Christian Theology and Apologetics

A Historical Approach to the Resurrection of Jesus: Part 2

First Witnesses

The fist eyewitnesses to the empty tomb were women. This is very difficult to deny historically as it is independently reported in Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-11; and John 20:1-18. Though there are variances in the accounts regarding the named individuals present during the discovery of the empty tomb, the fact that women found the empty tomb is virtually undeniable. Gary Habermas has documented that 75 percent of scholars writing on this subject from 1975 to 2005 agree that Jesus’ tomb was found empty.[1] This 75 percent in favor of the empty tomb includes scholars that are skeptical of Christianity. To be sure this supported claim is a modest one; the claim supported is that female witnesses said they found the tomb unoccupied. Besides the women, Peter and John return to the tomb to find it empty as well, but only after the report from the women (Lk 24:12; Jn 20:3-10).


Some scholars have attempted to demonstrate that these accounts are somehow later additions but there are serious reasons to doubt this notion. The variances of the accounts provide a strong argument against collusion. These variances are the sort of incongruities one would expect from independent eyewitnesses. Moreover the criterion of embarrassment must be dealt with. In Matthew and John’s accounts the women are shown as seeing the risen Christ first before anyone else. In first-century Jewish society it is not uncontroversial to say that women were regarded as unreliable witnesses. The following quotations from this time period illustrate this point succinctly:


But let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex,[2]


Clearly, it would be better for one to enhance a contrived story with what society deemed credible witnesses. Additionally, Luke records these women were not believed by the disciples and that their words seemed like nonsense to them (Lk 24:11); how embarrassing a record for the disciples of Jesus.


Eleven of the original twelve disciples reported seeing Christ post-resurrection.[3] These appearances to them occurred in the real world, not some chemically induced state of consciousness. Thus, these appearances of Christ are empirical in nature and rather detailed. Moreover, these appearances did not occur when the disciples were experiencing moments of ecstasy; the disciples were depressed when they saw Christ. Some disciples still doubted Christ, though he was literally in the flesh in front of them (Matt 28:17). Everyone knows the story of doubting Thomas; he wouldn’t believe unless he put his finger into the place where the nails and spear had penetrated Christ’s body (Jn 20:25). Christ showed his followers through empirical evidence that he was indeed raised from the dead. In Luke 24:38-41 Christ goes to great lengths to display to the disciples that he is not a spirit, but is raised from the dead. First he tells them to touch him, to prove that he is not some sort of spirit. Secondly he asks for something to eat and then proceeds to eat a fish in front of them—why—to prove that he is flesh and bone and not a spirit. All this is not to propose some sort of circular argument; rather it is to demonstrate the nature of the argument being made. Christ’s resurrection was physical in nature and one that can be empirically proven.


Witness, Faith, and Fate of the Apostles

Another detail supporting witnesses to Christ’s resurrection is the appointment of Matthias to be an Apostle (Ac 1:15-26). Peter outlines the qualifications to be an Apostle; they must have been witnesses from the time of Christ’s baptism up to his ascension into heaven—clearly Matthias and Barsabbas were witnesses to Jesus after his resurrection. Tim and Lydia McGrew note that this appointment also supports Paul’s argument that Christ appeared to a lager number of individuals than just the eleven (1 Cor 15:1-8). [4] Though these two individuals are the only ones named, it is reasonable to imply that there may have been more people to choose from.

The Apostles suffered at the hands of secular powers for their faith in Christ. They believed what they preached; who would die for a story they knew to be false—clearly they truly believed Christ’s resurrection to be a real event grounded in evidence. There is some internal evidence regarding the fate of some of the Apostles. For instance, Jesus’ statement to Peter regarding his later years (Jn 21:18-19) may have indicated his fate. Christ stated, “but when you grow old, you will stretch out your handsis understood by Michael Licona to signify that Peter was to be martyred by crucifixion.[5] Clement of Rome reported that Peter died by crucifixion.

“Let us set before our eyes the illustrious apostles. Peter, through unrighteous envy, endured not one or two, but numerous labours; and when he had at length suffered martyrdom, departed to the place of glory due to him.”[6] Clement also mentions the fate of Paul.

Owing to envy, Paul also obtained the reward of patient endurance, after being seven times thrown into captivity, compelled15 to flee, and stoned. After preaching both in the east and west, he gained the illustrious reputation due to his faith, having taught righteousness to the whole world, and come to the extreme limit of the west, and suffered martyrdom under the prefects.[7]


Further evidence for Peter and Paul’s fate lends itself from Clements treatment concerning Christian women mentioned in this same chapter: “Through envy, those women, the Danaids and Dircæ, being persecuted, after they had suffered terrible and unspeakable torments, finished the course of their faith with stedfastness,”[8] In ancient mythology Danaus’s daughters were given as prizes to the winners of a race. It may be the case here that this is a reference of Christian women being raped before martyred. Thus, the sixth chapter of Clement is about those who have suffered and died for their faith in Christ. Additionally, other sources mention the fate of Paul.

Polycarp mentions Paul’s fate:

. . . such as ye have seen [set] before your eyes, not only in the case of the blessed Ignatius, and Zosimus, and Rufus, but also in others among yourselves, and in Paul himself, and the rest of the apostles. [This do] in the assurance that all these have not run in vain, but in faith and righteousness, and that they are [now] in their due place in the presence of the Lord, with whom also they suffered.[9]


Strongly held convictions—enough to die for—does not mean the beliefs were correct. There have been documented believers in other religions willing and sometimes actually seeking death. The Apostles willingness to suffer and die horrible deaths does indicate that they certainly considered what they believed to be true. As Mike Licona says, “Liars make poor martyrs.” A key difference between an ancient Christian Apostle and say, a modern Muslim extremist is that the extremist is holding to beliefs passed on to them from generations ago whereas the Apostles died for their own testimony of seeing the risen Christ; it was their testimony, they made the claim that they personally saw Jesus after his crucifixion. This was not a tradition passed down to them. The key difference is this: martyrs of today die for that they believe to be true, but the Apostles died for what they knew was either true or false. Thus, it is unlikely Peter and Paul died for something they knew was untrue. If one makes the claim that the Apostles knew Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, yet died for this teaching despite their knowledge then one needs to have an adequate explanation. To this date the explanatory scope of the Apostles lying and dying is extremely weak.



[1] Gary Habermas, Experiences of the Risen Jesus. Dialog: A Journal of Theology 45, 288-297.

[2] Flavius Josephus and William Whiston, The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1987).

[3] Acts 1:13

[4] Timothy McGrew and Lydia McGrew “The Argument from Miracles: A Cumulative Case for the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth” in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, 610.

[5] Licona, Michael R. The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (Downers Grove, InterVarsity Press, 2010), 366.

[6] Clement of Rome, “The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 1, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 6.

[7] Ibid.


[8] Ibid.

[9] Polycarp of Smryna, “The Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 1, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 35.


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