Witnesses for the resurrection

And the angel answered and said unto the women, Fear not ye: for I know that ye seek Jesus, which was crucified. He is not here: for he is risen, as he said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay. Matthew 28:5-6

What is the evidence Matthew gives for the resurrection? Essentially, the evidence is that of eye-witness accounts. Now I was told once by someone that there just isn’t much evidence for Jesus apart from the first-century historian Josephus. Apparently he wasn't aware of Suetonius, Tacitus, and the Jewish Mishnah, all of which testify to the historicity of Jesus. What was more surprising to me is that to this person the gospels themselves somehow didn’t count as witnesses. But why not? Nelson Glueck, a Jewish archeologist (and not a Christian) has argued that every book in the New Testament was written by a baptized Jew between 40 and 80 A.D. This is important because these gospels were tools for the spread of the Christian church, a church that had its nucleus in first-century Judea. These gospels are full of details such as names and places and events that could have been easily fact-checked. If their witness is so distorted and full of false-hoods, it’s hard to understand how the church could have gained such traction in Judea, let alone in places as far away as Rome. What makes this even more compelling is that first-century Jews were not likely to buy into a story about a crucified and resurrected Christ – unless the story was true. (Nor were people steeped in Greek culture, which loathed the idea of a bodily resurrection.)

Moreover, if Matthew were making this up, he wouldn’t have written it the way he did. In every gospel account, the first witnesses to the resurrected Christ are women. In Matthew’s account, we are told that this group included Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” (ver. 1). In Mark’s account, they are listed as Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome (Mk. 16:1). In Luke, they are not specifically named, but described as “the women who had come with him from Galilee” (Lk. 23:55). In John, again Mary Magdalene figures prominently (Jn. 20:1-18). This is significant, because in Matthew’s culture, a woman’s testimony was inadmissible in a court of law. If he had been just making this all up in order to start a religion, it’s incomprehensible that he would have written the story like this.

The second set of witnesses that Matthew records are the eleven disciples, who went to Galilee to receive further instructions from the Lord (16-17, cf. ver. 10). Matthew, who was one of them, tells us that “they saw him” (17). Now you can say what you want about these witnesses. You can claim that they were liars. But these were men and women many of whom went on to seal their testimony with their own blood. Why would they do this if they knew it was a lie? I can understand a person dying for a religion that is false if they think it is true; I cannot understand a person dying for a religion that they claim is true but know is false. But this would have been the case with the apostles and early Jewish Christians who had been with Jesus and saw him die and buried. Why would they go on and concoct a story about him rising from the dead? Why indeed? – unless it were true.

However, from the very beginning this is what people who were opposed to the gospel wanted to believe. It is what motivated the false report from the guards, recorded in verses 11-15. The guards probably didn’t see the risen Christ. But they did feel the earthquake and see the angels. In fact, it was the appearance of the angels that caused the guards to faint out of fear and “become like dead men” (4). This temporary unconsciousness perhaps became the basis for their story later that they had fallen asleep and had the body of Jesus stolen while they were sleeping (13).

That people would readily believe this false report (15) is testament to the fact that people will believe what they want if it lines up with their preferences and refuse to believe something no matter how strong the evidence for it if it conflicts with their personal agendas. That people would believe this story is incredible. How in the world would Roman soldiers sleep through grave robbers pushing a huge cylindrical stone up an incline in order to get into the tomb? I’ve heard of sound sleepers but I don’t think anyone in the history of sleeping has slept that hard. In any case, it is highly unlikely that Roman soldiers would have slept at their posts since this would have endangered their careers, if not their lives (cf. ver. 14). So, whereas the resurrection of Christ is a powerful and satisfying explanation of the events of the first Easter Sunday, this attempt (and all of the contemporary ones as well) to explain the same events certainly lacks explanatory power.

I think it is interesting that in verse 17 we are told that some of the disciples who saw Jesus “doubted.” There is a lot of consternation among commentators as to who doubted and what is meant by doubting in this context. However, The Greek word here does not point to the doubt of unbelief but the doubt of men and women who didn’t know yet quite what to think of this dramatic turn of events. This is the doubt of hesitation. They were in the process of going from fear to faith and it wasn’t quite as smooth a transition as they might have hoped. In any case, I think this speaks to the power of fear – fear can blind us to obvious truth right in front of us and keep us from the joy in God that could be ours in faith.

So we have the testimony of the women in verse 1-10 and the testimony of the eleven in verses 16-17. However, in the last verses of Matthew (18-20) there is implicit a third cloud of witnesses: the church in every age. The witness of the eleven was not meant to stop there; in Galilee, our Lord gives to the disciples the Great Commission and thus sets in motion the mission of the church which will encompass all nations and every generation from that point on.

In my opinion, this is one of the strongest evidences for the resurrection. Christianity does not advance in the world today by forcing people to convert at the end of a gun barrel (though we acknowledge the shameful attempts at various points in history when some professing "Christians" tried to do just that). Rather, Christianity advances by “making disciples” in every nation, by teaching and preaching and living the gospel in this world. Christianity advances, not because people are forced to accept it from outward compulsion but because people are changed from within as they experience the liberating power of the gospel in their lives. The gospel advances because it does not come “in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Cor. 2:4, ESV). It advances because the gospel does not come in word only but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit, and with much conviction (1 Thess. 1:5). We know the resurrection is real because we’ve seen it change hearts; above all, many of us have experienced first-hand in the new birth the power of God and the fruit of the resurrection in our own lives.

By: Jeremiah Bass