Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?
By Merle Hertzler
We have seen many reasons to be skeptical about the claims of the Bible in general, and the gospels in particular. But what about the resurrection? Some wonder how we can account for the great Christian movement of the first century if there had been no resurrection. I would have to ask, "To what massive movement do these people refer?" Let us take a look at first century Palestine. I think we will find that history is strangely silent about Jerusalem being filled with that doctrine.
Yes, we do read of the preachers of the resurrection in the Book of Acts, but can we trust that book? Acts suffers from many of the problems we have discussed with the gospels. Acts is generally thought to be part of a two volume series with the book of Luke. We have already seen that the book of Luke is doubtful as history. Since the book of Luke is not reliable, then we have reason to doubt volume 2 of that set also.
We have also seen that Luke was probably written well after 70 AD, and thus we can conclude that Acts was probably written late also. Further, it appears that the author of Acts borrowed from Josephus, and thus must have written some time after Josephus wrote in 95 AD. (See Luke and Josephus offsite). This puts the date of Acts significantly removed from the events it records. If we are going to find out what happened in the first century, a contemporary book written in the first century would be more helpful.
What about the contemporary writings of that period? Let us lay the book of Acts aside for a minute, and look at what the other writings in that period record. We will find that Acts basically stands alone in its claim. Since it cannot be supported by other writings, many have suggested that much of the book of Acts is fiction. But we will hold off on that judgment for now. Let us first look at the early writings. In these writings we will find no account of an empty grave, a bodily resurrection, or a huge resurrection-preaching church in Judea.
We will study the early writings by dividing them into four groups: the sayings tradition, Paul, the Gnostics, and the Jerusalem apostles.
First, we have the sayings tradition. These writings include the lost gospel of Q and the gospel of Thomas. They consist mostly of sayings attributed to a Jesus. There is nothing in these books about a physical resurrection or the atonement. They are a collection of wise sayings claimed to be from Jesus. Perhaps they really were spoken by a man named Jesus, but we don't really know. The communities that wrote these books are no testimony to a physical resurrection. If it happened, they did not think it was important enough to include in their books. If a bodily resurrection really had occurred, how can these people be collecting and cherishing the sayings of Jesus, without ever mentioning this phenomenal event?
Second, we have the writings of Paul. As Earl Doherty has shown, Paul appears to be talking about a Jesus in the spirit world. Paul gives no details about an earthly Jesus (offsite link). Paul's Christianity followed the tradition of the Greek mystery religions, in which a spirit being is said to bring salvation. So one could well make the case that Paul never even referred to an earthly Jesus. Even if Paul was speaking of a physical Jesus, the resurrection to which he refers appears to be a resurrection of the spirit, not of the body.
Christians will commonly quote 1 Cor. 15:4-8:
He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also.
But notice that Paul includes himself in this list of witnesses. Now what did Paul see? As 2 Corinthians 12 explains, Paul saw a heavenly vision of Jesus. And Paul declares that, "in no respect was I inferior to the most eminent apostles" (2 Cor. 12:11). Paul did not consider that the Jerusalem apostles had experienced any greater revelation of the risen Jesus than what he had. And what did Paul see? He saw a vision! Nowhere does Paul claim that these disciples saw anything more than he saw, a vision.
I Cor. 15 goes on to explain the resurrection that Paul is referring to. He wrote, "Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God" (v 50) Paul was not talking about a resurrection of the flesh, for flesh cannot enter the kingdom. No, he was talking about a risen spirit, which he thought could enter the kingdom. He was talking about a "spiritual body." ( v 44). Is it not likely that Paul is referring only to a rising of the spirit of Jesus, not a physical resurrection?
Paul's movement does nothing to support the belief in a literal, physical resurrection. Even if you claim that he possibly could be referring to a bodily resurrection, this would be far from clear evidence that belief in a resurrection was common before 70 AD. And that is what we are looking for. We are looking for a contemporary of the events recorded in Acts who clearly believed in the resurrection.
Third, we have the writings of the Gnostics. Unfortunately, most of their writings have been destroyed by later Christians, so we do not have a good record of what they taught (see Gnostics, Gnostic Gospels, & Gnosticism offsite). Although later Christians have written the Gnostics off as a heretical offshoot of the faith, historical documents indicate that Gnositcs may have been prevalent early, and "orthodox" Christianity may have developed from Gnosticism and other sources, rather than the other way around. The Gnostics found physical bodies to be evil, and the Jesus they betray seems to have a "body" that is quite different from a human body. Their Jesus is the logos that came to give us knowledge, not to die and make atonement. We won't find the physical resurrection of a dead body there.
Fourth, we have the Jerusalem apostles that Paul refers to, including a Peter (Cephas), James, and John. These are, of course, the traditional witnesses to the resurrection. But we know very little about these men. Skeptics doubt if we have any books that they wrote. True, we do have some books that bear the names of these disciples, but it is doubtful if the disciples actually wrote them. Even if those books are authentic works, we find no testimony in them to the bodily resurrection, the empty grave, or the post-resurrection appearances. And we might well ask, "Why not?" Wouldn't that be the most important thing on their minds? But none of those books share the personal experience of those disciples with a resurrected Jesus.
Paul indicates that these Jerusalem apostles were followers of the Jewish law. He makes no attempt to identify them with a recently resurrected historical Jesus (click here for link to verses in the epistles about the Jerusalem apostles ). These names appear in the gospel accounts that were written later, but we do not know if the gospels were intending these characters to represent the same people that Paul spoke of. We simply do not have a record of what these Jerusalem apostles taught, so we cannot be dogmatic about it. We simply cannot claim that they taught a resurrection, for we have no early evidence.
It is difficult for us to conceive of these apostles as something other than what the gospels portray. But, as we have seen, the gospels are of doubtful historical value. If we lay aside the gospels, and look only at the contemporary record, we don't find much information about these apostles. So we cannot be dogmatic about what they experienced and believed.
The secular evidence is even more skimpy. As we saw earlier, Earl Doherty sums up the problem (offsite link):
The Alexandrian Jewish philosopher Philo, who lived until about 50 CE and wrote of unusual sects like the Therapeutae and the Essenes, has nothing to say about Jesus or Christians. Justus of Tiberias, a Jewish historian who wrote in Galilee in the 80s (his works are now lost), is reported later to have made no mention whatever of Jesus. Pliny the Elder (died 79 CE) collected data on all manner of natural and astronomical phenomena, even those which were legendary and which he himself did not necessarily regard as factual, but he records no prodigies associated with the beliefs of Christians, such as an earthquake or darkening of the skies at a crucifixion, or any star of Bethlehem. The first Roman satirist to scorn a sect which believed in a crucified Judean founder who had been a god was not Martial at the end of the first century, nor Juvenal in the first half of the second century, but Lucian in the 160s. Reports of Epictetus, the great Stoic philosopher of the early second century who preached universal brotherhood to the poor and humble masses, record no knowledge on his part of a Jewish precursor. Nor does Seneca, the empire's leading ethicist during the reign of Nero, make reference to such a figure. Other historians of the time, like Plutarch and Quintilian, are equally silent.
If the great explosion of resurrection-believers really happened as Acts records, how is it that all of these secular writers were unaware that this was happening?
The interested reader may want to study more of the early Christian writings as listed in the sidebar. But we must move on. We have done a brief survey of those writings, and have not found the early evidence we would expect. There simply is no need to explain the surge of people preaching a resurrection in Judea in the first century. If it happened, where is the evidence? Only the later book of Acts details it, and there are reasons to be skeptical about that book. So there is good reason to doubt it ever happened.
After 70 AD, this all changes. Though fragments of the Easter story may have existed before this time, we first find a written account of the bodily resurrection in the Gospel of Mark in about 70 AD. Mark portrays Jesus as a man who walked on earth, was crucified, and then disappeared. The original book of Mark probably ends at Mark 16:8 with the women perplexed that they cannot find the body. At the tomb they encounter, not an angel, but a young man who informs them that Jesus is risen. But they never actually see the risen Jesus in the original version of Mark, and they don't even tell anybody about the empty grave (Mark 16:8).
Elsewhere, Mark tells his followers that Jesus will soon come back to establish his kingdom. (Mark 13:26) There was no need for the risen Jesus of Mark to appear to the women. Mark's Jesus did not need to show himself until he came back to establish his kingdom.. (See more at When were the Gospels Written.)
Where did Mark come up with the story of the empty grave and the implied resurrection? We do not know, but there are several possibilities. First, he could have simply made it up. He could simply be telling a tale to lift the spirits of those who were depressed after the fall of Jerusalem.
But how, you might ask, could Mark pull off such a hoax? Perhaps it was not a hoax. Perhaps the early readers saw it as a fictional story. Later readers could have believed the story was true. But even if the story was a hoax, by this time it was long after the original events, and the readers were probably far from Jerusalem. There was no way they could have checked out the story. And if someone had questioned Mark about why nobody knew of the bodily resurrection before this, he could have responded that the women hadn't told anybody (. He could say that the body had been missing, but that knowledge of this had been kept secret (Mark 16:8).
The story of the missing body could have passed on to others, who could have wondered about it and talked about it frequently. The story could have grown with each telling, until 40 years later the legend had grown to the point where it involved a physical resurrection, leading to the story found in Mark.
A third possibility is that Jesus might not have actually died, but had been mistakenly thought to be dead. He could have revived and left the grave. This could have happened. Josephus tells us of a man who survived crucifixion (see this offsite link). The Romans were not experts in diagnosing death, and they could have been mistaken. Jesus could have revived and walked off, perhaps with help from others. The stories of the missing Jesus could have circulated and grew, until they developed into a legend of the resurrection.
Now the possibility of a revived Jesus from a coma may be unlikely. Few people are ever proclaimed dead and then are found to still be alive. But it has happened. If you hear of a man in a third world country who was thought to be dead, and was later found to be alive, which is more likely: that the man was mistakenly thought dead, or that the man resurrected from the dead? It seems to me that the mistaken diagnosis is more likely. So isn't a mistaken diagnosis of Jesus's death more likely than the possibility that he really rose from the dead?
And so, even if Mark's story of a missing body was based on historical fact, this does not prove a resurrection.
And even if we were to ignore the lack of evidence in the early writings, and should choose to believe the story in Acts of the many resurrection witnesses before 70 AD, there are explanations for their belief other than a literal resurrection. The belief could have begun by misguided folks who could not find a missing or misplaced body, or could not find a revived person who had been abandoned as though dead.
So I find it doubtful that there were early preachers of a resurrection. Even if there were, I find other possibilities more probable than the probability of a resurrection.
The story found in Mark tells nothing of any earthly appearances. The earliest copies of Mark end at Mark 16:8, with the women fleeing the grave, but before they actually saw Jesus. So at the time Mark writes, we see only the story that his body was not found, with no mention of any appearances.
As we have seen, the later gospel writers expanded on the story of Mark. Matthew and Luke updated the book with newer versions. Others wrote other versions such as the Gospel of the Ebionites and the Gospel of the Nazoreans. Still others came along and added an ending to the book of Mark, which mentions the appearances of the resurrected Jesus. Someone else wrote the Gospel of John, probably by combining an earlier Gnostic Signs Gospel with the passion narrative in the Book of Mark. Thus we have multiple accounts of post-resurrection appearances. But all of these resurrection stories came much later. It is at this point that the accounts lose all cohesiveness. Up until Mark 16:8, the other writers had Mark available as a reference, and the stories are somewhat in agreement. But after Mark 16:8 the confusion begins. The accounts here become hopelessly incompatible. For instance, Luke says the disciples stayed at Jerusalem, but Matthew has them go to Galilee. Matthew has Mary seeing the angels and hearing the story when leaving the grave, but John has Mary coming back to the grave totally unaware of the angels. The stories of the appearances have nothing substantial in common. No two writers mention the same appearance. Each selects a different appearance or appearances. Is it not likely that these later stories are simply later fabrications? (See also, The Resurrection Puzzle.)
So Mark's account most likely was not a result of an actual resurrection, and the later stories of resurrection appearances appear to be nothing more than fiction.
The gospels and their resurrection accounts are ignored in the bulk of the surviving first century Christian writings, which generally follow the Pauline tradition, and have little to do with a historical Jesus. The gospels were apparently confined to small communities.
Which brings us back to the book of Acts. Christians throughout the Roman Empire continued to follow Paul, and worship a spirit-Jesus alive in the spirit world, while learning of these later gospels that told of a historical Jesus who lived in Palestine. How could they fit this together? How could they be living in Rome and following Paul, when certain books declared that Jesus lived in Palestine and taught 12 disciples? What is the connection? The Book of Acts provides a convenient story to explain it. It appears that the author of Acts did a final edit of the book of Luke and added the Book of Acts to provide a two-volume epic of the history leading from a historical Jesus to a Paul in Asia Minor, and then to Rome itself. But does it reflect actual history? Many doubt it.
So did the resurrection occur? If the first five books of the New Testament are seen for what they probably are, later fabrications, we have no real evidence for it. Since the story is implausible--reasonable people are skeptical about such stories without good evidence--and the evidence is shaky, are we not justified in doubting the story?
What if I am wrong? I am sometimes wrong. But do you really think that God will condemn me for using my intellect to arrive at this conclusion? I think not. Can you imagine that you and I will be confronted with a history exam at the pearly gates? Imagine that we are asked to tell what happened at that grave in order to gain admittance to heaven. Why would a question of history be so important? People differ about history. People differ about whether George Washington cut down the cherry tree or not; about whether the Trojan Horse story really happened; and about what exactly caused the collapse of the Maya civilization, for instance. And isn't that okay? Isn't it okay to differ about questions of history? Can't we still be friends, even though we may have different interpretations of the past record? If somebody thinks all three persons of the Godhead remained in heaven, with none of the three being resurrected on earth, and his view turns out to be historically false, should someone be condemned forever for misunderstanding history? How can salvation rest on a proper interpretation of history? (Or for that matter, why would it matter if someone thought the Godhead had four, one, or even zero persons? Will people be cast from heaven if they have the wrong count?) So perhaps it is okay for you and I to honestly look at history, and come to our own conclusions. I have done that, and I now do not believe in the story of the earthly resurrection.
Let's move on. If there is no resurrected savior, is there any reason to believe that you and I will survive death? Let's look at that question next.
Copyright Ó Merle Hertzler 2006. All rights reserved.