The Easter story is at the heart of the Christan religion. On Good Friday Jesus was executed by crucifixion for treason after claiming he was “King of the Jews”, and his body was subsequently taken down from the cross, and buried in a cave. The entrance to the guarded tomb was sealed off by an enormous stone, so that no one could steal Jesus’ body.
However, the following Sunday, some women visited the grave and found that the stone had been moved and that the tomb was empty.
Jesus himself was seen that day, and for days afterwards by a number of people, and his followers claimed that God had raised his son from the dead.
Naturally, some atheist scholars have long refuted the claim that Jesus ever existed, let alone that he was crucified as told in the Bible.
Professor Richard Dawkins insisted in the God Delusion that a “serious” historical case can be made that “Jesus never lived at all”.
The late Christopher Hitchens also noted Jesus’ “highly questionable existence” and on the Easter story said: “We have a right, if not an obligation, to respect ourselves enough to disbelieve the whole thing”.
Meanwhile, French philosopher Michel Onfray contends that Jesus was merely a “trick born of the rational mind”, while he finds the crucifixion story particularly implausible.
Mr Onfray stated in 1980: “At the time, Jews were not crucified, but stoned to death.”
He also asserted that if Jesus had been crucified he would not have been placed in a tomb as the Gospels say, because crucifixion victims were never given a proper burial.
However, Mr Onfray’s claims have been refuted by 1968 discovery of Jehohanan, a Jewish man who had been put to death by crucifixion in the 1st century.
Dr John Dickson, the director of the Centre for Public Christianity, wrote in Sydney Morning Herald in 2008: “Jews were perhaps the most crucified people in antiquity.
“The Dead Sea Scrolls and Josphus both report an incident where 800 Pharisees were crucified on one day; their wives and children made to look on.
“Josephus tells us further that during the siege of Jerusalem in AD70 the Romans crucified 500 Jews a day while sacking the city.”
He added: “Actually our only archaeological remains of a crucifixion victim ‒ a male heel bone with an 11-centimietre nail still in place ‒ were discovered in a Jewish tomb.
“This Jew, like Jesus, had been crucified and then properly buried.”
Though the resurrection story is a matter of faith, a consensus of historians agree that Jesus did exist and the Easter events have some accuracy.
Mr Dickson continued: “Few biblical historians accept all of the details of the Gospel accounts ‒ but most, whether Jewish, Christian or agnostic, agree that these writings have preserved a reliable core of information about the tumultuous final days of Jesus’ life.
“He created a public disturbance in the Jerusalem temple shortly before his arrest; he shared a final (Passover) meal which his disciples; he was arrested by the priestly elite and handed over to the Romans; he was crucified for treason under the mocking charge ‘King of the Jews’.
“These are accepted facts of the Easter narrative. Christian apologists may often exaggerate them but the new atheists simply ignore them.”
Most mainstream scholars do not treat the resurrection story as part of their field of inquiry, but instead it is for philosophers and theologians to decipher.
However most scholars do claim that Jesus’ tomb was empty just days after his crucifixion.
Mr Dickinson said: “No historian wearing his or her historical cap would say God raised Jesus from the dead. This is a theological interpretation of the evidence.
“What most scholars do affirm is more modest, though not without significance: Jesus’ tomb was empty shortly after his crucifixion and significant numbers of men and women experienced what they believed to be appearances of the risen Jesus.
“These are the historical facts of Easter Sunday: an empty tomb and resurrection experiences.”