The year was 1939. I was travelling by train from Cernauti to Bucharest, and on the seat opposite sat a renowned rabbi from Cernauti. When he saw me reading the Bible, he asked me who I was.

“A Christian Jew,” I told him.

He was highly astonished. “If you are a Jew, why did you become a Christian?”

“Because I believe that Jesus is the Saviour.”

“But, young man, how can you maintain anything of the kind? What makes you believe that Jesus was our Messiah?”

“In this Bible there are many proofs, and I can’t reel them all off at once for you in the train. But there is one proof above all others: His resurrection. If Jesus had been a deceiver, or a man who deluded himself, God would not have performed the miracle of raising Him from the dead.”

“I can see that you are a grown man. However can you believe that nonsense, that Jesus rose from the dead?”

“Rabbi, the proofs of Jesus’s resurrection are so convincing that if you promise to listen calmly to me for twenty minutes, then I promise you that you too will believe in His resurrection from the dead.”

“I should like to see that happening, a young man convincing a rabbi that Jesus rose from the dead. Go ahead, young man, I’ll give you twenty minutes.”

Here are some of the main arguments I quoted to the rabbi.

“What is the source of our knowledge of ancient history? The historians of their age, among them men like Homer, Herodotus and Julius Caesar. What is the source of our knowledge of the doings of Jesus? Contemporary historians: their names are Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul and so on. Why should we believe some historians and not others?

“Our intelligence should behave like an impartial court of law, carefully and competently weighing the statements of witnesses. In evaluating evidence we must consider not only what the witness says, but also his character and his trustworthiness. The credibility of the historians who described the life of Jesus is undoubtedly much greater than that of other historians. For who were the latter? Generally, they were paid to write by a royal personage, and their aim was not to make known the truth. They desired to flatter their master, their people, or the social class to which they belonged. By contrast, the historians who wrote the Gospels are of an entirely different stature. They risked loss of liberty and death for what they wrote. Matthew died as a martyr in Abyssinia, John was condemned to slave labour on the island of Patmos, and Paul was beheaded in Rome. Peter was crucified head downwards. No impartial court would lightly dismiss the evidence of witnesses ready to suffer such hardships for what they assert. All of them declare unanimously that they were convinced by seeing, hearing and touching, of the reality of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.”

The rabbi attempted to interrupt. I reminded him that he had promised to let me have my say.

“I know that this argument can be contradicted. What the other historians relate are things that can easily be understood and believed. They write about wars, court intrigues, kings’ favourites, plots, murder, things that happen even today, whereas the writers of the Gospels tell us of things that run counter to our human experience. Among other things, they write about a virgin birth, of the healing of lepers by a simple touch, of walking on the water, of the feeding of a great multitude with a few loaves, of men rising from the dead, and finally of Jesus’ own resurrection, which was followed by His ascension into heaven. All these things come into the category of miracles, whereas we are modern people who no longer believe in miracles.”

Tradition tells us that Jesus spoke from the time of His birth. This has been regarded by rationalists as pure fantasy. Had this conversation taken place thirty years later, I could have told the rabbi that in the 1960s, papers all over the world reported that a child had been born in Yugoslavia which spoke and answered questions from the day it was born. The evangelists were cautious men, and anxious not to make the gospel difficult to understand, and they did not record whether Jesus spoke from His birth. How people would have mocked the Gospels if they had written this! But today an event that is so unusual in the natural order of things has taken place before our very eyes.

“As to the miracles that Jesus performed,” I told the rabbi, “they occurred in the sphere of the exceptional, whose existence cannot be denied. In everyday life it is not only ordinary things that occur. A man who does not believe in miracles is not a realist.

“Furthermore, men consider as miracles things which a person with greater than average intelligence or muscular power can do, and which a weak person with an ordinary intelligence is incapable of doing. Missionaries who have worked among primitive tribes record that the savages regard them as miracle-workers; and this is not surprising, since primitive people spend hours rubbing two pieces of wood together in order to produce a spark, whereas the missionary knows how to produce fire from a box of matches. He can even make stinking water burn. How is the savage to know that this stinking water is petrol? The writer Pearl Buck tells us that when she told peasant women in backward parts of China that in England there were houses built on top of one another, and that carriages moved through the streets without being drawn by horses, one of the women whispered:

‘What a lie! That sort of thing is impossible.’ With sixty Spaniards under his command, Cortez conquered the powerful Aztec kingdom, because he appeared to the people he conquered to be a miracle-maker. In the first place, the very appearance of the Spaniards was miraculous. Never before had the Aztecs seen white men. Secondly, the newcomers possessed miraculous things which the Aztecs had never seen before, horses and firearms. And so a huge kingdom fell into the hands of a few adventurers without a struggle.

“Jesus had a spiritual force such as no other person has ever possessed. It is not surprising that He was capable of performing miracles. Being exceptional, He could do unique things, which would have been impossible for ordinary men.

“It is foolish to be prejudiced, and declare that miracles are impossible, and to reject them without carefully examining the evidence of people as trustworthy as the apostles. Rabbi, you cannot avoid miracles. Either you can believe in Jesus’ miraculous resurrection from the dead, or you have to believe in another miracle which is still greater—namely, that an effect exists without a cause, because if Jesus did not rise from the dead, the existence of the universal Church would be such a miraculous happening.

“Let us see how things stand: Jesus wrote no book, nor, while He lived on earth, did He establish anything but a very insignificant sect within Judaism, a sect consisting of a few people who were unlearned, and who were not considered reputable citizens—sinful men, publicans and fallen women. Finally, one of his closest followers betrayed Him, another denied Him, and the others deserted Him. He died on a cross, abandoned, and apparently despairing, because as He hung on the cross He cried out: ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ After His death He was buried, a large stone was placed in front of His sepulcher, and guards were posted. Meanwhile, His former disciples remained in hiding, behind locked doors, and their only concern was to escape a death similar to that of their Master. This was how Jesus’ life on earth ended. If Jesus did not rise, how has the Christian Church come into being?

“We have an explanation. On the third day, Jesus came back to life from the dead, and appeared on numerous occasions to His apostles, assuring them that it was really Himself they saw. They came together again; the risen Jesus worked with them guiding them and giving them power to do signs and wonders. The very same cowardly Peter who had previously denied any knowledge of Jesus with curses and oaths, stood up in the marketplace in Jerusalem, courageously testifying that he had seen the risen Jesus. The other apostles did so, too. Risking death, they travelled from one country to another, sealing with a martyr’s death their conviction that Jesus had risen. In this way, the universal Church was born, it has grown, and it has survived, despite persecution and the unworthiness of its members. If you are not prepared to admit that Jesus has risen from the dead, then this tremendous effect, which the Christian Church represents—a Church that has survived for two thousand years, and has millions of members—is an effect without a cause. It takes a greater naïvety to accept the existence of such an effect without cause than to admit that Christ has really risen.

“When a man enters a tall building, it might be a good idea, before climbing the stairs to the tenth floor, to go down first into the cellar and make sure that the foundations are sound. But why should it be necessary to do this? The fact that the building is standing is proof of the strength of the foundations. The foundation stone on which the Christian Church was built is the resurrection of Jesus. The large, well-known building founded on this stone has stood for two thousand years, and has resisted tremendous earthquakes. After all, in every sphere of life, it is common practice to draw conclusions from effect to cause. The existence of the Church is a proof that Christ has risen.

“Let us proceed to another argument with regard to the resurrection of Jesus. Nowhere do we find that the enemies of the primitive Church at any time denied that the sepulchre of Jesus was found to be empty on Easter morning. It would have been quite natural for an investigation to have been set on foot, to discover whether the body had been stolen or desecrated. The reaction of the Jewish priests does not contradict the assertion that the grave was empty; they merely told the soldiers who had guarded the sepulchre to spread the rumour that His disciples had come during the night, while they were asleep, and stolen the body. Now, if they were asleep, then how could they have identified the thieves? Augustine rightly asks: ‘Does the synagogue introduce us to witnesses who were asleep when this deed was carried out?’ If the Jewish priests really believed that Jesus’ disciples had stolen the body, why were they not arrested, interrogated, and punished?

“A strong movement must be carried forward by a strong impetus. The strong movement that has lasted for two thousand years, and which has had a world-wide effect, based on the belief in the resurrection of Jesus, cannot have been the product of hallucination, as none of Jesus’ disciples were men who suffered from hallucinations, certainly not Doubting Thomas and the practical businessman Matthew, nor such men of the sea as Andrew, nor the cautious Nathaniel, nor Peter with his weak character. Only an event as tremendous as a real resurrection could have produced an impetus capable of starting a movement of this kind. Nor must we forget that during the first thirty years after this event, most of Jesus’ disciples suffered a violent death, and many of them were condemned to death precisely because they maintained that Jesus had risen from the dead. These things cannot have been invented.

“Under the very noses of the Jewish priests, Jesus’ apostles start to preach to the Jewish people, and in this way they come into conflict with the authorities, as they declare that Jesus is the Messiah, a fact which was proved by His resurrection. Any sensible person may ask: ‘Would it be possible to launch a movement of this kind, and recruit thousands of supporters in a single day, if the dead body of Jesus had really existed?’ Peter preached his first sermon only a few hundred yards from Jesus’ sepulcher. If Jesus’ enemies had been in a position to prove that His body was still there, the sermon would have been a failure, and would never have persuaded thousands of people to be baptised. But their enemies were powerless: Jesus was not in the tomb.

“The apostles did not visit the tomb of Jesus, because it had no significance as far as they were concerned, and because they would not be interested in it. (Saul of Tarsus, after he was converted, came to Jerusalem and met the apostles, but was not concerned with visiting the tomb, not even out of mere respect.) Nor did His enemies investigate the tomb, to convince themselves and convince others that Jesus was still there. This is yet another proof that Jesus really rose from the dead. A great many people undertake pilgrimages to the tombs of minor saints. Even though the first apostles knew of this custom in Israel (Matthew 23.29), they were not interested in visiting Jesus’ tomb, because they knew that it was empty.

“All this was so universally accepted that the disciples started preaching, not in a provincial town, where it would be difficult to check their statements, but in Jerusalem itself, arousing the enthusiasm of thousands of people and—what was still more remarkable—facing enemies who were powerless, because they were not in a position to deny that Jesus’ tomb was empty. When the priests maintained that the body of Jesus had been stolen by the apostles, anyone could have answered them: ‘Why don’t you arrest and sentence the men who have carried out this theft?’

“The suggestion that Jesus did not die on the cross, but merely fell into a deep swoon, and recovered consciousness in the cool tomb, is still more ridiculous. How could He have pushed aside the stone, and overpowered the guards, after so much suffering? Could He have gone anywhere, naked as He was? He could have sought shelter only with one or other of His disciples. Had He done this, however, His disciples would have realised that He had not risen from the dead.

Would they have really given their lives for a lie which they themselves had hatched?

“We are compelled to believe what the Gospel writers say, because they reveal such naïvety when relating terrible things about themselves. What induced the apostles to spread abroad by word of mouth and in their writings that their leader, Peter, was a man whom Jesus had called Satan, and that he had denied Him on the night that He was betrayed? The only motive I can discover is that they showed an uncompromising regard for the truth. The band of apostles is a collection of men who are guided by the truth. We can trust their evidence.

“The remarkable thing is that when the apostles affirm the resurrection of Jesus to an audience of doubters (even in those days people were sceptical about stories of angels, resurrections and so on, as we can see in Matthew, Chapter 22, verse 23, and Acts, Chapter 17, verse 32), they merely affirm, without producing a single confirmatory piece of evidence. This was possible because what they maintained was a well-known and undisputed fact among the inhabitants of Jerusalem. The risen Jesus, after all, had at one time appeared to five hundred persons, and these must have had about twenty thousand relatives and friends whom they told about it.

“The resurrection of Jesus can also be proved by two very famous conversions which could not be explained in any other way.

“The first was the conversion of James, the brother of Jesus, to a faith in Him as the Messiah. While Jesus lived on earth, James did not believe in Him, but considered Him to be mad. Josephus Flavius describes James as a very upright man. How was it possible that he became an apostle and martyr after the death of Jesus? Anyone reading James’s letter (the straw epistle, as Luther calls it) will note that this is a Jewish letter, without any Christian characteristics. This leads us to realise that it was not the teaching of Jesus that made an impression on James, and brought about his conversion. What was the cause? It can only have been what we are told in the New Testament, that Jesus after His resurrection appeared to His brother, and that the latter admitted his mistake, and in remorse wrote the chapter in which he condemns his own former sin of judging and speaking about his brother.

“The second conversion was that of the rabbi Saul of Tarsus. This man had a vision on the road to Damascus, in which Jesus appeared to him and spoke to him, whereupon Saul immediately became a disciple. Would this have been possible on purely psychological grounds? Even though Mohammed were to appear to me ten times, I should tell myself that I was suffering from hallucinations, and I certainly should not become a Mohammedan. Why should things have turned out so differently for the man who was to become the future apostle Paul? He knew that Jesus’ tomb was empty, without being able to find a plausible explanation for this fact, unless he admitted to himself that Jesus had risen. This was the crux of the matter: when he saw Jesus, the last shred of doubt disappeared. He was converted. He later made his way to Jerusalem, but he had not the slightest intention of going to the tomb in order to shed tears of remorse there. He knew it was empty. He discussed with the apostles how to preach the resurrection. It would have been a psychological impossibility for the apostles, being the sort of men they were, to discuss how best to preach a lie.

“And here is another argument: millions of sinners in the history of mankind have changed their mind and become holy people. This miracle is happening daily in the Church. If you ask these people how this miracle of rebirth happened, their answer is always that Jesus did it. It is certain that it is a living Jesus, not a dead one, who has brought about these new births. I am one of these people.

“The cumulative force of these arguments compels me to believe in the resurrection of Jesus. But let me turn to an argument from a person of real authority. Professor Theodor Mommsen, the great historian of the Roman Empire, wrote:

‘The resurrection of Jesus is the event in ancient history which has been more conclusively proved than any other event.’ That is all I need to tell you.

“There is something more. If a woman’s husband is missing in a war and believed to be dead, and then one, two, three, four people, in fact countless people, come and tell her that they have seen him in a prisoner-of-war camp, then the wife will trust those people. We are in the same situation. Those who believed that Christ was dead, heard the witness of the women, of the apostles, of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, of five hundred people who had seen Him on the same day. After this it was only normal for them to believe that Jesus was no longer dead, but alive.”

After I had finished speaking, the rabbi was silent for several minutes. Then he got up, opened the door, and said to me: “Even if He has risen, what has that to do with me?’ And he walked out. When he returned to the compartment, neither he nor I spoke a word till we reached Bucharest.

During the tragic events of the war, this rabbi was killed by the Fascists.

Many years passed. One evening, during a week of evangelistic mission, the church was full to bursting. Instead of preaching a sermon, I told my listeners of my conversation with the rabbi. When I had finished, a young Jewish woman student came up to me and said: “You have convinced me, too, that Jesus is risen, but for me it means a great deal.”

This is an excerpt from Chapter 3 of Christ on the Jewish Road by Richard Wurmbrand originally published by Hodder and Stoughton in 1970.

Richard Wurmbrand was a Romanian Jew and holocaust survivor, whom the post-war Communist Regime imprisoned on account of his Christian faith, and tortured for fourteen years. On his release, Wurmbrand became the founder of an organisation that is now called “Voice of the Martyrs” which aids the persecuted church and supports missionaries in countries in which faith in Jesus is still a punishable offence.

Used with permission by The Voice of the Martyrs

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