In The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, Gary R. Habermas, Ph.D. and Michael R. Licona, Ph.D. lay out five facts about Jesus that are basically beyond dispute. These facts are nearly universally accepted by scholars, both Christian and skeptic. To those facts, I have added one of my own (#1 below). These facts are strongly attested historically, and they do not rely on the Bible being divinely inspired or even reliable to be accepted:
- Jesus existed
- Jesus died by crucifixion
- Jesus’ disciples believed that He rose from the dead and appeared to them
- The church persecutor, Paul, suddenly changed and became a leading Christian missionary
- The skeptic (and brother of Jesus), James, suddenly changed and became a Christian
- The tomb was empty
In this post, the third of a three-part series, we’ll address facts 5 and 6.
Fact 5: The skeptic (and brother of Jesus), James, suddenly changed and became a Christian
The story of James, brother of Jesus, can be pieced together from both Christian and non-Christian sources. By all accounts, James was a pious Jew who did not follow Jesus during his earthly ministry. In fact, he was skeptical of Jesus claims, and remained so until after Jesus was crucified.
After Jesus was crucified, James was allegedly visited by the risen Jesus. Needless to say, that experience had quite an impact on James, and he became a committed Christian. In fact, he later assumed a leadership position of the Christian church in Jerusalem, which was highly central to the entire Christian movement.
James remained in Jerusalem for the rest of his life. Sometime in the mid-60’s A.D., he was killed by Jewish authorities for his role in spreading Christian beliefs and, by extension, his perceived threat to Judaism.
The main point of this story is the following: Something incredible must have happened to James for him to transform from skeptic to committed believer…a believer who was so committed that he became a leader in the church and ultimately died for those beliefs. Something convinced James that Jesus had risen from the dead and was the Son of God after all.
It would be easy for a skeptic to totally dismiss the story of James as “Christian propaganda” if it weren’t so well attested in multiple sources. Even sources that today reside in the Bible must be taken seriously because, it must be remembered, those sources were never originally intended to be collected in a holy book. They are books and letters written by different people at different times for different purposes, and were only later collected into a biblical canon. Yet, in many cases, they corroborate one another.
Two of the gospels, Mark and John, report that James did not initially believe in Jesus’ ministry. An ancient oral creed, cited by Paul in his first letter to the Corinthian church, mentions the appearance of the risen Jesus to James. The book, Acts of the Apostles, written in the first century, identifies James as a leader of the church in Jerusalem. Paul’s letter to the Galatian church also identifies James as a leader in the church. Finally, multiple sources attest to James’ martyrdom: The Jewish historian Josephus (c. 37 – c. 100 A.D.), as well as the ancient historians Hegesippus (c. 110 – c. 180 A.D.) and Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 – c. 215 A.D.), as quoted by a later historian, Eusebius (c. 260 – c. 340 A.D.)
The conversion of James is not just a story, it is history. It is well attested and accepted by secular and religious scholars today. The question is: If James was not visited by his risen brother, as the claims indicate, then what caused him to make such a fundamental transformation?
Fact 6: The tomb was empty
Following Jesus’ crucifixion, his body was sealed in a stone tomb (basically, it was a cave). A heavy stone was rolled in front of the tomb’s opening, and guards placed at the entrance (at the request of Jewish authorities).
Several days later, when a couple of women went to the tomb to anoint the body, they found the tomb open, unguarded, and empty. According to the gospel accounts, an angel told the women that Jesus had risen. The women then left and excitedly informed the disciples. In subsequent days, the risen Jesus appeared to the disciples, as well as to many other people. From that point, the disciples began their mission to spread the Christian message.
The empty tomb is a core element of the story, and here we’ll outline three basic arguments in support of its reality. First is what Habermas and Licona call the “Jerusalem Factor.” Jesus was very publicly crucified in Jerusalem. He was buried there, and that is where he allegedly arose from the dead and made numerous appearances. Neither the Jewish nor the Roman authorities in Jerusalem wanted the nascent Christian movement to continue. If Jesus’ body had been in the tomb, then Christianity would never have gotten off the ground. As history has shown, Christianity did get off the ground and spread rapidly.
No Roman or Jewish officials ever surfaced to claim that the body had been found, nor did anyone ever display a body in an attempt to quell the talk of Jesus’ resurrection. Why? Because there was no corpse to display.
Related to this is another argument in favor of the empty tomb: Enemy attestation. None of the earliest critics of Christianity—including those present at the time—argued that the body was still in the tomb. Instead, they argued that Jesus’ disciples must have stolen the body and hidden it. The empty tomb was, even to the critics, a fact that had to be explained. It was not a myth to be denied. As this blog has covered in another post, the argument that the disciples stole the body and then preached the Christian message for the rest of their lives as a lie, does not make logical sense. Why would these disciples have devoted their lives—and then died as martyrs—for something they knew to be false? The short answer is they didn’t.
The third argument relates to the testimony of women. Remember this: In ancient Jewish society, as well as in Roman society, women were considered to be second-class citizens and their rights were very limited. In addition, their testimony in court was basically considered useless.
Given the nature of society at the time, it is highly unlikely that gospel authors would have invented a story in which the first witnesses to the risen Christ were women, who then went and informed the men. This would actually have served, in many people’s eyes at the time, to harm the story’s credibility! If the story had been invented, then the authors would almost certainly have written that men were the first witnesses. The only reason to write the “embarrassing” fact that women discovered the empty tomb, is that it was true.
While none of the six facts outlined in this three part series proves that Jesus was the Son of God who died for our sins and gave us the keys to eternal life, they do support the idea. In addition, they also help establish the basic truth of the gospel narrative.
Image Attribution: Annibale Carracci, Holy Women at Christ’s Tomb, 1590’s [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons