Biblical clues that enable us to solve some of the mysteries surrounding the most important event in the history of Christianity
(Editor’s Note: This article is the abstract of chapter 10 of the book [in progress] by Alfonso Baeza-Parra titled The Miracles of Jesus Christ: Biblical and Extra-biblical Clues that Bring Us Closer to the Real Dimension of the Miracles of the New Testament.)
Mysteries posed by the resurrection of Jesus
The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the prime claim on which the building of Christian faith is established. However, the data we have about it and, in general, regarding what transpired in the days following the crucifixion (they all come from the only extant source: the New Testament) pose a considerable number of riddles for which we do not find convincing answers in the framework of traditional, fundamentalist biblical interpretation. A different interpretive perspective is proposed in this article from which it is certainly possible to give an answer to many of those enigmas:
- What sense does it make that the resurrection of Jesus, the momentous event of the Christian faith, should take place without any witnesses?
- Why was the risen Jesus not seen by anyone other than his own followers?
- Why did the apostles “doubt” in the presence of the risen Jesus or go so far as not recognizing him? (Matt. 28:17; Luke 24:13-32)
- If Jesus had repeatedly predicted his resurrection (Matt. 16:21; 20:19, etc.), how can we explain that the apostles should consider the women’s news of the resurrection as “nonsense” (Luke 24:11) and refuse to believe it? (Mark 16:11)
- If the apostles themselves reacted with unbelief to the news of the resurrection, how can we explain that the Jewish leaders, who considered Jesus an impostor (Matt. 27:62-67), should offhand believe that news, not even caring to cursorily check? (Matt. 28:12-13)
- Why is the ascension recorded only by Luke, a second-generation Christian who had not personally met Jesus (Luke 1:2), whereas Matthew and John, who were allegedly privileged eyewitnesses of that solemn, emotive farewell, do not even mention it?
- Since it is the most important event of the Christian faith, how can we explain the remarkable differences that exist among the various evangelists regarding what transpired on the resurrection day?
- How can we understand that certain passages should present the risen Jesus as a spiritual being who would go through walls, appear and disappear at will and who had the appearance of “a spirit” (Luke 24:37, KJV), etc., whereas others state that he was flesh and blood, a man who could eat and who preserved the wounds of the crucifixion, etc.?
Providing convincing answers to questions such as the above is difficult from a biblical fundamentalist viewpoint, but things are easier from a more open and realistic interpretive perspective, a perspective that can bring us closer to what actually happened in the days following the crucifixion.
The Gospels were written after the great national catastrophe that the Jewish-Roman war represented for the Jews. This war eliminated nearly every vestige of the sojourn of Jesus of Nazareth upon this Earth. The evangelists were nameless second- and third-generation Christians who had not personally met Jesus. To carry out their task, they availed themselves of preexistent fragmentary writings and traditions that, by then, no doubt already contained some bogus data, some of which they approved of and included in their narratives.
Now, how can we identify the bogus data, if it exists, in order to isolate a kernel of truth that reflects what actually happened, what the genuinely primitive accounts told? On the one hand, the meticulous comparison of the narratives by the various evangelists allows us to detect some pieces of information that are untenable. On the other hand, we achieve that same goal by contrasting the Gospel narratives with what the first-generation Christians believed about Jesus’ resurrection. However, how can we know what the Christians who had met Jesus believed? The answer is straightforward:
Reading Paul’s letters—the oldest documents of the New Testament—written much earlier than the Gospels, approximately in the fifties of the 1st century—we find that Paul does not provide details regarding the resurrection of Jesus, but he does present it as a model (1 Cor. 15:16-23) of the final resurrection of the righteous, about which he states:
But some one will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” You foolish man! What you sow … is not the body which is to be … It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. … flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God … (1 Cor. 15:35-50, Revised Standard Version, 2nd edition, 1971)
Here we are presented with a fundamental datum: Paul states that the resurrection takes place with a body different from the one that was buried. A physical body is buried, but a spiritual body is risen. The author of 1 Peter concurs: ‘For Christ also died … being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit (1 Pet. 3:18, RSV). Jesus, therefore, was risen with a spiritual body, not a physical one, which leads us to question the truthfulness of the passages that present a risen Jesus that is flesh and blood.
Reading the narratives of the resurrection in the chronological order in which they were composed (Mark, approximately AD 70; Matthew, AD 70-80; Luke, AD 70-80; John, AD 90-100) allows us to verify the development of ideas that was taking place among Christians as a result of understandably dynamic traditions. For instance, Luke and John, the latest Gospels, explicitly mention a flesh-and-blood risen Jesus, contrary to what occurs with the first two ones (Mark and Matthew). Luke, who wrote in the eighties, states that the risen Jesus remained on earth for forty days, after which he physically ascended to heaven in the presence of the apostles (Acts 1:1-11). But Paul, who wrote three decades earlier (fifties), does not seem to know anything about such earthly stay of Jesus after his resurrection. For Paul, the resurrection and the ascension were the same thing. Christ was simultaneously risen and enthroned in heaven, wherefrom he manifested himself to his followers by means of revelations or visions, as was the case with Paul himself. Paul lists a number of people to whom the risen Jesus had appeared, among whom he was included (1 Cor. 15:3-8), but he makes no difference whatsoever between his own experience and those of the people who saw him in the days following the crucifixion.
Let us remember that Jesus manifested himself to Paul on the road to Damascus, but that “apparition” did not take place on the physical plane: Paul’s companions did not see what he saw, and they did not hear what he heard. The experience was entirely real for Paul (in fact, the brightness of the apparition left him temporarily blind), but the others were not affected at all (Acts 9:1-8; 22:6-11). The same thing happened to Stephen during his trial before the Sanhedrin: he lifted up his eyes to heaven and saw Jesus at the right hand of God. Yet, much as those present might have looked in the direction of Stephen’s gaze, they would have never seen what he saw through revelation (Acts 7:55-56). Jesus’ apparitions to the apostles after the crucifixion had that very nature. Jesus’ enemies or those indifferent did not see him risen simply because, as Professor A. Piñeiro points out, “Paul emphasizes that the risen Jesus is visible only—except in his own case—to those who have faith in him.
Therefore, the Gospel passages that speak of a flesh-and-blood risen Jesus must be the result of a reworking of the primitive account, which must have presented the apparitions of Jesus exclusively as visions. In the fifties, Paul preached a “living” Christ, but he never mentioned an empty tomb.
The spiritual nature of Jesus’ resurrection must have prompted the criticism of the enemies of the new religion. In his book The True Word, Celsus, a second-century Neoplatonist philosopher, accused Christians of basing their faith in the resurrection of Jesus on the testimonies of some who claimed to have seen Him in dreams and visions. Evidently, Celsus did not invent that “accusation”; he was merely quoting what the enemies of Christianity had been saying since the days of the apostles. It is likely that the pressure of these “materialistic” arguments, coming from people incapable of believing in what cannot be touched, seen, etc., had an influence in having second-generation and later Christians to transform the resurrection into a physical event by elaborating the narratives that mention the encounters between the apostles and a flesh-and-blood risen Jesus.
The spiritual nature of the resurrection dispels most of the mysteries surrounding this paramount event
- The ascension: Once tradition turned the risen Jesus into flesh and blood an explanation had to be given as to what happened to that physical body, and stories were created, such as the ascension, which Luke deemed authentic (Acts 1:1-11). However, if Jesus had actually brought his days on earth to a close by solemnly ascending to heaven in the presence of his disciples it is unthinkable that three of the four Gospels should omit that important datum that, in addition, constituted the “natural” conclusion of their respective narrative.
- Why did not anyone see Jesus rise from the tomb or (except for his disciples) see him after his resurrection?: Since Jesus was not risen with a material body the event was not accessible to any human eyes. On the other hand, the risen Jesus was not seen by anyone, not because he was hiding, but because he could only be seen by those to whom he manifested himself.
- How are we to understand that the disciples should not recognize the risen Jesus?: Passages such as Matthew 28:17 or Luke 24:13-32, which present several “doubting” disciples before the risen Jesus—or even unable to recognize him—do not seem to make sense if we understand such encounters as “physical.” However, it is very likely those passages are based on primitive authentic narratives that were later deformed by tradition. Indeed, it seems certain that, after the crucifixion, some disciples stated “they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive” (Luke 24:22, 23, NIV). Others assured they had received some revelation from Jesus himself (John 20:18). It is not hard to imagine that, when the various parties involved established the similarity of the messages they had received, some of those who believed they had seen an angel should conclude that the celestial being that had been revealed to them was none other than Jesus himself, whom they had been unable to recognize. That datum was preserved, although, with the passage of time and the transformation of the risen Jesus into flesh and blood, the old narratives were adapted to the new scenario.
- How is it possible that the Jewish leaders should offhand believe the news that Jesus had risen?: The comparison of the various Gospel narratives (see previously mentioned book) allows us to conclude that the story of the soldiers watching the tomb is apocryphal. It is a spurious tradition that Matthew must have wrongly considered genuine. If the members of the Sanhedrin had known that Jesus had risen and that, consequently, he was the true Son of God, it does not seem credible that they should have persevered in their war against him, thereby consciously giving up their eternal salvation. Actually, the Jewish leaders never had positive proof that Jesus had risen.
- How can we explain the apostles’ reaction of unbelief when they were faced with the news of the resurrection?: The apostles’ skeptical reaction is presented in all four Gospels, which suggests it actually happened that way. In this abstract there is hardly enough room to explain this issue thoroughly, but suffice it to say that it is likely they would not have rejected the women’s testimony if they had told them about a physical encounter with Jesus, but the women spoke about visions (Luke 24:22, 23), which understandably aroused the apostles’ suspicion.
- How can we explain the serious discrepancies among the various evangelists regarding the events of the resurrection day?: Such discrepancies seem to reflect the existence of various spurious traditions that were trying to transform the spiritual nature of the resurrection into a physical event in the story of the empty tomb. Not being based on the reality of what had happened, it was hard for those narratives to harmonise with one another.
However, in spite of the discrepancies established among the various narratives, the existence of one datum wherein all four Gospels present a striking coincidence is highly significant: it was Mary Magdalene and other women that initially spread the news about the resurrection of Jesus. No doubt, the personal history of those women gives us the key to understand the disciples’ reaction of unbelief: Jesus had expelled seven demons out of Mary Magdalene and had also cured the other women of ‘evil spirits’ (Luke 8:1-3; Mark 16:9). According to the information provided by the Gospels, demon possession could be manifested in various ways: epileptic-like seizures (Luke 9:39), various psychic disorders (Matt. 8:28) and even conditions such as blindness (Matt. 12:22), deafness (Mark 9:25), deaf-dumbness (Mark 9:25), etc. In the case of Mary Magdalene and the other women, it is very likely the visible manifestation of the possession they suffered consisted in certain psychic disorders. Therefore, it is not strange that, knowing their past history and hearing them speak about visions, the apostles should think the women’s former malady was relapsing, possibly as a result of the terrible experience they had undergone contemplating the Teacher’s crucifixion.
Thereafter, however, the apostles themselves, or some of them, went through similar experiences or partook in them, and came to believe that Jesus was really alive, no longer subject to the limitations imposed by a physical body, but possessing a spiritual body, from which he could assure them of his guidance for the mission he was giving them:
Jesus … said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations … And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matt. 28:18-20, NIV)
Most of the serious difficulties which surround the gospel narratives about Jesus’ resurrection, such as those listed at the beginning of this essay, disappear when we admit that:
- Along with authentic data from the primitive stories, the Gospels contain some spurious information from traditions that had undergone a process of adulteration.
- The resurrection didn’t take place in the physical plane. The resurrected Jesus couldn’t be seen physically. Only some of his followers, those who had the strongest faith in Him, reached to see Him, through visions.
 For Mark, Luke and John, the resurrection occurred without witnesses. Matthew, on the other hand, states that Jesus’ sepulchre was being watched by Roman soldiers who may have witnessed the event. That account of Matthew’s, however, is not authentic. (For the relevant explanation, the reader is referred to the book mentioned in the Editor’s Note.)
 We must bear in mind that the ending of Mark (16:9-20) is an addendum by a later writer who was already familiar with the Gospels according to Matthew and Luke, as can be verified in any bible that includes footnotes.
 Antonio Piñero, Guía para entender el Nuevo Testamento, Madrid: Trotta, 2008, p. 222, emphasis provided. Antonio Piñero is a Professor of Greek Philology at the Complutense University of Madrid. He specializes in early Christian language and literature.