Author: Kevin Richard Ph.D., Managing Writer for Foundations by ICM
Resurrection as History
The Bible is a historical text but at the same time, the Bible is theological history. It reveals the Triune God of Christianity and the plan of redemption for all creation, but it does so in space and time, in the annals of history. Central to Christianity is the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, and while this pillar of the faith is spiritually and theologically significant, it was also a historical event. This is important because, in history, the events surrounding the life of Jesus are, as New Testament scholar Mike Licona has suggested, an “object of study.”1 That is the purpose of this blog, to look at the resurrection of Jesus from a historical point of view and answer three questions:
- How do we study the resurrection from a historical perspective? Minimal Facts Approach
- What is the historical evidence that Jesus rose from the dead? The 5 Minimal Facts
- What does it all mean? The Religious Significance
Minimal Facts Approach
Philosopher and Christian Apologist Gary Habermas has developed what he calls the “Minimal Facts” approach to the resurrection of Jesus. The Minimal Facts (MF) approach, as Habermas states, “considers only those data that are so strongly attested historically that they are granted by nearly every scholar who studies the subject, even the rather skeptical ones.”2 Habermas notes there are around 12 facts that could be considered but he normally narrows down the scope to 5. He chooses these 5 because nearly all scholars agree on them and from them, you can make the case for the resurrection of Jesus.3 The five minimal facts are:
- Jesus died by crucifixion.
- Jesus’ disciples believed that he rose and appeared to them.
- The church persecutor Paul was suddenly changed.
- The skeptic James, brother of Jesus, was suddenly changed.
- The tomb was empty.
Let’s briefly unpack each of these minimal facts and then discuss why they collectively give us good reason to believe that Jesus rose from the dead.
The 5 Minimal Facts
In this section, we will look at the five minimal facts in question and offer a little explanation for each of them.
1. Jesus Died By Crucifixion
This one may seem obvious but to get a resurrection you first need someone to die. That Jesus died by crucifixion is one of the strongest attested minimal facts. You would be hard-pressed to find someone in academic circles that affirms Jesus did not die by crucifixion. The Romans were notoriously brutal in this capital form of punishment and they were extremely efficient in the process. Furthermore, the Bible says that in order to make sure Jesus had died, a spear was thrust into his side (John 19:34). It does not seem likely that Jesus could have endured such a brutal and vicious beating and execution “attempt” and survived.
2. Jesus’ disciples believed that he rose and appeared to them.
Notice the wording here. This minimal fact does not necessarily affirm that a risen Jesus actually physically appeared to the disciples; rather, it affirms that the disciples believed that the risen Jesus had appeared to them. This belief was a life-changing event and caused a radical transformation in their lives. There are a number of suggestions as to what the disciples actually saw. Some say that the disciples were hallucinating or that they saw what Dr. Habermas has coined “Jedi Jesus.”4 But both of these claims deny what the New Testament affirms, that Jesus rose bodily from the dead. The disciples proclaimed a risen Lord who ate with them (Lk. 24:42-42) and were able to be touched – consider the story of Thomas being able to touch Jesus’ pierced scars (John 20:24-29).
3. The church persecutor Paul was suddenly changed
This minimal fact is interesting because you have a person who was very zealous for Judaism suddenly have a change of behavior after an encounter he claims was with the resurrected Jesus (1 Cor. 15:8). No one can doubt that following his experience on the road to Damascus, Paul became an ardent ambassador for this new movement called Christianity. Something happened on that road. Paul believed the resurrected Jesus appeared to him and called him to take the good news of Jesus to the Gentiles. Paul would be beaten, shipwrecked, imprisoned, and eventually put to death for his proclamation of Jesus. This encounter with Jesus changed his life and because of it, the Gospel came to the Gentiles.
4. The skeptic James, brother of Jesus, was suddenly changed
The James in question here was one of Jesus’ four brothers (Mark 6:3; Matthew 13:55). From those passages in the Gospels, we know that Jesus’ brothers were skeptical of their half-brother, Jesus. They even mocked Jesus during his ministry. We also know that this same James became one of the religious leaders of the church in Jerusalem (Acts 15:13-21; Gal. 1:18-19).5 So what caused this change of heart? We learn from Paul that after Jesus’ death, he appeared to his brother James. From this encounter, although the event is not explicitly described in the Scriptures, we can infer that James believed that he had encountered his risen half-brother, the person he now believed to be the risen Lord! Having encountered the resurrected Jesus, James went from a skeptic to one of the main leaders of the church in the same city where Jesus was crucified!
5. The tomb was empty
The Gospels attest that the tomb of Jesus was empty and the stone rolled away. This claim of an empty tomb would have been easy to disprove if the body had still been there. People would have known where Jesus was buried as his body had been given to Joseph of Arimathea and he and Nicodemus helped to secure Jesus’ body in Joseph’s personal tomb (John 19:39-40). There is also evidence to suggest that the tomb was empty in the religious leaders’ response to the testimony of the soldiers on guard. Instead of telling them to produce the body to counter the claims of the disciples, they instead told them to spread a story that the disciples stole the body of Jesus (Matt 28:11-15). This implies that the religious leaders knew the tomb was empty and had to come up with a story to cover the truth.
A Unifying Explanation
It was stated previously that the Minimal Facts were chosen because the majority of scholars agree with these facts. It should be noted that this is not the same as saying “the majority of scholars believed Jesus actually rose from the dead.” There is still skepticism by some even though the historical facts are agreed upon. The facts still need an explanation though, something that joins them all together. Something happened following the death of Jesus. Skeptics have tried to come up with alternative theories to explain away these facts but none of them do a sufficient job of accounting for these minimal facts. The best explanation of what happened is that Jesus resurrected bodily from the grave, spoke and ate with the disciples, appeared to James and Paul, and commissioned the Church to go and make disciples (Matt 28:19-20).
The Religious Significance
Lastly, we must consider the question “what does it all mean?” Historical facts are not “brute facts” meaning they do not carry with them their own interpretation. There is an extra step we have to take to go from “Jesus resurrection from the dead” to “Christianity is true and the resurrection is one of the central tenets of the faith.” The resurrection event requires interpretation, it is both a historical and a religious event. This is why it was said that the resurrection of Jesus is theological history.
The theological significance of the resurrection is vast but here we will close with this specific point. The resurrection shows that Christianity is true because it affirms everything that Jesus said and did prior to his death. Jesus claimed to be God, he claimed to be on a mission from the Father, he performed miracles, he forgave sins, he ushered in the Kingdom of God, and he even predicted that he would be killed and would rise again. Why do we believe all of this? Because 3 days after Jesus was crucified, the Father raised him from the dead. We have good historical, evidential reasons to believe it’s true!
1Mike Licona,The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, (Downers Grove,Ill.: IVP Academic, 2010), 30.
2Gary Habermas and Michael Licona,The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, (Kindle Edition:Kregel Publications, 2004), Loc. 330 of 4050.
3Ibid., Loc. 380 of 4050.
4This is a reference to Star Wars and scenes where Jedi appear to Luke Skywalker after theyhave died. The first example would be in The Return of the Jedi when Obi-Wan Kenodi appears and talkswith Luke Skywalker while he is training on Dagobah. The second is at the celebration on Endor also inReturn of the Jedi where Anakin Skywalker, Obi-wan Kenobi and Master Yoda all appear to LukeSkywalker. In both these scenes the deadJedi appear in this “phantasmal” form. They are there andpresent to Luke but not embodied.
5James was one of the chief spokespersons at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15).