By Robert Conner, with interpolations by David Madison
[Note from David Madison: This article was written by Robert Conner, who asked me to review it and add whatever comments I wanted. I contributed about 15 percent of what you’re about to read.]
Part 1 is here.
If you still have questions, that’s understandable. For starters, if a hoard of dead men proved Jesus had risen, why didn’t Jesus His Own Damn Self just show up in Jerusalem? What could have been more convincing than Jesus Himself back from the dead, clothed in shining raiment, appearing to the Jewish and Roman leaders? After all, when the high priest asked Jesus, “Are you the Christ, the son of the Blessed One?” didn’t Jesus finally break silence and tell the court, “I am! And you (plural) will see the son of man seated at the right hand of power and coming with the clouds of heaven!” (Mark 14:61-62) Whatever happened to all that I’ll-show-you-and-then-you’ll-be-sorry blow and jive from Jesus’ trial? Why didn’t Jesus appear post mortem to his persecutors and settle the question of his resurrection then and there, once and for all, as he promised at his trial?
There can be no doubt whatever that even Christians cringe when they stumble upon the holy zombies episode in Matthew 27:50-53—and stumble they do, since these bizarre verses are rarely read from the pulpit. They’re just too embarrassing, as if the intent had been to merge Easter with Halloween. Matthew missed his calling by about 2,000 years: he would have done well writing for supermarket tabloids. Imagine his headline: “Hundreds of Dead People Sighted Wandering the City.” We can see the comical aspect of it all, but, in fact, this text by itself scuttles all attempts to take resurrection seriously.
Good Christian folk may give it a wink—“Well, of course, that’s a tall tale”—but that only begs the question: why isn’t every resurrection story a tall tale? These three verses cancel the possibility of taking resurrection seriously. And the case for resurrection is not helped by the ‘more respectable’ raising of Lazarus described in John 11. Shrewd Bible students suspect that this scene is John’s recasting of Luke’s parable of Dives and Lazarus (chapter 16:19-31), in which Dives begs Abraham to bring the poor beggar Lazarus back to life, to warn his relatives about the torments of Hades. John’s extravagant talent for invention is well known, and he is at his best here. He needed this stunt to provide occasion for Jesus to say, “I am the resurrection and the life.
” Lazarus rising after four days could be taken at face value because people coming back from the dead was part of the superstition of the time. Why would the resurrection of Jesus be an exception? And yet a major world religion hangs on it. The details of the Jesus Resurrection Event serve only to undermine the concept further.
Even when Jesus Himself does appear, believers initially mistake him for someone else! Mary Magdalene thinks he’s the gardener, (John 20:14-15) Peter and his buddies don’t recognize him at first in Galilee, (John 21:1-13) and the disciples on the road to Emmaus think he’s just another traveler. (Luke 22:13-21) And when Jesus Himself appears on a hill in Galilee to give his eleven remaining apostles their mission to convert the world, we’re told, “when they saw him, they fell to their knees before him, but some doubted.” (Matthew 28:17) If you don’t think the “some doubted” part still has Christian heads spinning like tops, just Google it: when I did I got 17,800,000 hits, which seems like a lot of Jesusplaining over something Christians are supposed to be absolutely certain about.
By the time Matthew wrote his moonbat revision of Mark, Jewish opponents of Christianity had apparently already proposed the “stolen body hypothesis” to explain the resurrection, hence Matthew’s inclusion of this narrative gem:
The next day, which is after Preparation, the high priests and the Pharisees assembled before Pilate and they said, “Sir, we remember that fraudster said while still alive, ‘After three days I will be raised.’ Therefore order the tomb be made secure for three days so his disciples won’t come and steal his body and tell the people he’s been raised from the dead. This final deception will be worse than the first.”
Pilate told them, “Take a guard and go make the tomb as secure as you know how.” So they left and secured the tomb by sealing the stone and posting a guard.
…While [the women] were on their way, some of the guard went to the city and reported everything that had happened to the high priests. After meeting with the elders, they hatched a plan to give the soldiers a sum of money, telling them, “Say his disciples came by night and stole him while we were sleeping and if this gets back to the governor, we’ll cover for you so you won’t have to worry.” So the soldiers took the money and did as they were told and this story spread among the Jews up till now. (Matthew 27:62-64; 28:11-15)
There is at least one glaring problem with this story: Matthew has already established that the stone covering the entrance to the tomb was so heavy it required an able-bodied man or even an angel to move it. So who would believe the soldiers managed to stay asleep while a gaggle of Galilean hillbillies removed the seals from the stone in the dead of night, rolled it aside, and made off with the body the soldiers were guarding, all without awakening a single soldier? And if the Jewish elders paid the soldiers to keep quiet, how did the story ever get out?
Another problem that would have occurred to any literate person in the Roman era concerns the identity of the soldiers. Although the Temple had a police force under the command of the High Priest, the force described by Matthew ultimately answered to Pilate, the Roman governor. The soldiers—the Greek text uses stratiōtēs, the usual term for soldier—formed a picket, a guard placed around the tomb. The gospel uses a Latin loanword, koustōdia, from the Latin custodia, a “military guard,” and since the term is derived from Latin, logically a Roman military guard.
Would a Roman military detachment really have reported back to a Jewish priest? And what fate would have awaited a Roman soldier who reported to his commander that he’d been asleep on watch? After all, the Roman army practiced decimation as a punishment for insubordination and dereliction of duty—his fellow soldiers killed every tenth man in a unit selected for the punishment of decimation. Given the stringent discipline of Roman forces, stationed in a hostile province, what are the odds a detachment of Roman soldiers would lie to their commanding officer, and by extension to the governor of the province, in return for a bribe if discovery would result in summary execution? Clearly, as pointed out by Roman critics, the gospels were written for the edification of credulous yokels eager to be titillated by pious fairy tales. And Matthew delivered.
Back in 2005, while researching material for a book on magic in the career of Jesus, Robert read Daniel Ogden’s sourcebook, Magic, Witchcraft, and Ghosts in the Greek and Roman Worlds, surprised by how closely ghost stories from the era resemble the post mortem appearances in the gospels of Luke and John. His initial search of the New Testament studies literature turned up nothing that specifically addressed the similarities, but nevertheless convinced of the parallels, he included a chapter, “The Resurrection as Ghost Story,” in his survey, Jesus the Sorcerer: Exorcist and Prophet of the Apocalypse, released in 2006.
Why would elements of ghost stories end up in the gospels? What could possibly motivate the author of a resurrection story to compose a narrative that sounds like a ghost story? As it turns out, there are several reasons.
First of all, people of the first century took the existence of ghosts for granted:
Shortly before dawn, Jesus went out to them, walking on the sea. When the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost!” they said, and cried out in fear. (Matthew 14:25-26)
Besides the belief in ghosts, the people of the era accepted the fantastic at face value. In fact, they expected it. Even Jesus complained, “Unless you see signs and wonders, you will never believe.” (John 4:48) For most ancient listeners, sexing up a story with elements of the supernatural made it more believable, not less. Besides, who wants to read a ho-hum Bible story in which nothing incredible happens?
In addition, decades passed between the events of Jesus’ life and the writing of the gospels and there is little evidence the gospels contain direct eyewitness testimony. For reasons we will touch on later, the institutional memory of the early church appears to have been patchy at best or completely missing—all the more reason for the gospel writers to simply make up stories using the cultural elements available to them. As everyone knows, the gospels quote frequently, freely—and often inaccurately—from the Old Testament, but the writers evidently borrowed supernatural elements from the wider culture as well, features of stories of figures who came back from the dead, namely ghosts.
Eventually Robert decided the topic of ghost belief in the New Testament warranted book-length treatment, the first ever to the best of his knowledge, so after doing more extensive research, he found a publisher and Apparitions of Jesus: The Resurrection as Ghost Story appeared. But if anyone thinks he was the first to notice the uncanny similarities between ghost stories and the resurrection stories, it turns out they’d be off by eighteen centuries. The first writer to compare Jesus’ post resurrection appearances to spectral visitations was a Greek philosopher and critic of Christianity named Celsus who wrote a lengthy work, Alēthēs Logos, or True Doctrine, that refuted aspects of the Christian cult. Noticing the phantasmal quality of the resurrection appearances, Celsus said that Jesus manifested to his disciples “like a ghost hovering before their perception.” (Contra Celsum, VII, 35)—his vocabulary suggests something insubstantial drifting before one’s vision. As historian J. D. Crossan would later remark, “apparitions of Jesus do not constitute resurrection. They constitute apparitions, no more and no less.” (Neotestamentica 37 (2003, 47.)
What specific features of the resurrection stories read like ghost stories? As it happens, there are several—then, as now, ghosts often suddenly appeared and disappeared: “[Jesus] became invisible to them.” (Luke 24:31) Lucian turned the sudden disappearance of a ghost to comic effect when the household dog frightens off Eucrates’ wife, returned from the grave to reclaim a golden sandal: “she vanished because of the barking.” (Lover of Lies, 27)
Paradoxically, ghosts could also assume solid, tactile form, momentarily indistinguishable from the living:
While they were talking about these things, [Jesus] stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.” But they were alarmed and afraid, thinking they were seeing a spirit. He said to them, “Why are you terrified and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Touch me and see, because a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have.” And after saying this, he showed them his hands and feet.
But even in their joy they did not believe him, and while they were wondering, he said to them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of fish and he took it and ate it in front of them. (Luke 24:36-43)
The disciples responded to Jesus’ appearance just as they responded earlier when they thought they’d seen a ghost walking on the Sea of Galilee: they were terrified.
That ancient ghosts could appear from nowhere, eat, and then disappear is conspicuously proven by Phlegon’s gruesome tale of the ghost of Polykritos, a man who returns from the dead after the ill-omened birth of his hermaphroditic child.
The people had gathered together and were arguing about the portent when the ghost took hold of the child, forced most of the men back, hastily tore the child limb from limb, and began to devour him…he consumed the entire body of the boy except his head and then suddenly disappeared. (William Hansen, Phlegon of Tralles’ Book of Marvels, 30-31, RC’s translation.)
Ghosts easily pass through barriers the living can’t breach, a recurring theme in ghost lore. Jesus’ nighttime manifestations in the gospel of John—“in the evening of the first day of the week” (John 20:19)—occur even though “the doors were locked.” (John 20:19, 26) The Greek text uses kleiō, “to lock,” from kleis, “key,” to convey the astounding fact that despite the doors being locked, “Jesus came and stood in their midst.” Ancient Mediterranean cultures regarded doorways with a high degree of anxiety; the Romans had no fewer than three minor deities associated with doors, Cardea, the goddess of hinges, Forculus, the good of the door itself, and Limentinus, god of the threshold. A tomb is also a doorway of sorts: “because of the presence of these spirits of the dead, the threshold, like the cross-roads, was a spot particularly adapted to the performance of magic rites, just as such rites were often performed on graves.” (Marbury Ogle, American Journal of Philology 32 (1911), 270.)
The timing of Jesus’ appearances and disappearances are also reminiscent of ghost stories. He tends to appear at night or in the evening, (Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:2; Luke 24:29; John 21:4) a time particularly associated with hauntings. Liminal times and places, doorways, rivers, crossroads, dawn, dusk, as well as the transition from sleep to waking, are suited to the manifestation of ghosts. Given our differing cultural assumptions, Westerners living in the 21st century read the New Testament rather differently from Mediterranean people living in the 1st century. Appreciating why Celsus and his contemporaries read the resurrection accounts like ghost stories requires that we step back into the mindset of their era and read the gospels in the light of their cultural expectations, not of ours.
Interestingly, Celsus had another insight that anticipated modern thinking on apparitions by many centuries. Besides being the first to comment on the spectral qualities of the resurrection accounts, Celsus appears to be the first to advance a psychological explanation for Jesus’ apparitions.
"While [Jesus] was alive he did not help himself, but after death he rose again and showed the marks of his punishment and how his hands had been pierced. But who says this? A hysterical female, as you say, and perhaps some other one of those who were deluded by the same sorcery, who either dreamt in a certain state of mind and through wishful thinking had a hallucination due to some mistaken notion (an experience which has happened to thousands), or, which is more likely, wanted to impress the others by telling this fantastic tale, and so by this cock-and-bull story to provide a chance for other beggars." (Henry Chadwick, Origen: Contra Celsum, 109.)
Historian Robin Lane Fox notes the likelihood that “women were a clear majority” in the early church, and of the writing of pagan critics, observes, “It was a well-established theme…that strange teachings appealed to leisured women who had just enough culture to admire it and not enough education to exclude it.” (Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians, 310) Classical scholar Catherine Kroeger approaches the issue from the point of view of “the socio-religious world of [Greco-Roman] women” that addresses the social strata of Christian women specifically: “Neither is it surprising that women who lacked any sort of formal education flocked to the cults that were despised by the intellectuals.” (Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 30 (1987), 25-26, 28.)
According to Luke, the male disciples who went to the tomb “did not see Jesus.” (Luke 24:24) The tactile Jesus who later appears to them is apparently an attempt to “counter the idea that the risen Jesus was some type of ghost or phantasm.” (Gregory Riley, Resurrection Reconsidered, 53.) So who or what, exactly, did the women see? From the standpoint of the wider pagan culture and from ours as well, the ambiguous nature of Jesus’ manifestations, the fact that no male disciples are initially reported to have seen them, and that subsequent appearances are met with fear and doubt, are major points of narrative weakness. Christian women in the ancient world “were expressly targeted as unreliable witnesses, possessed, fanatical, sexual libertines, domineering of or rebellious toward their husbands,” (Wayne Kannaday, Apologetic Discourse and the Scribal Tradition, 141) and by the end of the first century Christian estimation of women was little better: “I do not permit a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man…[Younger women] get into the habit of being idle and gadding about from house to house. Not only do they become idlers, but also busybodies who talk nonsense, saying things they ought not.” (1 Timothy 2:12, 5:13) In Paul’s list of resurrection witnesses, which predates the gospels by decades, women are notable for their absence. (1 Corinthians 15:3-8)
Celsus’ suggestion that at least some early “witnesses” were imagining the experience or actively hallucinating has modern support. Seeing or otherwise sensing the presence of the recently dead is surprisingly common. In one study, fifty percent of widowers and forty-six percent of widows “reported hallucinatory experiences of their dead spouses in a clearly waking state” and in several instances another person shared the bereaved individual’s experience. (Haraldsson Erlandur, Omega: Journal of Death and Dying 19 (1988-1989), 104, 111.) In one study of modern mystical experiences that specifically addressed Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances as examples of “after-death communication,” the survey found “2.5% [of apparitions] involved multiple witnesses.” (Ken Vincent, Journal of Near-Death Studies 30 (2012), 142.)
While doing background research on Apparitions of Jesus, Conner discovered an extensive and rapidly growing literature on the connections between religion and mental aberration, delusional belief based on mere proximity to a religious site—commonly known as “Jerusalem syndrome”—and “visionary” experiences as a symptom of temporal lobe micro-seizures without overt physical components such as facial tics or convulsions. Hallucinatory experience and delusion is predictably determined by culture and situation: evangelicals touring holy sites identify with John the Baptist, Portuguese schoolgirls see the Virgin Mary, British soldiers in the trenches see visions of Saint George or the archers of Agincourt, indigenous people see spirits compatible with their cultures, and the women at the tomb saw Men in White as well as Jesus. In short, hallucinations and delusions are downstream from previous cultural conditioning.
To be continued…
Robert Conner’s most recent book is Apparitions of Jesus: The Resurrection as Ghost Story.
The Cure-for-Christianity Library© is here.