Is the resurrection beyond belief?

David Instone-Brewer examines the gospel accounts of Jesus rising from the dead, and responds to the claim that early Christians simply made the story up

I love the old Jewish joke about a rabbi who sneaked off to a golf club one Sabbath. God said to the angels: “Watch how I punish him.” As they watched, the rabbi performed a perfect swing from his tee and was rewarded with a hole-in-one. The angels said: “How is that a punishment?” And God replied: “Who can he tell?” 

The disciples must have felt like that on the first Sunday when they saw Jesus alive. This was wonderful – but who was it safe to tell? And who would believe it? If they tried to convince people, they’d get into dangerous trouble. The good news that they were rejoicing in would have been dismissed as fake news by any self-respecting Greek or Roman. In their place, we might have concluded it was better to keep this knowledge to ourselves. Fortunately the disciples thought differently.

You’d think that all the myths about gods and demigods they inherited from the old Greek religions would have prepared the Greeks and Romans of the first Century to accept the possibility of life after death, but, by that time, they were more sophisticated. Although some believed in the stories of the distant past, no one except religious fanatics and madmen were willing to accept the possibility of such things in the present. An early second-Century scholar, Lucian of Samosata, made the most of this new scepticism by writing a bestseller called The Lover of Lies, making fun of religions based on miracles.

Paul experienced this attitude first-hand when he tried telling the philosophers in Athens about Jesus and the resurrection; the concept of resurrection was so far off their radar that they assumed he was talking about two gods: Jesus and Anastasia (Greek for “resurrection”). When Paul said that he meant Jesus’ literal resurrection, their reaction was predictable – they sneered (Acts 17:18-32). The same thing happened when Paul had a private audience with Festus and King Agrippa – an opportunity not to be missed! Everything was going well until Paul said the scripture taught “that the Messiah would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would bring the message of light to his own people and to the Gentiles.” At this point Festus interrupted Paul’s defence: “You are out of your mind, Paul!” he shouted. “Your great learning is driving you insane” (Acts 26:24-25). Any mention of Jesus’ resurrection was regarded as hilarious or mad. 

Cursed by God  

The Jews had different problems concerning Jesus’ resurrection. They believed that God could raise someone from the dead (it had happened a few times in the Old Testament), but they didn’t expect the Messiah to be raised. The prophecies about this are only obvious in retrospect – which is why his disciples were so astounded when Jesus pointed out these particular scriptures (Luke 24:25–27). The Jews expected their Messiah to physically vanquish his enemies, and they also thought that being crucified was a mark of God’s curse. This made them especially reluctant to accept the death and resurrection of their Messiah.

Even Christians had problems believing it. The largest section in Paul’s long letters to the Corinthians is where he tries to convince them about the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15). Reading between the lines, he is replying to those who said the resurrection was just too hard to accept, and evangelism would be much easier without it. Paul answers that they have to stick with it because it is the heart of the gospel! 

We think we have problems today with giving evidence for the resurrection, but for first-Century Judaism it was far worse. The first difficulty was that the primary witnesses were women, and women weren’t regarded as capable of being legal witnesses. Some judges did accept a woman’s testimony – as half the worth of a man’s testimony in a Jewish court – but most would have regarded this as a liberal concession. 

The second problem is that the Gospel reports don’t easily cohere. For example, John says Mary Magdalene came to the tomb, Matthew says that Mary the mother of Joanna accompanied her, Mark adds that Salome joined them, and Luke says there was a third person called Joanna. And thirdly, these witnesses didn’t always recognise Jesus (see John 20:14; Luke 24:15-16). In other words, they would have failed the first question put to any witness in court: “Do you recognise this person?” 

Balance of probabilities

To a historian, however, it is these problems that make the resurrection accounts believable. Anyone merely inventing the story would have told it differently. They’d say that the main witnesses were men who recognised Jesus immediately, and they’d make sure that each of the witnesses’ stories tallied with each other. Of course, the four different accounts about who came to the tomb can be easily explained – none of them named everyone who was there, and Joanna had a second name (like most people did) – Salome. An invented story wouldn’t have this kind of confusion in the first place. 

The official explanation given by the Jews for Jesus’ missing body was that it was stolen by his followers while the soldiers slept. Matthew has a counterclaim: that the soldiers and their superiors were bribed to say this by Jewish leaders. This claim and counterclaim are likely to be genuine because Matthew wouldn’t invent a plausible explanation that would merely put doubt in the mind of the reader, though he would respond to the accusation if this explanation already existed. 

So which side is telling the truth? The punishment for falling asleep on duty was death, so why would any soldier admit to falling asleep unless they knew they were safe from punishment because their superior officers had instructed them? This story of soldiers who wanted to be honest about their failings sounds like nonsense, but the explanation of bribery is all too believable.

The common sceptical view today is that Christians simply made up the whole story, but no one would invent something that not only made their new beliefs sound suspect, but got them into trouble with powerful religious and military authorities. All the apostles whose deaths we know about died because they refused to change their minds on this. The resurrection of Jesus was an inconvenient truth that we could have forgiven them for preferring to keep quiet about, but they couldn’t. Evangelism might still be so much easier without the resurrection, but as Paul said – what would be the point? 

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