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Proving Jesus’ resurrection without the Bible?

Published: 28 July 2018 (GMT+10)

J.T. from Singapore writes:

iStockphotobible-mark

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.

empty-tomb-2

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

  1. 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.

Helpful Resources

Jesus in Genesis
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From Creation to Salvation
by Lita Cosner
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US $12.00
Christianity for Skeptics
by Drs Steve Kumar, Jonathan D Sarfati
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US $17.00

Readers’ comments

Rae L.
Re: JT's question, I agree Scripture gives ample evidence to the resurrection, his question remains unanswered. "If indeed Jesus’ resurrection happened...surely there must have been other written accounts...It would be really great if you could direct me to these historical evidences (if any)." JT, there are plenty if you're willing to dig for them. I had this same question as a new believer. There's a number of historical evidences outside Scripture I found helpful. The existence of the church is one usually overlooked. The changed lives of the early believers and they way they laid down their lives for the Gospel. No-one dies for a lie.....There's 1st century accounts. Suetonius wrote of the Jews expulsion from Rome AD49 at the instigation of "Chrestus", meaning Jews who believed in Christ. Priscilla & Aquilla (see Acts) were 2 of them, moving to Corinth, Greece, where the apostle Paul met them. Roman historian Tacitus, wrote of the Christian persecutions under Nero, again, who gets burnt alive rather than deny the truth of the resurrected LORD? Pliny, he and Tacitus hated the Christians. He wrote to Emperor Trajan about how to deal with them, as Christians would rather die than deny Christ, singing hymns to Him as they burned alive. Why die brutally, horribly, for a lie? Josephus AD95 wrote of the crucifixion of Jesus, and that in his day the "tribe of Christians has still not disappeared". He wrote of Jesus' existence, the resurrection, the believers. Space does not permit me to supply all the references for you JT, and there are more, a little digging will certainly reward you if you really want to find outside sources from Scripture. Sadly, many believe if the Bible is the only historical source, it's all just a story. Not so! He was, He is, He always will be!
Shaun Doyle
My footnote did address this; I gave a link to a discussion of the non-Christian sources to Jesus' resurrection from Gary Habermas. But note what he asked us to do: "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 [emphasis added]". I said we couldn't do that because the Bible is the primary source of evidence for the Resurrection. The non-Christian data is interesting, but hardly convincing.

First, we can't know much of how the disciples changed without the NT. Pliny's letter to Trajan only establishes the sincerity of some 2nd century Christians, who wouldn't have been eyewitnesses. Suetonius' reference is rather garbled, so people have reason to doubt it was a reference to Christians (even though I think it was). Tacitus only establishes that Jesus died by crucifixion under Pilate, and that the Christians were a nuisance to Rome. And, as I said in answer to another commenter, Josephus on Jesus' Resurrection is highly controversial. This data is all interesting, but we can't properly connect the dots in a pro-Christianity manner without the New Testament.
Aiden B.
Hi Shaun Doyle! Beautifully well presented response, and I agree. Leaving the Bible and relying on data is not the way to argue.
Bob H.
What about Josephus' description of Jesus known as the Testimonium Flavianum? I realize it is controversial, as some people claim that it is an interpolation. Nevertheless, the description as it reads states that Jesus "appeared alive again the third day." If the historian Flavius Josephus actually wrote that, it is a profound extra-biblical reference to Jesus' resurrection from a first century historian.
Shaun Doyle
Josephus (a late 1st century (non-Christian) Jewish historian) is controversial, and on the specific point of his witness to the Resurrection: "He appeared to them spending a third day restored to life, for the prophets of God had foretold these things and a thousand other marvels about him" (Jewish Antiquities 18.63-64). Many if not most scholars think the statement is either a wholesale Christian interpolation, or altered by Christians from an original version that may have read something like this: "They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive." (This version is from a 10th century Arabic manuscript of the same passage.)

However, the commenter asked for other sources for eyewitness accounts of the resurrection, specifically to build a case for the resurrection. Josephus won't help with this. Even if the relevant passage in his Antiquities were authentic, it will always remain fodder for reasonable skepticism. If our case for the Resurrection depended in any substantial way on the authenticity of Josephus, as it must if we were to rely only on non-biblical sources for evidence, then people would always have good evidential reasons to doubt the Resurrection. Josephus is interesting, but he can't supplant the need for appeals to Scripture in building a case for the Resurrection.
Richard G.
Of course, I fully agree with Shaun Doyle's article. The primary evidence for Jesus' resurrection from the dead is the New Testament, and the evidence for the authenticity of the N.T. is overwhelming. However, could it not be mentioned that Jesus has appeared in various ways (dreams, visions, spoken words) to many individuals (such as the Apostle Paul in Acts 9:1-7; 26:12-19; 2Cor. 12:1-6; 2Timothy 4:17) over the last 2,000 years? Without access to the New Testament, Christ Jesus has appeared to seekers in many situations in China, in Russia, in Iran, in other closed countries in the Middle East. Even conservative, Bible-believing Christians in America sing songs such as, "In the Garden" by C. Austin Miles, testifying to their own personal communion with our Living Lord and Savior.
Shaun Doyle
Of course, citing visions and dreams mentioned in the NT uses the Bible as primary evidence, so it doesn't comport with what the commenter asked us for. As to other reports of dreams and visions, at best they could only ever supplement the Bible in building a case for the Resurrection. (I say nothing of the effect the visions and dreams might have on those who experienced them, though I would still exhort them to test their dreams by the Bible: 1 John 4:1-6.)
A K.
Great answer Shaun! No beating around the bush and straight to the point. Way to stand your ground.
Georges H.
I have 3 remarks about this topic:
1. Flavius Josephus (born approx. in A.D. 37/38 – dead approx. in A.D. 100) has written a sentence about the resurrection of Jesus at aapprox. A.D. 93…94. We can read this in Antiquities 18.63-64 :
“Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, […] 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 the 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. […].”
The question is: did Josephus really write this? Most scholars think the core of the passage originated from Josephus, but probably it was later altered by a Christian editor, in the third or fourth century A.D.
2. I think that another way to answer friends about the resurrection of Jesus can be to ask them if they have writings of that time that confirm their position. Jesus used a similar way in Matt 21.23-25.
3. The case of the both Lazarus is interesting.
Firstly, Jesus talked about the situation of the rich man in Hell. The rich man asks Moses to send Lazarus back to his brothers to tell them what’s going on after death in order that they change live (Luke 16.27-28). Regarding the second Lazarus in the Scripture, Jesus resurrected him from death (John 11) but the Jewish priests of that time were not satisfied with this situation, and they planned to kill him together with Jesus (John 11.49-51 and John 12.9-11). We have to know when people don’t want to believe the evidences, that they will find many other ways to circumvent these evidences, even to contradict themselves.

Finally, if Jesus is not risen, our preaching is vein (1 Cor 15.13 ff.)
Shaun Doyle
On your points:
1. Your assessment of the evidence from Josephus is basically correct, but it's also why it can't provide much support for the Resurrection.
2. I don't think this works. All they need to show is that the Resurrection testimony of the New Testament can't support a case for the Resurrection. This is why skeptics usually don't bother too much with the evidence itself (the NT evidence is early, and all naturalistic explanations that have been tried are unconvincing). Rather, they make the standards of proof so high for the Resurrection that no evidence could pass muster.
3. You're right: if people don't want to believe, they'll find a way around the fact, no matter how illogical.
Victor B.
A sound and discerning response; I especially appreciate the point made that the biblical manuscript evidence is in fact the most earliest, comprehensive eye witness testimony and well attested historical documents on the matter (in comparison to non-biblical documents)
Kevin M.
The Shroud of Turin can provide you with your own eye-witness account of the resurrection. Science cannot explain it, and documentaries have been produced which clearly reveal its miraculous nature. In addition, detailed images of it are available online. But for the skeptic, even one rising from the dead will not be enough to convince.
Shaun Doyle
Please see An unconvincing Shroud story on the Shroud of Turin.
Peter J.
Another major factor of the proof of the resurrection is the fact that Christianity went into all the Mediterranean world and moreover as far as India and all Asia, and was accepted as truth.
Also the Roman Empire and its authorities could no longer quell the growth of and, Christianity’s supreme message and it is ethics, and had to absorb it into their system finally in the 4th century.
Jim G.
The scriptures stand on their own, as the article. JESUS did live here, died and was resurrected. There are a couple of secular writings that testify about Jesus. Josephus, a Jewish historian.
Alexander the Great is talked about, written about as if everything is totally fact. Yet, the only information we have of him comes from only one manuscript, written 200-300 years after his death.
YES, the information we have, showing who Jesus is and His resurrection is by far more reliable then other historical figures.
Terry D P.
If you are looking for eye-witness testimony of a resurrected Jesus from disbelievers, I don’t think you’ll find it, because Jesus said that he would only disclose himself to believers, as clearly stated in the following and other scriptures:
«/ Judas asked him — the other Judas, not Iscariot — ‘Lord, what can have happened, that you mean to disclose yourself to us alone and not to the world?’ Jesus replied, ‘Anyone who loves me will heed what I say; then my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him; but he who does not love me does not heed what I say. And the word you hear is not mine: it is the word of the Father who sent me. I have told you all this while I am still here with you; but your Advocate, the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and will call to mind all that I have told you.” — Jn§14:22-26 /»
«/ IN THE FIRST PART of my work, Theophilus, I wrote of all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen, he was taken up to heaven. He showed himself to these men after his death, and gave ample proof that he was alive: over a period of forty days he appeared to them and taught them about the kingdom of God. — Ac§1:1-3 /»
«/ But God raised him from the dead; and there was a period of many days during which he appeared to those who had come up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem. — Ac§13:30-31 /»
The one notable exception of Jesus appearing to an unbeliever, is that of when he appeared to Saul on the road to Damascus, and Saul aka Paul became an instant believer.
Roger P.
We ought to think of the authorities. The Roman and the Jewish authorities both had their agents. The Roman intelligence network, the Frumentarii, could give the Gestapo, the KGB, Mossad, the CIA and the FBI a run for their money. My guess is that the Sanhedrin also had highly efficient and highly trained agents both professional and business men who kept an expert eye on things and reported back to the Jewish authorities.

Of course this is only speculation on my part but it seems unlikely that the secret services of both the Roman governor of Syria and the Jewish network were not desperately searching for a body. That the Lord was truly dead there can be no doubt. Roman centurions knew a dead body when they saw one. All in all, the fact that there was a huge cover up with soldiers heavily bribed to lie and say that His disciples stole the body, there can be no doubt at all. Soldiers who slept on duty were usually sentenced to be beaten to death by their seven other tent mates. Not a pleasant way to die to have to run the gauntlet of your mates armed with clubs.
Tracy M.
During the formative years of the early church the apostle Paul wrote in Thessalonians regarding Jesus' second coming which some believed would happen in their lifetime so it probably explains why there are no writings outside the New Testament for the period of 33AD to about 55AD. What we do have are the writings of Bishop Ignatius who was a disciple of the apostle John along with the writings of Polycarp another disciple of the apostle John. In a book called, "The Apostolic Fathers Ignatius mentions that Jesus was resurrected on pages 83,92,94,107,110, and pg. 111. Polycarp says Jesus was resurrected on page 127 although the record was written several decades later by Irenaeus who was a disciple of Polycarp. Ignatius was bishop of Antioch Syria in 69AD so any information from him should be considered of great value in supporting the resurrection account and he was contemporary with the apostle Paul along with other apostles also. There are many other early church fathers who affirmed the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Shaun Doyle
Of course, the church fathers affirmed it based on the eyewitness evidence of the apostles, which is codified in the New Testament. Indeed, they were generally proud to be following in the confession of the apostles. On Ignatius, we don't know when he became bishop of Antioch, but his (authentic) letters were written between 100 and 110 AD.
Jared C.
I agree with and appreciate this article and its answer to the JT's question as written... but I can't help but feel that it may have missed answering what JT intended to ask. JT's question about the Resurrection implies that there are broader doubts about the veracity of the Bible, Jesus, and/or the early church. Now, those three things can be sufficiently defended with evidence outside of the Bible... And once done, JT's original question becomes almost superfluous. The article and footnotes touch on some of that, but maybe a little too narrowly because of the question's wording. In a culture where Youtube and Wikipedia Scholars are rampant and claims that Christianity is a hoax, invented centuries later and/or adapted from pagan sources are increasingly common, I feel that the real history of these things has become more important than ever.
Shaun Doyle
Thank you for your compliments. And I agree with you that there are perhaps some broader doubts behind this specific question.

But, it's my contention that Jesus' resurrection can't be sufficiently defended with evidence outside the Bible. We have to examine the Bible if we want to know whether Jesus was raised from the dead. But that shouldn't bother us, because the Bible contains examinable data on the Resurrection, and when we examine it carefully, it stands up under scrutiny. And of course I'd be happy to generalize that point to the whole of Scripture.

But the real problem, as I see it, is this idea that we can leave aside the Bible in examining the Bible's claims. Some claims it makes might be verifiable apart from the Bible, but not all of them can be. Yes, that evinces doubt about the Bible, but that doubt must be confronted head-on, especially as it relates to the Resurrection. And the good news is that it can be confronted successfully.

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