This week, as I was thinking about Easter, I read a very interesting article over at Core Christianity called 7 Unbiased Facts About Jesus’ Death.
The facts are “unbiased” in the sense that they’re agreed upon by both conservative and liberal scholars. While there is much disagreement about what happened to Jesus after he died, these “seven unbiased facts” are helpful because they establish some degree of common ground with our unbelieving friends and neighbors. Rather than starting a conversation about Jesus from a point of disagreement, I’ve found it’s helpful to start evangelistic conversations from a point of agreement. (That’s what Paul did in Acts 17 when he preached the gospel in Athens. He began by saying, “Men of Athens … I perceive that in every way you are very religious.” He noted that they had an altar “to the unknown god,” and used that as a jumping-off point to talk about Jesus and the resurrection.)
I also think these “seven unbiased facts” are helpful because they take the story of Jesus out of the realm of fantasy and legend and place it within the realm of history. So often, conversations about “religion” are frustrating because they’re mostly about our feelings. If I say, “You should worship Jesus on Sunday mornings because Jesus changed my life,” and my unbelieving friend says, “You should play golf on Sunday mornings because this titanium driver changed my life,” … the conversation is basically over. If the gospel is true because it’s useful, then who am I to argue with someone else who says golf is useful, or Buddha is useful, or the Quran is useful, etc. If Jesus gives me a better life and those things give you a better life … who’s to say what’s right or wrong? On the other hand, if we point out the gospel is useful because it’s true … that’s another conversation entirely! Then we’re talking about historical facts that can be examined objectively.
With that in mind, I’d like to share some of these “seven objective facts” with you. These specific facts were compiled by Pastor Timothy Massaro who oversees the Christian Education ministry at Resurrection PCA in San Diego, CA. They are listed here with great appreciation for his research!
Objective Fact #1: Jesus was a real person.
The vast majority of scholars agree that Jesus of Nazareth was a real, historical person who lived and died in first century Palestine. This fact is (obviously) attested by the New Testament documents and 2,000 years of church history, but it’s also attested by “hostile sources.”
Jesus of Nazareth is referenced in Tacitus’ Annals (15.44), Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews (20.9), the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin Tractate (43a) and the Toledot Yeshu, a “biography” of Jesus told from an anti-Christian perspective. None of these sources present Jesus as the divine Son of God, the Savior of sinners, but all of them attest to the fact that Jesus was a real person.
Objective Fact #2: Jesus was condemned to die by the Romans.
According to multiple sources, Jesus was sentenced to death by the Jews for blasphemy and sorcery. In other words, he was accused of claiming to be God and performing supernatural acts, which his opponents attributed to Satan. (See Matthew 9:34 and Luke 11:15 where the Pharisees said Jesus “cast out demons by the prince of demons.”) After the Jewish authorities sentenced him to death, they handed him over to the Romans, specifically Pontius Pilate, since the Jews were not permitted to administer the death penalty.
(Joseph Klausner, Jesus of Nazareth [New York: Bloch, 1989], 18-46; Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin Tractate, 43a; Shabbat 11.15; b. Shabbat 104b; Toledot Yeshu. Cf. Luke Timothy Johnson, The Real Jesus [San Francisco: Harper, 1996], 123-25).
Objective Fact #3: Jesus was executed by crucifixion.
Jesus’ death on a Roman cross was a well-known historical event. It was written about by Christian, Jewish, and secular historians. Liberal Jewish Rabbi Samuel Sandmel observes,
“Certain bare facts are historically not to be doubted. Jesus, who emerged into public notice in Galilee when Herod Antipas was its Tetrarch, was a real person, the leader of a movement. He had followers, called disciples. The claim was made, either by him or for him, that he was the long-awaited Jewish Messiah. He journeyed from Galilee to Jerusalem, possibly in (AD) 29 or 30, and there he was executed, crucified by the Romans as a political rebel. After his death, his disciples believed that he was resurrected, and had gone to heaven, but would return to earth at the appointed time for the final divine judgment of mankind.” (Rabbi Samuel Sandmel, A Jewish Understanding of the New Testament, 3rd ed. [Woodstock, Vermont: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2010], 33.)
Objective Fact #4: Jesus was buried in a tomb after his death.
According to ancient historical records (both Christian and non-Christian), Jesus was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. Jesus received an honorable burial, even though he suffered a dishonorable death. Liberal New Testament scholar John A. T. Robinson argues from the evidence that the burial of Jesus in a tomb is one of the earliest and best-attested facts about Jesus (John A. T. Robinson, The Human Face of God [Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1973], 131). Michael Horton observes,
“The burial of Jesus in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea is mentioned in all four Gospels (Mt 27:57; Mk 15:43; Lk 23:50; Jn 19:38-39). This is a specific detail that lends credibility to the account. Furthermore, it’s an embarrassing detail that the disciples would not likely have forged. After all, according to the Gospels, the disciples fled and Peter had even denied knowing Jesus. Yet here is a wealthy and powerful member of the ruling Jewish Council (Sanhedrin), coming to Pilate to ask for permission to bury Jesus in his own tomb.
Adding to the embarrassment, according to John 19:38-42, Joseph was assisted in the burial by another leader of the Pharisees, Nicodemus (who met with Jesus secretly in John 3). Joseph was of such a stature that Pilate conceded to deliver the body over to him, but only after confirming with the centurion that Jesus was in fact dead (Mk 15:44-45). Everybody who was anybody knew where this tomb was, especially Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. There was no question about where Jesus had been laid.”
Objective Fact #5: Jesus’ tomb was empty two days after his death.
Here’s Michael Horton again:
“The controversial claim is not that Jesus lived, died, and was buried. A little more controversial, though, is the claim that his tomb was empty on the third day. However, this is disputed by contemporary rather than ancient opponents.
Romans, too, were concerned about the disruption caused over Jesus’ empty tomb. A marble plaque was discovered with an “Edict of Caesar” commanding capital punishment for anyone who dares to “break a tomb.” Called the Nazareth Inscription, the decree was provoked by disturbances in Jerusalem and the plaque has been dated to somewhere near AD 41.
Suetonius (75-130 AD), a Roman official and historian, recorded the expulsion of Jews from Rome in 48 because of controversy erupting over “a certain Chrestus” (Claudius 25.4).
In a letter to the Emperor Trajan around the year 110, Pliny the Younger, imperial governor of what is now Turkey, reported that Christians gathered on Sunday to pray to Jesus “as to a god,” to hear the letters of his appointed officers read and expounded, and to receive a meal at which they believed Christ himself presided (Epistle 10.96). Although unable to locate Jesus, dead or alive, the very fact that Jewish and Roman leaders sought alternative explanations for the resurrection demonstrates that the empty tomb was a historical fact. For the gospel story to have come to an easy and abrupt end, the authorities would only have had to produce a body.”
Objective Fact #6: Jesus’ followers claimed to see him alive.
Adrian Warnock observes, “The church did not create the resurrection stories; instead, the resurrection stories created the church.”
In other words, after Jesus’ death, his disciples were “lost, helpless, and afraid.” Even though Jesus had told his disciples that he would rise again, it appears that none of them believed him. The women who found the empty tomb weren’t expecting a resurrection. They were expecting to put flowers on the grave of a dead person. The male disciples weren’t expecting a resurrection. They didn’t even bother to come to Jesus’ tomb on the third day. Bishop N.T. Wright points out that they didn’t even have a theological category for an individual person rising from the dead before the general resurrection of the dead at the end of history.
That leads Warnock to write, “It is hard to conceive of anything other than the resurrection of Jesus that would have led to this rag-tail bunch of people sharing the message of Jesus in such a way that it grew into the largest religious movement ever known to man.”
There’s also the important point that most of the early disciples suffered and died precisely because of their claim that Jesus rose from the dead. It’s certainly possible for people to believe and tell lies. It’s certainly possible for someone to suffer and die for a falsehood he or she genuinely believes to be true. It strains credulity, however, to believe that the disciples would be willing to suffer and die for something they knew to be a deliberate deception. (This is especially true when you remember that the disciples had nothing to gain by falsely claiming that Jesus rose from the dead. The resurrection was grossly offensive to both Jews and Gentiles. It was the most objectionable thing the early Christians believed about Jesus.)
Objective Fact #7: Jesus’ enemies never presented the body.
There is no Christianity without the resurrection. The early church staked everything on the historical claim that Jesus rose from the dead, thus proving that he is God and validating everything he ever said. If the Roman and Jewish authorities wanted to stamp out Christianity forever, all they had to do was present Jesus’ dead body. They couldn’t, because the body was gone.
That leads us to the one disputed claim … the claim that Jesus’ body was gone because he rose from the dead on Easter morning. Paul summarizes this early Christian belief in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8
Jesus lived a perfect life. He died a sacrificial death. He rose again from the dead! That’s the story of Easter. That’s the story of salvation. We who were dead in our trespasses and sins have been made alive again … by grace, through faith, in our risen savior, Jesus Christ!