Finally then, we come to the most important question of all: what really happened in around 33AD? Did Jesus actually rise from the dead, as the apostles and disciples claimed? This is the real question, and the heart of the matter.
If there is no God, I accept that the story of Jesus’ resurrection is implausible. But if there is a God after all, then his resurrection is possible; and if Jesus was who he claimed to be, the Son of God, I’d suggest his rising from the dead wasn’t just possible but probable. Either way, let’s look carefully at each component of the Resurrection Story one last time.
The first component was the empty tomb. This was necessary for the story of Jesus’ resurrection to gain momentum. Why was it empty, and what happened to the body? If Jesus wasn’t raised, someone must have opened the tomb and removed the body, leaving the linen cloths.
Here we have to ask an important question: did Jesus really die, or could he have somehow survived crucifixion and come out of the tomb by himself?
According to the gospels, darkness fell upon the land from the sixth hour until the ninth hour, or midday until 3pm, and Jesus expired shortly afterwards.1 Matthew’s gospel says that the moment he died, the curtain of the Jewish Temple was torn in two from top to bottom, and there was a powerful earthquake. When the army officer and those keeping watch saw the circumstances under which Jesus had died, they grew afraid and reportedly said, “Certainly this was God’s Son.”2
John’s gospel says that when the soldiers saw Jesus was dead, one of them jabbed the side of the body with a spear, and blood and water came out.3 According to all four gospels, Joseph of Arimathea, a rich man and a secret disciple for fear of the Jews, went to Pontius Pilate, the governor of Judea, and asked for the body. Joseph and a man named Nicodemus wrapped it in fine linen, laid it in a new tomb, and rolled a big stone over the entrance.4
In Mark’s gospel, Pilate first checked with the centurion who had witnessed the execution, to ensure Jesus was dead, before he handed over the body to Joseph.5 This means there were multiple eyewitnesses to Jesus’ death, and several people were in a position to confirm that he was dead.
Besides, for the disciples to believe Jesus had been raised, they had to first believe he had died. If he had survived his own execution, his bruised and bloodied state would hardly be a good basis for them to believe he had risen miraculously.
I think the Roman ability to crucify people, the zeal of the religious leaders to see that Jesus was put to death, and the way the disciples treated Jesus’ body and their surprise at the subsequent events, all suggest that Jesus really did die.
So who opened the tomb and removed Jesus’ body? Did the religious authorities do it, so the disciples couldn’t do anything with the body? If so, I think it’s fair to say that, in hindsight, they committed one of the most incredible blunders of all time. But I don’t think they were stupid enough to do this. It would fuel speculation that Jesus had risen, unless they later produced his body to refute the beliefs they themselves had helped to create. It would be far simpler, and make much more sense, just to ensure Jesus’ tomb was guarded properly, until his claim that he would rise on the third day was no longer possible.
Could the Roman authorities have removed Jesus’ body? I don’t think they had any good motive for doing this. According to John, Pontius Pilate ordered Jesus’ execution partly because of the accusation made by the religious leaders that he had claimed to be a king.6 Pilate put “THE KING OF THE JEWS” on a sign above Jesus’ head in Hebrew, Latin and Greek, which could be read by people entering Jerusalem, primarily as a warning to others who might be tempted to proclaim themselves king.7
If the Roman authorities had opened the tomb and removed Jesus’ body to make it look like he had been raised from the dead, this would give credence to the idea that he was a king. Furthermore, it would make the authorities look weak and incompetent, and perhaps encourage others to try their hand at becoming a messianic king.
Self-proclaimed messiahs and their followers tended to cause trouble for Rome, especially since the Jewish people believed their messiah would throw off the shackles of Roman rule. I doubt this is something the Romans wanted to encourage.
As a man, Jesus gave no indication that he was interested in overthrowing Rome, but Pilate couldn’t be sure the disciples wouldn’t take things in a different direction to the one Jesus intended. As governor of Judea, Pilate was responsible for ensuring order and stability. Therefore, he was unlikely to be interested in fueling the idea that Jesus was still alive.
However, he may have been curious about the idea that Jesus would rise on the third day, which would provide him with an incentive not to make it easy for Jesus to come out on his own.
What about the disciples? Could they have stolen Jesus’ body? I don’t think they had any motive for doing this. If they really believed Jesus would rise on the third day, why would they take him out of the tomb the night before, as the religious leaders claimed had happened, or even on the morning of the third day? This would rob Jesus of the opportunity to come out by himself!
Besides, I don’t think the disciples actually believed Jesus would be resurrected a few days after his death. The gospel accounts seem to imply this, although they don’t tell us why. In Matthew’s gospel, when Jesus told his disciples he would suffer, be killed and then raised up on the third day, Peter’s response was: “Be kind to yourself, Lord. This will not happen to you.”8 In Luke’s gospel, after Jesus told them he would die and then rise on the third day, Luke wrote that the disciples “understood none of these things, and this saying was hidden from them, and they did not know what was being said.”9 Similarly, when Jesus told them not to tell others about certain things until after the son had risen from the dead, the disciples started discussing the more general question, “what is the resurrection of the dead?”10
Jesus was buried in a rich man’s tomb, which doesn’t suggest the disciples thought he was going to be there for only a few days. On the morning of the third day the women were bringing spices and perfumed oils to apply to his body. What was the point, if they believed he was coming out later that day? And even when the women reported that angels had told them Jesus had been raised, the other disciples didn’t believe them.
How can these things be true, if Jesus had told them he would be raised on the third day? The answer is surprisingly simple and yet isn’t obvious to the modern reader. The “third day,” to the Jews in his day, was probably used a metaphor for an unspecified time in the future when the dead would be raised to life. This belief was reflected in Martha’s answer to Jesus after her brother Lazarus had died. Jesus said to her: “Your brother will rise.” Martha replied: “I know that he will rise in the resurrection on the last day.”11
The idea of a “last day” was partly based on a prophecy in Hosea, which says: “Come, and let us return to YHWH, for he has torn to pieces, but he will heal us. He struck us, but he will bind us up. After two days he will revive us. On the third day he will raise us up, and we will live before him.”12
To the Jews, this was about their nation, struck by YHWH but then revived, hence the plural “us” and “we.” The “third day” was a future time of restoration and revival, but not in three literal days. It wasn’t viewed as a prophecy about an individual, and I doubt the disciples thought very much about applying it to Jesus or themselves, at least in the first few days after his death, even though their shepherd had just been struck and they had been scattered like sheep, which Jesus warned about beforehand, according to Matthew.13
In other words, when Jesus told his disciples he would rise on the third day, I think what they heard was that he would be raised in a general resurrection on the “last day.” They might have believed that time was near, but I don’t think they expected a specific resurrection to be literally a few days away.
This is how, as Luke puts it, “this saying was hidden from them.” I think they simply weren’t expecting Jesus to be put to death, and then come out of the tomb a few days later. Ironically, the religious leaders took Jesus’ words more literally, and so they wanted to prevent the disciples from stealing his body and claiming he had been miraculously raised.
If the disciples had no good motive for stealing the body, what about the soldiers guarding the tomb? Could they have removed the body, and if so, why?
Maybe the whole thing was a cruel jest on their part. Maybe they removed the stone from the entrance, hid the body, and then dressed up in shiny garments pretending to be angels saying he had risen.
Perhaps they just wanted to have a bit of fun at the expense of the disciples. If so, they should have put Jesus’ body back afterwards to avoid getting into trouble, and to prevent fueling the idea that Jesus had been raised, which was what the religious leaders were primarily concerned about.
Even if something went wrong with the prank, so they couldn’t return the body for some reason, they could have made up an excuse for moving it, such as a security threat to the tomb; although I suppose dressing up in shiny garments and pretending to be angels might be a little harder to explain.
At a minimum, they could have closed the tomb again, and feigned ignorance if and when the body was discovered to be missing. Instead, they never returned Jesus’ body and they left the tomb open, which was what they were supposed to be guarding.
According to the gospel of Matthew, after an angel appeared and rolled away the stone from the entrance of the tomb, the soldiers guarding it became as dead men. When they recovered, some of them went into the city and reported what they had seen to the chief priests, who paid the soldiers a large sum of money to say the disciples had stolen the body in the night while they were sleeping.14
If the soldiers were lying about what they saw, perhaps to cover for their own failed prank, they could have just blamed the disciples, instead of making up a story about an angel.
Whatever the case, they were playing a very risky game, since they had been assigned by Pilate to guard the tomb, not open it up, remove Jesus’ body, and make up a story involving an angel. Their failure in this regard meant they could have been put to death. Furthermore, losing the body and saying an angel came and opened the tomb would have fueled the belief the religious authorities were trying to prevent.
I suppose it’s plausible that the guards wanted to play a prank on the disciples, although whether they could do a good job of pretending to be angels is another matter. But losing the body and leaving the tomb open afterwards seems much less plausible, since these are the things they were meant to be guarding. I doubt they would have been willing to risk their own lives for the sake of a prank.
However, if the soldiers could be bribed, as the gospel of Matthew suggests, maybe they were paid to remove the body. If so, by whom? As I have said, the Roman authorities had no interest in fueling the idea that Jesus had been raised, and neither had the Jewish religious leaders. The disciples in general also had no incentive to do this, since if they believed Jesus would be raised on the third day, they would have wanted to see him come out by himself; or else they simply didn’t believe he would be raised a few days later.
What about Joseph of Arimathea, the rich disciple? Could he be the culprit? He certainly had the means, but did he have the motive? Joseph was the one who went to Pilate and asked for the body. The gospel of Matthew also implies the tomb Jesus was buried in was one Joseph had paid for or built for himself.15
According to Matthew, the day after Jesus’ death and burial, the chief priests and Pharisees went to Pilate and asked that the tomb be made secure until the third day. Pilate provided them with soldiers, and the religious leaders sealed the stone and posted the guard.16
I suppose Joseph could have paid the soldiers to remove the body, or he might have created a secret tunnel in the tomb which he could later use to take out the body. But if he really was a disciple of Jesus, as the gospels claim, he would be robbing his Lord of the opportunity to come out by himself. And if he wasn’t expecting Jesus to be raised any time soon, by removing the body he would be showing disrespect to it and the resting place of his Lord, things he had taken such care over before.
On the other hand, if Joseph wasn’t a believer, why would he bother asking Pilate for the body, then wrapping it up and placing it in his own tomb, only to have it secretly removed a few days later, to make it look like Jesus had been raised? He would be fueling an idea he didn’t believe in.
There is also another possibility we need to consider. While he was still alive, could Jesus himself have paid or arranged in advance for someone to bribe the guards, open the tomb and hide the body after his death, to deceive people into thinking he had been raised?
I think this ultimately depends on what Jesus believed. If he really did believe he was the Christ, the Son of God, it’s very unlikely he would have orchestrated these things in advance, since they would be a distraction from any actual miracles that might take place.
However, if he didn’t believe he was the Son of God, and so wanted to fool people into believing he had been raised, he would have certainly needed help to come out of the tomb.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume his co-conspirator was Joseph of Arimathea. Joseph had the financial means to bribe the guards into removing Jesus’ body and claiming an angel had opened the tomb.
This would be a very risky plan that could easily backfire. To do what Joseph asked, the soldiers would be risking their lives, because they had failed to guard the tomb and body, angels or no angels. The plan would also critically depend on Joseph and the guards never admitting to what they had done.
Now, if Jesus had arranged in advance to fake his own resurrection, this would obviously make him an impostor. In that case, what was the point of his ministry?
The gospels repeatedly make plain that Jesus believed he had been sent by God. To give just one example: early in his ministry, the gospel of Luke says Jesus entered the synagogue in Nazareth where he had been raised, and he read aloud from a passage of Isaiah that says: “The spirit of my Lord YHWH is upon me, because YHWH anointed me to declare good news to the meek. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and freedom to the ones bound; to proclaim the year of YHWH’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God.”
Jesus cut short his reading at “the year of YHWH’s favor.” He then rolled up the scroll, handed it to the attendant, and sat down. As the eyes of all in the synagogue were looking intently at him, he said to them: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your ears.”17
Assuming this really happened, Jesus must have believed he had been anointed by God for a special purpose. The word “Christ” means “anointed one,” which is why people called him Jesus Christ.
According to the gospels, Jesus’ core message to his own people was that they should repent of their badness, because something called “the Kingdom of God” was near with blessings for the meek, but that the wicked generation in which he lived would be dealt with severely by God.
He taught people to love God and neighbor, to freely forgive others, to avoid lies, hypocrisy and materialism, to be pure in heart, to have your needs met by putting the Kingdom of God first, along with seeking God’s righteousness, and to put faith in Jesus as the one sent by God to save people from their sins.
This is the kind of message he preached to his own people for about three and a half years. Isn’t this much more likely the actions, not of a deceiver, but of someone who sincerely believed he was sent by God, even if he was mistaken?
Of course, this assumes the gospels are reporting Jesus’ words at least somewhat accurately. In previous chapters I have already made the case that the apostles and early disciples were the most likely source of the Resurrection Story, and that the gospels are likely the products of their recollections and eyewitness testimonies.
The apostles and disciples believed Jesus was the Christ and the Son of God even before his death, which is why they were apostles and disciples in the first place. I think it’s fair to say they believed this partly because Jesus himself really believed he was the Christ, and the Son of God.
He admitted this to the religious leaders in his final words to them, which is why they brought him before Pilate. From their point of view, Jesus’ claims made him a blasphemer who was liable to death.
This also explains why Jesus was careful about how he described himself during his ministry. If he had started out by declaring himself to be the Son of God, the religious leaders would have tried to have him executed much sooner.
In summary: Jesus’ teachings as recorded in the gospels, the faith of the apostles and disciples, and the opposition Jesus and the early Christians faced, all strongly indicate that Jesus really believed he was the Christ, the Son of God. For this reason, it’s highly unlikely he would arrange for anyone to fake his resurrection, since this would rob his Father of the opportunity to perform a miracle.
In any event, Jesus’ body would have grown more valuable as belief in his resurrection spread, and as the pressure increased on the religious leaders to end the apostasy, as they saw it, about Jesus being the Christ. If any of the soldiers that were supposed to have been guarding the tomb, or Joseph of Arimathea, or a guilt-ridden apostle, or indeed anyone else, could have produced Jesus’ body or evidence of a conspiracy to fake his resurrection, I think they would have been rewarded handsomely by the religious authorities. But as far as we know, this never happened.
The main point here is this: I don’t think any of the potential suspects had a good motive for opening up the tomb and secretly removing Jesus’ body. The Roman authorities didn’t, because the last thing they needed was a messianic king on their hands, especially one that people believed had come back from the dead.
The religious leaders didn’t, because an empty tomb on the third day would fuel the very idea they wanted to suppress, namely that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God; a blasphemy in their eyes. According to the gospels, his claim to be the Christ and the Son of God was the real reason they handed Jesus over to Pilate.18
The disciples didn’t have a good motive for removing Jesus’ body, because it would rob him of the opportunity to come out miraculously. But if the disciples didn’t even believe Jesus would rise again after a few days, as the gospels imply, stealing the body from the tomb would be the height of disrespect and sacrilege, a form of vandalism perpetrated on their Lord’s body.
If the soldiers hid the body as a prank, they should have put it back afterwards, because their job was to guard the tomb and prevent the disciples from doing anything with the body. They certainly weren’t there to open the tomb, then leave it open and hide the body, fueling the idea that Jesus had been raised. And nobody had a good motive to pay the soldiers to do this either.
I think what makes the most logical sense, if we haven’t already excluded in advance the possibility of it happening, is that Jesus was actually raised from the dead.
Now, the second component of the Resurrection Story was the appearance of men or angels exclusively to the women.
Let’s consider the possibility of deception here. Were the women lying? If so, what was their motive? I suppose if they could convince the apostles Jesus had been raised and that angels had revealed it exclusively to them, this might give them an enhanced status among the disciples. They might even become celebrities, interviewed about their now invisible Lord for the next issue of Judea Today when it was scheduled to come out several months later.
However, we need to weigh up these possible motives with the disincentives and risks for taking such a course of action. Maybe they weren’t keen to become celebrities for Jesus, given that he’d just been crucified for claiming to be the Christ, his death being demanded by an angry mob and incited by the religious leaders. If the women went around proclaiming that their Messiah had risen and that angels had told them this, and yet they were lying, these were incredibly bold, brave and I think also very foolish women.
The other risk of making up the appearances of angels was that the other disciples simply wouldn’t believe them, which would have the opposite effect of enhancing their status. According to Luke, this is what happened at first. The others didn’t believe the women.
In addition, it’s highly unlikely they could have made up their story later, because then why would the apostles take the women seriously? What would be their excuse for the delay? “Oh, by the way, we saw angels and encountered the Lord after we found the empty tomb, but we didn’t tell you guys at the time, because you had your hands full with other stuff.” I’m not sure this would sound very convincing.
Besides, the “angels” told the women to go and tell the others the news about Jesus. If the women hadn’t done this, it would make them and therefore their story unreliable. The only window of opportunity they had to fabricate their story was the time when they first saw the tomb open.
But this was also the most dangerous time to make up stories about their Lord, because the Roman authorities had just executed him at the behest of an angry mob, and it looked as if someone had just opened the tomb and taken away Jesus’ body, contrary to the orders of the Roman governor.
If the soldiers hadn’t done it, suspicion would inevitably fall on the disciples. I suppose the women could have made up the angels story as a cover for other disciples stealing Jesus’ body in the night, which would make them part of an increasingly strange conspiracy. But it’s interesting that none of the disciples seem to have been arrested or charged with stealing the body.
Is this because, as Matthew’s account says, it was the soldiers who reported that an angel had rolled away the stone? If this really was the case, the authorities needed to invent the cover story of the disciples stealing the body while the guards were asleep; but they didn’t want to charge the disciples with this, in case the evidence supported an actual resurrection.
Whatever the case, if the women made up their stories, they would have to live with the burden of knowing they were liars for the rest of their lives, and knowing tens of thousands of people were becoming disciples of Christ based partly on their fabrications. They would be liars and false witnesses of God, while simultaneously being passionate disciples of a man they believed to be the Christ, the Son of God, who taught them that out of their own words they would be judged.
I don’t think any valid motive they had for making up appearances of angels, if there really was one, outweighed the much easier thing for them to have done at the time, which was simply to not make things up. Of course, if they actually did see angels and their Lord, this would be a powerful motive for speaking out.
I don’t think deception is a good explanation for the women’s stories. Their only window of opportunity for making those things up was the time when Jesus’ tomb was first found to be open. But this was also the most dangerous time for them, as disciples of a man who had just been executed by the Romans for claiming to be a king. They had far more incentive to just keep a low profile, rather than make up stories that could thrust them into the spotlight and potentially get them into trouble.
But what about delusion? Could the women simply have been seeing things that weren’t really there? If they all saw at least one man in the tomb telling them Jesus had been raised, but he wasn’t really there, this would be a case of mass delusion; and perhaps the only case in history where all of the people experiencing the delusion were receiving essentially the same detailed message – namely that Jesus had been raised as he said he would be, and that they were to tell the apostles and Peter to go to Galilee, where they would meet Jesus. This sounds incredibly specific for a delusion most of them had at the same time!
Mary Magdalene is also an interesting case because, according to John’s gospel, she saw two angels and encountered Jesus separately from the other women. I suppose she could have been lying. After all, John and Peter had already been to the tomb and saw only the linen cloths. Magdalene perhaps saw the same thing, but maybe she heard what the other women had supposedly seen, and didn’t want to feel left out. This would make her a liar and a false witness, and yet simultaneously a devout follower of a man she believed was the Lord, who said that by their words they would be judged. On the other hand, if she was simply deluded, it’s remarkable that she independently had the same delusion as the other women.
But could the women have just been exaggerating? If so, what was the core truth they saw or heard, that would later grow to become two angels telling them Jesus had been raised, and that they were to tell the disciples to go to Galilee and meet him there?
Mark’s account of the resurrection is the simplest. In his version, the women enter the tomb. There is only one man in a white robe, sitting on the right, and he says Jesus was raised, and that Jesus would go on ahead of the disciples into Galilee. If this is an exaggeration despite its brevity, what was the original experience? Maybe it was a disciple who had made his own way to the tomb, mumbling something incoherent about Jesus?
Maybe he’d said something to the effect that Jesus must have been raised because his body wasn’t here, and so perhaps they all ought to head back to Galilee. The women, fearful and confused after being inside a dark tomb where their Lord’s body was supposed to have been, and after a lot of discussion among themselves, wrongly concluded that the man said Jesus had been raised, and that he had instructed them all to meet up in Galilee.
Since the man in white had startled them so much, maybe they also speculated that he wasn’t a man after all, but actually an angel. He was certainly young and good looking, and wearing a white garment, which all helped. And maybe, because of the echo of the man’s voice in the tomb, some of the women thought there might have been two men in there after all. And this is how the “appearance of angels” component might have come about. It began with a confused disciple sitting in Jesus’ tomb speculating that Jesus had been raised, and this got exaggerated either immediately or over days, weeks or even some years, to the point where it became two shining angels proclaiming Jesus’ resurrection.
Again, this would mean Mary Magdalene was lying or deluded when she said she saw two angels and encountered Jesus, assuming she did indeed have a separate experience as John wrote. Or maybe John himself was lying. But then, if he made up the account, why credit only Magdalene with seeing angels when the apostles also could have? After Magdalene told them about finding the tomb empty, he and Peter could have raced to the tomb and been greeted by a whole choir of angels singing songs and declaring that Jesus was risen – hallelujah! – along with some nice words about the two men. Who would ever know this was a lie, since only Peter and John would have been there to witness it?
Instead, John’s experience was surprisingly mundane. He and Peter raced to the tomb but didn’t see angels, only the empty tomb and the linen cloths. Could it be that John wrote this because this is how it actually happened, and as an apostle and disciple of Jesus, he wasn’t inclined to make up stuff about his Lord?
Either way, if the disciples had gone to Galilee but didn’t encounter Jesus there, then the women were exaggerating at the very least. But according to the accounts, the disciples encountered Jesus multiple times, including at the Sea of Tiberias, also called the Sea of Galilee.19 Whatever the case, it seems the testimony of the women, on its own, wasn’t enough to convince the other disciples that Jesus had been raised. It was the alleged appearances of Jesus that convinced them.
So let’s now consider the “encounters with Jesus” component. After Mary Magdalene had come to the disciples saying she had seen the Lord, John wrote that later the same day, when they were in a locked room for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst.20 According to John, Jesus also appeared to the disciples at least two other times.
What about “deception” here? Could the apostles be deceiving us? If they are, what would be their motive? I think it’s fair to say they had a couple of possible motives. For one, they didn’t want their Lord to be dead. Perhaps making up stories about him being alive was a form of denial. Maybe they so desperately wanted him to be alive, they were even willing to invent stories about seeing him.
Second, they had been appointed by Jesus as apostles. Perhaps they felt a deep sense of obligation to carry his message further. If Jesus still happened to be alive and directing them invisibly, this would be a good incentive for them to carry on being apostles, as well as being an interesting story to hook people in to the teachings of Jesus. I suppose it’s also possible they saw it as a way to obtain fame and glory, an opportunity to make a name for themselves.
But if they made up the story of Jesus’ resurrection, and in particular his encounters with them, then they also made up the “Great Commission,” Jesus’ instruction to “make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all of the things I have commanded you.”21 According to Matthew’s account, this commission was given to them by Jesus after he had been raised. Previously, Jesus said their ministry had been only to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”22
This meant the apostles deliberately chose to impose the burden of preaching to the whole world upon themselves, even though it would involve a lot of hard work, and they would face intense hostility from their own people, since they were teaching an apostasy in the eyes of the religious leaders; and also from the Gentiles, who often worshiped idols, a practice completely at odds with their original Jewish faith and also their new Christian beliefs. They would be preaching a sincere message of repentance and salvation, and telling people to believe in Jesus, including the parts they had knowingly fabricated.
If they had made up their encounters with the resurrected Jesus, the apostles would be ringleaders of the most remarkable conspiracy in the history of the world – a conspiracy involving themselves, Jesus’ mother, the women who had accompanied him from Galilee, up to 120 other disciples who voted on a replacement for Judas, and probably also the apostle Paul, who claimed to have encountered the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus.
Yet while conspiring to make up stuff about their Lord, they also claimed to be devout disciples who were taught by Jesus not to be hypocritical, not to go beyond a yes meaning yes and a no meaning no, and that truth was to be highly valued. This would make them far worse than the Pharisees, whose hypocrisy Jesus had condemned.
The disciples believed Jesus was their shepherd, and they were his sheep. They believed he was the Suffering Servant, the one who was “brought as a lamb to the slaughter” even though “he did no wrong and no deceit was in his mouth.”23
They also believed they were the remnant of Israel, the ones foretold to come out of a time of trouble and testing, and the ones whom God had made into a “treasured possession” after the coming of the Lord to his temple, during the time when God was to make a distinction between the righteous and the wicked.24
The apostle Paul echoed this belief when he wrote, “so then, in the present time, a remnant has come to be, by the choosing of grace.”25 Christians, and perhaps Jewish Christians in particular, were the remnant of Israel according to Paul. And in the Old Testament, the prophet Zephaniah wrote that “the remnant of Israel will not commit iniquity, nor speak a lie; neither will a tongue of deceit be found in their mouths; for they will graze and lie down, and no one will cause them to tremble.”26
In other words, the apostles and disciples sincerely believed of their shepherd that “no deceit was in his mouth,” and that as his sheep and as the remnant of Israel, a “tongue of deceit” was not to be found in their mouths either.
Yet if they had fabricated the Resurrection Story, this would have been a clear case of deceit. Their lives from that time on would be ones of utter hypocrisy and lies, and they would have betrayed their own shepherd. They would have disqualified themselves from being “the remnant of Israel.” And they would have gone to their deaths, to stand before their Lord and Judge, knowing full well their conspiracy was a lie. This seems highly implausible, in my opinion.
But maybe instead they were deluded. It’s fair to say that all involved would have been emotionally distraught after the horrific execution of their teacher. The women had followed Jesus and ministered to him from Galilee, and the men had followed him after giving up careers as fishermen, tax collectors and so on. They all had good reasons to hope their Lord wasn’t really dead.
I suppose its plausible that some felt they had “encountered Christ” during those uncertain days. But the encounters reported in the gospels don’t sound like delusions or inner spiritual awakenings. In fact, quite the opposite.
The disciples sometimes didn’t recognize Jesus at first. The skeptic could say, “that’s because it wasn’t Jesus!” Maybe they were simply projecting Jesus onto a stranger, in a case of wishful thinking. But usually they recognized him, not only by what he said, but also by what he did, such as the way he broke bread and said a blessing; or in the case of Mary Magdalene, by what he said and the way he said it.
The encounters usually involved more than one of the disciples, and sometimes most or all of the apostles. If true, this would make them mass delusions, where Jesus said and did the same things in front of a group. He had long conversations with them, teaching them, and even eating with them.
In other words, they don’t sound like delusions or inner spiritual experiences. They sound like the sort of thing that would happen if Jesus had actually risen from the dead and wanted to appear to his disciples. It’s also intriguing that, if the women were also deluded, their delusions were very different from those of the men.
But what about exaggeration? Could the disciples have been exaggerating somehow when they claimed to have encountered Jesus?
The two disciples traveling to Emmaus might have simply mistaken a stranger for Jesus, and then overstated their case. But according to their report, the man interpreted all the things about Jesus in the scriptures. Then he dined with them, broke bread and said a blessing in the same manner as Jesus, at which point they realized he was actually Jesus; and then he disappeared from them. If the man didn’t do any of those things, this would be a case of deception rather than exaggeration.
But maybe the man was just a stranger who happened to be intensely knowledgeable about Jesus and the scriptures related to Christ, who on the very same day Jesus was said to have been raised, was somehow able to vanish from their sight. Or maybe he didn’t actually vanish. Maybe he just got fed up with their company, or wasn’t impressed with their cooking, and so while the two disciples were looking away, he left quickly!
Whatever the case, the two disciples rushed back to Jerusalem to tell the apostles and the others that they had encountered Jesus; and while the disciples were all gathered together, Jesus supposedly stood in their midst. According to Luke, the disciples were afraid, so he showed them his hands and feet. They also feared he was some kind of apparition, so he ate a piece of fish they gave him, to prove he wasn’t.27 Which parts of this story got exaggerated, and how?
Maybe it was the same stranger who had earlier conversed with the two men on the road to Emmaus. Maybe he didn’t have holes in his hands and feet, but those things were added to the story later. If so, why did the disciples think the man was an apparition? Was it his uncanny ability to slip unnoticed out of rooms, even locked ones? And why would the disciples think this stranger was Jesus anyway, unless the man was at least pretending to be him?
John would later reinforce this enormous case of mistaken identity, or deception on the part of the stranger, by writing that Thomas, one of “the Twelve,” wasn’t with the disciples for the first encounter, which occurred in a locked room; but in a second encounter, in which he again appeared to them in a locked room, he said to Thomas, “Bring your finger here, and see my hands, and bring your hand and thrust it into my side; and don’t become unbelieving, but believing.”28
I suppose this stranger could have been, not just a good escape artist, but also an illusionist, somehow faking the wounds inflicted on Jesus prior to his death. The question is, did the two disciples on the road to Emmaus really get fooled by a stranger who had detailed knowledge about the Christ in scripture, who broke bread in the same manner as Jesus, and who then vanished from their sight? And were the other disciples really fooled by the same man or a different stranger who appeared in a locked room to them twice, and somehow faked the physical evidence of Jesus’ crucifixion?
Did the disciples exaggerate by saying he had the marks of crucifixion on his hands and feet, along with an imprint of the piercing in his side? Or did they just make those parts up, and then preach Jesus to the world, based on encounters that were really just mass delusions, desperate exaggerations, or outright fabrications?
The author of John’s gospel explained why he wrote those things: “These have been written so you can believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing, you can have life by his name.”29 If the author was the apostle John, as early Christians said it was, he would have been an eyewitness to those encounters. They obviously convinced him that the man wasn’t merely a stranger pretending to be Jesus, but was actually Jesus. Either that, or the author was a liar who had no problem making stuff up about his Lord to deceive his readers.
He also reported on a third encounter, when he and several other disciples were out fishing. This account is unique to John’s gospel. According to the story, the disciples caught nothing during the night; but in the morning, a man stood on the beach and told them to cast the net on the right side of the boat, and they would find fish. They did as the man said, and weren’t able to haul all the fish in because of the large number. John realized it was the Lord, and Peter jumped into the water and swam to the shore. John names most of the disciples who were there, and provides us with curious details about the encounter, including how far they were from shore – about 200 cubits or 300 feet away – and even how many fish they caught – 153.30
Peter and John were both fishermen, so I suppose it was natural for them to count the fish. The number 153 could be an exaggeration, but it’s very specific, which implies instead that John was there and could even remember how many fish they caught that morning; or maybe he made it up as part of the conspiracy to fool you into believing in Christ.
Speaking about himself, the gospel author wrote: “This is the disciple who testifies about these things, and the one writing these things; and we know that his testimony is true.”31 If his immediate audience didn’t already believe his testimony was true, his statement here would sound hollow.
Whatever the case, if at least some of these stories are based on delusion, deception or exaggeration, where are the skeptical apostles and disciples, who in later years could have written more honest accounts expressing doubts about their faith in Jesus? As far as we know, there were none. While they initially had doubts, as the gospel writers report, according to Christian tradition all of the apostles died as Christians, with the exception of Judas Iscariot who betrayed Jesus and then killed himself shortly afterwards.
Or just think of the money Jesus’ mother or any of the other women could have made, had they later come forward and admitted that the story of Jesus was based on delusion, deception or exaggeration, to the delight of the religious leaders. Their testimony would have been a powerful tool the religious leaders could have used to refute faith in Jesus. But as far as we know, the women never did this. They went to their graves believing Jesus was their Lord who had been raised from the dead.
1 Matthew 27:45-50; Mark 15:33-37; Luke 23:44-46. 2 Matthew 27:51-54. 3 John 19:31-37. 4 Matthew 27:57-61; Mark 15:42-47; Luke 23:50-54; John 19:38-42. 5 Mark 15:44,45. 6 John 19:12-16. 7 John 19:19-22. 8 Matthew 16:22. 9 Luke 18:34. 10 Mark 9:10. 11 John 11:23,24. 12 Hosea 6:1,2. 13 Matthew 26:31,32; Mark 14:27,28; Zechariah 13:7. 14 Matthew 28:1-15. 15 Matthew 27:59-61. 16 Matthew 27:62-66. 17 Isaiah 61:1,2; Luke 4:16-21. 18 Matthew 26:63-66; Mark 14:61-63; Luke 22:66-71. 19 John 21:1. Compare John 6:1. 20 John 20:18-23. 21 Matthew 28:19,20. 22 Matthew 10:5,6; 15:24. 23 Isaiah 53:7,9. 24 Malachi 3:1,17,18. 25 Romans 11:5. 26 Zephaniah 3:13. 27 Luke 24:36-43. 28 John 20:24-27. 29 John 20:31. 30 John 21:1-14. 31 John 21:24.