[Revised on April 13, 2022. Note added on 1/7/2023.]
Was Jesus raised bodily from death after his crucifixion? Compelled by that question, in 1989 I made a critical analysis of the biblical resurrection testimony. I concluded that Jesus’ body probably corrupted in the earth soon after his death. The following is an expanded version of the essay I wrote back then to explain my reasoning. The essay presumes the historical existence of Jesus, about which I am no longer certain; I hope that it will prove interesting for readers regardless of their opinion on that issue.
Then entered also that other disciple, who had arrived at the tomb first; and he saw, and he believed [Mary’s statement that someone had removed Jesus’ body from the tomb]. For they had not as yet perceived that scripture requires him to rise from the dead. — John 20:8-9
Biblical scholars have spoken of two aspects of the resurrection, the objective and the subjective. The former usually refers to the question of what, if anything, happened to Jesus after his death, while the latter refers to the rise of the resurrection belief in the minds of his disciples. In examining the Christian scriptures’ testimony to the resurrection of Jesus, I found that the texts provide keys to understanding both aspects in a way that does not require belief in supernatural interventions. I also found that the two aspects constitute a unity.
Critical examination of the Christian scriptures reveals that the authors did not share our modern concept of history: they shaped narratives and even the words of Jesus to suit their theological and literary purposes, and they invented apparently historical events to serve as vehicles for the communication of religious messages. Such activities can be seen in, among other things, textual developments from earlier to later works (compare, for example, the Jesus of Mark to the Jesus of John), and they resulted in contradictions among the various books. The historicizing tendency in particular provides us with a key for understanding the two forms of resurrection testimony that seem to point to objective, historical events; namely, the story of the empty tomb, and the accounts of appearances of the risen Jesus.
The meaning of the empty tomb has been debated since early Christian times. Certainly the fact that someone’s tomb is discovered to be empty does not prove, or even suggest, that the person has been raised from the dead. If Jesus’ tomb was in fact found empty, there are reasons other than his resurrection why it may have been so. Perhaps there was confusion about where he’d been buried. Perhaps someone removed the body. The evangelists recognize the ambiguity of the empty tomb: all of them provide one or more messengers to reveal the meaning of the scene (although in John’s book, Jesus himself appears before the angels can explain). Matthew even provides unsympathetic witnesses in the form of guards — witnesses not to the resurrection itself, for the scriptures never assert that anyone witnessed the resurrection, but to the rolling away of the stone by an angel.
The empty tomb, then, is at best ambiguous; it may also be apocryphal. Like other victims of Roman crucifixion, Jesus may have been thrown into a common grave after his death. According to Acts 13:29, it was those who had Jesus crucified who buried him. That presents the possibility that the burial in a tomb belonging to Joseph of Arimathea, whom Luke 23:51 explicitly excludes from those who had Jesus crucified, is a legend, and that the empty tomb tradition is a product of the Christian scriptures’ historicizing tendency. Mark, the earliest of the canonical gospel books, originally included no appearance narratives, but ended with the young man’s revelation of the resurrection to the women, who “said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (Mk. 16:8) and whose testimony may have had little weight in a patriarchal society. The story of the empty tomb, with its messenger of revelation, is reminiscent of theophanies in the Hebrew scriptures. In the absence of appearance stories, it could have served the Markan tradition as a narrative vehicle for the belief that Jesus had been raised.
Unlike the earlier Mark, the other gospel books do provide narrative accounts of appearances of Jesus. There are, however, unresolvable contradictions among them. (See “A Comparison of N. T. Resurrection Accounts” for details.) Further, those relatively late compositions are replete with elements of myth and legend. We cannot simply assume that they record what we would consider to be objective history; on the contrary, they appear to be instances of historicization.
Earlier than those narratives — and in contradiction to them — is 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, where Paul gives us a sequential listing of appearances with no narrative detail. The list seems to be part of a liturgical or credal formula that predates Paul’s letter. Consequently, the passage is often cited as a proof-text for the historicity of appearances of Jesus. However, it is possible that the passage is a composite of a pre-existing formula and additional elements. The original formula would have proclaimed simply that Jesus died in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, and that he was raised from the dead in accordance with the scriptures. The list(s) of appearances, including the appearance to him, would have been appended by Paul (and, perhaps, a redactor). While this view does not preclude a relatively early date for the appearance tradition, it does suggest that the earliest proclamation of the resurrection, as represented by the formula Paul quoted, may not have included it.
Some scholars have held, therefore, that the appearance stories represent a visual model for experiences of forgiveness and vocation that implied the continuing presence of Jesus. I agree that “appearance of Jesus” was probably an articulating model for the disciples’ experience. However, it seems likely to me that it was the idea of Jesus’ resurrection which first dawned upon the disciples; from that revelation came the confidence that neither the forgiveness and vocation Jesus had offered them nor the Kingdom he had proclaimed had been nullified by his death. That, I think, is a more natural sequence of events. In either case, however, it was the revelatory experience of Jesus that was primary; the appearance accounts would serve as a common narrative vehicle for communicating that experience.
We find, then, that we can be confident of the historicity of only one event: somehow, some disciples came to believe that Jesus had been raised from death. In attempting to understand that event, we must give full weight to the transformation it effected in those disciples. People who had fled in fear at Jesus’ arrest, and who may at first have believed that the crucifixion was God’s rejection of Jesus and his message of the Kingdom, began to proclaim that Jesus had been exalted to God and would soon bring in that Kingdom in power. I don’t think that locating the rise of that faith solely in the disciples’ continuing to be inspired by Jesus’ message does justice to their transformation. The disciples staked their salvation and possibly their lives on their resurrection belief. As Paul says, they understood that anyone who would fabricate such a story would be guilty of misrepresenting God (1 Cor. 15:15). It seems to me that their belief in the resurrection of Jesus could not have arisen without some objective event or reality as a catalyst.
I submit, however, that we have only to look to the Hebrew scriptures for that reality. It has been established that, then as now, it was not unusual for scripture to be applied to current events as if it had been written specifically about them.* The disciples of Jesus had experienced the Kingdom of God breaking into history in the person and ministry of Jesus — in other words, they had experienced themselves as living in the eschaton, the end-time that heralded the resurrection of the dead and the birth of God’s new world. They had trusted that what had begun in a small way in their lives would inevitably and soon become a reality for all the world. But the idea of the Kingdom of God, and the expectation of its imminent arrival, would have come to Jesus and the disciples through scripture and through their interpretation of events of their time in light of scripture. When the Kingdom seemed threatened by the crucifixion, the disciples would have looked to scripture for the meaning of that event as well. It was, then, scripture itself that provided the objective basis for belief in the resurrection.
If scripture was the objective element, then the disciples’ application of scripture to current events is the key to the subjective aspect of the resurrection belief. Luke seems to have historicized that process in his Emmaus narrative (Luke 24). He has the risen Jesus say to disciples who fail to recognize him, “O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets spoke! Must not the Christ suffer these things and enter into his glory?” Luke continues, “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them what was said in all the scriptures concerning himself.” Later in the same chapter, Jesus appears to the Eleven, saying, “all things must be fulfilled that were written in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms, concerning me.” Then, says Luke, “he opened their minds, that they might understand the scriptures, and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary that the Christ suffer and rise up from the dead ones on the third day.’”
“Did not our hearts burn within us as he opened the scriptures?” Luke’s narrative describes, I suggest, the disciples’ turning to scripture and finding there the revelation (which would then be attributed to Christ’s inspiration) that God’s eschatological servant would suffer and die but would not be abandoned to the power of death. One source of that revelation would have been the psalms. In Mark 15:34 and Matthew 27:46, for example, the dying Jesus quotes the beginning of Psalm 22, crying out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” That psalm goes on to describe how the psalmist, “dry as a potsherd,” watches ruffians cast lots for his clothing (v. 18) — a scene that Matthew has historicized in 27:34-35. Psalm 22 ends with a paean of praise to God; evidently, God did not abandon the sufferer in the end. The theme of deliverance is sounded in other psalms as well. In Psalm 18:4-19 we read, “When the cords of death held me fast … then in anguish of heart I cried to the Lord … [and] he reached down from the height and … rescued me because he delighted in me.” Psalm 16:10-11 declares, “… for you will not abandon me to Sheol [death] nor suffer your holy one to see the pit. You will show me the path of life; in your presence is fullness of joy, in your right hand delight for evermore.” And Psalm 116:3, 16b says, “The cords of death bound me, Sheol held me in its grip. [But] you have undone the bonds that bound me.” The psalms, then, pointed to Jesus’ deliverance from death. But they were not the only scriptural sources of light on the fate of Jesus.
Among other scriptures, the book of the prophet Isaiah was a rich source of material for primitive Christianity. That complex and composite book contains marvelous visions of the Day of the Lord and the Kingdom of God. It asserts that the dead will rise (see Is. 26:19), although the idea of an eschatological resurrection is more fully developed in apocalyptic books such as Daniel and Enoch. More importantly, the book of Isaiah describes a “suffering servant” in terms that were later applied to Jesus. It speaks of the innocent servant of God who is despised by his people, suffers and dies for the sins of many, is buried, and is brought back from death and rewarded by God. (See Is. 53.) Scripture revealed to the disciples both the meaning of Jesus’ death and the fact of his vindication by God through his resurrection. Thus their earliest proclamation was that Jesus had died and been raised in accordance with the scriptures.
In scripture and its interpretation by the disciples, then, the objective and subjective aspects of the resurrection are united. They coalesce in a divine revelation received through sacred writings as interpreted in light of the disciples’ experience of the incipient Kingdom. Scripture disclosed that Jesus had not died a failure; his death was a part of the process of the Kingdom’s arrival. That process had begun with his ministry and reached a climactic point in his resurrection to God’s right hand, and it would continue on to its inevitable and imminent conclusion — the coming of the Kingdom in fullness and power. The revelation prepared the disciples to open their hearts to the spirit of Jesus and to continue his work of proclaiming the Kingdom and living out its implications.
I believe that this analysis of the rise of the resurrection faith has much to commend it. It accepts the evidence of critical research that the writers of the Christian scriptures were concerned with proclamation (kerygma), not with objective history. It respects the integrity of both the primitive Christian and the twenty-first-century, post-Christian world-views, as well as that of the biblical texts themselves. And it understands the events narrated in those texts in terms of natural, human processes — in a way that does not, however, rule out the possibility of revelation.
Of course, this view means that Jesus’ resurrection, while it may have mythic and spiritual truth, is not historical in the same way in which — presumably — his life and death are. For some, this conclusion is unacceptable. Paul, for example, felt that “if Christ has not been raised, then your faith is vain; you are still in your sins. Consequently, those who have gone to repose in Christ are perished. If it is for this life only that we have hope in Christ, then we are the most forlorn of all” (1 Cor. 15: 17-19). Paul and other primitive Christians, believing that they lived in the “last hour” (1 John 2:18), expected the imminent completion of the eschaton — “the end, when [Christ] gives the kingdom to God the father, nullifying all [worldly] sovereignty, all authority and power” (1 Cor. 15:24) — when the dead would be raised to eternal life in Christ. Without a bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, “the first-fruits of them that slept” (1 Cor. 15:20), their faith would have felt groundless.
But our horizons are necessarily broader. We know that the eschaton was not fulfilled some two thousand years ago: the simple fact of our existence in a world of injustice, pain, and death tells us that that expectation, held by primitive Christians and apparently even by Jesus himself, was wrong. The outward Kingdom did not appear as promised; the parousia, the coming on the clouds of the Son of Man in power and glory (see Mt. 24), failed to occur. If the scriptures are to speak meaningfully to us as critical thinkers today, we must read them, as our Quaker forebears (following the evangelist John) have taught us, in the inward sense: Christ can be raised and revealed in power within us, defeating the spiritual death in our hearts, lifting us into a new and different life. The scriptures direct us not so much to the past or future as to the present, in which they open for us a way to authentic being, a way out of self-absorption and into more compassionate and just relationship. Almost two millennia after the failure of the parousia, the scriptures point to the inner revelation of the spiritual power that was in Jesus. Giving ourselves over to that power, we know the resurrection.