Proving Jesus’ resurrection without the Bible?
J.T. from Singapore writes:
I was wondering if you guys could write an article about the historical evidence of Jesus’ resurrection itself, but not using the Bible as the primary source of evidence (which after going through some of the articles on your website, the eyewitness accounts of the disciples and the credibility of that accounts seem to make up the main bulk of the argument for resurrection).
If indeed Jesus’ resurrection happened, and he was seen by a few hundred people, surely there must have been other written accounts (e.g. scrolls, parchment, etc, and not including the Bible) in which these eyewitness accounts are documented. It would be really great if you could direct me to these historical evidences (if any).
This question has been one of the topics that my friends and I were discussing, and so far we could not find any other sources that correlate with the Bible on Jesus’ resurrection.
Thank you, and hope to hear from you soon!
CMI’s Shaun Doyle responds:
We can’t leave the Bible aside in arguing for Jesus’ resurrection. Nor could anyone else. The New Testament writings are the primary sources for Jesus’ resurrection. We can’t reach a conclusion on what happened to Jesus without examining them. They’re the earliest sources we have, and in them we have several eyewitness accounts of the empty tomb and sightings of Jesus after He was raised. There is some interesting stuff in non-biblical sources about Jesus, a little of which is relevant to the resurrection.1 But it’s all much later than the New Testament data, and there’s nowhere near enough in those sources to establish Jesus’ resurrection as historical.
Are there other written accounts? Luke 1:1–4 may suggest that in his time there were written accounts of what happened to Jesus other than what we have. But they’ve all been lost to history. After all, the people who saw Jesus almost invariably became Christians, and the Christian community settled on the New Testament as the collection of authoritative witnesses to its origins and teaching. Why would the early Christian community at large preserve other written accounts of Jesus’ resurrection? They thought they had all they needed in the New Testament. And since the people who saw the risen Jesus were Christians (when they would’ve written accounts of what happened), how could non-Christians give us eyewitness accounts of the risen Jesus? At best, they could give us eyewitness accounts of the empty tomb, and the funny thing is that Habermas says that’s one thing some of the non-biblical sources support.1 One or two usable sources even support the fact that the early Christians believed Jesus was risen from the dead. But that’s nowhere near enough to base belief in the resurrection on.
‘Ah,’ the skeptic says, ‘that’s my point! You can’t establish the resurrection without quoting the Bible!’ So? Data is data, regardless of where it comes from. Besides, leaving the Bible to one side doesn’t prove that the Bible is unreliable. It doesn’t prove anything! Other than, perhaps, the skeptic’s unexamined bias against the Bible.
Now, obviously, we need to be mindful of Christian bias when looking at the biblical data on Jesus’ resurrection. But biases don’t automatically disqualify witnesses to events. If they did, much of history would have to be thrown out. Consider, for instance, eyewitness testimony from survivors of the Holocaust. Should we automatically consider their accounts of what happened useless for studying the history of the Holocaust just because they will inevitably have strong feelings and biases about what happened? Of course not! If that’s true for them, it’s also true for the Christian eyewitnesses to Jesus’ resurrection.
But here’s the real question: why should we leave the Bible to one side when examining the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection? Because people regard it as God’s word? Irrelevant. The Bible at least claims to have historical information about Jesus’ fate. This makes it data for the study of history, regardless of one’s view of the Bible.
Plus, we can cross-examine the testimony to Jesus’ resurrection in the Bible. Consider these tests of the testimony:
- Is there early testimony? (Yes, the earliest (1 Cor. 15:3–8) being within 3 years of Jesus’ death. Easter’s earliest creed)
- Is there eyewitness testimony? (Yes. 1 Corinthians 15 preserves eyewitness testimony, and two of the gospel writers were eyewitnesses to the risen Christ.)
- Are there multiple, independent witnesses? (Yes. At the very least Matthew, John, and Paul are three independent witnesses.
- Did the eyewitnesses have anything to gain from lying about what they claimed to see? (No. They gained no gold, girls, or glory for preaching the gospel. Rather, they gained ostracism, suffering, and death.)
- Could the eyewitnesses have been mistaken? (Extremely unlikely. They were intimately familiar with Jesus. They saw that the tomb was empty. They were skeptical of the women’s reports of the risen Jesus before they themselves saw Him. Jesus often made a point of his physicality when He appeared to them, e.g. cooking, breaking bread, eating, and allowing people to touch him. Plus, different people saw him in different contexts.)
- Is there anything embarrassing about the nature of the testimony? (Yes. Women were the first witnesses, whom the disciples themselves didn’t believe at first. The disciples were completely confused about what had happened, despite Jesus having predicted his resurrection multiple times.)
- Were there unbiased or hostile witnesses? (Yes. Paul and Jesus’ brother James didn’t believe in Jesus before he died. But appearances of the risen Jesus to each of them made them stalwart missionaries of the early church who ultimately died for their Christian witness.)
The biblical witness to Jesus’ resurrection fares very well under cross-examination. Most tests we can run support the credibility of the NT witness to Jesus’ resurrection (Can we believe the Gospels? A former chief magistrate examines the witnesses to the resurrection). But if the biblical witnesses are credible even under cross-examination, why do we need other witnesses to make a solid case for the resurrection?
So, we neither can nor need to examine Jesus’ resurrection without reference to the Bible. If the skeptics don’t like that, then they can choose to ignore relevant data, or they can get over it and open the Bible. But ignoring relevant data should never be a point of pride for skeptics. After all, they’re all about critically assessing the data, right? If they ignore the Bible on this count, then the so-called ‘skeptics’ are really just ignorant dogmatists; the very thing they often claim we Christians are. So, don’t fall for the ‘leave the Bible out of it’ gambit; it’s a smokescreen for anti-Christian dogmatism.
References and notes
- Expert on Jesus’ resurrection Gary Habermas has some interesting things to say here: Chapter IX Ancient Non-Christian Sources, garyhabermas.com/books/historicaljesus/historicaljesus.htm#ch9, 1996. Another curious piece of evidence is the so-called Nazareth inscription: The Nazareth Inscription: Proof of the Resurrection of Christ? Part 1 and Part 2. It strongly suggests the empty tomb was well known within a decade of Jesus’ death. Still, it cannot establish Jesus’ resurrection by itself, or in concert with other non-biblical sources. Return to text.