It is not often that I encounter a book which forces me to undergo a fundamental rethink on a vital issue. Michael Alter’s The Resurrection: A Critical Inquiry is one such book. The issue it addresses is whether the New Testament provides good evidence for Jesus’ Resurrection from the dead. Prior to reading Michael Alter’s book, I believed that a Christian could make a strong case for Jesus’ having been raised from the dead, on purely historical grounds. After reading the book, I would no longer espouse this view. Alter has convincingly demolished Christian apologists’ case for the Resurrection – and he’s got another book coming out soon, which is even more hard-hitting than his first one, judging from the excerpts which I’ve read.
Diehard skeptics will of course dismiss the Resurrection as fiction because they reject the very idea of the supernatural, but Michael Alter, a Jewish author who has spent more than a decade researching the Resurrection, isn’t one of these skeptics. Alter willingly grants for the sake of argument the existence of a personal God Who works miracles and Who has revealed Himself in the Hebrew Bible. Despite these generous concessions to his Christian opponents, I have to say that Alter’s book is the most devastating critique of the case for the Resurrection that I have ever read. Rabbi Moshe Shulman, who wrote the Foreword to Alter’s book, explains that what sets it apart from other critiques is an avalanche of evidence, much of it new, which undercuts the very foundations of the historical case for the Resurrection:
…[I]t cannot be denied that this work does present serious reasons to doubt the historicity of the Resurrection. The result is unquestionable. Much of what is here demonstrated is not found in any other work, and even when it does occur in other works, it is not in such an easily understood manner. There may be a point or two in favor of those who believe in the Resurrection that may have been overlooked by accident. But even if this is a given, the preponderance of evidence shows that the Resurrection is myth and not history. It is certainly not something one should base a life’s decision on.
Whether you share the Rabbi’s views on the Resurrection or not (and I don’t), reading Alter’s book will make you realize that what historians know about Jesus’ crucifixion, burial and post-mortem appearances to his disciples is very little: far too little for a Christian to base their belief in the reality of Jesus’ Resurrection on the historical evidence alone. I now believe that only the grace of God could possibly justify making such an intellectual commitment.
WARNING: This will be a very lengthy review, which few people will have time to read in its entirety. For readers whose time is very limited, here’s a brief, 5,000-word executive summary, which will be followed by a main menu that allows readers to navigate their way around the review, as they please, although I would ask serious readers to at least peruse Section A. There is no need to rush: I don’t mind waiting a few days for people’s comments. If the acerbic tone offends some Christian readers, let me remind them that it is not my intent to mock belief in the Resurrection (which I share with them), but to explain why I now regard the enterprise of trying to prove it (or at the very least, demonstrate it to be more probable than not) is a doomed one.
There are, broadly speaking, two ways of arguing for the Resurrection: first, a “minimal facts” approach (developed by Dr. Gary Habermas and Dr. Mike Licona) which sticks to facts about Jesus and his disciples which are generally accepted by historians, and then proceeds to argue for the Resurrection as the best explanation for those facts; and second, a “maximal data” approach (championed by Drs. Tim and Lydia McGrew) which first seeks to build a cumulative case for the historical reliability of the four Gospel accounts before attempting to argue for the Resurrection. Although Alter does not explicitly deal with either of these approaches in his book – he’ll be critiquing Resurrection apologetics in his second book on the Resurrection, which is forthcoming – the importance of this book which he has written is that it totally discredits both approaches.
The “maximal data” approach stands or falls on the claim that the New Testament is, if not inerrant, at the very least, historically reliable. Alter’s book assembles a mountain of evidence which demonstrates convincingly that it isn’t. In his book, Alter uncovers no less than 120 internal contradictions (relating to 113 different issues) in the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial and resurrection, as well as scores of historical inaccuracies.
It turns out that the Gospels are not even historically reliable when narrating Jesus’ Crucifixion, let alone his Resurrection. To illustrate my point, try a little thought experiment: close your eyes and try to picture in your mind Jesus’ Crucifixion. Chances are you imagined a scene like the painting below by Veronese, right?
The Crucifixion by Paolo Veronese (1528-1588). The Louvre Museum, Salle des États. Image courtesy of The Yorck Project (2002) and Wikipedia.
Get ready to revise your picture: Veronese’s painting may be faithful to the Gospels, but for the most part, it’s historically improbable. Nearly everything in the Gospel narratives of the crucifixion turns out to be highly dubious, when judged by the standards which a fair-minded historian would employ. Three of the Gospels tell us that Jesus was crucified on the Passover, and that the Last Supper was a Passover meal (Matthew 26:17-19; Mark 14:12-16; Luke 22:7-15) during which Jesus took some bread and a cup of wine, and then told his disciples to eat his body and to drink blood, which he called “the blood of the new covenant” (Matthew 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:17-20; see also 1 Corinthians 11:23-26). Most New Testament historians would consider these claims highly questionable, to say the least. Even former Pope Benedict XVI admits that “the meal that Jesus shared with the Twelve was not a Passover meal according to the ritual prescriptions of Judaism.” To complicate matters, John’s Gospel disagrees with the other three Gospels in placing Jesus’ Last Supper and Crucifixion on the eve of the Passover (John 19:14, 19:31; see here and here below, for more details). Historians generally agree that this is a much more plausible date. So does former Pope Benedict XVI: he acknowledges that “one has to choose between the Synoptic and Johannine chronologies,” and he accepts that “the weight of evidence favours John.”
As for what happened at the Last Supper: Dr. Michael Cahill, Professor of Biblical Studies at Duquesne University, freely acknowledges the unlikelihood of a devout Jew such as Jesus instituting a blood-drinking ceremony, in his article, Drinking Blood at a Kosher Eucharist? The Sound of Scholarly Silence. He concludes: “Those who hold for the literal institution by Jesus have not been able to explain plausibly how the drinking of blood could have arisen in a Jewish setting.” Interestingly, the blood-drinking ceremony at the Last Supper is omitted from John’s Gospel.
All four Gospels agree that Jesus was betrayed by one of his apostles, Judas Iscariot. However, they disagree about practically everything else, when it comes to Judas – in particular, why he betrayed Jesus (was it for money, as Matthew declares, or because Satan entered into his heart, as Luke and John maintain?), when he turned against Jesus (was it two days before the Passover, as in Matthew and Mark, or during the Last Supper, as in John?), and what happened to him after he betrayed Jesus (did he return the money to the chief priests before going out and hanging himself in a fit of remorse, as in Matthew, or did he use the money to buy a field, where he suffered the mishap of his bowels suddenly bursting open, as in Luke’s Acts of the Apostles?) Matthew even manages to bungle the famous prophecy he quotes about the thirty pieces of silver Judas returned to the temple priests: it’s not in Jeremiah, as he claims, but in Zechariah, and it says nothing about Jesus, anyway: the author of the prophecy was writing about the rupture between Israel and Judah.
Again: according to the Evangelists, Jesus was condemned of blasphemy by the Jewish Sanhedrin in a hasty night trial at the residence of the high priest, Caiaphas. But something smells very fishy here: even back in the first century A.D., the trial depicted in the Gospels would have broken just about every rule in the book. It shouldn’t have been at Caiaphas’ residence, it shouldn’t have been held at night, and there should have been a 24-hour delay before a death sentence was pronounced. And nothing that Jesus said during his trial would have constituted blasphemy anyway: he didn’t pronounce the Divine name, and he didn’t claim to be equal to God. There was nothing blasphemous about claiming to be the Son of God. Mark records Jesus referring to himself as the Son of Man, seated on the right hand of God and coming on the clouds of heaven, but similar claims were made by Jews living well before Jesus was born, about the Biblical patriarch Enoch. So why did the Jewish Sanhedrin (Council) decide that Jesus deserved to die? And was their verdict a unanimous one (as in Mark’s Gospel) or were there dissenters (as Luke’s Gospel records)?
Later on, in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ Roman trial before Pontius Pilate, Pilate is depicted as being very reluctant to condemn Jesus to death, even washing his hands of the case in Matthew’s Gospel – but this contradicts everything we know about the man from contemporaneous Jewish sources (and from Luke himself): in reality, the man was a ruthless, cold-hearted butcher who wouldn’t have had a moment’s hesitation in condemning Jesus to death.
Two of the Gospels (Matthew and Mark) record that Jesus was mocked by the chief priests while hanging on the Cross: “Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross that we may see and believe” (Mark 15:32). But that couldn’t have happened if Jesus was crucified on the eve of the Passover (as in John’s Gospel) rather than on the Passover itself (as in Matthew, Mark and Luke, who, as we’ve seen, got the date wrong): on Passover eve, the chief priests would have been busy slaughtering lambs in the Temple for the thousands of families in Jerusalem wanting to celebrate Passover that evening. It was their busiest day of the year. They wouldn’t have had time to go out to Golgotha and poke fun at Jesus hanging on the Cross.
And that story in Luke’s Gospel about the good thief? Probably didn’t happen either: he’d been languishing in jail for weeks, cut off from all news of the outside world, so how would he have known that Jesus was innocent of any crime and had done nothing wrong? Doesn’t make sense.
And what about those last words Jesus is supposed to have uttered on the Cross? Leaving aside the fact that the Gospels give us three different versions of Jesus’ final words (see Matthew 27:46-50 and Mark 15:34-37; Luke 23:46; John 19:30), all of the words allegedly spoken by Jesus on the Cross are likely to be fictional. The Romans wouldn’t have allowed anyone to stand close enough to the Cross to hear Jesus’ words, in the first place – especially if he was convicted on a political charge, as Jesus was (Matthew 27:37, Mark 15:26, Luke 23:38, John 19:19). And forget about Jesus crying out in a loud voice just before he died: by that time, his voice would have been reduced to a mere whisper by the asphyxiation he suffered while hanging on the Cross. Most ridiculous is the claim, found in Matthew’s and Mark’s Gospels, that after Jesus uttered his final cry on the Cross (“Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?”, or “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”), some of the bystanders thought he was calling on Elijah. As Alter points out, there’s simply no way any Jew would mistake the word “Eli” for “Elijah.”
John’s Gospel records the presence of Jesus’ mother at the foot of the Cross, along with the beloved disciple (who is generally presumed to have been the apostle John, although about 20 other individuals have been proposed as candidates), but this, too, is probably fictional: Jesus was crucified as an enemy of the State (“King of the Jews”), and as such, the Romans would have shown him no quarter – and they certainly would not have allowed him to enjoy a final conversation with his mother. To quote the words of the late Dr. Maurice Casey (1942-2014), author of Is John’s Gospel True? (1996, London: Routledge, p. 188) and a former Professor of New Testament Languages and Literature at the Department of Theology at the University of Nottingham: “The fourth Gospel’s group of people beside the Cross includes Jesus’ mother and the beloved disciple. It is most unlikely that these people would have been allowed this close to a Roman crucifixion.” As Dr. Bart Ehrman, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has pointed out in an online essay titled, Why Romans crucified people, the whole aim of crucifixion was to humiliate the victim as much as possible. And when political criminals like Jesus were crucified, the warning to the public was unmistakably clear: this is what happens to you if you mess with Rome. No niceties were observed and no courtesies allowed.
Nor can we trust the beloved disciple’s claim to have witnessed blood and water flowing from Jesus’ side after he was pierced with a soldier’s lance (John 19:31-36): Jesus’ body had already been heavily scourged, so it would have been covered with blood. Consequently, it would have been very difficult to visually distinguish blood and water flowing from Jesus’ side unless the beloved disciple was observing it close-up (which, as we’ve seen, he wasn’t). As Alter points out, the Romans would never have allowed anyone near the Cross while they were breaking the legs of the crucified criminals, in order to make sure they were really dead. Incidentally, the story in John about Jesus managing to avoid having his legs broken by the Roman soldiers is also historically suspect: if Pilate had ordered the soldiers to break the legs of all the criminals, then they would have obeyed his orders to the letter. (John’s story appears to have been written in order to serve a theological agenda, portraying Jesus as the Paschal lamb that was slain without any of its bones being broken – see Exodus 12:46.)
How about the Gospel accounts in Matthew, Mark and Luke (but not John) of the three hours of darkness preceding Jesus’ death? Unfortunately, there’s no documentation of any such event occurring in Palestine at that time. (And no, Thallus and Phlegon don’t help the Christian apologetic case: in fact, they only serve to weaken it, as we’ll see below.) And the earthquake that is said to have taken place at Jesus’ death? Only one Evangelist (Matthew) records it – and he shoots his own credibility in the foot by claiming that the tombs of many Jewish saints were opened, that their bodies were raised to life again, and that they appeared to many people in Jerusalem after Jesus’ Resurrection (Matthew 27:51-54): an astonishing claim which is found in no other Gospel. Even conservative Christian apologists such as Dale Allison, Craig Evans and Mike Licona are highly skeptical of this story.
What about the story of the tearing of the veil of the Temple immediately following Jesus’ death? Doesn’t add up either: as Alter demonstrates in his book, using maps, the veil of the Temple couldn’t even be seen from Golgotha (the place where Jesus was crucified). And while we have accounts in the Jerusalem Talmud and the Babylonian Talmud of strange occurrences connected with the Temple around 30 A.D., neither of them mention the veil of the Temple being torn in two. That sounds very suspicious.
A prudent and impartial historian, weighing up all these difficulties, would surely conclude that the foregoing events described in the Gospels probably never happened. And if the Gospels get so many key facts about Jesus’ crucifixion wrong, then they can no longer be seen as historically reliable; instead, they must be regarded as highly embellished accounts. (I am of course aware that certain advocates of the “maximal data” approach object that an incident-by-incident approach to Gospel reliability is fundamentally wrong; I’ll be responding to their arguments in Section A below. For now, I’ll just say that when the Gospels narrate more than a dozen historically doubtful events during the last 24 hours of Jesus’ life, there’s no way they can be called reliable accounts.) But if the Gospels are not historically reliable, then Christian apologists cannot legitimately appeal to episodes recorded in the Gospels (such as Jesus’ appearance to doubting Thomas) in order to establish Jesus’ Resurrection, without providing independent argumentation that these episodes actually took place.
Wall mosaic of the entombment of Jesus at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Image courtesy of AntanO and Wikipedia.
So much for the “maximal data” approach to Resurrection apologetics, then. The “minimal facts” approach fares no better. Proponents of this approach usually include the discovery of Jesus’ empty tomb on their list of minimal facts, and they proudly cite Professor Gary Habermas’ claim that 75% of New Testament scholars accept the reality of the empty tomb. But Habermas hasn’t released his survey data, and in any case, it’s based on a biased sample: most of the scholars surveyed were committed Christians. What’s more, the survey was completed in 2005, so it’s more than a dozen years out-of-date. For a critique of Habermas’ survey, see here.
In his book, Alter shows that none of the Gospel accounts of Jesus being buried in a new rock tomb owned by Joseph of Arimathea hold water, and in any case they’re mutually contradictory.
Let’s begin with Mark’s Gospel, which depicts Joseph of Arimathea as buying a linen shroud for Jesus on the Passover, a Jewish high holy day (Mark 14:12-16, 15:46). That was forbidden under Jewish law (Leviticus 23:6-7; Nehemiah 10:31). Later, after the Sabbath, the women present at Jesus’ burial buy spices to anoint him (Mark 16:1). But they couldn’t have done it on Saturday night, as the shops would have been closed (remember: there was no electrical lighting in the first century), and there wouldn’t have been time to buy them on Sunday morning either, as the women arrived at Jesus’ tomb just after sunrise (Mark 16:2). Mark’s Gospel also tells us that the tomb was sealed with a large, round stone (Mark 16:3-4), but only fabulously rich people owned tombs like that, back in those days. Luke’s Gospel fares no better than Mark’s, when it comes to historical accuracy: it depicts the women as preparing spices and ointments on a high holy day (Passover), shortly before the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath on Friday evening (Luke 23:56). This, too, would have contravened Jewish law. In any case, Luke’s account of when the spices were purchased contradicts Mark’s: Luke says it was on Friday, while Mark says it was on Sunday morning. Both cannot be right. Luke also tells us that Joseph of Arimathea had not consented to the decision by the council of chief priests and scribes to condemn Jesus to death (Luke 23:51), which contradicts Mark’s and Matthew’s express statements that the entire council voted to condemn Jesus (Mark 14:64, 15:1; Matthew 26:59, 27:1). Incidentally, Luke’s second book, the Acts of the Apostles, contradicts Luke’s Gospel on the question of who buried Jesus: in Acts 13:27-29, it is the rulers of Jerusalem (not Joseph of Arimathea) who take Jesus down from the Cross and lay him in a tomb. Matthew’s account of Jesus’ burial is even more far-fetched than Mark’s and Luke’s: it portrays the chief priests and Pharisees as visiting Pilate on the Jewish Sabbath (Saturday), asking for a guard to be placed over Jesus’ tomb, and personally sealing the stone (Matthew 27:66) – a clear violation of Sabbath law which would have merited the death penalty (Exodus 35:2; Numbers 15:32-36). Additionally, asking Gentile guards to work on the Sabbath (by guarding the tomb) would have violated the commandments of the Torah (Exodus 20:8-10): Jews were forbidden to ask even strangers to work for them on the Sabbath. It’s also preposterous to imagine that Pilate would have agreed to their request on a purely religious matter, which did not concern him – particularly after they had annoyed him the previous day by putting him on the spot and publicly pressuring him to have Jesus put to death (Matthew 27:15-26). The account of Jesus’ burial in John’s Gospel is also full of difficulties. To begin with, there is a puzzling inconsistency: first, the chief priests of “the Jews” ask for the legs of the crucified criminals (including Jesus) to be broken so as to hasten death, so that they might be taken away before the Sabbath (John19:31; cf. John 19:21), which seems to imply that they were being granted custody of the body of Jesus, but then Joseph of Arimathea secretly (“for fear of the Jews”) asks Pilate if he can take away the body of Jesus, and Pilate allows him to do so (John 19:38). This is bizarre: why would Pilate have handed over the body of an enemy of the State to a private individual, anyway? Another man named Nicodemus also comes along to Jesus’ burial, bringing 100 Roman pounds of myrrh and aloes (or 75 of our pounds) – an amount literally fit for a king! In any case, Jesus’ body being packed in spices is historically incongruous, reflecting Egyptian rather than Jewish burial customs. Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb is also said to be situated near the place where Jesus was crucified, but as Alter points out, it is very unlikely that a wealthy man like Joseph would have a tomb in such an undesirable location. Finally, Joseph’s tomb is described in three Gospels (Matthew, Luke and John) as a new tomb, in which no-one had been laid. Once again, this is highly improbable: most likely, it would have been a family tomb, in which several generations of Joseph’s family would have been buried. In short: the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ burial are at odds with Jewish customs – and with each other – on several key points.
As if that were not bad enough, since the publication of Alter’s book, Professor Bart Ehrman has put forward some very powerful arguments (see here and here) explaining why Jesus would probably not have been given a proper burial anyway: as an enemy of the State, the Romans would have wanted to humiliate him completely, so his body would have been left on the Cross for days and been gnawed at by carrion birds and animals, in full view of the public, before being tossed into a common burial pit for criminals. To be sure, leaving a dead body hanging on a cross after sundown would have upset the Jews, but there’s no record of the Romans ever showing any clemency with the body of a political criminal, and allowing it to be given a proper burial.
But even if Jesus had managed to escaped this grisly fate, and the Jewish Sanhedrin had obtained permission to bury Jesus’ body (as suggested by Acts 13:27-29 and John 19:31), it would have been a dishonorable burial, with no family members present, no funeral procession and no rituals of mourning, where the body was most likely buried in a trench grave in a field where the bodies of criminals condemned by Jewish courts were buried, or in a burial cave owned by the Jewish authorities (less likely, as we have no record of any cave being used to bury executed criminals). (The two thieves crucified with Jesus weren’t condemned by a Jewish court but a Roman one, so their bodies wouldn’t have been buried with that of Jesus, if the Jewish chief priests managed to get hold of Jesus’ body.) However, Professor Jodi Magness, an archaeologist who works at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has suggested that there might not have been enough time to dig a trench grave on Friday afternoon, so the chief priests may have asked Joseph (a wealthy member of the council) to temporarily store Jesus’ body in his grave over the weekend. If Dr. Magness’ proposal is correct, it would certainly account for the mention of Joseph of Arimathea in all of the Gospel accounts (but not in 1 Corinthians 15:4, curiously enough). But even on Dr. Magness’ proposal, Jesus’ body wouldn’t have been placed in a new tomb where no-one had ever been laid, as the Gospels narrate, but at best, inside a new niche within Joseph’s family tomb, which would have already held lots of bodies.
Confronted with this evidence, any prudent and unbiased historian would have to conclude that if Jesus was buried at all, it was most likely a dishonorable burial with no mourners, in which Jesus’ body was either buried in a trench grave with other criminals, or placed in temporary storage in Joseph of Arimathea’s family tomb, along with the bodies of Joseph’s family members. Not only is this picture at odds with the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ burial, but it also undercuts the apologetic case for the empty tomb. In particular, the oft-repeated apologetic argument that if Jesus’ tomb wasn’t empty, Jesus’ enemies would have had no trouble in producing his body and discrediting the apostles’ claims that Jesus had risen, turns out to be totally bogus: according to Jewish religious law, corpses were deemed to be no longer legally identifiable with any certainty if they were more than three days old (see here). The apostles didn’t start publicly preaching Jesus’ Resurrection until seven weeks after the Crucifixion – by which time, even if Jesus’ corpse had still been lying in a tomb, nobody would have been able to positively identify it, anyway.
That brings us to the New Testament accounts of the risen Jesus’ appearances to his disciples, as well as his brother James and Saul of Tarsus, an early persecutor of Christianity. There are about eleven recorded appearances, and in his book, Alter manages to uncover contradictions in nearly all of them, which I’ll discuss in Section D below. For the time being, all I’ll say is that Alter’s book uncovers a lot more contradictions than one might expect, as well as some gaping holes in the Gospel narratives. I would also like to thank Matthew Ferguson for his article, Reply to Vincent Torley (April 12, 2017), written in response to my OP, Evidence for the Resurrection (The Skeptical Zone, April 4, 2017). Ferguson’s article had a strong influence over my thinking, as it made a number of telling points. Ferguson’s and Alter’s most telling points regarding the Resurrection narratives are summarized in Section B below, and presented in much greater depth in Section D.
“Whoa! Holes in the Resurrection narratives?” the reader may be asking. “What holes?” Fair question. How about these ones: first of all, why did the women go to Jesus’ tomb on Easter Sunday morning? Was it simply to visit Jesus’ body, as in Matthew and John, or to anoint the body, as in Mark? And why did they travel in the dark, before dawn, without a male to accompany them? (Not a wise thing to do, back in the first century A.D.) And how did they plan to roll back the “very large” stone at the entrance to the tomb, recorded by Mark? (Breaking into a private tomb was a crime punishable by exile under Roman law, so no passersby would have helped them.) And why would the women have gone to anoint Jesus’ dead body on Easter Sunday morning, as Mark records, if they were then going to rewrap it in dirty linen cloths afterwards? That really doesn’t make sense.
But the key point that we need to bear in mind here is that in order for an appearance of Jesus to serve as good evidence for his Resurrection, it would have to be multiply attested by witnesses whose testimonies were mutually consistent, and it would have to involve them not only seeing and hearing Jesus (as one might in a vision) but experiencing physical contact with him. As I will demonstrate in detail in Section D, the Biblical narratives of Jesus’ Resurrection appearances turn out to be highly inconsistent. If we examine the Gospel narratives of Jesus’ appearances to his apostles, for instance, we find that they contradict each other on the most basic details: who saw Jesus (was it ten, eleven or twelve apostles?), when they first saw him (Easter Sunday evening, as in Luke and John, or a few days later, as in Matthew?), and where they saw him (only in Jerusalem, as in Luke, or not until they had returned to Galilee, as in Mark and Matthew?) Additionally, most of the Resurrection appearances recorded in the New Testament fail to meet the criteria of multiple attestation and physical contact: some (like those to James and Paul) were to only one individual, while others fail to record the disciples having any physical contact with Jesus (which would rule out the hypothesis that they were having a vision, say).
An artist’s impression of a black triangle UFO. Image courtesy of Skeezerpumba and Wikipedia. If several people claimed to have seen an object like this one, investigators would want to verify that their accounts tallied. What if they claimed to have seen a man who had risen from the dead?
To be sure, there are a few accounts in the Gospels, where Jesus appears to and has physical contact with multiple individuals. Unfortunately, however, these Gospel accounts don’t contain any eyewitness interviews, so we have no way of knowing whether the various witnesses to Jesus’ Resurrection all saw, heard and felt the same thing on the occasions when they collectively encountered him. Think about it: if a dozen people claimed to have seen a UFO land on Earth, one would surely demand to see transcripts of separate interviews with each witness, and/or diagrams of what each witness saw, just to make sure that their reports tallied with one another. The same goes for modern-day Marian apparitions, such as Fatima and Medjugorje: as a routine matter, Church-appointed investigators of these visions attempt to establish whether the seers are all seeing and hearing the same thing. (Tactile apparitions are much rarer, but they have occurred.)
The best argument that Christian apologists can marshal in response to this objection is that the disciples must have all experienced the same thing, or otherwise they wouldn’t have all been prepared to die for their faith in Jesus’ Resurrection: only if they had carefully checked out each other’s accounts of what they experienced and found that they all tallied would they have acquired the courage to lay down their lives for their faith in Jesus. But that’s a psychological assumption: nowhere does the New Testament claim that the disciples cross-checked their experiences with one another. (Incidentally, the Fatima seers, who remained steadfast even after being threatened with torture and death in August 1917, didn’t all see or hear the same thing, as we can tell by examining Dr. Formigao’s interviews with each of them, regarding what they witnessed at the Fatima miracle of October 13th, 1917: their accounts are quite divergent.) A skeptic might also point out that only two of the twelve apostles are known to have been put to death, and that in any case, we don’t know whether they were executed on account of their faith in Jesus’ Resurrection, or for some other theological or political reason, as Michael Alter suggested in a radio debate with Jonathan McClatchie (March 28th, 2016) – see the segment from 1:05:00 to 1:06:20. But even if the apostles were martyred for their faith in the Resurrection, the foregoing argument overlooks the possibility that many of the apostles may have only seen Jesus, while a smaller number (say, Peter, James, John and Thomas) not only saw but heard him, and an even smaller number (say, Thomas alone) actually touched him. The apostles may have all seen the same thing (more or less), but without hearing or feeling the same thing. We just don’t know. However, in order to prove a resurrection (as opposed to an objective vision sent by God), one would need to establish that several of the disciples not only saw and heard Jesus, but made physical contact with him as well. The upshot of all this is that the Resurrection accounts would never pass muster in a court of law: there are too many holes in the stories, and they don’t meet standards of good evidence. No impartial historian would find them convincing evidence for Jesus’ Resurrection.
In short: Alter’s book does a brilliant job of eviscerating the apologists’ case for the high probability of the Resurrection. Whether one chooses to continue believing it (as I do) or not, one is forced to accept, after reading the book, that belief in the Resurrection cannot be built on the foundation of historical data, for it is a foundation of sand.
My Executive Summary ends here. Some readers may wish to stop at this point, but I would urge those who are not too pressed for time to navigate their way around the main menu below. I would particularly urge readers to peruse Section A, which contains my own critical comments on Michael Alter’s book. For those readers who wish to continue beyond that point, there are two options: they may either read Section C and Section D (which deal in detail with Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection, respectively) or they may read Section B, which is a short summary of sections C and D. For those readers who like to explore issues in depth, Section E contains three detailed case studies, which establish beyond reasonable doubt that the Gospel accounts are mutually contradictory and inconsistent with known facts. Finally, Section F traces the history of the passion and resurrection narratives. Interestingly, it turns out that we can reconstruct a “core narrative” which is mostly accurate.
A. MY OWN COMMENTS ON MICHAEL ALTER’S BOOK
How has Alter’s book impacted my own faith?
Photograph of the breached Möhne Dam taken by Flying Officer Jerry Fray of No. 542 Squadron from his Spitfire PR IX, six Barrage balloons are above the dam. Public domain. Image courtesy of Flying Officer Jerry Fray RAF and Wikipedia.
A few years ago, I purchased a book on the evidence for the Resurrection written by a homicide detective who used to be a diehard atheist, and was now an ardent believer. Jim Warner Wallace’s Cold Case Christianity was described by leading apologist Gregory Koukl as “simply the most clever and compelling defense I’ve ever read for the reliability of the New Testament record. Case closed.” And indeed, it was a very convincing book, whose arguments were presented in a way that was both arresting and devastatingly logical. More recently, I purchased another book on the Resurrection, titled, Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, written by Dr. Thomas Miller, a distinguished surgeon with more than 200 scientific papers to his name, who was also the editor of three textbooks on surgical physiology. Miller’s book was touted by Dr. Bruce MacFayden, a professor of surgery, as “a ‘must read’ for those who are searching for truth and a logical, unbiased evaluation of the facts concerning the physical resurrection of Jesus.”
Neither of these brilliant books can hold a candle to Michael Alter’s demolition job on the Resurrection. Alter’s book attacks the case for the Resurrection at its Achilles’ heel: the historical reliability of the Gospels – a subject with which Alter is intimately familiar.
For me, reading Alter’s book was the intellectual equivalent of a “Dambusters” bomb going off in my head: the case it made was so strong that it shattered my psychological defenses and forced me to revise my own theological views. Prior to reading the book, I was quite happy to take up cudgels in defense of the historical accuracy of the Bible. After reading the book, I am now far more skeptical of the Bible’s historical reliability than I was previously, and I no longer hold rigidly to any doctrine of Biblical inerrancy. Instead, my predominant feeling now is one of utter detachment: “Let the chips fall where they may.”
The reason why Alter’s book has forced a theological rethink on my part is that it deals with a period in history when the facts are checkable. It is very difficult to check the accuracy of the Bible when it narrates events that allegedly occurred in the distant past. For example, historians can neither prove nor disprove the assertion that a man named Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt over 3,000 years ago, or that the ten plagues of Egypt were historical events. (It is of course easy to show that the Israelites of the Exodus could never have numbered two million people, but it’s equally easy to point to passages in the Bible which suggest that they only numbered about 20,000 people, which is historically feasible. See here and here.) Going further back in time, uncertainties regarding both the literary genre of Scripture and the meaning of the words used combine to make it even harder to assess the Bible’s factual reliability. Did the Flood described in Genesis cover all the Earth, or merely all of the land in the Mesopotamian region? The Hebrew wording is ambiguous. And were the writers of Genesis 6 to 8 intending to compose a historical narrative of an event that occurred thousands of years previously, or were they simply adapting a pre-existing, commonly accepted Babylonian folktale about the gods destroying most of the human race by sending a Deluge into a theological narrative which instead depicts the Flood as a punishment from Almighty God, without questioning whether it actually occurred? Who can say?
But there can be no doubt that the writers of the New Testament intended to assert that a man named Jesus lived, died and was raised from the dead, during the time when Pontius Pilate was prefect of Judea. And it is far easier for historians to check the factual accuracy of these writers’ statements about Jesus’ arrest, trial, crucifixion and burial than it is for Eqyptologists to verify what the book of Exodus says about the life of Moses. Additionally, the four Gospels exhibit a relatively high degree of agreement in their narratives of Jesus’ final days, making it an ideal litmus test of the Bible’s historical accuracy.
Back in the early 1980s, when I first came across skeptical challenges to the reliability of the Gospel narratives of Jesus’ arrest, trial, crucifixion and burial, I was mildly troubled by them, but not unduly so. It seemed to me that the skeptics were trying to put a full stop where history left a comma. The Gospel accounts of Jesus’ trial, for instance, were wildly at variance with trial procedures laid down in the Mishnah – but then, the Mishnah was composed in the second century, not the first, when Jewish oral traditions were being codified for the first time. Perhaps there was greater laxity in legal procedures, in Jesus’ day – and perhaps also, the chief priests were so desperate to get rid of Jesus (“Better that one man should die for the people…”) that they were willing to bend a few rules in the process. And while I was aware that the Evangelists’ depiction of Pilate as being reluctant to convict Jesus did not accord with contemporary Jewish accounts of his savage cruelty, I was also willing to allow that Pilate may have been reluctant to sentence Jesus to death because he had a superstitious fear of him, having heard about the miracles he had wrought. In short: my faith was rocked, but not shattered, by New Testament criticism. (When I later came to reject the Christian faith in 1989, it was principally for philosophical reasons, and not because of historical errors in the Bible. It would be another fifteen years before I was able to resolve my philosophical doubts and return to the faith. But that’s a story for another day.)
There was one book I encountered in the 1980s which could have – and should have – set me straight on the reliability of Scripture: Fr. Raymond Brown’s The Birth of the Messiah. Fr. Brown accepted the virginal conception of Jesus (as I still do) but maintained that he was probably born in Nazareth, and that the Infancy narratives in Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels were based on popular traditions but were not historical. When I read Brown’s book, I resisted its conclusions, because it seemed to me that he had not proven his case. In other words, I was willing to give the Biblical authors the benefit of the doubt.
House of cards. Image courtesy of Floppydog66 and Wikipedia.
No more. I have changed my mind for three reasons. First, I have come to see that I was asking the wrong question. The question which a Christian reading the Gospels should ask is not, “Are there any knockdown arguments against the historical accuracy of the Gospels?” but rather, “Would an impartial historian, reading the Gospels, conclude that they probably contained factual errors which call into question their reliability?” I’d like to give John Loftus credit for this change in my thinking: although I reject his famous Outsider Test for Faith, as it leaves no room for the sensus divinitatis, I do accept an Outsider Test for Apologetics: in other words, you shouldn’t try to convince a skeptic of the truth of some historical claim unless you’re confident that your argument would also convince a fair-minded historian in that field. And when we are discussing the Resurrection, the question we need to ask is: “Would an impartial historian, reading the Passion and Resurrection narratives in the Gospels, be inclined to dispute their factual reliability?” If the answer is “Yes,” then Christians should not appeal to these narratives, when trying to persuade skeptics that the Resurrection occurred. Simple as that. And if it turns out that an impartial historian would query even the set of “minimal facts” employed by Habermas and Licona, then the entire enterprise of arguing for the Resurrection on historical grounds collapses like a house of cards.
The Resurrection is the pivotal miracle on which the apologetic case for Christianity stands or falls. An apologist who has already made a powerful case for the Resurrection and for the overall historical reliability of the New Testament can go on to argue that other miracles recorded in the Gospels – such as the virginal conception of Jesus – for which the historical evidence is far weaker than for the Resurrection, should nevertheless be treated as factual occurrences, because we can trust what the New Testament says, if its central claim is correct. (Such an argument is at least plausible, whatever one may think of it.) But it would be circular reasoning if the apologist were to argue for the Resurrection itself in such a fashion. The evidence for the Resurrection has to be strong enough to convince an open-minded outsider. There can be no special pleading here, when attempting to smooth over difficulties in the narratives. Instead, the question one constantly needs to keep in mind is: what would a hardnosed but fair-minded skeptic say?
A powder snow avalanche in the Himalayas near Mount Everest. Image courtesy of Chagai and Wikipedia.
The second consideration that changed my mind was the mountain of facts assembled by Alter in his book, which hit me like an avalanche when reading it. The case Alter assembles is so overwhelming as to leave any honest inquirer with no reasonable doubt that the New Testament makes statements about Jesus which are not only mutually contradictory but also demonstrably wrong – at least, as far as historians can tell. I now take a much more modest view of the Bible’s reliability in historical matters, and I’m quite happy to concede that on many occasions, the Evangelists “got it wrong.” I continue to believe in the Resurrection, for reasons that have more to do with the heart than the head. The character of Christ reveals him to be a figure who is larger than life itself. On this point, I can do no better than to quote Beverley Nichols’ matchless prose, taken from his work, The Fool Hath Said (Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc.; Garden City, New York: 1936):
You cannot deny the reality of this character, in whatever body it resided. Even if we were to grant the professor’s theory that it is all a hotchpotch of legend, somebody said, ‘The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath’; somebody said, ‘For what shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul’; somebody said, ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the Kingdom of God’; somebody said, ‘How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the Kingdom of God’; somebody said, ‘All they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.’
Somebody said these things, because they are staring me in the face at this moment from the Bible. And whoever said them was gigantic. And whoever said them was living, because we are in the year 1936, and I am ‘modern’, and you are ‘modern’, and we both of us like going to the cinema and driving a car, and all that sort of thing, and yet we cannot find in any contemporary literature any phrases which have a shadow of the beauty, the truth, the individuality, nor the indestructibility of those phrases. (1936, pp. 103-104)
Additionally, I have to say that I find the idea of God becoming incarnate appealing and I consider Jesus a worthy candidate for God incarnate, after reading about his teachings, his impact on the lives of his disciples, and the way in which the Christian faith totally transformed the Roman world and gave rise to modern Western civilization. And finally, I’m still inclined to think that a post-mortem physical encounter with Jesus is the best explanation for his disciples’ bizarre claim that he was not merely alive, but had risen from the dead. But I would no longer argue on historical grounds that the conviction of Jesus’ disciples that their Master had risen from the dead, coupled with what we know about Jesus’ death and burial, makes the Resurrection highly probable. There are far too many unknowns for us to reach such a conclusion today.
The third and final reason that led me to change my mind was Alter’s seemingly effortless ability to cut down arguments put forward by leading Christian apologists. For example, one constantly hears the argument (which I discussed briefly above) that the tomb of Jesus must have been empty, otherwise the chief priests would have had no problem in producing Jesus’ dead body. What one never hears is that the apostles didn’t begin preaching the Gospel until seven weeks after the Crucifixion – by which time, the body of Jesus would no longer have been identifiable for legal purposes, even if it had still been in its tomb. For the Jews, the third day was the point beyond which the ravages of decay were said to render faces of corpses incapable of being legally identified with certainty in a court of law. To quote the words of The Mishnah (Yevamot, Chapter 16, Mishnah 3, sections 1-3), which provides a list of rules of what a witness needs to see in order to testify that someone is dead: “They are allowed to testify only about the face with the nose, even though there were also marks on the man’s body or clothing. They are allowed to testify only when his soul has departed, even though they have seen him cut up or crucified or being devoured by a wild beast. They are allowed to testify only [if they saw the body] within three days [of death].” As Dr. Joshua Kulp explains in his commentary: “A person is identifiable only through his face and his nose. Therefore, if someone sees other parts of his body or face, but not his face and nose, he cannot testify that the person is dead… The witness must testify within three days of the death. Otherwise the body may begin to decompose and identity cannot be provided with certainty.” That’s the kind of “inside knowledge” that you’ll find in Alter’s book: it’s written from a distinctively Jewish perspective.
Or to take another example, it is common for Christian apologists to argue that St. Paul’s reference to Jesus being seen by 500 people, some of whom were still living (see 1 Corinthians 15:6) must be factually true, as the Corinthians could easily have sent a delegation to Jerusalem to verify his claim. But as Alter points out (2015, pp. 671-673), there was no real likelihood of this ever happening: a trip from Corinth to Jerusalem would have been costly in terms of time and money, as well as being hazardous to the travelers’ physical safety. And having arrived in Jerusalem, how would a traveler go about locating these 500 people, without knowing any of their names?
Alter is especially skillful when rebutting apologetic arguments that apparent contradictions in the Gospels are like multiple eyewitness reports of a car accident, and that the different accounts are not contradictory but complementary, like separate pieces of a jigsaw puzzle: as he points out (2015, pp. 27, 123), most of the Evangelists weren’t eyewitnesses, so what they were reporting was hearsay, based on recollections and evolving oral traditions which were written down decades after the events occurred. In any case, the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ Resurrection appearances don’t dovetail one another nicely: rather, the problem is that they simply don’t fit together. One can force them to fit, after a fashion, but only by making lots of ad hoc assumptions.
The “minimal facts” approach to the Resurrection
Three-legged stool. Image courtesy of Sebastien Rivory and Wikipedia.
At the present time, the most popular Christian method of arguing for the reality of the Resurrection is the “minimal facts” approach, advocated by Gary Habermas and Mike Licona, which attempts to build a case for the Resurrection on the basis of historical facts about Jesus which are generally accepted by scholars of all religious persuasions and none. These agreed facts may be likened to a three-legged stool, supporting the case for the Resurrection. Briefly, they are as follows: (i) Jesus was crucified, died, and was buried, and some time afterwards, his tomb was found empty; (ii) Jesus’ disciples, as well as his brother (or half-brother) James and the anti-Christian Saul of Tarsus, had experiences in which Jesus appeared to them after his death; and (iii) these appearances led to their conviction that Jesus had been raised by God from the dead. (James and Paul’s conversions are often listed as separate facts [see here, for instance], but I’ve lumped them in with those of the disciples here.) On this approach, the details of the risen Jesus’ appearances to his disciples in the New Testament are ignored: all that matters is that Jesus’ disciples saw him, spoke to him and had some sort of physical contact with him. St. Paul is these apologists’ chief source of evidence for the Resurrection; the Gospel accounts receive scant attention. (Contrary to popular belief, Dr. William Lane Craig is not a “minimal facts” advocate: his approach incorporates material from the Gospels, whereas that of Professor Gary Habermas and Dr. Mike Licona relies exclusively on St. Paul’s writings. See here.)
I was at one time highly impressed with the “minimal facts” approach. However, this approach relies heavily upon the historicity of the empty tomb, and after reading Michael Alter’s book, I am reluctantly persuaded that when the evidence is assessed on purely historical grounds, it appears highly doubtful whether Jesus’ tomb was found empty by his disciples, or even whether Jesus was buried in a tomb, let alone a new one that didn’t contain any other bodies. And I am even more persuaded that the “empty tomb” story in the Gospels is unlikely to be historical, after reading what Professor Bart Ehrman has written on the likely fate of Jesus’ body (see in particular his articles, Why Romans Crucified People and Did Romans Allow Jews to Bury Crucified Victims? Readers’ Mailbag January 1, 2018). To put it bluntly: the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ burial on Good Friday and of the women running to the tomb on Easter Sunday morning just don’t add up. As we have seen, the empty tomb is one of the “three legs” supporting the “minimal facts” case for Jesus’ Resurrection.
As an aside: I would argue that a Christian can still believe in Jesus’ bodily resurrection, without necessarily believing that Jesus was buried in a tomb. As a Christian, I am prepared to accept that Jesus “was buried” (in some fashion), as the oldest Christian creeds say he was, but more than that I will not affirm. As Ehrman’s article shows, even arguing for Jesus’ burial is fraught with historical difficulties.
Can a two-legged stool remain standing? Well, perhaps. A few “ultra-minimalists” would be prepared to jettison the empty tomb apologetic, and appeal to Jesus’ post-mortem appearances to his disciples as the decisive piece of evidence for the Resurrection. While the appearances themselves are not in doubt, it is impossible for the historian to argue for their objective reality, let alone their physicality, without solid evidence that Jesus’ disciples all saw, heard and felt the same thing (more or less), when Jesus appeared to them. Unfortunately, the Gospel accounts fail to provide that kind of evidence: they are lacking in detail, and don’t corroborate one another well. What that means is that historians today – even if they are open to the possibility of miracles – have no way of demonstrating that the Resurrection is certain beyond reasonable doubt, or even that it is more probable than not.
The “maximal data” approach to the Resurrection
A four-piece jigsaw puzzle. Image courtesy of Amada44 and Wikipedia.
In contrast with this “minimal facts” approach, other writers (notably Drs. Timothy and Lydia McGrew) have championed a “maximal data” approach, arguing that the Gospel accounts of the Resurrection reinforce one another, with details in one account
dovetailing neatly with the details in other accounts like pieces of a jigsaw. (See here and here.) On the “maximal data” approach, the Gospels are no longer regarded as documents written 40 to 60 years after Jesus’ death; instead they are viewed as either eyewitness reports of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection (e.g. John’s Gospel), or (in the case of the Synoptic Gospels written by Matthew, Mark and Luke) as biographical reports, written only 25 to 30 years after Jesus’ death, which are based on interviews with eyewitnesses who had personally known Jesus. Maximalists contend that the “minimal facts” approach falls short, on evidential grounds. They insist that without the detailed narratives of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial and resurrection found in the Gospels and in Acts, it is difficult for a Christian apologist to make a convincing case for Jesus’ resurrection from the dead: the very most that one could establish from St. Paul’s brief account in 1 Corinthians 15 (much beloved of the minimalists) is that the disciples had some sort of spiritual encounter with Jesus, after his death: maybe he appeared to them in a vision, but not as an embodied being. To argue for a resurrection, they say, we need the Gospel accounts – which means that we need to argue for the reliability of the Gospels. As Dr. Lydia McGrew puts it:
When the assertion that the disciples had appearance experiences is so weak that it is consistent with purely visionary experiences of an intangible Jesus, inaccessible to any but his followers, experiences that, for all that is stated to the contrary, might have been fairly brief, involving sight and no other senses, then it becomes a much, much harder task to argue that there must have been a supernatural explanation for what happened. It becomes harder still to argue that the correct explanation is that Jesus really was physically risen from the dead. I won’t go so far as to say that a minimal facts case thus construed provides no evidence for Jesus’ literal resurrection, but it is a much weaker case than a case that includes, as data indicating what the disciples claimed, the types of experiences actually recounted in the gospels. (See here.)
It is fair to ask how advocates of the two approaches go about establishing the high probability of the Jesus’ Resurrection. Apologists arguing for the “minimal facts” approach freely acknowledge the difficulty in calculating the prior probability of God miraculously raising Jesus from the dead, so they tend to rely on inference to the best explanation in order to demonstrate that the Resurrection is the only explanation that accounts for all of the relevant facts. “Maximal data” apologists, on the other hand, employ Bayesian logic to show that the Resurrection occurred. They argue that although the prior probability of the Resurrection is very low, the evidence of the Gospels increases the likelihood of the Resurrection to an enormous degree, such that in the light of this evidence, the posterior probability of the Resurrection is very close to 1. When explaining why the eyewitness evidence for the Resurrection boosts the odds so dramatically, these apologists argue that the combined probability of a dozen or so witnesses (the apostles) all seeing, hearing and feeling the same thing when they claimed to have met the risen Jesus would be vanishingly low if they were all hallucinating, whereas if Jesus really was appearing to them, this is precisely what we’d expect. These apologists then calculate the extent to which the apparitions of Jesus increase the probability of the Resurrection (from near-zero to almost one), by treating each apostle who saw Jesus as an independent witness, which then allows us to multiply the individual probabilities of each of them having the same hallucination. For instance, if the probability of one apostle (say, John) seeing, hearing and feeling the same thing as Simon Peter did when they had an apparition of Jesus is (say) only 1 in 1,000, and if there were ten other apostles (barring Judas Iscariot) who experienced the same thing as Peter did when he had an apparition of Jesus, then we can calculate the probability of them all having the same apparition by chance as (1 in 1,000) raised to the power of 10, or 1 in 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. Odds like that pretty much rule out the hallucination hypothesis, unless you’re so biased against the supernatural that nothing would persuade you. (I would note in passing, however, that they do not rule out the “objective vision” hypothesis, which explains the Resurrection appearances as a post-mortem vision of Jesus sent by God, rather than a physical encounter with Jesus. This is a third hypothesis which deserves more attention, in my view. As I see it, the key point that tells against it is that it would have been much easier for the disciples to make this more modest claim – “Jesus’ spirit appeared to us!” – and yet they did not: they insisted that Jesus had been physically resurrected. But please don’t ask me to formulate that into a rigorous mathematical argument: frankly, I don’t think it can be done.)
To those who object to treating the apostles as independent witnesses, Drs. Tim and Lydia McGrew reply, in their online paper, The Argument from Miracles: A Cumulative Case for the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, that since many of them remained steadfast in their faith even when threatened with torture and death, each must have had his own powerful, independent reasons for believing in the Resurrection – otherwise he would have capitulated and apostasized under duress:
If any one of the witnesses in question had not actually had clear and realistic sensory experiences just as if Jesus were physically present, talking with them, eating before them, offering to let them inspect his hands and side and the like, it is not credible that he would listen to the urging of his fellows to remain steadfast in testifying to such experiences. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, the credible threat of death concentrates the mind wonderfully; it tends to winnow the wheat from the chaff when it comes to good and bad evidence.
In plain English: the apostles must have all independently experienced Jesus, and each of them must have had the same experience of their risen Master – otherwise, they wouldn’t have all been ready to suffer and die for him. Readers will note that this argument relies heavily on a psychological counterfactual about the conditions under which the apostles would have been ready to die for their belief in the Resurrection, coupled with the psychological assumption that the disciples would have all carefully compared notes about the details of their experience after Jesus appeared to them (maybe, but who knows?), plus two more factual assumptions: the historical assumption (which has been called into question by Professor Candida Moss in recent years) that the apostles were continually under threat of being tortured or martyred, and another historical assumption: namely, that the specific reason why they were martyred was that they believed in and preached the message that Jesus had risen from the dead. The case for the Resurrection is a solid one only if all four assumptions are true.
Probability, not possibility: the general flaw in the “maximal data” approach to Resurrection apologetics
But there is a more general flaw in the “maximal data” approach to Resurrection apologetics: contrary to what its advocates claim, the historical details in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial and resurrection don’t fit together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, but contradict one another wildly, as well as conflicting with known facts relating to first-century Palestine. There are literally dozens of problems with the Gospel accounts, as well as the accounts in Acts, which render them historically implausible and make them appear mutually contradictory: Alter lists no less than 120 contradictions in his book. I discuss these in Section C and Section D below.
Now for all I know, the historical difficulties with these accounts may all turn out to have a satisfactory resolution; however, historians don’t deal with what’s merely possible, but with what’s probable, in the light of the evidence. I believe that after weighing up these problems, an impartial historian would have no choice but to bet against the overall reliability of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, as they contain too much material which appears highly improbable, when assessed objectively – and no, I’m not talking about miracles, but about how key figures in the Gospel narratives – people like Pilate, the chief priests, the Roman soldiers who crucified Jesus, and the women who visited Jesus’ tomb – are supposed to have acted. If you want to defend the Gospel narratives, then you have to believe that all these people behaved in a way that was totally out of character for them, on numerous occasions, all within a very short span of time (less than 48 hours). A devout Christian might be prepared to believe that they did so, under the mysterious influence of God’s grace, but historians are not free to make such gratuitous assumptions, any more than they are free to invoke “Jedi mind tricks” when explaining why certain historical individuals acted in the way they did. That’s ad hoc argumentation. The “maximal data” case for the Resurrection thus dies the death of a thousand cuts.
Why we need an incident-by-incident approach to Gospel reliability
Ross Wilson’s statue of C. S. Lewis in front of the wardrobe from his book The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in East Belfast. While not a believer in Biblical inerrancy, Lewis was a staunch defender of the reliability of the Gospels. Image courtesy of Genvesssel and Wikipedia.
Or does it? In a recent blog article on the historicity of John’s Gospel, “maximal data” advocate Dr. Lydia McGrew writes:
The incident-by-incident approach to Gospel reliability is wrong. Dead wrong. Philosophically wrong. Epistemologically wrong. Historically wrong. When one has evidence for the historical nature and intention of a Gospel overall (as we do have for John), then the specific incidents in it do not need to be individually defended, starting each time from a position of agnosticism, on a case-by-case basis.
Needless to say, I strongly disagree with this assessment. I’d like to explain why, with reference to John’s Gospel, which could be fairly described as the most polarizing of all the Gospels: it has its vocal defenders (see also here) and its equally vocal critics (see also here and here). To be sure, there is abundant textual evidence, which is handily summarized in chapter 19 of Oxford Professor Rev. William Sanday’s career-launching academic bestseller, The Authorship and Historical Character of the Fourth Gospel (London: Macmillan, 1872), that John’s Gospel was written by a Jew who was thoroughly familiar with the geography of Palestine, and with the customs of its first-century Jewish inhabitants. By itself, however, that merely shows John’s Gospel to be authentic, without guaranteeing its historical reliability. Louis L’Amour, the acclaimed author of Western novels, often made a point of visiting the places that he wrote about, so that he could describe them accurately in his stories, but that does not make his stories true.
Unlike Louis L’Amour, the author of John’s Gospel clearly intends to write a historical biography of a real person, based on what he declares to be eyewitness testimony (John 19:35, 21:24). Professor Sanday makes a strong case that the author of John’s Gospel either personally witnessed many of the events which he narrates in his Gospel, or had access to people who did. I would also recommend Dr. Cornelis Bennema’s carefully argued article, The Historical Reliability of the Gospel of John (Foundations, No.67 Autumn 2014). The literary style of John’s Gospel has also captivated many readers – notably C. S. Lewis (pictured above), a professor of literature at Magdalen College, Oxford, who wrote in his essay, “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism”: “Of this text there are only two possible views. Either this is reportage — though it may no doubt contain errors — pretty close up to the facts; nearly as close as Boswell. Or else, some unknown writer in the second century, without known predecessors or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern, novelistic, realistic narrative.”
But the fact that John’s Gospel contains accurate reporting of the facts does not guarantee its historical reliability throughout. To begin with, the Gospel makes no pretense of being an objective account; it was written for an avowedly propagandistic purpose: “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). Moreover, factual reporting takes up only a small percentage of John’s Gospel: most of it consists of either discourses uttered by Jesus or dialogues between Jesus and his interlocutors (who are often mysteriously described as “the Jews.”) These discourses and dialogues were not committed to writing until several decades after Jesus’ death. Professor Sanday freely acknowledges the difficulty of disentangling what was actually said from the Evangelist’s personal interpretation of Jesus’ words, in his chapter on Jesus’ last discourse: as he puts it, “it is impossible for an active mind to retain the exact recollection of words over a space of perhaps fifty years” (p. 222) and he adds that a strong mind and character (like that of the author of John’s Gospel) “is much less likely to retain a faithful recollection of words than a weak one. Its natural impulse is to creation” (p. 223). Sanday concludes: “We shall then renounce the attempt to discriminate closely between the subjective and objective elements in this parting discourse” (1872, p. 223).
And that brings me to my next point: the material we have in John’s Gospel is colored through the lens of sixty years of theological reflection. Personally, I have no difficulty in believing that many of the “I am” statements ascribed to Jesus in the Gospel are authentic in their kernel, at least: “I am the bread of life,” “I am the door,” “I am the good shepherd” and “I am the vine.” But “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58) is such a brazen claim to divinity that if it had been made, Jesus’ trial before the Jewish Sanhedrin on a charge of blasphemy would have been over in about two minutes; and no less a personage than the former Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, who was himself a New Testament scholar, has acknowledged that during his lifetime, “Jesus did not claim divinity for himself.” That way of viewing Jesus came later.
An additional point which tells against the historicity of John’s Gospel is the divergence in style between John and the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke). In the words of the late Professor Maurice Casey: “These differences are so extreme that both cannot be right.” (Is John’s Gospel True?, 1996, London: Routledge, p. 80). We are not talking here about John merely rewriting the content of Jesus’ speeches in his own fashion; rather, what we find is that there is almost no overlap in content, or even in theme, between the teachings of Jesus recorded in the Synoptics and John’s record of Jesus’ teachings. Words such as “preach,” “repent,” “repentance,” “sinners,” “tax collectors” and “scribe,” common in the Synoptics, are absent or virtually absent from John’s Gospel, as is the word “parable.” The word “kingdom,” mentioned 57 times in Matthew, 20 times in Mark and 46 times in Luke, occurs a paltry five times in John. On the other hand, words like “love,” “true,” “truth,” “light,” “reveal,” “believe,” “scripture,” “Father,” “Son” and “witness” are far more common in John than in the Synoptics. Scholars such as Richard Bauckham have argued that Jesus’ aphorisms and parables, recorded in the Synoptic Gospels, were “the carefully composed distillations of his teaching, put into memorable form for hearers to take away with them,” whereas John more realistically depicts Jesus as speaking in longer discourses and dialogues. Undoubtedly the Synoptic Gospels are a distillation, but they are not a distillation of John, whose account of Jesus’ teaching is very different in its content. Defenders of the historicity of John need to explain this striking divergence.
A final point which the apologists for John’s Gospel often pass over is the question of who the “Beloved disciple” was. The question matters, because it is his testimony that we rely on for such intimate scenes as the Last Supper, the interrogation of Jesus by the High Priest (who knew the Beloved disciple – see John 18:15), the two disciples’ race to the tomb of Jesus on Easter Sunday morning, and the vivid account of the risen Jesus appearing to his disciples by the Sea of Tiberias and telling Peter how he would one day be martyred. Who is this disciple? Traditionalists tend to favor John son of Zebedee, while a few scholars, including Dr. Richard Bauckham, argue that it was a well-connected Jerusalem disciple of Jesus, known in antiquity as John the Elder. But as Dr. Cornelis Bennema acknowledges in his above-cited article, both views face severe difficulties: “It is difficult to imagine that the Galilean fisherman John of Zebedee had such connections in Jerusalem (unless he had a retail outlet in Jerusalem that supplied fish to the high priest). However, it is equally difficult to imagine that John the Elder was present at the private Farewell Discourses and even had a closer relationship with Jesus than any of the Twelve (13:23).” Interestingly, conservative scholar Dr. Ben Witherington suggests that the Beloved disciple was actually Lazarus, the man Jesus raised from the dead! At the same time, Witherington makes a very strong case that he could not have been John son of Zebedee. I would argue that until we can settle the question of the Beloved disciple’s identity, we are unable to settle the question of the Fourth Gospel’s reliability.
To sum up: given that John’s Gospel is a propagandistic work, which is heavily colored by its author’s theological views, and that we do not even know who its author was, we are not entitled to conclude that it is historically reliable; all we can say is that it contains many nuggets of historical fact, overlain by several decades of theologizing. The Synoptic Gospels, although written somewhat earlier than John’s, were still composed 30 to 50 years after Jesus’ death, and there is widespread scholarly disagreement (see here and here) as to whether the traditions concerning their authorship are reliable. (Almost nobody now thinks that the apostle Matthew wrote the Gospel that bears his name.) And in many ways, the Synoptics lack the intimate familiarity with Palestine that the author of John’s Gospel had – not to mention the little details that one only finds in John (e.g. “The servant’s name was Malchus” [John 18:10]), which impart such an air of verisimilitude to that Gospel. Finally, the Synoptic Gospels were also written for evangelistic purposes: Luke’s Gospel, which is addressed to a believer named Theophilus, was written in order “that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:4). That being the case, we can no longer argue for any Gospel’s historical reliability by simply appealing to “the historical nature and intention of a Gospel overall” (to quote Dr. McGrew’s words): instead, we have no choice but to go through a painful process of sifting, incident by incident, to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Thus if we find that the various Gospel accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial contain well over a dozen statements which turn out to be historically doubtful, when examined on an incident-by-incident basis, we have no right to minimize these problematic statements as mere difficulties, on the grounds that we already know that the Gospels are historically reliable overall. We don’t know that.
Deceit in the Gospel narratives?
Pinocchio by Enrico Mazzanti (1852-1910) – the first illustrator (1883) of Le avventure di Pinocchio. Public domain. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
Alter’s book makes an overwhelming cumulative case that the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life are highly flawed historical narratives which contradict one another, as well as containing numerous factual errors which are at odds with Jewish and Roman customs. In addition, he reveals how the Gospels embellish historical events and even incorporate legendary accounts that were fabricated some decades after Jesus’ death.
Does this mean that St. Paul and the Evangelists are guilty of “making up stuff”? Alter evidently thinks so: in one of his speculations (#165), he cites examples of what he calls “Paul’s pious fraud,” in an attempt to demonstrate that the Christian Scriptures permit the use of deceit, in order to win converts and gain souls. But the evidence for this “fraud” in the New Testament consists of just three verses, none of which has anything to do with deception: Romans 3:7-8 (in which St. Paul rejects as “slanderous” the charge that Christians approve of doing evil that good may come); 1 Corinthians 9:20-23 (in which St. Paul declares, “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some,” referring to his practice of accommodating his observance of the Jewish Law to suit the preferences of people he was trying to convert); and Philippians 1:18 (where St. Paul writes that he doesn’t care about the personal motives of missionaries in preaching the Gospels, so long as it gets preached – which is not a case of deceit, as it does not relate to what is preached, but merely to the reason why it is being preached). None of these are examples of “making up stuff.” St. Paul’s own feelings about the importance of truthfulness when evangelizing should be abundantly evident from the following passage: “As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:9).
So, if deceit does not explain the tall stories we find in the Gospels, then what does? A more charitable hypothesis is that the Evangelists were overly credulous, and sometimes failed to distinguish facts from embellishments, when interviewing people about events they claimed to have witnessed in Jesus’ life. Additionally, they may have occasionally included certain popular stories about Jesus, precisely because they sounded like things that he would have done, despite the fact that there was no solid eyewitness testimony to corroborate these stories. That’s not lying, though it could fairly be described as gullible reporting.
But what about the legendary accretions found in all four Gospels (especially Matthew’s Gospel)? Surely these are outright fabrications? Not necessarily. In fact, many of these accretions seem to be loosely based on certain passages in the Old Testament. The Evangelists may have treated these passages as prophetic confirmation that the events described therein really took place in the life of Jesus. That assumes, of course, that these Old Testament passages were originally written about Jesus. But after reading Alter’s brilliant and devastating rebuttal of the “argument from prophecy,” much beloved of Christian apologists, I can only conclude that first-century Christians must have had a very peculiar (and highly creative) way of doing exegesis, as they apparently believed that these Biblical passages were indeed referring to Jesus. They seem to have envisaged Scripture as a multi-layered message: a passage that may appear to refer to a historical individual X when taken superficially, might also have a deeper and much richer meaning which refers to another, more recent individual, Y. However, I have to say that this way of interpreting Scripture sounds highly speculative to me, and I am not at all surprised that devout Jews would reject it, root and branch: had I been living in Palestine in the first century A.D., I’m sure I would have done the same.
There is, however, one troubling set of Gospel passages which do appear to be deceitful. I’m referring here to episodes narrated by the Beloved disciple in John’s Gospel, who claims to have personally witnessed them. As we saw above, it is almost certain, historically speaking, that Jesus’ mother and the Beloved disciple did not stand at the foot of the Cross, and that the story of blood and water flowing from Jesus’ side after he was pierced with a soldier’s lance is fictional. That being the case, why does the Gospel include these episodes which could never have taken place, with the express assurance that they were seen by an eyewitness who “knows that he is telling the truth” (John 19:35)? I ask this question out of genuine perplexity: I feel torn between the air of verisimilitude in John’s reporting these events, and the near-certain knowledge that they couldn’t have happened.
The only solution I can propose is that the Beloved disciple was, as many scholars have argued, not the author but the source of the Fourth Gospel, and that it was his followers who put together his recollections and at times embellished them. Thus Jesus may have given his mother to the Beloved disciple to take care of, some time before his death, rather than while on the Cross; and although the issue of water from Jesus’ side is probably an embellishment, the piercing with a lance and the resulting gush of blood may well be historical. I can’t say I’m comfortable with this solution, but I have yet to see a better one.
Flaws in Alter’s book
Alter’s book is not without its flaws, however. At 912 pages (including 746 pages of text), it is a self-published work, which could have done with some editing. Many of the points Alter raises are repeated elsewhere in his book, and a judicious editor could have pruned 150 to 200 pages from the tome without diminishing its substance. The book’s subject index can only be described as dreadful: many of the index entries (e.g. “angels,” “cross,” “Galilee,” “Mary Magdalene”) contain only long lists of page numbers, with no handy subdivisions that would assist the reader to locate the pages of greatest relevance. Also missing is a list of the 120 contradictions which Alter claims to have uncovered in the New Testament narratives of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial and resurrection. That would have been extremely helpful. (The Table of Contents lists the contradictions in sequential order, without specifying their content.) Among the 120 contradictions, we find some which are harmonizable without too much difficulty, others which can only be harmonized by making implausible assumptions, and a few which are flat-out impossible to reconcile. Nor are all these contradictions of equal gravity: some (e.g. contradictions relating to the death of Judas) are peripheral to the Resurrection itself, others relate to the “who, what, where and when” details of the Resurrection appearances without calling into question the Resurrection itself, while the most damaging contradictions strike at the very heart of Christian claims about Jesus. I would suggest that skeptics and believers alike could profit from a kind of “Richter scale” for evaluating the severity of these contradictions in the Resurrection accounts. This would especially help readers wishing to cut to the chase and focus on the most serious cases.
To his great credit, Alter has done a lot of reading in researching his book, and his bibliography is comprehensive: at 82 pages, it includes the writings of not only skeptical scholars, but also a wide range of Christian apologists and conservative scholars: John Ankerberg, Gleason Archer, Richard Bauckham, Craig Blomberg, D. A. Carson, William Lane Craig, Craig A. Evans, Norman Geisler, Gary Habermas, J. P. Holding, Larry Hurtado, Craig S. Keener, I. Howard Marshall, Josh McDowell, Glenn Miller, Matthew Slick, Robert H. Stein, John Stott, Lee Strobel, J. Warner Wallace, John Wenham, Ben Witherington and Edwin Yamauchi, among many others. Perhaps Alter’s reading is a little too wide: among the 1,000-odd authors cited in the bibliography, one finds Michael Baigent (author of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail) and James Tabor (author of The Jesus Dynasty), not to mention Jesus-mythers like Richard Carrier and Robert Price – although to be fair, Alter is quite emphatic that he accepts the historicity of Jesus, and he also includes Professor Bart Ehrman’s 2012 takedown of Jesus-mythers, Did Jesus Exist?, in his lengthy list of references. (I should add that despite their eccentric views, Carrier has a doctorate in ancient history from Columbia University, while Price has one Ph.D. in Systematic Theology and another in New Testament studies.) However, I could not help noticing that the vast majority of the entries listed in Alter’s bibliography are taken from books, commentaries and articles: Internet links are rarer than they ought to be, in a work of this scope. In the 21st century, that’s a drawback.
I also noticed that with rare exceptions (J. Warner Wallace’s Cold Case Christianity , Andreas Kostenberger and Justin Taylor’s The Final Days of Jesus  and Ariel Bar Tzadok’s “An Orthodox Rabbi Reads the Christian Bible”  being among them), the bibliographical references are no later than 2012 – which is a pity, because there’s quite a lot of recent online material (notably, several illuminating blog articles written by Professor Bart Ehrman since 2014, on the subject of what became of Jesus’ dead body) that would have strengthened Alter’s already formidable case. But there are also discoveries that Christian apologists might appeal to, such as the recent identification of an earthquake in Palestine around 29 to 33 A.D., which Alter should have covered in his book, but unfortunately does not. (I will discuss this evidence below, in Section B.) Another example is the “long ending” to Mark’s Gospel (Mark 16:9-20), which Alter, following the almost unanimous consensus of scholars, rejects as inauthentic (2015, p. 13). He mentions William R. Farmer (The Twelve Verses of Mark, Cambridge University Press, 1974) as a lone holdout, but he appears unaware that in 2014, Nicholas Lunn wrote a vigorous defense of the long Markan ending, titled, The Original Ending of Mark: A New Case for the Authenticity of Mark 16:9-20 (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications), which provoked a storm of academic controversy. Although Lunn’s book managed to impress no less a scholar than Dr. Craig Evans, other conservative scholars reviewing the book concluded that Lunn had failed to make his case, and that his handling of the textual evidence is selective (see Larry Hurtado’s review as well as the reviews by Peter Head and Stephen Carlson ). So in the end, we are back where we started: Mark’s Gospel originally ended at Mark 16:8. Alter was right, after all, in dismissing the long Markan ending as inauthentic – but what if the scholarly consensus had gone the other way, instead? The point I’m making here is that books on the Resurrection of Jesus can date very quickly, regardless of whether they are arguing for or against it. Any book written more than ten years ago is out-of-date.
Reading through the text, I found that most of Alter’s factual claims checked out, but in a few cases, he goes astray: for example, his assertion (made in the course of one of his speculative proposals) that palm trees do not grow in Jerusalem, while repeated in many scholarly books, turns out to be flat-out wrong – as anyone can verify by using Google. [I would like to thank Dr. Lydia McGrew for pointing this out.] Less forgivable is Alter’s assertion (2015, p. 167) that Jesus’ mother is not even mentioned in the Gospel of John, until the crucifixion: “This is the first appearance of Jesus’ mother in John. Out of nowhere she suddenly appears.” No, she doesn’t: she’s there in chapter 2, at the marriage in Cana.
On numerous occasions, Alter enters into the realm of speculation, although he is very careful to delineate his 217 speculations from the 120 factual contradictions which he identifies in the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial and resurrection. It has to be said, however, that some of the speculations he entertains are rather fanciful: he suggests, for instance, that Jesus may not have been brain-dead when taken down from the cross but may have died (of dehydration) subsequent to his burial, and he also discusses the proposal that the young man at the tomb in Mark 16 may have been the illegitimate son of Mary Magdalene.
As a final criticism, I found Alter’s book to be broader than it was deep: on occasion, when assessing the merits of his arguments (for example, on the date of the Crucifixion, or the burial of Jesus), I sometimes had to dig further than the references listed in his bibliography, and in the process, I managed to uncover useful online links to articles which Alter had not consulted. Nowhere in his book does Alter discuss Annie Jaubert’s interesting proposal that the Last Supper was held on a Tuesday. Nor does he address the most common proposal made by Christian apologists for harmonizing John (who appears to place Jesus’ crucifixion on the eve of the Jewish Passover) with the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke (who place Jesus’ crucifixion on the Passover itself) – namely, that suggested by Dr. Alfred Edersheim in the nineteenth century (see here for a modern defense of this view, starting from 4:25). Fortunately, I was able to locate scholarly articles online which rebutted these proposals on historical grounds (see here and here for a discussion of the problems with Jaubert’s theory and see here for a scholarly refutation of Dr. Edersheim’s proposals). But it took me a lot of digging, nonetheless.
Despite all these flaws, however, Alter’s work has accomplished something singular: it has convincingly rebutted the Christian Resurrection apologetic. Amazon reviewer Jerry Caine, an Evangelical Conservative Christian and a graduate of Talbot Theological Seminary, has nothing but praise for Alter’s book:
“This volume, in my opinion, is the new gold standard for the perspective that would seek to destroy Christianity by taking out the pivotal event of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Apologists for the Christian faith [which I count myself as a member] MUST deal with his arguments as they are, hands down, the best of the best I have ever encountered. This book will easily appeal to skeptics of the Christian faith and it should appeal to just about every Bible school and Seminary of the country as a standard textbook for students in apologetic classes.”
I’d like to close this section with a final prediction, which I hope will interest apologists who are reading this review. The hot philosophical topic of the 21st century will be Meta-Epistemology: the critical evaluation of rival epistemologies. More than anything else, it is this that divides believers and skeptics.
Having no wish to keep my readers in suspense any longer, I will now attempt to summarize the most perplexing difficulties which Alter raises in his 912-page tome, in relation to the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ resurrection appearances. Here goes. For the record, I wish to reiterate that in what follows, I am not criticizing people who believe in the Resurrection, but rather, people who think they can prove it, or show it to be probable, from the historical evidence alone.
B. SUMMARY OF KEY FINDINGS
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1. A somewhat expanded version of the Executive Summary
Fanny Law, a former high-ranking civil servant of Hong Kong. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
Please note: the following summary of the difficulties with the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial and Resurrection contains only a few references and quotes, in the interests of brevity. Readers who would like more details are invited to check out sections C and D of this review.
It turns out that the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ passion and crucifixion are highly doubtful, on no less than 17 points. (Yes, you read that right.) One or two points would be bad enough, but perhaps acceptable: after all, improbable things happen every day, and it would be surprising if the historical details of Jesus’ crucifixion contained nothing out of the ordinary. But 17 highly improbable occurrences over a 24-hour time period strains credulity. So, what are these 17 points on which the Gospels are probably mistaken?
First, the Last Supper almost certainly wasn’t a Passover meal, as the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke depict it to have been. Passover is the most family-oriented festival in Jewish tradition, so it is unthinkable that Jesus would have celebrated the Passover without his family, and having only twelve male disciples for company. Also, as Jonathan Klawans, Professor of Religion at Boston University, puts it in his article, Was Jesus’ Last Supper a Seder? (2001, Bible Review 17(5):29-30): “If this was a Passover meal, where is the Passover lamb?” Some scholars have pointed to features in the accounts, such as eating while reclining, as evidence that it was a Passover, but Klawans dismisses this argument: “While such behavior may have been characteristic of the Passover meal, it is equally characteristic of practically any Jewish meal.”
It is also most unlikely that at the Last Supper, Jesus would have asked his disciples to eat his flesh and drink his blood, in remembrance of him. In Alter’s words, eating flesh and drinking blood were “utterly unimaginable in Judaism” (2015, p. 79), and the taboo against drinking blood was so strong that it could not be violated even when one’s life was at stake. Eating the blood of any animal – let alone human blood – is explicitly forbidden in the Jewish Scriptures (Leviticus 17:10-12): for a Jew, breaking this law was tantamount to a spiritual and social death sentence. Eating human flesh was equally unthinkable, according to Alter: “Eating human flesh, even symbolically, occurs nowhere in all Jewish tradition” (2015, p. 80).
Second, Jesus most likely wasn’t crucified on the feast of the Jewish Passover, as the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke claim, but rather, on the eve of the Passover, as John’s Gospel states. The Gospels record numerous activities in connection with Jesus’ arrest, trial, crucifixion and burial which would have violated the Jewish law prohibiting work on such a holy day. To name just a few: the crowd sent by the chief priests and elders to arrest Jesus was allowed to carry swords (Matthew 26:47); Peter was carrying a weapon on a feast day (Matthew 27:51; Mark 14:47; Luke 22:50; John 18:10); Simon of Cyrene was coming into Jerusalem from the countryside, on a feast day, implying that he had been working (Matthew 27:32; Mark 15:21); Joseph of Arimathea was able to purchase fine linen for Jesus’ burial (Mark 15:46) on a day when no merchant would have had his stores open; and the women who watched Jesus dying on the cross were able to prepare spices and ointments for Jesus’ burial before the Sabbath (Luke 23:56). John’s Gospel is more likely to be correct in placing Jesus’ crucifixion on the eve of the Passover – but this contradicts what the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke say. Even former Pope (Benedict XVI) agrees: he endorses Professor (Fr.) John Meier’s conclusion that “one has to choose between the Synoptic and Johannine chronologies,” and that “the weight of evidence favours John.”
Third, the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ trial before the Jewish Sanhedrin are likely to be unreliable, because the trial they describe is highly irregular and inconsistent with the way Jewish capital trials were supposed to be held. Even during the first century A.D., when the rules governing trials hadn’t been fully codified, the trial proceedings against Jesus would have broken just about every rule in the book. Additionally, the charge on which Jesus was convicted was a trumped-up charge of blasphemy, which he clearly wasn’t guilty of, as he didn’t claim to be equal to God, nor did he pronounce the Divine name.
Fourth, it is most unlikely that Pontius Pilate would have been reluctant to convict Jesus, as the Gospels unanimously claim. On the contrary, Pilate’s actions, as narrated by Jewish historians, reveal him to have been a callous, brutal man. The Evangelists appear to have whitewashed the character of Pilate: presumably, this was done in order to curry favor with the Roman authorities.
Fifth, the Gospel accounts of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus and of Judas’ subsequent death are mutually contradictory and likely to have been heavily embroidered. In Mark’s Gospel, which contains the earliest narrative of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus, Judas approaches the chief priests and offers to deliver Jesus over to them, and shortly after the Last Supper, Judas leads the mob that arrests Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. And that’s it. The New Testament accounts of Judas’ death are found in two later gospels – Matthew and Luke – and they can’t even agree on how and why Judas died. Did he hang himself in a fit of remorse (Matthew) or did he purchase a field and then suffer the mishap of his insides spilling out (Luke)? Alter makes a telling point in this connection: the two accounts of Judas’ death are so different that we wouldn’t even recognize them as referring to the same person, if another name were substituted for Judas’ name in each account. To make matters worse, both accounts claim to be in fulfillment of Biblical prophecies, yet if we look at these prophecies, we can easily see that neither of them foretells Judas’ death. Readers who wish to follow up the details of this particular case can find more in Section E below.
Sixth, the Gospels of Matthew and Mark are almost certainly wrong in claiming that the chief priests mocked Jesus as he hung on the cross. For if Jesus was crucified on Nisan 14th (the day before Passover), as argued above, then the chief priests would have been too busy slaughtering lambs for Jewish families in the Temple; they would have had no time to leave their work and go and make fun of Jesus hanging on the Cross.
Seventh, Luke’s story that one of the two thieves crucified with Jesus publicly repented and asked Jesus to remember him when he came into his kingdom most likely has no factual basis. Neither of the thieves would have had any way of knowing about Jesus’ trial before Pilate and his innocence or guilt, as they had both been languishing in prison before being crucified. So how would the good thief have known that Jesus had done nothing wrong?
Eighth, none of the seven statements that Jesus is alleged to have uttered several statements on the cross, is likely to have been actually uttered by him, as there would have been no bystanders listening to Jesus’ words near the Cross: the Romans wouldn’t have allowed them to be there (see below). What’s more, as Dr. Henry E. Turlington writing in The Broadman Bible Commentary, points out: “The crucified man who was near death would normally be too weak and exhausted to utter a loud cry” (1969, Nashville: Broadman, vol. 8, art. “Mark,” p. 398). Jesus would have been too weak to utter anything louder than a whisper, just before he died, so the story in Matthew, Mark and Luke of Jesus crying out in a loud voice before breathing his last can safely be rejected as a fabrication.
Ninth, John’s moving account of Jesus’ mother and the disciple Jesus loved standing at the foot of the Cross and Jesus saying to them, “Woman, behold your son!” is almost certainly fictional. As the late Dr. Maurice Casey, a former Professor of New Testament Languages and Literature at the Department of Theology at the University of Nottingham, points out in his book, Is John’s Gospel True? (1996, London: Routledge, p. 188), the Romans would never have allowed anyone to stand at the foot of the Cross – especially in the case of a criminal who was being crucified as an enemy of the State, as Jesus was.
Tenth, the three hours of darkness before Jesus’ death recorded in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, most likely never took place. If the land of Palestine did turn dark for three hours, then it would have had to have been a miraculous occurrence: it couldn’t have been a solar eclipse (which never lasts longer than seven-and-a-half minutes) or even a sandstorm (which would have forced people indoors). But the hypothesis that the darkness is a legendary embellishment is more parsimonious than the hypothesis that a miracle occurred, so an impartial historian would prefer the former hypothesis – especially in view of the fact that the sky is said to have gone dark at midday at the deaths of other Jewish rabbis, as well (see P. Benoit, The Passion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, Darton Longman & Todd, London (1969), p. 200). I might add that some writers are known to have invented eclipses to accompany important events, as did the historian Zosimus (New History, IV.58.3). In an attempt to demonstrate that the three hours of darkness was an actual occurrence, some Christian apologists have appealed to independent pagan accounts attesting to this event, but it turns out that these narratives in no way support the Gospel accounts.
Eleventh, the earthquake immediately after Jesus’ death, recorded in Matthew’s Gospel, probably never happened either. None of the other Gospels record such a remarkable sign, and the alleged earthquake does not seem to have disrupted preparations for Jesus’ removal from the Cross and burial. And why does Matthew record a second earthquake at Jesus’ Resurrection, which none of the other Gospels record, either? Curiously, there does seem to have been a magnitude-6.3 earthquake in Palestine within a couple of years of Jesus’ death, which is described in an article titled, “An early first century earthquake in the Dead Sea” (International Geology Review, DOI:10.1080/00206814.2011.639996). However, but we don’t know exactly when this earthquake occurred: it may well have been some time before or after the Crucifixion. It is most likely that Matthew borrowed this event and inserted it into his narrative, in order to dramatize the circumstances of Jesus’ death.
Twelfth, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke are almost certainly mistaken in claiming that the veil of the Temple was torn in two at the moment of Jesus’ death. We actually possess accounts in the Jewish Talmud of bizarre omens associated with the Temple occurring around 30 A.D., but curiously, the tearing of the Temple veil is nowhere recorded: there’s a prophecy which may be from around that time of the Temple veil tearing, but there’s no actual record of such an event. See Dr. Robert L. Plummer’s article, Something Awry in the Temple? The Rending of the Temple Veil and Early Jewish Sources that Report Unusual Phenomena in the Temple around AD 30 (JETS 48/2, June 2005, pp. 301-316). And even if it had happened, it couldn’t have been seen from Golgotha, anyway.
Thirteenth, the story in Matthew’s Gospel of Jewish saints coming out of their graves when Jesus died and then appearing to people in Jerusalem two days later is demonstrably absurd. Even leaving aside the question of what these saints were doing between Jesus’ death and Resurrection (waiting in their graves?), how did the Jews ascertain their identity (“Hi, I’m Abraham”?), and why didn’t the whole city of Jerusalem turn Christian, after they appeared to people? And what happened to these saints after that? There are far too many holes in the story for it to be deemed historically credible.
And why does Matthew alone narrate such an astonishing miracle? As the conservative Christian theologian David Wenham (Gordon Wenham’s brother) notes, “in this case the phenomenon is so remarkable that some mention of it might be expected in the other Gospels or Acts” (“The Resurrection Narratives in Matthew’s Gospel”, Tyndale Bulletin #24:19-54, 1973, pp. 42-43). Wenham tries to evade this difficulty by suggesting that the appearances of the Jewish saints after Jesus’ Resurrection “may have been isolated appearances and comparatively poorly attested,” but this goes against the plain language of Matthew, who narrates that the resurrected saints “appeared to many” (Matthew 27:53).
Fourteenth, John’s claim that Jesus’ legs were not broken by Pilate’s soldiers, but that he was pierced with a lance instead, causing blood and water to issue forth from Jesus’ side, is highly dubious: it appears to have been written in order to serve a theological agenda, portraying Jesus as the Paschal lamb that was slain without any of its bones being broken. In reality, if Pilate had ordered his soldiers to break Jesus’ legs, then they would certainly have done it: Roman soldiers took their orders very seriously. What’s more, the Romans would never have allowed bystanders anywhere near the Cross while they were killing the crucified criminals, so even if blood and water had issued from Jesus’ side, there would have been no-one to witness the event.
Fifteenth, the claim (found in all four Gospels) that Jesus was buried in a rock tomb owned by a wealthy, pious Jew named Joseph of Arimathea, is highly doubtful, and the claim that he was buried with a large quantity of spices by a rich man named Nicodemus is almost certainly a fabrication. Indeed, it is doubtful whether Jesus was given a proper burial at all. The key point to remember here is that Jesus was executed as an enemy of the Roman state (Luke 23:1-5, John 19:12-16, 19:19-22). All scholars agree on this point. Part of the penalty of crucifixion was being denied a proper burial: victims were left hanging on the cross for about a week, to be gnawed at by animals and carrion birds, then they were finally taken down and thrown into a common grave. In a time when dying unburied was seen as a terrible fate, this punishment added to the public horror of crucifixion. There’s no evidence that the Romans ever made an exception to this rule, anywhere, for people crucified as enemies of the State (as opposed to low-life criminals), which leads Professor Bart Ehrman to conclude that Jesus’s body probably suffered the same ignominious fate. (See his blog post titled, “Did Romans Allow Jews to Bury Crucified Victims? Readers Mailbag January 1, 2018”.)
Even if Jesus was given a proper burial, it would not have been an honorable burial, but a shameful and dishonorable burial, at the hands of the Jewish authorities who had agitated for Jesus’ death: Pilate would have had no reason to hand Jesus’ body over to anyone else. On this scenario, Jesus’ body would have been buried in a final resting place, along with the bodies of other criminals who had been condemned by Jewish courts. There would have been no mourners, no funeral procession and no family members present, and the body would have been wrapped in haste. Professor Byron McCane discusses this scenario in his article, “‘Where No One Had Yet Been Laid’: The Shame of Jesus’ Burial” (in B.D. Chilton and C.A. Evans (eds.), Authenticating the Activities of Jesus (NTTS, 28.2; Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1998).
Sixteenth, Matthew’s assertion that a Guard was posted at Jesus’ tomb is frankly incredible: the account “bristles with improbabilities”, to cite the words of one leading apologist (John Wenham). For instance, why would Pilate would have agreed to the Jewish leaders’ request for a guard, when it related to a purely religious issue that was of no concern to a Roman prefect? And how likely is it that Pilate, whom the Gospels portray as having been virtually arm-twisted by the chief priests into ordering Jesus’ crucifixion, would have forgotten this affront, and willingly granted their request for a guard over Jesus’ tomb, on the following day? The aftermath is even more absurd: despite the fact that the penalty for guards falling asleep was crucifixion upside down, the guards agree to spread the totally implausible story that they all fell asleep on Sunday morning, and that none of them woke up while the disciples broke the seal of the tomb, rolled back the stone, and removed the body of Jesus!
Nevertheless, Wenham is inclined to credit the story of the guard, precisely because it’s so full of obvious holes that he thinks no-one would have made it up in the first place. In reply, Alter suggests (2015, pp. 340-342) that the story was originally created in order to forestall an anti-Christian explanation for the empty tomb: maybe the reason why it was found empty is that Jesus’ body was stolen. To forestall that possibility, someone concocted a fictitious account of the Jewish priests going to Pilate and requesting a guard, in order to quell popular rumors that Jesus would rise from the dead on the third day. But that created a problem: if there were a guard at the tomb, then the women wouldn’t have been able to enter and find it empty. So in the story, the guard had to be gotten out of the way. This was done by inserting a terrifying apparition of an angel just before the women arrived at the tomb, causing the guards to fall into a dead faint, and conveniently providing the women with the opportunity to enter the tomb. And in order to explain why there was no public record of the guard seeing the angel remove the stone, the story of the guards being bribed into silence by the Jewish chief priests was invented. In short: the lameness of the guard story cannot be used to establish its authenticity. The story is an ad hoc creation, designed to forestall a common objection to the empty tomb accounts.
Seventeenth and finally, the Gospel accounts of the women visiting Jesus’ tomb on Easter Sunday morning are full of holes, even if we omit the angelic appearances. In the first place, the women would never have gone to the to the tomb unless they had some idea of how they were going to roll back the very large stone which Mark says was blocking the entrance (Mark 16:4) – but as Mark himself acknowledges, they had none (Mark 16:3). Additionally, back in those times, women would never have ventured out before dawn on a Sunday morning without men to escort them, and in any case, they would have been trespassing (and violating Roman law) by entering a private tomb. Nor would they have had time to purchase any spices to anoint Jesus’ body, as Mark records (Mark 16:1). And to cap it all, the whole idea of the women anointing a dead body and then rewrapping it in dirty linen cloths makes absolutely no sense.
So much for the historical accuracy of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ arrest, crucifixion and burial. What of the Resurrection appearances? There are about eleven appearances recorded in the New Testament, and none of them are of a sufficiently high evidential quality as to satisfy an independent and impartial historian. In order to establish a resurrection, we would need one or more accounts of multiple witnesses seeing Jesus, making physical contact with him, and more or less agreeing on what he said to them. None of the appearances meet these criteria: the closest is Jesus’ appearance to his apostles. Let’s take a look at each appearance in turn:
(i) Jesus’ appearance to Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb. Forget about the minor discrepancies between the Gospel accounts that skeptical critics like to harp on: the number of women who visited Jesus’ tomb (was it one, two, three or five?) and the time when they arrived (was it before or after dawn?) These are trivial details. Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty: why did the women come to the tomb, and how did they hope to get in? Mark and Luke tell us that the women who were present at Jesus’ burial on Friday night went to anoint Jesus’ body, and that they brought spices with them (Mark 16:1; Luke 24:1). But as Alter argues in his book, this makes no sense at all: the body had already been anointed by Joseph of Arimathea, late on Friday afternoon. And even if we generously suppose that the women returned to the tomb on Sunday morning in order to give Jesus’ body a proper anointing after the hasty burial on Friday night, we face another problem, highlighted by Alter in his book: “It does not make sense for the women to unwrap a previously properly prepared body, anoint it, and then rewrap the body with the now unclean and used (stained) linen” (2015, p. 323).
Matthew and John, on the other hand, tell us that the women’s purpose was simply to pay a visit to the tomb (Matthew 28:1; John 20:1). But in that case, why did they venture outside before dawn without any men to escort them? And how did they intend to roll away the stone, which Mark’s Gospel tells us was “very large” (Mark 16:4)? Maybe apologists might argue that they would have been able to hail some passersby. But is it at all likely that passersby would help a group of strange women to open a tomb containing the body of a man who had been in the grave for two nights and a day, and who had been condemned to death as an enemy of the Roman state, and crucified on the orders of the Roman government?
There’s more. In the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, the messenger at Jesus’ tomb (who is either an angel or a young man) attempts to reassure the frightened women – “Do not be afraid” (Matthew 28:10; Mark 16:6) – before telling them that Jesus is risen. But in Luke’s and John’s Gospels, the angels are aloof and distant, and make no attempt to reassure the women. In Luke, the two angels then announce that Jesus has risen, but without telling them where he will meet up with his disciples (Luke 24:5-7). In John’s Gospel, the two angels convey no information whatsoever. All they do is ask Mary Magdalene a single question: “Why are you weeping?” (John 20:13). Cold comfort, indeed! Immediately afterward, Jesus himself appears to comfort Mary Magdalene. Interestingly, only two Gospels (Matthew and John) record Jesus’ appearance to Mary Magdalene and (in Matthew) one other woman (“the other Mary,” presumably Mary the mother of James and Joseph). But if we compare Matthew’s and John’s reports of Jesus’ appearance to Mary Magdalene, we find very little that they agree on, except for the fact that Jesus tells her: “Go tell my brothers” (i.e. the disciples). And that’s it. (In Mark, this message is conveyed to the women by a young man, instead; in Luke, by two angels.) Finally, did Mary touch Jesus (as in Matthew’s Gospel) or not (as John 20:17 appears to suggest)? We don’t know. And if she didn’t touch Jesus, how did she know he was risen from the dead? In short: even if this appearance took place, historians have no way of knowing that it was anything more than a hallucination by a distraught Mary, or perhaps, a genuine post-mortem appearance of Jesus, but not as a physically resurrected individual.
(ii) Jesus’ appearance to Peter is recorded in St. Paul’s creedal statement in 1 Corinthians 15:5, which narrates that Jesus appeared “to Cephas” before appearing to “the Twelve.” Apart from that, Luke is the only Evangelist who records Jesus’ appearance to Peter – and then, only in the briefest of terms: the excited apostles announce that “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!” (Luke 24:34). In any case, this appearance was witnessed by only a single individual, so in a Jewish court of law, it would carry no weight: the testimony of at least two individuals was required (Deuteronomy 17:6; Deuteronomy 19:15; 2 Corinthians 13:1). Finally, we have no record in the New Testament of what, if anything, Jesus said to Peter when he appeared to him, and whether Peter had any physical contact with Jesus. Consequently, Jesus’ appearance to Peter carries no weight, if one is attempting to argue for Jesus’ Resurrection on purely historical grounds.
(iii) Jesus’ appearance to two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and in their home, at supper. If the two disciples invited Jesus to share a meal with them at their home in Emmaus, then according to Professor Rolland E. Wolfe, it would have taken them several hours to prepare it (How the Easter Story Grew from Gospel to Gospel, 1989, Lewiston: Edwin Mellen, p. 40). Since it was already evening when the two disciples arrived home, then it must have been well after dark by the time Jesus manifested his true identity to them, at the breaking of the bread. Even if they got up right away to rush back to Jerusalem and tell the apostles that Jesus had risen, it would have been around midnight by the time they reached Jerusalem, which was seven miles away. By that time, the gates of the city would have been shut, so they couldn’t have got in. However, both Luke and John insist (Luke 24:33-34; John 20:19) that Jesus appeared to the apostles on the first day of the week (Sunday). In that case, the story of Jesus appearing to two disciples on the road to Emmaus cannot also be true. There simply isn’t enough time for it to have happened, and for the disciples to have communicated the good news of Jesus’ Resurrection to the apostles.
(iv) Jesus’ appearance to his apostles is by far the best-attested Resurrection appearance: some version of it is found in all four Gospels and in St. Paul. Despite this fact, contradictions abound. First, how many apostles saw Jesus initially? Was it twelve (1 Corinthians 15:5), eleven (Matthew 28:16-20, Luke 24:33-43), ten (John 20:19-25) or perhaps only seven (as in John 21, which is said to have been Jesus’ third apparition to his disciples, but reads in many ways as if it were the first)? Second, when did the apostles first see Jesus? Was it on Easter Sunday evening, as in Luke’s and John’s Gospels, or was it a few days later, as in Matthew’s Gospel? Third, where did the apostles see Jesus? Did he appear to his apostles in Jerusalem or Galilee? Catholic apologist Xavier Leon-Dufour concludes in his book, Resurrection and the Message of Easter (1971, New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, pp. 212-213): “The conflict cannot be solved by a harmonization… These different indications of place cannot be reconciled.” Finally, if we look at the messages given by Jesus to the apostles when he meets them, we also find some astonishing divergences. The Gospels don’t even agree on what Jesus said to his apostles when he appeared to them, beyond the fact that he was sending them out to bear witness to him.
Apologists might object: what are the odds of ten, eleven or twelve people hallucinating the same individual, in the same way, at the same time? If they all independently witnessed the same thing, that would indeed be remarkable. But if Jesus appeared to Peter first, as St. Paul and Luke’s Gospel inform us, then he would have surely told the other apostles what he had seen. That could have influenced what they saw and heard, when they encountered Jesus. In other words, we are not dealing with multiple independent observations of the risen Jesus here, but rather, with a dozen or so witnesses whose observations are highly inter-dependent. In that case, the odds against the apostles having a hallucination of Jesus are no longer astronomical.
What’s more, we don’t know how many of the apostles heard Jesus talk, or made physical contact with him. Maybe all of them saw Jesus, but only Peter heard him. That would dramatically reduce the odds of them having the same hallucination: it’s a lot easier for eleven or twelve hallucinating individuals to merely see the same thing (particularly if they’ve all been influenced by the same individual) than it is for them to see and hear the same thing.
One more thing. Among the twelve apostles, all except Peter were probably teenagers.
(v) Jesus’ subsequent appearance to doubting Thomas. Obviously, a phantom Jesus could never have invited Thomas to put his hand in his side. But if John’s account of Jesus’ being pierced in the side on the Cross is itself fictional (as it appears to have been, for reasons discussed above), then it follows that the story of doubting Thomas must also be fictional – made up for apologetic reasons (presumably, to counter people who were saying Jesus was just a phantom).
(vi) Jesus’ appearance to seven disciples by the Sea of Tiberias bears a suspicious resemblance to another account in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 5:1-11) that describes how Jesus, after teaching a large crowd of people from a boat that was kindly supplied by Simon (Peter) near the shore of the Sea of Galilee (Lake Gennesaret), tells Peter to let down his nets, which suddenly begin to fill with fish. If John 21 and Luke 5:1-11 are two versions of the same event, then we cannot be sure that it records a post-resurrection encounter with Jesus; it may equally well be a pre-resurrection encounter, which left a vivid impression on his disciples. In that case, historians cannot use it as evidence for the Resurrection.
(vii) Jesus’ appearance to “the eleven disciples” on a mountain in Galilee is doubtful, because it contains two historical anachronisms: first, Jesus commands his disciples to preach the good news to all nations (Matthew 28:19), without imposing any requirement that Gentile converts to Christianity will have to obey the commands of the Mosaic Law (compare with Acts 10 and 11, where the Christian community doesn’t drop its insistence that converts observe the Mosaic Law until eight years later, and then only after Peter has a vision instructing him to ditch the requirement); and second, Jesus tells his disciples to baptize “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19) – a formula that appears nowhere else in the entire New Testament. Elsewhere in the New Testament, Christians are simply baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus (Acts 2:38, 8:16, 10:48, 19:5, 22:16). The Trinitarian formula first appears in the Didache, an early Christian document that was most likely composed around the end of the first century. If we remove these two anachronisms from Matthew’s account, all we are left with is a promise made by Jesus that he would always remain with his disciples, “to the very end of the age.” And to make matters worse, Matthew adds that some of the disciples weren’t even sure that what they were seeing was real: “some of them doubted” (Matthew 28:17). Not exactly powerful evidence, is it?
(viii) At first blush, Jesus’ appearance to the 500 might appear to be the most convincing of all Jesus’ resurrection appearances. After all, surely 500 people couldn’t all hallucinate the same thing at the same time! And didn’t St. Paul explicitly declare in 1 Corinthians 15:6 that some of these people who saw Jesus were still alive, effectively challenging his readers to come and check the accuracy of his account for themselves?
Not so fast. First, who were these 500 witnesses? Not one of them is named in the writings of St. Paul. Indeed, we don’t even know whether St. Paul met any of them: he never claims to have done so. Second, why don’t the Gospels ever mention this appearance of Jesus to 500 people? Third, it is simply not true that the Corinthians could have easily verified St. Paul’s claim that Jesus had appeared to 500 believers, had they wished to do so. In reality, a trip from Corinth to Jerusalem would have been a difficult undertaking, requiring considerable time, costing a lot of money, and placing those who made the trip at great personal risk (traveling was a lot more dangerous back in those days).
Finally, if Pilate had heard reports that no less than 500 people claimed to have seen, spoken with or eaten with a man whom he had previously condemned to death in front of a large crowd of people, he would surely have ordered an investigation. So, why didn’t he?
(ix) Jesus’ appearance to James is briefly mentioned in St. Paul’s creedal formula in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, but it is nowhere mentioned or even hinted at in the Gospels or in the Acts of the Apostles – or even in the letter of James! On top of that, we’re not even sure which James St. Paul is talking about here: most scholars think it was “James brother of the Lord,” but we don’t know that for certain (there are two other Jameses named in the New Testament). Finally, we aren’t even told whether Jesus spoke to James, in his encounter. James may have simply seen him, without speaking to him or touching him. In that case, James may have seen nothing more than a vision of Jesus, like St. Paul.
(x) The Ascension of Jesus is nowhere mentioned in the writings of St. Paul. Even more curiously, the Ascension is nowhere narrated in the Gospels, either (with the sole exception of a brief phrase at the end of Luke’s Gospel – “and was carried up into Heaven” – which many scholars regard as an interpolation). There is also a brief description of the event in the “long ending” to Mark’s Gospel, but this ending was tacked on to the original Gospel, probably in the early second century. The mystery deepens when we discover that the earliest Church Fathers – Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Hermas and Polycarp – are also silent on the subject of Jesus’ Ascension. The only Biblical portrayal of this remarkable event occurs in chapter 1 of the Acts of the Apostles, which an increasing number of scholars date to the second century A.D. – and it takes up just three verses. (John 20:17 also seems to hint at an ascension, but the event itself is not recorded; in any case, many scholars reject the identification of John’s ascension with the one described in Acts. Rather, it appears to have taken place on Easter Sunday itself, and to have been followed by other appearances of Jesus.)
(xi) Finally, we are left with Jesus’ appearance to St. Paul, on the road to Damascus. Of St. Paul’s sincerity, I believe there can be absolutely no doubt. (Alter’s view on this point, which I discussed briefly in the Executive Summary above, is different from mine.) However, a fair-minded historian would find it impossible to ignore the very real discrepancies between St. Paul’s account of his conversion in Galatians 1 (where St. Paul says he immediately went away to Arabia following his encounter with Jesus) and Luke’s accounts in the Acts of the Apostles (which tell us that St. Paul was led into the city of Damascus instead, since he was blind). Additionally, the historian could not fail to notice that Luke’s accounts in Acts 9, 22 and 26 are mutually contradictory (was St. Paul informed of his mission by Jesus himself, as in Acts 26, or by the prophet Ananias in Damascus, as in Acts 9 and 22?), as well as being historically inaccurate (contrary to Acts 9, the chief priests in Jerusalem had no authority to arrest Jews residing in Damascus and bring them back for punishment). But the most decisive difficulty with St. Paul’s account of his encounter with Jesus is that he fails to describe it as a physical encounter. What Paul had was not an encounter with an embodied being, but a vision of Jesus. In the words of Christian apologist William Lane Craig: “All Paul saw was a light brighter than the sun, and he heard the Lord’s voice reprimanding him and commanding him what to do.” That’s not sufficient evidence to prove a resurrection – particularly when we have only one witness who saw Jesus on that occasion.
To sum up: the only conclusion an honest inquirer could draw, after assessing this evidence, is that the historical evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus is far too weak to establish that it probably happened.
C. PART ONE: JESUS’ TRIAL, DEATH, CRUCIFIXION AND BURIAL
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2. The obstacle race: 17 improbable claims you have to accept, if you’re going to defend the historical reliability of the Gospel accounts
110-meter Hurdle Race in Berlin, Germany 2006, showing Aries Merritt, Dayron Robles and Allen Johnson. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
The Gospel accounts of Jesus’ trial, crucifixion, death and burial contain at least 17 factual claims which an impartial historian would judge to be either doubtful or highly improbable. The occurrence of such a large number of historical improbabilities over a short 24-hour time period casts doubt on the reliability of the Gospel narratives.
a. Was the Last Supper a Passover meal? And did Jesus tell his disciples to drink blood?
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IMPROBABLE CLAIM # 1: That the Last Supper was a Passover meal, at which Jesus told his disciples to eat his body and to drink blood, which he referred to as the blood of the new covenant. It is reasonably certain that the Last Supper took place on the night before Jesus’ crucifixion, which occurred on a Friday. Since the Jewish day began at sundown, this would mean that the Last Supper and Crucifixion took place on the same day, from a Biblical standpoint.
(i) Why the Last Supper couldn’t have been on a Tuesday or Wednesday night
Jonah and the Whale (1621) by Pieter Lastman. Museum Kunstpalast. Public domain. Image courtesy of Gillabrand and Wikipedia. Some scholars have argued that Jesus was crucified on a Wednesday or Thursday, because of his statement that he would be inside the earth for three days and nights (Mathew 12:40), like the prophet Jonah inside the great fish. Image courtesy of Google Cultural Institute and Wikipedia.
I’d like to ask my readers to bear with me, for a moment, as I try to explain why the Last Supper would have been on a Thursday evening, and the Crucifixion on a Friday afternoon. This might seem like a point that hardly needs proving, but there have been scholars who denied it (including some Christian apologists). As we’ll see, the day is important, as it bears on the question of whether the Last Supper was a Passover meal or not.
In his book, Alter critically reviews and ultimately rejects arguments purporting to show that Jesus was crucified on a Wednesday or a Thursday. As Alter points out, arguments for a Wednesday or Thursday crucifixion rest entirely on Jesus’ declaration (Matthew 12:40) that he would lie in the earth for three days and nights, like the prophet Jonah inside the belly of the great fish.
According to the Jewish custom of inclusive reckoning of time, any part of a day was reckoned as an entire day, including the night. Consequently, part of Friday, all of Saturday, and part of Sunday would have been counted as three days (see Gen 42:17; 1 Kgs 20:29; 2 Chron 10:5; 1 Sam 30:12; y. Shabbat 9:3; cf. b. Pesahim 4a). Therefore, a Friday burial and Sunday morning resurrection would count as three days. (2015, p. 95)
Additionally, a Thursday crucifixion would actually mean that Jesus would rise on the fourth day, whereas the New Testament consistently affirms (Acts 10:40; 1 Corinthians 15:4) that he was raised on the third day.
Having established that Jesus was crucified on a Friday, Alter assumes that the Last Supper would have been on a Thursday night. Alter omits to mention Annie Jaubert’s interesting theory that the Last Supper was celebrated on a Tuesday evening, but that Jesus was crucified on a Friday. However, former Pope Benedict XVI provides a highly readable exposition of Jaubert’s views here, in which he carefully explains scholars’ reasons for rejecting them. In a nutshell:
…Jesus is unlikely to have used a calendar associated principally with Qumran [as Jaubert suggests – VJT]. Jesus went to the Temple for the great feasts. Even if he prophesied its demise and confirmed this with a dramatic symbolic action, he still followed the Jewish festal calendar, as is evident from John’s Gospel in particular.
Another, more detailed discussion of the key arguments against Jaubert’s theory can be found in Rector John Hamilton’s article, The Chronology of the Crucifixion and the Passover (Churchman, 106 (1992), pp. 323-338). Jaubert cites a document called the Didascalia as evidence for her claim that the early Church placed the Last Supper on a Tuesday, but Hamilton rebuts this claim by quoting Catholic Biblical scholar Dr. Josef Blinzler (1919-1970), who points out that the document “has its origin in the second century at the earliest, and is the result of the efforts made later on to derive the traditional weekly fasts on Wednesday and Friday from the passion of Our Lord.” (The Trial of Jesus, English Translation, Cork: Mercier Press, 1959, p. 79).
So much for Tuesday as a date for the Last Supper, then. Could the Last Supper have been on a Wednesday, then? Some have thought so. In a blog article titled, Dating the Last Supper a Day Early?, Professor Mark Goodacre critiques Cambridge scientist Colin Humphreys’ recent proposal that the Last Supper took place on a Wednesday night, and that Jesus was crucified on a Friday. The preponderance of evidence points to the conclusion that Jesus’ Last Supper did indeed take place on a Thursday night. Since the Jewish day began at sundown, this means that the Last Supper and Crucifixion fell on the same day (Friday) of the Jewish week. In the words of Dr. Josef Blinzler: “One who carefully examines all the pros and cons will reach the conclusion that the traditional chronology is decidedly more justified… There is no doubt that both the Synoptic Gospels and the Gospel of St. John testify to the chronology of one day.” (The Trial of Jesus, English Translation, Cork: Mercier Press, 1959, p. 79).
It has also been proposed that Jesus and his disciples followed a special calendar relating to the observance of Jewish feasts. The late Catholic Biblical scholar Fr. Raymond Brown (1928-1998) was highly skeptical of such attempts to harmonize the Gospels: “The real difficulty in this explanation is that the supposed calendar which Jesus followed exists only as a scholar’s hypothesis.” Brown adds that “in all the Gospels there is never a hint that Christ was guilty of heterodoxy in his observance of feasts – rather he appeared in Jerusalem at the time of the official observance of Passover (Jn. 2: 13), Tabernacles (Jn. 2:7) and Dedication (Jn. 10:22)” (New Testament Essays, London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1965, p. 160). Moreover, as New Testament scholar and Lutheran theologian Joachim Jeremias (1900-1979) pointed out: “There is no evidence that the Passover lambs were ever slaughtered on two consecutive days in the Temple, and it seems most unlikely that such a thing ever could have happened.” (The Eucharistic Words of Jesus, London: SCM Press, 1966, p. 25.)
Up to this point, scholars are in general agreement: Jesus died on a Friday afternoon, and ate his Last Supper the night before.
(ii) Was the Last Supper a Passover meal?
Table set for the Passover Seder. Image courtesy of Gillabrand and Wikipedia.
However, the question of whether the Last Supper was a Passover meal (or Seder) is a more contentious one. The Last Supper is represented in the Synoptic Gospels as a Passover meal (Matthew 26:17-19; Mark 14:12-16; Luke 22:7-13), but this is highly unlikely, for a variety of reasons.
First, Passover is the most family-oriented festival in Jewish tradition. Jesus would never have celebrated the Passover segregated from his family, with twelve male disciples. Jesus is also said to have washed the feet of his disciples (John 13:1-17), but according to Exodus 12:11, Jews were required to eat Passover with “your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand.”
Additionally, John’s Gospel tells us (John 13:29) that Judas left the Last Supper early, with a moneybag, and that some of the apostles thought Jesus had told him to buy what was needed for the festival (of Passover) – which would make absolutely no sense if they had just eaten the Passover!
John also mentions that the apostles thought Jesus might have asked Judas to give something to the poor, instead. But this would have made no sense if the meal was a Passover meal, either, as Gerald Sigal points out in chapter 4 of his polemical work, The Resurrection Fantasy: Reinventing Jesus (Xlibris, 2012):
Giving, even to the needy, monetary funds on the festival was forbidden by the Torah. And, he [Judas] certainly was not handing out I.O.U.s. The night before the paschal lamb was to be sacrificed one might very well expect the needy to be seeking alms in the area of the Temple compound. This would not be the case during the night when all Jerusalem, rich and poor alike, would be gathered into groups to partake of the Paschal lamb.
The Gospels also tell us (Matthew 27:15, Mark 15:6; John 18:39) that there was a Roman custom (observed by Pilate) of releasing a Jewish prisoner at the Passover. As Alter points out, this could only have meant: in honor of the upcoming Passover, so that the released prisoner would have had an opportunity to take part in the Passover. The release of a prisoner after the Passover meal (as depicted in the Synoptic Gospels) would in no way honor the Passover.
On top of that, the parallels between the Last Supper and the Passover alleged by New Testament scholar and Lutheran theologian Professor Joachim Jeremias (1900-1979) in his influential work, The Eucharistic Words of Jesus (1966, Philadelphia: Fortress Press), have been called into question. As Jonathan Klawans, Professor of Religion at Boston University, puts it in his article, Was Jesus’ Last Supper a Seder? (2001, Bible Review 17(5):29-30): “That Jesus ate a meal in Jerusalem, at night, with his disciples is not surprising. It is also no great coincidence that during this meal the disciples reclined, ate both bread and wine, and sang a hymn. While such behavior may have been characteristic of the Passover meal, it is equally characteristic of practically any Jewish meal.” Klawans adds: “If this was a Passover meal, where is the Passover lamb? Where are the bitter herbs? Where are the four cups of wine?” See also Klawans’ follow-up article, “Jesus’ Last Supper Still Wasn’t a Passover Seder Meal” (Bible History Daily, March 28th, 2017).
Another key difference between the Last Supper and the Jewish Passover, highlighted by Jewish scholar Joseph Tabory in his JPS Commentary on the Haggadah (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2008, pp. 13–14) relates to the wine used in the meal: whereas Christian Last Supper traditions highlight the meaning of both the wine and the bread, Jewish Passover traditions make no attempt to offer any explanation of the wine, even though the other symbols are explained carefully.
Finally, as Biblical scholar Vincent Taylor cogently argued in his best-known work, The Gospel According to St. Mark (1953, London: Macmillan), the numerous irregularities recorded in the Synoptic Gospels as occurring on the feast of the Passover (see #2 below) cannot all be defended by appealing to the fact that rabbinical regulations that were in force in the second century A.D. may not have been in force during the time when Jesus lived:
“That arms might be borne by the mob and by the disciples on the day of the Passover, that a session of the Sanhedrin might be held on this day, followed by a condemnation and the rending of the high priest’s garments, that the burial can be fitted into the rules which, while permitting necessary preparations, enjoined that the limbs of the corpse must not be moved (Shab. xxiii. 5; Danby, 120), not to speak of the uncertain tradition regarding spices and ointments (Mk. xvi.1, Jn. xix. 39 f.) – all this is such a remarkable collection of things to be explained, that it is simpler to believe that the Supper preceded the Passover.” (pp. 666-667).
So what most likely happened? And how did the Last Supper come to be regarded as a Passover meal, if it wasn’t one? In his best-selling book, Jesus of Nazareth Part II, former Pope Benedict XVI presents a very fair-minded summary of the state of the evidence, before putting forward his own explanation, based on the work of Catholic Biblical scholar John P. Meier, author of the five-volume series, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus:
So what are we to say? The most meticulous evaluation I have come across of all the solutions proposed so far is found in the Jesus book by John P Meier, who at the end of his first volume presents a comprehensive study of the chronology of Jesus’s life. He concludes that one has to choose between the Synoptic and Johannine chronologies, and he argues, on the basis of the whole range of source material, that the weight of evidence favours John...
We have to ask, though, what Jesus’s Last Supper actually was. And how did it acquire its undoubtedly early attribution of Passover character? The answer given by Meier is astonishingly simple and in many respects convincing: Jesus knew that he was about to die. He knew that he would not be able to eat the Passover again. Fully aware of this, he invited his disciples to a Last Supper of a very special kind, that followed no specific Jewish ritual, but constituted his farewell; during the meal he gave them something new, he gave them himself as the true lamb and thereby instituted his Passover.
Meier’s explanation certainly makes a lot of sense, and accords well with St. Paul’s statement that “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Corinthians 5:7). However, the Synoptic Gospels don’t merely claim that Jesus ate something like a Passover meal with his disciples before he died. In addition, they date Jesus’ Last Supper to the first day of Unleavened Bread – i.e. the Jewish Passover (Mark 14:12-14; Matthew 26:17-19; Luke 22:7-13). That’s a historical error. Mark and Luke also mistakenly claim that the first day of Unleavened Bread is the day on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed, whereas it was in fact sacrificed on the day before: the lamb was eaten (not sacrificed) on the first day of Unleavened Bread (Nisan 15th).
(iii) Did Jesus tell his disciples to eat his flesh and to drink blood, at the Last Supper?
The Last Supper, by Juan de James, depicting Jesus’ institution of the Eucharist. 1562. Prado National Museum. Public domain. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
Mark’s Gospel also records that Jesus instituted the Eucharist at the Last Supper, taking some bread and wine and giving them to his disciples, saying: “Take; this is my body… This is my blood” (Mark 14: 22-24). St. Paul provides a very similar account (1 Corinthians 11:23-25). However, Alter finds it historically incredible that Jesus, as a Jew, could have instructed his disciples to eat his flesh and drink his blood, even in a metaphorical manner. As he puts it, citing numerous authorities: “The very thought of eating human flesh or drinking blood is totally repulsive in civilized sensibility and utterly unimaginable in Judaism” (2015, p. 79). Eating the blood of any animal – let alone human blood – is explicitly forbidden in the Jewish Scriptures (Leviticus 17:10-12), with a two-fold penalty attached: having God’s face set personally against the offender, and being totally cut off from Jewish religious life and from the entire Jewish people: in effect, a spiritual and social death sentence. This prohibition applied not only to Jews but also to strangers living among them. Eating human flesh was equally unthinkable. In Alter’s words: “Eating human flesh, even symbolically, occurs nowhere in all Jewish tradition” (2015, p. 80) – which prompts him to ask:
…[H]ow were the disciples to understand that they were to eat the body of Jesus who was about to be put to death? Also, how were they to understand that they were to drink his blood, though not the blood present in his body, but rather his blood that was about to be shed in the near future? … [W]hy did not even one disciple speak up and ask Jesus to clarify this teaching? (2015, pp. 80-81)
At this point, Christian apologists might object that according to John’s Gospel, Jesus had already prepared his disciples to accept this difficult and scandalous teaching in his Passover discourse near the Sea of Tiberias, one year previously (John 6: 25-71), where Jesus, after being abandoned by many of his followers over his insistence that they must eat his flesh and drink his blood, asks his disciples if they want to leave him, too – whereupon Peter replies: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). But one cannot have one’s Johannine cake and eat it: John’s Gospel contains no mention of the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. The only mention of the supper itself is in John 13:2-4, where we are told that during the supper, Jesus suddenly got up and started to wash his disciples’ feet. And that’s it.
In an article titled, Drinking blood at a kosher Eucharist? The sound of scholarly silence (Biblical Theology Bulletin, November 1, 2002), Dr. Michael J. Cahill, a former Professor of Biblical Studies at Duquesne University, comprehensively surveys no less than seventy scholarly sources on the question of the likelihood of the Jewish Jesus proposing the drinking of blood at the Eucharist, and concludes that the origin of the Christian Eucharist remains a profound mystery:
The survey of opinion, old and new, reveals wide disagreement with a fundamental divide between those who can accept that the notion of drinking blood could have a Jewish origin and those who insist that this is a later development to be located in the Hellenistic world. What both sides share is an inability to proffer a rationally convincing argument that can provide a historical explanation for the presence of this particular component of the Eucharistic rite. Those who hold for the literal institution by Jesus have not been able to explain plausibly how the drinking of blood could have arisen in a Jewish setting….
Many scholars, including Christians, now believe that the Eucharist evolved gradually over time: New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan traces five stages leading up to the Eucharist described in Mark’s Gospel, while Professor Bruce Chilton (a former Anglican rector) claims to have identified no less than six different Eucharists in the New Testament. The one implemented by Jesus was very modest: in his meals, he started referring to the drinking of wine as the equivalent of the blood of an animal shed in sacrifice. Drawing upon Chilton’s work, Catholic priest Professor Robert J. Daly, S.J., argues that Jesus did indeed institute the Eucharist, but that it was not the Eucharist as we know it, and that it took many generations of guidance from the Holy Spirit for the Eucharist to reach its current form. Fr. Daly expresses himself with striking candor in his article, “Eucharistic Origins: From the New Testament to the Liturgies of the Golden Age” (Theological Studies 66, March, 2005):
We do not know and cannot reconstruct in precise detail what Jesus did at his “Last Supper.” The New Testament itself remembered and interpreted what Jesus did in quite different ways… And indeed, if by Eucharist is meant what is now done in the Church, the farther back one goes, for example, to the “Eucharists” of James, Peter, and Jesus, the farther one gets from the Eucharist of the present. Indeed, if an exact reconstruction of what Jesus did at the Last Supper were possible, it would probably look quite different from what Christians now celebrate. (p. 16)
So, how would a neutral historian evaluate the claim found in St. Paul’s writings and in Mark’s Gospel, that Jesus, on the night before he died, instituted the Eucharist, instructing his disciples to eat his flesh and drink his blood, and to continue doing so in remembrance of him, in the future (1 Corinthians 11: 25-26)? Despite its dual attestation, it’s a very tall claim, given that the idea of eating human flesh and drinking any kind of blood is utterly foreign to Judaism. While it is possible to suppose that Jesus had previously explained to his disciples what he was doing (see John 6:53-68), the mental leap required to get first-century Jews to accept this idea of eating their Master’s flesh and drinking his blood is a huge one. A fair-minded historian would judge it more parsimonious to assume that such an idea did not spring up overnight, or even over the short space of a year, but instead evolved gradually in the Christian community, in the twenty-odd years between Jesus’ death and St. Paul’s writings on the Eucharist, and that the institution of the Eucharist in its Pauline form was retrospectively ascribed to Jesus. In other words, a neutral historian would have to conclude that the notion that Jesus celebrated a meal which we would recognize as the Christian Eucharist on the night before he died is most likely a historical anachronism.
b. Did Jesus die on the Jewish Passover?
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“Gero crucifix”, late 10th century, Cologne Cathedral, Germany. Public domain. Image courtesy of Elke Wetzig and Wikipedia.
IMPROBABLE CLAIM #2: That Jesus was crucified on the feast of the Jewish Passover, and that the Gospels are in agreement on this point. Historians know that Jesus’ contemporary, the Roman emperor Tiberius Caesar, died on March 16, 37 A.D. Surprisingly, though, historians don’t even know the year in which Jesus died; nor are they sure about the date. This is because the Gospels are unclear and at times contradictory on the subject. It is reasonably certain that Jesus died somewhere between 26 and 36 A.D. (when Pontius Pilate was prefect of the Roman province of Judea). Two references in the Gospels (Luke 3:1-2; John 2:20) appear to indicate that Jesus began his ministry in 28 or 29 A.D., and the Gospels also make it quite clear that Jesus was crucified on a Friday, either on or just before the Jewish Passover. That leaves two possible years for Jesus’ death, each with its own date for Good Friday: April 7, 30 A.D. and April 3, 33 A.D.
So, which is it? The three earliest Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), which mention only one Passover during Jesus’ ministry (suggesting that he only taught for one year), seem to point towards a date of 30 A.D.; whereas John’s Gospel, which gives Jesus a three-year ministry, would imply that he was crucified in 33 A.D.
The Gospels also contradict one another on the Jewish calendar date of Jesus’ death: was it on the 14th or 15th day of the Jewish month of Nisan – the eve of the Jewish Passover (as in John’s Gospel) or the Passover itself (as in Matthew, Mark and Luke)? Interestingly, both of the two dates listed above (April 7, 30 A.D. and April 3, 33 A.D.) would have fallen on Nisan 14th in the Jewish calendar, which means that Jesus was crucified on the day before the feast of Passover. What’s more, the great majority of early Church Fathers place the crucifixion on Nisan 14th (see here for further details). However, Matthew, Mark and Luke unmistakably depict Jesus as having been crucified on the 15th day of the month of Nisan, the date of the Passover, a Jewish high holy day on which work of any kind was totally forbidden (Matthew 26:17-19; Mark 14:12-16; Luke 22:7-13). And since the Jewish day began not at midnight, but at sunset, this prohibition would have applied from Thursday evening (when the Last Supper was held and Jesus was later arrested) until sunset on Good Friday, just after Jesus’ burial.
But despite the fact that the three earliest Gospel writers all agree that Jesus was crucified on Nisan 15th, there are good historical reasons for believing that this date cannot be correct, since these same Gospels also record numerous activities in connection with Jesus’ arrest, trial, crucifixion and burial which would have violated the Jewish law prohibiting work on such a holy day: the crowd sent by the chief priests and elders to arrest Jesus was allowed to carry swords (Matthew 26:47); Peter was carrying a weapon on a feast day (Matthew 27:51; Mark 14:47; Luke 22:50; John 18:10); the high priest tore his clothes (an act which would have constituted “work” under Jewish law) after hearing Jesus declare before the Sanhedrin that he would return one day, sitting at God’s right hand, on the clouds of heaven (Matthew 26:65; Mark 14:63); a fire was lit in the house of the high priest, which was also forbidden as “work” (Luke 22:54-55); a trial was held at the high priest’s palace (Matthew 26:56-64; Mark 14:53-54); Simon of Cyrene was coming into Jerusalem from the countryside, on a feast day, implying that he had been working (and in any case, people attending such an important festival would have been forbidden to enter or leave Jerusalem) (Matthew 27:32; Mark 15:21), and to make matters worse, Simon was then conscripted into working by carrying Jesus’ cross; Joseph of Arimathea was able to purchase fine linen for Jesus’ burial (Mark 15:46) on a day when no merchant would have had his stores open; and the women who watched Jesus dying on the cross were able to prepare spices and ointments for Jesus’ burial before the Sabbath (Luke 23:56).
By contrast, John’s Gospel appears to place Jesus’ crucifixion on the 14th day of Nisan (John 19:14): he depicts Jesus as the Paschal lamb, who was slain on the eve of the Passover (John 19:36-37). That would remove the illegalities referred to above, although as Alter points out, John’s date of Nisan 14th is not without problems of its own: the high priests and members of the religious hierarchy would be participating in an arrest and attending a trial on the night before their busiest day of the year, when they would have been responsible for presiding over the slaughter of thousands of Passover lambs. Still, scholars are generally agreed that John’s Gospel is more likely to be correct than the Synoptics, on the date of Jesus’ death.
Ingenious attempts have been made to harmonize John with the Synoptics; in our own time, philosophy professor and Christian apologist Professor Tim McGrew has argued (see here starting from 4:25) that John actually dates the crucifixion to Nisan 15th. For a scholarly rebuttal of this proposal, see chapter 12 of Oxford Professor Rev. William Sanday’s work, The authorship and historical character of the fourth Gospel (London: Macmillan, 1872), from which I quote at length in Section E below.
Christian apologist Mike Licona, after examining a number of proposed explanations for the discrepancy in dates between John and the Synoptics, concludes that the most likely explanation is that of Craig Keener – namely, that “John [deliberately] alters the day and the time of Jesus’ crucifixion in order to make theological points to say that Jesus is the burned offering for our sins and he’s our Passover lamb.” Alter’s comment is a telling one: “In a court of law, if two witnesses claimed that the same murder occurred on different days and there was no additional evidence, their testimonies would be excluded” (2015, p. 63).
c. Do the Gospels accurately represent Jesus trial before the Jewish Sanhedrin?
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Christ before Caiaphas by Matthias Stom. Early 1630s. Public domain. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
IMPROBABLE CLAIM #3: That the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ trial before the Jewish Sanhedrin are historically accurate. The trial of Jesus before the Jewish Sanhedrin, as portrayed in the Synoptic Gospels, was blatantly illegal and historically implausible. Jesus is said to have been tried on the feast of the Jewish Passover (Nisan 15th), which in the Jewish calendar would have begun at sundown on Thursday and ended at sundown on Friday, but under Jewish law, no trial was allowed to take place on the Sabbath or on feast days such as Passover (Leviticus 23). Jesus is also said to have been tried at night (Matthew 26, Mark 14), but no legal process could be started at night or even in the afternoon, for a trial before a regular Sanhedrin court. Furthermore, no capital trial could be held in a private home, such as the high priest’s residence (Matthew 26:57; Mark 14:53-54; John 18:12, 18:24), but only in the legal place: the Beth Din (a rabbinical court). Luke does not record any witnesses being brought forward in the Jewish assembly’s trial of Jesus (Luke 22:66-71), while Mark records that there were witnesses, whose testimonies contradicted one another (Mark 14:55-60). However, the Jewish Torah forbade the conviction of a man in the absence of witnesses, or on the testimony of false witnesses (Deuteronomy 17:6): the concurring testimony of two or three witnesses was always required (Deuteronomy 17:6; Deuteronomy 19:15; 2 Corinthians 13:1). In his account, Luke depicts the Jewish assembly as convicting Jesus without any charge, which would have been a clear violation of the Torah (Deuteronomy 17:9-10). Matthew and Mark, on the other hand, declare that Jesus was convicted of blasphemy for declaring himself to be the Messiah and the Son of God (Matthew 26:63-66; Mark 14:61-64). However, under Jewish law, blasphemy requires use of the divine name, which Jesus never used during his trial. Finally, death sentences could only be pronounced at least 24 hours after the interrogation. Faced with these difficulties, a sober-minded historian would have no choice but to conclude that the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ trial probably contain massive distortions.
There are, to be sure, alternative views. I shall discuss two articles here, which are not mentioned in Alter’s book, but which I believe warrant serious consideration. Professor Darrell Bock, in an article titled, “Blasphemy and the Jewish Examination of Jesus” (Bulletin for Biblical Research 17.1 (2007), pp. 53–114), argues that Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin was not a capital trial but “a kind of preliminary hearing to determine if Jesus was as dangerous as the leadership sensed and whether he could be sent credibly for judgment by Rome.” At such hearings, the rules would have been less rigid; hence it is quite possible that Jesus’ preliminary trial would have taken place at night, for instance. However, this is hard to square with Mark’s statement that the chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for evidence against Jesus so that they could put him to death (Mark 14:55). That sounds pretty final to me. Bock also proposes an intriguing explanation as to why Jesus was condemned for blasphemy. Surveying the literature, he demonstrates that a sentence of blasphemy by the Sanhedrin did not necessarily require the use of the Divine name by the convicted person; there were other grounds for blasphemy, as well – e.g. idolatry, showing disrespect towards God and insulting God’s chosen leaders. Bock contends that Jesus, by claiming to the judge of the world at the end of time, who would return on the clouds of Heaven, made an arrogation which the Sanhedrin would have considered blasphemous. Nevertheless, Bock grants that some Jews believed that the Biblical patriarch Enoch, believed to have been taken up into Heaven, would return in glory, in the same way as Jesus said he would. If making these claims about Enoch was not considered blasphemy, then it is hard to see why making the same claims about Jesus would be, although Bock suggests that as a Galilean teacher, Jesus would have been considered unworthy of such honors; additionally, the chief priests may have taken umbrage at Jesus’ implication that he would one day return as their judge (see Exodus 22:28). On the blasphemy charge, I believe Bock’s proposal to be worthy of consideration by independent historians: he may be correct here. However, I have to say that I find Bock’s interpretation of Jesus’ trial as “a kind of preliminary hearing” utterly implausible.
Rector John Hamilton, in an article titled, The Chronology of the Crucifixion and the Passover (Churchman, 106 (1992), pp. 323-338), does not directly address the blasphemy charge, but concedes that Jesus’ trial “contravened normal legal practice at many points” (1992, p. 336) and approvingly quotes Biblical scholar Dr. Josef Blinzler’s conclusion that one is not able “to spare the Sanhedrin the reproach of very serious infringement of the law” (The Trial of Jesus, English translation, Cork, 1959, p. 138). Despite these illegalities, Hamilton believes that Caiaphas and the high priests, spurred on by their hatred of Jesus and their conviction that he was a false prophet, were so determined to get rid of him that they were willing to violate established legal and even ritual practices, in their quest to have Jesus officially sentenced to death by the Romans. In his endeavor to reconcile the Synoptics with John, Hamilton suggests that the Jewish chief priests, when they brought Jesus before Pilate on Good Friday morning, still had not yet eaten their own Passover, because they had been busy all through the night with the arrest and trial of Jesus. Hamilton supposes that the chief priests intended to eat their Passover later; nevertheless, he is forced to admit that “there is no other example of this known from antiquity” (1992, p. 332). In other words, Hamilton’s hypothesis is an improbable one, which a historian would be justified in rejecting, unless he/she had compelling reasons to favor it.
d. Was Pontius Pilate reluctant to convict Jesus?
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Nikolai Ge, Christ and Pilate (“What is truth?”), 1890. Public domain. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
IMPROBABLE CLAIM #4: That the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ trial before Pontius Pilate are historically reliable. All four Gospels depict Pilate as reluctant to convict Jesus, but this goes against everything we know about him from other sources. Even the evangelist Luke acknowledges Pilate’s brutality, when he refers in passing to “the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices” (Luke 13:1): Professor Bart Ehrman thinks Pilate probably had these Jews murdered, while they were performing their religious duties. (See his blog article, Argument Against Jesus’ Burial in HJBG, Part 2.) The Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria (25 B.C. – 50 A.D.), described Pilate’s administration as being characterized by “his venality, his violence, his thefts, his assaults, his abusive behavior, his frequent executions of untried prisoners, and his endless savage ferocity.” (Embassy to Gaius 302). The Jewish historian Josephus chronicles Pilate’s brutal acts: he tells us (Antiquities 18.3.2) that on one occasion, when Pilate wanted to build an aqueduct to provide fresh water to Jerusalem, he decided to finance the undertaking by stealing the money from the treasury of the Jewish temple. When the Jewish authorities and the people of Jerusalem protested in outrage, Pilate responded brutally: on his command, his soldiers mingled with the crowds, in disguise, and then they suddenly attacked the people, not with swords but with clubs. Many Jews were slaughtered on that day, and many others were trampled to death. Nor did Pilate mellow over time: his career as prefect of Judea was ended by an incident in which he ordered a large number of people to be put to death. A large group of Samaritans had been persuaded by an unnamed man to go to Mount Gerizim in order to see some sacred artifacts that had been allegedly buried by Moses. But at a village named Tirathana, before the crowd could ascend the mountain, Pilate sent in “a detachment of cavalry and heavy-armed infantry, who in an encounter with the firstcomers in the village slew some in a pitched battle and put the others to flight. Many prisoners were taken, of whom Pilate put to death the principal leaders and those who were most influential.” (Antiquities of the Jews 18.4.1). Clearly, the man was not a nice guy.
And yet, this is the man whom the Gospels depict as saying to the crowd demanding Jesus’ death: “Why? What evil has he done?” (Matthew 27:23, Mark 15:14, Luke 23:22), and as washing his hands of responsibility for Jesus’ death by declaring, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves” (Matthew 27:24). In John’s Gospel, Pilate is similarly reluctant to convict Jesus: he tells the crowd, “See, I am bringing him out to you that you may know that I find no guilt in him” (John 19:4). When the Jewish authorities protest against the inscription, “The King of the Jews” on Jesus’ cross, Pilate defends it, saying, “What I have written, I have written.”
An impartial historian, evaluating the Gospels’ portrait of Pontius Pilate, would have to conclude that it is most likely a piece of propaganda, designed to diminish Roman responsibility for the death of Jesus and portray Pilate as a pawn of the Jewish authorities who wanted Jesus out of the way. The reason why the Evangelists chose to depict Pilate in such an unrealistic fashion is that they were attempting to demonstrate to their Greek and Roman audience that Christians posed no political threat to Imperial Rome.
e. Judas’ betrayal of Jesus and subsequent death
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A red-haired Judas betrays Jesus with a kiss in a Spanish paso [Passion street float] figure. Image courtesy of Adercilla and Wikipedia.
IMPROBABLE CLAIM #5: That the Gospel accounts of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus and of Judas’ subsequent death are consistent and historically reliable. The story of Judas recorded in the Gospels contains not only literary embellishments and legendary accretions, but also outright contradictions and Scriptural misquotations. I discuss the case of Judas in further detail in Section E below.
St. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15:5, refers to Jesus appearing to “the Twelve,” which is very odd indeed if he was aware that Judas had betrayed Jesus. The earliest narrative of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus is in Mark’s Gospel, which relates the stories of Judas approaching the chief priests and offering to deliver Jesus over to them, and Judas leading the mob that arrested Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. The New Testament accounts of Judas’ death are found in later gospels: Matthew and Luke.
Christian apologists have ingeniously attempted to reconcile Matthew’s account (Judas went out and hanged himself in a fit of remorse) with Luke’s account in the Acts of the Apostles (Judas bought a field and his bowels suddenly burst open) by suggesting that when Judas jumped out of a tree in the field he bought, with a rope around his neck, his bowels burst open. But if Judas committed suicide by hanging himself from a tree, he would have fallen feet first, not head first (as recorded in Acts 1:18). And even if he had been falling head first, he would have presumably split open his head, and not his bowels (as narrated in Acts). In any case, Luke’s account, unlike Matthew’s, contains no hint of Judas feeling remorseful about betraying Jesus.
To make matters worse, both Matthew and Luke cite Scriptural passages which are said to have been fulfilled by Judas’ sudden death, but none of the passages cited makes any claim to be a prophecy about an individual person, let alone a person named Judas. Finally, and most absurdly, the prophecy in Jeremiah, which Matthew claims the temple priests fulfilled when they took the thirty pieces of silver that Judas returned to them (Matthew 27:9-10), isn’t even in Jeremiah: it’s in Zechariah 11:13, and it refers only to the breaking of the family bond between Judah and Israel (Zechariah 11:14).
f. The chief priests’ mockery of Jesus on the Cross
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IMPROBABLE CLAIM #6: That the chief priests mocked Jesus as he hung on the cross. In Matthew’s and Mark’s Gospels, the chief priests are said to have mocked Jesus while he was hanging on the cross (Matthew 27:41-43; Mark 15:31-32). In Matthew 27:42-43, the chief priests, scribes and elders jeer: “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’”
However, if (as has been argued above) John is right in saying that Jesus was crucified on Nisan 14th (the eve of the Passover), then the chief priests couldn’t possibly have mocked Jesus on the Cross: this would have been the busiest day of the year for them, when they were slaughtering thousands of lambs in the Temple. Alter notes in passing that John wisely omits any mention of the chief priests taunting Jesus on the cross (2015, p. 116): presumably he realized that they would have been too busy to do so.
g. The story of the good thief: fact or fiction?
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The good thief, by Michelangelo Cerquozzi (1602-1660). Porcini Gallery. Image courtesy of Alain Truong and Wikipedia.
IMPROBABLE CLAIM #7: That one of the two thieves crucified with Jesus publicly repented and asked Jesus to remember him when he came into his kingdom. The story of the good thief is historically implausible, as well. First, Matthew and Mark tell us that the two thieves who were crucified with Jesus both heaped insults on him (Mark 15:32, Matthew 27:44). Only Luke has the story of one thief repenting and saying, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” (John doesn’t mention what the thieves said.) Second, the good thief’s affirmation of Jesus innocence (“This man has done nothing wrong”) is historically unlikely. As Alter points out (2015, p. 121), neither of the two thieves was present at Jesus’ interrogation or trials; instead, they were locked up in prison. Nineteenth-century German Protestant theologian Karl Theodor Keim’s question about the good thief still stands: “How could the robber know anything of the innocence of Jesus or of his return as king?” (quoted in Alter, 2015, p. 121).
h. Jesus’ last words on the Cross: fact or fiction?
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IMPROBABLE CLAIM #8: That Jesus uttered several statements on the cross, which his followers heard, remembered and later recorded. There are seven statements which the Gospels record Jesus as uttering on the cross, but a neutral historian would have to conclude that all of them are most likely made-up.
The Gospels are wildly divergent in their accounts of what Jesus said on the Cross, with the exception of “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (recorded by Matthew and Mark), none of the seven sayings ascribed to Jesus while on the Cross is attested by more than one Evangelist. No problem, say Christian apologists Jay Smith, Alex Chowdhry, Toby Jepson and Alex Schaeffer, in their online article, 101 Cleared-up Contradictions in the Bible (see #75): “This does not show a contradiction any more than two witnesses to an accident at an intersection will come up with two different scenarios of that accident, depending on where they stood.” Alter’s reply is crushing:
The often-repeated Christian apologetic of several witnesses to an accident at an intersection is bogus and fallacious. Luke was not a witness, and John’s presence is questionable. The narratives were written approximately thirty to seventy years after the event. These gospels are completely different stories, not records or stories by four observers to a common event. These words attributed to Jesus are not remembered history. (2015, p. 123)
There is another weighty reason for doubting the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ last words on the Cross: as several scholars have argued (Casey, Maurice, 1996, Is John’s Gospel True?, London: Routledge, p. 188; Thompson, Mary R., Mary Magdala: Apostle and Leader, 1995, New York: Paulist Press, p. 61; Tinsley, E. J. The Gospel According to Luke, 1965, Cambridge University Press, p. 204), the Romans did not permit bystanders to stand near the cross. This rule would have been all the more rigidly enforced if the condemned person had been officially declared an enemy of the State, as Jesus was (remember: he was crucified for calling himself “King of the Jews”), so we can be quite sure that there would have been no-one present at the Cross to record his words. From the absence of women at the foot of the cross, Alter infers the skeptical conclusion that we have no way of knowing what Jesus said on the cross: “Therefore, it is not realistic to expect that anybody would have been able to hear and thus know what Jesus said before he died. If nobody knew what Jesus said, where did these words attributed to him originate?” (2015, p. 126).
Another reason for doubting the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ words on the Cross is that Jesus is supposed to have uttered a loud cry before he died. But as Dr. Henry E. Turlington, former Professor of New Testament at Southern Theological Seminary in Louisville, observes in volume 8 of The Broadman Bible Commentary (1969, edited by Clifton J. Allen, Nashville: Broadman, article “Mark,” p. 398): “The crucified man who was near death would normally be too weak and exhausted to utter a loud cry.” At most, his voice would have been a mere whisper. Yet three of the Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) relate that Jesus cried out in a loud voice just before he died.
In particular, Matthew and Mark specifically record that shortly before his death, Jesus cried out, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” – a quote from Psalm 22). However, as Alter points out (2015, p. 127), regardless of whether Jesus spoke in Hebrew (as in Matthew’s Gospel) or in Aramaic (as in Mark), it is simply preposterous to suppose that Jewish bystanders would ever mistake the Hebrew “Eli” or the Aramaic “Eloi” for an appeal to Elijah. And how would these bystanders imagine that the prophet Elijah could save Jesus, unless he too was resurrected?
Nor was it customary for Jews to quote Psalm 22 while they were dying. Rather, the customary statement for a devout Jew to recite on his deathbed was the Shema (“Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is one,” Deuteronomy 6:4), as did the second-century Rabbi Akiva (50-135 A.D.) and many other Jews. Curiously, the Gospels have no record of Jesus saying the Shema while on the cross. Why not?
i. Did Jesus’ mother and the beloved disciple stand at the foot of the Cross?
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Icon of the Crucifixion in the Byzantine and Christian Museum in Athens. 14th century. Image courtesy of Ricardo André Frantz and Wikipedia.
IMPROBABLE CLAIM #9: That Jesus’ mother and the disciple Jesus loved stood at the foot of the cross and were addressed by Jesus. As mentioned above, the Romans would never have allowed anyone to stand at the foot of the cross – especially if the condemned person was an enemy of the State, as Jesus was (remember: he was crucified for calling himself “King of the Jews.”) In the words of the late Maurice Casey (1942-2014), a former Professor of New Testament Languages and Literature at the Department of Theology at the University of Nottingham and author of Is John’s Gospel True? (1996, London: Routledge):
Another unlikely feature [in John’s crucifixion scene] is the group of people beside the Cross. Mark has a group of women watching from a long way off (Mk. 15:40-1), which is highly plausible. The fourth Gospel’s group of people beside the Cross includes Jesus’ mother and the beloved disciple. It is most likely that these people would have been allowed this close to a Roman crucifixion. If they had been, and they included people central to Jesus’ life and ministry, it is most unlikely that Mark would merely have women watching from a distance. If a major male disciple had approached this close, it is likely that he would have been arrested. (1996, p. 188)
Christian apologists have attempted to push back against these objections by citing passages from the Mishnah and Talmud (T. Gittin 7.1; Y. Gittin 7, 48c; b. Baba Metzia 83b) in which friends of crucifixion victims are said to have stood within hearing range of the individuals being crucified. However, C. K. Barrett, in his commentary, The Gospel According to St. John (1978, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, p. 551) rebuts these claims by pointing out that when a rebel king was being crucified, much stricter military requirements would have applied, ruling out such an accommodation. Jesus was executed as a rebel leader: “The King of the Jews.”
Kathleen M. Corley, Professor of New Testament at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh, in her 1998 article, “Women and the Crucifixion and Burial of Jesus” (Forum New Series, 1(1):181-217) adopts a similar position:
The rabbinic sources … commonly marshaled to support such a contention [viz. that Jesus’ mother might have been allowed near the Cross – VJT] either deal with such hypothetical situations that they are hardly germane or describe religious, not state executions… Commonly cited as evidence are Y. Gittin 7.1 (330) or Baba Metzia 83b. For example, Baba Metzia 83b describes R.[Rabbi] Eleazar weeping under the gallows of a man hanged for violating religious law (rape of an engaged woman; Y. Gittin 71 describes a wildly hypothetical situation involving divorce. (1998, p. 196, note 117)
j. The three hours of darkness: fact or fiction?
IMPROBABLE CLAIM #10: That the Gospel accounts of three hours of darkness before Jesus’ death are historically accurate. The Synoptic Gospels record that there were three hours of darkness over the land before Jesus’ death (Matthew 27:45, Mark 15:33, Luke 23:44). Matthew and Mark do not identify the cause of this darkness, but the earliest manuscripts of the Gospel of Luke say: tou heliou eklipontos (“the sun’s light failed” or “the sun was in eclipse”); it is only later versions that have the more ambiguous Greek phrase eskotisthe ho helios (“the sun was darkened”). It is therefore likely that Luke envisaged the darkness as an eclipse. Dr. Richard Carrier (who has a Ph.D. in ancient history from Columbia University) comments: “Such a story has obvious mythic overtones and can easily be doubted.” (See his 1999 online article, “Thallus: An Analysis”.) The Babylonians and Chinese associated eclipses – both solar and lunar – with the death of a king (see Associate Professor Gonzalo Rubio’s blog article, How eclipses were regarded as omens in the ancient world, The Conversation, August 9, 2017). The Romans associated the deaths of Julius Caesar and the Roman emperor Augustus with darkness (see Antiquities of the Jews (book 14, chapter 12, section 3), Pliny the Elder’s The Natural History (book 2, chapter 30), P. Vergilius Maro’s Georgics 1.466), Eclipsing the Romans (Ancient History blog article by James Bezant, March 20, 2015) and Godfrey Higgins’ work, Anacalypsis: An Attempt to Draw Aside the Veil of the Saitic Isis (London: Longman, 1836, Vol. 1, p. 616). See also Amos 8:8-10.) Indeed, some writers even invented eclipses to accompany important events, as did the historian Zosimus (New History, IV.58.3), who concocted a story of an eclipse that coincided with Emperor Theodosius I’s victory at the Battle of the River Frigidus in 394 A.D. However, the notion that the darkness at Jesus’ crucifixion was caused by a solar eclipse is demonstrably false, as the longest possible duration of a solar eclipse is just 7 minutes 32 seconds, compared to the three hours described in the Gospels. What’s more, a solar eclipse would have been astronomically impossible at the time Jesus died, since there would have been a full moon at the Jewish Passover.
An alternative possibility is that the three hours of darkness was caused by a sandstorm. But the description of the darkness given in the Gospels does not tally with the behavior of a sandstorm. Sandstorms are known to occur in the Middle East, but they do not inspire superstitious dread, as in Luke 23:48, where it is recorded that “the crowds that had assembled for this spectacle, when they saw what had taken place, returned home beating their breasts.” Instead, what people in that part of the world do when they see an approaching sandstorm is: take cover immediately. During Napoleon’s 1798 Egyptian Campaign, the French soldiers experienced severe difficulties when they got caught in a sandstorm (known locally as a khamsin). When the storm first appeared “as a blood[y] tint in the distant sky”, the locals went to take cover at once, while the French “did not react until it was too late, then choked and fainted in the blinding, suffocating walls of dust.” (Burleigh, Nina (2007), Mirage, New York, Harper, p. 135.) However, the Gospels say nothing about walls of dust at the scene of Jesus’ crucifixion; additionally, they record people watching Jesus’ crucifixion during the three-hour period of darkness, which they could not have done if there had been a sandstorm.
There remains the possibility that the three hours of darkness was a supernatural miracle, but an impartial historian, while not dismissing the possibility of a miracle, would tend to favor the more parsimonious naturalistic explanation that the circumstances surrounding the death of Jesus were mythologized in the decades after his death, like those of many other famous people in antiquity.
In order to tilt the balance of evidence in favor of account given in the Gospels, a historian would require independent attestation of the three hours of darkness described by the Evangelists. Christian apologists often point to the fact that the ancient historian Thallus mentions darkness at the time of Jesus’ death. (See Rob Robinson’s online article, The Darkness at Noon During Jesus Crucifixion is Confirmed by Secular Historians (January 10, 2015) and Dr. William Lane Craig’s article, Thallus on the Darkness at Noon at Reasonable Faith #160, May 10, 2010.) (For a detailed rebuttal, see Dale C. Allison’s work, Studies in Matthew: Interpretation Past and Present, chapter 4.) However, we no longer possess the original words of Thallus: all we have is a report by the third-century Christian writer Julius Africanus as to what Thallus wrote – or as Alter cuttingly puts it: “a third-hand source cites a second-hand source about an event that occurred approximately two hundred years earlier.” What’s more, Thallus himself is said by Julius Africanus to have referred to the darkness as an eclipse of the sun in the third book of his Histories – an explanation which we ruled out above. (See also Richard Carrier’s 1999 online article, Thallus: An Analysis for a scholarly rebuttal of claims that the event Thallus refers to can be identified with the three hours of darkness alleged to have occurred at Christ’s death.)
Christian apologists also cite the second-century Greek writer, Phlegon of Tralles, who narrates that in the fourth year of the 202nd Olympiad (i.e. between June 28th, 32 A.D. and June 27th, 33 A.D.), “an eclipse of the sun happened, greater and more excellent than any that had happened before it; at the sixth hour, day turned into dark night, so that the stars were seen in the sky” – but since we’ve already seen that the darkness at Jesus’ crucifixion described in the Gospels could not have been caused by an eclipse, Phlegon’s report is of no help to apologists. In any case, Phlegon nowhere states that this eclipse was visible in Palestine; nor does he say that it lasted for three hours, as the Gospels do.
Finally, it should be noted that Phlegon was writing approximately 100 years after the death of Jesus. Faced with this dearth of evidence, a neutral historian would have no choice but to reject the historicity of the Gospel accounts of darkness at Jesus’ death.
k. The earthquake at Jesus’ death: fact or fiction?
IMPROBABLE CLAIM #11: That there was an earthquake immediately after Jesus died. The Gospel of Matthew (but not Mark, Luke or John) also reports an earthquake as having occurred at the moment of Jesus’ death. Once again, Christian apologists frequently appeal to the evidence of the second-century Greek writer, Phlegon of Tralles, to boost their claim that this was an historical event. (See Phlegon of Tralles on the passion phenomena by Ben C. Smith at Text Excavation.) The problem is that Phlegon says the earthquake took place in faraway Bithynia (in what’s now Turkey), about 500 miles from Jerusalem.
In an exciting new twist, in 2011, a team of scientists (geologist Jefferson Williams from Supersonic Geophysical, and colleagues Markus Schwab and Achim Brauer from the German Research Center for Geosciences) claimed to have found evidence for a magnitude-6.3 earthquake in Palestine around the time of Jesus’ death, in an article titled, “An early first century earthquake in the Dead Sea” (International Geology Review, DOI:10.1080/00206814.2011.639996). The scientists date the earthquake to between 26 and 36 A.D. In their conclusion, the authors consider three possibilities: “(1) the earthquake described in the Gospel of Matthew occurred more or less as reported; (2) the earthquake described in the Gospel of Mathew was in effect ‘borrowed’ from an earthquake that occurred sometime before or after the crucifixion, but during the reign of Pontius Pilate; (3) the earthquake described in the Gospel of Matthew is allegorical fiction and the 26–36 AD seismite was caused by an earthquake that is not reported in the currently extant historical record.” In order to show that the authors’ research supports the accuracy of the Bible, one would have to rule out the second and third possibilities, both of which appear perfectly viable.
Finally, it should be noted that Matthew, who is the only Evangelist that even mentions an earthquake at the time of Jesus’ death, is somewhat prone to telling fantastic stories. New Testament Professor Mark Goodacre, of Duke University, notes in a 2012 blog article titled, Earthquake Research and the Day of Jesus’ Crucifixion, that after reporting the earthquake, “Matthew goes on to recount what some people call the Zombie Pericope, when bodies come out of the tombs, walk around and meet people. This is not history but legend.” In a follow-up article (More on the Earthquake and Jesus’ Crucifixion (May 30, 2012)), Goodacre also notes that Matthew added a second earthquake to his account on Easter Sunday, in Matthew 28:2.
l. Was the Veil of the Temple torn in two?
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Model of Jerusalem, showing Herod’s Temple. Public domain. Image courtesy of Berthold Werner and Wikipedia.
IMPROBABLE CLAIM #12: That the veil of the Temple was torn in two at the moment of Jesus’ death. The Synoptic Gospels all record that the veil of the Temple was torn down the middle at the time of Jesus’ death (Matthew 27:51, Mark 15:38; Luke 23:45), but this probably never happened, either. It so happens that we actually possess historical records of strange events connected with the temple around 30 A.D., but guess what: the tearing of the veil of the Temple is never mentioned! Dr. Robert L. Plummer, in his article, Something Awry in the Temple? The Rending of the Temple Veil and Early Jewish Sources that Report Unusual Phenomena in the Temple around AD 30 (JETS 48/2, June 2005, pp. 301-316) notes that both the Jerusalem Talmud (which was completed around AD 400–425, but which contains rabbinic oral traditions dating back to pre-Christian times) and the later Babylonian Talmud record some curious omens relating to the Temple occurring at this time: (i) the Temple’s “western lamp” went out on its own in an uncanny manner; (ii) a thread which was said to supernaturally change color from a crimson (the color of sin in the Bible) to white (the color of purity) on the Day of Atonement suddenly ceased to do so; (iii) on the Day of Atonement, when lots were cast (Leviticus 16:8), the lot for the Lord always came up in the left hand (which was considered unlucky) for several years in a row; and (iv) the gates of the temple inexplicably started opening at night, on their own. Curiously, however, there is absolutely no mention of the veil of the Temple being torn down the middle! (The only Jewish source that says anything about the curtain of the Temple being torn is not a historical one, but an early first-century prophecy, which was falsely written under the name of Habbakuk.) Additionally, Matthew appears to suggest that the tearing was caused by an earthquake (see Matthew 27:51, in which the observation that the veil of the Temple was torn in two is immediately followed by the remark that earth shook and the rocks split), but as Alter points out, it makes little sense to suppose that an earthquake could damage a curtain of flexible material hanging loosely. Bear in mind that this veil was, in Alter’s words, “a cloth fabric the thickness of a good-size telephone directory”: four inches thick, 82 feet high and 24 feet wide.
To cap it all, the veil of the Temple (which faced east) couldn’t even be seen from Golgotha (also called Calvary, which lies to the west of the Temple), so the story of the Roman centurion witnessing this and other portents at Jesus’ death (Luke 23:45-47) cannot possibly be correct. (In the interests of fairness, I should mention that in recent years, Dr. Ernest Martin has argued that the traditional site of Golgotha is the wrong one. In his book, Secrets of Golgotha, he contends that it was located on the summit of the Mount of Olives – a suggestion which has been trenchantly critiqued by Derek Walker, a pastor of Oxford Bible Church, in Appendix 8 of his online book, Moriah, Golgotha and the Garden Tomb. Dr. Martin’s proposal is not taken seriously by scholars.)
m. Were Jewish saints raised at Jesus’ death?
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George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is considered a progenitor of the fictional zombie of modern culture. Public domain. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
IMPROBABLE CLAIM #13: That Jewish saints came out of their graves when Jesus died and subsequently appeared to people in Jerusalem. Matthew’s Gospel also reports (Matthew 27:52-53) that many Jewish holy people came out of their graves at the moment of Jesus’ death and appeared to people in Jerusalem after Jesus had risen. The early Church Fathers frequently quoted this passage, from 110 A.D. onwards (see Norman Geisler’s article, The Early Fathers and the Resurrection of the Saints in Matthew 27), so we can be fairly sure that it is not an interpolation. Evangelical scholar Craig A. Evans has attempted to argue that these verses in Matthew are an early interpolation, but Charles Qarles has convincingly rebutted Evans’ arguments in an article titled, “Matthew 27:52-53 as a Scribal Interpolation: Testing a Recent Proposal” (Bulletin for Biblical Research, Vol. 27, No. 2 (2017), pp. 207-226). Despite its being part of the original Gospel, Matthew’s story cannot be regarded as historically accurate. As the conservative Christian theologian David Wenham acknowledges, “in this case the phenomenon is so remarkable that some mention of it might be expected in the other Gospels or Acts” (“The Resurrection Narratives in Matthew’s Gospel”, Tyndale Bulletin #24:19-54, 1973, pp. 42-43). However, Mark, Luke and John make no mention of this miracle, and in any case, it makes absolutely no sense. For if these saints came out of their graves at the moment of Jesus’ death, as Matthew 27:52 states, then they would have been raised before Jesus, which contradicts St. Paul’s express declaration that Jesus is “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep,” and then at his coming, “those who belong to Christ” will be raised (1 Corinthians 15:20, 23). And even if these Jewish saints had been raised from the dead, how would anyone have recognized them, given that they lived centuries before Jesus? And did they go back to their tombs again, after the Resurrection, or did they ascend into heaven? And if they appeared to many people, why wasn’t the whole city of Jerusalem converted? The whole story collapses in absurdities.
n. Blood and water from Jesus’ side?
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Fresco by Fra Angelico, Dominican monastery at San Marco, Florence, showing the lance piercing Jesus’ side on the Cross (c. 1440). Image courtesy of The Yorck Project (2002) and Wikipedia.
IMPROBABLE CLAIM #14: That Jesus’ legs were not broken by Pilate’s soldiers, but that he was pierced with a lance instead, causing blood and water to issue forth from Jesus’ side. John’s story of Jesus’ legs not being broken, and of blood and water coming out of Jesus’ pierced side is almost certainly fictional. As Alter points out (2015, p. 182), if Pilate had ordered his soldiers to break the legs of the crucified criminals, then they would surely have obeyed his command to the letter: the penalties for disobedience in the Roman army were very severe. As for the blood and water recorded in John: while it is quite possible that a Roman soldier may have pierced Jesus’ side as an act of malice, there would have been no friends of Jesus standing close enough to verify that both blood and water had exited the wound. The Romans would never have allowed anyone near the crucified criminals, while they were being put to death by having their legs broken. And even if both blood and water had both exited the same wound, they would have comingled, so it would have been very difficult even for a bystander to distinguish them, as Jesus had previously been heavily scourged and therefore would have been bleeding all over his body. Consequently, John’s account is unlikely on both historical and medical grounds.
However, we do have a plausible explanation for how the story of blood and water flowing from Jesus’ side may have arisen. St. Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, describes how the Israelites who followed Moses in the wilderness were all “baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink,” and he adds by way of explanation: “For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:2-4, ESV). The Bible tells us that when Moses struck the rock at Meribah in the wilderness, as recorded in Exodus 17 and in Numbers 20, he actually struck it twice. In Jewish midrash, there is a story that the first time Moses struck the rock, it gushed blood; and the second time, water flowed out (Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, Numbers 20:11; Midrash Rabbah on Exodus 17). Jesus was the rock; blood and water gushed out of his side when he was struck with a soldier’s lance. The parallels are obvious. To be sure, the earliest Jewish texts containing these narratives date from several centuries after the Crucifixion, but if stories like these were circulating orally in Jesus’ time, then it is not hard to imagine how they could have been applied to Jesus, for in St. Paul’s words, “the Rock was Christ.”
The Dominican Biblical scholar Pierre Benoit also mentions that the Midrash Leviticus Rabbah, 15 (115c) “contains the information that man is made half of water, half of blood: if he is virtuous, the two elements are in equilibrium” (The Passion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, translated by B. Weatherhead, 1970, New York: Herder & Herder, p. 222, n. 2).
The account of blood and water flowing from Jesus’ side claims to be based on eyewitness testimony (John 19:34-35), but as with the account of Jesus and his mother standing at the foot of the Cross, there are very weighty reasons for believing that the story cannot be true. On the other hand, the hypothesis of a legendary origin for this account poses no special difficulties for the historian. A bystander, observing from a distance, may have seen a Roman soldier pierce Jesus’ side with a lance, as a vindictive act of humiliation. In subsequent years, after the Resurrection, Christians reflecting on the incident may have decided that this act was no humiliation after all, but actually a sign from God, thereby transforming a story of the Roman degradation of Jesus into a story of his Divine vindication. For these reasons, an unbiased historian would deem it prudent to conclude that the story of blood and water flowing from Jesus’ side is not a historical narrative but a theologically motivated embellishment.
John’s Gospel goes on to say that Jesus’ legs were not broken, in order that the Scripture might be fulfilled: “Not one of his bones will be broken” (John 19:36). We have already seen that the Roman soldiers who were charged with the task of breaking the legs of the crucified criminals would certainly have done so; thus we can safely reject the historicity of this account, as its theological motivations are obvious: Jesus, who was killed on the eve of the Passover, is the Paschal lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7), which is meant to be eaten without breaking any of its bones (Exodus 12:46). Finally, in his book, Alter points out (2015, pp. 181-182) that even if Jesus’ legs had not been broken by the Roman soldiers, we could never be sure that none of his bones were broken without performing an X-ray, as the nails used in Jesus’ Crucifixion may have shattered the bones in his wrist; additionally, the beating and scourging that Jesus was subjected to prior to his Crucifixion may have also broken some bones.
o. Was Jesus buried in a new rock tomb?
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The Entombment of Christ, by Pedro Roldán (1624-1699). Hospital de la Santa Caridad, Seville. Image courtesy of Anual and Wikipedia.
IMPROBABLE CLAIM #15: That Jesus was buried in a new rock tomb owned by a wealthy, pious Jew named Joseph of Arimathea, and that he was buried with a large quantity of spices by a rich man named Nicodemus.
The story of Jesus being buried in a new rock tomb owned by Joseph of Arimathea is highly improbable on seven counts.
(a) Did Jesus’ body receive a proper burial?
First, was Jesus even given a proper burial, of any sort (let alone in a new rock tomb)? The historical evidence suggests that he probably wasn’t. Remember: the common scholarly view is that Jesus was executed as an enemy of the Roman state (Luke 23:1-5, John 19:12-16, 19:19-22). The inscription over his Cross read: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” Part of the penalty of crucifixion was being denied a proper burial (a fate which was viewed as particularly shameful in ancient times): victims were gnawed at by birds and by wild dogs while they were hanging on the cross, and after a week or so, they were finally taken down and thrown into a common grave. There’s no evidence that the Romans ever made an exception to this rule, anywhere, for people crucified as enemies of the State (as opposed to low-life criminals, such as thieves), which leads Professor Bart Ehrman to conclude that Jesus’s body probably suffered the same ignominious fate.
In a blog post titled, “Did Romans Allow Jews to Bury Crucified Victims? Readers Mailbag January 1, 2018”, Ehrman rebuts Christian apologist Craig Evans’ strongest argument that Pilate would have allowed Jesus’ body to have been taken down from the Cross on Good Friday and buried in a tomb – namely, a quote from Josephus, who states that “the Jews are so careful about burial rites that even malefactors who have been sentenced to crucifixion are taken down and buried before sunset” (Jewish War, 4.317). As Ehrman points out, this custom obviously didn’t apply during wartime, but only in times of peace; additionally, it applied only to “malefactors” – a term which was applied to common criminals but never to people crucified as enemies of the State, like Jesus. At most, the quote from Josephus shows that Jews were sometimes given the right to bury some crucified victims when they were guilty of lesser crimes, when they were simply “malefactors,” as opposed to being “enemies of the state.”
Another argument put forward by Professor Craig Evans in his article, The Resurrection of Jesus in the Light of Jewish Burial Practices (May 4, 2016) is that according to the sixth-century summary of Roman law known as the Digesta (based largely on the writings of the third-century jurist Ulpian, who often cites earlier, first-century sources), burial of the bodies of criminals executed by crucifixion was permitted in the Roman Empire, in the time of Jesus. In a blog article titled, Did Roman Laws Require Decent Burials?, Professor Bart Ehrman replies that this permission didn’t apply to people convicted as enemies of the Roman state, as Jesus was. However, Dr. Evans questions whether Jesus was, in fact, convicted of high treason: typically, people convicted of this crime were found guilty of “plotting the death of the emperor, plotting or attempting to assassinate a Roman official, raising an army, failing to relinquish command of an army, siding with an enemy of the empire, fomenting armed rebellion, turning an ally against Rome, etc.,” whereas Jesus, he says, “did nothing that approximated these kinds of actions.” But whether Jesus actually did any of these things is beside the point: what matters is what Pilate (who condemned Jesus to death) believed that Jesus had done. The accusation made by the Jewish chief priests against Jesus when they brought him before Pilate was a political one: “We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ, a king” (Luke 23: 2). That sure sounds like treason to me: it would certainly qualify as “turning an ally against Rome” and possibly as “fomenting armed rebellion,” as well.
So if I were a neutral historian, weighing up the evidence, I’d be inclined to believe that Jesus’ remains were, as Professor Bart Ehrman contends, thrown into a common burial pit for criminals, about a week after he was crucified. In other words, I would consider it most likely that Jesus was denied a decent burial. Nevertheless, in view of the fact that Jesus’ burial is attested not only the Gospels, but also (very briefly) in St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, I would maintain this conclusion only tentatively: perhaps I would be 60% sure. Thus it is possible (though rather unlikely) that Pilate may have relented and allowed the bodies of Jesus and the two thieves to be taken down from their crosses, perhaps in order to prevent a riot on the Jewish Passover.
(b) Who got custody of Jesus’ body: Joseph of Arimathea or the chief priests?
Second, assuming that Pilate allowed Jesus’ body to be buried, to whom would he have granted custody of the body? The Gospels tell us that Pilate granted custody of Jesus’ body to a Jewish councilor named Joseph of Arimathea, who “went in boldly unto Pilate” and requested the body for burial (Mark 15:43, KJV). John adds: “Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus, and Pilate gave him permission. So he came and took away his body” (John 19:38, ESV). But even supposing that the Romans allowed Jesus’ body to be taken down from the Cross on Good Friday, it is overwhelmingly likely that they would have given it to the Jewish chief priests to dispose of, and not to private individuals who were friends of Jesus, such as Joseph of Arimathea. After all, the chief priests had eagerly sought Jesus’ death, by denouncing him as an enemy of the Roman state who claimed to be “the king of the Jews.”
Interestingly, certain passages in the New Testament appear to reflect an older tradition that the Jewish leaders were granted custody of Jesus’ body, after he had been taken down from the Cross. Thus in the Acts of the Apostles, St. Paul preaches a sermon in which he declares: “For those who live in Jerusalem and their rulers… asked Pilate to have him executed. And when they had carried out all that was written of him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb” (Acts 13:27-29). And in John 19:31, it is not Joseph of Arimathea but “the Jews” who, in order to avoid the bodies of crucified criminals remaining on the cross during the upcoming Sabbath, “asked Pilate that their legs might be broken and that they might be taken away.” The phrase “the Jews” probably refers here to the chief priests (cf. John 19:21). But in that case, the best one can realistically hope for is that Jesus’ body was buried at a burial site owned by the Jewish authorities, that was used to accommodate the bodies of executed criminals. And it is they who would have decided what kind of burial Jesus was to be given. As one can imagine, it would not have been an honorable burial that they were planning for Jesus.
One last point deserves mention. The Gospel of Mark is compatible with the proposal that when Joseph of Arimathea approached Pilate and requested Jesus’ body, he was acting on behalf of the Jewish Council of chief priests and elders that condemned Jesus to death for blasphemy, rather than in opposition to the chief priests (as in John’s Gospel). According to Mark, Joseph was “a respected member of the Council” (Mark 15:43), and the Council’s verdict that Jesus deserved to die was a unanimous one (Mark 14:64). Thus even if Joseph of Arimathea played a role in Jesus’ burial, as the Gospels narrate, he would have been carrying out the chief priests’ wishes.
(c) Was Jesus given an honorable or a dishonorable burial?
Third, assuming that Jesus was given a burial of some sort by the chief priests, would he have been given an honorable or a dishonorable burial? Since the entire Jewish Council had agreed that Jesus deserved to die (Mark 14:64), we can be sure that it would have been a dishonorable burial – which means that there would have been no mourners and no family members present, and no anointing of the body. Professor Byron McCane explains why the Jewish leaders would have felt obliged to give Jesus a dishonorable burial in his article, “‘Where No One Had Yet Been Laid’: The Shame of Jesus’ Burial” (in B.D. Chilton and C.A. Evans (eds.), Authenticating the Activities of Jesus, NTTS, 28.2; Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1998):
Dishonorable burial was reserved for those who had been condemned by the people of Israel. Semahot 2.9, in fact specifically exempts those that die at the hands of other authorities. Mark’s narrative conforms to this tradition. Since at least a few of the Jewish leaders had been involved in the condemnation of Jesus, they had an obligation to bury him in shame… (1998, p. 445)
Professor McCane contends that the Gospel accounts actually confirm that Jesus underwent a dishonorable burial, although one has to read between the lines to notice this fact:
The omission of mourning from the canonical Gospels is significant because in other contexts in all four of these Gospels have clear depictions of the initial stages of mourning for the dead. Resuscitation stories like the raising of Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:21-43 par.), for example, or the Lazarus narrative (John 11:1-44) include explicit depictions of typical Jewish rituals of mourning… What a shame that they [the Gospel writers – VJT] did not put any such depictions in their stories of Jesus’ burial. (1998, p. 449)
As Professor McCane notes, another tell-tale sign that Jesus’ burial was a dishonorable one is that no family members are mentioned as being present at the burial. Even John’s Gospel omits all mention of them: although Jesus’ mother is said to have been present at the foot of the Cross, only Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus are said to have attended Jesus’ burial (John 19:38-42).
McCane reconstructs a plausible picture of what Jesus’ burial must have been like, assuming that Pilate allowed him to have a burial:
On the basis of the evidence, then, the following scenario emerges as a likely course of events for the deposition of Jesus’ body: late on the day of his death, one or more of the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem – later personified by Christian tradition as Joseph of Arimathea – requested custody of the body for purposes of dishonorable burial. These leaders, having collaborated with the Romans in the condemnation of Jesus, had both the means and the motive to bury him in shame: means, in their access to Pilate, and motive, in Jewish law and custom. Pilate did not hesitate to grant dishonorable burial to one of their condemned criminals. Only the most rudimentary burial preparations were administered–the body was wrapped and taken directly to the tomb, without a funeral procession, eulogies, or the deposition of any personal effects. By sunset on the day of his death, the body of Jesus lay within a burial cave reserved for criminals condemned by Jewish courts. No one mourned. (1998, p. 452)
This would have been how Jesus was actually buried, if he was given a proper burial at all. When we read the Gospels, however, we find that these unpleasant details are progressively airbrushed with the passage of time, and Jesus’ tomb is made more and more commodious, so that by the time we get to John’s Gospel, Jesus is given a lavish burial, with 100 Roman pounds of myrrh and aloes (a truly staggering amount):
Virtually all studies agree that as the tradition develops, every detail in the story is enhanced and improved upon. Mark begins the written tradition by saying that on Friday evening, Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the Council, requested the body of Jesus from Pilate, wrapped it in linen and sealed it in a rock-cut tomb. Never again would the story be told so simply. Joseph of Arimathea becomes a “good and righteous man” who did not consent to the action against Jesus (Luke 23:51), and then evolves into a secret disciple of Jesus (Matt 27:57; John 19:38). The “rock-cut” tomb in Mark becomes a “new” tomb (Matt 27:60), “where no one had yet been laid” (Luke 23:53). John not only combines those descriptions – the tomb is both “new” and “where no one had yet been laid” (John 19:41) – but also adds that the tomb was located in a garden. In Mark Joseph wraps the body in linen — nothing more – but subsequent Gospels describe the linen as “clean” (Matt 27:59) and claim that the body was bathed in vast quantities of perfume (John 19:39). By the time of the Gospel of Peter, during the mid-second century CE, Christians were going so far as to assert that Jesus had been sumptuously buried in the family tomb of one of Jerusalem’s most powerful and wealthy families. (1998, p. 447)
So much for the historical accuracy of the Gospel accounts, then. Before we continue, however, there is a question which we need to resolve: would Jesus have been buried in a tomb at all? Or would he have been buried in a dirt grave, in the ground?
(d) Was Jesus buried in a tomb?
As we saw above, Professor Byron McCane was prepared to grant that Jesus was buried in “a burial cave reserved for criminals condemned by Jewish courts” (1998, p. 452). However, as Dr. Jodi Magness points out in her 2006 article, What did Jesus’ Tomb Look Like? (Biblical Archaeology Review, 32:1, January/February 2006; reprinted in The Burial of Jesus, Biblical Archaeology Society, Washington DC, 2007), there is no evidence for this practice. The standard practice was for executed criminals to be buried in the ground, in trench graves:
There is no evidence that the Sanhedrin or the Roman authorities paid for and maintained rock-cut tombs for executed criminals from impoverished families. Instead, these unfortunates would have been buried in individual trench graves or pits. This sort of tradition is preserved in the reference to “the Potter’s Field, to bury strangers in” (Matthew 27:7–8). (2007, p. 8)
Dr. Magness puts forward an intriguing proposal as to how Jesus, despite coming from a poor family, managed to avoid burial in a trench grave. She suggests that Jesus was hastily buried in Joseph’s rock-cut family tomb as an interim measure, because there wasn’t enough time to dig a dirt grave for him before the Jewish Sabbath began on Friday evening:
When the Gospels tell us that Joseph of Arimathea offered Jesus a spot in his tomb, it is because Jesus’ family did not own a rock-cut tomb and there was no time to prepare a grave – that is, there was no time to dig a grave, not hew a rock-cut tomb – before the Sabbath. (2007, p. 8)
Matthew Ferguson, a doctoral candidate in Classics at the University of California, Irvine, argues for a contrary view in his blog article, Bart Ehrman and Jodi Magness on the Burial of Jesus and the Empty Tomb (January 20, 2018). First, Ferguson observes that St. Paul’s simple statement that Jesus “was buried” (1 Corinthians 15:4) does not tell us whether he was buried in a tomb or in the ground: it leaves both possibilities open. Nor does St. Paul’s statement, recorded in Acts 13:29, that the Jewish leaders “took him [Jesus] down from the cross and laid him in a tomb,” as the Greek word for “tomb” here is ambiguous: it just means “burial place” and nothing more. It can refer to an unmarked grave (Luke 11:44). Second, even Dr. Magness freely acknowledges that “archaeology does not prove there was a follower of Jesus named Joseph of Arimathea or that Pontius Pilate granted his request for Jesus’ body” (2007, p. 8), and additionally, Ferguson contends that the absence of any mention of Joseph in the primitive creed recorded in 1 Corinthians 15 makes it unlikely that St. Paul knew anything about him. Finally, Ferguson observes that if there were no such individual as Joseph of Arimathea, then Jesus would most likely have been buried in a trench grave – a point confirmed by Dr. Magness in her article:
Jesus came from a family of modest means that presumably could not afford a rock-cut tomb. Had Joseph of Arimathea not offered Jesus a spot in his family tomb, Jesus likely would have been disposed of in the manner of the poorer classes: in an individual trench grave dug into the ground. (2007, p. 8)
Thus on the unlikely supposition that Pilate permitted Jesus to be given a proper burial, it would have most likely been a dishonorable burial in a dirt grave. However, Dr. Magness’ proposal that Jesus was given an interim burial in Joseph’s rock-cut family tomb, because there wasn’t enough time to dig a dirt grave for him before the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath, is one which warrants a serious examination, so I propose to critically evaluate this proposal below. As we’ll see, however, it gives no joy to defenders of the Gospels’ historical reliability.
Even if we suppose that Jesus was buried in a rock tomb, however, the entrance would probably not have been sealed with a “very large” stone that had to be “rolled back” (implying that it was round), as the Gospels narrate (Mark 16:3-4): in fact, only a tiny percentage of rock tombs around Jerusalem at the time (i.e. prior to 70 A.D.) were sealed in this way, so on this point, the Gospel accounts are almost certainly anachronistic. As Professor Amos Kloner points out in his article, Did a Rolling Stone Close Jesus’ Tomb? (Biblical Archaeology Review 25:5, September/October 1999), only the very rich were buried in this manner. Only one Gospel (Matthew’s) describes Joseph as “rich” (Matthew 27:57), without specifying how rich he was. But even if Joseph of Arimathea had been very rich, it stands to reason that his tomb would not have been located near a place where common criminals were crucified (John 19:42). The late Catholic Biblical scholar Raymond Brown made precisely the same point in his article, “The Burial of Jesus (Mark 15:42-47)” (Catholic Biblical Quarterly (50, 2), April 1988, 233-245). In reply (see “Faith and Reason,” Spring 1991, Christendom Press), the late Msgr. George W. Shea, S.T.D., suggested that Joseph, who was getting on in years, needed to build a family burial tomb near Jerusalem, and that he may have had to settle for a tomb near Golgotha (an execution site), because a more suitable location was hard to come by – an explanation that reeks of ad hoc assumptions.
(e) Was Jesus buried in a new tomb?
The story of Jesus being buried in a new tomb was deliberately written for apologetic purposes, in the opinion of the late Catholic Biblical scholar Raymond Brown. The theological aim was to show that “Jesus was not buried in a common tomb where his body might have been mixed with others, and the tomb was in an easily identifiable place near the well-known site of public execution” (The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to John (xviii-xxi), 1970, Garden City: Doubleday, p. 959).
Could the story have some historical basis, however? The only plausible historical explanation I have seen for the story comes from archaeologist Dr. Jodi Magness. In her article, What did Jesus’ Tomb Look Like? (Biblical Archaeology Review, 32:1, January/February 2006; reprinted in The Burial of Jesus, Biblical Archaeology Society, Washington DC, 2007), Dr. Magness puts forward her own novel interpretation of statements found in the Gospels, that Jesus was laid in a new tomb where no-one had ever been laid (Matthew 27:60, Luke 23:53, John 19:41). She thinks they simply mean that Jesus’ body was laid in a new burial niche in the wall (or loculus) inside Joseph of Arimathea’s family rock tomb:
Joseph’s tomb must have belonged to his family because by definition rock-cut tombs in Jerusalem were family tombs…. The Gospel accounts apparently describe Joseph placing Jesus’ body in one of the loculi in his family’s tomb. The “new” tomb mentioned by Matthew probably refers to a previously unused loculus. (2007, p. 8)
I have to say I find this explanation rather strained. The Gospels speak of Jesus being laid in “a tomb cut in stone, where no one had ever yet been laid” (Luke 23:53). That’s completely different from a new niche in the wall of an existing tomb, where many bodies have already been laid.
In any case, if Dr. Magness’ proposal were correct, it would undercut the apologetic claim that Jesus’ tomb was found empty on Easter Sunday morning. In Mark’s Gospel, for instance, the young man at the tomb announces to the astonished women: “See the place where they laid him” (Mark 16:6). If Jesus had been laid in one of many niches within the tomb, this statement would then simply refer to a particular niche. One could not then infer that the tomb was empty.
However, the key argument underlying Dr. Magness’ proposal is a questionable one. Dr. Magness contends that there was no time to dig a grave for Jesus, on Friday afternoon. Very well, then: what about the two thieves crucified with him? Were they buried in trench graves, or were they also buried in Joseph’s family tomb, as an interim measure? If the former, then there was nothing to prevent Jesus being buried in the same fashion. But if the thieves were buried in the same tomb as Jesus, then Jesus’ tomb would not have been empty on Sunday morning, after all.
Finally, it is worth pointing out that Mark’s Gospel, which is considered by scholars to be the oldest Gospel, makes no claim that Jesus was buried in a new tomb.
(f) Was Jesus’ body anointed for burial?
The story in John’s Gospel of Jesus being buried with a large quantity of spices by Nicodemus (John 19:39-40) also appears to be fictional: the amount of spices (100 Roman pounds) was literally fit for a king, and packing bodies in spices was not a Jewish but an Egyptian practice. Alter argues that John’s account was deliberately written in order to show that Jesus received an even more lavish burial than the Jewish sage, Gamaliel the Elder (d. 52 A.D.).
As if all these improbabilities were not bad enough, the Gospels contradict one another on several details relating to Jesus’ burial:
(i) who took Jesus’ body down from the cross (was it Jesus’ enemies [Acts 13:27-29], Joseph of Arimathea [Mark 15:46, Luke 23:53] or maybe Joseph and Nicodemus [John 19:39]?);
(ii) who was present at the burial (was it Joseph and some women who had accompanied him [Matthew, Mark and Luke] or Joseph and Nicodemus [John]?);
(iii) what Jesus was buried in (was it a linen shroud [Matthew, Mark and Luke] or linen cloths [John]?);
(iv) whether Jesus was buried with spices (John 19:39-40 states that he was buried with spices brought by Nicodemus, while Mark 16:1 and Luke 23:56 indicate that the women accompanying Jesus planned to anoint Jesus with spices on Sunday morning);
(v) whether the women accompanying Jesus prepared spices late on Friday afternoon (Luke 23:56) or bought some early on Sunday morning (Mark 16:1).
Finally, if Jesus was given a dishonorable burial, as Professor Byron McCane has convincingly argued, then his body would not have been anointed for burial, in any case.
(g) Do the Gospel narratives of Jesus’ burial comply with Jewish law?
Finally, the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ burial contravene Jewish religious law in numerous ways: according to Mark 15:46, Joseph of Arimathea purchased linen for the burial on the first day of the Jewish Passover (see also Mark 14:12-16), when such purchases were forbidden (Leviticus 23:6-7; Nehemiah 10:31); while according to Luke 23:56, the women who had accompanied Jesus from Galilee prepared spices and ointments on the first day of the Jewish Passover, when no work was allowed (Leviticus 23:6-7; Nehemiah 10:31). John’s chronology avoids these problems by placing Jesus’ burial on the day before the Passover; nevertheless, Joseph of Arimathea would still have had to purchase linen cloths at a time when Jewish vendors would have already closed their shops, in order to prepare for the upcoming Sabbath (which was also a Passover). Finally, Matthew’s Gospel goes against Jewish law, with its bizarre account (found in none of the other Gospels) of the Jewish chief priests asking Pilate to post a guard over Jesus’ tomb on the Sabbath. Asking anyone – even a Gentile – to do work on the Sabbath would have violated Jewish law.
p. Was there a Guard at Jesus’ tomb?
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IMPROBABLE CLAIM #16: Matthew’s assertion that a Guard was posted at Jesus’ tomb. This story, which is found only in Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 27:62-66), is a transparent invention, and a very silly one at that. In Matthew’s account, the chief priests and elders go to Pilate on Saturday and ask for a guard to secure Jesus’ tomb, in order to prevent Jesus’ followers from stealing Jesus’ body and proclaiming that he had risen from the dead. Pilate accedes to their request. But this story fails to explain why the body could not have been stolen on Friday night, before the guard was posted over the tomb. Nor are we told why Pilate would have agreed to the Jewish leaders’ request, which concerned a purely religious issue that was of no concern to a Roman prefect. And how likely is it that Pilate, whom the Gospels depict as being pressured against his will by the chief priests into ordering Jesus’ crucifixion, would have turned around the following day and granted their request for a guard? Finally, the story is at odds with Jewish law, as it involves the chief priests and Pharisees ordering people to work on the Sabbath, which was forbidden in the Ten Commandments given to Moses: “Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates” (Exodus 20:9-10). Even Gentiles employed by Jews were not allowed to work.
Matthew’s story becomes even more fantastical in chapter 28 of his Gospel, when the guards, after falling into a faint when the angel of the Lord descends from heaven on Sunday morning, are bribed by the Jewish chief priests to tell people that Jesus’ disciples stole the body while they were asleep. Leaving aside the fact that bribery is a flagrant violation of the Jewish Torah, the story peddled by the chief priests collapses in absurdities: supposedly, all of the guards fall asleep at the same time, and none of them wake up while the disciples break the seal of the tomb, roll back the stone, and remove the body of Jesus, despite the fact that the penalty for guards falling asleep was crucifixion upside down! Who would believe an implausible story like that, in the first century A.D.? Finally, it should be noted that both Luke and John omit the story of the guard.
q. The women visiting Jesus’ tomb on Sunday: does the story add up?
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IMPROBABLE CLAIM #17: That the Gospel accounts of the women visiting Jesus’ tomb on Easter Sunday morning are substantially accurate. Is the story of the women visiting the tomb on Sunday morning credible? Alter thinks not: it is unlikely that women would have traveled without men to escort them, and in any case, they would have been trespassing (and violating Roman law) by entering a private tomb. Nor would they have had time to purchase any spices to anoint Jesus’ body, as Mark records. What’s more, anointing a dead body and then rewrapping it in dirty linen cloths makes absolutely no sense. Finally, there is an even more fundamental problem relating to the logistics of entering the tomb: how did the women intend to roll away the stone (which Mark’s Gospel tells us was “very big”), and how did they intend to roll it back again? It is not historically plausible to suppose that they would have sought assistance from passersby – especially since what they were doing would have constituted a crime. For all these reasons and many others, Alter considers the Gospel accounts of the women visiting the tomb on Easter Sunday morning to be historically unreliable. That doesn’t necessarily mean that no women visited Jesus burial site (whatever it may have been) on Easter Sunday morning. What it does mean is that if they did, the Gospels cannot tell us why they did so, what they were planning to do once they got there, and what they saw when they arrived. The accounts we possess are mutually contradictory and at odds with known historical facts.
In conclusion: The cumulative weight of 17 improbable claims in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion, death and burial completely destroys the “maximal data” approach to Resurrection apologetics, as the facts that can be checked by historians simply don’t hold up to scrutiny. The “minimal facts” apologetic fares no better, as it assumes that Jesus received a proper burial – which, as we’ve seen, is highly questionable.
D. PART TWO: THE RESURRECTION NARRATIVES
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3. Why the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ Resurrection appearances wouldn’t satisfy an impartial historian
Jesus Christ, part of the Resurrection group. Marble, before 1572. Germain Pilon (French, d. 1590).
The New Testament contains almost a dozen accounts of appearances by the risen Jesus to his disciples and friends. Christian apologists contend that the only satisfactory explanation for these appearances is that Jesus had actually risen from the dead. After reading Alter’s book, I have become convinced that the apologetic arguments don’t work, and that even when we limit ourselves to Jesus’ best-attested appearances to his disciples, alternative explanations cannot be ruled out. Faced with this evidence, no fair-minded historian would conclude that Jesus’ resurrection was more probable than not: all we can say is that the evidence is inconclusive.
In what follows, I’ll be playing the part of a devil’s advocate: a part which I have decided to play, in order to convey to Christian readers how strong Alter’s case really is. For my part, although I believe that Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to his disciples, I’m also convinced that the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ appearances are highly embellished.
Why the automobile accident apologetic (AAA) won’t work
A head-on collision involving two vehicles. Image courtesy of Damnsoft 09 and Wikipedia.
Alter delivers a crushing refutation to the oft-repeated argument that the apparent contradictions in the Gospel accounts of the Resurrection can be likened to four differing eyewitness reports of an automobile accident. The analogy is a poor one, for several reasons:
“Christian apologists often suggest that the [resurrection] narratives could be likened to four people witnessing a car accident and providing differing accounts without them being contradictory. That is, the observers reported what each saw. Christian apologists actually go so far as to claim that the differences found in the Resurrection accounts actually substantiate their trustworthiness. Their argument runs something like this: people who conspire to testify to a falsehood rehearse carefully to avoid contradictions.
“The shortfall with this Christian apologetic is that (1) not all the writers were eyewitnesses to the account, (2) the narratives were written approximately thirty to seventy years after the events, (3) at least Luke admitted in his preface that he was reporting hearsay, (4) the writings are believed to be the result of an evolving oral tradition, and (5) the writings are biased, written to evangelize and spread their theological propaganda…” (2015, p. 27).
Another problem with the automobile accident apologetic is that the Gospel accounts do not cohere well. As Alter puts it: “the Gospels read like four different stories, not like four people recording what they directly eye witnessed at a car accident” (2015, p. 540).
Why the jigsaw puzzle analogy fares no better
Christ feeding the multitude Coptic icon). Public domain. Image courtesy of Mladifilozof and Wikipedia. Christian apologists often argue that the four Gospel accounts of Jesus feeding the 5,000 complement each other nicely, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.
Advocates of the “maximal data” approach often appeal to the analogy of a jigsaw puzzle in order to explain the differences between the various Gospel narratives of the Resurrection. The Gospel narratives, they say, are not contradictory but complementary: each Evangelist provides different pieces of the puzzle.
The jigsaw puzzle analogy does work for some events narrated in the Gospels – notably, the Feeding of the Five Thousand (the only miracle to be recorded in all four Gospels). From one Evangelist (John), we learn that Jesus directed his question, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?”, at the apostle Philip. Why Philip, you may ask? The answer comes from another Evangelist, Luke, who informs us that the miracle took place near the town of Bethsaida (Luke 9:10). Philip, as it turns out, was from the town of Bethsaida (John 1:44). John also narrates that after the miracle, Jesus and his disciples got into a boat and headed across the sea to Capernaum. This piece of extra information helps resolve an apparent discrepancy between Mark and Luke regarding the exact location of the miracle: near Bethsaida or opposite Bethsaida, on the other side of the Sea of Galilee? The answer that emerges is that the miracle took place on the north-east side of the Sea of Galilee (somewhat to the east of Bethsaida), and that after the miracle, the disciples traveled to the north-west side (to the west of Bethsaida). Dr. Lydia McGrew has written an excellent article about how the Gospel accounts of this miracle dovetail nicely.
The problem is that this approach to harmonizing the Resurrection narratives doesn’t work. Looking at the Resurrection appearances, we find very few that are narrated in even two of the Gospels, let alone all four! What’s more, the pieces of the jigsaw don’t fit together nicely; they can be “harmonized” only by doing violence to the texts.
(i) Jesus’ appearance to Mary Magdalene (and the other women?)
Women at the empty tomb, by Fra Angelico, 1437–1446. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
There are several elements of the story of Jesus’ Sunday morning appearance to Mary Magdalene (narrated in Matthew’s and John’s Gospels) which just don’t add up. Let us leave aside such pettifogging details as the number of women who went to the tomb (was it two as in Matthew’s Gospel, three as in Mark’s, or five as in Luke’s?), or the exact time when they arrived there (was it still dark, as John narrates in his Gospel, or had the sun risen, as Mark assures us?), or the number of messengers who spoke to the women at the tomb (was it one man in Mark’s Gospel, one angel in Matthew’s, either two men or two angels in Luke’s Gospel, and two angels in John’s?) These are mere trifles which need not concern us greatly, as human memory is a fallible thing, and the Gospel accounts were written down at least 25 years after the Resurrection. The real problems with the story of the women’s visit to the tomb are more fundamental.
To begin with: why did Mary Magdalene and the other women who accompanied her decide to go to the tomb, in the first place? Mark and Luke tell us that they went to anoint Jesus’ body, and that they brought spices with them. But as Alter argues in his book, this makes no sense at all: the body had already been anointed by Joseph of Arimathea, late on Friday afternoon. As Vincent Taylor drily notes in his commentary, The Gospel According to St. Mark (1953, London: Macmillan), “it is hard to credit the women with the intention of going to anoint the body a day and two nights after death” (p. 604). Some Christian apologists have argued that love sometimes prompts people to do things that make no sense, from a rational point of view. But if apologists can only defend the veracity of the Gospel accounts by appealing to human irrationality, then they are in desperate straits indeed.
Even if we generously suppose that the women returned to the tomb on Sunday morning in order to give Jesus’ body a proper anointing after the hasty burial on Friday night, they surely would not have re-wrapped Jesus’ freshly anointed body in the (by-now) dirtied linen provided by Joseph of Arimathea to wrap Jesus’ body, shortly before sunset on Friday. Instead, they would have brought along new, clean linen. As Alter puts it: “It does not make sense for the women to unwrap a previously properly prepared body, anoint it, and then rewrap the body with the now unclean and used (stained) linen” (2015, p. 323).
Finally, if the women brought spices to the tomb, as Mark and Luke assert in their accounts, what did they do with these expensive spices, after they heard the message that Jesus had risen from the dead? Did they leave the spices there, or take them home again?
Matthew and John, on the other hand, tell us that the women’s purpose was simply to pay a visit to the tomb. But as Alter rhetorically asks, “why did the women fail to have their brothers or sons or husbands or even servants (if they had any) to come along to assist them and serve as protection?” (2015, p. 324). And quite apart from the improbability of the women’s going to visit Jesus’ tomb without any men to escort them, we are faced with an even more fundamental problem: how did they intend to roll away the stone? Mark’s Gospel, which is the earliest account of the discovery of the empty tomb, tells us (Mark 16:3) that the women were wondering about this very question. If it actually was a “very large” round tombstone, of the kind described in the Gospels, which needed to be rolled away, then they wouldn’t have been able to do it, on their own. They would have required assistance – and as Alter argues in his book (2015, p. 327), it is most unlikely that they would have been able to hail some passing strangers and ask them to lend a helping hand in their attempt to open a private grave. “Why?” some readers may wonder. Well, ask yourself: is it at all likely that passersby would accede to the request of a group of strange women that they help them open a tomb containing the body of a man who had been in the grave for two nights and a day, and who had been condemned to death and crucified on the orders of the Roman government, and on a charge of high treason, especially when the tomb would have had the royal seal of the Roman governor on it, and when that tomb was also the property of a wealthy, private individual (Joseph of Arimathea)? I respectfully submit that such a scenario beggars belief.
It gets worse. Even if the women somehow managed to move the stone (with or without assistance), there are two remaining problems, highlighted by Alter (2015, p. 327): “(1) how could they have moved the stone back to its original position and (2) how could they have replaced the torn seal?”
As if all this were not bad enough, the Gospels also contain fundamental contradictions regarding the content of the angelic announcement at Jesus’ tomb, the angels’ demeanor, and the women’s reaction. In Mark’s Gospel, the announcement that Jesus had risen and was going before Peter and the disciples, to meet them in Galilee, is made by a young man (Mark 16:5), of whom no hint is given that he is really an angel. The man tries to reassure the women: “Do not be afraid,” he says (Mark 16:6). However, the women’s reaction is one of “trembling and astonishment” (Mark 16:8), and they tell no-one of what they have seen, “for they were afraid.” In Matthew’s Gospel, an angel of the Lord, whose appearance is like lightning, descends from Heaven and rolls away the stone (Matthew 28:2-3), before telling the surprised women [Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary”] not to be alarmed (Matthew 28:5), and instructing them to tell the disciples to meet the risen Jesus in Galilee. The women react with “great joy.” Shortly afterwards, as they are rushing back to tell the disciples, Jesus himself appears to them, they clasp his feet, and he once again reminds them to tell the disciples to meet him in Galilee. In Luke’s Gospel, the stone is already rolled away when several women arrive, and “two men … in dazzling apparel” (Luke 24:4), who are subsequently identified as “angels” in Luke 24:23, make no attempt to reassure the frightened women, but instead ask them why they are seeking the living among the dead, before informing them that Jesus has risen, but without telling them where he will meet up with his disciples. Later on, after appearing to Simon Peter, Jesus meets his disciples in Jerusalem (Luke 24:36-49) and strictly orders them not to leave the city (Luke 24:49), which would make it impossible for them to travel to Galilee, as they are instructed to do in Matthew’s and Mark’s Gospels. In John’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene travels to the tomb, encounters no angels but finds the tomb empty, rushes back to tell Simon Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved that Jesus’ body has been taken away – a fact which they proceed to verify for themselves when they come to inspect the tomb – and then remains weeping outside the tomb, after Peter and the other disciple have gone home. Then Mary happens to notice two angels in white sitting inside the tomb, but the Gospel does not bother to mention her reaction. The two angels make no attempt to comfort her, but instead ask her a perfunctory question: “Why are you weeping?” Mary replies: “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” The angels make no attempt to set her straight: their presence in John’s Gospel account is redundant, as they convey no information whatsoever. At this point, Mary suddenly espies a man whom she takes to be gardener at the tomb, and asks him where the body has been laid. The gardener (who is really Jesus) says one word to her: “Mary!” and she instantly recognizes him. After telling her not to touch him, Jesus then instructs her to tell the disciples that he is risen.
Mike Alter is scathingly critical of Christian apologists who would try to harmonize these conflicting narratives by likening them to conflicting reports given by witnesses to a car accident:
“One additional point of contradiction requires additional fleshing out. Luke and John report that the angels ignored the human emotional response of the women. Here the angels seem to be cold and distant and offer a strange response. In contradiction, the narratives in Mark and Matthew appear to have the angels comforting the women. It is one thing to have different words appearing in the narratives, but it is another to have completely different emotions being reported. For the sake of analysis, assume that there was a car accident with several witnesses. It is one thing for these witnesses to present different wording describing the accident. However, it would be a completely different matter if two witnesses reported that several women inside a car hit at high speed responded by laughing, yet two other witnesses testified that the women were terrified.” (2015, pp. 363-364, emphases mine.)
The reasons for historians’ skepticism about any supernatural appearances to the women at the empty tomb can now be summarized as follows. All four Gospels agree that Mary Magdalene and one or more women – a point acknowledged in John’s Gospel, in Mary’s throwaway remark that “we do not know where they have laid him,” John 20:2 – came to the tomb early on Sunday morning, were informed by someone (a young man? an angel or angels? Jesus himself?) that Jesus had risen, and were instructed to convey the message to his disciples. But the Gospels contradict themselves when describing the women’s reaction to this announcement: was it great fear or great joy? They also disagree in fundamental ways regarding the content of the message: were the disciples supposed to go to Galilee or remain in Jerusalem? Christian apologists can’t have it both ways. Furthermore, they disagree as to whether or not the message was even conveyed: Mark says no, while the other Gospels say yes. Finally, only two Gospels (Matthew and John) record an appearance by Jesus to Mary Magdalene: in Luke’s Gospel and in St. Paul’s creedal formula of 1 Corinthians 15, it is Simon Peter (Cephas) who is the first to see the risen Jesus.
Faced with contradictions like these, an impartial historian would surely cast a jaundiced eye on the claim that Mary Magdalene had an experience (whether veridical or not) of the risen Jesus. If the story of the women’s visit to the tomb turns out to be as full of holes as Swiss cheese, then the claim that one of the women who visited the tomb (Mary Magdalene) experienced an apparition of the risen Jesus is equally dubious, if not more so, given that only two Gospels record this apparition, and that the oldest account (that of St. Paul) makes no mention of it.
And even if Mary Magdalene had an apparition of Jesus, what evidential value does it possess for believers today? We don’t know if Mary Magdalene was alone (as in John’s Gospel) or with someone else (as in Matthew’s) when she saw this apparition: if she was alone, then we cannot rule out the possibility that she was hallucinating. We also don’t know whether she actually touched Jesus or not, which would (if true) tend to tell against the hallucination hypothesis: Matthew suggests she did, but John seems to suggest otherwise. Lastly, we don’t know what Jesus is supposed to have said to her: the two Gospel accounts agree only on four brief words: “Go tell my brothers” (i.e. the disciples). In the other two Gospels, it is either a young man (Mark) or angels (Luke), and not Jesus, who tells the women to do this. All in all, the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ appearance to Mary Magdalene constitute very poor evidence of Jesus’ resurrection.
(ii) Jesus’ appearance to Peter
In St. Paul’s creedal formula in 1 Corinthians 15, Cephas is named as the first person to whom the risen Jesus appeared. Cephas means “rock” in Aramaic, and traditionally, scholars have assumed that “Simon,” “Peter” [the masculinized Greek word for “Rock,” Jesus’ nickname for Simon] and Cephas all refer to one and the same person in the New Testament. (There was another apostle named Simon, but he was a Zealot.) This interpretation is borne out by John 1:42, where it is narrated: “Jesus looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon the son of John. You shall be called Cephas’ (which means Peter).” However, it should be noted that in Galatians 2:7, St. Paul assures his readers that Christian leaders in Jerusalem recognized that “I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised,” and then two verses later, he adds that “when James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me,” apparently using a different name for the same person! What is going on here? Should we re-examine the traditional assumption that Cephas and Peter are one and the same individual?
Leaving aside this minor difficulty, it is very odd that Jesus’ appearance to Peter is nowhere narrated in the Gospel of Mark, despite the fact that Mark was, according to the early Church Father Papias, Peter’s personal secretary. Why, then, would he leave out a scene which would put his master in a good light?
Luke’s Gospel tells us (Luke 24:12) that upon hearing the women’s message that Jesus had risen from the dead, Peter ran to the tomb and looked inside, observing that the linen cloths were by themselves and that the body had gone. John’s Gospel contains an even more dramatic scene, in which Peter races to the tomb, with the disciple that Jesus loved, who gets there first, but does not enter. Then Peter gets to the tomb and goes inside. He sees the linen cloths lying there, but no body, and he also notices that Jesus’ face cloth has been neatly folded up and set aside. Then the other disciple goes inside and sees for himself that the body is no longer there. After that, both disciples go home. It is likely that John’s Gospel has added the story of another disciple going to the tomb, in order to satisfy the Jewish legal requirement that only the testimony of two witnesses was considered valid, in order to establish a fact (such as the disappearance of a body) in a court of law (see Deuteronomy 17:6, Deuteronomy 19:15 and 2 Corinthians 13:1). But in any case, it is highly doubtful that either Luke’s account or John’s has any factual basis. Alter explains why in his book:
“Peter and the other disciple would have been subject to Roman law because Judea was under Roman authority. Under Roman law, entering the tomb that belonged to someone else without permission would have been an act of sacrilege and an extremely serious crime [Gaius, Institutes 2, 2-10; Marcian, Institutes 14]. The punishment for such a crime was severe, ranging from ‘deportation to an island’ to execution [Ulpian, Duties of the Proconsul (7; D.48.13.7)].” (2015, p. 405)
Casting further doubt on the story of Jesus’ apparition to Peter, we discover that New Testament writers are split down the middle as to who saw Jesus first: was it Mary Magdalene (as in the Gospels of Matthew and John, and the long Markan ending which was probably composed in the early second century and appended to Mark’s original Gospel) or was it Peter (as in the Gospel of Luke and St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians)? We cannot be sure, although as I noted above, the doubtful historicity of the Gospel stories of Mary Magdalene’s apparition of Jesus at the empty tomb tilts the balance in favor of the first Resurrection encounter having been an appearance to Peter, at some other location (Jerusalem? Galilee? We don’t know). To make matters worse, Luke’s description of Jesus’ apparition to Peter is extremely terse: in Luke 24:34, the eleven apostles excitedly tell the two disciples from Emmaus: “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!” And that’s all, folks.
Finally, we have no record in the New Testament of what, if anything, Jesus said to Peter, and whether Peter had any physical contact with Jesus. Add to that the fact that this apparition was witnessed by only one individual, if it occurred at all, and the only verdict which an impartial historian can render is that while the historicity of this apparition appears fairly probable (owing to the antiquity of the creedal formula cited by St. Paul, which suggests that it has a factual basis), it is far from certain; and that in any case, we are in no position to rule out the hypothesis that Peter was hallucinating when he claimed that Jesus appeared to him. We just don’t have enough data to go on.
(iii) Jesus’ appearance to two disciples on the road to Emmaus
The Supper at Emmaus by Caravaggio. 1601. Oil on canvas. National Gallery, London.
There are a number of reasons for questioning the historicity of this account, which is found only in Luke’s Gospel. First, the two disciples’ failure to recognize Jesus during a seven-mile walk from Jerusalem to the town of Emmaus is very puzzling. Surely they would have noticed the nail marks in his hands or wrists? And why didn’t they recognize his face, since they knew him previously, having heard him preach?
Second, the account is historically implausible, since it is at odds with what we know of Palestinian dining customs at that time: meals were leisurely affairs, back in those days. If the two disciples invited Jesus to share a meal with them at their home in Emmaus, then it would have taken them many hours to prepare it, as Alter points out (2015, p. 543), quoting from Professor Rolland E. Wolfe’s book, How the Easter Story Grew from Gospel to Gospel (1989, Lewiston: Edwin Mellen):
It is usually taken for granted that Jesus sat down to eat at a table with these men as soon as they entered the house. However, this assumption is subject to question. Since a Palestinian host usually takes considerable time to prepare food worthy of a guest, Jesus likely was in that Emmaus house for several hours or more before the evening meal was served. (1989, p. 40)
Since it was already evening when the two disciples arrived home, then it must have been well after dark by the time Jesus manifested his true identity to them, at the breaking of the bread, when their eyes were opened (Luke 24:31). Even though Luke’s Gospel tells us that “that same hour,” the disciples got up and returned to Jerusalem to tell “the eleven” apostles, it would have been around midnight by the time they reached Jerusalem. But as Alter reminds his readers (2015, p. 544), the gates of Jerusalem would have been shut at such a late hour, which means that the two disciples could not have entered the city until early Monday morning. However, both Luke’s Gospel and John’s Gospel declare emphatically that Jesus appeared to the eleven apostles on the first day of the week (Sunday). If this is indeed the case, then the story of Jesus appearing to two disciples on the road to Emmaus cannot also be true. Something has to give.
(iv) Jesus appearance to “the Twelve” (or was it “the Eleven,” or maybe the Ten?)
If there is one fact about which all of the New Testament sources are agreed, it is that Jesus appeared to his chosen band of apostles, commonly known as “the Twelve.” Another fact which all sources agree on is that the Twelve received advance notification that Jesus had been raised from the dead. In Matthew’s, Mark’s and John’s Gospel, this notification came from the women who visited the tomb (including Mary Magdalene), while in Luke’s Gospel, we find the apostles excitedly announcing that “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!” St. Paul puts Cephas (Peter) at the head of his list of witnesses to the Resurrection, which presumably means that he would have informed the other apostles about Jesus appearing to him.
Thus far, St. Paul and the four Gospels are in agreement: beyond this point, however, this agreement completely breaks down. The accounts in the writings of St. Paul and the Gospels are hopelessly contradictory, even on basic facts:
(a) How many apostles saw Jesus? Was it twelve, as in 1 Corinthians 15, or eleven, as in Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels, or ten, as in chapter 20 of John’s Gospel, or possibly only seven, as in John 21, which reads as if it were Jesus’ first resurrection appearance to his apostles, even though the author of John 21 insists that it was the third appearance (John 21:14)?
(b) When did the apostles first see Jesus? Was it on Easter Sunday evening, as in Luke’s and John’s Gospels, or was it a few days later, as in Matthew’s Gospel? (Remember that it would have taken a few days for the eleven disciples to traipse all the way to the mountain in Galilee, where Matthew says they saw Jesus.)
(c) Where did the apostles see Jesus? On this point, the Gospels are clearly contradictory. In Matthew’s Gospel, the angel tells the women at Jesus’ tomb, “Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and behold, he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him” (Matthew 28:7). In Mark’s Gospel, there is a young man at the tomb who tells the women, “But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you” (Mark 16:7). But in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus appears to the eleven apostles on Easter Sunday evening (or night) and says to them, “But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49) – a reference to the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. In the Acts of the Apostles, Jesus reiterates the warning, when he says to the apostles, “And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, ‘you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now’” (Acts 1:4-5). John’s Gospel is even more puzzling: in chapter 20, Jesus appears to ten apostles in Easter Sunday evening, and to eleven apostles a week later (this time Thomas is present), chapter 21 contains an appendix tacked on to the Gospel, describing an apparition of Jesus in Galilee, which is said to be Jesus’ third Easter apparition, but which reads in many ways as if it were his first.
So, did Jesus appear to his apostles in Jerusalem or Galilee? Which is it? In his book (2015, p. 692), Mike Alter quotes the devastating verdict of Catholic apologist Xavier Leon-Dufour:
“The conflict cannot be solved by a harmonization in which all these appearances take place one after the other, in Jerusalem on Easter Day (Luke, John) and the eighth day (John), then in Galilee (Matthew, John) and back in Jerusalem for the Ascension (Luke). This harmonization is unacceptable, because it is contradicted by definite statements in the texts. According to Luke 24:49, the disciples are to stay in Jerusalem until the day of Pentecost, which excludes any appearance in Galilee. By contrast, Matthew [[28:7]] and Mark [[16:7]] state that the meeting place is to be in Galilee. These different indications of place cannot be reconciled.” (Leon-Dufour, Xavier. 1971. Resurrection and the Message of Easter. Translated by R. N. Wilson. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, pp. 212-213. Emphasis mine.)
Eight-inch refracting telescope at Chabot Space and Science Center in Oakland, California. Image courtesy of Shizhao, Kowloonese and Wikipedia.
Some apologists invoke the narrative device of telescoping (or cutting a long story short) in an attempt to explain the apparent discrepancy between Matthew and Mark on the one hand and Luke on the other. Matthew and Mark, they say, are omitting Jesus’ appearances in Jerusalem because for them, the climax of the story is in Galilee, where Jesus began his ministry, whereas Luke omits the appearances in Galilee because his theological focus is on Jerusalem, where the early church began its preaching at Pentecost. But omission is one thing; exclusion is quite another. There is no contradiction between author X reporting event A and omitting B, while author Y omits A but reports B. It is another matter entirely if author X reports A in such a way as to leave no opportunity for B to happen. In that case, if author Y reports event B, then either X or Y must be mistaken. And if Luke reports Jesus as appearing in Jerusalem and telling his disciples on Easter Sunday evening, “But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49). Matthew reports Jesus as telling Mary Magdalene and the other Mary on the same day, “Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me” (Matthew 28: 10). No two ways about it: that’s a contradiction.
Apologists commonly insist that literary devices such as these were in common use at the time when the Gospels were written. Very well, then: let them produce one example from antiquity where two biographers wrote about the same person, and one wrote his story in such a way as to leave no time available for events reported by the other biographer to have occurred, yet both biographers were regarded as truthful by the standards of their time.
It would be bad enough if these were the only contradictions in the Gospel narratives, but it gets worse. If we look at the messages given by Jesus to the apostles when he meets them, we find some astonishing divergences. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells the eleven apostles to go and preach the gospel to all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit – a baptismal formula which appears nowhere else in the New Testament, where converts to Christianity are typically baptized in Jesus’ name. Jesus then promises to be with his disciples always, until the very end of the age. Mark’s Gospel records no message of Jesus, because it closes with the women fleeing the empty tomb in a state of fear. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus reassures his disciples that he is no ghost, by inviting them to touch him and by eating a piece of broiled fish in front of them, before instructing them to remain in Jerusalem until they are clothed with power from on high, and then go and preach the message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins to all nations, starting from Jerusalem. In John’s Gospel, Jesus suddenly appears to his disciples, shows them his hands and his side, and says, “Peace be with you,” before telling them that he is sending them on a mission. He then breathes on them and says to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” telling them that those whose sins they forgive are forgiven, while those whose sins they withhold forgiveness from are withheld. Are we then supposed to believe that there were two outpourings of the Holy Spirit on the apostles – one on Easter Sunday evening (John 20:22) and the other at Pentecost (see Luke 24:49, Acts 1:4, Acts 2)? And did Thomas miss out on the first outpouring? That doesn’t sound at all likely. In fact, even this attempted reconciliation won’t work: in Luke 24:49, Jesus tells his disciples to wait in the city of Jerusalem “until you are clothed with power from on high,” clearly implying that they had not yet received the Holy Spirit, and in Acts 1:4-5, having assembled his disciples after numerous appearances to them, Jesus reiterates his command that they wait in Jerusalem, until they are baptized with the Holy Spirit. Particularly telling is the verdict of conservative scholar D.A. Carson, in his review of John’s account of Jesus’ breathing on his disciples in his commentary, The Gospel According to St. John (1991, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans): “Jesus’ exhalation and command Receive the Holy Spirit are best understood as a kind of acted parable pointing toward the full denouement still to come (though in the past for John’s readers)” (p. 655, emphasis mine). A parable? So much for historicity, then.
Having said that, it has to be acknowledged that there are certain common themes in the various accounts of Jesus’ appearances to his apostles: he endeavors to show them that he really is alive again, and that he is a physically embodied being; he sends them on a worldwide mission to preach the gospel of repentance for sins, baptizing people in his name; and he promises to send them the Holy Spirit, and to remain with them always. For these reasons, I do not think it would be prudent for an impartial historian to jettison all of these accounts: there is clearly a solid nucleus of tradition underlying them. Thus it would be fair to conclude that the apostles experienced one or more collective apparitions of Jesus, in which they believed that they received messages from him, even if the accounts found in two Gospels (Luke and John) of the apostles eating with Jesus and touching him are (as many scholars now believe) later accretions which were invented to counter heretical claims by Docetists that the risen Jesus was only a phantom.
Can we conclude from this broad agreement in the content of Jesus’ messages to his apostles that they have an objective basis? In other words, could a fair-minded historian rule out hallucination as a possible explanation for Jesus’ appearances to his disciples? In order to do that, we would have to verify that the disciples agreed amongst themselves as to what they heard Jesus say. Unfortunately, we have no way of doing that, as nobody interviewed them separately after the apparitions, and asked them what they had seen and heard. Since they talked with one another afterwards, their recollections would have been contaminated by listening to descriptions of what their companions saw and heard. What is more, if Jesus appeared to Peter first, as St. Paul and Luke’s Gospel inform us (Luke 24:34), he would have surely told the other apostles what he had seen. That in turn may have influenced what they saw and heard, when they encountered Jesus. In other words, we are not dealing with twelve (or eleven) independent observations of the risen Jesus here, but rather, with a dozen or so witnesses whose observations are highly inter-dependent. For this reason, historians are no longer able, at the present time, to decisively rule out the hallucination hypothesis.
Even if we could rule out the hallucination hypothesis, it would not follow that the Resurrection was the best or most likely explanation of what the apostles saw and heard. In what are believed to be the two latest Gospels (Luke and John), the risen Jesus goes to great lengths to demonstrate that he is a physical being, but Matthew and Mark contain no record of any such attempts on Jesus’ part. St. Paul’s discussion of the resurrection appearances in 1 Corinthians 15 gives even less comfort to those insisting that Jesus was a physical being: he tells his readers that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of Heaven (1 Corinthians 15:50), and puts his own experience of the risen Jesus, in which Jesus appeared to him as a being of light in the sky (Acts 9) on a par with Jesus’ appearances to “the Twelve” – in other words, for St. Paul, there is no fundamental distinction between these appearances. For these reasons, a fair-minded historian cannot exclude the possibility that the apostles experienced an objective vision of Jesus, rather than a corporeal manifestation of him, on the basis of the mutually conflicting evidence currently available to us.
(v) Jesus’ appearance to Doubting Thomas
The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio. 1601-1602. Oil on canvas. Sanssouci Gallery.
John’s Gospel tells us that a week after Jesus’ resurrection, Jesus appeared to his disciples again in a locked room. This time, Thomas was with them. After suddenly materializing, Jesus invited Thomas, who had previously scoffed at the other disciples’ claims to have seen Jesus, to touch Jesus’ nail marks and to put his hand in Jesus’ side (which had been pierced by a Roman soldier’s lance while he was on the Cross, according to John 19:31-37). “Doubt no longer but believe,” Jesus reprimanded Thomas, who answered in awe, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus concluded his appearance with an admonition: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
When examined critically, the account seems to have been written in order to counter the late first-century heresy of Docetism, which denied the physical reality of Jesus’ body and insisted that Jesus was only a phantom. Obviously, a phantom Jesus could never have invited Thomas to put his hand in Jesus’ side. But if John’s account of Jesus’ being pierced in the side on the Cross is itself fictional (as it appears to have been, for reasons discussed above), then it follows that the story of doubting Thomas must also be fictional.
Thomas’ profession of faith also appears remarkably advanced for 30 A.D.: he has no hesitation in referring to Jesus as “my God,” despite the fact that explicit affirmations of Jesus’ divinity were uncommon among the first generation of Christians (Romans 9:5 is one of the very few examples; Titus 2:13 and Hebrews 1:8 are post-Pauline).
On the basis of this evidence, an impartial historian would probably conclude that the doubting Thomas episode appears to have been theologically motivated, and that it was most likely invented by the Christian community in the late first century.
(vi) Jesus’ appearance by the Sea of Tiberias
Jesus appears on the shore of Lake Tiberias by James Tissot. 1886-1894. Brooklyn Museum.
John 21 contains an intriguing account of Jesus’ appearance to seven of his disciples by the Sea of Tiberias. In this apparition, Jesus (who is standing on the shore), tells the disciples, who have been fishing all night without success, to cast their nets over the side of the boat, whereupon they haul in a miraculously large catch of 153 fish. Peter suddenly recognizes Jesus, jumps into the water and swims ashore, while the other disciples follow in the boat, towing the large catch of fish. Jesus eats a meal of bread and fish with them, reinstates Peter as the leader of the apostles after his triple denial of Jesus on the night before his crucifixion, foretells Peter’s martyrdom, and leaves open the possibility that another disciple, known enigmatically as “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” may still be alive at the time of Jesus’ future return.
The account is rich in detail, and merits serious consideration by a historian attempting to compile a list of the disciples’ post-mortem encounters with Jesus. The main argument against its historicity is that it bears a close resemblance to a pre-resurrection account in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 5:1-11) in which Jesus, after teaching a large crowd of people from a boat that was kindly supplied by Simon (Peter), near the shore of the Sea of Galilee (Lake Gennesaret), tells Peter to let down his nets. Peter protests that he and his partners (James and John, the sons of Zebedee) have been out all night fishing without success, but he agrees to do as Jesus asked. Suddenly the nets start filling with fish and begin to break, and Peter has to ask James and John for assistance in hauling them in. In astonishment, Peter falls at the feet of Jesus and implores him, “Leave me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” But instead, Jesus tells him that he, James and John will be fishers of men from now on.
Is the account in John 21 a separate account from Luke 5, or are they two versions of the same account? If the latter is true (as seems quite likely), then we cannot be sure that it records a post-resurrection encounter with Jesus; it may equally well be a pre-resurrection encounter, which left a vivid impression on his disciples.
Another feature of the account in John 21 which tells against its historicity is the presence of numerical symbology in the account. We are told that the disciples counted the fish they had caught, and that there were 153 altogether. Curiously, the Greek words for “fishes” and “the net” both add up to 1,224 in the Hebrew numerological code (known as gematria), which is exactly 8 times 153. What’s more, the Pythagoreans evidently regarded 153 as a sacred number, and there are two early tales of Pythagoras predicting the exact number of fish caught in a net, although we are not told what this number was. He is also said to have discovered that the square root of 3 was closely approximated by the ratio 265/153 – a number that was known in the Greek world as the measure of the fish. To sum up: the heavy numerological symbolism in the story in John 21, coupled with its strong resemblance to the account in Luke 5 and the fact that it is absent from the other Gospels, may lead an honest inquirer to question whether we are dealing here with a genuine historical reminiscence of an encounter with the risen Jesus. Such an inquirer could only conclude that we really don’t know.
(vii) Jesus’ appearance on a mountain in Galilee (Matthew 28:16-20)
Jesus’ appearance to “the eleven disciples” on a mountain in Galilee (where he had previously told them to wait for him, although none of the Gospels ever mentions him telling them so) is only narrated in one Gospel: the Gospel of Matthew. That does not make it unhistorical; however, there are independent grounds for querying the veracity of this account, as it contains two historical anachronisms.
First, in the apparition, Jesus commands his disciples to preach the good news to all nations (Matthew 28:18), without imposing any requirement that Gentile converts to Christianity will have to obey the commands of the Mosaic Law. However, the Acts of the Apostles (written by Luke) paints a very different picture: the Christian community continues to observe the Mosaic Law even after the Resurrection, and eight years later, the apostle Peter is condemned by his fellow Christians for preaching the Gospel to the Gentiles and eating with uncircumcised Gentile converts (Acts 11:1-4). Peter justifies his conduct, not by appealing to Jesus’ Great Commission on a mountain in Galilee, but by claiming that he was instructed by God in a vision (described in Acts 10) to carry the Gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 11:5). Only after listening to Peter’s narration of this vision do Peter’s accusers decide to hold their peace, glorifying God for allowing the Christian message of repentance to be preached to the Gentiles (Acts 11:18). Clearly, the account given in Acts 11 is at variance with the Great Commission in Matthew 28.
Second, when Jesus appears to his disciples on a mountain in Galilee, he commands them to baptize “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19) – a formula that appears nowhere else in the entire New Testament (2 Corinthians 13:13 is the nearest equivalent, and it’s a blessing, not a baptism). The earliest appearance of this formula is in the Didache, an early Christian document that was most likely composed around the end of the first century. Before then, it appears that Christians were typically baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus (Acts 2:38, 8:16, 10:48, 19:5, 22:16). The baptismal formula in Matthew 28:19 is an anachronism.
Once we remove these two anachronistic passages from the account of Jesus’ appearance to his disciples on a mountain in Galilee, what remains? Unfortunately, very little, except for a promise made by Jesus that he would always be with his disciples, “to the very end of the age.” From a discerning historian’s point of view, the factual core of the apparition (assuming that it occurred) seems to have shrunk to almost nothing. To add to the historian’s woes, we are told that the disciples themselves were not entirely convinced that what they were seeing was real: “some of them doubted” (Matthew 28:17). Can we be reasonably sure that this vaguely narrated apparition even took place at all, then? A prudent seeker after truth would have no choice but to conclude that we cannot.
(viii) Jesus’ appearance to the 500
At first glance, this might appear to be the most convincing of all Jesus’ resurrection appearances. After all, surely the presence of 500 witnesses precludes its being a hallucination. And the fact that St. Paul explicitly declares in his first letter to the Corinthians that some of the witnesses to this extraordinary event are still alive reads like an open invitation to doubters to come to Jerusalem verify his claims for themselves, if they are so inclined. Case closed?
Not quite. First, who were these 500 witnesses? Not one of them is named in the writings of St. Paul, and he provides no clues in his letters, as to how to locate these people. Indeed, we don’t even know whether St. Paul met any of them: he never claims to have done so. No do we know if he interviewed any of them, or that he made any attempt to interview a large number of them, in order to check the consistency of their accounts.
Second, it is very strange that the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles make no mention of this appearance of Jesus to 500 people, as it would have constituted a splendid proof of the Resurrection, which would convince doubters. Alter concludes: “its absence is a strong argument from silence that the event does not provide support of Jesus’ purported, physical, bodily resurrection” (2015, p. 669). Some Christians have suggested that Matthew’s account of Jesus’ appearance to his disciples on a mountain in Galilee is one and the same event as the appearance to the 500, but Matthew himself declares that the appearance on the mountain in Galilee was witnessed by “the eleven disciples,” not by a crowd of 500 people. Even more farfetched is the attempt to identify this event with the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, which was witnessed by a group of believers that were all gathered in one house (Acts 2:2). How many houses in first-century Palestine could have accommodated even 50 people, let alone 500?
Third, it is simply not true that the Corinthians could have easily verified St. Paul’s claim that Jesus had appeared to 500 believers, even if they had wished to. As Alter demonstrates at length in his book, a trip from Corinth to Jerusalem would have been a difficult undertaking, requiring considerable time, costing a lot of money, and placing those who made the trip at great personal risk (traveling was a lot more dangerous back in those days).
In his book, Alter elaborates on the risks that a trip from Corinth to Jerusalem would have entailed:
1. Corinth was approximately 830 miles from Jerusalem by water and 1,500 miles by land. Sending an investigator to Jerusalem would take time since travel was slow…
2. Research (Casson 1974, 1971; Wallace and Williams 1993) confirmed that traveling was potentially a dangerous proposition and fraught with difficulties as reported in the Acts of the Apostles (chapter 27). The Acts of the Apostles reported that Paul alone experienced three shipwrecks during his voyages.
3. Sending an investigator or courier to Jerusalem would have been expensive; it would include the cost of the voyage, food, board, incidental expenses, and compensation for the employee’s time and efforts. Who would have assumed the cost to challenge or substantiate Paul’s claims?
4. Upon arrival in Roman-occupied Judea an investigator or courier would have faced numerous challenges and difficulties to complete the given task. For example, how would the investigator or courier know who the surviving witnesses were? How would he verify who was a living witness? Furthermore, the investigator/courier would have presumably confronted potential witnesses who refused to answer questions from a stranger out of fear…
5. Either the investigator/courier or Paul could have died before the investigator/courier returned.
6. Paul could have moved before the investigator/courier returned. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians is assumed to have been written approximately 54 CE during his “third journey.”…
7. If Paul, in fact, lied and the lie was in fact discovered, he still would have gotten away with his deceit by claiming that it must have had something to do with a conspiracy against him… Similarly, those who denied Paul’s claims could simply have been accused of being false teachers…
Therefore, it would have been a case of his word against theirs or Paul’s divinely revealed word against theirs. (2015, pp. 672-673)
The fourth and most decisive reason for doubting this appearance is the silence of Pontius Pilate, the prefect of Judea from 26 to 36 A.D. who condemned Jesus to death for high treason. If Pilate had heard reports that no less than 500 people claimed to have seen, spoken with or eaten with a man whom he had previously condemned to death in front of a large crowd of people, he would surely have ordered an investigation. So, why didn’t he? The celebrated English novelist Hall Caine (1853-1931) highlighted this problem dramatically, in his Life of Christ (1938, New York: Doubleday, Doran and Company, p. 1020):
“He [Pilate] would have remembered that Joseph of Arimathea had asked permission to bury Jesus, and he would have sent for Joseph and said, ‘Did you not tell me that you wished to bury that man? Did you bury him? What happened then?’
“And would not Pilate have sent for his centurion and said, ‘When I asked you if the man had been any while dead, did you not tell me that it was so? What about this report by 500 that he is alive and walking about? Was he not dead? Had he only fainted? Was he resuscitated? If so, by whom? By Joseph of Arimathea? Then both you and Joseph must account to me for what you have done.’
“Or if Pilate had been glad of an excuse to ignore and forget the whole miserable matter, would not the Jews, who had set on the tomb a watch which had failed, because (by their own invented account) the disciples of Jesus had come by night and stolen the body away while they slept, have called on Pilate to re-arrest Jesus as one who had not died at all, and therefore had never suffered the penalty of his condemnation, but had, by trickery, escaped it, and was now walking in Galilee free?
“Furthermore, and as a final point, with such a cloud of testimony, what further witness to the truth of the claims of Jesus could the world want? Why should there have been any doubt? Why did not the gospel of Jesus take complete possession of the whole Galilee world – instantly?”
Pilate’s silence is difficult to account for, and the only tentative explanation I can propose is that news of the appearances never reached him, because they took place not in Judea but in Galilee. But even supposing that to have been the case, the failure of the Christian message to take off in Galilee despite the presence of no less than 500 vocal witnesses to the Resurrection remains an unsolved mystery.
The one big argument in favor of the historicity of the appearance to the 500 is that it features in the ancient creedal formula cited by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 – a formula which was composed within a few years of Jesus’ death. But even supposing this apparition to have taken place, we are not told what Jesus was alleged to have said or done during this appearance to the 500. Did he appear as a being of light in the sky? Did he talk? Did he walk among the crowd, and was he touched by members of the crowd? We do not know. Did the witnesses to this mass apparition even see the same thing? We do not know. An impartial historian investigating this incident would therefore have to conclude that even if it took place, the hypothesis of a mass hallucination cannot be ruled out, on the basis of the limited evidence available to us.
(ix) Jesus’ appearance to his brother James
This appearance is briefly mentioned in St. Paul’s creedal formula in 1 Corinthians 15, but there are grounds for questioning its historicity. To begin with, some scholars contend that the original creedal formula ended with the preceding verse, describing Jesus’ appearance to the 500. That would make sense: on this reading, Jesus appears first to one person (Peter), then to 12 people (the Twelve Apostles) and finally to 500, as a culminating manifestation. A subsequent appearance to James would break the pattern. Second, Jesus’ appearance to James is nowhere mentioned or even hinted at in the Gospels or in the Acts of the Apostles. Third, James himself nowhere alludes to his encounter with the risen Jesus, in the only letter we have from his hand.
Confronted with these arguments, believers counter that James had previously been highly skeptical of Jesus’ mission (John 7:5), even believing that his brother (or possibly half-brother) Jesus was “out of his mind” (Mark 3:21). Presumably, something must have happened to James, to change his mind. If it was not a resurrection appearance, then what was it?
The foregoing argument assumes that St. Paul was referring to “James brother of the Lord” in 1 Corinthians 15. However, this is by no means certain, as there were two other prominent Christians in the New Testament with that name: the apostle referred to as James son of Zebedee and the apostle referred to as James son of Alphaeus.
But even supposing that James (whichever James he was) had an experience which led him to believe Jesus had risen from the dead, it is worth noting that St. Paul nowhere differentiates this experience from Jesus’ appearance to him, as a being of light who spoke to him from the sky. Indeed, we aren’t even told whether Jesus spoke to James, in his encounter. James may have simply seen him, without speaking to him or touching him. And if that were the case, could the appearance to James have simply been a vision?
To sum up: even if the appearance to James actually occurred, there isn’t enough information about this apparition for the historian to rule out the possibility of a purely subjective hallucination or an objective vision, sent by God. Neither requires a resurrection.
(x) The Ascension
The Ascension by John Singleton Copley, 1775. Oil on canvas. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
It is a very curious fact that the Ascension of Jesus is nowhere mentioned in the writings of St. Paul. Even more curiously, the Ascension is nowhere mentioned in the Gospels, either (with the sole exception of a brief phrase at the end of Luke’s Gospel – “and was carried up into Heaven” – which many scholars regard as an interpolation). The only Biblical description of this remarkable event occurs in chapter 1 of the Acts of the Apostles, and it takes up just three verses:
And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go to heaven. (Acts 1:9-11, ESV)
Astute readers will have noticed that the episode is described in entirely visual terms. No mention is made of the disciples having any physical contact with Jesus.
Finally, the earliest Church Fathers – Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Hermas and Polycarp – are completely silent on the subject of Jesus’ Ascension.
Once again, the verdict of an impartial historian on the historicity of this episode can only be: we don’t have enough data to go on.
(xi) Jesus’ appearance to Saul (Paul)
The Conversion on the Way to Damascus by Caravaggio. 1601. Oil on canvas, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
While St. Paul undoubtedly believed that he’d had a post-mortem encounter with Jesus, there are several legitimate reasons why an impartial historian might question whether he actually had a physical encounter with the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus.
To begin with, the accounts of Paul’s (or rather, Saul’s) conversion given in Acts 9, 22 and 26 appear to be historically inaccurate, for reasons discussed by Alter in his book:
“First, in the three accounts, Paul claimed that he had received authority from the high priests in Jerusalem to arrest followers of Jesus who resided in Damascus and bring them back for punishment. The problem with this supposed fact is that the chief priests in Jerusalem had no such authority since their jurisdiction did not extend into Damascus.” (2015, p. 731)
Is Alter right on this point? The account in Acts 9:1-2 seems to be quite clear that Saul of Tarsus was given authorization to arrest people: “Meanwhile Saul, still breathing out threats to murder the Lord’s disciples, went to the high priest and requested letters from him to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, either men or women, he could bring them as prisoners to Jerusalem.” Professor Helmut Koester, of Harvard Divinity School, in his magisterial Introduction to the New Testament, Vol. 2: History and Literature of Early Christianity (2000, New York: De Gruyter, 2nd edition) puts his finger on the problem:
“Neither the high priest nor the Jewish Sanhedrin in Jerusalem ever had such powers of jurisdiction. Paul’s activities must be located outside Palestine, wherever he actually lived. The persecution would have taken the regular process in the local synagogue: members of the synagogue who had confessed Jesus, and perhaps spread the message within the synagogue community, were subjected to normal synagogue punishments and excluded from its religious community.” (2000, p. 107)
Christian apologist Jonathan Burke, after carefully reviewing the arguments pro and con the historicity of Luke’s claim in Acts 9 that Saul of Tarsus was authorized to arrest Jews living in Damascus, tentatively suggests that although the high priests in Jerusalem lacked formal jurisdiction over Damascus, they exercised a great deal of informal influence. Saul may have simply been carrying letters of introduction, and the apparent absence of Roman forces in Damascus at the time would have reduced the likelihood of any Roman interference in what they would have regarded as an internal Jewish matter. (See here.) Be that as it may, that is not what Luke says in Acts 9, 22 and 26.
Another oddity in the account of Saul’s conversion can be found in Acts 26:14, where St. Paul narrates in his trial speech before Herod Agrippa II that after seeing a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, on the road to Damascus, he fell to the ground, and then suddenly he heard a voice saying to him in the Hebrew language, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” As Alter observes (2015, pp. 731-732), what is odd about this account is that it features Jesus quoting a Greek proverb from The Bacchae by Epimenides (d. 406 B.C.), in his apparition to Paul, while speaking Aramaic (“in the Hebrew language”)! This is the same Paul who claims to have been “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee” (Philippians 3:5). Given Paul’s background, the quotation of a popular Greek proverb sounds a trifle incongruous.
But there’s something about this story that’s even more curious, as the skeptical German theologian Uta Ranke-Heinemann, chair of History of Religion at the University of Duisburg-Essen in Essen, points out in her book, Putting Away Childish Things (1994, translated by Peter Heinegg, San Francisco: Harper San Francisco):
“But the really strange thing is that with both Jesus and Euripides we have the same ‘familiar quotation’ and the same situation. In both cases we have a conversation between a persecuted god and his persecutor. In Euripides the persecuted god is Dionysus, and his persecutor is Pentheus, king of Thebes. Just like Jesus, Dionysus calls his persecutor to account: ‘You disregard my words of warning … and kick against necessity [literally ‘against the goads’] a man defying god” (1994, p. 163).
To clinch his case, Alter notes (2015, p. 732) that in his account of Saul’s conversion in Acts 26, Luke even uses the plural form of the noun for “goads” (kentra) that Euripides needs for the meter of his line in The Bacchae.
Another oddity about the three accounts of Saul’s conversion in Acts is their striking divergences. In the account of Acts 9, after Jesus says to Saul, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”, Saul replies, “Who are you, Lord?”, and Jesus answers, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” Saul is then struck blind and led into the city of Damascus, where he receives his sight back from a man named Ananias, who tells him that God has appointed him to spread his message. The account given in Acts 22 is fairly similar, with a couple of minor variations (in Acts 9, Paul’s companions hear the voice, whereas in Acts 22 they don’t; in Acts 9, no explanation is given for Saul’s blindness, whereas in Acts 22 it is ascribed to the excessive brightness of the light). Perhaps these two accounts can be harmonized, if we suppose (as Christian apologists do) that what St. Paul’s companions heard was the sound of the voice, but not the actual message itself. However, in the account in Acts 26, St. Paul tells Agrippa something quite different:
“I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’ And I said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But rise and stand upon your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles – to whom I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’”
The reader will notice that in this account, Jesus himself entrusts Saul with his mission, whereas in Acts 9 and 22, Saul is informed of his mission by a man in Damascus, named Ananias. Also, the account in Acts 26 makes no mention of Saul being struck blind or of him getting his sight back.
Are these divergences contradictions? Alter thinks they are. I’m not so sure. Perhaps Luke wanted to simply cut to the chase in his account of St. Paul’s trial speech in Acts 26. But at the very least, the divergences show that the accounts of Saul’s conversion which he provides in Acts are far from exact, and that he has taken quite a few literary liberties, skipping over major points of the story when he deems it necessary and even adding literary allusions to his account that would have been familiar to his readers, to make it sound more palatable.
Far more disturbing for defenders of Luke’s reliability, however, is the fact that his accounts contradicts St. Paul’s own brief description of his conversion in Galatians 1:15-20:
“But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to[e] me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas [Peter] and remained with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother. (In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!)”
In the account in Acts 9, on the other hand, Saul is struck blind during his encounter with Jesus, which would totally preclude the possibility of him going away to Arabia. Instead, he is led immediately into the city of Damascus, receives his sight back from a man named Ananias, is baptized, preaches enthusiastically about Jesus in the synagogues of Damascus, and then, “when many days had passed” (not three years), he is then forced to leave the city by night, in secret, because of a plot against his life. Saul then goes to Jerusalem and tries to join the disciples, but is rebuffed until Barnabas takes him under his wing and brings him “to the apostles,” narrating the story of Saul’s dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus. I leave it to the reader to decide whether St. Paul’s account is merely embellished by Luke in Acts 9, or flat-out contradicts it.
But the most decisive difficulty with St. Paul’s account of his encounter with Jesus is that he fails to describe it as a physical encounter. In 1 Corinthians 15:8, St. Paul describes his encounter as follows: “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” The word used here (ophthe in Greek) is ambiguous: it simply refers to an appearance, without specifying the manner in which the object is seen. Alter points out that in the Greek Septuagint, for instance, God appeared – ophthe – to Abraham as a voice, not a vision (see Exodus 6:3, Genesis 21:1). The celebrated Christian apologist N.T. Wright acknowledges the ambiguity of this word in his acclaimed work, The Resurrection of the Son of God (2003, Minneapolis: Fortress Press):
“It is in fact impossible to build a theory of what people thought Jesus’ resurrection appearances consisted of (i.e. whether they were ‘objective,’ ‘subjective’ or whatever – these terms themselves, with their many philosophical overtones, are not particularly helpful) on this word alone. The word is quite consistent with people having non-objective ‘visions’; it is equally consistent with them seeing someone in the ordinary course of affairs.” (2003, p. 323).
So what did Paul see? Christian apologist and philosopher William Lane Craig offers a candid answer to this question: “All Paul saw was a light brighter than the sun, and he heard the Lord’s voice reprimanding him and commanding him what to do.” (Assessing the New Testament for the Historicity of Jesus, 1989, Lewiston: Edwin Mellen, p. 75 n. 33). Alter comments: “Plainly, Paul did not observe the physical body of Jesus himself” (2015, p. 743). That being the case, how does Paul’s encounter with Jesus strengthen the case for Jesus’ physical resurrection?
E. CASE STUDIES
The following three case studies demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt that the Gospel accounts of the date of Jesus’ crucifixion, Judas’ betrayal of Jesus and subsequent death, and Jesus’ burial, are mutually inconsistent and also at odds with known historical facts. I invite readers to examine the evidence for themselves and draw their own conclusions.
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4. The date of the Crucifixion
Probably the most exhaustive overview of the controversy, and of the various attempts to reconcile the two dates, can be found in Meyer’s NT commentary (translated by Rev. Peter Christie; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 38 George Street, 1880). Readers who wish to peruse the full text of Meyer’s discussion (which argues that Jesus was crucified on the eve of the Passover [as in John’s Gospel] and which refutes apologists’ vain attempts to harmonize John with the Synoptics), can do so by clicking here and scrolling down to John 18:28. The following is a relevant excerpt from Meyer’s discussion:
According to the Synoptics, the Friday of the death of Jesus was thus the 15th Nisan; but according to John, the 14th Nisan. We can scarcely conceive a more indubitable result of exegesis, recognised also by Lücke, ed. 2 and 3, Neander, Krabbe, Theile, Sieffert, Usteri, Ideler, Bleek, De Wette, Brückner, Ebrard, ,i>Krit. d. Evang. Gesch., ed. 2 (not in Olshausen, Leidensgesch., p. 43 f.), Ewald, Baur, Hilgenfeld, Hase, Weisse, Rückert, Abendm. p. 28 ff., Steitz, J. Müller, Koessing (Catholic), de suprema Chr. Coena, 1858, p. 57 ff., Kahnis, Dogm. I. p. 417, Pressensé, Keim, and several others. Nevertheless, harmonistic attempts have been made as far as possible to prove the agreement, either of the Synoptics with John (so mostly the older harmonists, see Weitzel, Passahfeier, p. 305 f.; recently, especially Movers in the Zeitschrift f. Phil. u. Kathol. Theol., 1833, vii. p. 58 ff., viii. p. 62 ff., Maier, Aechth. d. Ev. Joh., 1854, p. 429 ff., Weitzel, Isenberg, d. Todestag des Herrn, 1868, p. 31 ff., and several others), or of John with the Synoptics (so most later harmonists). Attempts of the first kind break down at once before this consideration, that in the Synoptics the last meal is the regular and legal one of the 14th Nisan, with the Passover lamb, slaughtered of necessity on the selfsame day between the two evenings in the forecourt (comp. Lightfoot, p. 470 f., 651), but not a paschal meal anticipated by Jesus contrary to the law (abrogating, in fact, the legal appointment, see Weitzel), as Grotius, Hammond, Clericus, and several others thought, also Kahnis, Abendm. p. 14, Krafft, p. 130, Godet, p. 629 ff., who appeals specially again to Matthew 26:17-18, Märcker, Uebereinst. d. Matth. und Joh. p. 20 ff., who thinks the non-legal character of the meal is passed over in silence by the Synoptics. Those attempts, however, according to which John’s account is made to be the same as that of the Synoptics (Bynaeus, de morte J. Ch. III. p. 13 ff., Lightfoot, p. 1121 ff., Reland, Bengel, and several others; latterly, especially Tholuck, Guericke, Olshausen, B. Crusius, Hengstenberg in loc., and in the Evang. K.-Zeit. 1838, Nr. 98 ff., Wieseler, Synopse, p. 333 ff., and in Herzog’s Encyklop. XXI. p. 550 ff., Luthardt, Wichelhaus, Hofmann in the Zeitschr. f. Prot. u. Kirche, 1853, p. 260 ff., Lichtenstein and Friedlieb, Gesch. d. Lebens J. Chr. p. 140 ff., Lange, Riggenbach, von Gumpach, Röpe, d. Mahl. d. Fusswaschens, Hamb. 1856, Ebrard on Olshausen, Baeumlein, Langen, Letzte Lebenstage Jesu, 1864, p. 136), are rendered void by the correct explanation of John 13:1; John 13:29, John 19:14; John 19:31, and, in respect of the present passage, by the following observations: (a) τὸ πάσχα cannot be understood of the sacrificial food of the feast to the exclusion of the lamb, particularly not of the Chagiga (חֲגִיגָה the freewill passover offerings, consisting of small cattle and oxen, according to Deuteronomy 16:2, on which sacrificial meals were held; see Lightfoot), as is here assumed by the current harmonists, since rather by φαγεῖν is the Passover lamb constantly designated (comp. generally Gesenius, Thes. II. p. 1115), also in Josephus and in the Talmud (אכל הפסח), and consequently no reader could attach any other meaning to it; in Deuteronomy 16:2-3, however, פסח does not mean “as a passover” (Hengstenberg, comp. Schultz on Deut. p. 471), but likewise nothing else than agnus paschalis, from which, then, צאֹן וּבָקר are distinguished as other sacrifices and sacrificial animals (comp. John 18:6-7), whereby with עליו, John 18:3, we are referred back to the whole of the eating at the feast. 2 Chronicles 35:7-9 also (comp. rather John 18:11; John 18:13) contributes as little to prove the assumed reference of πάσχα to the Passover sacrifices generally, as Exodus 12:48 for the view that to eat the Passover signifies the celebration of the feast in general; since, certainly, in the passage in question, the general ΠΟΙῆΣΑΙ ΤῸ Π. (prepare) is by no means equivalent to the special ἔδεται ἀπʼ αὐτοῦ. (b) The objection, that entering the Gentile house would only have produced pollution for the same day (טִבּוּל יוֹם), which might have been removed by washing before evening, and therefore before the beginning of the new day, and that consequently the Jews would have still been able to eat the Passover lamb, which was to be first partaken of in the evening (see especially Hengstenberg, Wieseler, and Wichelhaus, following Bynaeus and Lightfoot), cannot be proved from Maimonides (Pesach. iii. 1, vi. 1), must rather, in view of the great sacredness of the Passover feast (comp. John 11:55), be regarded as quite unsupported by the present passage (at all events in reference to the time of Jesus), irrespective also of this, that such a pollution would have been a hindrance to the personal slaughtering of the lamb, and certainly was, most of all, avoided precisely by the hierarchs, 2 Chronicles 30:17-18. (c) On the whole of the inadmissible plea, which has been raised from the history of the Easter controversies against this, that John places the death of Jesus on the 14th Nisan, see Introd. § 2. (d) It has even been asserted, in order to make the account of John apply to the synoptic determination of time, that the time of the Passover meal was not the evening of the 14th Nisan at all, but the evening of the 13th Nisan (consequently the beginning of the 14th); so, after Frisch, recently Rauch in the Stud. u. Krit. 1832, p. 537 ff., according to which our φαγεῖν τ. πάσχα was understood of the eating of the ἌΖΥΜΑ. But the evening of the 14th (consequently the beginning of the 15th) stands so unassailably firm on the foundation of the law, according to Jewish tradition, and according to Josephus (see De Wette in the Stud. u. Krit. 1834, 4; Lücke, II. p. 727 ff.), that the above attempt is simply to be noted as a piece of history, as also that of Schneckenburger (Beitr. p. 4 ff.), which is based on the error that John 19:14 is the παρασκευή for the Feast of Sheaves. (e) Had John conceived the last Supper to be the Passover meal, there would certainly not have been wanting in the farewell discourses significant references to the Passover; they are, however, entirely wanting, and, moreover, the general designation of the Supper itself, δείπνου γινομένου, John 12:2 (comp. John 12:2), agrees therewith, to remove from the mind of the unprejudiced reader the thought of the festival meal.
Another nineteenth-century scholar who provided an exhaustive treatment of this problem was Dr. William Sanday, in his book, The authorship and historical character of the fourth Gospel (London: Macmillan, 1872, pp. 201-208). He writes:
I. It is to me clear that St. John intends to place the Crucifixion on the day when the Paschal Lamb was slain, and before the Passover when it was eaten, i. e. in the afternoon (or at the end) of the 14th Nisan. The Last Supper he places in the first hours of the (Jewish) day on which the Paschal Lamb was slain, i. e. on the evening with which the 14th Nisan began…
This result rests as regards St. John upon the following data:
a. St, John xiii. 1, ‘Before the feast of the Passover’ (pro de tes eortes tou pascha, k.t.l). The connection in which these words are to be taken is not precisely fixed, but I have no doubt whatever that they are intended to assign a date generally to the narrative of the Last Supper which follows. They can hardly be taken exclusively with eidos, agapesas, or egapesen, in the same sense : for we usually date facts and not feelings; and I cannot think that it is admissible to take pro tes eortes grammatically with eidos, but virtually as if its sense were thrown on to the clause elthen autou e opa, (‘Before the feast He knew that His hour was come’ = ‘He knew that at the feast His hour would be come.’) There would appear to be a kind of anacolouthon at the end of ver. 1, as if deipnou epoiesen had followed — or the first eidos being carried on by the second without regard to the kai preceding (kai deipnou genomenou). But the meaning of the passage is evident, and only one meaning I believe to be possible: ‘It was on the evening before the passover that Jesus sat down to supper with His disciples.’
b. St. John xviii. 28, ‘(The Jews) themselves went not into the judgment-hall, lest they should be defiled; but that they might eat the passover.‘ If the words phagosi to pascha are to be taken in their ordinary sense, this would clearly imply that the passover had not been eaten already. Accordingly those who place the Crucifixion on the 15th Nisan, endeavour to show, that they refer not to the passover proper (the eating of the paschal lamb), but to that of the Chagiga or thankoffering which took place on Nisan 15th, or one of the days immediately following. But the ‘thankoffering’ was not a rite confined to the passover; it was also ordered to be made at the feast of weeks and of tabernacles (Deut. xvi. 16). It had therefore nothing specifically paschal in its character; and it is difficult to suppose that it would be designated by the name of the most distinctive part of the paschal festival. The instances that have been adduced in support of this theory only tend to show that the term paschamight cover the whole of the seven days festival, including the offering of the Chagiga, not that it could be used, — still less that the phrase phagein to pascha could be used, of this last singly and separately. For the eating of unleavened bread the condition of levitical purity was not required.
We seem therefore to be driven back to the most obvious and natural conclusion that the passover proper is meant; that the Jews had yet to partake of it; and thus that the date is the 14th and not the 15th Nisan.
c. St. John xix. 14, ‘And it was the preparation of the Passover and about the sixth hour’ …. Here a nice philological question arises, turning upon the history of the word –paraskeve. Can this mean not the preparation for the passover, but Friday in the paschal week? So far it seems to be clear that paraskeve was at this time used independently, i.e. without tou sabaton, for the day of the week that we call ‘Friday,’ and also that the phrases sabbaton tou pascha (Ignat. Phil. 13 Interpol.) and kuriakai tou pascha (Hippolytus, Chron.) were used later for ‘the Sabbath’ and for ‘the Sundays in the paschal week’ respectively. But whether or not these instances are sufficient to justify the interpretation given, we seem to be relieved from the necessity of deciding. For whatever might have been the case in regard to other days, it seems in the highest degree improbable that the great day of the feast itself should be called simply ‘Friday in the paschal week.’ Here we are again compelled to revert to the more natural interpretation.
d. St. John xix. 31,’Because it was the preparation, for that sabbath day was a high day,’ i.e. on the ordinary view, because it was at once the weekly sabbath and the first day of the feast, which had itself the sanctity of a sabbath ‘ (Lev. xxiii. 78). On the rival theory the ‘high day’ is accounted for by the coincidence of the sabbath with the offering of the ‘sheaf of first-fruits’ (Lev. xxiii. 10-14) which fell on Nisan 16. Both these explanations would be adequate, though the first is perhaps slightly the more attractive.
e. An incidental argument occurs in xiii. 29, ‘Buy those things that we have need of against the feast,’ i.e. that of Nisan 15. From which it appears doubly that the feast had not yet begun; for then all business and traffic would be suspended, and the buying of necessaries would no longer be possible.
On each of these points the thesis is maintained, and without straining the plain language of the Gospel no other seems tenable — that the Crucifixion took place at the end, the Last Supper at the beginning, of the 14th Nisan, the one on Thursday evening, the other on Friday afternoon.
II. But if this is the conclusion that we derive from St. John it is no less clear that a different one was intended by the Synoptists. In their narrative the Last Supper is throughout identified with the paschal meal, and is placed upon the first hours not of the 14th but of the 15th Nisan.
It was ‘on the first day of unleavened bread when they killed the passover’ (Mark xiv. 12), that the disciples came to Jesus to ask where they should prepare the passover. This must have been in the morning, when some twelve hours or more of the 14th Nisan were past. The meal was not eaten until late in the same day, i.e. after the slaughter of the paschal lamb, just as the 15th Nisan was beginning, and precisely at the time when the passover was usually eaten (cf. Ex, xii. 6, 8). So far the Synoptists are explicit, and they describe the Last Supper consistently as the Paschal meal.
III. Here then we can only say that there is a contradiction; and the question is which of the two narratives is to be preferred. The Synoptists themselves decide for us by letting fall certain slight incidental indications, from which it appears that the original tradition agreed with the version of St. John, and that they have deserted this tradition in giving to the Last Supper the character of a passover. These indications are as follows. In Mark xiv, 2 (Matt. xxvi. 5), the Sanhedrim determines to arrest Jesus; ‘ but,’ they say, ‘ not on the feast day, lest there be an uproar amongst the people.’ But, according to the Synoptic account, it was precisely on the feast day, and after the feast itself, that the arrest was carried out. We notice in confirmation of the suspicion that this cannot have been the case, that though the meal is described as a passover, there is no hint or allusion to its most characteristic feature, the paschal lamb. Following the course of the narrative we find that Simon of Cyrene is met returning ap agrou (Mark xv. 21, Luke xxiii. 26), from which we infer that it was a working day. Work did not cease until noon on Nisan 14th, but on the 15th it was suspended altogether. The haste with which the bodies were taken down from the cross is accounted for by the sanctity of a day that is about to begin, not of one that is just ending (Mark xv. 42). If it had been the latter, Joseph of Arimathaea could not have ‘bought the fine linen’ that was used for the embalmment (Mark xv. 46).
This unwilling testimony of the Synoptists can hardly be otherwise than conclusive; but it is confirmed in other ways.
(i) The difficulties of supposing that the meeting of the Sanhedrim, the Judgment, and the Crucifixion took place on the great day of the feast, arc not indeed insuperable, but leave a certain weight of probability against it.
(2) Both St. Paul (i Cor. v. 7) and the author of the Apocalypse (Rev. v. 6, 9, &c.) regard the sacrifice of Christ as representing that of the true Paschal Lamb; which is the more natural if it coincided with it in point of time.
(3) Jewish tradition refers the death of Jesus to the ‘vespera paschalis’ (e paraskeve tou pascha).
(4) And in this the great mass of Christian tradition that has come down to us, agrees with it. The Chronicon Paschale, a work of the seventh century, is prefaced by a number of quotations from the early fathers, in which it is expressly stated that the Crucifixion took place on Nisan 14, superseding once and for ever the offering of the paschal lamb. The fathers quoted are Peter of Alexandria (d. 311), Hippolytus, bishop of Portus (c. 230), Apollinaris, bishop of Hierapolis (c. 170), Clement of Alexandria (d. 220). There is no ambiguity in any of this evidence, and to it may be added that of Irenaeus (d. 202), Tertullian (d. 220), Origen (d. 254), and Epiphanius (d. 403). A passage in Justin Martyr is open to some doubt, but from the extract it appears that he is no exception to the general rule; for if he places the Crucifixion upon the ‘day of the passover,’ he shows that he means by it the day on which the paschal lamb was slain, and on the second evening of which it was eaten, the 14th Nisan.
In the face of all this we can hardly refuse to accept the Johannean date of the Last Supper and the Crucifixion as the right one. (1872, pp. 201-208)
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5. The story of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus and of his subsequent death
A sixteenth-century fresco depicting Judas being paid the 30 pieces of silver. Painting on the vault of the Saint Sébastien Church, Planpinet, Clarée valley, Hautes alpes département, France. Image courtesy of Berrucommons and Wikipedia.
If ever proof were needed that the Gospels contain numerous legendary embellishments and that they contradict one another, the New Testament stories of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus and his subsequent death provide that proof. Before reading Mike Alter’s book on the Resurrection, I was of course familiar with skeptics’ claims that Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts of Judas’ death were mutually contradictory, but I was willing to believe harmonizing explanations like the following: when Judas jumped out of a tree with a rope around his neck, his bowels burst open.
No more. Mike Alter’s chapters on “the Judas episodes,” as he calls them, are among the hardest-hitting in his book. What they show beyond doubt is that some of the early Christians had a very cavalier attitude towards historical accuracy, and that the Gospel accounts of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus and his subsequent death are anything but historical. That doesn’t mean they are wholly fictitious, but it does mean that they contain a lot of made-up stuff, in addition to a small kernel of historical truth.
So, what changed my mind? One fact that greatly impressed me is that we can actually see, from examining the four Gospels, how the story of Judas grows over time. Let’s begin with some hard numbers: Judas is mentioned just three times in Mark’s Gospel, five times in Matthew’s, six times in Luke-Acts, and eight times in John’s Gospel.
If we look at Mark’s Gospel, it’s striking what Mark omits to mention about Judas. There is no mention of Judas being paid thirty pieces of silver by the chief priests: all we are told is that they promised to pay him some money. There is no mention of the fact that Judas was a thief, as recorded in John’s Gospel. There is no mention of Jesus conversing with Judas at the Last Supper (as in Matthew), let alone telling him to leave quickly and do what he has to do (as in John). There is no mention of Judas’ repentance. And there is no mention of Judas’ death by suicide. All we are told is: (a) that Judas went to the chief priests, seeking to betray Jesus, about two days before Passover, after a woman had anointed Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume at the house of Simon the leper in Bethany; (b) that the chief priests leapt at the opportunity and promised to give him money; (c) that Jesus foretold his betrayal at the Last Supper and sorrowfully declared that it would have been better for the man betraying Jesus if he had never been born; and (d) that Judas came up to Jesus while he was addressing his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane, at the head of an armed mob sent by the chief priests, and betrayed Jesus with a kiss, after greeting him with the word, “Rabbi!” And that’s it.
In Matthew’s account, we can see the story grow: instead of Judas going to the chief priests and simply offering to betray Jesus (as in Mark), we are told that he went to the chief priests and demanded money up-front: “What will you give me if I deliver him over to you?” he asks. The chief priests give Judas thirty pieces of silver, or about one month’s wages. At the Last Supper, Judas asks Jesus if he is the one who will betray him: “Is it I, Rabbi?” Jesus replies, “You have said so.” After Jesus is arrested and sentenced to death by the chief priests, Judas has a change of heart and brings the money back to the chief priests at the temple, saying, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” They express indifference: “What is that to us?” Judas then throws down the pieces of silver, departs, and hangs himself. The chief priests decide they can’t put the money in the Treasury because it’s blood money, so they buy a field as a burial place for strangers – and in so doing, fulfill a prophecy made by Zechariah, according to Matthew. (More on that anon.)
Luke’s account builds on Mark’s, but in an entirely different direction to Matthew’s. Luke, like Mark, omits mention of Matthew’s up-front payment and of the thirty pieces of silver: instead, Judas’ betrayal is said to be due to Satan entering into him, shortly before the Passover. There is no dialogue between Jesus and Judas at the Last Supper (as in Matthew). There is no mention of Judas experiencing any remorse over his betrayal of Jesus, or of his returning his money to the chief priests. Instead, the Acts of the Apostles (also written by Luke) relates that Judas bought a field with the money he had received, and then suffers a misfortune: “falling headlong [the Greek can also mean ‘swelling up’] he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out.” We are not told why he fell: perhaps it was an accident, but in any event, Acts seems to suggest it was a Divine judgment. There is no indication in Acts that Judas committed suicide. Moreover, the field is said to have been purchased by Judas himself, whereas in Matthew’s Gospel, it is the chief priests who decide to purchase the field, after Judas’ suicide. In Acts, the field is subsequently known not as the potter’s field (as in Matthew) but as the Field of Blood, and Judas’ empty estate is declared to be in fulfillment of a prophecy in the Psalms.
In John’s account, we are told more about the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet at Bethany shortly before his death, scandalizing Judas. Her name is Mary, and she is the sister of Lazarus (whom Jesus raised from the dead) and of Martha. (Interestingly, there’s no mention of Simon the leper in John’s account.) Mary pours a pound of pure nard over Jesus’ feet and anoints them with her hair. Judas asks why the ointment wasn’t sold and the money given to the poor – not because he cares about the poor, but because he’s in charge of the disciples’ moneybag, and he often helps himself to what’s in it. Jesus sharply rebukes Judas: “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial.” This scene is said to have taken place six days before the Passover and the day before Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. (Compare this with Mark, who places the anointing two days before the Passover.) Unlike Matthew, Mark and Luke, John makes no mention of Judas visiting the high priests and offering to betray Jesus, and contrary to Luke, who narrates that Satan entered into the heart of Judas some time before the Passover, John tells his readers that Satan entered into the heart of Judas during the Last Supper. At the meal, Jesus predicts that one of the disciples will betray him, and Peter quietly asks him who it is. Jesus answers, “It is he to whom I will give this morsel of bread when I have dipped it.” He then gives it to Judas, who is referred to as “the son of Simon Iscariot.” After taking the morsel, Satan takes over Judas, and Jesus says to him, “What you are going to do, do quickly.” The other disciples think Judas is being asked to buy what they need for the upcoming Passover feast. Judas goes out into the night. Later that night, Jesus and his disciples cross a brook and enter a garden where they often hang out. Judas has anticipated this, and he meets Jesus there with a band of soldiers and some officers sent by the chief priests. Jesus is arrested. And that’s the last we hear of Judas, in John’s Gospel.
The glaring contradictions between the Gospel accounts should be readily apparent to readers, from the foregoing summaries. It can also be seen that Matthew in particular, and to a lesser extent, Luke, embellish on the sparse material available in Mark’s Gospel. Any attempt to harmonize the four Gospel accounts would be the height of folly – the apologetic equivalent of squaring the circle.
And yet, there are Christian apologists who try to do just that. Earlier, I mentioned the standard harmonization of Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts of Judas’ death: when Judas jumped out of a tree with a rope around his neck, his bowels burst open. Alter identifies six problems with this explanation, but I’ll mention just two. First, if Judas committed suicide by hanging himself from a tree, he would have fallen feet first, not head first (as recorded in Acts 1:18). Second, even if he had been falling head first, he would have presumably split open his head, and not his bowels (as narrated in Acts). The harmonization just doesn’t work.
Matthew and Acts also contradict one another on the question of whether Judas repented of his crime (as Matthew claims he did). To quote Alter:
“Acts unequivocally refutes and repudiates and notion that Judas (1) recognized that he was condemned, (2) repented or felt remorseful, (3) openly declared that he had sinned, and (4) returned to the chief priests and cast down in the Temple the thirty pieces of silver previously received from them. Acts also has no indication that Judas committed suicide by hanging.” (2015, p. 507)
Alter also convincingly rebuts the argument (often made by fans of the “maximal data” approach) that the various Gospel accounts complement each other, like the pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle, and that when they are put together, they enable us to see the big picture. Alter is having none of it. He performs an ingenious textual experiment, taking the account of Judas’ death in Matthew 27 and substituting the name “Matthew” for “Judas,” and then taking the account of Judas’ death in Acts 1 and substituting the name “Luke” for “Judas.” The two accounts read like stories about two different people:
“Except for the same names employed in Acts and Matthew, it would be impossible to tell that these two stories were about the same person. In no way does Acts complement or supplement Matthew. Neither do Matthew and Acts record witnesses of the same event as often likened to an automobile accident. Matthew and Acts are two completely different and contradictory stories.” (2015, p. 507)
Finally, the prophecies said to have been fulfilled by Judas’ death turn out to be nothing of the sort. The quotation from Psalm 69 in Acts 1:20 – “May his camp become desolate, and let there be no one to dwell in it” – is actually a misquotation of Psalm 69:25, which is part of a curse on King David’s enemies, and reads as follows: “Pour out your indignation upon them, and let your burning anger overtake them. May their camp be a desolation; let no one dwell in their tents.” Note: “their camp,” not “his camp.”
If we look at the prophecy of Judas’ death in Matthew, the situation is even more farcical. Matthew 27:9-10 relates it as follows: “Then was fulfilled what had been spoken by the prophet Jeremiah, saying, ‘And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of him on whom a price had been set by some of the sons of Israel, and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord directed me.’” The only problem is that there is no such prophecy in Jeremiah, although there are passages in Jeremiah 18 and 32 which mention a potter’s house (not field), and seventeen shekels of silver (not thirty pieces). Instead, the prophecy in Matthew 27 is taken from chapter 11 of the book of Zechariah, foretelling the destruction of the land of Judah and Israel, illustrated by the story of the prophet becoming a shepherd, and buying two staffs, which he then breaks in an act symbolizing the breaking of God’s covenant, and after that, he proceeds to collect his wages from the sheep traders, for tending the sheep: “And they weighed out as my wages thirty pieces of silver. Then the Lord said to me, ‘Throw it to the potter’—the lordly price at which I was priced by them. So I took the thirty pieces of silver and threw them into the house of the Lord, to the potter.” The wording is quite different, and it has nothing to do with Judas; rather, it relates to the destruction of Judah. Alter is scathing in his comments:
“Several conclusions can be formulated having analyzed the relevant excerpts from Jeremiah 18, Jeremiah 32, and Zechariah 11. First, Matthew states that it was the prophet Jeremiah who discusses the topic of “thirty pieces of silver” whereas it was the prophet Zechariah in verse 11:13 who discusses the matter of “thirty pieces of silver.” … One has to stretch his imagination to the limits to see any connection between the events recorded by Zechariah and the payment of thirty pieces of silver to Judas as a payment for his betrayal of Jesus…
“Matthew 27:9 falsely declares that the events associated with Jesus’s betrayal by Judas fulfilled that which was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah. It must be recognized that the passages in Jeremiah 18 and 32 are not Messianic, prophetic, or reflect typology. Instead, they are historical events recorded in the Hebrew Bible. Therefore, Matthew’s inferences that Jeremiah’s words are prophetic is fallacious and utterly wrong.” (2015, pp. 481-482)
After reading the compelling case that Alter has assembled, no rational person could possibly maintain that the Gospels provide us with a consistent and coherent account of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus and of his subsequent death.
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6. Why the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ burial don’t add up
Wall mosaic of entombment of Jesus near Stone of anointing, at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Image courtesy of AntanO and Wikipedia.
There are about fifteen key areas in which the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ burial are at odds with the known facts. The only conclusion which an independent historian can draw is that the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ burial are fundamentally unreliable.
(i) Roman crucifixion customs: a strong case can be made for the view that Jesus didn’t get a proper burial at all. If Roman crucifixion customs were followed, then Jesus’ body would have been tossed into a common grave for executed criminals. Could a special exception have made, in Jesus’ case? From a historical standpoint, this seems very unlikely. Virtually all scholars (including conservatives such as Craig Evans) agree that Jesus was killed on a political charge – namely, that of calling himself the King of the Jews. Regardless of what Jesus may have meant by the term “king,” the fact remains that he was executed as an enemy of the Roman state. As a matter of standard procedure, the Romans didn’t allow crucified victims – especially enemies of the state – to receive a decent burial. Instead, the Romans sought to inflict maximum humiliation, by leaving the victims on their crosses while their bodies rotted, and scavenging animals went on the attack, gnawing at the corpses. Only then – after about a week or so – were the bodies of the condemned tossed into a common grave for executed criminals. Some scholars argue that the Romans made a special exception for criminals who were crucified within the province of Judea, and that they allowed them to be taken down from the cross before sunset. Although it’s possible that the Romans showed this kind of lenience to small-time criminals such as escaped slaves and horse thieves, there’s absolutely no evidence that they ever showed this kind of lenience to people who were crucified as enemies of the State, as Jesus was.
Professor Bart Ehrman’s blog article, “Why Romans crucified people” is highly instructive on this point. He writes:
“Everyone wanted a decent burial in the ancient world. It was far more important to people then than it is to people today. A decent burial, for many, was required for a decent afterlife. It honored the body of the one departed. Not to receive a decent burial was disgusting, scandalous, gut-wrenching, debasing, humiliating. And so Romans did not allow crucified victims – especially enemies of the state – to be buried. They left them on the crosses as their bodies rot and the scavengers went on the attack. To allow a decent burial was to cave into the desires precisely of the people who were being mocked and taught a lesson. No decency allowed. The body has to rot, and then we’ll toss it into a grave.
“This was especially the case – I reiterate – for enemies of the state. Rare exceptions might be made for low-life criminals – escaped slaves, horse thieves, general riff-raff who did not matter to anyone in power. But enemies of the state did matter to those in power. Because these enemies had the temerity, stupidity, and willfulness to want to oppose that power. If that’s what they choose to do, this is the price they will pay – and everyone will see it, for days.
“Jesus was not executed as a member of the riff-raff, as a slave who committed a crime against his owner, as a lowly criminal from the lower classes. He was executed for calling himself King of the Jews. Craig Evans agrees with that. Virtually everyone agrees with that. Jesus was killed on a political charge. By calling himself king – in Roman eyes (whether this is what he personally meant or not) – he was making a political claim, that he was going to replace the Roman governance of Judea with a kingdom in which he himself would be king. This could happen (in Roman eyes) only if there was a rebellion. Rebellions have to be suppressed – and if you’re Roman, they have to be suppressed violently, forcefully, mercilessly. If you think you are going to replace the Roman ruler, if you think you can start an insurrection against the state, if you think you can take our power away and exert your own power, well, we’ll SHOW you how much power you have.
“…To show what Roman power is, the body would be left on the cross, so everyone in that public place could see what happens to anyone who thinks they can cross the power of Rome. There was no quarter, no mercy, no sympathy. Instead, there was public humiliation and torture and the public display, for days, of the bodies of those who think that they will start their own kingdom.
“This ideology of crucifixion needs to be firmly born in mind when thinking about whether Romans made an exception to their policies of crucifixion in the case of Jesus.”
(ii) The character of Pilate: the Jewish historians Josephus and Philo describe Pontius Pilate as a stubborn, inflexible, and cruel man who had no respect for the Jewish people. It is therefore most unlikely that he would have agreed for Jesus to have had a burial at all, let alone a special one as depicted in the Gospels (see below). As Professor Bart Ehrman puts it in his blog article, Argument Against Jesus’ Burial in HJBG, Part 2 (July 3, 2014):
He was a fierce, violent, mean-spirited ruler who displayed no interest at all in showing mercy and kindness to his subjects and showed no respect for Jewish sensitivities.
(iii) Pilate’s reaction to the news of Jesus’ death: according to Mark 15:44-45, the news of Jesus’ death after just six hours on the cross came as a shock to Pilate. “Pilate was surprised to hear that he should have already died. And summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he was already dead. And when he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the corpse to Joseph [of Arimathea].” But according to John’s Gospel, Pilate had already given the order that all of the criminals who were being crucified should have their legs broken so as to bring about their quick death on the same day, enabling their bodies to be taken away by the Jewish authorities and buried before the Sabbath, which was also a high holy day (John 19:31-33). Since he had already given the order to bring about Jesus’ death, why should he have been surprised at the news of Jesus’ death? Both Mark and John cannot be right, on this point.
(iv) The type of grave Jesus was buried in: if he was buried at all, it almost certainly wouldn’t have been in a rock tomb owned by a very wealthy man. Barring exceptional circumstances, it is most likely that Jesus’ body would have either been buried with criminals who had been condemned by Jewish courts (see (vi) below). In the normal course of events, this would have meant a hasty burial in a trench grave which was covered with dirt. What’s more, it would have been a highly dishonorable burial, with no family present, no mourners, no funeral procession, no eulogies, and no anointing of the body with spices.
Professor Jodi Magness, an archaeologist who works at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has suggested that there might not have been enough time to dig a trench grave on Friday afternoon, so the chief priests may have asked Joseph (who is described in Matthew 27:57 as “a rich man from Arimathea”) to store Jesus’ body in his grave over the weekend, as a temporary holding place. However, Matthew is the only Evangelist to describe Joseph as a rich man: Mark and Luke simply describe him as “respected,” or “good and righteous.” Finally, even on Professor Magness’ proposal, Jesus’ body would have been merely stored in an unused niche (loculus, in Greek) in Joseph’s family tomb. There would presumably have been other loculi (niches) already being used to store the remains of Joseph’s ancestors. In other words, Jesus’ tomb would not have been empty on Easter Sunday morning, as the Gospels claim it was.
(v) Joseph of Arimathea obtaining the body of Jesus: leaving aside the fact that neither the existence of Joseph of Arimathea nor the existence of his hometown is attested outside the Gospels, there remain troubling inconsistencies in the Gospel narratives of how he obtained and buried the body of Jesus. John’s Gospel narrates that “Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus, and Pilate gave him permission” (John 19:38). Yet just a few verses earlier, John tells us that the Jewish leaders (who are referred to John’s Gospel as “the Jews”) asked Pilate that the legs of the crucified criminals might be broken and that they might be taken away (John 19:31), in order to prevent the special Sabbath on the following day from being desecrated by bodies hanging on crosses. In other words, the Jewish leaders were asking Pilate to let them dispose of the body of Jesus – and Pilate’s order that the crucified criminals’ legs be broken is meant to indicate that he authorized their request. Since the Jewish authorities had collaborated with the Romans in procuring the death of Jesus, it is possible that they might have obtained custody of Jesus’ body from Pilate. But if the Jewish leaders already had custody of Jesus’ body, then Pilate’s decision to turn it over to an individual (Joseph of Arimathea) who intended to take it away from the Jewish authorities and bury it in his own tomb makes no sense at all.
Professor Byron McCane has proposed a more rational scenario in his article, “‘Where No One Had Yet Been Laid’: The Shame of Jesus’ Burial” (in B.D. Chilton and C.A. Evans (eds.), Authenticating the Activities of Jesus (NTTS, 28.2; Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1998): namely, that Joseph of Arimathea approached Pilate, not as someone who disapproved of what the Jewish authorities did, but rather, on their behalf, in order to request the body of Jesus for dishonorable burial. The Jewish leaders would have had their own motive for making this request: namely, to bury Jesus in accordance with Jewish law and customs, while at the same time denying him any dignity in death. This scenario makes much more sense than the traditional one: first, it agrees with Acts 13:27-29, which declares that it was “those who live in Jerusalem and their rulers” who “took him [Jesus] down from the tree [cross] and laid him in a tomb.” Second, it accords with the earliest Gospel (Mark), where we are told that Jesus was unanimously condemned to death by the Sanhedrin (Mark 14:64) and that Joseph of Arimathea was “a respected member of the council” (Mark 15:43). Only in later Gospels are we told that Joseph “had not consented to their decision and action” (Luke 23:51) and that he was a secret disciple of Jesus (John 19:38). These are subsequent accretions.
In any case, the account in John’s Gospel of Joseph of Arimathea’s personal request to Pilate for permission to take away the body of Jesus and bury it in secret, “for fear of the Jews” (John 19:38), is contradicted by its earlier statement that the Jewish authorities had already asked Pilate that the legs of the crucified criminals (including Jesus) might be broken and “that they might be taken away” (John 19:31). If the Jewish authorities already had custody of the body of Jesus, then Joseph could hardly have approached Pilate as a private individual and requested permission to bury the body in his own tomb.
Another problem with the supposition that Joseph approached Pilate as a private individual relates to Joseph’s alleged motive in requesting the body of Jesus. If piety was his motive, and he was acting out of a desire to give Jesus a decent burial before sunset on Good Friday, then why did he not also request that the bodies of the two thieves crucified with Jesus be accorded the same respect? Surely they had to be buried too? So who buried them?
(vi) The type of burial Jesus had: if he had one at all, it was almost certainly dishonorable, with no family present, no mourners, no funeral procession, no eulogies, and no anointing of the body with spices. As Professor Byron McCane points out in his article, “‘Where No One Had Yet Been Laid’: The Shame of Jesus’ Burial” (in B.D. Chilton and C.A. Evans (eds.), Authenticating the Activities of Jesus (NTTS, 28.2; Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1998), the Gospels inadvertently confirm this fact when listing the names of the people present at Jesus’ burial: no family members are mentioned. Moreover, the Jewish leaders would not have wished to give Jesus any dignity in death, given that they were the ones who handed Jesus over to Pilate in the first place. (McCane also explains why the Jewish authorities would not have sought such a shameful burial for the two thieves crucified with Jesus. Unlike Jesus, they had not been condemned by a Jewish court.) The rationale for a dishonorable burial was that criminals who had been condemned by the entire people of Israel were not entitled to a decent burial:
Jewish tradition that some bodies ought to be buried differently from others. Some Jews were buried in shame and dishonor, because they were guilty of crimes which made them undeserving of a decent burial.… The Mishnah is much more specific. m. Sanh. 6:6 says that criminals condemned by a Jewish court were not interred “in the burial place of their fathers,” but in a separate place kept by the court specifically for that purpose. Rites of mourning were not observed for these criminals, either. Family members were supposed to keep their grieving to themselves… (1998, p. 440)
Dishonorable burial was reserved for those who had been condemned by the people of Israel. Semahot 2.9, in fact specifically exempts those that die at the hands of other authorities. Mark’s narrative conforms to this tradition. Since at least a few of the Jewish leaders had been involved in the condemnation of Jesus, they had an obligation to bury him in shame. (1998, p. 445)
McCane argues that the Gospels, despite their best efforts to embellish the circumstances of Jesus’ burial, nonetheless confirm that it was a dishonorable one:
The omission of mourning from the canonical Gospels is significant because in other contexts in all four of these Gospels have clear depictions of the initial stages of mourning for the dead. Resuscitation stories like the raising of Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:21-43 par.), for example, or the Lazarus narrative (John 11:1-44) include explicit depictions of typical Jewish rituals of mourning. Indeed, in each of these stories the portrayal of mourning actually serves to heighten the narrative impact of the miracle by establishing that the unfortunate victim is truly dead, beyond all human help. Clearly these writers knew how to depict mourning for the dead and were willing to do so when it would advance the point of their story. What a shame that they did not put any such depictions in their stories of Jesus’ burial. (1998, p. 449)
(vii) Whether Jesus would have been buried in a new tomb: Three of the four gospels tell us that Jesus was buried in a new tomb (Matthew 27:60; Luke 23:53; John 19:41). However, if Jesus was buried in Joseph of Arimathea’s private tomb, it is very likely to have been a tomb in which other members of his family were buried, as well. The late Catholic Biblical scholar Raymond Brown concluded that the story of the new tomb was deliberately written for apologetic purposes, in order to show that “there was no confusion in the report of the empty tomb, for Jesus was not buried in a common tomb where his body might have been mixed with others, and the tomb was in an easily identifiable place near the well-known site of public execution” (The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to John (xviii-xxi), 1970, Garden City: Doubleday, p. 959). In other words, the story of the new tomb is a Christian polemic, which may not be historical.
Professor Byron McCane makes another interesting point in this connection, in his above-cited article – namely, that burial in a new tomb would actually have been a dishonorable burial:
By putting him alone in a new tomb, Matthew, Luke, and John do not deny the shame of Jesus’ burial; they merely spare him the disgrace of being placed in a criminals’ tomb. A residue of shame still clings to him as an executed convict. (1998, p. 448)
(viii) The stone at the entrance to Jesus’ tomb: it probably wasn’t large and round, as the Gospel accounts indicate (see Mark 16:3-4, which clearly states that the stone was “very large” and had to be “rolled back”; see also Matthew 27:60, Matthew 28:2 and Luke 24:2). In his article, Did a Rolling Stone Close Jesus’ Tomb? (Biblical Archaeology Review 25:5, September/October 1999), archaeologist Professor Amos Kloner points out that of the more than 900 burial caves found in and around Jerusalem and dating from the first century B.C. to 70 A.D., only four (i.e. just 0.4%) are known to have used round (disk-shaped) blocking stones – and the four that used round blocking stones all belonged to the extremely rich. Kloner, for his part, argues that Jesus was buried in haste in a small burial tomb, whose square blocking stone had to be pulled back rather than rolled back, and that the Gospels can be read in this way. Dr. Richard Carrier, whose Ph.D. is in ancient history, refutes this reasoning in his online article, “Craig’s Empty Tomb & Habermas on Visions (1999, 2005)”:
Three of the four Gospels repeatedly and consistently use the word ‘roll’ to describe the moving of the tomb’s blocking stone… The verb in every case here is a form of kyliein, which always means to roll: kyliein is the root of kylindros, i.e. cylinder (in antiquity a “rolling stone” or even a child’s marble)…
“Kloner argues that the verb could just mean ‘moved’ and not rolled but he presents no examples of such a use for this verb: I have not been able to find any myself in or outside the Bible, and such a meaning is not presented in any lexicon.”
(ix) The location of the tomb: Alter argues that if it was a private tomb, then it would surely not have been located near an undesirable place like Golgotha, where common criminals were crucified. The late Catholic Biblical scholar Raymond Brown argued along the same lines in his article, “The Burial of Jesus (Mark 15:42-47)” (Catholic Biblical Quarterly (50, 2), April 1988, 233-245). In response, the late Msgr. George W. Shea, S.T.D., suggests that “Joseph, being now removed from Arimathea, and getting along in years (a high-ranking senator!) had need of a family burial tomb in the environs of Jerusalem, but a suitable one could have been hard to come by, so he may have had to settle for the area near Golgotha, even if the latter was an execution site” (italics mine). But this is special pleading from a Catholic defender of the historical reliability of the Gospels. Trained historians deal with probabilities, rather than mere possibilities. It is highly probable that Joseph of Arimathea, like most of his wealthy contemporaries, would have already had a family tomb, so there would have been no need to make a sudden purchase of a tomb, in an undesirable location.
(x) Matthew’s story of the Guard at the Tomb: this is a transparent invention, for reasons discussed above, in Section C, part p.
(xi) Jesus’ burial clothes: John’s Gospel says that Jesus’ body was wound in linen clothes or bandages (John 19:40), while the Synoptics say that Jesus was buried in a shroud (Matthew 27:59; Mark 15:46; Luke 23:53), which was in fact the Jewish custom. Acclaimed Catholic scholar Joseph Fitzmyer states (The Gospel According to Luke (X- XXIV), 1985, Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, p. 1527): “one should be wary of harmonizing such disparate data.”
(xii) The spices Jesus was buried with: there would have been no time to purchase them, and no-one would have been willing to sell them anyway, just before the Sabbath. (See (xiv) below.) In any case, if Jesus was buried dishonorably by the Jewish religious leaders, then there would have been no spices used at Jesus’ burial. For that reason alone, the story in John’s Gospel of Jesus being buried with myrrh and aloes can safely be dismissed as fictitious.
(xiii) The story of Nicodemus in John’s Gospel: the story of this wealthy individual burying Jesus with 100 Roman pounds (i.e. about 75 lbs.) of “myrrh and aloes” is highly doubtful, to say the least. First, contrary to John’s Gospel, packing dead bodies in spices was not a Jewish custom, but an Egyptian one. Second, the figure of 100 pounds mentioned by John sounds like a massive exaggeration: such a large amount would have been fit for a king, being equivalent to about five years’ worth of wages for a typical worker living in that time. Finally, John’s extravagant account of the burial of Jesus seems to have been written in an attempt to “one-up” Jewish accounts of the burial of the revered Jewish sage, Gamaliel the Elder (d. 52 A.D.), who was buried with “only” 86 pounds of spices.
The character of Nicodemus, who appears only in John’s Gospel, is a shadowy one. German Protestant theologian Theodor Keim (1825-1878) is quoted at length by Alter (2015, pp. 238-240) on the subject of Nicodemus; in his six-volume work, Jesus of Nazareth, and the National Life of Israel (English translation, 1873-1882; see vol. 6, pp. 263-265, footnote 4), Keim argues that John’s character of Nicodemus is actually based on the historical figure of Nakdimon ben Guryon (or Gorion), a Jewish figure of legendary wealth who flourished shortly before the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 A.D.: Keim even speaks of a “fictitious Christian appropriation of this renowned Jew” and concludes that he is “a Christian appropriation of the second century” (vol. 6, pp. 264-265, footnote 4 [from p. 263]). More recently, the late John A. T. Robinson suggested that John’s Nicodemus was actually the grandfather of Nakdimon ben Gurion (The Priority of John, ed. J. F. Coakley, London: SCM, 1985, pp. 284-287), while Professor Richard Bauckham has argued that John’s Nicodemus was the uncle, instead (Nicodemus and the Gurion family, JTS 47 (1996): 1-37). Other scholars have argued that the character of Nicodemus is not meant to refer to a single individual but an entire class of individuals: Nicodemus, on this vie, represents a type – either a representative of Judaism (Bultmann, Barrett) or of the group of secret believers in the Christian message, whose faith and courage are inadequate (Martyn, Rensberger).
(xiv) Jewish religious law: The accounts of Jesus’ burial are totally at odds with Jewish law. Mark 15:46 depicts Joseph of Arimathea buying a linen shroud for Jesus’ burial on a Jewish high holy day (the feast of Passover), when such purchases were forbidden under Jewish law (Leviticus 23:6-7, Nehemiah 10:31). In reality, no Jewish shops would have been open in Jerusalem on the first day of the Passover feast.
Luke’s Gospel portrays the women at Jesus’ burial as violating Jewish law: Luke 23:56 describes them as preparing spices and ointments on Good Friday and then resting on the Sabbath. But in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is also said to have been crucified on the Passover, when work was forbidden, just as it was on the Jewish Sabbath (Leviticus 23:6-7, Nehemiah 10:31). Thus “although the women are not violating the Sabbath they are in fact violating God’s instructions not to work on a Yom Tov (i.e. a high holy day) by preparing the spices and ointment” (Alter, 2015, p. 285).
John’s Gospel manages to avoid the problems in Mark’s and Luke’s Gospels by depicting Jesus as crucified on the eve of the Passover, rather than on the Passover itself, but it runs into logistical problems of its own: how would Joseph have purchased linen for the burial just before the Jewish Sabbath and Passover? And who would be selling linen at such a time? Jewish vendors would have closed their stores in order to prepare for the Sabbath, while purchasing from a non-Jew would render Joseph ritually impure.
Lastly, Matthew’s Gospel runs afoul of Jewish law by portraying the Jewish chief priests as asking Pilate to post a guard over Jesus’ tomb on the Sabbath. (The story of the guard is unique to Matthew.) Asking anyone – even a Gentile – to do work on the Sabbath would have constituted a grave violation of Jewish law.
(xv) Timing: there simply wasn’t enough time for all the events between Jesus’ death and burial to have happened before sunset. I can do no better here than to quote Alter himself:
Numerous events are needed to transpire during the time between Jesus’ death and Joseph’s appeal to Pilate. These include the following:
1. Jesus’ death needed to be confirmed by those present at the crucifixion site.
2. Joseph needed to receive corroborating information about the death of Jesus. It would take time for this information to reach him. The Gospels do not identify the location of Joseph upon his receiving this information. He could have been home, at the Temple, at the gathering place of the Sanhedrin, in the court, or somewhere in the city.
3. Joseph needed to prepare himself to see Pilate.
4. Joseph needed to travel to Pilate’s locale, make a request to see the procurator, wait for an audience to see him, have a conversation with Pilate, and receive permission for his request.
5. Pilate would probably have had additional time constraints. The city was filled with thousands of pilgrims in celebration of the coming Sabbath and the Passover festival. According to Jeremias (1975, 375), during Jesus’ life, Jerusalem had from 25,000 to 30,000 inhabitants; 180,000 celebrants participated at Passover. Consequentially, numerous logistical issues would be his primary focus. At the least, security matters would be a concern for the Roman authorities. Passover was a time at which Jews remembered their salvation by God from subjugation at the hands of the Egyptians. The Passover also represented a potential silent protest against the Roman Empire’s presence in the Holy Land (Kineman 1995, 170; Wylen 1996, 179).
6. Pilate needed to summon a centurion to verify that Jesus was already dead, the centurion had to travel to the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and confirm the death, the centurion needed to travel back to Pilate’s residence, and then Pilate had to question the centurion.
7. Finally, Joseph needed to be summoned again to Pilate to receive permission to take custody of Jesus’ body.
It should be noted that the Gospels are silent about how and when Joseph was informed of Jesus’ death. (2015, pp. 211-212.)
The great difficulty in getting all these things done between Jesus’ death at 3 p.m. and sunset on Good Friday should tell us something: it is unlikely that the Gospel narratives of Jesus’ burial are historically accurate. At the very least, we should question the central role played by Joseph of Arimathea in Jesus’ burial, and be prepared to consider other possibilities.
F. HOW THE GOSPEL PASSION NARRATIVES EVOLVED OVER TIME
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7. The evolution of the Gospel Passion narratives
In the narratives below of Jesus’ Passion and Resurrection, the sections highlighted in red are details which most historians would deem to be dubious. The blue segments are supernatural events which the historian cannot investigate directly. The good news for Christian believers is that the “core narrative” which is common to all four Gospels turns out to be historically credible; the legendary embellishments appear later on.
The core narrative
If we compare the Gospels of Mark (the earliest Synoptic Gospel) and John, a “common core” is readily apparent: after a final meal with his disciples in which Jesus not only foretold his betrayal but also predicted that Peter would deny him three times, Jesus was arrested on Thursday night by an armed mob (led by Judas) consisting of soldiers and some Jewish officials who had been sent by the chief priests. He was then taken to the high priest and interrogated, but no-one was able to prove any of the charges laid against him. In the meantime, Peter, who was waiting outside and who was identified by a servant girl as a disciple of Jesus, denied that he even knew Jesus. On Friday morning, Jesus was handed over to Pontius Pilate and accused of declaring himself to be the King of the Jews – a political charge which, if proved, would have made Jesus an enemy of the Roman state, liable to the most disgraceful kind of crucifixion that the Romans could devise. Pilate was surprised to find that Jesus made no answer to the charges against him. Pilate proposed releasing Jesus, in accordance with a Jewish Passover custom, but the mob that had assembled in front of the governor’s palace demanded that a brigand named Barabbas be released instead, and that Jesus be crucified. Pilate reluctantly acceded, ordering that a plaque reading “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” be affixed to Jesus’ cross. Jesus was then scourged by Roman soldiers, forced to wear a crown of thorns, dressed in a purple robe, and mocked. He was crucified at a place called Golgotha, or the Place of a Skull. Two robbers were crucified with him. His garments were divided among the soldiers crucifying him, who cast lots to decide who would get what. Several women who had known Jesus, including Mary Magdalene, watched him from a distance while he was hanging on the cross. A few hours later, after being offered a sponge filled with sour wine, Jesus gave up his spirit and died. A Jewish councilor named Joseph of Arimathea somehow managed to obtain permission from Pilate to bury Jesus’ body in a rock tomb nearby, whose entrance was covered with a stone. Jesus’ tomb was later found to be empty early on Sunday morning, when a group of two or more women, including Mary Magdalene, went to the tomb and received a message that Jesus had risen and that they should go and tell his disciples. And that’s it. That’s the core narrative.
Mark’s Passion narrative
Each Gospel writer makes additions of his own to this core narrative. In Mark’s account, Jesus institutes the Eucharist at the Last Supper. In the garden of Gethsemane, before his arrest, Jesus prays to His Father, asking Him three times to “take this cup away from me.” During Jesus’ arrest, the mob attempts to seize a young man who had been following Jesus, but the man flees naked, leaving his garment behind. In his night trial before the high priest, Jesus is finally asked if he is the Messiah. When he answers, “I am,” and calmly announces that everyone present will see him sitting at God’s right hand and coming on the clouds of heaven, the high priest tears his robe, exclaiming, “Blasphemy!” After being blindfolded and beaten, Jesus is then taken to Pilate, and accused by the mob of calling himself the king of the Jews. After Jesus is scourged and handed over to be crucified, and then led outside, a man named Simon of Cyrene is forced to carry Jesus’ cross to Golgotha, for him. Jesus is offered wine mixed with myrrh but refuses it. While hanging on the cross, Jesus is mocked by passersby, including the chief priests. The thieves who are crucified with him mock him, too. Suddenly, at noon, the whole land goes dark and remains so for the next three hours, until Jesus dies. At three o’clock, Jesus cries out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”), and bystanders mistakenly think he’s calling on Elijah. Jesus breathes his last, with a loud cry, and instantly, the veil of the Temple is torn in two. A Roman centurion watching the scene exclaims, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” Three women watching Jesus’s death from a distance are named, while “many other women” are also said to be present. When Joseph of Arimathea approaches Pilate and asks for permission to bury Jesus’ body, Pilate is amazed to learn that Jesus is already dead, after just six hours on the cross. He only agrees to hand over Jesus’ body after getting a centurion to verify that he is really dead. After buying some linen cloth and wrapping Jesus’ body in it, Joseph buries Jesus in a rock tomb, whose entrance is covered with a very large stone. Only two of the three women who watched Jesus’ death from afar are present at Jesus’ burial, but all three women visit Jesus’ tomb just after sunrise on Sunday morning, with the purpose of anointing Jesus’ body. They wonder who will roll away the stone, but are surprised to find that it has already been rolled away. A young man dressed in white tells them that Jesus is risen and asks them to tell his disciples to meet him in Galilee, but the women are too frightened to tell anyone.
Matthew’s Passion narrative
In Matthew’s narrative, Judas is seized with remorse after seeing the Jewish chief priests hand Jesus over to Pilate. Judas returns the thirty pieces of silver they have paid him, saying that he has betrayed innocent blood. He then goes out and hangs himself. The Jewish priests decide to use the money to buy a field, as a burial place for foreigners. During Jesus’ trial before Pilate, his wife tells him to “have nothing to do with that innocent man,” because she has been tormented by a bad dream she had about him. Pilate only hands Jesus over to be crucified after washing his hands of Jesus’ blood. The people defiantly shout, “His blood is on us and on our children!” The robe Jesus is dressed in by the Roman soldiers who mock him is not purple but scarlet. At the moment of Jesus’ death, there is a violent earthquake, and the tombs of many holy people break open. These holy people appear to many people in Jerusalem after Jesus’ resurrection. The tomb that Jesus is buried in is now described as Joseph of Arimathea’s own new tomb. However, the chief priests recall that Jesus predicted his own resurrection, so they ask Pilate to place a guard over the tomb, which he agrees to do. They also seal the tomb. However, on Sunday morning, at dawn, there is another violent earthquake, and an angel from heaven rolls back the stone, causing the guards to faint away in fear. It is this angel who delivers the message to the two women (not three as in Mark) who visit the tomb. The women hurry away in joy, and encounter Jesus on their way to meet the disciples. Jesus again tells them that he will meet his disciples in Galilee, and later on, they meet up with him there, on a mountain. He tells them to preach the good news to all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and promises to be with them always. Meanwhile, the chief priests bribe the guards at the tomb to tell everyone that Jesus’ disciples stole the body.
Luke’s Passion narrative
Luke’s Gospel follows Mark’s and builds upon it, but in a very different way from Matthew. (In Luke’s Gospel, for instance, there is no mention of the earthquakes and the resurrected zombie saints found in Matthew’s account.) At Jesus’ arrest, one of his disciples cuts off the ear of the high priest’s servant, but Jesus says, “Enough!” and heals the man’s ear. The account of Jesus’ trial before the high priest is fairly similar to that of Mark, except that it is at daybreak, rather than at night. After condemning Jesus, the Jewish assembly then rises, leads him off to Pilate, and accuses him of opposing the payment of taxes to Caesar and of declaring himself to be a king. Pilate then asks Jesus if he is the king of the Jews, and Jesus evasively responds, “You have said so.” After announcing that he can find no case against Jesus, Pilate sends him off to Herod, when he hears that Jesus is from Galilee. Herod tries to get Jesus to perform a miracle and plies him with many questions, but Jesus remains silent. Herod and his soldiers mock Jesus, and Herod sends him back to Pilate. Pilate announces that both he and Herod have found that Jesus has done nothing to deserve death, and proposes to release him, but the insistent crowd howls for Jesus’ death by crucifixion, to which Pilate reluctantly accedes, after having pleaded for Jesus’ release three times. On his way to Golgotha, women mourn and wail for Jesus, but he warns them of a catastrophe which will befall Jerusalem and afflict them and their children. As he is being crucified, Jesus prays, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” One of the thieves on the cross mocks Jesus, but the other rebukes him and asks Jesus to remember him when he enters into his kingdom. Jesus promises the good thief that he will be with him in paradise, that very day. The darkness that falls over the land at noon is said to be caused by the fact that the sun has stopped shining. Jesus passes away after calling out in a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” The Roman centurion who witnesses Jesus’ death calls him “a great and good man,” rather than “Son of God.” The people beholding the spectacle beat their breasts in remorse. When Jesus is buried, he is placed in a new tomb, but we aren’t told whose it is. The women present at the burial go home and prepare spices and perfumes, but rest on the Sabbath. On Sunday, at least five women visit the tomb with the spices they had prepared, but find it empty. Two angels announce that Jesus is risen, but say nothing about him meeting his disciples in Galilee. The women tell the disciples, who are skeptical. However, Peter runs to the tomb, sees the linen strips used to wrap the body lying by themselves, and goes away. Later that day, Jesus dramatically appears to two disciples on the road to Emmaus (seven miles from Jerusalem), but they don’t recognize him until they invite him home for a meal, where he breaks bread and “their eyes are opened” before he suddenly disappears. They then rush back to Jerusalem to break the news to the disciples, only to be told that Jesus has already appeared to Simon (Peter). Suddenly Jesus appears in their midst, invites them to touch him in order to verify that he is not a ghost, eats a fish to prove he isn’t one, and orders them to stay in Jerusalem until they have received the Holy Spirit, which he will send them. He then leads them a short way out of Jerusalem, blesses them and ascends into heaven. The disciples return to Jerusalem, praising God.
John’s Passion narrative
John’s Gospel omits several dramatic passages found in Mark, Matthew and Luke, such as the three hours of darkness, the tearing of the Temple veil in two, the mockery of the passersby and of the thieves, but adds other equally dramatic passages of its own: Jesus mother and the disciple Jesus loved stand at the foot of the cross and Jesus gives his mother to the disciple, who from that moment on makes a place for her in his home. Jesus then says “I am thirsty,” and is given wine vinegar to drink; he passes away after declaring, “It is finished.” The Jewish leaders ask Pilate to have the legs of the crucified criminals broken, to hasten their deaths, so that they can be removed from their crosses and buried before the Sabbath. When the soldiers come to Jesus, after breaking the legs of the thieves, they find that he is already dead. One of the soldiers then pierces his side with a lance, and blood and water gush out – a spectacle the Gospel assures us was personally witnessed by a bystander. Joseph of Arimathea approaches Pilate in secret, because he is afraid of “the Jews.” He is accompanied by Nicodemus, a wealthy individual who brings along 75 pounds of myrrh and aloes, and helps Joseph to bury Jesus in a new tomb which is said to be at the place where Jesus was crucified. No women are mentioned at Jesus’ burial. On Sunday morning, Mary Magdalene (possibly accompanied by other women) visits the tomb while it is still dark, finds the stone removed and no-one there, and rushes off to see Peter, telling him that Jesus’ body has been taken away. Peter and the disciple Jesus loved race to the tomb. Peter goes in first and sees the linen strips and head cloth. The other disciple then goes in. The two disciples go home, baffled. Meanwhile Mary remains crying outside. Two angels ask her what’s wrong and she answers that Jesus’ body has been taken away. Jesus himself appears to her and asks her the same question, but she doesn’t recognize him until he calls out, “Mary!” Mary then tells the disciples that she has seen the Lord. On the same day, Jesus appears to ten disciples in an upper room in Jerusalem, showing them his hands and his side and bequeathing them the gift of the Holy Spirit. Thomas, who was absent from this meeting, scoffs; but one week later, he too sees the risen Jesus, who invites him to put his hand in Jesus’ side and stop doubting. A stunned Thomas replies, “My Lord and my God!” The original Gospel ends there, but chapter 21 contains an additional story of an appearance by Jesus to seven disciples, by the Sea of Galilee. The story involves a miraculous catch of 153 fish, which prompts Peter to exclaim, “It is the Lord!” Later on, Jesus predicts Peter’s death by martyrdom.
What I find interesting is that the core narrative emerges relatively unscathed by the probing criticisms made above in my post. I do not wish to argue that the Gospels are unreliable sources of information about Jesus; rather, what I would argue is that they are, like the proverbial curate’s egg, “good in parts.” What I would argue, however, is that they are not consistently reliable, and that for this reason, any attempt to build a probabilistic case for the Resurrection on their foundation is doomed to fail.