Can Christians Rely on the Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony for the Resurrection of Jesus?

Image result for images of the resurrection

Nick Peters (son-in-law of evangelical Christian NT scholar, Michael Licona):

…The case for the resurrection does not depend on inerrancy [of the Gospels]. The question is “Was the early church right about Jesus?”



I agree with you. I don’t think it depends on inerrancy at all. The fact that one author says that there was one angel at the tomb and another says there were two is not important. Such a variation in story telling was perfectly acceptable in Greco-Roman biographies.

But I think Licona’s research points out that it is POSSIBLE that much of the detail in the four Resurrection Stories in the Gospels could be literary invention. The Gospel authors started with the basic story as found in the Early Creed and then “fattened” the bare bones story with interesting (invented) details. That is all I am saying.

So, did Pilate really wring his hands over the fate of Jesus or this detail an invention for dramatic effect? Was there really a Barrabas, or was this detail an invention to make the story more interesting? What did Jesus really say on the cross, if anything? Was there really a three hour eclipse and an earthquake? Did dead saints really rise up out of their graves to roam the streets of Jerusalem?

And was Jesus really buried in a rich man’s tomb or simply in a common criminal’s grave??? In Jesus’ appearances, did he really speak, eat food, and allow people to touch him, or are these details literary inventions???

We can only guess…

Mike Licona (and yourself) may not base your belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus on the Gospels, but I would gamble to say that many Christians do. Many Christians believe in that a three-day-brain-dead, first century corpse really did come back to life because a group of women found his empty tomb; reported it to the disciples who viewed the same empty tomb; and later that very day, both the women and the disciples received appearances of Jesus in bodily form but with heavenly (supernatural) powers. This resurrected, supernatural body then made other appearances over the course of days or weeks, to multiple people at the same time, depending which Gospel you read, in which he spoke, ate food, cooked food, and allowed people to touch him.

However, if you completely ignore the Gospels, all you are left with as far as details of the Resurrection of Jesus is the Early Creed in First Corinthians 15. And this creed never speaks of Jesus being buried in Joseph of Arimethea’s rock tomb; women finding an empty tomb; disciples coming to an empty tomb; or, detailed appearances in which Jesus talks, walks, eats food, and allows people to touch him. And there is no witnessed ascension into the clouds!

Without the Gospels, all Christians have is a collection of dead person (ghost??) sightings, received as second hand information (hearsay) by Paul, a man who was NOT an eyewitness to the Resurrection, just one of the persons claiming to have received an appearance by a dead person…and he himself gives us ZERO details of his experience.

Without the details of the Gospels, the evidence for the Christian claim of a science-defying first century resurrection of a dead body becomes very, very scant and very, very weak.


Nick Peters:

Actually, even with just the creed, there is still a very strong case and one that I have not seen a convincing better explanation for. What I see mainly is a strong opposition to miracles, but I wonder what this is based on? Can it be shown that miracles have never happened or cannot happen? If not, then we should be open.

As for the Gospels, if we have to go the route of Gospel reliability, that is also very much doable. For the burial account, there is no competing tradition, it is multiply attested, it is a shameful event, and it is in line with the customs of the time. Consider what a Jewish NT scholar like Jodi Magness says who specializes in Jewish burial practices.

“Jesus came from a modest family that presumably could not afford a rock- cut tomb. Had Joseph not offered to accommodate Jesus’ body his tomb (according to the Gospel accounts) Jesus likely would have been disposed in the manner of the lower classes: in a pit grave or trench grave dug into the ground. When the Gospels tell us that Joseph of Arimathea offered Jesus a spot in his tomb, it is because Jesus’ family did not own a rock- cut tomb and there was no time to prepare a grave- that is there was no time to dig a grave, not hew a rock cut tomb(!)—before the Sabbath. It is not surprising that Joseph, who is described as a wealthy and perhaps even a member of the Sanhedrin, had a rock-cut family tomb. The Gospel accounts seem to describe Joseph placing Jesus’ body in one of the loculi in his family’s tomb. (Jodi Magness, Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit: Jewish Daily Life in the Time of Jesus, pg 170)

“There is no need to assume that the Gospel accounts of Joseph of Arimathea offering Jesus a place in this family tomb are legendary or apologetic. The Gospel accounts of Jesus’s burial appear to be largely consistent with the archeological evidence” ( Magness, pg 171)

When Ehrman writes on this in his book on How Jesus Became God, he does not interact at all with Magness or any of the other specialists in the field of Jewish burial practices. What happened in the crucifixion was what normally happened in peace-time in Palestine.



Yes, I have read Magness’ article you mention. She states that whoever wrote the Gospel of Mark correctly described Jewish burial in a rock tomb. I agree that this is evidence in favor of the historicity of this story.

However, it is still possible that the Empty Rock Tomb story is a literary invention. Just because the author could correctly describe proper Jewish burial in a rock tomb is not proof that the story is historical fact. It is possible that Jesus was buried in a dirt grave, as was the custom for people of his class according to Magness, but the author of Mark changed the story to a rock tomb, the tomb of a rich man, to make for a more interesting read. This would be perfectly acceptable in a Greco-Roman biography.

By the way, Magness specifically states in her article that the fact that the story is consistent with Jewish burial practices is not proof that this story is true. I agree that we should not assume that the Joseph of Arimathea Tomb Story is legendary based solely on the fact that it would be unusual for a man of the lower classes to be buried in a rock tomb in first century Palestine. However, the fact that this is a very atypical burial should make us pause.

There are other reasons to question the history of the Arimathea Rock Tomb Story, such as the lack of evidence of subsequent Christian pilgrimages to this site.

Bottom line, Mike Licona’s research is excellent evidence that many of the details in the Gospels could be literary invention. Even arch-conservative scholar Richard Bauckham admits that there are invented details in the Gospels. If the Arimathea Rock Tomb Story is an invention, it deprives Christians of a very significant piece of evidence for their very extra-ordinary claim.


Above excerpts from a conversation on the blog of evangelical Christian NT scholar, Daniel Wallace:

Contradictions in the Gospels: An Interview with Mike Licona

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