Did it really happen? Evidence for the Easter story.

So, I have plenty of ideas for telling the Easter story at home but when it comes to the inevitable difficult questions like ‘Did it really happen?’, ‘How do we know he came alive again?’ am I ready??

I feel no need to justify God, he can defend himself! However, there are plenty of resources out there that can give me help in exploring these tough questions with my inquisitive, need-concrete-facts, take-nothing-at-face-value children. So I thought I’d get a bit ahead of the questions when they come and remind myself of some of the evidence.

There is plenty of written historical evidence that would be considered trustworthy that suggests Jesus was a real historical figure. The Gospel ‘witness statements’ refer to places and events that there is archaeological evidence for, and they give accurate descriptions to those places and things.

“The historical evidence for Jesus of Nazareth is both long-established and widespread. Within a few decades of his supposed lifetime, he is mentioned by Jewish and Roman historians, as well as by dozens of Christian writings. Compare that with, for example, King Arthur, who supposedly lived around AD500. The major historical source for events of that time does not even mention Arthur, and he is first referred to 300 or 400 years after he is supposed to have lived. The evidence for Jesus is not limited to later folklore, as are accounts of Arthur.” (Dr Simon Gathercole, an article in The Guardian)

I can explore more about the archaeology that is providing evidence showing Bible stories to be historically accurate. www.biblicalarchaeology.org 

This second-century graffito of a Roman crucifixion from Puteoli, Italy, is one of a few ancient crucifixion images that offer a first-hand glimpse of Roman crucifixion methods (https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-topics/crucifixion/ancient-crucifixion-images/)

We can also find evidence – written accounts, early pictures and engravings, of crucifixion as a method used by the Romans during the right time frame. We can find out more information than we would want to about usual practice, and what crucifixion involved and see the way that the Gospel accounts describe it is an accurate one.

© 2009 AllAboutGOD.com

“In 1968, an ancient Jewish cemetery was unearthed during construction. There, a heel bone was discovered in the grave of a young criminal that contains an iron nail matching the record of crucifixion. Remnants of a wooden board are still attached at one end, where the nail was bent over to hold the foot on the cross.

It appears the nail hit a knot in the wood of the cross and didn’t allow removal of the body without serious damage. Therefore, the family conducting the burial probably chose to leave the spike in the bone and cut away a section of the wood. The heel bone dates to the first century AD and provides grim evidence for the reality of crucifixion.” (www.allaboutarchaeology.org)

There is evidence from outside the Gospels to look at that also confirms that Jesus was killed in this way. A Roman historian called Tacitus, and a Jewish historian called Josephus both describe Jesus as having been crucified. There is similar reference in the Babylonian Talmud, some Jewish writings. All of these texts are early accounts, not written later with hindsight or loss of information. And they all contain the same facts, Jesus was crucified, Pontius Pilate ordered it, Jesus was a notable figure who had followers.

© 2009 AllAboutGOD.com

“Do we have evidence for Pontius Pilate outside the biblical texts?

In 1961, archaeologists discovered a plaque fragment at Caesarea Maritima, an ancient Roman city along the Mediterranean coast of Israel. The plaque was written in Latin and imbedded in a section of steps leading to Caesarea’s Amphitheatre. The inscription includes the following: “Pontius Pilatus, Prefect of Judea, has dedicated to the people of Caesarea a temple in honor of Tiberius.” Emperor Tiberius reigned from 14 to 37 AD. This matches the biblical timeline that records Pontius Pilate ruling as governor of Judea from 26 to 36 AD. (www.allaboutarchaeology.org)

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“The documents produced by Christian, Jewish and Roman writers form the most significant evidence.

These abundant historical references leave us with little reasonable doubt that Jesus lived and died. The more interesting question – which goes beyond history and objective fact – is whether Jesus died and lived.” (Dr Simon Gathercole, an article in The Guardian)

So, then on to the questions about Jesus coming alive again. We have evidence to back up the story that he really died. But then what?

The Gospels all have the disciples finding an empty tomb. Matthew’s Gospel also tells us the Jewish leaders began spreading the rumour that the disciples had stolen the body to make it look as if he had risen from the dead. Even they were in agreement that the tomb was empty! And this is confirmed in some early Jewish writings called ‘Toledoth Jesu’.

It is also interesting that the man who takes Jesus’ body and places it in an unused tomb is a Jewish leader himself, Joseph of Arimethea. He would have been well known, part of the Jewish high court. It would not have been possible for him to be written into the accounts of the Gospel within seven years of the event if this had not been true. And this being true also gives an inherent accuracy to the rest of the account.

It has also been said that the accounts of the empty tomb have women as eye witnesses, women spreading the news. If Jesus’ disciples had wanted to start a fiction, a legend then they would almost certainly have had men as the eye witnesses to the empty tomb, and men would have spread the news. In that time a woman’s evidence was not recognized in court, their testimony was thought of as worthless.

All the Gospels talk about Jesus appearing to his disciples in the days after he had died. They each contain eye witness testimony. Not just factual accounts but accounts as felt, seen, and interpreted by people. “These eyewitness testimonies speak to us
from the inside of the events, experienced by those who recognized the
disclosure of God in them.” (Richard Baukham) There is a consistency between them as well as each being unique. They are personal accounts that also pass on theological understanding.

Outside the Gospel accounts there is evidence from Tacitus, Josephus and also Pilny the Younger, a Roman Imperial Magistrate that the followers of Jesus did not stop, weaken or disperse after the crucifixion and the testimony about the empty tomb. Rather they grew dramatically in number. Were observed to worship Jesus, as they would a god. It is written that they met together weekly to worship despite growing persecution of any thought to be Christians.

“..the Jews or Romans had no motive to steal the body–they wanted to suppress Christianity, not encourage it by providing it with an empty tomb. The disciples would have had no motive, either. Because of their preaching on the resurrection, they were beaten, killed, and persecuted. Why would they go through all of this for a deliberate lie?” (Matt Perman, on Desiring God) 

It is good to refresh my mind about all of this before the questions come my way. Not that it’s my place to ‘convince’ any of my children but it’s important to me to know that I have gathered resources so I can explore with them the best I can. ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), or ASC (Autism Spectrum Condition) as it’s more often becoming referred to as in recent months does mean for us, in our house that facts are important. Knowing why, knowing detail, being thorough (and intensely focused) are all important in life, and so they are important in exploring faith too.

2 responses

  1. A brilliant piece Cathy, really good… Pontius Pilate asked the most important question in history “What is truth?” and then answered it on the sign he had put on Jesus’ cross “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews”. The Jewish leaders wanted it taken down, as it spoke clearly of their evil rejection of God’s son, but as Pilate said “I have written what I have written…”.

    Liked by 1 person

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