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Was Jesus raised from the dead?

Barrister Andrew Zak Williams puts the Resurrection on trial.

New Statesman
A worker lights the cross by the Colosseum in Rome. Photograph: Getty Images.

This Easter will see lots of Christians reminding us that the true meaning of the time of year doesn’t lie in chocolate eggs or in oversized bunnies.  Rather, Easter is a time to remember the most fundamental event in Christian history:  the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.   What is more, many believers are convinced that they have three arguments with which they can prove that the resurrection really occurred.

But what would happen if we put the case for the resurrection on trial and let the readers of the New Statesman sit in judgement?

The martyrs

The most commonly heard argument in favour of the resurrection is probably the most straightforward.  Virtually all the apostles and early Christian leaders died for their faith.  Why would they have done this if they knew that the resurrection story was a hoax?   

According to sceptics, though, what this argument gains in simplicity it lacks in evidence.  Apart from the apostle James, whose death is referred to in the New Testament, there is no evidence that any of the apostles were killed.  Admittedly, a gnostic epistle mentions Peter and Paul as having “borne testimony” in a sense that probably means “been martyred”, but it gives no details.  Apart from these, the only references to martyrdom are in late hagiographic legends.

Besides, even if the apostles had been martyred, this alone would not provide convincing evidence for the resurrection.  Rather, the apologist must surely establish that any apostle who was killed was given the chance to recant his claims about the resurrection to avoid death and that he refused.  Not only is this not proven, it is not even alleged.

The near-contemporaneous evidence

The next argument involves looking at what Paul wrote in one of his letters to the Corinthians, perhaps twenty years after the crucifixion:

 

“… Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve.  After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have died.” 

 

This is dynamite for the Christian apologist.  After all, surely Paul wouldn’t have written it if those who read the letter knew perfectly well that there were not more than five hundred believers who claimed to have seen a risen Jesus.  What is more, Paul introduces these comments by saying that he is merely reminding the Corinthians of the gospel that he has “received”.   Aha! cry the believers, he must have received this information from the leaders of the church when he visited them in Jerusalem a few years after the crucifixion.  In that case, the resurrection account must have circulated shortly after the crucifixion:  an indication of its likely truth.

The sceptical response is that this passage is a reference, not to a physical reappearance by Jesus, but rather to a spiritual one.  At first, this may sound unlikely.  But look at the Greek word that Paul uses for “appeared”:  ophthe.  It is the same one he uses in his other letters when referring to a spiritual appearance such as the one he claimed to have experienced on the road to Damascus.

Besides, a physical appearance by Jesus to over five hundred people is not mentioned anywhere in the gospels even though, in comparison, the post-resurrection appearances that are recorded in those texts pale into insignificance.   And is it really likely that so many of Jesus’ followers would have been gathered together in the days following the crucifixion?

American historian Richard Carrier concludes that “five hundred” may be a textual corruption from the almost identical word meaning “Pentecost”.  If he is right, the passage would appear to be referring to an event during which, according to Acts, over a hundred members of the early church believed that they saw fire from heaven descend upon them, filling them with the Holy Spirit.  It would not have taken much for their leader to persuade them that they had just seen the risen Jesus.

And look how the Corinthians passage continues:

 

“… Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.”

 

Could it be any clearer?  Paul thought of Jesus’ appearance to the five hundred as on a par with the vision he had received on the road to Damascus:  purely spiritual.  

What is more, Paul couldn’t have “received” this information from the leaders of the church, whether in Jerusalem or anywhere else:  Paul himself says elsewhere that he had not received the gospel from any man but rather from a revelation.

Quite frankly, it is difficult to know what to make of Paul’s letter.  Perhaps both sides have scored a couple of hits so far.  So let us move onto the third reason that is often given to support the resurrection account.

The role of women

In all four gospels, it is women who arrived at the tomb and discovered that Jesus’ body was missing.  Believers point out that in Jewish society at the time, a woman’s word carried less weight than that of a man.  Readers would have assumed that the women at the tomb were uneducated and terrified.  If the story of the empty tomb had been invented, surely it would have made sense for the gospel writers to pretend that male pillars of the community were present when the tomb was found to be empty.

But it must be remembered that the gospels were written more than thirty-five years after the crucifixion.  By then the Christian church was growing phenomenally.  Perhaps there was no longer the need to ensure that the empty tomb story was supported by reliable male witnesses.   Besides, it was especially among women that the church originally grew.  Perhaps it was in the church’s interests to give such a crucial role in the resurrection narrative to women.

Nevertheless it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that if the gospel writers had a free hand in concocting the resurrection tale, they missed an open goal when they decided to keep men away from the empty tomb.

Unreliable sources

Since we are considering the claim that a miracle occurred, we should expect evidence of a high standard:  so much so that we surely have the right to expect, at a minimum, the biblical accounts to be internally consistent.   Non-believers, though, argue that this is where the resurrection account runs into major difficulties.

If the resurrection were put on trial in a hypothetical courtroom, the gospels would almost certainly be ruled inadmissible.  After all, they’re the equivalent of witness statements summarising the evidence a witness intends to give in court.  Where a witness is unwilling or unable to attend court and so cannot be cross-examined, the chances of her statement being admitted in evidence fall drastically.  And that is so even when the judge knows her identity and has an uncorrupted, signed copy of her statement.   In the case of the gospels, we know virtually nothing about the writers – not even their true names – and can only guess at their sources.  Because we do not have the original manuscripts, for all we know, any part of any gospel could have been added up to a couple of centuries later.

Even so, let us assume that the gospels can be admitted in evidence.  Sceptics claim that we can place virtually no weight on anything they say about the resurrection.  This is for the simple reason that they are littered with major contradictions.

For instance, Luke and Acts make it clear that all of Jesus’ appearances to the disciples after the resurrection were in and around Jerusalem.  But in Matthew and Mark the figure in the tomb who appeared to the women said that Jesus would go before the disciples into Galilee – a journey of several days from Jerusalem.  Matthew goes on to record that the disciples then made their way to Galilee where Jesus appeared to them.  Both accounts cannot be true.

And was it one woman, Mary Magdelene, two women or three women who found the tomb empty?  All these answers appear in the gospels.  Similarly, the gospel writers cannot agree on whether the woman or women were greeted by a man, an angel or two “figures” at the tomb.

More importantly, what was Jesus like at this time?   Luke’s Jesus states, “Look at my hands and my feet. … Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.”   Yet John’s Jesus is able to walk through doors.

And scholars cannot agree whether the original manuscript of the earliest gospel, Mark, even mentioned the resurrection.

No wonder historian Charles Freeman concludes, “It is impossible to provide a coherent narrative account of what was seen.”

The best that believers can do is to try their utmost to reconcile the apparent contradictions.  For instance, although Luke writes that it was Mary Magdelene who attended the tomb, he does not specifically say that she was alone.  And although Luke and Acts indicate that Jesus stayed around Jerusalem after the resurrection, those texts do not specifically say so.

Yet, if you approach the resurrection accounts from an objective viewpoint, it is virtually impossible to avoid the conclusion that they are at odds with each other in important respects:  so much so that many Christians recognise this.

As we are about to see, this has grave consequences for the historical case for the resurrection.

So what happened?

You can possibly see why some Christians feel confident when they argue about the resurrection.  It hardly involves grappling with difficult science.  What is more, the role of women at the tomb and the fact that the resurrection story took hold relatively quickly give the account an air of authenticity lacking in many legends.

However, when a court investigates whether an event has occurred, the judge will want to know who the eyewitnesses are and what they saw.  This is where the case for the resurrection falls down.  The courts are used to eyewitnesses disagreeing over the details of a story.  But allow as much latitude as you like for the faltering memories and differing perspectives of eyewitnesses, and you still can’t explain the contradictions in the gospels surrounding what happened after the crucifixion.  In short, the testimony of the gospel writers is utterly unreliable.

And so the resurrection must be filed away along with hundreds of other unproven miracles proclaimed by the followers of the world’s many religions.

If Jesus was not resurrected, though, what really happened?    The burden of proving an alternative hypothesis can hardly fall on sceptics especially when the source materials are so problematic.  Even so, Charles Freeman has outlined a convincing theory that involves Caiaphas, Pilate’s high priest, disposing of Jesus’ body.  Desperate to send the Jesus movement back home, Caiaphas then left a message with the guards at the empty tomb, saying that Jesus had set off to Galilee.

And theologian John Shook suggests that Peter and James invented the resurrection account to shore up their own authority against Paul who arrived in Jerusalem boasting that Jesus had appeared to him in a vision on the way to Damascus.

The truth is that we will never know.  This is a debate that will not die ... and if it does, it will probably come back to life.