Last week we began to talk about whether or not the New Testament provides enough historical evidence to establish Jesus' divinity. I ended by saying that we should focus our attention on the question of whether or not Jesus rose from the dead. This week I intend to present the historical evidence for Jesus' resurrection.
First, let's talk about the reliability of the books in the New Testament. Considered as a whole, the New Testament is far and away the single most reliable work of ancient writing we have. We have more than 5,000 ancient manuscripts for the New Testament, some from the early second century. Moreover, there is an extremely high level of agreement between the manuscripts.
What does this mean? It means that claims that the New Testament is unreliable because it was written a hundred years or more after Christ's death and copied by generations of scribes is completely false. We now know that most of the New Testament was written by the end of the first century and that the version we have today is nearly identical to the original.
We know that the New Testament is reliable. The next question is, is it an accurate portrayal of history? Does the New Testament provide us with an accurate description of the events of Jesus' life and the early church?
Let me begin by saying that if the New Testament were a normal historical document describing ordinary events no one would seriously question its historical validity. As I've already said, it's the most reliable ancient text we have and most of it was written within fifty years of the events it describes.
We have an incredible amount of evidence that the New Testament is a reliable source of history, but the claims made in the New Testament are also very incredible. For that reason we must scrutinize the New Testament rather closely.
The first question we can ask is, do these accounts agree with each other? The answer is that they do, aside from a few minor details. The gospel accounts all give an incredibly detailed account of Jesus' ministry, teaching, death and resurrection. Some of the smaller details differ between the four gospels, but major events remain the same.
The next question we can ask is, how well do these stories agree with what we know about the time period from other ancient sources? There are actually a number of details, particularly from the Book of Acts that historians can independently verify. There are a few places where the author is mistaken, but judging by the standards of ancient history, the Book of Acts holds up rather well.
The final question we must consider is, did the authors have an agenda which may have colored their writing? In the case of the New Testament it is clear that each of the authors had an agenda. They wanted to convince the reader that Jesus Christ was, in fact, the Jewish Messiah.
Knowing this we have to ask, how much of an affect did this have on their writing? Certainly it had an impact, but it didn't stop them from including several details which ran counter to their agenda.
First, the gospels record that his name is Jesus. This goes against Isaiah, who prophesied that the Messiah would be called "Immanuel".
Second, all of the gospels assert that Jesus was raised in Nazareth. This creates a problem because, according to prophecy, the Messiah was supposed to come from Bethlehem. As we mentioned last time, only Matthew and Luke address this issue directly.
Third, all of the gospels claim that Jesus was crucified. This creates a problem because, according to the Old Testament, anyone who is hung on a tree is cursed.
All of this shows that the authors of the gospels weren't simply inventing a story about a Messiah, but were writing a historical account of an individual, Jesus of Nazareth, whom they believed was the Messiah.
Finally, I want to take a quick look specifically at the claim that Jesus rose from the dead. I know it's an incredible claim, but I think it should be considered plausible for two reasons.
First, the claim that Jesus had risen from the dead appears in even the earliest Christian writings. The claim that Jesus rose from the dead wasn't being made centuries after the fact. Paul wrote that Jesus had risen from the dead barely twenty years after it happened. Paul's readers could have easily asked around to see if this was true.
In fact, Paul wrote that more than five hundred people had seen the risen Christ, and that most of them were still alive.
Finally, many of the people who believed that Jesus Christ rose from the dead died for their belief. Not only did they believe it was true, they were certain enough that they were willing to die for that belief.
All things considered, I think it's fair to say that we have good historical evidence that Jesus Christ did, in fact, rise from the dead.