I’ve explained elsewhere (part 1) why I don’t accept the gospels as eyewitness documentation, as well as why extra-biblical sources (Part 2) do nothing to add credibility to their corroboration. What I am learning is that the most basic facts about Christianity are rarely discussed in detail. Therefore, today I’d like to look at the account of the resurrection given by the gospels.
Apologists often throw the Red Herring of textual attestation found in antiquity as somehow making the gospels acceptable from a historical perspective. The best documentation of historical events comes from eyewitness testimony near the time of the event, with multiple independent corroborating stories that agree in details. Such is the standard historians use to evaluate ancient history’s attestation in consult with archaeology.
In contrast to historical reality, legends are expected to grow in extraneous detail over time, embellished as oral tradition invents new details. As the gospels are neither eyewitness documents, nor are the authors known, it provides a beautiful picture of a fabrication developing over time.
Keep in mind this does not explicitly disprove the resurrection; it merely shows that it is far more likely to be an orally-inspired legend rather than historical fact. It is impossible to prove something didn’t happen, but history is about reconstructing the most plausible explanation from the available data, and if you’re not willing to dismiss the resurrection as legend, it certainly displays belief despite evidence to the contrary.
The Resurrection According to Mark (~60 AD)
Never made it to the disciples, at least in the earliest manuscripts we have, the Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus. In most bibles, a small bracket appears at 16:9 stating that the earliest witnesses do not contain 9-20, since the Sinaiticus ends at 16:8. The account ends in 8:
8 Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.
Of course the fact that the author of Mark (note that this book is anonymous, as Papias guessed at the authorship in the 2nd century. I will refer to the author henceforth as Mark) tells us a story that could not be known if it were true, it is clear that the author is neither an eyewitness nor has any method for knowing the truth. An alternate ending is posed in a handful of Greek manuscripts,
And they reported all the instructions briefly to Peter’s companions. Afterwards Jesus himself, through them, sent forth from east to west the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation. Amen
However, this is not the discussion at hand; we are trying to compare the 60 AD version of Mark to the other accounts. We will return to verses 9-20 later. Mark’s account is extremely terse, only 8 verses:
Mary Magdeline, Mary the mother of James, and a woman named Salome (a mostly apocryphal character of unclear origins) go to an empty tomb on Sunday morning, with the stone rolled away and a single man sitting inside. The man tells them to tell the disciples that he was risen, but they didn’t tell anyone because they were afraid.
According to Matthew (70-75 AD)
10 years later, Matthew (again, anonymous, attributed by Papias) wrote down what he had heard. The story grew from Mark’s account from 8 to 20 verses, and includes quite a few more spectacular occurrences. Firstly, there is a great earthquake (an event that probably would have been recorded in historical records, or at least in the other gospels), and has only the two Marys running to the tomb to see the stone rolled away by an angel, who was then sitting on the stone (not inside, the man got powered-up to angel!). The women went to the disciples, “afraid but filled with joy” (see the contrast to Mark?), then tell the disciples. Jesus then suddenly appears and tells them to go to the disciples.
There is an interlude from the omniscient Matthew about conversations between the guards and the chief priests, and the “fabrication” of the stolen body story. Matthew was not an eyewitness.
The story ends with the disciples going to Galilee, to a mountain that Jesus told the Marys to tell them to go, where Jesus appears. Some doubt. Jesus tells them to go baptize everyone, and he will be with them always even until the end of the age (implying he will not ascend again). The end.
Growing painsSeveral elements in the Matthew account embellish the earlier Mark account:
manangel insidesitting on the stone
- The Marys were afraid
and told no onebut told the disciples.
- There was an uncorroborated earthquake.
- A story was concocted by the chief priests to explain the body away
- Jesus appears to the disciples together on a mountain
- Some doubt
- Jesus tells them to go forth and preach
- Jesus says that he will always be there.
The makings of an orally-embellished legend are in the making.
Luke (75-80 AD), “The Historian”
Fast forward 5 years and double-and-then-some the verses from 20 to 52, and you have the significantly more embellished account of Luke (anonymous, Irenaeus made up these guesses). Some basics are fundamentally (not) the same: The women (2 Marys, Joanna, and “the others with them”) went, found a rolled away stone, when BAM! two men appear gleaming like lightning. The women were scared and told to tell the disciples, so they went back to the disciples, who did not believe them. Then Peter (alone) went to the tomb to double check the story.
Then two disciples are walking and talking about everything, when Jesus appears but hides his identify from them (God commonly uses deception for some odd reason). They talk about how awesome Jesus is, then invited him in to eat. Finally after being with them all day, Jesus was revealed, and then disappeared! They then reconvened with the 11 and told these stories, when BAM! Jesus appears again.
This time they are all freaking out, instead of worshiping as in Matthew’s account. Some of them doubt, and he shows them the holes in his hands and feet, then broke bread, gave some encouraging words, opened their minds so “they could understand the Scriptures” (45), then they all went to Bethany, and he ascended into heaven. The End.
More Growing Pains
Fairly fantastical, but we’re not over yet. The gospel of John gets even bigger and better.
Super Epic Legendary John (90 AD)
What happens when you play telephone for 15-20 years? You get the totally embellished gospel of John’s (Iraneus’ guess) account of the resurrection and post-resurrection story. It grows from 52 verses in Luke to a whopping 2 chapters, of 30 verses (chapter 20) and 25 verses (chapter 21). The word count (in the NIV) is increased by 393, a 138% increase from the word count in Luke. Lets go straight to bullets. There’s simply too much otherwise.
Aand that’s the end of John 20. John 21 picks up where Luke had Jesus ascending into heaven (which doesn’t occur in other gospels). Jesus catches a lot of fish, calls Peter an idiot, and instates him as the first pope, makes eerie prophecies about John (who would be exiled around the time of writing), says “I’m not lying, I promise!” and did other things that would fill all the books of the world.
Mark’s Interpolated Crazyfest Party Time
Almost done. Let’s return to the Markian addition, which was interpolated sometime after John’s gospel, as late as 160, 100 years after the original, and 130 years after the events. The events follow Luke’s tradition most closely, but err on key details.
Telephone in a Legend
In the first century, people were storytellers. There was no scholarly criticism, no skepticism. The truth of a story was evaluated on the excitement of the teller. It was the perfect setting for a legend. When you get a group of people together and their leader is killed, it’s not at all implausible that they would begin circulating stories about how he rose from the dead. Rising from the dead wasn’t a big deal in first-century Palestine. It was in vogue.
The gospel’s account of the resurrection of Jesus are a beautiful example of a legend whose details grow and weave with the passing of time. The man in Mark becomes an angel in Matthew, becomes 2 glowing men in Luke, and becomes 2 angels in John. The disciples didn’t hear in Mark, doubted in Matthew, saw the hands and feet in Luke, and doubted despite the evidence and suffered correction in John.
Attempts to reconcile the irreconcilable differences generally fail, and end up being implausible up to ridicule. This is where the faith to believe comes in, to attempt to square the circle away, but then if these irreconcilable accounts are so plausible, why are those of Sathya Sai Baba unbelievable? Why do you change your standards?
People believe in superstition because they want to, not because it is true. I simply value truth and integrity over believing a legend.
I can’t make the steps of rationality for you. I can only show you the way. And it is nothing more than mental gymnastics and special pleading to believe the gospels are anything more than the legendary recorded oral tradition of first century superstition story-peddlers. Good luck in your journeys towards the truth.
Richard Carrier’s article, “Why I Don’t Buy the Resurrection Story” is extremely informative.
A handy reference with parallels between each of the stories in the gospel accounts, including Paul’s account (which differs)