Is the Resurrection Account of Jesus Fallacious?
Until now we have mostly been looking at reasons why most of these early Christian writings, including the Gospel accounts, cannot be considered historically accurate or reliable and how this complicates belief in Jesus. The same suspicion is cast over the whole resurrection event also.[i] Even so the resurrection of Christ, the defining characteristic which unifies Christian thought, is too big of a topic to tackle in the space of a few pages, but knowing that the historical account is untrustworthy, some interesting questions arise as to the nature of the resurrection narrative. As the title implies, and so too is the thesis of this chapter, I firmly feel it’s more than inadequate to rely on the Biblical account as attestation to the Christian presumption that Jesus resurrected. Be that as it may, I must make my case if others are going to agree with me.
If miracles are to be considered real, assuming that the supernatural is possible, then the greatest miracle of all would have to be coming back to life after a brutal death, a burial, and a span of three days—i.e., a genuine resurrection. That would be a tad bit more astonishing than miraculously popping into existence ala magically inseminated virgins. Granted, coming back to life is no trivial matter. If Jesus did it, after three days of being deceased, then this would definitively prove he was supernaturally inclined, although it may or may not prove that he was necessarily the Son of God or the Christian Messiah. According to the Biblical historian James D. Tabor in his book The Jesus Dynasty:
The standard Christian proclamation is well known: that Jesus was raised from the dead, that he appeared to many witnesses, and that he ascended into heaven, where he sits as the glorified Christ at the right hand of God, from where he will return at the end of the age to judge the living and the dead…. Three of our four New Testament gospels report “sightings” of Jesus to support the idea that he had been raised from the dead—Matthew, Luke and John. But what about Mark? Here we come to one of the most ignored and underrated facts of our story. As shocking as it may sound, the original manuscripts of the gospel of Mark report no appearances of the resurrected Jesus at all![ii]
This is problematic for Christians, especially considering that Mark’s original ending has Mary and Salome flee in fear never to tell anyone about the empty tomb (Mark 16:8). If they didn’t tell anyone, then how do the authors of the rest of the Gospels find out about it? But before Tabor lets the notion settle in our minds, however, he reiterates another very important and oft overlooked fact, which may shed light on whether or not Jesus was thought of as divine by those around him, affirming, “There is no evidence that James worshiped his brother or considered him divine.”[iii] If Jesus’ own brother, James the Just, who knew Jesus intimately and outlived him, eventually taking over leadership roles in the early Christian movement, never once worshiped his kin as the Son of God then we should perhaps question why this was so.
These two events, however, seem to offer us two very important clues which we must keep in the back of our mind. The first being that, according to the first of the Gospels, nobody should technically know about Jesus “resurrection” because the story ends with nobody finding out—and to me this suggests the resurrection is a literary theme, since the other Gospel writers included an unknown element into their own works. The most reasonable explanation is that Mark is not reporting on actually historical events, the resurrection didn’t happen in reality, it happened on paper, and that’s why the *story ends with nobody finding out—but anyone who read the story would undeniably know the important theme and they would be free to retell it—and this is just what Matthew, Luke, and John proceed to do. If the resurrection of Jesus was a historical event, then the problem of how the later authors came to find out about it arises, but the literary hypothesis does away with such considerations making it the more likely choice. Just as importantly, the second point about Jesus not being worshiped by his own brother fits the same thesis. Jesus may have been a rebel, a political upstart, and a Jew with radical views, but nobody thought of him as divine (not until much later). Such a historical Jesus, however politically intriguing he may have been, seems to suggest that the notion of resurrection, and the belief that he was divine, is all a later fabrication created by later evangelist Christian authors. We’ll come back to these points shortly.
Trying to Peg Jesus Down
Trying to place the resurrection of Christ into a historical framework is a troubling area of debate since the only official extra-biblical commentary of it comes from the unreliable Jewish Historian Josephus Flavius. Even the Gospels are not in harmony on the subject. Since this is the case, we might try to find a triangulation in other historical texts, even though contemporaneous sources external to the Gospels usually give relatively little information about Jesus.
Without a historical backdrop to gauge the dependability of the stories, we cannot merely assume the Gospel accounts are in any way accurate report of them (also because it seems the inference that they are literary works supplies a much less awkward answer to the problem). Take for example, the original Gospel of Mark, which does not contain the virgin birth or post resurrection stories.[iv] According to the New Testament historian and theologian David Trobisch, “The resurrected Christ has not appeared and the first witnesses ‘say nothing to anyone.’ This is the worst imaginable ending for a Gospel.”[v] About the strange resurrectionless ending, professor Tabor is quick to remind us that, “such a shockingly “incomplete” ending could not be allowed to stand. It must have been deeply troubling to early Christians. Christianity was built upon the idea that Jesus appeared after his death to various individuals and groups. How could Mark have possibly left this out?… What happened was that pious scribes who copied Mark made up an ending for him and added it to his texts sometime in the late 2nd century A.D.—over one hundred years after the original text was composed!”[vi]
Early Christians were keenly aware of this problem, and it is why the Gospel of Mark was augmented to better fit into the canonical whole. Not only was an appropriate ending attached to fit with Christian belief, but because of the lack of a virgin birth as well the story was mistakenly placed after Matthew, as a bridge to Luke, to smooth over the difficulty. Rearranged in such a way, the absence of virgin births and post resurrection Christs becomes indistinguishable when wedged uncomfortably between the continuity of Matthew and Luke. It’s only later that historians realized that, in actuality, it is Matthew and Luke which both borrow heavily from Mark.
Meanwhile the longer ending of Mark comes from a variety of New Testament sources which get cannibalized for their parts in the struggle for early editors to provide an authoritative version of the Resurrection accounts (cf., Mark 6:9 with John 20; Mark 16:12-16 with Luke 24 and Matthew 28:16-20; Mark 16:17-20 with Acts 1:9, 2:6-8 and 28:5; and the closing sentence of the last ending “And they went out and proclaimed the good news everywhere,” appears to have been derived from Acts also). Tabor informs, “It is in fact a clumsy composite of the sightings of Jesus reported by Matthew, Luke, and John. It contains no independent material that can be identified as specifically from Mark, and the Greek style in which it is written is decidedly non-Markan.”[vii] In fact, the longer version of Mark was unknown to Clement of Alexandria and Origen, meanwhile, Eusebius and Jerome writing in the 4th century A.D., know of its existence but note that it is absent from almost all Greek manuscripts of which they are aware, and also mention two other “fake” endings. All this suggests that the longer ending, the one in which contains Jesus’ resurrection, may indeed also be artificial, that is, a literary creation.
Other Historical Concerns
What do these historical insights mean for the everyday practicing Christian? A lot actually. It seems to suggest some things which directly stand in opposition to some core Christian beliefs. But the question of whether or not Jesus resurrected is just one part of a larger problem. Other historical concerns could easily defeat the “truth” of Christianity as well, concerns such as, 1) It is more likely that Jesus was not born of a virgin and, 2) even Paul neglects to mention the virgin birth entirely (as if it never occurred at all), and furthermore, 3) Paul only ever alludes to the spiritually risen Christ (not a bodily “resurrected” one) who, conveniently enough, speaks to him on the sun-baked desert road to Damascus in what may amount to no more than heat-stroke induced visions, 4) the earliest manuscripts of the Gospel of Mark neither contain a virgin birth nor a post-resurrection Christ, and last but not least, 5) the longer ending of Mark seems to be purely a literary fabrication—and if so what is to suggest the rest of the Gospel accounts of the resurrection are not also?
All this seemingly detracts from the debonair claim made by Christians that Jesus was divine, resurrected, and reappeared to his followers. In turn, this casts doubt as to whether or not the Gospels are historically reliable. As it turns out, they seem to be mostly literary in origin only containing simple references to historical landmarks, names, and places. Yet this should not surprise us, for all literature contains these things.
Apologists have retreated to the claim that, at the very least, we cannot know that the resurrection did not happen. Many have stated as much, giving the example that we can no more know that Jesus was resurrected from the dead than we can know if Julius Caesar was born by caesarian section. Julius Caesar may have been born via caesarian section and Jesus may have been bodily resurrected from the dead—almost anything is possible—however these scenarios are highly improbable if not completely impracticable. The fact that we cannot prove they did not happen does not improve our understanding of the past. Such admissions should be viewed as a weakness, not as a boon. The lack of any ancillary contemporaneous information regarding the resurrection, whether or not we can prove it happened, simply amounts to the implicit acknowledgment that, as Frank R. Zindler has asserted, no one will ever provide convincing evidence for the historicity of Jesus. That’s not a strong position to mount a defense of the Christian faith on.
Even so, Christians still try to find ways to prove the historical existence of a quondam Jesus. Equally, Carrier reminds us that:
Christian apologists will often insist we have to explain the “fact” of the empty tomb. But…the evidence is not the discovery of an empty tomb but the existence of a story about the discovery of an empty tomb. That there was an actual empty tomb is only a theory… to explain the production of the story…. But this theory must be compared with other possible explanations of how and why that story came to exist… and these must be compared on the total examination of the evidence…. Hence, a common mistake is to confuse hypotheses about the evidence with the actual evidence itself.[viii]
Whereas Carrier proposes historians use Bayes’s Theorem to correct for our mistakes I think we can simplify the logic behind Bayes’s theorem to the simple theory of truth, which is basically this: we start with two things, the objective facts and the claims. Upon indicating which claims, the facts being there, will and will not work successfully when plugged into our working model of history we will be left with the best inference to the truth.
If the theory fits the facts and coincides with the working model of history then we can be relatively certain that this is a good theory. As Carrier cautions, however, we must take extra notice not to haphazardly force facts to fit the theories thereby squeezing out the theory which, opportunely enough, aligns with our convictions and religious claims (something most Christian apologists frequently and recklessly do). Instead of the forcing history to fit our claims we must adjust our claims to fit the available evidence thereby gaining a more accurate depiction of history.
[i] Richard Carrier is a historian in ancient Greece who has offered a thorough refutation of the resurrection account of Jesus. See his article “Why I Don‘t Buy the Resurrection Story.” Available online at: http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/resurrection/lecture.html