When it comes to studies of the historical Jesus, many historians end their inquiry at the crucifixion and burial. It is argued that the resurrection of Jesus is the topic for theologians and not historians. Studying the resurrection of Jesus is outside the expertise and responsibility of historians.
Is this true?
I wrote an article for the journal Studies in Religion that touched on this subject. I argue that there is a place for historians to talk about the resurrection without stepping on the feet of theologians.
What historians can do is talk about the crucifixion of Jesus and determine that he indeed died on the cross. Historians can also talk about the fact that there were numerous witnesses who claimed to have seen Jesus alive after the third day. This is historical inquiry.
The Apostle Paul passed on this early tradition with his own comments:
For I passed on to you as of first importance what I also received—that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as though to one born at the wrong time, he appeared to me also. (1 Corinthians 15:3-8)
Here Paul lists eyewitnesses of the risen Jesus. He states that there are hundreds of witnesses and basically challenges the Corinthians to go to Jerusalem and ask around. This is an invitation for historical inquiry.
What historians cannot do is to make theological conclusions. Historians cannot determine that Jesus is the second person of the Trinity or that he was Israel’s Messiah. All the historian can say is that one day Jesus was dead and that there is evidence that a couple of days later he was alive.
So yes, historians can speak about the resurrection, as long as they don’t make any theological conclusions about the event.
Two books I would recommend on this topic are: