When studying the New Testament as a historical document, that is, when not looking at it as a book of faith but merely a 1st century collection of writings, New Testament historians disagree about some things concerning the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Some of these disagreements are because of philosophical bias’ one direction or the other. For instance, if a person studies history with a naturalistic worldview which a priori (i.e. before the facts) dismisses any possibility of the supernatural, then they will never conclude from historical investigation that a miracle has occurred because they have decided ahead of time that miracles don’t happen. On the other hand theists can be biased too and may be quick to believe reports of miracles because their worldview allows and even expects them to occur.
Even so, despite the personal bias’ of every individual, there are some things that New Testament Historians almost universally agree upon when it comes to the death and resurrection accounts of Jesus. Here are a handful of the most widely accepted facts that scholars from KJV Only Fundamentalists to Atheist/Agnostic scholars agree upon. These historical facts can be explored further in the book The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus by Mike Licona and Gary Habermas. My intention in posting is only to present some of the common theories regarding the resurrection. There are more theories and I could go much more in-depth in each one of the following but I will try and keep it brief and just lay out a few points regarding each theory in conjunction with what historians and scholars have come to regard as facts.
1. Jesus of Nazareth was crucified and died somewhere between 30-33 A.D.
2. The tomb where Jesus was buried was found empty.
3. Jesus’ disciples genuinely believed that they saw Jesus risen from the dead.
4. Saul of Tarsus (later known as the apostle Paul) was an enemy of the church but became one of its biggest promoters after seeing what he believed was the risen Jesus.
5. James, the half-brother of Jesus, was a skeptic during Jesus’ 3 years of ministry but became a leader in the Jerusalem church.
6. The disciples went from fearful for their lives to boldly proclaiming Jesus’ resurrection even under pang of death.
There are other facts that I could mention but these will be sufficient for my point. When historians are investigating the past and trying to ascertain what really did and didn’t occur they start with determining the facts they can know with a high probability of certainty and then they put forth scenarios which account for the known facts. A good theory is one that accounts for all of the facts without forcing any of them to fit and is not ad hoc, that is, the theory is plausible given what we know. An ad hoc position is one that may fit all the facts but it leaves a person scratching their head as to why we ought to think that this is actually what happened.
When we say a theory is plausible, for example, if you come across a tree that has fallen in the woods, and the tree and area around it are all scorched, what might you conclude? You could conclude that an alien spaceship crashed, knocking over the tree and when it exploded it burned the tree and the surrounding area. This theory would fit with all of the facts and doesn’t force any of them, but it does seem less plausible than another theory, namely, that the tree was struck by lightning, caught fire and fell over. Given that both theories make sense of the facts at hand, they are both at least possible, but the evidence and our wider experience it is more likely the latter theory which is true since we know that trees are struck by lightning all the time but there is no documented proof of aliens space ships.
So, when it comes to the facts that historians agree upon concerning the events of Jesus supposed death and resurrection, the question is this “What theory best explains all of the facts?” The following is a list of some of the more popular theories put forth to explain the historical facts regarding the resurrection of Jesus. Licona and Habermas go into more detail regarding these theories and more. This is not a comprehensive list but from my readings these seem to be the most popular theories. I fully admit that there may be a better explanation for the facts that is still unknown to us at this time. Nevertheless, here are a few:
1. The “Swoon” Theory
This theory suggests that perhaps Jesus didn’t really die at all. Perhaps after Jesus was beaten so severely and hung upon the cross for a number of hours his pulse and respiration became so low as to be undetectable and he was presumed dead. After he was taken off the cross his body was prepared for burial with spices and wrapped and he was laid in the tomb. After being in the tomb unconscious for a few days perhaps the coolness of the tomb and having some rest revived Jesus. Jesus then walked into town and appeared to his disciples who believed him to have risen from the dead.
Well, how does this do when compared against our facts? Right off the bat it fails in that it denies fact #1, that Jesus was crucified and DIED on the cross. Scholars are convinced that Jesus actually died for good reason. Josephus reports that 3 of his friends were being crucified and per his request they were removed from the crosses and given the best medical care available and yet 2 of them died anyway. The cross was a brutal torturous way to kill people and it was good for what it was designed, namely, providing painful and sure death. Nothing indicates that Jesus was taken down before the job was done, nor was he given medical attention. Jesus was taken down because the roman soldiers charged with assuring the death of those being crucified was certain he was dead.
Furthermore, does this really pass the test on fact #3 that Jesus’ disciples believed they saw him risen from the dead? Imagine, were this theory true, what Jesus would have looked like. As he staggered into town and made it to where the disciples were, when they saw him would they say to themselves “Look, the risen Lord!” or would they have said “Oh my goodness, quick get a doctor, Jesus barely survived a crucifixion!” A broken, doubled over in horrendous pain, not sure if he’s going to pull through this, Jesus, is not exactly the portrait the disciples painted. Such a happening would hardly explain the disciples going from fearful for their life to boldly proclaiming a risen and glorious Jesus who holds the keys of life.
2. The “Twin” Theory
This theory states that Jesus really did die on the cross, but Jesus’ secret twin brother took his place afterwards. This is a conspiracy theory on the grandest scale, is it not? Depending on how this supposedly played out there are some major questions and problems here. One question is this, how wide is this conspiracy? If it’s a familial conspiracy, that is, if only Jesus, his twin brother, his mother and brothers and sisters knew the plan, then they would have had to fool the disciples. But imagine getting to know a person intimately for 3 years and then replacing that person with a look-alike. The likelihood that the disciples would buy that he was the resurrected Jesus seems low.
Furthermore, how would Jesus’ twin be unknown to everyone? This conspiracy would have had to been born at the same time Jesus and his brother were. The twin would have had to have been hidden away so that no one knew of him from the get go. And then comes the question of “why?” Why would anyone want to pull off this scheme? It got Jesus killed who apparently volunteered to die for the sake of this plan, and it got many other people killed as well. It gave no one riches, the twin didn’t get to lead anyone since he disappeared after 40 days so it wasn’t about glory. This theory just doesn’t make sense and it is very ad hoc and leaves us with way more questions than it does answers. It also fails fact #2 that the tomb was found empty. What became of the body of Jesus when his brother took over?
3. The “Wrong Tomb” Theory
This theory suggests that the disciples went to the wrong tomb and found it empty and mistook it for Jesus having been raised from the dead. This theory fails facts #3 #4 #5 and #6 because it accounts for none of the appearances that the disciples believed they saw, nor Saul’s conversion, nor the conversion of James and is hardly fuel for the proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection unto death by martyrdom. If all that happened was they found an empty tomb that they mistakenly thought was Jesus’ this would hardly lead to the conclusion that he was risen from the dead but rather a lot of confusion as to what happened to Jesus’ body. It would not have provided that transformative charge needed to propel the message of the resurrection.
4. The “Hallucination” Theory
This is probably the most common theory expressed today by scholarly circles that reject bodily resurrection of Jesus (such as Richard Carrier and John Dominic Crossan). This theory states that Jesus really died on the cross and was buried but the grieving disciples experienced a hallucination of the risen Jesus that they genuinely believed to be him and this is what changed their behavior and caused them to preach their message even unto death. This view has better explanatory power than some of the other theories do however it still fails on several counts.
This view still doesn’t adequately explain the empty tomb, where did the body go? Furthermore it doesn’t explain why Paul would have hallucinated seeing Jesus because he was not grieving his loss, rather, he was quite pleased that they killed that heretic and was going about the business of suppressing his followers. The biggest problem yet, however, is that hallucinations rarely occur (if at all) in large groups. Even in cases where a group of people hallucinate because of the use of drugs, they do not hallucinate the same thing. Just as people sleeping next to one another don’t share dreams, neither do people share hallucinations, they are personal experiences in the minds of individuals. Groups of people have hallucinated together things like UFOs or the sun swirling around in the sky but the accounts from the differing individuals are not always the same. Yes the group hallucinated a UFO but to some it was silver and to some it was black, to some it flew straight up into the sky and to others it slowly made it’s way across the sky until it was out of view. With Jesus though the appearances were all the same. A bodily resurrected Jesus who communed with many people at once including all 11 disciples. Not one disciple recanted that he had witnessed Jesus alive again. The earliest accounts of Jesus’ resurrection state that he was seen by individuals, small groups, as many as 500 at once and all at different times and places. Another problem that Biblical scholar NT Wright points out is that all these sightings of Jesus were clearly described as bodily sightings and not visions, manifestations, or ghost like apparitions. So the hallucination theory also fails to meet all the facts and it runs into some very real problems practically speaking.
5. The “Spiritual Resurrection” Theory
In this theory Jesus is said to have risen from the dead spiritually and now lives in the hearts of believers but he was not raised bodily. This view fails all but our 1st of the 6 facts. This theory, a favorite of Liberal theologians, doesn’t answer why the tomb was found empty, nor does it adequately explain the fact that the disciples, the half-brother of Jesus and an enemy of Jesus all claimed to have seen Jesus risen from the dead in a physical body. What caused the fearful disciples to lose their fear and go boldly preaching until they were dragged through the streets, ran through with swords, thrown off buildings and crucified themselves? Was it just that they believed that Jesus was living in their hearts now that he died and the spirit of his message now was in their heart? Again, this is contrary to the facts we have, it is not the best explanation of the data we have.
6. The “God Raised Jesus from the Dead” Theory
In this view Jesus really died on the cross and on the third day God raised Jesus from the dead. This makes sense out of all of the given facts, it is not forced and it is not ad hoc, that is, given the context this theory makes a lot more sense than all of the other proposed theories do. Jesus had preached for three years prior to his death and had predicted that the Messiah must suffer and die and that God would raise him from the dead. Given that Jesus predicted his own death and resurrection, and given the facts that we know, this theory is the best theory we have. Jesus rose from the dead and was seen by many eye-witnesses both friend and foe, believer and unbeliever. It radically changed the disciples and Saul of Tarsus and James his doubting half-brother.
While it is true that this view assumes that God exists, this is not a non-evidenced assumption. There are many good arguments and evidences for God’s existence (e.g. Cosmological Argument, Fine-Tuning, Life from non-life, The existence of consciousness, etc.) and, in fact, since Jesus said that God exists and would raise him from the dead, his resurrection is itself a powerful argument for God’s existence.
So then, from the perspective of historical inquiry and investigation, the bodily resurrection of Jesus does seem to be the best explanation given all of the accepted historical facts provided you allow for the possibility that God does exist.