Defending the Historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus: Postmortem Appearances (Part 4 of 8)

4.0 Postmortem Appearances

On multiple occasions and under various circumstances, different individuals and groups of people claimed to have experienced appearances of Jesus alive from the dead. This is a fact that is almost universally acknowledged among New Testament scholars today. Prominent historian E. P Sanders, who calls himself a liberal , agrees. He declares that the “equally secure facts” include that Jesus’ disciples “saw him (in what sense is not certain) after his death. . . . Thereafter his followers saw him” . Koester asserts “We are on much firmer ground with respect to the appearances of the risen Jesus and their effect.” These appearances “cannot very well be questioned” . Lüdemann reminds us that Paul’s resurrection language is the language of real sight: “active sensual perception. . . . Paul is claiming a visual side to the appearance” . Moreover, Paul was teaching that Jesus appeared in his “transformed spiritual resurrection corporeality” .

4.1 Paul’s List of Eyewitnesses

We saw that in 1 Corinthians 15 Paul gives a list of witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection appearances—Peter, the immediate circle of the disciples known as “the Twelve,” a gathering of 500 Christian believers, Jesus’s younger brother James, a wider group of apostles, and finally Paul himself. When you couple that with Paul’s own eyewitness testimony, in addition to the exceptionally early date when he received the tradition recorded in 1 Corinthians 15.3-8, what you have is historical bedrock. Eminent scholar Howard Clark Kee makes the astounding comment that Paul’s research “can be critically examined and compared with other testimony from eyewitnesses of Jesus, just as one would evaluate evidence in a modern court or academic setting” .

4.2 Multiple, Independent Attestation

You will recall from chapter two that multiple, independent attestation is widely considered to be the most important criterion for authenticity. Considering that the appearance reports are attested by numerous, independent sources, the case for their authenticity is strong indeed: The appearance to Peter is independently attested by Paul and Luke (I Cor. 15.5; Lk. 24.34); the appearance to the Twelve by Paul, Luke, and John (I Cor. 15.5; Lk. 24:36-43; Jn. 20.19-20); the appearance to the women disciples is independently attested by Matthew and John (Matt. 28:9–10; John 20:11–17)—and receives additional support by the criterion of embarrassment, given the low credibility accorded to the testimony of women. Indeed, the absence of this appearance from the list of appearances in the tradition quoted by Paul bespeaks of the discomfort in citing female witnesses—; and finally, that Jesus appeared to the disciples in Galilee is independently attested by Mark, Matthew, and John (Mark 16:7; Matt. 28:16–1 7; John 21).

4.3 Apostle’s Transformation

There is no question that the disciples’ belief that they had actually seen Jesus after his death led to a radical transformation in their lives, even to the point of being willing to die for their faith (we will expand further on this point in chapter 7). According to Habermas,

Virtually no one disputes the disciples’ radical transformations. Before Jesus died, his followers abandoned and even denied him. In contrast, after the resurrection the remainder of their lives were undeniably and radically altered. They were willing to die for their faith, and many were martyred. The disciples’ metamorphoses are also visible from their ethics, evangelism and other teachings, reflected throughout the New Testament. Extrabiblical sources, both secular and Christian, also attest to these changes.

What is responsible for the changes in the disciples? The New Testament is unmistakably clear that Jesus’ resurrection appearances were the intervening events, the catalyst between their confusion and exaltation.

Gerd Lüdemann, perhaps the most prominent current critic—and atheist—of the resurrection, admits, “It may be taken as historically certain [emphasis added] that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus’s death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ” . Bart Ehrman states that “we can say with complete certainty [emphasis added] that some of his disciples at some later time insisted that he soon appeared to them. . . . Historians, of course, have no difficulty whatsoever speaking about the belief in Jesus’ resurrection, since it is a matter of public record” . Traugott Holtz concludes that the disciples’ “experience of resurrection . . . is in fact an undeniable [emphasis added] historical event” .


As we have just seen, even some of the most critical of historians affirm that there is virtually no credible reason to doubt the historicity of the appearance narratives—that on multiple occasions, and under various circumstances, different individuals and groups of people claimed to have experienced appearances of Jesus alive after his death. Whether these claims were veridical rather than spurious will be discussed later. For our present purposes, it is sufficient only to note that many people at least claimed to have seen Jesus alive after his death.



References Cited


Posted in Historiography, Resurrection.

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