On the First Easter Morning, Why Didn’t Jesus Knock on Pilate’s Door?

The fruitless search for extraordinary evidence

A few years ago, a Christian friend told me, after attending Easter morning service, that he had been so moved by the scriptural reading, I Corinthians 15, in which the apostle Paul claims that Jesus


“…was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died.” (vv. 4-6)


I asked my friend one simple question: “How can you verify that?” He seemed unable to wrap his mind around that: it’s in the Bible, so why would it need to be verified? I suspect my friend hasn’t read the Bible much—no surprise there. For example, he won’t find the story of this appearance of Jesus to 500 people in the gospels or in the Book of Acts. The only mention of it is here in a letter written by Paul. There’s a red flag here too in the statement that Jesus appeared to “the twelve”—since Judas had dropped out! “In accordance with the scriptures” is another red flag. There is no such prediction in the Old Testament. Moreover, verification of the story—at least by our standards today—would include written statements gathered from many of those 500 witnesses. 


There is no reason whatever to take these words of Paul seriously. We can build quite a catalogue of things he was flatly wrong about—just read his authentic letters in the New Testament. It’s not hard to identify his weird beliefs.  


I could have asked my friend to think about what kind of evidence is required to support extraordinary claims. As he functions in his daily life, he knows full well that extraordinary claims shouldn’t be taken at face value. If a neighbor told him that a cousin had just called from Florida, really excited about attending a healing service at church, would he believe the claim that the preacher had restored a man’s amputated leg, and 500 people saw it happen? Surely verification these days would include cellphone photos of the leg before and after. Maybe you just nod at your neighbor, and say, “How nice,” but most folks wouldn’t believe it for a moment. 


Why believe what Paul reported, in a letter written almost 2,000 years ago to much more gullible people? Five hundred people saw Jesus raised from the dead? This certainly qualifies as an extraordinary claim—not just that somebody came back to life, but that such a large crowd witnessed this personal appearance. 


Richard Carrier’s essay, “Why the Resurrection Is Unbelievable,” in John Loftus’ 2010 anthology, The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails, provides a handy tutorial on how we must approach extraordinary claims. Carrier provides these examples: If someone claims to own a car, there is no reason to be skeptical; it’s a very routine thing to own a car. But what if a person claims to own a nuclear missile or an interstellar spacecraft?


“…it’s obvious that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. To deny that’s true is simply irrational. But there is no more evidence supporting the generalization that ‘people like Jesus get resurrected from the dead’ than there is for people owning starships. Therefore the claim that Jesus arose from the dead is an extraordinary claim, and thus requires extraordinary evidence—more evidence, even, than I would need to convince you I own an interstellar spacecraft.” (pp. 298-299


So where are we supposed to hunt for the extraordinary evidence for Jesus’ resurrection? Of course, devout Christians have been raised to believe that the Bible is the source of authentic information about Jesus. The stories of the resurrection are right there. But the laity, for the most part, remain unaware of the work of devout Christian scholars for the last several generations. Once the Bible had been subjected to careful historical analysis, its many flaws and deficiencies became clear. It has been endlessly hyped as a holy, perfect book, but as Carrier points out, the New Testament 


“…is recognized by biblical scholars the world over as an arbitrary hodgepodge of dubious literature of uncertain origins and reliability.” (p. 297)  


“…we have no reason to believe the authors of the New Testament documents were any more honest or critical or infallible than any other men of their time, and there’s plenty of evidence to suspect they were less so.” (pp. 297-298)


In other words, we don’t have high hopes for finding extraordinary evidence for the resurrection of Jesus in the Bible. But is Carrier being too harsh, too cynical? Actually, churchgoers can find out for themselves, by simply reading the gospels and epistles carefully, critically—with a generous helping of curiosity. One simple exercise I have often suggested: read the gospel of Mark, straight through, in one sitting; then right away, do the same thing with the gospel of John. The difference is shocking, puzzling, disturbing. It makes us wonder why the original compilers of the New Testament decided to bind the four gospels together. It would seem they themselves didn’t see much value in fact checking, in the performance of due diligence. Nor do the devout today, few of whom ever rise to the challenge of diligent, obsessive Bible reading. There is seldom much study of the religious context in which Christianity arose—and it would seem the early Christians were great borrowers! 


For example, Carrier draws attention to the Road to Emmaus story in Luke 24:13-34. This story is not found in the other gospels, and Carrier suspects that a Roman god was the prototype for this account:


“…Luke appears to have fabricated his Emmaus narrative…to emulate the epiphany of Romulus, the mythical founder of Rome, who—just like Jesus—the Son of God incarnate, was born of a virgin, was killed by the corrupt leaders of the city, was subsequently resurrected from the dead, appeared to the living on a road to the city, and ascended to heaven to rule on high. Even John added stories never before heard (like John 2) that seem more symbolic than true. Scholars have documented countess other examples of mythmaking in the Gospels.” (p. 304)  


Devout scholars, trying to balance commitment to their lord with the honest search for truth, have long admitted the questionable methods of New Testament writers. Such as the willingness to pass off forgeries as the real thing; we’re pretty sure now that so many of the epistles are indeed forgeries, and Carrier notes what this means:


“But the fact that so many forgeries got into the Bible already confirms how little we can trust anything in the New Testament. Just their presence there, indeed their very creation, proves a pervasive dishonesty among early Christians, as well as the gullibility of their peers.” (p. 299)


In a footnote here, by the way, Carrier references a chapter in John Loftus’ book, Why I Became an Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity, i.e., chapter 7.1, “Pseudonymity in the Bible,” which provides examples of copying and forgeries.  


All of this does not bode well in our search for extraordinary evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. Especially when we take a cold, sober look at the apostle Paul, who reported the sighting of the risen Jesus by 500 people. Where did he get his information? Truly one of the most alarming texts in the New Testament has to be Galatians 1:11-12. Paul brags about how he found out about Jesus:


“For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin, for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” 


He was sure these revelations were authentic, but how can we be confident they weren’t hallucinations? Powerful tricks of brain chemistry? In all of his letters, Paul says almost nothing about the life, teaching, and miracles of Jesus, no doubt because such information didn’t show up in his revelations/hallucinations. He seems not to have been all that interested. He was obsessed with the magical properties of believing in the resurrection of Jesus: if you believe it, you’re saved (Romans 10:9). That’s what fueled his missionary passion. But we are not hot on the trail of extraordinary evidence. 


There is a great defect with the gospels as well, as Carrier notes:


“… the Gospels were written with an agenda, a deliberate aim to persuade, to turn people toward belief in Christ and the embrace of Christian morals. And we know they were written long after Paul’s Epistles, by members of a fanatical cult who believed their dreams were communications from God, that their intuition was guided by the Holy Spirit, and that they could find information about Jesus secretly hidden in the Bible—and those leaders regularly hallucinated, occasionally lied, and often fabricated documents.” (p. 302)


I grew up in northern Indiana, and went to a Methodist church whose worship services were dignified, respectful. We didn’t bother with careful analysis of what the New Testament reports about how the early Christians actually behaved. What was going on? Carrier gives the details:


“Not only were they constantly channeling spirits and speaking in tongues and having visions of angels and strange object in the sky, they were also putting on faith-healing acts and exorcising demons by laying on hands and shouting words of power. In other words, the first Christians behaved a lot more like crazy cultists than you’d ever be comfortable with. These aren’t the sort of people whose testimony you would ever trust if you met them today. And if you wouldn’t trust what they said now, you wouldn’t trust anything they said then.” (p. 300)


We are not hot on the trail of extraordinary evidence.


Carrier brings considerable humor to his explanation of what’s going on here. He asks his readers to imagine that there had been a Victor Hugo cult:


“… if a bunch of well-dressed men went around knocking on doors claiming Victor Hugo rose from the dead, and all they had to prove it were their own creepy convictions, some wild miracle tales written decades after the fact by unknown persons who never even say how they know anything they claim to know, and some vaguely obsessive letters written by one guy who claims he saw Hugo’s heavenly ghost, you’d tell them to go away. And you never feel any need to inquire further. Because we all know poppycock when we hear it.” (p. 296)


Why do we even have to hunt for extraordinary evidence?


If a god really wanted to save the world through this resurrection, why not make it a spectacular, sensational, high-profile resurrection? Robert Conner has noted that, according to the confused, contradictory resurrection accounts in the gospels, no one actually saw it happen! Isn’t that mighty strange? Especially since Jesus had told the disciples several times that he would resurrect. Carrier points that Jesus should have shown himself to more than a few people in the original cult: “He would not appear only to one small group of believers and one lone outsider, in one tiny place, just one time, two thousand years ago, and then give up.” (pp. 309-310) 


Indeed, why didn’t Jesus knock on Pilate’s door on that first Easter morning: “Hi, it’s me again!” That would have increased the chances that there would a Roman record of the resurrection. If god’s motivation had been to save as many people as possible, why make belief dependent on such feeble accounts that ended up in the New Testament? 


My article here last week was about the fake news Jesus birth stories. There is so much in the gospels that qualifies as fantasy and folklore, which is just more fake news. The end of the story follows the same pattern. The authors of the New Testament were stuck in myth-mode.




David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. He is the author of two books, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith (2016; 2018 Foreword by John Loftus) and Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn’t Taught: And Other Reasons to Question His Words (2021). His YouTube channel is here. He has written for the Debunking Christianity Blog since 2016.


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