Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Evidence for the Resurrection

Roman imperialist oppression and uniformity necessitated a new message of universal hope, transcending local rituals. Displaced slaves needed to believe that their god was omnipresent, not local. The new message was that one dying and rising god saves all men with a perfect sacrifice which, re-enacted with bread and wine, supersedes complicated ritual cleanliness, repeated animal sacrifices and divisive dietary laws.

If events around Jesus' death had not provided material for this message, something else would have. The common name, “Jesus,” meaning “God saves,” and the royal title, “Christ,” meaning “anointed,” together meaning something like “royal savior,” could have been applied to a different central figure. Despite this socially explicable origin, Christians claim historical evidence for a physical resurrection proving a supernatural origin. So what is the evidence? There is no single, consistent account of what happened after Jesus' death. We can only read inconsistent accounts and infer what could have happened, starting with events before his death.

Like John the Baptist, Jesus preached that God would soon re-impose his direct rule over the whole Earth. That did not happen and that could have been the end of the matter but Jesus' large public following made him wonder about his own role in the kingdom. He allowed the impulsive Peter to persuade him that he was the Messiah. By interpreting scriptures, he convinced himself that his own vicarious suffering was necessary to initiate the kingdom. He provoked the authorities, got himself killed and possibly died realizing that this approach had failed.

Crucifixion victims were usually buried in a mass grave and the Sanhedrin could have sent Joseph of Arimathea to ensure that this was done before the Sabbath started. If that is what happened, then the tomb burial and empty tomb stories must have been added later, which would explain why they are first mentioned neither in Peter's Pentecost sermon nor in Paul's letters but in the Gospels which were written elsewhere decades later by converts, not by founders or eye-witnesses.

Jesus' burial could have been the end of the matter but then something happened to his disciples. For events after the burial, the first question is which Gospel to start with. Mark was written first but originally ended with the empty tomb. A list of Resurrection appearances from other Gospels was added later. John was written last and, unlike the Synoptics, was constructed as a sequence of long monologues put into the mouth of Jesus, not as a record of short sayings attributed to him by the oral tradition. (Mahayana sutras express their authors' Buddhist teachings dramatically by putting words into the mouth of the Buddha. Platonic dialogues express their author's philosophical arguments dramatically by putting words into the mouth of Socrates. John's Gospel expresses its author's theological reflections dramatically by putting words into the mouth of Jesus. These were ancient literary forms, not accurately minuted speeches.)

Matthew describes only one Resurrection appearance to all the disciples and, following a hint in Mark, locates it in Galilee. In fact, Matthew describes the disciples as obeying an instruction to travel from Jerusalem to Galilee in order to witness the Resurrection and start their apostolic mission there. Since Christianity was founded in Jerusalem and since Luke describes Resurrection appearances only in Jerusalem, Matthew seems to be less historical than Luke.

John follows Luke by describing appearances in Jerusalem but adds a Galilean appearance completely unlike Matthew's: the disciples travel not to a specified mountain in order to see the risen Jesus for the first time but to a lake to resume fishing, having already seen Jesus twice in Jerusalem. John did not synthesize two earlier accounts but freely composed a third. Luke's two-part account, Gospel and Acts, ends not with the Resurrection appearances but with Paul's mission to the Gentiles so it provides a more comprehensive framework. What follows is my reading of Luke's account.

A stranger en route to Emmaus consoled and inspired some disciples by arguing from scripture that Jesus' suffering did not disprove but confirmed his Messiahship. This interpretation of scripture must have reminded the disciples of Jesus' own scriptural identification of Messiahship with suffering. Suddenly focusing their hopes on the stranger's interpretation, they invited him to stay overnight and he may have slipped away when he realized that they were latching onto what he had said but that he had nothing further to offer them. Before leaving, he may have broken and blessed bread in a way that reminded them of Jesus. A hasty departure while they momentarily looked elsewhere could have been excitedly remembered by them as him vanishing from their sight. ( Luke 24. 31) They afterwards convinced themselves that the stranger had been Jesus but they did this after they had heard a man whom they had not recognized expounding scripture. Is this scriptural interpretation, begun by Jesus and continued first by the stranger, then by the disciples, the original basis of belief in the Resurrection?

Before any Resurrection appearances had been reported, first Jesus, then the stranger, argued from scripture that suffering was the way to Messianic glory. The first reported Resurrection appearance was the conversation with the stranger. He was identified with Jesus not because he resembled him (clearly he did not) but because his words had, like Jesus', inspired the disciples,

“…while he opened to us the scriptures…” (Luke 24. 32)

This primacy of scriptural interpretation is confirmed by reading Luke's accounts first of Jesus' appearance to the eleven, then of Peter's Pentecost sermon.

The identification of the stranger with Jesus seemed to be confirmed when other disciples said that the risen Jesus had appeared to Peter. If, as we are also told, Peter was bereaved and remorseful, then he could have had a traumatic experience as of seeing the deceased alive. Disciples hurrying back in excitement to have their claimed Resurrection appearance instantly confirmed by others quoting an alleged sighting by the distraught Peter sounds like a case of self-reinforcing group hysteria.

The disciples, now believing that Jesus had appeared twice, met to reinterpret scripture as prophesying Messianic resurrection. They became convinced that Jesus was spiritually present, confirming their new understanding:

“…he opened their minds to understand the scriptures…” (Luke. 24. 45)

Again, the new understanding of scripture is essential. Luke also claimed that the disciples saw Jesus and that he confirmed his physicality by inviting bodily contact and by eating fish. This reads like an aspect of the story added later to prove a point. Luke was not present at the Resurrection appearances but wrote decades later after Christians had debated whether the Resurrection was physical or spiritual and when the physical Resurrection school was winning the argument. The Evangelists did not simply transcribe the oral tradition but interpreted it in different ways in the light of their beliefs.

Would a newly resurrected man validate his Resurrection by appearing and expounding scripture or just by appearing? The uncontentious proposition that the disciples now understood scripture as prophesying the Resurrection seems to have become the more literal proposition that the resurrected Jesus explained scripture to them. To this day, Evangelical Christians claim to have encountered Christ but do not mean by this that he was visibly, tangibly present, able to enter a room, shake hands, sit at a table or eat. They do not mean that now and they do not have to have meant it then but the Evangelists, believing that the Resurrection had been real, described it as if it had been physical. Contemporary Evangelicals derive their strong sense of Jesus' powerful presence neither from seeing visions nor from meeting a physical person but from hearing sermons and reading scriptures and perhaps that is how the disciples did it.

No one knows whether this is what happened. My account is historical fiction but I argue that this fiction is a possible and plausible reading of the New Testament. I aim to respect the texts and to understand the characters as much as possible but a New Testament scholar tells me that the Emmaus road incident may have been simply invented. That would mean that there was no meeting with a man who may or may not have been Jesus and that the story was constructed only to validate a scriptural interpretation.

I do not suggest that Christianity rests only on a mistaken identity and a traumatic experience. The social need for a new religion was paramount. The disciples were primed to reinterpret scripture to rationalize an apparently failed Messiahship. Blood sacrifice remained meaningful to Jews and Pagans and Jesus' death could be presented as a universal sacrifice, validated by the claimed Resurrection. He was the high priest offering the sacrifice, the perfect victim offered and, later, the single deity receiving the sacrifice, a uniquely powerful being, transcending the historical Jesus, as Paul acknowledged (2 Corinthians 5.16).

This by now entirely imaginary being appropriated every available title: king, Son of Man, the Word. Since the Son of Man was to descend from the sky, not from David, his celestial coming became Jesus' Second Coming. John deified the Son and personified the Spirit but remained monotheist, hence, in later doctrine, “three persons in one God,” the Trinity. If Indian concepts had been known, then they, like the Greek Word, could also have been applied: avatars are gods appearing as animals or men; Buddhas are enlightened men and the Word “…enlightens every man…” ( John 1. 9). However, these are exercises in religious imagination, not in historical reconstruction. Let us return to what could have happened to the disciples.

At Pentecost, they had a collective experience as of receiving the Spirit. That happens to this day in Pentecostal meetings. They spoke in tongues and the crowd was amazed but some said that they were drunk. Then, Peter publicly proclaimed the Resurrection, thus founding Christianity which is not Jesus' teaching but the belief that he was resurrected.

Peter's sermon:

makes no reference to an empty tomb;
makes only one, almost parenthetical, reference to witnesses;
gives no account of the witnesses' experiences or observations;
is built instead around three scriptural quotations;
derives conclusions about what had happened to Jesus from these quotations;
mentions witnesses only to support a scriptural argument.

Yet again, scriptural interpretation is central.

Peter's argument:

 (i) the disciples are not drunk because it is too early in the day;
 (ii) their inspired speech fulfills Joel's prophecy that, in the last days, many will prophesy and there will be natural catastrophes;
(iii) he reminds his audience of Jesus' recent deeds and death;
(iv) he asserts the Resurrection, backing it up with a quotation (“…God raised him up…For David says concerning him, ‘…thou wilt not abandon my soul to Hades, nor let thy Holy One see corruption.' ” (Acts 2. 24-27) )
(v) he argues that, because David died and was buried in a still existent tomb, the prophecy must apply to his descendant;
(vi) he adds that the disciples are witnesses of Jesus' resurrection;
(vii) he concludes that Jesus has poured out the Spirit because, according to David, not David himself but his “Lord” would ascend into the heavens. (Acts 2.34)

Comments:

 (i) If drink was a possible cause of the uproar, then some men who had worked or met late might, instead of retiring, have begun drinking unusually early.
(ii) Peter was not speaking in the last days and there were no natural catastrophes as he spoke.
(iii) This seems to establish that Jesus was then a recent public figure.
(iv) Peter seems to argue that the Resurrection occurred because it had been prophesied: “God raised him… For David says concerning him…”
(v) This does not follow. Other possible inferences are that the prophecy has not been fulfilled or that David had been raised in the purely spiritual sense later attributed to Jesus by Paul.
(vi) If the disciples were witnesses, then why are prophecies mentioned first? The disciples' witness may be comparable to a modern Evangelical's “witness” to Jesus' continued presence, an inner certainty based on a reading of scripture, not an outward perception of a visible person. Thus, “witnesses” are not necessarily eye-witnesses.
(vii) This is another scriptural quotation that establishes nothing about what had happened to Jesus. At this crucial point while reading scripture, we find a central character, Peter, quoting scripture… Evangelicals reading the Bible can probably empathize with Peter quoting the Bible but scriptural authority cannot convince anyone who does not already accept such authority.

At this point in a discussion, Christian apologists often resort to the claim that Christian witness evokes faith but cannot convince by reason alone. This implies that Christians believe without sufficient reason, therefore are irrational. They believe that the Resurrection occurred but also that there is insufficient reason to believe that it occurred. This position contradicts both itself and the Gospels. If the disciples, including a skeptic, Thomas, did meet the risen Jesus, then they were convinced by overwhelming evidence and were not just asked to exercise faith. The texts claim to describe historical events and thus to offer proof. I respond to that claim, not to a mere appeal to believe, especially since that appeal gives no reason to opt for Christian, rather than Jewish or Muslim, belief.

An appropriate response to a religious teaching would be to accept not unproved propositions but universal insights. For example, the Buddha taught the universality of suffering and the way to end it, not the fulfillment of prophecies, the imminence of the kingdom or the raising of the dead. His premise was an analysis of common experience, not an interpretation of tribal scriptures. If we no longer accept Biblical literalism, then it makes sense to treat the texts as myths or metaphors, perhaps expressing universal insights about death and renewal, but not to claim that their original intended meaning was either mythological or metaphorical.

Petrine Christianity was a Jewish sect, worshiping in the Temple and expecting Jesus to return soon to rule the world as Messiah from Jerusalem but that did not happen. When Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed in 70 AD, most Petrine Christians reverted to orthodox Judaism. That could have been the end of the matter. However, meanwhile, Paul had founded Gentile Christianity. All that we know about Jesus' appearance to Peter is that it was said to have happened but we do know about Paul's claimed encounter with the risen Jesus.

Paul did not meet a physical person answering the description of the recently deceased Jesus. He saw a blinding flash of light and heard a voice, a kind of experience that can be caused by stress, which he was under. Nevertheless, it was soon said of Paul that:

“…he had seen the Lord, who spoke to him…” (Acts 9. 27)

- as if his experience were similar to that later claimed for the disciples. Because of the experience that he did have, Paul taught that the body that had been resurrected was not the physical body that had died and been buried, apparently in the ground, but a qualitatively different kind of spiritual body which grew from the physical body as a plant grows from a seed.

“…what you sow is not the body which is to be…It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body.” (1 Corinthians , 15. 37, 44)

There are two bodies with opposite characteristics, the spiritual body visible, at least to Paul, only as a blinding light, not as a tangible organism.

If Paul had persecuted the cult of a rival Messianic claimant, we can infer that that claimant would have seemed to speak to Paul on the road to Damascus. The experience could have been identical except for a different name in the phrase:

“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting…” (Acts 9. 5)

Since Paul founded the Christianity that became a world religion and since the Damascus road was a crucial turning point, how different could Christianity have been? Could Paul or someone else have proclaimed an ancient mythological deity instead of a recent historical figure as the agent of salvation? Paul does claim that only Jesus' death and resurrection, not his life, deeds or teaching, matter (2 Corinthians 5. 16). Christianity, at the conceptual crossroads between the cyclical, seasonal, mythological time of agricultural societies and the linear, chronological, historical time of urban civilizations, might have focused on a different dying and rising god but would have had to historicize that god's story in order to proclaim a new message superseding ancient rituals.

Paul articulated a widely acceptable message. Philosophers and priests had moved towards monotheism (which, historically and conceptually, is intermediate between polytheism and atheism). Gentiles attracted to Jewish monotheism and morality but repelled by dietary laws and circumcision could follow Paul when, having proclaimed Jesus as Messiah, he was expelled from synagogues. Rival religions lost the battle for survival. Mystery religions did not synthesize the meaningful stories of mythology with the recorded events of history. Their gods died annually or eternally, not recently “under Pontius Pilate.” Only men could be initiated into the mystery of Mithras so their wives became Christians and baptized their children.

Christianity has adapted to become the official ideology for three stages of class society: slave-owning, feudal and capitalist. Patriarchal monotheism recognizes a transcendent Father God but denies the ancient Mother Goddess, which Paul, being a Jew, opposed at Ephesus. However, the Christian divine family adopted a mother figure when, a few centuries later, a Church Council at Ephesus formulated the syllogism: Mary is the Mother of Jesus, Jesus is God, therefore Mary is the Mother of God. She was not thought to have pre-existed God in eternity but the phrase “Mother of God” was used to accommodate those who still wanted a divine mother and who could be persuaded that Mary had been promoted to a heavenly role with a unique influence on the admittedly superior masculine deity. How did “Mother of God” differ from “Mother Goddess” in popular consciousness?

Christianity accommodated popular religion by replacing Diana with Mary, gods with saints and idols with icons but jettisoned such “pagan” elements when appropriate at the Reformation. Despite the barbarity of its central concept of blood sacrifice, inherited from the earliest paganism, it continues to address individual guilt. Individuals praying before ubiquitous images have generated visions of Jesus and Mary just as Hindus see Krishna or Kali.

Thus, Paul, not Jesus or Peter, initiated a world religion although he himself was arrested making an offering in the Temple, not having split from Judaism. However, he did start to separate belief in the Resurrection from observance of the Law and thus founded Gentile Christianity. But Paul believed that Jesus would return as soon as he, Paul, had completed his mission to the Gentiles. That did not happen so that could have been the end of the matter. However, by then, Paul had founded churches capable of transforming their belief into Christianity as we know it with the Second Coming relegated to a remote future.

Christianity spread by word of mouth for three decades before the first Gospel was written elsewhere, possibly in Rome. During that time, the pious story of a decent burial in an unused tomb could have originated. However the story originated, the Evangelists received it from the oral tradition, not directly from eye-witnesses of the burial, then elaborated Joseph of Arimathea's role. He was:

“…a respected member of the council…looking for the kingdom of God …” in Mark 15. 43;
“…a member of the council, a good and righteous man, who had not consented to their purpose and deed…looking for the kingdom of God …” in Luke 23. 50-51;
“…a rich man…a disciple of Jesus…” in Matthew 27. 57;
“…a disciple of Jesus, but secretly, for fear of the Jews…” in John 19. 38.

The Evangelists promoted Joseph from a seeker of the kingdom, to a righteous seeker to a rich disciple to a secret disciple, later omitting his council membership. Could he have been simply a council member sent to ensure a hasty burial before the Sabbath? We do not know but it is reasonable to suggest that Christians were motivated to incorporate Joseph into Jesus' group. Unable to prevent Jesus' execution, Christians could at least claim that they had reclaimed his body and entombed it appropriately.

In Matthew 27. 60, the tomb is Joseph's “…own new tomb…” In John 19. 42, the tomb is used for a quick burial because it is “…close at hand…” How reliable is Matthew's claim that Joseph donated his own tomb? Matthew added that claim in order to consolidate a connection between Jesus and Joseph of Arimathea. (In later legend, this Joseph became Jesus' uncle.)

Also during the oral tradition period, some Christians began to insist that the body that had been resurrected was the physical body that had died and been entombed. That body was revived, left the tomb, walked along a road, could be mistaken for a living un-resurrected body, could be touched and could eat. This implies that it had not died. If a man lost consciousness after three hours of impalement and was believed to have died but was later seen walking and talking, it should have been inferred not that he had been resurrected but that he had not died.

The tomb burial, empty tomb and physical Resurrection stories are clearly related. It is easier to imagine a revived body emerging from the enclosed space of a rock tomb that from incarceration in a mass grave. Also, the empty tomb then became an extra piece of physical evidence. If the original concept was of a spiritual Resurrection, as described by Paul, then no one would originally have asked: “Where, now, is the physical body?” It would be understood that it had been irretrievably buried with others in soil or in lime, that it could no longer be found or individually identified and that the only issue was whether Jesus, whose physical body had decayed in the ground, was now spiritually present, in a different kind of body, inspiring the disciples, and, later, blinding Paul. New interpretations of scripture and alleged appearances of Jesus would at that stage have been the only kinds of evidence for the Resurrection, as they in fact are in Paul and Acts.

The empty tomb generated further problems. In itself, it was not evidence for a Resurrection because there could be other theories of what had happened to the body. Matthew invented a guard on the tomb to reply to the accusation that the disciples had stolen the body. I think that the disciples were believers, not deceivers, but their belief started with scriptural reinterpretation and alleged appearances, not with an empty tomb.

Although the Resurrection appearances to the disciples preceded the appearance to Paul, Luke's account of the appearances to the disciples was written decades after the appearance to Paul. I argue that the physicality of Luke's account can be explained as suggested earlier.

A literal physical Resurrection contradicts Paul's account. In Paul's terms, it sounds like the seed retaining its original properties and re-emerging from the ground after the plant has grown. It might be suggested that the resurrected physical body was intermediate between the dead physical body and the resurrected spiritual body with the Ascension as the transition from physical to spiritual. Such an attempted harmonization of mutually incompatible concepts of the Resurrection would nevertheless contradict Paul's insistence that:

“…it is raised a spiritual body…” (I Corinthians 15. 44)

“…raised…” refers to the Resurrection, not to the Ascension, the latter described only by Luke.

In any case, if the apostolic proclamation of the Resurrection was based on an interpretation of scripture reinforced by a traumatic experience and a mistaken identity, if Paul's concept of the Resurrection was based on his traumatic experience and if the Evangelists' concept of the Resurrection was based on a literalist misunderstanding of the apostolic proclamation, then there is no reason to accept either concept and therefore no need to harmonize them.

Mark received the tomb burial story from the oral tradition, committed it to writing, then added that the women “…saw where he was laid…” (Mark 15. 47) in order to introduce an empty tomb story. Mark did not know whether the women saw the tomb in which Jesus was laid but wrote that they did in order to answer in advance the objection that they might have visited the wrong tomb on the Sunday morning. Then, Mark wrote his empty tomb story and ended that by writing that the women told no one about the empty tomb because they were afraid. This may have been his way of explaining to Christian readers why they had not heard the empty tomb story before.

The later Evangelists, receiving their empty tomb story from Mark, contradicted Mark by writing that the women did tell the disciples about the empty tomb. Thus, these Evangelists assumed that the empty tomb story had been present from the beginning, which it had not. Matthew added the guard on the tomb and an angel rolling the stone aside. John added the (earlier) transformation of water into wine, the raising of Lazarus, the story of Doubting Thomas and Jesus' appearance at the Sea of Tiberias.

(This article is about evidence for the Resurrection, not about Jesus' other “miracles”. It seems reasonable to accept that he was a powerful healer of both organic and psychological diseases. The texts indicate that his healing power was great but finite. Preaching the kingdom and healing the sick generated a following that, unfortunately, made him think that he was the Messiah.)

Because Matthew had added the guard on the tomb, he could no longer write that the women had intended to enter the tomb so, instead, he just has them going to see it. Thus, the story is rewritten to suit the purposes of different Evangelists and cannot be factually reliable.

Matthew did not know where the risen Jesus had appeared but had read in Mark :

“…he is going before you to Galilee ; there you will see him as he told you.” (Mark 16. 7)

so Matthew described the disciples as going to Galilee where they saw Jesus although, even at the time, “…some doubted.” ( Matthew 28. 17)

Because, in Matthew, the women do relay the angelic message from the empty tomb to the disciples, Matthew does not need Jesus previously to have told the disciples to go to Galilee so Matthew's version of the angelic utterance is:

“…he is going before you to Galilee ; there you will see him. Lo, I have told you.” (Matthew 28. 7)

In Matthew, none of the eleven touches Jesus or sees him eat. Matthew could be describing an early Christian sermon in which the preacher affirmed Jesus' (spiritual) presence and was misunderstood by some to mean that he himself was Jesus whereas others, rightly, “doubted.”

In Luke, Jesus appears in Jerusalem and tells the disciples to stay there until they receive the Spirit so there is no time for an excursion to Galilee as described, differently, by Matthew and John. Luke had to change the angelic utterance to:

“Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee …” (Luke 24. 6)

Luke wrote:

“To them he presented himself alive after his passion by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days, and speaking of the kingdom of God.” (Acts 1. 3)

We are told that the disciples saw “…many proofs…” but are not told what the proofs were. John tells us that lack of evidence does not matter:

 “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” (John 20. 29)

Acts' “…forty days…” contradicts Luke 's statement that Jesus departed and ascended immediately after his first and only appearance to the eleven. (Luke 24. 50-51) Acts 1. 3 does not tell us what Jesus said about the kingdom. Was it still supposed to come soon? The disciples were still asking this at the end of the forty days but were told only that they would receive the Spirit (Acts 1. 6-8). In John, the disciples received the Spirit at Jesus' first appearance to them, not later at Pentecost (John 20. 22).

The additional passage at the end of Mark has the risen Jesus appearing to: Mary Magdalene; two in the country (whom the others did not believe); the eleven; no one else because he ascended immediately. Total: fourteen.

Matthew has him appearing to: Mary Magdalene and the other Mary (both of whom held his feet); the eleven; possibly others because we are not told what happened next. Total: at least thirteen.

Luke has him appearing to: Peter; the Emmaus couple (whom the others did believe); the eleven and an unspecified number of others; no one else because he ascended immediately. Total: fourteen plus the others.

John has him appearing to: Mary Magdalene (whom he told not to hold him); an unspecified number of disciples hiding without Thomas; the same group with Thomas; seven disciples, including at least four of the eleven; possibly others because we are not told what happened next. Total: possibly twelve if the first group of disciples is merely the eleven.

Acts has him appearing to the chosen apostles minus Iscariot (eleven) but adds that, after the Ascension, a group of about a hundred and twenty considered two and chose one of their number to replace Iscariot as a witness to the Resurrection (Acts 1.2-3; 21-22). Total: official “witnesses” twelve, but total at least a hundred and twenty?

Paul told the Corinthians that he had heard of previous appearances to: Peter; the twelve; over five hundred at once; James; “all the apostles” (1Cor. 15. 5-7). Total: over five hundred and fourteen.

Do the twelve include Judas? How do “all the apostles” differ from the twelve or the surviving eleven? If apostles are not just the twelve but any witnesses of the Resurrection, thus including Paul as the Apostle to the Gentiles, then apparently there are over five hundred. Why did Luke not mention so many? This number seems to be at odds with the idea that the Resurrection appearances occurred for a limited period behind closed doors with the rest of Jerusalem remaining unaware until it was informed by Peter at Pentecost after the appearances to groups had ceased.

Five hundred sworn, signed, detailed, mutually consistent witness statements would have been strong evidence that an unusual event had occurred. The uncorroborated statement that, on one occasion, over five hundred people witnessed an unusual event cannot count as evidence. It is merely a statement. Paul was told it. That is not sufficient reason for us to believe it. We know that statements can be untrue and that people can exaggerate. As David Hume argued, in our experience, men often lie or err but are never resurrected, therefore it is always less likely that a reported Resurrection occurred than that men are lying or mistaken about it.

By listing previous appearances, does Paul accept the concept of physical Resurrection? Only if we assume that Paul's listed appearances were as tangible as Luke 's and John's. We do not know either what had originally occurred or what Paul was told.

The New Testament authors are unclear about both the nature and the location of the Resurrection appearances and also about many associated details. These contradictions did not concern the New Testament editors because their only criterion for canonizing a text was whether it affirmed the apostolic message that Jesus had been resurrected in fulfillment of prophecy. This implies that Christians need not, indeed cannot, defend every account of the Resurrection. Pauline Christians might believe that Peter, Paul and the Evangelists were right to affirm the Resurrection but that:

Peter was wrong to emphasize scriptural passages as against the disciples' experiences;
Peter and Paul were wrong to infer an early Second Coming;
Mark was wrong to infer an empty tomb;
Matthew and John were wrong to infer a Galilean appearance;
Luke and John were wrong to infer a tangible resurrected body;
John was wrong to add the raising of Lazarus.

However, the other men on the road to Damascus did not share Paul's experience. In Acts 9. 7, they heard the voice but saw no one. In Acts 22. 9, they saw the light but did not hear the voice. At least one of these accounts is inaccurate. Why not both? Perhaps they saw the sun shine brightly from behind a cloud, then saw Paul fall and imagined anything else. Word of mouth could reverse the statement that they saw but did not hear into the statement that they heard but did not see.

If Paul's experience was unique to him and if Christianity is reduced to an inner certainty of a spiritual Resurrection, then it lacks the external evidence previously claimed for it. Evangelicals ask us to believe in the risen Jesus before we experience his presence. Although this is illogical, I suggest that it is what the disciples did. Paul went through a similar process but in reverse. He focused his attention on Jesus by actively disbelieving in him, then reversed his loyalty in a moment of psychological crisis. Of all the diverse Christian groups, Evangelicals are closest to the New Testament message, which is why they often believe, like Jesus, Peter and Paul two thousand years ago, that the kingdom will come soon. I expect that their belief also will not be the end of the matter.

Added, 8 Sept 2011: John Shelby Spong, an Episcopalian Bishop, argues that, at the Crucifixion, the disciples fled back to Galilee where, months later, they became convinced that Jesus was risen, then returned to Jerusalem to proclaim the Resurrection. (1) Mark says that they had to return to Galilee. Matthew describes them seeing the risen Jesus in Galilee. Luke moves the sightings to Jerusalem. John inconsistently describes both. On Spong's view, the significance of the road to Emmaus story is that it does show two disciples leaving Jerusalem after the Crucifixion, becoming convinced of the Resurrection elsewhere, then returning to Jerusalem where they told others. Spong confirms interpretation of Hebrew scriptures as the main source of accounts of the Resurrection.

(1) Spong, John Shelby, Resurrection: Myth or Reality?, New York, 1994, pp. 161-180.

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