How Faith in Jesus’ Resurrection Originated and Developed: A New/Old Hypothesis

Some years ago, after reading my book, The Jesus Dynasty, my dear friend and colleague, the late great Jerome Murphy O’Conner asked me the following:

You say that the body of Jesus was removed from its temporary resting place to a permanent tomb. This is not at all impossible. Extreme improbability sets in only when you invite us to assume that this group, who knew perfectly well what had actually happened to the body of Jesus, permitted their co-religionists to proclaim, not that he was still alive (immortality of the soul, well attested in Judaism) but that he was risen from the dead. This, of course, is against the background of what “resurrection” meant for first-century Jews. In order for me to take your “evidence” seriously, you would have to explain why the family and/or disciples based their future lives on what they knew to be a falsehood, namely that the body had been raised, and finally to justify how the secret was preserved in one of the gabbiest societies in ancient history

This article was written in response to his query and in memory of the good and fruitful discussions we had together about these matters at the University of Notre Dame in the 1980s and subsequently over the years at the École Biblique in Jerusalem.

 It makes perfect sense to read the New Testament in its current order. The four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John introduce us to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The book of Acts gives us the early history of Christianity, ending with the career of Paul. The letters of Paul and the other apostles, Peter, John, James, and Jude, come next, and the mysterious book of Revelation provides a climatic finale to the whole. It all makes perfect sense—unless one is a historian.

Historians read the New Testament backwards. Over the last hundred and fifty years they have made a significant discovery. If the New Testament writings were ordered chronologically, according to the dates the various books were written, a wholly different picture emerges, with radical and far-reaching implications. Historians disassemble these various sources in an attempt to understand them in chronological order. They focus on a precise set of questions: Where do we find our oldest and most authentic materials? How and when were they passed along, edited and embellished? Who was involved in this process and what theological motivations were operating? As it turns out, this seemingly destructive process of “disassembly” yields positive and fascinating results.

Crucifixion Scene by Balage Balogh

I want to return to my beginning question—what happened following the death of Jesus? Now that we have Paul as our master key, when we attempt to analyze the four New Testament gospels with their narratives of the empty tomb, an entirely different perspective opens up. Getting Paul right turns out to be fundamental to understanding what really happened, and the central affirmation of Paul’s message and apostleship—that he had “seen” Jesus had been raised from the dead—can be placed in its proper historical light.

In looking at the gospels, chronology turns out to be a remarkably fruitful starting point. There is no absolute guarantee that what is early is more accurate than what came after, but unless we begin the process of disassembly and comparison we have no way of even approaching our questions.

Evangelical Christian scholars, both Protestant and Catholic, believe that the only possible explanation for the empty tomb is that God raised Jesus bodily from the dead and that he emerged from the tomb fully and miraculous restored to health. They maintain that there is no other logical explanation for all the facts as reported and are quite keen uphold Jesus’ resurrection as the solid, demonstrable, bedrock of Christian faith.[i] Their thinking runs something like the following.

The disciples were in great despair over Jesus’ death, having lost all hope that he could be the Messiah. After all, a dead Messiah is a failed Messiah. None of them was expecting Jesus to die, much less rise from the dead, so how were they suddenly transformed from disappointed hopelessness to dynamic faith. Rather than wither away, the Jesus movement began to mushroom gaining strength and numbers as the apostles proclaimed all over Jerusalem that they had seen Jesus alive and his tomb was empty. How can such a dramatic change, three days after Jesus’ death, be explained any other way? Why were the apostles willing to face persecution and even death if they were spreading a story they knew to be false?

There are a limited number of non-supernatural explanations to explain what might have happened. The oldest explanation, that the disciples stole the body to deliberately promote the fraudulent claim that Jesus had been raised from the dead, is mentioned in the gospel of Matthew as a rumor that was spread among the Jewish population (Matthew 28:13-15). A second explanation, that some unknown person with no connection to the disciples, usually said to be a gardener, removed the body, also shows up in some later Jewish texts. The earliest source for this story is Tertullian, a late third century Christian apologist. He writes that some Jews were claiming that a gardener, upset that crowds visiting Jesus tomb were trampling his vegetables, reburied the body elsewhere, never revealing the location.[ii] In more recent times, the so-called “Swoon Theory,” popularized by Hugh Schonfield’s 1965 bestseller, The Passover Plot, suggested that Jesus was not really dead but unconscious, either through a drug, or from the trauma of crucifixion, and that he revived in the tomb.[iii] The most common explanation among biblical scholars is that Mark, our earliest gospel writer invented the entire burial and empty tomb story to bolster faith in the resurrection of Jesus. It is without any historical basis.[iv] I find this highly unlikely since it is hard to imagine the early followers of Jesus relating his death on the cross, but then saying nothing about what happened to his body. It would essentially be a story with no ending. But perhaps more to the point, Paul our earliest source, written decades before the gospels, knows the tradition that Jesus was at least buried. I think Mark does his share of inventive mythmaking—but not regarding the fact of Jesus’ burial, or even that his tomb was found empty on Sunday morning by his followers. That seems to me to be at the minimal core of what we can responsibly say about what happened after the cross.

Tomb on the Mt of Olives at Bethphage
Tomb on the Mt of Olives at Bethphage

Geza Vermes, in a recent work titled The Resurrection: History and Myth, surveyed these various alternative explanations and concluded that none of them “stands up to stringent scrutiny” despite our need for some rational, scientific explanation.[v] Like so many others he concludes that historical investigation, given our limited evidence, has reached a dead end given the contradictory and mythological nature of our evidence—namely the texts of the New Testament. But is there a way past this impasse?

Since the earliest surviving Christian texts are seven letters of Paul (1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Romans, Philippians, and Philemon), dating to the early 50s A.D., twenty years after Jesus’ death, it makes sense to give them priority, particularly in our attempting to solve the mystery of what happened after the cross. Not only are these letters the earliest evidence we have, they come to us firsthand, as first-person testimony from one who had direct dealings with Peter, James, and the other apostles.

If gospels were written a generation or more later, when Paul, Peter, and James were dead, and the Romans had shattered the original Jerusalem church following the destruction of the city in A.D. 70, they should be considered as secondary evidence. It comes as a surprise to many non-specialists who are quite familiar with the names Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John to learn all four are anonymous productions, written in the generation after the apostles, and based on a complex mix of sources and theological editing. Scholars are agreed that none of the gospels are eyewitness accounts and the names associated with them are assigned by tradition, not by any explicit claim by their authors. In other words, the names themselves are added as titles to each book but are not embedded in the texts of the works themselves. Each gospels writer had his own motives and purposes in telling the Jesus story in a way that supported his particular perspectives. None of them is writing history but all four can rightly be called theologians. From a distance their differences might seem minimal, but once carefully examined they are quite significant, revealing a process of “myth-making” that went on within decades of Jesus’ death.

Of the four gospels Mark, not Matthew, comes first, written sometime around 80 A.D. or later. Mark gives no account of Jesus’ birth at all, miraculous or otherwise, and most strikingly, in his original version, as we will see, there are no post-resurrection appearances of Jesus to the disciples! This fact alone provides us with an important key to unraveling the mystery surrounding the empty tomb. The author of Mark preserves for us a stage of history when the Jesus story is being told with an entirely different ending.

Matthew was written at least a decade or more later and the author uses Mark as his main source. He does not start from scratch and he obviously does not have his own independent account to offer. Matthew incorporates 90% of Mark but he edits Mark’s material rather freely, embellishing and expanding the story as fits his purposes. That is why most readers of the New Testament who begin with Matthew, and then come to Mark, have the strange sense that they have already read the story before. They actually have, but in Matthew’s edited version. The result is that Mark is almost always read as a secondary source, as if it is a cut-down version of the more complete story in Matthew. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Matthew’s embellishments are many but most particularly he finds Mark’s beginning and ending wholly unsatisfactory. How could one possibly write a gospel of Jesus Christ with no birth story of Jesus and no appearances of Jesus to the disciples after the resurrection? And yet that is precisely what we have in Mark. What this means is that for several decades, when there were no other gospels but Mark in circulation, Christians were relating the Jesus story without the two elements that later came to be considered foundational for the Christian faith—Jesus’ virgin birth and his Easter morning appearances!

Matthew’s gospel represents a watershed moment in Christian history. He composes the first account of the miraculous virgin birth of Jesus, and he creates a spectacular scene of resurrection:

And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone, and sat upon it. His appearance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow. And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men. (Matthew 28:2-4).

Mark has none of this. In his account there is no angel but a young man sitting inside Jesus’ tomb and no miraculous intervention from heaven. Matthew ends his story with a dramatic scene of the resurrected Jesus meeting the apostles on a mountain and giving the so-called “Great Commission,” to preach the Gospel to all nations and baptize them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:18-20). Luke was written several decades after Matthew, perhaps at the end of the first century or the beginning of the second, and the author expands and embellishes the core Mark story even further than Matthew had done. Luke adds multiple appearances of Jesus to various individuals as well as to all the apostles, and like Matthew, he also provides his own version of a birth story.

Even with these later embellishments Luke and Matthew nonetheless provide us with an unexpected surprise, discovered by scholars over 150 years ago. In addition to Mark both writers had access to another source that scholars call Q. It was apparently an early collection of the sayings of Jesus, probably complied around A.D. 50 that Mark did not have. It can be extracted and reconstructed with some degree of certainty, but we don’t have an independent copy of Q itself, only its reconstruction from Matthew and Luke. I mention it here because one of its most important features is that Jesus never speaks of his resurrection from the dead, whereas in Mark, who comes later, Jesus refers several times to being “raised on the third day.” This is one more example of the value of putting our sources in proper chronological order might enable us to reconstruct the ways in which faith in Jesus’ resurrection developed in the first few decades of the movement.

Most scholars place the gospel of John as the latest of the four gospels and certainly the most theologically embellished, though the author does seem in places to rely on earlier materials now lost to us. So far as the empty tomb and resurrection of Jesus, he seems to have nothing early and like Luke, he provides multiple appearances of Jesus to his disciples in both Jerusalem and Galilee, in sharp contrast to Mark, our earliest gospel.

All of this disassembly, sorting, and sifting, might seem at times like historians are just picking and choosing at random whatever suits them to support a preconceived theory, but there is definitely a method to the madness. Historians of any period have a similar challenge in evaluating the reliability of multiple sources. What is required is that one be explicit and clear about ones methods with careful arguments as to why this or that bit of evidence is given whatever weight. In this articleI want to attempt a synthesis of best evidence, incorporating the essential clues that Paul, our earliest source, provides to probing a series of related questions:

  • Why was Jesus tomb found empty?
  • What happened to the body of Jesus?
  • How did his earliest followers understand his resurrection?
  • A Rushed Burial and an Empty Tomb

Jesus died in the year A.D. 30 in the late afternoon just hours before the Jewish Passover meal was to begin in the evening.[vi] Mark says it was “the day of preparation, that is, the day before the Sabbath” (Mark 15:42). The rush was to remove the bodies of Jesus and the two others crucified that day from their crosses before sundown when these holydays would begin, since both Jewish law and custom forbade the corpses of executed criminals to be left hanging past sunset, much less through a holiday (Deuteronomy 21:22-23). Josephus, the contemporary Jewish historian, explicitly mentions this practice, asserting that the Jews “took down those who were condemned and crucified and buried them before the going down of the sun.”[vii]

This rush to bury provides us with our first insight into why Jesus’ tomb was found empty. Mark tells us that Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the Sanhedrin, the governing council of the Jews, obtained permission directly from the Roman governor Pontius Pilate to remove Jesus body from the cross and take charge of his burial (Mark 15:42-46). Apparently Joseph had sympathies toward Jesus and his followers since he shows up suddenly in Mark’s story and voluntarily exercises his influence to facilitate Jesus’ burial. Given impending festival that began at sunset there was no time for full and proper Jewish rites of burial that would involve washing the body and anointing it with oil and spices. The women of Jesus’ family, who had followed him from Galilee, had plans to carry out these duties but had to defer them until after the Passover and the Sabbath (Mark 16:1). There is no indication that they were in communication with Joseph of Arimathea at the time he took Jesus’ body or through the Passover holiday. The followers of Jesus had mostly fled in fear and were in hiding (John 20:19). One gets the idea that the women watched from a distance, surely a bit frightened themselves, but wanting to know where the body was taken (Mark 15:47; Luke 23:55). The burial was in the hands of Joseph but they hoped he would allow them, as Jewish custom prescribed, to carry out the traditional rites of burial and mourning.

Mark says that Joseph of Arimathea wrapped Jesus in a linen shroud and laid him in a rock-hewn tomb, blocking the entrance with a sealing stone. There are hundreds of these hewn out cave tombs of this type in the Jerusalem area, some of which have been excavated, so what Mark describes is quite familiar to us. They typically have a small squared entrance that can be blocked up with a stone cut to fit. They are of various sizes but are intended for family burials. Mark says nothing about where this tomb was or how or why it was chosen. It is the gospel of John that provides a key missing detail:

Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, where no one had ever been laid. So because of the Jewish day of Preparation, as the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there (John 19:41-42).

People assume that the tomb into which Joseph of Arimathea placed the body of Jesus belonged to him but here we see that such was not the case.[viii] It was a newly hewn tomb with no one buried inside that just happened to be close by. Jesus’ body was laid inside, but only temporarily. He was not really buried there, since full and formal burial involved the preparation rites and mourning rituals carried out by the family over a seven-day period (Mark 16:1; John 12:10). That is why the women show up early Sunday morning at the tomb, expecting to initiate the burial process with Joseph’s co-operation.

Jesus corpse would have been badly mutilated with bruises, wounds, and dried blood. Preparing it for proper burial would require quite a bit of time and effort. The body could not be left exposed over the holidays and the empty unused tomb with its blocking stone would provide protection from predators. Joseph’s actions were practical temporary emergency measures.

We have to assume, since Joseph had taken responsibility for Jesus’ proper burial, that his intention was to fulfill this obligation as soon possible after the Passover. When the Sabbath was over, on Saturday night, he would have his first opportunity to properly bury the body and presumably returned to the temporary unused tomb to remove Jesus’ body for permanent burial—hence the empty tomb. As a man of means, and a member of the highest Jewish judicial body, the Sanhedrin, this makes perfect sense. Where this tomb might have been we have no way of knowing from our texts, but one would expect, somewhere in the Jerusalem area since he was a local resident. Based on Jewish law, he would not have placed Jesus in his own family tomb, but would have provided a separate tomb for Jesus, whom he apparently revered, that could serve eventually as a burial cave for the Jesus clan who ended up residing permanently in Jerusalem—including his mother, brothers, and sisters.[ix]

What Mark knows is that very early Sunday morning, just as the sun was rising, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Jesus, and Salome, most likely Jesus’ sister, came to the tomb with the intent of washing the body and anointing it with oil and spices.[x] When they arrived the large blocking stone had already been removed but the tomb was empty, the body was gone. This was precisely what one might expect given the circumstances of Joseph’s intentions and activities. But it was a total surprise to the women. They arrived fully expecting to be involved in the rites of a proper and final burying. That is why they arrive so early, so as not to miss Joseph whom they expected would return at first light Sunday morning—but they arrived twelve hours too late! What they did not consider is that Joseph had not even waited through Saturday night, but had returned to the tomb the instant the Passover Sabbath day was over at sundown.

Mark says that when the women looked into the empty tomb they saw a young man sitting inside, who told them:

Do not be amazed; 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, as he told you. (Mark 16:6-7).

Here the line between history and theology is clearly drawn. That the tomb was empty fits what we know of the circumstances of Jesus’ temporary “burial” by Joseph of Arimathea, but that the women were told that Jesus would meet his disciples in Galilee is clearly a theological embellishment. It is Mark’s attempt to connect the empty tomb with subsequent appearances of Jesus. The link is quite weak since Mark knows of no specifics of any appearances of the risen Jesus to the disciples in Galilee or he surely would have related them to round out the ending to his gospel. I think we have to assume that Mark tells us all he knows but what Mark knows he gets from Paul! Mark is obviously following Paul here, since it is Paul who reports that Jesus first appears to Peter and the disciples, and in Mark’s account the young man sitting in the tomb specifies Peter by name (1 Corinthians 15:5).

Mark relates next that the women fled the tomb in fear and amazement and that they said nothing to anyone (Mark 16:8). The oldest most authentic copies of Mark end abruptly here, at verse 8, and the additions found in most translations of the Bible, where Jesus appears to various people mentioned in Matthew, Luke, and John, were interpolations added to later manuscripts of Mark by editors who could not imagine a gospel ending without appearances of Jesus.[xi]

Mark also knows an old tradition, not mentioned specifically by Paul, that the first time Peter and the disciples saw Jesus was in Galilee, in the north, not in Jerusalem the week of Passover. This is not a minor difference from Luke and John, as we will see. It is a blatant counter-story.

One might ask, however, why does Mark present the “empty tomb” story as the “missing body” of Jesus if he held the view I have argued that Paul held–of Jesus’ resurrection in a “spirit” body leaving behind the physical body of “dust” like old clothing. The simple answer is that he did not. Clearly Mark, who writes decades after Jesus’ death, after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, with Peter, Paul, and James the brother of Jesus long death, is the first to present the empty tomb/missing body resurrection idea. My point here  is that he knows of no “sightings.” He is oriented to Galilee, not Jerusalem, with no “proofs” of “touch me, feel me” offered to prove Jesus is walking around eating and drinking on earth for 40 days in his physical male body. Mark says Jesus will be “seen” in Galilee–but he does not recount the event. Some, such as my University of Chicago professor Norman Perrin, were persuaded that Mark in fact had in mind the “Parousia” or “return” of Jesus as Messiah in the clouds of heaven. Either way, based on Matthew, the “Galilee” sighting was first seen as a kind of misty “mountain” apparition in which “some”–even of the 11 disciples–“doubted.” There is no contradiction here. In various Hellenistic stories of the period, when a “divine man” disappears from this life, there is no consistency in the reports–in the body, out of the body, ascent to heaven, and what appear to be “bodily” appearances.

If we put Mark and Paul together we get the earliest and most reliable tradition—faith in Jesus’ resurrection began in Galilee with Peter and the apostles as the first to claim they had seen him.

Matthew and Luke, following Mark as their source, follow closely Mark’s account of the women finding Jesus’ tomb empty, though Matthew adds all sorts of supernatural elements as noted previously. Both flatly contradict Mark’s statement that the women said nothing to anyone, insisting rather that they ran to tell the disciples (Matthew 28:8; Luke 24:9). All seem to agree, however, that the discovery of the empty tomb by the women that Sunday morning did not inspire anyone to believe that Jesus had been raised from the dead. The assumption of everyone was that someone had removed the body. It turns out that that assumption was most likely correct.

The gospel of John offers an alternative empty tomb story that is not based on Mark. It has a credible ring to it and merits careful examination:

Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. So she 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.” So Peter went out with the other disciple, and they were going toward the tomb. Both of them were running together, 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. He saw the linen cloths lying there, and the face cloth, which had been on his head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples went back to their homes. (John 20:1-10)

John, of course, gives other stories following his account of the empty tomb in which Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene and to the disciples as a group, including Thomas, the famous doubter. But this passage of John, relating how the empty tomb came to be discovered, seems to offer us a less theological version of the story, with details added that historians have found credible.[xii] Note the following:

There is no young man or angelic interpreter in the tomb to proclaim the resurrection. Instead, Mary is quite sure the body has been taken elsewhere for burial: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him” (John 20:2). One has to ask, who is the “they” Mary Magdalene has in mind? Presumably, based on the hasty stashing of Jesus body in this temporary tomb, it seems obvious that she is referring to Joseph of Arimathea and his assistants. After all, just a few verses earlier it is John who tells us that the tomb used was a temporary one, that just happened to be close to the site of crucifixion (John 19:41). Peter and the other disciple raced to the tomb to verify that it was empty. What they “believe” is not that Jesus has been raised from the dead, as John clarifies, but that the body of Jesus has been removed and reburied—presumably the night before. This fits precisely what we have reconstructed above, based on all our sources, including Paul. And this pericope concludes, “Then the disciples went back to their homes.” I am convinced this sentence originally was a reference to a return to Galilee to resume fishing–similar to what we find in the Gospel of Peter–see below.

I have become convinced that this core story, embedded in John, found in the the first 10 verses of chapter 20, are likely the first and earliest account of the “empty tomb,” that has now been elaborated by the editors and authors of the Gospel of John to harmonize with the notion of Jesus appearing physically in Jerusalem, wounds and all, that I think develops later for apologetic reasons–to assert to doubters that the resurrection of Jesus could not be a ghost or hallucination.

I argued a version of this “reburial” scenario in my book, The Jesus Dynasty,[xiii] and the response from Jerome Murphy O’Conner, quoted above, seemed to sum up the main possible objections to my thesis quite well:

You say that the body of Jesus was removed from its temporary resting place to a permanent tomb. This is not at all impossible. Extreme improbability sets in only when you invite us to assume that this group, who knew perfectly well what had actually happened to the body of Jesus, permitted their co-religionists to proclaim, not that he was still alive (immortality of the soul, well attested in Judaism) but that he was risen from the dead. This, of course, is against the background of what “resurrection” meant for first-century Jews. In order for me to take your “evidence” seriously, you would have to explain why the family and/or disciples based their future lives on what they knew to be a falsehood, namely that the body had been raised, and finally to justify how the secret was preserved in one of the gabbiest societies in ancient history.[xiv]

Robert Gundry has raised similar objections. In my judgment there are several incorrect assumptions embedded in these objections. According to Paul, the resurrection of Jesus was understood as the re-embodiment of one who has died and entered the Hadean world of the dead as a “naked” soul. Paul regularly refers to the dead as having “fallen asleep” (1 Thessalonians 4:13; 1 Corinthians 15:6). Resurrection, in this sense, involves not the resuscitation of a corpse, but “waking” from death to be re-clothed in a spiritual body. The physical body was “of the dust,” and perishable, but it was of no interest in Paul’s view of resurrection. For a more complete exposition of this idea see my extended essay “Why People are Confused About the Earliest Christian View of Resurrection of the Dead.”

The gospels, written decades after Jesus’ death, begin to connect the empty tomb and the disappearance of Jesus’ body to subsequent and immediate appearances of Jesus to his followers, even the same day, in Jerusalem, proving that he had been raised from the dead. But as we will see these are late expansions of earlier tradition. What Mark only implies (“you will see him in Galilee”) is lavishly embellished by Luke, and John, but is now set in Jerusalem, on the Sunday after the crucifixion. Jesus walks around, wounds and all, eating meals and claiming he is still flesh and bones—directly contradicting Paul’s emphatic assertion that Jesus has become a life-giving spirit,”—embodied yes, but not physical or material. It is a mistake to allow these later texts to frame our objections and take priority over earlier materials.

Whether the family and followers of Jesus knew immediately where Jesus had been reburied, or learned of the location later, they were not running around Jerusalem in that first week following Jesus’ death proclaiming he had been raised. In fact, a critical reading of our sources will show that there were no sightings of Jesus in Jerusalem at all, but only in Galilee, other than perhaps the single experience of Mary Magdalene (John 20:11-18; Matthew 28:9-10).[xv] The matter of a first appearance to Mary Magdalene is always possible but she is not included in the list of first witnesses that Paul relates—presumably since appealing to the testimony of a woman was considered less than convincing, as we will see below.

Our best evidence indicates that the followers of Jesus returned home to Galilee in despair and mourning, and even went back to their businesses, and only sometime later, in Galilee, began to have faith that Jesus had been raised from the dead. The body of Jesus, resting in a tomb in Jerusalem, was no threat to this faith.


Sorting Through the Sightings of Jesus

Sometimes clues show up from the most unexpected quarters. In 1886 a fragmentary 8th century A.D. copy of the lost Gospel of Peter was found buried in the grave of a monk in Egypt. Eusebius, a fourth century church historian had mentioned its existence but regarded it with disfavor.[xvi] It is written in the first person, claiming to be by Peter, but scholars generally place it in the late second century A.D. It narrates Jesus’ death and resurrection and scholars have debated without resolution whether it is dependent on our New Testament gospels or represents an independent tradition. It has a highly legendary flavor to it with quite a few fantastic embellishments, so whether it has much historical value is up for debate. At the end of the text the author seems to retell his empty tomb story in a much more straightforward way, for a second time in the text, but this time almost identical to Mark. It is as if he is passing along two versions, one highly fantastic and legendary, and the other more sober and realistic. In this second version Mary Magdalene and the other women arrive at Jesus’ tomb, finding it empty, and as in Mark, they encounter a young man who tells them Jesus is risen and they flee the tomb frightened. The critical final lines of the text, before it breaks off, read:

Now it was the last day of unleavened bread and many went to their homes because the feast was at an end. But we, the twelve disciples of the Lord, wept and mourned and each one, grieving for what had happened, returned to his own home. But I, Simon Peter, and my brother Andrew took our nets and went to the sea. And there was with us Levi, the son of Alphaeus, whom the Lord . . .[xvii]

This text is mouth-dropping! The Passover festival lasts for eight days and according to this text, rather than running around Jerusalem celebrating various appearances of Jesus, Peter and the rest of the disciples spent that week in Jerusalem weeping and mourning. At the end of the eight day feast they returned home, to Galilee, still grieving for what had happened. Each went to his home and Peter, with his brother Andrew, returned to their fishing business. That we even have such a text, running so counter to the reports of appearances of Jesus in Jerusalem the week following his death, gives it strong credibility. It also fits in with Mark, who knows of no appearances of Jesus, but also relates the tradition the disciples returned to Galilee. It is more than likely that the Gospel of Peter, after this abrupt break, went on to narrate a “sighting” of Jesus by Peter, Andrew, and the others on the Sea of Galilee, after they had returned to their fishing and given up hope.

Strangely, we have a version of this fishing in Galilee story tacked on to the end of the gospel of John—an extra chapter 21, like an appendix, after the original text had clearly ended with chapter 20. And as noted above. John 20:1-10 seems to also conclude with the disciples returning to their homes in the Galilee. Of course John 21 in its present form has been edited to read as if Jesus had already been appearing to the disciples in Jerusalem and now just showed up in Galilee. But it is clear that it reflects an entirely independent source, preserving a story very similar to the ending of the Gospel of Peter and the pericope preserved in John 20:1-10. Peter had returned to the Sea of Galilee with a few others and he has gone back to fishing. They are out in the boat when they think they see Jesus, distantly on the shore. The way the story is related, even though the author of John has elaborated and embellished it, shows this tradition of a return to Galilee, and a resuming of the fishing business, was a persistent tradition.

Matthew follows Mark with his emphasis on Galilee as the place where the disciples first saw Jesus. What he relates is quite telling:

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him; but some doubted. (Matthew 28:16-17)

Presumably Matthew is associating a specific mountain as a place of visionary experience, much like his account in chapter 17 where Jesus appears as a transfigured shining being with Moses and Elijah. Many scholars have suggested that the account of the transfiguration, related also in Mark 9, is a misplaced resurrection story.[xviii] But whether that is the case or not, what we learn here is that Matthew only knows a single story of Jesus appearing to his disciples. It takes place in Galilee—a “misty mountain” visionary experience—and some doubted!

If we put all our “sighting” evidence together, from all our sources, in chronological order, we get an interesting breakdown and one can clearly see the how the stories expand and develop. What follows is a basic summary.

Paul had his revelation of Christ approximately seven years after Jesus’ crucifixion. He claimed that he saw Jesus in a glorious heavenly body. Twice in his letter 1 Corinthians he equates his own experience with those who had seen Jesus earlier, based on traditions he had received: namely, Peter (Cephas), the Twelve, a group of 500 at once, James, and the rest of the apostles:

Last of all, as to one untimely born, he was seen also by me (15:8)

Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? (9:1)

He does not say when or where these earlier “sightings” by the others took place but since he mentions “the Twelve,” he might be referring to a time when Judas Iscariot, who was dead, had been replaced, which would mean several weeks had passed since the crucifixion of Jesus.[xix]

Mark has no accounts of anyone seeing Jesus but the young man who meets the women at the tomb tells them explicitly to go tell the disciples they will see him in Galilee.

Matthew relates that the women who first went to the tomb are told by an angel to go tell the disciples they will see Jesus in Galilee. As they run to convey this message they meet Jesus, who repeats the message, even more explicitly, “Tell my brothers to go to Galilee and there they will see me” (Matthew 28:10). Matthew closes his gospel with the scene on a mountain in Galilee, clearly somewhat later, in which the eleven disciples see him, though he mentions some of them doubted that it was Jesus.

Luke writes that later on that first Sunday two men who were walking on a road outside Jerusalem met Jesus and shared a meal with him, at first not recognizing him. Subsequently he says that Peter then saw Jesus but no details are given, only the report. That evening Jesus appears in the room where the eleven disciples are gathered and eats with them, showing them his physical body of flesh and bones and convincing them he is not a ghost or spirit.

John says that Jesus first appeared to Mary Magdalene, outside the tomb on Sunday morning–and after investigating the empty tomb the disciples, including Peter and John, “returned home.” Later that evening he appears to the rest of the disciples, showing them his wounds, but Thomas is not present. Eight days later he appears again, where they are staying, and Thomas is able see and even touch his wounds, convincing him he is not seeing any ghost.

The Appendix to John (chapter 21) relates a separate story, unconnected to the main narrative and taking place in Galilee, where Peter and the other disciples have returned to their fishing but see Jesus on the shore from a distance. They come to land and he is cooking fish on a charcoal fire and they ate together.

Ginnosar Migdal
Ginnosar Migdal by Daniela Ciubuc

The Gospel of Peter ends with the disciples leaving Jerusalem a week after the crucifixion and returning to Galilee. Even though Mary Magadalene and the women have found the tomb empty, the disciples have no faith that Jesus is alive. They are in despair, mourning the death of Jesus, and they return to their fishing business. Unfortunately, the text breaks off at that point.

Two important observations emerge from this breakdown of sources.

  1. The earlier texts (Mark, Matthew) agree that the disciples only encountered Jesus in Galilee sometime after the empty tomb was discovered. They are actually told to go to Galilee, where they will see him. Since they would not have left Jerusalem until after the eight day Passover festival was over, their experiences would have been several weeks after Jesus’ death. Matthew’s account indicates that whatever encounter they had it was more visionary in nature, and subject to doubt. As a kind of addendum to the Galilee tradition, the Gospel of Peter, as well as the Appendix to John, indicate that Peter and the others returned to their homes in Galilee and that he and his brother Andrew resumed their fishing business.
  2. The later accounts (Luke and John) put Jesus’ appearances in Jerusalem, immediately, on the same day as the tomb is discovered empty. Jesus appears as a flesh and blood human being, shows his wounds, and eats meals to demonstrate that he is not a ghost or spirit. The strong impression one gets is that the empty tomb is directly tied to Jesus appearing and one is dealing here with the idea of resurrection as the literal resuscitation of a corpse.

These dichotomies are quite striking: where: Galilee or Jerusalem; when: immediately on the day the tomb was discovered or weeks thereafter; and, what: visionary-like experiences or resuscitation of a physical corpse? The internal evidence is decidedly in favor of the Mark/Matthew tradition. To even imagine that the kinds of stories that Luke and John relate, set in Jerusalem, were circulating when Mark wrote his gospel is highly improbable. That Mark could publish the first gospel in Christian history, and include no appearances of Jesus, with the focus on Galilee, not Jerusalem, pushes our evidence decidedly in favor of the Galilee option. It is also hard to imagine a text like the ending of the Gospel of Peter even existing unless it was related to a strong tradition of remembering the despair and sorrow of the disciples following Jesus’ death, as they returned to their vocations in Galilee, giving up hope. It is not an edifying story, but it is a realistic one, and it fits our earlier evidence.

Some have argued that these differences in our gospel accounts are the expected result of reports from a variety of witnesses, but all testifying to the same essential fact—Jesus was raised from the dead. Sometimes the analogy of an automobile accident is suggested. When eyewitnesses report what they saw each reflects a particular perspective, and there are always differences as to details, but the essential facts related to the accident are clear. Such an analogy fails in the case of the gospels. First, there are no eyewitness accounts at all. Second, the reports we have don’t even agree on where the sightings of Jesus took place—Galilee or Jerusalem? What we have are a series of theologically motivated traditions written decades after the event, removed from both place and time, battling out competing stories of what happened after Jesus died. They cannot be harmonized. Luke even has Jesus telling the Eleven apostles that they are not to leave Jerusalem, which closes the door on even the possibility of subsequent appearances of Jesus in Galilee as alluded to in Mark and recorded in Matthew (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:3-4).

Paul is a decisive witness for this reason. He does claim, firsthand, to have seen something, and he equates his “sighting” experiences, with those of Peter, James, and the rest of the apostles, based on his personal acquaintance with them. Given his view of resurrection of the dead, as being re-clothed in a glorious heavenly body, he would have found the emphasis on flesh and bones quite meaningless. When Paul says Jesus was “buried” he is indicating that he knows the tradition of Jesus’ body being put in a tomb (1 Corinthians 15:4). His point is to emphasize that Jesus truly was dead and buried, entering the Hadean realm. What was then “raised on the third day,” just as in the Gabriel Revelation, was not the perishable mortal body but a new spiritual body, no longer “flesh and blood,” having shed the old body like discarded clothing (1 Corinthians 15:42-50; 52-54).

Jesus’ own teaching about resurrection, preserved in the Q source, emphasizes an angelic like transformation in which even the sexual distinctions between male and female are obsolete (Luke 20:34-36). This parallels precisely Paul’s view of resurrection.

So why does this shift from Galilee to Jerusalem come about in Luke and John? And why their insistence on connecting the empty tomb with the literal appearances of Jesus as revived from the dead in the resuscitated corpse that had been buried? I think we can assume that the reasons were largely apologetic. These texts come late in the 1st century and even in the early 2nd century. Sophisticated Greek critics of Christianity such as Lucian, Trypho, and Celsus, were on the horizon.[xx] Their common charge was that Christianity thrived only among the ignorant, simpleminded, and gullible classes of society, who were led astray by the foolish tales of deluded women and hallucinations passed off as “visions.”[xxi] There were also similar, rival tales, of other “divine men” circulating, such as Apollonius of Tyana, a Pythagorean wonder-worker, born about the same time as Jesus in Asia Minor, who traveled throughout the eastern Mediterranean world. According to his followers, Zeus fathered Apollonius, so he, like Jesus was a “Son of God.” According to his biographies or “gospels,” he healed the sick, raised the dead, and ascended bodily into heaven.[xxii] Various versions of Apollonius’s death were passed along including one where he was arrested by persecutors, set himself free, and was taken up from the earth into heaven. According to another story he appeared mysteriously to a doubtful follower after his death and convinced him of the doctrine of immortality. A fascinating stone inscription containing the following epigram, has turned up in Asia Minor, not far from Tarsus, where Paul grew up:

This man, named after Apollo and shining forth Tyana,

Extinguished the fault of men.

The tomb in Tyana (received) his body,

But in truth heaven received him

So he might drive out the pains from men[xxiii]

As with Jesus there were debates among his devotees as to whether or not his body remained in a tomb, or whether he was assumed bodily into heaven. The early third century Roman emperor Caracalla built a shrine to Apollonius and his successor, Alexander Severus, is alleged to have had a private shrine in which the images of Abraham, Orpheus, Christ, and Apollonius were given divine honors.[xxiv]

If Jesus’ followers only came to believe in his resurrection after a period of despair, and in Galilee, far removed from the empty tomb in Jerusalem, based on visionary experiences—they were surely open to the charge that the entire phenomenon was mass hallucination. That Matthew, who gives us our first and earliest account of such a group appearance, says it took place on a mountain but that some of the eleven disciples doubted, while others believed, was clearly quite problematic for Luke and for John, writing a generation later (Matthew 28:17).

That is also why Luke alone, of our four gospels, records a scene in which Jesus ascends bodily from the earth, taken away in a cloud from the Mt of Olives, just east of Jerusalem, as the eleven apostles stand gazing into the sky (Acts 1:9-10). To leave him bodily on earth, eating and drinking, in his physical form, simply would not do, since one would presume that like others “raised from the dead” by Jesus he would have eventually died again as he grew older. And John, although he has no ascension scene per se, records that Jesus said that he was “ascending to where he was before” (John 6:62).


[i] Craig A. Evans and N. T. Wright, Jesus the Final Days: What Really Happened? Edited by Troy A. Miller (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009) attempt to argue on historical grounds that the conclusion that Jesus emerged from the tomb bodily is the only rational explanation of our evidence. The debate by William Lane Craig and Gerd Lüdemann, Jesus’ Resurrection: Fact or Figment, edited by Paul Copan and Ronald K. Tacelli (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), rehearses in a fairly exhaustive manner the standard arguments pro and con.

[ii] Tertullian, De Spectaculis 30. The gospel of John mentions that the tomb of Jesus was in a garden and presupposes an unnamed gardener, most likely giving rise to this apocryphal story (John 19:41; 20:15). In a fanciful 7th century text, pseudonymously attributed to the apostle Bartholomew, the gardener’s name is Philogenes, see J. K. Elliott, The Apocryphal New Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), pp. 669-670. A medieval Jewish text, The Toledot Yeshu elaborates the tale with even further embellishments.

[iii] Hugh J. Schonfield, The Passover Plot (New York: Bernard Geis Associates, 1965). Michael Baigent most recently published this theory in new dress; see The Jesus Papers: Exposing the Greatest Cover-Up in History (New York: Harper, 2006).

[iv] See John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (New York: Harper, 1993), pp. 354-394.

[v] Geza Vermes, The Resurrection: History and Myth, (New York: Doubleday, 2008), pp. 141-148.

[vi] Though Mark, followed by Matthew and Luke, seem to put the crucifixion on the afternoon following a Passover meal the night before (Mark 14:12-16; Matthew 26:17-19; Luke 22:7-13), it remains unclear that the “Last Supper” was in fact a Passover meal. John’s chronology is more precise and he notes explicitly that this final meal was “before the Passover” and that the Jewish authorities were rushing to crucify Jesus before sundown on the day of preparation for Passover so as to observe the meal that evening (John 13:1; 18:28; 19:14). See my more detailed discussion, Tabor, The Jesus Dynasty, pp. 198-204.

[vii] Josephus, Jewish War 4.317, and the Mishnah Sanhedrin 6.4.

[viii] Matthew is the only gospel that says the tomb belonged to Joseph (Matthew 27:60). This is an obvious embellishment to the story as it makes no sense that Joseph would just happened to have a family tomb right near the place where Jesus was crucified. Matthew is interested in showing how Jesus fulfilled prophecies of the Hebrew Bible and there is a text in Isaiah that predicts a messianic figure would be buried “with a rich man,” so he likely added this erroneous detail for that reason (Isaiah 53:9)

[ix] For the possibility that such a Jesus family tomb has been discovered in Jerusalem see The Jesus Dynasty, pp. 22-33 (also the Epilogue in the paperback edition published in 2007, pp. 319-330), as well as Simcha Jacobovici and Charles Pellegrino, The Jesus Family Tomb: The Evidence Behind the Discovery No One Wanted to Find (New York: Harper, 2008).

[x] For reasons to identify the woman called “Mary the mother of James” as Jesus’ mother see my arguments in The Jesus Dynasty, chapter 4, pp. 73-81.

[xi] For a more detailed discussion of these additional endings of Mark see The Jesus Dynasty, pp. 230-231.

[xii] See the discussion in Raymond Brown, The Virginal Conception and the Bodily Resurrection of Jesus (New York: Paulist Press, 1973), pp. 120-123.

[xiii] See The Jesus Dynasty, chapter 14, “Dead but Twice Buried,” pp. 223-240.

[xiv] An edited e-mail response from Jerome Murphy-O’Conner, Professor of New Testament, Ecolé Biblique, Jerusalem, quoted with his permission.

[xv] Jane Schaberg and others have argued that this special appearance to Mary Magadelene narrated by John preserves for us an early tradition that Mary Magdalene was the first witness to Jesus’ resurrection, see The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene: Legends, Apocrypha, and the Christian Testament (New York: Continuum, 2002). Matthew says that Jesus met the “women,” including Mary Magdalene, as they were running from the tomb. The longer ending of Mark, though not likely original to Mark, nonetheless echoes the tradition that “he appeared first to Mary Magdalene” (Matthew 28:9-10; Mark 16:9-12).

[xvi] Eusebius, Church History. 4. 12.

[xvii] Gospel of Peter 14 [58], translation from J. K. Elliott, The Apocryphal New Testament, pp. 157-158.

[xviii] See R.H. Stein, “Is the Transfiguration (Mark 9:2-8) a Misplaced Resurrection Account?” Journal of Biblical Literature 95 (1976): 79-96

[xix] The tradition that Judas was replaced with Matthias, to fill out the apostolic council to Twelve, as Jesus had established, is put seven weeks after Jesus’ death, when the Eleven would have already returned to Galilee. The official list of the Twelve, over the next decades, was an important foundation of the movement and was seen to have lasting, eschatological significance based on the promise of Jesus (Luke 22:30; Revelation 21:14). Some ancient manuscript copies of 1 Corinthians amend Paul’s reference to the “Twelve” to read “Eleven,” in an attempt to harmonize with Luke (24:9, 33) where Jesus appears the same day to the “eleven,” not the “Twelve,” since Judas was dead (compare Matthew 28:16; longer Mark 16:14)

[xx] See Robert L. Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984).

[xxi] See Lucian, The Passing of Peregrinus; Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, and Origen, Contra Celsum.

[xxii] The philosopher Philostratus published a Life of Apollonius with the support of the Syrian empress Julia Domna, wife of Septimius Severus, around A.D. 220, though much like Luke he claims to be relying on eyewitness accounts and earlier sources, see Philostratus Life of Apollonius 1.2, translated by C. P. Jones, edited by G. W. Bowersock (Baltimore: Penguin Books Inc., 1970).

[xxiii] C. P. Jones, “An Epigram on Apollonius of Tyana,” The Journal of Hellenic Studies, 100 (1980): 190-194.

[xxiv] See Augustan History, Alexander 29.2.