Historical Analysis of Jesus' Death and Resurrection
So often I'll find myself in the complicated situation of arguing for the existence of God. While that argument is strong and there are many, I see myself always coming back to the person of Jesus. There are many times that I can get someone to say "the probability of God existing is high, but Jesus could not have happened as it did in the Bible."
There are dozens of arguments used as evidence for the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Some of these are Empty Tomb, Post-Death Appearances to 500 or more people, Christianity spring-boarding into History, Thomas the Doubter, and much more. These are all valid things, and these things can all be used in the proper context to defend the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
However, I want to go to an argument that I find much more compelling. This argument consists of extra-biblical accounts of Jesus, reasoning with archeology and some other variables. So let's dive in and see for ourselves the splendor of Jesus Christ.
Historians like Tacitus—or more formally, Caius/Gaius (or Publius) Cornelius Tacitus (55/56–c. 118 C.E.)—was a Roman senator, orator and ethnographer, and arguably the best of Roman historians. His name is based on the Latin word Tacitus, “silent,” from which we get the English word tacit. Interestingly, his short prose powerfully uses silence and implications. One argument for the authenticity of the quotation below is that it is written in correct Tacitean Latin.
"[N]either human effort nor the emperor’s generosity nor the placating of the gods ended the scandalous belief that the fire had been ordered [by Nero]. Therefore, to put down the rumor, Nero substituted as culprits and punished in the most unusual ways those hated for their shameful acts … whom the crowd called “Chrestians.” The founder of this name, Christ [Christus in Latin], had been executed in the reign of Tiberius by the procurator Pontius Pilate … Suppressed for a time, the deadly superstition erupted again not only in Judea, the origin of this evil but also in the city [Rome], where all things horrible and shameful from everywhere come together and become popular."
1) Christus, used by Tacitus to refer to Jesus, was one distinctive way by which some referred to him, even though Tacitus mistakenly took it for a personal name rather than an epithet or title; (2) this Christus was associated with the beginning of the movement of Christians, whose name originated from his; (3) he was executed by the Roman governor of Judea; and (4) the time of his death was during Pontius Pilate’s governorship of Judea, during the reign of Tiberius. (Many New Testament scholars date Jesus’ death to c. 29 C.E.; Pilate governed Judea in 26–36 C.E., while Tiberius was emperor 14–37 C.E.
Further information comes from Josephus who is more upfront and blatant about the existence of Jesus. In his two great works, The Jewish War and Jewish Antiquities, both written in Greek for educated people, Josephus tried to appeal to aristocrats in the Roman world, presenting Judaism as a religion to be admired for its moral and philosophical depth. The Jewish War doesn't mention Jesus except in some versions in likely later additions by others, but Jewish Antiquities does mention Jesus—twice.
In the temporary absence of a Roman governor between Festus’s death and governor Albinus’s arrival in 62 C.E., the high priest Ananus instigated James’s execution. Josephus described it:
Being, therefore, this kind of person [i.e., a heartless Sadducee], Ananus, thinking that he had a favorable opportunity because Festus had died and Albinus was still on his way, called a meeting [literally, “Sanhedrin”] of judges and brought into it the brother of Jesus-who-is-called-Messiah … James by name, and some others. He made the accusation that they had transgressed the law, and he handed them over to be stoned.
James is otherwise a barely detected, minor figure in Josephus’s extended book. The only real reason for him to mention James in any respect was that his death resulted in Ananus losing his position as high priest. James (Jacob) was a typical individual name at now. Several men named James are mentioned in Josephus’s works; therefore Josephus required to specify which one he meant. The standard custom of merely giving the father’s name (James, son of Joseph) wouldn't work here, as a result of James’s father’s name was conjointly quite common. Thus Josephus identified this James by regard to his known brother Jesus. However, James’s brother Jesus (Yehoshua) conjointly had a popular name. Josephus mentions a minimum of twelve different men named Jesus. So Josephus specified that Jesus he was relating by adding the phrase “who is named Messiah,” or, since he was writing in Greek, Christos.15 This phrase was necessary to spot clearly first Jesus and, via Jesus, James, the topic of the discussion. This extraneous relevancy Jesus would have created no sense if Jesus had not been a real person.
If it has any value in relation to the question of Jesus’ existence, it counts as additional evidence for Jesus’ existence. The Testimonium Flavianum reads as follows; the parts that are especially suspicious because they sound Christian are in italics:
Around this time there lived Jesus, a wise man if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who did surprising deeds, and a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Messiah. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing among us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who in the first place came to love him did not give up their affection for him, for on the third day, he appeared to them restored to life. The prophets of God had prophesied this and countless other marvelous things about him. And the tribe of Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not died out.
All surviving manuscripts of the Testimonium Flavianum that are in Greek, like the original, contain the same version of this passage, with no significant differences.
These independent historical sources—one a non-Christian Roman and the other Jewish—confirm what we are told in the Gospels:
1. He existed as a man. The historian Josephus grew up in a priestly family in first-century Palestine and wrote only decades after Jesus’ death. Jesus’ known associates, such as Jesus’ brother James, were his contemporaries. The historical and cultural context was second nature to Josephus. “If any Jewish writer were ever in a position to know about the non-existence of Jesus, it would have been Josephus. His implicit affirmation of the existence of Jesus has been and still is, the most significant obstacle for those who argue that the extra-Biblical evidence is not probative on this point,” Robert Van Voorst observes. And Tacitus was careful enough not to report real executions of nonexistent people.
2. His personal name was Jesus, as Josephus informs us.
3. He was called Christos in Greek, which is a translation of the Hebrew word Messiah, both of which mean “anointed” or “(the) anointed one,” as Josephus states and Tacitus implies, unaware, by reporting, as Romans thought, that his name was Christus.
4. He had a brother named James (Jacob), as Josephus reports.
5. He won over both Jews and “Greeks” (i.e., Gentiles of Hellenistic culture), according to Josephus, although it is anachronistic to say that they were “many” at the end of his life. Large growth
in the number of Jesus’ actual followers came only after his death.
6. Jewish leaders of the day expressed unfavorable opinions about him, at least according to some versions of the Testimonium Flavianum.
7. Pilate rendered the decision that he should be executed, as both Tacitus and Josephus state.
8. His execution was specifically by crucifixion, according to Josephus.
9. He was executed during Pontius Pilate’s governorship over Judea (26–36 C.E.), as Josephus implies and Tacitus states, adding that it was during Tiberius’s reign.
Before we end this article I want to focus really briefly on the RESURRECTION itself as a specific stronghold for the belief of Christianity. I mentioned in the start of the article that the appearance of Jesus is often used and I want to point out that Christ appearing to people after death is important when used correctly. Observation and rationale are two things that we should take incredibly seriously. Let's dive into the appearances briefly:
THE APPEARANCES OF JESUS
Jesus’ friends weren’t looking for what they were about to see. Although they had heard and closely followed Jesus’ teaching for 3 years, they just never fully understood that He was going to rise from the dead. Therefore, they would have had no reason to make up stories in which they claimed to have seen Him. To them, that wasn’t even an option. Sure, they missed Jesus. And just as anyone who has lost a loved one or friend longs to see him, so also they had the desire to see Jesus. But they did not expect that they ever would (see Jn. 20:9).
Yet see Him they did! First at the tomb. Then on the dusty Emmaus road. Then in the upper room. Over and over, in different settings, Jesus appeared to His friends. For 40 days He made His presence known throughout the land. Let’s look at who saw Jesus and where He appeared. It’s one more piece of evidence for the resurrection.
To Mary Magdalene At The Tomb (Jn. 20:11-18). Mary had been standing outside the empty tomb crying because, as she said, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him” (v.13). His death, combined with her fear that His body had been stolen, had engulfed her in heart-wrenching despair. But when Jesus startled her into recognizing Him by calling out, “Mary!” she rushed to Him in joy and relief. Then she ran to tell the disciples that she had seen the Lord.
To Several Women As They Ran From The Tomb (Mt. 28:9-10). These women had already heard that Jesus was alive, even though they had not yet seen Him. They had just left the tomb, where an angel had told them that Jesus had “risen from the dead.” When they saw the Lord, they “held Him by the feet and worshiped Him” (v.9). Jesus told them to spread the news that He was alive and to tell the disciples to meet Him in Galilee.
To Two Disciples On The Emmaus Road (Lk. 24:13-32). Imagine the drama of this scene. Two disciples were walking the 7 dusty miles from Jerusalem to Emmaus when a fellow traveler caught up with them and struck up a conversation, asking what they were talking about. Apparently, they had been discussing the death and entombment of Jesus, because they were surprised that the stranger wasn’t familiar with their topic. They said, in effect, “Do you mean to say that you don’t know about Jesus’ death?” The two then explained why they were so sad—that though some women had seen the empty tomb and claimed that Jesus was alive, they had not yet seen Him. These disciples would not believe without seeing the evidence for themselves.
An exciting surprise awaited the pair when they arrived at Emmaus. The three of them stopped to eat, and as they ate, the disciples’ “eyes were opened” and they recognized that this mysterious stranger was Jesus. But before they could speak again, He “vanished from their sight” (v.31).
To Peter At An Unknown Location (Lk. 24:33-35). In this passage, we are not given a direct look at the meeting between Peter and Jesus. All we know is that when the disciples who had been to Emmaus returned, they learned that Peter had seen the Lord too. Imagine the excitement that must have been generated in that place!
To 10 Disciples In The Upper Room (Lk. 24:36-43). Suddenly this praise meeting of the disciples was interrupted. As they sat comparing notes about the thrilling reality of seeing Jesus, He suddenly appeared. As might be expected, the men were startled because they thought they were seeing a spirit (v.37). Jesus quickly laid that idea to rest by offering to have them touch His hands and feet, and by eating supper with them.
To 11 Disciples In The Upper Room (Jn. 20:26-31). It must have been a long week for Thomas. The other 10 disciples had met with Jesus in the upper room, but he had not. Surely they had spent time trying to convince Thomas that they really had seen Jesus. But he reacted the same way they had when they heard from the women who first saw Jesus. They were not convinced without hard evidence, and Thomas wanted the same advantage. Now he was about to get it. Jesus suddenly appeared to the men and said to Thomas, “Reach your finger here and look at My hands” (v.27). Then Thomas believed, exclaiming, “My Lord and my God!” (v.28).
To Seven Men At The Sea Of Galilee (Jn. 21:1-25). Things had begun to return to normal for the disciples. They had gone back to work. Some went on an all-night fishing trip on the Sea of Galilee. But the fish weren’t cooperating, and the men had an empty boat. As daylight broke over the water, they saw a man standing on the shore, shouting advice to them. The seven seamen did what He suggested and nearly capsized their boat with all the fish they dragged ashore.
When John informed Peter, “It is the Lord!” (Jn. 21:7), Peter jumped in and swam to shore. When they all arrived on the beach, they saw that Jesus had prepared a hot breakfast of fish and bread for them. Jesus then offered to cook a few of the fish they had just caught.
To 11 Disciples On A Mountain (Mt. 28:16-20). This is the first planned meeting between the disciples and Jesus recorded after the resurrection. Matthew wrote that the disciples proceeded “into Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had appointed for them” (28:16). There He met with the Eleven, and probably some others. Perhaps this included the “500 brethren” mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15:6.
What is significant is that even though the Eleven worshiped Jesus when they saw Him, “some doubted” (Mt. 28:17). Although it is possible that a few of these men were still doubting Jesus’ resurrection, it is more probable that the skeptics were disciples who didn’t have the advantage of touching Jesus and eating
with Him. They would naturally have been more hesitant to believe that this was the same man who had been crucified a few weeks before. Yet the fact that doubters are mentioned shows that the disciple who wrote the account was not afraid to talk about the skepticism of some of the observers.
To His Disciples Near Bethany (Acts 1:9-12). The final appearance of Jesus to His disciples ended with His disappearance. He stood talking with them about the command He had just given them to be His witnesses, “He was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight” (v.9). This turned out to be a commencement of sorts for the disciples. Just a few weeks earlier, they had been a disheartened group whose leader was dead. Now they were enthusiastic evangelists. They “returned to Jerusalem with great joy” (Lk. 24:52), and “they went out and preached everywhere” (Mk. 16:20).
Sheer odds are against anyone who tries to argue the appearances of Jesus did not occur. The odds that 500 or more people saw Jesus as a hallucination (a common claim against said hallucinations) are so severely anti-mathematical that it would have to borderline as a miracle itself (their argument against it).
These things can be verified. These claims have been through scrutiny and watchful eye because the implications of these archeological and manuscript readings are significant to the validity of Jesus Christ and Christians both past and present. These things give believers mass rationale in the argument for Jesus Christ.
I will finish with another quote from the impartial historian Flavius (and is confirmed again by Eusebius )
"Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man if it is lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as received the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day."
Antiquities 18:63 - Flavius Josephus 1st Century. Again confirmed by the 3rd-century historian Eusebius.
Citation and Reference:
For more on what the article entails visit: https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/people-cultures-in-the-bible/jesus-historical-jesus/did-jesus-exist/
See Meier, Marginal Jew, vol. 1, pp. 57–58. Messiah, the Hebrew term for “anointed (one),” came through Greek translation (Christos) into English as Christ.
See Meier, Marginal Jew, vol. 1, p. 59, note 12; pp. 72–73, note 12.
Richard T. France, The Evidence for Jesus, The Jesus Library (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1986), p. 26.
Josephus says James was executed by stoning before the Jewish War began, but Christian tradition says he was executed during the Jewish War by being thrown from a height of the Temple, then, after an attempt to stone him was prevented, finally being clubbed to death. See Meier, Marginal Jew, vol. 1, p. 58.
XVIII.63–64 (in Whiston’s translation: XVIII.3.3).
MARCH 30, 2018
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