“And on the third day…” The Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth 2-12

The life of Jesus of Nazareth ended on a Friday afternoon in the springtime of what was probably 30 A.D. Born not long before the death of Herod the Great in 4 B.C., he would have been in his early thirties at his own death. Present at his end were a few of his followers, many of them women who had been with him in Galilee, along with his mother (Mk. 15: 40-41 and parallels). There is no mention of Jesus’ brothers and sisters at the execution.  Nothing has been heard of his father Joseph for a while and he must be assumed deceased.[1]

The execution of Jesus is graphically described by all the evangelists (Mk. 15:20-41 and parr.)—though not in Q—and each detail is accompanied by an appropriate Scriptural explanation: what has just happened has happened as the Biblical prophets said it would. The Scriptural prompting aside and with the exception of a few offstage special effects (e.g. Mt. 27: 51-54), the narratives are rather sober-sided accounts of a Roman execution: neither the Galilean cavalry nor a legion of angels rides in to save the condemned. Jesus of Nazareth, the man who criminally claimed to be king of the Jews, was really and truly dead upon his cross (Mk. 15:37; Mt. 27:50; Lk. 23:46; Jn. 19:30).  The account of his entombment that follows is brief and matter of fact (Mk. 15:42-47).

The Gospels do, however, drop occasional intriguing and enlightening tidbits of information. One such occurs in connection with Jesus’ burial.  Matthew is alone in reporting that following Jesus’ death there was a story that was going around Jerusalem – or at least was circulating when Matthew’s Gospel was written in 80 or 90 A.D. — that his followers had broken into Jesus’ tomb and stolen the body (Mt. 28: 12-15) and this, again according to Matthew, despite the fact that a Roman guard had been posted there (Mt. 27: 62-66). What prompted this seems clear and undisputed: after the Sabbath rest following Jesus’ execution, his tomb was discovered empty.

What are called the Gospels’ “Passion Narratives,” the accounts of the series of events that begins with Jesus’ final visit to Jerusalem, are all in such close lockstep that it has been argued that the evangelists must have been drawing upon a common, pre-Marcan base narrative.[2] The incident that immediately follows Jesus’ burial in all the Gospels, the discovery of the empty tomb by the women who go out early on Sunday morning to complete the entombment ritual (Mk. 16:1-8 and parr.; Jn. 20:1-13), has its own cohesion. The scene is lit differently from the preceding, however, chiefly by reason of a white-clad young man (Mark)– or perhaps two of them (Luke, John)—whom Matthew identifies as a dazzling “angel of the Lord descended from heaven” and who delivers the news–“He is risen; he is not here” (Mk. 1: 6 and parr.)–and then somewhat mysteriously directs them to return and meet Jesus in Galilee. The women carry the news back to Jerusalem and there is an agreement, in all save Matthew, that Peter was the first of the Twelve actually to enter the tomb and verify that it was in fact empty.

We are not told what had happened in that garden near the crucifixion site outside the walls of Jerusalem; rather, we are told how his followers found out what had happened. Jesus, they later asserted in unison (1 Cor. 15: 3-4), had arisen — or been raised — from the dead, an event that would have had to occur — there were no witnesses — sometime between his burial late Friday afternoon and early Sunday morning when the first mourners arrived at the tomb site, found the stone seal rolled back and the tomb chamber empty. “And they were afraid…”

Those words of Mark (Mk. 16:8) stand at the end of his Gospel in the earliest preserved manuscripts of that work. A later hand or hands has added verses (Mk. 16: 9-20) that describe Jesus’ post-entombment appearances and bring the Gospel into formal conformity with the other three, all of which end not at an empty Jerusalem tomb on the Sunday after his execution but with his final disappearance at what Luke tells us (Acts 1:30) were forty days after his death. Did Mark’s Gospel originally end at the empty tomb and ignore—or was ignorant of—the stories of his resurrection? Or was the final page, the one with Mark’s account of the Jesus appearances, lost from the early codex, a loss that was later filled out using material from the other Gospels or some other unknown source?

The answer is crucial. If this, the earliest Gospel, was unaware or credulous of the resurrection stories, it would be offering us a very naturalized Jesus, a Galilean wonder-worker and Kingdom Come preacher who came to an untimely (to be kind about it!) death, a Jesus, it might be argued, very like the one offered to us in that other early source we call Q.[3] And we would then conclude that the resurrection either did not occur and so was invented, or that some preferred to believe that it had occurred, while others refused to believe until their doubts were drowned out by the voices of the resurrectionists. That portrait of a naturalized Jesus has attracted a good deal of contemporary attention,[4] particularly since it voids a miraculous event that seemed impossible in the first place.

But Mark’s Gospel does not easily yield to that solution. Mark 16: 8 is an abrupt and syntactically awkward ending to a literary work, even one as “primitive” as Mark is sometimes thought to be. More, Mark’s Gospel displays most of the same attitudes and beliefs, the same regard of Jesus as the Christ, as do Matthew and Luke. There is little wonder in that since the latter two used Mark as the basis of their own accounts and without essentially rewriting or correcting the earlier Gospel. It is simpler to think that Mark’s original ending—a single manuscript page, no more—got separated from the codex, Whether this was before or after Matthew and Luke used the Markan text we cannot tell. But someone must have tried to complete the story from what was available in Matthew and Luke and perhaps elsewhere.

Everyone seems to have known about the empty tomb—Paul does not mention it in I Corinthians but he is not describing everything that happened to Jesus but passing on a doctrinal formula—and there are certainly other explanations why Jesus’ body was not found there. Matthew, as we have just seen, provides a rather obvious one that was making the rounds: the body was stolen, by Jesus’ own followers, one might suspect. The Gospels will have none of it: Jesus’ tomb was empty because he had risen from the dead:  “He is raised, just as he said.”  That announcement was made, however, by one of the Gospels’ angelic stage managers (Mt. 28:6), those incandescent young men who appear at crucial junctures in the narrative to insure that the readers do not miss the point.

Raised from the dead? Yes, the Gospels and Paul all assert it, not because anyone had witnessed the event nor, let us suppose, because an angel told them so, but because there were those of his followers who had convincingly encountered the risen Jesus in and around Jerusalem, and even in Galilee, in the weeks following his burial. The encounters as we have them are both banal in their often homely details—there is none of the melodramatic supernal trumpeting that was associated with Jesus’ birth and the scene of his Galilean transfiguration–and yet they were startling to the witnesses.  According to the reports, Jesus was not immediately identifiable — we are not told exactly why; Mark says only that he appeared “in another form” (16:12) — but in the end all the witnesses were convinced that it was indeed Jesus and, they insisted, a very corporeal Jesus who ate food and whose body they could and did touch. The Twelve were the chief, the official, witnesses to this (Acts 1:22), though the first was almost certainly Mary Magdalene (Mk. 16: 9 and parr.; Jn. 20:14-28, a circumstantial encounter).[5] Others had encountered Jesus as well, and on one occasion he is said to have appeared to a crowd of altogether 500 people.

These attested appearances lasted for 40 days, until Jesus, surrounded by his followers on the Mount of Olives “was lifted up… and a cloud took him from their sight” (Acts 1:9), that is, to heaven where by this time most believed God dwelled and where Jesus was thought to sit at the right hand of the Father (Lk. 24: 51; Mk. 16:19). It is Paul, writing some 20-odd years after the event, who states it as something firmly and universally held. A tradition had been “handed down” to him, probably in 36 A.D. after his “conversion” a few years earlier, on the occasion of his first visit to the community of believers in Jerusalem, to wit, that “Christ died for our sins, according to Scripture; that he was buried and raised to life on the third day, again according to Scripture” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). The proof? “He appeared to Cephas [Peter] and afterwards to the Twelve. Then he appeared to more than 500 of the Brethren at once, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James [the brother of Jesus] and then to all the apostles” (1 Corinthians 15:5-7).[6] Paul does not hesitate to draw the conclusion. “If Christ was not raised, then our Good News is null and void and so too is your faith; and we turn out to have given false witness about God because we bore witness that He raised Christ to life…” (1 Corinthians 15:14-15).

The “Good News” Paul refers to are not the four literary works now called such and that are part of the New Testament; they had not been written yet and “New Testament” was barely emerging as an idea in Paul’s day, much less as an actual collection of Christian writings. Here the “Good News” is rather what had been proclaimed to Christians as part of Jesus’ message namely, that they would be “raised up” from death as surely as Jesus himself had been. Paul is arguing against some at Corinth who had denied the resurrection. It seems legitimate, however, to extend Paul’s argument to the entire range of beliefs that his earliest followers held regarding Jesus of Nazareth after 30 A.D.: if there was no resurrection, there was no Jesus following  after his death, not in the sense it is portrayed in Paul and the Acts of the Apostles and, even more broadly, there would be no Christianity.

Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, if that is in fact what occurred rather than some type of resuscitation, would have been a miracle, an event in the natural order that transcends a natural explanation, What is involved is not merely a profession of ignorance: something has occurred that the witnesses cannot explain; it is at present inexplicable. What is alleged to have happened in Jesus’ case is what is now understood as a miracle, and there is reason to think that Jesus’ contemporaries understood it in the same way, namely, that a remarkable event had occurred for which there was if fact an explanation. The explanation is not, however, a natural one but belongs to a different, transcendent order of reality: the explanation is, as we would say, supernatural.

The ancients called such an event a thauma, “something wondrous,” from which “miracle” derives via a Latin translation. The stress is on the observer’s reaction to the event. But in the Gospels and elsewhere such events are also described as dynameis “(acts of) power” or aretai, “glorious deeds (of the gods),” where the emphasis is precisely on the explanation for the wondrous event. Unlike the ancients, the modern, secularist reading of remarkable events tends to reject the very possibility of such an etiology. The event can be explained in natural terms and, if not presently, then eventually, as our knowledge of natural causes progressively expands.

There is no evidence that any among Jesus’ contemporaries rejected the possibility of miracles. There was skepticism, to be sure, in the face of what must have been an easy charlatanism practiced among the credulous folk. But such skepticism was for sophisticates; what the witnesses to Jesus’ miracles asked was something more pressingly obvious: what lay behind this ordinary man, this carpenter’s ability to perform such deeds? Was it God or Satan? The skeptics among them, usually the scribes, the intelligentsia of that time and place, opted for Satan (Mk. 3: 22 ff.).

What was alleged to have occurred shortly after Jesus’ death was a thauma indeed. The crucified Jesus had appeared, alive and transformed, to certain of his followers, to a great many of them by one account (1 Cor. 15:6), and even to his brother James (I Cor. 15: 7), who had gone unmentioned in the Christian narrative to that point.[7] Such miraculous resurrections were a familiar part of the Israelite past, worked by the prophets Elijah (1 Kgs. 17: 17-22) and Elishah (2 Kgs. 14: 18-37), and Jesus himself had raised individuals from the dead (Mk, 5:21-24, 35-43 and parr.; Lk. 7:11-16), most famously his friend Lazarus who was four days in the tomb and “already there was a smell” (Jn. 11: 1-44). Indeed, Jesus seems to have passed on the power to others (Mt. 10:8). According to Acts, Peter raised a woman from the dead, apparently by using Jesus’ own Aramaic formula (9:36-43), and Paul restored to life, or perhaps simply revived, a young man named “Lucky” who had dozed off during a very long Pauline sermon and had the bad fortune to tumble from a third floor window (Acts 20:7-12).

In many of these instances the accounts make it clear that it is God who performs the miracle through the intercession of a favored human agent, an Elijah or a Peter. The resurrections Jesus effected are, however, somewhat more ambiguous: we seem led to conclude that the “power” was his own. And his own resurrection from the dead is another matter entirely. Here there is no agent: the earliest and most basic formulations of Christian belief regarding what happened outside Jerusalem on the Sunday following Passover in 30 A.D. was that God “raised” Jesus from the dead (Rom. 4:24; Acts 2:24).[8]  This resurrection was not a miracle performed with God’s help; Jesus’ resurrection was God’s own miracle.

Some Jews of that era certainly believed in the possibility of the resurrection of the dead. Both Isaiah (26:14-21) and Ezekiel (37) had foreseen such, but not something like this, not of some executed criminal on an otherwise quiet Sunday morning. For those who entertained such, the Israelite conception of resurrection—that the dead truly come back to life rather than merely being revived or resuscitated—was centered on the the raising of the interred dead at the End Time as part of the Lord’s vindication of Israel.[9]  But there was nothing in the Jewish tradition that might lead anyone to expect what was being claimed here: Jesus, barely dead, and he alone, was restored to life and in a recognizable—there are hesitations–form (Lk. 24:31; Jn. 21:4), a very physical Jesus who ate and drank (Jn. 21:13), whose flesh was palpable (Lk. 24:39), but who could also pass through locked doors (Jn. 20:19).

The actual resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth was, as we have seen, an event that was neither witnessed nor described. Some of his followers, who knew that Jesus had died, claim to have unmistakably encountered him, in a variety of circumstances, in the days following his execution. They concluded—how could they do otherwise?—that he had been raised from the dead, perhaps, as he himself had predicted, though admittedly no one understood it at the time (Jn. 2: 19-22). The witnesses, though some, like Peter and James, are named in Paul’s summary account, are not generally identified except that they appear to have been from among Jesus’ original core of Galilean followers.

None of this demonstrates that Jesus was raised from the dead. What is certain is that Jesus of Nazareth died on a Roman cross outside Jerusalem, possibly in 30 A.D.. that he was entombed nearby, and that after a one-day Sabbath hiatus his tomb was found empty. What is equally certain is that some, perhaps many, of his followers, Jews all, were convinced that they had encountered that same Jesus shortly after his burial. They concluded, almost immediately it seems, that he had been raised from the dead. It is not a conclusion readily suggested by anything in Jewish tradition, Scriptural or otherwise, which knew of miraculous, humanly mediated revivals of the dead—Jesus himself had performed such—and anticipated eschatological resurrections of Israelite “dry bones” on the Judgment Day, but not an Easter.

Did it actually happen? The historian, though inclined to skepticism, cannot say. He can pronounce on the likelihood of such an event or, more boldly, on its possibility or impossibility, but he cannot demonstrate, with the means and the evidence at hand, that it did or did not occur. What is absolutely certain, however, is that the conviction of these self-announced witnesses to this most unlikely of acts, witnesses whom we can no longer question, though their contemporaries could, was powerful enough to persuade growing numbers of their fellow Jews that Jesus of Nazareth had in fact been raised from the dead and to embrace the equally extraordinary consequences.

[1] This mild historians’ assumption was embraced with theological fervor by the later Christian tradition since it was a firewall protecting Mary’s virginity ante, inter and post the birth of Jesus.

[2] See Soards, “PreMarcan Passion Narrative” in Brown, Death of the Messiah (1994) 2, pp. 1492-1524.


[3] For further details, see the Appendix: “To begin with…” below.

[4] For a glimpse over that landscape, see Castelli & Taussig (eds.), Reimagining Christian Origins (1996).

[5] The sheer unlikeliness of Mary Magdalene as the leading witness to the resurrection of Jesus has increased for some the authenticity of the report; see    Witherington, New Testament History (2001), p. 169.

[6] Paul is repeating a formula, perhaps some form of a creed, and not providing a narrative of events. The Gospels’ differing narratives of Jesus’s reported post-entombment appearances show how unharmoniously diverse were the traditions that lie behind Paul’s lapidary formula.

[7] On James, see Chap. 04 below.

[8] See Allison, Resurrecting Jesus (2005), pp. 228-236.

[9] Some of this thinking is on display in Mt. 27:52-53 where (alone) it is said that at Jesus’ death, and, by implication, the initiation of the End Time, graves were opened and the bodies of “the saints” were “raised,” where that latter term is the same as that later used of Jesus’ own “raising.”

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