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 Vol. 4, No. 5 

May, 2002

~ Page 17 ~

Jesus: Historic Fact or Myth?

By Dennis (Skip) Francis

To make a rational conclusion on any subject, one must first examine all the evidence and then make a conclusion based on that evidence. Many people today have placed the proverbial cart before the horse. In matters of a spiritual nature, some have fallen into the realm of pre-established supposition, and, when this happens, facts are frequently ignored or the wrong conclusions drawn. Some modern presuppositions include: 1. All religions are alike; 2. the Bible is full of errors; 3. miracles are impossible; and, 4. God does not exist. If we begin a factual search of any of these issues, without prejudice, the conclusions that we draw are quite different from those attained by preconception.

Much mysticism surrounds the story of Jesus Christ. Many people have difficulty rationalizing what they have heard about Jesus because much does not fit with their own personal experiences. They have not seen anyone turn water into wine, wither a fig tree with a word or make the lame walk by faith, thus they perceive it as impossible and incomprehensible.

Probably the most significant element of the Christian faith is the most physically, scientifically, logically impossible event that could have ever occurred: the resurrection of Jesus from the dead! Nothing in our life experience could prepare us for such a metaphysical event! Oh, we have heard of those who have been brought back to life shortly after being pronounced dead by a physician, but this does not begin to compare with the Gospel accounts of Jesus' death, burial and resurrection after three days in the tomb.

The resurrection is highly inexplicable in the ordinary sense, yet it remains the very foundation of the Christian faith. The apostle Paul expressed it this way, "And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins" (1 Corinthians 15:1). Without the resurrection of Christ, the Christian is found to have a baseless religion, for all the Bible teaches expresses the resurrection as a foundational principle.

What of the resurrection? If it is not physically possible, not scientifically provable, not logically conceivable, is it still believable? 

Is "Faith" Blind?

First, let us consider the very subject of faith. Is faith irrational? Is it a "blind leap in the dark" as many have said? What kind of faith does the God of the Bible require?

We must begin with the realization that God does not expect faith to be blind in any sense of the word. His own definition of faith precludes such intellectual shortsightedness. In Hebrews 11:1, God has said, "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." The faith God wants is based on substance and evidence, not mere acceptance of the un-seeable and unknowable. He further states, "So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God" (Romans 10:17). It is God's testimony to man that engenders faith, and God expects to be tested! The Bereans were commended in Scripture for being skeptical about the things they were told. It says, "These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so" (Acts 17:11).

If anyone were asked today to merely accept something beyond their experiences, they would want proof before acceptance. Today, even the most faithful Christian sometimes puts God to the test, or at least the Word of God.

Let's Weigh the Evidence!

Can one believe in the resurrection? Is there adequate evidence to prove that Jesus was raised from the dead? The Bible testifies to the resurrection, but is the Bible sufficient for most people today? Is there extra-biblical information concerning the existence of Jesus and his post-resurrection existence? What of the secular record? Let's analyze this information in some detail.

Was There a Jesus?

Did Jesus exist at all? This is the first question under consideration. Not only does the Bible say Jesus existed, it also says that denial of this fact is denial of God. As the apostle John says, "And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world" (1 John 4:3).

Can we prove that Jesus, historically and in fact, lived at all? Yes, we can! A number of Christian writers of the first and second centuries have written concerning the existence of Jesus, but some people may be skeptical of this evidence as these men were obviously believers. Theirs, however, is not the only record we have.

Though one may doubt the reliability of a "Christian" author, it is hard to "get over" the record of those who had every reason to suppress the Christian faith. Both the Jews and the Romans had every reason to disallow "The Way" -- the Jews for religious reasons, the Romans for political ones; yet, historians from both factions attest to the existence, death and resurrection of Christ.

Roman historian, Cornelius Tacitus, called the "greatest historian" of his age, testifies to the Neronian persecutions of Christians, and says that Christ was put to death by Pilate. This shows the historical fact of Jesus' existence and death. Suetonius, another Roman historian, tells of the expulsion of the Jews from Rome over the Christian faith, which Luke records in Acts 18:2.

The Jews have references to Christ in various versions of the Talmud. Though these references are efforts to discount facts of his life, instead they verify his existence. They even certify that he was crucified on "eve of Passover" because he "practiced sorcery and enticed and led Israel astray." Flavius Josephus, probably the most important historian of his time and culture, though not a Christian himself, still referred to Jesus as "the Christ," and verified His death and resurrection.

Modern historians frequently rely on only the smallest scrap of evidence as to the existence of a historic fact. A fragment of stone retaining a few words is enough to certify historic evidence as fact. The accounts already mentioned, along with countless others, demonstrate the historical existence of Christ. There are many other evidences one could use, to include: the existence of the church today, the post-resurrection behavioral change of the disciples, even the current dating system; but the aforementioned secular historical accounts give far more information than most modern-day historians use for historical reliability.

The fact that Jesus lived, and died on the eve of Passover, is historically verified. But, what about other facts concerning the resurrection?

The "Great" Stone

Matthew 27:59-60 reads, "And when Joseph had taken the body, he wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, And laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn out in the rock: and he rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre, and departed."

Let's consider the stone. Both secular history and the Bible testify to the use of huge stones to cover the tombs of the wealthy in Judea. These stones were heavy discs, requiring several men to move them, put into place at the entrance to the tomb for the purpose of preventing desecration by both man and beast. These were designed to stay once in place. Further, it is believed the one used for Jesus' tomb was heavier than most, as they were trying to prevent an expected theft, especially concerned over Jesus' previous predictions.

Matthew 27:65-66 reads, "Pilate said unto them, Ye have a guard: go, make it as sure as ye can. So they went, and made the sepulchre sure, sealing the stone, the guard being with them." (ASV)

To the stone was affixed the Roman seal. Though the seal had no particular ability as a locking mechanism, it did have great significance to the Roman guard that was placed over the tomb. The unauthorized breaking of a Roman seal carried with it the weight of Roman law. To violate the seal was to violate the authority of the magistrate who placed it. The seal was placed with the guard present for added significance.

A Roman guard was set. Contrary to the way many view this circumstance, this was not one or two men. A Roman guard consisted of ten to thirty men, with a Roman centurion commanding. At any given time, at least 4 of these men were awake and ready, with one acting as sentinel. The penalty for quitting a post or losing a prisoner, according to Roman law, was death.

All these things taken into account, the tomb was still empty on Sunday morning. This fact has never been disputed by those in residence at the time. The very fact that the enemies of Jesus did not refute his resurrection is of great significance. In every account, though many other accusations are made, the resurrection is never disputed. The empty tomb stands as empirical evidence of the truth.

The Enemies of Jesus

What testimony could be more profound a proof than the words and actions of an enemy? The enemies of Christ have given us a tremendous testimony to the facts of his resurrection.

A group of people intent on squelching a movement like that of the early Christians would, of course, use the most valuable evidence to refute that movement's power. Nothing could have been more important to the cause of the Jews and Romans than the ability to refute the resurrection. All it would have taken is to demonstrate the tomb was not empty was to produce the body of Christ. Jesus' trial, death and burial are already proven beyond reasonable doubt, yet no body remains in the realm of this earth, otherwise the enemies of Jesus would have produced it back then.

When Peter preached the first Gospel sermon on Pentecost (Acts 2), the Jews needed only to step forward and refute that the grave was empty (the keynote of Peter's address: verses 22-24). These were not private events but public ones, attested to by both Jewish and Roman record, as well as the statement of Peter "which God did by him in the midst of you, as ye yourselves also know." Why then did the Jews and Romans not simply set all this aside by demonstrating a fact that refuted it? Because they could not! They had no such evidence.

Peter was able to preach the resurrection of Christ openly because it was a fact that was generally known throughout the region. In Acts 3, he preaches again in the temple itself, after having healed a man by miraculous means. Again, he demonstrated the resurrection as fact (vs. 15), and the Jews were unable to refute it.

Time after time we see the Jews attempting to have the news of the resurrection of Christ squelched, hounding both Peter and Paul with many false accusations, yet not once, in all their attempts, did they even try to bring down the central point of Christianity; the resurrection.

What About the Romans?

What were the Romans doing to suppress the news of the resurrection? Well, among other things, they arrested the apostle Paul and tried him on various occasions. Paul was brought before governors and kings, yet one area of rebuttal was never even brought up -- the resurrection. No effort was made to even deal with it, though many false charges were brought against him.

What was the Romans major effort to deny the resurrection? Matthew 28 gives the account of what the soldiers did and what they said, and this account is still demonstrated historically, as stipulated in verse 15. What was their major argument? The chief priests and elders gave them money to say, "His disciples came by night, and stole him away while we slept."

What profound evidence at the hands of Jesus' enemies! Is this evidence against the resurrection or entirely the other way? If I were a defense attorney in a court of law, the question I would ask would go something like this: "So, while you were asleep you saw the disciples take his body away?" How incredible! Such evidence would never stand the test in any situation today, yet is still believed by some to be credible.

B. W. Johnson, in The People's New Testament commentary (1891) had this to say:

Mat 28:13 - His disciples came by night, etc. The improbability of this story is easily seen: 1. The soldiers would not dare to go to sleep on guard. It was death. 2. If they had gone to sleep they could testify nothing of what was done while asleep. Their testimony of what occurred then would be worthless. 3. The disciples did not expect a resurrection and would hardly believe it when it occurred. 4. They had shown themselves cowards and would not have dared to take his body away. 5. Had they dared, had the Roman soldiers slept, they could not have removed the stone and carried off the body without detection. It was a night lighted with the full moon and all the environs of Jerusalem were crowded with people attending the passover.

Subsequent Roman evidence also stands the test of proof for the resurrection. Though the apostle Paul was subjected to arrest and imprisonment, his testimony before the royalty of his day either confounded them or caused them to pass him along to another court. They simply could not challenge the resurrection of Jesus Christ!

It simply does not matter if it is physically, scientifically or logically possible; the facts bear out the conclusion that Jesus arose from the dead on the third day. On this historic fact rests our faith.

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