By Michael R. Licona
In the study of history, primary sources are the documents and artifacts closest to the matter being investigated. They are dated very close to the events they describe. In contrast, secondary sources use primary sources when writing about a historical matter be investigated. Sometimes the primary sources have all perished. For example, the earliest accounts we have describing the origins of Rome and Greece were written hundreds of years later. In these cases, all historians have to work with are secondary and tertiary sources. Eyewitness sources are primary sources. However, if no eyewitness sources have survived, a second-hand source (not to be confused with a secondary source) writing close to the event can be a primary source. So, all eyewitness sources are primary sources, but not all primary sources are eyewitnesses.
Let us consider the question pertaining to whether Jesus’ resurrection was a historical event. One of the first tasks of the historian is to gather a pool of sources reporting an event and assess them. Let’s begin with those written later and work ourselves backward in time.
The Gospel of Peter was written sometime in the second century while the Gospel of Thomas and revelation dialogues (e.g ., Epistle of the Apostles, Treatise on the Resurrection, Apocryphon of James) were probably written in the second half of that century. To my knowledge, no scholars regard them as having been written by Peter, Thomas, or Christians who had known the apostles. While the revelation dialogues are entirely fictitious, the Gospel of Thomas and Gospel of Peter show awareness of the New Testament Gospels whose teachings they borrow and comingle with great literary embellishment (Gospel of Peter) and gnostic teachings (Gospel of Thomas). Therefore, none of them are primary sources. At best, the Gospel of Thomas and Gospel of Peter are secondary sources.
Writing a little earlier, three leaders of the early church named Clement of Rome, Polycarp, and Ignatius, mention Jesus’ resurrection. Two of them, Clement and Polycarp, probably knew the apostles, Peter and John, respectively. Clement of Rome and Polycarp are probably repeating some of the information they had heard from Peter and John. Though Ignatius is fairly early and was a friend of Polycarp, there is no evidence suggesting he had met one of the apostles. Although it is possible he did , historians must primarily concern themselves with matters that are probable. Since it is probable that Clement and Polycarp heard about Jesus’ resurrection from Peter and John, they are primary sources related to that event. Although they mention Jesus’ resurrection on a few occasions, they do not provide any details.
Going back a little earlier, it is possible the Jewish historian, Josephus, mentions Jesus’ resurrection, or more likely reports the apostles claiming that Jesus had been raised from the dead. But certainty eludes us, since a Christian in the second century altered one of the two texts in which Josephus mentions Jesus so that Josephus would appear to have spoken about Jesus in laudatory terms in one of them — the one mentioning Jesus’ death and resurrection. But an early church father named Origen informs us Josephus was not a Christian. If Origen is correct, it is very unlikely that Josephus would have made such remarks as calling Jesus a “wise man, if one could even ca ll him a man,” “he was the Messiah,” and that he rose from the dead “as the divine prophets foretold with ten thousand other wonderful things about him” (Antiquities 18:63). As a result, we are unable to decipher whether Josephus mentioned Jesus’ resurrection in his original text.
The earliest literature mentioning Jesus’ resurrection is found in our New Testament. Although the New Testament is purchased as a single volume and often includes the Old Testament, it is actually a collection of 27 books and letters written by no less than nine authors within the first century of the Christian church. It is regarded by Christians of succeeding generations a s being of special value and usually carrying divine authority. Not a ll of the New Testament literature mentions Jesus’ resurrection. Those books and letters that do are the four Gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — Acts, some of Paul’s letters, 1 Peter, and Hebrews.
Hebrews 10:1-11 uses the present tense when referring to the temple priests offering sacrifices in the Jerusalem temple every day of every year. Since the temple was destroyed in A D 70, it seems likely that Hebrews was written before that event. But we do not know who wrote Hebrews and have not since at least the early third century. Moreover, no strong testimony exists pertaining to the author ’s identity. Hebrews 13:20 mentions Jesus’ resurrection in passing . But no description of the event is provided pertaining to the nature of the e vent, such as whether it was something that involved Jesus’ corpse. Thus, although Hebrews 13:20 is a primary source, it is not very helpful other than to inform us that Jesus’ return from the dead, whatever the nature of the event, was being proclaimed within only a few decades of his death.
Jesus’ resurrection is mentioned on three occasions in 1 Peter (1:3, 21; 3:21). Like Hebrews, 1 Peter is a primary source given its date of composition is close to the time in which Jesus would have been resurrected. Unfortunately, similar to Hebrews 13:20, none of the three references tell us much about the nature of the event.
This brings us to the Gospels. Most scholars accept the early church tradition that the Gospel of Mark was written by John Mark who received his information from the apostle Peter, and that Luke’s Gospel was written by a traveling companion of Paul who received his information from Paul and other eyewitnesses who had been with Jesus. There is no scholarly agreement today on the identification of the author of John’s Gospel. Almost all of the early church tradition attributed its authorship to John the son of Zebedee, who was one of Jesus’ three closest disciples. Although most of today’s New Testament scholars reject that tradition, they still think the Beloved Disciple mentioned in John’s Gospel was the eyewitness source of much of the information contained in John. Many think him to be one of Jesus’ minor disciples; others continue to maintain that the author was in fact John the son of Zebedee.
The authorship of Matthew’s Gospel is a wooly matter. Few of today’s scholars think Matthew wrote it. The reason is Papias from whom comes our earliest report pertaining to the authorship of Matthew and Mark likewise tells us that Matthew wrote his Gospel in the Hebrew or Aramaic dialect. The problem is that even prominent evangelical New Testament scholars, such a s D. A. Carson, Doug Moo, and Dan Wallace, who have a particular expertise in the Greek language, have concluded that Matthew ’s Gospel is not written in translation Greek. In other words, the Gospel of Matthew in our Ne w Testament was probably not initially written in Hebrew or Aramaic, then subsequently translated into Greek. But if Papias was mistaken on that matter, should we trust him on the matter of Matthew writing the Gospel?
A solution in which we can have great confidence eludes us. However, there are possibilities. Papias actually wrote, “So Matthew composed the oracles in the Hebrew dialect and each person interpreted them as best he could” (Fragments of Papias 3:16, Holmes numbering ). The Greek term Papias uses for “oracles” is ta logia or “the teachings.” Perhaps Matthew wrote a smaller treatment than the Gospel attributed to him in which he included a number of Jesus’ teachings, and this was subsequently translated into Greek and combined with other sources, such as Mark’s Gospel.Perhaps all of this was done with Matthew ’s knowledge, review, and approval. We can only speculate. However, given the unanimous attribution of the early church of that Gospel to Matthew, it seems more likely that Matthew played some part in what has come down to us to day as the Gospel of Matthew. Even with the challenge of authorship related to John and Matthew, all four of our Ne w Testament Gospels were written very close to the events they purport to describe. Therefore, they are primary sources for Jesus’ resurrection.
Finally, we come to Paul’s letters. Since Paul was executed in AD 65 or before, all of his letters were written by that time. Paul may well have written before any of the Gospels. Moreover, not only does Paul claim to have been an eyewitness of the risen Jesus (1 Cor. 9:1; 15:8), he knew the leading apostles in Jerusalem – Peter, James, and John – and had run by them the Gospel message he had be en preaching to ensure it was compatible with what they were preaching. And they certified that his message was in alignment with their own (Gal. 2:1-9). At least that is what Paul claimed. But should we believe him?
Historians look for sources that corroborate what is claimed in another. In this case, we have some interesting sources that strongly suggest Paul was telling the truth. Recall that Clement of Rome and Polycarp were probably acquainted with the apostles, Peter and John, respectively. It may, therefore, be fruitful to observe what Clement and Polycarp write about Paul. Clement refers to Peter and Paul as “the most righteous pillars” and “good apostles” (1 Clem. 5:2ff., Holmes numbering), while Polycarp calls him “the blessed and glorious Paul . . . [who] accurately and reliably taught the message of truth” (1 Clem . 3:2, Holmes numbering). These are not the sort of remarks we would expect from Clement and Polycarp if Paul had taught a message that was essentially different from what their mentors, Peter and John, had taught. But such remarks would not surprise us if Paul was being honest when saying he was preaching the same message as the Jerusalem apostles. So, Paul writes very early, claims to be an eyewitness of the risen Jesus, and proclaimed the same Gospel message being preached by the Jerusalem apostles who had known Jesus. Thus, when we read the Gospel message in Paul’s letters, we are likewise able to hear the voice of the Jerusalem apostles on the matter. Paul’s letters are, indeed, primary sources in terms of Jesus’ resurrection.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a letter in which Paul described the Gospel message that he had been preaching? Then we could know what the earliest Christian leaders were teaching about Jesus’ resurrection. That would be historical gold! It happens that we have precisely that. In 1 Corinthians 15:1, Paul writes, “Now I want to remind you, brothers, of the Gospel that I preached to you” (verses in this article are the author ’s translation). Paul then proceeds to give an oral tradition that contains an outline of his Gospel message. He says, “I delivered to you what I also received.” The terms “delivered” and “received” were of 10 employed to connote the imparting of oral tradition. Paul then proceeds,
Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures. And that he was buried.
And that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.
And that he appeared.
Notice the parallelism, the long-short-long-short progression that was common in oral tradition. Paul then lists six appearances of the risen Jesus: to Peter, to the Twelve, to more than 500 Christians, to James, to all of the apostles. Then Paul adds his own name to the list, “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he also appeared to me.” This is remarkable. We can be certain that the apostles were proclaiming that Jesus died, was buried, was raised, and appeared on multiple occasions to individuals and to groups, to friend and foe.
Since Paul was writing letters and not a narrative, he does not go into the detail regarding Jesus’ resurrection that we find in the Gospels. For example, he never mentions an empty tomb. But what Paul tells us suggests Jesus’ resurrection body was physical in its nature. In 1 Cor. 15:20, Paul tells us Jesus was the first to be raised with a resurrection body. Three verses later, he tells us believers will receive their resurrection body at Jesus’ second coming. Paul provides us with a short trailer for that event in 1 Thess. 4:14-17 where he says that God will bring with Jesus the dead who belong to Christ, that is, believers who have died and are already with Christ (2 Cor. 5:8; Phil. 1:23-24). Then the command will be given, the trumpet will sound , and the dead in Christ will rise. But how can they rise when they are already returning with Jesus? They can because they are absent from their body. So, their spirits return with Christ and are reunited with their old bodies, which are resurrected and transformed into an immortal , powerful , glorious body that is empowered by the Holy Spirit. It is a body having the same nature as the one with which Jesus was raised. This is why Paul can write in Rom. 8:11, “Now if the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one who raised Jesus from the dead will give life also to your mortal bodies through the dwelling of his Spirit in you.” For Paul, Christ was the first to be raised from the dead with a resurrection body and his followers will receive theirs when he returns. At that time, their mortal bodies will be transformed into immortality.
The Gospels tell us even more about Jesus’ resurrection. That Jesus had risen from the dead was discovered early Sunday morning when a few of his women followers came to visit his tomb, which the y discovered empty. Jesus appeared to them and his male disciples shortly thereafter. His disciples could touch him and he could eat. He could appear and disappear at will and remained with them for a while before ascending to heaven.
There is one more source we need to consider. The book of Acts was written by Luke and was a sequel to his Gospel. In the first chapter, Luke says Jesus remained with his disciples for 40 days before ascending to heaven. Also of interest are the speeches in Acts. Speeches given by principal characters in the book of Acts comprise 22 percent of the entire book. Craig Keener has recently written a magisterial commentary on Acts that appears in four volumes and is more than 4,000 pages. Keener’s main concern is understanding Acts in its historical setting. He argues that Luke had been a traveling companion of Paul and, thus, was able to report first-hand many of the things he had seen. He had heard Paul preach and would have been familiar with the apostolic preaching.1 Therefore, Acts is the primary source. Many scholars think this apostolic preaching was the source behind the speeches of Peter and Paul in Acts 2, 10, and13. In these speeches, Jesus’ death, burial, and bodily resurrection are mentioned or implied.
We have surveyed a number of sources that mention Jesus’ resurrection and are able to summarize our findings. Our primary sources include some of Paul’s letters, Matthew, Mark , Luke, John, and Acts, Hebrews, 1 Peter, Clement of Rome, and Polycarp. Of these Hebrews, 1 Peter, Clement of Rome, and Polycarp inform us that Jesus’ resurrection was being proclaimed. However, they do not provide any details about the event itself or the nature of Jesus’ resurrection. Paul’s letters, the Gospels and Acts inform us that Jesus’ resurrection involved his corpse, and that he had appeared to others. From Paul, we have rock-solid evidence that this is also what the Jerusalem apostles were proclaiming.
In all, we have a very nice collection of primary sources we can use in a historical investigation of Jesus’ resurrection. At the very minimum, these inform us the apostles were proclaiming that Jesus had been raised bodily from the dead and had appeared to them in individual and group settings, to friend and foe alike.
About the Author
MICHAEL R. LICONA, PhD, is Associate Professor of Theology at Houston Baptist University. He has written six books and numerous journal articles and essays. Licona has spoken on more than 70 university campuses.
1Craig S. Keener, Acts: An Exegetical Commentary. 4 vols. Vol. 1, Introduction and 1:1–2:47. Vol. 2, 3:1–14:28. Vol. 3, 15:1–23:35. Vol. 4, 24:1–28:31. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012–15). For Luke as author, see Vol. 1, 406-16.