This article first appeared in
Abuse Your Illusions:
The Disinformation Guide To Media Mirages and Establishment Lies, edited by
Russ Kick, 2003.
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." 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!"
But now I no longer believe it. Many bible scholars and
ministers--including one third of the clergy in the Church of England--reject the idea
that Jesus bodily came back to life. So do 30% of born-again American
Why? When the Gospel of John portrays the post-mortem Jesus on a fishing
trip with his buddies and the writer of Matthew shows him giving his team a
mountain-top 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
There have been many reasons for doubting the claim, but the consensus
among critical scholars today appears to be that the story is a "legend."
During the 60-70 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" and 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.
Before discussing legend in detail, let's look briefly at some of the
other reasons for skepticism.
Can history prove a miracle?
Philosopher Antony Flew, in a 1985 debate on the resurrection, pointed out that
history is the wrong tool for proving miracle reports. "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. They 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), to make a case for the
resurrection of Jesus, history is the only tool Christians have.
Examining a miracle with history is like searching for a planet with a
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." Carl Sagan liked
to say, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." Such evidence
is exactly what we do not have with the resurrection of Jesus.
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.
Did Jesus exist?
A number of scholars and writers, known
informally as "mythicists," insist there is no convincing evidence for a
historical Jesus at all. If the entire story is a myth, then he could hardly
have risen from the dead.
The life of Jesus is not corroborated. Not a single word about Jesus
appears outside of the New Testament in the entire first century, even
though many writers documented first-hand the early Roman Empire in great
detail, including careful accounts of the time and place where Jesus
supposedly taught. The little
paragraph about Jesus that appears in Josephus' Antiquities (written
after 90 CE) is regarded by liberal and conservative scholars to have been
either entirely interpolated or drastically altered by a later generation of
believers, probably by the dishonest Christian historian Eusebius in the 4th
century. (Whichever view
is right, they both agree that early Christians tampered with documents, a
fact that must bear on the reliability of the New Testament writings.)
The handful of 2nd-century references to "Christ" are too late to be of
much value. They are brief
2nd- or 3rd-hand accounts of what some people by that time believed
had happened in their distant past, and none of them mention the name
"Jesus." They are hearsay, not history.
The silence of Paul is also a problem. Paul wrote his letters many years
before the Gospels, and it appears he was unaware of anything said in them
about Jesus, except for some wording from a Last Supper ritual. Paul never
met Jesus and never quoted the Jesus of the Gospels, even when that would
have served his purposes. He sometimes disagreed with Jesus. He never
mentioned a single deed or miracle of Jesus. If Jesus had been a real
person, certainly Paul, his main cheerleader, would have talked about him as
a man. The "Christ" in Paul's epistles is mainly a supernatural figure, not
a flesh and blood man of history.
Mythicists notice that there are many pagan parallels to the resurrection
story. The Greek god Dionysus was said to be the "Son of Zeus." He was
killed, buried, and rose from the dead and now sits at the right hand of the
father. His empty tomb at Delphi was long preserved and venerated by
believers. The Egyptian Osiris, two millennia earlier, was said to have been
slain by Typhon, rose again, and became ruler of the dead. Adonis and Attis
also suffered and died to rise again.
The Persian god Mithra, revered by many Romans, was said to have been
born of a virgin in a sacred birth-cave of the Rock on December 25,
witnessed by shepherds and Magi bringing gifts. He raised the dead, healed
the sick, made the blind see and the lame walk, and exorcised devils. Mithra
celebrated a Last Supper with his twelve disciples before he died. His image
was buried in a rock tomb, but he was withdrawn and said to live again. His
triumph and ascension to heaven were celebrated at the spring equinox
Anybody who was anybody in those days was born of a virgin and ascended
to heaven. The Roman historian Suetonius, whose brief 2nd-century mention of
"Chrestus" in Rome is sometimes offered as evidence of a historical Jesus
(though few believe Jesus visited Rome, and "Chrestus" is not "Jesus"), also
reported that Caesar Augustus bodily ascended into heaven when he died.
Christianity appears to have been cut from the same fabric as pagan
mythology, and some early Christians admitted it. Arguing with pagans around
150 CE, Justin Martyr said: "When we say that the Word, who is the first
born of God, was produced without sexual union, and that he, Jesus Christ,
our teacher, was crucified and died, and rose again, and ascended into
heaven; we propound nothing different from what you believe regarding those
whom you esteem sons of Jupiter (Zeus)."
If early Christians, who were closer to the events than we are, said the
story of Jesus is "nothing different" from paganism, can modern skeptics be
faulted for suspecting the same thing?
Critics are not agreed on the degree of relevance of the pagan parallels
to Jesus, and the number of true mythicists is a tiny minority among
scholars, but it doesn't matter much. Even if Jesus did exist, that does not
mean he rose from the dead.
The Jesus of history is not the Jesus of the New Testament. Many skeptics
believe there might have existed a self-proclaimed messiah figure named
Yeshua (there were many others) on whom the
later New Testament legend was loosely based, but they consider the
exaggerated miracle-working resurrecting Jesus character to be a literary
creation of a later generation of believers. The Gospels, written many
decades after the fact, are a blend of fact and fantasy--historical
fiction--and although the proportions of the blend may differ from scholar
to scholar, no credible historians take them at 100% face value.
Some critics have offered naturalistic explanations for the face-value
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". Or perhaps the
disciples hallucinated the risen Jesus. (They and "five hundred" others.) 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," an idea
that boasts a hint of biblical support in that the only eye-witnesses (the
Roman soldiers) said that was exactly what happened. 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. Or perhaps
someone else, such as Thomas, was crucified in Jesus's place.
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 fit the biblical facts.
If a believer asks, "Why have you ruled out the supernatural?" I will say
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 (above), 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 5 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.
What time did the women visit the tomb?
- Matthew: "as it began to
- 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
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
What was their purpose?
- Matthew: to see the tomb
- 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
- 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
- John: Two angels sitting
on each end of the bed (20:12)
What did the messenger(s) say?
"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)
"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)
"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
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 (16:10,11)
- 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 (16:9,10)
- 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), Yes
After the women, to whom did Jesus first appear?
- Matthew: Eleven disciples
- Mark: Two disciples in the
country, later to eleven (16:12,14)
- Luke: Two disciples in
Emmaus, later to eleven (24:13,36)
- John: Ten disciples (Judas
and Thomas were absent) (20:19, 24)
- Paul: First to Cephas
(Peter), then to the twelve. (Twelve? Judas was dead). (I Corinthians
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 eleven "as they sat at meat" (16:12,14)
- 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
Did the disciples believe the two men?
- Mark: No (16:13)
- 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" (16:14-19)
- Luke: Christ incognito,
vanishing act, materialized out of thin air, reprimand, supper
- 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 (16:19) 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 forty
Where did the ascension take place?
- Matthew: No ascension.
Book ends on mountain in Galilee
- Mark: In or near
Jerusalem, after supper (16:19)
- 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' post-mortem
activities can be harmonized." 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." 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." The religiously
independent (though primarily Christian) scholars in the Westar Institute,
which includes more than 70 bible scholars with Ph.D or 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."
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. So far, 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.
Urging us to consider who Jesus was, Christian apologist Josh McDowell
offers three choices: "Liar, Lunatic, or Lord." But this
completely ignores a fourth option: Legend. If the Jesus character is to
some degree, if not completely, a literary creation, then it was others who
put words in his mouth and it is grossly simplistic to take them at face
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, they look exactly like a legend.
The documents that contain a resurrection story are usually
dated like this:
(I Cor. 15:3-8)
Gospel of Peter:
This is the general dating agreed upon by most scholars, including 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 writing , 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:
earthquakes, angel(s), rolling stone, dead bodies crawling from Jerusalem
graves ("Halloween"), Jesus
appearing out of thin air ("Now you see him") and disappearing ("Now you
don't"), the "fish story" miracle, 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.
Then I counted the number of extraordinary events that appear in each
Putting these on a time graph produces illustration 1.
Notice that the curve 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
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
1 young man, sitting
1 angel, sitting
2 men, standing
2 men/angels, walking
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. The bodily ascension is absent from the first three stories, but appears
in the last three, starting in the year 85.
This reveals the footprints of legend.
The mistake many modern Christians make is to view 30 CE backward through
the distorted lens of 80-100 CE, 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's account (year 55)
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, the earliest written
account of the resurrection:
"For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how
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. Viewing this passage charitably, it is possible that
it came from 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 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, 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" was not written
to corpses. "Awake [egeiro] thou that sleepest, and arise [anistemi]
from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light" was also written
to breathing people, so Paul obviously means something non-physical 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."  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." The physical
body is not important to Christian theology.
But what about the post-mortem appearances Paul relates? 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
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 . . ." No one thinks
the Macedonian was standing bodily in front of Paul when he "appeared" to
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." 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. 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?"
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 event, 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, hearing just a voice (Acts 9:7) or not
hearing a voice (Acts 22:9), take your pick. 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? How did he eat or bathe or cut his hair during that time?
Clearly, Paul did not shake hands with Jesus, yet he includes his
"appearance" in the list with the others. 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.". 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. In Paul, we have no empty tomb, no resurrection, and no
Mark (year 70)
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 were dead by then. No one knows
who wrote Mark--the Gospels are all anonymous, and names were formally
attached to them much later, around the year 180. Whoever wrote
Mark is speaking from the historical perspective of a second generation of
believers, not as an eye-witness.
His account of the resurrection (16:1-8) is only eight verses long. The
16 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
There are no earthquakes, no post-mortem appearances, and 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."
Matthew (year 80)
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" story appear for the
first (and only) time. We also have a bonafide angel and post-mortem
Luke (year 85)
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)
This is a fragment of an extracanonical Gospel, purportedly authored by
Simon Peter (which means it was composed by a 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.
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?" and 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)
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." 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.
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." 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." This is not the
work of a historian; it is propaganda: "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 and 100. Assume,
charitably, that the writers were the actual disciples and that they were
young men when they knew Jesus, perhaps 20 years old. (Matthew the tax
collector and Luke the physician were perhaps older?) The life expectancy in
that century was 45 years , so people in
their 60s would have been ancient. (As recently as the 1900 US
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 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 eye-witnesses.
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,
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; but 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. The place was
visited almost immediately by international pilgrims, 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 in a couple of weeks into an
organized cult, complete with 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, tales of his protection by angels and
dolphins (actually dolphin fish).  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
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, 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 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. It was a crime
to rob a grave, and who would have known where to find it? (Jesus's empty
tomb was never venerated by early Christians, 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. 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
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 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."
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
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
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, 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," and
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.")
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."
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
It 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 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
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."
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.
Faith In Faith: From Preacher to Atheist, by Dan Barker, FFRF, Inc.,
2 I Corinthians 15:17
3 "His Fleece Was White As Snow," by Dan Barker, Manna Music,
4 Including the
Westar Institute, Santa Rosa,
California, with 70+ bible scholars and many books and publications
5 The Daily Telegraph, London, July 31, 2002
Bible Knowledge Is In the Ballpark, But Often Off Base," July 12, 2000,
7 Did Jesus Rise From The Dead? The Resurrection Debate,
Gary Habermas and Antony Flew, ed. Terry L. Miethe, Harper & Row, 1987.
Flew's remarks were inspired by David Hume's First Enquiry
8 'Of Miracles,' pp.115-116
9 Including John Allegro, G. A. Wells, Michael Martin (who leans
towards Wells's view), Timothy Freke & Peter Gandy (The Jesus Mysteries),
Robert Price (Deconstructing Jesus), Frank Zindler (The Jesus The
Jews Never Knew), Earl Doherty (The Jesus Puzzle), and others.
10 Philo of Alexandria (20 BCE-50 CE) wrote in careful detail
about that region in that period of history. So did Justus of Tiberius, and
40 other historians.
11 See "The Formation of the New Testament Canon" by Richard
12 Including Suetonius, Twelve Caesars, 112 CE; Pliny the
Younger, 112 CE; Tacitus, Annals,Annals, 117 CE, and scattered other
references to a "wise king" or "hymn to Christ."
13 For example, Jesus allowed for divorce (Matthew 5:31-32) while
Paul did not (I Corinthians 7:10-11).
14 Albert Schweitzer wrote: "There is nothing more negative than
the result of the critical study of the life of Jesus. . . . The historical
Jesus will be to our time a stranger and an enigma." The Quest of the
Historical Jesus, MacMillan 1954.
15 See Barbara Walker, The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and
Secrets, pages 663-665, Harper San Francisco 1983.
16 Twelve Caesars, 112 CE. Here is all he said. The emperor
Claudius "banished the Jews from Rome, since they had made a commotion
because of Chrestus," and during the time of Nero "punishments were also
inflicted on the Christians, a sect professing a new and mischievous
17 First Apology, ch. xxiv
18 There was a Judas the Christ, a Theudas the Christ, and an
Egyptian Jew Messiah, among others.
19 See for example The Passover Plot: A New Interpretation of
the Life and Death of Jesus, by Hugh Schonfield
20 Matthew 28:11-15
21 See "Historical
Evidence and the Empty Tomb Story: A Reply to William Lane Craig," by
Jeffery Jay Lowder, 2001.
22 "Thomas" and "Didymus" both mean "twin." Many early Christians
believed Jesus had an identical twin brother. See The Jesus Mysteries:
Was the "Original Jesus" a Pagan God? by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy,
pages 117-118. Although some early Christians and modern scholars conclude
that Thomas must have been crucified in Jesus' place, the authors say no,
"the Gnostics invented the tradition of Jesus' twin brother as an allegory
for the ancient Daemon/eidolon doctrine."
23 The verses from Mark 16:9-20 are included here for those who
think Mark's finale is authentic. Even though they are not authentic, they
do show a contradictory story from whoever added them, most likely a
24 Culver H. Nelson was Founding minister of the Church of the
Beatitudes, Phoenix, Arizona.
25 New English Bible Companion to the New Testament, Oxford
University Press, 1988
26 The First Coming: How the Kingdom of God Became
Christianity, by Thomas Sheehan, Random House, 1986, p. 97
27 The Acts of Jesus: What Did Jesus Really Do?, edited by
Robert W. Funk and The Jesus Seminar, Polebridge Press, 1998
28 "Leave No Stone Unturned," from Losing Faith In Faith
(see note 1). Also online
29 More Than A Carpenter, by Josh McDowell, Tyndale House,
30 There was also an appearance story in a lost book known as the
Gospel of the Hebrews, probably written in the mid 2nd-century. We find a
few quotes from this book in the writings of others. The appearance story
was quoted by Jerome. Since it is not a complete resurrection account, it
can't be compared with the others.
31 Except perhaps for Peter, which might have been later than
32 Matthew 27:52-53. "And the graves were opened; and many bodies
of the saints which slept arose, And came out of the graves after his
resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many."
33 John 21:1-14
34 The crucifixion is put at the year 30, though it was probably
in the late 20s.
35 Romans 13:11
36 Ephesians 5:14
37 Matthew 8:24-25
38 I Corinthians 15:50
39 Acts 16:9-10. Horama is from the same verb as ophthe.
40 Matthew 17:1-3
41 Matthew 26:69-75, Mark 14:66-72
42 Romans 3:4,7
43 See "Did Paul's Men Hear a Voice?" by Dan Barker.
44 Galatians 1:12-16
45 Regional Model Life Tables and Stable Populations, A.
Coale and P. Demeny, 2nd ed., 1983. This represents statistically exact
results for third world countries in the 19th/early 20th century with living
conditions essentially the same as those in ancient Rome. Thanks to Richard
Carrier for this data.
46 Although names of various Gospels had been loosely assigned to
the books by tradition in the early and mid 2nd-century, they were first
formally attached to all of them by Irenaeus in 180.
47 John 21:25
48 John 20:30-31
49 See note 43
50 For one source, see "The 'Elian Gonzalez'
Religious Movement" at www.religioustolerance.org/elian.htm
51 Matthew 14:1-2
52 John 11:17,39
53 The Jesus Seminar and its Critics, Robert J. Miller,
Polebridge Press, 1999, p. 134
54 Beyond Born Again, by Robert M. Price. Section II--The
Evangelical Apologists: Are They Reliable? Chapter 6: "Guarding An Empty
here) See also When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study,
by Leon Festinger, Harpercollins College Div, June 1964
55 The Acts of Jesus: What Did Jesus Really Do?, edited by
Robert W. Funk and The Jesus Seminar, Polebridge Press, 1998, p. 533