Updated: Jun 2, 2019
The following is the first opening statement of a written debate between Stuart McEwing and Malcolm Trevena conducted at www.thinkingmatters.org.nz and published on 24 January 2012 as “Part 1: A Case for the Historicity of the Resurrection.” The question of the debate is “Is the resurrection of Jesus fact or fiction?” I argue that it is fact and not fiction.
Warning: The content of this post does not follow my general policy of not using big words and keeping posts short.
First, I would like to thank Mr. Malcolm Trevena for agreeing to debate me. I hope this exchange will benefit the both of us, as well as all the readers who persevere through to the end of this exchange. From now on I will adopt the convention of referring to Malcolm by his last name, and hope it will not undermine the geniality of our exchange.
The scandal of Christianity is that it is a religion grounded in historical events, which if they can be demonstrated to be false, would empty it of all meaning and power. Chief among those historical events is the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Accordingly, if Christians are to maintain that their faith is reasonable in the current mental environment, it will be crucial to establish the resurrection of Jesus is a true fact of history against critics who argue otherwise.
Most people when they come to Christ do not do so on the basis of historical research. Rather, they come to know the great truths of the gospel, such as God’s existence, of Christ’s atoning life, death and resurrection, on the basis of an experience with the risen Lord Himself. This experience I take as veridical, and a fully legitimate grounding of knowledge. Even though the Christian is warranted in believing what happened 2000 years ago without studying history or philosophy, throughout the course of this debate I will be making my case without reference to this appropriate ground of knowledge. Instead I will be attempting to show that Jesus was raised from the dead in a manner that any responsible and fair-minded historian could accept if this received revelation was absent.
In this debate I will be arguing that there is credible evidence for regarding Jesus’ resurrection from the dead as historical. Malcolm will be arguing the opposing position that Jesus’ resurrection should be regarded as unhistorical. Notice that between fact and fiction there is a third position possible; namely, that Jesus’ resurrection should neither be regarded as historical nor unhistorical, but rather regarded as unjustifiable on historical grounds. This agnostic position is compatible with Christianity, since Christians, as I have already noted, do not generally accept Christianity on the basis of historical research or philosophical speculation. What this shows is that no one in this debate is without a burden of proof.
With this in mind, I will be defending two main contentions.
- There are at least four credible facts that any adequate historical hypothesis must explain, namely; – the burial of Jesus after his crucifixion, – the empty tomb, – the post-mortem appearances, and – that the disciples radically came to believe that Jesus rose bodily from the dead.
- The hypothesis God raised Jesus from the dead is the best explanation of those facts.
In this opening statement, I will first look at the historical data that can be recovered from that first Easter weekend. I will then evaluate the resurrection hypothesis: “God raised Jesus from the dead,” using the criteria for the best explanation.
The Historical Data
(I) The burial
The burial of Jesus in the tomb is according to the eminent scholar John A. T. Robinson, “one of the earliest and best attested facts regarding Jesus.” The reasons this tradition recommends itself include the following.
Jesus’ burial is abundantly attested in early, independent sources. These sources include Mark’s source material for the passion story, probably based on eyewitness testimony in Jerusalem within seven years of the crucifixion. Included also is the kerygmatic confessional formula Paul quotes in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 which was received by him three years after his conversion, usually placed between one and three years after the crucifixion. That is between 34–36 A.D. The critical scholar Richard Bauckham notes the consensus on this dating. 
Additional independent material is found in the sources informing Matthew, Luke, and John. The non-canonical Gospel of Peter speaks of the burial, as do the early sermons recorded in Acts which bear signs of having a source other than Luke, probably the apostle Peter himself. Thus we have at least five, and perhaps more, independent sources attesting to the burial of Jesus, two of which are extremely early.
The honourable burial by Joseph of Arimathea. Joseph was a member of the Sanhedrin, a group that from a Christian perspective conspired to kill Jesus in a hastily gathered and illegal trial. Thus an understandable hostility existed between the Christians and the Sanhedrinists at that time. The sermons in Acts 2:23, 36; 4:10 say that the Jewish leaders crucified Jesus! The source of Mark’s passion narrative states the ‘whole council’ and all the chief priests, elders and scribes came together to condemn Jesus (Mk. 14:53, 55, 64). How remarkable is it then these early sources agree that an enemy of Christ had done the right thing by him? Since it is “almost inexplicable” why Christians would make this story up, Raymond Brown concludes the honourable burial by Joseph of Arimathea of Jesus is “very probable”.
The necessity of burial in Jewish thinking. Jewish custom on burial practice of corpses, even those of enemies, is well attested to in canon (Gen. 23:4-19; 50:4-14; Josh. 24:32; 1 Sam. 31:12-13; 2 Sam. 2:4-5; 21:12-14; Num. 11:33-34; 1 Kings 11:15; Ezek. 39:11-16), reflected in the non-canonical Tobit, found in Josephus (Against Apion 2.29 §211; cf. 2.26 §205; J.W. 4.5.2 §317), and most eloquently in Philo (De Iosepho 5 §22–27). This was done for the sake of the dead themselves and to avoid defilement of the land of Israel required by the Mosaic law, which states “And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is accursed by God; you shall not defile your land which the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance” (Deut. 21:22-23; c.f. Ezek. 39:14, 16). Jews applied this verse to victims of crucifixion (Acts 10:39; Gal. 3:13) and viewed the burial of the dead as their highest obligation, even before circumcision of one’s son and offering the Passover lamb.
Roman acquiesced to Jewish customs regarding burial of crucified victims. The normal, typical procedure in peacetime was not to leave the body on the cross or to be tossed in an open grave, especially in close proximity to the Jewish population in Jerusalem and on the eve of the Passover holiday.
No alternative burial narrative or tradition. If the New Testament account of Jesus’ burial is not reliable or it is false, then it is surprising that there is no other account of Jesus’ burial. This argument from silence is permissible since it is expected that some trace of an alternative account would persist, especially in Jewish writings. There are none however, and this is indicative of the general reliability of the New Testament’s burial account and that the location of Jesus’ tomb was known to be accurate.
(II) The empty tomb
By surveying the corpus of writings in historical Jesus research since 1975 in French, German and English, Gary Habermas has observed that approximately 75% of scholars regard the empty tomb as historical. The following are just some of the 23 different arguments used to support these scholar’s conclusions.
The reliability of the burial account. If the burial account is basically accurate then the site of Jesus’ grave is known in Jerusalem to both Jews and Christians. Given that no Jew could have believed in a bodily resurrection without leaving behind an empty grave, it is a very short inference to the historicity of the empty tomb. The disciples would have never come to believe such an un-Jewish notion. Even if they had believed, preaching of the resurrection would have been folly had the grave still been occupied, and yet the earliest preaching of the resurrection took hold and flourished in the very city where Christ was crucified, the tomb was available for inspection and the message easily falsified. Moreover, Jewish authorities would have crushed any such belief in its embryonic form simply by pointing to the grave in the hillside or exhuming the body and parading it through the streets. Instead, the Jewish response to the resurrection message lay elsewhere.
For this reason, critics who deny the historicity of the empty tomb are also compelled to deny the historicity of the burial account. Yet, as we have seen, the evidence for the burial is very strong.
The earliest Jewish polemic presupposes the empty tomb. In Matthew 28:11-15 is the story of the Roman guards at Jesus’ tomb reporting to the chief priests what happened (see Mt. 28:4) and how they responded. The historicity of the guards at the tomb is less important than the concluding phrase, “And this story has been spread among the Jews to this day.” Even if we regard the story as an apologetic legend, it is nevertheless indisputable that there is a tradition-history of assertion and counter-assertion behind the narrative. At the time Matthew was writing this narrative the tradition-history was continuing to develop, but what was already commonly known was the Jewish response to the preaching of the resurrection, this being “The disciples came and stole away his body.” This is remarkable for had the tomb been occupied the Jewish response would have been “look at the tomb or to exhume the body.” Instead their response presupposes the tomb was empty. This is enemy attestation, one of the more powerful canons of historical research.
The discovery of the empty tomb by women. In all four gospels it is a group of Jesus’ women followers who are the first witnesses to the empty tomb (Mt. 28:1-10; Mk. 16:1-8; Lk. 24:1-3; Jn. 20:1). What makes this incredible is that women occupied a very low rung on the Jewish social ladder – a reflection of the patriarchy of first century Palestine. Moreover, the testimony of women was regarded as so worthless that Josephus rules it out “on account of the levity and boldness of their sex” (Antiquities IV.8.15). Though their testimony was admissible in court on some matters, given the general reluctance of the Mediterranean world at the time to accept a woman’s testimony on crucial matters, most scholars hold that the gospels would not have made women the chief witnesses to the empty tomb unless they actually were. Any latter legend would have certainly made males the chief witnesses and discovers of the empty tomb. That it is women who are the chief witnesses can only be explained by gospel writers faithfully recording what was to them, an embarrassing truth.
(III) The appearances
After the crucifixion the disciples had experiences that they believed was the risen Jesus. The following reasons are why these appearances are a part of the historical bedrock.
Paul’s lists the eyewitnesses. We have already seen the creedal formula Paul quotes in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8. The full passage is quoted here.3 For I handed on to you as of first importance what I also received: 4 that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures; 5 that he was buried; that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures; 6 that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at once, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 After that he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one born abnormally, he appeared to me.
- Peter. Cephas is the Aramaic form of Peter, a semitism which vouches for the authenticity of the creed. We know from Galatians 1:18 that Paul spent time with Peter three years after his conversion on a fact-finding mission, where this tradition was most likely received and verified by him directly. The appearance to Peter is independently attested to in another old Christian tradition found in Luke 24:34.
- The Twelve. This is vouched for by Paul who had contact with the twelve, and it is also attested to independently in Luke 24:36-42 and John 20:19-20.
- The 500. This appearance is not multiply attested to. Paul does however add a parenthetical remark “most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.” This is effectively saying, “The witnesses are there to be questioned, though some have died since.”  Since Paul would not have challenged his readers to seek out the witnesses if they did not exist, the historicity of the appearance to the 500 is historically on firm ground.
- James. By the criterion of embarrassment and of multiple, independent attestation (Mk. 3:21, 31-35; Jn. 7:1-10) we have high historical certainty that James, the younger brother of Jesus, was a skeptic during Jesus’ ministry. The crucifixion would have confirmed to James that his brother’s messianic pretensions were delusory. Yet afterward he is counted among the apostles and becomes a leader in the church (Acts 1:14; 21:18; Gal. 1:19; 2:9; 1 Cor. 9:5). From Josephus we see James was stoned to death for his faith sometime after 60 A.D. (Antiquities 20.200). What was it that affected this turnaround? Only a post-mortem appearance could have. The conversion of James is one of the surest proofs of the resurrection of Jesus.
- “All the Apostles.” Paul’s personal contact with the Apostles is the guarantee of this group, which is possibly a limited circle of Christian missionaries but wider than the Twelve (i.e. Acts 1:21-22).
- Saul of Tarsus. Paul appends to the formula his own appearance experience, which radically changed his life. This appearance is attested to multiple times in Paul’s letters, and related in Acts 9:1-9 (c.f. 22:6-11; 26-12-18). Because he was a persecutor of Christians before his transformation on the Damasus road, his testimony can be classed as enemy attestation. Because he saw “Jesus our Lord” (1 Cor. 9:1) he was willing to enter a life of poverty, labor and intense suffering on behalf of Christ, eventually accepting martyrdom for his faith in Rome after 60 A.D. For these reasons Paul is the darling of critical scholarship, providing superlative evidence that various individuals and groups, with various dispositions, experienced appearances of Jesus alive after his crucifixion.
Multiple, independent attestation of the gospel accounts. The accounts of Jesus’ post-mortem appearances in the gospels verify Paul’s list of eyewitnesses. Not mentioned by Paul are the women witnesses, independently attested to by Matthew and John (Mt. 28:9-10; Jn. 20:11-17). The omission in the creedal formula is probably due to the discomfort of citing female witnesses, and the gospels inclusion of the women fulfils the criterion of embarrassment. The appearances in Galilee are not in Paul’s list, independently reported by Mark, Matthew, and John (Mk. 12; Mt. 28:16-20; Jn. 21).
The amount of evidence for the post-mortem appearances is incredible. Even the skeptical critic Gerd Lüdemann says, “It is historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after his death, in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ.”
(IV) The disciples came to believe that God raised Jesus from the dead.
The origin of the Christian movement itself hinges on the disciples belief that Jesus was resurrected from the dead. Belief in the resurrection reversed the tragedy of the crucifixion. Luke Johnson, the New Testament scholar at Emery University muses, “Some sort of powerful transformative experience is required to generate the sort of movement early Christianity was.” If this mystery X is not the resurrection we are left with it being a construction either of Christian, Jewish or Pagan influences.
It obviously couldn’t be Christian as the disciple’s belief in Christ’s resurrection from the dead is absolutely foundational to Christian belief – there simply wasn’t any Christianity yet.
The parallels in pagan mythologies are spurious at best; either being symbols of the crop seasons or not in fact resurrections at all. Moreover there is no causal connection to Jewish society, as Jews despised these Pagan myths.
The idea of resurrection in terms of Jewish influences was not unfamiliar (Ex. 37, Isa. 26:19, Dan. 5:2) and this idea flourished in the inter-testamental period. But in Jewish thinking the resurrection of the dead differed in two fundamental respects; 1) it always happened at the end of the world, and 2) it always involved everyone – never a single person. Moreover, it never involved a Messiah that was shamefully executed as a criminal.
But if the disciple’s belief cannot be explained by Christian, Jewish, or pagan influences, then X must be the resurrection. C. F. D. Moule writes, “If the coming into existence of the Nazarenes, a phenomenon undeniably attested by the New Testament, rips a great hole in history, a hole the size and shape of the resurrection, what does the secular historian propose to stop it up with? The birth and rapid rise of the Christian church remain an unsolved enigma for any historian who refuses to take seriously the only explanation offered by the church itself.”
The Best Explanation
In his book Justifying Historical Descriptions, C. B. McCullagh lays out a conventional “theory of historical inference” capable of justifying belief in the truth of singular historical descriptions. In meeting these criteria a hypothesis can be rendered more credible than alternative hypotheses with respect to the evidence.
Turing to an evaluation of the resurrection hypothesis: God raised Jesus from the dead.
- Explanatory Scope. The resurrection hypothesis comfortably explains all of the four historical facts discussed above.
- Explanatory Power. The historical data we do have is extremely probable on the resurrection hypothesis. If Jesus rose from the dead, then we would expect there to be an empty grave, and so forth.
- Plausible. When placed in the context of Jesus’ unparalleled miraculous life, his radical self-conception, and his execution on the basis of his personal claims, the plausibility of the resurrection hypothesis grows exceptionally. When placed in a philosophical context of the evidence for God’s existence it no more implausible than rival hypotheses.
- Contrivance. The resurrection hypothesis only introduces one additional hypothesis – that God exists. But this need not be an additional hypothesis if you already believe it. Thus the degree of contrivance is low.
- Disconfirmed by fewer accepted beliefs. The resurrection hypothesis does not do anything to disconfirm the belief that dead men don’t rise naturally from the dead. The hypothesis is that Jesus rose supernaturally from the dead.
- Exceeds rival hypothesis fulfilling these conditions. After two millennia and three hundred years of intense biblical and historical criticism there is little chance a rival hypothesis will compare with the resurrection hypothesis. Many rival hypotheses have been proposed over the years, but each explanation suffers considerable weaknesses with respect to the evidence.
We have considered the evidence for four facts, which we can be sure are a part of the portrait of the historical Jesus. These facts are the burial, the empty tomb, the post-mortem appearance, and that the disciples radically came to believe that Jesus rose from the dead. We have also seen that the resurrection hypothesis fulfils the conventional criteria in historical investigation for inference to the best explanation.
For Trevena, it will not be enough that he simply questions my case for Jesus’ resurrection. Even if he is successful in this, it would simply leave us with the position of agnosticism regarding Jesus’ resurrection. In order to establish the resurrection of Jesus is a fiction, absent an overwhelming argument for atheism, he must also propose an explanation of the historical data that exceeds the resurrection hypothesis in fulfilling the criteria for best explanation. Unless and until he does so, the rational person cannot be blamed for believing God raised Jesus from the dead.
- Paul the Apostle declares, “And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Cor. 15:4). Again he says, “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and . . . we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Cor. 15:17-19)
- John A. T. Robinson, The Human Face of God (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1973), 131.
- Rudolf Pesch, Das Markusevangelium, 2 vols., Herders theologischer Kommentar zum Neuen Testament (Freiburg: Herder, 1976-7), 2:21, 364-77.
- This dating presumes a crucifixion of 30 A.D. If the date was 33 A.D. then these dates are simply moved forward accordingly. See G. R. Habermas, “The Resurrection of Jesus Timeline” Contending with Christianity’s Critics: Answering New Atheists and Other Objectors, ed. Paul Copan and William Lane Craig, (Nashville, Tennessee; B&H Academic, 2009), 113-125. For documentation on critical scholarly conclusion as to when and from whom Paul received this material see G. R. Habermas, The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidences for the life of Christ (Joplin, MO: College Press, 1996), 152-57; R. D. Geivett and G. R. Habermas, “The Resurrection Appearances of Jesus,” In Defense of Miracles: A Comprehensive Case for God’s Action in History (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1997), 263-70.
- R. Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 265-66.
- Raymond E. Brown, The Death of the Messiah, (2 vols., Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1994), 2:1240-41.
- G. F. Moore, Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era: The Age of the Tannaim (3 vols., Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1927–30), 1:71.
- Craig Evans, “Jewish Burial Traditions and the Resurrection of Jesus,” n.p. Citied 9 September 2008. Online: http://craigaevans.com/Burial_Traditions.pdf
- Gary R. Habermas, “Resurrection Research from 1975 to the Present: What are Critical Scholars Saying?” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, 3.2 (2005), 135-153.
- This tradition not only appears in Matthew (c. 70 A.D.), but in Justin Martyr (c. 150 A.D.), Tertullian (c. 200 A.D.), and the Jewish the book Toledoth (no earlier than the fourth century).
- Quoted in William Lane Craig, The Son Rises: Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus (Chicago: Moody Press, 1981), 84-85, 88; “Contemporary Scholarship and the Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ,” Truth 1 (1985): 89-95.
- C. H. Dodd, “The Appearances of the Risen Christ: A Study in the form criticism of the Gospels,” in More New Testament Studies (Manchester: University of Manchester, 1968), 128.
- Hans Grass, Ostergeschehen und Osterberichte, 4th ed. (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Roprecht, 1974), 80.
- There is speculation as to whether the appearance to the 500 occurred in Galilee.
- Gerd Lüdemann, What really happened to Jesus? trans. John Bowden (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), 80.
- The defeat the cross was for the disciples cannot be understated. Their messiah was not only dead. He was literally under a curse of God.
- Luke Timothy Johnson, The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), 136.
- That is why the movement that tried to find these parallels died out in the 19th Century and only exists today because it was resurrected by the Internet Infidel crowd.
-  Jesus sided with the Pharisee’s teaching about the general resurrection at the end of the age as opposed to the Sadducees who denied it (Mk. 12:18-27; c.f. Jn. 5:28-29; 6:39-40; Mk. 12:18-27).
- N. T. Wright, Christian Origins and the Question of God, vol. 3: The Resurrection of the Son of God, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 3:557-58.
- C. F. D. Moule, The Phenomenon of the New Testament (London; SCM, 1967), 3,13.
- C. B. McCullagh, Justifying Historical Descriptions (Cambridge: University Press, 1984), 19. These criteria are: 1) The statement, together with other true statements, must imply further statements describing present, observable data. 2) The hypothesis must have greater explanatory scope: that is, imply a greater variety of observable data than rival hypotheses. 3) The hypothesis must have greater explanatory power: that is, make the observable data more probable than rival hypotheses. 4) The hypotheses must be more plausible: that is, be implied by a greater variety of accepted truths, and its negation implied by fewer accepted truths than rival hypotheses. 5) The hypothesis must be less as hoc: that is, include fewer new suppositions about the past not already implied by existing knowledge than rival hypotheses. 6) The hypothesis must be disconfirmed by fewer accepted beliefs: that is, when conjoined with accepted truths, imply fewer false statements than rival hypotheses. 7) The hypothesis must so exceed its rivals in fulfilling conditions 2 to 6 that there is little chance of a rival hypothesis, after further investigation, exceeding it in meeting these conditions.
Malcolm Trevena’s Opening Statement can be read here.
The response that followed can be read here.