The resurrection of Jesus is critical to the Christian faith; without it, we don’t have a foundation for believing that Jesus is God.
Skeptics argue that the resurrection of Jesus isn’t provable. But is that true? Let’s look at some important pre-resurrection facts that definitively say otherwise.
Jesus’ Death Certified
The Romans were master executioners. Their go-to form of killing those they deemed to be criminals was crucifixion. The Romans were the principle utilizers of this barbaric form of torture for more than five centuries. They apparently learned the practice from the Carthaginians, then rapidly developed a high degree of efficiency and skill with it. By the time of Jesus, they had perfected it.
Why is it important to stress that they were experts at crucifying people? Because some critics (and the writers of the “lost” Gnostic gospels) assert that Jesus wasn’t really dead when He was removed from the cross. The suggestions is that Jesus merely “fainted.”
Sorry, no; both biblical and secular historical accounts say He was certified as dead. In fact, the soldiers did not have to break Jesus’ legs to speed up His death, as was customary with crucifixions. By piercing His side with a sword, they confirmed His death. Pontius Pilate required a centurion to confirm Jesus’s death before he allowed Joseph of Arimathea to take possession of Jesus’ body for burial.
Is it possible to withstand brutal floggings and crucifixion, and still live?
There is only one example, in the writings of the Roman historian Josephus, of a person surviving crucifixion. Josephus does not tell us how long his “former acquaintance” hung on the cross, or whether he, like Jesus, endured forty torturous lashes before being crucified. Josephus tells us only that he was able to use his influence to get this person taken off his cross while still alive, and to ensure that the man received the best medical care Rome could provide.
Historical Context for Jewish Burial Practices
Typically, burial took place on the day of death or, if death occurred at the end of the day or during the night, the following day. Joseph of Arimathea bravely asked Pilate for Jesus’ body, seeming to be motivated by a concern for the observance of the Jewish law that dictates that a body be buried within 24 hours. But Jewish law prohibits burial on the Sabbath and festivals. So Jesus had to be buried before sundown on Friday; waiting until after sundown on Saturday would have exceeded the 24-hour limit. Scholars confirm that the details recorded by biblical writers are consistent with known customs and normal practices of that time and place.
Some critics argue that the Romans did not allow crucified criminals to be buried. Not so, say historians. Nor is there anything irregular about the Gospels’ report that a member of the Sanhedrin requested permission to give Jesus a proper burial in keeping with Jewish burial practices.
Paul confirms the burial story in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5. There is conclusive evidence that Paul drew from material predating his writing that can be traced to within three to eight years of Christ’s death. The burial is told in a simple and straightforward manner, and no conflicting tradition about the burial story exists. Nor are there early documents that refute the burial story as presented in the Gospels. It is highly unlikely that Christians invented the story of Joseph of Arimathea burying Jesus’ body, as some critics assert. Why would early Christians make a hero of a member of the very court responsible for Jesus’ death?
First Century Tombs and Archeology/Joseph’s Tomb
Archeology has provided helpful insight into the tombs in and around first-century Jerusalem. Scholarly and public attention has focused almost exclusively on the rock-cut tombs that surround the ancient city of Jerusalem. Most of Jerusalem’s rock-cut tombs are not display tombs, but relatively modest, with an undecorated entrance and a single burial chamber with a loculi. Because of the expense associated with hewing a burial cave into bedrock, only the wealthier members of Jerusalem’s population could afford rock-cut tombs.
What kind of stone was placed at the entrance to Jesus’ burial tomb? Square stones were commonly used in Jesus’ time to seal cave tomb entrances. They fit much like a cork in a bottle: one end of the blocking stone stone fit snugly into the entrance while the other end, like the top of a cork, was somewhat larger on the outside.
But three of the four Gospel writers say the stone was “rolled back,” implying that the stone was round. Writes archeologist Amos Kloner: “Of the more than 900 burial caves from the Second Temple period found in and around Jerusalem, only four are known to have used disc-shaped (round) blocking stones. … The handful of round blocking stones from Jerusalem in this period are large, at least four feet in diameter. They occur only in the more elaborate cave tombs, which had at least two rooms or, as in one case, a spacious hall.”
Don’t miss this point: Our Lord was buried in a grave created for a person of significance. God’s hand was even in that detail.
Scholars believe the massive stone, estimated to have weighed between 1.5 and 2 tons, could be rolled down a slanted grove to cover the entrance. Although it would be easy to close the tomb, it would take at least several men to roll the heavy stone away from the entrance to remove or steal the body. The large stone would have provided additional security at Jesus’ gravesite, which the Jewish authorities wanted, to ensure that Jesus’ disciples couldn’t easily steal His body.
The Gospel of Matthew (27:62-66) provides the context and narrative for the requesting and posting of the guard. As the passage shows, the Pharisees and chief priests clearly do not believe Jesus will resurrect from the dead. Rather, their motivation for requesting the guard was to deter the disciples from making the claim that He resurrected on the third day.
Were the guards Jewish temple guards or Roman soldiers? Writes New Testament scholar Michael Wilkins, “Since they had no authority to post guards around a burial site of a criminal executed by Roman authorities, the religious officials had to ask Pilate for a contingent of guards. … The Jewish officials were not allowed to use the troops except for the purposes the Roman governor authorized. This explains why the guards will later go to the temple authorities to report Jesus’ resurrection rather than to Pilate himself.”
Too, if the guards were Jewish, they would not have been worried about Roman punishment for failing to keep Jesus’ body secure in the tomb.
Matthew’s Gospel (28:2-4, 11-15) states that guards’ great fear and their effort to get help in order to account for the missing body. The narrative of the Gospel is impressive: seeing the angel of the Lord roll back the stone on that Sunday morning was so frightening that it caused the highly trained soldiers to become “like dead men.” They knew they were about to face extreme punishment, if not death, from their superiors for failing to keep the body entombed. But their necks were saved when the guards and Jewish authorities collaborated — each for their own vested purposes.
The Jewish authorities had only two choices open to them: admit that Jesus rose, or peg the disciples as looters of His body. Have you ever wondered why Jesus didn’t also appear to the Jewish leaders? Or perhaps He did, but the Gospel writers weren’t privy to the details of any such visits.
The Resurrection of Jesus is Real
Was Jesus a real, historical person? Absolutely. Did Jesus die on the cross? Absolutely. Was Jesus’ body buried in a tomb before it went missing? Absolutely. Did Jesus resurrect and interact with both crowds of people and his beloved disciples? The Bible says yes, numerous times. So we get to choose whether or not we will believe it as truth.
According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus’ disciples quickly desert Jesus during His arrest, and remain largely in hiding during His trial, execution, and in the early days following His resurrection. Can you say, “Jesus picked some big chickens?”
Without Jesus, the disciples become dejected, and lost direction and focus. Some even return to the work they did before Jesus called them. Others, hiding behind locked doors, are paralyzed by their fear. But then … BAM! Something BIG got their attention and redirected their focus.
There’s no getting around the fact that something incredible motivated Jesus’ disciples, strengthening their faith and transforming them from quaking cowards to roaring lions! From unfocused to wholeheartedly focused on sharing the good news of Christ’s resurrection — even as these disciples recognize that their own death may be the penalty. (Scripture does tell us that all but the disciple John were martyred for their faith in Jesus’ resurrection.)
The resurrection of Jesus was real and life-changing for these men. That should get OUR attention.
This blog post highlights Josh and Sean McDowell’s recently revised apologetics classic, Evidence That Demands a Verdict. We are certain this fully updated and expanded resource will be an effective evangelism tool for you, and strengthen your faith by answering the toughest questions tossed to you by skeptics. Know what you know, because it’s true. But share this truth with LOVE!
If you’d like to start from the first blog post in this series, click here: Apologetics: Apologizing for Believing in God?.