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So Just How Dumb Were Jesus’ Disciples? The Resurrection, Part III

By Robert Conner ~

The gospel of John describes what happened immediately after Jesus’ death on the cross:

“Later, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a secret disciple of Jesus for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate if he might take Jesus’ body and Pilate consented, so he came and took his body. Nicodemus, who earlier had come to see Jesus by night, brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, around seventy- five pounds. Then they took Jesus’ body and wrapped it in linen cloth together with the spices, as is the Jewish burial custom. In the place he was crucified there was a garden and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. Because it was the Jewish Preparation Day, and because the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.” (John 19:38- 42)

About a half dozen features of this brief account are either improbable, flatly contradict the version of events in the other gospels, or raise even more questions. We might as well start with Joseph of Arimathea, who Mark describes as a respected bouleutēs, or “council member,” (Mark 15:43) an official of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish court that condemned Jesus for “blasphemy” (Mark 14:64)—as most are aware, blasphemy is a religious crime, not a crime against the state, and Roman governors, least of all Pontius Pilate, had no interest in Jewish beliefs, much less in enforcing laws against blasphemy. Reading through the trial accounts, one notes that the charges become vague and at several points can’t be specified.

In short, the accounts of Jesus’ arrest and “trial” before Pilate are an additional mass of contradictions and improbabilities; Mark has Judas indicate which man is Jesus by approaching him and kissing him, (Mark 14:44-45) whereas in John’s gospel, Jesus steps forward and identifies himself not once but three times while Judas simply stands by. (John 18:4- 8) Similarly, there is disagreement about where the disciples will meet Jesus after his resurrection: are they to go to Galilee, (Matthew 28:7, 10) or must they remain in Jerusalem? (Acts 1:4)

But I digress. According to Mark, the vote to condemn Jesus was unanimous as required by Jewish law: “they all judged him deserving of death.” (Mark 14:64) So did Joseph, a member in good standing of the court, vote to condemn Jesus despite being a secret disciple? And if, as John says, Joseph and Nicodemus wrapped Jesus’ corpse in linen on the Jewish day of Preparation, the day before Passover, then their contact with a dead body made them ceremonially unclean, unable to participate in the Passover celebration—“But some of them could not celebrate the Passover on that day because they were ceremonially unclean on account of a dead body.” (Numbers 9:6, NIV) For that matter, how likely is it that Joseph would enter the praetorium, Pilate’s judgment hall, to ask for Jesus’ body if contact with a Gentile would make him ceremonially unclean and disqualify him from celebrating a major Jewish festival? (John 18:28) If the gospel accounts are accurate, Joseph was doubly disqualified from celebrating Passover due to contact with a Gentile as well as a dead body. Is it plausible that a prominent Jewish figure would disregard an Old Testament command? “This is a day you are to commemorate; for the generations to come you shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord—a lasting ordinance.” (Exodus 12:14, NIV)

John’s account introduces a further problem, a glaring calendar discrepancy. If Jesus was arrested, tried, and crucified before Passover began—the trial “was the day of Preparation of the Passover; it was about noon” (John19:14)—then it was impossible for Jesus to eat Passover with his disciples as described by Mark: “The disciples left, went to the city, and found everything just as Jesus had told them and they prepared the Passover meal.” (Mark 14:16) Jesus may have worked miracles, but he can’t have died the day before Passover and still managed to eat the Passover meal with his disciples, dead one day and alive the next.

Scholars who have examined these accounts in light of Roman and Jewish law have identified additional issues: Rome “typically denied burial to victims of crucifixion” and “Rabbinic law specifies that criminals may not be buried in tombs.” (Jeffery Lowder, Journal of Higher Criticism 8 (2001), 254-255). For whatever it’s worth, despite evidence that many thousands were executed in Judea by crucifixion, archaeologists have unearthed a single example of a burial of a crucified man, a heel bone pierced by a nail, physical evidence that crucified individuals were typically denied burial rites and were tossed into mass graves or their bodies left hanging on the cross to rot and be devoured by carrion birds.

Which brings us around again to the women who came to the tomb. Mark tells us that the women came to the tomb, now three days after Jesus’ death, “to anoint Jesus’ body.” (Mark 16:1) But according to John’s account, Jesus had already been embalmed and wrapped in linen in compliance with “Jewish burial custom.” (John 19:40) Recall that within a similar time frame, Lazarus’ body had started to stink. (John 11:39) So were the women going to unwrap Jesus’ decaying body and smear ointments on it? Jesus’ body was in the ground, in Palestine, in the springtime, not in a refrigerated morgue supervised by a medical examiner.

Another discordant note is heard when comparing the story as Luke tells it with Matthew’s account. In Luke’s resurrection tale the Men in White have to remind the noodle-headed women of Jesus’ prediction: “Remember, as he said to you when he was in Galilee, the son of man must be betrayed into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day be raised.” (Luke 24:6-7) Oddly enough, the “sinners” who crucified Jesus recalled his prediction without needing to be reminded by glowing Men in White: “Sir, we remember that fraudster said while still alive, ‘After three days I will rise.’ Therefore order the tomb be made secure so that his disciples don’t come and steal him and tell the people he’s risen.” (Matthew 27:63-64)

At this point we might ask why the gospel accounts are so internally contradictory? In point of fact, there are several likely reasons.

What if Jesus was merely a fictional character and the gospels nothing but fable with zero historical content? That theory—marginal and deservedly so in my opinion—has been around for at least a century. I explore the topic of “soft” versus “hard” mythicism in greater depth here:

At this point we might ask why the gospel accounts are so internally contradictory? In point of fact, there are several likely reasons. Mythicism aside, there is a broad consensus within mainstream scholarship that the gospels were written decades after the death of Jesus, forty to seventy years after, and that they contain no direct eyewitness testimony. We know that several key figures in the New Testament, James the brother of Jesus, Peter, and Paul, were all dead before the first gospel was written.

The average pew sitter may assume that following Jesus’ death, life in Palestine chugged along just as before, but that was not the case. Increasing unrest and confrontations with Roman authorities finally exploded into the First Jewish- Roman War (66-73 CE). Remarkable both for its savagery and for atrocities committed by both sides, the conflict began in Galilee and moved south toward Jerusalem, culminating in the total destruction of the city and its environs in 70 CE. By some estimates, over a million people died during the war, nearly 100,000 were taken captive, and many thousands more became refugees. The original community of Jesus’ disciples, like the Jewish sect of the Sadducees, was a likely casualty of the war, its members dead, scattered, or enslaved. Long story short, the erasure of the original community and its institutional memory is one reason proposed for the incoherence of the gospel accounts.

In the next segment, we’ll see the resurrection story take a truly bizarre turn before heading even deeper into the Twilight Zone.

Several books authored by Robert Conner are available here:

Conner's current editor offers many more salient authors and titles here: