Why People Are Confused About the Earliest Christian View of Resurrection of the Dead

The question I get asked most regarding The Jesus Discovery and the Talpiot tomb is how could one believe that the followers of Jesus were running around Jerusalem three days after Jesus died claiming he had been raised from the dead if his body was in a tomb was just two miles to the south of the Old City. Here is the answer and when one understands this everything falls into place.

There is a lot of confusion among Christians today–as well as among Jews and secularists for that matter–as to what the term resurrection of the dead means, whether as applied to Jesus and the Easter event, or more generally to humankind at the end of days. Most often the notion of resurrection of the dead is confused with a somewhat different Greek idea, the immortality of the soul–but these two ideas are quite distinct from one another as we will see below.

Image of Jonah Naked Receiving his White Robes of Resurrection & Rebirth c. 1425 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Image of Jonah Naked Receiving his White Robes of Resurrection & Rebirth c. 1425 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Christians affirm that Jesus was “raised on the third day, ascended to heaven, and sits at the right hand of God,” whereas Jews pray three times daily the Amidah, which praises God who, literally, “makes live the dead.” Understanding resurrection of the dead has everything to do with placing our claims in the new book, The Jesus Discovery, regarding the two Talpiot tombs, in a proper historical context. One of the main objections to the case we present is the objection that the notion of Jesus’ earliest followers celebrating his resurrection while knowing his bones are reverently buried in a tomb is a classic non-sequitur. I argue that such is not the case and it actually represents a misunderstanding of what the earliest followers of Jesus clearly affirmed about his resurrection, and thus about their own, which they anticipated in the imminent future. This post is long and detailed but the subject is complex and I hope it will go a long way toward clearing some of the confusion for those willing to dig a bit into the sources and the contemporary history of the time.

When one thinks about our concepts of death and the afterlife in the Western world the questions most people have are questions of individual survival—whether there is “life” after death. The nature of that life or survival can be thought of in a variety of ways, but the fundamental question is “What happens to me when I die?” Is there something or is there nothing? Those who believe in “life after death” are affirming, in some manner, the idea that some essence of the individual self, the person we sense ourselves to be, survives the death of the body. It is an extension of Descartes’s dictum: “I think therefore I am.” It is the survival of the “I,” the ego self that is in question. It is assumed that the biological self or body returns to dust or ashes, but the inner self lives on in some way. These questions come to us intuitively on the level of personal experience any time someone we love dies. The heart stops, respiration ceases, and the deceased is pronounced dead. The person becomes a “corpse” and it is easy to think of the now decaying body as merely a “house” or vehicle for the inner self or soul—but not the person we knew in life. We dispose of the body according to our cultural customs and personal choices, respectfully, but also realistically, knowing that it is irretrievable.

This view of the human person as both a mortal physical body and an immortal soul or spirit, is deeply rooted in our Western religious and philosophical past. For most, without belief in some sort of life after death, there could be no viable spiritual faith. The alternative is seen as materialism—that all we really are is a functioning biological organism made wholly of matter.

Socrates sums it up best, as he drinks the fatal hemlock, having been condemned to exile or voluntary death by the Athenian elders. He tells his disciples to weep not for him but for themselves for he is returning “home” while they will remain for a time in the house or prison of the body, until their time of release comes.[i] The Roman philosopher and statesman, Cicero, who lived in the first century BCE, explained this view more fully:

Strive on indeed, and be sure that it is not you that is mortal, but only your body. For that man whom your outward form reveals is not yourself; the spirit is the true self, not that physical figure that can be pointed out by the finger. (6:24)[ii]

This Platonic body/soul dualism became the standard belief in Greco-Roman antiquity, even among some Hellenized first century Jews such as Philo and Josephus.[iii] The most celebrated early Christian theologians, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Augustine considered Plato a kind of honorary “pre-Christian” and reshaped their exposition of the Christian faith almost wholly in Platonic categories.

As a result it is extremely difficult for people today, whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or any other spiritual tradition to conceive of life after death other than through the lenses of Plato—the body perishes and the immortal soul passes on to an unseen realm of the spirit.

Given this perspective we must ask, what could bones possibly have to do with any idea of life after death? This gets at the heart of the concept of resurrection of the dead. It is an alternative view of the afterlife, but it differs in significant ways. Although the term “resurrection” has become rooted in our Jewish-Christian-Islamic cultures, most are confused about how the two ideas—immortality of the soul and resurrection of the body—relate to one another. If one attends a funeral and the rabbi, priest, minister, or Imam, stands before the corpse, right before lowering it into the grave, or in front of an urn of ashes, while reading words of scripture declaring that the “dead shall rise” people are confused about what is being affirmed. Are they to believe that the body, committed back to the dust or turned to ashes, is somehow to be revived or recreated? Is “resurrection” to be taken literally, or is it just a metaphorical or symbolic way of saying “We believe the essential human person survives death.” Is there such a thing as “spiritual” resurrection? And if so, what about the “bones”?

As we will see, the concept of resurrection is something quite different—or at least it was in the time of Jesus.

Resurrection of the dead is affirmed in our Western religious creeds. Jews recite the Thirteen Principles of Maimonides (the last of which says, “I believe in the resurrection of the dead.”) Christians affirm the “resurrection of the body” in the Apostles’ Creed, the oldest confession of its type. Muslims affirm that God will raise the dead for judgment on the Last Day—also called the “Day of Standing Up” (Surah 2:79).

The original core idea of “resurrection of the dead,” at least for Christians and Jews whose understanding is rooted in the Hebrew Bible, is best illustrated by Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones. The prophet Ezekiel sees a valley full of dry bones and God asks him, “Son of man, can these bones live? Ezekiel answers, “O LORD God you know.” Then God tells him to address the bones:

Thus says the Lord GOD to the bones: Behold I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the LORD” (Ezekiel 37:5-6).

Resurrection of the dead here, clearly, is a reconstitution of the physical body, a miraculous revival of the entire person, living and breathing again in this world. The fundamental question regarding afterlife in this text is not “Does the immortal soul survive the death and decay of the body,” but rather, do the dead, once death and decay have occurred, return to life? There is a vast difference between the question of survival and the question of returning to life. The latter is seen as a recreation of the whole person, body, soul, and spirit. The former is the ongoing life of the spirit without the body. The bottom line is that the concept of resurrection of the dead involves a bodily return to this world, whereas the concept of the immortal soul involves a transition from the body to a higher state in another realm.

The language of both the Hebrew Bible and New Testament bears out this core idea. In Hebrew one speaks of God, literally “making live” the dead. The Greek word for  resurrection (anastasis) mean literally “to stand up.” Thus “lifting up” or “raising up” is a way of affirming that the person represented by the bones will return to life. What kind of life—and in what kind of a body?—we will explore next.

In the Bible, when the bones are buried, the spirit or soul descends into the “world of the dead,” called Sheol in Hebrew and Hades in Greek. Sheol is described as a land of silence and forgetfulness, a region gloomy, dark, and deep (Psalm 115:17; 6:5; 88:3-12; Isaiah 38:18). All the dead go down to Sheol, and there they make their bed together–whether good or evil, rich or poor, slave or free (Job 3:11-19). The dead in Sheol are mere shadows of their former embodied selves, lacking substance they are called “shades” (Psalm 88:10).[iv] There is one “séance” story in the Hebrew Bible in which the infamous medium of Endor conjured up the “shade” of the dead prophet Samuel at the insistence of king Saul, who wanted to communicate with him. When Samuel appears, rising up out of the earth, he asks Saul, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?” (1 Samuel 28:8-15). But even Samuel must then return to Sheol. Death is a one-way street; it is the land of no return:

But man dies, and is laid low; man breathes his last, and where is he? As waters fail from a lake, and a river wastes away and dries up, so man lies down and rises not again; till the heavens are no more he will not awake, or be aroused out of his sleep. (Job 14:10-12)

There are three stories of the resuscitation of the dead in the Hebrew Bible. Elijah raises the son of widow, his successor Elisha raises the child of a wealthy woman, and an dead man put in the grave of Elijah, touching his bones, “lived and was raised to his feet” (1 Kings 17:17-22; 2 Kings 2:32-37; 2 Kings 13:21). Jesus raises three people from the dead in the gospels: a twelve year old girl; a young man, son of a widow; and Lazarus, brother of Mary and Martha (Mark 5:41-43; Luke 7:11-17; John 11:43-44). Matthew says that at the death of Jesus many of the dead came out of their graves and walked about in the city (Matthew 27: 52). Peter raises a widow and Paul revives a young man who fell from a window (Acts 20:9-12).

What is important to note about all these stories of “resurrection” is that these people returned from death to live again, but they then they subsequently died again. This notion of a temporary return from death, basically a revival of a corpse, is not the view of resurrection of the dead that Jews in the time of Jesus believed and that followers of Jesus were affirming about him.

The Hebrew Bible says very little about resurrection of the dead in this more extended sense. The single unambiguous passage is from Daniel, but it is a key to understanding the concept at its core:

And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time; but at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. And multitudes of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament; and those who turn many to righteousness like the stars forever and ever. (Daniel 12:1-4)

The metaphor of “sleeping in the dust of the earth” and then awakening captures precisely the core idea of resurrection of the dead. The bodies of the dead have long ago decayed and turned to dust, so this is no resuscitation of a corpse, nor is it even Ezekiel’s vision of reclothing dry bones with sinew and skin. This is an entirely new concept that has begun to develop in Jewish thought and Jews like Jesus, as well as the Pharisees, believed that on the “last day,” the dead would be raised. What people mix up is the literal idea of resuscitation or the “standing up” of a corpse, and the fully developed Jewish idea of resurrection at the end of days. The latter does not involve collecting the dust, the fragmentary decaying bones, or other remains of the body and somehow restoring their form. According to the book of Revelation, even the “sea” gives up the dead that are in it—which can hardly mean one must search for digested bodies that the fish have eaten and eliminated—as unpleasant as the thought may be (Revelation 20:11-15).

Corpse revival is not resurrection of the dead–at least in its classic sense of what happens to all humankind in the end of days. This might be the view of a child who does not yet understand the idea, or metaphorically one could speak of the dead “coming out of their tombs,” as in the famous Michael Jackson video “Thriller,” but no one thought of it literally that way in terms of what would happen at the end of days.

The fully developed view of resurrection of the dead among Jews in the time of Jesus was that at the end of days the dead would come forth from Sheol/Hades—literally the “state of being dead,” and live again in an embodied form. The question was—what kind of a body? And it was there that the debates began. The Sadducees, who denied the resurrection, poked fun at the Pharisees, who affirmed it. How could God raise the dead—what if a woman had had seven husbands in her life, each of whom died and she kept remarrying—in the resurrection whose wife would she be? Jesus was confronted with this question in the gospels (Luke 20:34-40). His answer was clear and unambiguous—when the dead come forth they will be in a transformed body, much like the angels, not the literal physical bodies that they once inhabited—there will be no “marriage or giving in marriage” as there will be no “male or female” in terms of physical sexual gender. There will be no birth, no death, but a new transformed life.

Paul is the crystal clear on this point. Some of his converts in the city of Corinth were denying the resurrection of the dead. They were most likely thinking along the lines of Plato—if the immortal soul is freed from the prison of the body at death, why would it ever return to the body? And yet that is precisely what Paul defended—a return to a body—but as he makes very clear, it is not a natural or “physical body”—the one he calls the body of “dust,” but a spiritual body—literally “wind body,” (pneumatikos), that is transformed and not subject to death (1 Corinthians 15:42-50).

Resurrection of the dead, according to both Paul and Jesus, has nothing to do with the former physical body. Paul’s objectors taunted him—“How are the dead raised? In what kind of a body will they come forth?—he called them fools—as obviously they had no clue about the concept of resurrection, mistaking it for corpse revival (1 Corinthians 15:34). Paul says that Jesus had become, what he calls, a life-giving spirit. The difference between this idea and that of the Greek notion of the immortal soul is difficult to understand, but in the Hebraic view of things the distinction was important. Simply put, in Greek thought death was a friend—that released one from the bonds of the lower, mortal, decaying, material world. In Hebrew the created world is good—even very good—and death is seen as enemy—but one that can be conquered. Paul writes that the “last enemy to be destroyed is death,” and then the creation, which is good, will be “released from its bondage to decay” (1 Corinthians 15:26; Romans 8:21).

The whole concept turns on the notion of how the created world is viewed—as something to abandon and escape, or something to be transformed and changed. That is why the Bible speaks of a “new heavens and a new earth,” rather than leaving this earth to go to heaven (Isaiah 65:17; Revelation 21:1). The kingdom of God is when the will of God is done on earth as it is in heaven. In both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament the ideal future is when God comes down to the renewed creation, not when we leave a hopeless world to join God in heaven (Revelation 21:3).

Paul makes clear that in Christian resurrection the body is left behind like an old change of clothing, to turn to the dust, and the spirit is “reclothed” with a new spiritual body. He compares the physical body to a temporary tent, and the new body is a permanent house (2 Corinthians 5:1-5). He even throws in a polemic against the Greek Platonic view of the “unclothed” or disembodied immortal soul—he says our desire is not to be naked, which is the state of death before resurrection, but to be clothed again!

This has everything to do with the earliest Christian view of Jesus’ resurrection, the resurrection hope his followers had, and our Talpiot tombs. That is why the presence of bones—even the bones of Jesus, next to statements of faith in resurrection, were not a contradiction. The confusion has come over the accounts in the gospels of the empty tomb of Jesus, and his “appearances” to his followers following his resurrection–all of which were written after 70 CE when the links with the faith of the Jerusalem community had been severed.

The evidence we have found in the Talpiot tombs is primary evidence of what the first Christians believed about resurrection faith. It is not theology, but it is firm archaeological testimony that allows us for the first time to reconstruct the full picture. The tomb evidence agrees completely with the teachings of both Jesus and Paul about the new spiritual body. The confusion has come in the gospels because of a fundamental misunderstanding of the empty tomb. There was an empty tomb—but it was the first tomb, the temporary one in which Joseph of Arimathea placed the corpse of Jesus until the Passover and Sabbath were past. The Talpiot Jesus tomb was not empty—the “Jesus son of Joseph” ossuary held his bones, and as we will see, we have been able to even do DNA tests on those remains. This is no threat to the original Christian resurrection faith, it is actually an affirmation of that faith. Paul knows nothing of that first empty tomb. He knows that Jesus died and was buried and on the third day he was raised up. He then appeared to his followers, not as a resuscitated corpse, but in Paul’s words, as a “life-giving spirit” (1 Corinthians 15:3-8). These words of Paul are our earliest testimony to faith in Jesus’ resurrection—until now. We now have testimony by his original followers that predates Paul, and predates the gospels by many decades. Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John were written between 70-100 CE. The names on the books are traditional. They are not included in the text but added later as “titles” to the manuscripts. In other words, Mark does not begin, “I Mark, having witnessed these things, do hereby write…” Nor does Matthew, Luke, or John. In that sense all four gospels are pseudonymous—we don’t know their real authors.

What is particularly telling is that if you take the gospels in order, beginning with Mark there are no appearances of Jesus—just the statement that he will “go before them to Galilee.”[v] Several scholars have seen this as a reference to his second coming. In Matthew the women at the tomb see Jesus and later the eleven apostles on a misty mountain top—but some doubted. He gives them their commission to take the gospel to the world (Matthew 28:18-19). Here we have clearly left the world of history and entered the world of theology. The “Great Commission” is Matthew’s view of the Christian mission until the end of the age. Scholars do not take these as words as those spoken by the historical Jesus. Luke expands things further and first introduces the idea that Jesus came back in a physical body—wounds and all and asking for food to eat. He includes Jesus appearing to two men on the road to Emmaus, and then to the eleven apostles and other disciples. They mistake him for a ghost, but he lets them know that he has “flesh and bones” and is not a spirit. He then eats fish in front of them (Luke 24:39). John, like Luke, promotes this same view—that Jesus shows his wounds to Thomas and later meets a group of the apostles on the Sea of Galilee and is cooking fish on the shore on a charcoal fire (John 20:24-25; 21:9-14).  See Deborah Thompson Prince “The ‘Ghost’ of Jesus: Luke 24 in Light of Ancient Narratives of Post-Mortem Apparitions,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament (March 2007) 29:3, pp. 287-301.

What Luke and John introduce here, namely that Jesus appeared in the same body that had been placed in the tomb represents a major departure from early Christian resurrection faith. This understanding of Jesus’ resurrection has led to endless confusion on the part of sincere Christians who do believe Jesus was raised from the dead. These stories are secondary and legendary. We know this because Mark, who wrote decades earlier, does not know them, and Paul, who is still earlier says plainly that the new body is not “flesh and blood” (1 Corinthians 15:50). Apologists have tried to reconcile these accounts by saying Jesus had “bones and flesh” but it was somehow “different” bones and flesh—it was “spiritual” not physical. They have compared it to stories of the appearances of angels or messengers in the Hebrew Bible, who appear, even eat, and then depart (Genesis 18:1-8). The parallel is not valid. The angelic messengers in the Hebrew Bible are often humans, spoken of a mal’akim—the normal word for messenger but mistranslated “angel.” Other times they are portrayed as beings from the other realm who appear and disappear at will, sometimes rising in a puff of smoke (Judges 6:19-22).

These accounts of Luke and John are quite different. They were written for apologetic purposes against pagan critics like Celsus who charged that the “appearances” of Jesus to his followers were merely based on hysteria and delusion. By the time Luke and John wrote, at the turn of the first century or even later, the battle the Christians were fighting was with the non-Christians and Jews who did not accept Jesus born of a virgin or raised from the dead. The pagans charged that the resurrection appearances were delusional but within Jewish tradition it was known that the body was moved. Matthew’s polemic against this view, protesting that it was a Jewish lie, actually testifies to its partial truth (Matthew 28:11-15). Matthew, in his typical anti-Semitic fashion, charges that the Jews were easily bribed for money and willing to spread a lie, saying “The disciples came and stole him away.” Part was true—they did come by night and take the body away, but they hardly stole it. Joseph of Arimathea had been given permission to take care of the burial by the Roman governor himself—Pontius Pilate. When Matthew says the “story” is spread among the Jews to this day,” that is likely also partially true. Jews who lived in Jerusalem knew that Jesus body had been moved, and reverently buried by his family and his followers. What one has to remember is that the gospel writers, removed five or six decades from the events, know nothing of the Christianity in Jerusalem that thrived and grew even before Paul came along. Jesus died in 30 CE, Paul writes in the 50s CE, and the gospels were written between 70-100 CE, or even later. They are far removed from the original followers—most of whom are dead, including Paul, Peter, James, and most other first witnesses.

The question we get asked most in this regard is how could one believe that the followers of Jesus were running around Jerusalem three days after Jesus died claiming he had been raised from the dead if his body was in a tomb was just two miles to the south of the Old City. This question assumes a fundamental misunderstanding. It takes legendary accounts written many decades after the events, and the history of the movement as narrated by Luke in the book of Acts, as if it reflects things as they were in the period 30-70 CE. For that Paul and the book of James are our only witnesses, plus the restored document Q.

The Q document and James are wholly concentrated on the ethical teachings of Jesus. They contain no Christian theology at all. James only mentions his brother Jesus twice, both times in passing. Paul, on the other hand, has begun the development of what we come to know as classic Christian teachings—Christ as the incarnate divine Son of God, his death and resurrection for sins, forgiveness through his blood, baptism as a mystical rite of union, and the Eucharist as eating the body and blood of Christ. Paul is early enough though to have the notion of resurrection of the dead straight and he says he received what he passes on in this regard—presumably from the first witnesses (1 Corinthians 15:1-8).

In an ironic sense, though we believe that Paul’s theology is far removed from that of Jesus first followers, his view of Jesus’ resurrection comes directly from them—and it did not involve bones or corpses being revived. He makes that crystal clear. Paul then becomes our best link to the Talpiot tombs.

We realize it is hard to imagine, given the confusion the later gospel accounts have introduced, that early followers of Jesus would have visited the Jesus family tomb and declared their resurrection faith, while honoring and remembering their revered Teacher, the one they believed was the messiah. When one understands the Jewish culture and context that is precisely what one would expect. Within Judaism the tombs of the zadikim—the righteous ones, are honored, remembered, and considered holy. We envision a time in the future when the Talpiot tombs will be seen not as a threat to early Christian faith, but as a vehicle for recovering the Jewishness of Jesus and his first followers. The evidence discovered on these simple ossuaries can serve as a bridge between these two great religions—Christianity and Judaism, as their common roots are better understood.

N.b. There is an review and interesting discussion of this article initiated by Michael Heiser on his blog, see: http://michaelsheiser.com/TheNakedBible/2012/04/james-tabors-essay-early-christianitys-view-resurrection-review/

[i] See Plato’s Death of Socrates or his Phaedo and my summary article “What the Bible Says About Death, Afterlife, and the Future.”

[ii] Translation by C. W. Keyes, Cicero, De Re Publica, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1928).

[iii] See Droge and Tabor, A Noble Death, chapter four, “Acquiring Life in a Single Moment,” pp. 85-112.

[iv] Segal, Life After Death, pp. 120-145.

[v] For a contemporary scholarly analysis of each of the gospels see See Bart Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, 5th ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).


The Strange Ending of the Gospel of Mark and Why It Makes All the Difference

And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing.

Most general Bible readers have the mistaken impression that Matthew, the opening book of the New Testament, must be our first and earliest Gospel, with Mark, Luke, and John following. The assumption is that this order of the gospels is a chronological one, when in fact it is a theological one. Scholars and historians are almost universally agreed that Mark is our earliest gospel–by several decades, and this insight turns out to have profound implications for our understanding of the “Jesus story” and how it was passed down to us in our New Testament gospel traditions.

Women at Tomb


The problem with the gospel of Mark for the final editors of the New Testament was that it was grossly deficient. First it is significantly shorter than the other gospels–with only 16 chapters compared to Matthew (28), Luke (24), and John (21). But more important is how Mark begins his gospel and how he ends it.

He has no account of the virgin birth of Jesus–or for that matter, any birth of Jesus at all. In fact, Joseph, husband of Mary is never named in Mark’s gospel at all–and Jesus his called a “son of Mary,” see my previous post on the complexities of the family of Jesus here. But even more significant is Mark’s strange ending. He has no appearances of Jesus following the visit of the women on Easter morning to the empty tomb!

Like the other three gospels Mark recounts the visit of Mary Magdalene and her companions to the tomb of Jesus early Sunday morning. Upon arriving they find the blocking stone at the entrance of the tomb removed and a young man–notice–not an angel–tells them:

 “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing (Mark 16:6-8)

And there the gospel simply ends!

Mark gives no accounts of anyone seeing Jesus as Matthew, Luke, and John later report. In fact, according to Mark, any future epiphanies or “sightings” of Jesus will be in the north, in Galilee,not in Jerusalem.

This original ending of Mark was viewed by later Christians as so deficient that not only was Mark placed second in order in the New Testament, but various endings were added by editors and copyists in some manuscripts to try to remedy things. The longest concocted ending, which became Mark 16:9-19, became so treasured that it was included in the King James Version of the Bible, favored for the past 500 years by Protestants, as well as translations of the Latin Vulgate, used by Catholics. This meant that for countless millions of Christians it became sacred scripture–but it is patently bogus. You might check whatever Bible you use and see if the following verses are included–the chances are good they they will be, since the Church, by and large, found Mark’s original ending so lacking. Here is that forged ending of Mark:

Now when he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons. She went and told those who had been with him, as they mourned and wept. But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it. After these things he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country. And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them. Afterward he appeared to the eleven themselves as they were reclining at table, and he rebuked them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen. And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover. So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. And they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by accompanying signs.

Even though this ending is patently false, people loved it and to this day conservative Christians regularly denounce “liberal” scholars who point out this forgery, charging that they are trying to destroy “God’s word.”

The evidence is clear. This ending is not found in our earliest and most reliable Greek copies of Mark. According to Bruce Metzger, “Clement of Alexandria and Origen [early third century] show no knowledge of the existence of these verses; furthermore Eusebius and Jerome attest that the passage was absent from almost all Greek copies of Mark known to them.”1 The language and style of the Greek is clearly not Markan, and it is pretty evident that what the forger did was take sections of the endings of Matthew, Luke and John (marked respectively in red, blue, and purple above) and simply create a “proper” ending.

Even though this longer ending became the preferred one, there are two other endings, one short and the second an expansion of the longer ending, that also show up in various manuscripts:

[I] But they reported briefly to Peter and those with him all that they had been told. And after these things Jesus himself sent out through them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.

[II] This age of lawlessness and unbelief is under Satan, who does not allow the truth and power of God to prevail over the unclean things of the spirits [or, does not allow what lies under the unclean spirits to understand the truth and power of God]. Therefore reveal your righteousness now’ – thus they spoke to Christ. And Christ replied to them, ‘The term of years of Satan’s power has been fulfilled, but other terrible things draw near. And for those who have sinned I was handed over to death, that they may return to the truth and sin no more, in order that they may inherit the spiritual and incorruptible glory of righteousness that is in heaven.

I trust that the self-evident spuriousness of these additions is obvious to even the most pious readers. One might in fact hope that Christians who are zealous for the “inspired Word of God” would insist that all three of these bogus endings be recognized for what they are–forgeries.

So that said, what about the original ending of Mark? Its implications are rather astounding for Christian origins and trying to determine what really happened Easter morning. Notice the following implications.

1. Since Mark is our earliest gospel, written according to most scholars around the time of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE, or perhaps in the decade before, we have strong textual evidence that the first generation of Jesus followers were perfectly fine with a gospel account that recounted no appearances of Jesus. We have to assume that the author of Mark’s gospel did not consider his account deficient in the least and he was either passing on, or faithfull promoting, what he considered to be the authentic gospel. What most Christians do when they think about Easter is ignore Mark. Since Mark knows nothing of any appearances of Jesus as a resuscitated corpse in Jerusalem, walking about, eating, and showing his wounds, as recounted by Matthew, Luke, and John, those stories are simply allowed to “fill in” for his assumed deficiency. In other words, no one allows Mark to have a voice. What he lacks, ironically, serves to marginalize and mute him!

2. Alternatively, if we decide to listen to Mark, who is our first gospel witness, what we learn is rather amazing. In Mark, the last night of Jesus’ life, he had told his intimate followers following their meal, “But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee” (Mark 14:28). What Mark believes is that Jesus has been “lifted up” or “raised up” to the right hand of God and that the disciples would “see” him in Galilee. Mark knows of no accounts of people encountering the revived corpse of Jesus, wounds and all, walking around Jerusalem. His tradition is that the disciples experienced their epiphanies  or “sightings” of Jesus once they returned to Galilee after the eight day Passover festival and had returned to their fishing in despair. This is precisely what we find in the Gospel of Peter, where Peter says:

 Now it was the final day of the Unleavened Bread; and many went out returning to their home since the feast was over. But we twelve disciples of the Lord were weeping and sorrowful; and each one, sorrowful because of what had come to pass, departed to his home. But I, Simon Peter, and my brother Andrew, having taken our nets, went off to the sea. And there was with us Levi of Alphaeus whom the Lord …

You can read more about this fascinating “lost” Gospel of Peter here, but this ending, where the text happens to break off, is most revealing. What we see here is precisely parallel to Mark. The disciples returned to their homes in Galilee in despair, resuming their occupations, and only then did they experience “sightings” of Jesus. Strangely, this tradition shows up in an appended ending to the gospel of John–chapter 21, where a group of disciples are back to their fishing, and Matthew knows the tradition of a strange encounter on a designated mountain in Galilee, where some of the eleven apostles even doubt what they are seeing (Matthew 28:16-17).

The faith that Mark reflects, namely that Jesus has been “raised up” or lifted up to heaven, is precisely parallel to that of Paul–who is the earliest witness to this understanding of Jesus’ resurrection. Paul noteably parallels his own visionary experience to that of Peter, James, and the rest of the apostles. What this means is that when Paul wrote, in the 50s CE, this was the resurrection faith of the early followers of Jesus! Since Matthew, Luke, and John come so much later, and clearly reflect the period after 70 CE when all of the first witnesses were dead–including Peter, Paul, and James the brother of Jesus, they are clearly 2nd generation traditions and should not be given priority.

Mark begins his account with the line “The Gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). Clearly for him, what he subsequently writes is that “Gospel,” not a deficient version thereof that needs to be supplemented or “fixed” with later alternative traditions about Jesus appearing in a resuscitated body Easter weekend in Jerusalem.

Finally, what we recently discovered in the Talpiot tomb under the condominium building, not 200 feet from the “Jesus family” tomb, offers a powerful testimony to this same kind of early Christian faith in Jesus’ resurrection. On one of the ossuaries, or bone boxes in this tomb, is a four line Greek inscription which I have translated as: I Wondrous Yehovah lift up–lift up! And this is next to a second ossuary representing the “sign of Jonah” with a large fish expelling the head of a human stick figure, recalling the story of Jonah. In that text Jonah sees himself as having passed into the gates of Sheol or death, from which he utters a prayer of salvation from the belly of the fish: “O Yehovah my God, you lifted up my life from the Pit!” (Jonah 2:6). It is a rare thing when our textual evidence seems to either reflect or correspond to the material evidence and I believe in the case of the two Talpiot tombs, and the early resurrection faith reflected in Paul and Mark, that is precisely what we have. ((We offer a full exposition of these important discoveries in our recent book, The Jesus DiscoveryThe book is a complete discussion of both Talpiot tombs with full documentation, with full chapters on Mary Magdalene, Paul, the James ossuary, DNA tests, and much more. You can read my preliminary report on these latest “Jonah” related findings at the web site Bible & Interpretation, here. That this latest archaeological evidence corresponds so closely to Mark and Paul, our first witnesses to the earliest Christian understanding of Jesus’ resurrection, I find to be most striking.

  1. Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2nd edition, (Hendrickson Publishers, 2005), 123. Metzger also states: “The last twelve verses of the commonly received text of Mark are absent from the two oldest Greek manuscripts (? and B), 20 from the Old Latin codex Bobiensis, the Sinaitic Syriac manuscript, about one hundred Armenian manuscripts, 21 and the two oldest Georgian manuscripts (written a.d. 897 and a.d. 913).” 

Did John the Baptist Eat Bugs, Beans, or Pancakes?

According to our earliest source the one known as “John the Baptist,” (literally “John the Dipper”) followed a strict ascetic lifestyle reflected most prominently in his austere dress and diet:

Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey (Mark 1:6; cf. Matthew 3:4).


We also read in a earlier source now embedded in Luke and Matthew, that John, in contrast to Jesus, came “neither eating nor drinking,” or “neither eating bread nor drinking wine.” Such phrases indicate the lifestyle of one who is strictly vegetarian, avoids even bread since it has to be processed from grain, and shuns all alcohol (Luke 7:33-34; Matthew 11:18-19).

The contemporary Jewish historian Josephus recounts the execution of John the Baptist at the desert fortress of Macherus by Herod Antipas in his work Jewish Antiquities, see the passage here.1 According to Josephus, Herod’s main motivation was John’s great popularity with the crowds and the possibility that he could lead an insurrection. Mark gives an alternative account, namely that Herod had John beheaded at his birthday celebration, reluctantly, at the urging of his wife Herodias, following the famously provocative dance of her daughter Salome. Herodias was upset that John was openly condemning her marriage to Antipas as adulterous, since she had been originally married to his brother Philip (Mark 6:16-29).

Josephus describes him as “a good man who commanded the Jews to exercise virtue,” but does not specifically comment on his lifestyle in the Greek version of the Antiquities that is our standard text. There is an Old Russian version of Josephus’s Antiquities, usually referred to as “Slavonic Josephus,” that describes John the Baptizer as living on “roots and fruits of the tree” and insists that he never touched bread, much less the flesh of a lamb, even at Passover.2

The most commonly held view of John’s diet, based on our text in Mark, is that he ate locusts, a migratory form of the grasshopper of the family Acrididae, still commonly consumed by desert peoples in Arabia. Others have suggested the word translated “locusts” refers to the beans of the carob tree, commonly called “St. John’s bread.” However, the Greek word translated “locusts,” (akris/ακρις) seems to clearly refer to a species of grasshopper. The problem is such eating of “flesh,” even if that of an insect, seems to contradict the sources that emphasize his ascetic vegetarian ideal. Paul, for example, refers to members of the Jesus movement who abstain from eating meat and drinking wine (Roman 14:1-4). We also have traditions that James, the brother of Jesus, practiced a strictly vegetarian lifestyle, which was also common among the Jewish Christian community that became known as the “Ebionites,” see my post here. Somehow “locusts” seem out of place.

A possible solution to this confusion about John’s desert diet is found in the fragments we have of the lost “Gospel of the Ebionites,” as quoted by the 4th-­century Christian writer Epiphanius. The Greek word for locusts is very similar to the Greek word for “honey cake” (enkris/εvκρις) that is used for the “manna” that the Israelites ate in the desert in the days of Moses. If this is the case then John would have eaten a cake of some type, made from a desert plant, similar to the “manna” that the ancient Israelites ate in the desert in the days of Moses. This “bread from heaven” is described as “like coriander seed, white, and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey” (Exodus 16:31; Numbers 11:8). This kind of “pancake” baked in oil, and sweetened with honey, would then reflect and emulate the ideal holiness of the desert wanderings of Israel when the people had to look to God alone for “daily bread.”


Given ­John’s appearance, diet, and ascetic solitary life, one could not imagine a more counter-cultural figure. ­John’s cultural opposite was Herod Antipas, who eventually had him arrested and beheaded. Jesus had contrasted ­John’s lifestyle with those clothed in soft robes who live luxuriously in kings’ palaces (Luke 7:25). The reference to Herod and his ilk is unmistakable.

  1. The  October 2012 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review had a cover story on the archaeological work that has been done at Macherus and its possible connection to the John the Baptist story, as well as a story on what we know of Herod Antipas, see here. 

  2. See the texts in English here, as well as the translation and analysis of Thackeray in the appendix to the Loeb edition of Josephus 

Eat My Body, Drink My Blood–Did Jesus Ever Really Say This?

One of the more controversial but significant arguments I make in my new book, Paul and Jesus, is that the traditional words attributed to Jesus at the Last Supper–“This is my body,” “This is my blood” over the bread and wine–originated with Paul not with Jesus! Here is a summary of my reasons for reaching this conclusion and I invite readers to explore in depth this and other ways Paul and Jesus differed by reading the book itself.

Adoration Ghent


This most central of all Christian rites—the Eucharist or Holy Communion—involving eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Christ, however understood, is at once as familiar as it is strange. Here is what Paul writes to the Corinthians around A.D. 54:

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is [broken] for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me” (1 Corinthians 11:23-25).

Mark, our earliest gospel, written between 75-80 A.D. has the following scene of Jesus’ Last Supper:

And as they were eating, he took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it. And he said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many” (Mark 14:22-24).

The precise verbal similarities between these two accounts are quite remarkable considering that Paul’s version was written at least twenty years earlier than Mark’s. Where would Paul have gotten such a detailed description of what Jesus had said on the night he was betrayed? The common assumption has been that this core tradition, so central to the original Jesus movement, had circulated orally for decades in the various Christian communities. Paul could have received it directly from Peter or James, on his first visit to Jerusalem around A.D. 40, or learned it from the Christian congregation in Antioch, where, according to the book of Acts, he first established himself (Acts 11:25).

What Paul plainly says is easy to overlook: “For I received from the Lord what I handed on to you.” His language is clear and unequivocal. He is not saying, “I received it from one of the apostles, and thus indirectly it came from the Lord,” or “I learned it in Antioch, but they had gotten it by tradition from the Lord.” Paul uses precisely the same language to defend the revelation of his Gospel and how it came to him. He says he did not receive it from any man, nor was he taught it, but swears with an oath, “I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (Galatians 1:11-12). This means that what Paul passes on here regarding the Lord’s Supper, including the words of Jesus over the bread and the wine, comes to us from Paul and Paul alone!

We have every reason to take him at his word. Though it might sound strange to us that anyone would claim to have received by revelation a narrative of Jesus’ last meal with his disciples, years after the event, Paul considered that sort of thing a normal manifestation of his prophetic connection with the Spirit of Christ. One of the gifts of the spirit was a “word of knowledge,” and such a revelation could apply to the past, the present, or the future. In the same way Paul claims to have received a detailed scenario of precisely what will happen in the future when Jesus returns. He prefaces his revelation with the claim, “For this I declare to you by the word of the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4:15). Paul says that he hears from Jesus. To speculate as to where Paul derived the ideas he claims were given to him by revelation is to enter into his personal psychology to a degree to which we have no access. The task of a historian is to analyze what one might claim, but any attempt to rationally account for what a visionary claims to “see” is outside the realm of historical inquiry.

Since Paul’s account is the earliest we have of the Last Supper we have to be very careful in reading the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, all of which record a similar account, but were written decades later. In other words we can’t begin with Mark, our earliest gospel, and assume that Jesus actually said these words at the Last Supper, and then go to Paul, who comes after Jesus, as if he is just echoing the primary account. Things are precisely the other way around. We have every reason to believe that Mark got his tradition of the words of Jesus at the last Supper from Paul! Matthew and Luke, who then use Mark as a source, are also, indirectly, just repeating what Paul had said decades earlier.1

One way of sharpening this is to ask two questions that take us beyond Paul and back to Jesus. Is it historically probable that Jesus held a Last Supper with his disciples on the night before his death? Is it historically probable that Jesus uttered words about the bread being his body and the cup of wine his blood?

For the first question we have two independent ancient sources: Mark (who is echoed by Matthew and Luke) and the gospel of John. Both report that Jesus ate such a meal and it is reasonable to assume such is the case. For the second question Paul is our only source reporting that Jesus spoke of the bread as his body and the wine as his blood—since Mark, Matthew, and Luke derive their accounts from him. John reports an intimate meal Jesus had with his disciples but never says anything about words such as these spoken over bread and wine. It is difficult to imagine John, who was aware of the other gospels, leaving such an important tradition out of his gospel except by intention. His silence is essentially his “no” vote on the historical reliability of our single source—Paul.


But there is another reason for doubting the historical validity of Paul’s account. Other than Paul, a wholly alternative record of the words spoken at a Christian Eucharist celebration over the bread and the wine come from the early Christian text we call the  Didache (pronounced did-a-káy) that are completely different from the words of Jesus that Paul reports.

You shall give thanks as follows: First, with respect to the cup: “We give you thanks, our Father, for the holy vine of David, your child, which you made known to us through Jesus your child. To you be the glory forever.” And with respect to the fragments of bread: “We give you thanks our Father, for the life and knowledge that you made known to us through Jesus your child. To you be the glory forever” (Didache 9:2-3).2

Didache Eucharist

This precious text, discovered quite by chance in the library in Constantinople in 1873, provides us with clear evidence that early Christian communities were gathering together for a common thanksgiving meal called the Eucharist, blessing bread and wine, but with no connection whatsoever to the Pauline words associated with the Lord’s Supper that became the norm within Christianity. It is also noteworthy that both Jesus and David are equated in this prayer as “your child,” showing the fully human understanding of Jesus as a bloodline descendant of David and thus heir of his royal dynasty. The Didache as a whole, shows no influence of Paul’s teachings or traditions. It fits well with the broader picture we have seen based on the Q source, the letter of James, and the scattered texts that we can identify from later Jewish-Christian sources.

Didache Greek Ms

What Jesus said at his Last Supper with his disciples we have no way of knowing but there is evidence he thought of that meal as a “Messianic banquet” to be eaten in anticipation of the their table fellowship in the future kingdom of God. He tells the Twelve:

“You are those who have continued with me in my trials: and I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Luke 22:28).

This saying of Jesus is from the Q source (our earliest collection of the sayings of Jesus), not from Paul, but Luke, who connects it to the Last Supper. Luke’s version of Q is generally considered to be more accurate in preserving the structure of Q.

Luke relies on his source Mark his Lord’s Supper account, including the Pauline tradition of the words of institution about eating the body and drinking the blood of Jesus. But surprisingly, Luke knows another alternative source with no such language! He ends up placing them both into his narrative, juxtaposed one after the other:

[Tradition A: Alternative Source] And he said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God. And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves. For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” (Luke 22: 15-18)

[Tradition B: Mark Source] And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”

Luke 22:20 And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood (Luke 22:19-20)

When one reads both traditions as a unit it makes little sense, because Jesus ends up taking the cup twice, but saying entirely different things. When the two traditions are separated each forms a discrete unit.

This becomes all the more significant since Luke’s Tradition A fits with what we might expect Jesus to have said in a Jewish Messianic context.

Oddly, Mark appears to preserve just a bit of this more primitive Jewish tradition, since Jesus concludes the meal by saying: “Truly, I say to you, I shall not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God” (Mark 14:25). Matthew includes this verse as well, copying it from Mark (Matthew 26:29). The reason it is odd is that it does not fit well with the Pauline “this is my body” and “this is my blood” tradition that Mark makes the center of his Last Supper scene. Jesus is obviously not anticipating one day drinking his own blood with the disciples in the kingdom. Evidently Mark knew something of the two traditions but mutes the one while playing up the other. He was perhaps bothered by the idea of two different scenes of Jesus blessing the cup, but with different words of interpretation, so he drops the first one.   Luke leaves them both, juxtaposed, even though they might be seen as contradictory. This convolution of Luke was sufficiently bothersome to some scribes that the Western text tradition (based on the 5th century A.D. Codex Bezae) drops the second cup scene (verses 19b-20) entirely; leaving a contradictory combination of Tradition A and B that makes little sense.3

Luke’s Tradition A, supported by Mark’s concluding saying of Jesus at the end of the meal, is probably as close as we can get to what Jesus might have said on the last evening of his life. What he expects is a celebratory meal of reunion in the kingdom of God.

This idea, often referred to as the “Messianic Banquet,” is described clearly in the Dead Sea Scrolls. When the Messiah comes all his chosen ones sit down at a common table with him, in the Kingdom, with blessings over bread and wine:

When God brings forth the Messiah, he shall come with them at the head of the whole congregation of Israel with all his brethren, the sons of Aaron the Priest . . .and the chiefs of the clans of Israel shall sit before him . . . And when they shall gather for the common table, to eat and to drink new wine . . . let no man extend his hand over the firstfruits of bread and wine before the Priest; for he shall bless the firstfruits of bread and wine . . .Thereafter, the Messiah of Israel shall extend his hand over the bread and all the congregation of the Community shall utter a blessing . . .4

One thing seems clear. The idea of eating the body and blood of ones god, even in a symbolic manner, fits nothing we know of Jesus or the Jewish culture from which he comes.

The technical term theophagy refers to “eating the body of ones god,” either literally or symbolically, and various researchers have noted examples of the idea in Greek religious traditions in which the deity was symbolically consumed.5 Although some scholars have tried to locate Paul’s version of the Eucharist within the wider tradition of “sacred banquets” common in Greco-Roman society, his specific language about participating in the spiritual efficacy of Jesus’ sacrificed body and blood by eating the bread and drinking the wine seems to take us into another arena entirely.6 The closest parallels we have to this kind of idea are found in Greek magical materials form this period. For example, in one of the magical papyri we read of a spell in which one drinks a cup of wine has been ritually consecrated to represent the blood of the god Osiris, in order to participate in the spiritual power of love he had for his consort Isis.7

Jesus lived as an observant Jew, keeping the Torah or Laws of Moses and teaching others to do the same. Jews were strictly forbidden to consume blood or even to eat meat that had not had the blood properly drained and removed (Lev. 7:26-27). The Jewish followers of Jesus, led by Jesus’ brother James, were quite stringent on this point, insisting that it applied equally to non-Jews as well as Jews, based on the prohibition to Noah and all his descendants after the Flood. They forbade non-Jewish followers of Jesus to eat meat that had been killed by strangling, or to consume any blood (Acts 15:19-20). Paul was admittedly lax on these restrictions and tells his followers they can eat any kind of meat sold in the marketplace, presumably even animals killed by strangulation, so long as no one present happens to notice and object on the basis of biblical teachings (1 Corinthians 10:25-29).

Given this background I think we can conclude that it is inconceivable that Jesus would have had his followers drink a cup of wine, even symbolically, as a representation of his blood, or break bread to represent his body, sacrificed for their sins.8

  1. The idea of two distinct forms of the Eucharist, one from Paul and the other from the Jerusalem church, was effectively argued by Hans Lietzmann in 1926. Needless to say it stirred up a whirlwind of controversy though overall I find it quite convincing. For an updated discussion see R. H. Fuller, “The Double Origin of the Eucharist,” Biblical Research 8 (1963): 60-72. 

  2. Translation from Ehrman, The Apostolic Fathers, vol. 1, p. 431. 

  3. See Bruce Metzger, The Text of the New Testament, 3rd edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), pp. 156-185, for a discussion of various New Testament manuscript traditions. The Western Text (Codex Bezae, designated D) has a number of significant omissions, particularly in Luke, that some scholars have argued are more authentic but the example of Luke 19b-20 seems to be a clear attempt by the textual editors to remove the difficulty of the two cups. It is more likely that Luke’s original text had both than that a later manuscript tradition would have added the second cup. Additions and omissions are almost always in the service of harmonization, when the scribes see difficulties they wish to help resolve with the text they are copying. 

  4. See The Messianic Rule 2. 10-20 (1QSa), in Vermes, The Dead Sea Scrolls, pp. 159-160. 

  5. See Preserved Smith, A Short History of Christian Theophagy (Chicago: Open Court Publishing Co., 1922). Parallels have been suggested with Attis the Phrygian god, Mithras, and particularly Dionysus, where an animal was torn apart and eaten raw. 

  6. Dennis Edwin Smith, From Symposium to Eucharist: The Banquet in the Early Christian World (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2003).  

  7. See the discussion and references in Morton Smith, Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973), pp. 217-219. 

  8.  Bruce Chilton has suggested that Jesus did indeed refer to “body” and “blood”; not to his own, but to that of the Passover sacrifice that he was rejecting as part of a corrupt Temple system: “This is my body”—the bread; “This is my blood”—the wine, so no need for the literal flesh and blood sacrifice of a lamb. As attractive as I find this alternative in the end it seems to me unlikely since the juxtaposition of the terms bread/body and wine/blood come from Paul and have no independent source. See Bruce Chilton and Craig A. Evans, Jesus in Context: Temple, Purity, and Restoration (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1997), pp. 59-89. 

Who Was the Mysterious “Disciple Whom Jesus Loved?”

Of the Twelve apostles it is noteworthy that the only ones not named in the Gospel of John are the “other” James, the “other” Jude, and the “other” Simon, and Matthew–all members of the Jesus Family.

The disciples said to Jesus, “We know you will leave us. Who is going to be our leader then?” Jesus said to them, “No matter where you go you are to go to James the Just, for whose sake heaven and earth came into being.” (Gospel of Thomas 12)

This post, initially written some years ago, has ended up drawing more readers than any other post in decade long history of my blog. This says something about the extraordinary interest in this unnamed disciple of Jesus who shows up mysteriously in the Gospel of John at the Last Supper, at the foot of the cross as Jesus is dying, at the empty tomb on Sunday morning, and finally–and most important–on the Sea of Galilee when Jesus appears to his disciples. Who is this person? Why is he unnamed? Why would Jesus deliver his own mother into the hands of this disciple with his dying breath?  In that final scene the editors/authors of the Gospel of John add a most extraordinary affirmation: This is the disciple who is bearing witness to these things, and who has written these things; and we know that his testimony is true (21:24).

In my book The Jesus Dynasty (Simon & Schuster, 2006) I offer my reasons for thinking that the enigmatic figure in the Gospel of John, described as “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” or more commonly, the “Beloved Disciple,” is none other than James the brother of Jesus. I am not sure who has suggested this over the years but I first encountered the idea from Robert Eisenman.1

Crucifixion Scene by Balage Balogh
Crucifixion Scene by Balage Balogh

The traditional view that the Beloved Disciple was the fisherman apostle John, one of the sons of Zebedee can be traced back as early as Irenaeus (c. 180 CE) and was made part of the official Church History of Eusebius in the early 4th century. 2  This identification, however “beloved” to so many, seems highly unlikely. After all, from the few stories we have about John son of Zebedee, he has a fiery and ambitious personality—Jesus had nicknamed him and his brother the “sons of Thunder.” They are the two that had tried to obtain the two chief seats on the Council of Twelve, one asking for the right hand, the other the left. On another occasion they asked Jesus for permission to call down fire from heaven to consume a village that had not accepted their preaching (Luke 9:54). On both occasions Jesus had rebuked them. The image we get of John son of Zebedee is quite opposite from the tender intimacy of the “disciple whom Jesus loved.” No matter how ingrained the image might be in Christian imagination, it makes no sense to imagine John son of Zebedee seated next to Jesus, and leaning on his breast.

BelovedDisciple Bassano

Eusebius also mentions another John, “the Elder,”perhaps the author of the New Testament letters of 2nd and 3rd John, whom some have seen as a more likely candidate than John the son of Zebedee3 This view has been recently defended by Richard Bauckham in his massive study, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. A good summary of the arguments pro and con for these two Johns as the “beloved disciple” is on-line here.

Today there are several dozens of books in print suggesting various alternative identifications. Ben Witherington and others have suggested Lazarus, brother of the sisters Mary and Martha, whom Jesus raises from the dead in the gospel of John, see here.  In the gospel the sisters send word to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill” (John 11:3). This view has received some possible support from the fragment of “Secret Mark” that Morton Smith found.  Mary Magdalene has also become a suggested candidate, despite the use of the masculine pronouns, see Ramon Jusino’s paper here. Most recently it has been suggested that an unnamed “son” of Jesus, whose identity had to be hidden, was the Beloved Disciple, see here. Although I find this view fascinatingly attractive on one level it seems short on evidence and it is hard to imagine Mary the mother of Jesus being delivered into the hands of a son who would have to have been a young adolescent in 30 CE–especially with Jesus’ four brothers on the scene who surely would have been responsible enough to take care of their own mother. In the only text we have that mentions Mary “after the cross” she is grouped with the brothers of Jesus (Acts 1: 14). Some scholars have viewed the “beloved disciple” as a literary construction representing the “ideal disciple,” with no specific identity. James Charlesworth surveys all the possibilities with a full history of scholarship in his landmark book The Beloved Disciple, which I recommend as the best place to begin for readers with a serious interest in this question. Charlesworth ends up arguing for the apostle Thomas, an identification that I think is unique with him, while he is apparently unaware of the possibility of James the brother of Jesus–a choice that has not been part of the mainstream discussion.

Let’s take a look at the text themselves. The Gospel of John mentions the Beloved Disciple in only four scenes, all at the end of his narrative: at the Last Supper, at the Cross, at the empty Tomb, and on the Sea of Galilee after Jesus’ resurrection. Since he is never mentioned earlier we really have very little to go on. Here are the texts in the RSV translation:

1) John 13:23-25: One of his disciples, whom Jesus loved, was lying close to the breast of Jesus; so Simon Peter beckoned to him and said, “Tell us who it is of whom he is speaking.” So lying thus, close to the breast of Jesus, he said to him, “Lord, who is it?”

2) John 19:26-27, 34-35: When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home…But one of the soldiers pieced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water. He who saw it has borne witness — his testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth — that you also may believe.

3) John 20:2-8 So she [Mary Magdalene] ran, and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Peter then came out with the other disciple, and they went toward the tomb. They both ran, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first; and stooping to look in he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. . . Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in. . .

4) John 21:1, 7, 20-24 After this Jesus revealed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he revealed himself in this way. 2 Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples were together…That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his clothes, for he was stripped for work, and sprang into the sea…Peter turned and saw following them the disciple whom Jesus loved, who had lain close to his breast at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?” When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?” Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!” The saying spread abroad among the brethren that this disciple was not to die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he was not to die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?” This is the disciple who is bearing witness to these things, and who has written these things; and we know that his testimony is true.

It is also possible that the Beloved Disciple is mentioned in John 18:15 though he is not given that designation: “Simon Peter followed Jesus, and so did another disciple. As this disciple was known to the high priest, he entered the court of the high priest along with Jesus, while Peter stood outside at the door. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out and spoke to the maid who kept the door, and brought Peter in.”

Based on these texts I would make the following points:

1. The Beloved Disciple is a male, not a woman, and since Mary Magdalene arrives at the tomb and then runs to tell Peter and this “other disciple” whom Jesus loved, the news of the empty tomb, “he” cannot be Mary Magdalene.

2. It is unlikely that the Beloved Disciple is anyone mentioned by name in the Gospel of John, and especially in these latter chapters, 13-21. His identity is being veiled not revealed with a name. That means we can eliminate those mentioned in John 21:1-2, as well Philip, Andrew, and Judas Iscariot of the Twelve, but also Lazarus I think.

3. If we accept the reference in John 18:15 as referring to our figure, the Beloved Disciple seems to have priestly connections in that he is able to get Peter into the courtyard of the High Priest’s house, knowing the woman at the door.

4. The Beloved Disciple takes Jesus’ mother Mary into his care, when Jesus as the oldest son of the family was formerly responsible for the family as function “head of the house.” He is officially designated as the “son” meaning that he is now to carry on the caretaker function for the household that Jesus no longer could do. Whether this scene at the cross is to be taken as historical fact or not, I think it nonetheless reflects a tradition that Jesus’ mother was passed into the care of one who became the “son” in charge of the family, including his mother. Obviously he is gone from the scene and someone has to take over in terms of leadership in the family and care for his mother.

5. The Beloved Disciple is present at the last supper, and thus, based on Mark at least, possibly one of the Twelve, though John does not specify this, i.e., that the meal was with Jesus and the Twelve alone. The description of this disciple “lying close to Jesus’ breast” at the Last Supper indicates an honored place of proximity and intimacy. Jesus loves all his disciples but this particular one has a special place.

I am convinced that these traditions in the Gospel of John refer to a real person, not a symbolic figure. He should be known to us in other texts and in early Christian tradition by name. If we eliminate characters who are named in these latter sections of the Gospel, particularly Lazarus, Simon Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, Philip, Andrew, and James and John, the two sons of Zebedee, and Judas Iscariot, who is left?

Of the Twelve apostles it is noteworthy that the only ones not named in the Gospel of John are the “other” James, the “other” Jude, and the “other” Simon, and Matthew–all part of the Jesus Family! Jesus has three brothers: James, Simon, and Jude, as well as a fourth, Joseph. I think there might be some evidence, as I point out in The Jesus Dynasty, that Matthew is another brother, possibly even the one otherwise known as Joseph, see my post here on “Sorting out the Jesus Family,” This silence seems more than incidental or accidental.

Given these factors it seems to me that James the brother of Jesus surfaces as the best candidate. He is the one who takes over leadership of the followers of Jesus. The “mother and brothers” of Jesus are mentioned in the book of Acts as if they are intact and together (Acts 1:14). Although Luke is reluctant to name either Jesus’ mother or the brothers, given his emphasis on the dominance of Peter and eventually Paul as the main apostles, that he knows the tradition of the intact Jesus family, together in Jerusalem, gathered with the other followers is surely telling. And all the more so that he later has James as the clear head of the Jerusalem community (Acts 15:12-21). To have some other individual such as Lazarus, or the fisherman John, now functioning as caretaker over the family, just makes no sense at all with James present and functioning as leader of the community.

I present arguments in my book, The Jesus Dynasty, summarized here, that James the brother of Jesus was one of the Twelve, and is referred to otherwise as “James the less,” or “James the young one,” who has a brother named Joses. Mark names “James and Joses” as the two older brothers of Jesus. James the brother of Jesus also is known for his priestly orientation, even though his mother is Davidic if Luke’s genealogy is her own. As I discuss in the book, that line has a strong component of priestly/Levite blood running through it, just as Aaron married Elisheva, the leading princess of Judah. Hegisippus tells us that James wore the white linen of the priest, and a mitre of some type, and was allowed to enter the inner sanctuary of the Temple–perhaps as a representative of the Nazarenes. We also have the tradition in the Gospel of the Hebrews that James was indeed present at the last supper, and that Jesus handed over to him some kind of “garment” that signified his priestly office.

I think it likely that the community that ended up shaping the Gospel of John, as indicated in chapter 21:24, had access to eyewitness materials that originated with James the brother of Jesus. Much as in the case of the Gospel of Thomas, the final product that has come down to us is considerably expanded in Gnostic/dualistic directions and a heavy theological overlay. It is noteworthy that the Gospel of Thomas also highlights James as the one to whom Jesus had passed on his authority:

The disciples said to Jesus, “We know you will leave us. Who is going to be our leader then?” Jesus said to them, “No matter where you go you are to go to James the Just, for whose sake heaven and earth came into being.” (Gospel of Thomas 12)

Certainly the Gospel of Thomas in its present form seems far removed from the theological perspectives of the historical James–so much as we can recover or imagine them. However, scholars such as April DeConick have done much to critically lay out the layers of tradition within the text, tracing the ur-text back to the Jerusalem community of James the Just.4  I think the same is likely the case with the Gospel of John. The quasi-gnostic, dualistic, “overlay” that characterizes the Gospel of John, especially in the extended “red letter” Discourses of Jesus, are not likely part of the original “eyewitness” tradition of the Beloved Disciple to which the final editors/authors of this work appeal for authority.

  1. See his book James the Brother of Jesus, p.992n28/p. 120. 

  2. Church History 6. 25. 

  3. Eusebius, Church History 5. 24. 

  4. See a summary of her work here.