On June 26, 2000, ABC aired a documentary called The Search for Jesus. The network’s leading news anchor, Peter Jennings, interviewed liberal and conservative scholars of early Christianity about what we can know historically concerning Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. The series ended with a striking statement by New Testament scholar Paula Fredriksen, who is not a Christian herself.
Commenting on the post-Resurrection appearances of Jesus, Fredriksen said:
I know in their own terms what they saw was the raised Jesus. That’s what they say, and then all the historic evidence we have afterwards attest to their conviction that that’s what they saw. I’m not saying that they really did see the raised Jesus. I wasn’t there. I don’t know what they saw. But I do know that as a historian that they must have seen something.
She’s admitting, in other words, that the best available historical evidence confirms that followers of Jesus like Mary Magdalene, his brother James, Peter and his other disciples, and even an enemy (Paul) were absolutely convinced that the crucified man Jesus appeared to them alive, raised from the dead.
Fredriksen is not alone in supposing that these followers must have seen something. Virtually every Bible scholar across the Western world, regardless of religious background, agrees that Jesus’ earliest followers believed he appeared to them alive. This is what launched the world’s largest religion. As a result of these appearances, Jewish fishermen began proclaiming to crowds in Jerusalem that “God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it” (Acts 2:32). Two thousand years later, the message of Jesus’ death and resurrection is proclaimed by billions of Christians in nearly every nation and in almost every language on planet earth.
What did all these witnesses see?
A Bedrock Confession
According to the earliest source we have on record for Jesus’ death and resurrection, a hidden pearl found within 1 Corinthians 15, Jesus appeared to multiple individuals and groups, and at least one enemy. This creedal tradition, according to virtually all scholars, dates to within five years of Jesus’ death. Through this source, we can reach back to the earliest years of the Christian movement in Jerusalem, to the bedrock confession of the earliest followers of Jesus.
Here is what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:3–8:
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
This catalog of Resurrection appearances is unparalleled in the New Testament, even in all of ancient literature. We learn from this list that Jesus appeared to three individuals: Cephas (Peter), his chief disciple; James, his brother; and Paul, his former enemy. And we also learn that he appeared to three groups: the Twelve (disciples, minus Judas); more than 500 early followers; and all the apostles.
That Jesus appeared to more than 500 men and women at the same time is a truly remarkable claim. Paul boldly puts his credibility on the line when he mentions that most of them are still alive. After all, he is essentially inviting members of the Corinthian church to travel to Jerusalem and speak to these witnesses, investigating for themselves what it was like to see the risen Jesus. We can see, then, that solid eyewitness testimony to the risen Jesus was readily available in the decades following his resurrection. As G. K. Chesterton observed in The Everlasting Man, “This is the sort of truth that is hard to explain because it is a fact; but it is a fact to which we can call witnesses.”
Mary Magdalene also belongs on the list of key eyewitnesses, as she too was readily available to be questioned about her experience with the risen Jesus. As the agnostic New Testament scholar Bart D. Ehrman writes in How Jesus Became God, it is “significant that Mary Magdalene enjoys such prominence in all the Gospel Resurrection narratives, even though she is virtually absent everywhere else in the Gospels. She is mentioned in only one passage in the entire New Testament in connection with Jesus during his public ministry (Luke 8:1–3), and yet she is always the first to announce that Jesus has been raised. Why is this? One plausible explanation is that she too had a vision of Jesus after he died.” Mary Magdalene was given the high honor of being not only the first to see the risen Jesus but the first person in history to proclaim, “I have seen the Lord!” (John 20:18).
Whatever these eyewitnesses saw, it transformed their lives to the point of being willing to suffer and die for it. In 2 Corinthians 11:23–33, Paul recounts his almost daily suffering for his conviction that Jesus appeared to him. He was beaten, imprisoned, stoned, starved, lost at sea, and daily in danger of all kinds of evil on his journeys throughout the Roman Empire.
We also possess strong historical evidence that certain key eyewitnesses were martyred for their faith. Peter, for instance, was crucified. James was stoned. Paul was beheaded. Whatever they saw, it was worth giving their lives for. They sealed their testimonies with their blood.
The Magic Wand of ‘Mass Hysteria’
In order to explain away these Resurrection appearances, some scholars have speculated that the eyewitnesses were merely hallucinating.
In his excellent book Resurrecting Jesus, New Testament scholar Dale Allison surveys the available scientific studies and literature on hallucinations. In documented cases, he concludes, there are four things that do not happen (or rarely happen). First, hallucinations are rarely seen by multiple individuals and groups over an extended period of time. Second, hallucinations are rarely seen by large groups of people, especially groups of more than eight. Third, hallucinations have never led to the claim that a dead person has been resurrected. And fourth, hallucinations do not involve the person’s enemy. (We could also add the fact that hallucinations typically aren’t known for launching global movements or world religions.)
Yet in the case of the resurrection appearances of Jesus, every last one of these rare or seemingly impossible circumstances has come to pass.
Allison sums up the implications forcefully: “These appear to be the facts, and they raise the question of how we should explain them. The apologists for the faith say that the sightings of Jesus must, given the reports, have been objective. One person can hallucinate, but twelve at the same time? And dozens over an extended period of time? These are legitimate questions, and waving the magical wand of ‘mass hysteria’ will not make them vanish.”
The only other answer given by respectable scholars wrestling with this robust historical record is some variation of “I don’t know.” Much like Fredriksen, renowned New Testament scholar E. P. Sanders also represents this cautious-agnostic approach when he writes, in The Historical Figure of Jesus: “That Jesus’ followers (and later Paul) had Resurrection experiences is, in my judgement, a fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know.”
Jordan Peterson, the popular professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, also belongs in this category. He neither affirms nor rejects the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection. When asked directly if Jesus literally rose from the dead, Peterson responded, “I need to think about that for about three more years before I would even venture an answer beyond what I’ve already given.”
The cautious-agnostic’s position is a respectable one. Even the original apostles did not believe the claim of the Resurrection when the women first told them (Luke 24:8–11). Yet if someone like Peterson, with an open mind and heart, follows the evidence where it leads, I am convinced he will find himself at the feet of the risen Jesus, proclaiming with Thomas, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).
The extraordinary nature of Jesus’ resurrection reminds me of my favorite scene in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The play opens with the “wondrous strange” appearances of Hamlet’s dead father to Bernardo and Marcellus and then later to Hamlet’s friend Horatio. Horatio is the skeptic of the group, and Hamlet challenges his disbelief of the supernatural in this exchange:
Horatio: O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!
Hamlet: And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
Shakespeare speaks through Hamlet, telling us to expect the unexpected. Welcome the strange and extraordinary. It is indeed wondrous strange that the ghost of Hamlet’s father is appearing to people, but do not reject it for that reason alone. Your philosophy should be wide enough for the supernatural. More things are happening in our wonderful world (and beyond) than you can imagine. If your philosophy is not wide and open enough to include the miraculous and the extraordinary, then you need a new philosophy.
We should be open to miraculous claims from the ancient world and in modern times. Our philosophies should make room for the unexpected, strange, and extraordinary. And yet, the most important question to ask of any miraculous claim is “What is the evidence?”
We have seen that, even from the perspective of the most skeptical scholars, the weight of the historical record attests that a host of individuals and groups believed they saw the risen Jesus. All the evidence we have suggests that his eyewitnesses were trustworthy and honest. Why disbelieve them?
And if that doesn’t convince our modern-day Horatios, then we can go further, summoning the Twelve and the more than 500 who saw the resurrected Messiah.
We can even move beyond the first-century time frame, exploring how belief in the Resurrection laid the foundations of all Western civilization, inspiring some of the greatest art, literature, music, film, philosophy, morality, and ethics that the world has ever seen. Is this all based on a lie?
And if all that is still not enough, then let our Horatios behold the billions across the world today who readily testify to how the living Christ has transformed their lives. These include intellectual giants who have converted to Christianity from every world religion (or from atheism and agnosticism). In Christ, they have found all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.
On Easter, these billions were proclaiming the same message the apostles proclaimed on the Day of Pentecost: “God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it.”
Now more than ever, in this dark, plague-ridden world, your family, friends, and neighbors are looking for hope. The living Christ is the only hope for us all. Before Easter fades into the rush of everyday life, ask your neighbor: What (or who) did all those witnesses see?
They saw hope incarnate, new creation, life in its fullness, God in the flesh.
This indeed is wondrous strange! Encourage your skeptical friends not to stop at “I don’t know.” Give the risen Jesus welcome.
Justin Bass is professor of New Testament at Jordan Evangelical Theological Seminary in Amman, Jordan. He is the author of The Bedrock of Christianity: The Unalterable Facts of Jesus’ Death and Resurrection (Lexham Press) and The Battle for the Keys: Revelation 1:18 and Christ's Descent into the Underworld (Wipf and Stock).