Happy Easter! The Truth About the Resurrection of Jesus

With Easter Sunday approaching, I would like to look at the resurrection account of Jesus Christ from the historical perspective.
In other words, beyond the stories contained in the Christian Bible what does history really have to say about the event itself.
It’s commonly known that Christians in the 2nd and 3rd centuries didn’t read the New Testament because the New Testament didn’t exist yet. The New Testament scholar and historian Bart D. Ehrman teaches us that

The books themselves, of course, had been written, but they had not yet been collected into a sacred and authoritative canon of Scripture. The term canon refers to a collection of authoritative books. … our canon did not yet exist as an officially recognized collection during the second and third centuries.
He goes on to inform us that this was just the least of early Christians worries. Because there were so many books that were written and published together – all of them claiming to be authoritative – that it was difficult for early Christians to know what was a true story written by a real apostle of Jesus or which was just a rival Christian group trying to promote their brand of Christianity by making it sound more authentic by creating its own “authoritative works” while saying it was written by a real apostle of Jesus.
Other books were written at the same time, however, also claiming to be by Jesus’ followers. Each of the early Christian groups that maintained its own distinctive beliefs and practices had books that were believed to be written by Jesus’ own apostles—gospels, for example, allegedly written by his disciples Thomas and Philip, and Mary Magdalene… The existence of these “other” Scriptures leads to other questions.
So, in summary, Christians had a lot of stories. A lot! Approximately 325 years after the death of Jesus, however, they still were in the dark as to which were the true stories. This didn't sit well with the rapidly growing Church, because too many discordant beliefs breed discord, so it was decided by the Church fathers that a canonical version of Christian doctrines and stories needed to be decided upon.

They decided upon 27 books and rejected all the rest.

Christians were basically told what to believe as historically valid by the Church. They didn’t’ have the freedom to make up their own minds about what they were being fed as the God-given truth. They were ordered by the authority of the Church and from the pulpit to believe one way only – and any alternate beliefs (whether or not they may have been correct or historically valid) didn’t matter anymore. The issue was settled and other beliefs after the canonization of scripture were viewed as heretical.

I talk more on the history of canonization involving the New Testament in my overview of biblical canonization events in: Development of the Biblical Canon.

As you can probably imagine, this is just the first hurdle modern Christians must overcome when they think about the real historical context of their cherished beliefs. Are my beliefs true? They seem true. But how can I know? Where do my beliefs come from? Why do I believe this set of beliefs but other Christians believe something different? How come there are so many different types of Christianity? How come Jews and Muslims believe in the same religious stories as me?

The good thing is, there are answers to all these questions. And the answers are found inside history.

If your Biblical education merely consisted of Sunday school, you’d be forgiven for thinking the gospel stories in the Bible are historical accounts written by real historical people. The truth is, we don’t know who wrote them. The New Testament authors of the Gospels were anonymous.

It was only later that the Church fathers attributed the names of the Gospels to certain apostles based on their own guesses of who might be the most likely person to have written them – given the stories themselves.

Biblical historians later found that the Church fathers had given incorrect dates to their supposed publication. More embarrassing, perhaps, is that they even ordered the gospels incorrectly, placing Mark after Matthew and Luke even though it was discovered that Mark was the oldest and very first of the gospels to have been written.

This later became known as the Synoptic problem, because it seems that there was only one original story – Mark – which then got copied and changed by later writers with differing theological views and agendas. But then there were fragments that Luke and Matthew share that aren’t found in Mark and this is believed to come from a different source written several years before them. But we don’t have any surviving copy of this source so Biblical scholars nick-named it the Q source, stemming from the German word Quelle, meaning the source.
Even so, as many historians will testify, there’s no evidence for a Q source. So, where did the shared sayings come from? Well, Luke and Matthew may have known each other and may have been simply copying notes. But even this doesn’t seem likely. Meanwhile, the earliest copy of John doesn’t seem to even exist until around 110 AD.

As you can imagine, the real history behind who penned the gospels found in the New Testament gets pretty complicated.

It’s not the Christian’s fault that he/she doesn’t know any of this. Clearly, Churches aren’t the place to learn factual history. Churches are there to teach doctrine and theology and provide you with spiritual meaning in your life. Not discuss the nuances of ancient holy texts and their publication dates.

So, we must realize that we’re not talking about personal beliefs but we are talking about general knowledge.

Of course, there may be some overlap. But the historian isn’t here to tell you to believe something different than what you will. They’re simply here to present the historical evidence best they can--gauging what is most probable--and hope that our beliefs will fit with the bulwark of historical knowledge we do have. If not, well, that’s really not the historian's concern.

History isn’t about believing what you want to believe, or even what you’re told to believe, but it’s about revealing the historical truth to the best of our ability so that what we do believe will have some merit. So that our beliefs will be about something that was true rather than something false and made up.

Then, again, please don’t mistake me. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with having faith either. I have faith. I have faith that the sun will rise tomorrow as it always has. But that faith doesn’t explain why the sun rises or the history of our star’s stellar formation. For that, we need to seek out the evidence and look at all the clues that will help us piece together a historical framework of what the sun’s origin and course from past till present might look like.

And, yes, I’m fully aware of the criticism that much of history is simply a matter of filling in the gaps and that much of it appears made-up anyway. But that’s because history is a work in progress. We don’t have a direct path back to the past – there is no time machine we can hop in that will take us to the beginning that could help shed light on the events as they actually happened.

All we can do is make educated inferences based on real-world evidence and what events are more or less probable and then try our best to make sure that our guesses bridging historical evidence to the historical event are logically sound. If the evidence is strong, the probability is high, and the logic is sound then we can be confident that our model of history is at least an approximation of actual events. 
When the evidence is lacking, the probability is low, and the logic seems faulty -- then we need to go back to square one and begin our research all over again -- and maybe reserve our conclusions until a later date when better information is made available.

History is about determining, within reason, what course of events likely transpired on a given day during a given time period. What is the evidence? How do we know either way? And figuring all this out takes a lot of work and effort and is the task of the historian.

What, pray tell, does this have to do with Easter Sunday and the resurrection of Jesus Christ, you might ask. Well, a few things.

Christians may believe the events of Jesus Christ’s resurrection, for example, to be an account of genuine history, but a cursory glance at the historical evidence reveals that it’s likely not a historical event. I think you’ll agree that that’s a huge bubble to burst right there. But historians aren’t trying to be villains. They’re just trying to create a more accurate model of the past.

Why can historians say any one given event from Christian history, let alone the most important one, is probably not history with an ounce of confidence? Because frankly put, there’s no historical evidence for the resurrection ever having actually occurred.

The names of the places are real, sure. Because that’s the setting of the stories. Even Peter Parker swings around New York City as Spiderman. But we know Spiderman isn’t a historical figure even though New York City is a real place.

You see, we can look for the clues that Spiderman isn’t real in the same way a historian might look for clues to determine if Jesus was real.

We also can determine an ancient story’s validity from collaborating accounts. For example, we know that the Romans crucified criminals, for example, because it’s documented elsewhere. Flavius Josephus talks about it at length in his Antiquities and The Jewish War. Herodotus talks about crucifixions by the Persians in his Histories nearly 500 years before Jesus Christ was supposedly crucified. That’s how we know that crucifixion existed and was implemented as a form of punishment and humiliation. Others corroborate the details in their accounts of historical events.

But, here’s the thing, we don’t have any historical accounts of a guy named Jesus – who also claimed to be the Messiah – ever being crucified (minus the forgery found in Josephus’s Antiquities).

We only have the Bible stories found in the Bible written by Christians who wrote the Bible for other Christians to share and spread their Christian beliefs which all Christians liked to share and spread. And one of these beliefs is that a man claimed to be the son of God then died and then supposedly rose from the dead. That’s not historical evidence for a real event—or even a person—but evidence for things that Christians liked to commonly believe.
What it can’t be evidence of, however, are actual historical events. Not without corroborating evidence – of which there isn’t any that would be considered reliable.

I talk more about the extra-biblical evidence we do know of, that is the evidence outside of the Bible stories that corroborate their claims, in more detail in my essays The Extrabiblical ChristMyth of the Historical Jesus, and Discussing the Historicity of Jesus with a Christian Agnostic.

All three of my essays go into great detail about all the evidence we have related to Jesus and the resurrection. I discuss everything from Tacitus, to Pliny the Younger, to Lucian of Samosa, and the writings of Sextus Julius Africanus.

I also discuss the Babylonian Talmud as well as talk about how we know the oft-quoted line about Christ being crucified in Flavius Josephus’s Antiquities is a well-known forgery, as evidenced by Origen’s quoting an early version of the Antiquities without the forgery intact.

Even with all these ancient works seemingly supporting the Christian claim that Jesus was real and that he was crucified, none of their claims hold up. We know this because historians have studied them in detail and have found a number of problems with the dating or origin of the works. In some cases, earlier works are found that contradict later ones—showing that erroneous historical additions were added to the texts and so cannot be considered valid accounts of history. Without those parts, all corroborating evidence falls away. And we’re back to square one.

So, what is the New Testament really? Simply put, it is a collection of stories that were later voted on at the Council of Nicaea (325 AD) where a committee then determined which stories would be considered historical and which would not – even though no real historical research had been done. In other words, the historicity of the stories was mainly determined by whether or not the stories themselves fit with the theological doctrines of the Church at that time.

For Bart D. Ehrman, this raises an interesting problem for modern scholars regarding the correct historicity of the New Testament canon and the gospel stories.

If, in the second and third centuries, there were lots of apostolic books read by lots of Christian groups, which ones were right? Which wrong? Which were actually by apostles? How would we know?  Better yet, how did the church fathers who finalized our canon of twenty-seven books know? And what happened then to all the other books that did not make it in, once these particular Christian struggles were ended?
That has always been the struggle of the historian seeking the truth of the stories. The truth, historical or otherwise, always seems to be elusive.

Today’s Christians are free to take the history of their stories for granted. They are free to believe the stories represent genuine history (although 300 years of scholarship strongly suggests otherwise). Christians are free to believe, for example, that Jesus rose from the dead and that this is a historical account of something that happened in antiquity (although historians would caution us that this is a story based on what Christians commonly believed in the first, second, and third centuries but was never actually anything resembling a genuine historical account of the event).

According to the Biblical historian James D. Tabor in his book The Jesus Dynasty:

The standard Christian proclamation is well known: that Jesus was raised from the dead, that he appeared to many witnesses, and that he ascended into heaven, where he sits as the glorified Christ at the right hand of God, from where he will return at the end of the age to judge the living and the dead…. Three of our four New Testament gospels report “sightings” of Jesus to support the idea that he had been raised from the dead—Matthew, Luke and John. But what about Mark? Here we come to one of the most ignored and underrated facts of our story. As shocking as it may sound, the original manuscripts of the gospel of Mark report no appearances of the resurrected Jesus at all![ii]
In his book Lost Christianities, Ehrman reminds us that the original Gospel of Mark does not contain the virgin birth or post resurrection stories.[iv]

According to the New Testament historian and theologian David Trobisch, “The resurrected Christ has not appeared and the first witnesses ‘say nothing to anyone.’ This is the worst imaginable ending for a Gospel.”[v]

About the strange resurrectionless ending, professor Tabor is quick to remind us that

Such a shockingly “incomplete” ending could not be allowed to stand. It must have been deeply troubling to early Christians. Christianity was built upon the idea that Jesus appeared after his death to various individuals and groups. How could Mark have possibly left this out?... What happened was that pious scribes who copied Mark made up an ending for him and added it to his texts sometime in the late 2nd century A.D.—over one hundred years after the original text was composed![vi]
Even so, Christians still try to find ways to prove the historical existence of a quondam Jesus. Equally, the historian Richard Carrier reminds us that:

Christian apologists will often insist we have to explain the “fact” of the empty tomb. But…the evidence is not the discovery of an empty tomb but the existence of a story about the discovery of an empty tomb. That there was an actual empty tomb is only a theory… to explain the production of the story.... But this theory must be compared with other possible explanations of how and why that story came to exist… and these must be compared on the total examination of the evidence…. Hence, a common mistake is to confuse hypotheses about the evidence with the actual evidence itself.[viii]
I go into a little bit more detail about what historians know about the resurrection of Jesus in my essay Is the Resurrection Account of Jesus Fallacious? But I shall share a portion from my conclusion of the essay here, as it seems rather pertinent to the topic of discussion.

In my conclusion, I ask: what do these historical insights mean for the everyday practicing Christian? A lot actually.

At first glance, the evidence we do have seems to suggest some things aren’t what they initially appear to be. In fact, the evidence seems to directly stand in opposition to some core Christian beliefs. But the question of whether or not Jesus resurrected is just one part of a larger problem. The history surrounding the New Testament events, especially those found in the gospel stories, is extremely fuzzy. So fuzzy, in fact, that it could constitute historical blindness. 

The truth is, we simply don’t have good enough evidence to say the events found in the gospel stories ever happened. The evidence which Christian apologists traditionally cite is not without its flaws. Flaws which, contrary to the intent of those who cite them, actually compound the problem rather than adding any sense of clarity or understanding.

Other historical concerns could easily defeat the historical “truth” of Christianity as well. Concerns such as:

1)     It is more likely that Jesus was not born of a virgin (virgin stories were common for many famous and infamous figures throughout history: Alexander the Great, Pythagoras, Genghis Khan just to name a few) and even then the concept of virgin births was a fairly common belief in both ancient pagan religions (see Richard Carrier’s article on syncretism and cross-cultural pollination of ancient religions here). 

2)    Paul neglects to mention the virgin birth entirely (as if it never occurred at all), and furthermore, speaking of Paul’s being an unreliable narrator…and… 

3)    Paul only ever alludes to the spiritually risen Christ (not a bodily “resurrected” one) who, conveniently enough, speaks to him on the sun-baked desert road to Damascus in what may amount to no more than heat-stroke induced visions. 

4)    The earliest manuscripts of the Gospel of Mark neither contain a virgin birth nor a post-resurrection Christ, and that’s the gospel account the other gospels borrow from and then – apparently – embellish upon with increasingly flamboyant accounts of the same event. 

5)    Last but not least, the longer ending of Mark  seems to be purely a literary fabrication—(many scholars take Mark 16:8 as the original ending and believe that the longer ending [16:9-20] was a later addition)—and if it’s all pure fiction what is to suggest the rest of the Gospel accounts of the resurrection are not also later literary works and not historical accounts?

The answer is nothing. There’s nothing to suggest they weren’t merely fictional stories that Christians told other Christians in the same way that Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad were popular tales that the Greeks told to their fellow Greeks.

There’s nothing to say these accounts definitively happened but these accounts didn’t. They all equally appear to be fictions and the only historical evidence we have also suggests they’re works of fiction.

All this seemingly detracts from the debonair claim made by Christians that Jesus was divine, resurrected, and reappeared to his followers. History can be mundane like that.

At the same time, however, the history we do know casts doubt as to whether or not the Gospels are historically reliable at all. As it turns out, they seem to be mostly literary in origin only containing simple references to historical landmarks, names, and places. Yet this should not surprise us, for all literature contains these things.

Apologists have often retreated to the claim that, at the very least, we cannot know that the resurrection did not happen. But, then again, isn’t that what history is telling us? That it doesn’t look like there’s evidence for this event? That it’s more likely that it didn’t happen than vice versa?

I understand the reaction to want to defend your faith when the facts don’t line up to support you. You feel as though people are being dismissive of your personal beliefs. You want to defend those beliefs, so you look for justifications that jive with the evidence.  You don’t want to be told that what you’ve believed your whole life – ever since your parents, pastors, and peers told you to believe –  may not be what you thought it was. I get that. I can sympathize.

Those of you who’ve followed my blog's history will know I began my blogging career as a Christian under the site Chronicles of a Sympathetic Christian. I asked many of the same questions I do now. But, unlike then, I found answers. Answers that didn’t sit well with my Christian beliefs.

I was that Christian. I was a devout believer for 30 years trying my best to reconcile my faith with the historical facts. But faith and facts rarely mix well.

When I began to study history, I learned that my faith was fragile. It was predicated on beliefs that were not well founded. Beliefs that I wanted desperately to prove true—but couldn’t. I got myself a history degree, hoping that would let me prove the validity of my religious beliefs. Soon after graduating, I became an atheist. And the rest, as they say, is history.

I’m sure that no matter what evidence is presented, positive or negative, many will continue to hold onto their cherished religious beliefs. That’s fine. I’m not here to tell you what you can or cannot believe. I’m merely stating what we can know with any given certainty. And things are by no means certain.

You may wonder, how can I say this? What is the ultimate nail in the proverbial coffin that disproves Jesus and the resurrection account as found in the gospel stories?

The answer, as I have found out over two decades of researching this topic, is elusive at best. At worst, downright infuriating.

We can no more know that Jesus was resurrected from the dead on the third day than we can know if Julius Caesar was born by cesarean section.

That’s the best state of the historical evidence regarding Jesus and the resurrection we have to date. Literally, we don’t know.

Julius Caesar may have been born via cesarean section and Jesus may have been bodily resurrected from the dead—that is, after all, what the stories about these men tell us. And, hey, almost anything is possible. However, these scenarios are mostly unfeasible if not highly improbable.

At the end of the day, you can choose to believe or not. You can follow the evidence wherever it may lead or take a leap of faith.

The fact remains, stating in defense of your faith that we cannot prove they did not happen does not improve our understanding of the past. It’s a criticism most historians would likely just shrug off. And they’d be right to do so.

Such admissions should be viewed as a weakness to the overall historical framework, not as a boon to the person of faith who desperately wants to have it both ways.

At the end of the day, the overwhelming lack of any ancillary contemporaneous information regarding the resurrection, whether or not we can prove it happened, simply amounts to the implicit acknowledgment that, as Frank R. Zindler once asserted, no one will ever provide convincing evidence for the historicity of Jesus.

That’s not a strong position to mount a defense of the Christian faith on.

And that’s why I, as a historian, must err on the side of caution.

Do I think Jesus was a real historical figure? The truth is, I simply cannot say with any certainty.

Do I think Christians are correct in assuming Jesus was real and died upon the cross? No. Because, again, I don’t see any evidence to suggest that a person named Jesus ever died on the cross except for a handful of stories all written by a people predisposed to believe those precise kinds of stories.

Do I think the resurrection even happened? No, I do not – for all the reasons mentioned above and in all the connected essays.

You may find yourself wondering when all is said and done, what do I believe in, then?

What matters to me?

Lots of things. But they don’t hinge upon a person of antiquity absolutely needing to be real to justify my belief that he also happened to be the son of God and died for my sins.

That is not a belief I can, knowing what history has to say, hold in good conscience.

Whatever else I may believe has to do with living my life in the best possible way I know how and being kind to others.

As Thomas Paine once so eloquently put it, “I view things as they are, without regard to place or person; my country is the world, and my religion is to do good.”

I share this sentiment too. That is just one of the things I believe of countless other things that make my life meaningful. A man having died 2,000 years ago on a wooden plank simply isn’t a belief that’s in any way meaningful to me.

Nowadays, like Paine, I believe in doing good and in looking at the world with my eyes wide-open. Whatever destination your personal journey brings you to is yours and yours alone. I can only hope that with it comes clarity and peace of mind. I hope nothing I said here ruined your day. As I said, beliefs are beliefs and knowledge is knowledge and sometimes the two go hand in hand and other times they turn away from one another like opposite ends of a magnet. That’s just how it goes, I suppose.

At any rate, I wish everyone a Happy Easter!

Works Cited

James D. Tabor, The Jesus Dynasty, pp. 228, 230

Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Christianities, pp.78, 220.

Hoffmann, R. Joseph. Sources of the Jesus Tradition: Separating History from Myth. Prometheus Books, 2010.

David Trobisch, “The Authorized Version of His Birth and Death,” in Sources of the Jesus Tradition, ed. R. Joseph Hoffmann, p.135

Richard Carrier, “Bayes’s Theorem for Beginners,” in Sources of the Jesus Tradition, pp.

Lost Christianity’s course guidebook, The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill:

Other notable scholars who have talke at length on the literary and perhaps fictional roots of Jesus Christ:

Charles Francois Dupuis,

Constantine-Francois Volney,

Bruno Bauer,

Arthur Drews,

John M. Allegro,

G.A Wells,

Alvar Ellegard,

Robert M. Price,

Earl Doherty,

Richard Carrier,

Thomas L. Thompson,

R. Joseph Hoffmann


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