The Nature of the ResurrectionThe earliest writing is in the letters by Paul, and he says some key things. With regards to the resurrection itself Paul makes a big deal about Jesus being the "first fruit" and of Jesus showing us the way. What he means is that Jesus is the prototype for the resurrection process; what happened to Jesus is what he expects to happen eventually to all Christians.
1 Corinthians 15:20 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.
So what happened to Jesus? Paul makes it clear that he believed in a spiritual resurrection; everybody is raised from the dead in a new spiritual body (that does not necessarily mean ethereal, but rather a body made of divine or heavenly material).
1 Corinthians 15:42 So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; 43 it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; 44 it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.
Recall what Jesus had said to the Sadducees when questioned about a woman who had successively married seven brothers, as each husband died.
Matthew 22:29 Jesus replied, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. 30 At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.
Jesus here is pointing out that after being resurrected you will no longer be flesh-and-blood, and marriage (and sex) will be irrelevant. Instead, you will be made of the same material that angels are made of.
And really, how much sense does it make to suppose people come back in their original bodies? The dead are cremated, or rot away in graves. You really do not want to come back like that!
It is important to realise that Paul believed that the dead would all be resurrected at the same time. Today, most people seem to believe that when you die you go straight to heaven, but the Bible indicates this is not the case. Rather, at some day in the further, all the dead will be resurrected.
Paul was alluding to that when he said this:
51 Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— 52 in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.
He was expecting the resurrection within his life time. Some of those he wrote to would be dead before then (or asleep as he says), but some will not. At the resurrection, in a flash, two things will happen: (1) the dead will be raised imperishable; and (2) the rest will be changed (i.e., those alive will also swap their earthly body for heavenly bodies). That only makes sense if the body in the afterlife is of a different nature to the body in the here and now.
Paul's Account of the Easter StoryPaul gives a surprisingly brief account of the defining moment of Christianity.
1 Corinthians 15:3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
Now we have a fair idea what Paul saw, there is a good account in Acts - a blinding light. Paul did not see a physically resurrected Jesus in the flesh-and-blood.
Acts 9:3: Now as he journeyed he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed about him. 4: And he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" 5: And he said, "Who are you, Lord?" And he said, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting; 6: but rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do." 7: The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one.
Interestingly there is nothing in 1 Corinthians 15 to suggest that what Paul saw was any different to what Cephas or the Twelve witnessed.
What this adds up to is that it is likely Paul considered the resurrected Jesus to have appeaed to be a great light. That is how he say Jesus, and it fits with the idea of a spiritual body.
Mark's Account of the Easter StoryMany scholars believe that the account in Mark was based on an earlier "pre-Markan passion narrative" (eg see here). This narrative would, then, be the "first edition" of the gospel. Written not too long after the event, it gives a good account of Jesus’ trial, and of the crucifixion, fitting with what we know of practices at the time. For example, it was the custom of the time for Jews not to leave the dead exposed at night, so Mark's description of Joseph of Arimathea asking Pilate for the body seems entirely plausible, and would have been common practice. Unfortunately, scholars are not sure where it ended; was it with the centurion putting the spear in Jesus, was it with the discovery of the empty tomb?
Someone, and we might as well call him Mark, wrote a second edition of the gospel. He included the account of the trial and crucifixion, but added considerably more, describing Jesus' ministry prior to that. Most scholars believe the original version of the Gospel of Mark finished at Mark 16:8 (see here for example, or a discussion here). This was an apologetic work, so had to include the "tomb is empty" message. Mark therefore had Jesus placed in a tomb on his own. The anonymous man tells the women that Jesus will appear in Galilee, foreshadowing the appearance to Peter (the only appearance at this time), and the women leave to afraid too tell anyone, neatly explaining why no one knew anything about the empty tomb at the time.
So what was this appearance? Let us suppose that, dispondent and dispirited, the disciples returned to their former lives. Then, some unknown time, Peter, and later the other disciples, believes he sees Jesus in spiritual form as is alluded to in Mark:
Mark 16:7 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.’
As far as the author of Mark is concerned, Jesus appeared to Peter and the disciples in Galilee first. Compare to Paul, who has Jesus appear first to Cephas (the Greek name for Peter - but see also here), then to the twelve. This seems a good tie up.
As an aside, I find it curious that both Mark and Paul choose to separate Peter from the disciples; it reads as though he was not one of them.
Back to PaulAlthough Paul mentions the resurrection, especially in 1 Corinthians 15, there is nothing about an empty tomb. Why not mention this incredible evidence for the resurrection? Furthermore, why is the tomb not venerated? Here is the place that Jesus rose from the dead! The single most important event in Christianity since the creation, but no one seems to care about where it happened (actually there is a church at the supposed site, but no evidence that it was venerated that long ago).
The simple answer is at that time there was no empty tomb. This was something that got added to the story some time between Paul and Mark. You cannot venerate a tomb if no one knows where it was.
LukeYears pass, and the religion is still evolving. The idea arises that Jesus appeared to the disciples days after the crucifixion, in Jerusalem. A guy, let us call him Luke, decides to update the gospel, writing for the gentile Christians. As a sometime traveling companion of Paul, Luke has some personal experiences, and has also collected more information passed down by word of mouth (as he states at the start of his gospel). He is not plagiarising the original gospel, rather he is creating a new version; this is the third edition of the gospel. Of course, the new version is later accepted as an entirely different gospel. He goes on to chronicle what happened in the early church; this is the Book of Acts. Luke clearly has a very different theology to Paul - or at least he did by the time he was writting the gospel and Acts. One of the most striking differences is that he now believes there was a physical resurrection, that Jesus walked the earth in a bodily form.
The author of Luke makes clear that his account is based on his research; he makes no claim to be an eye witness. His gospel describes the appearance to Paul, as Paul described it (and I can imagine the author heard Paul describe this event several times). Jesus' appearances in Jerusalem would have been based on other accounts, and these reflect an evolved and embellished narrative.
The appended verse to Mark tie up well with Luke, and may well reflect someone in the Gentile community updating that gospel with the information the author of Luke had collected.
MatthewSimilarly a guy who we can call Matthew (and the evidence that he was the disciple Matthew is surprising lacking) also decides the gospel needs updating, so he independently creates his own version, aimed at the Jewish Christians. He takes the chance to draw a parallel between Jesus and the nation of Israel, because for him Jesus is the messiah, the saviour prophesised to save the Jews. The opponents of the Christians are still not impressed with a empty tomb, plus the appearances of Jesus; perhaps the body was stolen, and they all dreamt the appearances. So a further embellishment appears - the tomb was guarded by Roman soldiers - specifically to counter the claims that the body was stolen. In Mark and Luke, the women went to anoint the body; this is dropped from this later telling of the narrative. It is not necessary to find some excuse for why the women go there, now they are going to see the predicted resurrection. This becomes accepted as another new gospel. Matthew, perhaps straining credibility somewhat, adds in that the whole sky darkened for hours when Jesus died, and claims the Jewish saints came back to life to walk the streets of Jerusalem.
Both Luke and Matthew reflect the belief that Jesus appeared to the disciples in Jerusalem. The fact that the accounts did not match up was not a problem. The gentile community used Luke' gospel, the Jewish community used Matthew. As far as the Christians of the time were concerned, there was only one Gospel.
JohnAt some point John was written. This gospel reflects the beliefs of a third community, rather more isolated than the other two. While probably aware of Mark's gospel, it was not foundational to their beliefs, so their theology headed in another direction, though it might have drawn from there even so. John no longer needs the women to discover the empty tomb, and really having women discover it is an embarrassment for Christianity, so that is down graded (early Gentile Christianity, as seen in Paul's letters, had been remarkable egalitarian between the sexes; by the writing of John, women were being cast into a lower role that would continue for nearly two thousand years). A single woman, finding the tomb open, but not looking inside. The whole thing is over in one verse, then the men are involved, and it is they who determine the tomb is empty (though in this account, Jesus first appears to a woman soon after).
John may well have been written by a number of authors, each modifying the text as he saw fit (chapter 21 certainly reads as a later addition). Interestingly, it was originally more popular with gnostics than orthodox Christians.
EmbellishingLet me make it clear that I think the early Christians sincerely believed in the resurrection. They were not lying, not just making stuff us, not fabricating a story. They really did believe it. If the gospel said something happened, then they were sure it happened, and editing the gospel to say it did not happen would be wrong. However, if new information came to light about what happened, then it would be only right and proper to add that to the account. The gospels then are evidence of this sort of evolution. Additions can be made, and the existing text modified to give a new emphasis, but significant modification, and deleting anything at all significant, would never be permitted to happen.
It is important to note that the gospel writers were willing to change the facts to make a better story. The author of Luke has Jesus resurrected and ascended in one day in Luke 24, but in Acts 1 he states Jesus appeared several times over forty days.
A. Women Found the Empty TombOne piece of evidence for the empty tomb that seems to crop up every now and again is that the Bible states that women found the tomb empty. The argument goes (as I understand it) that if this had been made up, the author would have said the tomb was found empty by men, as women would not have been considered reliable witnesses at that time; it is therefore more reasonable to suppose that the account of the empty tomb is true.
Here are a couple of web sites that use that argument:
The above account explains the use of women in the narrative well. They were first introduced by Mark as a plot device to explain how it was known when he was writing that he tomb was empty, but also why it was not known directly after the resurrection. Women were considered unreliable witnesses; it makes sense that they would see the empty tomb, but not tell anyone about it.
Later embellishments were then stuck with the women finding the tomb. It is interesting to see how the role of the women was, nevertheless, diminished over time, so that by the time of John's gospel, there was only one women, who merely found the tomb unsealed; it was left to the men to determine the tomb was empty.
B. Guarding The TombIt is interesting to read Matthew 27:62-6:
Matthew 27:62 The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate. 63 "Sir," they said, "we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, 'After three days I will rise again.' 64 So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first."
65 "Take a guard," Pilate answered. "Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how." 66 So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard.
This guarding of the tomb is only mentioned in one gospel. Why? Did none of the other gospel writers think it worth mentioning? Or was this an embellishment added by the author of Matthew, or his sources, as a counter to accusations that the body had been stolen?
As ever, this is just conjecture, but it does fit a pattern of a narrative becoming more embellished as more evidence is required. It almost fits a pattern of a Christian adding to the story to convince the skeptic.
Christian: Have you heard the great news? Jesus has risen, he appeared to the disciples in Galilee, and also to Paul. [In Paul's time, the resurrection was appearances of Jesus weeks after the crucifixion]
Skeptic: Yeah, but maybe they dreamt it.
Christian: No way. The tomb Jesus was buried in was empty. [Mark adds an empty tomb]
Skeptic: Yeah, so maybe the empty tomb was why they later dreamt those appearances.
Christian: No way. Jesus appeared to them in Jerusalem as well, right after they found the empty tomb. [Luke adds Jesus appearing days after the crucifixion in Jerusalem]
Skeptic: Yeah, well maybe the body was just stolen, and they just dreamt it.
Christian: No way. The Romans were guarding the tomb. [Matthew adds the guards on the tomb]
Skeptic: Yeah, but maybe it was just a ghost, a non-physical thing.
Christian: No way. One of the disciples touched Jesuis, inspected his wounds and everything. [John adds a physical inspection of the resurrected Jesus by Thomas]
See Dr. William Lane Craig's take on that conversation:
C. Shame ReductionJesus died a shameful death on the cross; Christians are stuck with that stark fact - and indeed, use this depth to show the height to which Jesus later ascends. However, much of the evolution of the burial narrative can be seen in terms of reducing the shame. The account by Mark has Jesus wrapped in linen, buried in a tomb cut out of rock. By the time the process is finished, Jesus is in a brand new tomb, next to garden, his body annointed with "a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds".
D. Incredible ClaimsAnother embellishment by Matthew was that the dead walked around Jerusalem when Jesus died.
Matt 27:51 At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks split. 52 The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. 53 They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus' resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people.
This is quite a problem for Christians, because the historians of the time (eg Josephus) completely fail to mention this event where many dead people got up out of their graves - as do the other gospel accounts. Of course, the simple answer is that Matthew added this for dramatic impact.
E. Joseph of ArimatheaJoseph of Arimathea also undergoes something of a transformation from observant Jew to secret Christian over the course of the gospels.
Jewish burial customs of the time were quite different to our own, so it is worth mentioning them. In Judaism, leaving a corpse exposed was thought to defile the land, so it was imperitive that the dead were buried as soon as possible; on the very day they died. Burial would be in a tomb; the body would be wrappened, annointed and laid in the tomb. After the flesh has rotted away, the bones were collected and put in a new place. The logic here is that getting a tomb is no easy task. If you give every corpse a coffin-sized space, after a few generations you will need a pretty big tomb. If instead you re-site the bones, you can pack in many more corpses.
Jesus was executed as a blasphemer, and the rules for such as him are a little different. Here is Josephus on the subject (The Antiquities of the Jews Book IV): "He that blasphemeth God, let him be stoned; and let him hang upon a tree all that day, and then let him be buried in an ignominious and obscure manner."
This next quote is from Chapter VI of the Tractate Sanhedrin (remember that Joseph of Arimathea was of the Sanhedrin):
The one executed was not buried in the cemetery of his parents, but two cemeteries were prepared by the court, one for those who were slain with a sword and choked, and one for those who were stoned and burned. After the flesh of the corpse was consumed, the relatives gathered the bones and buried them in their right place. And the relatives came, and greeted in peace the judges, as well as the witnesses, to show they had nothing in their heart against them, as the judgment was just. The relatives also did not lament for him loudly, but mourned in their heart.
The usual practice, then was for execution victims to be buried straightaway in a communal tomb for criminals. Once the flesh has rotten away, the family can collect the bones, and at that point the deceased is buried in the family tomb.
There is a further complication that we need to consider, and that is the Romans. It was standard practice for the Romans to leave crucifixion victims hanging on the cross well after death as a deterrent to others. There is good evidence that this happened to Jews in many cases, but those cases seem to be when the Jews had been striking at Roman authority, for example during the Jewish-Roman war (AD 66-70). Jesus was executed at peace time, when the Romans would have found it more convenient to let the Jews observe their customs, keeping tensions low.
It seems that the standard procedure would be for a member of the Sanhedrin to make a request to Pilate for the bodies of and Jewish criminals to be removed and buried in a communal tomb for criminals. The account in Mark fits reasonably well with this.
As time passes, Joseph of Arimathea changes from being a religious official carrying out the standard practice of the time, to a secret Christian ensuring the Jesus is buried with honour, as the story gets more and more embellished.