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An essay donated by R. C. Symes

"The resurrection myths about Jesus;"
a Progressive Christian interpretation

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Many have wondered just what is historically accurate about the accounts of Jesus' resurrection from the dead, given conflicting information presented in the Christian New Testament and other writings. To understand the story of the resurrection, we first need to examine the earliest written account of the event, rather than the later gospels that have created contradictory stories about it. It should be remembered that for the first 40 years of Christianity after Jesus' crucifixion, there was no detailed written account of Jesus' resurrection from the tomb and his appearances to certain women and disciples. Accounts of his ascension to heaven and finally the commissioning of his followers at Pentecost follow in the last two decades of the first century.

We have no evidence that Jesus wrote anything. His native language was Aramaic, a Galilean dialect, and he may have spoken Greek, the language of the books of the New Testament. The first written account of Jesus' resurrection comes from Paul, originally a non-believer and persecutor of the followers of Jesus, but later their greatest missionary. He was converted to Christianity about two or four years after Jesus' death in 30 or 33 CE (A.D.) by a subjective revelation from "the Lord" during which Paul writes he was swept up to the third heaven (2 Corinthians 12:1-4). Paul then immediately began his preaching in Arabia and years later met Peter and James and other apostles in Jerusalem. In about the year 55, Paul wrote what he knew about the resurrection:

"First and foremost, I handed on to you the facts which had been imparted to me: that Christ died for our sins, in accordance with the scriptures; that he was buried; that he was raised to life on the third day, according to the scriptures; and that he appeared to Cephas (Peter), and afterwards to the Twelve. Then he appeared to over 500 of our brothers at once, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, and afterwards to all the apostles. In the end he appeared even to me." (1 Cor. 15:3-8; New English Bible).

At first glance this description of the resurrection seems too sparse for the seminal event of Christianity. It was the most memorable miracle seared into the minds of Jesus' disciples, but this is all the detail that Paul gives about the resurrection in the thirteen epistles ascribed to him (biblical scholars now concede only seven are of his authorship). He also links Jesus' resurrection appearance to him with the appearances to the other Jerusalem leaders and consequently sees himself as their equal. "Am I not an apostle? Did I not see Jesus our Lord?" (1 Cor. 9:1). He notes too that the Jerusalem leaders agreed that God made Peter an apostle to the Jews and himself an apostle to the Gentiles (Gal. 2:6-8).

But what was this resurrection appearance like? Paul knows nothing of the bodily resurrection elaborated in the four gospels some 40 to 70 years after Jesus' death. That is to say, no women discovering an empty tomb, no angelic messengers, no appearance of the risen Lord to Mary Magdalene, no postmortem Jesus dining with the disciples, or Jesus magically passing through walls into a locked room, or having Thomas examine the wounds in Jesus' hands and side. For Paul, the resurrection appearance was a spiritual one, a heavenly vision that rocked him to the core of his being.

And he must have concluded that the appearances of Jesus to Peter and James were the same as the one to him, because he would not have accepted their "hand of fellowship" (Gal. 2:9) if their understanding of the risen Christ differed from his own (2 Cor. 11:4-6). Indeed Paul was ready to make an outcast of anyone who disagreed with his Christology (Gal. 1:8-9). From this we are led to conclude that Peter and James and the others among the Twelve (strangely not 11 - was Judas a later invention?) had resurrection revelations similar to Paul's, only his was the last. The resurrection stories found later in the gospels could not have been in circulation orally during Paul's career (he died about the year 64 or 67) or the apostles and others would have had a great debate with him when he tried to explain his resurrection theology (see 1 Cor. 15:35-57). Simply put, the first witnesses listed by Paul had not heard of the gospels' resurrection accounts because they had not yet been invented!

According to Paul, the resurrection transformed Jesus into the Christ, the Son of God and Savior of the world. Christ's resurrected body was not a resuscitated physical body, but a new body of a spiritual/celestial nature: the animal body comes first and then the spiritual body (1 Cor. 15:46). Paul never says that the earthly body becomes immortal. Jesus' earthly body rotted in the grave: "flesh and blood can never possess the kingdom of God, and the perishable cannot possess immortality" (1 Cor. 15:50). For Paul, God did not raise Jesus from the dead to be seen again on earth and then ascend to heaven, but instead exalted Jesus into God's presence and divine lordship at his death (Philippians 2:8-11). In explaining to the Corinthians how they will be resurrected, Paul says that it is the inner person, the spiritual body that will have eternal life while the outer fleshly body will decompose (2 Cor. 4:6-5:8). Had the gospels' descriptions of Jesus' bodily resurrection existed in his day, Paul would have branded this concept as heresy, contrary to God's revelation to him of the spiritual Christ.

As well, nowhere in the other epistles is there a reference to a bodily resurrection of Jesus. The epistle to the Hebrews, also written before the gospels, has no resurrection story, but rather an exaltation of Jesus to heaven at the time of his death (Hebrews 2:9; 4:14). The author does not draw on the supposed resurrection events later described in the gospels, but on Psalm 110 and portrays Christ as the new High Priest, sitting at the right hand of God (Heb. 10:12). Even the author of 1 Peter (written about 90-95 CE) refers only to a spiritual resurrection of Christ (1 Pet. 3:19).

Consequently, for the first four decades of Christianity, the resurrection of Jesus was described in sparse terms with an emphasis on a resurrected spiritual body exalted into the heavens. It was the essence of the Christian faith: "If Christ was not raised, then our gospel is null and void, and so is your faith." (1 Cor. 15:14).

But by the years 66-70, catastrophe struck with the Jewish-Roman war and the utter destruction of Jerusalem, the temple and holy sites. The Romans slaughtered Jews by the thousands and many were exiled or made slaves, and the faithful wondered where was God? Members of the small Jewish-Christian cult were also wondering where was their Savior? Had Jesus not said that the first generation of believers would not die before his Parousia (his coming from heaven to judge mankind and establish God's kingdom)? (Mark 9:1)
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The gospel of Mark was written in those tumultuous times (most likely about the year 70 CE in Syria) by an anonymous author who was not an eyewitness to the life of Jesus, nor did he have access to first-hand witnesses because they were by now dead. Mark's author felt compelled to give the faithful hope by writing a biography of the earthly Jesus. His gospel (i.e. "good news") would explain God's plan for them through a descriptive life of Jesus, his martyrdom, resurrection and promise to come again. Thus began the literalist and eventually orthodox approach to the faith so familiar to Christians today.

But where would the author of Mark (hereafter referred to as Mark) find the details for his Jesus? They were not found in Paul's writings that Paul said were received in a revelation from Jesus Christ (Galatians 1:11-12), or in other epistles. There were some early oral traditions, and likely some written sayings of Jesus emerging by the sixth decade, but written biographical material was scant or non-existent. Had this material been available, Paul surely would have used it to help convert non-believers (e.g. when Paul debated with others about whether Jewish dietary laws had to apply to converts, and argued that they did not, he could have clinched his argument by quoting the words of Jesus now found in Mark: "nothing that goes into a man from outside can defile him." (Mk. 7:15). However, Paul did not know this saying). Mark, being educated in Greek, set out to write his heroic biography according to the traditional model of Aristoxenus, namely: a miraculous or unusual birth; revealing childhood episode(s); a summary of wise teachings; wondrous deeds; and a martyrdom or noble death. Mark describes all but the first, although the later gospels of Matthew and Luke add the miraculous birth narratives (see also my article "Myths Surrounding the Birth of Jesus" in this website), and they also added resurrection details.

It is worth noting that as Mark set about to transform Paul's humble/obedient, dying/rising Christ (Philippians 2:5-11) into the historical Jesus, he wrote in an era with different religions and pagan mystery cults that had hero myths similar to the Greek biographical model as well. The lives of god-man deities such as Osiris, Horus, Dionysus, Attis, Adonis, Bacchus and Mithras have many close parallels to the Jesus of the gospels.

Three hundred years before Jesus, the pagan mysteries had produced a composite myth of the god-man whose biography had these (and other) elements:

  • He was god incarnate,
  • Born of a virgin around December 25 or January 6 in a cave or stable, sometimes with shepherds present;
  • He is the son of a god and a savior;
  • His followers can be born again through baptism;
  • He turns water into wine at a marriage ceremony;
  • His death in the Spring is a sacrifice for the sins of mankind;
  • After death he descends to the place of departed spirits and then rises to heaven on the third day;
  • His followers then await his return in glory to be the judge of mankind at the Last Days;
  • His memory is celebrated by his followers through a ritual meal of bread and wine or water which represent his body.

The gospel writers wrote in a Hellenistic milieu where these ideas circulated freely and likely influenced them. Indeed, many of the god-man stories were so embarrassingly close to the life of Jesus, that some of the early Church Fathers in the post-gospel decades argued that the Devil, knowing in advance of Jesus' coming, copied the story of his life in the myths of the ancient deities!

Mark, using the Greek biographical model, drew much of his inspiration from the Hebrew Scriptures, building on the Jewish belief that the Messiah would be a historical, rather than a mythical savior. The author's belief that Jesus was the Son of God meant to him that his life would have been foretold and modeled on the beliefs, events and heroes of the Jewish (Old) Testament. Mark would rework Hebrew scripture through the Jewish rabbinical technique of midrash, that is, elaborating on and interpreting sacred text from the past to explain and confirm truth for his time.

A case in point is the crucifixion of Jesus. Paul and the early Christians knew Jesus was crucified, but lacked details of the event. Mark mined the book of Isaiah (chapter 53) for the suffering servant motif and Psalm 22 ("My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?) for descriptive details in order to build his narrative of Jesus' death on the cross (Mk. 15:21-39). Matthew and Luke follow suit, but the former goes one step further; instead of the of darkness over all the land during Jesus' last three hours on the cross (when the sun hides its face in shame: (Is.24: 23)). Matthew substituted an earthquake when Jesus gave up the ghost. Matthew remembered Isaiah's account of Judah's deliverance (Is. 26:19). He writes of a great earthquake striking Jerusalem and many graves opening from which God's saints rise zombie-like from the dead, and after Jesus' resurrection walk about to be seen by many (Matt. 27:50-54). But John, who supposedly was present at the crucifixion, does not mention any of these fantastic events in his gospel - the earthquake, the three hours of darkness and the once dead walking about in Jerusalem (Jn. 19:25-37). Nor were these incredible events reported by any non-Christian writers of the period (e.g. Josephus, Seneca, Pliny the Elder). This is not history, but heroic mythmaking based on a midrash of ancient texts.

Mark is the first writer to introduce the empty tomb story. But he has no resurrection appearances -- neither the appearances related by Paul, nor those in the later gospels of Matthew, Luke and John. Mark ends his gospel with a promise that the risen Jesus would be seen in Galilee and has the women running from the empty tomb in terror, saying nothing to anyone despite the youth in the tomb telling them to "Fear nothing; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised again; he is not here; look, there is the place where they laid him. But go and give this message to his disciples and Peter: "He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you" (Mk. 16:6-8). Did Mark conclude his gospel this way because he was using a literary device to remind us that Jesus' closest disciples fled the crucifixion in fear, or as an explanation of why the tomb story was not told until some four decades after the event? Mark has no witnesses to Christ's resurrected body in his account, because for Mark, the empty tomb was not proof of the resurrection, but a consequence of it.

Note that biblical scholars have concluded that the final verses describing appearances of the risen Christ (Mk. 16:9-20) are an interpolation (a polite term for "forgery"). These verses are not found in the earliest copies of the gospel and the writing style is different. Christian scribes, who were dissatisfied with the abrupt ending to Mark, added them later. Many biblical exegetes think that the last chapter of John (21) is an interpolation as well, added early in the second century. The alteration of text in the New Testament was very common over the centuries. No original manuscripts of the 27 books of the New Testament survive and the 5,400 handwritten copies and fragments that are still extant (most from the Middle Ages) date from the second century down to the 15th century when the printing press was invented. The earliest complete copies of the gospels date from about 300 CE As scribes copied the text they corrected what they perceived as mundane errors from spelling to biblical references. However, sometimes they also copied marginal notes made by other scribes into the text, and sometimes changed or rearranged text to promote a particular theology or agenda. For example, someone added Peter as a witness to the empty tomb in Luke's gospel (Lk. 24:12) to emphasize the primacy of Peter in the resurrection narrative. This verse does not appear in the earliest manuscripts. No one has yet been able to count all the changes to the manuscripts, but some have estimated that they are well in excess of 200,000!

But why would Mark ignore resurrection appearances described in the later gospels? If these appearance stories were well known (presumably they were the impetus for belief) and circulating among the early Christians, surely Mark would have heard of them and used them just as the later gospel writers did. The reason he did not use them is that they were only invented 15 to 30 years after Mark wrote his gospel, to respond to the exigencies of the times and to promote the viewpoints of their authors.

When the author of Matthew wrote his gospel about the year 85, and the author of Luke a few years later, they both had copies of Mark in front of them. Mark has a total of 661 verses, but only about 31 do not appear in some form or another in the combined gospels of Matthew and Luke. Matthew uses about 90 per cent of Mark's material and Luke about 50 per cent. Where Matthew and Luke digress from Mark's biography, they draw on another, but non-extant source named Q. One can hardly say that Matthew and Luke are independent witnesses of Jesus' life.

For example, compare the accounts of Jesus and his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane - Mark 14:32-42, Matthew 26:36-46 and Luke 22:39-46. Note how Matthew and Luke depend on Mark who in turn has drawn on Psalm 116:1-4; 10-15, to show Jesus' emotions running from fear and agony, to prayer and then to resolution to face death. In order to develop his motif, Mark also employs creative license with Old Testament passages such as 1 Kings, chapter 19 where Elijah (who also was later carried up to heaven) flees from authorities who seek his arrest and death, leaves his servant behind and prays under a tree to be delivered. Mark also draws on the book of Jonah (Jonah was in the belly of a great fish for three days and nights until he was spit out at God's command). Jonah was deeply grieved in Nineveh to the point of death as was Jesus in Gethsemane (Jonah 4:1-8). The description of Christ's agony in Gethsemane is a poignant but fictional piece of literature based on the reworking of ancient text. This can be further deduced by the fact that no one could have known the words that Jesus prayed because the disciples were asleep (Mk. 14:37).

However, when it came to the resurrection narrative, Matthew and Luke found few details to draw on from Mark and most frustrating of all, Mark had no resurrection appearances. They had to rework the story and in the process, new and often contradictory descriptions appeared. The gospel of John is mostly independent of the synoptic gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke and draws on its own traditions and sources. Matthew, Luke and John could still find inspiration in Old Testament passages such as God bringing the dead back to life in the valley of the dry bones (Ezekiel 37:1-14), and from the words: "... many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth will wake, some to everlasting life...." (Daniel 12:2). Paul had ignored passages such as these because they did not fit his conception of resurrection.

Moreover, in the last two decades of the first century when these gospels were written, there were growing religious disputes among those in the Jesus movement. Chief among the cults was Gnosticism that preached individual spiritual revelation and knowledge of God rather than faith was the means of salvation; Docetism that believed that matter was inherently evil, therefore Jesus was really a phantasm that only seemed to have a physical body, and being perfect, could not suffer and did not really die on the cross; and Ebionism whose adherents believed Jesus was human but not divine. The gospel writers sought to address these "heresies" as well as to counter arguments from skeptics that the disciples only saw hallucinations of the risen Jesus. There was also polemic from other Jews that Jesus' body was stolen by his disciples. To counter these attacks, the later gospel authors developed resurrection stories with more detail and realism than Paul and Mark did. To aid in this endeavor the authors drew on the books of Daniel - chapter 6 for the lion's den (i.e. tomb); chapters 7 and 10 for the radiant heavenly being (i.e. angel); and Jonah for the rising on the third day (Jonah 1:17 - 2:10), as well as Hosea 6:2.

The tomb and resurrection accounts of Jesus in the gospels have some commonalities, but many differences and contradictions that cannot be reconciled. This should be no surprise given their provenance. Today, literalists often attempt to harmonize the accounts, but their labors are not convincing because they have to leave some information out for this to work. For example, the gospel writers cannot agree on who first went to the tomb: whether it was Mary Magdalene alone as in John, or Mary along with different women in the synoptic gospels. Mark and Luke say the women went to anoint Jesus' body with spices on Sunday morning, but John relates that this had already been done (to excess: 100 pounds of spices) when Jesus was buried. In reality, there was no Jewish practice of washing and anointing a corpse a second time. Matthew, who has the women observe the burial, wisely states they went the second time only to visit the body, and John says only Mary Magdalene went for the same reason. Matthew says the stone covering the tomb's entrance was rolled away in their presence when they arrived, whereas Mark, Luke and John state it was rolled away before they arrived.

None of the gospels but Matthew's has the improbable story of a guard at the tomb (Matt. 27:62-66; 28:11-15). This was invented in order to counter Jewish charges that the disciples had stolen the body. This just doesn't ring true for it would have meant Jewish leaders going to Pilate on the Sabbath (!) to engage a guard for the tomb the day after (!) the burial, and then bribing them to say the disciples stole the body after the soldiers had fallen asleep -- a dereliction of duty that would have meant severe punishment (flogging and even death) by the Roman military.

Mark has a young man inside the tomb relating the message of resurrection, while Matthew has one angel, Luke has two men, and John has two angels. Did the women see the risen Jesus at the tomb? Mark and Luke say no, Matthew says yes and John says not at first but Mary Magdalene did later. Jesus' first appearance to the disciples is implied by Mark to be in Galilee, 70 to 100 miles (115 to 165 km) from Jerusalem, a 7 to 10 day journey. Matthew confirms this, but Luke says the first appearance happened at Emmaus seven miles from Jerusalem and then later that evening in the city itself. John also has Jesus appear to the disciples first in Jerusalem. Could such conflicting testimony ever be credible today in a court of law? Such disharmony and contradiction about the most important event of Christianity leaves the biblical literalist in a quandary. If the Bible is the inerrant word of God, then why did an all-wise, all-powerful God guide the authors to write such contradictory texts? Which version of events is true?

The description of the risen Jesus in the gospels is one of him having a physical body, but hard to recognize at first. This is a body that walks and talks, that at times can be touched and examined, that eats food, but at the same time can walk through closed doors into a room and finally ascend through the clouds to heaven. We can see how the resurrection accounts have progressed from Paul's vision experience, to Mark's disappeared body, to Matthew's physical encounter doubted by some, to Luke's physical encounter when dining, and finally John's physical encounter by examining Jesus' wounds. The trend to develop even more elaborate myths about the risen Christ continued into the second century. For example, the non-canonical gospel of Peter, likely written between 100-150 CE, picks up where Matthew left off and describes Jesus' actual resurrection and ascension. It describes how after the heavens opened, two young men descended in a great light, went into the tomb and then the guards:

"... saw three men come forth from the tomb, and two of them supporting one, and a cross following them. And the heads of the two reached to heaven, but the head of him who was led by them overpassed the heavens. And they heard a voice from the heavens, saying, "You have preached to them that sleep." And a response was heard from the cross, "Yes." (Gospel of Peter v. 10)

Neither Paul nor the original witnesses to the first appearances of the risen Christ were alive to challenge the gospels' new interpretations. Paul related that he and the other apostles had visions of a spiritually raised Christ, not a physically raised Jesus. Whereas Paul believed that the body that was buried was not the body that was resurrected (1 Cor.15:44), the gospel authors believed the opposite (Lk. 24:39). Paul's heavenly vision of the risen Christ (Acts 26:19) had now been replaced by Thomas' crude earthly encounter with the risen Jesus (Jn.20: 27).

The gospels' resurrection stories about Jesus are not factual accounts, but rather made up ones to support the theological agendas of their authors. They were "recorded in order that you may hold the faith that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that through this faith you may possess life by his name" (John 20:31). The gospel accounts are not veridical history. They are myths.

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See also an essay giving a conservative Christian viewpoint on the resurrection by Jose Davis

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Originally posted: 2008-MAR-05
Latest update: 2014-FEB-01
Author: R. C. Symes

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