It is an honor to be here. On the topic under discussion, I affirm that Jesus of Nazareth died and rose bodily from the grave. I offer two points in support of this claim. First, the New Testament documents are historically reliable accounts. Second, these documents reveal that Jesus really died on the cross and actually rose bodily from the grave. The argument for the historical reliability of the New Testament accounts has two parts.
First, the existing manuscripts of the New Testament are accurate copies of the original ones — in particular those relating to the death and resurrection of Christ. Second, the writers of these documents (specifically the Gospels, Acts, and 1 Corinthians) were either eyewitnesses or contemporaries of the eyewitnesses providing an accurate account of the fact that Jesus died and rose again.
The documentary evidence for the reliability of the New Testament is greater than that for any other book from the ancient world. Hence, employing the same criteria used on other ancient documents, the New Testament is an accurate representation of the first century original. Three lines of evidence combine to demonstrate this conclusion. First, the New Testament has more manuscripts. It is not uncommon for great classics to survive on only a handful of manuscripts. According to the noted Manchester scholar, F.F. Bruce, we have about nine or ten good copies of Caesar’s Gallic Wars, twenty copies of Livy’s Roman History, two copies of Tacitus’ Annals, eight copies of Thucydides’ History. The most documented secular work from the ancient world is Homer’s Illiad — surviving on 643 manuscript copies. By contrast, there are over 5,366 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, most of which include the Gospels. The New Testament is the most highly documented book from the ancient world.
Second, the New Testament has earlier manuscripts. One of the marks of a good manuscript is its age — generally, the older the better, since the closer to the time of the original composition the less likely it is that the text has been corrupted. Most books from the ancient world survive only in a handful of manuscripts that were written about 1,000 years after the end of the first century. And one portion of the Gospel of John survives from within about a generation of the time it was composed. No other book from the ancient world has as small a time gap between composition and the earliest manuscript copies as the New Testament has.
Third, the New Testament is more accurately copied. The New Testament is one of the most — if not the most — accurately copied books from the ancient world. The great Greek scholar A.T. Robertson said that the real concern is only with a thousandth part of the entire text. This would make the New Testament 99.9% free of significant variants. The noted historian Philip Schaff calculated that of the variants known in his day, only 50 were of real significance, and not even one affected an article of faith or a precept of duty. By comparison with the New Testament, most other books from the ancient world are not nearly so well authenticated. Professor Bruce Metzger, of Princeton, estimated that the Mahabharata of Hinduism is copied with only about 90% accuracy and Homer’s Illiad with 95%. By comparison, he calculated that the New Testament is about 99.5% accurate. So even by conservative standards, the New Testament survives in a 99+% reconstructed text with all the essential truths about the death and resurrection of Christ not being affected.
In summation, the evidence, the British scholar Sir Frederick Kenyon declared, that the number of manuscripts of the New Testament, of early translations from it, and of quotations from it in the oldest writers of the church is so large that it is practically certain that the true reading of every doubtful passage is preserved in someone or another of these ancient authorities. This can be said of no other book from the ancient world. In addition to abundant and accurate manuscripts, there is also equally good evidence that what these texts affirm about the death and resurrection of Christ is historically reliable. It should be noted that it is not necessary to this argument that they are inspired or inerrant, but only that like other good works of antiquity they are accurate. Again, the evidence for this is greater than that of any work from that period.
First of all let me mention four crucial books, namely Luke, John, Acts, and 1 Corinthians, which purport to be written by eyewitnesses and/or contemporaries. Luke was an educated contemporary of Christ who said: "That just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word (namely the apostles), so too it seemed fitting for me as one having a perfect understanding of all things from the very first to write you an orderly account." John the apostle claimed to be an eyewitness in chapter 21; Paul affirmed that he was a contemporary of Christ and a witness of his resurrection (1 Corinthians 15), noting that there were over 500 witnesses most of whom were still alive when he wrote.
Second the claim of being written by contemporaries is supported by the freshness, vividness, and accuracy of the accounts (giving specific geographical, topological, and cultural details that are known to fit the time period of which they speak). Although the Gospel writers offer different perspectives, they all present the same basic facts about the death and resurrection of Christ. Further, all mention of real historical places of the times (such as Bethlehem, Nazareth, Jerusalem) all utilize the names of actual places of people such as Pharisees, Sadduccees, Herodians. In addition, names of real historical persons of the period are mentioned (like king Herod, Pontius Pilate, and Caesar Augustus).
Third, the science of archaeology has confirmed the basic historical accuracy of the Gospel record. To take but one example, there are the writings of Sir William Ramsay, whose conversion from a skeptical view of the New Testament was supported by a lifetime of research in the near-eastern world. He wrote, "I began with a mind unfavorable to it. More recently I found myself often brought in contact with the book of Acts as an authority for topography, antiquites, and society of Asia minor. It was gradually born in upon me that in various details the narrative showed marvelous truth." As a result, Ramsay discovered that Luke was a first-rate historian. In Luke’s references to 32 countries, to 44 cities, and 9 islands, there were no errors. This being the case, Luke’s prior narration of Christ’s death and resurrection (which are integral parts of his Gospel) should be accepted as authentic as well. And since it is in accord with that of the other Gospels on the basic facts about the death and resurrection of Christ we have here an archaeological confirmation of the basic historicity of these documents on these essential facts.
Fourth, the manuscript evidence points to a first century date for the basic Gospel material. The John Rylands papyri, being an early second century copy of portions of John found in Egypt, points to a first century origin of John in Asia. Likewise the Bodmer papyri from the end of the second century and the Chester Beatty papyri from only a half century later form crucial links in a manuscript chain that takes us right back to the threshold of the first century when the books were written.
Fifth, the writers of the New Testament books on the resurrection like Luke, John, and Paul were known to be honest men. They not only expounded a high moral standard of honesty and integrity, but they lived by it and died for it. While some people have been known to die for what they believed to be right but was wrong, few people have been willing to die for what they know to be wrong. What is more, the other Gospels (like Matthew and Mark) with no direct claim of authorship give the same basic message about Christ’s death and resurrection.
Sixth, the testimony of the early second century writers directly link the Gospels with the eyewitnesses and contemporaries of the events. The Oracles of Papias (125-140) for example, make the significant affirmation that the apostle Matthew wrote the Gospel of Matthew, that Mark the associate of Peter wrote the Gospel of Mark shortly after the middle of the first century.
Seventh, the immediate successors of the apostles beginning in the late first and early second century cite Gospels and epistles as authentic including sections on the death and resurrection of Christ. In A.D. 95 Clement of Rome cited the Gospels. Around A.D. 110 Ignatius quoted Luke 24:39 (a crucial text on the resurrection of Christ). Polycarp, a disciple of John the apostle cites the synoptic gospels as authentic. The Epistle of Barnabas (135) quotes Matthew. Papias (125 and following) speaks of Matthew, Mark, and John writing Gospels saying three times that Mark made no errors.
Eighth, highly reputable contemporary scholars date the New Testament books within the lifetime of eyewitnesses and contemporaries of the events. Archaeologist Nelson Gleuck wrote: "We can already say emphatically that there is no longer any solid basis for dating any book of the New Testament after A.D. 80." The renown paleographer William F. Albright declared that every book of the New Testament was written by a baptized Jew between the 40s and 80s of the first century and very probably between 50 and 75. More recently, even the radical "death of God" theologian Bishop Robinson of Honest to God fame declared that the New Testament was written by contemporaries beginning only seven years or so after the events and were circulated among other eyewitnesses and/or contemporaries of the events.
Ninth, the known time lapse between the actual events and the time of composition of the first document is too short for mythological development. One expert, Julius Meuller, declared that it takes at least two generations for a myth to develop. Whereas there is only 20 years or so in the case of the New Testament. He also notes that myths do not develop when there are still contemporaries of the events to debunk them (such as there were at the time of the basic New Testament documents). Furthermore, the New Testament record shows no sign of mythological development (such as are present, say in the 2nd and 3rd century apocryphal gospels).
Tenth, and last, even radical critics of the New Testament acknowledge that the apostle Paul wrote 1 Corinthians about A.D. 56. But this is only 22 years after Jesus was crucified in A.D. 33. and well within the lifetime of the eyewitnesses. Further, Paul indicates that his material is based on an even earlier creed which he received (1 Corinthians 15:1) that comes from within a few years of the events themselves. In this text, Paul affirmed that the majority of 500 witnesses were still alive when he wrote (implying that his readers could confirm for themselves if they wished).
In brief, there is nothing like this kind of evidence for any other historical event from the ancient world. Now, if the New Testament documents are reliable, it remains only to show that they affirm that Jesus died and rose from the dead a few days later.
A brief review of the New Testament evidence will suffice to support these two truths.
- First of all, Jesus announced many times during His ministry that He was going to die. Typical is Matthew 17 where He said the son of man is about to be betrayed into the hands of men and they will kill Him and the third day he will be raised.
- Second, the nature and extent of Jesus’ injuries indicate that He must have died: he had no sleep the night before He was crucified, he was beaten several times and whipped, he collapsed on the way to His crucifixion carrying His cross. This in itself, to say nothing of the crucifixion to follow, was totally exhausting and life-draining.
- Third, the nature of the crucifixion assures death. Jesus was on the cross from 9 a.m. until just before sunset, he bled from wounded hands and feet as well as from thorns that pierced his head. There would be a tremendous loss of blood from doing this for more than six hours. What is more, crucifixion demands that the victim constantly pull himself up in order to breathe (thus inflicting excruciating pain from the nails). Doing this all day would kill anyone even if they were in good health.
- Fourth, the piercing of Jesus’ side with a spear from which came blood and water is proof of His death. For if he had not already died, this fatal spear wound to the heart by trained executioners would have certainly finished the job.
- Fifth, Jesus affirmed the very moment of His death on the cross when He declared, "Father into thy hands I commend my spirit." And having said this He breathed His last (John renders this: "He gave up His spirit"). Indeed Jesus’ death cry was heard by those who stood by.
- Sixth, the Roman soldiers accustomed to crucifixion and death pronounced Jesus dead. It was a common practice to break the legs of victims so they could no longer lift themselves and breathe. But since these professional executioners were so convinced that Jesus was actually dead, they even deemed this unnecessary in Jesus’ case.
- Seventh, Pilate double-checked to make sure Jesus was dead before he gave the corpse to Joseph.
- Eighth, Jesus was wrapped in 75 pounds of cloth and spices and placed in a sealed tomb for three days. If he was not dead by then (which He clearly was) He would have died from lack of food, water, and medical treatment from three days in the tomb.
- Ninth, medical authorities who have examined the circumstance and nature of Christ’s death have concluded that He actually died on the cross. In an article in the Journal of the American Medical Society, March 1986 concludes: "Clearly the weight of historical and medical evidence indicated that Jesus was dead before the wound to his side was inflicted and supports the traditional view that the spear thrust between his right rib probably perforated not only the right lung but also his pericardium and heart and thereby insured his death. The interpretations based upon the assumptions that Jesus did not die on the cross appear to be at odds with modern medical knowledge.
But, not only is this an established fact that Jesus died, it is also a fact that He rose from the dead, which he offered as confirming of His unique claim to be the son of God. Let’s look briefly at the evidence.
That Jesus rose from the dead even leaving behind an empty tomb and grave clothes is verified by all four Gospels, Acts, and 1 Corinthians.
These historically reliable documents record 12 different appearances of Christ beginning three days after his death to over 500 people over a 40 day period of time during which Jesus was seen, heard with the natural senses. His tomb was visited, found empty, indeed no one ever found his dead body. Jesus dined with His disciples four times eating physical food himself. He was touched and offered Himself to be touched four times (including His challenge to Thomas to put his finger in his hand and to see the crucifixion wounds). When Thomas complied, he declared, "My Lord and my God." Every earnest seeker of truth is still invited to do the same. Many skeptics including Simon Greenleaf, Frank Morrison, and Josh McDowell have done so and believed. After carefully studying the evidence for almost half a century now, I would thoughtfully and earnestly invite you to do the same and join them. Thank you. [applause]