Is the Easter Story of Jesus' Resurrection True?

by Ryan Turner

As Easter comes and goes each year, many people wonder whether there are any solid reasons to believe that the actual story of Jesus' resurrection is true.  Did Jesus really rise from the dead on that Sunday morning, or is Christianity based on a myth?

Surprisingly to some, there are actually solid historical reasons to believe that Jesus did, in fact, rise from the dead.

Reason #1: Jesus died by Crucifixion

Ancient Testimony

There are multiple, early historical sources which testify to the crucifixion of Jesus including in all four New Testament Gospels (c. 50-100 A.D.), various epistles of Paul (c. 48-62 A.D.), and other non-Pauline epistles (c. 48-90 A.D.).  Interestingly, Jesus' crucifixion is not just attested by the New Testament, but also by a large number of secular writers.  It is also attested by various non-Christian historians and writers including the Jewish-Roman historian Josephus (c. A.D. 90-95), the Roman historian Tacitus (c. A.D. 115), Lucian of Samosota (c. 2nd Century A.D.), Mara Bar-Serapion (c. Late 1st to Early 3rd Centuries A.D.), and even the Jewish Talmud (c. A.D. 70-200).  This is a remarkable amount of historical testimony for an ancient event, especially from sources coming within 20 years of Jesus' death.  By contrast, Alexander the Great's first biography was written 400 years after his life. 

The Flogging

In addition to the ancient testimony for the crucifixion, the medical nature of the crucifixion accounts in the Gospels indicate that Jesus would not have survived the rigors of the crucifixion.  Interestingly, the Journal of the American Medical Association wrote a special on the crucifixion of Jesus. In just describing the flogging, they stated,

"The usual instrument was a short whip…with several single or braided leather thongs of variable lengths, in which small iron balls or sharp pieces of sheep bones were tied at intervals…the man was stripped of his clothing, and his hands were tied to an upright post… The back, buttocks, and legs were flogged…. The scourging…was intended to weaken the victim to a state just short of collapse or death…. As the Roman soldiers repeatedly struck the victim’s back with full force, the iron balls would cause deep contusions, and the leather thongs and sheep bones would cut into the skin and subcutaneous tissues. Then, as the flogging continued, the lacerations would tear into the underlying skeletal muscles and produce quivering ribbons of bleeding flesh."1

The Crucifixion

However, the whipping was not all the affliction Jesus would receive.  When his wrists were nailed to the cross, “...the driven nail would crush or sever the rather large sensorimotor median nerve. The stimulated nerve would produce excruciating bolts of fiery pain in both arms.”2.  Alex Metherell, an expert on human physiology, notes that the sensation would be like using pliers to crush the nerve that causes intense pain when we hit our elbow or “funny bone.”3

After surveying the medical evidence, the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded, “Accordingly, interpretations based on the assumption that Jesus did not die on the cross appear to be at odds with modern medical knowledge.”4.

Likewise, most skeptical historians agree with this conclusion.  The noted Jesus expert John Dominic Crossan states, “That he was crucified is as sure as anything historical can ever be.”5  The idea of the Swoon Theory that Jesus merely appeared to die on the cross and was later revived by his disciples has been virtually unanimously rejected by scholars today.

Reality Check

Furthermore, the Romans are known to have been experts at killing their victims.  The idea that someone could survive the crucifixion tortures is highly unlikely.  Even more, if Jesus had survived the crucifixion, his battered body would have hardly been a motivation for the disciples to start a new religion.  Jesus comes into their midst staggering and bloody and says, "I am risen!"  Jesus would have deserved medical attention, not reverence as the risen prince of life!

Reason #2: Jesus' Tomb was Empty (JET)

In addition to the crucifixion, there are numerous reasons to believe that the tomb was indeed empty on that Easter morning.  This evidence can be summarized by the acronym JET: J - Jerusalem Factor, E - Enemy Testimony, and T - Testimony of Women.  First, the disciples preached the gospel in Jerusalem in the midst of opposition.  It would have been virtually impossible for Christianity to survive and expand in Jerusalem if the body of Jesus was still in the tomb.  All the opponents of Jesus would have had to do was produce the body of Jesus and squelch this Christian movement.

Second, early enemies of Christianity never disputed that the tomb was empty.  Instead, they argued that the disciples stole the body (Matt. 28:12-13; Justin Martyr, Trypho 108; Tertullian, De Spectaculis 30).

Third, and perhaps the strongest evidence, the first witnesses to the empty tomb were women.  Sadly, the testimony of women was not regarded highly in antiquity.  The Jewish Talmud states,  "“Any evidence which a woman [gives] is not valid (to offer), also they are not valid to offer. This is equivalent to saying that one who is Rabbinically accounted a robber is qualified to give the same evidence as a woman” (Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 1.8)."  Furthermore, “Sooner let the words of the Law be burnt than delivered to women” (Talmud, Sotah 19a).  However, in the Gospels, the apostles are the ones who are cowardly hiding from the Jews and the women bring them news of the empty tomb!  If Christians were going to invent the empty tomb story, they most certainly would not have used women as the primary witnesses.

Reason #3: Jesus Appeared to Many after his Death

1 Corinthians 15:3-8 preserves some extremely early creedal material which testifies to multiple resurrection appearances of Jesus to individuals and groups of people.

1 Corinthians 15:3-8, “3For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,  4and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,  5and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep;  7then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; 8and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also.”

Scholars generally date this material in verses 3-7 as part of an early statement of belief (or creed) which dates back to a few years after Jesus' crucifixion in 30 A.D.  Atheistic New Testament scholar Gerd Ludemann dates the creed to 32-33 A.D.  It is quite likely that Paul received this creedal material from the early eyewitnesses of the resurrection appearances including Peter, James, and John when he went to Jerusalem (Galatians 1-2).

This eyewitness testimony suggests that Jesus appeared to a large number of witnesses including Cephas, the twelve, more than five hundred brethren, James, and all the apostles.

Reason #4: The Transformation of the Disciples and the Emergence of the Christian Faith

The early disciples of Jesus did not expect their great Messiah named Jesus to ever face crucifixion and rise from the dead.  In line with the current Jewish thoughts of the day, the disciples' Messiah was to triumphantly defeat the Romans and deliver the kingdom of God to the nation of Israel (cf. Acts 1:6).  It is clear that the disciples did not expect the crucifixion.  It was indeed an embarrassment to their faith.  Their chief leaders had abandoned the faith and become skeptics and doubters.  Of all people, women were the first to bring them news of the resurrection! 

But, something happened to radically change these pitiful cowardly disciples from trembling doubters to bold proclaimers of this radical notion of a dying and rising Jewish Messiah in the midst of a hostile culture.  These disciples were willing to die for their faith, and many of them would actually face death (all of the twelve apostles died by martyrdom except John).  Radically, they changed their primary day of worship from Saturday to Sunday, they began to worship this man named Jesus while still claiming to be faithful Monotheistic Jews, something that was extremely radical and was blasphemous to the Judaism of the day. They did this all because something happened on that first Easter morning.

Due to all of these factors, it is certainly reasonable to conclude with the former church persecutor, then turned Christian, the apostle Paul,

"Death is swallowed up in victory. 55'O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?' 56The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; 57but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ," (1 Cor. 15:54-57).

  • 1. “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ,” Journal of the American Medical Association, 255.11, (21 March 1986): 1457, in Gary Habermas and Michael Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2004.
  • 2. JAMA
  • 3. The Case for Christ, p. 197.
  • 4. JAMA
  • 5. Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, p. 145.