AD).

The New Testament contains the earliest written sources about Jesus.

Scholars disagree over precise timelines but it is likely that Paul’s authentic letters were written 20 to 25 years after Jesus’ death. The first Gospel appeared 35 years after Jesus’ death if not before. 

This written tradition about Jesus was rooted in an earlier oral tradition. That oral testimony began during Jesus’ lifetime and was substantial – memory skill was highly prized among Jews of that era.

There is a consensus among historians that these documents provide us with knowledge of Jesus. One of the reasons for this is that the documents can be traced back to eyewitness reports of Jesus’ teachings and actions.

Another is that these writings would have circulated among communities where Jesus ministered.

Many eyewitnesses and relatives of eyewitnesses would still have been alive and would likely have heard of the documents so it would have been difficult for the writers to fabricate events, as any fabrications could easily have been exposed by contemporaries.

The most profound claim made by Paul in the Gospels is that after being crucified Jesus rose from the dead.  

This proclamation originated in the immediate aftermath of Jesus’ death.

There are two interrelated components to the resurrection claim. 

First, the tomb where Jesus was buried lay empty, and this is almost certainly true. 

(a) Contemporary Jews accepted that the tomb was empty (according to Justin Martyr’s ‘Dialogue with Trypho’ and the Jewish ‘Toledot Yeshu’).

(b) The Gospels state that women discovered the empty tomb.

Since women’s testimony was viewed as suspect according to Jewish custom – if the story was fabricated, why would the fabricators attribute the discovery to women? 

(c) If the tomb wasn’t empty then no one would have believed reports that Jesus had risen: the existence of the rotting body, which was easily verifiable, would disprove such reports.

It is also very unlikely that the body was stolen.

Rational motive

If enemies of the early Christians had stolen Jesus’ body they surely would have returned it once the Christians began claiming that Jesus had risen.

There is no rational motive for why Jesus’ followers would have risked their lives to steal his body. To their minds, Jesus had just been humiliated and killed for claiming to be the Son of God.

He was dead and gone, and his followers were in hiding and many were even denying they knew him. Why would they risk the same fate on behalf of a failed, humiliated prophet? 

The second component is the resurrection appearances.

Various people, including women followers, the apostles, other named individuals and even crowds of people are reported to have witnessed the resurrected Jesus a short while after his death and on different occasions and in different circumstances after that. 

These diverse witnesses were either telling the truth or lying. But why would they lie?

They would have known that claiming Jesus was risen would put them in danger of torture and death.

Indeed, there is evidence that Stephen, James, Peter and Paul were each martyred.

Very few people are willing to sacrifice their life for something they believe to be true. It is highly unlikely that a significant number of people, from a variety of backgrounds, would be willing to die for something they knew to be false.

Early Christians were widely known for their commitment to truth, and it seems that at the very least a significant number of people at the time believed that they had witnessed the resurrection. 

Paul is an important source – before witnessing the risen Christ he actively persecuted Christians as a committed Jew.

But after experiencing the resurrection, he became the most convinced Christian of all.

Something happened that radically changed the lives of Jesus’ earliest followers and their persecutor, Paul. Something happened to make the tomb empty.

The resurrection explains all of these events in a consistent way, and it explains why Jesus’ earliest followers were willing to die for their faith: they knew it to be true because they themselves encountered the risen Christ.

That experience changed their lives and continues to change the lives of many to this day.

Dr Thomas Finegan is a lecturer in Theology at Mary Immaculate College.

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About the author:

Dr Thomas Finegan  / Lecturer in Theology

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