Dr. Simon Greenleaf, the Royal Professor of Law at Harvard University (1833-1848), was one of the greatest legal minds that ever lived. He wrote the famous legal volume entitled, ‘A Treatise on the Law of Evidence’, considered by many to be the greatest legal volume ever written and it remained a standard textbook in American law throughout the nineteenth century.
Dr. Greenleaf’s career played an important role in the development of legal or juridical apologetics. This school of thought is typified by legally trained scholars applying the canons of proof and argument to the defense of Christian belief. That’s right, you’ve guessed it – Dr. Greenleaf was a Christian. But this, of course, wasn’t always so.
In the beginning, Dr. Simon Greenleaf believed the Resurrection of Jesus Christ was a hoax, a made up story, and was to be considered as nothing more than a myth of history. This mindset was what prompted him on a quest to once-and-for-all expose the “myth” of the Resurrection. Painstakingly, using all the tools at the disposal of a Law Professor and thoroughly examining the evidence for the Resurrection, Dr. Greenleaf came to the exact opposite conclusion! He wrote a book entitled, ‘An Examination of the Testimony of the Four Evangelists by the Rules of Evidence Administered in the Courts of Justice’. In this book he emphatically stated:
“It was impossible that the apostles could have persisted in affirming the truths they had narrated, had not Jesus Christ actually risen from the dead” (pg 29) [emphasis mine]
Dr. Greenleaf concluded that, in accordance with the guidelines of legal evidence, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ was the best supported event in all of history. The evidence was so convincing Dr. Greenleaf committed his life to Christ as a result.
What Caused Him to Change His Mind?
What evidence could Dr. Greenleaf have discovered that would cause him to completely turn around on the issue? What facts did he discover that his legal mind, on its search for truth, could not rationally ignore?
To answer this question we need to look at the same evidence that he found. We need to go back to the story of the trial, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the events immediately following. More importantly, we need to examine the lives and response of those 11 men that were considered to be Christ’s closest followers. We need to look at the life of the Disciples (minus Judas) surrounding that first Resurrection (Easter) Weekend.
The scene the night before the Resurrection opens onto the Garden of Gethsemane. The silence of the night is interrupted when a boisterous mob approaches. Judas seals the betrayal with a kiss, and the mob leads Christ away to stand trial before Pilate. After some deliberations Pilate eventually has Christ sentenced to death by crucifixion. Not only was it the most brutal and shameful form of capital punishment ever devised, but the few hours leading up to the event saw Christ beaten, whipped, mocked and spat upon.
The Bible says in Galatians 3:13, “Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree”.
The apostles looked on in horror and confusion during the events that night and the next day. Here was the man they believed to be the Messiah. Here was the man that they referred to as the Christ – the God-man, the Savior; the one who Isaiah said would set up a government – a kingdom – that would never end. (cf. Isaiah 9:6-7) Now here was their Christ. Here before them was a man, beaten, disfigured, and put to death as a common criminal. For three years this man performed miracles in their midst. This man Jesus convinced them all (save maybe Judas) that He was indeed the Son of God.
“Did he not walk on water and calm the seas?”
“Did he not heal the sick and raise people from the dead?”
“And it all comes down to this?!?”
In their eyes, the man in whom they put so much faith, trust and adoration, died in complete disgrace and humiliation. Might I suggest that through the events of that weekend, there stood eleven very confused and defeated men?
Mark tells us, “And they all forsook him, and fled.”
Even the disciple whom Christ called ‘Rock’ denied him three times before the rooster crowed on the night of His arrest. (cf. Matt 16:18; Mark 14:67-72)
“I know not this man of whom ye speak” – Mark 14:71
Peter was undoubtedly afraid and confused. Like the others, all that he had believed in seemed to be unraveling before his eyes.
But Something Happened
The same city that witnessed the eleven disciples forsake Christ, was the first to witness those same men back in the streets mere weeks later, this time boldly proclaiming that Jesus Christ was alive! The very one who denied Him three times addressed the city.
“Ye men of Israel, hear these words; Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you by miracles and wonders and signs, which God did by him in the midst of you, as ye yourselves also know: Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain… This Jesus hath God raised up, whereof we all are witnesses” – Acts 2:22-23,32 [emphasis mine]
The result of that speech and the surrounding dialog saw some 3000 souls saved that very day – and this was only the beginning.
Early in Acts 4 we see another 5000 souls saved when Peter and John enter the temple. Ultimately Peter and John are detained by the priests, the captain of the temple guard and the Sadducees. The next day they appeared before the rulers, elders, scribes, the High Priest, and many others of importance in the temple. During their line of questioning Peter makes it very clear:
“For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard” – Acts 4:20 [emphasis mine]
These men were eyewitnesses to something that changed their lives and now they were boldly proclaiming what they had seen.
What was it that changed their mind? What was it that changed these once fearful, confused and broken men into bold lions, fiercely proclaiming the Gospel?
You guessed it.
The Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The Resurrection of Jesus Christ
The Resurrection of Jesus Christ was the only thing that could have made the change. The resurrection had to be true because the knowledge of what they had seen changed those men’s lives forever.
Even the priests and Pharisees remembered what Christ had said about ‘After three days, I will rise’. They were so worried about this that they requested Pilate to put guards at the tomb to make sure that no one ‘stole His body away’. (cf. Matt 27:63). Pilate indicated, “You have your watch”, which many have suggested were the soldiers of the garrison who were appointed to guard the temple. If these guards were from the garrison, they weren’t simply the commissionaires or night watchmen of today. These were most likely Roman Legionary soldiers. Men who were fierce in countenance and who faced death should they shirk or be found negligent in their duty. These were they in whom the priests, the Pharisees and Pilate put their trust – and rightfully so.
Matthew 28 documents that when the Resurrection happened, those guards, “shook for fear of him [Christ], and became like dead men”. Later these fearful guards (both of what they had seen, and the consequence of the tomb being opened) went before the chief priests to tell them all that had happened. The result? The priests bought their silence with a bribe and gave them strict instructions to “Tell them, ‘His disciples came at night and stole Him away while we slept'”
This lie has been propagated to this very day and is subsequently held by many of the secular views of our time.
I ask the reader to remember that this was in fact a similar stance that Dr. Simon Greenleaf once held – the Resurrection was nothing more than a myth. It was a man-made story concocted to justify and ratify a religion called Christianity.
And yet, back in history, this body was never found. And you’d better believe that if the body of Jesus Christ was available, the Roman authorities would have paraded His body for all to see. Christianity was spreading like wild fire and nothing could have quenched that flame quicker than the body of Jesus Christ.
And yet no body was found.
Some people have suggested that the Resurrection was all a preplanned ruse, suggesting that Jesus was drugged [the sponge] to appear dead.
Michael Baigent, author of the book titled ‘The Jesus Papers’ (which came out about the time that ‘The Da Vinci Code’ hit the movie theatres in 2006), stated in the London Sunday Times,
“The church has tried to cover up evidence that Pilate made a secret deal to save Jesus’ life. It was rigged. It was a fraud,” he said. “I think the crucifixion was set up to remove a particular political problem which both Pilate and Jesus found themselves in.”
He went on to argue that Pilate needed to appease the mob which was calling for Jesus’ death. But Jesus had urged his followers to pay their taxes, so Pilate had an incentive to let him live. He then goes on to suggest that Jesus recuperated in secret and then he and his wife travelled to Upper Egypt and taught mystical lore.
Hogwash. The suggestion is complete and utter nonsense with no historical evidence to support it whatsoever.
You see, Dr. Greenleaf came to realize it was foolishness to suggest the Resurrection was a fabrication planned by Jesus, his disciples and/or Pilate. It was illogical, and it could be proven to be so through judicial methods.
Why? Because, if the resurrection of Jesus Christ was not true — there were 11 men who knew it! And not only knew it, but boldly proclaimed in the face of terrible persecution.
These men were eyewitnesses. These men had the physical and tangible evidence of their own senses to bear witness of these first-hand accounts.
“Even as they delivered them unto us, which from the beginning were eyewitnesses” – Luke 1:2 [emphasis mine]
“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled” – 1 John 1:1 [emphasis mine]
“For we have not followed cunningly devised fables, when we made known unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” – 2 Peter 1:16 [emphasis mine]
So ‘What is the big deal?’ you might ask. Well in the judicial system an eyewitness is an important piece of evidence. Once we have ascertained that the eyewitness accounts are true or can be corroborated, there is no other conclusion but to accept their testimony as truth.
What Dr. Greenleaf found from the eyewitness testimonies, documented throughout the New Testament, was that these men truly believed that Jesus Christ was not only God, but that he also rose from the dead. These men were so sure of their belief that they sealed their testimony with their own blood! History documents that 10 out of 11 of the original disciples died horrible martyrs’ deaths!
Not to mention the many other documented eyewitnesses who died similarly as a consequences for their beliefs. Paul appealed to his audience’s knowledge of the fact that Christ had been seen by more than 500 people at one time. (cf. 1 Cor. 15:6) We know therefore that there were at least 500 or so people that were eyewitnesses to the risen Christ. One of these people was undoubtedly Stephen whom the Bible documents as the first Christian martyr in Acts 7.
So the question is, “Would a normal and rational person die for a lie?” The answer could be “Yes” if perchance they were unknowingly following a lie. However, would they die for the lie, if they knew it was a lie? Not likely! In fact to do so would be considered lunacy. If the resurrection was a fabrication, as some might say, then these early martyrs died knowing that what they were dying for was a hoax.
Perhaps one person in eleven could be crazy enough to knowingly die for a lie. But something convinced ALL of the disciples and the early believers that undeniably – Jesus Christ had risen from the dead. To suggest otherwise is to claim that these men and women died for a lie and that they knew it was a lie. No rational human being is going to do that. And this was the evidence that Dr. Greenleaf could not ignore.
You cannot find a group of 11 men in the history of this universe who forsook all, were beaten, jailed and even went so far as die for a lie — knowing it was a lie!
The idea is inconceivable.
You could imprison them, flog them, kill them, but you could not make them deny their conviction that on the third day Christ rose again.
Dr. Greenleaf wrote,
“It was impossible that the apostles could have persisted in affirming the truths they had narrated, had not Jesus Christ actually risen from the dead!”
The evidence is clear that these men died for what they believed to be true, not for what they knew was a lie.
And what of the man named Saul from Tarsus?
The Conversion of an Apostle
The Bible documents for us that Saul of Tarsus was a member of the Pharisees. Whether or not he was part of the Sanhedrin is not really stated, however his familiarity with the council in Acts 23 and the fact that he refers to them as ‘Brothers’ (vs. 1-6) may imply he had been a member.
Saul was a zealous man who persecuted the early church like none other.
Paul was there when Stephen was martyred by stoning (cf Acts 7:58) and other places document his persecution of the early church.
“Now Saul was consenting to his death. At that time a great persecution arose against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.” – Acts 8:1 [emphasis mine]
“As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison.” – Acts 8:3 [emphasis mine]
“Then Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if he found any who were of the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.” – Acts 9:1-2 [emphasis mine]
The language I emphasized in the passages above is quite severe. Saul’s hatred of the early church was up till now unequaled in his time. And yet, as the chapter 9 passages in Acts unfold we learn that something happened to this man Saul. Something happened to him that was so life changing he went from being one of the greatest enemies of Jesus Christ, to being one of His most devoted followers ever recorded in human history. Some have even referred to him as the greatest Christian who ever lived.
There can be only one explanation for this change in Saul of Tarsus – Saul was an eyewitness to the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Not that he was present when it happened, but that he saw the living Christ.
Jesus made himself known on that road to Damascus. Jesus met Saul face to face and the meeting transformed him into a new creature. It transformed him into a man who now dedicated his life to the spreading of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. So much so, that he was eventually beheaded for it sometime around 67 A.D. The Gospel message must have been true. Or Saul of Tarsus would never have come to be known as Paul the Apostle.
The Resurrection Must Be True
What do the experts say?
“We, as Christians, are asked to take a very great deal on trust; the teachings, for example, and the miracles of Jesus. If we had to take all on trust, I for one, should be skeptical. The crux of the problem of whether Jesus was, or was not, what He proclaimed Himself to be, must surely depend upon the truth or otherwise of the resurrection. On that greatest point we are not merely asked to have faith. In its favour as living truth there exists such an overwhelming evidence, positive and negative, factual and circumstantial, that no intelligent jury in the world could fail to bring in a verdict that the resurrection story is true” – Lord Darling, former Chief Justice of England
“I have been used for many years to study the histories of other times, and to examine and weigh the evidence of those who have written about them, and I know of no one fact in the history of mankind which is proved by better and fuller evidence of every sort, than the great sign which God has given us that Christ died and rose again from the dead.” – Professor Thomas Arnold, former chair of history at Oxford, and author of the famous volumes, History of Rome.
“I know pretty well what evidence is; and I tell you, such evidence as that for the Resurrection has never broken down yet.” – John Singleton Copley – recognized as one of the greatest legal minds in British history. He was Solicitor General of the British government, Attorney General of Great Britain, three times the High Chancellor of England and elected High Steward of the University of Cambridge.
“All that Christianity asks of men…is, that they would be consistent with themselves; that they would treat its evidences as they treat the evidence of other things; and that they would try and judge its actors and witnesses, as they deal with their fellow men, when testifying to human affairs and actions, in human tribunals. Let the witnesses [to the Resurrection] be compared with themselves, with each other, and with surrounding facts and circumstances; and let their testimony be sifted, as if it were given in a court of justice, on the side of the adverse party, the witness being subjected to a rigorous cross-examination. The result, it is confidently believed, will be an undoubting conviction of their integrity, ability and truth.” – Dr. Simon Greenleaf, Testimony of the Evangelists Examined by the Rules of Evidence Administered in Courts of Justice[Emphasis mine in all quotes above]
The jury is in, and the verdict delivered. Committed skeptics and those who are expertly trained to pour over evidence have declared, on the basis of the evidence, that the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is a historical fact. Those who would ignore the evidence do so at their own peril.
“He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.” – John 3:36
I trust and pray that the evidences presented in this article were encouraging to you. I hope it has helped build more confidence in our savior and the Resurrection story. In this day and age we have so many attacks on the truth that it is encouraging to have sound apologetics to stand on. I trust that as the season of the Resurrection (Easter) approaches that we, with renewed vigor and joy, will respond to each declaration of ‘Jesus Lives!’ with an emphatic and now more confident…
“He has Risen Indeed!”
By J.R. Hall
Berean Watchmen Ministries