Defending the Historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus: The Relentlessness of the Apostles (Part 7 of 8)

7.0 The Relentlessness of the Apostles

There is a virtual consensus among scholars that, subsequent to Jesus’ death by crucifixion, his disciples sincerely believed that he appeared to them risen from the dead. What’s more, these appearances radically transformed them from fearful, cowering individuals—who denied and abandoned Jesus at his arrest and execution—into bold proclaimers of the gospel of the risen Lord. They remained steadfast in the face of imprisonment, torture, and martyrdom; these men took the world by storm, so that within three hundred years the mighty Roman empire would be transformed by Christianity. But the obvious question arises: How could this handful of obscure people turn the world upside down?

7.1 Simon Greenleaf, LL. D.

During the course of this chapter I shall rely heavily on the words of the great Simon Greenleaf. Royall Professor of Law at Harvard University and a principle founder of Harvard Law School, Greenleaf was widely was considered to be the greatest expert of evidence the world had ever known. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court said that Greenleaf’s testimony is the most basic and compelling testimony that can be accepted in any English speaking court in the world; when Greenleaf spoke, that settled the matter. He was far and away the most knowledgeable person on evidence the world had ever known. The London Times said that more light on jurisprudence had come from Greenleaf than all the jurists of Europe combined. His Treatise on the Law of Evidence is still considered the greatest single authority on evidence in the entire literature of legal procedure.

As a law professor, he was determined to expose the “myth” of the Resurrection. Surprisingly, his thorough examination forced him to conclude, instead, that Jesus did rise from the dead. Accordingly, in 1846 he published An Examination of the Testimony of the Four Evangelists by the Rules of Evidence Administered in the Courts of Justice, in which he argues for the historicity of the Resurrection on a juridical basis. His conclusion:

The result, it is confidently believed, will be an undoubting conviction of their integrity, ability, and truth. In the course of such an examination, the undesigned coincidences will multiply upon us at every step in our progress; the probability or the veracity of the witnesses and of the reality of the occurrences which they relate will increase, until it acquires, for all practical purposes, the value and force of demonstration.

7.2 Willingness to Suffer

It is beyond dispute that the early apostles were more than willing to suffer for the truth of their claims. As Greenleaf reports:

The great truths which the apostles declared were that Christ had risen from the dead, and that only through repentance from sin, and faith in him, could men hope for salvation. This doctrine they asserted with one voice, everywhere, not only under the greatest discouragements, but in the face of the most appalling terrors that can be presented to the mind of man. Their master had recently perished as a malefactor, by the sentence of a public tribunal. His religion sought to overthrow the religions of the whole world. The laws of every country were against the teachings of his disciples. The interests and passions of all the rulers and great men in the world were against them. The fashion of the world was against them. Propagating this new faith, even in the most inoffensive and peaceful manner, they could expect nothing but contempt, opposition, revilings, bitter persecutions, stripes, imprisonments, torments, and cruel deaths. Yet this faith they zealously did propagate; and all these miseries they endured undismayed, nay, rejoicing. As one after another was put to a miserable death, the survivors only prosecuted their work with increased vigor and resolution. The annals of military warfare afford scarcely an example of the like heroic constancy, patience, and unblenching courage. 

7.3 Confidence in the Truth

Given their willingness to undergo great suffering, it follows that the apostles must have had a great deal of confidence that what they were claiming was the truth. Greenleaf reminds us:

They had every possible motive to review carefully the grounds of their faith, and the evidences of the great facts and truths which they asserted and these motives were pressed upon their attention with the most melancholy and terrific frequency. It was therefore impossible that they could have persisted in affirming the truths they have narrated, had not Jesus actually risen from the dead, and had they not known this fact as certainly as they knew any other fact. If it were morally possible for them to have been deceived in this matter, every human motive operated to lead them to discover and avow their error.

7.4 Incompatibility of their Message with Deceit

One could spend countless hours surveying the literature in search of a scholar who defends the contention that the apostles were deliberately propagating what they knew was a lie. In addition to the obvious fact that no one voluntarily endures great suffering what they know to be a lie, there is also the problem of the incompatibility of the content of their message with deliberate deceit:

If, on the contrary, they are supposed to have been bad men, it is incredible that such men should have chosen this form of imposture, enjoining as it does unfeigned repentance, the utter forsaking and abhorrence of all falsehood and of every other sin, the practice of daily self-denial, self-abasement and self-sacrifice, the crucifixion of the flesh with all its earthly appetites and desires, indifference to the honors, and hearty contempt of the vanities of the world, and inculcating perfect purity of heart and life, and communion of the soul with heaven. It is incredible that bad men should invent falsehoods to promote the religion of the God of truth. The supposition is suicidal. If they did believe in a future state of retribution, a heaven and a hell hereafter, they took the most certain course, if false witnesses, to secure the latter for their portion. And if, still being bad men, they did not believe in future punishment, how came they to invent falsehoods the direct and certain tendency of which was to destroy all their prospects of worldly honor and happiness, and to insure their misery in this life? From these absurdities there is no escape, but in the perfect conviction and admission that they were good men, testifying to that which they had carefully observed and considered, and well knew to be true.


In sum, any adequate historical hypothesis must sufficiently explain the relentlessness of the early apostles to propagate their message in the face of grave horrors.

References Cited

Posted in Historiography, Resurrection.
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