For Christianity to be true, the existence of Jesus of Nazareth must be a historical fact. Still today some skeptics suggest that the life of Christ is a mere myth. They insist that the globally adored Jesus of Christianity who worked miracles, died by crucifixion and resurrected from the dead is only a fairy tale. But how strong is their evidence to back their claim? Is Jesus really only the protagonist of the world’s greatest fairy tale? Is the Jesus of Nazareth that we find in the Bible a true historical figure or a man-made fable with no real grounding in ancient history? Or is he who he said he was?
A Friendly Invitation
Several years ago while in university my roommate and I were invited by a group of Protestant men to attend their home Bible study. I had never been to a Bible study and had no real urge to do so. By this point in my young adult life I had grown skeptical of the claims of Christianity I had been raised to believe. Nonetheless I decided to be polite and accept the invitation.
I remained quiet for the duration of the study. But when the study ended (and with one foot out the door) I couldn’t help but ask the leader of the study group if there was any real proof that Jesus was truly a fact of history. I realized that if evidence of Jesus’ life could be found in ancient history it would be one important step in verifying the truth of his claims. I also realized that if he could not be sufficiently found in history, it would likely lead to a giant backwards slide for my declining faith in the Christian God.
Much to my surprise he responded to my inquiry with a quick response in the affirmative. “Yes, as a matter of fact I do,” he confidently assured me. He disappeared for moment into the townhouse and returned a minute later with a thick, off-white paperback book. Beaming from ear to ear, he handed it to me. It was titled A Case for Christ. The author’s name was Lee Strobel.
Lee Strobel was an atheist. He was also a graduate of Yale Law School and worked as legal affairs editor for the Chicago Tribune. Due to the legal nature of his job, the award-winning journalist was steeped in the processes of analyzing data and forming evidence-based conclusions. When his wife became a Christian, he was naturally stunned by her conversion. Nonetheless he became deeply intrigued when he realized the pleasant effects that the Christian faith was having on her. In fact he became so intrigued that he decided to undertake a rigorous investigation of his own into the evidence for the claims of Christianity. What did the skeptical journalist find?
In his quest for the truth about Christianity, Strobel travelled far and wide to interview the experts on Jesus’ life and claims. He met with scholars from several prestigious graduate programs such as Cambridge and Princeton. He asked hard questions. And he received shocking answers. He learned that the gospels are remarkably reliable as historical biographies of Jesus. He learned that archaeology has established that Luke (author of the Gospel of Luke and Acts of the Apostles) was an especially careful historian, making his biblical writings valuable historical records. He learned that it is clear from a scholarly perspective that Jesus believed himself to be the Son of God and Messiah, and that his followers believed his claims of divinity – even unto death. Perhaps most shockingly of all, Strobel learned of the overwhelming historical evidence for Jesus’ resurrection.
Strobel’s shocking discoveries eventually lead him to a conversion of his own. Proving his openmindedness and intellectual integrity, the former skeptic became a Christian. Today he is an international leader in defending the Christian faith and through his apologetics ministry he has played a crucial role in the intellectual formation of Christians everywhere, equipping them for evangelization and dialogue within the skeptical culture of our secular Western world.
The Big Event
I was amazed to discover for myself the vast historical evidence for Jesus’ resurrection. Christians believe that the Bible contains the inspired and inerrant Word of God. In St. Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, dated around A.D. 56, he writes “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins (1 Cor 15:17).” Therefore, for the Christian, the question of whether the resurrection is fact or fiction is of foremost importance. If there was no resurrection, there is no salvation. If the resurrection is definitively shown to be a myth and unhistorical, Christianity crumbles.
So what is the evidence for the resurrection?
New Testament scholar Gary Habermas has estimated that about 75% of experts believe Jesus’ empty tomb to be historically verified, including an impressive majority of New Testament critics (The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, p. 70). But what is the best explanation for the empty tomb? Was the body stolen? Was Jesus really even dead? The evidence may surprise you.
Here are three key historical facts which nearly all New Testament scholars agree upon, including the skeptical ones:
Reason #1 We can be sure that Jesus of Nazareth existed. New Testament skeptic and agnostic Bart Ehrman comments “The view that Jesus existed is held by virtually every expert on the planet” (Did Jesus Exist?, p. 4). We can also be sure the same Jesus was crucified. The crucifixion is mentioned in the ancient writings of several non-Christians: Josephus (1st century), Tacitus (2nd century), Lucian of Samosata (2nd century) and Mara Bar-Serapion (1st to 3rd century). It is also mentioned in the Jewish Talmud (2nd century). Remember – these are not Christian writers. It is quite reasonable to conclude that there was a real crucifixion of a real man named Jesus in Jerusalem around A.D. 30.
Jesus was most certainly dead when taken down from the cross by Joseph of Arimathea. The chances of surviving Roman crucifixion without a miracle was nil. Tacitus called it “the extreme penalty” due to its severity. Keep in mind: not only did Jesus get nailed to the cross but he was also scourged and crowned with thorns before carrying the heavy cross along Calvary. It is only reasonable to assume that his blood loss prior to being hung on the cross would have been extensive. It is very plausible that he suffered from extreme fatigue and dehydration. Once on the cross, if he had not expired from asphyxiation (crucifixion’s typical cause of death), he would have died from the spear that pierced his side (Jn 19:34). John records in his gospel that blood and water poured from his wound. This is a medically-verified phenomenon which involves the puncture of the pericardium (outer sac) of the heart. For medical details regarding crucifixion see the research paper by Edwards, et al, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
As we can see, Jesus’ bodily death on the cross is certain. The evidence suggests he suffered oxygen depletion, extreme blood loss, physical fatigue, dehydration, piercing wounds in his hands, feet and side, and a punctured heart. And yet, the same Jesus was widely reported by many eyewitnesses to have appeared in a glorified body – eating, walking and speaking with them – only three days later.
Reason #2 The disciples believed that Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to them. The apostles shared their belief in the risen Christ as recorded in the gospels. For example in his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul professes Jesus’ resurrection and post-mortem appearances within the form of an early Church creed.
In the ancient Church creeds were composed for easy memorization of crucial tenets of the Faith such as Jesus’ death and resurrection, and as such, could be more easily passed on as oral tradition (1 Cor 15). Another example is St. Peter’s public testimony in the second chapter of Acts, when he preaches about Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. In his sermon, St. Peter testifies to the resurrected body of Christ which he and the apostles had seen with their own eyes.
Consider also the suffering the disciples endured for their belief in Jesus’ resurrection. Many died as martyrs. These accounts are recorded by early Church writers such as Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Tertullian and others. They knew the consequences if they spread the message of Jesus’ resurrection, yet they carried on to their own peril for the sake of the Gospel (and with great joy). Apostles who were once cowardly (John was the only apostle mentioned to have followed Jesus to the cross) were suddenly willing to die for their Faith. Ironically all of the apostles, excluding John, eventually died as martyrs. Surely real encounters with the resurrected Jesus is the most reasonable explanation for the courageous preaching and martyrdom of the disciples.
Reason #3: Paul’s sudden conversion to Christianity. Saul (who was re-named Paul) was a known Christian persecutor. He was a devout Jewish leader and was responsible for the arresting and ill-treatment of Christians. But Saul was changed after an encounter with the risen Christ. The narrative of this encounter which lead to his conversion is captured by the historian St. Luke in the Scriptures (Acts 9:1-19).
How do we know St. Paul was a Church persecutor before his conversion? First of all, he tells us himself (1 Cor 15:9-10; Gal 1:13-16). Second, St. Luke tells us (Acts 9;22;26). Third, the fact of his conversion was spread via oral tradition in Judea (Gal 1:22-23). So there is good evidence from multiple sources that St. Paul went swiftly from anti-Christian to radical Christian.
St. Paul converted because of a personal encounter with the resurrected Lord. He spontaneously changed from being a Church persecutor to a Christian evangelist, which he and others attribute to a real encounter with the glorified Son of God (Acts 9; 1 Cor 15:8)! The evidence drawn from this sudden change in Paul further strengthens the case for Jesus’ resurrection, as it is just not probable that a hallucination or scam would have succeeded in causing such a dramatic conversion in the Jewish leader and the others.
What Does This Mean?
Jesus of Nazareth really existed. The same Jesus also rose from the dead for the forgiveness of sins and the redemption of the world. He died on the cross for you. He rose from the dead for you. He also established a Church (kyriakos in Greek, meaning “of the Lord”) and this Church of the Lord is the foundation – the Pillar – which upholds the Truth for all generations (Eph 3:21) until the end of time (Mt 16:18; Mt 28:20). This Church is one, holy, catholic and apostolic, and perpetually keeps the Son of God in the Eucharist at its centre as prophesied in the Jewish Scriptures long before Jesus’ birth (Mal 1:11). As St. Ignatius of Antioch writes in the early second century: “Wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.”
**For a deeper look at the evidences for the Resurrection presented in this post, see The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus by Gary Habermas and Michael Licona