By the first century, Rome had conquered a vast region of the known world, from modern-day Portugal on the west, to what we now call Iran and Iraq on the east. Rome controlled the largest portion of what would become Great Britain at the northern tip of the empire and portions of modern Morocco, Algeria, Libya and Egypt on the southern edge. At its peak, 60 to 70 million people lived under Roman rule, and they worshiped a vast array of mythical gods.
Rome’s early governing strategy was simple: allow each conquered people group to retain their gods so long as these deities were assimilated into the pantheon of Roman gods. Mythical deities were popular at this point in history, including Mithras, Osiris, Attis, Adonis, Heracles, Dionysus and Serapis. You might have read about some of these gods in an ancient history class, but none of these relics are worshiped today.
Yet, duly noted on the timeline of world history, first-century Rome also ushered in an unlikely candidate for global transformation. To paraphrase the famous poem “One Solitary Life,” He was born in a tiny, irrelevant town and raised in an insignificant village. Jesus walked from one place to the next, and as an adult, never traveled more than 200 miles from the town where He was born. The locals suspected He was an illegitimate son, and His mother and father were poor peasants. He didn’t receive an expensive education, never married, never had children and never owned a home of His own. He only appeared for a short time before public opinion turned against Him and most of His followers abandoned, betrayed or denied Him. He was rejected by the religious, hunted by the powerful, mocked and unjustly persecuted by His enemies. He suffered an unfair trial, was publicly humiliated, brutally beaten and unduly executed in the most horrific way. Even then, the few followers who remained had to borrow a grave to bury Him.
Yet this man—Jesus of Nazareth—changed history, introduced a whole new calendaring system, and forever transformed the most important and revered aspects of human culture. He is still worshiped today, while the vast majority of first-century gods are long forgotten. How is this possible? What differentiated Jesus from all the other gods worshiped in the Roman Empire? It’s simple: Jesus rose from the grave and was observed by eyewitnesses following His resurrection.
The resurrection of Jesus is true. It can be confirmed by direct evidence: the testimony of eyewitnesses. The worshipers of Mithras, Osiris, Attis and others placed their trust in ancient mythologies based on folklores rather than verifiable, recorded history. Those who observed the resurrection of Jesus, on the other hand, testified about Jesus based on their own firsthand observations. More than 100 of His followers gathered following His ascension. On another occasion, He appeared to more than 500 at one time, most of whom were still available to the readers of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 15:6).
The evidential nature of Christianity provided it with a unique advantage. The resurrection, locked in the timeline of history and documented by eyewitnesses, distinguished Christianity from every first-century religious claim in the Roman Empire, and continues to do so today.
Fast forward to 1996. Jesus was still being worshiped across the region of the now fallen ancient Roman Empire, and He was also being celebrated as far away as Southern California. That’s where I learned about Him. I was 35 at the time, a committed atheist and a homicide detective. I found myself in a church service, sitting dutifully with my wife. The pastor that day described Jesus as “the smartest man who ever lived.” I was provoked enough to buy a Bible to see what was so smart about this ancient sage. That led me to the Gospels. As I read them, I began to recognize characteristics of eyewitness testimony, given that I had interviewed hundreds of witnesses by that time in my law enforcement career.
Was the story about Jesus true? I decided to test the Gospel authors by asking the same four questions I would typically ask of any eyewitness in a criminal investigation.
- Were these authors really present to see what they said they saw?
- Could their claims be corroborated in some way?
- Were they consistent, or did their story about Jesus change over time?
- Were they motivated to lie?
For the next six to eight months, I investigated the death and resurrection of Jesus like the many cold cases I’ve solved over the years.
I discovered that the Gospels were written early enough to have been penned by authors who had access to true eyewitnesses. Luke’s Book of Acts, for example, lacks any description of the destruction of the Jewish Temple (in A.D. 70); the Roman siege of Jerusalem (in the late 60s); the death of Peter or Paul (between A.D. 64 and 65); or the death of James, the brother of Jesus (in A.D. 62). These omissions are reasonable if Luke wrote this New Testament book prior to A.D. 62, and if so, he would already have completed the Gospel bearing his name. Paul must have had access to this Gospel written by his friend, as he quoted from it in his first letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 11:23-26), written in the mid-50s. That places the authorship of Luke between A.D. 50 and 55.
Mark’s Gospel (quoted repeatedly by Luke) was clearly written earlier and available to Luke as a resource. Both Gospels were penned early enough to have been constructed from true eyewitness accounts (as Luke declares in the opening lines of his Gospel) and “fact-checked” by those who were living at the time.
I also discovered that the Gospel accounts could be corroborated in several ways, including archaeology. Historical figures such as Pontius Pilate (Matthews 27:2); Erastus (Romans 16:23); Sergius Paulus (Acts 13); and many more have been verified and confirmed by archaeological discoveries. The Gospel authors also accurately described the cities and geography of the region, the popular names for men and women at the time, and the correct governmental processes and procedures employed by the Jews and the Romans. The authors even documented these truths using a form of Greek that was popular in the region in the first century.
The claims of the Gospel authors were also preserved over time. My experience documenting the “chain of custody” for any piece of evidence in a criminal trial helped me to trace the claims of the New Testament authors over the centuries. The students of the Apostle John, for example (Ignatius, Papias and Polycarp), reiterate John’s claims without any modification. Ignatius and Polycarp then repeated the Gospel claims faithfully to their student, Irenaeus, without altering them. As I examined the ancient letters of these Church Fathers, I discovered that the truth about Jesus could be reconstructed from their letters to one another and to local congregations. The facts about Jesus were never altered along the way.
Finally, I investigated the motives of the Gospel authors. My experience investigating homicides taught me that there are only three reasons why anyone commits a murder, and these are the same three reasons why people lie: financial greed, sexual desire and the pursuit of power. As I examined the lives of the Gospel authors, I found that none of them had anything to gain in any of these areas. Christians in the first three centuries (prior to the Roman Edict of Milan), suffered for their commitment to Jesus. Christians were persecuted during this time. Many lost their possessions, their standing within their family and community, even their lives. If the claims related to Jesus were untrue, they would have been the most dangerous and consequential untruths anyone could utter.
The Gospel authors passed the four-part test I typically applied to eyewitnesses in my criminal cases. Their written accounts reliably and accurately described the resurrection of Jesus without ulterior motive. When I realized this was the case, everything changed for me. I’m inclined to assign a higher level of authority to someone who has demonstrated His divinity by rising from the grave. I reread the words of Jesus from a new perspective, and once I realized the New Testament was telling the truth about Him, I started to pay close attention to what it was saying about my predicament. It accurately described Jesus as God incarnate with the power to forgive sins and shoulder the cost of human rebellion. It accurately described me as a fallen, defiant sinner in need of that kind of Savior.
Jesus still answers that need today. Our sinful imperfection separates us from a perfect and Holy God, but our remedy can be found only in Jesus, if we profess Him as Savior and Lord. Jesus is the uniquely sinless, perfect Man who proved His deity, confirmed His authority and changed human history by rising from the grave. He’s changed the eternal fate of millions of lives along the way. If you’re ready to surrender your life to Christ, He can change yours as well. ©2021 J. Warner Wallace
J. Warner Wallace is a Christian apologist and former Los Angeles cold-case homicide detective who has been featured numerous times on NBC’s “Dateline” program for his crime scene expertise. He is a senior fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, adjunct professor of Christian apologetics at Biola University’s Talbot School of Theology and author of books such as “Cold-Case Christianity” and “Person of Interest” (coming fall 2021).
Above: The Garden Tomb in Jerusalem is one of the possible sites of the tomb in which Jesus was buried before His resurrection.
Photo: Chris Willemsen/Alamy Stock Photo