Of all the accounts in the Christian Bible (any of the Christian cannons), probably the most important is the Resurrection story. In fact, Paul says flat out in 1 Corinthians:
1Co 15:14-17 (NIV); And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.
I’m certainly not the first to point out the following inconsistencies in the resurrection story, but since there is still no satisfactory response to the inconsistencies, and since this story is so central to Christianity, it bears reviewing.
Paul’s version written between 50 – 60 ce:
First, I would like to point out that Paul wrote several years before the Gospels were written, some time between 50 and 60 ce (a short 20 – 30 years after Jesus’ purported ministry). Because of this, we have to take care not to project our knowledge of what later writings (like the Gospels) say onto what Paul said earlier. Since the Gospels are clear that Jesus’ resurrection was a physical bodily resurrection, we are tempted to project that understanding back into Paul’s earlier description of the resurrection. But Paul’s own notion of the resurrection does not appear to be the same as the Gospel-writer’s notion. If you look closely at the body of Pauline epistles, you will find no clear indication that Paul considers Jesus’ resurrection to be bodily in the sense that Jesus’ dead body was resurrected. As far as we can tell from his writings, Paul seems to believe that the resurrection was spiritual – Jesus’ spirit was quickened and he now has a new heavenly body, not his corrupted human body that was buried. If he thought the resurrection was bodily and that anyone had seen Jesus resurrected body, he surely would have mentioned this important detail in his discourses about the resurrected Christ.
Now fast-forward several years later to the writing of the first of the canonical Gospels, The Gospel of Mark, which was written some time between 65 – 80 ce, some 35 – 30 years after Jesus. Here is our first claim of a physical resurrection… and already there is a problem:
Mark’s version (the original ending) written between 65 – 80 ce:
Mar 16:1-8 (NIV); When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?” But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’ ” Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.
The problem is this: in the original version, that’s where the story ends! The remainder of The Gospel of Mark (verses 16:9-20), where the arisen Jesus appears to various people, was not in the original account but was added much later by a different author. This Gospel originally ended with no one ever being informed of the empty tomb.
In any case, the Gospel of Mark allows us a unique opportunity to witness the mythology as it develops:
- from a belief that Jesus was risen spiritually (as Paul believed): you have to take the resurrection on faith because no one has seen the resurrected Jesus – except for a few like Paul in a vision
- to an evolved belief that Jesus was risen bodily: you still have to take it on faith because no one has seen the resurrected Jesus and no one saw the missing body – except for the 2 Marys – and they didn’t tell anyone
- to the claim found in the new verses that were attached many years later that there were “eye witnesses” of the arisen Jesus.
Matthew’s version written between 80 – 100 ce; the mythology continues to evolve:
Mat 28:1-8 (NIV); After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb. There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men. The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.” So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples.
In the Gospel of Matthiew written after the Gospel of Mark, the women are afraid but now they run off to tell the disciples who later see Jesus for themselves. Notice how Matthew add guards to the story (as eye witnesses) and also has the angel show the women around the tomb to prove to them that he is really gone (nothing up my sleeves!). Later in the chapter, Matthew makes a point to say that the guards were paid off not to tell anyone what they saw – since he needed to explain why no one ever heard the Romans claiming that Jesus had risen!
Notice also that in Mark’s earlier version, the women encounter a young man in a white robe who was already sitting on the rolled-away stone when they got there. But in Matthew’s version, the woman and the guards were frightened by a gleaming-white angel that came thunderously out of the sky and rolled away the tomb, and then sat on it.
Luke’s version, written between 80 – 130 ce:
Luk 24:1-9 (NIV); On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: ‘The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.’ ” Then they remembered his words. When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others.
Now their are 2 angels that look like lightning! Here again, unlike in the original version of Mark, the women do tell the disciples what they saw.
John’s version, written between 80 and 120 ce:
Joh 20:1-8 (NIV); Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. Then Simon Peter, who was behind him, arrived and went into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus’ head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen. Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed.
There is no mention of angels or guards or thunder to legitimize John’s story. Instead, John adds a completely new account of the disciples seeing the tomb for themselves; the disciples, not the women or the Roman guards, are John’s important eye witnesses.
These are by no means a complete list of contradictions in the resurrection story, but they are ones that give us a fascinating illustration into how the resurrection myth grew over time from a crucified Jesus whose spirit lives on, to a bodily resurrected Jesus with credible witness of his bodily resurrection.