As a puzzle piece in the historical puzzle of the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection, the Jerusalem factor, has always been of particular interest to me. The Jerusalem factor (along with the criteria of embarrassment and enemy attestation) is what I consider to be one of the most powerful evidences for the historicity of the resurrection narrative as we find it in the Gospels.
For those unfamiliar with this puzzle piece, the Jerusalem factor is as follows:
- Jerusalem is the location where Jesus was crucified and buried. (Mark 15:21-25; Matt. 27:32-35; 27:57-61)
- The location of Jesus’ tomb was known by follower and foe alike. (Mark 15:42-47; 16:1-6; Matt. 27:61-66)
- On the first day of the week, Jesus’ tomb was found empty—(Mark 16:1-6) New Testament scholar, Gary Habermas, discovered that roughly 75 percent of scholars on the subject accept the empty tomb as a historical fact.
- The empty tomb and Jesus’ post-mortem appearances (resurrection) were first witnessed to and proclaimed publically in Jerusalem by the early Christians. (Lk. 24:47; Gal. 1-2; Acts 2-8)
- If Jesus’ body was still in the tomb, it would have surely been exhumed and paraded through the streets by the Jewish and Roman authorities, and hence, the early Christians could not have proclaimed him as being risen—body produced=no resurrection & no proclamation
- Jesus’ body was not produced by either Jewish or Roman authorities—there is total silence in the historical writings of Christianity’s critics on this issue. Dr. Paul Maier—”Accordingly, if all the evidence is weighed carefully and fairly, it is indeed justifiable, according to the canons of historical research, to conclude that the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, in which Jesus was buried, was actually empty on the morning of the first Easter. And no shred of evidence has yet been discovered in literary sources, epigraphy, or archaeology that would disprove this statement.”
- The Jewish Sanhedrin published and financed a story to explain away the empty tomb— “and said, “Tell people, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ And if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story has been spread among the Jews to this day. (Matthew 28:13-15 ESV)
As one can see, the evidence is quite strong when the investigation is focused on the location in which the events took place. This of course has not hindered critics from formulating opposing theories to account for the known data. Such theories are known as naturalistic explanations, because they appeal to a natural cause for the event rather than a supernatural one. Such theories ‘came into their own’ during the 19th century, but were soundly refuted by neoorthodox scholar Karl Barth and moderate New Testament scholar, Raymond Brown. Still, Christianity’s critics continue to revive such theories, often times because they are ignorant of the fact that they have all been refuted.
I will highlight just one such theory as it is directly related to that of the empty tomb and Jesus’ body, and that is that “the disciples stole the body, and then lied about doing so.” Although this naturalistic explanation attempts to account for the empty tomb and the resurrection appearances, it does not account for the transformed lives of the apostles and others to whom Christ appeared, even that of 500 persons at one time. (1 Cor. 15:3-8) The transformation of the disciples and early followers was so radical, that they ‘morphed’ from doubtful, scared and confused people, into individuals that were willing to endure imprisonment, sufferings, and even martyrdom for what they had seen, heard and touched—the resurrected Jesus. (1 John 1:1-3)
Gary Habermas and Michael Licona address the skeptics ‘rebuttal’ to the transformation factor here:
“Skeptics many times respond that people often convert to other faiths and even die for those faiths, so this proves nothing. One need only think of the devotion of Islamic terrorists. But this misses the point. It is not being argued that the sincerity of the apostles proves that Jesus rose from the dead. The point is that their sincerity to the point of martyrdom indicates that they were not intentionally lying…the strong and abiding conviction of the disciples that the risen Jesus had appeared to them, shown in their willingness to suffer continuously and even die for these beliefs, speaks strongly against lies and theft of Jesus body on their part. Moreover, the skeptics Paul and James would have been looking for fraud on the part of the disciples. For these reasons and others, only a small number of critical scholars have opted for this view during the last 200 years.” As has been said, “Liars make poor martyrs.”
Two points that must be kept at the forefront of the dynamics surrounding the empty tomb and Jesus’ resurrection appearances are:
- The empty tomb did not appear to lead any of Jesus’ followers, except John, to believe that Jesus had been raised from the dead. The empty tomb convinced only one—John.
- It was the appearances that led both friend and skeptics (Paul & James) alike to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead.
One other point that is of particular interest is that of Matthews’ account of the Sanhedrin’s financed ‘stolen body’ story that they promoted at the time of the empty tomb discovery. As reported in Matt. 28:11 15, it would seem that this saying/story was still being told and in circulation when the gospel was written, probably between 70-85 A.D. This, along with Justin Martyr writing about 150 A.D., states that the Jewish leaders had even sent specially trained men around the Mediterranean, even to Rome, to further this teaching, which is confirmed by Tertullian about 200 A.D. The idea that the tomb was empty because the body was moved or stolen was common in early church history, as witnessed by other sources. Both the Gospels and extra-biblical sources attest to the empty tomb, and the lack of a ‘shred’ of evidence to the contrary, establishes it as an historical fact, with the transformed lives of the disciples confirming the resurrection of the Christ.
 Gary Habermas, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, pg. 70
 Dr. Paul Maier; First Easter; pg. 120
 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics: The Doctrine of Reconciliation, Vol. 4, Pt.1, 1956, pg. 340
 Raymond Brown, The Resurrection and Biblical Criticism, 1967, pg. 233
 Ibid., Habermas and Licona, pg. 93-95