The resurrection of Jesus Christ of Nazareth is either the supreme fact of history or a flagrant, deliberate fabrication foisted off on the followers of Christianity. Did the central figure of the Christian faith really rise from the dead? Suppose, in the year 1977, some writer wrote that a well-known prophet had traveled throughout the United States working many incredible miracles and healing scores of sick persons. Suppose further that less than forty years had passed since his public execution at the hands of an enraged mob in Times Square on December 31, 1938.
If such an occurrence had happened back in 1938, millions would still be alive today who would have either heard or read of the event in the mass media. Hundreds of actual eyewitnesses would still be alive to either corroborate the event or testify to its falsity.
If the event had never in fact happened, no writer could get away with such an outrageously fallacious story. He would be the laughing stock of his profession.
The Historical Parallel Backtrack 2,000 years in the pages of history. The time: the early thirties A.D.; the place: Jerusalem, Palestine; the event: the public execution of Jesus Christ; the question: did it really happen?
Can the crucifixion/resurrection account in the New Testament documents stand up to the same standard tests that one would use in determining the accuracy of any historical event?
One standard we might consider is that the reporter must have been contemporaneous with the event in question. He must have coexisted with the main principals. He would have to have been a part of the overall scene at the precise time the event occurred.
Reliability is said to diminish proportionately the further away the reporting of the event is from the actual occurrence. But if a person reports on his own contemporaries, then you would at least give more credence to his account than you would to the pronouncements of a barbershop philosopher holding forth on ancient history.
The Gospel according to Mark is the shortest of the four biblical accounts of Jesus' life and death. Many scholars also consider it to be the oldest. Most place its writing somewhere between A.D. 60 and 70-less than 40 years after the crucifixion.
While Mark may not have been present at the actual crucifixion, there can be little doubt that he was on the general scene (see Mark 14:51-52). Donald Guthrie, in his New Testament Introduction, comments as follows: "So strong is the early Christian testimony that Mark was the author of the gospel that we need do little more than mention this attestation. Papias, Irenaeus, probably the Muratonian Canon, Clement of Alexandria, Origen and Jerome all refer to Mark's authorship of the gospel. Moreover all of them connect Mark with Peter in the production of the gospel" (p. 69).
Peter was a principal eyewitness to the general crucifixion scene and to the postresurrection appearances of Jesus Christ — parts of which Mark recorded in his Gospel.
The point is that Mark would have left himself open to the severe criticism of his contemporaries if he had misrepresented the events surrounding the crucifixion and the resurrection. Many who had heard what actually happened were still alive at the time of Mark's writing.
Eyewitness Testimony More than one witness produced a written account of the general events surrounding the crucifixion/ postresurrection appearances of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. Additionally, there were many more who actually saw Jesus crucified on the cross and hundreds who personally witnessed His postresurrection appearances. The more witnesses you can produce to tell or write about the same event, the more independent evidence you have as to what really took place.
There is considerable virtue in the fact that the four Gospels, together with Peter's and Paul's epistles, produce somewhat diverse, though complementary accounts of the same overall events. For one thing, there is no apparent collusion. This is exactly what you would expect to discover if you put a number of witnesses on the stand who testified truthfully about a particular event they all saw. The major facts would be the same. Yet each witness would remember different details.
It is unlikely that someone trying to contrive the resurrection story would have chosen Mary Magdalene as the first witness. She was the woman out of whom Jesus had cast seven demons and does not appear to have had the most stable personality. The manner in which the Gospels display these events has all the earmarks of uncontrived authenticity.
The totality and diversity of the eyewitness testimony is remarkable to say the least. Notice Mark's account of those who were there on the scene when Jesus drew His last breath as a human being: "And Jesus uttered a loud cry, and breathed his last.... And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that he thus breathed his last, he said, 'Truly this man was the Son of God!'" (Mark 15:37, 39.) Here is a formerly hostile witness who in person saw Jesus Christ die — having to acknowledge that Jesus was the Son of God no doubt because of His conduct and demeanor on the cross. As Peter later wrote: "When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten..." (I Peter 2:23).
Mark's version goes on to show that the Roman centurion was far from being the only witness. "There were also women looking on from afar, among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James... who, when he was in Galilee, followed him, and ministered to him..." (Mark 15:40, 41). These women were Jesus' very closest friends who knew Him well during His ministry — not just curious onlookers and passersby who happened to be in the vicinity at the time. The account continues: "... and also many other women [looking on from afar] who came up with him to Jerusalem" (verse 41). Here were still more women acquaintances who accompanied the party on Jesus' last trip to Jerusalem.
Luke makes it clear that there were far more eyewitnesses than just these distraught women followers. "And all the multitudes who assembled to see the Sight, when they saw what had taken place, returned home beating their breasts. And all his acquaintances and the women who had followed him from Galilee stood at a distance and saw these things" (Luke 23:48-49). Luke mentions first the Roman centurion (verse 47), then a general gathering probably of curiosity seekers, next other acquaintances, and finally, the women friends that Mark's and Luke's accounts emphasize.
John, writing in his old age, later adds important details. Roman soldiers were gambling over Christ's very expensive garments. Later some of those same soldiers returned to the crucifixion scene after Jesus was already dead (see John 19).
At some point between the hour that Jesus was nailed to the cross and the hour of His death, His own mother and closest friend among the twelve disciples were standing only a few feet from the cross. "But standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved [John] standing near, he said to his mother, 'Woman, behold, your son!' Then he said to the disciple [John], 'Behold, your mother!'" (John 19:25-27.)
Later, as Mark and Luke both write, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary apparently retreated to a position "afar off," but near enough that they could still see Jesus. His mother either stuck by His side to the very end, or possibly John took her to his home because she may have been unable to stand the awful ordeal of seeing her own son beaten almost beyond recognition and suffering horribly.
After Jesus was nailed up, and before the soldiers gambled over His garments, Pontius Pilate placed a title on the cross (see verses 18 and 19). So Pilate, too, was an actual eyewitness of Jesus on the cross.
Earlier, Jesus had been judged by Pilate, the Roman governor of the time. That would be somewhat like being judged by the prime minister of a country such as Great Britain. Sometime in the trial proceedings Jesus was also brought before Caiaphas, the high priest of the nation whose equivalent today might be the archbishop of Canterbury. He was also examined by another ruler whose stature might be compared to the king or queen of Great Britain — Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great. Finally, Jesus underwent His court trial by the Sanhedrin, a body of judges perhaps comparable to the Supreme Court today. (All of these theoretical comparisons are not intended as reflections on the character of those who presently hold those modern-day offices, but are intended only to show that members of the highest echelons of government in Judaea were involved in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.)
So not only were the common people of Jerusalem and the surrounding area of Palestine witnesses to the events of the crucifixion, but so were the highest classes of society — people representing three levels of government: Jewish religious leaders, Jewish civil rulers, and the Roman occupational authorities — including the top man, with connections at the very seat of government in Rome.
That whole nation knew that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified on the cross. As Paul later told King Agrippa: "This was not done in a corner" (Acts 26:26).
The execution of Jesus Christ of Nazareth was witnessed by persons at every point on the political and social spectrum — all the way from blood-thirsty religious leaders, who wanted more than anything to see Him killed, to disinterested Roman occupational personnel who just didn't care, but must have enjoyed the spectacle. His friends also watched with some of His own disciples, all of whom had fled the night before but who had gathered up enough courage to return the next day. His own mother was only a few feet from the cross on one occasion.
Many were shaken to the very core by Christ's brutal murder — even "beating their breasts" in utter frustration at seeing their hero and champion die.
No, His execution was not done "in a corner." It took place at Passover time when many thousands converged on Jerusalem for the Passover celebration and the Days of Unleavened Bread. The first-century Jewish historian Josephus tells us that as many as two million people gathered in the vicinity of Jerusalem at Passover time. Scholars have disputed this figure as grossly exaggerated, but be that as it may, multiple thousands were definitely in Jerusalem at the time.
Undoubtedly hundreds or even thousands of people lined the road as Jesus dragged His own stake part way to the site of the crucifixion. Later thousands saw His body hanging on the stake upon the hill.
Afterwards, all those Jewish people in temporary residence at Jerusalem during the spring festival were bound to have taken that information back with them to all of Judaea, Galilee and throughout that whole Middle Eastern area.
But this is only a part of the proof of the resurrection. The burial preparations and, believe it or not, even the grave clothes must be placed in evidence.
The Burial Preparations and the Grave Clothes When Joseph of Arimathaea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus, Pilate marveled at the fact that He was already dead and simply would not be fully convinced without first confirming it with the Roman centurion who had been assigned to the crucifixion site (see Mark 15:42-45).
John's account adds some important details to the story of the burial preparations. "And there came also Nicodemus, which at the first came to Jesus by night [see John 3], and brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about an hundred pound weight. Then took they the body of Jesus, and wound it in linen clothes with the spices, as the manner of the Jews is to bury" (John 19:39-40). As we will see a little later, the entire preparation and manner of burial plays an important part in some of the later evidence at the empty tomb.
Just the empty tomb by itself did not even convince Mary Magdalene (to whom the risen Christ first appeared) of the fact that He was now resurrected. Actually, the sight of the tomb itself had filled her with fear and apprehension (Mark 16:8). She came running to Peter and John and quickly told them: "They have taken away the Lord out of the sepulchre, and we know not where they have laid him" (John 20:2). Obviously she believed that someone simply had stolen Jesus' body.
Peter and John immediately ran to the sepulchre to investigate her story for themselves. John outran Peter, arriving on the scene first. "And he [John] stooping down, and looking in, saw the linen clothes lying; yet went he not in" (verse 5). Peter, presumptuous by nature, charged right in to see the whole scene for himself. He, too, saw "the linen clothes lie" (verse 6).
But Peter also saw something more, as the next verse explains: "And the napkin, that was about his head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself' (verse 7). Then John finally entered the sepulchre and, seeing the exact same scene as Peter, "believed" (verse 8).
What made John believe? The empty tomb? The absence of the body? Probably not. That in itself would not necessarily prove Jesus had been resurrected.
This scripture strongly indicates that it was the condition of the grave clothes that convinced John. They were relatively undisturbed except for the separation of the "head napkin" just a little space away, probably on that same stone slab.
It wasn't all that easy for a live specimen, much less a corpse, to disengage itself from a first-century Jewish burial wrapping! The indications are that Lazarus was buried in exactly the same manner as Jesus Christ was, minus a hundred pounds of spices. Undoubtedly, both Joseph of Arimathaea and Nicodemus, two of a kind in being "secret" disciples, felt very guilty about their unvoiced convictions and really went all out in their burial preparations for Jesus Christ.
Notice John's account of Lazarus' resurrection. "And when he [Jesus] thus had spoken [that famous eleven-second prayer], he cried with a loud voice, Lazarus, come forth. And he that was dead came forth, bound hand and foot with grave-clothes: and his face was bound about with a napkin" (John 11:43-44). In all essentials, this was the standard Jewish burial of 2,000 years ago.
But did Lazarus then calmly let himself out of the meticulously wrapped grave clothes? No, Jesus had to say to those around him: "Loose him, and let him go" (verse 44). So they probably unwound him strip by strip and fold by fold.
That is not, however, how Jesus discarded His own grave clothes. First of all, Christ was weighed down by a hundred pounds of spices sprinkled in the folds of the grave clothes. As a normal human being, unwinding Himself under all that weight would have been almost impossible.
But Jesus didn't get out by any normal method.
Picture the sight which shocked Peter and John. The grave clothes were undoubtedly collapsed from the weight of the spices, but not unwrapped. One good look at the grave clothes and John believed Jesus had been resurrected. What he saw was not unlike a discarded chrysalis from which a butterfly had just emerged.
If several strands of unwrapped linen clothes had been lying here and there, carelessly tossed about the sepulchre, there would have been no reason to state that the head napkin was clearly separated from the main part of the grave clothes.
Remember, as in the case of Lazarus, the grave clothes and the head napkin were two separate types of linen cloth wound about a corpse.
It is also possible that the head napkin was left undisturbed. The Greek expression "wrapped together" (KJV), or "rolled up" (RSV), could also be translated "twirled," which would leave the impression that the head napkin might have been untouched by human hands.
The Nature of the Resurrection The condition of the grave clothes evinces the very nature of the resurrection. It was a resurrection into a totally different dimension. Jesus stepped back into space itself. He went right through a solid rock wall, having been transformed instantaneously back into spirit life. The giant stone was not rolled away to let Jesus out; it was rolled away to let the disciples in.
Blasphemous accusations to the contrary, your Savior is alive today! He did not plot with His disciples to hoodwink unsuspecting "Jesus freaks" of His day into believing on Him. Rather, the evidence of the eyewitness accounts of His closest confidants reveals Jesus underwent repeated challenges and tests as He tried, unsuccessfully at first, to prove to doubting friends that He had in fact been resurrected!
Though authors, screenwriters, "critics" and theologians have chosen to carelessly tamper with the inviolate scriptures and claim Jesus was everything from a head of a "mushroom cult" to a charlatan and a fraud, the solid evidence of history proves Jesus Christ of Nazareth walked out of His tomb; that He is alive today; that He is directly intervening from time to time in human affairs; that He is on a "countdown" from heaven; that time is drawing very near for His return to this earth when billions will finally be FORCED to believe!
Neil Armstrong said that he was taking a giant step for mankind when he walked on the surface of the moon. Yet Jesus took a bigger step when he walked right through that solid rock tomb.
You, too, can step out of your grave in an instant of time when the heavens are rent at the return of Jesus Christ. You can also take your walk into eternity.
If you're interested, read our free booklet After Death... then What? It could be the biggest step of your life!
(To Be Continued)