Eyewitness Testimony of the Resurrection

One of the most important forms of testimony we have is that of an eyewitness.  If someone comes forward and says, “I saw Smith kill Jones!,” that stands as powerful testimony.  This is especially so if our witness is known to be generally trustworthy and careful about what he asserts, if his testimony is corroborated by other witnesses, if there is no reason to doubt the functioning of his eyesight or cognitive faculties, and so on.

It is true that eyewitnesses sometimes get it wrong.  When they do it is generally for the kind of reasons we just mentioned – obscured vision – “I guess I forgot to put on my glasses”; confused mental state – “I had had a few drinks….”; etc.  We could think of other reasons why people are not trustworthy as eyewitnesses – they are known liars; they are known to harbor malice toward the accused; they are generally misanthropic.

Assessing an eyewitness’s testimony in light of these potential causes of distortion is part of what we would all do if serving on a jury, or listening to a friend’s story, or evaluating the narrative of our children’s dispute.  We don’t simply credulously accept anything anyone tells us.  Neither do we consider it rational to ignore such testimony without some good reason.

What about the eyewitness evidence for the resurrection of Jesus from the dead?  What is this evidence?  What is its value?  As Christians we have just celebrated Easter and the good news of Christ’s bodily resurrection.  My Easter sermon largely took the form of a review of the reasons we believe this to be true and the implications of this belief.  In dialogue with an atheist friend around this topic, I’ve been prodded this week to defend the value of this kind of eyewitness evidence.  Let’s give it a fresh consideration.

The four canonical gospels describe a number of eyewitness to the empty tomb and numerous encounters between the risen Lord Jesus Christ and many different people (discussion follows):

Witness Text
Mary Magdalene,

Mary the mother of James, Salome, Joanna, “other women”

 

 

When the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2 And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3 And they were saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?” 4 And looking up, they saw that the stone had been rolled back– it was very large. 5 And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe, and they were alarmed. 6 And he said to them, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. (Mk. 16:1-6)

9 And behold, Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshiped him. (Matt. 28:9)  Also Luke 24:9-11

 

Simon Peter, the “other disciple” – most likely the apostle John

 

 

3 So Peter went out with the other disciple, and they were going toward the tomb. 4 Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 And stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, 7 and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself. 8 Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9 for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead. (Jn. 20:3-9)

 

Mary Magdalene alone

 

 

11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. 12 And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”– and that he had said these things to her. (Jn. 20:11-18)

 

The Eleven, minus Thomas 36 As they were talking about these things, Jesus himself stood among them, and said to them, “Peace to you!” 37 But they were startled and frightened and thought they saw a spirit. 38 And he said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39 See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” 40 And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. 41 And while they still disbelieved for joy and were marveling, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate before them. 44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, 46 and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 47 and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” (Lk. 24:36-49)

 

The Eleven, including Thomas 24 Now Thomas, one of the twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” 26 Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” 30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (Jn. 20:24-31)

 

Cleopas and “another disciple” 13 That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14 and they were talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. 16 But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. (Lk. 24:13-16). Full narrative runs through verse 35

 

Simon Peter, James, John, and “two other disciples” 10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11 So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, 153 of them. And although there were so many, the net was not torn. 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and so with the fish. 14 This was now the third time that Jesus was revealed to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.(Jn. 21:10-14).  Full narrative begins at verse 1

 

Peter, John And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.” 20 Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them, the one who also had leaned back against him during the supper and had said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?” 21 When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?” 22 Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!”  (Jn. 21:19-22)  Full narrative runs from 21:15-23

 

The Eleven 16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:16-20)

 

The Eleven, at least 50 And he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. 51 While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven. 52 And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, 53 and were continually in the temple blessing God. (Lk. 24:50-53)

 

9 And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, 11 and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”  (Acts 1:9-11)

 

What can we learn from these narratives?

The Tomb was empty….

The first two texts referenced highlight the evidence of the Empty Tomb.  The tomb itself is often overlooked as a powerful piece of evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  But…think about it.  All it would take to end Christianity is a corpse in a tomb.  The dead body of Jesus is all that his opponents needed to show in order to demonstrate the falsity of his bodily resurrection.

The fact that no body is to be found in the tomb is a particularly embarrassing circumstance for the highly trained Roman guards who sealed and stood watch over that tomb.  What could be an easier job than guarding a dead body?  Ordinarily that would be a cinch. And it probably was a simple job, until the appearance of an angel leaves the guards like dead man, the stone rolled from its track, and the tomb empty.

Where had the body of Jesus gone?  The best that the authorities can do is assert that the disciples came during the night and stole away the body of Jesus. But is this a reasonable explanation?  A group of disciples, the majority of whom were fisherman, showed up in the night and overpower a group of highly trained and disciplined Roman soldiers?  What did they do?  Throw nets at them?

And to what end?  So that they would have the privilege of being pursued and persecuted to the ends of the earth for the next several decades before being painfully martyred?  As has often been pointed out: many people would willingly lay down their life to further a cause they believed in (like the 9-11 hijackers), but who would willingly die for a lie?  It simply isn’t credible to believe that the disciples would steal Jesus’ body and then undergo all manner of torment and death to defend the claim of his bodily resurrection from the dead.  Certainly they believed that Jesus had been raised from the dead.

It must also be pointed out that these disciples were the same sorry characters who were running for their lives a short time before.  Peter had denied Christ three times when confronted by a temple servant girl.  Is a fellow frightened by a girl likely to attack a group of well-armed Roman soldiers to steal his Lord’s now dead body?  Uh-uh.

 

The sheer variety of encounters and circumstances supports the genuine eyewitness nature of the testimony

These encounters include an enormous variety of circumstances.  Mary Magdalene is all alone in a garden when she meets Jesus; a large crowd is present for the Ascension.  The Eleven are seated in a locked upper room when Jesus appears; Cleopas and his friend are walking in the open air some distance from Jerusalem.  The disciples knew him instantly; Mary Magdalene and Cleopas didn’t recognize him at first.

If you were making up a story, colluding concerning these events, the circle would necessarily be much smaller, the circumstances far more controlled.  These accounts don’t reflect careful crafting and uniformity (as any conspiratorial account would), but reflect a group of people bewildered by the extraordinary events their senses tell them is true.

 

Ghosts don’t eat – Jesus was really raised – not “spiritually” encountered

One of the ways the historicity of the resurrection is dismissed is to spiritualize the notion of the resurrection.  This is true not only for non-believers, but also for those of a theologically liberal perspective who want to diminish the embarrassingly miraculous elements of the narrative (if you find miracles embarrassing!).

I remember talking with a Christian pastor (!) who told me he didn’t believe that Jesus had been raised bodily.  It was rather, he felt, a situation where the disciples were trying to make sense out of tragedy.  Believing that Jesus was really alive somehow brought comfort to their souls.  Jesus being raised is sort of like a generalized spiritual hope that spring will come, that we can have hope despite tragedy, etc.  Of course, apart from the bodily resurrection this is more naïve wish projection than the sure and certain hope that the Bible talks about.

What about these gospel accounts?  Are they consistent with a “spiritual” resurrection?  Do they describe an actual bodily resurrection?  Yep.  The risen Lord Jesus does do some pretty astonishing and “spiritual” things – materializing through locked doors, for instance.  But he also cooks and eats fish – something Casper the friendly ghost could never do.  He likewise can be physically touched, and is.  The women “clasp” him.  Thomas is invited to touch his nail-scarred hands and his spear-wounded side.  You can only touch bodies, not wishes, hopes, or dreams.  Clearly these accounts describe a Jesus whose dead corpse now literally and bodily lives again.

 

This was not a hallucination

Okay, so they really believed that Jesus had been raised bodily from the dead.  But maybe they were deceived in some way.  Perhaps they experienced some sort of delusion, a hallucinatory experience.  Perhaps Martha of Bethany had prepared a meal of some unusual mushrooms that lead to distorted senses.

There are a couple of problems with this explanation.  One is that a hallucination is never a shared experience.  Eleven people in a room can all have a hallucination at the same time (perhaps they are corporately consuming peyote), but they don’t all have the same hallucination.  A hallucination is an individual and unique experience – like a dream or a vision.  So, that just won’t work as an explanation.

A second problem with this is that Luke tells us that these appearances occurred on many occasions for a period of forty days.  Is it really rational to believe that these hallucinatory events were shared by all these people over all of this time?  Was the upper room some sort of hippie enclave?  Of course not.

 

These are the wrong kind of witnesses for a made-up story

Let’s say you wanted to cook up a story that Jesus had been resurrected from the dead.  Who would you choose to be your witnesses?  Not the kind with whom the Bible presents us.  You wouldn’t choose women as your witnesses in this cultural context.  Women weren’t even recognized as being valid legal witnesses, yet they were the first witnesses of the risen Lord Jesus.  (This says something by way of contrast about God’s view of women as witnesses!).  But if you wanted your made-up message to be heeded, you wouldn’t have had female first witnesses.

You would also likely have created witnesses who are a bit better at the whole disciple thing.  You wouldn’t choose people who start out by denying their Lord three times.  You wouldn’t choose witnesses who look Jesus right in the face without recognizing him.  You wouldn’t choose witnesses who refuse to believe without more evidence (and who will be consequently known to history as “Doubting”).  These aren’t good made-up witnesses.  But they are just the right kind of witnesses to be present in real history: imperfect, confused, bewildered.  Like real people.

 

Made-up narratives don’t have this kind of specific detail

Another element of these accounts that adds authenticity as eyewitness testimony is the kind of details provided.  Consider those first women walking to the tomb.  As they are walking “they were saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?’” This kind of question is exactly the kind of thing you can hear an eyewitness saying in recounting an actual event.  Imagine Mary later telling the disciples, “It all just seemed so futile.  I mean, I said to Joanna as we trudged along in the dark, ‘Here we are a bunch of women and the tomb is sealed by that giant stone.  Who will roll away the stone for us?’ And the next thing we see….!”

Or consider the detail provided in John’s gospel.  The “other disciple” arrived first but did not go into the tomb.  Peter then arrived and went into the tomb.  This is the kind of thing an eyewitness would say.  Someone telling a made-up story would just say, “We went to the tomb and looked in.”  But an eyewitness would include just this sort of detail. John then describes the way in which the burial cloths were positioned, “the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself.”  Who but an eyewitness would even think of a detail like this, let alone relate it?

These narratives are loaded with just this sort of detail.  Mary Magdalene’s calling Jesus “Rabboni,” the fact that the nets contained 153 fish, and so on.

 

The first eyewitnesses were skeptical, not credulous

Sometimes people talk about people in Bible times as though they were a bunch of credulous rubes.  We are scientific, modern people.  We are really smart and discerning.  We aren’t going to believe anything without real, hard evidence for believing it.  Those people were essentially simpletons.  They would believe just about anything.  They thought every natural phenomena was due to ghosts, demons, spirits or whatever.

This is a profoundly unjust perspective.  The reality is that when the report of Jesus’ resurrection was first reported, it was not believed.  The women were not heeded.  Luke 24:11 tells us that the Eleven did not believe the report of the women but considered it “an idle tale.”  These people were not wish-projecting Jesus’ resurrection; in reality they had to be drawn kicking and screaming to embrace the good news.   It took mountains of evidence to convince them.

The true modern man among them was Thomas.  Thomas would make any modern proud with his insistence on having hard evidence in order to believe.  He wouldn’t believe, he asserts, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” This is strong language indeed!  No empiricist, no positivist, has ever been a stronger advocate of the necessity of evidential demonstration than was Thomas.  Yet even this doubter was fully convinced when eight days later the risen Lord showed up again despite locked doors, inviting Thomas to touch the wounds he insisted upon seeing.

John sums up well why the disciples believe: they had real evidence to do so.  “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life– 2 the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us– 3 that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” (1 Jn. 1:1-3)

 

 

An even more important eyewitness text: 1 Corinthians 15:1-11

As vital as all of these eyewitness accounts are, the most important of all is that of yet another eyewitness to the risen Lord Jesus: the apostle Paul.  This is found in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11.

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, 2 and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you– unless you believed in vain. 3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 9 For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. 11 Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed. (1 Cor. 15:1-11)

 

Our earliest textual witness to the risen Lord Jesus

One reason this text is so important is that it is our earliest eyewitness evidence to the Lord Jesus’ bodily resurrection.  Though it is counter-intuitive at first for many bible readers, many of Paul’s letters were written before any of the gospel accounts.  The gospels are often dated to the 60’s (for Mark) and 70’s (for Luke and Matthew), with a date in the 90’s AD for John.  I personally think that those dates are late for the Synoptic gospels (possibly the 50’s for Mark and 60’s for Luke and Matthew), but that’s not very important for this conversation.  Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church can be safely dated to no later than spring of 55 AD.* This means that Paul’s words here are within about twenty-five years of the events they describe.  This is a far cry from the kinds of stretches of time imagined by skeptics who scoff at the accuracy of “oral tradition.”   There is literally no oral tradition to speak of here.  Paul is a first generation eyewitness to the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ.  He gives us a firsthand account of many other direct eyewitnesses of these events.  This early witness is a terrible embarrassment for those who would cavalierly dismiss the eyewitness evidence of the New Testament as late and disordered.

 

Mentions of lots of other witnesses not specifically mentioned in the gospel accounts

One fascinating aspect of this text is the many eyewitnesses Paul points out.  Some of them are the usual suspects from the gospels – Cephas (Peter) and the Twelve (by whom Paul means the Eleven – the Twelve minus Judas).  Paul neglects to mention the women at the tomb, the encounter with Mary Magdalene, and the appearance to Cleopas and his friend.  But he mentions a number of other important witnesses not included in the gospels.

The risen Lord Jesus appeared to James, Paul says.  This James is not the brother of John, the son of Zebedee.  It is instead James the half-brother of the Lord (the son of Mary and Joseph).  He will go on to become known as James the Just, the leader of the Jerusalem church.  Paul mentions too his own encounter with the risen Lord.  Luke provides an account of this event in the book of Acts, chapter 9 (and then reviews the matter twice more).

In addition to James and Paul, the Lord appeared to “all the apostles.”  Who Paul may have in mind here is unclear, but he seems to distinguish this group from the Twelve apostles, who have already been mentioned.

Most interesting of all, Paul says that Jesus appeared to 500 of the brothers on one occasion.  When this happened he doesn’t say.  Perhaps this was on the occasion of the Great Commission (though Matthew only explicitly mentions the Eleven), or perhaps at the Ascension, or at some other unnamed assembly.  But Paul says that on this one occasion this large crowd all encountered the risen Lord.  Many of these witnesses are still living, Paul says.  The point seems clear: if you doubt what I’m telling you, there is plenty of evidence available to you.  Go ask the other 500+ people who have met with Jesus post-resurrection.

 

Paul was a hostile witness.  And he witnesses to hostile witnesses.

One of the most convincing elements in Paul’s eyewitness testimony is the manner of his own conversion.  Paul had hardly been a cheerleader for the cause of Jesus prior to his conversion.  He had been a well regarded Jewish leader, a Pharisee studying under the great rabbi Gamaliel.  He had been present at the martyrdom of Stephen (Acts 7) and was spending his tremendous energy endeavoring to root out the fledgling church.  He was on his way to Damascus to find and destroy whatever followers of this new sect might be found there.

What changed this man from Saul to Paul, from persecutor of the saints to apostle to the Gentiles?  The Risen Lord Jesus.  Paul was a hostile witness, in the sense that he was not someone eager to testify to the truthfulness of Christ’s resurrection.  He was an enemy of Christ.  His testimony to the risen Lord Jesus is particularly powerful for this reason.  He had nothing to gain and everything to lose (from the vantage point of standing among the Jewish religious leadership) by believing this news.  Yet he did, and suffered much and died for it!

Paul also bears witness to James’ conversion.  James too had been an enemy to the ministry of his half-brother Jesus.  James had made fun of Jesus’ messianic claims.  He had believed early on in Jesus’ ministry that he was out of his mind.  But James went from scoffer and skeptic to a leader of the cause of the risen Lord Christ.  How can we account for this kind of transformation?  It is difficult to do so apart from believing that James really had met the risen Lord Jesus Christ.

The New Testament provides us with powerful eyewitness testimony for the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.  Believing that evidence is not some wild blind leap of credulity; it is instead a most reasonable thing to do.

 

 

*Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, p. 15