This question comes from a comment thread in a video link I shared and comes from a commenter named “Arkenaten” (Ark). This is the dialogue prompting the question:
Ark: There is no evidence for the resurrection of the character Jesus of Nazareth, only what is written in the Bible.
Me: There are several evidences for the resurrected Jesus. I’d love to discuss them with you, but as a historian of sorts I’m sure you are well aware of them (Bart Ehrman has even substantiated this claim, he just draws a different conclusion of the evidences).
Ark: No, sorry, there is no contemporary evidence for this claim…The only mention of the resurrection of the character, Jesus of Nazareth is what is featured in the gospels, and even then, it does not feature in the oldest extant copies of the gMark…The simple fact is the resurrection s nothing but a faith claim, period and there is nothing to suggest otherwise.
To me, the resurrection is one of the easiest pieces of Biblical literature to believe, but it starts with knowing the might and power of God. One only has to read Gen 1:1, “In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth” to understand that God’s power is far greater than life and death. Once you understand that, things like being swallowed by a big fish, fireballs destroying whole cities, and people being resurrected from the dead seem to be small-potatoes. But, I could write my master’s thesis on all the evidence for a magnificent beginning of the universe with natural conclusions about an uncaused cause using quips like, “The big bang needs a big banger” and that would get us no closer to the resurrection. Why? Because people who don’t believe in God will see the beginning of the universe with a different perspective.
And that’s my first point.
- The Bible is not a 1 sided view
Every piece of information I present in the resurrection account of Jesus has a different perspective. What is more, perspective—unlike truth—can both have a correct view. For example, in terms of angels at the empty tomb, Matthew and Mark record 1, Luke saw 2, and John does not record any. Many skeptics site this as one (of many) reasons to not trust the Bible. But, from a different perspective we can see it as a significant reason to find the Bible more reliable. The reason is because it contains different perspectives. Instead of seeing 1 group of writers collaborating their testimony in one written work, we actually have 4 different versions of the same story.
A great way to think of it is like this. Let’s say you and three friends are watching a football (American) game. The score is tied 21-21 with 1 minute left on the clock. The opposing team has the ball in the red zone and is in scoring position. The ball is snapped, the pass is intercepted and ran back for a touchdown—your team wins! If you were to discuss the final play with your friends, you would all remember the winning team and the interception. However, one of your friends may not be as in to football as you, so he doesn’t know who intercepted the ball. When he talks about it, he never mentions the man’s name. A different friend used to play outside linebacker in high school. He tells the story from the perspective of the guy who rushed the quarterback causing the poor throw. The point is, everyone brings a different perspective and the more perspectives the better the story can be recreated.
To assume the Bible is the only source text for the resurrection is a blatant mischaracterization of the Holy Text. It is not 1 source but 40 sources with 66 references. Not all of them directly discuss the resurrection but A LOT of them do. Further, the ones that don’t, many of those allude to the resurrection. For example, in Job says in 19:25-26, “I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God.” (NIV). Other such inferences come from the Psalms. One example is Psalms 88. After many verses discussing death, the Psalmists asks (rhetorically), v10 “Do you show your wonders to the dead? Do their spirits rise up and praise you? Is your love declared in the grave, your faithfulness in Destruction?” The implication is clear, praising God is for the living.
Clearer understandings of the resurrection come in prophetic form. Daniel 12:2, “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and contempt” and Isaiah 53:10-11, “Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin…v11 After he has suffered, he will see the light of life and be satisfied.”
Then, in the New Testament, the writing becomes clearer and more prominent: Matt 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, John 20 & 21, Acts 1-4, 10, 17, 25, Romans 1, 3, 5, 8, 10, 14, 1 Corinthians 1, 11, 15, and goes on and on and on and on…
Each written work offers a different perspective and helps us paint a better picture of the resurrection. It is not just one biblical view, but many harmonious accounts compiled in one source. In this way, asking why there are no extra-biblical accounts of Jesus’ resurrection is a bit like asking, “Why there are no definitions outside the dictionary.” Because definitions go in a dictionary, and resurrection accounts go in the Bible; it’s what it was assembled for.
- The resurrection is kinda a big deal
Let me ask you something? If you saw the world trade center buildings fall, would you start writing a 36 page synopsis of why the world trade center buildings could not have fallen? NO! That’s ridiculous; you just saw something unprecedented. Maybe you would write about it, but not necessarily. There are not written works from every eye witness that day. Rather, what we have are tributes and collections of writings of those who did write about it. The same is true biblically.
We don’t have many extra biblical references because those who saw…believed! It was miraculous. Life changing. Empowering. In fact, that’s exactly what we would expect to see. Many skeptics argue that conversions are not evidence, but they must be accounted for. Muslims and Mormons did not just poof themselves into existence in some abio-mormon-esis (get it, abiogenesis, haha). No, they trace their roots to a source. For the Muslims it is the testimony of Muhammad. He told some people who told more people and a religion was started. Mormons, same thing, Joseph Smith shared his experience and several believers passed the testimony.
But the resurrection is different. Jesus showed himself to 12 groups at 12 different times of varying sizes of groups. A great summary of appearances can be found here. In this case, there were multiple starting points, multiple places where dozens and dozens of people could have stepped up and said, “No. I was there; that’s now how it happened.” Rather, we see a rapid spread of people who even wrote “I have seen, I have touched, I have witnessed” (1 John 1).
Basically, everyone who saw the resurrection had a fervor about them that was unquenchable. Therefore, the rapid conversion isn’t just a coincidence or common practice; it is exactly what we would expect from an event like the resurrection.
- There are some extra-biblical records
Rather than explain them all, I’m just going to submit the main two. Most others confirm events and people but not the resurrection. But know this in advance. They’re not well accepted or flawless. Josephus, for example, is full of mythological references and is sometimes used to prove a mythological Jesus. I think the above more than justifies the amount of evidence for the resurrection and more than reasonably explains why none of the below references need to exist. This is only to illustrate that the people not directly involved had quick access to the happenings—which is really significant if you think about it.
- Joesphus (37 – 100AD) “At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus…and those who had become his disciples…reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive”[i]
- Phlegon (80 – 140AD) “ascribed to Jesus a knowledge of future events…also testified that the result corresponded to his predictions. So that he also, by these very admissions regarding foreknowledge, as if against his will, expressed his opinion that the doctrines taught by the fathers of our system were no devoid of divine power.” (as recoded by Origen).[ii]
But the best reason we don’t need extra-biblical evidence is:
- It’s not only about direct evidence
For my final point, I want to share with you a man by the name of Dr. Gary Habermas. Dr. Habermas is considered the leading source for all things surrounding the resurrection of Jesus. In his last book, he cited of 3500 references concerning the resurrection. He has read and includes sources of skeptics, non-believers, atheist, Jews, and Christians. He has compiled an apologetic tool he calls the “Minimal Facts”. Here he lists 6 (or so, he admits to add some depending on who he is addressing and their level of skepticism) historical facts that everyone can be certain of:
- Jesus was crucified
- His followers had experiences that Jesus had risen from the dead
- His followers were transformed and willing to die for the fact that Jesus had risen
- There was a skeptic named James, who was the brother of Jesus, who was an unbeliever until he was transformed because he believed Jesus was resurrected
- Paul, being actually a Jew, who was an expert in the Old Testament, who was hostile to Christianity was transformed because he believed Jesus had been resurrected
- All this occurred very early (Note: Bart Ehrman, a leading skeptic, admits to within 1-2 years of the alleged event).
Any criticism of the Bible must account for all these facts (and many more if you weren’t such a skeptic about it, #JustSayin). Any point of view that takes possibilities for each and offers several circumstantial coincidences is clearly diminishing the conviction of the transformed and the significance therein.
Further, we are trying to see history from a 2000 year old lens. While science and education and intellect have brought us a great ability to evaluate what we have, it by no means ought to replace eye-witness testimony and 1st century research. Luke, for example, wrote, “v1 Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us…v3 With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account…v4 so you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” (Luke 1).
With this in mind, we should at least apply the old adage by G. K. Chesterton, “Don’t ever take a fence down until you know the reason it was put up.” As it applies here, it is not so much that skeptics don’t have possible (though highly unlikely and even not believable) options (for example, Bart Ehrman once posited that Jesus has a twin brother but later admitted he didn’t even believe that), but they all neglect the “Why” these things exist in the first. So at very least, before we go accepting the negative, perhaps we give credence to the positive.
All things considered, there are considerable reasons to believe the resurrection without extra-biblical references. However, there is only one reason not to: you have a personal objection to the possibility. Which means, quite frankly, anyone willing to argue against the historical reliability is biased. The question then becomes, “What evidence would it take you to believe and why is the above not enough?”
Here are some of my favorite resources for the resurrection of Jesus:
- https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=IqZJvStSr-8 (bonus WLC refutes Bart Ehrman)
A special thank you goes to J. Warner Wallace, for motivating me to research this topic, and Dr. Gary Habermas, for his seemingly limitless supply of information. Please go check these folks out, and tell them ACL sent you!
[i] Shlomo Pines, An Arabic Version of the Testimonium Flavianum and Its Implications (Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities: Jerusalem, 1971).
[ii] Origen, “Origen Against Celsus,” The Ante-Nicene Fathers, eds. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, col. 4, Tertullian, Part Fourth; Minucius Felix; Commodian; Origen, Parts First and Second (Buffalo: Christian Literature, 1885). www.newadvent.org/fathers/04162.htm