There are very few questions on which more depends than the question of whether or not Jesus Christ rose from the dead 2,000 years ago. If the Christian claim that He did is true, then there is good reason to believe that Christians truly know God. If Jesus did not rise, however, then more than 2 billion people are living a lie. To raise the stakes even further, most religions would agree that there is nothing more or less than billions of souls at stake given that the question of whether or not Jesus was resurrected ties directly into the claim of whether or not He was actually God.
Christians have been acquiring and sharing evidence that Christ really was resurrected for centuries, and skeptics have argued their own case for why the Resurrection is a myth for almost as long. One question that comes up repeatedly in these debates is how much the Bible can be relied upon as an objective source. Some people claim that the New Testament should not be used as a historical source at all because it is a religious text first and foremost. On the other end of the spectrum are people who claim the Bible should be treated as a completely objective and accurate historical text. In the middle are those who believe that the Bible is a decent reference but its stories need to be confirmed through other sources and that it should be treated with no more or less scrutiny than any other first century document.
Given how contentious the use of the Bible can be in a debate, it is best to have other sources to back up an argument about the Resurrection. So, what would those sources be? Is there evidence for the Resurrection outside of the Bible?
The short answer is that yes, there is. The Bible is by far the greatest source of information about the Resurrection, and there are non-theological reasons to treat the Bible as a legitimate source when investigating first century Israel and the life of Christ. It is one of the most complete and oldest sources that describes the events of Jesus’ life. The Bible is also far easier to fact check than many ancient documents as the Bible has a habit of including specifics. Places, people and dates are often referenced in its pages, many of which can be confirmed as fact or fiction. Early non-Christian sources for the life and resurrection of Christ are more difficult to find simply because it took time for Christianity to spread and for non-Christians to become interested in the life of Christ. For decades after Christ’s death, Christians were a small but unnervingly zealous religious group. It was not until they began to increase in number and strength that people from outside Judaism and Christianity became curious about the man for which the religion was named. That said, there are some early sources besides the Bible that point toward confirming the Resurrection.
One of the most trusted sources for information on ancient Israel is the Jewish historian Josephus. He was more interested in the history of his people than with the birth and growth of the strange new offshoot of Judaism that was beginning to be known as Christianity, but he does reference Jesus twice. One of the times Jesus is mentioned by Josephus is actually when he is discussing Jesus’ brother, James. In the “Antiquities of the Jews” book 20, chapter 9, Josephus names James as “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ.” As a Jew, Josephus does not claim that Jesus of Nazareth was the prophesized Messiah, but he does use Jesus’ identification as Christ as a way to differentiate Him from the 20 other people named Jesus who are mentioned in Josephus’ work. Josephus’ other reference to Christ is in what is called the Testimonium Flavianum. The text, as it normally stands, reads in many ways, like something a Christian would write:
“About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who performed surprising deeds and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Christ. And when, upon the accusation of the principal men among us, Pilate had condemned him to a cross, those who had first come to love him did not cease. He appeared to them spending a third day restored to life, for the prophets of God had foretold these things and a thousand other marvels about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.”
This, of course, is not something that a Jew would write. That said, the structure of the passage and the way the passage about James is constructed strongly suggests that the Testimonium Flavianum is not a complete construction by later Christian readers. Josephus makes it clear in the passage about James that he has already referenced “Jesus, who was called Christ” elsewhere. The Testimonium Flavianum is the only other place Jesus is referenced by name, and it comes before the passage about James. As such, it is believed that the Testimonium Flavianum originally reference Christ but was tampered with later. The discovery of another version of Josephus’ “Antiquities,” however, contains what is most likely the original passage:
“At this time there was a wise man called Jesus, and his conduct was good, and he was known to be virtuous. Many people among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. But those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive. Accordingly, he was perhaps the Messiah, concerning whom the prophets have reported wonders. And the tribe of the Christians, so named after him, has not disappeared to this day.”
This is something a Jew could write without converting to Christianity, and it lines up with what other ancient sources either explicitly state or imply about the beginnings of Christianity.
Unsurprisingly, Josephus has little to say about the actual Resurrection, but he is one source that helps to prove that the disciples, at least, believed the Resurrection occurred. Josephus also confirms that Jesus was crucified by Pilate, and His disciples claimed He rose on the third day. This is far more than most ancient sources have to say about a carpenter from a Mediterranean backwater. Tacitus, a Roman historian and senator, confirms Josephus’ account that the Christians who Tacitus so loathed were named for a Judean man who was called Christ who had been put to death. It is worth noting that even Roman aristocrats were aware that Christianity, “a most mischievous superstition,” had originated in Judea, a place most Romans regarded as the back end of the universe.
Outside of non-Christian textual evidence, some of the best proof in the Resurrection was the actions of Early Christians. Roman and Jewish persecution set in almost as soon as Christianity began. That said, most Christians refused to give up their faith. As Christ had only died 30 years before, a number of Early Christians would have been people who had actually known Him. They would have been the ones that could not have been fooled by lies and could have confirmed or denied the Gospel accounts. Those accounts were already circulating, as Rabbi Tarfon stated in the second half of the first century that Christian texts should be burned even if they contained pieces of the Hebrew scriptures.
Rather than claiming the accounts were false, eyewitnesses suffered horrifically under Roman rule. When the Great Fire of Rome broke out in A.D. 64, Nero used Christians as scapegoats for the fire. The torturous executions of identified Christians following the fire were brutal even by the standards of Rome’s dark creativity. Tacitus specifically mentions the most famous of those gruesome punishments, that of the human torch. In this horrific method of murder, captured Christians were nailed or tied to crosses and then burned alive “to serve as a nightly illumination when daylight had expired.” Other Roman sources confirm that Christians were persecuted throughout the Empire, though Nero’s cruelty was legendary enough to stir “a feeling of compassion” for “a class hated for their abominations” even among Romans who were used to viciously creative methods of execution and public displays of “exquisite tortures.”
Another source of evidence for the Resurrection is actually what did not happen in Judea. As Christians became a problem, Jesus’ body was never displayed. In fact, Jewish polemics claimed that His body was stolen. They never claimed that the body was still in the tomb. There was also not a shrine erected over Jesus’ tomb until nearly 300 years after His death. In the first century, it was customary to set up a shrine over the bones of a holy man or prophet. Jesus was publically executed and then buried by a member of the Sanhedrin. His burial place would have been easy to discover, but it was never used as a place of veneration or mocking, possibly because there was nothing there to venerate or to mock.
Innumerable books have been written on the subject of Christ’s resurrection, both for and against its historicity. As such, there is a great deal of evidence out there on both sides of the argument. What really happened 2,000 years ago is still up for debate, but whatever occurred reverberated throughout the ancient world with enough strength that it was noticed not just by Christians but by those who wanted the fledgling Church crushed before it could go on to become the global force it would one day become. Although there is not proof for what specifically happened in Judea 2,000 years ago, there is no doubt that it was something huge as the ripples from it shook the ancient world to its foundations and continue to echo into modernity.
More on the Resurrection here: