A Historical Analysis of the Resurrection of Jesus

tldr resurrection

Since this post is a tad long and exhaustive scrolling can lead to carpal tunnel, feel free to jump to its following segments.

  1. Problems with the Gospels as Historical Accounts
  2. The Historical Validity of the Empty Tomb
  3. The Evolution of the Risen Jesus in Textual Tradition
  4. What Did the First Disciples Believe?
  5. Jesus as the Exalted Son of God by his Resurrection
  6. The Son of God in Historical Context
  7. Conclusion

Deleted Scenes: The Gospel of Peter’s account of Jesus emerging from the tomb

Sources and Further Reading

Problems With the Gospels as Historical Accounts

When I was a young tike my mom would occasionally put on for me the imperative cartoon for cool Catholics growing up in the 90s: Animated Stories from the New Testament on VHS. All I really recall learning from these tapes was that Jesus was an important man who was white, soft spoken, could perform magic tricks, and had women begging at feet. I’m happy to report that my understanding of the historical Jesus has grown with my height since then, eventually forcing me to accept the fact that these stories about him aren’t as simplistic and straightforward as many believers continue to claim. It wasn’t long ago I rediscovered the episodes of the cartoon online, finding it quite interesting how the writers attempted to weave together the gospels to construct a single, consistent account of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Granted, if you were to quickly read through the gospels one by one, your memory would probably do the exact same thing, like a puzzle: remembering the story of Jesus as a single unit after having pieced together the different accounts – all while having payed little attention to pieces which turned out to be doublets or don’t fit together smoothly.

angelico-fra-resurrection-of-christ-and-women-at-the-tomb-1440-42Like the nativity story, most people have a general idea of what happened on the third day following Jesus’ crucifixion according to the gospels: Mary and others went early to his tomb to anoint the body only to find the tomb empty. Instead they are greeted by two angels who tell them he has risen. The women run away except for Mary who falls on her knees in despair. Jesus then appears to her and tells her to inform the others, which she does. They express doubt but only until Jesus appears to them also. He then hangs out with his crew for a few weeks before ascending up into heaven. The End.

Pretty simple, right? Well, not according to the texts themselves. So what does happen? It depends which gospel you read. Since the gospels are not first-hand accounts by authors who wrote them in conjunction with one another, what we actually have are four different stories which cannot all be historically valid. This is easily seen when you read them side-by-side and ask some basic questions:

  1. Who went to the tomb?
  2. Had the stone already been rolled away or not?
  3. What did they see there?
  4. What were they told?
  5. What do the women/Mary do next?
  6. What were those told do in response?
  7. How does Jesus appear to the disciples?

Click here to view a page comparing the answers to these questions. If that seems a bit overwhelming, read this page where I just compare Luke and Matthew, the two gospels which I think contrast the clearest. Blogger Matt Barsotti has also created a well designed infographic to aid in putting the Easter story in perspective.

Many Christians attempt to reconcile these differences by jumbling the details together and then rearrange  and reinterpret them to make them fit, like the writers of my childhood cartoon. For instance, even though John is the only author who says that there were two angels, the others do not explicitly deny there being two so therefore there really were two. But other differences appear to be clear contradictions and therefore can’t be reasonably solved. The prime example I use is the question of where Jesus first appeared to his disciples: did the disciples go to Galilee and see Jesus on a mountain for the first time as instructed in Matthew? Or did they see him for the first time in Jerusalem and stay in the city the whole time (until they receive the Holy Spirit on the Day of the Pentecost) as instructed in Luke and Acts? I simply do not see how you can have it both ways without an insincere stretch of the imagination.

I’d like to take a moment to emphasize (and I’m sure many moderate Christians would agree with me on this) that we shouldn’t break our necks trying to harmonize the gospels. After all, they were not written by eye-witnesses. Rather, they were composed by educated Greek-speaking Christians decades after Jesus’ death. Moreover, these traditions clearly became highly embellished with legendary features during the course of their oral circulation – like practically all stories. To help put it into perspective, it would be like playing a game of Telephone for forty+ years and expecting very little change. And so for many Christians who recognize such discrepancies and contradictions between the gospels, it simply doesn’t matter. For while they may disagree on minor (and arguably major) details they all agree that Jesus was the Son of God whom the Father raised from the dead. There is still a unified synopsis which encapsulates the “good news.”

The Historical Validity of the Empty Tomb

tumblr_n4c4qjfMNj1rt28efo2_r1_500So what about the empty tomb, something all four gospels agree upon? Even if the details vary, can’t we say with a fair amount of certainty that Jesus was placed in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea following his crucifixion, and that his body was found missing days later by his disciples?

Despite what some historians – both Christian and non-Christian – would say, I would like to argue alongside the many scholars who say no, the discovery of an empty tomb is not something we can safely say happened. Granted, up until a few years ago I used to think that it was. I used to think that the reason all four gospels agree there was an empty tomb is because the discovery of one actually did occur. Believing in the empty tomb doesn’t require one to subsequently believe that Jesus was raised from the dead, however, as there are plenty of natural means to explain the event: Jesus’ body could have been placed in the wrong tomb; the women could have gone to the wrong tomb; his body could have actually been stolen – by the Romans or his followers. Any of these scenarios are technically more likely than God raising Jesus from the dead since that would be a miracle, and miracles by definition are less probable than natural explanations. Historians can’t simply accept miraculous claims as historically valid for the same reason they can’t accept the hundreds of thousands of other miraculous claims found in other religions. Historians only work with levels of probability, and miracles by definition are the least likely explanation for anything. This is precisely why Christians themselves call it faith.

Having done exhaustive reading and research on the matter, I would now like to discuss my argument that – based on the historical and textual evidence available – Jesus probably wasn’t buried in a tomb and therefore the claim that he was is a later tradition. This is largely because:

1. It conflicts with what we know about how the Romans dealt with the bodies of crucified criminals.

2. It conflicts with what we know about the character of Pontius Pilate.

3. The burial by Joseph exhibits the traits of a later tradition.

4. Paul, our earliest source, says nothing about Joseph or an empty tomb!

Let’s take a look at each of these points in sequence.

Roman Practices of Crucifixion

We know from ancient sources that the body of a crucified criminal was normally left hanging to serve as food for scavenging animals or buried improperly in a common grave to decompose and . This is because crucifixion was meant to humiliate the victim and serve as a disincentive for others to challenge the authority of the Roman government. For instance, the ancient dream interpreter Artemidorus writes that “a crucified man is raised high and his substance is sufficient to keep many birds.”[1] Among the Romans, we learn that after a battle fought by Octavian (a.k.a Caesar Augustus, emperor when Jesus was born), one of his captives begged for a proper burial, to which Octavian replied, “The birds will soon settle that question” [2]. Moreover, the Roman historian Tacitus tells of a man who committed suicide to avoid being executed by the state, since anyone who was legally condemned and executed forfeited his estate and was “deprived of burial” [3]. These are just three of the numerous sources[4] we have which indicate how customary it was for criminals of the state to be denied proper burial.

But perhaps Jesus was an exception. After all, the gospels do portray Pontius Pilate as remorseful after having sentenced Jesus to death. Isn’t it likely then that he had the heart to hand over Jesus’ body to Joseph of Arimathea?

The Historical Truth About Pontius Pilate

Pontius Pilate was prefect of Judea from 26 to 36 CE, and we know from various ancient sources that he was a violent, cold-hearted ruler who governed his territory with an iron fist. The first century historian Josephus provides us with excellent insight into his true character by telling us of two episodes that transpired during his rule. In the first we are told of how at one point Pilate threatened to murder Jewish protesters when they demanded that he remove the Roman standards that he had stationed around town, indicating that he had no interest in obeying Jewish demands [5]. On a separate occasion, Pilate wanted to build an aqueduct to provide fresh water to Jerusalem and chose to finance the project by raiding the temple treasury. When the people protested, he had his soldiers disguise themselves as civilians and mixed them into with the crowds – after which they attacked the protesters with clubs, beating many to death [6]. If that wasn’t enough to go on, the ancient historian Philo of Alexandria writes that his administration was represented  by “his venality, his violence, his thefts, his assaults, his abusive behavior, his frequent executions of untried prisoners, and his endless savage ferocity” [7].

From such reports it should be quite easy to see just how much the historical Pilate contrasts with the literary one of the gospels, whose innocent portrayal clearly served as an attack unto Jews. It is only in an earlier tradition of Luke that the Bible offers a more sincere picture of Pilate’s character, telling of how he mixed the blood of Galileans with their sacrifices (Luke 13:1).

And so, to claim that Pontius Pilate would have been nice enough to hand over the body of Jesus goes against not only Roman custom but his own character. Is it impossible that Pilate’s heart grew three sizes that day and did hand the body over for proper burial? No. But is it highly unlikely? Yes. And when properly dealing with history we must always choose the more probable scenario.

The Burial by Joseph of Arimathea

depositionEven if Pontius Pilate was the kind of guy you’d warmly invite to your son’s bar mitzvah, the tradition that Jesus was placed in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea has historical problems in itself which have allowed scholars to view it as a later tradition.

Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus.

— Mark 15:43

According to Mark, Joseph was a Jewish aristocrat who belonged to the Sanhedrin, the ruling body made up of “chief priests, elders, and scribes” – the very people whom Jesus predicted would kill him (Matt. 16:21). The fact that Joseph is identified as a respected member of this elite group should give us pause. Why would Joseph risk his life burying Jesus’ body when “whole council” – himself included – made an attempt to find evidence “against Jesus to put him to death”? (Mark 14:55). It doesn’t make much sense on its own. However, it would make sense if we propose that the trial narrative and the burial narrative were originally two separate traditions later inherited by Mark.

Evidence for the Joseph-burial tradition as a developed one can be found in the book of Acts, where at one point Paul speaks to a synagogue congregation in Antioch and mentions the burial of Jesus as carried out by the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem:

“Though they could charge him with nothing deserving death, yet they asked Pilate to have him killed. And when they had fulfilled all that was written of him, “they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb”

— (Acts 13:28-29)

Here, it isn’t Joseph of Arimathea who buries Jesus but the council as a whole. This is a different tradition, one that maybe predates the one found in Mark. What’s interesting though is that the author of Acts also reports the burial by Joseph alone (Luke 23:50-55). How come he gives two seemingly-contradictory burial stories? The “they” in Acts cannot be referring to the women, for “they” also “fulfilled all that was written of him” – meaning that they, Jesus’ enemies, fulfilled prophecy by killing him. Moreover, in Luke it says that the women merely watched Jesus being laid in the tomb by Joseph. My theory is that the author simply knew both traditions, with the version in Acts being the earlier of the two. It’s understandable as to why such a tradition would arise, as Jesus had no family in Jerusalem and therefore no family tomb. Furthermore, his disciples had fled upon his arrest so they weren’t going to bury him. Nor were the Romans. So who do we have left but the Jewish authorities?

And so, based on the fact that 1. our earliest source, Paul, says nothing about a burial in a tomb (in his letters; his sayings in Acts are certainly not authentic), and 2. there are multiple burial traditions found in our NT sources, it seems reasonable to conclude that the burial by Joseph is just one of the many embellishments added to the Jesus narrative as it was told and retold. Scholars have noticed for a while now that as time went on there was a tendency to turn “bad guys” into “good guys” within the story, as seen with the two robbers who are crucified with Jesus: in Mark both robbers mock Jesus while in Luke only one does. Pontius Pilate is a clearer example: in Mark he condemns Jesus to death; in Matthew he is reluctant and washes his hands; in John and Luke he declares Jesus innocent three times before the sentence is given; in apocryphal writings such as The Acts of Pilate and The Handing over of Pilate Pilate’s innocence is emphasized to the point where he becomes an explicit believer in Christ. I don’t see how Joseph is exempt from such development. The more vague tradition presented in Acts would seem to suggest that perhaps Joseph originated as a true enemy of Jesus, belong to the group of Jewish authorities who buried him. Later, he joined the robbers and Pilate as a figure who turned good – so much so that he alone buried Jesus in a proper tomb. Even if Joseph was a character who started out as a good guy in the earliest stories with him involved, the fact that Paul seems to know nothing about him should send all critical thinkers red flags.

So far, things aren’t looking too good for the historicity of the empty tomb. But there’s one last and most important source left to investigate. I will now argue that it is through the writings of Paul that we can best determine how earliest Christians viewed the resurrection.

Paul’s View of the Resurrection

Bartolomeo_Montagna_-_Saint_Paul_-_Google_Art_ProjectWe know that the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all make the claim that Jesus had been physically resurrected from his tomb; that God had resuscitated his corpse. But what does Paul, our earliest Christian source, say about the resurrection? The answer may surprise you just as much as it did me.

In the seven letters that scholars agree to be authentically by Paul we find that he speaks about the resurrection of Jesus quite often. Of these letters, none demonstrate Paul’s views more clearly than 1 Corinthians 15, in which he is intent on convincing his Christian readers that Jesus had been raised bodily. Paul begins his discussion by reciting a standard Christian creed (i.e. a statement of faith) that he “received” from other Christians:

For I handed over to you among the most important things what I also had received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried; and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures; and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve; then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, many of whom survive until now, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all he appeared even to me, as to one untimely born.

(1 Corinthians 15:3-8)

Since Paul tells us that he learned this creed from Christians before him, and since Paul is writing probably in the mid 50s CE – around twenty-five years after Jesus’ death, this is most certainly a creed which circulated among earlier Christians, possibly among the apostles themselves. This is what New Testament scholars call pre-Pauline tradition – meaning that it circulated orally before written down by Paul. But not everything Paul says above is a direct quote from the creed; we need to use textual clues to filter the passage and find out which parts are pre-Pauline.

For starters, Paul says things here which are found nowhere else in his writings. These include the phrase “in accordance with the scriptures”, the verb “he appeared”, as well as the reference to “the Twelve.” Furthermore, the second half of verse 6 (“many of whom survive…”) and all of verse 8 (“last of all he appeared seen to me…”) are Paul’s comments on the tradition, so they certainly weren’t a part of the creed. Scholars have therefore concluded that the original form was probably verses 3-5. In its original form, then, it would have read:

1a Christ died
2a For our sins
3a In accordance with the scriptures
4a And he was buried.

1b Christ was raised
2b On the third day
3b In accordance with the scriptures
4b And he appeared to Cephas

In his newly released book How Jesus Became God, biblical scholar Bart Ehrman offers a strong exegesis of the creed:

All the statements of the two sections of the creed are tightly parallel to one another in every respect – except one: The second section contains a name as part of the tangible proof for the statement that Jesus was raised: “He appeared to [literally: “he was seen by”] Cephas.” The fourth statement of the first section does not name any authorizing party. There we are told simply that “he was buried” – not that he was buried by anyone in particular. Given the effort that the author of this creed has taken to make every statement of the first section correspond to the parallel statement of the second section, and vice versa, this should give us pause. It would have been very easy indeed to make the parallel precise, simply by saying “he was buried by Joseph [of Arimathea].” Why didn’t the author make this precise parallel? Because he knew nothing about a burial of Jesus by Joseph. Paul indicates that he was the “last of all.” This is frequently understood, rightly I think, to mean that he is giving the fullest list he can. But he doesn’t mentions any women (p. 142).

In other words, if Paul or the author of the pre-Pauline creed knew about a burial by Joseph, an empty tomb, or a discovery by women, we would certainly expect to find it in the creed and Paul’s letters – partly because it would make the verses in the creed balanced. But we don’t! Paul says nothing about such traditions. Ehrman goes on to make the interesting note that “Paul, our earliest source of the resurrection, discusses the appearances without mentioning an empty tomb, while our earliest Gospel, Mark, narrates the discovery of the empty tomb without discussing any of the appearances! This has lead some scholars to suggest that these two sets of tradition probably originated independently of one another and were put together as a single tradition only later – as found in Matthew and Luke.”

I should also take a moment to point out that the belief of Jesus being raised “on the third day” is certainly based on perceived prophecy from Hebrew scripture, namely Jonah chapter 2 in which Jonah is swallowed by a giant fish and reemerges (therefore defeating death in a sense) after three days and three nights – as alluded to by Jesus himself in Matthew 12:39-41. An argument could also be made for Hosea 6:2 which reads, “After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him.”

So what does Paul believe about the resurrection of Jesus? If it didn’t comprise of a burial and empty tomb, what did it comprise of? What was the nature of it? The short answer is that Paul believed Jesus was raised in a spiritual body, not a physical, earthly body. This is a fact that most tend to miss when reading Paul’s writings, if not because it’s easy to assume that every Christian believed in the resurrection according to the Gospel tradition – where Jesus is clearly raised in the same body he was crucified in. But Paul is different. Let’s investigate his views further.

Returning to 1 Corinthians 15 (the so-called “resurrection chapter”), Paul emphasizes that Jesus had been raised in a spiritual body, writing in response to some of his converts in Corinth who don’t understand what the resurrection is all about. To them, Jesus’s resurrection was a purely spiritual one and something they too can already achieve with their inner being. Paul mocks this view vigorously (1 Cor. 4:8). Moreover, they maintain that “there is no resurrection of the dead” (15:13). While they accepted the gospel message that Jesus had been raised, they couldn’t understand why there had to be a future resurrection for those who had already died, since by dying one was surely free of their prison-like bodies and became closer to God. Their objection was likely based on the influence of the common Greek understanding of death, which saw it as a friend – freeing the immortal soul from the lower material world to experience heavenly bliss; this is the view of Plato and Socrates for instance.[8] This is quite different from Jewish and early Christian understanding of death, which saw it as an enemy. As Paul says, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Cor. 15:26).

It’s pretty clear from Paul’s writing that he is rather frustrated with his Christian recipients in Corinth, who saw the resurrection as a purely spiritual event. Why would a purely-spiritual God have any interest in raising rotting corpses? And how could he raised bodies which have already turned to dust? They ask Paul these very questions: “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” (1 Cor. 15:35). Paul’s answer? Upon our resurrection God provides us with new bodies; spiritual ones. We will be clothed in a spiritual body, just as Jesus had received. Christ, through his resurrection from the dead, became a new heavenly Adam, with a spiritual body. According to New Testament scholar James Tabor, “Paul expresses this with five contrasting couplets and a conclusion:

  1. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body.
  2. The first man Adam became a living being; the last Adam [Christ] became a life-giving spirit.
  3. It is not the spiritual that is first but the physical, and then the spiritual.
  4. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven.
  5. Just as we have born the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven. (1 Corinthians 15:45-49)” [9]

Throughout his letter Paul uses metaphors to help his readers understand the nature of the resurrection, at one point comparing the body to a seed:

“What is sown is sown perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body

—(1 Corinthians 15:42-44).

A few verses later, Paul clarifies further:

“…the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’

—(1 Corinthians 15:52-54).

And so, the old body perishes in the ground and from it rises a new, immortal body. Paul also compares the resurrection to the act of putting on new clothes or leaving a fragile tent to living in a permanent, sacred house:

For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling—if indeed, when we have taken it off we will not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan under our burden, because we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.

—2 Corinthians 5:1-4

In other words, when we are born we are clothed in a physical body. When we die, that body is left behind and we become “unclothed.” Contrary to the Greek Platonic view however, our mission isn’t to stay in this naked state as a disembodied soul but rather to be “further clothed” – this time in a spiritual body that will last forever.

As a Jew, Paul could not conceive of resurrection without envisaging some kind of body [some Jews believed it was going to be the same body: 2 Mac 7:11; Eccl.R 1:4; GenR 95:1], but, combining his Jewish legacy with the Hellenistic ideas of his readers, he insisted that this body would be totally different from the one that had died. The risen body would be imperishable, glorious, and powerful, bearing the image not of the mortal Adam, but that of the glorified Christ. The raised dead would be granted a spiritual body, and the just, alive at Parousia, would have their earthly bodies transformed into spiritual ones.

— Geza Vermes, The Resurrection: History and Myth p. 124-125

Caravaggio_-_The_Incredulity_of_Saint_ThomasThe fact that Paul does not believe in a physical resurrection of the dead can not be seen more explicitly than his statement that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable” (1 Cor. 15:50)This should immediately strike us as a view contrary to that of the gospels, which progressively emphasize the physical nature of Jesus’ resurrection in order to counter the claims of Christians who aligned with Paul. In Luke, the disciples “thought that they were seeing a spirit/ghost” (24:37). Jesus rebukes them and tells them to feel his body: “Look at my hands and my feet, to see it is I. Handle me and see – for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (24:39). Contrast to Paul, Luke’s Jesus has “flesh and bones.” It can eat a meal of fish. The attempt to counter Pauline theology continued to grow so much that by the gospel of John is written we read how Thomas must feel the wounds in Jesus’ hands and side in order to believe (John 20:24-28). Here again, Jesus appears exhibiting the very body he was crucified in.

What Luke and John introduce here, namely that Jesus appeared in the same body that had been placed in the tomb represents a major departure from early Christian resurrection faith. This understanding of Jesus’ resurrection has led to endless confusion on the part of sincere Christians who do believe Jesus was raised from the dead. These stories are secondary and legendary. We know this because Mark, who wrote decades earlier, does not know them, and Paul, who is still earlier says plainly that the new body is not “flesh and blood” (1 Cor. 15:50).

— James Tabor, “Corpse Revival is Not ‘Resurrection of the Dead’”

The Evolution of the Risen Jesus in Textual Tradition

If we put our New Testament sources in chronological order, what we have is a striking breakdown of how the spiritual nature of the resurrection as  preached by Paul and those before him became deemphasized gradually over time as the Christian message circulated again and again:

  • Paul receives his revelation from the risen Christ – appearing in a glorious heavenly body – approximately seven years following Jesus’ crucifixion. Paul writes in his letter to the Corinthians (c. 55 CE) that Jesus was raised in a spiritual body, not made of “flesh and blood.” While he equates his vision with that of the earlier apostles (e.g. Peter, James), he says nothing about a burial by Joseph, an empty tomb, and many other traditions found in the later gospels.
  • Markour earliest gospel (c. 70 CE), has no account of anyone seeing Jesus after he is raised. The author nonetheless hints at later (how later?) visions of Jesus by having the young man at the tomb instruct the women to tell the disciples to go to Galilee where they will see him.
  • Matthew (c. 85 CE) has an angel tell the disciples that they will see Jesus in Galilee. On their way to deliver the message they meet Jesus, who repeats the instruction more explicitly. Later, the eleven disciples see Jesus on a mountain in Galilee, “but some doubted” (Matt. 28:17).
  • Luke  (c. 85 CE) has Jesus appear to two men that day as they were walking on a road outside Jerusalem. They share a meal with him, though it isn’t until he leaves that they recognize him. Peter then sees Jesus without details given. Jesus appears that evening to the eleven disciples in a room and eats with them. He convinces them he is not a spirit or ghost by showing them his physical body.
  • John, our last gospel (c. 95 CE), has Jesus first appear to Mary Magdalene, outside the tomb on Sunday morning. The evening he appears to the rest of the disciples (minus Thomas), showing them his wounds. Eight days later he reappears again, allowing Thomas to touch his wounds to distinguish his doubt that Jesus isn’t a ghost.

Having reading each summary above, go back and quickly read only the colored highlights – noting how each hue designates a progressive level of emphasis on the physical nature of the resurrected Jesus:

In our earliest sources (Paul and the pre-Pauline creed he recites in 1 Cor.), we have no tradition of a proper burial or an empty tomb. This isn’t problematic for the earliest Christians such as Paul, for it was believed that Jesus was raised in a spiritual body. It was in this heavenly form that he later appeared in visions to Peter (Cephas), James, and others.

In our earliest gospel Mark, written some twenty years after Paul, Jesus is raised bodily and visions  in Galilee are hinted but no details are given; this is probably a good historical indication that Jesus’ disciples had visions (i.e. hallucinations) of Jesus some time after returning to their small hometown. In Matthew, written a little later, we learn a little more: the eleven disciples see Jesus while they are on a mountain in Galilee. However, “some doubted” that it was really Jesus. How could they doubt if Jesus was standing right there!? Because Jesus didn’t appear to them in blatant physical form like Luke and John would have you believe; like the experience of Paul these were visions of the heavenly Jesus. In other words, while Mark and Matthew agree with Luke and John that this was a physical resurrection (since the body is missing), they also appear to still agree with Paul that these were celestial visions. It was only after God had raised Jesus physically and ascended him to his right side that the disciples became convinced that they had seen him, though in such a metaphysical manner that doubt occurred.

In Luke, also written after Mark, we get the first real emphasis that Jesus appeared in a physical body by adding new details: he eats with the disciples and shows them his body to remove any doubt. Furthermore, it is only after he is finished meeting with them that Jesus ascends into heaven – an innovation to the Jesus narrative.

In John, the furthest removed from Paul and the gospels, the greatest emphasis is given. The author actually has Thomas touch Jesus’ wounds to make sure he wasn’t raised in a spiritual body. Here there is no doubt that the resurrection entails the resuscitation of a corpse.

And so, as seen in this walk-through of the gospel traditions, the evidence for a gradual de-emphesis on the earlier attested spiritual resurrection of Jesus is quite solid.

What did the first disciples believe?

Did Jesus’ original followers believe God had raised Jesus in a spiritual body as Paul proposes, or a physical body as the gospels claim? The answer becomes clear when we understand how most Jews thought about the resurrection of the dead during that time period. While there are passages hinting at a belief in a resurrection for God’s righteous throughout Jewish texts (Isaiah 26:12-19; Ezekiel 37 [metaphorically]; Job 14:13-15), it is only in Daniel 12, written during the age of the Maccabean revolt that we get our first unambiguous reference to a resurrection and therefore doctrine of life after death:

Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever. (12:1-3)

As my Jewish Study Bible explains in the footnotes: The doctrine of resurrection and judgement probably came about during the persecutions of Antiochus IV as a means to effect justice at a time when pious people, the “wise”, were being martyred. Unlike Ezekiel’s vision of dry bones, the resurrection here is not a metaphor for the rebirth of Israel, but individual resurrection for judgement. 

So here we have our first clear belief in a resurrection. What kind of resurrection is it? It’s not as explicit as Paul in 1 Corinthians, but the hints are there: those on God’s side will acquire angel like qualities in their bright appearance. This new state of bodily righteousness is described even more clearly in the apocryphal books of Enoch. Apocalyptic expert John Collins of Yale explains how the texts align:

Daniel does not envisage a general resurrection. Many, not all, will arise, presumably the very good and very bad. The maskilim are singled out for special honor. Shining like the stars should not be dismissed as a mere metaphor. We have noted above that the stars often represent the heavenly host and are used in that sense in Dan 8:10. The significance of the reference in Daniel 12 can be seen clearly in light of a parallel in 1 Enoch 104. There the righteous are promised that they “will shine as the lights of heaven and the portraits of heaven will be opened to you” (vs. 2) and a few verses later that they will “become companions to the host of heaven” (vs. 6). In this case it is quite clear that to “shine like the stars” is to join the angelic host. This conception is found also in other apocalyptic texts. In the Similitudes of Enoch (39:5) “the dwelling places of the righteous are with the holy angels.” In Mark 12:25 (and parallels) Jesus tells the Sadducees that when men rise from the dead they are like the angels in heaven. In the Qumran scrolls the members of the community mingle with the angels [1QH 11:19-22]. In Daniel 12, too, the identification of stars and angels is implied. The wise teachers, who derive their wisdom from angelic revelations throughout the book, hope to mingle with the angels after their death. In view of this hope we can appreciate the full signifiance of the triumph of the holy ones in Daniel 7.

—Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination, p. 112-113

And so, simply put, by the first century the doctrine of the resurrection had blossomed into that of spiritual and angel-like nature. As Collins points out above, this is seen in the teaching of Jesus himself – a teaching found in all three gospels (Mark 12:22-25; Matthew 22:30; Luke 20:34-36). When Jesus is confronted about what kind of body they’ll be raised in he describes it as a spiritual, genderless one – like those of angels. James Tabor also takes this stance, saying, “The fully developed view of resurrection of the dead among Jews in the time of Jesus was that at the end of days the dead would come forth from Sheol/Hades—literally the ‘state of being dead,’ and live again in an embodied form. The question was—what kind of a body? And it was there that the debates began. The Sadducees, who denied the resurrection, poked fun at the Pharisees, who affirmed it…The resurrection of the dead, according to both Paul and Jesus, has nothing to do with the former physical body.” [10]

It is safe to say then that Paul’s doctrine of the resurrection involving the re-embodiment of the soul into spiritual, “imperishable” vessels was no innovation. Scholar Alan F. Segal agrees, saying, “Paul’s conception of the risen body of Christ as the spiritual body (1 Cor. 15:43-44) at the end of time and the body of Glory (Phil. 3:21) thus originates in Jewish apocalypticism and mysticism, modified by the unique events of early Christianity.”[11] This was the common view of the nature resurrection among many Jews of the first century, including Jesus and his disciples. As such, upon having visions of Jesus after his death, the first disciples interpreted it as he having been raised by God in a glorified state separate from his earthly body. No empty tomb was necessary.

What can we know for sure?

In the end, however, our textual evidence remains quite limited when dealing with Jesus’ ministry and it’s likely that we’ll never know how the first disciples of Jesus’ viewed the precise nature of his resurrection. So what can we know? We know that following his crucifixion, followers of Jesus – including some of “the Twelve” (Peter certainly being one of them) – had visions of Jesus which led them to believe that God had raised him bodily from the dead and that he would soon return to judge humanity and establish God’s kingdom on earth in accordance with scripture. Two points here: first, Paul and the authors of the gospels all agree that Jesus had been raised bodily; where they sometimes differ is in what sense Jesus was raised bodily (spiritual or physical?). Second, and most historically true of all, it was visions of Jesus – and nothing else – that led to the first disciples to believe that their messiah had been raised from the dead. This goes for Paul as well, who also had a vision (Gal. 1:15-16; 1 Cor. 15:8). 

That Jesus’ followers (and later Paul) had resurrection experiences is, in my judgment, a fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know.

—E.P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus, p. 280

The empty tomb had nothing to do with it. As we’ve already seen, the empty tomb is a later tradition. Moreover, an empty tomb wouldn’t have convinced them that he had been raised anyway, as the gospels themselves explicitly indicate; the disciples think someone has taken the body (John 20:2), and they dismiss the women’s message that he had been risen as an “idle tale” (Luke 24:11). It isn’t until Jesus actually appears to them that they believed.

If I could get a bit personal for a moment, this is – among other things – why I am not a Christian. When believers attempt to convert me by using the empty tomb as “proof” that Jesus is God, I have to point out that according to the Bible even Jesus’ first disciples didn’t find it convincing. They had to see Jesus with their very own eyes. Thomas had to actually touch Jesus’ wounds before believing. If they required such concrete evidence, why must I believe based on anything less? Some may respond claiming that the fact that the disciples required such evidence proves the resurrection. I would reject this argument as well, for while I believe that some of the disciples did have visions of Jesus, I don’t see reason to view them to as veridical (i.e. truthful) any more than the supernatural visions had by millions of others throughout history – from visions of the Virgin Mary, to miracles of Indian Gurus such as Sai Baba, to the experiences of supposed UFO abductees. For historians such as myself there needs to be a more objective and sensible standard for belief or else we’d be forced to believe a countless number of contradictory claims. If someone wants to believe in the resurrection of Jesus, that’s fine. I’m not going to say that they can’t. My problem is with the claim that the resurrection can be historically proven. Even many Christians would agree with me, which is why they appropriately call their belief “faith.”

Returning now to our historical investigation, there is one last vital piece of information that our New Testament sources reveal about early Christian belief in relation to the resurrection: it was strictly through Jesus’ resurrection that he became the Son of God.

Jesus as the Exalted Son of God by His Resurrection

If there’s one thing New Testament scholars agree upon it’s that belief in Jesus’ resurrection changed everything Christologically – that is, how the disciples viewed Jesus Christ. Before his resurrection, Jesus’ followers viewed him as a renowned teacher (“Rabbouni”), apocalyptic preacher, and a likely contender for the messianic kingship. If he had now been raised but was no longer on earth continuing where he left off, that must mean that he had ascended to heaven and was now sitting on the right hand of God. Although Jesus wasn’t the first to come back from the dead (Elijah brought brought a young man back in 1 Kings. 17:17-24; Jesus raised the daughter of Jairus in Mark 5:21-43 and Lazarus in John 11:1-44), his resurrection was seen as the first of its kind. Jesus was understood to be the “first fruits” of those who had died (1 Cor. 15:20), marking the beginning of the ultimate resurrection which would occur before the Last Judgement. Those before Jesus hadn’t really been resurrected but merely resuscitated back to life, after which they would eventually die again as mortals. As discussed earlier, this is in contrast to the final resurrection in which the chosen few will rise from the shadowy realm of Sheol and be re-clothed in a spiritual body that will last forever in God’s new kingdom on earth. This is the form in which Jesus appeared to the disciples in their visions, including Paul who constantly refers to him as the “risen Christ” – not “Jesus.”

Because he appeared in this new, spiritual body, Jesus could now do things no earthly body could do: he could walk through a stone tomb (Matthew), appear instantly despite locked doors (John 20:19), and vanish into thin air (Luke 24:31-35). More striking is Jesus’ ability to change form or shapeshift,[12] for neither Mary Magdalene (John 20:11-18) nor the two disciples on the road to Emmaus recognize him at first – despite looking straight at him; more explicitly, the longer ending of Mark says that he appeared to two of the disciples “In a different form” (Mark 16:12). These appear to be some of the abilities his new body allowed him to perform. Yes, Jesus could do miraculous things before he was raised such as the transfiguration and walking on water, but I’m in agreement with Bart Ehrman who states in his new book that “later, writers who believed Jesus had been exalted prior to his resurrection gave his body these attributes during his ministry.”

But there’s something else that changed about Jesus upon his resurrection: by raising Jesus and exalting him to heaven to sit at his right hand God had adopted him his son. According to the earliest Christians, Jesus was made the Son of God not through his baptism or birth, but his resurrection and exaltation to heaven. We can validate this by means of preliterary traditions located within New Testament writings, as we did earlier. Preliterary traditions are traditions which originated and circulated orally – usually in the form of creeds or hymns – before being written down in our New Testament literature. PrePauline traditions are one type of prelitery tradition, such as the one we looked at earlier regarding the resurrection. These are traditions that can be pinpointed to about a decade after the disciples came to believe that Jesus had been resurrected, making them of course incredibly valuable.

Embedded in the first chapter of Romans appears to be a pre-Pauline creed with two thought units corresponding to one another similar to the creed we dissected earlier:

A1 Who as descended
A2 from the seed of David
A3 according to the flesh,

B1 who was appointed
B2 Son of God in power
B3 according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead

—Romans 1:3-4

The message couldn’t be clearer. Jesus was appointed as the Son of God by his resurrection. While the gospel of Mark would have you believe that Jesus earned the title at his baptism (Mark 1:9-11) and Matthew and Luke at his birth via the Virgin Mary (Matt. 1:18; Luke 1:26-38), here we have a much earlier tradition that it was only after God had raised Jesus from the dead that he became his exalted son.

Why do scholars think this is a creed Paul learned from an earlier source?

  • Nowhere else in his letters does Paul use the phrase “seed of David”; in fact, nowhere else does he mention that Jesus was a descendant of David.
  • Nowhere else does he use the phrase “Spirit of holiness” to refer to the Holy Spirit. It is also a phrase scholars call a Semitism, meaning that it contains linguistic features that allow it to originate from Jesus’ Aramaic-speaking followers.
  • Nowhere else does he ever talk about Jesus becoming the Son of God at the resurrection.
  • One can remove it from its context and the context flows extremely well, as if nothing is missing (showing that it has been inserted).
  • The creed contrasts with Paul’s own theology. For Paul, Jesus has always been the Son of God, and existed in heaven as a divine figure before coming to earth (more on this in a future post).

Why does Paul quote this creed if he doesn’t fully agree with it then? The answer is in the context of the letter. Paul is writing to Christians in Rome to gain support for an upcoming mission. By including this well known and classic statement of faith Paul is letting it known that he is a Christian through and through. Even his own views didn’t align with it entirely, the creed nonetheless encapsulated their shared religion – with a basic message they could all get behind.

Second, several passages in the book of Acts appear to contain old, preliterary elements with Christological views very similar to the one expressed in Romans 1:3-4. Here Paul (but not really Paul, mind you; the author wrote the speeches himself using material he inherited) is explaining to an crowd the significance of Jesus’ resurrection:

We preach the good news to you, that what God promised to the fathers, this he has fulfilled for us their children by raising Jesus; as also it is written in the second psalm, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you” 

—Acts 13:32-33

Here “Paul” tells his audience that God’s promise to their Jewish ancestors has been fulfilled through Jesus’ resurrection of the dead. In other words, by quoting Psalm 2:7, which originally refers to the anointing of the Jewish king as God’s son, the author is attempting to show that Hebrew Scripture was really talking about Jesus and that the prophecy has now been fulfilled. The fact that the author of Luke has Paul say this is quite astounding given that in Luke’s own view Jesus did not become the son of God at the resurrection but rather at his birth, making him the Son of God in the most literal sense.

Other preliterary traditions in Acts include such verses as “exalted at the right hand of God…God has made him both Lord and Messiah” (Acts 2:32-36) and “The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus…God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior” (Acts 5:30-31). I could go into greater discussion about these also but I think you get the point.

Professor Bart Ehrman calls the nature of Jesus expressed in these passages an exaltation Christology (a suitable alternative to the potentially demeaning “low/high Christology”). As he tells us in his book, there were two fundamentally different Christological views in early Christianity: one that saw Jesus as being from “down below” (expressed in the synoptic gospels) who came to be “exalted”, and one that saw Jesus as being originally from “up above” (expressed in John) who came to earth from the heavenly realm. Some authors – such as the anonymous writers of the Hebrew and the Philippians Christ poem – presented a kind of mixture of the two views. Scholars believe that in a very short amount of time incarnation Christologies lead to exaltation Christologies and that eventually the latter became dominant.

The Son of God in Historical Context

There are good reasons for why the earliest followers of Jesus thought he had been exalted to heaven and adopted by God as his divine son. The first and primary reason goes back to epithets attributed to earlier messiahs – anointed kings of Israel – centuries ago. If we open the Old Testament we find that they too were called the Son of God.

  • Solomon was God’s adopted son in 2 Samuel 7:12-14: “I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name; and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me.”
  • David is anointed by God and is made God’s “firstborn, the highest of the kings of earth” (Psalm 89:27).
  • In Psalm 2:7 God tells his anointed “You are my son; today I have begotten you.” In this case the king is not only adopted by God, he is actually born of God; God has brought him forth. This is the passage quoted by the author of Acts discussed above.

Divi-FiliusThe second reason Christians emphasized Jesus as the Son of God probably has to do with the fact that they were doing so precisely the same time that Romans were calling their emperor Caesar Augustus/Octavian (ruling 27 BCE to 14 CE) the Son of God (divi filius)[13]. We know this from archaeological finds such as coins dating from as early as 38 BCE, as well as the Porta Tiburtina gate in Rome which bears a 5 BCE inscription calling Augustus “son of the divine”. Both Jesus and the emperor were originally Sons of God in the adoptive sense, for Octavian was adopted by Julius Caesar (declared as a God upon his death) and Jesus was adopted by God at the resurrected. Contrary to modern assumptions, being the adoptive son wasn’t seen as a lower level of inheritance. In fact, just the opposite was the case in antiquity. Individuals such as Octavian were adopted by the higher class because they exhibited grand potential. But later, legends developed about both Caesar Augustus and Jesus being born as literal Sons of God: Octavian’s mother, Atia, was said to have been impregnated by the God Apollo in the form of a snake, while Jesus – according to Matthew and Luke – was born of the Virgin Mary after the Holy Spirit descended upon her. I think these similarities are far from mere coincidence.

So what have we learned in this investigation?

In the end we’ve been able to conclude a significant amount about the resurrection of Jesus with our first century sources. While there is still much that we don’t know and will probably never know, we can still make confident statements of probability, as with anything else in history. Therefore, based on the historical and textual evidence discussed above, it’s safe to say that Jesus probably wasn’t buried in a tomb and that the burial tradition told in the gospels is a later embellishment to the Jesus narrative. According to historical evidence, not only does a proper burial contradict Roman custom of crucifixion but also the inhumane character of Pontius Pilate, the prefect who sentenced Jesus to death. According to the textual evidence from our New Testament writings, the burial by Joseph of Arimathea and the empty tomb itself show all the signs of being a later tradition: there’s more than one burial account in the New Testament and – most telling of all – Paul says nothing about a burial by Joseph nor the discovery of an empty tomb. For Paul and other early Christians Jesus had been raised in a spiritual body, not made of flesh and blood; this is the exact opposite of what the authors of the gospels believed about the resurrection, for they saw the resurrection of Jesus as the reanimation of the earthly body – a christology which became more and more dominant as the story about Jesus circulated. Because there was no empty tomb, it was strictly visions of Jesus which lead to belief in his resurrection. And lastly, it was originally the resurrection which exalted Jesus to divine status as the Son of God – as seen in the preliterary traditions that can be dissected from our New Testament writings.

For readers who identify as Christian and therefore do believe that Jesus was indeed raised from the dead, this investigation probably comes off as dubious and perhaps even blasphemous. I’d like to respond by saying that nowhere in this article have I dealt with absolutes regarding Jesus’ burial and empty tomb – either for or against it. As much as I wish I had a time machine, I don’t. Nor does anyone else. Therefore we must restrict our conclusions to levels of probabilities – as all historian do. And that’s what’s so great about history: the facts as well as the possibilities. Possibilities that allow one to remain faithful, even if that faith is as small as a mustard seed.

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The Gospel of Peter

The gospels of the New Testament disagree on a many of things as we saw at the start of our discussion, but one of the things they all share is the lack of an account telling of Jesus’ actual resurrection the moment it happened. However, The Gospel of Peter, an apocryphal text discovered near the end of the nineteenth century, fills that gap and gives quite an entertaining story of how Jesus’ emergence from the tomb.

Image 4 copy_0But in the night in which the Lord’s day dawned, when the soldiers were safeguarding it two by two in every watch, there was a loud voice in heaven; and they saw that the heavens were opened and that two males who had much radiance had come down from there and come near the sepulcher. But that stone which had been thrust against the door, having rolled by itself, went a distance off the side; and the sepulcher opened, and both the young men entered. And so those soldiers, having seen, awakened the centurion and the elders (for they too were present, safeguarding). And while they were relating what they had seen, again they see three males who have come out from they sepulcher, with the two supporting the other one, and a cross following them, and the head of the two reaching unto heaven, but that of the one being led out by a hand by them going beyond the heavens. And they were hearing a voice from the heavens saying, “Have you made proclamation to the fallen-asleep?” And an obeisance was heard from the cross, “Yes.” [14]

Sources and Further Reading:

[1] Dream Book 2.53, quoted in Crossan, “Dogs,” p. 159

[2] Suetonius, Life of Augustus 13

[3] Tacitus, Annals 6

[4] In addition to the examples given, see Crucifixion by Martin Hengel and Ehrman’s How Jesus Became Godp. 156-161

[5] Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 18.3.1

[6] Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 18.3.2

[7] Philo, Embassy to Gaius 302, Translation of E. Mary Smallwood, Legatio ad Gaium

[8] See Plato’s Death of Socrates or his Phaedo

[9] Tabor, Paul and Jesusp. 62

[10] Tabor, “Why People are Confused about the earliest Christian View of Resurrection of the Dead?”

[11] Segal, “The Resurrection: Faith or History?” in Stewart, The Resurrection of Jesus: John Dominic Crossan and N.T. Wright in Dialogue, p. 130

[12] After the gospels this idea of Jesus having the ability to shapeshift seems to have become more emphasized in some Christian circles, as seen in this fascinating Egyptian apocrypha where the reason Judas kisses Jesus to identify him is because he can shapeshift. In addition, The Apocryphon of John tells of how Jesus – before John’s eyes – goes from being a youth to looking like and old man to looking like a servant.

[13] Further information on Caesar Augustus and his “Son of God’ title can be found here and here.

[14] The Gospel of Peter (v. 35-42) translated by Raymond Brown


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