The Resurrection Appearances of Jesus
By Gary R. Habermas
When the New Testament defines and identifies the Gospel data, at least
three items are always mentioned: the Deity, death, and resurrection of
Jesus.1 The key to Jesus' resurrection is his post-death
appearances. Critical scholars agree that the entire enterprise of the
early church-worship, writings, and witness—would never have come about if
Jesus' followers were not absolutely convinced that He had conquered death by
appearing to them afterwards.
Throughout this essay, I will not assume the inspiration or even the
reliability of the New Testament writings, though I think these doctrines rest
on strong grounds. I will refer almost exclusively to those data that are
so well attested that they impress even the vast majority of non-evangelical
scholars. Each point is confirmed by impressive data, even though I can
do no more than offer an outline of these reasons.
We must be clear from the outset that not only do contemporary scholars not
mind when points are taken from the New Testament writings, but they do so
often. The reason is that confirmed data can be used anywhere it is
Using almost solely those data that are well-attested and recognized, I will
list 10 considerations that favor Jesus' resurrection appearances.
Each angle has this in common: it indicates that one or more persons were
utterly convinced that they had seen Jesus again after his death.
Although I cannot defend the additional thesis here, I and others have argued
elsewhere in much detail that this conviction cannot be viably accounted for by
any natural means. Perhaps surprisingly, comparatively few skeptical
scholars even favor these alternative hypotheses.2
Therefore, the most likely conclusion is that the disciples and others really
did see the risen Jesus.
Here is the absolute crux of my case: These 10 arguments point to the
disciples and others having actual, visual experiences. When juxtaposed
with the failure of viable natural alternatives, we have an especially powerful
indication that, after His death, Jesus actually appeared to many
persons. These appearances were to both individuals and groups. In
other words, if multiple evidences point to visual experiences, and natural
attempts fail to explain them otherwise, the most likely explanation is that
Jesus rose from the dead. Briefly, the early disciples' experiences
plus the failure of naturalistic theories equals the resurrection appearances
Our first four arguments are drawn from Paul's epistles. The remaining
six are taken from other New Testament sources.
(1) For a number of reasons, when recent scholars discuss the resurrection
appearances of Jesus, they begin with the apostle Paul. He had clearly
been a powerful opponent of the early Christian message (Gal. 1:13-14; Phil.
3:4-7; 1 Cor. 15:9). Paul explains that he was converted from his high
rank in Judaism. Clearly, the reason for his change was his belief that
he had seen the risen Jesus (1 Cor. 9:1; 15:8; Gal. 1:16). As a scholar
on both Judaism and Christianity, Jesus' appearance to Paul certainly qualified
him as an exceptionally strong witness to the resurrected Jesus.
(2) Beyond his scholarly and eyewitness testimony, Paul contributes far more
to a case for Jesus' resurrection appearances. Few conclusions in current
study are more widely held by scholars than that, in 1 Corinthians 15:3, Paul
recorded a very ancient tradition that actually predates his book, probably by
a couple of decades. It could very well predate even Paul's conversion to
Christianity. After explaining that he received this from others, Paul
succinctly reports the Gospel that was preached in early Christianity: Christ
died for our sins and was buried. Afterwards, he was raised from the dead
and appeared to many witnesses.
Paul tells his readers that he was handing down this teaching that he had
received from others (see I Cor. 15:3). His explicit statement here is
important, due to the respect that scholars have for Paul's testimony.
Further, his claim has been vindicated because there are many textual
indications that the words that follow were not composed by him. For
example, this list of appearances exhibits a parallel structure, as if it were
an ancient catechism whose purpose was to be passed on and learned.
Moreover, to identify a few other characteristics, the Greek sentence
structure, diction, and some of the words are not Paul's, judging from his
Most scholars who address the subject think that Paul received this material
about 35 A.D. just three years after his conversion, when he made his first
trip to Jerusalem. Paul explains that he visited Peter and James, the
brother of Jesus (see Gal. 1:18-19). In the immediate context both before
and after, Paul is discussing the nature of the Gospel (see Gal.
1:11-2:10). Additionally, Paul's choice of words in verse 18 shows that
he was interviewing or questioning the two apostles in order to gain
information. Here we have an exceptionally early tradition from almost
immediately after Jesus, centering on the Gospel report, and clearly including
Jesus' resurrection appearances.
(3) Paul was so careful to assure the truth of the gospel message that he
returned to Jerusalem 14 years after this initial visit (see Gal.
2:1-10). Amazingly, his purpose was to be absolutely sure that what he
preached was true (see Gal. 2:2)! For a second time, Paul conducted his
ancient research. Besides Peter and James, another major apostle, John,
was also present. Could Paul possibly have consulted three more prominent
Christian leaders? Crucially, these four witnesses were the most
influential in the early church. And with a single voice, they testified
at this early date to the resurrection appearances of Jesus. The bottom
line was that Paul's Gospel teaching, which included the resurrection (see 1
Cor. 15:1-5), was approved by the other three apostles. They added
nothing to his message (see I Cor. 2:6, 9). Paul's two trips to Jerusalem
provided the data and the confirmation that he desired.
(4) In 1 Corinthians 15:11, Paul added still another layer of personal
testimony. We already learned that the other major apostolic leaders had
approved Paul's gospel message. Now Paul asserts that he also knew what
the others were preaching. And as they had confirmed his message years
before, Paul now testified that they also taught the same truth that he did
regarding Jesus' resurrection appearances (1 Cor. 15:11). In fact, Paul
had just recorded separate appearances to two of them: Peter (see I Cor. 15:5)
and James (see I. Cor. 15:7). Together with John, all the apostles
preached the same truth—they were witnesses of the risen Jesus' appearances
(see I. Cor. 15:12, 15).
Scholars uniformly regard Paul as the earliest and best witness to the
resurrection appearances. Considerations such as these four provide some
indications of the value of Paul's testimony to Jesus' resurrection
appearances. But Pau's writings are far from the only evidence.
There are at least six more confirmations that work together to form an even
tighter lattice work.
(5) Besides 1 Corinthians 15:3, scholars usually agree that many other New
Testament books also contain early traditions that predate the texts in which
they appear. Many of the best examples are found in the Book of Acts,
where succinct summaries of early preaching are embedded.3 The
center of these early statements is the death and resurrection of Jesus
(6) Virtually no one, friend or foe, believer or critic, denies that it was
their convictions that they had seen the resurrected Jesus that caused the
disciples' radical transformations. They were willing to die
specifically for their resurrection belief. Down through the
centuries many have been willing to give their lives for political or religious
causes. But the crucial difference here is that while many have died for
their convictions, Jesus' disciples were in the right place on to know
the truth or falsity of the event for which they were willing to die.
(7) It is almost always acknowledged that during Jesus' ministry, His
brother James was a skeptic (see John 7:5). He was probably one of the
family members in Mark 3:21-35 who thought that Jesus was insane! But how
do we account for the surprising reports that James later led the Jerusalem
church (Gal. 1:18-2:1-10; Acts 15:13-21)? According to the creedal
comment in 1 Corinthians 15:7, Jesus appeared to James, yet another pointer to
a resurrection appearance.
(8) The tomb in which Jesus was buried was found empty shortly
afterwards. The early apostolic preaching of the resurrection began in
Jerusalem, where a closed or occupied tomb would have been disastrous!
Moreover, the unanimous agreement that women were the earliest witnesses to the
empty tomb is another strong consideration, since the widespread prejudice
against female testimony indicates that the reports were not invented.
Although the empty tomb does not prove the resurrection appearances, it does
strengthen the disciples' claim to have seen the risen Jesus.
(9) That Jesus' resurrection was the very center of early Christian
faith also indicates its reality, since, for this reason, it was repeatedly
affirmed by believers and challenged by unbelievers. For example. Paul
visited the Jerusalem apostles at least two or three times in order to make
sure that his Gospel message was truthful. Indeed, there was no
Christianity without this event (see 1 Cor. 15:14, 17). It was the
church's central proclamation (see Acts 4:33). Unbelievers attacked this
centerpiece of faith, but could not disprove the rock on which it was founded:
(10) Lastly, 2,000 years of attempts by nonbelievers to explain what
happened to Jesus in natural terms have failed. The Jewish leaders in
Jerusalem had the power, motive, and location to investigate thoroughly the
proclamation of the resurrection appearances. They knew of Jesus' death
and His burial. Though they were ideally situated to expose the error,
they did not refute the evidence. Even many of today's skeptical scholars
are without an explanation of what occurred.
For reasons like these 10, the vast majority of contemporary scholars
conclude that Jesus' disciples and others thought that they had seen Jesus
after His crucifixion. This is what the earliest believers claimed and
this teaching is confirmed by an amazing variety of details from a number of
perspectives. We might even say that the disciples were overpowered by
these evidences themselves, which convinced them that they had seen the risen
Jesus. Given that natural theses cannot explain these experiences, Jesus'
resurrection appearances remain the best explanation of the historical
facts. The early disciples' experiences plus the failure of
naturalistic theories equals the resurrection appearances of Jesus.
1For examples, see Romans 1:3-4; 10:9; Acts 2:22-36; 3:12-23.
2See Gary R. Habermas and Michael R. Licona, The Case for the
Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2004), especially pages
79-150; Gary R. Habermas, The Risen Jesus and Future Hope (Lanham, MD:
Rowman & Littlefield, 2003), especially Chapter 1.
3Commonly-cited examples include 1:21-22; 2:22-36; 3:13-16;
4:8-10; 5:29-32; 10:39-43; 13:28-31; 17:1-3; 17:30-31.