"You can't prove ANY of it!"
I have heard that objection, in one form or another, from many of my atheist friends in my online sparring sessions over the objective truth of the Gospel claims about Jesus. The gist of their complaint seems to be that, if you cannot prove something scientifically, it must not be true. Therein lies the problem: science and history are two very different disciplines.
The fact is that NO historical event can be 'scientifically' proven to have happened; at least, not in the pre-modern era. Some would say motion picture and photographic recording of events would constitute scientific proof; although the fact that there are people alive today who deny that the Holocaust or the moon landings ever happened shows that even those standards of proof are not universally accepted. But, for the sake of argument, let's agree that no historical event from more than 500 years ago can "scientifically" proven. After all, scientific proof lies in being able to measure and duplicate results in a controlled environment. History does not work that way!
But I would make the argument that the historical event that Christianity rests upon - the resurrection of Jesus from the dead - is as historically provable as ANY other event from the ancient world. The accounts of the Resurrection meet the standards of historical proof in multiple ways. So first of all, I would like to lay out for you the generally accepted standards of historical proof, and then look at how the New Testament measures up to them.
When looking at a historical event, there are several factors that need to be weighed:
1. Are the accounts of this event close enough to the event to contain eyewitness testimony, without the accretion of legendary/mythical elements?
2. Have the accounts been handed down with accurately?
3. Is there an alternative account that may reflect a different version of what happened?
4. Does the event described fit into the known sequence of other events from the time?
5. Is the event described possible? Is it probable?
6. Are the accounts preserved so biased as to negate their credibility?
Now, let us measure the accounts of the Resurrection by these standards:
1. Date - are the accounts close enough in time to the event to contain eyewitness testimony, without the accretion of legendary/mythical elements?
There is some controversy about the dating of the NT books, but honestly, this controversy boils down to a window of three decades. More conservative Biblical scholars date the three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) to the decade of the 60's AD and John sometime in the 90's. Liberal scholars would place the Synoptics between 70 and 80, maybe 90 AD, and John as late as 120 (although the dating of the Rylands Papyrus fragment makes that late a date for John utterly untenable). Jesus was crucified around 33 AD, to the best of our knowledge, so that places the Synoptic Gospel accounts within a 25 year window, by the most conservative views, and within a 50 year window, by the most liberal. If most of Jesus' disciples were in their 20's, that means that by the decade of the 60's AD they would have been around 50-60 years old, on average - so the three Synoptic Gospels were certainly written while at least some of the men closest to Jesus were still alive. John's Gospel was later, but several ancient sources record that John lived to a remarkable old age, surviving into the reign of the Emperor Trajan, who ruled from 98-117 AD. In addition, the letters of Paul - even if you reject his authorship of the "Pastoral letters" (whole 'nother topic there) and only accept the seven "classically Pauline" letters - constantly referred to the Resurrection of Jesus starting with Galatians, which was composed around 48 AD. That was FIFTEEN years after the Crucifixion! In I Corinthians 15, he provides a list of eyewitnesses to the Resurrected Christ which he describes by saying: "I passed on to you [the church at Corinth] as of first importance, that which I also received" - a rabbinical formula for a lesson that had been imparted from another, more learned source. Since Paul was converted about two years after the Resurrection, and traveled to Jerusalem to learn from Peter and John and James the Lord's brother some three years after that, this means that the list of eyewitnesses was circulating IN Jerusalem, the city where Jesus was crucified, within a very short time of the crucifixion itself. As I have pointed out elsewhere - I even included this point in a sermon that is part of my novel, THE TESTIMONIUM - even in the ancient world, folks knew that dead people stay dead. If I showed up in Dallas five years after the crucifixion claiming that JFK had risen from his tomb three days after Oswald shot him, that claim would have earned me a quick trip to a rubber room! Instead, in Jerusalem, thousands of Jews - many of them members of the same mob that chanted "Crucify him!" - converted to this new faith in a risen savior. Because they KNEW the tomb was empty. There simply wasn't enough time for a legend to form.
2. Have the accounts been handed down accurately? The number of manuscripts of the NT that are available is downright embarrassing when compared to the paltry manuscript evidence for many other classical works, and how close those copies are to the original autographs is measured in decades in some cases, whereas it is centuries or even millennia for other ancient narratives, like Caesar's COMMENTARIES ON THE GALLIC WARS or Homer's ODYSSEY. There are some 6000 Greek manuscripts, plus additional manuscripts in Syriac and other languages. There are enough quotes from the NT in the writings of the early church fathers (men who lived in the Second and Third centuries AD) to reconstruct over 95% of the New Testament text if all those Greek manuscripts were lost! And, although these handwritten copies do contain some errors and textual variations, there are so many of them that textual analysis has concluded the NT has been passed down with a textual purity in excess of 98%!
3. Is there an alternative account that might reflect another version of what happened?
NO. All the New Testament writings, the patristic writings, as well as the controversial account preserved by Flavius Josephus (see my earlier blog post on the Testimonium Flavinium) reflect a belief that Jesus was raised from the dead, and there is NO alternative narrative proposed by any other ancient source. Even skeptics like Bart Ehrman agree that Christianity began in the fourth decade of the First Century AD, and that belief in the Resurrection of Jesus was a cornerstone doctrine of the church from the very beginning. Where did that belief come from? Jesus was publicly executed - one thing all scholars (other than the 'Jesus Mythicists,' whom even Ehrman calls "pseudo-scholars") agree on is that Jesus of Nazareth was a real person who was put to death by crucifixion. His disciples were there; all of them saw him arrested and several of them personally saw him die. Yet just a few weeks later they were all boldly proclaiming his Resurrection in the Temple - literally in the faces of the men who condemned Jesus to death! Don't you think, if Jesus was really dead, the Jewish leadership and the Roman governor would have provided an explanation? No, instead, there is, as one historian said, "a gaping hole in history that is the size and shape of a Resurrection."
4. Does the event described fit into the known sequence of events from that time and place?
Overwhelmingly, yes. The Gospels - especially Luke - have a high degree of historical accuracy when it comes to naming the various officials, both Jewish, Roman, and pagan, that held office during the time of Jesus' life and the spread of the early church. They accurately describe people, places and events that are verifiable from other historical sources. The crucifixion of Jesus fits in perfectly with Roman practice towards accused political rebels in the provinces, and the scheming of the priestly faction to get rid of Jesus comports well with the atmosphere of intrigue and cut-throat politics described by Josephus and Philo as being prevalent during that time. In short, the Crucifixion fits the historical context of its time perfectly!
5. Is the event described possible? Is it probable?
This is the point at which atheists say: "Aha! A resurrection is impossible, so there can't have been one!" The problem is, that argument is completely contingent on rejecting the reality of God. If, in fact, God exists and is all-powerful (and if He wasn't, He wouldn't be God, now would he?), then a Resurrection is indeed possible. And since the non-existence of God cannot ever be proven, then neither can the impossibility of the Resurrection. So, if God exists, is a Resurrection probable? Given the Old Testament prophecies that predicted the suffering of God's Servant, Jesus' well-attested miraculous powers, and His own specific predictions that He would be betrayed, crucified, and resurrected on the third day, then a Resurrection becomes not only possible but indeed probable! In addition, the explosive growth of the early church in the very city where Jesus was crucified is highly improbable, if not impossible, without a Resurrection!
6. Are the accounts of the event so biased as to negate their credibility?
Again, the atheist points and says: "Aha! These men believed that Jesus was divine and resurrected, so their accounts cannot be trusted!" Of course, that is like saying that a biologist cannot be trusted when he writes about evolution, because he believes it to be true and therefore cannot form an unbiased judgment, or that a historian writing about the outcome of a battle cannot be trusted because he believes that "his" side won. The argument that slices through this objection is so simple, and yet so effective: WHY did the disciples believe that Jesus had risen? Because they SAW Him after He rose! Even Jesus' brother James, who was embarrassed by Jesus' teaching and tried to silence him on occasion, suddenly emerges as a leader of the Jerusalem church after the Resurrection. Why? Paul says it: "He appeared unto James." I always ask my students: What would it take for you to suddenly believe that your own older brother was God in human flesh? These men didn't preach a Resurrection because they believed it, they preached a Resurrection because they SAW it.
So can I 'scientifically' prove that Jesus rose from the dead? No. But, using the standards that historians all over the world use to judge the accounts of events in the ancient world, I can say that the Resurrection of Jesus meets all those standards and can be regarded as a historical fact. It is frankly the only explanation for the origins of Christianity that covers all the evidence!