After the publication of my book The Trouble with Resurrection and my many presentations on the topic, the most frequent question people ask me is, “What really happened on Easter morning?” Here are some ways to think about an answer.
The New Testament contains no story of anyone actually witnessing the resurrection. This is because no story exists of the actual event. The early Jesus followers were creative in their invention of sayings and stories about Jesus, but apparently not about his resurrection.
Scholarly consensus holds that the author of Mark’s Gospel created the empty tomb story (Mark 16:1–8). Jesus makes no appearance. The tomb is empty. And the young man the women find there tells them that they will see Jesus in Galilee. Yet no narrative of a Galilee encounter follows. Instead, the Gospel ends with the narrator’s enigmatic statement: “And once they got outside, they ran away from the tomb, because great fear and excitement got the better of them. And they didn’t breathe a word of it to anyone: talk about terrified . . .” (Mark 16:8).
The other three canonical Gospels clearly depend on Mark’s empty tomb story—Matthew and Luke directly and John more elusively. The basic elements of an empty tomb discovered by women comes directly from Mark in the case of Matthew and Luke. The author of the Fourth Gospel modifies the story in that Gospel’s typical fashion by reducing a group of women to a single character, Mary Magdalene. Examples of his pattern are evident in Nicodemus (John 3), the woman at the well (John 4), and the beloved disciple (John 12:23).
Significantly, all three Gospels follow Mark’s narrative to 16:8. Then each goes its independent way. They know no alternative to Mark. This means that before 70 CE, there were no stories of Jesus’ resurrection or resurrection appearances. All such stories arise after 70 CE, the earliest possible date for the composition of Mark’s Gospel.
The earliest reference to Jesus’ resurrection is 1 Thessalonians, the earliest New Testament writing (circa 50 CE).
In that letter’s introduction, Paul reminds the community in Thessalonica how they received his preaching: “These reports about you demonstrate how effective our stay was among you: how you have turned away from lifeless images in order to serve the living and real God and to wait for God’s ‘son’ from heaven, whom God raised from among the dead, Jesus, who will rescue us from the condemnation that is sure to come” (1 Thess 1:9–10).
Turning away from lifeless images indicates that the Thessalonians had worshipped idols; in a later terminology, they were pagans. To turn to the living and real God is the typical Jewish expression for converting to the God of Israel. Paul’s letter and preaching were bringing the Thessalonians into Israel’s tent; they do not convert to Christianity.
Paul focuses his message on the future. God’s son will return from heaven (the Parousia) and rescue Jesus’ followers from the coming condemnation of the world. Wedged between Paul’s preaching and the Parousia is Jesus’ resurrection: “whom God raised from the dead.” Paul’s message includes three important points:
1) God did the raising; Jesus did not raise himself through his own power. That God did the raising indicates for Paul that the eschaton, the turn of the ages, is at hand, happening right now. God’s acting is the important point, not Jesus’ action.
2) “Raised” is an extremely common Greek word that means to get up, rise up. It can refer to getting up from a seat, getting up from sleep, or a male’s erection. Neither Greek nor Hebrew has any technical term for resurrection. “Raised up from the dead” is based on the analogy of rising up from sleep. “Raised up from the dead” is metaphorical language: it uses rising up from sleep as a metaphor to understand what will happen when God raises a martyr from death. By contrast, for us “resurrection” functions as a technical theological term and not as a metaphor. For me, that is The Trouble with Resurrection. Modern Christians think resurrection is "a thing,” a unique occurrence that happened only to Jesus, whereas for Paul and his contemporaries it was a metaphor used to understand what God had accomplished for Jesus the martyr, because he was martyred.
3) “Raised from the dead” comes from the martyr tradition in Daniel and Maccabees, which relate to Antiochus Epiphanes’ pogrom against the Jews in 168 BCE. While the circumstances surrounding Antiochus Epiphanes’ attack on Jerusalem are confusing and unclear, the response is not. The attack provoked the Maccabean revolt, a defining moment in the history of Israel, forcing a major shift in its theology. Until that time, Israel had taken an agnostic view about life after death. But the murder of young men for practicing Torah strained the fabric of Israel’s belief structure. How could the God of Israel allow those who worship him and observe his Torah to be executed for doing just that? There were two possibilities: either the God of Israel had been vanquished by Antiochus Epiphanes (“God Manifest”) or the God of Israel must vindicate the martyrs. For the authors of the books of Daniel and Maccabees, the former was unthinkable. Therefore, to avenge the outrage, the God of Israel must raise up these very martyrs from the dead.
Raising up martyrs from the dead was based on a conviction about the God of Israel. It was not at that time a fully elaborated scenario. Details were missing and would remain so. Furthermore, the Sadducees and others rejected the notion of resurrection because it is not found in the Torah, but an innovation.
What happened on Easter morning? Nothing.
After Pontius Pilate had martyred Jesus by crucifying him, in their meals, healing, and storytelling the early followers of Jesus continued to experience God’s empire. In their communal dealings, Jesus was still alive; nothing had changed, even though he had been crucified. They expressed this experience by affirming that God had raised Jesus up from the dead. Their insight (revelation, ἀποκάλυψις, apokalupsis) was based on their understanding of what had happened at the time of Antiochus Epiphanes as elaborated in the books of Daniel and Maccabees. “Raised up from the dead” metaphorically explains their ongoing experience of Jesus. This insight/revelation did not happen in a moment but over a period of time. Precisely because it is an insight/revelation, they confess and announce it but do not narrate a historical resurrection event. His resurrection is not “a thing” but a characteristic of the community’s experience.
Paul also experienced such an insight/revelation/apokalupsis (Gal 1:12). He too confessed and proclaimed it. He did not narrate it. The first narrative occurs only much later in the Acts of the Apostles. By that time, the experience had become a blinding light and a voice (Acts 9:3–4; 22:6–7; 26:13–4); a historical occurrence, not an insight/revelation. Both the blinding light and the voice are absent from Paul’s account in Gal 1:12–19.
Gradually those who had gathered around Jesus thought of his execution not as defeat but victory. The power of God’s empire was still present in their meals, storytelling, preaching, and healing. To explain this, they turned to their tradition, Israel’s Holy Writings, and discovered an answer in the stories of the martyrs under Antiochus Epiphanes. God has raised him up. They incorporated details from those traditions. “On the third day,” for example, comes from Hosea 6:2 and Jonah 2:1 (See 1 Cor 15:4). Only much later, after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, did the Gospel writers elaborate those details into a fuller narrative.
If this seems improbable, consider the response to Martin Luther King’s assassination or martyrdom. Many mourned, some rejoiced, and despair set in. Yet it soon became apparent that the freedoms for which King stood had not been defeated, even if the fight persists. Eventually, a national holiday marking his birthday was proclaimed for the third Monday of January. The struggle continues for the rights and freedoms he espoused. His “I have dream” speech still inspires and white racism continues to push back. There is truth in the claim that the martyr, Martin Luther King, was raised up from death.
Much more could be said about resurrection, but this answers the question about what happened on Easter morning based on the best evidence we have. Should you be interested in more, I lay out the evidence in detail in The Trouble with Resurrection.
On Easter morning I will be thinking about Jesus the martyr and the response of those who viewed his horrific execution not as Rome’s defeat of God’s promised empire but as God somehow still present, still possible. But I will also be remembering all those martyrs who gave their lives for justice and how they have been raised up. Metaphor is a powerful experience. We still need powerful metaphors of hope.
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