“As a child given religion with no answers to why. Just told believe in Jesus cause for me he did die. Curiosity killed the catechism understanding and wisdom became the rhythm that I played to”– Common
The second post on The Myth of Jesus: The History Behind Faith which looks at some historical facts that dispelled some mythical and false beliefs I held regarding Jesus, his followers and the historical origins of Christianity. In this post I look at the consensus from historians (both Christian and skeptical) regarding three crucial points: (1) What the first followers of Jesus, such as Peter, claimed and believed. (2) Why Paul and James converted to Christianity. (3) The tomb where Jesus was buried was empty.
How do we know what the followers of Jesus really believed and claimed?
Historians both Christian and non-christian consider it a historical fact that the disciples of Jesus like Peter, Paul, and James the brother of Jesus, claimed and believed they had seen Jesus risen from the dead. The evidence for this historical fact is drawn from nine independent sources that fall into three categories: (1) Paul’s testimony about the disciples. (2) Oral tradition that was passed down through the church. (3) Written works of the early church[i].
The creed (Oral Tradition)
One of the strongest evidence for the fact that the disciples claimed Jesus rose from the dead is oral tradition. Scholars are able to identify instances of oral traditions such as creeds, hymns, story summaries and poetry recorded in the New Testament. And since oral traditions had to first exist before they are recorded in the New Testament, they obviously predate it and provide access to the earliest teachings and beliefs of the first Christians.
In ancient times creeds were used to pass down important facts that could be easily memorized. One of the earliest Christian creeds identifier by scholars is recorded by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15: 3-8
“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.”
Gary Habermas in his survey of over 2000 publications on the historicity of Jesus concludes that,
“The vast majority of critical scholars who answer the question place Paul’s reception of this material in the mid-30s CE. Even more skeptical scholars generally agree. German theologian Walter Kasper even asserts that, ‘We have here therefore an ancient text, perhaps in use by the end of 30 AD….’ Ulrich Wilckens declares that the material ‘indubitably goes back to the oldest phase of all in the history of primitive Christianity’”[ii]
The reason why non-Christian and Christian historians and New Testament scholars agree that the creed goes back to origins of Christianity is because (1) Paul uses the Greek equivalent of technical rabbinical terms ‘delivered’ and ‘received’ which were traditionally terms used for oral traditions. (2) It contains several terms, sentence structure and diction dissimilar to Paul’s general writing indicating it is from another source. (3) The threefold usage of ‘and that’ similar to Aramaic and Hebrew Narration.
The belief that Jesus was raised from the dead goes back to the earliest phase of Christianity demonstrating that it was a central belief from the beginning and it was not a legend that developed over time.
We also know that the disciples such as Peter were sincere is because most of them were killed for their belief that Jesus had risen from the dead – demonstrating that they sincerely believed it and were willing to die for that belief. There are 7 ancient sources that confirm they were martyred. Peter and Paul particularly were killed by the emperor Nero who persecuted Christians during his reign in Rome from 54 AD to 63 AD.[viii]
Paul converted because he claimed he encountered and saw Jesus risen after his death. His belief in this claim was so strong he suffered and was martyred for it. This fact is well supported by the writings of early church fathers: Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Tertullian, Dionysius of Corinth, and Origen. Tertullian a church father during 200AD wrote about Peter and Paul’s well known martyrdom
“That Paul is beheaded has been written in their own blood. And if a heretic wishes his confidence to rest upon a public record, the archives of the empire will speak, as would the stones of Jerusalem. We read the lives of the Caesars: At Rome Nero was the first who stained with blood the rising faith. Then is Peter girt by another, when he is made fast to the cross.”
The Gospels and Josephus the Jewish historian mention James as the brother of Jesus. He did not believe that Jesus was the Son of God while Jesus was alive and was a deeply devoted Jew. But something happened to him that converted him to Christianity. Historically we know that he became bishop of the church in Jerusalem. The ancient creed that Paul records states that James converted because Jesus appeared to him after his crucifixion. James became bishop in Jerusalem and was martyred for his belief in Jesus. James’s martyrdom is documented in history by ancient Jewish historian Josephus that James was illegally stoned to death in 60A.D. for his belief.
It is because of the the strength of the historical evidence that non Christian historian Bart Ehrman can boldly declare:
It is a historical fact that some of Jesus’ followers came to believe that he had been raised from the dead soon after his execution. We know some of these believers by name; one of them, the apostle Paul, claims quite plainly to have seen Jesus alive after his death. Thus, for the historian, Christianity begins after the death of Jesus, not with the resurrection itself, but with the belief in the resurrection.
We can say with complete certainty that some of his disciples at some later time insisted that . . . he soon appeared to them, convincing them that he had been raised from the dead.[iii]
Atheist historian and leading German critic of the resurrection Gerd Lüdemann also concludes,[iv]
Gary Habermas in his survey concludes that there is near universal consensus by historians that the disciples such as Peter, Paul and James had experiences which they believed and claimed were that of the risen Jesus. Habermas quotes skeptical historian Sanders in his survey:
“‘That Jesus’ followers (and later Paul) had resurrection experiences is, in my judgement, a fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know.’”[v]
Historians on the basis of the evidence consider it historically certain that the disciples of Jesus, Paul and James claimed and believed that they had seen Jesus risen after his death and were sincere in their beliefs being willing to die for them.
The empty tomb of Jesus
Another piece of historical knowledge regarding Jesus that Christian and non Christians historians agree on, on the basis of evidence is that after his death and burial – his tomb was found to be empty.
Habermas in his survey addresses the historicity of the empty tomb commenting that:
It has been said that the majority of contemporary researchers accept the historicity of this event [Jesus’ empty tomb]…From the study mentioned above, I have compiled 23 arguments for the empty tomb and 14 considerations against it, as cited by recent critical scholars…Of these scholars, approximately 75 per cent favor one or more of these arguments for the empty tomb, while approximately 25 per cent think that one or more arguments oppose it. Thus, while far from being unanimously held by critical scholars, it may surprise some that those who embrace the empty tomb as a historical fact still comprise a fairly strong majority”[vi].
That Jesus tomb was empty is primarily due to the following reasons:
- Claims and beliefs about Jesus being risen from the dead originated in the same place where he was crucified and buried. The opponents of disciples such as the Romans and Jews only had to show that Jesus’ body was in the tomb to crush and end Christianity, however this never occurred. The belief that Jesus was raised from the dead could not have been possible without an empty tomb. If the body of Jesus was still in the tomb then it would be absurd to claim and believe that Jesus was raised from the dead.
- Women were the first to discover the empty tomb. Women in ancient times were considered very unreliable witnesses and their testimonies were held in low esteem with little credibility. If the empty tomb was a legend then the New Testament writers would not have used women as the first and primary eye witnesses to its discovery.
- The early tradition captured by the creed recorded by Paul in 1Corinthians 15:3-7 indicates that Jesus was buried and then raised on the third day. The reference to Jesus being raised on the third day must refer to the day the tomb was discovered to be empty. If the tomb was not empty then why would the earliest Christian tradition state that Jesus was raised on the third day.
- Within the Jewish context, the concept of a resurrection always meant a bodily resurrection and not a metaphorical or spiritual one. It would have been a contradiction in terms for the disciples to believe that Jesus was raised from the dead without the tomb being empty of his body.
Bart Ehrman, non christian New Testament scholar and historian agrees that[vii]:
My main point has been to share what historians of all stripes, Christian and non-Christian, agree are historical facts well supported by the historical evidence.
- Jesus was an actual historical figure who lived, was crucified by Pontius Pilate, and was buried in a tomb by Joseph of Aramethea.
- The disciples of Jesus such as Peter claimed and believed to have experienced appearances of Jesus after his death. The sincerity of their beliefs was demonstrated by their willingness to die for their beliefs.
- Paul and James converted to Christianity because they claimed and believed they had seen the risen Jesus appear to them and they also willingly died for their claims demonstrating their sincerity.
- The tomb where Jesus was buried by Joseph of Aramathea was found empty.
- Christianity originated because the disciples claimed and believed Jesus had risen from the dead.
The theme for the posts has been an attempt to provide an answer to Common and others such as myself who asked themselves but why Jesus? We are in a position to say the following. We know about Jesus today because his disciples such as Peter, converts such as Paul and James his brother, believed that Jesus had done something and not taught something. They claimed and believed sincerely to the point of death, that Jesus after his death had risen from the dead and appeared to them. They interpreted this miraculous event as a vindication of Jesus’ identity. It meant Jesus was indeed who He claimed to be; the Son of God, one equal in nature with God and through him alone we could be united truly with God. Their mission thus began to tell people what they witnessed and that is why we are told, “Believe in Jesus because for me He did die”.
The next logical question is: what is the best explanation for the historical facts and events behind the Christian faith? Was there really a resurrection? Perhaps the disciples hallucinated; perhaps they stole the body, or Jesus never died and they thought he did; or perhaps they went to the wrong tomb. In a forthcoming post I will evaluate the different possible explanations and determine which one makes sense of all the historical facts.
[i] G. Habermas, M. Licona. (2004). The case for the resurrection of Jesus.
[ii] G. Habermas. (2005). RESURRECTION RESEARCH FROM 1975 TO THE PRESENT: WHAT ARE CRITICAL SCHOLARS SAYING? Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, p142
[iii] Eric Chabot. A Look at the Evidence for the Death, Burial and Resurrection of Jesus. CHRISTIAN APOLOGETICS ALLIANCE
[v] G. Habermas. (2005). RESURRECTION RESEARCH FROM 1975 TO THE PRESENT: WHAT ARE CRITICAL SCHOLARS SAYING?.Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus. p150
[vi] Ibid, p141
[vii] W. L. Craig.(2008). Reasonable Faith. p351
[viii] G. Habermas, M. Licona. (2004). The case for the resurrection of Jesus.