Questioning the Resurrection, Part 1 (of 3)

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.]

Chronologically speaking, the first person in history to mention a certain Joshua from Nazareth is Paul of Tarsus. These days Joshua of Nazareth is better know as Jesus—Jesus is the Latinized form of Iēsous, the Greek rendering of Yehoshua, Joshua, meaning “Yahweh delivers.” Joshua, the hero of the conquest of Canaan, embodied the hope that Gentile overlords would be overthrown, so Joshua was understandably a popular name among the Jews in Roman-occupied Palestine. In point of fact, archaeologists have discovered over 70 occurrences of the name Joshua/Jesus in Judean burials.

The conviction that Jesus had risen from the dead was the basis of Paul’s belief, the essential element upon which all other claims rested, as Paul himself made clear: “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” (1 Cor. 15:14, NIV) For Paul, the resurrection was the pivotal event of all time, the hinge on which history turned, the source of humanity’s eternal salvation: “…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Rom. 10:9, ESV) Indeed, according to Paul, Jesus “was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead.” (Rom. 1:4, NIV)

In a sense, we’re fortunate that Paul drops enough clues for us to see what was going on in his head. Galatians 1:11-12 is an important text—and we’ll return to it later for other insights—but it should give pause to those who so sure that Paul can be trusted: “I want you to know, brethren, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.”

Think on this: Paul’s message was not of human origin; he didn’t receive it from any man and wasn’t taught it. He didn’t think it was important—at all—to talk to the disciples who knew Jesus. He got all that he needed to know about Jesus through his visions of this dead man. Of course, his visions were a guarantee that Jesus wasn’t dead at all. Why do believers take Paul’s word for it? Cult fanatics have made similar claims forever.

The science behind this is known. Dr. David E. Comings (MD) has stated: “Temporal lobe epilepsy and its spiritual manifestations may have played a major role in the religious conversions of many historical figures and in the origin of several religions.” And: “If the role of TLE in Paul’s conversion is correct, it could be argued that without TLE Christianity would never have become the dominant religion of the Western world.” (Did Man Create God? Is Your Spiritual Brain at Peace with Your Thinking Brain?, pp. 366 & 364) So, epilepsy or contact with the spirit world? This is not a tough call for those who don’t put much store in séances. However, to have any hope of convincing believers that resurrection is an aspect of fantasy literature, it’s best not to breathe the word “science.” The Bible itself, in fact, provides all the evidence we need to abandon the idea.

Given the crucial importance of the resurrection, the most important act of God since creation as well as the cornerstone of salvation, one would expect—at a bare minimum—multiple attestations from contemporaries and a clear and internally coherent account consistent with other sources. In the pages that follow we’ll be examining the resurrection accounts to see if they meet these criteria.

According to Mark, Jesus repeatedly foretold his humiliation, crucifixion, and resurrection.

He began to teach them that it was necessary for the son of man to suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the high priests and the experts in the law and be killed and rise [from the dead] after three days. (Mark 8:31)*

He taught his disciples, telling them, “The son of man is to be delivered into men’s hands and they will kill him and three days after being killed, he will rise. (Mark 9:31)

He again began to say to the Twelve, “The son of man will be handed over to the chief priests and the experts in the law and they will condemn him to death and hand him over to the Romans. They will ridicule him and spit on him and flog him and kill him and after three days he will rise.” (Mark 10:32b-34)

The apostles witness the very public resurrection of the son of the widow of Nain, (Luke 7:11-17) the more private raising of Jairus’ daughter, (Luke 8:49-57) the dramatic resurrection of Lazarus after three days in the tomb, (John 11:1-44) as well as the crowds that subsequently gathered as a result, hoping to see Lazarus whom Jesus had raised from the dead. (John 12:9) Jesus even declares, “I am the resurrection and the life.” (John 11:25) Yet in spite of all these predictions and all this alleged first-hand experience, the apostles remain the Twelve Stooges, thicker than two short planks, the dumbest yokels in all of yokeldom—they can’t understand what Jesus means by ‘rising from the dead’ (Mark 9:32) even after the Master calls them aside and Jesusplains it all. (Mark 10:32)

Peter is an example of this terminal cluelessness. Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law, (Mark 1:29-31) Peter witnesses Jesus’ glorious transfiguration, (Mark 9:2) and Peter even walks with Jesus on water. (Matthew 14:22-33) Peter sees Jesus miraculously multiply loaves and fishes to feed a multitude, cast out demons, calm a storm, heal the lame and blind, and Peter declares of Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (Matthew 16:16) So when the women—not the apostles—discover Jesus’ tomb is empty and Peter runs to see it for himself, (John 20:3-4) you’ll never guess what Peter and his pals do next:

“I’m going fishing,” Simon Peter told them, and they said, “We’ll go with you.” (John 21:3)

Because what else would you do after the long-anticipated appearance of God’s Very Own Messiah who heals your mother-in-law, performs miracles galore right before your very eyes, gets transfigured along with Moses and Elijah as God’s voice speaks out of a cloud, predicts his own resurrection, and three days later, sure enough, you find the tomb empty? Well, go fishing apparently. And so begins a series of mind-boggling non-sequiturs, contradictory reports, unlikely scenarios, and “proofs” that read suspiciously like thinly disguised folklore.

Given the crucial role of Jesus’ resurrection, wouldn’t we expect plenty of witnesses—at least as many as witnessed the raising of Lazarus or the Transfiguration? Well then, we have bad news and even worse news. Let’s start with the worse news: according to the canonical gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—no one actually sees Jesus rise from the dead. Cook on that for a minute. Despite the repeated predictions that he will rise from the dead after three days, (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:32-34) not a single one of his apostles shows up to see it happen. Let’s hear that again, just to be sure: No. One. Sees. Jesus. Leave. The. Tomb.

If you think that’s already about as bad as it can get, brace yourself. When some of the women who followed Jesus visited the tomb and discovered it empty, Mark, the earliest gospel, tells us, “And they left the tomb running, for they were trembling and beside themselves, and they said nothing to anyone because they were afraid.” (Mark 16:8) And for whatever reason, that’s how the first gospel account left matters—with no prior belief, stated or implied, that his disciples expected to find Jesus had risen from the dead. Now clearly Matthew, Luke, and John couldn’t let the story end that way, but when they buffed it up theologically they just introduced even more incoherence, confusion, and contradiction.

First, let’s go back to the women who found the empty tomb. Recall that Jesus taught “plainly,” “openly”—the word Mark uses is parrhēsia, which mean “unambiguously” (Mark 8: 32)—that he would die and rise from the dead after three days and when Peter tries to tell him that’s nonsense, Jesus rebukes Peter in the strongest possible terms, the famous “Get behind me, Satan!” logion. (Matthew 16:23) But when John retells the resurrection tale, the women propose a natural—not a supernatural—explanation for the missing corpse: “They’ve taken my Lord away and I don’t know where they’ve put him!” (John 20:13) So in short, the iconic “empty tomb,” Men in White notwithstanding, was not proof that Jesus had risen from the dead; according to Mark and John it’s instead a source of confusion and fear.

Much has been written, mostly by feminists, about the women “witnessing” the resurrection, but as we’ve already noted, no one saw the resurrection according to the canonical gospels. Moreover, the men, who “have left everything” to follow Jesus, (Mark 10:28) weren’t impressed with the women’s “witness.” According to Luke, the Eleven Amigos were having none of it: “After returning from the tomb they reported all these things to the eleven and all the others. The women were Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary, the mother of James, and the other women with them who told the apostles these things. But their words seemed like nonsense to them and they didn’t believe the women. However Peter stood up and ran to the tomb, and stooping down, he saw only the linen binding cloth, and he left, wondering what had happened.” (Luke 24:9-12) Wondering what had happened?! Just how dumb is this guy Peter?

If Jesus taught emphatically that he’d be back among the living three days after his crucifixion, to say nothing of having raised others as proof that he was “the resurrection and the life,” (John 11:25) why didn’t the disciples gather at Jesus’ tomb in expectation of his resurrection? And why, given the witness of the women and the discovery of the empty tomb, were they still not convinced? What if Jesus’ predictions of his death and resurrection are apologetic back-formations designed to account for an unexpected event, his execution?

According to the gospel of John, this is what happened immediately after Jesus expired:

"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. There was a garden in the place he was crucified and in the garden was 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)

Several features of this brief account are either improbable, flatly contradict the version of events in 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) a voting member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish court that condemned Jesus for blasphemy. (Mark 14:64) According to Mark, the vote to hand Jesus over to the Romans, essentially a death sentence, was unanimous as required by Jewish law: “they all judged him deserving of death.” (Mark 14:64) So did Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the court, vote to condemn Jesus to death despite being a secret disciple?

And if, as John claims, 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, disqualified from celebrating Passover—“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 Joseph would enter Pilate’s praetorium, the judgment hall, to ask for Jesus’ body if contact with a Gentile would also make him ceremonially unclean and prevent him from participating in a major Jewish festival? (John 18:28) If the gospel accounts are accurate, Joseph was doubly disqualified from celebrating Passover. How probable is it a prominent Jewish figure, a member of the Sanhedrin, would disregard an Old Testament command? “[Passover] 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 resurrection story introduces a further problem, a glaring calendar discrepancy. If Jesus was arrested, tried, and crucified before Passover began—the trial occurred on “the day of Preparation of the Passover; it was about noon” (John 19:14)—then it was clearly 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 have celebrated Passover—dead in one version of the story but still alive in another.

Scholars who have examined these accounts in the light of Roman and Jewish law have identified additional problems: 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 historical records claiming many thousands were executed in Judea by crucifixion, archaeologists have unearthed a single example of the burial of a crucified man, a heel bone pierced by a nail, physical evidence that suggests the crucified were denied burial and were tossed into mass graves or their bodies left hanging to rot and be picked over by carrion birds.

An additional discordant note is heard when comparing the story as Luke tells it with Matthew’s account. In Luke’s resurrection story the Men in White have to remind the noodle-brained 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 easily recall his prediction without being reminded by the 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 his disciples don’t come and steal him and tell the people he’s risen.” (Matthew 27:63-64) Why do Jesus’ enemies recall his predictions better than his own disciples?

Which brings us around yet again to the women who came to the tomb. Mark informs us 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, Joseph and Nicodemus had already embalmed Jesus’ body and wrapped it in linen in compliance with Jewish burial custom. (John 19:40) Within a similar time frame Lazarus’ body had started to stink. (John 11:39) Were the women really intending to unwrap Jesus’ bloating corpse and smear ointment on it? After all, Jesus’ body was in the ground, in Palestine, in the springtime, not in a refrigerated morgue supervised by a medical examiner.

In Matthew, ancient Christianity’s favorite gospel, the author abandons all pretense of historical reportage, crashes through the guardrail, and takes his readers off-roading through the wild and wooly wilderness of the imagination. Who the author of this high-on-Jesus joy ride really was is unknown, but for convenience we’ll follow convention and call him “Matthew.” A hint of how crazy this is about to get is provided by Matthew’s reworking of Mark’s story of the women at the tomb—Matthew uses Mark as a primary source, quoting or paraphrasing around 95% of Mark. Here’s Mark’s description of the women at the tomb: “They began saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone from the entrance of the tomb for us?’” (Mark 16:3)

Here’s Matthew’s solution to the women’s doorman dilemma:

Behold! A great earthquake occurred because an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and approaching them, he rolled the stone away and sat on it. His appearance was like lightening and his clothing as white as snow. (Matthew 28:12-13)

Matthew’s moment of Jesus’ death is no less dramatic:

After crying out once more, he gave up his spirit. And behold! The curtain in the Temple was torn in half from top to bottom, and the earth shook, and the rocks were split, and the tombs were opened, and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised, and when they came out of the tombs after his resurrection, they went into the holy city and were seen by many. (Matthew 27:50-53)

Did you behold all that? Included among the seismic prodigies that accompanied Jesus’ final moments on Friday, the tombs opened up and “the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised,” but they obligingly hung out in their tombs until Sunday, “after his resurrection,” before walking into Jerusalem where they “were seen by many.” Oddly enough, this electrifying event, holy zombies no less, is unmentioned either by the other gospels or by any histories of the era.

* Unless otherwise noted, all New Testament citations are my own translation (RC).

To be continued….

Robert Conner’s most recent book is The Apparitions of Jesus: The Resurrection as Ghost Story.

The Cure-for-Christianity Library© is here.