Did the Resurrection Happen?

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.



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30 responses to “Did the Resurrection Happen?

  1. As you note, our earliest source is Paul. However, Paul gives little indication that he knows when or where Jesus lived or died. He doesn’t claim to know anything about Christ other than what he learned by divine revelation. He doesn’t seem to know that Jesus was a teacher or a miracle worker or that he had an earthly ministry at all prior to his crucifixion. Paul is aware of other people to whom the risen Christ made appearances, but he doesn’t indicate that anyone he knew had been a follower of Jesus during his natural life. Paul’s writings are focused almost exclusively on an exalted spirit being rather than an actual person who walked the earth. I don’t see much history there.

  2. Ian

    No, but that is a different question, surely?

    One of the things that Paul is very keen on, and incredibly invested in, is that Jesus was raised from the dead. I don’t think he came up with that story himself, but I think his vision of Jesus (whether real or made up) was useful because it allowed him to argue for his own authority alongside that of the Jerusalem clique that originated the story.

  3. I’m not sure that it is a different question. Your post speaks of what we can trace back to the earliest threads, and the earliest threads don’t tell us much of anything about the resurrection as a historical event. Paul’s letters tell us about an exalted spiritual being that appeared to men, but they give us precious little information to indicate that the resurrection was an actual historical event that was witnessed by men rather than an event that was divinely revealed to men.

  4. Ian

    they give us precious little information to indicate that the resurrection was an actual historical event that was witnessed by men rather than an event that was divinely revealed to men

    Paul certainly claims to have witnessed the risen Jesus. He also claims that Jesus appeared to the Jerusalem group.

    Paul’s letters tell us about an exalted spiritual being that appeared to men

    We already covered that before. That isn’t Paul’s view of Jesus. He doesn’t talk much about Jesus’s ministry, but there are several times he talks about Jesus as a real person in the immediate past.

    If you’re talking earlier than Paul, then you’ve basically got the Aramaic hymns. And they aren’t enough to go on either way. By the time we have any significant sources, there is no disagreement in the event of the resurrection.

    I understand that you see everything through the lens of your mythicism, so you want to approach it that way. And that you want to bring every question back to that. Fair enough. But this seems an odd place to try it. I don’t mean that condescendingly, it just seems tangential. There are plenty of reasons for reading the resurrection as non-historical, without trying first trying to overturn the rest of biblical scholarship.

    Seems to me like trying to convince me that the earth is not flat by deriving a proof from superstring theory.

  5. I’m simply interested in what you see as “strong lines of evidence” for the resurrection.

  6. Ian

    Ohhh, in which case, my apologies. I thought you were responding to the post as a whole.

    It all gets a bit confusing, because there are mythologies and mythologies. And in a kind of attempt not to get painted into a mythicist corner, I have a nasty habit of not agreeing on the bits we all know are myths… Hmm. Cheers.

  7. I have to say I regard all the evidence for a resurrection as very weak indeed, especially given what we know about the human propensity to resolve cognitive dissonance by invoking “explanations” that can be as nutty as a squirrel’s fart. 🙂 Actually, however, I’m going to go on a limb and suggest that the empty tomb is *likely*, because Matthew in particular expends a bit of energy countering claims that were presumably well know in his time that the girls had found the wrong tomb, or that the disciples took the body.

    My own view is that Mark is not *too* far off; I think it is likely that the ladies found an empty tomb, but if you take the scenario that this was a temporary tomb anyway, the young man is just the rearguard of the group that were taking Jesus’s body back to Capernaum for proper burial, hence the “you’ll see him in Galilee” business. Ok, this perhaps deviates a tad from normal practice, but not vastly. We already know there was a second group of well connected followers who had money and connections (again assuming we get any useful info from the gospels), and that certain members of his family were agin the whole embarrassing thing.

    But even that scenario suffers from the basic general fact that we have SO little evidence from the event; whatever the case, making a pitch for a “real” resurrection is just silly. It’s trying to build the Eiffel Tower with a couple of spoons.

  8. My guess would be that the empty tomb stories are legendary developments. In the earliest proclamations, the evidence given for the resurrection is the appearances of the risen Christ. I think it quite possible that no one knew or cared where the body of Jesus had been buried. As the belief in the physicality of the resurrection developed, the question of what happened to the body would have become important. It would be easy to conclude that there must have been an empty tomb. Once that conclusion is reached, a story of someone verifying that the tomb was empty follows almost inevitably. There is of course no way to be sure that this happened, but it is plausible enough that I cannot put much confidence in the gospel accounts.

    Matthew’s story may be evidence of objections that had already been raised to the empty tomb story, but those objections are pretty obvious. I think it iequally plausible that Matthew was simply anticipating objections that would be raised to the story.

  9. Ian

    It is significant, I think, that at the point where original Mark ends is the end of the empty-tomb narrative, and that is exactly where the other gospels go off in random directions.

    So either one has to say that the empty tomb narrative is like the association with Mary – it shows some core thread of historicity (or at least very early authority).

    Or you can say everyone copied Mark’s story, and didn’t know (beyond a general sense of some vision-stories) how to proceed, so went off in all directions.

    Matthews discussion of the empty tomb I think are totally sculpted by voices off stage, and so I put no store in that. I think it is a good bet that the story of the empty tomb was well known (from Mark?) to Matthew’s community, but that doesn’t mean it was early.

    There are some broad other features of empty-tomb narratives. Gospel of Peter is a good place to look for a less-Markian take.

    But fundamentally I find the empty tomb difficult to fit in, so I tend to be more pessimistic than I perhaps should be about its historicity.

  10. Ian

    I have to say I regard all the evidence for a resurrection as very weak indeed,

    I agree, but I think caution is needed. One has to ask the counter factual: if the resurrection were true, is the evidence we have consistent. We can’t ask for some arbitrary standard of evidence that just isn’t available from the time.

    Is there enough evidence to make a positive historical case for the actual resurrection? No, I don’t think so. And you can count on one hand the reputable scholars who would claim otherwise. All of whom, not surprisingly, had faith in the resurrection before their scholarship on the subject.

    So no sensible person would dispute that the evidence is weak. But for some adherents they are just interested in making sure that it isn’t ‘impossible’ (for their understanding of the way the world works).

    [This comment is aimed at me as much as you, Shane.]

  11. One additional weakness: this is supposed to be the Deity’s one shot at saving mankind. The weakness of the evidence us therefore a very strong independent indicator that any sensible deity had nothing to do with it, yet since a resurrection necessarily requires the input of a significant player in the business of running universes, the very fact that the evidence is inadequate is itself positive evidence that it didnt happen at all.

  12. Ian

    That kind of line of thought is the one I find the most compelling against all theisms, Shane.

    If the creator of the universe really did seek to redeem mankind through Jesus, one has to say he arsed it up. And many Christians tacitly admit that, and look to a future ‘second coming’, where it will be done right.

    And some (adventists, JWs for example), have a third bite of the cherry. When ‘god’ cocks up the second coming, they interpret that as a spiritual second coming and look forward to a final final intervention.

    All so blatantly human.

  13. is it bad that i don’t really care if it happened or not? i used to obsess about this and now i really don’t care.

    your “Here’s a possible scenario….” reminds me of Crossen, Borg, and Spong’s accounts. they state that the Emmaus Road experience was probably the most factual based one that touched off all the others. this didn’t occur a few days after Jesus’ death either, but YEARS. the disciples are despondent, defeated, and scattered. yet a few on their way to Emmaus meet a disciple of Jesus’ who reminds them of their teacher who may or may not know of Jesus’ death, but breaks bread and they “meet” Jesus and return and tell everyone else. they get the gang back together and start recounting and gathering stories and then start preaching and teaching and other evangelistic type stuff.

    that’s one way to slice the onion and is similar to yours. C, B, & S wouldn’t talk about a group hysteria or anything like that, but a group-rallying and are very methodical about it. they overstate their case, stating that they have seen and met the risen Lord but then again, their understanding of language and metaphor is much different than our oft-literal use. kinda like how the evangelicals of today speak of a personal relationship with Jesus and of the date, hour, and minute they were “born again” even though you and i wouldn’t see anything all that great if we hopped in a time machine and tried to verify it. heart language vs. head language? eastern language vs. western? lots of moving parts here.

  14. Well, yeah – there is no real point in getting too obsessed about it because there simply isn’t the evidence to say exactly what the events were that led up to the origin of the myth. However we can be pretty darned certain when we say that the evidence does not support an *actual* resurrection, and the real (dead) Jesus would have been very surprised by some of the stories that ended up being told about him if he had heard them in his short lifetime. However, the point of this exercise (as I see it) is simply to show that there are many other possibilities which have a great deal more *probability*, and account much better for the data, than the notion that God’s Great Plan involved an actual resurrection that humans with brains actually had to believe in. That’s just silly talk.

  15. Ian

    Zero – Thanks.

    I don’t think it matters if you don’t care, no. I think the model of adherence that puts stock in doctrinal acceptance is deeply problematic. If it matters whether someone intellectually assents X or Y, then it is a pretty orwellian faith, I think.

    Yes, there are a number of historical Jesus accounts of the resurrection that are similar and that I’m influenced by. As I said my story isn’t something I ‘believe’ happened. I used ‘mass hysteria’ because I don’t know a better term: for that process where individual responses spread into a corporate response. I am inclined to think it was Mary’s experience that was original, for the misogynistic reasons we’ve rehearsed: it seems to me that it would be better to say someone else was first, unless Mary really was first. But as you say, the noise is much greater than the signal here.

  16. There is no dissent from the idea that Jesus appeared, after death, to certain of his followers.

    What would count as “dissent”? Are you saying there is not dissent in the NT? Was there dissent records of other people who claimed to have raised from the dead?

    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.

    Resurrection stories abounded before Jesus, no? I am not sure what you mean.

  17. Ian

    Sabio, neither are earth shattering revelations.

    1. Some things said in the NT are interpreted in different ways in different gospels. Or else we have the sense that that bit of the NT was written against some other group that thought differently. That isn’t the case about this topic.

    2. There is a long debate in historical Jesus research about this. The consensus seems to be that the kind of resurrection that the early church claimed for Jesus was not part of contemporary Jewish thought. Or put another way, resurrection meant something specific to Jews of the time: it meant the resurrection of all the dead at the end of time. So, the logic goes, the disciples were going against their expectations, which makes their story more likely.

  18. John Clavin

    Again, comparing it to the world today, Tiger Woods rose from the dead.

    I think that 2000 years ago it was also metaphorical.

  19. In light of what you are discussing I thought this modern day appearance account to be of help in unfolding some explanations. I have it posted here: http://www.bobmoorepainting.com/BlogPhotos

  20. Boz

    I think you are being too generous by saying: “there are some very strong lines of evidence”. Because:

    Hypothetically create an example of a modern miracle claim, with as close as possible to identical evidence.

    A small cult teach that 15 years ago, in 1995, their female leader was taken (mid-coitus) to a distant planet through a portal to be taught information of great benefit to the group, and the group will receive great benefits upon her immanent return. Several members saw the eveny occur.

    This claim has identical peroperties:
    A group believing and teaching that the miracle occured
    The idea is consistent among the individiuals of the group
    Embarassing details
    New idea
    many witnesses

    should we also say that this equivalent scenario has very strong lines of evidence ? To be consistent, we must. But I don’t think we can.

  21. Ian

    You’re right, of course, Boz. I was over-egging ‘very strong evidence’. But there is a major difference between the resurrection and your example, and that is time. The resurrection is pretty well attested for a miraculous event 2000 years ago. Certainly better than other miracles I can think of that far back.

    Its not surprise of course that I don’t find the evidence very strong, as you don’t. But my intent when writing that was to try to at least put the positive evidence in a relatively strong light, on its own terms.

    Your example is great: what is the group that teach that?

  22. Ian

    Bob – thanks for the comment and welcome to the blog. Thanks for the link to story, very interesting!

  23. Ian

    Hypothetically create an example

    Your example is great: what is the group that teach that?


  24. Boz

    Ian said:”I agree, but I think caution is needed. (1)One has to ask the counter factual: if the resurrection were true, is the evidence we have consistent. (2)We can’t ask for some arbitrary standard of evidence that just isn’t available from the time. ”

    1. This is one half of a bayesian calculation. The probability of seeing the evidence, assuming that the ressurection is true. The other half is the prior probabilty, which is the probability of a ressurection without considering the available evidence.

    Take for example the hypothesis of gremlins in the attic, and the evidence of bumping noises coming from the attic. The evidence is 100% consistent with the hypothesis, but the prior probability is so low (gremlins almost certainly do not exist), that the hypothesis is very probably false.

    2.are you suggesting that we lower our standards of evidence, and put our because the claim is old? This sounds pretty dodgy. I’m probably misunderstanding you.

    Even if the city of Delphi did factually defend itself with lightning bolts and magical spells, I would not believe it on the current available evidence, and I would be wrong. I am comfortable with this.

    Ian said:”So no sensible person would dispute that the evidence is weak. But for some adherents they are just interested in making sure that it isn’t ‘impossible’ (for their understanding of the way the world works).”

    John Loftus calls this “Punting to Possibility”. Some people want to assure themselves that a particular claim is possible (not impossible), so that they can continue to choose to believe it. Even if it is only 0.01% likely.

  25. Ian

    1 and 2 are related for me – I agree with your last paragraph – it is about ‘punting to possibility’.

    As for lowering standards of evidence: yes we do that all the time when working historically. Many things that are poorly evidenced are generally accepted. Mostly on the basis of the kind of intuitive bayes rule you identify: that sounds feasible, so let’s not doubt it.

    I would reiterate, however, that I don’t for one minute think the resurrection is in that category.

  26. Quantum137

    One disappointment of Bart Ehrman’s Jesus, Interrupted is that he punted on the question of miracles by saying that a historian by nature could not affirm that any miracle had occurred in the past. After treating us to the principle of dissimilarity and other methodologies for distinguishing the authentic from the forgery that was a letdown. Surely there was something in his toolbox he could use.

    In seeking to gain some insight into the possible historical processes at work, I found it useful to think in contemporary terms and then to project backwards. Naturally this is not an attempt to establish history, it is just a way to stimulate thought and generate hypotheses. I came up with four examples of miraculous belief in recent history that are more specific than the usual suspects “mass hysteria” and “visions.” There are many other examples.

    Alien abduction stories enjoyed a spike of popularity in the 80s and 90s and were supported by first-hand witness accounts, were widely reported on in the media, and attested to by by two credible academic figures, a Harvard psychiatrist and an actual historian from Temple University.

    At about the same time there were a number of child-abuse scandals, some involving fantastic, if not physically impossible allegations of ritual Satanic child abuse carried out in a day-care center. This led to the lives of a number innocent adult lives’ being wrecked, supported by expert scientific testimony, children’s testimony, buttressed by the scientific theory of repressed memory syndrome , and leading to trial and conviction by jury.

    At the time Elvis Presley died I joked to colleagues that we would see a new religion within 200 years, the Presleytarians. Then the Elvis sightings started trickling in, and to this day Elvis is a cult-like figure. Not just Elvis fans were susceptible to the posthumous sighting. When the comedian Andy Kaufman died many fans could not accept his death and believed, or wanted to believe, that this was his ultimate ironic, comedic send-up and he would show up in a few months after faking his death. In a kind of anti-miracle Andy Kaufman had trouble convincing his fans he really was dying. If a plausible story of Andy’s appearance had surfaced, many hoped for it and were prepared to believe it. The final irony being a miraculous event would have been perceived as perfectly normal.

    The urban legend of the man waking up in a bathtub full of ice in a Las Vegas hotel room with a kidney removed for sale on the medical black market spread like wildfire in the 90s. It was a perfect storm of believability. One of the reasons it spread so rapidly was how satisfying it was to spread the rumor…to be the source of such startling news and to share the reaction with astonished friends.

    None of the events described above, including Andy Kaufman faking his death, I believe happened in a historical sense. Yet some have impressive levels of attestation and corroboration and demonstrate the powerful, almost effortless psychology of myth making and propagation. If the myth is believed to be true it has power. The New Testament believer will likely be unswayed; they will point out that the evidence of attestation and corroboration can, evidently, be unreliable.

  27. Ian

    Thanks so much for that excellent comment Quantum, and welcome to the blog!

    I couldn’t agree more, on all fronts. I think you can add a whole bunch of improbably alt.med examples of healings too, as good evidence that a large volume of healing stories can be generated with no actual healing going on. For all these reasons I have no trouble believing that the miracle stories do not represent historical miracles.

    I haven’t read that book by Ehrman, so I can’t comment on that. I know generally historians of Jesus / Christian origins, tend to avoid questions of miracles. By definition, if a miracle happened, it was not part of the normal way the world works, so there is just no way to access it historically. *Any* other explanation is more historically likely than a fundamental change in the way the universe works.

  28. andy

    Great article! BTW know any good historians that write on this topic.

    Sorry, but there are so many websites supporting the ressurectiob story its ridiculous!
    It’s becoming hard to tell what is reliable!

  29. Ian


    Thanks for the comment, and welcome!

    There are plenty of historians who write on this. If you choose a historical Jesus scholar, such as Crossan, for example. Or I’ve heard (but not read much) about Ehrman, who is a textual scholar, but also writes popular books about historical topics around Jesus and the New Testament.

  30. Pingback: Paul’s Ressurection | Irreducible Complexity

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