Body of evidence points to the resurrection

Book cover for Was the Tomb Empty?Graeme Smith is a lawyer and the author of a new book, Was the Tomb Empty? which is subtitled, ‘A lawyer weighs the evidence for the resurrection’. Philip Halcrow talked to him about the professional skills he brought to bear on the available information for the resurrection of Jesus.

The burden of proof is on Christians,’ says Graeme Smith. ‘People don’t generally rise from the dead. So it would be wrong for Christians to say that the burden of proof is on others to disprove the resurrection.’

Graeme has been working as a lawyer since he joined a firm of solicitors in 1986. Today, he is a district judge and sits as a Crown Court recorder. He is also a Christian.

‘I was brought up in a Christian home and was taken to church when I was young,’ he says. ‘But my faith became completely real to me when I was at university.’

As he turned his mind to cases, he began to look with a legal eye at the evidence for Jesus and his resurrection.

‘From an early stage it interested me,’ he says. ‘I was getting hold of books on the subject, such as Frank Morison’s Who Moved the Stone? I was a bit like a magpie, picking up pieces of information that either directly addressed the issue or seemed relevant.

‘When I moved house three years ago, I was sorting through my papers and I realised I had accumulated a significant amount of material. I wondered if I could use it in a way that would combine my faith and my legal background.’

The verdict was: yes. The result was a book, Was the Tomb Empty? in which Graeme put his legal skills to use in assessing the claim that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead.

‘Throughout my time as a lawyer,’ he says, ‘I have been handling and analysing evidence. Initially, as a solicitor, I was trying to build up my own client’s case and subject the other side’s case to critical analysis. Now, as a judge, I’m trying to take a completely impartial look at the evidence that is put in front of me. It’s always a question of considering what evidence you’d expect there to be, seeing what evidence there actually is and always applying a critical eye to it.

‘Even when I was acting for individuals and putting their cases together, I would have to subject my own side’s evidence to analysis, because I knew that if I didn’t, somebody else would.’

Graeme set about examining material by various experts in their fields – whether of history, literature, theology or palaeography – to see what light it shed on the ministry of Jesus, his death and resurrection. When presenting evidence for the resurrection, Graeme does not start by bringing in the Gospels as Exhibit A.

‘I know from reading around the subject – particularly on websites written by atheists – that there is a large amount of negativity towards the Gospels. They are seen as biased.

‘The Gospels are a challenge because they are not presenting history as we would expect to study it in school today. They don’t work to a strict chronological order. They are written within a particular framework to present the good news about Jesus.

‘The Gospels are important evidence, but I wanted to set them in the context of all the other available evidence.’

Graeme also looked at material from outside the Bible and other early Christian writings.

‘There is not a lot of evidence outside the Christian documents that relates directly to Jesus’ ministry,’ he admits. ‘There’s certainly none that directly supports the resurrection. But that is why I think it’s important to deal with the question of what evidence you would expect there to be.

‘If the death and resurrection of Jesus happened today, you would expect there to be vast amounts of information. But these events happened in Jerusalem, which was subsequently completely destroyed by the Romans. We’ve even lost virtually all of the records of Herod’s historian. So you wouldn’t expect there to be very much evidence about Jesus.’

Graeme describes the brief mentions of Jesus by the ancient Jewish historian Josephus as useful, but he acknowledges that most of the evidence of Roman authors refers to Jesus only indirectly in passages about his followers.

‘But then again,’ says Graeme, ‘the modern historian Sherwin-White was quite clear that there are no more problems in dealing with the evidence about Jesus than in dealing with anything else that happened in the 1st century. And those problems don’t prevent historians from expressing fairly confident views about other events.’

In Graeme’s eyes, the evidence supplied by the apostle Paul is ‘very strong’. At first a fierce adversary of the Christian movement, his life was changed when the risen Jesus ‘appeared’ to him on the road to Damascus. He became a great thinker in the early church. His letters to Christian communities became part of the Bible.

‘It’s strong evidence because it’s early evidence,’ explains Graeme. ‘It’s generally accepted as the earliest evidence we have. His letters were written within 20 years of the death and resurrection of Jesus.’

Graeme is impressed not only by the date of Paul’s evidence but also by the kind of evidence it is.

‘In Paul’s writings, the evidence is incidental. Whereas the Gospels are expressly setting out to convince people about Jesus, Paul is writing to churches with problems and is seeking to answer those problems. So what he says about Jesus and his resurrection is incidental to his main purpose. As such, it is much less open to valid criticism.

‘To a lawyer, things like contemporaneous letters and diary entries are always much more persuasive than a witness statement put together specifically for a trial. In a statement, your intentions can be honest but you can be looking back with distorted vision.

‘And Paul’s testimony is very strong: he says he has seen Jesus and that other people have seen Jesus.

‘There’s also the turnaround that happened in his life. In Paul we are dealing with someone who was vehemently anti-Christian. The transformation he underwent must have been caused by something significant, particularly when you consider that it did not benefit him in terms of social status, power or financial reward – quite the opposite.’

As well as scrutinising the evidence for the resurrection, Graeme read up on explanations that claimed to disprove it – from news of ancient esoteric texts that deny Jesus was even crucified to modern archaeological discoveries such as the Talpiot Tomb, which some have said is the tomb of Jesus and his family, including ‘his wife’ Mary Magdalene.

In Was the Tomb Empty? Graeme criticises some pieces of evidence point by point. He writes that news of the existence of certain ancient texts cited in a book claiming a cover-up of the truth about Jesus would have no ‘evidential value at all in a court’, because in one instance it was ‘multiple hearsay’ and in a second it was ‘unattributed hearsay’. He questions the statistical likelihood of the Talpiot Tomb bones being those of Jesus.

But Graeme tells me he sees one general problem with pieces of evidence that might hint there was no resurrection.

‘The difficulty is in finding a single explanation – other than that Jesus was raised – that explains everything,’ he says. ‘Unless there was some kind of conspiracy theory, which would include a deliberate attempt to fabricate evidence, I can’t think of an explanation.

‘First, you’ve got to explain away the lack of a body. But then you’ve also got to explain the disciples’ belief that they had encountered the risen Jesus. And you’ve got to explain the rise of the early church.

‘So, for example, a suggestion that Jesus’ corpse was thrown in a shallow grave and dragged away by wild dogs would explain the lack of a body, but it wouldn’t explain the other two phenomena.’

Similarly, Graeme is convinced by the accumulation of evidence for the resurrection.

‘Paul’s evidence is very strong, but he could have been completely, honestly mistaken about his experience. But when you add it to the evidence of other individuals, to the lack of a body and of any interest among the early believers in even knowing where Jesus was buried and to the beliefs of the early church, it builds up to proof beyond reasonable doubt.’

When he was writing the book, Graeme was also struck by something which he describes as ‘not so much a piece of evidence as an approach to the subject’.

He says: ‘I realised the necessity of coming up with a theory that explains the evidence. It’s not possible just to disregard the question of what happened and brush it under the carpet, because something obviously did happen. Something happened that gave rise to the church. According to figures I saw recently, a third of the world’s population claim to be adherents of the church, which didn’t start to grow through military gains or conquests but rather survived all kinds of persecution. There must be an explanation.

‘Something happened.’

This interview was conducted by Philip Halcrow and first appeared in The War Cry. It is used here with permission

Photo by Philip Halcrow