Saturday, April 07, 2012

Historical Questions About the Resurrection (Special TSP Easter Post and Podcast)

Click below (scroll to the bottom of this post) to listen to the special TSP Easter podcast. Of course, you can also listen on iTunes. (Have you subscribed to the podcast yet?)

St. Paul makes it clear that Resurrection is an essential aspect of Christian faith. He states,
“If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied.” (1 Cor 15:16–19).
Yet many dispute the historicity of the Resurrection. For example,
“The tiny fraction of New Testament Easter traditions that comprises our bona fide historical evidence—the core empty tomb tradition (Mark 1:1–6, 8) and the appearance list given by Paul (1 Cor 15:3–8)—is woefully inadequate to establish a proposition as bold as the resurrection hypothesis.”—Robert Cavin1
Here I want to look at some of the reasons for such skepticism.

Skepticism towards miracles

One of the most common reasons scholars often raise questions about the historical veracity of the resurrection accounts is the simple fact that they portray a miraculous event, something that is said to be too incredible to believe historical. Is this fair?

Here I am not going to launch into a detailed explanation.1 Let me just say this: while historical work necessarily demands a critical judgment, the outright a priori denial of the possibility of such occurrences represents no less of a metaphysical commitment than one which accepts them. To rule out a priori the possibility of inexplicable events can hardly represent a truly critical methodology.2

Discrepancies, history and harmonization

Here’s what everyone knows about the Gospel narratives: they all agree that on Easter Sunday morning Mary Magdalene came to the tomb where Jesus had been laid. Scholars, however, note that a close reading of the evangelists’ reports reveal a number of apparent discrepancies. I’ll get to these momentarily.

Before we go any further though a few words need to be said about historiography and harmonization. “Harmonization” refers to the attempt to reconcile different aspects of the various reports, which seem divergent or contradictory. When it comes to harmonization, one has to be cautious.

On the one hand, harmonization has led to some unbelievably unlikely readings. We need to be on guard against such approaches. For example, some people, in an attempt to prove the historical truth of Scripture, have tried to find ways to harmonize all of the sayings of Jesus. The reality however is that ancient writers were not expected to always convey the exact wording of speeches.

So, for example, whether Jesus said, “This is my blood of the covenant” (Mark 14:24), or ““This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20), is really missing the point. They all agree that Jesus spoke words over the Eucharistic cup, that these words linked the cup to his blood and the concept of covenant. Ancient writers were expected to convey the substance of what was said, but not necessarily the ipsissima verba, the exact words.

In short, it is bad historiography to attempt to harmonize everything.

On the other hand, this does not mean that all harmonization is a bad idea. Historiography will inevitably involve some amount of harmonization. Eddy and Boyd cite the work of historians Barbara Allen and William Montell.
“In their book on methodology for conducting local historical research, Allen and Montell investigated two different accounts of the 1881 lynching of two young men–Frank and Jack McDonald (‘the McDonald boys’)–in Menominee, Michigan. One account claimed that the boys were hung from a railroad crossing, while the other claimed they were strung up on a pine tree. The accounts seemed hopelessly contradictory until Allen and Montell discovered old photographs that showed the bodies hanging at different times from both places. As macabre as it is, the McDonald boys apparently had first been hung up from a railroad crossing, then taken down, dragged to a pine tree, and hoisted up again. Sometimes reality is stranger–and more gruesome–than fiction.”3
In sum, historical work will inevitably involve the recognition that sometimes harmonization is possible. The question here then is whether or not the Gospel accounts of Easter Sunday are so hopelessly and dramatically inconsistent they must be looked at as fabricated.

Let’s turn now to some of the apparent problems.

Who came to the tomb on Easter Sunday?

First, who exactly went to the tomb? Matthew has two women, Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” (Matt 28:1). Mark has three women: Mary Magdalene, “Mary the mother of James,” and Salome (Mark 16:1). Luke has Mary Magdalene, “Mary the mother of James,” no mention of Salome, but “Joanna” and “other” women (Luke 24:10).

John only mentions Mary Magdalene going to the tomb. Here’s the interesting thing though. In the following verse, John tells us that Mary Magdalene ran back to tell Peter and “the other disciple” that “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him” (John 20:2). The use of the plural here seems to suggest an awareness here of the tradition that Mary Magdalene was not alone.

A lot more could be said here. But let's point out that none of the Gospel accounts here are mutually exclusive. Matthew does not say that only Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were among those going to the tomb.

Let me put it another way. I might run into a colleague on a Monday morning and tell him I was at church on Sunday and mention I spent sometime afterwards talking to a mutual friend. I might leave out other people I also talked with because he may not be that familiar with them. If I mentioned that I saw some of those other people to someone else later in the day, have I really “contradicted” my earlier account? In short, perhaps Luke’s community knew “Joanna” but not “Salome”. We just don’t know one way or another!

What is even more surprising are the details the accounts agree upon: the first witnesses are women. Women were not believed to be reliable witnesses. Josephus writes, “Josephus: “From women let no evidence be accepted, because of the levity and temerity of their sex” (Ant. 4.219). If the early Christians were to make up a story about the resurrection, it wouldn’t have looked like this!

When did the women came to the tomb?

In Matthew, the women come “at dawn” (Matt 28:1); in Mark they arrive “just after sunrise” (Mark 16:1); in Luke they come “very early in the morning” (Luke 24:1); in John, Mary Magdalene came “while it was still dark” (John 20:1).

It should be noted though that only John really poses a problem here. But is John’s divergence here really evidence that the story was made up?

First, note what all three stories have in common—frankly, quite a bit! Not only was Mary Magdalene at the tomb, it was Sunday and it was sometime in the morning.

Now, back to John. Certainly it is possible that the women came to the tomb very early and that it was dark when they set out and light out by the end of the episode. Also, it seems important that John uses “darkness” as a symbol throughout his narrative (John 1:5; John 1:3). Could John here be speaking symbolically: i.e., the “light” of the Risen Lord was not yet known to the disciples when they came to the tomb.

Either way, doesn’t it seem like a stretch to insist that this slight divergence is evidence the story is entirely implausible? I think that’s a stretch.

Other similar discrepancies could also be mentioned. For more on this, listen to the podcast.

An unbelievable story?

Some have made the case that it is unlikely Jesus would have been laid in a tomb. Scholars like Funk and Crossan insist it is more likely an executed man like Jesus would have simply been dumped in a mass grave. Such scholars insist the entire empty tomb narrative is therefore likely a Markan invention.

This is just misinformed. Philo, a first century Jewish writer, makes it clear that such a story is not at all unbelievable:
“I have known cases when on the eve of a holiday of this kind, people who have been crucified have been taken down and their bodies delivered to their kinsfolk, because it was thought well to give them burial and allow them ordinary rites” (Flaccus 83).
Likewise, Josephus explains, “the Jews are careful about funeral rites that even malefactors who have been sentenced to crucifixion are taken down and buried before sunset” (B.J. 4.377).

Why make up a resurrection?

In his book, What Really Happened, L├╝demann asserts another explanation for the resurrection story: Peter, in his guilt and in mourning conjured up an apparition of Jesus to help him in his mourning process (What Really Happened, 93–94).

But even if Peter did this, why would the Church go on to proclaim a bodily resurrection of Jesus? Some might say the resurrection story was invented to prove that indeed Jesus was the Messiah. After all, the Messiah’s resurrection was predicted in the Scriptures, right?

Well, not explicitly. In fact, as Dale Allison observes, the resurrection was an event that was supposed to take place at the end of time (which, Christian eschatology still affirms). One looks in vain for a prophecy that suggests that the Messiah would rise by himself before that. So if Peter did have some sort of psychological event, it still doesn’t explain why the early Christians believed the Messiah had to rise from the dead. No specific text in the Scriptures actually says, “The Messiah will rise after three days.”

So where did they get this idea? Why assert it?

Peter could have come to the belief that Jesus had been vindicated and that his spirit somehow ascended to God even while his body remained in the grave. This would have fit perfectly well into Jewish views. Take for example Jubilees 23:31, which describes the righteous as follows:
“And their bones will rest in the earth, and their spirits will increase joy, and they will know that the LORD is an executor of judgment; but he will show mercy to hundreds and thousands, to all who love him.”
But no, the early Christians took one further step: he had been risen from the grave. Why invent such a belief—particularly one that seemed so unlikely!

To Die For

Finally, St. Paul describes a list of eye-witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection.
he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.
That Paul doesn’t mention Mary Magdalene here is fascinating—was a woman eyewitness just not worth mentioning given the suspicion over the testimony of female witnesses?

More interesting is this: what did these people have to gain from making up such a story? Fame? Money? Power?

What many of them apparently received was death (cf. e.g., Clement, Corinthians, 5:5–7). Even if you believe their account that Jesus rose from the dead, the fact that people like St. Paul never recanted—even under such a threat—is remarkable. What gave them such courage?

All of this suggests that it is unlikely the story was simply made from whole cloth. I think just from a historian’s view then you’ve got to come to one unsettling conclusion: something happened Easter morning—and it can’t be easily explained.

Such a conclusion opens the door for something more—the supernatural gift of faith, which cannot be simply established by empirical evidence.

1 Robert Cavin, “Is There Sufficient Historical Evidence to Establish the Resurrection of Jesus?,” The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave (ed. Robert M. Price and Jeffrey J. Lowder; New York: Prometheus Books, 2005), 36.

2 Along these lines I must recommend the recent discussion by Boyd and Eddy Here we agree with much of what is said by Eddy and Boyd concerning the importance of an “open-historical critical method” in their recent work The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007) [pages 39–90]. They explain that, “The claim that the natural world and its history constitute a ‘closed continuum’ of natural causes and effects is a metaphysical claim” (49). As such they go on and state why an open historical-critical approach that makes no a priori decisions about the possibility of miracles is superior to the alternative:

“In our estimation, this methodology is not less critical than the naturalistic historical-critical method; rather, it is more critical. For . . . this method requires that Western scholars be critical of their commitments to their own culturally conditioned naturalistic presuppositions. . . It requires that scholars not be uncritically committed to any metaphysical stance, but rather, in the name of critical scholarship, always bring a certain inquisitiveness to their presuppositional commitments” (53).

3. Eddy and Boyd, Jesus Legend, 424.

4. "Because of jealousy and strife Paul by his example pointed out the way to the prize for patient endurance. (6) After he had been seven times in chains, had been driven into exile, had been stoned, and had preached in the East and in the West, he won the genuine glory for his faith, (7) having taught righteousness to the whole world and having reached the farthest limits of the West. Finally, when he had given his testimony before the rulers, he thus departed from the world and went to the holy place, having become an outstanding example of patient endurance."—Clement, Corinthians, 5:5–7.

Historical Questions About the Resurrection (Special TSP Podcast for Easter)(Right click to download)


Nick said...

Excellent essay. Happy Easter!

Also, you might like this: Against Errors On Jesus' Passion

Alvah Whealton said...


It isn't miracles that present the problem It's the unreliability of history.

Alvah Whealton

S. Ellis said...

"Let me just say this: while historical work necessarily demands a critical judgment, the outright a priori denial of the possibility of such occurrences represents no less of a metaphysical commitment than one which accepts them. To rule out a priori the possibility of inexplicable events can hardly represent a truly critical methodology."

Fair enough, but there is a difference between saying that such an event could have happened and the more positive statement that such a thing did happen. I would also like to note that from an historical point of view, it is not so much that such an event is considered a priori impossible as much as it is that there is not sufficient evidence to justify such an improbable event.

"Why invent such a belief—particularly one that seemed so unlikely!"

Evidence suggests that the resurrection motif was not original; for example, the so called "Gabriel's Revelation" stone, which predates the Christian resurrection story, presents a similar apparent belief in a resurrection on the third day.

misterd418 said...

I am particularly fond of "The Real Jesus" by LT Johnson. He points out that the entire New Testament is based on the understanding of a resurrected Christ. I reference his book in these videos on the Real vs Historical Jesus ( and why I am a Christian (

Michael Barber said...

Thanks for all your comments.

Nick: I haven't watched the video you linked to yet, but I'm looking forward to watching it. I appreciate the suggested.

Alvah and S. Ellis: I agree with you that historical tools are limited. I am no historical positivist! (I have about 100 pages in my doctoral dissertation dealing with that!) Historical work generally cannot prove (or demonstrate) that something happened or didn't happen. This is particularly true of ancient history--there are no video tapes! The issue then for historians is plausibility. I also think it takes faith to believe in the Risen Lord--I don't think you can prove the truth of Christianity with historical data. In short, I think if you come to this with an open mind, using historical tools, you eventually come to the conclusion that something extraordinary happened that first Easter morning. Explanations that posit an "alternative" to the Christian claims (e.g., mass hallucination, deception, fabrication) end up appearing less convincing. That's not saying that we can prove that Jesus is God (or the other mysteries of Christianity). It does however mean that careful analysis of the data that employs a truly critical approach in the end better disposes one to receiving the gift of faith necessary to belief that I mentioned above.

S. Ellis: As for the Gabriel revelation tablet. I am well aware of this! The definitive publication arguing for the view you are espousing is, of course, Israel Knohl, '"By Three Days, Live': Messiahs, Resurrection, and Ascent to Heaven in Hazon Gabriel," JR 88/2 (2008): 147-58. It's a fascinating find and Knohl's article piece is quite interesting!

However, you have to admit, the text is not entirely clear there and a lot of reconstructing work has to go into reading it. Here's a link to a literal English translation as it stands:

Knohl himself says, "Since the text is not preserved in its entirety, we cannot definitively identity the person whom the angel Gabriel orders to come to life by three days." (151). The context for this--and context is always key!--is also a bit unclear. Indeed, a number of scholars have argued against Knohl's reconstruction. See, for example, here:

This is a very stimulating collection of essays!

Nonetheless, even if the inscription is evidence that Jews in Jesus' day expected a Messiah to rise from the dead--and that is certainly possible!--it still seems that in its view this happens at the apocalyptic end of history. Thus, it is not really a good parallel to the Gospel narrative!

Again, thanks so much for all your comments!

Charles said...

I reflected on Jesus resurrection quite a bit, but once I, unexpected found myself reading the chapter from the ORIGIN OF SPECIES,from the evolution theory by Darwn.It says that species emerged,lived for a reasonable period,went extinct,and reemerged(using my terms) modified,eliminating nature irregularities,or forms till they achieved the right body of a particular specified creature.

So through this process I concluded,that Jesus was, in a mode to say,the last specie, under the grip of Satan,and also as a human,He died,emerged as the first new specie modified,eliminating all unsuitable elements from His body,one of them all His blood,in order to establish a unique perfect,and a particular substance for His body to remain in existence for eternity in both flesh and spirit.All who believe and live in His words would achieve the same body.

So to me it looks that Jesus' Spirit was from the commencement of creation within nature,purposely creating the first born of every specie for the first time ever and nature,through Him as well, would eventually follow the process.

Also He himself was responsible,through the angels,to establish the generations of heaven to create the genealogy of Virgin Mary, commenced in Seth, to establish the perfect immaculate flesh substance in order for God to be born in Jesus. So Jesus'Spirit is actually the transformation of His spirit into Holy Mary's flesh body through Nature.

De Maria said...

I don't know why other men are skeptical. I can only speak for myself. During the time when I was an atheist, I seemed to have no trust in people. Unless I saw something with my own eyes, I did not believe it.

When God brought me back to faith in Him, I suddenly realized that I was not an island. Our Faith has been passed down to us on the shoulders of giants. And its not as though Jesus Christ did not know what He was doing when He established the Church and formed a community with the express purpose of passing down through the centuries the details of His life and teachings.

As St. Peter said in his treatise:
2 Peter:
15Moreover I will endeavour that ye may be able after my decease to have these things always in remembrance.

16For we have not followed cunningly devised fables, when we made known unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of his majesty.

17For he received from God the Father honour and glory, when there came such a voice to him from the excellent glory, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. 18And this voice which came from heaven we heard, when we were with him in the holy mount. 19We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts:


De Maria