On the morning of 5 April, AD 33, women carrying spices to anoint the corpse of Jesus of Nazareth discovered that the tomb in which the corpse had been put was empty. One of them, Mary Magdalene, instantly concludes that the body had been stolen. Within hours, however, the story that Jesus had risen from death and walked out of the tomb alive was circulating among his disciples.
How is it that this story became Christianity’s ‘official’ explanation for what happened to Jesus?
The rise of Christianity is predicated on the claim of Jesus’ resurrection. If the resurrection were merely a fictional or mythological portrayal of ultimate vindication, then Jesus’ remains would still have occupied the tomb in which he’d been laid. If this were so, then the claim of resurrection could have been easily countered factually, for people could have gone to the tomb, opened it up, and seen the body. It would have been easy to produce the body, then, and prove the production of the myth. However, this never happened. Nor did anyone claim that the resurrection was actually a mythical claim. The resurrection claim seems to have been understood as actual—that is, the claim was that Jesus physically walked out of his tomb. And there appears to have been no evidence available to counter this claim. If there were, Christianity never would have gotten off the ground 1980 years ago. But it did!
So what was going on?
We’re left with a few possible scenarios. Possibly there was a hoax going on—the most successful in history, and for which the instigators were willing to be martyred. It just might be that Jesus’ followers, who had all abandoned him to save their own skins, now tried to save their own reputations by rehabilitating the reputation of their fallen master. In this way, they could claim to have followed the ultimate winner and not have been stigmatised for their association with him. But if so, this failed miserably, for they were stigmatised anyway, and they eventually did lose their own skins. So if the resurrection were a hoax, then we have to give the disciples full marks for commitment to fraud that backfired on them anyway, and superb pride at not being willing to admit it.
Alternatively, grave robbers took Jesus’ body. However, this would be a very odd thing, since bodies themselves were not valuable to grave robbers. Bodies rotted! It was, rather, the spices, linen and other trinkets buried with a body that were valuable. But there were no spices applied to Jesus’ corpse when he was buried. The Sabbath evening was approaching when Jesus’ corpse was removed from his cross, and he was hastily buried without the unguents to mask the smell of decomposition. The women who came to the tomb on the morning after the Sabbath were, in fact, coming to add those unguents to the body when they found the tomb empty. And the linen was found in the tomb. In other words, the only thing of value in the tomb, the linen, was not taken. Despite this oddity, the first explanation entertained by Mary Magdalene, one of those women, was that Jesus’ body had been taken. And yet, she changed her story. Why?
Again, we may have a hoax, in which case Mary certainly pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes, or managed to convince others to join her hoax. But this then raises the issues I mention above about the unlikelihood of hoax. Alternatively, perhaps someone was playing a cruel trick on the disciples by removing the body and giving the impression of a resurrection. Or perhaps Mary just ended up projecting wishful thinking into a grand story of resurrection. In either of those two cases, we have to conclude that they led to mass hallucination of groups of people all seeing the exact same hallucination of Jesus alive again, and all at the same time.
Alternatively, Jesus’ followers, most of whom had abandoned him before his execution, actually saw him alive again. Once more, they were all seeing the same thing. If there were only independent ‘sightings’ of a risen Jesus, then the evidence is weakened considerably. There would be little corroboration between the various sightings. But there were groups of people all seeing the same thing, including apparently about 500 people at one time. The empirical evidence pushed these people to conclude that, despite all expectations, this guy had actually come back to life. They all knew what ‘dead’ meant, and some of them had seen and touched Jesus’ dead body. But the empirical evidence that confronted them on 5 April, AD 33, and for weeks thereafter, forced them to conclude that Jesus had risen.
Now whether Jesus did come to life or not is a big call, and I can understand people’s doubt over that. However, the best explanation for the rise of Christianity is that Jesus’ followers honestly believed that he had risen from the dead. And there was no evidence available to counter that claim. His tomb was empty. Either the disciples got away with a huge call, or Jesus did walk out of his tomb alive.
Today, 5 April 2013, Christianity turns 1980 years old.