Simon Greenleaf (1783-1853) was the acclaimed Royall Professor of Law at Harvard University. He was one of the most celebrated legal minds in American history with one of his works, Treatise on the Law of Evidence, still being considered “the greatest single authority on evidence in the entire literature of legal procedure” (1). He is now considered one of the most important figures in the development of Christian apologetics, specifically legal or juridical apologetics.
As a professed atheist, and while teaching law at Harvard, Greenleaf stated to his class that the resurrection of Jesus Christ was a legend (2). This was obvious for him given that miracles were impossible. However, a few of his students responded to his skepticism and challenged him to apply his rules of evidence to the historical resurrection evidence (3). Greenleaf eventually accepted their challenge, and set out to prove that the resurrection of Jesus was false.
However, during the course of his examination into the historical evidence he found his atheism to be challenged on many fronts. Of primary concern to him was his inability to explain away the dramatic change in Jesus’ disciples’ disposition, and their subsequent willingness to suffer and die for their testimony.
I want to briefly flesh Greenleaf’s argument. As I argued elsewhere the historical evidence for this is fairly sufficient. The disciples feared that they would meet the same fate as Jesus did if they were found to be associated with him, which they were for a full three years. According to our gospel testimony we are told that they went into hiding behind locked doors following the crucifixion (John 20:19), they were also afraid to publicly talk about Jesus (John 7:13), and during Jesus’ arrest they fled (Mark 14:50; Matthew 26:56).
However, as Greenleaf observed, this group of fearful men had a radical transformation. According to the book of Acts we find that the apostles boldly proclaimed the risen Jesus with the resurrection was their central message. Both Jesus’ apostles Peter and John are imprisoned for this (Acts 4), and in Acts 5 we see that apostles are arrested, imprisoned, and flogged. Acts 12 informs us about the martyrdom of James, the brother of John, and another imprisonment of Peter.
Stephen was stoned to death after his witness before the Sanhedrin (Acts 6–8). The first statewide persecution of Christians is reported as being under Nero in 64 AD as reported by Tacitus (Annals 15.44:2–5) and Suetonius (Nero 16.2). Although persecution was sporadic and local, from this point forward Christians could be arrested and killed for proclaiming the name of Jesus. According to Revelation John is said to be in Patmos where he was possibly exiled to (1:9).
Clement of Rome (writing around 95 AD) attests to the persecution and martyrdom of both Peter and Paul. Therefore, according to the criterion of independent attestation, that the disciples and Paul underwent a radical change of heart and mind is widely considered historical. As Greenleaf himself observed:
“Their master had recently perished as a malefactor, by the sentence of a public tribunal. His religion sought to overthrow the religions of the whole world. The laws of every country were against the teachings of His disciples. The interests and passions of all the rulers and great men in the world were against them. The fashion of the world was against them… they could expect nothing but contempt, opposition, revilings, bitter persecutions, stripes, imprisonments, torments, and cruel deaths.
Yet this faith they zealously did propagate; and all these miseries they endured undismayed, nay, rejoicing. As one after another was put to a miserable death, the survivors only prosecuted their work with increased vigor and resolution… They had every possible motive to review carefully the grounds of their faith, and the evidences of the great facts and truths which they asserted; and these motives were pressed upon their attention with the most melancholy and terrific frequency.
It was therefore impossible that they could have persisted in affirming the truths they have narrated, had not Jesus actually risen from the dead, and had they not known this fact as certainly as they knew any other fact …
If then their testimony was not true, there was no possible motive for its fabrication.” (4)
I agree with much of what Greenleaf writes here though one needs to clarify one or two important details. For example, it is true that the historical evidence for the alleged deaths of some of the disciples is shaky at best and thus lacks apologetic value. However, there is evidence for the deaths of at least some early, and very important, Christians. Historically speaking we can be confident of the martyrdoms of the Apostle Paul, Stephen, Peter, James (brother of John) and James (brother of Jesus) for their proclamation of the risen Jesus.
These men make a powerful case for their “undoubting conviction” that Jesus had been raised from the dead (5). This fact, which holds academic consensus (6), is what Greenleaf could not explain away if Jesus had not be raised from the dead.
Greenleaf went on to boldly claim that
“According to the laws of legal evidence used in courts of law, there is more evidence for the historical fact of the resurrection of Jesus Christ than for just about any other event in history” (7).
We need to clarify this statement. For instance, I fully agree that the historical evidence for the resurrection is compelling. However, I’d definitely contend that it’s going too far to claim that it is the best attested fact of ancient history. As I argued the evidence for the resurrection is sufficient enough to ground reasonable belief, and on that end I agree with Greenleaf.
Nonetheless, as a former skeptic who initially sought to disprove the resurrection, Greenleaf was obligated to conclude that Jesus had in fact been raised from the dead. Not only did that prove to him that miracles do happen but that God also exists. He subsequently rejected his atheism and converted to Christianity, and ended up becoming one of the most important thinkers in the development of Christian apologetics.
He reported his findings in his 1846 work An Examination of the Testimony of the Four Evangelists by the Rules of Evidence Administered in the Courts of Justice of which readers can access in PDF format here.