(This article was published in the Soapbox column of The Examiner newspaper on March 3, 2012)
Christian belief in Easter and the resurrection of Jesus does not need to be based on “blind faith”. If we ignore the issue of whether the New Testament is the Word of God and just accept the New Testament at face value, as a collection of historical documents from the first century and treat them like we would any other ancient documents, the evidence suggests that Jesus from the dead.
Some historians and theologians used to think the four Gospels were simply stories with a message (like fairy tales) and were not intended to describe actual events. This changed in 1992 with the publication of What are the Gospels, A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography by Richard Burridge. Burridge had compared the structure of the Gospels with ancient biographies and concluded that the Gospels were intended to be biographies of Jesus and to describe actual events. Burridge’s conclusions are now the consensus among historians. In other words, historians have come round to what Christians have been saying the whole time.
No historian denies the existence of Jesus of Nazareth who founded Christianity. Historians do debate whether Jesus said and did the things described in the Gospels, so they have developed criteria of authenticity to determine what in the Gospels is authentic.
These criteria include multiple attestations, which means that the more historical sources, which record an event, the more authentic it is likely to be. There are five accounts of the resurrection of Jesus, the four Gospels and 1 Corinthians 15. These accounts are different which means they were not copying each other but they are five independent sources for the same event. I am not aware of another event from the ancient world which was recorded by five independent sources within 60 years.
Another criterion is embarrassment which means that if the Gospels recorded something embarrassing for the early Church, then it must have happened because they would not have made it up. The four Gospels say the first witnesses to the resurrection were women. Since women had no credibility as witnesses in the ancient world, the early Church would not have made this up because no one would take it seriously. It must have happened that way.
Another criterion is the use of Aramaic which means that if the Gospels record Jesus saying something in Aramaic, then it goes back to the original Aramaic-speaking Jesus and it is not the creation of the Greek-speaking writers of the New Testament. The wording of the earliest account of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 suggests it is a Greek translation of Aramaic. Paul recorded what the original disciples told him in Aramaic about the resurrection only a few years after the event when there was no time for any legends to develop.
The resurrection of Jesus meets these and other criteria of authenticity which historians have developed to determine what really happened in the Gospels.
Most historians agree that the tomb of Jesus was found empty and the original Christians believed they had seen the resurrected Jesus. This experience was so convincing it transformed them from the cowards who ran away when Jesus was arrested into bold preachers who were prepared to die for this belief.
There have various attempts to explain away the resurrection, such as the body was stolen or it was a hallucination, but none of these can explain both the empty tomb and the resurrection appearances of Jesus. If someone stole the body, that would not explain why so many people, including unbelievers, saw the resurrected Jesus.
If the appearances of Jesus were mass hallucintions (assuming there is such a thing), Jesus’ body would have still been in the tomb for anyone to check.
Christian belief about the resurrection of Jesus is based on logic and evidence. When non-believers dismiss the resurrection because they do not believe a dead person could come back to life, they are rejecting the evidence that a dead person did come back to life because it conflicts with their preconceptions.