A skeptic of the resurrection, Simon Greenleaf (1783–1853) helped to put the Harvard Law School on the map. He wrote the three-volume legal masterpiece, A Treatise on the Law of Evidence, which is still regarded as “the greatest single authority in the entire literature of legal procedure.” The U.S. judicial system today operates on rules of evidence established by Greenleaf.
While teaching law at Harvard, Professor Greenleaf stated to his class that the resurrection of Jesus Christ was simply a legend; as an atheist he thought miracles to be impossible. In a rebuttal, three of his law students challenged him to apply his acclaimed rules of evidence to the resurrection account.
After much prodding, Greenleaf accepted his students’ challenge and began an investigation into the evidence. Focusing his brilliant legal mind on the facts of history, Greenleaf attempted to prove the resurrection account was false.
Yet the more Greenleaf investigated the record of history, the more stunned he was at the powerful evidence supporting the claim that Jesus had indeed risen from the tomb. Greenleaf’s skepticism was being challenged by an event that had changed the course of human history.
Greenleaf was unable to explain several dramatic changes that took place shortly after Jesus died, the most baffling being the behavior of the disciples. It wasn’t just one or two disciples who insisted Jesus had risen; it was all of them. Applying his own rules of evidence to the facts, Greenleaf arrived at his verdict.
In a shocking reversal of his position, Greenleaf accepted Jesus’ resurrection as the best explanation for the events that took place immediately after his crucifixion. To this brilliant legal scholar and former atheist, it would have been impossible for the disciples to persist with their conviction that Jesus had risen if they hadn’t actually seen the risen Christ.
In his book, The Testimony of the Evangelists, Greenleaf documents the evidence that caused him to change his mind. In his conclusion, he challenges those who seek the truth about the resurrection to fairly examine the evidence.
Greenleaf was so persuaded by the evidence that he became a committed Christian. He believed that any unbiased person who honestly examines the evidence will conclude what he did—that Jesus Christ has truly risen.
1. Knott, The Dictionary of American Biography, back cover of The Testimony of the Evangelists.
2. Simon Greenleaf, 1874. The Testimony of the Evangelists. New York, NY: 28.
3. Ibid. 46.