The resurrection of Jesus was historically verified


                “God raised this Jesus; of this we are all witnesses.” (Acts 2:32)

It’s a very embarrassing moment for a lawyer trying a case in front of a jury when the judge says, “Please call your next Witness,” and that next witness hasn’t shown up. Witnesses are very important (and nothing is more valuable to a lawyer than a competent, credible and honest witness), and this concept of “witness,” of credible witnesses, has a definite place in Christianity (indeed, in the painting above we see the risen Christ appearing to the apostles along the shore of Lake Tiberias – as recorded in John 21).

In 2 Peter 1:16 the concept of witness is elaborated upon by the apostle, who says:

For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” (2 Peter 1: 16)
And at John 21:24 another apostle – obviously John – signs his affidavit of authenticity at the end of his Gospel by stating:
“This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true.” (John 21: 24-25)

The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that the Resurrection of Jesus Christ was a real and historical event: “The mystery of Christ’s resurrection is a real event, with manifestations that were historically verified, as the New Testament bears witness” (CCC 639). Clearly there are aspects of our Lord’s Resurrection which transcend the limitations of time and space – still the event itself was witnessed in history and dramatically changed the lives of those who witnessed it. Peter, speaking on the day of Pentecost, says:God raised this Jesus; of this we are all witnesses” (Acts 2:32)

Relying on his apostolic credentials, Saint Paul writes powerfully about the historical reliability of  Jesus’ Resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, stating: 

“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also.”  (1 Cor. 15: 3-8)

The Apostle speaks here of the living tradition of the Resurrection which he had learned after his conversion at the gates of Damascus” (CCC 639). In this famous passage (just quoted above) Paul mentions 500 hundred witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection, and he further adds that some of these witnesses have died, which means that most are still alive and can provide corroborating testimony! Five hundred witnesses would make for a long trial!

The great Biblical scholar C.H. Dodd comments on this concept of witness as it pertains to the resurrection. He states: “The main weight [regarding the truth of Jesus’ Resurrection] … is placed on the testimony that Jesus was ‘seen’ alive after death, by a number of his followers….” (The Founder of Christianity, page 167). Dodd adds: Something had happened to these men, which they could describe only by saying they had ‘seen the Lord’. This is not an appeal to any generalized ‘Christian experience’. It refers to a particular series of occurrences, unique in character, unrepeatable, and confined to a limited period” (p.168). Dodd therefore concludes:

“[For] the original witnesses [the resurrection of Jesus was] an immediate, intuitive certainty. They were dead sure they had met with Jesus, and there was no more to be said about it….Now they were new men in a new world, confident, courageous, enterprising, the leaders of a movement which made an immediate impact and went forward with an astonishing impetus.” (p. 170)
Almost all of these apostles went on to convincingly confirm that they witnessed the resurrected Jesus with the witness – the Greek word “martyr” literally means witness – of their own lives, which is a most powerful testimony. Who are we today – some 2000 years later – but the living beneficiaries and stewards of the most important testimony ever given: “CHRIST IS RISEN! ALLELUIA!

Tom Mulcahy, J.D.

Image: James Tissot, Christ Appears on the Shore of Lake Tiberias (Public Domain, U.S.A.)
References: The Founder of Christianity by C.H. Dodd, The Catechism of the Catholic Church, and The Ignatius Catholic Bible Study on 1 Corinthians 15.

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