But it wasn't the end. The Jesus movement did not disappear (obviously), and in fact Christianity exists today as the world's largest religion. Therefore, we've got to know what happened after Jesus' body was taken down from the cross and laid in the tomb.
In a New York Times article, Peter Steinfels cites the startling events that occurred three days after Jesus' death: "Shortly after Jesus was executed, his followers were suddenly galvanized from a baffled and cowering group into people whose message about a living Jesus and a coming kingdom, preached at the risk of their lives, eventually changed an empire. Something happened. … But exactly what?"11 That's the question we have to answer with an investigation into the facts.
There are only five plausible explanations for Jesus' alleged resurrection, as portrayed in the New Testament:
1. Jesus didn't really die on the cross.
2. The "resurrection" was a conspiracy.
3. The disciples were hallucinating.
4. The account is legendary.
5. It really happened.
Let's work our way through these options and see which one best fit the facts.
"Marley was deader than a doornail, of that there was no doubt." So begins Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, the author not wanting anyone to be mistaken as to the supernatural character of what is soon to take place. In the same way, before we take on the role of CSI and piece together evidence for a resurrection, we must first establish that there was, in fact, a corpse. After all, occasionally the newspapers will report on some "corpse" in a morgue who was found stirring and recovered. Could something like that have happened with Jesus?
Some have proposed that Jesus lived through the crucifixion and was revived by the cool, damp air in the tomb–"Whoa, how long was I out for?" But that theory doesn't seem to square with the medical evidence. An article in the Journal of the American Medical Association explains why this so-called "swoon theory" is untenable: "Clearly, the weight of historical and medical evidence indicated that Jesus was dead. … The spear, thrust between His right ribs, probably perforated not only the right lung, but also the pericardium and heart and thereby ensured His death."12 But skepticism of this verdict may be in order, as this case has been cold for 2,000 years. At the very least, we need a second opinion. One place to find that is in the reports of non-Christian historians from around the time when Jesus lived. Three of these historians mentioned the death of Jesus.
• Lucian (c.120–after 180 A.D. referred to Jesus as a crucified sophist (philosopher). 13
• Josephus (c.37–c.100 A.D.) wrote, "At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man, for he was a doer of amazing deeds. When Pilate condemned him to the cross, the leading men among us, having accused him, those who loved him did not cease to do so." 14
• Tacitus (c. 56–c.120 A.D.) wrote, "Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty … at the hands of our procurator, Pontius Pilate." 15
This is a bit like going into the archives and finding that on one spring day in the first century, The Jerusalem Post ran a front-page story saying that Jesus was crucified and dead. Not bad detective work, and fairly conclusive.
In fact, there is no historical account from Christians, Romans, or Jews that disputes either Jesus' death or his burial. Even Crossan, a skeptic of the resurrection, agrees that Jesus really lived and died. "That he was crucified is as sure as anything historical can ever be."16 In light of such evidence, we seem to be on good grounds for dismissing the first of our five options. Jesus was clearly dead, "of that there was no doubt."
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