The following is Chapter 16 from Dan Barker’s book, Godless.
During the 19 years I preached the Gospel, the resurrection of Jesus was the keystone of my ministry. Every Easter I affirmed the Apostle Paul’s admonition: “If Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.”23
I wrote a popular Easter musical called His Fleece Was White as Snow with the joyous finale proclaiming: “Sing Hosanna! Christ is risen! The Son has risen to shine on me!”24 But now I no longer believe it.
Many bible scholars25 and ministers—including one third of the clergy in the Church of England26—reject the idea that Jesus bodily came back to life. So do 30 percent of born-again American Christians!27 Why? When the Gospel of John portrays the postmortem Jesus on a fishing trip with his buddies and the writer of Matthew shows him giving his team a mountaintop pep talk two days after he died, how can there be any doubt that the original believers were convinced he had bodily risen from the grave?
There have been many reasons for doubting the claim, but many critical scholars today agree that the story is a “legend.” During the 60 to 70 years it took for the Gospels to be composed, the original story went through a growth period that began with the unadorned idea that Jesus, like Grandma, had “died and gone to heaven.” It ended with a fantastic narrative produced by a later generation of believers that included earthquakes, angels, an eclipse, a resuscitated corpse and a spectacular bodily ascension into the clouds.
The earliest Christians believed in the “spiritual” resurrection of Jesus. The story evolved over time into a “bodily” resurrection. As we saw in the previous chapter, the Jesus of history is not the Jesus of the New Testament. Some scholars believe the whole story is a myth, and others feel it is a legend based on some simple core facts that grew over time.
This chapter will show that at least the resurrection part of Jesus’ story is legend. A tale can be both myth and legend because all you need for a legend to start is a belief in a historical fact, whether that belief is true or not. But to most true believers, especially to fundamentalist inerrantists, there is no difference between whether the Jesus story is a complete myth or a legend based on some early facts. Either way, the New Testament loses reliability.
Before discussing the legend hypothesis in detail, let’s look briefly at some of the other reasons for skepticism.
CAN HISTORY PROVE A MIRACLE?
If the resurrection happened, it was a miracle. Philosopher Antony Flew, in a 1985 debate on the resurrection28, pointed out that history is the wrong tool for proving miracle reports. (It doesn’t matter that Flew, once an atheist, later devolved into deism. He did not change his opinion on miracles or the resurrection of Jesus.) “The heart of the matter,” said Flew, “is that the criteria by which we must assess historical testimony, and the general presumptions that make it possible for us to construe leftovers from the past as historical evidence, are such that the possibility of establishing, on purely historical grounds, that some genuinely miraculous event has occurred is ruled out.”
When examining artifacts from the past, historians assume that nature worked back then as it does today; otherwise, anything goes. American patriot Thomas Paine, in The Age of Reason, asked: “Is it more probable that nature should go out of her course, or that a man should tell a lie? We have never seen, in our time, nature go out of her course; but we have good reason to believe that millions of lies have been told in the same time; it is, therefore, at least millions to one, that the reporter of a miracle tells a lie.”
It is a fact of history and of current events that human beings exaggerate, misinterpret or wrongly remember events. Humans have also fabricated pious fraud. Most believers in a religion understand this when examining the claims of other religions. A messiah figure coming back to life—appearing out of thin air and disappearing—is a fantastic story by anyone’s standard, and that is what makes it a miracle claim. If dead people today routinely crawled out of their graves and went back to work, a resurrection would have little value as proof of God’s power. The fact that it is impossible or highly unlikely is what makes it a miracle. And that is what removes it from the reach of history.
History is limited; it can only confirm events that conform to natural regularity. This is not an anti-supernaturalistic bias against miracles, as is sometimes claimed by believers. The miracles may have happened, but in order to know they happened, we need a different tool of knowledge. Yet except for faith (which is not a science), history is the only tool Christians have to make a case for the resurrection of Jesus. Examining a miracle with history is like searching for a planet with a microscope. David Hume wrote: “No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle unless that testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish.”29
As I’ll mention more than once, Carl Sagan liked to say, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Such evidence is exactly what we do not have with the resurrection of Jesus. Protestants and Catholics seem to have no trouble applying healthy skepticism to the miracles of Islam, or to the “historical” visit between Joseph Smith and the angel Moroni. Why should Christians treat their own outrageous claims any differently? Why should someone who was not there be any more eager to believe than doubting Thomas, who lived during that time, or the other disciples who said that the women’s news from the tomb “seemed to them as idle tales, and they believed them not?” (Luke 24:11)
Thomas Paine points out that everything in the bible is hearsay. For example, the message at the tomb (if it happened at all) took this path, at minimum, before it got to our eyes: God, angel(s), Mary, disciples, Gospel writers, copyists and translators. (The Gospels are all anonymous and we have no original versions.) If history cannot prove a miracle, then certainly secondhand hearsay cannot either. At best (or worst), this should convince us not that the resurrection is disproved, but that disbelief in the resurrection is rationally justified. The incompatibility of miracles with the historical method is persuasive, especially to those not committed a priori to the truth of religious scripture, but we still need something more than this if we are to say with confidence that the bodily resurrection did not happen.
Some critics have offered naturalistic explanations for the New Testament stories of the empty tomb. Maybe Jesus didn’t actually die on the cross; he just passed out, and woke up later—the “swoon theory”30. Or perhaps the disciples hallucinated the risen Jesus. (They and “five hundred” others, Paul reported.) Or Mary went to the wrong tomb, finding it empty, mistaking the “young man” for an angel. Or perhaps the body was stolen—the “conspiracy theory.” This is an idea that boasts a hint of biblical support in that the only eyewitnesses (the Roman soldiers) said that was exactly what happened.31 Or perhaps Jesus’ body was only temporarily stored in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea (possibly with the two thieves) and was later reburied in a common grave, the usual fate of executed criminals.32 Or perhaps someone else, such as Thomas, was crucified in Jesus’ place.33
These hypotheses have various degrees of plausibility. In my opinion, none of them seem overly likely, but they are at least as credible as a corpse coming back to life and they do fit the biblical facts.
“Why have you ruled out the supernatural?” is a question believers sometimes ask. I answer that I have not ruled it out: I have simply given it the low probability it deserves along with the other possibilities. I might equally ask them, “Why have you ruled out the natural?” The problem I have with some of the natural explanations is that they give the text too much credit. They tend to require almost as much faith as the orthodox interpretation. Combined with the historical objection and the mythicists’ arguments, the existence of a number of plausible natural alternatives can bolster the confidence of skeptics, but they can’t positively disprove the bodily resurrection of Jesus.
The resurrection of Jesus is one of the few stories that is told repeatedly in the bible—more than five times—so it provides an excellent test for the orthodox claim of scriptural inerrancy and reliability. When we compare the accounts, we see they don’t agree. An easy way to prove this is to issue this challenge to Christians: Tell me what happened on Easter. I am not asking for proof at this stage. Before we can investigate the truth of what happened, we have to know what is being claimed to have happened. My straightforward request is merely that Christians tell me exactly what happened on the day that their most important doctrine was born.
Believers should eagerly take up this challenge, since without the resurrection there is no Christianity. Paul wrote, “If Christ be not risen… we are found false witnesses of God; because we have testified of God that he raised up Christ: whom he raised not up, if so be that the dead rise not.” (I Corinthians 15:14-15)
The conditions of the challenge are simple and reasonable. In each of the four Gospels, begin at Easter morning and read to the end of the book: Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24 and John 20-21. Also read Acts 1:3-12 and Paul’s tiny version of the story in I Corinthians 15:3-8. These 165 verses can be read in a few moments. Then, without omitting a single detail from these separate accounts, write a simple, chronological narrative of the events between the resurrection and the ascension: what happened first, second and so on; who said what and when; and where these things happened. The narrative does not have to strive to present a perfect picture—it only needs to give at least one plausible account of all of the facts. The important condition to the challenge, however, is that not one single biblical detail be omitted. Of course, the words have to be accurately translated and the ordering of events has to follow the biblical ordering. Fair enough?
Many bible stories are given only once or twice, and are therefore hard to confirm. The author of Matthew, for example, was the only one to mention that at the crucifixion dead people emerged from the graves of Jerusalem to walk around and show themselves to everyone—an amazing event that would hardly have escaped the notice of the other Gospel writers, or any other historians of the period. But though the silence of other writers weakens the likelihood of this story—because if they did repeat it, believers would certainly tout the existence of such confirmation—it does not disprove it.
Disconfirmation comes with contradictions. Thomas Paine tackled this matter 200 years ago in The Age of Reason, stumbling across dozens of New Testament discrepancies: “I lay it down as a position which cannot be controverted,” he wrote, “first, that the agreement of all the parts of a story does not prove that story to be true, because the parts may agree and the whole may be false; secondly, that the disagreement of the parts of a story proves the whole cannot be true.”
I tried to solve the discrepancies myself, and failed. One of the first problems I found is in Matthew 28:2, after two women arrived at the tomb: “And, behold, there was a great earthquake: for the angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat upon it.” (Let’s ignore the fact that no other writer mentioned this “great earthquake.”) This story says that the stone was rolled away after the women arrived, in their presence. Yet Mark’s Gospel says it happened before the women arrived: “And they said among themselves, Who shall roll away the stone from the door of the sepulchre? And when they looked, they saw that the stone was rolled away: for it was very great.” Luke writes: “And they found the stone rolled away from the sepulchre.” John agrees. No earthquake, no rolling stone. It is a three-to-one vote: Matthew loses. (Or else the other three are wrong.)
The event cannot have happened both before and after they arrived. Some bible defenders assert that Matthew 28:2 was intended to be understood in the past perfect, showing what had happened before the women arrived. But the entire passage is in the aorist (past) tense and it reads, in context, like a simple chronological account. Matthew 28:2 begins, “And, behold,” not “For, behold.” If this verse can be so easily shuffled around, then what is to keep us from putting the flood before the ark, or the crucifixion before the nativity?
Another glaring problem is the fact that in Matthew the first post-resurrection appearance of Jesus to the disciples happened on a mountain in Galilee (not in Jerusalem, as most Christians believe), as predicted by the angel sitting on the newly moved rock: “And go quickly, and tell his disciples that he is risen from the dead; and, behold, he goeth before you into Galilee; there shall ye see him.” This must have been of supreme importance, since this was the message of God via the angel(s) at the tomb. Jesus had even predicted this himself 60 hours earlier, during the Last Supper (Matthew 26:32). After receiving this angelic message, “Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, into a mountain where Jesus had appointed them. And when they saw him, they worshipped him: but some doubted.” (Matthew 28:16-17) Reading this at face value, and in context, it is clear that Matthew intends this to have been the first appearance. Otherwise, if Jesus had been seen before this time, why did some doubt?
Mark agrees with Matthew’s account of the angel’s Galilee message, but gives a different story about the first appearance. Luke and John give different angel messages and then radically contradict Matthew. Luke shows the first appearance on the road to Emmaus and then in a room in Jerusalem. John says it happened later than evening in a room, minus Thomas. These angel messages, locations and travels during the day are impossible to reconcile.
Believers sometimes use the analogy of the five blind men examining an elephant, all coming away with a different definition: tree trunk (leg), rope (tail), hose (trunk), wall (side) and fabric (ear). People who use this argument forget that each of the blind men was wrong: an elephant is not a rope or a tree. You can put the five parts together to arrive at a noncontradictory aggregate of the entire animal. This hasn’t been done with the resurrection.
Apologists sometimes compare the resurrection variations to differing accounts given by witnesses of an auto accident. If one witness says the vehicle was green and the other says it was blue, that could be accounted for by different angles, lighting, perception or definitions of words. The important thing, the apologists claim, is that they do agree on the basic story—there was an accident (there was a resurrection).
I am not a fundamentalist inerrantist. I’m not demanding that the evangelists must have been expert, infallible witnesses. (None of them claims to have witnessed the actual resurrection.) But what if one person said the auto accident happened in Chicago and the other said it happened in Milwaukee? At least one of these witnesses has serious problems with the truth. Luke says the post-resurrection appearance happened in Jerusalem, but Matthew says it happened in Galilee, sixty to 100 miles away! Could they all have traveled 150 miles that day, by foot, trudging up to Galilee for the first appearance, then back to Jerusalem for the evening meal? There is no mention of any horses, but 12 well-conditioned thoroughbreds racing at breakneck speed as the crow flies would need about five hours for the trip, without a rest. And during this madcap scenario, could Jesus have found time for a leisurely stroll to Emmaus, accepting “toward evening” an invitation to dinner? Something is very wrong here. This is just the tip of the iceberg.
Of course, none of these contradictions prove that the resurrection did not happen, but they do throw considerable doubt on the reliability of the supposed reporters. Some of them were wrong. Maybe they were all wrong. I say to Christians: Either tell me exactly what happened on Easter Sunday or let’s leave the Jesus myth buried next to Eastre (Ishtar, Astarte), the pagan Goddess of Spring after whom your holiday was named.
CONSISTENTLY INCONSISTENT (KJV=King James Version; NRSV=New Revised Standard Version; NIV=New International Version)
What time did the women visit the tomb? • Matthew: “as it began to dawn” (28:1) • Mark: “very early in the morning . . . at the rising of the sun” (16:2, KJV); “when the sun had risen” (NRSV); “just after sunrise” (NIV) • Luke: “very early in the morning” (24:1, KJV) “at early dawn” (NRSV) • John: “when it was yet dark” (20:1)
Who were the women? • Matthew: Mary Magdalene and the other Mary (28:1) • Mark: Mary Magdalene, the mother of James, and Salome (16:1) • Luke: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James and other women (24:10) • John: Mary Magdalene (20:1)
What was their purpose? • Matthew: to see the tomb (28:1) • Mark: had already seen the tomb (15:47), brought spices (16:1) • Luke: had already seen the tomb (23:55), brought spices (24:1) • John: the body had already been spiced before they arrived (19:39, 40)
Was the tomb open when they arrived? • Matthew: No (28:2) • Mark: Yes (16:4) • Luke: Yes (24:2) • John: Yes (20:1)
Who was at the tomb when they arrived? • Matthew: One angel (28:2-7) • Mark: One young man (16:5) • Luke: Two men (24:4) • John: Two angels (20:12)
Where were these messengers situated? • Matthew: Angel sitting on the stone (28:2) • Mark: Young man sitting inside, on the right (16:5) • Luke: Two men standing inside (24:4) • John: Two angels sitting on each end of the bed (20:12)
What did the messenger(s) say? • Matthew: “Fear not ye: for I know that ye seek Jesus, which was crucified. He is not here for he is risen, as he said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay. And go quickly, and tell his disciples that he is risen from the dead: and, behold, he goeth before you into Galilee; there shall ye see him: lo, I have told you.” (28:5-7) • Mark: “Be not afrighted: Ye seek Jesus of Nazareth, which was crucified: he is risen; he is not here: behold the place where they laid him. But go your way, tell his disciples and Peter that he goeth before you into Galilee: there shall ye see him, as he said unto you.” (16:6-7) • Luke: “Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen: remember how he spake unto you when he was yet in Galilee, saying, The Son of man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again.” (24:5-7) • John: “Woman, why weepest thou?” (20:13)
Did the women tell what happened? • Matthew: Yes (28:8) • Mark: No. “Neither said they any thing to any man.” (16:8) • Luke: Yes. “And they returned from the tomb and told all these things to the eleven, and to all the rest.” (24:9, 22-24) • John: Yes (20:18)
When Mary returned from the tomb, did she know Jesus had been resurrected? • Matthew: Yes (28:7-8) • Mark: Yes (16:10, 1134) • Luke: Yes (24:6-9, 23) • John: No (20:2) When did Mary first see Jesus? • Matthew: Before she returned to the disciples (28:9) • Mark: Before she returned to the disciples (16:9, 1034) • John: After she returned to the disciples (20:2, 14)
Could Jesus be touched after the resurrection? • Matthew: Yes (28:9) • John: No (20:17) and Yes (20:27)
After the women, to whom did Jesus first appear? • Matthew: Eleven disciples (28:16) • Mark: Two disciples in the country, later to 11 (16:12, 1412) • Luke: Two disciples in Emmaus, later to 11 (24:13, 36) • John: Ten disciples (Judas and Thomas were absent) (20:19, 24) • Paul: First to Cephas (Peter), then to the 12. (Twelve? Judas was dead). (I Corinthians 15:5)
Where did Jesus first appear to the disciples? • Matthew: On a mountain in Galilee (60-100 miles away) (28:16-17) • Mark: To two in the country, to 11 “as they sat at meat” (16:12,1412) • Luke: In Emmaus (about seven miles away) at evening, to the rest in a room in Jerusalem later that night. (24:31, 36) • John: In a room, at evening (20:19)
Did the disciples believe the two men? • Mark: No (16:1312) • Luke: Yes (24:34—it is the group speaking here, not the two)
What happened at that first appearance? • Matthew: Disciples worshipped, some doubted, “Go preach.” (28:17-20) • Mark: Jesus reprimanded them, said, “Go preach” (16:14-1912) • Luke: Christ incognito, vanishing act, materialized out of thin air, reprimand, supper (24:13-51) • John: Passed through solid door, disciples happy, Jesus blesses them, no reprimand (21:19-23)
Did Jesus stay on earth for more than a day? • Mark: No (16:1912) Compare 16:14 with John 20:19 to show that this was all done on Sunday • Luke: No (24:50-52) It all happened on Sunday • John: Yes, at least eight days (20:26, 21:1-22) • Acts: Yes, at least 40 days (1:3)
Where did the ascension take place? • Matthew: No ascension. Book ends on mountain in Galilee • Mark: In or near Jerusalem, after supper (16:1912) • Luke: In Bethany, very close to Jerusalem, after supper (24:50-51) • John: No ascension • Paul: No ascension • Acts: Ascended from Mount of Olives (1:9-12)
It is not just atheist critics who notice these problems. Christian scholars agree that the stories are discrepant. Culver H. Nelson: “In any such reading, it should become glaringly obvious that these materials often contradict one another egregiously. No matter how eagerly one may wish to do so, there is simply no way the various accounts of Jesus’ postmortem activities can be harmonized.”35
A. E. Harvey: “All the Gospels, after having run closely together in their accounts of the trial and execution, diverge markedly when they come to the circumstance of the Resurrection. It’s impossible to fit their accounts together into a single coherent scheme.”36
Thomas Sheehan agrees: “Despite our best efforts, the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ post-mortem activities, in fact, cannot be harmonized into a consistent Easter chronology.”37
The religiously independent (though primarily Christian) scholars at the Westar Institute, which includes more than 70 bible scholars with a Ph.D. or the equivalent, conclude: “The five gospels that report appearances (Matthew, Luke, John, Peter, Gospel of the Hebrews) go their separate ways when they are not rewriting Mark; their reports cannot be reconciled to each other. Hard historical evidence is sparse.”38
I have challenged believers to provide a simple non-contradictory chronological narrative of the events between Easter Sunday and the ascension, without omitting a single biblical detail. Some have tried but, without misinterpreting words or drastically rearranging passages, no one has given a coherent account. Some have offered “harmonies” (apparently not wondering why the work of a perfect deity should have to be harmonized), but none have met the reasonable request to simply tell the story.
C. S. Lewis and Christian apologist Josh McDowell offer three choices in urging us to consider who Jesus was: “Liar, Lunatic, or Lord.”39 But this completely ignores a fourth option: Legend. If the Jesus character is a literary creation—whether partially or completely—then it was others who put words in his mouth, and it is grossly simplistic to take these words at face value.
A legend begins with a basic story (true or false) that grows into something more embellished and exaggerated as the years pass. When we look at the documents of the resurrection of Jesus, we see that the earliest accounts are very simple, later retellings are more complex and the latest tales are fantastic. In other words, it looks exactly like a legend.
The documents that contain a resurrection story40 are usually dated like this: Paul: 50-55 (I Cor. 15:3-8); Mark: 70 (Mark 16); Matthew: 80 (Matthew 28); Luke: 85 (Luke 24); Gospel of Peter: 85-90 (Fragment); John: 95 (John 20-21). This is the general dating agreed upon by most scholars, including scholars at the Westar Institute. Some conservative scholars prefer to date them earlier, and others have moved some of them later, but this would not change the order of the writing41, which is more important than the actual dates when considering legendary growth.
Shifting the dates changes the shape but not the fact of the growth curve. I made a list of things I consider “extraordinary” (natural and supernatural) in the stories between the crucifixion and ascension of Jesus. These include: earthquakes, angel(s), rolling stone, dead bodies crawling from Jerusalem graves (“Halloween” 42), Jesus appearing out of thin air (now you see him) and disappearing (now you don’t), the “fish story” miracle,43 Peter’s noncanonical “extravaganza” exit from the tomb (see below), a giant Jesus with head in the clouds, a talking cross and a bodily ascension into heaven.
Perhaps others would choose a slightly different list, but I’m certain it would include most of the same events. I do not consider events that are surprising to be extraordinary. For example, seeing a man whom you thought was dead is indeed surprising, but not extraordinary. Neither is it extraordinary to have a vision of a person who is dead or presumed dead. (My dad heard the voice of my mother for a long time after she died, and though it seemed quite real and “spooky,” he knew it was just in his mind. After a period of time those hallucinations abated. That is not extraordinary.)
Then I counted the number of extraordinary events that appear in each resurrection account. In the order in which the accounts were written, Paul has zero, Mark has one, Matthew has four, Luke has five, Peter has six and John has at least six. (John wrote, “And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.” 20:30) Putting these on a time graph produces a curve that goes up as the years pass. The later resurrection reports contain more extraordinary events than the earlier ones, so it is clear that the story, at least in the telling, has evolved and expanded over time.
In finer detail, we can count the number of messengers at the tomb, which also grows over time, as well as the certainty of the claim that they were angels. Paul: 0 angels. Mark: 1 young man sitting. Matthew: 1 angel sitting. Luke: 2 men standing. Peter: 2 men/angels walking. John: 2 angels sitting. Other items fit the pattern. Bodily appearances are absent from the first two accounts, but show up in the last four accounts, starting in the year 80 C.E. The bodily ascension is absent from the first three stories, but appears in the last three starting in the year 85 C.E. This ballooning of details reveals the footprints of legend.
The mistake many modern Christians make is to view 30 C.E. backward through the distorted lens of 80-100 C.E., more than a half century later. They forcibly superimpose the extraordinary tales of the late Gospels anachronistically upon the plainer views of the first Christians, pretending naively that all Christians believed exactly the same thing across the entire first century.
PAUL (YEAR 55 C.E.)
How can we say that Paul reported no extraordinary events? Doesn’t his account include an empty tomb and appearances of a dead man? Here is what Paul said in I Corinthians 15:3-8, around the year 55 C.E., the earliest written account of the resurrection: “For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, and was buried. [etaphe] And he was raised [egeiro] on the third day
in accordance with the Scriptures and he appeared [ophthe] to Cephas [Peter]
and then to the twelve. Afterward, he appeared to more than 500 brethren,
most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.
Afterward he appeared to James, and then to all the missionaries [apostles].
Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.”
This is a formula, or hymn, in poetic style that Paul claims he “received” from a believer reciting an earlier oral tradition. He edited the end of it, obviously. It is possible that this passage originated just a few years after Jesus lived, although notice that Paul does not call him “Jesus” here.
It is interesting that one of the arguments some apologists give for the authenticity of the New Testament is that it is written in a simple narrative style, unlike the poetic style of other myths and legends—yet the very first account of the resurrection is written in a poetic, legendary style.
This letter to the Corinthians was written at least a quarter of a century after the events to people far removed from the scene—Corinth is about 1,500 miles away by land. None of the readers, many or most not even born when Jesus supposedly died, would [not] have been able to confirm the story. They had to take Paul’s word alone that there were “500 brethren” who saw Jesus alive. Who were these 500 nameless people, and why didn’t they or any of the thousands who heard their stories write about it? And isn’t 500 a suspiciously round number? And why didn’t Jesus appear to anyone who was not part of the in-crowd of believers?
In any event, what Paul actually wrote here does not support a bodily resurrection. It supports legend. First, notice how simple it is, this earliest resurrection story. No angelic messages, no mourning women, no earthquakes, no miracles and no spectacular bodily ascension into the clouds. Nor is there an empty tomb. The word “buried” is the ambiguous etaphe, which simply means “put in a grave (taphos).”
Although a taphos could be a common dirt grave (the most likely destination of executed criminals) or a stone sepulchre (such as the one owned by Joseph of Arimathea), it is important to note that this passage does not use the word “sepulchre” (mnemeion) that first appears in Mark’s later account. Since Paul does not mention a tomb, we can hardly conclude with confidence he was thinking of an “empty tomb.” Those who think he was talking of a tomb are shoehorning Mark’s Gospel back into this plain hymn.
Neither is there a resurrection in this passage. The word “raised” is egeiro, which means to “wake up” or “come to.” Paul did not use the word resurrection (anastasis, anistemi) here, though he certainly knew it. Egeiro is used throughout the New Testament to mean something simpler. “Now it is high time to awaken [egeiro] out of sleep”44 was not written to corpses. “Awake [egeiro] thou that sleepest, and arise [anistemi] from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light”45 was also written to breathing people.
So, Paul obviously means something nonphysical here, even with his use of “resurrect,” contrasted with egeiro (before you get up, you have to wake up). Matthew uses egeiro like this: “There arose a great tempest in the sea, insomuch that the ship was covered with waves: but he was asleep. And his disciples came to him and awoke [egeiro] him, saying, Lord, save us: we perish.”46 No one thinks Jesus resurrected from a boat.
Whatever Paul may have believed happened to Jesus, he did not say that his revived body came out of a tomb. It is perfectly consistent with Christian theology to think that the spirit of Jesus, not his body, was awakened from the grave, as Christians today believe that the spirit of Grandpa has gone to heaven while his body rots in the ground. In fact, just a few verses later, Paul confirms this: “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.”47 The physical body is not important to Christian theology.
But what about the postmortem appearances Paul mentions? Don’t they suggest a risen body? Actually, the word “appeared” in this passage is also ambiguous and does not require a physical presence. The word ophthe, from the verb horao, is used for both physical sight as well as spiritual visions. For example: “And a vision appeared [ophthe] to Paul in the night; there stood a man of Macedonia… And after he had seen the vision [horama], immediately we endeavored to go into Macedonia…”48 No one thinks the Macedonian was standing bodily in front of Paul when he “appeared” to him.
Paul includes Peter in his list of “appearances” by Christ, yet at the Transfiguration described in Matthew we find the same word used for an “appearance” to Peter that was not physical: “And after six days Jesus takes Peter, James, and John his brother, and brings them up into a high mountain apart, and was transfigured before them: and his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light. And behold there appeared [ophthe] Moses and Elijah talking with him.”49 Did Moses and Elijah appear physically to Peter? Shall we start looking for their empty tombs? This is obviously some kind of spiritual appearance.
Besides, if we believe Mark and Matthew, Paul’s first witness to the resurrection appearances was an admitted liar. In a court of law, Peter’s reliability would be seriously compromised since he had repeatedly denied knowing Jesus just a couple of days earlier, after he had promised Jesus he would be loyal.50
Paul himself was not above using a lie if it furthered his message: “Let God be true, but every man a liar… For if the truth of God hath more abounded through my lie unto his glory; why yet am I also judged a sinner?”51 Paul, needing to establish credentials with his readers, tacks onto the list that Christ “appeared also to me,” so if we look at the description of that appearance, we can see what he means. Paul claimed that he had met Jesus on the road to Damascus, but notice that Jesus did not physically appear to Paul there.
He was knocked off his horse and blinded. (I know there is no horse in the story, but for some reason I picture a horse—an example of legend making!) How could Jesus appear physically to a blind man? Paul’s men admit they did not see anyone, but just heard a voice (Acts 9:7) or did not hear a voice (Acts 22:9). Take your pick52.
This “appearance” to Paul was supposedly years after Jesus ascended into heaven, which raises a good question: Where was Jesus all those years? Was his physical body hanging around in the clouds, hovering over the road to Damascus? Did he need a haircut? What did he eat up there? How did he bathe? Clearly, Paul did not shake hands with Jesus, yet he includes this “appearance” in the list with the others in I Corinthians 15.
Elsewhere Paul elaborates on his roadside encounter: “For I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it, but . . . when it pleased God…to reveal his Son in me, that I might preach him among the heathen, immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood.”53 Notice he does not say “I met Jesus physically” or “I saw Jesus.” He says God “revealed his son in me.” This was an inner experience, not a face-to-face meeting.
This is exactly how many modern Christians talk about their own “personal relationship” with Jesus. All of the “appearances” in I Corinthians 15:3-8 must be viewed as psychological “spiritual experiences,” not physiological encounters with a revived corpse. If they really happened they are unusual, but they are not extraordinary. Such hallucinating, daydreaming or imagining happens in most religions. In Paul, we have no empty tomb, no resurrection and no bodily appearances.
MARK (YEAR 70 C.E.)
About 15 years later, the next account of the resurrection appears in Mark, the first Gospel, written at least 40 years after the events. Almost all adults who were alive in the year 30 C.E. were dead by then54. No one knows who wrote Mark—the Gospels are all anonymous and names were formally attached to them much later, around the year 180 C.E.55
Whoever wrote Mark is speaking from the historical perspective of a second generation of believers, not as an eyewitness. His account of the resurrection (16:1-8) is only eight verses long. The 12 succeeding verses that appear in some translations (with snake handling and poison drinking) were a later addition by someone else (evidence that Christian tampering began early).
Mark’s story is more elaborate than Paul’s, but still very simple, almost blunt. If we consider the young man at the sepulchre “clothed in a long white garment” to be an angel, then we have one extraordinary event. Just one. There are no earthquakes or postmortem appearances, and there is no ascension. In fact, there is no belief in the resurrection, and no preaching of a risen Christ.
The book ends with the women running away: “…neither said they any thing to any man; for they were afraid,” a rather limp finish considering the supposed import of the event. Notice that the young man says, “he is risen (egeiro).” Like Paul, he avoids the word “resurrection.” Such words can be uttered in the presence of a dead body, as they are at many funerals.
MATTHEW (YEAR 80 C.E.)
In Matthew, a half century after the events, we finally get some of the fantastic stories of which modern Christians are so fond. The earthquake, rolling stone and “Halloween” story20 appear for the first (and only) time. We also have a bonafide angel and postmortem appearances.
LUKE (YEAR 85 C.E.)
Matthew and Luke were based to some degree on Mark, but they each added their own wrinkles. In Luke, we have the “now you see him, now you don’t” appearance and disappearance of Jesus, and a bodily ascension. We also have two angels, if we consider the men “in shining garments” to be angels.
GOSPEL OF PETER (YEAR 85 C.E.)
This is a fragment of an extracanonical Gospel, purportedly authored by Simon Peter (which means it was composed by another creative Christian), that begins in the middle of what appears to be a resurrection story. The dating is controversial, but it certainly was composed no earlier than the 80s C.E.
A crowd from Jerusalem visited the sealed tomb on the Sabbath. On Easter morning, the soldiers observed the actual resurrection after the stone rolled by itself away from the entrance (no earthquake). In an extravaganza of light, two young men descended from the sky and went inside the tomb, then the two men whose heads reached to the sky carried out a third man who was taller, followed by a cross. A voice from heaven asked, “Have you preached to those who sleep?” The cross answered, “Yes!” Then someone else entered the tomb. Later the women found a young man inside saying something similar to what was said in Mark. “Then the women fled in fear.” This is fantastic stuff.
GOSPEL OF JOHN (YEAR 90-95 C.E.)
The last of the canonical Gospels appears to be mainly independent of the others in style and content, which is why Mark, Matthew and Luke, but not John, are called the “synoptic Gospels.” (Maybe we can call John the “myopic Gospel.” Myopia affects vision at a distance.) John’s resurrection story has real angels, bodily appearances (including a “now you see him” manifestation through shut doors), the “fish story” miracle and an ascension.
By now the legend has become—legendary. The anonymous writer ends his Gospel with the claim that there were “many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written.”56
John is obviously exaggerating, but this is no surprise since he admits that his agenda is not simply to tell the facts: “And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book: But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.”57 This is not the work of a historian; it is propaganda written “that you might believe.” Authors like this should be read with a grain of salt.
DID THE DISCIPLES DIE FOR A LIE?
We often hear that the resurrection must have happened because the disciples were so confident they endured torture and death for their faith (though there is no first-century evidence for this claim). But think about this. The Gospels were written between the years 70 C.E. and 100 C.E. The authors were most certainly not Matthew, Mark, Luke or John, but let’s assume (for the sake of argument) that the writers (whoever they were) were young men who knew Jesus and were perhaps 20 or 25 years old when he died. (Matthew the tax collector and Luke the physician were maybe older?)
The life expectancy in that century was 45 years,58 so people in their 60s would have been ancient. (As recently as the 1900 U.S. Census, people 55 and older were counted as “elderly.”) Mark would have been 65, Matthew at least 70, Luke at least 75 and John almost 90 when they sat down to write. How did the disciples survive the alleged persecution and torture to live long enough to write those books? Being martyred is no way to double your life expectancy. It makes more sense to think those anonymous documents were composed by a later generation of believers. They were not eyewitnesses.
WHY DO SO MANY BELIEVE IN THE RESURRECTION?
In any open question, we should argue from what we do know to what we do not know. We do know that fervent legends and stubborn myths arise easily and naturally. We do not know that dead people rise from the grave. We do know that human memory is imperfect. We do not know that angels exist.
Some Christians argue that the period of time between the events and the writing was too short for a legend to have evolved; however, we know this is not true. The 1981 legend of the Virgin Mary appearance at Medjugorge spread across Yugoslavia in just two days, confirmed by repeated corroborative testimony of real witnesses who are still alive. International pilgrims visited the place almost immediately, some claiming they were healed at the spot. Yet few Protestants believe the story. Shall we start looking for the empty tomb of Mary?
The legend of Elian Gonzales, the young Cuban refugee who was rescued off the coast of Florida in 1999, developed into an organized cult within a couple of weeks. There were claims that he was the “Cuban Messiah” who would set his oppressed people free from the Castro Devil, sightings of the Virgin Mary in downtown Miami, and tales of his protection by angels and dolphins (actually dolphin fish).59
The extraordinary 19th-century stories of Mormon founder Joseph Smith were accepted as gospel fact within a few short years.
There was plenty of time for the legend of the resurrection of Jesus to evolve. We do know that people regularly see deceased relatives and friends in dreams and visions. My own grandmother swore to me that she regularly saw my dead grandfather entering the house, smiling and waving at her, often accompanied by other dead relatives who were opening and closing drawers. Should I have dug up my grandfather’s grave to prove she was only dreaming or hallucinating in her grief? Would that have made any difference?
Yet some Christians insist that this is exactly what would have happened if the story of Jesus were false. If the tomb were not empty, detractors could have easily silenced the rumors by producing the body. But this assumes that they cared enough to do such a thing—they didn’t do it when Herod heard rumors that John the Baptist had been raised from the dead.60 It was a crime to rob a grave, and who would have known where to find it? (Early Christians never venerated Jesus’ empty tomb, which is another evidence it did not exist.)
Also, it was at least seven weeks after the burial before the resurrection was first preached during Pentecost. By the time anyone might have cared to squelch the story, two or three months would have passed—and what happens to a dead body in that climate for that period of time? The body of Lazarus was “stinking” after only four days.61 If someone had had the gumption to locate and illegally dig up the decayed body of Jesus and parade it through the streets, would the disciples have believed the unrecognizable rotting skeleton was really their Lord and Savior? I don’t think so, any more than my grandmother would have been convinced she was deluded.
During one of my debates, Greg Boyd offered the simple argument that the resurrection must have happened because otherwise we have no explanation for the birth and the tremendous growth of the Christian Church. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, he insisted. But this argument can be equally applied to the “smoke” of other religions, such as Islam, with hundreds of millions of good people believing that the illiterate Muhammad miraculously wrote the Koran.
It can be applied to the “smoke” of Mormonism, with millions of moral and intelligent individuals believing the angel Moroni gave Joseph Smith gold tablets inscribed with the Book of Mormon. “Why should non-Mormons find the story hard to believe?” Robert J. Miller asks. “After all, it is no more plausible than dozens of stories in the bible (for example, Jonah and the whale) that many Christians believe with no difficulty at all.
The difference has very little to do with the stories themselves and a great deal to do with whether one approaches them as an insider or an outsider. Putting it a bit crudely perhaps, stories about our miracles are easy to believe because they’re true; stories about their miracles are easy to dismiss because they’re far-fetched and fictitious.”62 It could also be applied to the Moonies, Jehovah’s Witnesses and many other successful religious movements. If smoke is evidence of fire, are they all true?
SO WHAT DID HAPPEN?
If the story is not true, then how did it originate? We don’t really know but we can make some good guesses, based on what happened with other legends and religious movements and what we know about human nature.
Assuming that the New Testament is somewhat reliable, Robert Price offers one sensible scenario. Peter’s state of mind is the key. The disciples had expected Jesus to set up a kingdom on earth, and this did not happen. He was killed. They then expected Jesus to return, and this did not happen. Nothing was going right and this created a cognitive dissonance. Peter, who had promised loyalty to Jesus and then denied him publicly a few hours before the crucifixion, must have been feeling horrible. (The day after “Good Friday” is called “Black Sabbath,” the day the disciples were in mourning and shock.)
Imagine you had a horrible argument with a spouse or loved one where you said some unpleasant things you later regretted, but before you had a chance to apologize and make up the person died. Picture your state of mind: grief, regret, shock, embarrassment, sadness, and a desperate wish to bring the person back and make things right.
That’s how Peter must have felt. Believing in God and the survival of the soul, Peter prays to Jesus: “I’m sorry. Forgive me.” (Or something like that.) Then Peter gets an answer: “I’m here. I forgive you.” (Or something like that.) Then Peter triumphantly tells his friends, “I talked with Jesus! He is not dead! I am forgiven!” His friends say, “Peter talked with Jesus? Peter met Jesus? He’s alive! It’s a spiritual kingdom!” (Or something like that.) Paul then lists Peter as the first person to whom Christ “appeared.” We don’t need to know exactly what happened, only that things like this do happen.
Look at the 19th-century Millerites, who evolved into the Seventh Day Adventists when the world did not end as they had predicted. Or the Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose church rebounded after the failed prophecies of Charles Russell and Joseph Rutherford that the world would end in 1914. Oops, they meant 1925. (They got creative and said Jesus actually returned to earth “spiritually.”)
After the 21st-century death of Rulon Jeffs, the Prophet of the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints church who was predicted to rise from the dead, his son Warren Jeffs declared that his father had, in fact, been resurrected “spiritually” and was now directing the church from another dimension. Warren then took his father’s many young wives, the ones that did not run off. (See Stolen Innocence by Elissa Wall.)
Robert Price elaborates: “When a group has staked everything on a religious belief, and ‘burned their bridges behind them,’ only to find this belief disconfirmed by events, they may find disillusionment too painful to endure. They soon come up with some explanatory rationalization, the plausibility of which will be reinforced by the mutual encouragement of fellow believers in the group. In order to increase further the plausibility of their threatened belief, they may engage in a massive new effort at proselytizing. The more people who can be convinced, the truer it will seem.
In the final analysis, then, a radical disconfirmation of belief may be just what a religious movement needs to get off the ground.”63 There have been other plausible scenarios explaining the origin of the legend, but we don’t need to describe them all. The fact that they exist shows that the historicity of the bodily resurrection of Jesus cannot be taken as a given.
THE LEGEND IDEA IS RESPECTFUL
The idea of a legend is respectful of the humanity of the early Christians. We do know that the human race possesses an immense propensity to create, believe and propagate falsehood. So, what makes the early Christians exempt? Weren’t they just people? Did they never make mistakes? Were they so superhuman that they always resisted the temptations of exaggeration and rhetoric? Did they have perfect memories?
Given the discrepancies in their accounts, why not treat those early believers like ourselves, not as cartoon characters but as real human beings with normal human fears, desires and limitations? The fact that my grandmother was hallucinating did not make me love or respect her any less. The legend idea is respectful of the historical method. We are not required to jettison the natural regularity that makes history work.
We can take the New Testament accounts as reports of what people sincerely believed to be true, not what is necessarily true. We can honor the question, “Do you believe everything you read?” The legend idea is respectful of theology. If Jesus bodily ascended into physical clouds, then we are presented with a spatially limited flat-earth God sitting on a material throne of human size, with a right and left hand. If Jesus physically levitated into the sky, where is his body now? Does he sometimes need a haircut?
If the bodily resurrection is viewed as a legendary embellishment, then believers are free to view their god as a boundless spiritual being, not defined in human dimensions as the pagan gods were. Bible scholars conclude: “On the basis of a close analysis of all the resurrection reports, [we] decided that the resurrection of Jesus was not perceived initially to depend on what happened to his body. The body of Jesus probably decayed, as do all corpses.
The resurrection of Jesus was not an event that happened on the first Easter Sunday; it was not an event that could have been captured by a video camera… [We] conclude that it does not seem necessary for Christians to believe the literal veracity of any of the later appearance narratives.”64
Finally, the legend idea is respectful of the freedom to believe. If the resurrection of Jesus were proved as a blunt fact of history, then we would have no choice, no room for faith. You can’t have the freedom to believe if you do not have the freedom not to believe.
Barker, Dan. Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists (pp. 277-306). Ulysses Press. Kindle Edition.