The resurrection (part 1)


I’ve looked at the credibility of the Bible (here, here and here), and recently talked about Paul’s christology. In the first of these posts in particular, I gave an overview of reasons to question the credibility of the bible to make its claims. In this post I’d like to look at the biblical evidence for the resurrection.

In a way, this was the most central point in my falling away. Paul’s statement that if there was no resurrection, “then we are of all people most to be pitied” rings in my ears. This was meant to be the central miracle that validated all the other claims. The case for this was made not scientifically but legally or historically. This was emphasized to me so often by pastors and fellow Christians throughout my Christian walk, and, I suppose, with the best of intentions. And, when the evidence for this turned out to be weak, I had to let it all go. It was not for comfort (on the contrary, it’s been decidedly awkward and unsettling) nor for license (my behaviour has not changed in any significant way) but for the sake of truth.

It is shocking to me that this has been known in theological circles for generations, probably longer. Having started to question this, it’s amazing to me how many people (including clergy) will effectively abandon the long-taught claims of evidence, and start talking about feelings and faith and things of that nature. If the clergy believe despite the lack of evidence because of some mystical experience, they should have the decency to say so frankly. Paul Badham, a theologian quoted in Cutting Jesus Down To Size (hereinafter, CJDTS), says: “A faith which claims that something which happened in the past is important cannot evade historical scrutiny of that claim.”

Let’s go through the central events of the resurrection narrative, pieced together as well as we can from the gospel narratives. I remind you that Mark was written first, followed by Matthew and Luke which were both written with a copy of Mark in front of them (and another document Q, which is not extant). The author of Luke also wrote Acts. John was written much later.  There is no evidence outside of the bible for the resurrection. I’ll break this into two sections:

  1. The women visit the tomb – dealt with below
  2. The appearances and the ascension – discussed in the next post

The women visit the tomb 

Mark 16 has three women who go to the tomb, see that the stone is already rolled away, see ‘a young man’ inside the tomb who tells them that Jesus has risen, and to go tell the disciples and Peter that Jesus will be in Galilee. “There you will see him, just as he told you.” The women flee and say nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. There’s no mention of a guard. A later addition to Mark then has Jesus appear to Mary Magdalene and her talking about it.

Matthew 28 copies much of this verbatim, but with some interesting differences. It has only 2 women visiting. Then an earthquake causing angel (rather than a young man), descends and rolls back the stone (rather than just finding it rolled back), knocking out the guards (who appear only in the Matthew account). The women see Jesus on the way back and he reiterates that he’s going to see them in Galilee. In this version the women tell everyone about it. Matthew also adds in the bits about the chief priests asking Pilate for a guard, who are made to faint and then bribed to keep quiet. More on this later.

Luke 24 has no guards, and the women (now a plethora of them) find the stone rolled away and no body. Suddenly two men (not one) appear to say he’s risen. These men say “Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, …” The women remember and go tell the apostles, who dismiss it as idle talk (v11). But Peter arose and ran to the tomb (this may have been a later addition to tie in with the John version, although it doesn’t include the other disciple).

John 20 also has no guards, and has Mary Magdalene visiting the tomb alone, seeing the stone has been moved, weeping outside, stooping in to look, seeing two angels who ask “why are you weeping?” She turns to see Jesus, but she doesn’t recognize him at first, mistaking him for a gardener. Then she suddenly does, and is told not to touch him, because he has “not yet ascended to the Father” (it’s not clear how she was expected to touch Jesus after the ascension). Between the stone being moved and the weeping outside are verses 2-10, the removal of which would improve the flow of the story. However, this bit involves her zipping off to call Simon Peter and the other disciple who run to the tomb.

So, to summarize, some number (1, 2, 3 or a group) of women go to the tomb. There are either guards there or not. The tomb is open already, or it is opened by an angel when they arrive. They go in and find a man sitting there, or it’s empty and two men appear after a while. The man/angel/men (if present) either say that Jesus will see them in Galilee, or remind them of what Jesus said to them in Galilee, or just ask why she is weeping. They return and are either visited by Jesus or not en route. Then they are either quiet about what they see or they tell the apostles or they just tell Simon Peter, or Simon Peter and the other disciple. Peter either does or does not run to the tomb to see for himself, with or without the other apostle. Mary goes back to the tomb and sees two angels and Jesus or not (depending on whether the verses John 20:2-10 are a clumsy addition to demonstrate how the author of John was quick to have faith).

Interestingly, a lot of this can be explained. The view I’ve always heard is that a certain amount of discrepancy means that there is no collusion going on, and so increases the credibility of the witnesses. Up to a point, perhaps. However, in this case, Matthew and Luke have a copy of Mark, and are happily editing it. Presumably that means they thought they were correcting it (I assume with the best of intentions), but it at least means that Mark’s gospel was not regarded as authoritatively based on reliable eyewitness information by the authors of Matthew and Luke.

Note also that Mark, the earliest, has the women saying nothing to anyone. Presumably the story wasn’t known within the church and Mark needed to account for that fact. By the time the later authors wrote, it was widely known, so this was quietly changed. It suggests that we’re seeing here an introduction of this part of the narrative for the first time, rather than simply recording stories that had been floating around in the Christian community, and were common knowledge. This is also consistent with the later addition to Mark undoing the secrecy. Paul (writing before Mark) knows nothing of any women visiting the tomb. Mark has them visiting but too afraid to tell anyone. Later gospels just relate them visiting.

Also note that Luke alters Mark’s angel’s words relatively subtly to completely and deliberately change the meaning. Mark’s angel clearly says that Jesus is going to see the disciples in Galilee. Matthew repeats this, and even has Jesus appear to the women repeating it. Luke changes that to a statement about remembering what Jesus said when he was in Galilee. This is not mere muddle. For Luke, Jerusalem is of great theological import, and so he fixes Mark in a couple of places so that Jesus’ resurrection appearances can occur in Jerusalem, rather than in Galilee (apart from the above change, he also removes Mark 14:28 from his account). In other words, Luke edits the text very deliberately to bring the centre of attention to Jerusalem.  More on this in the next section.

Matthew adds in the guards, presumably to counter possible skeptical arguments. Actually he basically lets this slip, when he says (28:15) “And this story has been spread among the Jews to this day” meaning that the idea that the body was stolen was being promulgated when Matthew was being written (which is after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD). Nothing in the guard episode is at all plausible, or compatible with the other gospels, but it seems Matthew adds it to deal with the stolen body criticism. He says (27:62) “The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation” which seems like a lot of effort to avoid saying that it was the Sabbath. It is hard to imagine the Pharisees sending a group to visit Pilate on the Sabbath, and harder still to imagine Pilate handing over a group of guards. Stranger still that this would be done only after a night has already passed unguarded. The introduction of the guards, of course, changes the narrative dramatically, making the other gospel accounts of the women visiting the tomb to ‘anoint the body’ impossible. So Matthew has the women just visiting the tomb to look at it (28:1), and has to introduce a much more dramatic opening of the tomb and incapacitation of the guards (about which the other gospels know nothing, though you would expect that kind of detail not to be hazy in the eyewitnesses’ memories). But this introduces more problems: the guards are now witnesses. Well, they were bribed and so never said anything about it. So the Jews were improbably able to put things right with Pilate (28:14) to keep the guards from getting into trouble, and the guards never, ever mention that they saw an angel descending from heaven, with an appearance like lightning. Both of these are highly implausible. It’s like watching a child get caught out in a lie, and digging the hole deeper and deeper to explain each new inconsistency. But we’re to accept all this on faith, and I’m the pariah for finding it all a bit weak? 

I actually don’t really believe that it was deliberate lies: such stories can arise in stages in good faith. Schmiedel (quoted from CJDTS) ‘imagines a Christian confronted with the charge that the disciples had stolen the body. The obvious retort would be: “The Jews, we may be quite certain, saw to the watching of the sepulchre; they could very well have known that Jesus had predicted his rising again on the third day”. Another Christian, hearing this, might take it not for conjecture, but for a statement of fact, and pass it on as such. But if soldiers guarded the tomb they must have witnessed the resurrection. What, then, did they see of it? The attempt to answer this would give rise to the story of the angel coming down from heaven and rolling away the stone. This again might well have originated as conjecture, but have been passed on as fact.’ This process would go on, all in good faith, because the end point is the presumed fact of the empty tomb and the risen Christ.

Before moving on, I want to acknowledge that it is impressive to me that it’s uniformly accepted that women went to the tomb, and always including Mary Magdalene (part of the origin of the stories about a special relationship between her and Jesus). The fact that Mary Magdalene was in all the reports suggests that many of the other details were later legend (you can’t explain it away by saying that there were multiple groups of women visiting the tomb, for example), but it suggests a kernel of truth. At first we have only the women, who at the time are considered unreliable. So two of the later gospels have men going to verify it for us, and one of them adds in the guard bit (to overcome other objections, though it introduces many others). But the tenacity of this part of the story, like the (irreconcilable) linkages between Nazareth and Bethlehem, suggest a kernel of truth. If you were fabricating the story, you’d probably just drop the women and the Nazareth bits altogether. It suggests that there really was a Jesus of Nazareth, who may really have been crucified for his blasphemy, and who inspired an extraordinary devotion in his followers. This does not undermine what I’ve said so far: the stories do not provide any kind of cohesive evidence for the important claims, but the weakness of the evidence suggests the growth of a sincerely held legend around an historical character, rather than a malicious fabrication.