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An (Unbiased) Examination of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ (Vol. 3)

By Ben Love ~

At this point, all that remains is to examine the New Testament itself to see if that can shed any light on our pursuit. But before we delve too deeply into the possibilities of the New Testament, there is a relevant matter we must address. We have to ask if the various books that comprise the New Testament were written for the purpose of serving as historical documents (and this means we must also ask what constitutes an historical document and what the purpose of an historical document is).

English: Icon of saint womens who went to Tomb...
English: Icon of saint womens who went to Tomb of Christ Русский: Жены-мироносицы у гроба Господня (Икона праздничного чина, Вологда) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Let’s ask the general question first. What is an historical document? Basically, it is any kind of textual record of information about a person, place, or event. This can mean written accounts, letters, engravings, inscriptions, legal drafts, medical records, contracts, and, pertaining to more recent history, newspapers and photographs. However, a crucial distinction must be made. There is a difference between those documents that were written specifically as records of history and those that were composed out of the routine of everyday life. For instance, suppose Plato had written a personal letter to Xenophon and that this letter somehow survives. By examining it, we could extract and infer much about Plato’s world, Plato himself, and possibly even Xenophon—information that would thus further enlighten us about that portion of history (ancient Greece). As useful as such information would be, this letter is a different kind of document than, say, Herodotus’ work, The Histories. Why so? Herodotus specifically intended his work to serve as a record of history. Thus, it was engineered to be treated as such. This is not to say that one form of historical document is better than another, but it is important to remember that something such as our fictitious letter from Plato to Xenophon wasn’t necessarily intended to be scrutinized by future posterity for its historical reliability. This doesn’t mean that matters of historical import cannot be gleaned from such a document, but the distinction is nevertheless crucial.

Moreover, suppose in his letter to Xenophon, Plato makes mention of a plague that happened to be decimating Athens. Suppose also that he commits a typo, as all humans sometimes do, and records the daily death toll as 10,000 rather than the accurate number of 1,000. We historians examining the letter in 2015 might not have any other verification of this plague and thus the letter serves as our only source. And yet when we glean historical data from this letter, we are, unbeknownst to us, gleaning a typo, which then skews our historical understanding of this plague to which Plato refers. The point here is this: a personal letter that was never intended to serve has an historical source can only be trusted so far. We can give the data the benefit of the doubt, yes; but if other source data should make itself known, we would have to weigh these two sources against each other. The job of an historian is therefore often very similar to that of a detective. And we have to be as responsible as we can be.

To take it a step further, even Herodotus’ The Histories might contain typos or, dare I say, manipulated data. Never forget that just because someone somewhere once wrote something and called it “a history,” this does not mean that the “someone” in question might not have had agendas. The old axiom that history is written by the victors is not without precedence. Am I saying that everything that was ever written from ancient history should become immediately suspect? Not necessarily. What Iam saying is that a fair and unbiased examination of history takes all of these factors into account. Moreover, a fair and unbiased examination of history is responsible to weigh one source against another, to treat sources with the same criteria, and to leave personal agendas (which would include religious faith) at the door when making our interpretations.

These are all important matters to keep in mind as we began to look at what the New Testament has to say on the resurrection of Jesus.

We must first observe that the New Testament specifically references the resurrection of Jesus in four locations only, listed below in the order in which they were written:

1.      The passage in 1 Corinthians 15 (written circa 55 CE)

2.      Matthew (written circa 80 CE)

3.      Luke (written circa 85 CE)

4.      John (written circa 90 to 100 CE)

I know I am exaggerating to some degree, but do you see the dilemma some of us face when we try to look at these matters responsibly? To therefore assert that the New Testament makes everything clear is a bankrupt statement, a statement void of any scholarship on the matter, a statement proceeding only from the mouth of one whose faith is already placed in this event. Not good enough, says I.

Mark cannot be included because even Christian scholars concede that the resurrection story found there (see Mark 16:9-20) is a much later addition. The gospel of Mark originally ended with the women finding only the empty tomb in verse 16:8 (which is indicative of something mysterious but not conclusive proof of a resurrection). It is interesting, then, that Mark, the first gospel to be written, did not originally include a post-resurrection appearance of Jesus. Matthew, the earliest gospel to contain a resurrection story at least five decades after the fact; John, the latest, was written six to seven decades after the fact. Thus, in our unbiased investigation, we must observe that at least 25 years separate the alleged resurrection from the first written documentation of it (1 Corinthians), and that 50 or more years separate the alleged resurrection from the first narrative to speak of it: the gospel of Matthew.

Now then, let us look at the three gospels that contain a resurrection story (we will deal with the passage in 1 Corinthians in a moment) to see how they bear up under the kind of scrutiny we would normally give any other ancient text when trying to be piece together the events of the past:

1. When did the women find the empty tomb? Matthew 28:1 says the women found the tomb at dawn. Mark 16:2 says it was after the sun had risen. Luke merely observes that it was early in the morning. John, however, in verse 20:1, says it was before the sun had risen. A minor detail? Sure. But what is the historian supposed to conclude? If we were gleaning through records of the battle of Hastings in 1066 CE, and there was discord regarding what time of the day the battle took place, how could a historian then accurately relay a “fact” to the rest of us concerning this detail? A worthy scholar would have to conclude that we just don’t know when it happened. Now, does this mean that the battle itself never happened? Certainly not. But it becomes one mark on our list of uncertainties.


2. What women were present at the finding of the empty tomb? Matthew 28:1 says it was Mary Magdalene and the “other” Mary (two women in total). Mark 16:1 says it was Mary Magdalene, the mother of James, and Salome (three women in total). Luke, in 24:10, says it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and “other women” (multiple women in total, some of whom are unknown). John, in 20:1, says it was Mary Magdalene alone; no other women were present. Now, suppose we were trying to piece together who was present at the assassination of Julius Caesar. Suppose that in so doing we were trying to ascertain who actually took part in the murder. Suppose also that we have four sources and of those four, none of them agree on who was present. So who was present? How is an historian to know? Moreover, at what point would a historian begin to wonder how solid any of the sources are and how credible the idea is that Caesar was assassinated at all? After all, we now have a second mark under our list of uncertainties. How many uncertainties does it take before a historical event in question cannot be accurately retold?

3. Was the tomb open or closed when these women arrived? Matthew 28:2 says it was still closed and that an earthquake rolled the tombstone open. Mark 16:4 says it was already open when the women arrived. Luke 24:2 agrees with Mark. John 20:1, the only scene to show Mary arriving alone, also says the stone was already opened. So which was it? An earthquake is not a minor detail. Either there was an earthquake or there wasn’t. This would be like historians trying to ascertain whether or not a volcano was erupting in the background while the bombing of Pearl Harbor was taking place. Such a thing would be important to the scene. And yet Matthew just casually slips in an allusion to an earthquake, a detail not present in the other three accounts. So here we have another uncertainty, this time involving a major detail.

There are more contradictions and discrepancies we could discuss; the point is this: what exactly did happen on that Sunday morning? What exactly did occur in the following days and weeks? Do we have any hard facts? Not really. We have differing accounts reporting differing things. We don’t know who saw what. We don’t know who was there to corroborate what. We don’t know exactly what took place when. We therefore have no hard chronology about any of these events. The details in question, like how long Jesus stayed on Earth, where his ascension took place, when Jesus first appeared to the disciples—all of these and more are sketchy and riddled with inconsistences. And yet this is supposed to be the one event that God meant for every human being in the world to know about it. It is strange, then, that the historian cannot piece together anything conclusive. This would be the exact same as a courtroom scene in which lawyers are pointing out that the witnesses to an alleged murder are all telling different details and that, in some accounts, different witness were alleged to be present. A jury would not send a human being to death row on the strength of such contradictory evidence, and yet a Christian will orient his entire life around the resurrection story, a story fraught with enough contradictions that a court would summarily throw such a case out the window.

To put this into an historical perspective, suppose there was a fictitious battle between the Romans and the Greeks in 100 bce, called the battle of, oh, the battle of Athens, say. Suppose we here in 2015 are trying to piece together the details of this battle. There are only five accounts upon which we can rely. Three of those accounts were written by people who were at the battle. One account was written by the grandson of someone who was at the battle. And the last account was written several hundred years later. None of these accounts tell the same story. The three written by the actual eyewitnesses differ greatly. One says the battle took place at midday. Another says it was dark, nightfall. A third says it was morning. One says the Romans won, the other says the Greeks won. The one written by the grandson of the eyewitness mentions an appearance by the Macedonians, showing up at the last minute to save the day, but this isn’t mentioned anywhere else. The one written several hundred years later is so contradictory that one has to wonder if the same battle is even being discussed. Do contradictions and discrepancies add weight to authenticity? Yes, but only to a degree. At some point, we here in 2015 have to scratch our heads and say, “Well, what the hell did happen there on that day? None of these accounts agree.” There must come a point where there are too many contradictions for any of the documents to be taken seriously. Perhaps one of them is more reliable than the others, but after weighing them against each other, how are we to know which it is?

Imagine now that someone was telling you that if you believe the Romans lost, you will be eternally rewarded, but if you believe the Greeks lost, you will be eternally tormented.

Therefore, the conclusion here can only be the following: Matthew, Luke, and John are irreconcilably contradictory and thus render themselves unreliable. Yes, I know that minor discrepancies add weight to authenticity. But many of these aren’t minor discrepancies. Matthew, Luke, and John (two of which were apparently among Jesus’ original twelve followers) cannot even agree on what day of the week Jesus was killed (I, for instance, will always remember even when I am 90 that the September 11, 2001 attacks occurred on a Tuesday). Moreover, the accounts show signs of doctoring (interpolations), of fantastical additions, of forced literary events to reconcile this or that prophecy, and perhaps worst of all, the gospel writers themselves admit that they are writing propaganda to “help you believe.” History is not about believing in something fantastical. History is about the honest reporting of facts, whatever they may be. No other credible historian would be taken seriously if, in his historical books, he wrote, “I have written these things in such a way as to convince you that this is how they really happened.” Even the other historians from that time (Philo, Josephus) do not use such tactics when reporting their histories.

We must also consider the fact that the authors of the gospels do not identify themselves. Centuries later, the Christians attributed names to those books that they thought would carry weight (known followers of Jesus and associates of the original apostles would be the ideal choice, which is exactly what happened). We therefore have no way of knowing exactly who wrote these books. What was their motivation? Whom did they consult? What other documents were they based on? Were the writers competent to even know what they were reporting?

We then have to weigh the fact that Christian scholars talk in great lengths about the number of ancient manuscripts we have for the New Testament. My question was this: so what? How does quantity translate to authenticity of truth? There are billions of copes of Harry Potter in the world today. Does this mean that 2,000 years from now people will be justified in believing that a boy named Harry Potter existed and fought a Wizard War in the 1990s? The issue of quantity is therefore irrelevant. It proves absolutely nothing. Yet Christians cling to this idea as their own and only saving grace, though I cannot personally understand why.

Thus, after having reviewed the New Testament and having observed the discrepancies there, the impartial scholar must, in good conscience, add a checkmark under the heading “unlikely.”

What Paul Didn’t Say

Ah, but what about that passage in 1 Corinthians? Yes, let us now visit the pièce de résistance. Chapter 15, verses 3 through 8, quoted here:

“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.”

We must remember that this passage from Paul is by far the earliest mention of anything regarding a possible resurrection of Jesus, having been composed circa 55 CE. However, this account is possibly the most damning of all. First of all, Paul never actually says there was an empty tomb. He uses the word “buried,” and the Greek word in question is etaphē, which refers to burial in the ground (which is how all crucifixion victims were treated—they were given a mass grave), not a stone sepulcher, as the gospel stories suggest. When Paul speaks of Jesus having been raised from the dead, he does not use the Greek word for resurrection, which is anástasis; he uses the verb egeiró, which means, “to wake up from sleeping.” This is the same Greek word used in the story of Jesus calming the raging sea (Matthew, chapter 8; Mark, chapter 4). In this story, Jesus was sleeping in the boat, and his disciples “woke” (egeiró) him. Now, if Paul means a bodily resurrection (and if God himself was writing through Paul), why not use the word anástasis to convey the clearest, simplest meaning? For the sake we who are scrutinizing the text centuries later, why not remove any ambiguity, any mystery, any possibility of misconstruing the facts, and any hint of doubt? If God was inspiring the writers of the Bible, why not go for the gold, as the saying goes?

But there’s more When Paul speaks of Jesus having “appeared” to the various people in this passage, the word for “appeared” is ōphthē, which specifically means a spiritual vision. This is the exact same word Paul uses when describing the “vision” he sees on the Damascus road. There were other words Paul could have used that would have conveyed a more direct meaning regarding a bodily appearance, but Paul chose to use a word that conveyed an ethereal image rather than a literal, physical image. But why? The only logical reason is because Paul meant something other than what modern Christians think he meant. The only logical reason would be that Paul clearly did not mean a “bodily” resurrection.

I like to think of this passage as the proof of what Paul didn’t say. Here he has a chance to mention an empty tomb and fails to do so. Here he has a chance to use the word anástasis, an act which would have left us in no doubt whatsoever regarding his meaning. But does he do this? No. He uses the word egeiró, which cannot help but suggest that perhaps Jesus was not actually dead but merely sleeping. Here he has a chance to use any other word that would have implied a physical representation of a bodily resurrection, and yet Paul chooses to use the word ōphthē, which can only mean a spiritual and therefore ethereal representation, like a ghost or any manner of non-corporeal entity.

What’s also interesting is that scholars have identified the passage of 1 Corinthians 15 as having been a hymn already in use at the time Paul included it in his letter. Songs point more to legend than to fact, a point which very, very few Christians will concede. For us, however, in our investigation, we must be responsible to add a final checkmark under the heading “unlikely.” We now have six check marks under “unlikely” and none under “likely.”

Surely the intelligent human can read the writing on the wall at this point.

Speaking of legend, our unbiased examination of the resurrection must finally entertain the notion that the resurrection story is/was mythical, the result of legendary evolution. Christians will say that not enough time passed between the alleged event (circa 30 CE) and the first writings of it (circa 55 to 80 CE) to create a myth. Legends, they say, need much more time than that to evolve. In fact, this statement is made to me constantly. My question is this: how do they know that? What information are they basing this statement on, exactly? As others have pointed out, there are people in the United States who, as early as the 1950s, believed a spaceship crash-landed at Roswell, New Mexico in 1947. Even by the 1960s, this story had taken on mythical, legendary dimensions, with all sorts of purported “eyewitnesses” popping up and saying “I saw this,” “I saw that.” Whatever may or may not have happened in Roswell in 1947 had already achieved legendary status after only about thirty years. And this kind of thing actually happens all the time. The more sensational a story, the faster the legend is born. While still being biased, I see no reason to assume the same could not have happened regarding the resurrection of Jesus.

Conclusion

So, having thus examined the resurrection of Jesus Christ, what can we determine? Let us review:

1.      The regularity of history casts doubt on the resurrection (a checkmark under “unlikely”).

2.      The resurrection is scientifically impossible without the involvement of a miracle (another checkmark under “unlikely”).

3.      There are no corroborative written accounts from the time period of the alleged resurrection (another checkmark under “unlikely”).

4.      There is no evidence in the 2nd century accounts to indicate anything miraculous took place in the first century (another checkmark under “unlikely”).


5.      Two likely candidates (Justus and Philo) who could have easily corroborated the resurrection failed to do so.

6.      The New Testament narratives of the resurrection do not agree on crucial details. The earliest narrative does not even contain a resurrection story. The later narratives are laced with enough contradictions to cast serious doubt in the historical legitimacy of the entire story (another checkmark under “unlikely”).

7.      The passage in 1 Corinthians undermines the idea of a “bodily” resurrection due to the specific rhetoric that Paul chose to use (another checkmark under “unlikely”).

Therefore, in view of all of this, what must our unbiased conclusion be? It can only be this: Jesus may have risen from the dead, but we here in the 21st century have absolutely no evidence of it whatsoever. Any evidence we may have is circumstantial at best and hearsay at worst. There is nothing here that constitutes hard data, and there is nothing here that beckons the fair-minded individual toward putting religious faith in this event. We have not proven the miraculous, we have not proven the outrageous, we have not even proven what the hell did occur, who was there, what was said, when it happened, or any of the small details regarding the alleged event.

If Jesus did rise from the dead, it would seem the Christian God doesn’t want anyone knowing about it. And since that wouldn’t make any sense whatsoever, the final analysis must be this: Jesus Christ never rose from the dead. The story is a fabrication, a legend, a myth, the origins of which are to be found in the same processes that have created myths and legends all over the planet since human history began.

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