A while back, one of my colleagues told me about a friend of his who had recently picked up a hitchhiker in southern Ontario. As they drove along, the hitchhiker said the end of human civilization was coming very soon. The next instant, the person completely vanished from inside the car as it travelled at highway speed.
I asked my colleague if I could talk to his friend, so he checked, but found it wasn’t actually him who had experienced the strange occurrence. Instead, another friend had told him about it, and that person had heard it from somewhere else. It soon became clear that there was no hope of finding the original source, leaving zero evidence to corroborate the story. So go urban myths.
The difference between true events and urban myths is that the more closely one investigates an actual historical occurrence, the more evidence one finds. With urban myths, however, it is the opposite.
So what about the resurrection of Jesus around AD 30?
One thing that we cannot deny is that something historically significant happened in Jerusalem around that time, with the result that within a few decades, Christianity had spread throughout the Roman Empire and Nero was persecuting Christians in Rome. This is simply a matter of historical record.
The difference between true events and urban myths is that the more closely one investigates an actual historical occurrence, the more evidence one finds.
What caused the sudden explosion of Christianity with a “ground zero” in Jerusalem, where there was already a strictly monotheistic religion already firmly in place?
The popular urban myth that Jesus never existed is dismissed by scholars in the secular academic world; there is simply too much evidence to ignore. For example, Tiberius Caesar, 42 BC to 37 AD, is mentioned by ten sources within 150 years of Caesar’s death. Jesus of Nazareth, however, is mentioned by at least 42 authors within 150 years of his death.1
A survey of the academic literature reveals that there are at least four historical facts that are unanimously or nearly unanimously granted by the full range of scholars in the field, be they atheist, agnostic, non-religious, or theist:2
- Jesus performed feats that both he and his followers interpreted as miracles.
- Jesus viewed himself as the Messiah, the Savior of humanity.
- Jesus died by crucifixion.
- Very shortly after Jesus’ death, his disciples had experiences that led them to believe and proclaim that Jesus had been resurrected and had appeared to them.
Note that the facts do not grant that Jesus actually performed miracles, only that the people of the day interpreted those feats (such as making blind people see and crippled people walk) as miracles. It should also be emphasized that, similarly, the scholars are not granting that Jesus was actually seen by several hundred people after his crucifixion, only that they had experiences that led them to believe they were seeing the risen Christ.
There are six major theories advanced by historians in an attempt to explain the supposed resurrection of Jesus in 30 AD, one of which is that he actually rose from the dead. The other five theories attribute it to various psychological or spiritual phenomena. Michael Licona has used a historiographical approach to assess each theory in terms of:
- Explanatory scope (quantity of facts accounted for)
- Explanatory power (quality of the explanation of the facts)
- Plausibility (how well the explanation is implied by the facts)
- Less ad hoc(not dependent upon assumptions which are unsupported by evidence)
- Illumination (explains other problems)
His analysis of each theory is an example of rigorous historiographical analysis. His summary conclusion is…
“Since the resurrection hypothesis is the best explanation, fulfills all five criteria and outdistances all of its competitors by a significant margin, I contend that we may declare that Jesus’ resurrection is ‘very certain’.”3
Something happened around 30 AD that not only exploded throughout the Roman Empire and as far east as India within a few decades, but changed the course of human history. Within eight weeks of Jesus’ crucifixion, there were thousands of believers in Jerusalem, despite fierce opposition by the religious leaders of the day.4 The Messiah/Christ that had been prophesied by ancient Hebrew prophets, and who would die and rise again,5 appears to have fulfilled those prophecies in 30 AD.
His message to each individual person can be summarized in one of his statements…
“I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me will live even if he dies.”6
- G. Habermas, The Historical Jesus, chapter 9. Also, Habermas et al., Case for the Resurrection,126–128.
- From a survey of over 3,000 sources published between 1975 and 2010 in German, French, and English, M. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, chapter 4, “The historical bedrock pertaining to the fate of Jesus”.
- Michael Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: a new historiographical approach, IVP Academic, 2010.
- Acts 2:41 and 4:4.
- Isaiah 52:13 to 53:12.
- John 11:25 NASB.