“If I had said, ‘I will speak thus,’ I would have betrayed the generation of your children.” – Psalm 73:15
“And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted.” – Matthew 28:15
If you’ve ever seen a case made for the historical truth of the resurrection, then you’re probably familiar with some of the old rationalist explanations, such as the Swoon Theory (Jesus only appeared to die on the cross), the Hallucination Theory (the disciples, after being worked up into a frenzy, had collective visions of the same thing), or the Theft Theory (the disciples stole the body and lied about the resurrection). These are all cold leftovers from the liberal scholarship of the 19th century. They haven’t been seriously advanced by any prominent critic of the Gospels in years, despite still being paraded around by conservative apologists as the best the modern skeptic has to offer. But what if there was a more convincing alternative?
In his magnum opus The Resurrection of the Son of God , N. T. Wright takes 700 pages to argue step by step for the historicity of (a) the empty tomb, (b) the appearances to the disciples, and (c) the Jewish framework of understanding by which the disciples would have interpreted those two phenomena as proof that Jesus had risen from the dead. But once he takes his argument through each of those three steps by careful examination of the evidence, he ends by simply asking the question: “How then can we explain these two facts, the empty tomb and the ‘meetings’” (710)? The answer, he says, is “blindingly obvious”—and he leaves it at that, without ever considering any other possible explanations for the evidence.
“If we were faced with some other historical problem which had brought us to a secure and interrelated pair of conclusions, and if we were looking for a fact or event to explain them both; and if we discovered something which explained them as thoroughly and satisfyingly as the bodily resurrection of Jesus explains the empty tomb and the ‘meetings'; then we would accept it without a moment’s hesitation” (710).
But what if we agreed on Wright’s two historical facts—that the tomb was found empty and the disciples had experiences in which they believed they saw the risen Jesus—and then we provided a convincing alternative explanation for those facts? That’s the challenge I’ve been contemplating over the last year. What follows below is my best attempt at outflanking the historical claim of the early church. A rebuttal will come in Round Two.
The one event the Gospel writers all agree on, the fact that they would never make up, is that Mary Magdalene (with or without some other women) went to Jesus’ tomb and found it empty. The accounts differ slightly on how many women, on whether the tomb was being watched by Roman guards, and on how many, if any, angels were present there. But they all tell us that some women, or a woman, found the tomb empty. If they were trying to spin a good story to sell their first-century audiences on something that never happened, they would not have made the witnesses women.
But there is far less corroboration when we get to the appearances. In fact, the only appearance clearly attested by more than one Gospel is the appearance to the twelve in Jerusalem (Luke 24:36-49; John 20:19-23). Paul recounts an early appearance tradition which predates the Gospels, to which he adds his own experience (1 Cor. 15:5-10). That list includes, in chronological order: Peter, the twelve, more than five hundred at once, James, all the apostles, and Paul himself. There may be corroboration in the Gospels for the appearance to Peter and the twelve, but the rest of Paul’s list remains a mystery, and the fact that he includes his own experience raises all sorts of questions about the objective nature of those appearances.
Point being: the discovery of the empty tomb is on much more secure ground, historically, than any one of the ‘meetings’. The appearances still have to be explained, but they do not constitute the same kind of ‘highly probable’, relatively straightforward historical data as the empty tomb. John Dominic Crossan puts the problem starkly:
“Even a reader totally innocent of questions about source or genre notices a drastic change in moving from the passion and burial stories to the resurrection and apparition ones. More specifically, it is very simple to compose a single harmonized version of the former narratives up to the finding of the empty tomb but flatly impossible to compose one for the latter traditions. If all those accounts derived from composite memory and historical recall, it is quite remarkable that an almost hour-by-hour remembrance prevailed for the death and burial of Jesus but an almost total discrepancy prevailed for what was, I would presume, even more important, namely, the extraordinary return of Jesus from beyond the grave to give the disciples their missionary mandate and apostolic commission” (The Historical Jesus, 395).
How do we explain the relative agreement of each gospel with regard to the passion and the empty tomb but their relative divergence with regard to the appearances? Why do the appearances in the earlier gospels (Matthew and Mark) place no emphasis on the physicality of the risen Jesus while the appearances of the later gospels (Luke and John) feature that physicality so predominately? Why do Matthew’s appearances all take place in Galilee while Luke’s all take place in Jerusalem? And why do only Luke and John (the two latest Gospels) speak of the ascension? Questions like these force us to ask whether there is a more plausible explanation for the evidence than the one provided by the early church.
A Rival Theory
In light of the above, let’s suppose for a moment that the alternative story about the empty tomb which circulated throughout Judea, the story which Matthew wishes to discredit, was partially true and Jesus’ body was taken by robbers. The fact that one of our primary sources feels the need to discredit this story already puts it on the table as a strong rival to the explanation given by the early Christians. But suppose that, unlike the old conspiracy theory, these robbers were unknown to the disciples (grave robbery was not uncommon at the time); then the empty tomb would appear to them just as much of a mystery as it does to us. What a puzzling conclusion to such a tragic story…
But was it really the end? If the disciples carried the eschatological expectations which Wright says they carried, and/or if Jesus ever said the kinds of things about resurrection which the gospel writers say he did, then the mystery of the empty tomb would have presented itself to them as a highly suggestive mystery. It’s entirely possible, in other words, that the empty tomb itself generated a hopeful expectancy which then caused the disciples to look for ‘meetings’ with the risen Jesus. That would explain both the relative agreement of the four different accounts related to the empty tomb and yet their relative discord related to the ‘meetings’.
Put yourself in their shoes. Imagine you are a devout first century Jew following a charismatic prophet whom you believe confidently to be the deliverer of Israel. Imagine that this prophet, coming to terms with the inevitable outcome of his revolutionary message but trusting also in the divine vindication of his cause, on numerous occasions foretells of his own death and resurrection. What would you think, then, if only a few days after his death, in the midst of your guilt and grief, you hear that his tomb was found empty? Would you not, through your attachment to him, have sufficient cause for hope? And as a devout Jew, wouldn’t the natural outworking of such hope be fasting, prayer, and fervent searching of the Scriptures? And suppose that, through this process, you and perhaps several others have visionary experiences in which you encounter your master alive from the dead, telling you to carry on his message. What would you think? What would you do? How would you express those experiences?
In other words, it’s not that difficult to imagine an alternative scenario to explain both the empty tomb and at least some of the appearances in a way that is both simple and consistent with the evidence.
Some of the appearances, yes, but not all of them. Of course it can’t explain the group encounters. But there are two more points to consider.
First, we know from texts like 1 Corinthians 15 that ‘meetings’ with the risen Jesus very quickly became a badge of apostolic authority.
Second, we know from texts like 2 Corinthians that there were competing claims of authority in the early Christian communities.
Now, considering these two facts, wouldn’t there be ample motivation (whether consciously or unconsciously) for more people, like Paul, to claim these resurrection experiences for themselves? While it’s true that people like Paul had the categories to distinguish between a vision (as in Daniel or Revelation) and reality, I find it highly significant that Paul doesn’t place his experience of the risen Jesus in the ‘visionary’ category. He seems to distinguish it from the other ‘appearances’ by the phrase ‘as to one untimely born’, true, but he still wants to classify it as a ‘real’ appearance of the risen Jesus, standing over and against all subsequent experience (such as his own ‘third heaven’ experience) and authorizing him as an apostle together with the others.
In light of this, what reason do we have for thinking that the experiences of the other apostles weren’t similar in character to Paul’s, or that, if they were, the other apostles would have classified them any differently than Paul does? And couldn’t the same motivation which caused Paul to claim his ‘meeting’ with the risen Jesus also open the door for the rather quick development of mythical accretions, with escalating details of physical proof, being told right along side and on top of the ‘genuine’ experiences?
In other words, couldn’t the rest of the appearances within the gospel traditions be explained as a mixed process of creative development fueled by the need for more leaders with credentials from the risen Christ? Could this explain the development of the theme of physical proof as we move from Mark and Matthew to Luke and John? It seems to me that this kind of mixed process is exactly what happens with many traditions of religious experiences. Some cause for expectation precipitates the experience of some saint or holy man, which then inspires a whole legendary tradition to grow up around that experience making it more and more extraordinary.
In this case, the amount of legendary material growing up around these experiences so quickly would still be extraordinary, for sure, and for this reason I think the third stage is the weakest link in the chain. However, I remain open to it for several reasons: first, because of the substantial lack of corroboration between the evangelists over the appearances, in contrast with their relative agreement over the empty tomb; second, because of the powerful motivation which the empty tomb could have provided for believing in the ‘reality’ of those experiences; third, because of the embellishment effect that often occurs when tight-knit communities tell and re-tell stories which reinforce their shared beliefs; and fourth, because of the motivation which, however limited, must have existed to produce more ‘appearances’ than actually occurred for the added authority they would lend to would-be leaders among such scattered, fledgling communities.
So to summarize, I’m envisioning a three stage process: (1) The tomb is found mysteriously empty by several women (the body likely having been stolen by some unknown party), leading to (2) induced visionary experiences of a resurrected Jesus through fasting, prayer and searching the Scriptures, leading to (3) legendary accretions growing up on top of the ‘genuine’ experiences. This process answers most of the data in a way that is both simple and elegant, and it gives a satisfying explanation for why the gospel narratives differ where they do. No single stage in this process can bear the weight of the evidence independently, but all together they form a much stronger hypothesis which is not so easily discredited.