Did the resurrection happen?*
Obviously I think it did not. Otherwise I’d be a very odd atheist.
But there are some very strong lines of evidence:
From the very earliest threads we can trace, a group of Jews believed and taught that God had raised Jesus from the dead. This is evidenced in content such as the Aramaic hymn in Philippians 2, which is generally thought to pre-date Paul’s letters (which in turn are the earliest written source) by some time.
There is no dissent from the idea that Jesus appeared, after death, to certain of his followers. Paul recites this tradition, it is found in the gospels. The earliest gospel, Mark, has no resurrection appearances, but is clearly written from the perspective that the resurrection happened, and in fact the earliest ending we have of Mark gives a prophecy of future resurrection appearances, which we’ve no reason to assume Mark didn’t think had been fulfilled.
Mark’s gospel puts Mary as the key witness to the resurrection (or at least its notification by an angelic figure). This is then used by Matthew and Luke (who, it is almost universally admitted, worked from a copy of Mark). The gospels themselves admit this is a far fetched story, particularly (one assumes) coming from a woman. That Mary was the first witness may be embarrassing, which is a useful criteria that a teaching was authentic, or came from an authoritative early source.
There is no unambiguous material that shows Jesus’s resurrection (i.e. God raising him from the dead) is a story that the early Jesus followers had access to in other contexts. It wasn’t a theology that seems to match second temple Judaism. It is hard to argue from silence (we may not have found the right writings, or they may have been destroyed by later Christians), but to the extent it tells us anything, it supports the notion that the resurrection was a new idea.
But that evidence doesn’t sway me. Because there’s a lot of what-ifs and reconstructions and so on in there. Against those, I find some other lines of reasoning compelling:
When charismatic religious leaders die, there is very commonly a spiritualization of their death. The specific story and theology might be new, but the impulse to interpret the death of the leader as only an apparent phenomenon seems to be fundamentally human. As such wanting to understand Jesus as having been raised seems to me to be psychologically feasible, and historically common.
The overwhelming majority of the stories of resurrection suggests that the Jesus they saw raised was ephemeral. The accounts generally are of an insubstantial figure: able to appear and disappear at will, unbound by doors, able to appear in other forms so as not to be recognized, invisible for large chunks of time. If people remember the generality rather than the specifics, then it seems clear that seeing the resurrected Jesus was a matter of having visions of him, rather than interacting with a regular physical person.
The revelation of the risen Jesus all seem to trace back to one small group of disciples, in Jerusalem. There are other communities of Jesus followers (such as those who compiled the sayings gospels, including Thomas and possibly Q) who either don’t know or don’t care about the resurrection appearances. Those in the Jerusalem church clearly use their resurrection visions as the basis of their apostolic authority, so much so that Paul feels the need to get in on the act.
The stories of the empty tomb are unlikely, and they get more and more elaborate and far fetched as the gospel writings go on. Paul, the earliest source, says nothing about them.
Here’s a possible scenario. After Jesus’s death, the group of his supporters in Jerusalem are in a heightened state of emotion. Mary sees a vision of Jesus (remember she’s described as having seven demons expelled from her in the gospels, given that demon-possession is often the biblical interpretation of mental illness, it may have been that she had a propensity to such things) and reports it to the other disciples. There is a mixture of disbelief and intrigue. Another disciple sees a vision of Jesus. Then another, until that group of Jesus followers descends into a kind of mass hysteria and goes through a profound religious group experience.
That seems to me to be the right kind of event (the kind of event that has happened hundreds if not thousands of other times through history) to generate the stories we have about the resurrection. It may not be true in specifics, but based on common sense and a general understanding of the way the world works, it seems to me to be the right general idea.
It would certain be the same kind of explanation the vast majority of Christians would prefer for the similar kinds of events happening in a UFO cult, or a grove of fairy mages.
* For the avoidance of doubt. I’m not talking about ‘happen’ in the sense of elaborate theories of what constitutes history. I mean it in the exact same way that I could ask “Did you wear a shirt yesterday?”. If you can understand that question, you can understand the question I’m asking.
If you have to redefine the notion of history to answer the question, then for my purposes the answer is ‘no’. I.e. No the resurrection didn’t happen in the normal way stuff happens, but there is some kind of way in which we can look at the resurrection as a crucially important act somehow related to things that were historical. That’s fine. But that’s another question.