My journey out of Christianity was not an easy one. I always tried to be a logical thinker, but the truth is, by the time I reached adulthood I was just too steeped in the extremely insular worldview of near-fundamentalist evangelicalism to be psychologically capable of subjecting it to an honest intellectual critique. So I lived with an internal cognitive tension that led mostly to further rationalization and self-indoctrination at first, but fortunately also to some cautious, laborious chipping away at the more unavoidably unsupportable components of my belief system. Over many years, this latter process gradually picked up speed and eventually won out over the former, as each step left me with a slightly trimmer and more progressive interpretation of Christianity until finally there was nothing left to keep propping up.
My purpose in this essay is not to discuss all of these steps and why I found myself compelled to take them, however. It is rather to focus on what I consider the most decisive one for my thinking, which was when I finally had to acknowledge that the argument for the resurrection of Jesus simply doesn’t work. The more I looked into it, the more I realized that not only does the supposed evidence for Jesus’ physical, bodily resurrection fail to be a convincing proof of that hypothesis, it actually points suspiciously strongly to the opposite conclusion even before the intrinsic improbability of a miracle is taken into consideration. And with the resurrection therefore being more likely myth than fact in my best estimation, I could not in good faith consider myself to be a Christian anymore.
All arguments are based on premises, of course, and the argument for the resurrection of Jesus is rather trivial when based on the premise that the Bible is literally inspired by God, or that the New Testament gospels were written by eyewitnesses of the reported events or by people who personally knew the eyewitnesses, or that Jesus was God himself in the flesh and regularly performed miracles to demonstrate that, or that surprising details of his life, death, and resurrection had been supernaturally prophesied before they supposedly occurred. But those who accept such doctrines as premises for the Christian worldview, rather than as conclusions to argue for or against on the basis of the evidence, show they are not truly engaging in a serious examination of their beliefs.
In point of fact, I stopped believing in all of these doctrines before I really even began to seriously question the resurrection. Although I initially absorbed and defended them with the full confidence of the unlearned, on further investigation I simply did not find the arguments for any of them to be convincing, even while still assuming Christianity to be true in what I regarded its most fundamental claim, namely the resurrection of Jesus as a miraculous demonstration that he was God’s chosen representative or messiah. Without that basic assumption, I think it goes without saying that the arguments for these doctrines would be even less convincing, by a significant margin. Which doesn’t mean we have to presuppose the doctrines to be false when evaluating the argument for Christianity’s fundamental claim of the resurrection, but it does mean that even if we are open to the possibility that they might be legitimate consequences of Christianity if Christianity turns out to be true, we still cannot validly use them as premises for the argument, since that would be circular reasoning. Rather, to my way of thinking at least, Christianity must stand or fall primarily on the historical evidence for the resurrection considered alone, apart from any specifically Christian dogma or assumption. And so it was to this historical evidence alone that I was eventually compelled to turn.
In brief, then, for the purposes of this essay I will be treating Jesus as I would any other person from ancient history, and the claims of Christianity as I would the claims of any other religion I was trying to investigate, not with a mind closed to the possibility of such miraculous claims being true, but, of equal necessity, with a mind nevertheless fully open to the possibility of them being false. I will also be treating the only significant historical sources, namely the books of the New Testament, as I would any other ancient documents, trying to understand not only who most likely wrote them and when, but even more importantly why. The key question, in other words, is what basic background of facts or events in these writers’ lives most plausibly explains the beliefs they held and the ways they chose to write about them, regardless of whether their beliefs were actually true. This is the only approach that I believe any sincere examination can reasonably take.
I will frame the argument for or against the bodily resurrection of Jesus as a comparison of the merits and difficulties between the following two possible general assumptions regarding the background of the New Testament authors:
Those who do not have much familiarity with the argument for the resurrection might assume it is based mostly on the stories of an empty tomb and of various encounters with the risen Jesus found in the New Testament gospels. These stories are indeed factors that much is often made of, and that I will consider in more detail as we go, but from a historical perspective they really cannot be considered primary in nature. This is because these books may well have been written up to 50 years or more after the death of Jesus, and there is no way to verify that their authors were eyewitnesses of the events they wrote about, or even personal acquaintances of the people involved. If we are to make any progress in understanding how these stories came to be written, and whether they are better explained by the positive or negative background assumptions explained above, it makes more sense to start with the only writings of the New Testament whose authorship we can have at least some degree of confidence in, namely the epistles of Paul.
Scholars are generally agreed that the books known as Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and perhaps Philemon were probably written by Paul himself, and thus constitute the primary evidence for what he and those with whom he closely interacted experienced and thought. It is clear enough from these epistles that Paul did indeed believe Jesus had miraculously risen from the dead in some fashion, even though he wrote remarkably little, if anything at all, about what he thought this was actually like or why he believed it. Still, he definitely regarded himself as having seen the risen Jesus on at least one occasion (1 Corinthians 9:1, 15:8), so it’s probably reasonable to assume with most apologists that the first of these occasions would have been the decisive reason for him, the one that prompted his dramatic conversion to Christianity coupled with his call to be an apostle, which he referred to in Galatians 1:11-17 and Philippians 3:4-7. It’s important to realize, however, that he left us absolutely no details whatsoever about what this transformational vision of Jesus actually involved. (Unless his story of having been “caught up to the third heaven” to see a “vision or revelation of the Lord” in 2 Corinthians 12:1-4 was a reference to the same event, but this is questionable at best, as will be discussed shortly.)
We do have the later familiar story of this occasion, of course, where Jesus is said to have appeared to Paul on the road Damascus, in Acts 9:1-19 (also retold in 22:3-16 and 26:12-18 of the same book). Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing when that book was written, beyond that it was definitely by the middle of the second century. There are some respectable arguments for dating it a bit earlier, to within a generation or so of Paul’s actual lifetime, but even then we could not reliably conclude that its author knew Paul personally rather than simply knowing various oral traditions about Paul that had grown and spread in the early Christian community. (The later tradition that Acts was written by Paul’s personal traveling companion Luke is in especially serious dispute, and even if one finds it a credible theory, it cannot simply be assumed as a premise to the argument). So it’s quite possible that the details of this story of Paul’s conversion had gotten significantly exaggerated by the time it made its way into written form.
In spite of these difficulties, I think it would be hasty to conclude that the story is entirely fictional. I am of the mind that such key oral traditions are probably more likely to grow around a kernel of truth that gradually gets embellished than to be complete fabrications from the ground up. For example, perhaps Paul was temporarily blinded by a lightning strike while headed to Damascus with the intent of persecuting Christians. Perhaps this dramatic near miss was accompanied by a vision or hallucination of some kind, or perhaps in the terror of the moment he just interpreted the bright light as a manifestation of Jesus bringing him a personal message that he had been fighting against God instead of for him, and that he needed to adopt the very belief system he had previously hated. Alternatively, perhaps he suffered an epileptic seizure, some kinds of which have been documented to produce visual hallucinations and temporary blindness. I see nothing inherently implausible in the suggestion that something like one or the other of these possibilities could have happened, and that as the story circulated among the early Christians it could have been gradually exaggerated into the form that eventually got written into the book of Acts, where Paul heard an actual voice and where his blindness lasted three days before being miraculously healed by the laying on of hands.
A totally non-supernatural explanation like this is a fairly obvious possibility for most people who take the negative background assumption for granted, of course, and a very preposterous one for most people who take the positive background assumption for granted, since it differs so significantly from the story in Acts. This illustrates why the fundamental question we need to address cannot be which of the background assumptions leads to a more plausible and consistent explanation on the other background assumption’s terms, but must instead be which leads to a more plausible and consistent explanation on its own terms. It is only when one of the background assumptions makes it difficult to come up with a plausible explanation for why Paul or another author believed and wrote something he did even if we presume that background assumption is true that we have a significant clue to add to the balance against that background assumption. So are there any such clues to go on when it comes to the topic of Paul’s conversion experience?
Before answering this question, it’s important to note that even on the positive background assumption, there is absolutely no reason to believe Paul’s conversion experience involved a physical sighting of the risen body of Jesus. Even as reported in the very possibly exaggerated story in Acts, the encounter reads like a personal vision that only Paul himself could see and hear, not a tangible, physical, bodily presence that we would expect anyone in the vicinity to be able to see and hear. So on either the positive or negative background assumption, we should not interpret Paul’s claims to have seen Jesus to mean that he saw him in the ordinary, physical way. To Paul, someone having a vision of Jesus could evidently count as Jesus “appearing” to that person. That person had just as truly “seen the Lord” as if they had physically watched Jesus step out of the tomb. Similarly, if the author of Acts was correct about Paul’s attitude toward such things, he apparently regarded at least some dreams to be examples of Jesus literally speaking to him (Acts 18:9-10). This is not how most modern people think about such things, but it is evidently how many or perhaps most people in those days thought about such things.
In answer to our previous question, then, since neither the positive nor the negative background assumption involves Paul physically seeing Jesus, we really don’t have any significant clues to help us decide between them here. We might be surprised under either assumption that Paul would claim to have seen Jesus when he hadn’t actually seen him in the ordinary, physical way, but neither assumption makes it any more difficult than the other to explain why Paul would have described his experience in these terms. The fact that he considered such terminology applicable even in situations where we probably wouldn’t is just something we have to get used to either way.
Apologists for the resurrection might object at this point that even if Paul’s claims to have seen Jesus might have included such relatively unimpressive experiences as visions and dreams, and even if he never actually saw Jesus in a physical way, he must nevertheless have experienced something absolutely indisputably supernatural or miraculous in at least one of his visions of Jesus, something that could not possibly be mistaken for just an ordinary vision or dream. The ordinary, naturally explainable variety of dreams, hallucinations, or sudden changes of heart in response to a terrifying lightning strike and/or seizure just wouldn’t quite explain Paul’s confident claims to have seen Jesus in the context where he wrote them, under this common interpretation of the positive background assumption, whereas they would have to suffice under the negative background assumption. So is there anything in Paul’s writing to help us decide if the experience that prompted his conversion must have involved anything unmistakably supernatural or miraculous?
Our best clue here is probably what Paul wrote when he decided it was necessary to “boast” of the visions he had seen in defense of his qualifications to be considered an apostle (2 Corinthians 12:1-4, already referred to above). Here he described what he presumably must have considered the most extraordinary visionary experience he had known. His description sounds very much like a trance or hallucination of some kind: he was “caught up to the third heaven,” though “whether in the body or out of the body I do not know.” If this was a reference to the vision he saw at his conversion experience, then it could plausibly mean had what some might call an out-of-body experience (which is probably really just a kind of semi-conscious hallucination) along with being temporarily blinded by whatever happened there. The story is usually taken to refer to some other vision he saw years after his conversion experience, however, and this does indeed seem more likely on the basis of the chronology he gave.
Some might be tempted to argue that the mysterious-sounding phrase “caught up to the third heaven” (RSV and most other translations) must signify something obviously distinguishable from a mere dream or hallucination. But consider the fact that Paul could write this so casually, with no explanation at all, even when addressing a church in a predominately Gentile city where Christianity was so new. This suggests that the enumeration of at least three different heavens was not a point of specifically Christian doctrine he wanted to teach, but was commonly assumed in the general culture. Which means Paul’s terminology for describing his vision was likely very similar to the terminology used by pagan mystics or even ordinary people to describe their visions. So it seems to me that he probably wasn’t claiming anything especially extraordinary or miraculous about the actual mode or mechanism of his vision. It could have just been a vivid dream for all he knew, and that would not have prevented him from describing it as being caught up to the third heaven. The extraordinary thing about it, to his mind, was the indescribable content of the revelation he thought he had received through it, not anything in the mode or mechanism that would clearly distinguish this vision from a mere dream or hallucination. His conviction that this was a supernatural revelation therefore seems easily enough mistakable to me.
If Paul considered this incident to be the best support for his claim to have experienced a “vision or revelation of the Lord” as truly as any other apostle, yet there was nothing unmistakably supernatural or miraculous about it as far as we can tell from his description, then what reason are we left with, on historical grounds, to assume there must have been something unmistakably supernatural or miraculous involved in his other experiences of “seeing” Jesus? In particular, why should we assume his conversion experience must have involved anything more unmistakably supernatural than something like a temporary blindness caused by a lightning strike or seizure, perhaps accompanied by a semi-conscious hallucination, as I have suggested above? I don’t think we should. I think if it had involved a more unmistakably supernatural appearance of Jesus than this, then Paul probably would have referred to it at some point in his defense of his qualifications to be an apostle, where he felt it explicitly necessary to boast of his visions and revelations of the Lord.
In conclusion, then, as far as we know, Paul never saw Jesus at all except in naturally explainable dreams or trance-like experiences that he interpreted as visions from God telling him Jesus was risen, among other things. Furthermore, far from his claims to have seen Jesus being solid evidence for the positive background assumption that Jesus physically rose from the dead, I think Paul’s total lack of any clear reference not only to having any physical glimpses of Jesus but even to having any unmistakably supernatural visions of him is actually a point in favor of the negative background assumption, at least if the positive background assumption is taken to imply that Paul would have had such an unmistakably supernatural experience, as it usually is.
Even though Paul’s own personal visions were presumably what most convinced him of the resurrection of Jesus, they do not really constitute the primary evidence on the subject to be gleaned from his writing. This primary evidence is surely the tradition of Jesus’ appearances to various people, as cited in the only passage where Paul discussed the topic at any length, namely 1 Corinthians 15:3-8. The fact that this was a well-known tradition among the first-generation Christians is indicated by how Paul introduced it: “I delivered to you what I also received.” It was something Paul himself had been taught by others, and was subsequently repeating to the Corinthians.
What was this tradition that Paul had received from others? Among other doctrinal affirmations, it was that Jesus “was raised on the third day” and that “he appeared to Cephas [i.e., Peter], then to the twelve.” Paul then went on to list several other appearances of Jesus, culminating in the appearance to himself. We do not know if these additional appearances were part of the original tradition Paul had been taught, or if he was appending to that tradition here to complete the picture. He obviously appended the appearance to himself, since he would not have learned about that from others, so it might make most sense to think he was appending the other, similarly-phrased appearances as well. But either way, these other claimed appearances were presumably more-or-less common knowledge among the early Christians, just as the appearances to Peter and the twelve were. So I think we can fairly regard them all to be part of the broader first-generation Christian tradition, even if the original creedal form of that tradition only included the appearances to Peter and the twelve.
The main question we have to ask in considering these traditional appearances of Jesus is whether there is any reason to believe they were of a fundamentally different character than the appearance to Paul. On the positive background assumption, at least some of them must have involved the physical, bodily presence of Jesus, even though the appearance to Paul evidently did not. On the negative background assumption, none of them involved this. Which assumption offers a more plausible explanation for the tradition and what Paul wrote?
Here we can make at least one quick observation even before delving into an analysis of the individual appearances themselves. This is the fact that Paul felt free to include the appearance to himself in the list, right along with the others, without any indication whatsoever that this appearance was of an inferior kind to those others. This makes perfect sense under the negative background assumption, where none of the appearances involved catching physical sight of the body of Jesus, but it is a bit surprising under the positive background assumption, to say the least. If the point was to list the unmistakable, physical, “in the flesh” appearances of the resurrected Jesus, why include an appearance that didn’t meet that qualification?
A related question that needs to be considered here is whether Paul intended this list of appearances to be taken as a closed set, with the appearance to himself being the definite terminus, the last time Jesus would ever appear in the relevant way to anyone. Many apologists assume this must have been the case, pointing out that Paul used the phrase “last of all” in describing the appearance to himself. If this indeed conveys the idea of a closed set, then even though not all of the listed appearances were physical in nature, Paul still must have had stricter criteria in mind than I have suggested for what counted as a genuine appearance for this list. Not just any vision of Jesus would do, but only a special kind, a kind that was presumably somehow just as conclusive as a physical sighting, and that nobody else would ever experience. What such a thing could possibly involve is difficult or impossible to even imagine, but if true, this idea would support the positive background assumption.
I know of no good argument for interpreting the passage in this sense, however. What reason could Paul have had for meaning that Jesus would never appear to anyone else in the same way, even under the positive background assumption? Had Jesus told him when he appeared to him that this was the last time he would be doing this? To claim this would be pure speculation at best, since it is certainly never suggested in the actual text. To the contrary, if we assume with the positive background assumption that the story of Paul’s conversion experience in Acts is basically accurate, then even in that very appearance Paul was promised by Jesus that there would be later appearances at least to himself (Acts 26:16). The phraseology offers no hint that the later appearances would be of a fundamentally different nature from the one he was currently experiencing: Paul was to bear witness “to those things in which you have seen me and to those things in which I will appear to you.” So it would be very strange for Paul to turn around and state that this was the last appearance of a closed set.
It seems much more likely to me that Paul’s “last of all” phrase was simply meant to convey the idea that he was a latecomer to Christianity compared to the other apostles, and therefore the last of the apostles to have received a vision of Jesus. He still considered himself to be commissioned by God as a founder of the Christian church (particularly to the Gentiles), and therefore just as much an apostle as any of them, and one who had “seen Jesus” just as truly as any of them. But he freely acknowledged that Jesus had appeared to the others first, presumably commissioning them to be apostles first, at least to his thinking.
Why, then, do so many apologists still insist that Paul must have intended this list of appearances to be a closed set, with the appearance to Paul being the definitive last? I suspect it’s simply because they want to interpret it apologetically, as an enumeration of the decisive points of evidence Paul had that Jesus had risen from the dead. But this interpretation makes it very difficult to explain why Paul would not have also written about the empty tomb and the appearances to the women, under the positive background explanation. More importantly, from Paul’s own introduction of the passage as a summary presentation of the gospel message (1 Corinthians 15:1), I think this interpretation of his purpose just misses the point. The appearances were included in the first-generation creedal tradition as a fundamental part of the gospel message itself, not as proof that the gospel message was correct. They were basic doctrinal points to be accepted along with the others in order to be a Christian: Not only had Jesus been crucified, he had also been raised, and he had also appeared, as a living reality, to his new collective people, presumably transforming their lives and instituting the new form of the kingdom of God, the Christian church. Similarly, it seems to me that Paul’s main point in citing this tradition (and in amending it, to whatever extent he did) was to show that the resurrection and corresponding living reality of Jesus was a key part of the fundamental gospel message that therefore should not be dispensed with, not to give evidence that it actually occurred. As he went on to conclude, “This is what we preach, and this is what you believed” (1 Corinthians 15:11, NIV translation), not “This is how you can know that the Christian tradition is true.”
With this purpose in mind, we should not be surprised if the evidence ends up suggesting that any or even all of these appearances were something less than physical or unmistakably supernatural in character, just like the appearance to Paul. Such visionary or other non-physical appearances might not satisfy either the skeptic or the modern Christian apologist, but that doesn’t mean Paul wouldn’t have considered them sufficient to establish his point that the resurrection and subsequent appearances were part of the basic Christian canon of beliefs. At the very least, this is a possibility that we cannot simply dismiss without further consideration of the cited appearances themselves, which is where we will now turn our attention.
Of the appearances of Jesus listed in the first-generation Christian tradition cited by Paul, the most impressive is surely the one from 1 Corinthians 15:6: “Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, but some have fallen asleep.” On the surface, this may seem quite convincing as an argument for the bodily resurrection of Jesus, for an appearance to so many people at one time surely cannot be explained as a mere dream or trance-like visionary experience. So it must have involved their physical sight, right?
The problems with this seemingly straightforward interpretation under the positive background assumption surface pretty quickly when we try to harmonize the report with the rest of the New Testament, however. None of the gospels contain any such story of an appearance to so many people. Is it likely that the most dramatic appearance of all was so quickly forgotten that none of the gospel authors knew about it? Or if they knew about it, is it likely that they didn’t consider it worth mentioning? Of course it’s logically possible, but it’s surely not what we’d naturally expect.
As if that weren’t fishy enough, the author of Acts plainly claimed that Jesus did not appear to the general public, but only to a limited set of chosen witnesses who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead (Acts 10:40-41). This does not sound like a group of more than 500 people. He further portrayed Christianity as beginning with a company of only about 120 believers after Jesus’ supposed ascension (Acts 1:15). What happened to the rest of the 500-plus cited in the earlier tradition known by Paul? It wouldn’t come as much of a surprise if this number had been exaggerated by the time the story was written in Acts, but it’s hardly likely that the number got played down instead. Nor is it likely that the 500 brethren were in another region (such as Galilee, as suggested by some apologists) and started another branch of the church there that the author of Acts simply didn’t consider worth mentioning, as this would contradict Acts’ clear theme of how the church spread out specifically from Jerusalem.
I think we can make much better sense of this tradition of Jesus appearing to over 500 people if we start with the negative background assumption. In this case, the tradition obviously did not stem from a physical, bodily appearance of Jesus before his supposed ascension, but that doesn’t mean we have to postulate a mass hallucination or dishonest conspiracy. Rather, there may well have been a real event that later got described as an appearance of Jesus, just as the lightning strike or whatever it was that prompted Paul’s conversion later got described as an appearance of Jesus. What kind of an event could this be? I suggest a charismatic outbreak of glossalalia, or “speaking in tongues,” as described (in embellished form, under this negative background assumption) in Acts 2.
The author of Acts considered this charismatic outbreak on the day of Pentecost to be an appearance of the Holy Spirit rather than an appearance of Jesus himself, of course. But it seems more likely to me that the tradition underwent this variation in interpretation than that it was totally ignored by the later writers. Even in the Acts version there is talk of “we all” being witnesses to the fact of the resurrection (Acts 2:32), which most naturally implies that everyone who experienced this dramatic outpouring of the Holy Spirit was thereby also regarded as having seen the reality of the risen Jesus. And even if we don’t buy this interpretation of that phrase, the fact that the event was presented as such a seminal beginning of the Christian church, prompting the dramatic conversion of thousands of Jewish “brethren” to the brand-new belief in Christianity and the resurrection of Jesus (Acts 2:41), still corresponds very nicely in my opinion to the importance and sequence it was given in the list of appearances cited by Paul. It occurs before the conversion of James and the additional apostles beyond the twelve in Paul’s list, for example, just as there is no mention of James or the additional apostles before this event in Acts. At the very least, it would be difficult to propose any other event from either the gospels or Acts that would serve as a better fit for Paul’s purpose in declaring that the resurrection and subsequent appearances of Jesus were a key part of the original gospel message, as discussed above.
Even if the Acts 2 incident wasn’t the same event that started the tradition of an appearance of Jesus to over 500 people at one time, however, the main point still stands, which is that it is not hard to imagine a similar occasion of religious fervor being the explanation for that early tradition. Of course such events get exaggerated; when Acts 2 describes the “tongues” as actual languages and asserts that they were accompanied by flames of fire resting on the speakers, this is not all that different from the exaggerations we sometimes hear about Pentecostal revivals even today. And the faithful who believe in such events today often do indeed regard them as dramatic, miraculous demonstrations of the presence of both Jesus and the Holy Spirit, in a unique way not experienced by all Christians at all times. So how can we rule out the possibility that such an event might have been described by the early Christians as an appearance of Jesus, especially if it involved a wave of people suddenly converting to basically inaugurate the brand-new Christian religion?
Many apologists seem to ignore this possibility entirely and focus instead on the fact that Paul took the trouble to mention that most of these 500-plus believers were still alive at the time of his writing. They take this to be virtually an invitation to the Corinthians to talk to these people and verify their story. But this is hardly likely, in view of the fact that such long-distance communication was a very difficult undertaking for all but the wealthy in those days before telephones and post offices. Furthermore, I have already argued that Paul’s purpose in this passage seems to have been doctrinal rather than apologetic. He wanted to say that the resurrection of Jesus was a living reality for these people. They were living the life of the newly constituted body of Christ (Paul’s familiar term for the church), and thereby experiencing the “power of his resurrection” (Philippians 3:10).
Even if I am wrong about this interpretation, however, the apologists’ argument here is still not really relevant. This is because the likely alternative to the positive background assumption they support is not the idea that Paul simply made up this story of an appearance to over 500 people. It is rather that these early Christians were convinced that their charismatic experience (or whatever it was) really did count as an appearance of Jesus, in much the same way a dream or vision would have counted. To their minds, it showed that Jesus’ was risen and living in their midst. If pressed for details they might have freely acknowledged that this was not a physical kind of proof, or a matter of catching a physical glimpse of his actual body, but this was not the issue that either these early Christians or the Corinthians were interested in.
It is true that later Christians (perhaps of the very next generation) became very interested in this issue and began circulating stories about Jesus having appeared in physical, bodily form, capable of eating and drinking (Luke 24:43, Acts 10:41). But it is anachronistic to assume therefore that Paul also must have wanted to address this issue. To the contrary, he never wrote anything to indicate he had any such interest. Moreover, in direct contradiction to these later stories recorded in Luke and Acts, Paul explicitly believed that the resurrection body patterned after Jesus’ (1 Corinthians 15:48-49) would not be capable of eating and drinking (1 Corinthians 6:13). As he put it, “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 15:50). So here is yet another difficulty in trying to make sense of Paul’s writing under the positive background assumption. A few Christians on the more bizarre fringes of fundamentalist thought even recognize this problem and speculate that Jesus’ body was indeed flesh but must have been drained of all its blood after the resurrection (as if that totally arbitrary condition for inheriting the kingdom was what Paul was teasingly trying to communicate with his “flesh and blood” phrase!), but this fails to address the contradiction about eating and drinking. The more realistic alternative by far is simply that Paul himself did not think of the resurrected Jesus as having a physical, fleshly body, at least not of the kind that would eat and drink. The later resurrection stories that presented Jesus in that crassly physical way were probably based on legends to which Paul himself would have given very little credence.
In the end, then, it seems to me that what Paul wrote about the appearance of Jesus to over 500 brethren accords much better with the negative background assumption. In contrast to all the contradictions and difficulties relative to this appearance that are raised by trying to interpret what Paul and the other New Testament authors wrote under the positive background assumption (at least if the positive background is taken to mean this was a physical appearance), the only difficulty I see under the negative background assumption is the already much-discussed fact that it is hard for us who live in the modern, scientific world to imagine that Paul would have considered anything other than a physical sight of the body of Jesus to count as a genuine appearance. But the evidence points to the idea that Paul and the early Christians did count such things as dreams and visions to be genuine appearances, so on the whole it seems most plausible to me that they must have considered a dramatic charismatic incident of the kind probably experienced by these 500-plus people to be worthy of that designation as well.
Besides the appearances of Jesus to Paul himself and to over 500 brethren at one time, Paul also listed four other resurrection appearances in his famous passage on the subject: one to Peter and one to “the twelve” before the appearance to the 500-plus, then one to James and one to “all the apostles” after. This last phrase was evidently not intended to mean the same set of apostles as the more familiar twelve; the New Testament frequently implies that there were many others who were also considered apostles, including the immediately aforementioned James himself. Given the presumably varied circumstances of these individuals, it seems highly doubtful that Paul intended to imply a single appearance to all of them at once. More probably, he just meant that after the appearances to the twelve and then the dramatic one to the 500-plus, there were also various individuals starting with James who felt themselves commissioned by God to be apostles for the new religious movement (presumably with the approval of the church at large or at least the original twelve), in part because, like the twelve, they also experienced what they considered to be genuine appearances of Jesus at various times. This interpretation that Paul didn’t mean Jesus appeared to these additional apostles all at the same time also nicely explains why he felt it necessary to explicitly specify that the appearance to the 500-plus was at one time, by contrast.
The only detail we have about these obscure appearances to James and the other later, generally obscure apostles is their place in the sequence. If they didn’t occur until after the charismatic experience (or whatever it was) that constituted the appearance to over 500 people at once, then there is not much reason to think these later appearances involved physical sightings of the body of Jesus. (Unless we are just presupposing the positive background assumption instead of arguing for it, despite the difficulties it involves for the appearance to the 500-plus.)
I will therefore turn instead to the appearances that Paul indicated came before that charismatic event, namely the appearances to Peter and the twelve. These twelve were presumably the first to be considered apostles, having been disciples of Jesus from before he was crucified. But it is interesting that they are specifically called “the twelve” here when one of the original twelve disciples, Judas Iscariot, obviously would not have been among them, if the gospel stories involving him are even remotely based on reality. Judas was replaced by a man named Matthias according to Acts 1:26, but that didn’t occur until after the ascension in Acts’ version of things. So right away we have at least a minor difficulty if we start with the positive background assumption that places this appearance before the ascension. Why identify the appearance as being to “the twelve” if there were only eleven at the time? The sequence is not an issue with the negative background assumption, of course, because on that assumption there is no ascension at all. So in this case the appearance to the twelve could naturally have included Matthias, either because it was after Matthias had been chosen to replace Judas, or, perhaps more likely given the analysis above, because it wasn’t a single event anyway. Paul and the tradition he was citing may well have simply meant that all twelve of the first apostles had experienced what they considered to be appearances of Jesus in the early days, before the dramatic, groundbreaking appearance to the 500-plus, but not necessarily “at one time.”
In any case the appearances to Peter and the rest of the twelve are especially significant from a historical perspective because of the importance of these first apostles to the start of the Christian religion. We would very much like to know what they believed, about the resurrection of Jesus as well as many other things, so it is unfortunate that they left no written record of their teachings. (Most scholars are highly doubtful that Peter actually wrote the New Testament epistles that were penned in his name.) We do have one approach for getting at least some reasonable idea of their beliefs, however, and that is, once again, the experience of Paul. From Paul’s own writing we can say with a high degree of confidence that he personally knew Peter, and probably also the rest of the twelve, having even stayed in Peter’s house for 15 days (Galatians 1:18). The two were later involved in a doctrinal confrontation that we don’t know if they ever fully resolved, but this does not appear to have been related to their beliefs about the resurrection. So it’s probably safe to conclude that Paul’s beliefs about the resurrection of Jesus were not uniquely his own, but must have been at least generally in line with what Peter and the twelve also believed as a result of their experiences. If the evidence suggests Paul didn’t believe the resurrection of Jesus involved an ordinary physical body that ate and drank, then the likelihood is that Peter and the other apostles didn’t believe it either.
Christian apologists sometimes turn this logic around and argue that because Peter and the twelve had seen and conversed with the resurrected Jesus in the ordinary, physical way rather than only in dreams or visions, according to the gospels, therefore Paul must have also believed that Jesus had physically walked among them after his resurrection before subsequently ascending into heaven, despite the difficulties I have discussed for this interpretation. This would be a valid point if these apologists could establish their premise that the gospels are accurate and that the appearances of Jesus to Peter and the twelve were therefore physical and bodily in nature, in contrast to his appearance to Paul. But is that true? Here we must finally turn to a brief consideration of the stories of these appearances found in the New Testament gospels, trying to evaluate which background assumption better explains why they were written there.
The arguments against the traditional view that the New Testament gospels were written by the people they were later named after, or by any other first-generation Christians with close personal knowledge of the events they wrote about, are beyond the scope of this essay. Suffice it to say that at the very least we cannot use this traditional view as a premise to the argument for the resurrection, as discussed near the beginning of this essay. I will therefore refer to the content of these gospels somewhat loosely as second-generation Christian tradition. (Though it is arguable that they were written by an even later generation than that, or at least by authors with more intermediaries between them and the original apostles than one generation might seem to imply.)
The earliest of the New Testament gospels is almost universally acknowledged to be Mark. This gospel tells the story of the empty tomb but curiously contains no account of Jesus ever appearing to anyone after the resurrection. (The common ending of Mark, contained in Mark 16:9-20 in most English translations, does include a few brief appearance stories, but this ending is thought to be a later addition to the original text, not only because of the internal evidence but also on the basis of our earliest manuscripts.) Is this what we would expect on the positive background assumption? It seems surprising to say the least. If the appearances of Jesus to Peter and the twelve were of a physical, bodily nature, such that he actually walked and talked with these people in the days immediately following his resurrection, we would expect the author of Mark to consider these events some of the very most important parts of the story. On the other hand, if the author of Mark suspected that the original tradition of the appearances of Jesus only referred to dreams or visions or other experiences had by Peter and the others, as would be expected under the negative background assumption, the oddity disappears. In this case the author might well have agreed with Paul and the other early Christians that these appearances were signs that Jesus had indeed risen from the dead, but he would not have considered them to be part of the story he was narrating of Jesus’ earthly life.
The next gospels to be written were Matthew and Luke, though the order is not known. Both of these were pretty obviously based directly on Mark, with some significant changes and much additional material worked into the narrative. Matthew contains two appearance stories: one where Jesus appeared to the women who went to the tomb, and one where he appeared to the eleven remaining disciples in Galilee. Luke contains either two or three appearance stories depending on how they are counted: one where Jesus appeared to some obscure travelers on the road to Emmaus, one where he appeared to the eleven disciples along with at least several others in Jerusalem, and an additional reference within the first story just mentioning that Jesus had also appeared to Peter but without giving any details about this appearance at all. These appearance stories are all presented as having occurred on the very day of Jesus’ resurrection, and the last one concludes with Jesus ascending into heaven. (It is only in the later book of Acts that the ascension is placed 40 days after the resurrection.)
The contradictions between Matthew and Luke (and Acts) on these details are pretty obvious. It is only with extremely unlikely methods of interpretation that they can possibly be harmonized. We would have to postulate, for example, that the eleven disciples actually went back from Jerusalem to Galilee to see Jesus the first time, then back to Jerusalem to see him again, even though no such thing is indicated by either gospel author. Furthermore, the story of the appearance to these eleven disciples in Luke would have to begin before this trip was made and end after the disciples had returned, in a strange blending of the two appearances into a single story made to sound like a single event. Why write in such an obviously misleading way, if the authors of these gospels had factual knowledge of what actually happened, as generally presumed under the positive background assumption?
Besides these contradictions, there are numerous other strange puzzles here for the positive background assumption. For example, why are we never told the story of Jesus’ appearance to Peter? As the first of the appearances in the tradition cited by Paul, it seems like this story would have been considered an important one, meriting more attention than just a casual mention without detail in only one of the gospels. Also, why is the ascension similarly only mentioned in one of the gospels? (And in the later book of Acts which appears to have been written as a kind of follow-up to that gospel, even though it contradicts it.) Wouldn’t we expect the final appearance of Jesus, the one that included such a doctrinally significant detail as the ascension, to be considered important by more gospel authors than just one? And speaking of expectations, isn’t the reaction of the disciples in the gospel appearance stories really rather strange when you think about it? Both Matthew and Luke have some of them being doubtful (Matthew 28:17, Luke 24:38), as if a physical appearance wasn’t enough for them, but we see no sign of curiosity from them whatsoever, at least not until the Acts account where they ask a question about the restoration of the kingdom of Israel. Wouldn’t we expect many other questions to be on their minds, like “How did this resurrection thing happen?” or “Why do you keep disappearing and reappearing?” And if they had asked such questions, wouldn’t we expect the early Christians to be very interested in the answers, instead of totally ignoring them?
The obvious solution to these contradictions and difficulties is the acknowledgment that these appearance stories in the gospels must be highly legendary in character, and not a factual record of what actually happened. The idea that such legends could develop quickly enough to make their way into these gospels may seem difficult for some, but it is undeniable that later, non-canonical gospels are chock-full of them, and I would argue that the canonical gospels show much evidence for them as well, even before the difficulties with the resurrection appearance stories are considered. In any case, without the premise that the gospels were written by first-generation Christians with personal knowledge of the events, I don’t think this is a significant difficulty.
The inclusion of legendary appearance stories in the New Testament gospels is not necessarily incompatible with the idea of a bodily resurrection, of course. But to my way of thinking, it is best explained by the negative background assumption that the so-called appearances of Jesus to Peter and the twelve were not actually physical appearances at all, but simply involved dreams or other visionary or perhaps charismatic experiences. Therefore, in the earliest days when the tradition cited by Paul was originally formed, there was simply no physical story to be told about these appearances, nor about the ascension (which is also totally absent from Paul’s writing, at least if thought of as a distinct event from the resurrection). So legends of bodily appearances began to grow up around the tradition in order to fill this void, without any physical basis at all to make them consistent. With such a wellspring of confusion, it is not surprising that the authors who took up the task of amending the earlier gospel of Mark felt the need to include, and quite possibly add their own creative license to, at least some of these legendary accounts, presumably assuming them to be at least somewhat accurate. Why they chose different (and as it turns out, conflicting) legends to include is an open question that need not concern us much here, but it is not difficult to imagine possible explanations. Besides having different theological points they wanted to make, it is likely that each author was writing from a different geographical area, where different legends may have developed for them to choose from. For example, the legend of an ascension might have only been known in the region where the author of Luke lived, not the author of Matthew.
At this point is probably superfluous for me to discuss the final gospel, John, which is generally regarded by scholars as the least historical of all, with its noticeably very different portrayal of Jesus from the synoptic gospels. But for the sake of completeness I will point out that this gospel includes the most dramatic and detailed resurrection stories, although no story of an ascension or an appearance individually to Peter. Specifically, this gospel contains one story where Jesus appeared to Mary, one where he appeared to only ten of the eleven disciples with Thomas being absent, one where he appeared to all of them, and one where he appeared to only seven (though this last appearance story constitutes the final chapter which reads very much like it might well have been a later addition to the original book). Needless to say, these additional stories do nothing to explain how the previous accounts might be harmonized, but rather make the task even more difficult, besides raising even more questions about the sequence of the traditional list of appearances cited by Paul. I just have to agree with the critical scholars that this noticeable progression involving the inclusion of more, and more dramatic and detailed, appearance stories as we go from the earliest gospel to the latest is much easier to explain as a development of legend under the negative background assumption than as a development of which real memories were thought to be important under the positive background assumption.
The bottom line is that the second-generation Christian tradition is really not of much value at all when it comes to the appearance stories. We cannot reasonably count these appearance stories as good evidence for what the original twelve disciples experienced and believed regarding the resurrection of Jesus. In particular, they really do not give us any good reason to believe that they ever saw the risen Jesus in a physical or unmistakably supernatural way, any more than we have any good reason to believe the appearances to Paul and the others were physical or unmistakably supernatural.
Besides the apparently legendary stories of Jesus appearing to various disciples after his resurrection, the New Testament gospels also include stories of his tomb being found empty. These latter stories are as varied and contradictory as the former, and like the former they also exhibit a general progression in complexity from the earliest gospel to the latest, along with a similar progression in the inclusion of supernatural features to identify the appearance and activity of angels. It’s also worth noting that there is no reference whatsoever to an empty tomb in the first-generation tradition cited by Paul, or in any of his other writings. So I think there is every reason to suspect that the second-generation empty tomb stories are also mostly legendary in nature, despite the significance accorded to them by many apologists.
This doesn’t require us to entirely dismiss the possibility that there might have been a genuine kernel of historical truth behind these empty tomb stories, however. Just as the second-generation appearance legends were probably inspired by and grew up around the first-generation tradition that Jesus had appeared to the apostles, so I think it’s reasonable to speculate that the empty tomb legends might well have been inspired by and grew up around some feature of the broader first-generation tradition that was unfortunately just never mentioned by Paul. Perhaps there really was a report by some women that the body of Jesus had gone missing, for example. This isn’t anything that can be definitively argued for, but it seems like a plausible enough explanation for the later legends to me. And without the supernatural features of those later legends, it’s easy to see why the story wouldn’t have been considered all that important at first, especially under the negative background assumption where the first-generation Christians never claimed that the risen Jesus had physically walked among them in his fleshly body anyway.
My purpose in bringing up this highly speculative possibility is to point out that even if it’s true, this still would not pose any difficulty for the negative background assumption. By itself, the report of a missing body or empty tomb would not have been any reason to suspect the body had risen. Any number of alternative explanations would have suggested themselves before this one, including such simple possibilities as that the women may have gone to the wrong tomb or the body may have been removed to make room for others. Nevertheless, I can imagine the air of mystery created by not knowing what had happened being a fertile environment for the subconscious imagination, perhaps priming the brain’s pump to more readily conclude that a subsequent vision of Jesus was a sign that he had risen. After that conclusion was drawn, the initial report might then be taken as an indication of when the resurrection had actually occurred, explaining the reference to the third day in the first-generation tradition. So rather than arguing against the negative background assumption, if anything this idea that there was a report of a missing body or empty tomb might even make that background assumption more plausible, though I consider it plausible enough even without this speculation.
Some apologists argue that the empty tomb and the appearances must have worked together to convince the disciples of the resurrection. I believe I am fairly summarizing N. T. Wright’s version of this argument as follows: With only the empty tomb, the disciples probably would have concluded that Jesus’ body had just been carried off or undergone some other tragic calamity. And with only the appearances, they probably would have concluded that Jesus was only speaking to them in visions from the ordinary afterlife that all good Jews enjoyed after death. (Quite a telling admission for an apologist of the bodily resurrection!) But instead of concluding either of those things, what they actually concluded was that Jesus was resurrected in a new way that inaugurated what they now understood to be the first phase of the long-awaited messianic age. The fact that they concluded this can only be suitably explained by assuming that both the empty tomb and the appearances involved the actual, physical body of Jesus being raised, albeit greatly changed in many ways.
This all sounds reasonable enough to me until the conclusion of the argument in the last sentence. The obvious reply to this conclusion is that if an empty tomb from which Jesus had really risen could work in conjunction with the disciples’ visions to explain why they took these visions to be indications of the resurrection, then so could the report of an empty tomb, true or false, even if Jesus had not really risen from it at all. I’m not convinced the argument really requires even the report of an empty tomb, though. It seems to me that there are many possible explanations for why the disciples might have already been inclined to believe that Jesus was the messiah, for example, and that this belief could have easily served as the basis for their conclusion that their visions meant he was resurrected in a new way that inaugurated the messianic age, despite Wright’s attempts to rule this explanation out. Either way, the argument for the resurrection on the basis of the stories of an empty tomb just doesn’t work in my opinion.
In this final section I will consider some of the more indirect kinds of evidence that are sometimes brought forward in the argument for the resurrection, starting with the persecution endured by the apostles and other first-generation Christians. How much persecution the majority of these first Christians really encountered is actually the subject of some debate, but it’s fairly clear that Paul, at least, suffered quite a bit, much more than the other apostles in his opinion (2 Corinthians 11:23-25). And his opinion was probably right, given that the other apostles apparently felt it safe enough to be residing in Jerusalem (Galatians 1:18-19), and even freely going to the temple if the picture painted in the latter half of Acts is accurate. This is somewhat surprising in light of Acts’ earlier story of an intense persecution in Jerusalem associated with the stoning of Stephen, ostensibly for speaking against the Jewish temple and law (Acts 6:13), but things change, so there’s nothing inherently implausible about it as far as I can see.
From these and other considerations, it’s not hard to surmise what the early persecution of Christians was primarily about. It was related to their proclamation of Jesus as the messiah, but what especially galled the Jewish authorities was when that proclamation was coupled with the idea that the Law of Moses was therefore superseded in some way, and perhaps even more especially when it was coupled with the idea that Gentiles were now admissible into the people of God. These ideas are what Paul particularly emphasized, and what he insinuated that James and those with him in Jerusalem had a tendency to de-emphasize, to say the least (Galatians 2:12).
I bring this up to address a common non-scholarly argument that claims the truth of the resurrection was essentially put on trial in this first-generation persecution, yet the apostles didn’t cave, so they must have known with absolute certainty that it was true. I think the picture this argument paints is a pretty far-fetched distortion. It’s not as if any of the apostles were likely ever commanded by the authorities to admit that they hadn’t really seen the empty tomb or the risen body of Jesus, and refused. There’s just no reason to believe that’s what the persecution was about. It’s true that their proclamation of Jesus as the messiah who was ushering in a new age superseding the law and the traditional Jew-Gentile distinction may have been closely coupled in their own minds with their belief that he had risen from the dead, but that just doesn’t in any way imply that it was the claim of a bodily resurrection or the insistence that they had seen physical evidence of it that prompted the outrage or served as the flash point for any trial.
I am not denying that the positive background assumption would give us a nice explanation for why the first Christians had the strength of conviction to endure persecution for their new religious beliefs. But I am disputing the claim that they must have had indisputable evidence for the resurrection, such as a physical glimpse of the risen Jesus, in order to have held their new beliefs so strongly that they could endure being persecuted. Neither Paul nor his converts had a physical glimpse of the risen Jesus, yet they apparently had the strength of conviction to endure persecution. For that matter, it is not all that uncommon even today for people with widely varied religious beliefs to have the strength of conviction to endure persecution without having any indisputable evidence for their claims. So I don’t think this argument poses a significant problem for the negative background assumption.
A related argument some apologists make is that only indisputable evidence of a resurrection could plausibly explain the rapid growth of Christianity in its first generation, as it spread geographically across a substantial fraction of the Roman Empire. But if this growth was really based primarily on such evidence, wouldn’t we expect it to be concentrated in the areas where the evidence was actually available, meaning mainly in Jerusalem and perhaps other cities where the original apostles visited? Instead of this, as far as we can tell from the New Testament, the most impressive growth seems to have actually occurred as a result of the missionary journeys of Paul, an apostle who even under the positive background assumption hadn’t actually seen a physical appearance of Jesus. And even the initial growth of the church in Jerusalem apparently came as the result of a charismatic experience, not a consideration of the evidence of the empty tomb or a detailed interview of eyewitnesses who had personally and physically interacted with the risen Jesus.
The truth is, we simply do not have any indication that the first-generation church was particularly interested in apologetic evidence for the resurrection, contrary to what we would expect if such evidence was available and if this is what the rapid growth of the church was really attributable to. This kind of concern is not only generally lacking in Paul’s epistles, but even in the speeches attributed to him by the author of Acts. On the positive background assumption, which generally takes the account in Acts to be reliable, this is especially surprising, since these speeches in Acts are presented as his attempts to spread the gospel to regions where it had never been heard before. So these would have been the obvious occasions to talk about the evidence for what he was presenting. Yet even in his speech to the philosophers in Athens, for example (Acts 17:16-31), the very people who we would expect to be most interested in evidence, Paul is presented as merely asserting the resurrection as proof that Jesus was the one chosen by God to judge the world, but not even attempting to offer any evidence that the resurrection had actually taken place. Why no talk of the empty tomb here? Why no claims of hundreds of witnesses, or descriptions of appearances, or of Jesus eating and drinking with his original disciples? There is mention of just this last claim in one of Peter’s alleged sermons, specifically the one to Cornelius, who was already convinced of Peter’s apostleship (Acts 10:41), but none here in Athens where we would expect that the listeners would actually need to hear it.
In short, then, I see no reason to think that the spread of the early church through the efforts of Paul and others had anything to do with apologetic arguments for the truth of the resurrection. It seems to me that Christianity’s new appeal to win over converts from both Judaism and paganism was probably based on other factors besides compelling evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. This is as expected under the negative background assumption. But it is surprising that so little interest would be shown in the evidence for the resurrection if such compelling evidence were really available as the positive background assumption claims.
What are we to make of all these observations? In terms of sheer numbers, we clearly encounter many more difficulties with the positive background assumption than with the negative background assumption. This is admittedly not a totally fair comparison, however, since the positive background assumption is more detailed and in effect makes more specific predictions than the negative background assumption, so we shouldn’t be surprised to find more difficulties associated with it. It is the severity of the difficulties, not their mere numbers, that we have to try to evaluate in our consideration.
On the other side, I think it’s also fair to point out that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. So even if we were to conclude that the difficulties raised by the positive background assumption are no more severe than those raised by the negative background assumption, we still could not reasonably claim the two assumptions were therefore equally likely to be true. I think the argument for the resurrection needs the evidence to point fairly solidly in its favor in order to be even as convincing as a 50-50 proposition.
How we weigh the severity of the difficulties and how much extra evidence we require for extraordinary claims will always be subjective factors. But for me, the odds appear to favor the negative background assumption even before giving the second factor its due. This means in the final analysis I have to judge the bodily resurrection of Jesus to be overwhelmingly improbable.
Liberal Christians might object at this point that we can still believe that Jesus was raised from the dead in a spiritual or maybe even only metaphorical way even if the evidence argues against his resurrection involving an actual, physical body. This is a valid point. For a short time after losing my faith in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, I myself continued to believe he had risen in a very real, though non-physical, way. In the end, however, I think it is very difficult to claim any rational or evidential basis for this belief, or indeed for the belief that Christianity makes any uniquely valid claims at all, if we admit that the evidence for a bodily resurrection just isn’t there. What else are we left with to make the case, other than mere sentiments and feelings that there must be something to this religion?
I understand such sentiments and feelings regarding the supposed reality of the resurrection. I think they’re probably what most Christians really put their faith in anyway, including the conservative ones who are totally convinced Jesus was raised in bodily form. As one familiar hymn puts it, “You ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart.” I felt these sentiments myself when I still assumed, under the idyllic intoxication of my dogmatic slumbers, that there were good reasons out there somewhere for my Christian views. But these feelings quickly lost their intensity and persuasive appeal when I had to judge them unsupported by the evidence. Unlike some, I also found it impossible to retain any affection for religious practices and traditions under these circumstances.
I admit that I might be mistaken in my evaluation, of course. It’s possible others might undertake the same analysis I have, with even more depth than I have, and come to a more ambiguous conclusion, or even the opposite one. I know very few Christians who have actually even attempted to do this, but I do not claim metaphysical certainty for any of my views, let alone those hazily decoded from the hoary echoes of ancient history. I cannot regard this possibility as either likely or worrisome, however, since by definition I cannot believe what to my mind’s most careful consideration seems so probably false. And that is why, after spending approximately the first half of my life as a devoted Christian, I had to admit that I had been fooling myself about why I believed, and I rejected the Christian faith.
|||I don’t mean to imply there was a specific moment when I stopped believing in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, or that it coincided exactly with my exit from Christianity. There was rather a gradual diminishing of my confidence in that idea as I researched the issue, which led fairly quickly and straightforwardly to my complete renunciation of the faith. As a rough estimate, I would say this process probably started in earnest sometime around the year 2012, though I had entertained some doubts even before this. By the beginning of 2014 I mostly identified as a very progressive or liberal Christian and thought the resurrection was very likely only spiritual rather than physical in nature, and before the year was out I had stopped believing in it altogether and no longer considered myself a Christian in any sense at all.|
|||Acts 9:7 mentions Paul’s companions hearing a sound or “voice,” but this was apparently not intended to imply they heard any actual intelligible speech, as clarified later in Acts 22:9.|
|||2 Corinthians seems to have been written after Paul’s trip to Jerusalem in which he was asked to take up a collection for the poor, which he seems to have put at about 17 years after his conversion experience, thus ruling out the idea that a vision seen 14 years prior to the writing of 2 Corinthians could have happened at his conversion (Galatians 1:18, 2:1, 2:10, 2 Corinthians 9:1-5). The chronology might possibly work out if the 14-year interval of Galatians 2:1 is somewhat unnaturally interpreted as starting at his conversion rather than at his first trip to Jerusalem, however.|
|||See Acts 1:8, for example. The rest of the book follows this pattern of Christianity spreading from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria (Acts 8), then to “the ends of the earth” in the form of the first Gentile convert (Acts 10) and Paul’s subsequent missionary journeys throughout the Roman Empire.|
|||We tend to think of the distinction between physical and non-physical in a very absolute, Cartesian sense that was probably foreign to ancient thought. Plato apparently conceived of both the stars and human souls as being made of the same other-worldly (non-physical?) kind of material, for example. So it is difficult to know exactly what Paul meant by his talk of a “spiritual body” in contrast to the former “physical” one (1 Corinthians 15:44). I have argued that he did not think of the “spiritual body” in the crassly “flesh and blood” physical sense that would involve eating and drinking, but I do not deny that he may have thought of it as having an other-worldly composition that would nevertheless still qualify as physical to our more Cartesian way of thinking.|
|||The list of people besides Paul and the twelve who were definitely called apostles in the New Testament includes Barnabas (Acts 14:14), James (Galatians 1:19), and Epaphroditus (Philippians 2:25, though many translations use the word “messenger” here even though it is the same Greek word for apostle). It also probably, though arguably, includes Andronicus and Junia (Romans 16:7), Apollos and possibly Sosthenes (1 Corinthians 4:6-9 in conjunction with 1:1), and Silas/Silvanus and Timothy (1 Thessalonians 2:6 in conjunction with 1:1). There are also some unnamed individuals who were explicitly referred to as apostles (2 Corinthians 8:23), and many others who contentiously claimed to be apostles (2 Corinthians 11:13, Revelation 2:2), which wouldn’t make much sense if the title was generally thought to apply only to the twelve and just a few other, very exceptional cases like Paul.|
|||See Galatians 2:11-14. The author of Acts ignored this incident and gave the impression that the apostles in Jerusalem, including Peter, were always of the same mind as Paul. But there are reasons even within the storyline of Acts to suspect there might well have been deeper tensions remaining. For example, it is difficult to imagine the Paul of Galatians willingly complying with James’ request that he offer sacrifices in the temple so that “all will know that...you yourself live in observance of the law” (Acts 21:24). If there is any truth at all to this story, it seems more likely that Paul felt he was over a barrel here, presumably wanting at all costs to avoid the appearance that there were irreconcilable differences between his brand of Christianity and that of the other apostles. Yet the differences loomed large enough in public appearance at least that James and the group with him were apparently able to live side-by-side with the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem and freely offer sacrifices in the temple, while Paul was immediately arrested and threatened with death as soon as he was recognized doing the same. Whether James realized his request (or demand?) would likely have this result is not told in the story, but there is also curiously no indication given that he felt any remorse about it, or that he was willing to sacrifice his own standing with the authorities in order to defend Paul in the matter after the incident occurred.|
|||It’s also very possible that the resurrection was associated with the third day for theological reasons rather than historical ones, perhaps based on Jewish commentary of Hosea 6:2. Similarly, the early Christian custom of gathering on the first day of the week instead of the Jewish Sabbath could have originally been for theological reasons, or perhaps even just practical ones, rather than being a memorial to which day Jesus was held to have risen on.|
|||N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), p. 686.|
|||Rudolf Bultmann was perhaps the most famous advocate for some form of this view. More current well-known progressive or liberal Christian theologians who continue to embrace some idea of a spiritual resurrection of Jesus even though they deny that it was physical include Bishop John Shelby Spong, John Dominic Crossan, and Marcus Borg (recently deceased).|
This page copyright © 2017 Edward A. Morris. Created May 16, 2017. Last updated May 23, 2017.
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