By James Bishop| Did Jesus really rise from the dead? Is there any evidence that this actually happened, or is this just a product of myth, legend, or religious wishful thinking? As it turns out, the resurrection of Jesus is well supported by historical evidence and serves as the best explanation for the facts surrounding his life, death, and the emergence of early Christianity.
In this article we shall focus on New Testament Scholar Gary Habermas’ minimal facts approach (MFA). The MFA, explains Habermas, “considers only those data that are so strongly attested historically that they are granted by nearly every scholar who studies the subject, even the rather skeptical ones” (1).
This comes after Habermas has sifted through some 3000 peer reviewed academic articles penned in several languages. Having done so Habermas identifies 12 such facts (2) (3) but we shall focus only on four that are needed to make the case for Christ:
- Jesus’ crucifixion.
- Jesus’ burial.
- Jesus’ empty tomb.
- Jesus’ post mortem appearances that convinced Paul, James and the disciples that he had been raised from the dead.
Since we will review the New Testament I want to make the case that we can trust them as historical documents. We won’t assume that the biblical texts are inspired or that they are inerrant. We shall simply approach the New Testament as basic historical documents. As I have argued before there are six main areas we will focus on (4).
The gospels are our primary sources for learning about Jesus. Contemporary critical New Testament historian and professor of Religious Studies Bart Ehrman affirms we can make use of the “New Testament Gospels.” He explains that doing so “is not for religious or theological reasons… these alone can be trusted. It is for historical reasons, pure and simple” (5).
In agreement Professor Richard Burridge claims that when “judged by the criteria of the 1st century and I think they [gospels] are pretty reliable documents” (6).
It is thus not disputed that the gospels do, to a greater or lesser extent, give us good historical information on Jesus.
Such a position is strengthened since consensus today (10) holds the gospels to be the “genre of biographies” (7), “ancient biographies” (8), and “as modified ancient biographies” (9). This important fact conveys to us the author’s motive, namely to provide an account of what really happened.
Historians note that archaeology supports the gospel accounts which goes a long way in demonstrating that they are grounded within history. There are many such confirmations concerning the gospels, as Distinguished Professor Craig Evans explains,
“Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, the book of Acts—these are the basic narrative books of the New Testament. They talk about real people, real events, real places, and the archaeologist can show that” (11).
Scholar Paul Johnson agrees writing that “Historians note that mounting evidence from archaeology confirms rather than contradicts the accounts of Jesus” (12). Then historians have extra-biblical affirmation of gospel events, as historian Habermas explains, “When the combined evidence from ancient sources is summarized, quite an impressive amount of information is gathered concerning Jesus and ancient Christianity” (13).
Moreover, general reliability is further enhanced by manuscript attestation. We have over 5000 copies in the original language of Greek (14) which surpasses anything else we have from other ancient Greco-Roman works. Habermas captures this well:
“What is usually meant is that the New Testament has far more manuscript evidence from a far earlier period than other classical works. There are just under 6000 NT manuscripts, with copies of most of the NT dating from just 100 years or so after its writing…In this regard, the classics are not as well attested. While this doesn’t guarantee truthfulness, it means that it is much easier to reconstruct the New Testament text” (15).
Then equally as important is the earliness of our textual evidence. Our entire New Testament dates prior to the end of the 1st century. Jesus died around 30 AD, and most scholars date our gospels from 60 to 95 AD whereas Paul’s letters date even earlier from the 50s onwards. This means that what we have is 1st century testimony to the life of Jesus.
Scholar Mike Bird argues that this is early especially in “comparison to other historical figures” (16). Professor Craig Keener explains that “Gospel materials written within four decades of Jesus’ execution therefore provide a remarkably special opportunity for early insight into Jesus’ ministry” (17).
Scholar Dan Wallace claims that “it cannot be denied as a fact of history that these gospels are our earliest witnesses to what Christians in the first century believed” (18). Scholars also demonstrate that we can actually get back earlier than that 70 AD mark when we analyze the traditions behind our gospels.
The Minimal Facts
We shall work from the basis that historians usually accept two independent sources confirming an event of history to be likely historical (19). I shall also make reference to the Criterion of Authenticity (CoA). CoA is a tool historians use that assigns probability to the deeds and sayings of Jesus, and, of course, the greater the probability the more confident we can be in an alleged saying or event (27). Of the CoA we shall focus on (28):
Independent & early attestation: Event appears in multiple sources which are near to the time at which it is alleged to have occurred.
Embarrassment: Event is awkward or counter-productive for the persons who serve as the source of information. It is highly unlikely to have simply been made up.
Enemy attestation: Event is attested to by enemies which gives it a high probability.
That being said, let’s look at the four minimalist facts agreed upon by the vast majority of New Testament scholars today.
1. Jesus’ death by crucifixion
No serious historian doubts that Jesus was crucified. According to Professor James Dunn the crucifixion of “Jesus command[s] almost universal assent” and “is impossible to doubt or deny” (20). Agnostic Professor Bart Ehrman agrees that it “is one of the most secure facts we have about his life” (21).
In The Historical Jesus: Lecture Transcript and Course Guidebook, 2000, Ehrman says:
“One of the most certain facts of history is that Jesus was crucified on orders of the Roman prefect of Judea, Pontius Pilate”. (p. 162)
Professor Luke Johnson says the evidence “is overwhelming” (22). Atheist Professor of Early Christianity and the University of Gottinggen Gerd Ludemann says:
“JESUS’ DEATH AS A CONSEQUENCE OF CRUCIFIXION IS INDISPUTABLE”. IN THE RESURRECTION OF CHRIST: A HISTORICAL INQUIRY, 2004, P 50
Skeptical historian John Dominic Crossan says he takes it “absolutely for granted” (23), Borg calls it “so probable as to be certain” (24), and Paula Frederickson says it “is the single strongest fact we have about Jesus” (25).
Sources for the crucifixion
The crucifixion is independently attested in no less than 11 independent sources from both within and outside of the New Testament: Pre-Mark Passion Narrative, Q, John, Paul, Hebrews, 1 Peter 2:24, Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Martyr, Josephus Flavius, & Cornelius Tacitus. Pre-Mark and Q are very early dating to within years of the actual crucifixion.
Other later, less valuable, sources such as Lucian, Mesa Bar Serapion (depends on dating), Thallus and the Talmud all affirm a constant tradition of Jesus’ crucifixion (26). The crucifixion also passes the CoA. It is early and multiply attested (29), passes the criterion of embarrassment (30) (31), coherence (32), as well as being archaeologically consistent (33). Gospel crucifixion details also match what we know from contemporary medical science which gives them credibility (33) (34).
2. Jesus Burial
Consensus affirms Jesus’ burial. In accordance to CoA it is early and multiply attested. It is affirmed within an early pre-Pauline creed that Paul received less than five years after Jesus’ crucifixion (35). Habermas explains that these creeds “preserve some of the earliest reports concerning Jesus from about AD 30-50” (36).
The burial is further attested in Mark’s Pre-Passion Narrative material which, according to theologian and philosopher William Craig, “is a very early source which is probably based on eyewitness testimony and dates to within several years of Jesus’ crucifixion” (37). Professor Richard Bauckham also dates it prior to 40 AD and probably “goes back to the Jerusalem church” (38).
This is powerful early and independent evidence. The burial is further independently attested to by unique material M & L, Acts and John. In total we have six independent sources with several that are very early attesting to Jesus’ burial.
According to John Robinson the burial is one of “the earliest and best-attested facts about Jesus” (39). Moreover, the burial is enemy attested. The religious Jewish enemies of Jesus accused the disciples of stealing Jesus’ body from the tomb according to Matthew 28:13, Martyr (Dialogue with Tryphyo, 108), and Tertullian (De Spectaculis, 30). Such an accusation assumes that Jesus was buried within the tomb and that it was found empty.
3. Jesus’ tomb was found empty
Fact three is the exception since it is affirmed by roughly 75% of scholars as opposed to 99% upwards. However, that is still a majority as Habermas explains,
“…a strong majority of contemporary critical scholars seems to support… that Jesus was buried in a tomb that was subsequently discovered to be empty” (40).
Firstly, it is implied in the early pre-Pauline creed of 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 as William Craig notes, “For in saying that Jesus died – was buried – was raised – appeared, one automatically implies that the empty grave has been left behind” (41).
Secondly, Christianity would have hit a wall if the tomb wasn’t actually empty. The easiest way to disprove the early Christian message of a resurrected saviour would be to go to the tomb where Jesus was laid, and expose it. Paul Althaus explains the resurrection proclamation “could not have been maintained in Jerusalem for a single day, for a single hour, if the emptiness of the tomb had not been established as a fact for all concerned” (42).
Thirdly, it is remarkable that even the Jewish authories (the enemies of the disciples) themselves acknolwedged the tomb as found empty in.
Evidence found in Matthew 28:11-15 and reports by Justin Martyr and Tertullian tells us that the Jewish leaders tried to explain that the tomb was empty because Jesus’ disciples stole his body. This suggests that the Jewish authorities acknowledged the fact that Jesus’ body was no longer in the tomb.
They didn’t object to the tomb being empty, they tried to explain this fact away, which suggests to us it really was empty. This is positive evidence from a hostile sources, suggesting to us that the tomb was genuinely empty.
Fourthly, that Jesus’ women followers were the first to discover the empty tomb passes the criterion of embarrassment, as Chris Price illumines that “In light of this cultural context, if you are going to create a story about an empty tomb you don’t make women the first eyewitnesses. This is a counterproductive detail included by the writer simply because he was committed to telling the truth” (43).
According to scholar D. H. Van Daalen (1972):
“IT IS EXTREMELY DIFFICULT TO OBJECT TO THE EMPTY TOMB ON HISTORICAL GROUNDS; THOSE WHO DENY IT DO SO ON THE BASIS OF THEOLOGICAL OR PHILOSOPHICAL ASSUMPTIONS”
It also boasts independent attestation. It is early and independently attested in 1 Cor. 15:1-11 and the Pre-Markan Passion Narrative (44). It is also attested in the synoptics (Mark, Matthew, Luke) and John. That is four independent sources as Habermas notes:
“[the] empty tomb is reported in at least three, if not four, of these Gospel sources” which is why it is “taken so seriously by contemporary critical scholars” (45).
It was also part of the early Christian preaching in Acts (3:29-31 & 36-37 ) and is likewise enemy attested (46). Click here for an article on the historical evidence for the empty tomb.
4. Jesus’ post mortem appearances to believers and unbelievers
Consensus holds that James, Paul and the disciples had resurrection experiences of Jesus. According to atheist historian Gerd Ludemann:
“It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus’s death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ” (47).
Agnostic historian James Crossley says it is “the hardest, best evidence we have” (48), and professor Ehrman calls it “a historical fact” (49). Agnostic New Testament scholar Ed Parish Sanders says:
“THAT JESUS’ FOLLOWERS (AND LATER PAUL) HAD RESURRECTION EXPERIENCES IS, IN MY JUDGMENT, A FACT. WHAT THE REALITY WAS THAT GAVE RISE TO THE EXPERIENCES I DO NOT KNOW.” – Sanders, E. 1995. The Historical Figure of Jesus.
For more academic recognition of the resurrection appearances, here is an article containing 38 scholar quotes on these appearances. All four gospels independently attest to the resurrection. The appearance to Peter is independently attested by Luke, and the appearance to the Twelve by Luke and John.
We also have independent witness to Galilean appearances in Mark, Matthew, and John, as well as to the women in Matthew and John (50). It’s further attested in Paul’s early creed (1 Cor. 15:1-11), in Paul’s authentic & disputed epistles, as well as hypothetical source Q and the book of Acts.
The early creed is most significant since it records that Peter, the twelve disciples, 500 witnesses, James, and lastly Paul had experiences of the risen Jesus. Moreover, Clement of Rome provides 1st century and Polycarp early 2nd century supporting evidence of the resurrection appearances. Both Clement and Polycarp knew the disciples which gives their testimonies credibility.
Moreover, the disciples, James and Paul were sincere in the proclamation of the risen Jesus as affirmed by nine early and independent sources. Before his conversion, Paul persecuted the early church until Jesus appeared to him personally (51). James was Jesus’ unbelieving brother who was likewise convinced on the basis of a resurrection appearance (52).
We also know of 11 sources that inform us of the disciples’ early proclamation of the resurrection and their willingness to suffer and die for it (53). Finally, we know that the early Christians Paul, James (Jesus’ brother), James (brother of John), Stephen, and Peter were all martyred for their belief in the risen Jesus.
Moreover, these appearances cannot be explained away as hallucinations since Paul believed in Jesus’ physical resurrection (54), the risen Jesus ate fish (Luke 24:42), offered his disciples an opportunity to touch his resurrection body (Luke 24:39, John 20:27), had some grab hold of his feet in worship (Matt. 28:9), and the disciple Thomas allegedly put his finger and hand into the place where the nails had been in Jesus’ body (John 20:27). According to exegete Craig William Craig explains, “we have a completely unanimous testimony in the Gospels that all of them were physical” (55).
“NONE OF THESE FEATURES [HALLUCINATIONS] ADEQUATELY DESCRIBE THE NEW TESTAMENT EXPERIENCES.” – J.P MORELAND (56)
“Although at least a few if not all of Jesus’ disciples may have been in an emotional state that rendered them candidates for a hallucination, the nature of some of the experiences of the risen Jesus, specifically those that occurred in group settings and to Jesus’ enemy Paul, and the empty tomb strongly suggest that these experiences were not hallucinations.” – New Testament historian Mike Licona (57)
What is the best explanation of these facts?
“Jesus’ resurrection is unparalleled in terms of strong evidence.” – Michael Licona (58)
Jesus appeared to believers and unbelievers, indoors and outdoors, to crowds and individuals, not once but many times. It is recognized by even the most critical scholars that such appearances really did happen. The real question is, why did skeptics in the first century all of a sudden come to believe that they saw Jesus standing right in front of them in the flesh after he had already been crucified?
Here is a man seen working miracles, controlling the forces of nature, healing the sick, proclaiming to be divine with authority from Heaven, and predicting his own death and resurrection. His tomb was found empty on the morning of the third day after his crucifixion, and then he was seen risen appearing to people (including 500 at once) causing them to believe (to the point of death) that Jesus had really appeared to them.
“Typical encounters with the recently deceased do not issue in claims about an empty tomb, nor do they lead to the founding of a new religion. And they certainly do not typically eat and drink, and they are not seen by crowds of up to five hundred people.” – New Testament scholar Dale Allison (59)
5. The conversions of the early Jews to Christians
Not to mention, the disciples believed Jesus had appeared to the them so fervently that they were willing to forsake their lives and be imprisoned, tortured, and executed for this belief. Let’s take James, the brother of Jesus for example.
James denied that his brother was divine. This is independently attested in Mark (3:21; 6:2-4, 6) and John (7:5; 19:25-27). James only came to believe in his divinity after he had Jesus appear to him after his crucifixion (1 Cor. 15:3-7). As atheist historian Gerd Luddeman says:
“JAMES HAD NO RELIGIOUS LINK WITH HIS BROTHER DURING JESUS’ LIFETIME.” (60)
James then became an early leader in the church (Galatians 1, Acts 15), and was then stoned to death for his new found faith in Jesus Christ. As Jewish historian Josephus writes, “the brother of Jesus, who was called the Christ…was delivered to be stoned”. (61) James’ stoning is confirmed in at least three other ancient sources.
So here was a skeptic, an unbeliever who was radically transformed, who became an elder in the church, and was stoned to death for his conviction that Jesus had appeared to him. This kind of conversion is best explained by a simple fact: James had an experience of Jesus after his crucifixion that so convinced him that he was willing to risk his life for such a belief.
What is the best explanation for these facts surrounding the life and death of Jesus? How can we account for the impact of Jesus ministry, his miracle working, his empty tomb, his post-mortem appearances, and the radical conversion of the early disciples?
The explanation with the most explanatory scope (which simply means to say explains the most facts) is that God really had raised Jesus Christ from the dead.
“THAT IS WHY, AS A HISTORIAN, I CANNOT EXPLAIN THE RISE OF EARLY CHRISTIANITY UNLESS JESUS ROSE AGAIN, LEAVING AN EMPTY TOMB BEHIND HIM.” –N.T. WRIGHT (62)
1. Habermas, G. & Licona, M. 2004. The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus. p. 44.
2. Habermas, G. 2012. The Minimal Facts Approach to the Resurrection of Jesus: The Role of Methodology as a Crucial Component in Establishing Historicity. Available.
3. 12 Historical Facts (Most Critical Scholars Believe These 12 Items). Available.
4. Bishop, J. 2016. The General Reliability of the Gospels. Available.
5. Ehrman, Bart. 2008. The New Testament. p. 229.
6. Burridge, R. 2013. All Four One And One For All. Available.
7. Stanton, G. 2004. Jesus and Gospel. p. 192.
8. Dunn, J. 2003. Jesus Remembered: Christianity in the Making. p. 185.
9. Cornerstone Institute. New Testament Studies. 2015.
10. Keener, C. 2009. Will the Real Historical Jesus Please Stand Up? The Gospels as Sources for Historical Information about Jesus. Available.
11. Evans, C. Interview: Is the Bible Reliable? Available.
12. Johnson, P. 1986. A Historian Looks at Jesus (Speech).
13. Habermas, G. 1996. The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ. p. 219.
14. Elliott, K. & Moir, I. 2000. Manuscripts and the Text of the New Testament. p. 1.
15. Habermas, G. Dr. Habermas Answers Important Questions. Available.
16. Bird, M. 2014. Yes Jesus existed… but relax, you can still be an atheist if you want to. Available.
17. Keener, C. 2009. Will the Real Historical Jesus Please Stand Up? The Gospels as Sources for Historical Information about Jesus. Available.
18. Wallace, D. 2010. Dethroning Jesus: Exposing Popular Culture’s Quest to Unseat the Biblical Christ. p. 100.
19. Craig, W. 2009. Independent Sources for Jesus’ Burial and Empty Tomb. Available.
20. Dunn, J. 2003. Jesus Remembered: Christianity in the Making. p. 339.
21. Ehrman, B. Why Was Jesus Killed? Available.
22. Johnson, L. 1996. The Real Jesus. p. 125.
23. Ludemann, G. 2004. The Resurrection of Christ. p. 50.
24. Crossan quoted by Stewart, R. & Habermas, G. in Memories of Jesus. p. 282.
25. Paula Frederickson, remark during discussion at the meeting of “The Historical Jesus” section at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, November 22, 1999.
26. Habermas, G. & Licona, M. 2004. The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus. p. 50.
27. Bishop, J. 2016. The Historical Jesus and the Criteria of Authenticity. Available.
28. Craig, W. 2013. A Reasonable Response. Also see, Craig, W. 2014. Gospel Authorship – Who Cares? Available.
29. Craig, W. The Resurrection of Jesus. Available.
30. Hengel, M. 1977. Crucifixion. According to Hengel: “The social stigma and disgrace associated with crucifixion in the Roman world can hardly be overstated.”
31. Craig, W. 2013. Stephen Law on the Non-existence of Jesus of Nazareth. Available.
32. Wallace, D. 2010. Dethroning Jesus: Exposing Popular Culture’s Quest to Unseat the Biblical Christ. p. 109.
33. Edwards, W. 1986. Journal of the American Medical Association. p. 1463.
34. Bishop, J. 2015. Jesus Fact #2 – The Piercing of Jesus’ Side and Medical Science.Available.
35. Ludemann, G. 1994. The Resurrection of Jesus: History, Experience, Theology. p. 38.
36. Habermas, G. 1996. The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ. p. 143
37. Craig, W. 2009. Independent Sources for Jesus’ Burial and Empty Tomb. Available.
38. Bauckham, R. 2008. Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. p. 243.
39. Robinson, J. 1973. The Human Face of God. p. 131.
40. Habermas, G. The Empty Tomb of Jesus. Available:
41. Craig, W. The Historicity of the Empty Tomb of Jesus. Available.
42. Althaus, P. quoted by Dale Allison in: Resurrecting Jesus: The Earliest Christian Tradition and Its Interpreters. 2005. p. 317.
43. Price, C. 2015. Resurrection: Making Sense of Historical Data. Available.
44. Exploring Biblical Greek. 30-60 AD – Pre-Markan Passion Narrative. Available.
45. Habermas, G. 2005. Recent Perspectives on the Reliability of the Gospels.Available.
46. Flowers, D. 2013. The Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Available
47. Ludemann, G. 1995. What Really Happened? p. 80.
48. Crossley, J. 2015. Unbelievable? New Testament Q&A – Gary Habermas & James Crossley.
49. Ehrman, B. 1999. Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. p. 231.
50. Craig, W. The Resurrection of Jesus. Available.
51. Ehrman, B. 2006. Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene: The Followers of Jesus in History and Legend. p. 101.
52. Habermas, G. 2003. The Risen Jesus and Future Hope. p. 22.
53. Sources: Luke, Paul, Josephus, Clement of Rome, Clement of Alexandria, Polycarp, Ignatius, Dionysius of Corinth, Tertullian, Origen, and Hegesippus.
54. Bock, D. & Wallace, D. 2010. Dethroning Jesus: Exposing Popular Culture’s Quest to Unseat the Biblical Christ. p. 208.
55. Craig, W. 2008. Reasonable Faith. p. 383.
56. Moreland, J. 1987. Scaling the Secular City: a Defense of Christianity. p. 177.
57. Licona, M. 2010. “Were the Resurrection Appearances of Jesus Hallucinations?” inEvidence for God: 50 Arguments for Faith from the Bible, History, Philosophy and Science. p. 178.
58. Michael Licona quoted by William Lane Craig’s in Dealing with doubt. Available.
59. Allison, D. 2005. Resurrecting Jesus: The Earliest Christian Tradition and its Interpreters. p. 283-284.
60. Ludemann, G. The Resurrection of Jesus: History, Experience, Theology. 1994. p. 109.
61. Josephus, F. 95 AD. Antiquities, 20.9.1.
62. Wright, N. 1993. “The New Unimproved Jesus” in Christianity Today. p. 26.
*This article was edited and added to from the original by Steven Bancarz.