Can Jesus Christ’s resurrection be investigated as history?


(image courtesy ChristArt)

By Spencer D Gear

It is not uncommon for some to say that Jesus’ resurrection cannot be investigated as history because nobody was there to see the actual resurrection.

Please follow this discussion I had on Christian Forums with Armistead14. I’m OzSpen. Armistead14 wrote, ‘I like theology, I believe in it, but I know it’s not science or history’.[1] My response was, ‘So was Jesus’ life, death and resurrection in history or not? Can the discipline of historiography be used to investigate the actions of Jesus or not?’[2] His reply was:

Certainly historiography {I assume you mean the bible} can be used in reference to his life, possibly death, but not the resurrection. The question remains what are the historical sources. The Gospels were written 35 to 65 years after Jesus’ death, not by Matthew, Mark, Luke or John, not by people who were eyewitnesses, but by people living later. The Gospels were written by highly literate, trained, Greek-speaking Christians of the second and third generation. They’re not written by Jesus’ Aramaic-speaking followers. Also, the Gospels terribly contradict the death and ressurection (sic) process. Now, this may not be a problem with theology, but it certainly raises historic issues. Yes, we have other later secular sources and beliefs, but none prove historically that Jesus was in fact dead or his resurrection.
Certainly, you can’t use historical sources to prove the resurrection, that is theology, it is an act of God, one we accept based on faith.[3]

My response was, ‘Your statements are loaded with your presuppositions. I don’t have the time to challenge them at this point. Richard Bauckham has challenged your view on eyewitnesses in his magisterial publication, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Eerdmans 2006)’.[4]

He came back: ‘I’ve actually read it, but I still find it based on theology and it’s historical aspects lacking authority. We have several “saviors” in history that had followers claim they rose from the dead. Apillonius (sic) appeared to his followers after his death, do you believe their historical accounts? Anyway, take care until later’.[5]

I also stated:

Don’t you understand how dishonest this is? Luke’s Gospel directly contradicts your view on eyewitnesses as Luke tells us from where he obtained his information in Luke 1:1-4 and that incorporates

‘those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word’ (Luke 1:2 ESV). What causes you to create your own information when the Gospel of Luke directly contradicts you?

In addition, John makes it very clear who wrote his Gospel. John the apostle is identified in John 21:20-23 and then John, the writer of the Gospel states, ‘This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things, and we know his testimony is true’ (John 21:24 ESV).

I find your explanations to be as misleading as some of the theological liberals I am currently reading with regard to the content of the Gospels (Crossan, Borg, Mack, Funk and the Jesus Seminar).

Why are you pumping this scepticism out on this Forum? Your assertions, without proof, amount to nothing more than your opinion.[6]

I asked him at another point, ‘So are you trying to convince me that Apollonius of Tyana is on the same level as Jesus Christ as Saviour and provided eternal salvation for you and me? Or are you yodelling?’[7] His reply was that ‘No, I’m saying how can you prove or disprove the claim of his followers that he rose from the dead. The question is one of historical claim, not based on faith’.[8] I replied:

So have you used the criteria of historicity to examine the claims of the historicity of the resurrection of Apollonius of Tyana to determine that they are equal to or superior to the claims for the historicity of the Gospel records?

We use the criteria of historicity to determine the reliability of a historical claim. Down through the years, a number of researchers have used these criteria to demonstrate the reliability of the Gospels. One example is Craig Blomberg, a solid historian and NT researcher, in The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (1987, IVP).

You are sounding more and more like a cynic towards the historicity of the NT Gospels. The facts are that Jesus was crucified, buried in a tomb, the tomb was empty on the Sunday morning, and then Jesus appeared alive and talking to people. Are you doubting this sequence?[9]

Armistead14’s response was:

I don’t doubt it based on theology and faith. I can accept the historical validation that Christ existed and died, but the resurrection is theology, not historical fact. God raising Christ is a miracle, they’re are no historical validation test to prove miracles.[10]

How does one reply to the claim that the resurrection is theology, not history, and there is not a historical way to test if miracles happened? This was my response:

You are providing your positivist bias that has been followed by some historians who have attempted to investigate Christ’s resurrection historically. You say that Christ’s resurrection is theology and you reject the resurrection as “historical fact” (your language).

Tom (N T) Wright in his massive historical investigation of the resurrection (2003) has refuted your kind of positivistic thinking . Wright, writing of a positivist historian (Marxen), stated:

‘In standard positivist fashion, it appears to suggest that we can only regard as “historical” that to which we have direct access (in the sense of “first-hand witness accounts” or near equivalent). But, as all real historians know, that is not in fact how history works. Positivism, is, if anything, even less appropriate in historiography than in other areas. Again and again the historian has to conclude, even if only to avoid total silence, that certain events took place to which we have no direct access but which are the necessary postulates of that to which we do have access. Scientists, not least physicists, make this sort of move all the time; indeed, this is precisely how scientific advances happen [he cited Polkinghorne 1994; Alden Smith]. Ruling out as historical that to which we do not have direct access is actually a way of not doing history at all’ (Wright 2003:15-16).

Wright cites Via (2002:82), saying that Via

is right to say that history moves from fragmentary evidence to full-blown reconstruction, but wrong to imply that this takes place in a kind of neutral zone free from all theological or religious presuppositions (Wright 2003:16, n. 30).

Are you telling me that an examination of historicity of an incident does not include interpretation, including theological? It is common in historical assessment to know that a record of an historical incident also includes interpretation of that incident.

As to the resurrection of Christ, while nobody was there to see the actual resurrection, there is enough evidence from the historicity of Christ’s death and being placed in the tomb, an empty tomb on the first day of the week, and the resurrection appearances of Christ to people, to conclude that he was raised from the dead.
Your view that there is “no historical validation test to prove miracles” is a positivistic statement for which there is the above rebuttal.[11]

Prior to this last post, he wrote:

For instance, all the differing stories about the women at the tomb. The woman at the tomb purchased spices in anticipation of annointing (sic) a dead body, not finding a resurrected man, but this is obvious foolish, why would they expect they could put spices on a body in a tomb whose covering stone they couldn’t remove? This makes no sense to me. The visit of the women looks like literary invention designed to create witnesses to the Empty Tomb. Maybe this is why we have so much confusion between the gospels regarding which women, number of women, what time of day, numerous issues.

The problem is all these issues make possible eyewittnesses (sic) impossible to historically validate with any probability.[12]

Here he is on his positivist bandwagon again. If we required eyewitnesses to every historical event, we would give up writing history as Tom Wright has clearly stated. This was his response:

Wright is a NT conservative scholar, not an historian, although I would imagine he has some training in the field, but like Craig he wants to insert theology as proof, that is worse than Positivism.

Positivism states that the only authentic knowledge is that which allows positive verification. It is more a belief that a model. I think you misunderstand how modern historians work. Historians for the most part

NEVER claim absolute knowledge or verification, they work based on probabilities. Historians can deem what probably happened. Sure, the more authentic info you have, the higher the probability an event happened. Compare Julius Caesar, we have a mass of real information from a mass of unbiased sources. Historians can pretty much positively agree Caesar existed. Compare that to Socrates, historians can’t say with high probability he existed.

Science and history validation use different methods for validation, not sure what your point is. Science can test over and over, history cannot. Historians can only study the people and their beliefs. Historians will use all info, including the bible, but they look for consistency to a story, if the story is full of contradictions, then they often conclude a story was made up, so the event may not have happened. For instance, the example I gave of the women coming to prepare Christ body with spices, but the tomb was sealed. It would take many men, tools and animals to unseal the tomb. The story makes no sense, so historians would dismiss these women as witnesses.

Certainly historians consider theology of the people, but to study the actual people. Again, numerous beliefs have the same claim as Christianity, risen saviors, miracles, etc. The most history can do is prove that the people existed and believed what they did. Just because a group believes something, that doesn’t make it true. If that were the case all religions could be claimed truth.

Do you know of one scientific or historic validation test you could use to prove a past miracle such as the resurrection?[13]

I replied:

N T Wright, as a NT scholar, has to deal with history. He provided historical information that refutes your positivistic view.

Nowhere have I ever stated that historians seek absolute knowledge. NEVER. Please do not try to put words in my mouth. That is a false accusation against me.

His words were, “Do you know of one scientific or historic validation test you could use to prove a past miracle such as the resurrection?” That’s your positivism again! You can’t get around the fact that historians have done this for years and years but reporting things for which there have been no direct eyewitnesses, but the evidence surrounding the situation leads to historical probability.

You are on your one-way track and you do not want to apply what Wright has stated about historicity and verification when there are no eyewitnesses.

This is an example of your bias when you state: “Compare Julius Caesar, we have a mass of real information from a mass of unbiased sources”.

ZERO historical sources are unbiased. You are living in unhistorical fairyland if you want unbiased sources.[14]

Australian historian and exegete, Dr. Paul Barnett[15], in his publication, Jesus & the rise of early Christianity, after doing the research for his book, stated:

I express my surprise at the degree to which the story of the New Testament can be recovered by standard methods of research and analysis even though the whole narrative, of course, is lost to us forever because of the unbridgeable distance of time and culture that separates us from those critical decades of the first century that witnessed the rise of Christianity (Barnett 1999:10).

An ancient historian deals with Jesus’ resurrection and miracles

At the time he wrote the following, Dr. Paul Barnett was a visiting fellow in ancient history at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Barnett was also the evangelical former Anglican bishop of North Sydney, Australia. Barnett (1999:22-23) wrote about ‘history and myth’ as he examined the New Testament:

Jesus & the Rise of Early Christianity

InterVarsity Press

Are miraculous events within the New Testament to be understood as historical or as mythological? If it is understood as historical, are such miraculous events to be given the same factual weight as are the nonmiraculous events in the New Testament? For example, are we to regard as equally factual Jesus’ journey to the lakeside and the feeding of the five thousand after he arrived there?

Were all miracles in the Gospels, the book of Acts and the letters (Rom 15:19; 2 Cor 12:12) to be regarded as mythological, whether in line with Jewish or Greco-Roman myths? Alternatively, was there a small core of miracle-events to which many others have been added in embellishment? Or did Jesus perform acts that at that time were genuinely regarded as miracles but that people today would explain in more naturalistic ways?

First, any inquiry into this subject must begin as a historical investigation. Pannenberg’s remark about the resurrection of Jesus applies also to miracles. ‘Whether or not Jesus was raised from the dead is a historical question insofar as it is an inquiry into what did or did not happen at a certain time’ [Pannenberg 1967:128].

This inquiry in turn depends on a number of factors. How many and of what quality are our historical sources and how uncorrupted have they remained through the intervening years? What is their character? Are they intentionally written as history, or, to be preferred, is their information incidental and gratuitous to other authorial intent? How extensive is the accompanying detail of person, time and place? Can the sources reliability be crosschecked at other points? In short, the same investigative methodology ought to be applied to Jesus and the rise of early Christianity as to Alexander the Great and the eastward spread of Hellenism.

Next, miraculous events should be reflected upon in terms of stereotypicality or originality. If the details are similar to the stock-in-trade descriptions within existing contemporary mythological genres of that culture, serious questions will arise. On the other hand, if the accounts are atypical, the possibility of historicity is enhanced. Thus, for example, if the miracles of Jesus were described in the same terms as the miracles of Jewish “holy men” like Hanina ben Dosa and Honi “the circle-drawer,” there would be some cause for critical caution regarding the Gospels’ accounts of Jesus’ miracles. In our view, however, this is not the case. The Jewish hasids Hanina and Honi are portrayed as merely devout individuals within the Judaism of their repective (sic) times. By contrast, Jesus is presented as the intensely intentional fulfiller of the end-time purposes of God.

Only when the question of historical probability is determined does it become a philosophical issue.[16] Do I believe in a supernatural being who is capable of intruding his will into the otherwise “natural” appearance of the course of events? If my answer is negative, then I will dismiss the miracles in the New Testament as unhistorical and account for them in terms of myth. On the other hand, if my response is positive, then I may well conclude that the strength of historical evidence demands acceptance of the historicity of the events.

The view taken by this author is that the miraculous events in the New Testament are factual. The Gospels and Acts make little sense historically if the miraculous is removed. Those authors were convinced of the truth of the miracles and wrote their accounts out of that conviction. Those accounts, when subjected to the tests of rigorous historical inquiry, stubbornly resist our efforts to discredit and remove them.

‘For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty’ (2 Pet. 1:16).

For a useful discussion on ‘Jesus and the practice of history’, see Barnett (1997:15-28).

Note the emphasis by Dr. Paul Barnett, an ancient historian, when he stated that

the view taken by this author is that the miraculous events in the New Testament are factual. The Gospels and Acts make little sense historically if the miraculous is removed. Those authors were convinced of the truth of the miracles and wrote their accounts out of that conviction. Those accounts, when subjected to the tests of rigorous historical inquiry, stubbornly resist our efforts to discredit and remove them (1999:23).

Professor of history, Dr. Earle E. Cairns, wrote:

Rationalists and empiricists have denied their possibility [the miracles of Christ] and have sought to explain them by natural law or to explain them away as myths. The latter necessarily involves a denial of the records as historical. Miracles may be defined as phenomena not explicable by known natural law but wrought by a special intervention of Deity for moral purposes.

The possibility and probability of miracles is demonstrated by the supernatural, creative Christ and by the existence of historical records that give accounts of such miracles as historical facts. The person and work of Christ received authentication in the eyes of many in His day because of the miracles He wrought (Cairns 1981:52)

Eminent professor of church history, Philip Schaff, has assessed the historical understanding of the resurrection of Christ:

The Historical view, presented by the Gospels and believed in the Christian church of every denomination and sect. The resurrection of Christ was an actual though miraculous event, in harmony with His previous history and character, and in fulfilment of His own prediction. It was a re-animation of the dead body of Jesus by a return of His soul from the spirit-world, and a rising of body and soul from the grave to a new life, which after repeated manifestations to believers during a short period of forty days entered into glory by ascension to heaven….

Truth compels us to admit that there are serious difficulties in harmonizing the accounts of the evangelists, and in forming a consistent conception of the nature of Christ’s resurrection body…. But these difficulties are not so great as those which are created by a denial of the fact itself. The former can be measurably solved, the latter cannot (Schaff 1882:109-110).

These historians affirm the historicity of Christ’s resurrection and miracles. They can be examined with the normal means of historical investigation. We can say, as an extension of Pannenberg’s understanding, that whether or not Jesus was raised from the dead, whether or not Jesus and others performed miracles, with these matters we are dealing with a historical question if we are examining what did or did not happen at a certain time in human history.

This is not to say that there may not be some difficulties in examining this historical data, but, as Paul Barnett has stated above, ‘Miraculous events in the New Testament are factual. The Gospels and Acts make little sense historically if the miraculous is removed’ (Barnett 1999:23).


Barnett, P W 1997. Jesus and the logic of history. Leicester, England: Apollos (Inter-Varsity Press).

Barnett, P 1999. Jesus & the rise of early Christianity. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press.

Cairns, E E 1981. Christianity through the centuries: A history of the Christian church. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House.

Pannenberg, W 1967. The revelation of God in Jesus of Nazareth, in J M Robinson & J B Cobb (eds), New frontiers in theology, vol 3, 101–33. New York: Harper and Row.

Schaff, P 1882. History of the Christian church (online), vol 1, CCEL. Available at: (Accessed 20 July 2012).

Via, D O 2002. What is New Testament theology? Minneapolis: Fortress.

Wright, N T 2003. The resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.


[1] Christian Forums, Christian Apologetics, ‘William Laine Criag (sic)’, Armistead14 #49, available at: (Accessed 22 September 2012).

[2] Ibid., OzSpen #50.

[3] Ibid., Armistead14 #51.

[4] Ibid., OzSpen #52.

[5] Ibid., Armistead14 #53.

[6] Ibid., OzSpen #62.

[7] Ibid., OzSpen #57.

[8] Ibid., Armistead14 #58.

[9] Ibid., OzSpen #61.

[10] Ibid., Armistead14 #75.

[11] Ibid., OzSpen #98.

[12] Ibid., Armistead14 #97.

[13] Ibid., Amistead14 #99.

[14] Ibid., OzSpen #103.

[15] The rear cover of this publication states that at the time of its writing, ‘Paul Barnett is Anglican bishop of North Sydney, Australia, visiting fellow in ancient history at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia, and research professor at Regent College, Vancouver, British Columbia’.

[16] At this point Barnett’s footnote states, ‘For useful discussion on miracles and history, with particular but not exclusive interest in the resurrection of Jesus, see Stephen T. Davis, Risen Indeed (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans 1993), pp. 1-42’ (Barnett 1999:26, n. 41).


Copyright © 2013 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 28 February 2018.