Is there really any evidence that the disciples of Jesus claimed to have seen Him risen from the dead?
The radical claims made by the disciples following Jesus’ death is perhaps one of the most undervalued elements of Christianity’s beginnings. They claimed to both Jews and Gentiles that the man they had once followed had risen from the dead. We read the Gospel accounts today and we may let a chuckle slip as we think, “Didn’t Jesus predict His death and resurrection time and time again?”
While believers can too often overlook this element the outspoken critics of the faith have made it their central target. This is a piece of the puzzle that runs deep with questions and theories. If the disciples claimed it, did they really believe it or was it a hoax? If they believed it perhaps their belief was a product of a delusional mind carved from grief or that they saw Him in a dream? What if they suffered from cognitive dissonance? Maybe it was nothing but a good story?
We’ll address all of these and then some as we dive deeper into our investigation, however, for our purposes here it is that last point we’ll address. Were the disciples real and did they really make the claims we say they did?
In keeping to the formula of the minimal facts approach there are three pieces of evidence we can refer to. These are Paul’s testimony, early oral tradition, and early written tradition.
Paul’s Witness and Oral Tradition
Paul knew three of the apostles personally; two of them being Christ’s disciples (Galatians 1:18-19, 2:9) who approved of his message and mission.
For support from oral tradition, we’ll return to a familiar chapter: 1 Corinthians 15. In verses five to seven Paul cites the portion of the early creed that states.
And that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve: After that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep. After that, he was seen of James; then of all the apostles (1 Corinthians 15:5-7)
(to see more on the practice of oral tradition see link 1 below). One may argue that Paul was not a direct witness to the disciple’s conversion, but that is not a problem for us. We are simply establishing that the disciple’s preaching of Christ’s resurrection was already a well-circulated fact that began almost immediately following Christ’s death and was written not only when they were alive but before the wheels of the revival caused by the Christian movement even began to spin. This is why Paul says,
Therefore whether it were I or they, so we preach, and so ye believed (1 Corinthians 15:11)
immediately following his teaching on the resurrection body.
If we include the Gospel accounts and the book of Acts, which records Paul preaching with and fellowshipping with the disciples (Acts 9:26-30, 15:1-35), we have even further support. However, we can well establish this fact without them.
Written Testimony from Early Church Fathers
What evidence is there outside of the Bible that the disciples claimed to have seen the risen Christ? Far more than we may at first realize. The apostolic fathers were church leaders who succeeded the first apostles. It is common knowledge that if you’re going to succeed someone you would have either known them personally or else knew someone who did who can teach you the things they learnt and taught. But let’s look a little deeper.
Clement, the bishop of Rome (c. 30-100) (possibly referred to in Philippians 4:3) is one such church father who knew and was subsequently inspired by the apostles personally. The church father Irenaeus noted that,
This man, as he had seen the blessed apostles, and had been conversant with them, might be said to have the preaching of the apostles still echoing, and their traditions before his eyes. (1)
The African church father, Tertullian, also notes that Clement was “ordained in like manner by Peter.” (2). If it is true that Clement knew some of the apostles personally, it lends a great amount of credence to his own words to the Corinthian church,
“Therefore, having received orders and complete certainty caused by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ and believing in the Word of God, they went with the Holy Spirit’s certainty, preaching the good news that the kingdom of God is about to come.” (3)
Turning back to Irenaeus, he writes on the church father Polycarp,
“But Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna, whom I also saw in my early youth, for he tarried [on earth] a very long time, and, when a very old man, gloriously and most nobly suffering martyrdom, departed this life, having always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles.” (4)
On Paul and the apostles, Polycarp states,
For they did not love the present age, but Him who died for our benefit and for our sake was raised by God.” (5)
All of these writings are, at the latest, 150 years following the disciple’s original proclamation that Jesus had been raised from the dead, and many of them were alive to know and be influenced by them personally. If we include Paul, the early creed, and the book of Acts, we have evidence that dates even earlier.
Of course, we shall stress again that this does mean not Jesus was actually raised. We are merely establishing the fact that the disciples made the claim, whether they actually believed it or not we are yet to investigate. What we can foreshadow is the fact that, without someone proclaiming the risen Jesus, Christianity, as we know it today, would not exist. If the claims were crafted at a much, much later date, would the Christian movement have steamrolled into the surrounding culture with the same unrelenting vigour it was written to have had during the time of Acts? I’ll let that question hang as we continue this investigation.
(1).Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.3.3, c. 185.
(2). First Clement 42:3.
(3). Tertullian, The Prescription Against Heretics, 32. In ibid.
(4). Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.3.4.