Rationality of The Resurrection of Jesus

Doubting Thomas

The truthfulness of Christianity solely hangs on the belief that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified under Pontius Pilate, died and was buried and on the third day he rose again leaving an empty tomb. If this is not true, Christianity is false, period.

Most Christians believe that Jesus rose again leaving an empty tomb through the internal work of God’s Spirit. But is it possible for a Christian to be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks her for the sensibleness of her belief? Can a Christian, with love, gentleness and respect, present a persuasive historical case to show that it is rationally justified to believe that Jesus rose again from the dead?

This first part of my article seeks to demonstrate the rationality of the resurrection hypothesis using minimal facts methodology. Divorcing historical data from best explanation of that data, I chose two leading contemporary non-Christians New Testament scholars John Dominic Crossan and Bart D. Ehrman to assess what historian can know about Jesus of Nazareth.

I used minimal facts methodical approach because it, as  Gary R. Habermas and Michael R. Licona explained, “considers only those data that are so strongly attested historically that they are granted by nearly every scholar who studies the subject, even the rather skeptical ones.”(Habermas & Licona 2004, 44)

The historical data that these scholars, who hold different worldviews including atheists, agnostics, Jews and Christians (Licona 2010, 280), grant are:

1. Jesus’ death by crucifixion under Pontius Pilate.

2. Jesus’ was buried in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea.

3. Jesus’ tomb was found empty on the 3rd day.

4. Jesus’ followers believed to have seen the risen Jesus.

“That he[Jesus] was crucified” boldly asserted Crossan, “is as sure as anything historical can ever be, since both Josephus and Tacitus […] agree with the Christian accounts on at least that basic fact”(Crossan 1995, 163-4) Even though Crossan affirms  1 and 4 (135, 145, 154, 165, 190 & 1991,398 ), he  disputed data 2 and thus 3. He believes that the story is too good to be true (1991, 373). Mark must have invented Joseph of Arimathea story (1996, 188).

Crossan case against 2 and thus 3 are highly unlikely because he overlooked the hostility between early Christians toward a council that condemned their leader to death (Brown 1994). Unless it was true, it is least likely that Mark would invent a story where a fictional member of Sanhedrians acted nobly towards their master’s body.

In 1999 Ehrman argued that we can neither be certain about Joseph of Arimathea account nor that his followers proclaimed his resurrecting three days later, but “we can say with some confidence is that Jesus actually did die, he probably was buried, and that some of his disciples (all of them? some of them?) claimed to have seen him alive afterward.”(Ehrman 1999, 229)

Ehrman’s public position changed in 2003. Ehrman illuminated that historians can say with relative certainty that Jesus was indeed buried by Joseph of Arimathea. He added,

We also have solid traditions to indicate that women found this tomb empty three days later. This is attested in all of our gospel sources, early and late, and so it appears to be a historical datum. As so I think we can say that after Jesus’ death, with some (probably with some) certainty, that he was buried, possibly by this fellow, Joseph of Arimathea, and that three days later he appeared not to have been in his tomb. (Ehrman 2003)

Moving from historical data to the best explanation of that data Crossan and Ehrman robustly rejects resurrections hypothesis. Their rejection is not based on historical data, but on what best explain these data. It is not a historical based rejection but a philosophical one, the impossibility of miracles.

Letting B = Background knowledge, D = Specific Data (Jesus’ burial, empty tomb, postmortem appearance, conversion of skeptic James and an enemy Saul of Tarsus, the origin of the disciples’ belief in his resurrection, et cetera) and R = Resurrection of Jesus, the probability of the resurrection hypothesis relative to the background knowledge and specific data can be calculated as follows:

Pr(R/ B&D) = [Pr (R/B) x Pr (D/B&R) / {[Pr (R/B) x PR (D/B&R] + [Pr (not-R/B) x Pr (D/B &not-R)]}

What is the possibility of a Jesus rose again miracle? Is the Pr(R/ B&D) greater than 0.5? Is resurrection of Jesus the best explanation of the data in a pool of competing rival hypotheses?  I attempted to answer these questions in my second article.


Brown, Raymond E. (1994) The Death of the Messiah, 2nd Vol. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.

Crossan, John Dominic (1991) The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. San Francisco: Harper Collins.

______________________ (1995) Jesus: A Revolutional Bigrapy. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.

______________________ (1996) Who killed Jesus? San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.

Ehrman, Bart D. (1999)  Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. New York: Oxford University Press.

______________________ (2003) From Jesus to Constantine: A History of Early Christianity, Lecture 4: “Oral and Written Traditions about Jesus” The Teaching Company.

Habermas, Gary R.  & Licona, Michael R.(2004)  The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus .Grand Rapids: Kregel.

Licona, Michael (2010) The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach .Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.