I understand why countless people I’ve spoken to over the years do not believe that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead around 33 AD. So why don't we step back a bit.
History shows that there was an explosion of Christianity across the Roman empire in the first century. This does not prove that Jesus rose from the dead, but if one wishes to deny it, then the skeptic is left having to explain this explosion of belief while, at the same time, denying that what they believed happened, actually happened. What does history tell us about this explosion? Was it the usual slow start we see for modern new religions, that didn’t really get going, according to urban legend, until 300 years later under Constantine? Or was it something very different?
Traces of Past Events are Evidence of Those Events
Several years ago I was driving through the Canadian Rockies when I spotted something highly unusual up ahead. The whole side of a mountain looked like it had been freshly exposed, and there appeared to be the remains of a gigantic rockslide lying spread out across the valley. It was clear that something massive had happened here in the past, and I soon found out that this was the scene of the enormous Frank Slide in 1903 that partially buried the mining town of Frank.
Here's my point. It was the aftermath of the Frank slide, still visible more than a century later, that clued me in to the fact that something huge had happened there. That got my attention which, in turn, caused me to look into what that event might be
Sometimes, some of the most undeniable evidence for an historical event is the visible aftermath of that event.
For instance, today, hundreds of millions of people believe that Jesus actually did exist in time and history, in Israel, during the first century. This is actually an easily verifiable fact. But why is this the case? When did this belief first appear, and why did it? Why has it been spreading over the centuries? Could not this be a clearly visible aftermath that calls us to examine the cause of this phenomenon?
I know that it has become fashionable for some to simply assert that Jesus never actually existed. For academics in the field, however, the historical evidence is such that there is near unanimity among the full range of scholars in that field that Jesus of Nazareth actually lived and taught in first century Israel, and by “full range of scholars” I mean scholars who are atheists, agnostics, non-religious, as well as those who have some religious faith. What sort of historical evidence has convinced the scholars in the field to be so confident Jesus was a very real person and that people didn’t just make stuff up?
What sort of historical evidence has convinced the scholars in the field to be so confident Jesus was a very real person and that people didn’t just make stuff up?
To appreciate the volume of evidence supporting the historical existence of Jesus, it is helpful to look at the ancient sources within 150 years of other events and famous people near that same time and compare them to the sources for Jesus.
For example, when we look into the military conquests of Julius Caesar, we find that there are a total of five known sources written within 150 years of his death in 44 BC ... his own, and those of Cicero, Livy, Appian, and the Salona decree.
For Tiberius Caesar, the Roman Emperor at the time of Christ, we know of ten sources written within 150 years of his death, including Tacitus, Suetonius, Josephus, and Luke.
When it comes to Jesus of Nazareth, however, historians have 42 sources within 150 years, including early Christian authors, as well as nine non-Christian sources such as Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, Phlegon, Lucian of Samosata, and others.
Consequently, Michel Bird, one New Testament scholar who has responded at an academic level to the Jesus myth theory states, "... what we all agree on is that (1) Jesus existed and (2) people who deny his existence are cranks or bad historians." When he uses the word "all", he refers to the full range of scholars in the field.
Okay, so it does seem that history establishes the existence of Jesus of Nazareth beyond reasonable doubt, but it does not logically follow that there is any historical evidence for the resurrection.
Before tackling that question head on, let's first ask ourselves if history reveals the kind of consequences, or aftermath, that we might expect if the resurrection actually took place?
Early sources, both Christian and non-Christian, record that the primary reason for the spread of early Christianity was the belief that Jesus of Nazareth had risen from the dead in an immortal, indestructible body. Of course, the non-Christian sources did not believe the resurrection actually happened. My point is simply that the driving force behind the spread of Christianity in the first century was the belief that the resurrection had occurred. For example, the Apostle Paul, writing around 54 AD, wrote,
_"If Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied" _(1 Corinthians 15:14, 17-19).
So, let's think about this. A lot of religions have started up; I imagine most of them never become established, especially if there is already a very well-established religion that the vast majority of that society already follows.
Within two months of the crucifixion of Jesus, there were many thousands of Jews in Jerusalem that believed that Jesus was the Messiah on the basis of his resurrection from the dead and the giving of the Spirit to all who put their faith in Jesus as the risen Messiah. And from there, the message quickly spread throughout the Empire.
The Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus, in his book The Annals, which covered Roman history from AD 14 to 68, was no sympathizer of Christianity, calling it a "disease". He wrote that at the time of the Great Fire in Rome in AD 64, Nero blamed the Christians in Rome for the fire and arrested what Tacitus described as, in Latin "multitudo ingenues" or in English "vast numbers" of Christians in the city.
Let's think about this for a moment. Just 31 years after the resurrection, we have the testimony of a Roman historian who was opposed to Christianity, stating that there were "vast numbers" in the capital city of the Roman empire.
Pliny the Younger was Roman governor of the province of Bithynia and Pontus. Around 110 AD, just 80 years after the explosion of Christianity in Jerusalem, Pliny the Younger wrote a letter to the Roman Emperor Trajan wondering what to do about all the Christians in his province. He was torturing and killing them in an effort to slow down what he described as the "contagion" of Christianity throughout the cities, villages, and rural districts. It was so overwhelming that he wrote that the temples of the Roman gods had "almost become deserted".
What we see in the historical records is that there was an explosion of belief throughout the Roman Empire that Jesus had risen from the dead, and the ground zero for this event was Jerusalem, around 33 AD. We also have historical evidence that this belief spread as far east as India within 70 years.
So where am I going with all this? Just as my observations of the collapsed mountain and the rubble spread across the valley was an indication to me that something big had happened, so the explosion of the belief throughout the then polytheistic Roman empire that the Jewish God was the only true God and that his Son, Jesus, had risen from the dead leads us to ask what exactly happened in Jerusalem in 33 AD to cause thousands of people in the city, within a couple months, to believe the resurrection had occurred and to cause that belief to spread like wildfire throughout the Roman empire such that 30 years later there were vast numbers of Christians in Rome, and in the province of Bithynia and Pontus the temples for the Roman gods were almost deserted?
This does not prove that Jesus actually rose from the dead around 33 AD, but it does leave us in a position of having to explain the astonishing explosion of Christianity that is unique in history when compared to all the other religions, if, in fact, no resurrection actually occurred. And, as we saw in my previous video, there is also a backstory that extended back centuries before this happened, which highlights this event was even more unusual in history. So, we have two highly unusual reasons to take the resurrection seriously.
In my next video, we'll take a look at what history tells us about the tomb where the body of Christ was laid.