This past spring I received a call from a man who had read an article I had written answering the claims of “The Lost Tomb of Jesus” documentary, which alleged that the family tomb of Jesus had been identified and contained the skeletal remains of Jesus; of His wife, Mary Magdalene; and of His son, Judah. The caller stated firmly that he disagreed with my criticisms and wanted to ask me a few questions:
- Would it really matter if this was the family tomb of Jesus and these were His skeletal remains?
- Couldn’t one still follow Christ if they were?
I thought these were fair questions. I answered, “Jesus made some radical claims during His ministry. He claimed to be God’s divine Son who could forgive sins and added that eternal life can be obtained only through Him. That statement was as politically incorrect to Jesus’ hearers as it is to many today. Anyone can make high claims. Backing them up is a different matter. And as we may expect, Jesus’ critics asked Him for proof that He was who He claimed. Jesus answered that He would provide one sign: His resurrection from the dead (Matthew 12:38-40, John 2:18-22). Whoa! If He can’t do that, then we know He’s not who He claimed. Instead, He’s a false prophet. So, yes, it would matter in a big way if those are the skeletal remains of Jesus of Nazareth: Christianity would be false.
He reflected on that and after a pause stated, “But I want to believe that they found Jesus’ remains!” Ah, now we were getting to the root. After talking further I perceived that my caller wanted a Jesus whom he could manage rather than a Jesus who was calling my new friend to follow Him. Oftentimes people will express disbelief in Jesus’ resurrection, providing intellectual objections, when the real reason concerns their will: “I don’t want to believe.”
A little further into our discussion the caller realized there were numerous and good reasons why virtually no scholars believed the claim that the skeletal remains of Jesus of Nazareth had been identified. “OK,” he said. “But that does not mean Jesus rose from the dead.” I answered that he was correct and then added, “The reason you should not believe that we have identified the family tomb of Jesus is because the evidence for it is very poor. The reason you should believe Jesus rose from the dead is because there is outstanding evidence for it.” Then he asked, “What evidence is there for the resurrection of Jesus if I don’t believe the Bible is inspired by God?”
Another fair question. I believe that the Bible is God’s inspired Word. But when talking with nonbelievers I’m reminded of a line by Lt. Daniel Kaffee played by Tom Cruise in the movie A Few Good Men: “It doesn’t matter what I believe. It only matters what I can prove!” With this in mind I shared with my caller that there are four facts pertaining to the resurrection of Jesus for which the evidence is so strong that they are granted as historical fact by a large majority of scholars:
- Jesus’ death by crucifixion;
- The empty tomb;
- The beliefs of Jesus’ friends that He had risen and appeared to them; and
- The conversion of Jesus’ foe Saul (later the Apostle Paul) because he believed Jesus had risen and appeared to him.
Historians must construct a scenario that best accounts for these facts. It’s like working on a puzzle. Just as the completion of the puzzle employs all the pieces without forcing certain ones to fit where they do not go, the best historical explanation employs all of the known facts without forcing any of them to fit.
We know that Jesus was arrested and crucified. This would have placed emotional stress on His disciples and might have made them candidates for hallucinations. The first fact, Jesus’ death, is not in question. And hallucinations do not explain the second fact: how the tomb became vacated. Hallucinations can only partially explain the third fact. Since hallucinations are a private phenomenon, this could explain an appearance to a disciple who may have been stricken with guilt and grief. Most of the reported appearances, however, were to groups, which cannot see the same hallucination. Hallucinations are like dreams. I could not wake my wife in the middle of the night and say, “Honey, I’m dreaming we’re in Hawaii. Go back to sleep and join me in my dream.” So, the hallucination theory strains the third fact tremendously to make it fit. And it cannot at all explain the fourth fact, since Jesus’ foes would not have been grieving over His death and would not have been candidates for hallucinations.
Reburial by Disciples?
As mentioned earlier, claims were made this past spring that the family tomb of Jesus had been discovered. The documentary proposed that Jesus’ disciples had taken His body from the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea and reburied it in His family tomb. This proposal easily accounts for the first and second facts—Jesus’ death by crucifixion and the empty tomb. However, it cannot explain the third and fourth. For if the disciples knew the location of the skeletal remains of Jesus, why would they proclaim He had been raised bodily as the earliest Christians taught? The fourth fact, the conversion of an adversary such as Saul, is likewise left unexplained. A reburied or stolen body would have been one of the first things suspected by Christ’s adversaries.
The resurrection accounts for all four facts without forcing any of them like misplaced puzzle pieces. In fact, we have exactly what we would expect if Jesus rose from the dead: reports of His death by crucifixion, which also appear in the writings of non-Christian historians of the period; His empty tomb; and His resurrection appearances to friends and foes alike.
These facts are granted even by most skeptical scholars who do not believe the Bible was inspired by God because the evidence is so compelling. Even a Roman historian named Tacitus and a Jewish historian named Josephus reported Jesus’ death by crucifixion. Paul’s conversion is reported by early sources and eyewitness sources. The claim of Jesus’ disciples that He had been raised and had appeared to them is preserved in an ancient oral tradition that predates all of the New Testament writings and can be traced with certainty to the Jerusalem Church within just a few years of Jesus’ crucifixion. Some writings outside of the New Testament report that the Jewish leaders were claiming Jesus’ disciples had stolen His body—but why would they say this if His bones were in the family tomb? So even Jesus’ enemies have assisted modern historians.
Weighing scenarios as above is not always so simple, but it can be an enlightening exercise. I am personally encouraged to see that the resurrection of Jesus, which I long believed by faith only, is strongly supported by the conclusions of sound historical investigation. This sets Christianity apart from other religions. Jesus based the truth of His teachings about Himself—and how you and I can know God—on His resurrection. This is an audacious test that could be passed only if Almighty God raised His Son from the grave.