[Moderator’s note: The following article is excerpted from Dan Barker’s recent book, “Godless”. Dan Barker (born June 25, 1949) is a prominent American atheist activist who served as a Christian preacher and musician for 20 years, but left Christianity in 1984. After almost 20 years of evangelical preaching, missionizing, and Christian songwriting, Dan Barker started loosing his faith in faith. In Godless, Barker describes the intellectual and psychological path he followed in moving from fundamentalism to freethought. Godless includes sections on biblical morality, the historicity of Jesus, biblical contradictions, the unbelievable resurrection, and much more. It is an arsenal for skeptics and a direct challenge to believers. Along the way, Barker relates the positive benefit readers will experience from learning to trust in reason and human kindness instead of living in fear of false judgment and moral condemnation. He is the current co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, an American Freethought organization that promotes the separation of church and state.
Did Jesus Really Rise From The Dead?
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 Christians!
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 grave?
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 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.” 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 (Easter).
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 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 (16:10,11)
- 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 (20:27)
After the women, to whom did Jesus first appear?
- Matthew: Eleven disciples (28:16)
- 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 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 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 evening (20:19)
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 (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 (16:19) 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 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 (16:19)
- 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 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, they look exactly like a legend.
The documents that contain a resurrection story are usually dated like this:
Writer Date Resurrection passage 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 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 account:
Writer Extraordinary events Paul: 0 Mark: 1 Matthew: 4 Luke: 5 Peter: 6 John: 8+
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 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. 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 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. 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 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 . . .” 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.” 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 bodily appearances.
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 one.
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 appearances.
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 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, 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 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 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 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, 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 respectful
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 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.”
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.
1 Losing Faith In Faith: From Preacher to Atheist, by Dan Barker, FFRF, Inc., 1992
4 Including the Westar Institute, Santa Rosa, California, with 70+ bible scholars and many books and publications
6 “Americans’ Bible Knowledge Is In the Ballpark, But Often Off Base,” July 12, 2000, Barna Research
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.
11 See “The Formation of the New Testament Canon” by Richard Carrier, www.infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/NTcanon.html, especially note 6.
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.
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 religious belief.”
21 See “Historical Evidence and the Empty Tomb Story: A Reply to William Lane Craig,” by Jeffery Jay Lowder, 2001. www.infidels.org/library/modern/jeff_lowder/empty.html
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 Christian.
26 The First Coming: How the Kingdom of God Became Christianity, by Thomas Sheehan, Random House, 1986, p. 9727 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 here
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.
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.”
43 See “Did Paul’s Men Hear a Voice?” by Dan Barker. www.infidels.org/library/magazines/tsr/1994/1/1voice94.html
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.
50 For one source, see “The ‘Elian Gonzalez’ Religious Movement” at www.religioustolerance.org/elian.htm
54 Beyond Born Again, by Robert M. Price. Section II–The Evangelical Apologists: Are They Reliable? Chapter 6: “Guarding An Empty Tomb.” (Online here) See also When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study, by Leon Festinger, Harpercollins College Div, June 1964