I have shown through reason and logic, which are rightly viewed as important by skeptics, that the groups who came after the original apostles were probably not the source of the Resurrection Story, at least without the formation of a highly elaborate and implausible conspiracy.
Paul and his associates were probably not the source. Paul’s alleged encounter with the risen Christ would not have been believed unless the original apostles already believed Jesus had been raised. This is the simplest explanation for why Paul was accepted into the Christian community. His letters also provide evidence that he wasn’t the source of the story. They are dated before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD and treat the resurrection of Jesus as a fact.
The internal evidence in Luke’s second book, the Acts of Apostles, and therefore also the gospel bearing his name, implies it was written before the destruction of Jerusalem, during the lifetime of the apostles and women who claimed to be eyewitnesses. Luke’s gospel contains the details of the Resurrection Story, and Acts shows the outcome of early Christian missionary work. This suggests the later Church, after most or all of the apostles had died, was unlikely to be the source of the story.
It was also far too late for Roman emperor Constantine, or the Church once it acquired an official status in the fourth century AD, to make any changes to the core Christian story. The Council of Nicaea in 325AD was simply arguing over the interpretation of words written a century or two earlier.
Christians believe that Jesus was the “anointed one,” the “Messiah,” destined according to Jewish scriptures to come through the lineage of King David and be born in Bethlehem, the city of David. The leaders of Judaism accepted that Jesus was a real person, even if they didn’t believe he was their Messiah. This strongly suggests Jesus wasn’t a myth or fictional character, as in the “Heavenly Christ” hypothesis.
In other words, the evidence we have indicates that Christian belief in the resurrection of Jesus had already been established by the time Paul wrote his letters, and so most likely originated in the time of the original apostles.
In addition, there are three logical reasons why the apostles were almost certainly the source of the Resurrection Story.
First of all, their credibility depended on it. They claimed to be eyewitnesses of Jesus’ ministry and resurrection, but if they couldn’t supply the details regarding what happened, their claim to be eyewitnesses would fail and their authority as apostles would be damaged.
Second, the story of Jesus’ resurrection needed to be believable, both to the disciples and also to potential converts. But if there were no eyewitness reports, skeptics and disciples alike would have plenty of room to doubt that Jesus had been raised, and the Christian message would have much less momentum.
Third, Christians were commissioned to make disciples of all the nations. But if the apostles didn’t ensure an accurate account of the Resurrection Story – at least accurate insofar as far they saw it – was transmitted and then preserved for later generations and the wider world, they would have failed to honor that commission. Spreading the message about Jesus to the nations would also be much harder if the disciples couldn’t get their stories straight about how he was raised.
Incidentally, the same reasoning can also be used to argue that the gospels were likely written earlier, not later as some skeptics claim. It was the responsibility of the apostles to ensure that Jesus’ teachings were transmitted accurately. It might be harder for the apostles to do this once they were dead, so the gospels were more likely to have been compiled while at least some of them were still alive, as early Christian writers indicate.
To summarize: the original apostles, the “Twelve,” were the only ones with the means, motive and opportunity to be the source of the Resurrection Story. They were the leaders of the early Christian movement, appointed by Jesus himself. If we were to treat this as a criminal investigation, that would make them the prime suspects.
The women, such as Mary Magdalene, may have made an important contribution to the story, but it was the apostles who were in charge of spreading it and thus determining what went into it.
Furthermore, the story can’t have changed in any substantial way from the time it came into existence. Significant changes, such as the introduction of new characters who didn’t exist before, could have been seized upon by opponents, as well as becoming a source of doubt and skepticism for believers.
There are three main components of the Resurrection Story we have today: the empty tomb, the encounters with Jesus, and the appearance of men or angels in Jesus’ tomb, seen exclusively by the women. These are almost certainly the same three components present from the beginning.
The “empty tomb” was necessary for the story to gain its initial momentum. It also showed that blind faith wasn’t being asked of the disciples. This would have meant believing Jesus had been raised without any physical evidence.
The “encounters with Jesus” must have been present from the start, or else how could the apostles claim to be eyewitnesses? Without this element, they would just be witnesses to an empty tomb, which by itself wouldn’t be convincing evidence of Jesus’ resurrection, and would have left even many of the disciples doubting it happened, let alone opponents.
The “appearance of men or angels” component was likely also there from the start. The testimonies of the women served to corroborate what the men experienced, helping to strengthen their belief that Jesus had been raised. In other words, the “encounters with Jesus” and “appearances of angels” elements reinforced and complemented each another.
Also, the differing versions of the Resurrection Story suggest the gospel writers were accurately reporting the testimony of two or three individuals from two groups of women. The first group went deeper into the tomb, and saw two men. To this group, it was obvious the men were angels. The second group went in, but perhaps stayed near the entrance. They saw only one man to the right of where Jesus should have been. To them, it wasn’t clear the man was an angel, but given the circumstances they were willing to accept he probably was.
Matthew says that Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joses, came to view the grave early in the morning, and an angel spoke to them saying Jesus had been raised. While Matthew’s account reads as if the two women were together the whole time, they could have set out together, but then Magdalene could have returned later and had a similar experience to the other Mary, as John’s gospel suggests. I think Matthew wrote it this way for the purpose of brevity, because the two women had basically the same experience in regard to seeing angels and encountering Jesus.
Mark’s account of the resurrection is the shortest. It includes the two women in Matthew’s version, and also Salome. I think Mark erred on the side of caution and simply reported one man to the right of where Jesus should have been, perhaps because Salome stayed near the entrance and only saw one man, and she couldn’t say for sure that he was an angel.
Luke claimed to have followed all things accurately from the start. His sources seem to have been the same two women as in Matthew’s gospel, and also Joanna, who isn’t mentioned in the other gospels. They claimed to have seen two men wearing shining garments in Jesus’ tomb. In the same chapter, Luke made it clear the women believed the men were angels. He wrote that other women were also present, but he doesn’t name them, perhaps to draw more attention to his named sources.
In regard to the women, John’s account is focused only on Mary Magdalene, who was by herself when she saw the two angels. I think Magdalene must have accompanied the other women to the grave as Matthew says, but then she ran off to tell Peter and John, returning a little later to the tomb as John implies.
While Magdalene was a single witness in John’s account, I think the apostle counted himself as a second witness to the resurrection, because he personally heard what Magdalene said, he saw the empty tomb, and he also wrote that later the same day Jesus appeared to the disciples in a locked room, which presumably included himself.
What this means is, each of the four gospel writers were following the scriptural requirement that two or three witnesses were needed to establish any matter of importance. The gospel accounts differ because of this, depending on which two or three witnesses each writer was relying on. This is further evidence that the accounts of the resurrection are accurate, at least in terms of reporting what the eyewitnesses claimed to have seen.
In summary, I think I have made a good case for saying that the apostles were almost certainly the source of the Resurrection Story, and that the version we have today is very likely the same one told by the apostles and disciples back in 33AD or thereabouts.