Witnesses To The Resurrection

This post is part of the the resurrection series (click to view the other posts in this series).

Now that we've covered what Christians believe about the resurrection and the theology behind that belief, let's move to the apologetic of the resurrection and, specifically, to the witnesses of the resurrection.

I usually classify the witnesses into two categories: eyewitnesses and secondary witnesses. Eyewitnesses are self-describing. They are the ones who were with Jesus and witnessed his ministry and, with respect to this series, his death, burial, and  subsequent appearances after his resurrection. Secondary witnesses are those witnesses who either gained information from the eyewitnesses or give supporting testimony to the eyewitnesses.

The Eyewitness of the Holy Spirit

Typically I don't think of the Spirit as a “legal” or “forensic” witness, but this is exactly the way the Bible describes the Spirit in certain places. John 15:26 says, “but when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me.” God bore witness to those that believed in him “by giving them the Holy Spirit” (Acts 15:8). It was the Holy Spirit who gave that witness and declared Jesus to be the Christ.

From the previous post, do you remember which events the disciple to replace Judas was required to have witnessed? It was the baptism of Jesus all the way to his ascension. It is fascinating to me that, as a witness, the Holy Spirit also fulfilled this requirement. At the baptism of Jesus, we see that the Holy Spirit specifically descended upon Jesus like a dove and never left him.

It is because of the witness of the Holy Spirit that we can believe. The Holy Spirit testifies to us that the biblical account is true and gives us confidence and assurance of the events of Jesus' life. This is why we can believe that the Bible is trustworthy and this is why we, and our children, can believe without having all the facts of the case. It is because of the strength and power of the testimony of the Holy Spirit.

The Eyewitnesses of the Apostles and Followers of Jesus

The apostles and other followers of Jesus were also eyewitnesses. After Jesus told them that the Spirit would bear witness to them, he then said, “and you also will bear witness, because you have been with me from the beginning” (John 15:27). These eyewitnesses were the ones who would testify to the world, all through their lives and some through their writing.

Those that wrote down their eyewitness, or told it to others to write it down, consistently form their story as a historical claim. As an example, let's take a detailed look at 1 Corinthians 15:1-8:

“Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” (1 Corinthians 15:1-8 ESV)

Notice how there little in the way of embellishment in these verses. It primarily consists of factual historical statements. In addition, Paul gives a challenge to those reading it to get proof from the other witnesses. He tells them of the five hundred plus men (not counting women and children) who saw Jesus after his resurrection. In essence, Paul is saying, “you don't have to believe me; feel free to ask the others!” There is no way that Paul could write such a statement at that time and in that place if it wasn't true because it would have been too easy to disprove, discrediting his entire ministry.

A section of the 1 Corinthians 15 passage, at least verses 3-5, is considered to likely be one of the earliest Christian creeds. Paul wrote 1 Corinthians somewhere around 53-55 AD, but notice that this creed is one he had already preached to the people at Corinth and it is one which he received even before that. This means that the creed would have been formulated based off of the events themselves, then Paul would have been taught this creed, then he would have traveled making use of the creed including preaching it to the Corinthians, then he would have traveled some more, and finally he would have written it in this letter to the Corinthians. This timeline reveals that quite a bit of time had elapsed between the formulation of the creed and Paul's inclusion of it into his letter to the Corinthians, especially considering the cultural factors of that time (e.g., a relatively large amount of time for travel and long-distance communication).

In fact, it may be possible to trace this creed to within the first few years just after Jesus' resurrection and ascension. I believe there are at least two reasons for this. First, when we compare this creed to some of the earliest preaching (what we see in Acts), those sermons have the same structure of the creed. As an example, Paul's sermon at Antioch includes this, “and though they found in him no guilt worthy of death, they asked Pilate to have him executed. And when they had carried out all that was written of him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead, and for many days he appeared to those who had come up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are now his witnesses to the people.” (Acts 13:28-31). Christ died, he was buried, he was raised, and he appeared to others. 1 Corinthians 15 contains a perfect outline for this sermon.

Second, in Galatians 1:18-19, Paul says that he spent 15 days with Peter and James in Jerusalem three years after his conversion (around 36-37 AD). It is very possible that this is where Paul learned the creed that he eventually preached to the people in Corinth and then later reinforced to them in his letter that we now have. Both Paul's timeline and the early date of the creed fit this well. On top of this, the two people that Paul mentions with regard to this creed in 1 Corinthians 15 are Cephas (Peter's Aramaic name) and James; the very two disciples he met with in Jerusalem who would have shared this creed with Paul. So, if this is the case, and I believe it is, then this creed would have been formed even before Peter and James taught it to Paul, which would have been within the first five years after the resurrection. Very early, indeed.

The Witness of Written History

When it comes to written history, we have both eyewitness and secondary witness testimony coming from the New Testament and external sources. A mountain of books have been written discussing the reliability of the NT documents, so I'll leave that for some other time, but the presupposition for this article is that the NT documents are valid and truthful historical documents. In the NT, we have already looked at some of Paul's testimony. He is a unique form of eyewitness who saw the resurrected Jesus in his conversion but also witnessed Jesus' ministry and early Christianity from the perspective of a hostile witness. After his conversion, Paul had deep relationships with the apostles and other eyewitnesses. But, of course, Paul is not the only eyewitness to write down what happened. Other NT eyewitnesses, such as Matthew, John, Peter, and James, all gave testimony through their writing as well.

As NT secondary witnesses, we have Mark and Luke, who both spent a significant amount of time with the eyewitnesses. Papias tels us that Mark was the writer for Peter and accurately wrote down everything he possibly could. This fits with other references to Mark as Peter's companion. Luke was a companion of Paul, spent time with the other disciples, and was even involved in some of the events of the early church that he recorded in Acts. Eusebius reports that Paul would quote from the book of Luke saying, “according to my gospel,” showing that Paul was the force behind Luke's writing.

In addition to the NT secondary witnesses, we have witnesses to early Christianity that are from external sources which were often hostile to Christianity. The Roman writers and historians Tacitus, Suetonius, and Pliny, as well as the Greek historian, Thallus, and the Jewish historian, Josephus, all make reference to Christianity at a very early date. Then there are the secondary sources that come from the early church fathers such as Papias and Polycarp, and early extra-biblical writings like the Didache and Shepherd of Hermas. In fact, in the first 200 years we have over 150 different books, documents, or fragments that have a reference to Jesus or early Christianity. And these are just the documents we know about. There are likely tenfold that amount that has been lost over time. While some of these extra-biblical secondary sources don't always directly reference the event of the resurrection of Christ, they do give credible witness to the early beginnings of the Christian faith which resulted from the resurrection, as evidenced from the actual eyewitness accounts.

The Witness of Archeology

Finally, we have the witness of archeology. Archeology has powerfully and consistently supported and proved the biblical account of history time and time again. There are thousands of little pieces of archeological evidence that support the biblical narrative. For example, for centuries scholars said that Luke was wrong in saying that Lysanias was the tetrarch of Abilene in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar (Luke 3:1), because the only Lysanias that was known was from one that ruled Abilene in the 1st century BC and was put to death by Mark Antony in 39 BC. However, in the 1940's, William Ramsey found an inscription about Lysanias that pointed to him being the tetrarch of Abilene during the time Luke referenced, revealing that there were likely two different rulers of Abilene named Lysanias (which shouldn't be surprising since we have multiple examples of presidents with the same last name). It took over 1900 years to show that there were actually two rulers named Lysanias and that Luke was, in fact, correct!

Here are four more examples of archeology that support the biblical record.

  • Capernaum SynagogueThe existence of first century synagogues was debated for a time since none had ever been found. However, three have now been found with the possibility of a fourth and fifth. The picture to the right is the fifth possibility in Capernaum. The ruins on top are not from the first century, however the dark stones seen at the bottom are the foundation of the first century synagogue.
  • Also found in the fishing village of Capernaum is a unique room joining two courtyards that was given special attention when created. Its walls were covered with Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek, Syriac, and Latin inscriptions, its floors were covered in plaster, and no pieces of domestic pottery were found even though many lamps were discovered. This is thought to be an early meeting place for Christians and possibly even the home of Peter.
  • Before 1961, many scholars refused to believe that Pontius Pilate was a historical figure. However, in 1961 a stone containing an inscription with Pilate's name was found in Caesarea where he likely had his base of operations proving that he really existed.
  • Finally, my favorite archeological find is the ossuary of Joseph Caiaphas, the Jewish High Priest identified by Matthew, Luke, John, and Josephus. In November 1990, a crew of construction workers working on a water park uncovered a burial cave with twelve ossuaries inside. One of these ossuaries was magnificently carved and decorated, far more than most ossuaries at that time. This ossuary was twice inscribed with the Aramaic name “Yehosef bar Qayafa,” or “Joseph, son of Caiaphas.” Inside this ossuary were the bones of a 60 year old man. Taking into account the time frame, the age of the bones, the lavish decoration, and the double inscription, this is most certainly the ossuary and bones of Joseph Caiaphas, the Jewish High Priest that was involved in the trial of Jesus. If this is the case, then this is the first remains of a biblical personality ever discovered!

Taking all of these witnesses into account, we have an established historical record in which each different witness corroborates the testimony of another. This isn't to say that there aren't some inconsistencies that still need to be worked out, however the large amount of agreement overwhelms the small amount of disagreement.

This post is part of the the resurrection series (click to view the other posts in this series).