Historicity and origin of the Resurrection of Jesus

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The historicity and origin of the Resurrection of Jesus has been the subject of historical research and debate, as well as a topic of discussion among theologians. The accounts of the Gospels, including the empty tomb and the appearances of the risen Jesus to his followers, have been interpreted and analyzed in diverse ways, and have been seen variously as historical accounts of a literal event, as accurate accounts of visionary experiences, as non-literal eschatological parables, and as fabrications of early Christian writers, among various other interpretations. It has been suggested, for example, that Jesus did not die on the cross, that the empty tomb was the result of Jesus' body having been stolen, or, as was common with Roman crucifixions, that Jesus was never entombed.

Historical background[edit]

Belief in a future, general resurrection of the dead was common in Second Temple Judaism, and was a much debated topic among religious Jews during the historical period which saw the emergence of Christianity as a distinct religion.

5 part resurrection icon, Solovetsky Monastery, 17th century.

Within the context of late Second Temple Judaism (c. 516 BCE—70 CE), the resurrection of the dead was a doctrine held by the majority of 1st century Judean Jews. The Pharisees, a popular religious movement led by the rabbis, drew their belief in a coming resurrection at the End of Days from such biblical texts as Isaiah 26:19 and Ezekiel 37:5,[1][2] and regarded it as a key part of the Messianic Age, while their opponents the Sadducees did not hold to these beliefs.[3] The belief was especially relevant in the context of martyrdom, with the Pharisees warning of serious consequences for those who denied it.[3]

The Mishnah, a third-century codification of the Pharisaic Oral Torah redacted by Judah haNasi and later incorporated into the Talmud, contains numerous references to the resurrection of the dead, including the following in Tractate Sanhedrin:

All Israel have a portion in the world to come, for it is written: 'Thy people are all righteous; they shall inherit the land forever, the branch of my planting, the work of my hands, that I may be glorified.' But the following have no portion therein: one who maintains that resurrection is not a biblical doctrine, the Torah was not divinely revealed, and a heretic.[4]

Though disagreement regarding the exact details and timing of the event has persisted,[2] with Maimonides suggesting that it will take place after the inauguration of the Messianic kingdom and without the involvement of corporeal bodies,[2] belief in the resurrection has remained an important factor in Jewish eschatology. In the Late Middle Ages, belief in the resurrection of the dead became a firmly established part of Jewish Orthodoxy, codified as the last of Maimonides' thirteen principles of faith,.[2] It is the subject of multiple prayers in the daily Jewish liturgy,[2] including in the Elohai Neshamah and in the second benediction of the Amidah.[2]

New Testament accounts[edit]

The earliest Christians proclaimed Jesus as the risen Christ,[5] as recorded in early writings such as the letters of Paul. In his first epistle to the Corinthians (1Co. 15:1-8), Paul passes on a creed that he says he received at his conversion. Paul Barnett writes that this formula, among others, was a variant of the "one basic early tradition that Paul 'received' in Damascus from Ananias in about 34 [CE]."[6] In addition to the writings of Paul, the preaching of the Apostle Peter in the Acts of the Apostles, which is widely believed to reflect Aramaic Jewish-Christian preaching,[7] declares that Jesus died and was raised by God, and that the apostles are witnesses to this resurrection.[8]

The earliest manuscripts of the Gospel of Mark (the oldest of the canonical gospels, composed c. 70 CE) break off abruptly at 16:8, when the men at the empty tomb announce Jesus' resurrection, lacking post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. 16:9–20 does not appear in the earliest manuscripts.[9] Many modern translations of Mark end at 16:8 with for they were afraid, sometimes adding 16:8–20 in italics, or in a footnote. For example, the New Revised Standard Version gives both the "long ending," i.e., 16:8–20, and another variant "short ending" after Mark 16:8. Scholars disagree about whether the original work ended at 16:8, or whether the last part, perhaps the last page, is missing.[5] John Fenton writes that if the author of Mark intended to end at 16:8, this does not mean that he "did not believe that Christ was risen," as he refers to the resurrection directly and indirectly on numerous occasions throughout the work.[10] Reginald Fuller believes that the "writer seemed to know such appearances, apparently to Peter and the others in Galilee."[11] Members of the Jesus Seminar believe that Mary Magdalene, Paul, and probably Peter had genuine visionary experiences of the risen Jesus.[12][13]


As historical event[edit]

New Testament scholar and theologian E. P. Sanders argues that a concerted plot to foster belief in the Resurrection would probably have resulted in a more consistent story, and that some of those who were involved in the events gave their lives for their belief. Sanders offers his own hypothesis, saying "there seems to have been a competition: 'I saw him,' 'so did I,' 'the women saw him first,' 'no, I did; they didn't see him at all,' and so on."[14] In defending the historicity of the resurrection, Sanders goes so far as to state, "That Jesus’ followers (and later Paul) had resurrection experiences is, in my judgment, a fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know."[15]

James D.G. Dunn writes that, whereas the apostle Paul's resurrection experience was "visionary in character" and "non-physical, non-material," the accounts in the Gospels are very different. He contends that the "massive realism'...of the [Gospel] appearances themselves can only be described as visionary with great difficulty - and Luke would certainly reject the description as inappropriate," and that the earliest conception of resurrection in the Jerusalem Christian community was physical.[16] Conversely, Helmut Koester writes that the stories of the resurrection were originally epiphanies in which the disciples are called to a ministry by the risen Jesus and were interpreted as physical proof of the event at a secondary stage. He contends that the more detailed accounts of the resurrection are also secondary and do not come from historically trustworthy sources, but instead belong to the genre of the narrative types.[17]

N.T. Wright argues that the account of the empty tomb and the visionary experiences point towards the historical reality of the resurrection.[18] He suggests that multiple lines of evidence from the New Testament and the early Christian beliefs it reflects shows that it would be highly unlikely that belief in the empty tomb would simply appear without a clear basis in the memory of early Christians. In tandem with the historically-certain visionary experiences of the early disciples and apostles, Jesus' resurrection as a historical reality becomes far more plausible. Contrary to various theologians and historians in recent decades, Wright treats the resurrection as a historical and accessible event, rather than as a 'supernatural' or 'metaphysical' event.

As metaphor[edit]

In his book The First Coming: How the Kingdom of God Became Christianity, Thomas Sheehan argues that even Paul's account of the resurrection is not meant to be taken as referring to a literal, physical rising from the grave, and that stories of a bodily resurrection did not appear until as much as half a century following the crucifixion.[19] Instead, Sheehan believes that Paul's understanding of the resurrection, and perhaps Peter's as well, is a metaphysical one, with the stories of Jesus's (figurative) resurrection reflecting his triumphant "entry into God's eschatological presence,"[20] and that Paul's reference to Jesus having risen "on the third day" (1 Corinthians 15:4) "is not a chronological designation but an apocalyptic symbol for God's eschatological saving act, which strictly speaking has no date in history. Thus the 'third day' does not refer to Sunday, April 9, 30 C.E., or to any other moment in time. And as regards the 'place' where the resurrection occurred, the formula in First Corinthians does not assert that Jesus was raised from the tomb, as if the raising were a physical and therefore temporal resuscitation. Without being committed to any preternatural physics of resurrection, the phrase 'he was raised on the third day' simply expresses the belief that Jesus was rescued from the fate of utter absence from God (death) and was admitted to the saving presence of God (the eschatological future)."[21]

According to Richard C. Carrier,

Christianity probably began ... with a different idea of the resurrection than is claimed today. The evidence suggests the first Christians, at least up to and including Paul, thought Jesus's "soul" was taken up to heaven and clothed in a new body, after leaving his old body in the grave forever. The subsequent story, that Jesus actually walked out of the grave with the same body that went into it, leaving an empty tomb to astonish all, was probably a legend that developed over the course of the first century, beginning with a metaphorical "empty tomb" in the Gospel of Mark ... By the end of the first century the Christian faction that would win total power three centuries later, and thus alone preserve its writings for posterity, had come to believe in the literal truth of the ensuing legend, forgetting or repudiating the original doctrine of Paul.[22]

Carrier also describes some questions relating to the sourcing of the Gospel narratives of the resurrection: "Beyond mere conjecture, there is no indication any of [the gospel writers] had any other source of information for the changes and additions they made," and "Luke does claim to have many sources, but does not say who or for what material."[23]

On the other hand, several notable scholars have maintained that the early Christians had a thoroughly "Jewish" outlook on the nature of the resurrection. Contrary to Carrier, N.T. Wright argues that the earliest Christian belief concerning resurrection was thoroughly physical and very much related to the common Pharisaic doctrine of resurrection.

On the belief in resurrection in early Christianity, Wright says,

Christianity began as resurrection movement... there is no evidence for a form of early Christianity in which the resurrection was not a central belief, as it were, bolted on to Christianity at the edge. It was the central driving force, informing the whole movement. In particular, we can see woven into the earliest Christian theology we possess—that of Paul, of course—the belief that the resurrection had in principle occurred and that the followers of Jesus had to reorder their lives, their narratives, their symbols, and their praxis accordingly (see, classically, Rom. 6:3-11).[24]

Those who think Paul was a Gnostic Christian hold the belief that Paul talks of the resurrection as an allegory or that Paul thought that Jesus was never a human.[25]

Doubts of historicity and other interpretations[edit]

Peter Kirby, the founder of EarlyChristianWritings.com, states that, "Many scholars doubt the historicity of the empty tomb."[26][a] According to Robert M. Price, Christian "apologists love to make the claims ... that the resurrection of Jesus is the best attested event in history," but "probabilistic arguments" show that "the resurrection is anything but an open-and-shut case".[27] Robert Greg Cavin, a professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Cypress College, states that, "our only sources of potential evidence, the New Testament Easter traditions, fall far short of providing the kind of information necessary for establishing the resurrection hypothesis."[28][b]

Biblical scholar Géza Vermes analyzes this subject in his book, The Resurrection. He concludes that there are eight possible theories to explain the "resurrection of Jesus". Vermes outlines his boundaries as follows,

I have discounted the two extremes that are not susceptible to rational judgment, the blind faith of the fundamentalist believer and the out-of-hand rejection of the inveterate skeptic. The fundamentalists accept the story, not as written down in the New Testament texts, but as reshaped, transmitted, and interpreted by Church tradition. They smooth down the rough edges and abstain from asking tiresome questions. The unbelievers, in turn, treat the whole Resurrection story as the figment of early Christian imagination. Most inquirers with a smattering of knowledge of the history of religions will find themselves between these two poles.[29]

From his analysis, Vermes presents the remaining six possibilities to explain the resurrection of Jesus account, (1) "The body was removed by someone unconnected with Jesus," (2) "The body of Jesus was stolen by his disciples," (3) "The empty tomb was not the tomb of Jesus," (4) Buried alive, Jesus later left the tomb," (5) Jesus recovered from a coma and departed Judea, and (6) the possibility that there was a "spiritual, not bodily, resurrection." Vermes states that none of these six possibilities is likely to be historical.[30]

According to N. T. Wright in his book The Resurrection of the Son of God, "There can be no question: Paul is a firm believer in bodily resurrection. He stands with his fellow Jews against the massed ranks of pagans; with his fellow Pharisees against other Jews."[31] And according to Gary Habermas, "Many other scholars have spoken in support of a bodily notion of Jesus’ resurrection."[32]

Habermas also points out three facts in support of Paul's belief in a physical resurrection body. (1) Paul is a Pharisee and therefore (unlike the Sadducees) believes in a physical resurrection. (2) In Philippians 3:11 Paul says "That I may attain to the ek anastasis (out-resurrection)" from the dead, which according to Habermas means that "What goes down is what comes up". And (3) In Philippians 3:20-21 "We look from heaven for Jesus who will change our vile soma (body) to be like unto his soma (body)". According to Habermas, if Paul meant that we would change into a spiritual body then Paul would have used the Greek pneuma instead of soma.[33]

Flavius Josephus (c. 37–c. 100), a Jew and Roman citizen who worked under the patronage of the Flavians, wrote the Antiquities of the Jews c. 93 which contains a passage known as the Testimonium Flavianum. This passage mentions John the Baptist and Jesus as two holy men among the Jews.[34] Most modern scholars believe the original text of the work has been changed by Christian editors. The text mentions the death and resurrection of Jesus: "When Pilate, upon the accusation of the first men amongst us, condemned [Jesus] to be crucified, those who had formerly loved him did not cease [to follow him], for he appeared to them on the third day, living again, as the divine prophets foretold, along with a myriad of other marvellous things concerning him."[35]

There are various other arguments against the historicity of the resurrection story. For example, the number of other historical figures and gods with similar death and resurrection accounts has been pointed out.[36][c] However the majority consensus among biblical scholars is that the genre of the Gospels is a kind of ancient biography and not myth.[37] Robert M. Price claims that if the resurrection could, in fact, be proven through science or historical evidence, the event would lose its miraculous qualities.[36] In a more focused argument, Carrier asserts that, "The surviving evidence legal and historical, suggests that Jesus was not formally buried Friday night," but that "it had to have been placed Saturday night in a special public graveyard reserved for convicts. On this theory, the women who visited the tomb Sunday morning mistook its vacancy."[38]

New Testament historian Bart D. Ehrman recognizes that "Some scholars have argued that it's more plausible that in fact Jesus was placed in a common burial plot, which sometimes happened, or was, as many other crucified people, simply left to be eaten by scavenging animals." He further elaborates by saying: "[T]he accounts are fairly unanimous in saying (the earliest accounts we have are unanimous in saying) that Jesus was in fact buried by this fellow, Joseph of Arimathea, and so it's relatively reliable that that's what happened."[39]

See also[edit]


a.^ In a note, Kirby states, "A very abbreviated list of twentieth-century writers on the NT who do not believe that the empty tomb is historically reliable: Marcus Borg, Günther Bornkamm, Gerald Boldock Bostock, Rudolf Bultmann, Peter Carnley, John Dominic Crossan, Stevan Davies, Maurice Goguel, Michael Goulder, Hans Grass, Charles Guignebert, Uta Ranke-Heinemann, Randel Helms, Herman Hendrikx, Roy Hoover, Helmut Koester, Hans Küng, Alfred Loisy, Burton L. Mack, Willi Marxsen, Gerd Lüdemann, Norman Perrin, Robert M. Price, Marianne Sawicki, John Shelby Spong, Howard M. Teeple, and John T. Theodore".[40]
b.^ Cavin continues "... even on the assumption of their complete historical reliability ... This assumption, of course, is rightly dismissed in light of contemporary New Testament scholarship".
c.^ Robert M. Price points to the accounts of Adonis, Appollonius of Tyana, Asclepius, Attis, Empedocles, Hercules, Osiris, Oedipus, Romulus, Tammuz, and others.[41]


  1. ^ Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (1998). p. 156. G. Johannes Botterweck, Helmer Ringgren, Heinz-Josef Fabry
  2. ^ a b c d e f "Resurrection". Jewish Encyclopedia. Retrieved 30 March 2013. 
  3. ^ a b Craig S. Keener, "The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary," pp.710-711
  4. ^ Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:1, Talmud Sanhedrin 90a.
  5. ^ a b Ehrman, Bart. Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene: The Followers of Jesus in History and Legend. Oxford University Press, USA. 2006. ISBN 0-19-530013-0
  6. ^ Barnett, Paul, The Birth Of Christianity: The First Twenty Years (After Jesus)[page needed]
  7. ^ C.H. Dodd, Apostolic Preaching and Its Developments: Three Lectures With an Appendix on Eschatology and History. 25. (Baker Book House, 1982).
  8. ^ Acts 2:14-40; 3:11-12; 4:5-12; 5:29-32; 10:34-42
  9. ^ Bruce Metzger's Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, p. 122, commentary on Mark 16:9-20: "The last twelve verses of the commonly received text of Mark are absent from the two oldest Greek manuscripts (Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus Graecus 1209), from the Old Latin Codex Bobiensis, the Sinaitic Syriac manuscript, syr(s), about one hundred Armenian manuscripts, and the two oldest Georgian manuscripts…
  10. ^ John Fenton, "The Ending of Mark's Gospel" in Resurrection: Essays in Honour of Leslie Houdlen Ed. Stephen Barton and Graham Stanton.6.
  11. ^ Reginald Fuller, The Formation of the Resurrection Narratives. (SPCK, 1972). 2.
  12. ^ Funk, Robert W. and the Jesus Seminar. The acts of Jesus: the search for the authentic deeds of Jesus. HarperSanFrancisco. 1998. "What do we really know about Jesus" p. 527–534.
  13. ^ Sanders, E. P. The historical figure of Jesus. Penguin, 1993. Epilogue: the resurrection. p. 276–281.
  14. ^ "Jesus Christ." Encyclopædia Britannica, 2007. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 10 Jan. 2007
  15. ^ Sanders, E. P. The Historical Figure of Jesus. New York: Penguin Books, 1993.
  16. ^ James D.G. Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit: A Study of the Religious and Charismatic Experience of Jesus and the First Christians as Reflected in the New Testament. Eerdmans, 1997. p. 115, 117.
  17. ^ Helmut Koester, Introduction to the New Testament, Vol. 2: History and Literature of Early Christianity. Walter de Gruyter, 2000. p. 64-65.
  18. ^ Wright, N.T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Fortress Press. 
  19. ^ McClory, Robert (1989). "The Gospel According to Thomas Sheehan". The Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 31 March 2013. 
  20. ^ Sheehan, Thomas (1986). The First Coming: How the Kingdom of God Became Christianity. Random House. p. 111. ISBN 978-0394511986. 
  21. ^ Sheehan, Thomas (1986). The First Coming: How the Kingdom of God Became Christianity. Random House. p. 112. ISBN 978-0394511986. 
  22. ^ Richard C. Carrier "The Spiritual Body of Christ and the Legend of the Empty Tomb." In Price, Robert M.; Lowder, Jeffrey Jay, eds. (2005). The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave. Amherst: Prometheus Books. p. 105. ISBN 1-59102-286-X. 
  23. ^ Richard C. Carrier, "The Spiritual Body of Christ and the Legend of the Empty Tomb." In Price, Robert M.; Lowder, Jeffrey Jay, eds. (2005). The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave. Amherst: Prometheus Books. pp. 155–156. ISBN 1-59102-286-X. 
  24. ^ Wright, N.T. "Christian Origins and the Resurrection of Jesus: The Resurrection of Jesus as a Historical Problem". N.T. Wright Page. Retrieved 5 Dec 2015. 
  25. ^ Pagels, Elaine, The Gnostic Paul: Gnostic Exegesis of the Pauline Letters, 1992, ISBN 0-8006-0403-2
  26. ^ Peter Kirby, "The Case Against the Empty Tomb," In Price, Robert M.; Lowder, Jeffrey Jay, eds. (2005). The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave. Amherst: Prometheus Books. p. 233. ISBN 1-59102-286-X. 
  27. ^ Robert M. Price, Robert M. Price, "The Empty Tomb: Introduction; The Second Life of Jesus." In Price, Robert M.; Lowder, Jeffrey Jay, eds. (2005). The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave. Amherst: Prometheus Books. p. 13. ISBN 1-59102-286-X. 
  28. ^ Robert Greg Cavin, "Is There Sufficient Historical Evidence to Establish the Resurrection of Jesus?" In Price, Robert M.; Lowder, Jeffrey Jay, eds. (2005). The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave. Amherst: Prometheus Books. p. 36. ISBN 1-59102-286-X. 
  29. ^ Vermes, Geza (2008). The Resurrection: History and Myth. New York: Doubleday. p. 141. ISBN 978-0-7394-9969-6. 
  30. ^ Vermes, Geza (2008). The Resurrection: History and Myth. New York: Doubleday. pp. 142–148. ISBN 978-0-7394-9969-6.  The quoted material appeared in small caps in Vermes's book.
  31. ^ Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, 272; cf. 321
  32. ^ Resurrection Research from 1975 to the Present: What are Critical Scholars Saying? Link
  33. ^ From a debate with Anthony Flew on the resurrection of the Jesus. Transcript
  34. ^ Funk, Robert W. and the Jesus Seminar. The acts of Jesus: the search for the authentic deeds of Jesus. HarperSanFrancisco. 1998. "John the Baptist" cameo, p. 268
  35. ^ Josephus Jewish Antiquities 18.3.3
  36. ^ a b Robert M. Price, "The Empty Tomb: Introduction; The Second Life of Jesus." In Price, Robert M.; Lowder, Jeffrey Jay, eds. (2005). The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave. Amherst: Prometheus Books. p. 14. ISBN 1-59102-286-X. 
  37. ^ Burridge, R. A. (2006). Gospels. In J. W. Rogerson & Judith M. Lieu (Eds) The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 437
  38. ^ Richard C. Carrier, "The Burial of Jesus in Light of Jewish Law." In Price, Robert M.; Lowder, Jeffrey Jay, eds. (2005). The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave. Amherst: Prometheus Books. p. 369. ISBN 1-59102-286-X. 
  39. ^ Bart Ehrman, From Jesus to Constantine: A History of Early Christianity, Lecture 4: "Oral and Written Traditions about Jesus" [The Teaching Company, 2003].
  40. ^ Price, Robert M.; Lowder, Jeffrey Jay, eds. (2005). The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave. Amherst: Prometheus Books. pp. 256–257. ISBN 1-59102-286-X. 
  41. ^ Robert M. Price, "The Empty Tomb: Introduction; The Second Life of Jesus". In Price, Robert M.; Lowder, Jeffrey Jay, eds. (2005). The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave. Amherst: Prometheus Books. pp. 14–15. ISBN 1-59102-286-X.