When examined honestly, the evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth turns out to be very good, and much better than for any alternative explanations on offer. Of course, it is impossible to do this subject justice in a few blog posts, so I highly recommend digging deeper if interested.
The most comprehensive single work in the subject currently is Michael Licona’s The Resurrection of Jesus, A New Historiographical Approach, published in 2010. A much shorter work which is a good introduction to the evidence is William Lane Craig’s The Son Rises, The Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus. These and other works are linked in the “Further Reading” section.
What is the evidence?
The evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is pretty straightforward. Since it is an event of ancient history, we have no video or photographs. Instead we must look at the same evidence that historians consider for any other contested ancient event: circumstantial evidence (i.e., where does the evidence point when taken together), and the relative plausibility of alternative explanations.
The conversion of James
Jesus’ own brother came to believe Jesus was the Divine Messiah and became a top leader in the post-resurrection movement
The conversion of James the brother of Jesus requires just a little reflection to be hit by it’s strangeness. What would it take to convince any adult sibling that his older brother was not crazy after all, but actually a Divine Messiah? Would the older brother appearing to him in physical form after being unmistakably executed do it?
James kept his distance before Jesus was executed
There are clear indications in the New Testament accounts that Jesus’ family became more and more concerned about the path Jesus was taking.
Mark Chapter 3
Now Jesus went home, and a crowd gathered so that they were not able to eat. 21 When his family heard this they went out to restrain him, for they said, ‘He is out of his mind.’” … Then Jesus’ mother and his brothers came. Standing outside, they sent word to him, to summon him. 32 A crowd was sitting around him and they said to him, “Look, your mother and your brothers are outside looking for you.” 33 He answered them and said, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” 34 And looking at those who were sitting around him in a circle, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 For whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.
John Chapter 7
After this Jesus traveled throughout Galilee. He stayed out of Judea because the Jewish leaders wanted to kill him. 2 Now the Jewish Feast of Shelters was near. 3 So Jesus’ brothers advised him, “Leave here and go to Judea so your disciples may see your miracles that you are performing. 4 For no one who seeks to make a reputation for himself does anything in secret. If you are doing these things, show yourself to the world.” 5 (For not even his own brothers believed in him.)
These passages shows the distance which had developed between Jesus and his family. In an honor-oriented culture like first-century Palestine, the eldest son going off the rails in a very public way was a shameful development, which is not likely to have been tolerated for long by the younger brothers. In the passage in John it seems like they are even suggesting Jesus put himself in danger at the hands of the religious leaders.
These passages and others in the gospel accounts show that, as Michael Licona puts it, “the brothers of Jesus were not counted among his followers throughout the time of Jesus’ execution. By all accounts, they appear to have maintained a distance from their brother’s ministry.”
James became a highly dedicated follower of Jesus soon after Jesus’ death.
In Paul’s first letter to the believers in Corinth Paul records that Jesus appeared to James after His resurrection.
1 Corinthians 15
3 For I passed on to you as of first importance what I also received – that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, 4 and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas [Peter], then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.
The change in James was so radical that that many scholars — even non-Christian scholars — today see it as positive evidence that James experienced what was (at least what he perceived to be) a no-kidding alive-from-the-dead interaction with Jesus. Gary Habermas writes that many critical scholars see the evidence as very strong that something extreme happened to the James and the other disciples shortly after Jesus was executed. They became passionate firebrands spreading the message that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah of God and was Himself due the same worship as God — And they were still monotheistic Jews till their deaths! They were all willing to be executed rather than recant this message, and the evidence is very good that some of them, including James, the half-brother of Jesus, actually were killed for this belief.
1. Paul W. Barnett, Jesus and the Logic of History (Downers Grove (Ill.): InterVarsity Press, 2000), 128.
2. Michael R. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2011), 455.
3. Licona, Resurrection, 460.
4. John Dominic. Crossan, N. T. Wright, and Robert B. Stewart, The Resurrection of Jesus: John Dominic Crossan and N.T. Wright in Dialogue (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), 80.
5. Sean McDowell, The Fate of the Apostles: Examining the Martyrdom Accounts of the Closest Followers of Jesus (London: Routledge, 2018), 134.