The previous installment of this series dealt with the various eyewitnesses to the resurrection. All of the eyewitness accounts of the event are contained in the Bible. This has been a point of contention between believers and skeptics, because it is often claimed that the all of the supporting evidence is contained in the Bible. The lack of outside confirming sources is considered by some to be a weakness to the historicity of the scriptures. The outside evidence that supports the resurrection narrative will be the focus of this post.

For starters, the argument that the lack of extra-Biblical eyewitnesses weakens the case for the resurrection is a bit of a non-starter. To understand why, it is important to know that the various accounts were not written as components of a larger collection. In fact, the authors had no idea that the books would eventually be assembled into the Bible. The original texts were written as letters and testimonies meant to transmit instructions or to attest to the life of Christ. The effort of assembling a collection didn’t begin until around 140 AD, but more on that in a later post. The exact collection of books was finally settled on in 367 AD. During the course of 200ish years, the assemblers of the Bible sought out and verified the texts that eventually became the Bible. All of the verifiable documents were included in the Bible. All of the texts that could not be verified did not make the final cut. This includes texts written by individuals who clearly did not know Christ or see his resurrection and books that were clearly pseudoepigraphical (written under a fake name claiming to be someone important like Paul, Peter, Judas, etc.). Otherwise, all of the accounts of Christ were included in the Bible itself. Most of the skeptics who encountered Jesus after the resurrection would likely have become his followers, as is the case for James, Jude and Paul. Believers who wrote books that attested to Jesus as having been risen would ultimately have had their books added to the canon. There is a natural lack of books that confirm Christ’s resurrection through eyewitness in the secular realm because the skeptics who saw Jesus alive ceased to be skeptics. One need only reflect on the words of Thomas that he needed to ‘put his finger in the holes in Christ’s hands before he would believe’ to find a mirror of the skeptics demand for still more proof.

However, that does not mean that there is no external evidence to be found or that there is no other evidence related to the documents themselves that can be considered. We will begin by looking at the external sources that offer information related to the resurrection.

Josephus: The most popular extra-Biblical source that relates to Christ is Jewish Antiquities by Josephus. Josephus was a Pharisee/priest turned traitor to the Jewish people, who aided the Romans in their (re)conquering of Israel around 70 AD. His book is a history of the Jews, and it mentions both Jesus and John the Baptist. Most scholars generally accept the Jesus quote as authentic or partially authentic as all available manuscripts feature at least some variation of this passage. The John quote is almost universally accepted as genuine. Here are the two passages in question:

“At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus, and his conduct was good, and he was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. And those who had become his disciples did not abandon their loyalty to him. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion, and that he was alive. Accordingly they believed that he was the Messiah, concerning whom the Prophets have recounted wonders.”

“Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist: for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing [with water] would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away [or the remission] of some sins [only], but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness. Now when [many] others came in crowds about him, for they were very greatly moved [or pleased] by hearing his words, Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion, (for they seemed ready to do any thing he should advise,) thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties, by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it would be too late. Accordingly he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod’s suspicious temper, to Macherus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death. Now the Jews had an opinion that the destruction of this army was sent as a punishment upon Herod, and a mark of God’s displeasure to him.”

The reason these are important is that they are sources from outside the Bible that support the existence of two major figures from the Biblical texts. Josephus also supports several basic facts of the resurrection story: (1) the crucifixion and death under Pilate and (2) the continued devotion of his followers. If Christ were a fictional person, it is unlikely that external sources would support his existence, much less confirm the crucifixion narrative. This support is very important when defending the resurrection as historical because it trumps claims that there was no Jesus or that the crucifixion did happen.

Talmud: The next source worth considering is the Talmud. The Talmud is the Jewish collection of teaching and commentary on the Old Testament scriptures. They are notoriously difficult to interpret properly and are so expansive that it is difficult to deal with them as a layperson. The issue with dealing with the Talmud is that it is a trickier source for supporting claims about Christ. There is much debate and disagreement regarding whether or not Jesus is mentioned in the Talmud as we posses it today. This debate includes suggestions that Christians are grasping at straws in trying to find Jesus in the texts, accusations of editing the Talmud to remove Christ, difficulties related to interpreting texts, etc. That having been said, there are scholars who believe that Jesus is mentioned in the Talmud and that the texts support his existence and some of the details of his life, including the crucifixion. Of particular note is the work of Peter Schafer, Professor of Jewish Studies at Princeton. His book, Jesus in the Talmud, addresses the matter of editing in the Ancient texts. He argues that references to Jesus were edited out entirely and references to Christ completely expunged. It is important to note that the Jewish people were quite hostile to Christians during the era of the early church, as illustrated by the addition of prayers hostile to Christians in synagogue services during the second century. Christianity was a rival religion to the Jewish faith, which makes expunging of records a reasonable possibility. Please note that the expunged texts are fairly graphic and not for polite conversation. Nonetheless, the existence of these texts lends support for the existence of Christ from an early source.

Various Roman Historians: Tacitus, a roman historian, mentions Christ by the name “Christus” and describes his arrest and crucifixion for advancing a dangerous superstition. The reference is associated with Tacitus’ account of Emperor Nero’s persecution of Christians in the mid to late 60’s. Julius Africanus, yet another historian, references the darkness that fell over all of the empire during the crucifixion, which is referenced in the Biblical account. Suetonius, another historian, references Christians in relation to a banishing from Rome that took place under Emperor Claudius. This particular reference is important because it confirms the reference in the Bible to the same event. Ultimately, this is important because it supports the scriptures, not so much because it recounts the resurrection. There are other references to Christians, but these do not really help as evidence because they only refer to Christians and we know that Christians existed. The issue we are addressing is the resurrection.

Textual Issues that Argue for Authenticity: The Biblical texts contain several oddities that argue against them being fraudulent. For example: according to the text, the first witnesses of the resurrection were women. This may not seem like a big deal, but at the time women were not allowed to act as witnesses in court. This makes the opening testimony inadmissible to anyone who was from that day and age. Unless it was true, it would be as stupid opening argument. Another support from within the text is the surplus specifics featured in the story. This includes names of people who were present. If a writer were coming up with a lie they would be wise to avoid including names of people who can confirm or deny the story. Vagueness is the mark of a good lie. It is also important to note that the main characters, aside from Jesus, wind up looking pretty silly. If the texts were falsified, why make the authors look so bad? A final point of consideration is the unusual nature of the message. The scriptures offer a religious message that is quite unique to the era. The Jews found the incarnation and crucifixion totally offensive. The Greeks found resurrection to be ridiculous. The proponents of the mystery religions tried to alter Christianity to make it conform to their ideas of what ought to be true of a religion (see the gnostic gospels). There is no other faith in the ancient era like Christianity. If it were a lie, why generate the LEAST palatable story possible?

The Prophets: The final area of consideration regarding the crucifixion that argues for the truthfulness of the resurrection is the glut of prophetic writing pointing to its occurrence. These supports will not sway an ardently anti-supernatural skeptic, but are quite compelling to an open minded individual. One need only read Psalm 22 or Isaiah 53 to find the clear story of Christ’s death and resurrection. The trick is that Isaiah was written 700 years before Jesus was even born and Psalms even farther back. The Old Testament is rife with specific prophecies that are fulfilled by Christ’s death and resurrection. For a list of these prophesies type “Jesus crucifixion resurrection prophecies” into Google. Spend time reading them. Still more can be found by looking into his whole life. There are literally hundreds of them. Most folks, including a lot of Christians, don’t have any idea how specific the details are in the Old Testament. This, unfortunately does not gird the argument for the historic nature of the resurrection, however it does offer strength to the validity of the text itself.

The early church fathers: There is a collection of books consisting of roughly 50 volumes entitled “The Early Church Fathers.” These books contain the collected writings of the early scholars and leaders of the church. These texts include the work of Polykarp, who was a student of John, the disciple. Polykarp confirms the resurrection as well. Admittedly, this is hearsay, but it is a first hand source recounting what the disciple John taught regarding Christ. It is as close of a connection as we have to Socrates, the Greek philosopher. With Plato writing about Socrates and Aristotle writing as Plato’s student. We find the same with John as Jesus’ student and Polykarp as John’s student. Interestingly, almost no one questions Socrates as a historical figure, despite having fewer than half the number of eyewitnesses and almost no external witnesses. By the standards applied to every other historical figure, Christ undisputedly walked the earth, was crucified under Pilate and rose again. The only hindrance to the general acceptance of the claim is the supernatural elements of the story.

The next post will focus on the Bible texts themselves and how we can know if they are accurate to what was originally written.