Today is Easter Sunday, the day when Christians the world over celebrate the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. It’s the event that upon which the Christian mission is founded: If Jesus was not raised from the dead, the Apostle Paul would say, [Christian] faith has been in vain. While the authenticity of the resurrection is disputed by skeptics, it’s a famous event: Everyone has their opinion about what happened that day even if, in many cases, they’re missing some facts.
1. The Apostles didn’t lie about the Resurrection.
Critics of Christianity will often say that Jesus wasn’t resurrected from the dead; the conniving Apostles and other followers of Jesus invented a fairy tale ending to the Jesus story that never really happened.
The problem with this hypothesis, though, is that it doesn’t follow the historical evidence. For the past two hundred years academics have been trying to ascertain what events of the life of Jesus are actually true. It’s a difficult task because just within the canonical New Testament there are four Gospels that contain conflicting stories, diverging timelines, and different versions of events. In order to figure out what happened scholars employ historical ‘criteria’ like the criterion of multiple attestation (an event is mentioned in multiple sources), the criterion of independent attestation (the event is mentioned in multiple sources that had no knowledge or connection to one another), or the criteria of embarrassment (an event or saying is embarrassing to those telling it so it must be true because people don’t event embarrassing stories about themselves) as tools for discerning what parts of the story are most likely to be true.
Not all scholars find this kind of methodology or line of inquiry compelling, but for those who do the resurrection is referred to (albeit in different and contradictory ways) in all four canonical gospels and in the writings of the Apostle Paul. In other words, it fulfills both the criterion of multiple attestation and the criterion of independent attestation.
What this means is that the belief that Jesus was resurrected from the dead goes back to the earliest documentable strata of tradition. Using this methodology we have to conclude that they saw something. Now, this doesn’t mean that the resurrection happened. If you want to say that the Apostles had an imagined, hallucinated, or otherwise non-supernatural experience, that is a reasonable interpretation of events. But it’s not fair to accuse them of outright deception.
A second reason to think that the earliest followers of Jesus believed their own message, is that conversations with the dead weren’t that uncommon in the ancient world. Today, if a friend told you that they saw their dead mother you might think that they needed psychiatric help. In the ancient world, however, you’d believe them and ask what their mother said. As Meghan Henning a New Testament professor at the University of Dayton told The Daily Beast, “There are countless stories of the dead appearing to their loved ones as shades or ghosts. These shades were frightening because they represented contact with death, not because they were dangerous or uncommon in some way. The life and death boundary was not thought of as an impermeable wall, but as a river that could be traversed in the opposite direction on occasion.”
The most skeptical position on the resurrection, therefore, would have to recognize that many people in the ancient world saw their loved ones come to life after their death. It was a cultural commonplace. In this view, the Apostles weren’t liars or crazy people, they were articulating their experiences using the cultural vocabulary of their time. If you want to accuse them of lying you would also have to accuse the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Babylonians, and so on.
2. The Resurrection isn’t wholly unique
On the other side of things Christian apologists like N. T. Wright will sometimes claim that the resurrection of Jesus is wholly unique and substantially different from all of these other examples of post-mortem appearances. Why? Because Jesus was brought back to life in bodily form and he never died again. The supposed distinctiveness of the resurrection serves as a kind of proof that Christianity is true: No small movement could sprout so quickly and spread so far on the back of such a parochial fallacy.
The problem with the claim to “uniqueness” is that there are many kinds of post-mortem existence in the ancient world. To be sure in Homer there are the kinds of ghosts or phantasms that can walk through walls and Jesus is nothing like those, but there are also much more tangible revenants or reanimated corpses.
In Phlegon’s second century Book of Marvels, a young girl, Philinnion, emerges at night from her family tomb in order to liaise with a male house guest. During her periods of reanimation, which last anywhere from minutes to days, she eats, drinks, and has sexual intercourse. Imagine how he felt when he found out. More biblically, in the Gospel of Matthew there’s an event that can reasonably be described as a “zombie apocalypse” in which the graves open and the holy dead leave their tombs and wander around Jerusalem (Matt 27:52:53). As Gregory Riley and Adela Collins have written, many ancient heroes were believed to have come back to life never to die again. Henning added that there are plenty of stories in which Asclepius, the Greek God of healing, resurrects the dead.
3. Christians fiercely disagreed about whether Jesus had a Resurrected body
Even if Christians generally agreed that Jesus escaped death and now lived in the heavenly transcendent realm, this does not mean that they agreed on what that meant either for Jesus or for the eventual resurrection of everyone else. The Apostle’s Creed spoken in churches the world over may say, “I believe in the resurrection of the body” but many ancient Christians did not agree.
In the first place there were those Christians, broadly known as Docetics, who thought that Christ only seemed to be a human being in the first place or only seemed to die. Some Christians thought that while Jesus the man died on the cross, Christ (which was previously a part of Jesus) abandoned him to a sad and lonely death.. Obviously for these Christians Jesus was never resurrected with a physical material body. To them the orthodox story of the resurrected Jesus sounded like a horror movie.
The question of what kind of body (or not) Jesus had and what kind of resurrection everyone else would have in the future were hotly debated in the early Church. As Finnish scholar Outi Lehtipuu has shown in her seminal book Debates over the Resurrection of the Dead, many believed that what you thought about the resurrection determined whether or not you were actually a Christian. It was a litmus test for orthodoxy.
4. Not all of Jesus was Resurrected.
The current widespread Christian doctrine is that when Jesus was resurrected he ascended into heaven in bodily form. In other words, he wasn’t a ghost. The body that he occupied was the body in which he died, in fact it still had the marks of the crucifixion on it (John 20:24-31). But this still doesn’t mean that all of Jesus’ body ascended into heaven.
In the 12th century, when medieval Christians regularly venerated relics (the bones or hair of martyrs and saints) in churches, a new kind of relic appeared on the market. The Holy Prepuce, or foreskin of Jesus, suddenly cropped up in monasteries and Cathedrals all over Europe. Each holy site had its own legend of how it was that the foreskin (and sometimes umbilical cord) of Jesus had been preserved by Mary, given to an apostle for safekeeping, and then miraculously gifted to its current owner. As a Jew, Jesus was certainly circumcised (Luke 2:21), but it is highly unlikely that his foreskin was preserved by anyone. Most of the so-called holy prepuces were bits of old leather, which is reassuring given how regularly people used to kiss and taste the foreskin of Jesus as part of pilgrimage practices. (There were several nuns who reported dreams and visions in which they consumed the holy foreskin. Apparently, it was sweet. And Catherine of Siena envisioned the foreskin as a wedding ring for virgins married to Christ.)
What this trade in clearly forged relics points to, though, is the issue of whether or not all of Jesus’ sacred flesh made it into heaven. What happened to his baby teeth, hair, toenail clippings, exfoliated skin cells and so on? Many medieval theologians recognized how problematic the idea of non-resurrected parts was and found ways around it, but we are still left with the hypothetical question; if the body of Jesus was resurrected, are parts of it missing?