The military of ancient Rome really blew it. When it came to the resurrection of Jesus, the troops who guarded His tomb could have saved us all a lot of time and trouble by just giving up His dead body. One problem: they never did. They didn’t because they couldn’t. And they couldn’t because, despite what you may have read or heard, the resurrection of Jesus was and is a well-attested fact, perhaps the best-attested fact of antiquity.
Neither the Romans nor the Jews of Jesus’ day denied it. In fact, practically nobody denied it for 1,700 years. But now it’s fashionable to deny it or, at least, to cast doubt on it. Why? Has the evidence changed? No, the testimony of history is still the same. As Thomas Arnold, former chair of Modern History at Oxford University, once wrote, “I know of no one fact in the history of mankind which is proved by better and fuller evidence of every sort, to the understanding of a fair inquirer, than the great sign which God [has] given us that Christ died and rose again from the dead” (see Sermons on the Christian Life: Its Hopes, Its Fears, and Its Close [6th ed.; London, 1859] 324).
Well, if the historical evidence is so clear, why do certain scholars and laypersons discount Jesus’ resurrection? For some it’s simply that they’re not informed about the facts. For many others, however, it’s because they have a bias against the miraculous. Both of these factors show up in certain media presentations on the resurrection.
Take, for example, the argument that, because there is a gap of 40 years between the first Gospel and the resurrection event itself, we can state nothing historical about Jesus’ resurrection. Is this 40-year gap a problem? No, it isn’t, because the earliest New Testament documents — the Apostle Paul’s letters from the late 40s and early 50s — record that, while Paul was writing those letters, over 500 people who had seen the resurrected Jesus were still alive and talking about it. The point is, Paul’s letters narrow the gap between the Gospel accounts and the resurrection event itself to about 20 years, and his testimony is unquestionably compatible with that of the Gospels. Is it true, then, that the compelling details about Jesus’ resurrection were nowhere to be found before the first Gospel was written? No: those details were publicly available in the spoken witness of the earliest disciples, in the spoken witness of the church, and in the written witness of the apostles’ earliest letters.
What about the claim that the idea of a physical resurrection was historically just one of several ways to give meaning to Jesus’ life and death? Non-miraculous explanations of Jesus’ resurrection only rewrite the evidence to suit themselves. The fact is, only the miraculous explanation makes sense of all the New Testament evidence, the disciples’ transformed lives, and the early church’s phenomenal growth. Someone may say that the miraculous explanation is beyond the ability of the historian to prove. But this is only true if we start with the bias that the miraculous is not part of history. Remember this: the disciples themselves were initially skeptical of Jesus’ resurrection, and they became convinced of it once they saw Him, heard Him, and touched Him.
This is why the Apostle John wrote as he did about the witness of the Apostles to Jesus, including His resurrection:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life — the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us — that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. (1 John 1:1-3, ESV)