THE RESURRECTION OF JESUS CHRIST: FACT OR FABLE?

Quotations:

"Belief in the resurrection is not an appendage to the Christian faith. It is the Christian faith." George Carey, Archbishop of Canterbury, London Times, 1992-APR-19.

"Jesus...was...placed into a common grave, and covered over...in a very short time only some unmarked bones remained. Even the bones were gone before too long. Nature rather efficiently reclaims its own resources." John S. Spong, "Resurrection: Myth or Reality?," P. 241



For almost 2 millennia, the Christian Church has taught that Jesus was crucified, died, and was bodily resurrected (i.e. returned to life in his original body) three days later. This has long been one of the church's foundational beliefs, along with the inerrancy of the Bible, and the virgin birth, atonement, and future second coming of Jesus, etc.

Topics covered in this essay:

When Did Jesus' Death and Resurrection Happen?
Biblical Descriptions of Jesus' Death and Resurrection
Biblical Confirmations of Jesus' Resurrection
The Resurrection, as Expressed in Church Creeds
Beliefs of Christian Groups in the 1st and 2nd Centuries CE
Beliefs of Fundamentalists and other Evangelicals
Beliefs of other Religions and Faith Groups

When Did Jesus' Death and Resurrection Happen?

The Gospel of Mark and Luke are ambiguous about the day of the week when Jesus died. They referred to it being a preparation day. This could be the day before the weekly Sabbath i.e. Friday. Or it could be the day before a high or yearly Sabbath. The latter could occur on any day of the week. The Gospel of John also mentions that Jesus died on a preparation day. But various versions of the Bible translate John 19:31 in different ways; some can be interpreted as pointing to a weekly Sabbath; others to a ceremonial Sabbath; others to a ceremonial Sabbath that happened also to be a weekly Sabbath. So, a case could be made for Jesus' death having happened on any day of the week.

One 1st century custom might shed some light on the probable day. This was a pre-scientific era when medical techniques were quite primitive. Many people who were unconscious or in a coma were assumed to be dead. So their family would check on the corpse a few days later, to confirm that the loved one was indeed dead. A Sunday morning visitation would be consistent with a death on Wednesday afternoon (as some Biblical scholars believe) or a Thursday afternoon or a Friday afternoon (as Christian faith groups generally teach).

Although essentially all Christian faith groups believe that Jesus was resurrected on Sunday morning, the Gospels are somewhat vague when identifying the day of the week and the time. His resurrection occurred sometime before the woman/women visited the tomb on Sunday morning. The writer of the Gospel of John says that Mary Magdelene visited the tomb before sunrise on Sunday; the authors of Mark and Matthew say it happened at about dawn; Luke is vague. So the resurrection could have happened on Sunday morning, in the daytime just after sunrise. Alternately, it could have happened at night before Sunday sunrise, or even earlier. (Mark 16:9 states specifically that Jesus rose early on Sunday morning; however verses 6 to 20 are generally regarded as a later forgery).

The interval between death and resurrection is given as three days in many places in the Gospels:

Matthew 16:21, 17:23, 20:19; Luke 9:22, 13:32, 24:46: "on the third day"
John 2:19 "in three days"

These passages would be consistent with a Friday afternoon death and Sunday morning resurrection, because of the Jewish "inclusive" reckoning of time. During the first century CE, they counted a part of a day as if it were a complete 24 hour day. Also a day started at sundown, and continued through the nighttime, ended at sundown on the next day. So the few hours between the death and sundown on Friday would be counted as one day; Saturday was the second; and the part day between Saturday sundown and the resurrection would be counted as a complete day - the third. In modern times, we tend to think of three days as exactly 72 hours. We would describe the interval from Friday afternoon to Sunday morning as one and a half days. In early Christian times, three days could be anywhere from a little over 24 hours to as many as 72 hours. This is illustrated by Luke 13:32: "...I will drive out demons and heal people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal." By Jesus' reckoning, this would be three days; by our computation it is one full day (tomorrow) and two part days (today and the day after tomorrow). 11

But the Gospel passages cited above are in conflict with:

Matthew 12:40 in which Jesus said that he would be "three days and three nights in the heart of the earth" (KJV).

Knowing that Jesus died in the hours before a sunset, one possible explanation is that he died on Thursday afternoon, was dead for part of that afternoon (one day), all day Friday and Saturday (two nights and two days) and was resurrected sometime between sundown on Saturday and sunrise on Sunday (one night). That would total 3 days and three nights, and would allow for the empty tomb being discovered some hours later, before or near sunrise on Sunday.

Another explanation is that the woman/women visited the tomb just before sundown on the Sabbath. Matthew 28:1 could be interpreted that way. 72 hours prior to that time would be Wednesday afternoon. This suggestion has been put forward by some Biblical scholars, but suffers from a major weakness: If Jesus died on Wednesday afternoon and was resurrected before Saturday sundown, then he would have been dead for 2 full days and 2 part days - considered 4 full days, not three, by the writers of the gospels.

A final gospel verse which might shed light on the days of the week when Jesus died and was resurrected is:

Mark 8:31: "...and after three days rise again."

This would seem to imply that the resurrection would occur after three days had passed. 4,5, or 6 days between death and resurrection would generate a multitude of scenarios.

Depending on which passage(s) that one accepts as authoritative, a variety of possible days of the week can be selected for Jesus' death and resurrection. If one ignores Mark 8:31 and Matthew 12:40, then the remaining verses are consistent with a Friday afternoon crucifixion and a Sunday morning resurrection. And this alternative is what most Christian faith groups take.

One common guess for the year of Jesus' death is 30 CE. That would mean his crucifixion happened on the afternoon of Friday, 30-APR-7 CE and his resurrection on Sunday, 30-APR-9 CE. Christians do not attempt to observe the precise anniversary of Jesus' resurrection. The timing of Easter Sunday is based on the spring solstice and phases of the moon, echoing back to earlier Pagan sun and moon worship. The name "Easter" itself comes from the ancient Pagan Saxon Goddess of the springtime: Eostre.

Biblical Descriptions of Jesus' Death and Resurrection

There were many defining moments in the life of Jesus. Two of them were his baptism by John the Baptist, and his crucifixion by the Roman authorities. The canonical gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke and John) are basically in agreement about the events in Jesus' life between his baptism and crucifixion. But they differ greatly when describing the events before his baptism and after his death. Some liberal theologians have concluded that the birth, childhood and resurrection stories were pieced together by the authors of the gospels out of developing legends that were circulating among various Christian groups at the time. Conservative theologians believe in the inerrancy of the Bible and attempt to reconcile the apparently conflicting gospels into a single coherent picture.

Details of the death and resurrection of Jesus are described in the following Gospel passages:

Mark 15:33 to 16:8 (Verses 16:9 to 16:20 are a later forgery inserted by an unknown author long after the original book was written)
Matthew 27:52 to 28:20
Luke 23:44 to 24:12
John 19:29 to 20:18

By combining the various gospels' accounts Jesus' death and resurrection, one can develop a common story that is consistent with most of the Biblical texts: Simon from Cyrene was pressed into service to carry the cross from Jerusalem to Golgatha, the place of crucifixion. There, Jesus was offered a drink of wine mixed with a bitter substance. He refused. He was nailed to the cross through his palms and feet. Two robbers were crucified with him; one on either side. People passing by hurled insults. From the 6th to the 9th hour, it became dark. Jesus cried out. He was offered vinegar to drink. He cried out again and died. The veil in the temple was torn from top to bottom by an unknown force. Joseph of Arimathea obtained permission to take Jesus' body to his private tomb. He wrapped the body in a clean linen cloth, placed it in the tomb and sealed the entrance. On Sunday morning, an unknown number of women came to the tomb. The stone had been rolled away. They found that Jesus' body was missing.

But not all of the gospels totally agree with this story. Disagreements abound: 1

Who carried the cross to the place of execution?
Mark: Simon
Matthew: Simon
Luke: Simon
John: Jesus
What was the sign over Jesus' head on the cross?
Mark: "THE KING OF THE JEWS"
Matthew: "THIS IS JESUS, THE KING OF THE JEWS"
Luke: "THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS"
John: "JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS" in Aramaic, Latin and Greek
What did the robbers say to Jesus?
Mark: they both hurled insults
Matthew: Same as Mark
Luke: One hurled insults; the other said that Jesus' execution was unjust because he was not guilty of any crime
John: Nothing was recorded
What were Jesus' last words?
Mark: Jesus "cried out", but the words (if any) were not recorded
Matthew: Same as Mark
Luke: "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit."
John: "It is finished."
Who went to the tomb with spices to prepare Jesus' body?
Mark: 3 women on Sunday morning just after sunrise
Matthew: No record
Luke: 4 or more women on Sunday morning very early in the morning, presumably while dark
John: Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus on Friday before sundown
Who visited the tomb on Sunday with Mary Magdalene?
Mark: Two women: Salome and Mary the mother of James
Matthew: One woman: "the other Mary"
Luke: Three or more women: Mary the mother of James, Joanna and other women
John: None; she went alone
When did she/they visit the tomb on Sunday?
Mark: just after sunrise
Matthew: at dawn
Luke: very early in the morning, presumably while it was still dark
John: while it was still dark
What happened to the rock that sealed the tomb?
Mark: The stone had already been rolled back before they arrived
Matthew: An earthquake happened; an angel appeared and rolled it away as the women approached the tomb.
Luke: Same as Mark
John: Same as Mark
Who did she/they find at the tomb?
Mark: A young man dressed in a white robe was inside the tomb
Matthew: An angel sitting on the rock outside the tomb
Luke: Two men were inside the tomb, dressed in clothes that looked like lightning
John: Nobody
Where was Jesus at the time?
Mark: not at the tomb; he was on his way to Galilee
Matthew: same as Mark
Luke: unknown
John: unknown
Did she/they enter the tomb?
Mark: Yes
Matthew: Yes. They were invited by the angel to "come see the place where he lay"
Luke: Yes
John: No
How did she/they react to the news?:
Mark: They fled, trembling and bewildered
Matthew: They fled, fearful and joyous
Luke: They left
John: She ran to Simon Peter and the disciple that Jesus loved
Who did she/they see on the way to the disciples?
Mark: Nobody
Matthew: They met Jesus, who they immediately recognized
Luke: Nobody
John: Nobody
How did the disciples react to the news?
Mark: They didn't; the woman told nobody of the news because they were afraid.
Matthew: They believed the women.
Luke: The disciples, and "all the others" didn't believe the women. Peter ran to the tomb anyway.
John: They believed Mary.
Did the women/woman return to the tomb?
Mark: No record
Matthew: No record
Luke: No record
John: Yes. Mary saw two angels and Jesus there; but she thought that Jesus was the gardener
To whom did Jesus first appear?
Mark: to all the disciples somewhere in Galilee
Matthew: to Mary Magdalene and the other Mary as they left the tomb to tell the brethren
Luke: to Cleopas and an unidentified person on a road between Jerusalem and Emmaus
John: to all the disciples in a house in Jerusalem
Paul: to Peter (I Corinthians 15:5)

Two minor errors seem to have crept into the Gospel account of the crucifixion:

The condemned prisoner only carried the crosspiece to the place of execution. The upright stakes were stored at Golgatha for repeated use.
the Gospels refer repeatedly to nails having been forced through Jesus' palms during the crucifixion. This would not work, because the weight of the victim's body would tear through the flesh of the hand. The Romans passed the nails through the wrist between the two bones of the forearm, not through the victim's palms.

Biblical Confirmations of Jesus' Resurrection

There are numerous references in the Christian Scriptures to the resurrection of Jesus, in addition to the passages listed above. Many also confirm that Jesus reappeared after his death in a physical body. Some are:

I Corinthians 15:3-5: "...I [Paul] passed on to you...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."
I Timothy 3:16" "...was taken up in glory."
Matthew 26:29: "...I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it anew with you in my Father's kingdom."
Luke 24:39: "Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have."
Luke 24:46: "He told them, 'This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day...'"
John 20:27: "Then he said to Thomas, 'Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.'"
John 21:12: "Jesus said to them, 'Come and have breakfast.' None of the disciples dared to ask him, 'Who are you?' They knew it was the Lord."
The Book of Acts, which has the same author as the Gospel of Luke, contains many references to the resurrection: Acts 2:24-36; 3:15; 4:10, 4-33; 5:30; 10:40-41; 13:30-34; 17:32; 24:15; 25:19; 26:8, 26:23.
Among the Epistles, some of which were written by Paul, the resurrection is also mentioned. e.g.: the 2 references above, and Romans 1:3; Romans 6:9-10; Ephesians 1:20; Philippians 2:9; Colossians 2:12; I Thessalonians 1:10; II Timothy 2:8; Hebrews 13:20; I Peter 1:21.

The Resurrection as Expressed in Church Creeds

The historic creeds of the Christian Church recognize the Virgin Birth of Jesus in language that is quite consistent: 2

The Apostles' Creed, was written about the 4th century CE by unknown author(s). The church incorrectly attributed its authorship to the Apostles:

"I believe in...Jesus Christ...who was...crucified, died and was buried. He descended into hell. The third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God..."

The Nicene Creed, adopted at the Council of Nicea in 325 CE:

"I believe in...one Lord Jesus Christ...who...was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate. He suffered and was buried. and the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures and ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father."

The Athanasian Creed was written by an unknown author in Gaul about 450 CE:

"...our Lord Jesus Christ...suffered for our salvation, descended into hell, rose again on the third day from the dead. He ascended into heaven..."

The Small Catechism of Martin Luther of 1529 CE:

"Jesus Christ...was crucified, died and was buried, descended to Hell, on the third day rose again from the dead, ascended to Heaven and sat down at the right hand of God the Almighty Father." 3

The Augsburg Confession This was the first Protestant confession, written by Philip Melanchthon, and presented to Charles V, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire at the Diet of Augsburg in 1530 CE. Article III states: "Also they teach that the Word, that is, the Son of God...truly suffered, was crucified, dead, and buried...He also descended into hell, and truly rose again the third day; afterward He ascended into heaven that He might sit on the right hand of the Father..." 4

Beliefs of Christian Groups in the 1st and 2nd Centuries CE

Paul and the writers of all four canonical Gospels described the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus, as they understood it had happened. There is a consensus among Christian theologians who are not Evangelical Christians that:
The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were not written by Jesus' disciples but by person or persons whose names are unknown.
Neither Paul nor any of the Gospel writers had been an eyewitness to Jesus' ministry or death
The Gospels record the beliefs and memories of various Christian groups as they had evolved at the time they were written.

Fundamentalist and other Evangelical theologians generally believe:

Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were the actual authors of the Gospels.
That at least John was a disciple, traveled with Jesus and was present at his crucifixion.
The Gospels record the author's direct and indirect memories of real events.
Those early followers of Christ who wrote the Gospel of Q seem to have been unaware of the resurrection of Jesus. The event was not included in their writings.
Gnostics believe that prior to the crucifixion, Jesus swapped bodies with "with an innocent bystander named Simon" 5 This is described in one of their sacred texts, "The Acts of John". It was written about 50 CE; it was widely followed by Christian groups in the early years of the Christian church and is revered by Gnostic Christians today. The document was suppressed by the Church in the 8th century CE. In the Acts, the disciple John flees from the scene of the execution and is amazed to meet Christ on the top of a mountain overlooking the scene. The author wrote:

"...we were like men amazed or fast asleep, and we fled this way and that. And so I saw him suffer, and did not wait by his suffering, but fled...and wept at what had come to pass. And when he was hung upon the cross...there came a darkness over the whole earth. And my Lord stood in the middle of the cave and gave light to it and said, 'John, for the people below in Jerusalem I am being crucified and pierced with lances and reeds and given vinegar and gall to drink. But to you I am speaking...I put into your mind to come up to this mountain so that you may hear what a disciple should learn from his teacher and a man from God." 6

Another Gnostic text, The Gospel of Mary described how Mary Magdelene became the first Christian pastor in history. She delivering a passionate sermon to the demoralized disciples of Jesus. The gospel describes how this raised their spirits and inspired them to evangelize the known world.

Followers of the ancient Doceitism heresy believed that Christ was not housed in a human body. He was a phantasm, specter or ghost which merely looked human. Today we might use the term hologram. Thus he was not crucified, did not die and was not resurrected.

Beliefs of Conservative Christian Theologians ("CT") and Faith Groups

Generally speaking, Fundamentalist and other Evangelical Christians believe that Biblical passages should normally be interpreted literally, and that the Bible, in its original form, is inerrant(free of any error). Thus, when the gospels describe how Jesus was executed, laid in a tomb, and was bodily resurrected on the third day, there is no room for further debate. Jesus' bodily resurrection must have happened in precisely that way. Conflicts over the details of the events of Easter morning are not emphasized.

Beliefs of Mainline and Liberal Christian Theologians

The contents of this section has been moved to a separate file.

Beliefs of other Christian Faith Groups and other Religions

Not everybody accepts the resurrection story. For example:

Some individuals have proposed alternate scenarios:
Jesus was removed from the cross while still alive, was taken away by his followers, and continued to live on in secret. He would have feared persecution from the Jews or Romans if discovered to be still alive.
Jesus was believed dead when he was removed from the cross. But he was merely unconscious. He revived in the tomb and hid from the women.
Jesus' disciples sneaked past the guards at the tomb, stole Jesus body, and buried it elsewhere. They then spread the rumor that Christ had risen from the dead.
The empty tomb, Jesus' appearance to his female followers, and his later meeting with his male disciples were mass hallucinations.
The story was simply invented; none of it really happened.
Muslims, who constitute almost 20% of mankind. All believe that Jesus did not die on the cross; most believe that he ascended bodily into heaven without having first died. They believe that God would not have allowed his Prophet to die an ignoble death by crucifixion. Various traditions within Islam hold different beliefs: that Jesus substituted Judas Iscariot for himself on the cross, or that God intervened and removed Jesus from Roman captivity before the crucifixion took place.
The Baha'i World Faith teaches that Jesus conquered death and triumphed over the grave. But these are understood in a spiritual, not physical sense.
Christian Science teaches that Jesus did not die on the cross. Mary Baker Eddy wrote: "His disciples believed Jesus to be dead while he was hidden in the sepulcher, whereas he was alive...Jesus' students...saw him after his crucifixion and learned that he had not died." 8
The Unification Church teaches that after Jesus' crucifixion, he was spiritually resurrected, although his body remained in the grave.
The Jehovah's Witnesses teach that Jesus "was raised from the grave not a human creature, but a spirit." 9,10
The Unity School of Christianity teaches reincarnation. Article 22 of their Statement of Faith states "We believe the dissolution of spirit, soul and body, caused by death, is annulled by rebirth of the same spirit and soul in another body here on earth. We believe the repeated reincarnations of man are the merciful provision of our loving Father to the end that all may come to obtain immortality through regeneration, as did Jesus."
The World Wide Church of God, under Herbert Armstrong, taught that Jesus' "resurrected body was no longer human...", and that Jesus was resurrected as a spirit. After Armstrong's death, the church altered its teaching and aligned itself with conventional Evangelical Christian beliefs.

References

  1. Paul Kurtz, "The Transcendental Temptation", Prometheus, Buffalo NY, (1986). Pages 153-160.
  2. Mather & Nichols, Dictionary of Cults, Sects, Religions and the Occult, Zondervan (1993), P. 331-332
  3. Martin Luther, "The Small Catechism (1529 CE) is at: http://www.iclnet.org/pub/resources/text/wittenberg/luther/
  4. Philip Melanchthon, "Augsburg Confession" (1530 CE) is at: http://www.iclnet.org/pub/resources/text/wittenberg/
  5. The Gnostic view, and quotations from "Acts of John" can be seen at: http://www.enemies.com/newtestament/agentchrist/
  6. William Barnstone, Ed., "The Other Bible", Harper San Francisco, CA, (1984) Page 418-20
  7. J.S. Spong, "Resurrection, Myth or Reality? A Bishops Search for the Origins of Christianity", Harper San Francisco, CA, (1994) Page 50
  8. Mary Baker Eddy, "Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures." A copy can be ordered from 1-800-633-1300 or by Email to mbebook@csps.com.
  9. "The Kingdom Is at Hand", Pages 258, 259
  10.   "Let God be True", Pages 40, 138, 276
  11.   Joe Crews discusses the day of the week when Jesus' died and the interval between death and resurrection at: http://www.present-truth.org/prophecy/3days.html

Essay last updated: 1999-MAY-3
Written by. B.A. Robinson





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