The crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth is among the most well-documented events of the ancient world. Within 100 years of the event, ten Christians, three Romans, and one Jew wrote of it in the historical accounts they produced. This was not the stuff of oral legend; it was first-century historiography by the best scholarly standards: interviewing eyewitnesses and corroborating their reports with publicly verifiable facts. The historical record agrees perfectly with what the Christian church confesses in the Apostles Creed: Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.”
But what about the rest of that creed? It also says, “on the third day He rose again from the dead.” It turns out that this, too, has strong historical support. In fact, every autopsy available concerning the body of Jesus points to the same conclusion: He came back to life.
In today’s English, an “autopsy” refers the medical investigation of a corpse in order to discover the cause of death. In first-century Greek, “autopsy” literally meant “self-sight,” or “seeing for oneself.” The word occurs in the introductory paragraph to Luke’s Gospel, where Luke reveals that his research relied heavily upon “those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses [autoptai].” The books of Luke and Acts, as well as the Epistles of Paul, also frequently use another term in reference to eyewitnesses, martyres.
Martyres is not a theological term, but a legal term; it refers to witnesses who testify in court. When Paul faced trial before Caesar in Rome, Luke wrote the Books of Luke and Acts like legal briefs based on eyewitness accounts. Luke established a record of facts that could support Paul against accusations that he was fabricating a new religion and disturbing the peace throughout the Roman Empire. Paul, a former skeptic, was simply proclaiming the facts as he had come to know them from a personal encounter with Jesus and from dialogue with other eyewitnesses: Jesus died and then Jesus rose, therefore Jesus must be the Messiah whom the Hebrew Scriptures had prophesied would come.
In time, martyres would acquire a new meaning, “martyr” in English, one who is willing to die for the faith. This “faith,” however, is no blind leap. Nor did it evolve out of oral legends. Quite the contrary, the Christian faith rests upon documented facts concerning the life, the death, and—yes—the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. As Paul explained in his Letter to the Romans, “faith comes from hearing, and hearing from the Word of God.” Even today, judges call for “hearings” in court, an opportunity for evidence to be presented. We read repeatedly in Acts that Paul “reasoned from the Scriptures, showing that Jesus was the Messiah.”
Peter later wrote an encouragement for Christians to “always be ready to give a defense … for the hope that is in you.” For “defense,” Peter used the Greek word apologia, again, more of a legal term than a theological term. Our English word “apologetics” refers to evidential arguments in support of the Christian faith, a concept that arose from the historical and legal arguments that the first Christians advanced two thousand years ago. Theirs was not a “leap of faith” or a clinging to “oral legends.” They were willing to die as martyrs only because they first had been martyres, eyewitnesses of the truth.
The apostles and the early Christians who accepted their message considered the evidence for Easter and believed it with “certainty.” The Greek term thus translated in Luke, Acts, and 1 Peter is, again, not theological; it is a philosophical term used by Aristotle to denote an argument based on sound principles of logic. People saw a precise match between what the Scriptures had predicted about the Messiah and what actually happened in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
The early Christians never faced a choice between fact and faith; they embraced both simultaneously. The Hebrew Scriptures and the events of the first-century coincided perfectly, converging in the person of Jesus Christ.
Ryan C. MacPherson, Ph.D., is Chair of the History Department at Bethany Lutheran College in Mankato, Minnesota, and author of several books in the areas of history and theology.