When the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. And they were saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?” And looking up, they saw that the stone had been rolled back—it was very large. And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe, and they were alarmed. And he said to them, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
(Mark 16:1-8 ESV)
The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is a real problem for many in the contemporary western world. We are ‘enlightened’ people, aren’t we? It is a fact of history that Jesus’ resurrection from the dead was a problem for those who lived in his time also. C.S. Lewis called our modern western view of ancient cultures, “chronological snobbery.” The Greco-Roman world of that time considered a bodily resurrection from the dead impossible. Although the Jews did believe in a coming resurrection and renewal of the earth, they did not believe, as Tim Keller says, “The idea of an individual being resurrected, in the middle of history, while the rest of the world continued on burdened by sickness, decay, and death, was inconceivable.”
Some have pointed to ancient mystery religions and assumed that the story of the resurrection of Jesus was borrowed from them. But the fact is that these accounts did not precede Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.
Those pagan deities that supposedly rose from the dead, were not historical people, they were mythical characters. The fact that Jesus was a real historical person is indisputable. As historian Gary Habermas writes,” there is no known case of a mythical deity in the mystery religions where we have both clear and early evidence that a resurrection was taught prior to the late second century AD, obviously much later than the Christian message.”
“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
“For indeed the Lord remained on the tree almost until evening, and they buried Him at eventide; then on the third day He rose again.” – Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, XCII, (AD 100 – 165.)
“Jesus Christ who was of the race of David, who was the Son of Mary, who was truly born and ate and drank, was truly persecuted under Pontius Pilate, was truly crucified and died in the sight of those in heaven and on earth and those under the earth; who moreover was truly raised from the dead, His Father having raised Him, who in the like fashion will so raise us also who believe on Him.” – Ignatius, (written around AD 110-115.)
The early disciples had a life-changing encounter with Jesus. As I have studied the life of Jesus, I have found that many ancient non-Christian historians believe Jesus’ early disciples were convinced of his resurrection from the dead. And the immediate and rapid growth of Christianity is hard to explain apart from Jesus’ resurrection. I’ve found ancient non-biblical accounts of the earthquake and darkness that covered the land at the time of the crucifixion. Many tried to explain the events of this time from a natural perspective, but they were clearly supernatural. I, like many of you, have had a spiritual encounter with the resurrected Christ, just as the early Church Fathers that I quoted above had. These men did not give up their lives to follow a lunatic.
I believe in the resurrection of Jesus because of my personal life-changing experience, and the confidence I have in the authority of Scripture. The gospels are full of details about Jesus and eyewitness accounts and were written as history, and they were written no more than forty to sixty years after Jesus’ death. Paul wrote his letters about fifteen to twenty-five years after Jesus’ resurrection, and they confirm the gospel accounts of Jesus. The Jews of the first century were well trained in the art of memorization and the disciples of teachers during that time committed their teaching to memory. They communicated events, that took place verbally. As most of the eyewitnesses were dying off, there was a need to write these accounts down for future generations. The death of Jesus was the most recorded event, not only by Christians but also by non-Christians in ancient history.
Here is one example that Tim Keller gives of details that point to the authenticity of the eyewitness accounts, “Mark for example, says that the man who helped Jesus carry his cross to Calvary “was the father of Alexander and Rufus” (Mark 15:21). There is no reason for the author to include such names unless the readers know or could have access to them. Mark is also saying, “Alexander and Rufus vouch for the truth of what I am telling you, if you want to ask them.” – (Tim Keller, The Reason For God, page 101.)
Jesus, Women, And the Resurrection
If someone wanted to start a new religion in the first century the last thing they would ever do is have women play such a crucial role in its beginnings. But that is the case with Christianity. Jesus refused to be governed by the fear of man or cultural norms. He only did what he saw his Father doing, such as approaching the woman at the well and ministering to her, which was unacceptable in that culture. She left the presence of Jesus as a transformed woman and immediately evangelized her community. The fact that the Jews of Jesus’ day despised the Samaritans and that it was unacceptable for a Jewish teacher to talk to a woman in public did not deter his ministry. (John 4)
One of the reasons to believe the gospels is the honesty in which they were written. As Richard Bauckham says in his book Jesus A Very Short Introduction, ” He taught women as well as men, not something one may take for granted in that society.” Women were the first to proclaim the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. If Jesus’ disciples wanted to spread a lie about their founder rising from the dead, they would have never used the testimony of women.
Here is another quote from Bauckham, “But these eyewitnesses were women! As almost every scholar notes, in that society women were not trusted to give evidence. They were thought to be more emotional than men, and especially in religious matters apt to be credulous, too easily swayed by emotion. Celsus, a 2nd-century intellectual despiser of Christianity, dismissed the alleged testimony of Mary Magdalene by calling her ‘a hysterical female.’ Luke’s Gospel candidly admits that at first even the male disciples did not believe these women’s report. Not only were women unreliable; it was unsuitable that women should be the first recipients of what was, in effect, a divine revelation. If Jesus had risen from death, the men ought to have been the first to know.” Richard Bauckham, Jesus A Very Short Introduction, pages 105-106. I believe the men got over it!