The Credibility of the Testimony to Jesus’ Resurrection
By Alexander LaBrecque
The resurrection of the crucified Jesus is the foundational event of the
Christian faith. The gospel is about this event and what this event
means, not about an abstract system of religious tenets. The sixteenth
century Reformation is considered by many to have made a great
breakthrough in affirming that Christianity stands or falls on “the
doctrine of justification by faith." By contrast, for the earliest
Christians everything rested on not a doctrine but the historical
reality of Jesus' resurrection. From that event flows the distinctly
Christian understanding of God and of humanity's salvation.
The earliest Christians made two historical claims concerning Jesus'
resurrection: (1) that on the third day after his death and burial the
tomb was found empty; (2) that subsequently, on several different
occasions individuals and groups were eyewitnesses to encounters from
Jesus bodily alive again. The reports of the empty tomb and the
resurrection appearances are historical claims and therefore subject to
investigation. Their authenticity is a matter not of 'faith' but of
historical .judgment. On the basis of historical evidence we must
decide for or against the plausibility of those claims, just as we would
judge in the case of any other alleged event.
Since the first century skeptics have dismissed Jesus’ resurrection out
of hand because their philosophical or religious presuppositions do not permit the
event: But that approach to the matter is an uncritical evasion of the
historical questions. It fails to attempt to deal honestly with the
relevant evidence. How are we to explain the origin of these
extraordinary claims? What scenario most plausibly accounts for the
evidence? If the Easter claims do warrant rejection, that conclusion
should result from a critical investigation of the claims. But the
evidence for Jesus' resurrection is such that the testimony welcomes
of the empty tomb was conceded by the gospel's earliest adversaries and
is acknowledged today by most critical scholars of Christian origins.
A more complex issue is the factuality of the appearances of Jesus alive
after his death, for that phenomenal claim has always been contested.
Its authenticity must be determined by examining the credibility of the
witnessers' testimony and ascertaining the most plausible explanation
for the reported appearances.
just three alternatives to choose from in this matter: (1) the witnesses
did in fact see Jesus bodily alive after his death and burial; (2)
Jesus' followers were deluded and experienced hallucinations,
subjectively seeing" what they expected to see; (3) the empty tomb and
the reported appearances were the staging of a hoax. In all three of
these scenarios, the case hinges on the credibility of the reports given
by the alleged eyewitnesses. Is their testimony historically credible
The authenticity of Jesus' resurrection
hinges on the credibility
of eyewitness testimony to the appearances.
This issue—the second in a series on the validity of the resurrection
faith—presents evidence for the veracity of the witnesses' testimony
concerning the Easter event. After consideration of that evidence,
responses will be made to the charges that the witnesses were deluded or
perpetrating a hoax.
Evidence of the Testimony's Credibility
The primitive testimony is very early, conservative, and lacking signs of
In I Cor 15:3-11 we have firsthand testimony from a purported eyewitness
of the last of the resurrection appearances, written two and a half
decades after the event. Furthermore, Paul here transmits the testimony
of other eyewitnesses as well, which he had received from them within
six years of Jesus' crucifixion.
At the time of their transmission to Paul these reports of the
appearances of the risen Jesus had already become formally established
in the creed here recited. That the phenomena commenced “on the third
day" had belonged to the original testimony. And when 1 Corinthians was
written (c. AD 55), most of over 500 eyewitnesses to the appearances
were still alive (15:6) and the credibility of their testimony could be
personally investigated and verified.
The New Testament Gospels and Acts were written no earlier than a decade after
Corinthians, and as late as the end of the first century. But the-
primitive testimony left by Paul in 1 Cor 15:3-11 provides the historian
a benchmark for testing the reliability of later Christian testimony
Though these NT documents come from the second generation, they
purportedly rely on eyewitness reports and original bearers of the
Easter testimony (John 21:24; Luke 1:2; cf. Acts 1:3,21-22).
Of course, as narratives the resurrection accounts of the NT Gospels are
far richer in detail than Paul's stark summary in 1 Cor 15; not
surprisingly, there is also disparity between the Gospels in those
details. Nonetheless, the essence of their testimony—that for a
limited period eyewitnesses saw Jesus bodily alive again—is in full
agreement with that reported by Paul in the earliest written record.
The reliability of the primitive testimony to
Jesus' resurrection is attested not only by the early dates of these
documents and their sources, but also by the fact that they are so
conservative and lacking of the fanciful embellishment that developed
soon enough. Paul's list of the reported appearances in 1 Cor 15 is a
bare-bones summary, as are the brief accounts of the earliest preaching
Again, the four NT Gospels present more detailed information about the
circumstances of the resurrection appearances than do Paul or Acts, but
even there we find notable restraint. This is especially remarkable
since the reports of Jesus' resurrection circulated orally long before
they became preserved in the written accounts we have in the New
The primitive testimony is of early date, conservative, and
embellishment found in later Christian writings.
Apparently, to the earliest Christians what happened in the Easter event
was so remarkable in and of itself that they were not motivated to
significantly embellish the resurrection story.
Overall they were content with what they knew to be historical reality.
To their credit, the New Testament writers do not describe Jesus'
resurrection in process of occurring. In full honesty they are silent
about that, unlike the legends found in later Christian literature.
Furthermore, in the primitive testimony the resurrection itself is not a
public event seen by unbelievers—let alone by the disciples! But by
the early second century its occurrence becomes public in the
apocryphal Gospel of Peter; here Jesus' emergence from the tomb is
graphically portrayed and is alleged to have been witnessed by the
Jewish elders and the Roman soldiers guarding the sepulchre (chs.
9-11). This later fabrication attests the primitive church's concern
with historical reality in the matter of Jesus' resurrection. The fact
that decades after the event the NT Gospels do not purport that his
rising from the dead was publicly witnessed but retain its obscurity
attests the authenticity of the original testimony.
Jesus' resurrection is without theological precedent.
In Judaism the hope of the resurrection of the dead concerned an event
expected to occur at "the last day,” the end of the world as it now is—not
within the present age. Furthermore, Jews expected that the dead
would be collectively raised to everlasting life, in a corporate event
experienced by all the righteous together—not by one individual
only, raised before all others. To this day a major objection of
Judaism to Jesus' messiah-ship is that the Messiah comes at the end of
the age and reigns from Jerusalem; not so in the case of Jesus. So the
disciples' background in Judaism does not provide a precedent for the
Christian belief that God had resurrected to immortality Jesus of
Nazareth and him alone, while the present order of human history
continues as before. Indeed that is altogether without precedent. If
the disciples had experienced not an objective appearance by the risen
Jesus but a subjective vision, then the content of that vision should
have been in accord with Jewish expectations. It was not.
The disciples were not predisposed to the Easter event.
The theory that the disciples were predisposed to hallucinate that Jesus
appeared to them alive might be plausible if despite his crucifixion
they had remained unshakeable followers of his cause. But the NT
Gospels depict the disciples as dim-witted jerks and wimps who in fear
for their own safety abandoned Jesus at his arrest, trial and
crucifixion; the leader of the bunch emphatically denied ever knowing
the man (Mark 14:66-72). Only women and some peripheral followers were
loyal enough to be present at Jesus' crucifixion and attend to his
burial (Mark 15:40-16:1). Meanwhile, his disciples were hiding in fear
for their own lives (John 20:19). The two followers en route to Emmaus
confessed that with Jesus' crucifixion died their hopes for Israel's
liberation from Roman oppression (Luke 24:21). The Gospels attest that
the disciples initially disbelieved even the resurrection appearances
(Matt 28:17; Luke 24:36-43; John 20:24-29).
The witnesses were predisposed to not
expect the resurrection of this crucified man.
The admissions of confusion and cowardice in
these accounts are marks of authenticity. It is unimaginable that the
propaganda literature of this fledgling movement (the Gospels) would
portray its founders in such a bad light unless their abandonment and
disbelief of Jesus were indeed factual. Such candor about a sect's
origins is unparalleled.
The testimony of the women reflects the Gospels' authentic witness.
The NT Gospels credit the discovery of the empty tomb to women,
including Mary Magdalene, a person of questionable repute. Matthew and
John also report that the risen Jesus first appeared to women of this
group. This is simply astounding, for in Judaism the testimony of
females was without credibility.
If the resurrection was a hoax perpetrated by Christians, then the empty
tomb would not be found by women, nor would women be the first persons
to whom a messenger announces that Jesus has risen from the dead. Even
the disciples discounted their report; the testimony of the women
“seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them" (Luke
Paul's omission of women from his list of witnesses in 1 Cor 15 is due to
several factors. It may reflect his recognition of contemporary
society's depreciation of the credibility of female witnesses;
for him to have cited the testimony of women would have weakened his
case. Furthermore, the women's witness is more connected to the
discovery of the empty tomb—a secondary, supporting evidence. Paul
sets forth what he regards as his most impressive witnesses and his
strongest case—the resurrection appearances. And to an appearance of
the risen Christ Paul could personally attest.
The NT Gospels cite these persons as witnesses nonetheless because the women's
testimony was known to be factual, despite their gender! To the modem
reader, therefore, the handicap of the ancient gender bias should
confirm the authenticity of the Gospels' witness in this matter.
scandal of the cross authenticates the Easter testimony.
To Judaism and to Greco-Roman society, crucifixion was utterly abhorrent.
The Romans reserved this degrading execution for criminals, slaves and
rebels, commonly referring to it as "the slaves' punishment." Exhaustion
and the position of the victim's affixed body caused a slow, torturous
death by asphyxiation, which often took days. Josephus, a first-century
Jew, describes crucifixion as "the most wretched of deaths."
Frequently a victim was not buried but left rotting on the gibbet as
carrion for birds of prey. The deterrent effect of this public
spectacle needs no elaboration. Crucifixion was so cruel and shameful a
death that even to speak of it in a social setting was considered
vulgar. Referring to Jesus' execution, the Roman historian Tacitus
dismissed the resurrection faith as "a pernicious superstition“ akin to
"all the horrible and shameful things in the world."
For Christians therefore to proclaim as risen a
"Christ crucified" was to herald "a scandal to Jews and an absurdity to
Gentiles" (I Cor 1:23). To Jews, crucifixion bore the additional stigma
of signifying a divine curse that the Torah pronounced on evildoers and
apostates: "a hanged man is accursed by God" (Deut 21:23). To publicly
claim that God had raised from the dead a crucified man exposed
Christians to ridicule and shame. The very notion of a crucified
Messiah was a contradiction of terms and scandalously offensive to
Jews. The shame associated with Jesus' crucifixion was deeply felt by
the earliest Christians, despite their confidence in the reality of his
resurrection. It so shamed some Christian Jews that they sought to
compel Gentile converts to adopt Judaism, hoping that by such
compensation “the scandal of the cross is removed” (Gal 5:11; 6:12).
of the witnesses' contemporaries the resurrection testimony was
deemed so credible as to powerfully offset the scandal of the cross.
So the charge that as a hoax some Jews concocted the claim of Jesus'
resurrection is more incredible than the Easter claim itself might seem
to be. As a former foe of the resurrection faith, Paul well understood
that if God had not raised the crucified Jesus from the dead, then to
proclaim that this had happened was to blaspheme, to bear “false witness
against God" (1 Cor 15:15). For Jews to foster a hoax of this
nature would be very serious, especially since Jesus had died as one
accursed by the Law. The authenticity of the witnesses' bold claims to
have seen Jesus supernaturally alive matches the gravity of his
crucifixion as an apostate.
Unfortunately, the public scandal associated with
crucifixion in the Roman era was later lost sight of altogether in
Christendom and is unrecognized today by Christians no less than by
non-believers. Such an oversight has impoverished not only the church's
theology but also its witness to the reality of Jesus' resurrection.
For given the extreme scandal of the cross within both Judaism and the
Roman world, the proposition that Jesus' disciples either fabricated his
resurrection appearances or hallucinated the sightings is implausible to
the point of being ludicrous.
In view of the psychological obstacle of Jesus'
crucifixion, it is amazing that any of their contemporaries believed the
Easter witnesses at all. Its stigma would deter not only the educated;
the lower classes who had no rights would be most revulsed by his manner
of death, for such a fate could befall them more easily than others in
society. Evidently the testimony to Jesus' resurrection was deemed so
credible as to powerfully offset the scandal of the cross.
Paul was formerly a hostile witness, predisposed against the
resurrection faith. No opposition literature has survived from the
generation of possible eyewitnesses, although the Christian movement
soon became a significant threat to Judaism. As far away as the
imperial city, there was such strife among Jews over the Christian claim
of Jesus' resurrection that in AD 49 the emperor Claudius expelled the
Jewish community from Rome.
Despite our lack of opposition literature from the first generation, the
arguments that Jews and Gentiles used against the resurrection faith can
be drawn from other sources, some of later date.
However, at least one-fifth of our New Testament was written by a man who not
only claimed to be an eyewitness of the risen Jesus but had previously
persecuted the Christian movement from the outset.
Paul, formerly Saul the Pharisee, openly confessed that he had violently
opposed the resurrection faith (Gal 1:11-14,23; Phil 3:4-7; 1 Cor
His conversion is dated c. AD 33, so within three years of Jesus'
crucifixion—at the earliest stage of the movement—the Easter
testimony possessed credibility sufficient to warrant suppression from
its opponents. Paul was undoubtedly acquainted with the arguments that
Jews in Palestine had mustered against Jesus' resurrection, and it can
be safely assumed that he himself had once utilized them. So the fact
that a sworn enemy who had sought to exterminate the Easter faith should
now attest to an appearance of the risen Christ is as valuable a
testimony as an historian could want to find.
Attempts to explain Paul's conversion from persecuting Pharisee to apostle of a
crucified Messiah on the ground of preconditioning or wish-fulfillment
utterly fail. Psychologically and socially, he had nothing to gain and
everything to lose by taking such a course. For this Pharisee had been
blameless in his observance of the Torah, gaining in social stature, and
in devotion to Judaism surpassing his peers. To him the Law was the
divine criterion of reality Paul was so committed to the Jewish Bible
that he set out to exterminate the Easter community, for its claim that
God had raised from the dead this crucified apostate would undermine the
Torah by which Jesus was accursed.
It was precisely because Jesus' resurrection challenged the Torah's
authority that Paul so zealously persecuted the Christian movement.
Suddenly and unexpectedly, the church's
persecutor embraced the resurrection faith and began proclaiming that
Jesus is the risen Messiah. This Pharisee repudiated the Torah, that
which had defined his very identity; in its place the scandal of the
crucified Jesus now marked his new identity (Gal 2:19-21; 6:14-17). In
so doing Paul forfeited his blameless "righteousness under the Law,” the
full assurance of salvation provided through Judaism. His apostasy also
excluded him from his heritage and exposed him to the persecution to
which he had formerly subjected others (Phil 3:2-11; Gal 5:11). Social
gain? Wish-fulfillment? Hardly so in the case of Paul.
Of course, the world has no lack of fanatics who
will risk all for their religion. But such cases can be accounted for
by the subject's prior conditioning. Apart from the risen Christ's
appearance to him, however, Paul’s conversion continues to defy
explanation. Unfortunately this fact has been long obscured by western
orthodoxy. Pulpiteers have given us an almost romantic account of the
conversion of Paul, who is recast as the prototype of Augustine and
Luther. According to Protestant legend, the apostle had been a troubled
soul groaning under the burden of Jewish "legalism," unable to attain by
self-effort the lofty piety for which he longed. His introspective
quest for serenity was fulfilled when, lo and behold, on the Damascus
Road he discovered by passively trusting in Christ's merits that he no
longer needed to earn God’s favor.
former hostility to the Christian faith firmly establishes the
credibility of his testimony to an appearance of the risen Jesus.
New Testament scholars are now recognizing such an account of the apostle's
conversion to be a pious fantasy, a Christian distortion of Judaism, and
that Augustine's and Luther's concerns were alien to Paul. At the time
of his own conversion, Augustine had long been wishing to abandon a
carnal lifestyle that displeased his mother, and the outcome of that
psychological conflict was his adoption of a piety contemptuous of human
existence. A millennium later, Luther was a monk who had taken
Augustine's theology to heart and felt guilty about being human.
Longing for freedom from a troubled conscience, Luther gained the relief
he sought by finding in his Bible proof-texts that indicate God's
justice is not only punitive but salvific and merciful. In the cases of
both Augustine and Luther, the turning point of their religious
experience came when they found what they had been looking for all
along. By contrast, at the time of his conversion Paul had been an
upwardly mobile Pharisee, spiritually and socially content, and
like other Jews, fully assured of Gods approval.
Far from seeking what the Christian sect might have to offer, this man
could not have been more averse to it. The resurrected Jesus was the
last person the persecutor wanted to see!
Yet Paul himself does not make his earlier opposition to the resurrection faith
an argument for his credibility as a witness of the risen Christ. He
cites his former zeal for the Torah and his persecution of the church
only to highlight (1) God's grace toward him and (2) his personal
knowledge that the resurrection faith has supplanted Judaism as the new
identity of God's people.
Had Paul cited his former hostility to the faith to show his credibility
as witness to an appearance of the risen Christ, that would certainly be
a valid argument; he does not however employ it, not even in 1 Cor
15:1-11 where it would have well served his point. The fact that Paul
does not make use of that argument attests strongly to the authenticity
of his claim.
Paul's testimony as a former hostile witness and enemy of the resurrection
faith carries as much weight as would the testimonies of Caiaphas and
Pilate themselves. And his conversion decisively refutes the notions
that the resurrection appearances were a hoax or the product of wishful
The Easter testimony admits that Jesus' resurrection is almost
The New Testament's bold affirmation of Christ's resurrection stands in sharper
relief when we consider that this is tempered by the admission that the
Easter event is so extraordinary as to be almost incredible.
The earliest Christians well knew that resurrections don't occur in our
world. They were fully aware that people die, corpses decay, and the
dead do not return to life. The fact that the disciples initially
disbelieved the reports of Jesus' resurrection and even the appearances
is to their credit—a healthy, normal skepticism, an authentic
reaction. The NT Gospels also say that Jesus foretold his resurrection
but his disciples had dismissed those claims.
In so doing they acknowledge the difficulty of believing that such an
event would occur or had occurred. The earliest believers took quite
seriously the fact that dead people do not rise.
In addition to the fact that resurrection contradicts common human
experience, the gospel encountered religious and philosophical obstacles
as well. Regarding Jesus' resurrection the author of Acts cites from
Israel's scripture: “Behold, you scoffers, wonder, and perish; for [God
does] a deed in your days, a deed you will never believe, if one
declares it to you" (13:41; quoting Hab 1:5). Because Jesus had been
crucified as one condemned by the Torah, devout Jews found it too much
to believe that God would resurrect this particular man.
And Greeks whose philosophy deemed the human body a corpse imprisoning
the soul found the very notion of resurrection preposterous; surely God
would not affirm the body by raising anyone from the dead!
At Athens "when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked;
but others said, 'We will hear you again about this'" (Acts 17:32).
While knowing it to be factual, earliest Christianity understood that
the resurrection was difficult to accept.
Contrast this with much of the Christian region today, which no longer marvels at
Jesus' resurrection. Now Christians generally are unaware of the
evidence and many assume that the evidence is irrelevant. His
resurrection is presumed because it is the nth article of the creed, or
because the Bible says so, or because "he lives within my heart." On
the scale of the wondrous, among some charismatics Christ's resurrection
ranks just a bit higher than a leg-lengthening. To the church in our
day Jesus' resurrection is no more a surprising, extraordinary event. A
prevalent notion is that "of course Jesus rose from the dead, for God
can do anything.” Today the "strong" Christian does not appreciate the
incredibleness of the Easter event, but regards a questioning of it as
stubborn resistance to that which is manifestly obvious. The
fundamentalist spirit dares not to even acknowledge the difficulty,
Where doubt is disallowed, superstition speaketh piously.
But earliest Christianity affirmed both the incredibleness of Jesus'
resurrection and the factuality of this event. The New Testament
writers welcomed scrutiny of the witnesses' testimony (cf. 1 Cor 15:6),
confident in the knowledge that its beginning "did not happen in a
corner" (Acts 26:26) and that Jesus "presented himself alive after his
passion by many proofs" (Acts 1:3).
With such weighty evidence in mind, let us now
consider the alternative scenarios that purport to discredit the Easter
Challenges to the Witnesses’ Credibility
Allegations of a hoax.
earliest times the gospel's opponents alleged that the Easter event was
a hoax. The rabbis claimed that Jesus was a sorcerer and a deceiver,
and Matt 28:11-15 reports that immediately after the resurrection the
rumor began circulating in Judaism that the disciples had stolen his
Their contemporaries’ charge of body snatching concedes that Jesus' tomb was
both known and found empty; his followers had not gone to the wrong
sepulchre. But people do not subject themselves to scandalous
reproach, risk their lives and ultimately die to knowingly foster a
hoax. The witnesses were faithful Jews, and Paul admits that if false
the resurrection testimony would be blasphemy against God. To Judaism,
Jesus had died under a divine curse as an evildoer; because of the
scandal associated with crucifixion it is unthinkable that anyone would
even believe, such a hoax, much less that a Jew would concoct it. And
were it a hoax, the earliest Christians would not fabricate the female
testimony we find in the Gospels, for in Judaism women had no
credibility as witnesses.
The sincerity of the witnesses' belief that Jesus has risen is also attested
by the way this testimony radically changed their own lives. This
observation is not the old axiom that regular church attendance prompts
people to behave nicely (as the cross of Christ shows, often religion
has the opposite effect). Rather, the witnesses lived by the
specific belief that God had raised Jesus from the dead. They acted
out what such a faith entailed; for their testimony to Jesus'
resurrection Peter, Paul and other primary witnesses suffered
martyrdom. Their manifest sincerity to the point of death refutes the
allegation of a hoax.
do not subject themselves to scandalous reproach, risk
their lives and
ultimately die to knowingly foster a hoax.
A variation of the hoax scenario is the swoon theory. The swoon theory
alleges that Jesus did not die from his crucifixion but lapsed into a
coma, revived after burial, emerged from the tomb, and—and somehow his
followers concluded that he had immortally risen from the dead. Like
the allegation that the disciples had stolen Jesus' body, the swoon
theory existed from earliest times and has periodically resurfaced.
The first allusion to it appears in the Gospel of Mark, which uniquely
reports that the presiding centurion verified to Pilate that Jesus had
died (15:44-45); satisfied that Jesus was indeed dead, Pilate then
released the corpse
to Joseph for burial. Apparently Mark cites the Romans' verification
of Christ's death to counter an allegation that Jesus was seen alive
again because he had managed to survive the crucifixion. This indicates
the reported sightings bore such credibility among the witnesses'
contemporaries that their opponents found it necessary to propose
Mark's brief response to the swoon theory, the Gospel of John
unwittingly presents medical evidence of Jesus' death on the cross.
John 19:31-34 reports that finding him already dead the Roman soldiers
did not break Jesus' legs (to hasten asphyxiation), a procedure they
used on the men crucified with him. But for good measure one of them
"pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and
water.” The claim is then presented as John's eyewitness testimony that
Jewish scriptures were “fulfilled” by the piercing of Jesus’ corpse and
by the fact that his bones were not broken (vv 35-37). The fourth
Gospel's concern here is clearly not medical evidence but theological.
Nonetheless, the incidental reference to "blood and water" exiting from
the spear wound demonstrates that in the main arteries massive clotting
had already occurred, causing separation of the blood into clots and
watery serum. Despite the author's indifference to the medical
significance of this testimony, the Gospel of John thus provides us
confirmatory evidence of Jesus' death.
Still, the swoon theory collapses even if Jesus had fallen into a coma and
later resuscitated. For it is incomprehensible that the resurrection
faith would evolve from the macabre sight of a revived crucifixion
victim. Against the weight of evidence, the swoon theory must assume
that the witnesses were predisposed to make such a quantum leap.
Furthermore, it fails to take account of the formidable scandal of the
cross. And it leaves inexplicable Paul's radical conversion a few years
Actually, the very existence of the swoon theory attests to the credibility of the
testimony, for it concedes as factual that after his crucifixion and
burial the eyewitnesses saw Jesus bodily alive. It thus belies the
other hoax theory, the allegation that the corpse was stolen. The swoon
theory may also concede that the witnesses were sincere in their
complicity while attributing the hoax to Jesus and perhaps others. Like
the allegation that the disciples stole the body, the swoon theory
acknowledges that Jesus' tomb was both known and found vacant.
Far from discrediting the Easter testimony, these allegations of a hoax highlight
Hallucinations. The assertion that the witnesses experienced
subjective visions of Jesus after his death is the other major attempt
to explain the origin of the resurrection testimony. These subjective
visions, it is alleged, were caused by and fulfilled the witnesses'
expectation or desire to see Jesus alive again. In short, since these
visions were not perceptions of objective reality, they belong to the
category of hallucinatory experiences.
This theory concedes the witnesses' sincerity but misrepresents or ignores
the content of their claim. The testimony of the witnesses was not that
they had visions of Jesus but that they saw him bodily alive, that he
was objectively there, that in his risen state they touched him and ate
Furthermore, the testimony is that the series of resurrection
appearances was of limited duration and eventually ceased, and our
earliest source distinguished those physical encounters from the most
vivid of subjective visions.
The hallucination theory concedes the witnesses' sincerity
but ignores or misrepresents the content of their claim.
The hallucination theory's premise that the witnesses saw what they wished
or were conditioned to see is undercut by the fact that Jesus'
resurrection was so contrary to their expectations. Pagan myths about
dying and rising gods are sometimes cited as providing a precedent for
the Easter claims, but such parallels are at best remote and not even
pertinent as the witnesses were monotheistic Jews in Palestine.
Furthermore, Judaism did not expect a crucified Messiah accursed by the
Torah, nor that prior to the end of the age a messianic figure would
rise from the dead before all others. Again, the disciples abandoned
Jesus, fled in despair at his crucifixion, and disbelieved when he
appeared. And at the time of Christ's appearance to him, Paul was
trying to exterminate Christianity because he knew that the resurrection
faith undermined Judaism. Such persons were not predisposed to
hallucinate these phenomenal appearances nor is there any evidence that
they had been prone to visions at all.
Furthermore, it is well known that hallucinations are experienced by
individuals, not collectively by a group. Yet the Easter testimony is
that on several occasions, both to individuals and to groups, the
risen Jesus showed himself alive; this does not fit the criteria of
hallucinations. The fact that the phenomena occurred at different
times, to different people in different circumstances and places makes
it implausible that the appearances were the product of an emotional
Finally, their claim to have objectively witnessed the resurrection
appearances would be immediately refuted if their adversaries presented
Against the hallucination theory, then, stands also the fact of the
The attempts of these hoax and hallucination theories to account for the
Easter claims are highly implausible. Their specific allegations of
fraud or delusion are unsubstantiated, undermined by the historical
evidence, and mutually contradictory. Ironically, one or more of those
scenarios concede (1) the fact of the empty tomb, (2) the sincerity of
the witnesses' claims to have seen the risen Jesus, or even that (3)
Jesus was indeed seen bodily alive after his burial.
By contrast, the evidence upholds the credibility of the eyewitness
testimony. No other scenario interprets this evidence in a way that can
account for the origin of the primitive Christian faith. The Easter
testimony is well-founded and worthy of critical acceptance. That
testimony can be rejected only if one prejudges the event as simply
impossible, regardless of the evidence. Extraordinary though it is, the
only plausible explanation is that the witnesses did in fact see Jesus
phenomenally alive after his death and entombment. That conclusion is
an historical judgment, not a leap of faith.
For Further Reading
James D. G. Dunn, The Evidence for Jesus (Westminster Press, 1985); Gerald
O'Collins, Jesus Risen, (Paulist Press, 1987).
P.O. Box 61222
Pasadena, CA 91106
 See 'Foundations of the Resurrection
Faith," Evangelica Profile (vol. 5 no. 1), on the
resurrection appearances and the empty tomb, the basic
significance of those claims, and the distinction between
historical judgment and theological meaning ("faith”).
 The empty tomb was acknowledged by the
early Jewish claim that the disciples stole Jesus' body and by
the swoon theory's allegation that .Jesus did not die from
crucifixion but revived after burial. According to the Jewish
scholar Geza Vermes, after examining all the evidence “the only
conclusion acceptable to the historian” must be that Jesus' tomb
was indeed found empty (Jesus the Jew, Collins, 1973, p.
 On the early date of the primitive
testimony preserved in I Cor 15:3-11, see “Foundations of the
Resurrection Faith," pp. 2-3.
 On the early date of the primitive
testimony preserved in I Cor 15:3-11, see “Foundations of the
Resurrection Faith," pp. 2-3.
 Acts 2:22-:36; 3:13-26; 4:10; 5:30-32; 10:36-43; 13:26-41.
 An exception may be the curious addition
to the passion narrative in Matt 27:52-53, which uniquely claims
that others too were raised after Jesus' resurrection. However,
even that remained separate from Matthew's resurrection
 Mark 16:1-8; Matt 28;1-9; Luke 24:1-11;
 See the rabbinic Siphre on Deuteronomy, 190.
 Contrast Paul's affirmation of the
ministries of three women in Rom 16:1-6.
 On the social significance of this method
of execution see Martin Hengel, Crucifixion (Fortress
 Josephus, Jewish Wars, 7.203.
 Tacitus, Annals, 15.4.
 Acts 18:2; Suetonius, The Life of
Claudius, 25.4. Apparently misunderstanding the dispute,
about AD 120 Suetonius records that the Jewish riots at Rome
were actually “incited by Chrestus'(= Christ).
 Paul's prior hostility to the Christian
movement is not challenged by critical scholarship.
 Cf. also Act.s 8:3; 9:1-5, 21; 22:3-8,
 That this was Paul's motivation for persecuting the church is reflected in
Gal 1:1, 11-16; 2:16-3:1,13; 5:11; 6:12-17; Phil 3:2-11; I Cor
15:14-15; Rom 7:4. Some Jewish believers like Stephen (Acts
6:11-14) had earlier discerned that Jesus' resurrection
challenged the Torah's authority, but many Christian Jews tended
to overlook that implication.
 Scholars now realize that Rom 7:7-25 is
not an autobiographical sketch of the apostle's state of mind
prior to his conversion. Its anguished cry, 'Wretched man that
I am! Who will deliver me from the body of this death?'
caricatures the plight of the faithful Jew who delights in the
Torah as the divinely-revealed way to the future life. For
against that premise Paul has cleverly argued that the survival
instinct renders impossible the fulfillment of the tenth
commandment, which he radicalizes as forbidding all “desire."
The rhetorical “I" of Rom 7 does not negate Paul's personal
confessions in Gal 1 and Phil 3 of his pre-Christian
satisfaction with Judaism.
 I Cor 15:8-10; Gal 1:11-17; Phil 3:2-11;
cf. I Tim 1:12-16; Acts 26:2-23.
 Mark 8:.31 ff.; 9:9ff.; 10:33C and
parallels; John 2:19-22.
 Acts 26:8 is a rhetorical question based
on Judaism's premises, challenging Jewish prejudice against
 It was to correct to such misgivings
among Christians at Corinth that Paul wrote I Cor 15:35-50,
deducing from the appearances of the risen Christ that the
resurrected body is vastly superior to that which is mortal and
corrupted by death.
 Ironically, the position of a non-Christian who doubts that
Jesus is risen on the grounds that .we do not see resurrections
occurring is nearer to the NT perspective than the “faith” of a
Christian who does not marvel at the anomaly of the
resurrection. Though myopic, the former takes objective reality
and the Easter event more seriously than does the latter.
 This accusation against Jesus is found in
Sanhedrin 43a; Matt 12:24; 27:62-66. The charge that the
disciples stole the body is repeated by the Jew Trypho in Justin
Martyr's Dialogue With Trypho (108) and expressed later
in Toledoth Yeshu.
 A modern rendition of this theory was
Hugh Schonfield's The Passover Plot
 The intent of 15:44-45 is further
confirmed by Mark's use of the Greek word for "corpse” here, not
“body” (KJV, RSV, NIV et al),
 Acts 10:40-41; I John 1:1-3; Matt 28:9;
Luke 24:36-42; John 20:24-27; 21:1-14.
 In I Cor 15:8 Paul claims that he
witnessed the last of Christ’s resurrection appearances, whereas
in 2 Cor 12:1ff. he refers to subjective visions that he
experienced several years after that objective appearance.
 During the initial period the identity of
the corpse (if presented) could have been ascertained, if even
from the distinctive wounds.