The City

What are the Primary Sources for Jesus’s Resurrection?

By Michael R. Licona

In the study of history, primary sources  are the documents and artifacts closest to the matter being investigate d. They are dated very close to the e vents the y describe. In contrast, secondary sources  use primary sources  when writing ab out a historical matter be investigated. Sometimes the primary

sources have all perished. For example, the earliest accounts we have describing the orig ins of Rome and Greece were written hundreds of years later. In these cases, a ll historians have to work with are secondary  and  tertiary  sources.   Eye witness  sources are primary sources. However, if no e ye witness sources have survived , a second- hand source (not to be confuse d with a secondary source) writing close to the e vent can be a primary source. S o, a ll e ye witness sources are primary sources,  but not all primary sources  are e ye witnesses.

Let  us   consider  the  question  pertaining   to  whether  Jesus’s resurrection was  a historical e vent. One of the first tasks  of the historian is to  gather a pool of sources rep or ting  an e vent and assess them.  Let’s beg in with those written later and work ourselves backward in time.

The Gospel of Pete r 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  a s  having   been written  by Peter, Thoma s, 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 teaching s  (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 name d Clement   of   Rome,   Polycarp,  and   Ignatius   mention   Jesus’s resurrection . Two of them, Clement and Polycarp, probably knew the  apostles Peter and John respectively.  Clement of Rome and Polycarp are probably rep eating some of the information the y 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 ab out Jesus’s resurrection from Peter and John, the y are primary sources  relate d to that e vent. Although the y mention Jesus’s resurrection on a few occasions, the y do not provide any details.

Going  back a little earlier,  it  is possible the  Jewish historian Josephus mentions  Jesus’s  resurrection or more likely rep or ts the apostles claiming  that  Jesus  had b e en raise d 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 app ear to  have spoken ab out  Jesus  in laudatory terms  in  one  of  them,  the  one  mentioning  Jesus’s   death  and resurrection . But an early church father name d Orig en informs us Josephus was not a Christian . If Orig en is correct, it is very unlikely that Josephus would have made such remarks a s 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 “a s the divine prophets foretold with ten thousand other wonderful thing s ab out him” (Antiquities  18:63). As a result, we are unable to decipher whether Josephus mentioned Jesus’s resurrection in his original text.

The earliest literature mentioning  Jesus’s  resurrection is found in our Ne w Testament. Although the Ne w Testament is purchase d a s  a single volume and of ten  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 and regarded by Christians  of succeeding generations a s being of special value and usually carrying  divine authority.  Not  a ll of the Ne w Testament literature mentions  Jesus’s  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 ever y year.  Since the temple was destroyed in A D 70, it seems likely that Hebrews was written before that e vent. But we do not know who wrote Hebrews and have not  since at lea st  the early third century.  More over, no strong testimony exists  pertaining to the author ’s identity. Hebrews 13:20 mentions Jesus’s resurrection in passing . But no description of the e vent is provide d pertaining to the nature of the e vent, such a s whether it was something  that involve d Jesus’s corpse. Thus, although Hebrews 13:20 is a primary source, it is not very  helpful other than to inform us that Jesus’s return from the dead , whatever the nature of the e vent, was being pro claimed within only a few decades of his death .

Jesus’s  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 b e en resurrected. Unfortunately, similar to Hebrews 13:20, none of the three references tell us much ab out the nature of the event.

This bring s  us  to  the  Gospels.  Most scholars accept the  early church tradition that the Gospel of Mark was written by John Mark who receive d 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 be en 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 attribute d its authorship to John the son of Zebedee, who was one of Jesus’s  three closest disciples.  Although  most of today ’s   New Testament scholars reject that tradition, the y 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’s 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 rep or t  pertaining  to the authorship of Matthew and Mark like wise tells us that Matthew wrote his Gospel in the Hebrew or Aramaic dialect. The problem is that even prominent evangelical Ne w Testament scholars, such a s D.  A . Carson, Doug Mo o, and Dan Wallace, who have a particular expertise in the Greek language have conclude d 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 translate d 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,  “S o Matthew compose d 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 teaching s .”  Perhaps Matthew wrote a smaller treatment than the Gospel attributed to him in which he included a number of Jesus’s  teaching s and this was subsequently translate d  into  Greek  and  combine d  with  other  sources, such a s  Mark’s  Gospel .  Perhaps all of this was  done with Matthew ’s knowledge, re view, 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 par t in what ha s come down to us to day a s the Gospel of Matthew. Even with the challenge of authorship relate d to  John  and Matthew, all four of our Ne w Testament Gospels were written very close  to the e vents they  purport to describe. Therefore, the y  are primary sources for Jesus’s resurrection .

Finally, we come to Paul’s letters. Since Paul was execute d in A D

65 or before, a ll of his letters were written by that time. Paul may well have written before any of the Gospels.  More over, not only do es Paul claim to have b e en an e ye witness  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 b e en preaching to ensure it was  compatible with what the y  were preaching .  And the y  certified that his message was  in alignment with their own (Ga l 2:1-9). At lea st 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 . R e ca ll that Clement of Rome and Polycarp were probably acquainted with the apostles Peter and John respectively. It may, therefore, b e fruitful to observe what Clement and Polycarp write ab out Paul. Clement refers to Peter and Paul a s “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 exp e ct from Clement and Polycarp if Paul had taught a message that was essentia lly 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 b e an e ye witness of the risen Jesus, and pro claimed 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 like wise able to hear the voice of the Jerusalem apostles on the matter. Paul’s letters are, indeed , primary sources  in terms of Jesus’s resurrection .

Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a letter in which Paul describe d the gospel message that he had be en preaching ?  Then we could know what  the  earliest Christian  leaders were teaching  about  Jesus’s resurrection. That would be historical g old ! 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 receive d.” The terms “delivered” and “received” were of ten 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 raise d 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 a ll of the apostles.  Then Paul adds his own name to the list, “La st of a ll , a s to one untimely born, he also appeared to me.” This is remarkable. We can be certain that the apostles were pro claiming that Jesus died , was buried , was raise d , and appeared on multiple occasions, to individuals and to groups, to friend and foe.

Since Paul was writing   letters and not a narrative, he do es not go into the detail regarding Jesus’s resurrection that we find in the Gospels. For example, he never mentions an empty tomb. But what Paul tells us suggests  Jesus’s  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’s second coming . Paul provides us with a short trailer for that e vent in 1 Thess 4:14-17 where he says  G o d will bring with Jesus  the dead who belong to Christ, that is, believers who have die d 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 the y  rise when the y  are already returning  with Jesus ?  The y  can b e cause the y are absent from their body. S o, their spirits return with Christ and are reunite d with their old b o dies, 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 a s the one with which Jesus was raise d. This is why Paul can write in R om 8:11, “Now if the Spirit of the one who raise d Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one who raise d Jesus from the dead will give life also to your mortal b o dies through the dwelling of his Spirit in you .” For Paul , Christ was the first to be raise d 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 ab out Jesus’s  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 app ear 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 app ears in four volumes and is more than 4,000 pages. Keener ’s ma in concern is understanding Acts in its historical setting . He argues that Luke had be en a traveling companion of Paul and , thus, was able to rep or t first-hand many of the thing she had seen . He had heard Paul preach and would have b e en familiar with the apostolic preaching1  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’s death, burial , and bodily resurrection are mentioned or implied.


We  have surveyed  a  numb er  of  sources that  mention  Jesus’s 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’s  resurrection was  being pro claimed. However, the y  do not provide any details ab out the e vent itself or the nature of Jesus’s resurrection .  Paul’s  letters, the Gospels and Acts  inform us  that Jesus’s resurrection involve d 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 pro claiming .

In a ll , we have a very nice collection of primary sources  we can use in a historical investigation of Jesus’s resurrection . At the very minimum, these inform us the apostles were pro claiming that Jesus had been raise d bodily from the dead and had appeared to them in individual and group setting , to friend and foe a like.

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.

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