EVIDENCE FOR THE RESURRECTION OF JESUS: PART ONE
In the spring of the year the Christian World commemorates the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. The death and resurrection of Jesus is discussed or alluded to by all writers of the New Testament (NT) documents. Outside the NT writings, we have the first century Jewish historian Josephus and the Roman historian Tacitus referencing the death of Jesus by crucifixion. There is general consensus among both Christian and secular scholars that Jesus was crucified by the Romans in the first century. The death of Jesus by crucifixion is considered an indisputable fact.
The resurrection of Jesus is a different matter. Unlike as is true with the crucifixion, there are no first century writings outside of the NT that reference the resurrection of Jesus. Only the NT Scriptures report on the resurrection and they do so after the fact. The NT writers do not record any eyewitnesses to the resurrection. There is no known written document that provides an account of someone seeing Jesus leave the tomb. No author of the New Testament documents report anyone seeing Jesus leave the tomb. These writers simply report that the tomb where Jesus was seen to have been buried was after three days found to be empty.
Some have speculated that those sent to guard the tomb may have seen Jesus leave the tomb. Matthew reports that "There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men" (Matthew 28:2-4).
While this account reports that the guards saw the angel and were exceedingly frightened, there is nothing here saying they saw Jesus leave the tomb. They did, however, realize the tomb no longer contained the body of Jesus. It is recorded by Matthew that some of the guards went to the religious leaders and reported what had happened and the religious leaders decided to circulate the claim that the body was stolen by Jesus' disciples when the guards fell asleep (Matthew 28:11-15).
As I will discuss in more detail later, an empty tomb, in and of itself, does not prove a resurrection has occurred. There are other explanations for a tomb becoming empty after having contained a dead body. As we will see, belief in the resurrection of Jesus is primarily based on the post crucifixion appearances of Jesus as recorded in the NT Scriptures. There is no record of anyone actually seeing Jesus leave the tomb. Jesus was believed to be alive because a number of His followers believed they saw Him alive after knowing He had died and had been buried in a tomb. Seeing Jesus alive convinced His followers the tomb was empty not because someone had moved or stolen the body but because Jesus had indeed been resurrected from the dead.
Some NT scholars have come to question whether the reported post crucifixion appearances of Jesus were due to His being resurrected from the dead. Some scholars believe there are other more reasonable explanations for the recorded post crucifixion appearances of Jesus. In a 2014 book entitled HOW JESUS BECAME GOD, NT scholar Bart Ehrman, like some of his colleagues, questions the resurrection of Jesus. Ehrman believes the post crucifixion appearances of Jesus were not due to Him being resurrected but were due to His followers experiencing hallucinations or apparitions of Jesus.
Why is the resurrection of Jesus questioned?
Why do some New Testament scholars and historians question the validity of the resurrection of Jesus? The reason they question the resurrection of Jesus has to do with how they approach their investigation of history. Historians draw conclusions about the reality of an event based on the level of probability such event could happen. Resurrections are considered to be highly improbable for the simple reason they rarely are reported to happen. Multiple billions of people have died without being resurrected. In his book, The Historical Jesus, Professor Bart Ehrman writes: “Because historians can only establish what probably happened, and a miracle of this nature is highly improbable, the historian cannot say it probably occurred.”
Because of their rarity, when a resurrection is reported to have occurred and someone known to have died is now believed to be alive, the historian demands a high level of evidence that such event actually took place and not that there isn't a more logical, plausible, practical or probable explanation that can account for the reported appearance of a once dead person now believed to be alive. Since a resurrection is an extraordinary event, the historian demands extraordinary evidence for its occurrence. The historian demands evidence beyond reasonable doubt. This is why the resurrection of Jesus is questioned.
In this four part series I will address the arguments of those who question the validity of the resurrection of Jesus. I will examine these arguments in some depth and determine whether such arguments should cause us to question the validity of the resurrection of Jesus. I will examine whether the reported resurrection of Jesus is the best explanation for the tomb being found empty or the best explanation for the reported post-crucifixion appearances of Jesus to His disciples. I will examine whether the development of Christianity is probable if Jesus was not resurrected from the dead.
As any Christian should understand, the resurrection of Jesus is the foundation of the entire Christian theological system. It is the bed rock of Christianity. If the resurrection of Jesus did not take place, the Christian theological system is a fraud. The whole focus of Christianity is our being able to resurrect to eternal life as a result of Christ’s resurrection from the dead. Some believe our resurrection involves our biological body being raised at a yet future return of Christ. Others believe we will be raised as a spiritual body when Christ returns. Still others believe that resurrection involves a spiritual passing from death unto life in the here and now when we place faith in Christ as savior. Then upon physical death we simply enter the heavenly realm. Regardless of which belief is embraced, the Christian theological system demands the reality of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead to make our resurrection or transformation to eternal life possible.
The earliest witness to the resurrection of Jesus:
Is there evidence beyond reasonable doubt that Jesus was resurrected from the dead? Is there reason to believe the available data that teaches Jesus was alive after having been dead and that He appeared too many of His followers? All four Gospels clearly teach Jesus was resurrected from the dead. Most Biblical scholars believe the Gospels were written between 70 and 100 A.D. Some scholars look at the Gospel accounts of the resurrection and conclude that such accounts are legend. Because it is believed the Gospels were written forty to seventy years after the crucifixion of Jesus (believed to be around A.D. 30), the Gospel record of the resurrection is thought to be a mytholization of Christ. It is believed the space of time that elapsed between the time of the crucifixion and the recording of this event allowed for mytholization to set in.
However, there is good reason to believe the Gospels were written prior to the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70. This would make the Gospel accounts of the resurrection much closer to the time of the crucifixion and reported resurrection. See Chapter One of my series entitled "Are the Biblical Scriptures Reliable?" for an in-depth discussion of the dating of the New Testament documents.
It should be noted that the very scholars who believe the Gospels were written after A.D. 70 believe Paul's letters were written in the 50's A.D. which would have been within twenty years or so of the reported resurrection. It is believed by most Biblical scholars that Apostle Paul wrote the earliest scriptural material and this material preceded the writing of the Gospels by a number of years. Therefore, Paul’s discussion of the resurrection is of great value in determining the validity of this event. Because his reporting of the resurrection is closer to its occurrence, it allows for less possibility that information about the resurrection was distorted or outright fabricated. With this in mind, let's consider what Paul wrote about the resurrection in a letter to the Corinthian Church.
I Corinthians 15: 3-7: For what I have received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, that He was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures, and that He appeared to Peter, and then to the twelve. After that, He appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of them are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all He appeared to me also, as one abnormally born.
Paul, in what is believed to be a very early letter (54-55 A.D.), speaks of the resurrection and subsequent appearances of Jesus. He writes that others handed down this information to him. This tells us that information about the resurrection was extant from early on and Paul was simply passing along what he had received from others. In Paul's letter to the Romans, which is believed to have been written between 55 and 58 A.D., Paul speaks of Jesus being declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead.
Romans 1:1-4: Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God-- the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who as to his human nature was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord.
It is apparent Paul was passing along knowledge about the resurrection he had been given at the time of his conversion. Since Paul was contemporary with the disciples of Jesus, it should be evident that the information he reports as being handed down to him came from these disciples. Since the disciples were eyewitnesses to the appearances of Jesus, Paul is reporting on eyewitness accounts of Jesus being alive after His crucifixion. The fact Paul ties the appearances of Jesus to His being resurrected is evidence this is what the disciples of Jesus believed caused Jesus to be alive subsequent to his death.
The significance of Paul's statements to the Corinthians cannot be minimized. Paul is writing within 20 years or so of the death of Jesus and reporting on information that had been handed down to him by eyewitnesses of Jesus being alive after having been known to be dead. This places the origin of the information Paul is sharing very close to the occurrence of the events he is writing about. No time here for legend or myth to develop as an explanation for the reported post crucifixion appearances of Jesus as some have purposed. Even if it could be shown with undeniable evidence that the Gospels were written 40 to 70 years after the death of Christ and that mytholization of the Christ event had set in, one would still have to deal with the writings of Paul which reflect a very early knowledge of the resurrection and subsequent appearances of a risen Christ.
In his letters, Paul speaks of the resurrection of Jesus being a fact. Paul speaks of Jesus' resurrection in his letter to the Romans (Romans 1:4, 4:24, 6:4,9, 7:4, 8:11, 34,) He does the same in his letters to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 6:14, 15:4, 20, 2 Corinthians 4:14, 5:15). Paul references the resurrection of Jesus in letters to the Galatians (1:1), Ephesians (1:20), Colossians (2:12), Philippians (3:10), and Thessalonians (1 Thessalonians 1:10). He does the same in a letter to Timothy (2 Timothy 2:8). While scholars dispute the Pauline authorship of some of these letters, Scholars are in general agreement that Paul authored the letters to the Romans and his first letter to the Corinthians. In these two letters Paul makes it clear he believed in the resurrection of Christ.
The conversion of Paul:
We are all familiar with Paul’s conversion experience on the road to Damascus. The Scriptures indicate Jesus spoke directly to Paul who was out and about persecuting the Christians. Paul was a well educated leader within the Jewish community. Paul was knowledgeable about the crucifixion of Jesus and the belief among Jesus' followers that He had been resurrected from the dead. Paul was aware that the disciples of Jesus believed Him to be the promised Messiah to Israel, the Christ. Paul did not believe Jesus to be the promised Messiah to Israel. He did not believe him to be the Christ and certainly didn't believe He was resurrected from the dead. Paul found these beliefs to be rank heresy and he was determined to remove this heresy from the face of the earth.
Paul had no tolerance for the developing Christian community or their belief in a resurrected Messiah. However, after being knocked off his horse and blinded, it wasn’t long before he begins to preach that Jesus was not only resurrected but that He indeed was the promised Messiah, the anointed Son of God.
Some dismiss Paul’s conversion as being some kind of aberrant psychological experience, a hallucination or an apparition. It must be remembered, however, that Paul was not seeking to be a follower of Christ. His focus was to destroy the developing Christian community. Most conversion experiences occur subsequent to a person seeking enlightenment in whatever religious system they become converted to. This was not the case with Paul. Paul was not seeking to become a Christian. Paul was convinced the Christian movement must be eliminated. Scripture records that, Saul (Paul) began to destroy the church. He was going from house to house dragging men and women out of their homes and putting them in prison.
Acts: 8:3: But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison.
Acts 9:1-2: Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord's disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem.
Paul was a religious radical comparable to modern day religious radicals. We could compare Paul to Islamic radicals of today who are out to destroy Jews and Christians or to Christian radicals of the Crusades who were out to destroy Islam. Paul had no qualms about having believers in Jesus put to death. Acts 8:1 shows Saul (Paul) giving approval to the stoning of Stephen. Paul was out to destroy those who had come to believe in the resurrection of Jesus. Why was Paul so against the Christians? Paul was a heresy hunter. Like many other of the Jewish leaders of his day, Paul thought it an absolute heresy to believe in a crucified Messiah. The Jews were expecting the Messiah to restore the Davidic Kingdom and drive out the Romans. A crucified Messiah was considered pure nonsense and a dangerous doctrine.
As mentioned above, Paul was a well-educated Pharisaic leader in the Jewish religious system. In a speech to the Jews in Jerusalem recorded in Acts 22:3 Paul says this: “Under Gamaliel I was thoroughly trained in the law of our fathers and was just as zealous for God as any of you are today.” Gamaliel was a well respected Pharisaic teacher of the law (Acts 5:34) and grandson of the great Jewish teacher Hillel the Elder. The Mishnah, a written collection of Jewish oral tradition, speaks of Gamaliel being one of the greatest teachers in the history of Judaism.
Because of his educational background and training and because of his zealous approach to defending what he believed to be the truth, Paul would not have been easily persuaded to change his theological perspectives. He was not seeking to do so. Paul was seeking to stop the growth of Christianity in its tracts. Paul was on a “witch hunt” to identify those who were Christians and insure they were not allowed to spread what Paul considered a nasty heresy. Therefore, there is every reason to believe Paul's experience on the road to Damascus was not a hallucination or an apparition but a divinely orchestrated revelation of the resurrected Christ. Paul didn't believe there was a resurrected Christ. Hearing a voice identifying itself as someone Paul thought to be dead must have come as quite a shock. Paul came face to face with the very person he believed was a fraud who had deceived people into believing He was the promised Messiah to Israel.
Acts 9:3-9: As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" "Who are you, Lord?" Saul asked. "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting," he replied. "Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do." The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.
After being blind for three days, the disciple Ananias prayed for him and his sight was restored. Paul then spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. I am sure that during this time Paul learned a great deal about Jesus including the events associated with the resurrection. In a short time Paul was proving to the Jews from the Old Testament scriptures that Jesus was indeed the promised Messiah.
Acts 9:17-22: Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, "Brother Saul, the Lord--Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here--has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit." Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul's eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength. Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God. All those who heard him were astonished and asked, "Isn't he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name? And hasn't he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?" Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Christ.
So here we have a man who was vehemently opposed to the Christian teaching that Jesus was the resurrected Son of God now laying out the evidence that Jesus was indeed the resurrected Son of God and the Christ, the anointed Messiah to Israel. Obviously something very extraordinary had happened to Paul.
As discussed above, some look at the scriptural record of the resurrection and conclude that it is legend. The scriptural record of the resurrection is thought to be a mytholization of Christ. It should be noted, however, that myth and legend take a number of years to develop as the facts of an event become distorted over time. Paul's conversion occurred only a few years after the resurrection. Therefore, it is improbable that information about the resurrection would have become separated from reality so soon. To propose that the resurrection account is legend simply does not stand up to our knowledge of how legend develops.
Paul claims that more than five hundred people had witnessed the risen Christ. While it is true this is the only report of five hundred people seeing Christ, Paul does say that most of them were still alive. This would be a rather flippant claim if it were untrue. Paul could have been easily challenged by his contemporaries as to the validity of his claim and would have put himself at risk for much ridicule if he couldn’t produce any of these purported witnesses.
Since so many people are reported to have seen the resurrected Christ, some have questioned why there wasn’t more recorded material about the resurrection. There may have been more recorded material which has since become lost. While some may consider this an argument from silence, we do see Luke mention in the introduction to his Gospel that he examined eyewitness accounts of things pertaining to Christ in preparation for writing his Gospel. Some of these accounts could have been written accounts and included information about the resurrection.
Luke 1:1-4: Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.
It is apparent Luke was a very cautious writer who carefully examined the evidence for the events he wrote about, including the event of the resurrection. Luke did his homework. Luke was contemporary with the Apostles and had opportunity to speak to them and pick their brains as to all aspects of the Christ event. Luke very likely had opportunity to speak to Mary, the mother of Jesus and to Mary Magdalene and others who claimed to have seen Jesus alive after having seen him die on the cross. Since Luke is believed to have been an associate of Paul's, he could have spoke to any number of the 500 that Paul claims had seen the risen Christ.
Modern day New Testament scholars believe there were written sources they call Q, M and L that were used by Matthew, Mark and Luke for information in writing their Gospels. If such is the case, these Gospel writers drew on information that may have been written down close to the Christ event. Therefore, even if the Gospels were written many years after the fact as many scholars believe, the events recorded in these Gospels would still reflect a high level of probable validity because their authors would have used information recorded closer to the events. This would be the same as Paul reporting on events that had been handed down to him.
When Jesus was crucified, his followers must have been frustrated, angry, discouraged, depressed and disillusioned. Jewish law stated that anyone crucified was cursed by God. The disciples, like the Israelites in general, were looking for a Messiah to restore the Davidic Kingdom and rescue them from Roman rule. The followers of Jesus thought that He was that Messiah. Now their hopes and dreams were shattered. Then after a relatively short period of time, we find them abandoning their occupations, and traveling throughout Israel and beyond declaring that Jesus is alive and is the Son of God.
They were willing to endure ridicule, beatings, imprisonment, torture and even death. Why? They were convinced they had seen Jesus alive after He had been dead. So convincing were their arguments for the risen Christ that thousands converted to Christianity in a very short period of time and a number of Christians living in Rome and its environs suffered torture and death at the hands of the Roman government under Nero. Some people will die for their beliefs if they sincerely believe they are true. People will not die for their beliefs if they are not convinced they are true. The followers of Jesus were convinced He was alive because a number of them were convinced they had seen Him alive.
It can be argued that to die for ones beliefs isn’t all that extraordinary. Look at the suicide bombers in the Middle East or the Kamikaze pilots during World War 2. People have been willing to die for all sorts of beliefs throughout history. Sometimes these beliefs have been based in religion, sometimes in political movements and sometimes in just dogged conviction of a principle or moral ethic.
For example, a Muslim may be willing to die for his belief that through the Angel Gabriel, Allah appeared to Muhammad and therefore the tenets of the Muslim belief system are divinely based and something to die for. The difference between the Muslim and the Christian example is that Muhammad is the only reported witness to the appearance of Gabriel. No one else was present to either prove or disprove the witness of Muhammad.
With the Christian example, the scriptural record points to multiple witnesses to the resurrected Christ along with the distinct opportunity available for someone to disprove the resurrection by simply producing a body or demonstrating that the one claiming to be the resurrected Christ was an impostor. There is no evidence that this ever happened. The enemies of Christianity could have blown the Christians out of the water by simply producing the dead body of Jesus.
The empty tomb:
The Scriptures report the burial of Jesus and three days later an empty tomb. Some dismiss the empty tomb narratives because of supposed discrepancies in the various accounts (These supposed discrepancies are discussed in Part Three and Four of this series). All four of the Gospel authors, however, do report the same basic observation that the tomb was indeed empty. So even if secondary details are somewhat different, the basic detail is the same, a common characteristic of historical narratives. It is recorded that when confronted with the fact the tomb was empty, the Jewish leadership didn’t deny it but instead said the body was stolen by Jesus' disciples when the guards fell asleep. Yet the body was never found. Some to this very day believe the body was stolen. Was the body stolen?
This was a high profile case for the Jewish leadership. They wanted Christ out of their hair and accomplished this through the crucifixion. The scriptures report the Jews had the Romans place guards at the tomb where Jesus was buried. While it is conceivable that at some point the guards did fall asleep and the body was stolen, this does not appear very likely. Furthermore, it is safe to assume the Jews would have left no stone un-turned to find the body. Yet no body was found.
It should be observed that the disciples of Jesus were not expecting a resurrected Christ. Like most of Israel, these men were looking for a Messiah to reestablish the Davidic kingdom and save them from Roman oppression. The disciples thought Jesus was that Messiah. When Jesus was crucified, their hopes were dashed. Even though He had told them He would rise from the dead, that message had not sunk in as the scriptures reveal. They did not envision the Messiah would be crucified and, therefore, didn't envision the Messiah would be resurrected. The reality of seeing a dead Jesus on the cross was all they could focus on. This had become their new reality.
To conclude the disciples would steal the dead body of Jesus knowing it was a dead body and then proclaim it was alive and proceed to build a religious system based on what they knew was a lie and die for that lie appears ludicrous to say the least.
Does the discovery of the empty tomb give evidence to Jesus' resurrection? Some Christian apologists argue that it does. It must be pointed out, however, that there being an empty tomb does not, in and of itself, demonstrate that the resurrection of Jesus occurred. Going to a tomb where someone is known to have been buried and finding it empty is not a proof that that someone was resurrected. Since resurrections are extremely rare, associating an empty tomb with a resurrection is not the first thing that comes to mind.
If I were to bury someone in a tomb and a few days later on visiting the tomb I find it empty, the first thing that would come to my mind would not be that the body was resurrected. I would either think it was moved, stolen, or maybe I was at the wrong tomb. There would have to be some very strong evidence to convince me the reason the tomb is empty is because a resurrection has taken place. The scriptures show this to be the case with Mary Magdalene and the Apostles as well. They did not draw the conclusion a resurrection had occurred on finding the body of Jesus missing from the tomb.
The Gospel of John reports that when Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and found it empty, she thought someone had moved the body to a different location. She was not thinking Jesus had been resurrected.
John 20:1-2: Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don't know where they have put him!"
When she reported the empty tomb to Peter, he and another disciple came to the tomb to verify what Mary told them and it is recorded they now believed the tomb was empty. However, they did not associate the empty tomb with Jesus being resurrected. They were not expecting Him to be resurrected. We see the same unbelief expressed by the disciples to whom the women reported the empty tomb and the angels saying Jesus had risen from the dead.
John 20:9: (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.)
Luke 24:9-11: When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others. It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles. But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense.
The Scriptures reveal the women who came to the tomb, as well as the Apostles of Jesus, didn't believe He had been resurrected until He appeared to them.
As previously noted, some critics of the resurrection account don't necessarily believe the story of the empty tomb to be valid. Some believe the events associated with the discovery of an empty tomb were made up accounts that were added to the Gospel narratives to bolster the resurrection story. However, even if the empty tomb accounts could be shown to be bogus, this would not prove Jesus was not alive after having died. Critics still have to deal with the reported physical, flesh and blood appearances of Jesus to His followers after having been known to have died by crucifixion. Critics still have to deal with Paul's reporting of the appearances of Jesus based on information handed down to him which appears to have come from eyewitnesses to Jesus being alive after having been dead.
It has been pointed out by some scholars that Paul nowhere mentions the empty tomb in his writings. Because of this, some have suggested Paul was unaware of the empty tomb story because, as discussed above, it is believed by some to have been added to the Gospels to bolster the resurrection story. Since it is believed Paul died before the Gospels were written, it is believed he was unaware of the empty tomb tradition.
However, as covered earlier in our discussion, Paul reported information handed down to him by eyewitnesses of the events he wrote about. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul speaks of Christ being buried and resurrected (1 Corinthians 15:4). In Romans 1:1-4 Paul speaks of the resurrection of Jesus. If Paul sees Jesus as being buried and subsequently being resurrected, it would appear Paul knew about the empty tomb.
This being said, some scholars argue that Paul knew nothing about a bodily resurrection of Jesus. Some believe Paul saw Jesus' resurrection as spiritual in nature and because of this never mentions anything about their being an empty tomb because there wasn't an empty tomb. However, the Jewish concept of resurrection was of the physical body being revivified. Jews took great care to preserve the bones of the dead in anticipation of those bones being brought back to life at a future time of resurrection. Therefore, it is reasonable to believe Paul saw the resurrection of Jesus as His physical body leaving the tomb.
Women as witnesses:
It should be noted that all four Gospel narratives record that it was women who were the first witnesses to the empty tomb and it was to women that angels appeared and announced that Jesus had been raised from the dead. In Matthew and John, it is recorded that Jesus appeared to the women after the angelic appearances.
Matthew 28:8-10: So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them. "Greetings," he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, "Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me."
John 20:11-16:Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus' body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. They asked her, "Woman, why are you crying?" "They have taken my Lord away," she said, "and I don't know where they have put him." At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. "Woman," he said, "why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?" Thinking he was the gardener, she said, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him." Jesus said to her, "Mary." She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, "Rabboni!" (which means Teacher).
First century Jewish historian Josephus writes that women were not allowed to be a witness in a Jewish court of law. Since women were not seen as dependable witnesses in first century culture, it is instructive that the Gospel writers record it was women who were the first to witness the empty tomb and the first to see Jesus alive. If these accounts were fabrications as some believe, the writers would not have used women to be the first witnesses. They would have used men in keeping with the cultural norms of the times. The fact they report it was women who were the first to witness the empty tomb and the first to see Jesus alive is strong evidence the Gospel writers were accurately reporting this event.
They did this even though in doing so they were placing at risk the believability of what they wrote because of it running contrary to first century cultural norms. These writers report the women were told by angels that Jesus was resurrected and they record that Jesus actually appeared to the women. It's then recorded that the women shared this information with the Apostles. However, we see the Apostles did not believe the women. They thought they were talking nonsense.
However, after this initial doubt, we see the Apostles and many others believing that the crucified Christ was no longer dead but alive. Not only did they believe He was alive, but they proceeded to spend the rest of their lives defending their belief, suffering for their belief and in some cases dying for their belief. Why? It was because they were convinced that the man they knew to have died was once again alive. They found the testimony of the women to be true when they themselves experienced personal encounters with the risen Christ as recorded in all four Gospels.
Humans have supported, promoted, suffered and died for a wide variety of beliefs. Such beliefs are based on a conviction that what is believed is true. Humans will not suffer and die for what they know to be false unless they are coerced into such behavior by governing authorities. We find no coercion evident among the followers of Jesus. Instead we find fearful and disappointed men at the death of Jesus, suddenly becoming powerful in word and deed upon believing that the dead Christ is no longer dead but alive.
So despite it being women who first reported to the Apostles that Jesus was alive after having been known to be dead and despite their original doubt that these women were telling them the truth about having seen Jesus alive, these men came to believe Jesus was indeed alive and went to their graves believing Jesus was alive. Did these women and men really see Jesus alive or only think they saw him alive?
In Part two of this series we will look at the issue of hallucinations and apparitions relative to the post crucifixion appearances of Jesus.