Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Evidence for the Resurrection: The Transformation of Jesus' Opponents

One could potentially develop a theory to explain how Jesus’ disciples could have fabricated or imagined the post-resurrection appearances. Perhaps, in a state of emotional distress, they had hallucinations that they mistook for reality. Maybe they hastily believed rumors of his resurrection because they were still holding onto hope in their hearts that Jesus was the Messiah, or perhaps they just fabricated the whole thing. Such speculation is why the next historical bedrock fact is so important. The previously mentioned theories may work with Jesus’ followers, though they still fail for reasons that I will discuss in the conclusion of this series, but they completely fall flat with his skeptics and enemies who later became his followers. Today, we are going to look at the transformation of two people who had no incentive to preach that Jesus had risen, unless they were reporting what they had actually seen.

We start with Jesus’ own younger brother, James (see Matthew 13:55-56 and Mark 6:3 for identification in the gospels). Along with the rest of his family, James’ was skeptical of Jesus’ messianic ministry and his claim to be the Son of God. While he was ministering from house to house, Jesus’ family “went to take charge of him, for they said, ‘He is out of his mind.’” (Mark 3:21). Later, Jesus’ brothers almost mockingly encouraged him to go to Jerusalem to perform miracles at the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles, but in reality, “even his own brothers did not believe in him.” (John 7:5). I think that it seems pretty intuitive that Jesus’ brothers would be skeptical of his claims. After all, would you believe that your sibling was the Son of God?

However, after Jesus’ death and reported resurrection, Jesus’ mother and brothers “joined together constantly in prayer” with his other followers (Acts 1:14). James became a leader in the early church, giving a speech at the important Council of Jerusalem, which stated that Gentile Christians did not need to be circumcised (Acts 15:12-21). The Apostle Paul also acknowledged that he traveled to Jerusalem a few years after his conversion and saw “James, the Lord’s brother.” (Galatians 1:19). James even wrote the Book of James, where he identifies himself as “a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” (James 1:1).

What could cause this radical transformation? It seems like a reasonable response if the early church creed from 1 Corinthians 15 is correct: “[Jesus] was buried,… he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures…Then he appeared to James.” (1 Corinthians 15:4,7).

James went on to prove the sincerity of this transformation by dying for his belief in the risen Christ, likely around 62 A.D. James’ death is attested to by the Jewish historian Josephus in an account that, unlike another passage we examined, is not contested. It is also important to note that this report of James’ martyrdom came from a non-Christian source, only strengthening its reliability.

“Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, [or, some of his companions]; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned.”1

James’ death is further attested to in Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History (Book 2, 23:8-18) and The First Apocalypse of James. You can check these out on your own if you would like to dig further.

While James’ transformation from skeptic to believer was dramatic, the Apostle Paul’s sudden change from a staunch enemy of the early church to arguably the greatest missionary in church history is even more astounding. Known as Saul before his conversion, he was a leader in the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr (Acts 7:56-57), and tried to “destroy the church” by “going from house to house, [dragging] off men and women and putting them in prison.” (Acts 8:3). Looking back on this period of his life, Paul lamented that he “[did] not even deserve to be called an apostle, because [he] persecuted the church of God.” (1 Corinthians 15:9). Being very zealous in his persecution of the church and observance of the law, Saul the Pharisee held an honored spot in Jewish society (Philippians 3:5-6).

Yet, something happened that indisputably turned Paul’s life upside down. Later, speaking before a crown in Jerusalem, Paul described the event in his own words:

“About noon as I came near Damascus, suddenly a bright light from heaven flashed around me.  

I fell to the ground and heard a voice say to me, ‘Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me?’

‘Who are you, Lord?’ I asked.

‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting,’ he replied. My companions saw the light, but they did not understand the voice of him who was speaking to me.

‘What shall I do, Lord?’ I asked.

‘Get up,’ the Lord said, ‘and go into Damascus. There you will be told all that you have been assigned to do.’ My companions led me by the hand into Damascus, because the brilliance of the light had blinded me.” (Acts 22:6-11)

If there is any doubt that Paul considered this to be a post-resurrection appearance, and not just a vision or hallucination, he added his name to the list of eye-witnesses of the resurrection in the early church creed that we have already discussed: “Last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.” (1 Corinthians 15:8).  

As a result, Paul’s life was radically changed. Instead of trying to destroy the church he became completely devoted to spreading the good news of resurrection of Jesus. Experiencing a total change in heart, he claimed, “I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.” (Acts 20:24). He proved these words true by enduring hardships, troubles, beatings, floggings, imprisonments, shipwrecks, sleepless nights, threats from all sides, and hunger for the sake of the gospel (2 Corinthians 6:4-5, 11:23-28). In the end, he paid the ultimate price by sacrificing his life as a martyr.

Tradition holds that Paul was beheaded during the reign of Emperor Nero (64 – 67 A.D.). While imprisoned in Rome, he hints at his impending death, writing, “I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (2 Timothy 4:6-7). Paul’s death is reported by Clement of Rome in the early first century:

Through envy Paul, too, showed by example the prize that is given to patience: seven times was he cast into chains; he was banished; he was stoned; having become a herald, both in the East and in the West, he obtained the noble renown due to his faith; and having preached righteousness to the whole world, and having come to the extremity of the West, and having borne witness before rulers, he departed at length out of the world, and went to the holy place, having become the greatest example of patience.2
If you are interested, you can examine further reports of Paul’s martyrdom in Ignatius’s Letter to the Ephesians (12:2), Polycarp’s Letter of the Philippians (9:1-2), Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History (Book 2,25:4), Tertullian’s Scorpiace (15:5-6), and Irenaeus’ Against Heresies (Book 3,1:1).

The record of history seems clear, both James and Paul were initially in a position of either skepticism or opposition to Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah. However, their lives were radically transformed to the point of being willing to lay them down for the message that Jesus had risen from the grave, confirming his identity as the Son of God and the efficacy of his death for the forgiveness of sins. Theories of fabrication, conspiracy, and wishful thinking simply won’t work to explain the historical transformation of these men. They were predisposed against the idea that Jesus would rise from the dead. In Paul’s case, he enjoyed a privileged position in Jewish society, and suffered tremendous loss in preaching the gospel and Christ’s resurrection. What could motivate both of these men to completely reverse position and give their lives to serve Jesus, with no logical explanation of ulterior motive? I see no other logical explanation than what is offered in 1 Corinthians 15 – “Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me (Paul) also, as to one abnormally born.” (1 Corinthians 15:7-8).


1)    Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 20:197-203, Retrieved from

2)    Clement of Rome, The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, 5:5-7, Retrieved from

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Evidence for the Resurrection: The Transformation of the Disciples

Would you be willing to die for something that you knew was a lie? I don’t mean would you be willing to die for something you strongly believed in, but would you be willing to die for something you knew to be false from firsthand experience? We will return to these questions later in this discussion.

In the last two posts, I argued that there is sufficient evidence to assert that Jesus died by crucifixion and that his followers had real experiences that they interpreted to be the risen Jesus. We now continue with the third historical bedrock fact, that Jesus’ followers were transformed as a result of their post-resurrection experiences, even to the point of being willing to die for their faith in the resurrection. The New Testament clearly illustrates a radical change in the disciples that occurred after their claim to have seen the risen Jesus. If you are skeptical of this data, I would encourage you to first read my post on the historical reliability of the New Testament before continuing with this post.

Prior to Jesus’ crucifixion, the disciples were not expecting the Messiah to die, let alone rise from the dead. After recognizing that he was the Christ, Peter rebuked Jesus for predicting his death and resurrection (Matthew 16:21-23, Mark 9:31-33). Elsewhere, the disciples didn’t even understand Jesus’ clear prediction that he would die and rise again (Luke 9:45, 19:31-34). Furthermore, the disciples fled out of fear when Jesus was arrested and Peter denied Jesus three times while he was on trial before the Jewish leaders (Matthew 26:29-75, Mark 14:66-72, Luke 22:54-62, John 18:15-18, 25:27). While we tend to focus on Peter’s denial, the other disciples failed to live up to their promise to follow him unto death if necessary (Matthew 26:35, Mark 14:31). The picture that we have before the resurrection is of a group of men that didn’t understand Jesus’ teachings on the crucifixion and resurrection and failed in the hour of greatest pressure for fear of their own safety. Due to the criterion of embarrassment, there is no reason to believe that these details were fabricated.

After the disciples’ claimed post-resurrection experiences, their behavior was radically transformed as they fearlessly proclaimed the gospel around the known world. Very soon after the crucifixion, they were preaching in the streets of Jerusalem that Jesus had risen from the dead (Acts 2:14-41, Acts 3:12-26). This is the same city where Jesus was crucified, where the religious leaders would certainly want to punish those carrying on his influence. When pressured by these leaders, the disciples spoke boldly and refused to stop preaching the gospel (Acts 4:1-21). Despite facing persecution (Acts 8:1-3) and imprisonment (Acts 5:17-42), the disciples preached the gospel wherever they went (Acts 8:4) and lived a lifestyle of radical generosity (Acts 2:42-47, Acts 4:32-37). Peter and John’s comments before the Sanhedrin when ordered to stop speaking in the name of Jesus sum up the transformation that occurred in these men.

“Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:19-20)

The disciples’ willingness to face suffering and persecution for the sake of the gospel message is confirmed in other books of the New Testament. Peter writes to the church to encourage Christians to “rejoice that [they] participate in the sufferings of Christ” (1 Peter 4:12) and that they should not be ashamed to suffer as Christians, but should “praise God that [they] bear that name.” (1 Peter 4:16). In the book of Revelation, John identified himself as “your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus” and explains that he “was on the island of Patmos (in exile) because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.” (Revelation 1:9). It is clear that the disciples were no longer a fearful band of deserters, but willing to suffer for their testimony that Jesus was the risen Lord.

Early extra-biblical sources confirm that Jesus’ followers faced persecution for their faith, which centered on the resurrection. In a passage that has been cited in previous posts, the historian Tacitus described Emperor Nero’s treatment of Christians after the Great Fire of Rome in 64 A.D.

“Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace.”1

Another Roman historian, Suetonius, confirms the persecution of Christians under Nero and also describes their harsh treatment under Emperor Claudius, who reigned from 41 – 54 A.D., in the first decades after the claimed resurrection.

“Because the Jews at Rome caused constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus (Christ), he (Claudius) expelled them from the city (Rome).”2

 “Nero inflicted punishment on the Christians, a sect given to a new and mischievous religious belief.”3

Beyond this evidence of a general atmosphere of persecution, there is evidence that the disciples were willing to face death for proclaiming that Jesus had risen from the dead. I have always found the martyrdom of the apostles to be highly compelling evidence for the resurrection. We return to the question, “Would you be willing to die for a lie?” However, a note of clarification is required here. Some might point out that a person’s willingness to die for their beliefs does not prove that their beliefs are true. After all, Muslim jihadists are willing to die to advance the cause of Islam and Buddhist monks are willing to set themselves on fire to protest oppression, yet those worldviews contradict Christianity in important areas. I agree with this objection, except that the apostles were not just dying for a strongly held set of beliefs that had been passed down to them, but for their testimony about what they had seen with their own eyes. If I were to die as a result of preaching the gospel, it would only prove that I sincerely and deeply believed in the Christian message, which ultimately I have received second hand. What they disciples were willing to do is different. They were willing to die for preaching that Jesus had risen from the dead and they were in the position to know whether this was true or false. If Jesus had not risen, they would have died for something they knew was a lie.

According to church history, all the apostles were martyred, except for John, who died in exile on the island of Patmos. There is not enough historical evidence to confirm this tradition, however there is evidence to support the assertion that Peter, Paul, James the brother of Jesus, and James the son of Zebedee were martyred, that Thomas was most probably martyred, and that Andrew may have been martyred.4 The lack of evidence for the other apostles doesn’t mean that they didn't die as martyrs, but that we don’t have sufficient historical data to ultimately determine how they died. However, we do know that there is evidence for a general atmosphere of persecution and that there is no historical evidence that any of the disciples ever recanted of their testimony that Jesus had risen from the dead.

In the next post, I am going to focus on the transformed lives of two of Jesus’ opponents, his brother James and the Apostle Paul, so I am not going to focus on the evidence for their martyrdoms in this post. Instead, I would like to put forward evidence to support that James the son of Zebedee and Peter died for their testimony of the resurrection.

In the book of Acts, the historian Luke writes, “King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword.” (Acts 12:1-2). It is believed that James’ death occurred in 44 A.D and James only appears in two later apocryphal writings, Acts of St. James and The Apostolic History of Abdias.5 His absence in other writings suggests that it was established early in church history that James had in fact been killed by the sword.

Peter is believed to have been crucified upside down during the reign of Nero, between 64 – 67 A.D. Interesting circumstantial evidence to support Peter’s death is Jesus’ prediction of this fate: 

“‘Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.’ Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God.” (John 21:18-19). 

The gospel of John is believed to have been written between 70 – 90 A.D., which places it after Peter’s death. Whether you believe that Jesus’ words were prophetically spoken during a post-resurrection appearance or merely invented after the fact, it would be odd to include them if Peter hadn’t actually died as a martyr. 

Peter’s death is confirmed by Clement of Rome in The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, likely written in the late first century.

“But let us pass from ancient examples, and come unto those who have in the times nearest to us, wrestled for the faith. Let us take the noble examples of our own generation. Through jealousy and envy the greatest and most just pillars of the Church were persecuted, and came even unto death. Let us place before our eyes the good Apostles. Peter, through unjust envy, endured not one or two but many labours, and at last, having delivered his testimony, departed unto the place of glory due to him.”6  

Peter’s martyrdom is further corroborated by Ignatius in his Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, written in the early second century.

For myself, I am convinced and believe that even after the resurrection he was in the flesh. Indeed, when he came to Peter and his friends, he said to them, ‘take hold of me, touch me and see that I am not a bodiless ghost.’ And they at once touched him and were convinced, clutching his body and his very breath. For this reason they despised death itself, and proved its victor.”7
Through several New Testament documents and extra-Biblical sources, we have a clear picture of the transformation of Peter from someone who rebuked Jesus for predicting his death and fearfully denied him during his trial to a bold leader of the early church, who fearlessly proclaimed the resurrection in the face of imprisonment, persecution, and ultimately death. We have good evidence that James son of Zebedee met a similar fate. While we may not know the details of how they died, we have strong evidence that the other disciples were similarly transformed and boldly testified to the resurrection in a hostile environment of general pressure and persecution. Something happened after Jesus’ death to cause this dramatic turn in the disciples. Any theory about what happened after the crucifixion must account for this radical transformation.


1)    Tacitus, Annals 15.44, cited in Strobel, Lee. The Case for Christ, Zondervan, 1998, p. 82.

2)    Suetonius, Life of Claudius, 25:4, cited in Wallace, J. Warner. “Is there any Evidence for Jesus Outside the Bible?” Retrieved from

3)    Suetonius, Lives of the Caesars, 26:2, cited in Wallace, J. Warner. “Is there any Evidence for Jesus Outside the Bible?” Retrieved from

4)    McDowell, Sean. “Did the Apostles Really Die as Martyrs for their Faith?” Retrieved from

5)    Ibid.

6)    Clement of Rome, The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, 5:1-4, Retrieved from

7)    Ignatius, Epistle of Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans, 3:1-2, Retrieved from

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Evidence for the Resurrection: Jesus' Followers had Real Post-Resurrection Experiences

In the last post, I explained why the vast majority of scholars agree that it is a historical fact that Jesus died by crucifixion. Likewise, a consensus of scholars concur that, very soon after the crucifixion, Jesus’ followers had real experiences that they thought were actual appearances of the risen Jesus. Similar to the last post, this historical fact may not seem to prove too much. After all, just because someone thought they saw the risen Christ doesn’t mean that there was an actual, bodily resurrection. Many people think they have seen UFO’s, ghosts, or other things that I would be skeptical to believe based solely on their testimony. I agree that, by itself, the historical fact of claimed post-resurrection appearances is not sufficient evidence for the resurrection. That is why it is important to remember that this is a cumulative case. At the end of the series, we will examine all the possible hypotheses to evaluate how well they account for all the historical facts that will be analyzed in this series.

We will start with the Biblical accounts of the post-resurrection appearances to multiple eyewitnesses. By post-resurrection appearances, I am referring to events in which people thought they saw, touched, heard, and talked with the risen Jesus. If you have not read my post on the historical reliability of the New Testament, I would recommend that you read that post before proceeding. It is important to remember that it is mere rhetoric to say, “Well, you can’t trust what the Bible says,” because this makes it seem like the Bible is one, single source. Instead, the New Testament contains multiple types of reports from multiple authors and eyewitnesses.

The earliest Biblical report of the post-resurrection appearances comes from Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church in an early church creed that we have previously discussed.

For what I 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 Cephas, and 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 he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. (1 Corinthians 15:3-8) 

It is important to remember that this creed likely developed within three years of the claimed resurrection1, far too early to have been legendary invention. The creed claims that Jesus appeared to Peter (Cephas), the disciples (the Twelve), a group of five hundred people, his own brother James, to other early church leaders or apostles, and finally to Paul during his conversion experience on the road to Damascus. Paul explains that many witnesses of the risen Jesus are still alive for cross-examination. It is a fair critique that the five hundred are anonymous. However, it is also important to note that someone who denied Christ when he was on trial, Peter, and two people who would be highly unlikely to invent resurrection claims, Paul and his brother James, are included in this list. The importance of their inclusion will be discussed in a later post. Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance to Paul is described in detail in Acts 9:1-19 and alluded to by Paul in Galatians 1:11:17.

Post-resurrection appearances are also described in three of the four gospels (Matthew 27:8-10,16-20, Luke 24:13-53, and John 20:10-21:23). The gospel of Mark does not include any post-resurrection appearances, but ends with Jesus’ women followers discovering the empty tomb. Since Mark is generally agreed to be the first gospel written, critics will claim that this proves that stories of post-resurrection appearances developed over time. However, that is why it is important to remember that the early church creed in 1 Corinthians 15 predates Mark and invalidates the gradual development theory. It is also important to note that the witnesses did things such as clasp Jesus’ feet (Matthew 28:9), touch his hands and feet (Luke 24:38-40, John 20:27-28), and watch him eat (Luke 24:42-43, John 21:11-14) to confirm that these appearances were physical in a nature, not mere visions or hallucinations.

Eyewitness testimony is also provided in the book of Acts and in some of the epistles. The book of Acts was a carefully investigated history (Luke 1:3-4) of the early church. In his first public sermon, at Pentecost in Jerusalem, Peter declares, “God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact.” (Acts 2:32). Peter later testifies to “the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3) and that “[Jesus] was put to death in the body, but made alive by the Spirit” (1 Peter 3:18) in his letter to the early church. 

While not directly speaking about post-resurrection appearances, the Apostle John explains that the disciples’ gospel message, which is centered on the resurrection, is not a theologically derived analogy but is based on actual experiences. He writes:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. (1 John 1:1-3)

There are also a couple of sources outside the Bible that corroborate that Jesus’ followers had real experiences that they interpreted to be encounters with the risen Jesus. Similar to Thallus in our previous post, the Greek historian Phlegon wrote a historical chronicle around 140 A.D. Although this source has not survived, it is referred to by Origen, an early church scholar and theologian, when he wrote the following: “Jesus, while alive, was of no assistance to himself, but that he arose after death, and exhibited the marks of his punishment, and showed how his hands had been pierced by nails.”2

Additionally, although it doesn’t directly describe the post-resurrection appearances, an early second century source from the historian Cornelius Tacitus describes Emperor Nero’s response to the great fire in Rome, in which he blames Christians for the tragedy.

“Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular.”3

Although it isn’t stated directly as post-resurrection appearances, it is a reasonable inference the “most mischievous superstition” is that Jesus rose from the dead.

I will readily admit that the extra-Biblical evidence for this historical fact is not as strong as the extra-Biblical evidence that Jesus died by crucifixion. However, that is why this series started with a post explaining the historical reliability of the New Testament. Real experiences that were interpreted to be post-resurrection appearances are attested to early and often, from a variety of sources. There is a reason that a consensus of scholars, even non-believing ones, agree that Jesus’ followers had actual experiences that they interpreted to be physical, post-resurrection experiences. Obviously, that doesn’t mean a consensus of scholars agree that Jesus rose from the dead. For this reason, I will continue to build the cumulative case for the resurrection in the next post, where we will examine the transformed lives of Jesus’ followers.

1)   DeWitt, Dan. “Credo: Early Christian Creeds as Apologetics.” The O Latte. Retrieved from

2)   Origen Against Celsus, Book 2, Chapter 59, cited in Wallace, J. Warner. “Is there any Evidence for Jesus Outside the Bible?” Retrieved from

3)   Tacitus, Annals 15.44, cited in Strobel, Lee. The Case for Christ, Zondervan, 1998, p. 82.