Before asking whether Christianity is true, whether the resurrection happened—or even could— it is helpful to clear away the hype and rhetoric and look at the unbiased facts concerning the death of Jesus. Today, even liberal scholars agree about some very basic data. Moving on in the debate requires coming to an agreement concerning these seven things:
1. Jesus was a real person.
Before discussing the death of Jesus, we should recognize that most scholars agree Jesus was a real person who lived and died in first century Palestine. This fact is even held by hostile sources outside the Christian sources.
2. Jesus was condemned to die by the Romans.
According to multiple sources, Jesus was condemned to die for specific reasons. He attempted to lead Israel away from God through miraculous deeds. His enemies attributed his works to the devil as acts of sorcery. He was then condemned to die for blasphemy for claiming to be God. Jesus was handed over to Pontius Pilate by the Jewish religious leaders in Palestine. (Joseph Klausner, Jesus of Nazareth [New York: Bloch, 1989], 18–46; Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin Tractate, 43a; Shabbat 11.15; b. Shabbat 104b; Toledot Yeshu).
(Cf. Luke Timothy Johnson, The Real Jesus [San Francisco: Harper, 1996], 123–25).
3. Jesus was executed by crucifixion.
Jesus’ death was a well-known fact throughout the ancient world. Historians and politicians of the century spoke of the events that happened in Jerusalem. As the liberal Jewish Rabbi Samuel Sandmel observes,
Certain bare facts are historically not to be doubted. Jesus, who emerged into public notice in Galilee when Herod Antipas was its Tetrarch, was a real person, the leader of a movement. He had followers, called disciples. The claim was made, either by him or for him, that he was the long-awaited Jewish Messiah. He journeyed from Galilee to Jerusalem, possibly in 29 or 30, and there he was executed, crucified by the Romans as a political rebel. After his death, his disciples believed that he was resurrected, and had gone to heaven, but would return to earth at the appointed time for the final divine judgment of mankind (Rabbi Samuel Sandmel, A Jewish Understanding of the New Testament, 3rd ed. [Woodstock, Vermont: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2010], 33).
4. Jesus was buried in a tomb after his death.
While some people argue that this is contestable, they are in the minority. Most scholars see the multiple sources and witnesses from that century as proof of a factual claim. Jesus received an honorable burial, even though he suffered a dishonorable death. Liberal New Testament scholar John A. T. Robinson argues from the evidence that the burial of Jesus in a tomb is “one of the earliest and best-attested facts about Jesus” (John A. T. Robinson, The Human Face of God [Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1973], 131).
5. Jesus’ tomb was empty two days after his death.
Jewish, Roman, and Christian sources all agree that the tomb of Jesus was empty. The location of the body and why it did not remain there is up for discussion but the empty tomb is not. As D. H. van Daalen points out, “It is extremely difficult to object to the empty tomb on historical grounds; those who deny it do so on the basis of theological or philosophical assumptions” (D. H. van Daalen, The Real Resurrection [London: HarperCollins, 1972], 41).
(Cf. Toledot Yeshu; Clyde E. Billington, “The Nazareth Inscription,” Artifax, Spring 2005).
6. Jesus’ followers claimed to see him alive.
The disciples of Jesus believed that he was raised from the dead and appeared to them on many occasions. He first appeared to women, who in the first century would never have qualified as witnesses. Jesus’ disciples even went so far as to worship him as God and claimed he met with them to eat meals after his disappearance.
Suetonius (75–130 AD), a Roman official and historian, recorded the expulsion of Jews from Rome in 48 because of controversy erupting over ‘a certain Chrestus’ (Claudius, 25.4).
In a letter to the Emperor Trajan around the year 110, Pliny the Younger, imperial governor of what is now Turkey, reported that Christians gathered on Sunday to pray to Jesus ‘as to a god,’ to hear the letters of his appointed officers read and expounded, and to receive a meal at which they believed Christ himself presided (Epistle, 10.96). (See following for more: Communicating the Claims of Easter).
Whatever happened it is certain that the disciples believed they saw the risen Jesus and worshiped him as the promised Messiah (cf. Gerd Lüdemann, What Really Happened to Jesus? [Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995], 80).
7. Jesus’ enemies never presented his body.
The hostile sources that present a different rationale for the empty tomb could never present a body. While this does not necessarily prove the resurrection, it does leave the door open to other possible explanations. As Michael Horton concludes,
Although unable to locate Jesus, dead or alive, the very fact that Jewish and Roman leaders sought alternative explanations for the resurrection demonstrates that the empty tomb was a historical fact. For the gospel story to have come to an easy and abrupt end, the authorities would only have had to produce a body. (Communicating the Claims of Easter)