Historical Questions about the Resurrection of Jesus



St. Paul makes it clear that Resurrection is an essential aspect of Christian faith. He states, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied.” (1 Cor 15:16–19).

The importance of this feast is also reiterated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

Beginning with the Easter Triduum as its source of light, the new age of the Resurrection fills the whole liturgical year with its brilliance. Gradually, on either side of this source, the year is transfigured by the liturgy. It really is a “year of the Lord’s favor." . . . Therefore Easter is not simply one feast among others, but the “Feast of feasts,” the “Solemnity of solemnities,” just as the Eucharist is the “Sacrament of sacraments” (the Great Sacrament). St. Athanasius calls Easter “the Great Sunday” and the Eastern Churches call Holy Week “the Great Week.” The mystery of the Resurrection, in which Christ crushed death, permeates with its powerful energy our old time, until all is subjected to him. (CCC 1168-1169)

Yet many dispute the historicity of the Resurrection. One of the most common reasons scholars often raise questions about the historical veracity of the resurrection accounts is the simple fact that they portray a miraculous event, something that is said to be too incredible to believe historical. Is this fair?

While historical work necessarily demands a critical judgment, the outright a priori denial of the possibility of such occurrences represents no less of a metaphysical commitment than one which accepts them. To rule out a priori the possibility of inexplicable events can hardly represent a truly critical methodology.

Here’s what everyone knows about the Gospel narratives: they all agree that on Easter Sunday morning Mary Magdalene came to the tomb where Jesus had been laid. Scholars, however, note that a close reading of the evangelists’ reports reveal a number of apparent discrepancies.

Before we go any further though a few words need to be said about historiography and harmonization. “Harmonization” refers to the attempt to reconcile different aspects of the various reports, which seem divergent or contradictory. When it comes to harmonization, one has to be cautious.

On the one hand, harmonization has led to some unbelievably unlikely readings. We need to be on guard against such approaches. For example, some people, in an attempt to prove the historical truth of Scripture, have tried to find ways to harmonize all of the sayings of Jesus. The reality however is that ancient writers were not expected to always convey the exact wording of speeches.

So, for example, whether Jesus said, “This is my blood of the covenant” (Mark 14:24), or ““This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20), is really missing the point. They all agree that Jesus spoke words over the Eucharistic cup, that these words linked the cup to his blood and the concept of covenant. Ancient writers were expected to convey the substance of what was said, but not necessarily the ipsissima verba, the exact words.

In short, it is bad historiography to attempt to harmonize everything.

On the other hand, this does not mean that all harmonization is a bad idea. Historiography will inevitably involve some amount of harmonization. Historical work will inevitably involve the recognition that sometimes harmonization is possible. The question here then is whether or not the Gospel accounts of Easter Sunday are so hopelessly and dramatically inconsistent they must be looked at as fabricated.

Let’s turn now to some of the apparent problems.

First, who exactly went to the tomb? We can break down the various accounts as follows:

Matthew has two women, Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” (Matt 28:1).

Mark has three women: Mary Magdalene, “Mary the mother of James,” and Salome (Mark 16:1).

Luke has Mary Magdalene, “Mary the mother of James,” no mention of Salome, but “Joanna” and “other” women (Luke 24:10).

John only mentions Mary Magdalene going to the tomb.

Yet here’s the interesting thing about John. Immediately after telling us about Mary Magdalene going to the tomb, John tells us that Mary Magdalene ran back to tell Peter and “the other disciple”: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him” (John 20:2). The use of the plural here seems to suggest an awareness that Mary Magdalene was not alone.

And none of the Gospel accounts necessarily exclude the others. Matthew does not say that only Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were among those going to the tomb. John never says, “Salome stayed home that morning because she had some bad unleavened bread.”

Put another way, we might run into a colleague on a Monday morning and tell him we were at church on Sunday and mention we spent sometime afterwards talking to a mutual friend. We might leave out other people we also talked with because he may not be that familiar with them.

But if we mentioned we saw some of those other people to someone else later in the day, have we really “contradicted” ourselves earlier account? Of course, not. In short, perhaps Luke’s community knew “Joanna” but not “Salome”.

What is even more surprising are the details the accounts agree upon. Most surprising is this: all the Gospels explain that the first witnesses were women. This is notable. Women were not believed to be reliable witnesses in the ancient world. Josephus, a first century Jew, writes, “From women let no evidence be accepted, because of the levity and temerity of their sex” (A.J. 4.219).

If the early Christians were to make up a story about the resurrection, it wouldn’t have looked like this!

And then there is the question of when the women came to the tomb. Again, let’s look carefully at the Gospel reports:

Matthew: the women come “at dawn” (Matt 28:1).

Mark: they arrive “just after sunrise” (Mark 16:1).

Luke: they come “very early in the morning” (Luke 24:1).

John: Mary Magdalene came “while it was still dark” (John 20:1).

It should be pointed out that only John’s account seems to pose a problem. But is John’s report here really evidence that the story was made up?

First, note what all three stories have in common—frankly, quite a bit! Not only was Mary Magdalene at the tomb, it was also Sunday and it was in the morning.

Now, back to John. Certainly it is possible that the women came to the tomb very early and that it was dark when they set out but that it the sky was lighting up by the end of the episode.

We should also observe that it seems important that John uses “darkness” as a symbol throughout his narrative (John 1:5; John 1:3). Could John here be speaking symbolically: i.e., the “light” of the Risen Lord was not yet known to the disciples when they came to the tomb.

Either way, doesn’t it seem like a stretch to insist that this slight divergence is evidence the story is entirely implausible?

But some have made the case that it is unlikely Jesus would have been laid in a tomb. Scholars like Funk and Crossan insist it is more likely an executed man like Jesus would have simply been dumped in a mass grave. Such scholars insist the entire empty tomb narrative is therefore likely a Markan invention.

These claims are just specious and betray such writers’ ignorance.

Philo, a first century Jewish writer, makes it clear that such a story is not at all unbelievable: “I have known cases when on the eve of a holiday of this kind, people who have been crucified have been taken down and their bodies delivered to their kinsfolk, because it was thought well to give them burial and allow them ordinary rites."

Likewise, Josephus explains, “the Jews are careful about funeral rites that even malefactors who have been sentenced to crucifixion are taken down and buried before sunset."

Yet another hypothesis is that Peter, in his guilt and in mourning, conjured up an apparition of Jesus to help him in his mourning process.

But even if Peter did this, why would the Church go on to proclaim a bodily resurrection of Jesus? Some might say the resurrection story was invented to prove that indeed Jesus was the Messiah. After all, the Messiah’s resurrection was predicted in the Scriptures, right?

Well, not explicitly. The resurrection was an event that was supposed to take place at the end of time (which, Christian eschatology still affirms!).

In fact, one looks in vain for a prophecy in Israel’s scriptures that suggests that the Messiah would rise by himself before that.

So if Peter did have some sort of psychological event, it still doesn’t explain why the early Christians believed the Messiah had to rise from the dead. No specific text in the Scriptures actually says, “The Messiah will rise after three days.”

So where did they get this idea? Why assert it?

Peter could have come to the belief that Jesus had been vindicated and that his spirit somehow ascended to God even while his body remained in the grave.

This would have fit perfectly well into Jewish views. Take for example Jubilees 23:31, which describes the righteous as follows: “And their bones will rest in the earth, and their spirits will increase joy, and they will know that the LORD is an executor of judgment; but he will show mercy to hundreds and thousands, to all who love him.”

But no, the early Christians took one further step: they asserted Jesus had been risen from the grave. Why invent such a belief—particularly one that seemed so unlikely!

St. Paul describes a list of eye-witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection:

He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. (1 Corinthians 15:5-8)

That Paul doesn’t mention Mary Magdalene here is really fascinating—was a woman eyewitness just not worth mentioning given the suspicion over the testimony of female witnesses?

More interesting is this: what did these people have to gain from making up such a story? Fame? Money? Power?

What many of them apparently received was death (1 Clement 5:5–7). Even if you believe their account that Jesus rose from the dead, the fact that people like St. Paul never recanted—even under such a threat—is remarkable. What gave them such courage?

All of this suggests that it is unlikely the story was simply made from whole cloth. From a historian’s view, then, we come to one unsettling conclusion: something happened Easter morning—and it can’t be easily explained.

Such a conclusion opens the door for something more—the supernatural gift of faith, which cannot be simply established by empirical evidence.

You Might Also Like

In Hope to Die: The Christian Meaning of Death and the Resurrection of the Body, Scott Hahn explores the significance of death and burial from a Catholic perspective. The promise of the bodily resurrection brings into focus the need for the dignified care of our bodies at the hour of death. Unpacking both Scripture and Catholic teaching, Hope to Die reminds us that we are destined for glorification on the last day.