So what evidence is there available that will help this investigation? It is obviously impossible to expect primary, forensic evidence, such as CCTV footage or DNA testing. But no event in history needs that level of forensics for us to accept that it happened. Neither do we have any artefacts, such as a piece of the cross on which Jesus was murdered. This shouldn’t surprise us either. It wouldn’t be fair to expect to find venerated objects like this when, as a general rule, the only things that survive the ravages of time are objects kept in royal libraries, temples and homes of the aristocracy. There is no reason to think that we ought to have physical evidence for the execution of just another of the many common criminals of the day, as the Romans would have seen it. Instead, just as we do for the vast majority of history, we can draw very solid conclusions from written records and accounts from as close to the time period as possible. This is the sort of evidence that historians use all the time and it will also help us investigate whether Jesus rose from the dead or not.

Written documents; the sort of evidence that historians use all the time.

How much literature is relevant to this enquiry? How can we be sure we have writings from the time or very soon after? Incredibly, there are actually thousands of New Testament[1] manuscripts and manuscript fragments. On top of this wealth of evidence, there are quotations of almost the entire New Testament text by early church writers[2], and these help to give us confidence in the form of the texts as we know it.

The evidence for the New Testament documents and their authenticity is overwhelming, far surpassing any other classical or contemporary piece of literature[3].

Now, the New Testament writings were written of course by Christians and therefore they could be biased in their view of the things they record. This argument only goes so far, however, because much of the gospels portray the early church leaders, (the disciples of Jesus), as failing and lacking faith on so many occasions. They do not paint themselves in a good light! This is a mark of authenticity and it clearly lacks the hallmarks of bias. It is highly unlikely that somebody would fabricate a story that puts their status and their reputation at risk, if the very purpose of writing it is to call people to follow their example and believe in their message. This is a recognised historical criterion – that is, historians use this as a way of assessing whether ancient documents are telling the truth or not – so we can be quite confident that the Biblical texts were written in good faith. This doesn’t automatically mean that we must accept their claims, but it does mean that it is reasonable to assume that those claims were genuinely believed by the writers.

Beyond the New Testament, however, there are non-Christian writers who captured important details. We will be referring to some of these in the remaining chapters. These include people like the Jewish defector Flavious Josephus, a Roman senator Tacitus and a Roman governor Pliny the Younger. These texts are very important pieces of the puzzle, since they are by people who had no affinity with Christianity and therefore no bias towards proving these things.

There is a huge amount of literature to help address this question.

Let’s weigh the evidence and see whether there is any credibility in the claim that Jesus rose from the dead on the third day.


[1] The New Testament is the second of two sections of the Bible, and it is all about the times of Jesus and immediately after him. The first, larger section in the Bible is known as the Old Testament.

[2] These are writers known as the Apostolic Fathers, who lived in the 200 years or so after the events of the New Testament and who wrote many dialogues, books and letters that extensively quote the biblical writings.

[3] The study of manuscripts and reconstruction of the text of the Bible, or any historical book, is called Textual Criticism. See the Further Reading appendix if you are interested in looking at this in more detail.

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