Questioning the Resurrection, Part 3 (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.]

Part 1 is here.

Part 2 is here.

In the era in which Christianity appeared, a clear majority accepted visions and the appearance of ghosts as real events, and lived in the expectation of omens, prophetic dreams, and other close encounters of the supernatural kind. Like many people of the present, they were primed for self-delusion, expecting the inexplicable, accepting the uncanny. Given the mass of contradictions and implausibility in the resurrection stories, who bears the greater burden of proof, the apologist who claims the gospels record eyewitness history or the skeptic who can point to modern “sightings” such as apparitions of the Virgin Mary?

The first mention of Jesus’ resurrection comes, not from the gospels, but from a letter written decades before by Paul of Tarsus. Paul appears to have had no interest whatsoever in the historical Jesus, Jesus “according to the flesh.” “Even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, we know him so no more.” (2 Corinthians 5:16) Paul’s surviving letters never once mention any of Jesus’ many exorcisms and healings, not even the raising of Lazarus or Jesus’ virgin birth, and barely allude to Jesus’ teaching. For Paul, Jesus only gets interesting after he’s dead, but even here Paul’s attention to detail is sketchy. Paul says Jesus “was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,” (1 Corinthians 15:4) but there are no scriptures that foretell the Jewish Messiah would at long last appear only to die at the hands of Gentiles, much less that the Messiah would then be raised from the dead after three days.

After his visionary conversion on the road to Damascus—an event Paul never describes in his letters—Paul didn’t immediately hie himself to Jerusalem to meet with Jesus’ family, retrace Jesus’ steps, or sit at the feet of Jesus’ apostles. Au contraire, “I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went to Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus.” (Galatians 1:17) When, after a number of years, Paul decided he’d been born to preach Jesus, he says in no uncertain terms, “I want you to know, brothers and sisters, 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.” (Galatians 1:11-12, NIV) In short, like other early Christian writers, Paul appears to have had a casual relationship at best with historical details. That said, here is Paul’s summary of Jesus’ resurrection: "I passed on to you as of primary importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas [Peter], then to the Twelve, then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, the greater number of whom remain until now, but some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all he appeared to me, as to one born before his time." (1 Corinthians 15:3-8)

Paul makes no mention of the empty tomb, no women witnesses, no Men in White. Instead “more than five hundred brothers”—who do not appear in the gospels—see Jesus “at one time.” Apologists have cranked out a veritable mountain of verbiage attempting to paper over the various cracks in this narrative and to harmonize it with the gospels, but the opinion of George Riley summarizes the conclusion of mainstream scholarship: “a simple comparison of the Gospels and 1 Corinthians 15 shows the two traditions cannot be reconciled.” (Resurrection Reconsidered, 89.) Even apologetic writers are forced to admit, “Paul’s list of appearances in 1 Corinthians and the resurrection narratives in the gospels are remarkably—and puzzlingly—ill-matched.” (Richard Bauckham, The Laing Lecture at London Bible College, 2.)

That the folks in the pews can be impressed by I Corinthians 15—“then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time”—is evidence enough that critical thinking has been suspended. Who would believe a neighbor who came back from a church healing service bragging that five hundred people had witnessed the preacher restore an amputated arm? Our polite reply might be, “Oh, that’s nice,” while thinking, “What a load of rubbish.” Yet Paul’s report is taken at face value, although we suspect that he was passing along cult folklore. Moreover, anybody who knows the gospel accounts of Jesus’ betrayal—which Paul obviously didn’t—should wonder why Paul reports that Jesus appeared “to the Twelve.” Hmmm….hadn’t Judas dropped out? Or was Paul copying a formula?

The core of the 1 Corinthians passage—“that Christ died…that he was buried…that he was raised…that he appeared”—is almost certainly a piece of early liturgy like a similar passage falsely attributed to Paul: “[Jesus] was manifest in the flesh, vindicated by the spirit, seen by angels, preached among the nations, believed on by the world, taken up in glory.” (1 Timothy 3:16)

The phrasing of the text in 1 Corinthians raises several questions. First, did Paul even write it? Citing “tensions” between the passage and its context, Hans Conzelmann concluded the “language is not Paul’s.” (Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology 20 (1966), 22.) Scholars have proposed as many as seven instances of interpolated text in 1 Corinthians—a forged passage planted in a genuine text, or a marginal note included in the text due to careless copying. (Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, Catholic Biblical Quarterly 43 (1981), 582-589.) Robert Price has identified several reasons for regarding the 1 Corinthians passage with suspicion, among them Paul’s dependence on “revelation” rather than historical sources, the absence of the five hundred witnesses in the gospels, and the speculative and unconvincing efforts by apologists to harmonize Paul’s account with the gospel material. (The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave, 69-104.)

The inconclusive debate over what, if any, part of the five-hundred-witness story can be traced back to Paul raises the possibility that none of it was written by Paul and that it’s an interpolation, a pious forgery inserted into a genuine letter to bolster belief in the resurrection. As Peter Kearney observed, the mention that “some have died” means the letter was addressed to “a community moving toward an expectation of fulfillment, but already marked by death.” (Novum Testamentum 22 (1980), 282.) First Corinthians 15 may address acute anxiety provoked by the death of believers who expected an imminent Parousia in their own lifetime as a comparison with a similar passage in 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 suggests.

There is no way to guarantee that the texts of the New Testament reliably represent what the authors—whoever they were—originally wrote. Eldon Epp, a noted textual scholar, calls the surviving form of the New Testament text the “interpretive text-form,” noting that “it was used in the life, worship, and teaching of the church” and therefore subject to “reformulations motivated by theological, liturgical, ideological, historical, stylistic, or other factors.” (Harvard Theological Review 92 (1999), 277.) Anyone who doubts this was the case can take a gospel parallel in hand and compare how Matthew and Luke alter Mark, adding, subtracting, and editing Mark’s text to suit their whim even while preserving much of Mark’s original wording and timeline.

This raises a second question: assuming Paul wrote 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, was he making a theological claim or a historical claim? Samuel Brandon, in “The Historical Element in Primitive Christianity,” concluded, “the Eucharist, as set forth by Paul, in effect lifts the historical event of the death of Jesus completely out of its setting in time and space and confers upon it that transcendent significance that characterizes…the various mystery cults.” (Numen 2 (1955), 167.) That Paul was writing theology, not history, is clear and the verdict of historian Robert Grant remains secure: “No word in this account [1 Corinthians 15:3-8] suggests that the appearances of Jesus were other than ‘spiritual’: it was not the ‘flesh and blood’ of Jesus which the witnesses saw…what [Paul] saw, and what he believes other Christians saw was the ‘spiritual body’ of Jesus.” (Journal of Religion 28 (1948), 125.) Except for the level of sophistication, what is the difference between a “spiritual body” and a ghost, or is it a distinction without a difference?

It’s a good bet that Christians today want an honest-to-goodness physical body that walked out of the tomb: a body that came to life—breathing resumed, blood started pumping again—and this revived Jesus invited Thomas to poke his finger in the sword-wound in his side, John 20). Laypeople may find Paul’s poetry lovely, i.e., in I Corinthians,

“… we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality.”

And indeed everyone who hopes to go to heaven assumes that their twinkling souls, not their bodies, are heaven-bound. But the Risen Jesus himself had better not have been a soul, ghost, phantom, apparition—or, god forbid, a product of Paul’s temporal lobe epilepsy. The body missing from the tomb assures precisely that. But it is so commonly overlooked that this also cancels the reality of a physical resurrection: What do you do with the body once it’s up and walking around again? The Book of Acts has a simple answer: after forty days Jesus ascended to heaven; he vanished into the clouds. Which means that the New Testament is guilty of a cover-up.

We can be one hundred percent certain that the body of Jesus never left planet earth; those who protest “Oh yes, it did happen,” have to be okay with Jesus remaining in orbit to this day. “It’s a symbol or metaphor” doesn’t work either, unless resurrection itself is a symbol or metaphor. Christianity is caught in a terrible bind here: if Jesus did indeed come back to life, then he must have died again, and was buried again. So what exactly did resurrection accomplish? Paul’s Risen Jesus didn’t stay Risen all that long. But Jesus was alive in Paul’s visions, hence he had no use for the story of the Empty Tomb, which probably hadn’t been invented yet at the time he wrote his letters. He would have deemed it a worthless tale.

But what a jumble the gospel stories are. How can we explain the bald contradictions? Are the disciples to meet Jesus in Galilee after the resurrection (Matthew 26:32; 28:17) or stay in Jerusalem? (Luke 24:49) Why does Mark say Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss (Mark 14:44) while John has Jesus repeatedly identify himself while Judas stands by? (John 18:6, 8) There is a broad consensus that the gospels were written decades after the death of Jesus, forty to seventy years after, and that they contain no direct eyewitness testimony. Several key figures from the New Testament, James, the brother of Jesus, Peter, and Paul, were all long 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 in the First Jewish-Roman War (66-73 CE). Remarkable both for its savagery and for atrocities committed by both sides, the conflict began when the Roman army invaded Jesus’ home province of Galilee and moved south toward Jerusalem, culminating in the 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. The gospels were not even composed in Palestine where the events they purport to relate took place.

Inconsistent and internally contradictory, the resurrection accounts are by turns hallucinatory and almost comically improbable, reading more like folklore and ad hoc invention than history. The original “witness” of the women at the tomb, unmentioned by Paul, potentially our earliest source, is disbelieved and dismissed. Jesus suddenly appears and disappears, yet is palpable to the touch. The disciples mistake Jesus for someone else, but even when they recognize him they continue to doubt and react with fear. Jesus repeatedly and clearly foretells his resurrection, but the disciples have to be reminded of his prediction, and when confronted with the evidence, they don’t know what to make of it. If this potpourri of contradiction is really the sine qua non of the Christian faith, we must ask if Jesus’ current disciples are as befuddled as Peter was, faux na├»ve, or just not paying attention.

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

The Cure-for-Christianity Library© is here.