If the apostle Paul wasn’t the source of the Resurrection Story, then could the Christian Church after his day have come up with it somehow, perhaps as a result of stories being made up or exaggerated?
Incidentally, from now on I will use the term “Church” to refer to the whole group of mainstream Christians, rather than a building, congregation or any particular denomination we know today.
My third hypothesis is as follows: the later Church, particularly after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD and the death of most of the apostles, was the source of the Resurrection Story we know today. I call this the “Church Conspiracy” hypothesis.
To examine this, we first need to consider what the Church could have believed before they supposedly came up with the story, assuming the hypothesis is correct. For early Christians, Jesus would still have to be someone worth preaching about. He would still need to be a holy man and perhaps some kind of savior. Perhaps the message was, as Paul said to his jailer: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” 1 The early Christian movement could have been similar to the ministry of John the Baptist, who taught baptism as a symbol of repentance for forgiveness of sins.2
In short, maybe the early Christian faith was simply about belief in Jesus as a prophet and savior from our sins. If many of the people in his day could accept that John the Baptist was a prophet, they could probably embrace this form of Jesus, especially if he was a good and holy man. Perhaps early Christians believed Jesus was a prophet who taught some good things and then died, and that was it.
However, Paul’s claim to have encountered the risen Christ depended on Jesus being alive. In turn, acceptance of Paul by the apostles meant they also had to believe Jesus was alive. Therefore, maybe early Christians believed Jesus had been raised, but they had no official story about it. After all, they didn’t have any gospels, since those would only be written some decades after Jesus’ death around 30 or 33AD.
What they did have, as most scholars will agree, is a collection of Paul’s letters, written between ten and thirty years after Jesus’ death, in which he assumes Jesus rose from the dead. But in the hypothesis I am examining in this chapter, Paul and his associates didn’t invent the Resurrection Story. This would somehow be the product of the later Church.
An interesting question we could ask at this point is: can the Resurrection Story be pieced together solely from Paul’s so-called “authentic” letters? The answer is no. As I have said before, those letters are Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon.
In these we get a brief outline of how Jesus died. From Paul’s letter to the Romans we deduce that Jesus was handed over.3 From 1 Corinthians we learn that on the night he was betrayed, Jesus instituted a ritual in which Christians share in the body and blood of Christ by eating bread and drinking wine.4 From the same letter we learn that he was executed by the rulers of the age.5 From this letter and also from Galatians we are told he died on a cross or stake.6 From Philippians we learn that he suffered.7
However, in all of these letters except Philemon, Paul assumes or implies that Jesus was raised from the dead. He often makes arguments that depend on Christ’s resurrection, such as: his resurrection is what allows for forgiveness of sins;8 it’s how we know Jesus is God’s Son;9 the dead are only sleeping, awaiting a resurrection;10 Paul himself, like Jesus had already done, wanted to attain to the resurrection of the dead;11 Paul’s readers were waiting for the Son from the heavens, whom God had raised up.12
Clearly then, if these are Paul’s letters, as even skeptical scholars say they are, the later Church didn’t invent the concept of Jesus being raised. The belief was already common among Christians while Paul was alive.
Paul may have sketched out the core idea, but maybe he wasn’t too concerned about the details. After all, it wasn’t the suffering Jesus who supposedly appeared to him on the road to Damascus, but the risen Christ, which was Paul’s primary focus in his ministry. Therefore, if we are to accept the Church Conspiracy hypothesis, the Church after Paul’s day must have somehow filled in the details.
However, it is precisely these details that early opponents of the Christian message would have demanded to know, and potential new disciples would have needed to know. Who was Jesus? How and why was he executed? What were the circumstances of his death and resurrection? How do you know he was raised up?
The original apostles, “the Twelve,” claimed to be witnesses of Jesus’ ministry and resurrection. This was also the criteria they set for appointing a replacement for Judas Iscariot.13 The purpose of a witness is to report on what they have seen personally. But what credibility would the apostles have if they couldn’t supply the details about Jesus’ resurrection? Their claim to be witnesses would fail and their authority as apostles would falter.
Many people in Judea may have heard about Jesus and the circumstances of his death. After this, the apostles led and taught his disciples, and those disciples helped spread the word about Jesus. As their message reached into lands far away from the religious and political world of Judea, the disciples would need a good grasp of the details regarding Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection, to convince those who were unfamiliar with Jesus that he had risen. Those details would need to be consistent, so that new disciples would believe the same things, and so that opponents couldn’t accuse Christians of making things up as they went along.
Furthermore, the details could have been useful as Paul appealed to Caesar in Rome. While examining Paul’s case, the government may have wanted to know who Jesus was, what he was charged with, and the circumstances of his death and alleged resurrection, especially as the story involved soldiers, officials and governors.
Besides, for Christians to be able to claim that Jesus was the Suffering Servant foretold by the prophet Isaiah, they would have to show how he suffered, died and was raised up. Mere assertions from Paul, who by his own admission wasn’t a believer at the time of the alleged resurrection, probably wouldn’t have been enough to convince a skeptic living at the time. Indeed, when governor Festus heard the outline of Paul’s story, he replied in a similar way to a typical skeptic: “You are crazy, Paul! Great learning is sending you crazy!”14
Admittedly, some people might have believed in the resurrection of Jesus simply because the apostles said it happened. After all, people have believed much stranger things based on the word of others, and Christians today believe it primarily because of the gospels.
However, I would suggest that assertions alone wouldn’t have created the kind of faith that could survive a trial by fire, which is what Christians faced in those early days. This was also implied by Jesus himself in one of his parables, where he said that some would hear the word eagerly, but because they had no root in themselves they would be stumbled when tribulation or persecution came.15
The apostles’ claims might have been enough to produce an initial believer, but it probably wasn’t enough to produce mature Christians, of the kind Paul wrote about in his letters. This would require a deeper faith, fortified by details such as a knowledge of who Jesus was, what he did and taught, and how he suffered, died and came back to life. Paul didn’t provide those details in his letters because he was writing to believers, not skeptics.
In other words, even though the gospels weren’t written until later, a core collection of eyewitness accounts must have been in existence from the beginning, to supply the details of Jesus’ death and alleged resurrection, and to support the idea that the apostles were witnesses. Those accounts would have collectively told some form of Resurrection Story, to justify the disciples’ belief that Jesus had been raised.
The next question then is: was the Resurrection Story the early Christians believed essentially the same one we have in our gospels today, or were certain parts exaggerated or fabricated by the later Church?
I have already argued that some elements of the story must have been there from the start. The stone over Jesus’ tomb must have been removed along with his body, otherwise it would be hard for the disciples to claim a resurrection had taken place. If they had encountered the risen Christ, but the tomb was still sealed, the apostles could have called into question their own sanity – if not right away, then perhaps in later years.
What about the women who found the empty tomb? According to the gospels, they also encountered angels and then Jesus himself. Could these women have been made up by the later Church to provide additional witnesses?
According to Luke’s gospel, the women included Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of the apostle James, Joanna the wife of King Herod’s steward Chuza, and other unnamed women.16 Many of them had accompanied Jesus in his ministry and ministered to him from their belongings.17 Matthew’s gospel includes the mother of the apostles James and John, the sons of Zebedee.18 Mark’s version includes the name Salome.19
If these women were simply made up by the gospel writers, early skeptics and even believers could have pointed out that they weren’t in the original Resurrection Story being preached. Indeed, the presence of even one fictional character would have given opponents the ammunition they needed to defeat the Christian message, and Christians a cause to doubt the stories they treasured. Besides, if the apostles were real, then presumably their mothers were as well, and at least one or two of these women were mothers of apostles.
In other words, rather than being fictional characters, they were likely to have been real disciples known to the Christian community, especially if they had accompanied Jesus throughout his ministry.
However, even though they were likely to be real people, could their stories have been made up by the later Church, to give more credibility to the idea that Jesus had been raised?
To a certain extent, this depends on when the gospels were written and by whom. The early Christians were a tightly bonded community, centered around the life, death and teachings of Jesus Christ, whom they considered their Lord. They would have probably felt an obligation to communicate the words and deeds of their Lord as accurately as possible. This is why I think it likely the gospels were written before the apostles and other witnesses had died.
The gospels of Matthew and Mark are hard to date, but they use a lot of material similar to Luke. I have already made a strong case for the gospel of Luke being written well before the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD by an associate of Paul named Luke. This would place his gospel within the lifetime of the disciples who heard Jesus, making it much harder for the author to just make up their stories.
According to early Christian sources, the apostle John was the author of the gospel of John, and it was written after the other three. The author seems to rely on the testimony of Mary Magdalene, who is said to have encountered two angels at Jesus’ tomb, and then Jesus himself.
If the author had simply made up her testimony, Christians could have doubted or even rejected his gospel. But if her story is accurate, in the sense that she really did claim to have seen what John wrote, this would help explain why the gospel gained wide acceptance within the Christian community. His audience knew he was writing the truth as he saw it. Of course, this doesn’t prove Mary Magdalene really encountered angels, but it does suggest John wasn’t just making those things up.
If the women’s testimonies weren’t actually fabricated by the gospel writers, perhaps they were based on stories that got exaggerated later. Maybe what the women saw was just the stone out of place and the empty tomb. Since this wasn’t exactly proof of Jesus’ resurrection, perhaps rumors began to circulate that they had seen much more; and gradually, as the women died and the gospels were written, rumors were elevated to the status of facts and became part of the Resurrection Story, to strengthen the idea that something miraculous had occurred.
If considered in isolation, I suppose this is plausible. However, according to the story, it wasn’t the testimony of the women that convinced the apostles Jesus had been raised. Apparently they thought the women’s stories were nonsense! What convinced them was that Jesus appeared to the apostles and disciples multiple times; and this wasn’t a series of fleeting apparitions, but he supposedly ate meals with them, held conversations with them, and taught them over a period of forty days. In other words, if this is what they experienced, but Jesus wasn’t actually raised up, they were having mass delusions of the highest order.
Maybe a more reasonable explanation is that these details were also exaggerated by the later Church, to make the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection sound stronger than it really was. Maybe the real truth was, the apostles just saw fleeting apparitions and heard occasional voices of Jesus, prior to Paul’s conversion due to sunstroke.
However, the apostles and disciples still needed something to convince them they had encountered the risen Christ, otherwise why bother to preach this, let alone risk death for it? Why not just preach what they knew to be true: Jesus was a good and holy man who wanted to bring people closer to God and a more accurate understanding of the Law, and who expected his disciples to share his teachings far and wide, including baptism as a symbol of repentance?
Surely this would have been more acceptable to the people, and win over many more converts, especially since many accepted John the Baptist had been a prophet. Jesus would have been another prophet. This would have been far more acceptable than preaching that Jesus was the Son of God who was raised from the dead.
Yet according to Luke’s second book, the Acts of Apostles, Peter’s first speech to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, on the day of Pentecost around the year 33AD, included the claim that Jesus was handed over, put to death, resurrected, and that the apostles were witnesses of those things.20
True, there isn’t a lot of detail in Peter’s speech, so as with Paul’s letters, perhaps it could serve as an outline for the more detailed Resurrection Story we have today. Either way, according to the account, his speech was convincing enough for 3,000 people to be baptized in the name of Jesus that day.21
Assuming the account is true, what gave Peter the confidence to boldly proclaim in front of so many people that his Lord had risen? And why did so many people accept what Peter had said?
Maybe the former fisherman had become an almost overnight master of speaking and persuasion; but a simpler explanation would be that these people were familiar with the circumstances of Jesus’ death, so they accepted Peter’s explanation that God had raised Jesus.
Prior to his speech there had apparently been an outpouring of God’s Spirit, causing all of the disciples to speak in the various languages of the people residing in Jerusalem. Some skeptics mocked and said they were just drunk. It is a strange drunkenness that allows people to speak foreign languages fluently, but I suppose if a hearer only speaks one language, other speakers would sound like babble. Either way, Peter dealt with their skepticism by pointing out that they weren’t drunk because it was still early in the morning; and more importantly, an outpouring of God’s Spirit had already been foretold through the prophet Joel, who wrote:
“And it will be afterwards that I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; and your sons and your daughters will prophecy. Your old ones will dream dreams and your young men will see visions; and also on the male servants and on the female servants I will pour out my spirit in those days. And I will give wonders in the heavens, and in the earth, blood and fire and pillars of smoke. The sun will be turned into darkness and the moon into blood, before the coming of the great and terrifying day of YHWH. And it will be that everyone who will call on the name of YHWH will escape.”22
In other words, Peter reminded his audience that an outpouring of God’s Spirit, accompanied by supernatural sights, was due before YHWH’s great day, which to early Christians would have been viewed as being fulfilled by the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD. But maybe Peter’s speech was also fabricated by the later Church, and they were smart enough to include skeptics to make it sound more plausible.
A related question we could ask at this point is, how easy would it be for stories like this to be fabricated, and added to the writings considered to be scripture by Christians? To answer this, consider the following curious riddle.
In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, we are told that Jesus was “raised up on the third day according to the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve.” 23 Cephas was the name given by Jesus to Simon, also called Peter, the one who famously denied knowing Jesus three times before a cock crowed.
Paul said that the risen Jesus first appeared to Cephas. Yet nowhere in the gospels is this story told. There is just a small allusion to it in the gospel of Luke. According to this gospel, when Peter heard something had happened at Jesus’ tomb, he ran there and found it to be empty apart from the linen cloths. Later on, two men were traveling to Emmaus when Jesus supposedly traveled alongside them and conversed with them. The men didn’t realize it was Jesus. Only when they arrived at their lodging place, and he said a blessing over their meal, did they recognize him, and then he disappeared. The two men got up, returned to Jerusalem and found the apostles who were saying, “the Lord has indeed been raised up, and has appeared to Simon!” Then the two men recounted their story.24
Some skeptics claim this was a clumsy attempt on Luke’s part to validate Paul’s statement about Jesus first appearing to Cephas. But then, why was Luke so clumsy? Why didn’t he just make up a story about Jesus encountering Simon Peter? The skeptic argues that Luke couldn’t do this, because no such story was known by the Christian community, so it would be obvious to his readers that he had made it up. Therefore Luke tried to imply Peter was one of the two men on the road to Emmaus, without directly saying it.
Now, there is no actual evidence Luke is trying to do this. But even if he was, it shows the difficulty a gospel writer would have faced in fabricating a story that wasn’t already familiar to the Christian community.
In Luke’s book of Acts, Paul’s first encounter with the risen Christ is told three times. Peter also makes speeches, but nowhere does he tell the story of what happened when he first encountered the risen Christ. If Luke was making up parts of his book, surely he could have fabricated the story of Peter’s encounter.
What about the two letters in the New Testament bearing Peter’s name? The first one was considered authentic by the early Church, but the authenticity of the second was in doubt, although it was still widely read. Nowadays, skeptical scholars doubt both, for reasons I will touch on in a moment. But if these letters are fabrications, surely they would have been the perfect place to tell a story about Peter’s first encounter with the risen Jesus. Yet even they are silent on the matter.
My point here is this: even if the gospels were written after the death of the apostles, the authors couldn’t just insert a fabricated story about Peter’s encounter with Jesus, because the Christian community didn’t know of such a story.
Furthermore, even if the two letters bearing Peter’s name aren’t really his, whoever wrote them didn’t dare make up a story that wasn’t already believed by the community, because then the letters would risk not merely being doubted, but actually rejected by the community to which they were addressed.
The same logic applies to all the contents of the four gospels accepted by Christians – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. If a fabricated story was added, the entire gospel risked being rejected not just by skeptics, but also by Christians themselves.
This is why the testimony of the women was likely to have remained the same from the start, because otherwise opponents could have pointed out how their stories had changed, and even the Christian community would have questioned the reliability of their own gospels.
Similarly, the idea of a man walking on water or feeding crowds from a few loaves and fishes may sound hard to believe from a modern perspective, but if the gospel writers were merely making those stories up, both skeptics and Christians themselves would have had plenty of room for doubt.
On the other hand, if the gospels accurately reflected what the early Christian community already believed about Jesus, this would explain why they gained widespread acceptance by the community. It would also explain why Jesus being raised from the dead was not too difficult for them to believe. It would be the ultimate miracle in a life already filled with miracles.
Incidentally, why do many skeptical scholars think the letters of Peter aren’t authentic? One argument is that Peter was likely to have been illiterate. However, even if we assume Peter never learned to write throughout his Christian ministry, someone could have written them on his behalf, just as Tertius wrote Paul’s letter to the Romans on his behalf.25 The author of 1 Peter even says this is what happened: “Through Silvanus, a brother to you of the faithful, as I account him, I have written in brief.” 26
Another argument is that the author of 1 Peter draws from the Greek translation of the Bible known as the Septuagint, used primarily by converts to the Jewish faith. However, the gospel writers also do the same, because they are writing to a wide audience.
Early Christian writers generally accepted the first letter of Peter as authentic. However, the second letter seems to have been less widely known and accepted. It uses a rougher form of Greek than the first, which has led some scholars to conclude the two must have been written by different authors. But this could be explained by the hand of Silvanus in the first letter.
The second letter begins, “Simon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ.” The author says he is about to die as Jesus had previously indicated to him. A hint at how Peter would die is also given in John’s gospel.27
The author of 2 Peter mentions being an eyewitness of Jesus’ glory: “For we did not make known to you the power and presence of our Lord Jesus Christ by following clever myths, but by being spectators of that one’s magnificence. For he received honor and glory from God the Father, from the voice conveyed to him in the following manner by the magnificent glory: ‘This is my Son, the beloved, in whom I delight.’ And this is the voice we heard out of heaven, when we were brought together with him in the holy mountain. And we have the word of prophecy confirmed even more, to which you are doing well by paying attention to it.”28
This event, often referred to by Christians as “the Transfiguration,” is described in three of the four gospels. Jesus took Peter, James and John to a high mountain, and he was transformed somehow before them, his face shining like the sun, and his garments becoming as white as the light. Then a cloud covered them and they heard a voice from heaven.29
Extraordinary though this may sound, if we suppose for a moment that something like this really did happen, it would have had a major impact on Peter’s faith, since it seemed to foreshadow Jesus being raised to glory and departing to heaven on a cloud.
The author of 2 Peter also refers to the letters of Paul and views them as scripture.30 Some scholars argue this implies a later date for authorship, perhaps in the second century AD when Paul’s letters were widely known and accepted by the Christian community. However, the letters were probably familiar to Christians by the time of Peter’s death in the early 60’s AD, and held in high enough esteem that Peter could say they had attained the status of scripture within the Christian community.
Alternatively, if the apostle Peter really was the author of 2 Peter, he could have simply been exercising his authority as an apostle, to help the community determine what would later become accepted Christian scriptures. In other words, he was indicating that Paul’s letters were to be considered on a par with other scripture.
Now, according to Mark’s gospel, on the morning of the supposed resurrection, Mary Magdalene, Salome, and Mary the mother of James had gone with spices to the tomb, but they found the large stone rolled away, and “entering into the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a white robe, and they were stunned.”31 After the man said Jesus had been raised, he told the women to tell the disciples and Peter that Jesus would go ahead of them into Galilee, and they would see him there.
In the most ancient manuscripts, Mark’s gospel ends with the women fleeing from the tomb, trembling and stunned, and “they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”32 Some Christians maybe didn’t like the way this gospel ended, because later manuscripts contain a few alternative endings which are more positive, seemingly borrowed from Matthew or Luke’s account. This suggests Mark’s gospel was written quite early on, if later Christians felt the need to add to it.
Whatever the case, the original ending of Mark’s gospel seems to contradict what Matthew and Luke say. In Matthew’s version, instead of saying nothing, the women leave the tomb with fear and great joy, and they run to report to the disciples, encountering Jesus along the way. In Luke’s version the women see two men in shining garments, who remind the women of Jesus’ words about how he said he would be executed and rise on the third day. Then they go off and report to the apostles. Luke also mentions Joanna instead of Salome.
In John’s gospel it was just Mary Magdalene who saw the empty tomb, and she went running to tell Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved, presumably the author of the gospel.
If the writers copied one another as some skeptics claim, they did a poor job, because there are so many apparent contradictions. However, if the gospels are really the products of varying eyewitness testimony, this would explain the differences.
For example, if Luke is telling the truth when he says he followed all things accurately from the start, he would want to draw from the testimony of people who were there. Among the women, perhaps he couldn’t speak to Salome for whatever reason, but he could talk with Joanna.
According to Christian tradition, the gospel of John was the last of the four gospels. Many of the original eyewitnesses might not have been alive at the time, but perhaps Mary Magdalene was, which is why John focuses on her. Alternatively, maybe he singles her out because she was the person who came and spoke to him and Peter.
Whatever the case, let’s look at how the differences could be resolved, by considering what I will call “The Untold Story Of The Empty Tomb” – untold, that is, until now.
1 Acts 16:31. 2 Luke 3:3. 3 Romans 4:24,25. 4 1 Corinthians 11:23-26. 5 1 Corinthians 2:2,8. 6 1 Corinthians 1:13-18,23; Galatians 3:1. 7 Philippians 3:10,11. 8 1 Corinthians 15:12-22. 9 Romans 1:4. 10 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. 11 Philippians 3:10,11. 12 1 Thessalonians 1:10. 13 Acts 1:21,22. 14 Acts 26:24. 15 Matthew 13:1-23. 16 Luke 24:10. 17 Luke 8:1-3. 18 Matthew 27:55,56; 28:1. 19 Mark 15:40,41; 16:1. 20 Acts 2:1-36. 21 Acts 2:37-42. 22 Joel 2:28-32. 23 1 Corinthians 15:3-5. 24 Luke 24:12-35. 25 Romans 16:22. 26 1 Peter 5:12. 27 John 21:18,19. 28 2 Peter 1:16-19. 29 Matthew 17:1-8; Mark 9:1-9; Luke 9:27-36. 30 2 Peter 3:15,16. 31 Mark 16:5. 32 Mark 16:8.
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