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What Actually Happened in 30 AD?
(The Integrity of the Resurrection of Christ)
By Gary F. Zeolla
if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile;
you are still in your sins!"
The resurrection of Jesus Christ is an essential doctrine of the Christian faith. But what actually happened in 30 AD? Did Jesus really rise from the dead? Or does some alternate theory best explain what is know about that important year? This two-part article will look at the evidences for the resurrection and evaluate alternate theories.
General Reliability of the Gospels
Before looking at the resurrection itself, the general reliability of the four Gospels included in the New Testament needs to be considered. Are they accurate records of the life and teachings of Jesus?
First, the writers assert to be writing literal history (Luke 3:1f). They claim to be either eye-witnesses of the events or to have received their information from eye-witnesses (Luke 1:1-4; John 19:35). In studies of other ancient documents, historians still abide by "Aristotle's dictum that the benefit of the doubt is to be given to the document itself."
John Warwick Montgomery explains, "This means that one must listen to the claims of the document under analysis and not assume fraud or error unless the author disqualifies himself by contradictions or known factual inaccuracies" (Montgomery, p.29).
It is outside the realm of this paper to present a detailed account of how archeology has confirmed the Gospel records. However, one example that will be important in later discussions will be presented.
Luke records the ministries of John the Baptist and Jesus as occurring during the "... reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea" (Luke 3:1). He also states that Pilate conceded to the crucifixion of Jesus (Luke 23:24).
These statements are upheld by the Roman historian Tacitus (AD 55-117). He writes, "... Christ had been executed in Tiberius' reign by the governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate" (Tacitus, p.365).
Secondly, the Gospels were all written in the first century. The first three Gospels are traditionally dated between 50-65 AD and the Gospel of John 80-95 AD (Criswell, pp.1327, 1498).
However, some have doubted this first century dating of the Gospel of John:
... radical criticism has attempted to date its composition during the middle or end of the second century. Such a view, however, was decisively refuted by the discovery in Egypt of the Ryland's papyrus fragment, which documents the circulation of the Gospel c. AD 135. The book must, therefore, be dated in the first century, and there is no compelling reason for rejecting the traditional view (Criswell, p.1498).
Given the first century dates, hostile eye-witnesses would have discredited the Gospel writers if they were recording inaccurate histories. However, there is no record of this occurring.
Accepting the Gospels as being accurate records for non-supernatural events still doesn't prove the resurrection occurred. For this question, it needs to be ascertained whether any other theory adequately explains all the facts known surrounding the death and burial of Jesus and subsequent events. Following is a list of some of the points needing explanation.
Death of Jesus Christ:
All four Gospel writers record the crucifixion of Jesus (Matt 27:35; Mark 15:24; Luke 23:33; John 19:18). As already mentioned, Tacitus verifies that Jesus was executed (Tacitus, p.365).
The Gospels are also clear in saying Jesus was dead before He was taken off the cross (Matt 17:50; Mark 15:37; Luke 23:46; John 19:30).
John records that a soldier made sure of this fact by piercing Jesus' side with a sword (John 19:34). Mark says Pilate double-checked with the centurion to be sure Jesus was in fact dead before releasing the body (Mark 15:44f).
Josephus was a Jewish historian who lived from 37-100 AD. He also mentions Jesus' crucifixion (Josephus, p.379). This passage has been hotly contested. Some believe the early Christians altered the passage. This belief has arisen because the passage appears too "Christian" for a Jew to have written it. However, an Arabic manuscript omits the questionable passages while retaining the phrase, "Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die" (quoted in Habermas, p.92).
The Jewish Talmud (70-200 AD) records, "On the eve of the Passover, Yeshu (Hebrew for Jesus) was hanged" (Quoted in Habermas, p.98). "Hanged" is used in the NT to describe crucifixion; so there is no contradiction (Luke 23:39; Gal 3:13).
Lucian, a second century Greek satirist writes of the early Christians that they, "...worship the crucified sage" (Quoted in Habermas, p.100).
So there is Jewish, Roman and Grecian collaborating evidence for the fact of Jesus' crucifixion. In these passages, there is not even a hint that Jesus was taken off the cross before he was dead.
Even if Jesus had been still alive when He was taken off the cross, the chance for His survival would have been slim. In 66 AD Josephus, "Discovered three of his friends being crucified. He asked the Roman general Titus to reprieve them, and they were immediately removed from their crosses. Still two of the three died any way" (McDowell, Resurrection, p.49).
Burial of Jesus Christ:
When Jesus' body was taken down, it was bound in linen cloths with a hundred pounds of spices (John 19:39f). This Jewish burial custom would have included covering the face (McDowell, Resurrection, p.92). If He wasn't dead already, the covering of His face and the spices would have snuffed out any flicker of life left.
He was then laid in a new tomb and a large stone rolled in front (Matt 17:60). The Jews, remembering Jesus' prediction that He would rise from the dead, asked Pilate to provide a guard (Matt 27:62-66). Greek scholar A.T. Robertson states that the grammar of verse 65 makes it clear that a guard of Roman soldiers was provided, "... not mere temple police" (Robertson, Vol. I, p.239).
A Roman guard consisted of 4-16 men and, "... was probably one of the greatest offensive and defensive fighting machines ever conceived" (McDowell, Resurrection, p.55). Further, a Roman soldier falling asleep on duty would be punished by death (McDowell, Evidence, p.213).
Jesus' Empty Tomb:
Despite the above precautions, on Sunday morning following the crucifixion, Jesus' tomb was empty. Again, all four Gospel writers record this fact (Matt 28:6; Mark 16:6; Luke 24:5f; John 20:2).
Further, there was great excitement over bodies missing from tombs in Judea in the first half of the first century. This fact is known due to the discovery in Nazareth of a decree of Claudius (reigned 41-54 AD). It reads, "Ordinance of Caesar. It is my pleasure that graves and tombs remain perpetually undisturbed .... In case of violation I desire that the offender be sentenced to capital punishment on charge of violation of sepulchre" (Habermas, p.155).
The death penalty for grave robbing? Something must have happened in Israel to cause this kind of reaction from the emperor. Could it have been the missing body of Jesus and the subsequent preaching of the resurrection?
Records of the Resurrection:
Every Gospel describes appearances of Jesus to the disciples after He had been crucified (Matt 28; Mark 16; Luke 24; John 20;21).
Luke, in the Book of Acts, writes of Jesus and the apostles, "... to whom He also presented Himself alive after His suffering by many infallible proofs, being seen by them forty days and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God" (Acts 1:3).
Paul also records a list of resurrection appearances in his first epistle to the Corinthians (1Cor 15:3-8). This passage is particularly important. It pre-dates the writing of the Gospels themselves. The epistle itself was written around 56 AD (Criswell, p.1622).
However, in 1Cor 15:3-7:
... virtually all scholars agree that Paul recorded an ancient creed concerning Jesus' death and Resurrection. That this material is traditional and pre-Pauline is evident from the technical terms "delivered" and "received," the parallelism and somewhat stylized content, the proper names of Cephas and James, the non-Pauline words, and the possibility of an Aramaic original.
Concerning the date of this creed, critical scholars almost always agree that it has a very early origin, usually placing it in the AD 30s (Habermas quoted in Miethe, p.23).
Preaching of the
The Book of Acts records the preaching activity of the apostles. It centered on the claim Jesus Christ had risen from the dead (Acts 2:22-36; 3:12-15; 10:34-43).
This preaching activity is confirmed by extra-biblical sources. Josephus states, (Arabic version) "They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive" (quoted in Habermas, p.92).
Tacitus records, "But in spite of this temporary setback (the crucifixion) the deadly superstition had broken out afresh, not only in Judea, where it had started, but even in Rome" (Tacitus, p.365).
The Tacitus quote is also important in that it again confirms Luke. The Book of Acts records that the resurrection was first preached in Judea, more specifically Jerusalem (Acts 2). This is near the very place where Jesus had been crucified and buried (John 19:38-42).
Finally, the disciples were so convinced Jesus had risen, they continued to preach the resurrection despite persecution and martyrdom. Luke records the slaying of James the apostle (Acts 12:2). Josephus describes the stoning of James the Just (Josephus, p.423).
Clement, a disciple of the apostle Paul, wrote an epistle to the Corinthians about 95 AD (see Phil 4:3). In the fifth chapter, Clement recounts the martyrdoms of Peter and Paul (Lightfoot, pp.3,59). John the apostle left a record of his own banishment in Revelation 1:9.
According to tradition, the other apostles were all also persecuted and martyred for the faith (Knechtle, p.116). This type of fortitude in men who formally forsook and denied Christ needs to be explained (Matt 26:56,69-75).
Growth of Early Church:
The preaching of the apostles met with great success. The Christian movement grew rapidly despite the persecution. This growth is recorded in Acts and verified by the previous quote by Tacitus.
Tacitus also adds detailed descriptions of the horrendous persecutions the early Christians suffered (pp.365f). These points are also mentioned by Suetonius (secretary to emperor Hadrian, 117-138 AD) and Pliny the Younger (Roman historian, 112 AD; Habermas, pp.89f,95)
Change in Day of Worship:
And finally, the early Christians moved their day of worship from Saturday to Sunday. The Church was initially exclusively Jewish. At that time, Jews had been worshipping on Saturday for 14 centuries. Something dramatic must have happened on a Sunday to cause this change in a centuries long tradition.
Numerous alternative theories to the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ have been proposed over the centuries. They all attempt to explain what actually happened in 30 AD in Judea without appealing to the miraculous.
This article will evaluate some of the more important of these theories.
The first alternative theory to look at is the oldest. It is recorded in the Gospel of Matthew 28:11-15. Here, the soldiers guarding the tomb are bribed by the chief priests to say, "His disciples came at night and stole Him away while we slept" (Matt. 28:13).
Paul Little comments, "That story is so obviously false that Matthew doesn't even bother to refute it! ... Who knows what goes on while he's asleep? Testimony like this would be laughed out of any court" (Little, p.25).
There are several other points which also don't hold up in this theory. First, how would the disciples have moved the stone without waking the guard?
Second, John records that the linens used to wrap the body were still in the grave (John 20:5-7). Why would grave robbers have taken the time to unwrap the body?
Third, it is very unlikely all of the 4-16 men comprising a Roman guard would fall asleep. Remember, a Roman soldier falling asleep on the job would be executed. And if they were awake, they could have easily stopped the apostles. "The soldiers were a trained fighting unit. One soldier could have easily dealt with the entire group of disciples" (McDowell, Resurrection, p.93).
Fourth, if the disciples had stolen the body, then they would have all been persecuted and killed for something they knew was a lie. "Men will die for what they believe to be true, though it may actually be false. They do not however, die for what they know is a lie" (Little, p.25).
Fifth, this theory doesn't account for the resurrection appearances of Jesus. The NT records that He appeared to over 500 people following His death (1Cor 15:6). So this theory breaks down at every point.
A variant of this theory is the proposal the Romans or Jews were the thieves. But "Why would the authorities do the very thing that caused all their problems?" (McDowell, Resurrection, p.95). Neither the Romans nor the Jews had any motive to steal the body.
This theory is the women in their grief went to the wrong tomb and everyone else followed suit. But Matthew records that during Jesus' burial, "Mary Magdalene was there, and the other Mary, sitting opposite the tomb" (Matt 27:61). To suggest that two woman sat and watched a Man who had been very important to them being buried and then two days later to forget where He was buried stretches credulity.
Also, John states that he and Peter ran to the tomb immediately after being told by the women that they had seen Jesus (John 20:1-4). They did not follow the women. So John and Peter would have also had to have been mistaken about where their Master had been buried. Further, if they had gone to the wrong tomb, why was there empty linen clothes lying on the floor of the tomb? (John 20:5-8).
Further, Jesus had been buried very near to where He had been crucified (John 19:38-42). So "... why did the high priests and other enemies of the faith not go to the right tomb and produce the body?" (Little, p.26).
And again, this theory doesn't account for the resurrection appearances.
To answer the question of the resurrection appearances, the hallucination theory has been put forth. The idea is the disciples wanted to see Jesus alive so much they only imagined seeing Him. This theory also breaks down on several counts.
First, the followers of Jesus were NOT expecting to see Jesus alive again. "Mary came to the tomb on the first Easter Sunday morning with spices...to anoint the dead body of Jesus" (Little, p.30; see Mark 16:1).
Moreover, "Christ's followers were caused to believe against their wills" (McDowell, Evidence, p.253). Thomas said, "Unless I shall see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe" (John 20:25; see also Luke 24:24:10-12).
Second, it wasn't only Jesus' followers who later preached the resurrection. James and Paul were initially skeptics; but they both became believers as a result of Jesus' appearance to them (1Cor 15:7f).
Third, the resurrection appearances occurred in a wide variety of settings, to people of varying temperaments at different times. However, hallucinations, "... are very individualistic. It is very unlikely that two persons would have the same hallucination at the same time" (McDowell, Evidence, p.249). And it is even less likely 500 would have the same hallucination or different people at different times.
Fourth, "Hallucinations usually occur over a long period of time with noticeable regularity" (McDowell, Resurrection, p.86). After the ascension, the appearances stopped except for the one to Paul several years later; but he makes it clear that this appearance was exceptional (1Cor. 15:8).
Lastly, this theory doesn't account for the empty tomb. To try to combine this theory with the stolen body theory will not do. Both theories break down on several points, not just one or two.
Part Two of this article will continue this look at alternate theories.
See end of Part Two.
What Actually Happened in 30 AD? Copyright © 1999 by Gary F. Zeolla of Darkness to Light ministry (www.zeolla.org/christian).
Books and eBooks by Gary F. Zeolla, the Director of Darkness to Light
The above article was originally written as a
class assignment at Denver Seminary in 1989.
It was posted on this Web site April 10, 1997.
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