How Did Easter Originally Happen?

A Hypothesis

Thomas Sheehan

From The Fourth R
Volume 14-4
July-August 2001

Easter according to Popular Piety

Popular Christian piety holds that Jesus’ existence on earth extended beyond his death on Good Friday and spilled over into a miraculous six-week period that stretched from his physical emergence from the tomb on Easter Sunday morning, allegedly on April 9, 30 c.e., to his bodily ascension into heaven forty days later, on Thursday, May 18, 30 c.e.

To judge from the Gospels, it would seem that the activities of the risen Jesus during the forty days after he died included: one breakfast; parts of two dinners; one brief meeting in a cemetery; two walks through the countryside; at least seven conversations (including two separate instructions on how to forgive sins and baptize converts) — all of this climaxing in his physical ascension into heaven from a small hill just outside Jerusalem. Impossible though the task is, if we were to try to synthesize the gospel stories into a consistent chronology of what Jesus did during those hectic six weeks between his resurrection from the dead and his ascension into heaven, the agenda would look something like the following chart.

Chart: Chronology of Jesus’ Alleged Easter Activities

It is clear that the scriptural stories about this six-week period contradict one another with regard to the number and places of Jesus’ appearances, the people who were on hand for such events, and even the date and the location of the ascension into heaven. Despite the best efforts, the gospel accounts of Jesus’ post mortem activities in fact cannot be harmonized into a consistent “Easter chronology.” Nor need we bother to ask if the miraculous events of this Easter period could have been observed or recorded by cameras or tape recorders, had such devices been available. The reasons both for the patent inconsistencies and the physical unrecordability of these miraculous “events” come down to one thing: The gospel stories about Easter are not historical accounts but religious myths.

In any case, the New Testament does not in fact assert that Jesus came back to life on earth, or that he physically left his grave alive after he had died, nor does it maintain that faith in him is based on an empty tomb. What is more, almost forty years would pass after Jesus’ death before the Christian Scriptures so much as mentioned an empty tomb (Mark 16:6, written around 70 c.e.), and it would take yet another ten to twenty years after that (ca. 80– 90 c.e.) before the Gospels of Matthew and Luke would claim that Jesus’ followers had seen and touched his risen body.

If Christianity stands or falls with the resurrection, may we ask when Jesus was raised from the dead? The Scriptures make no attempt actually to date the resurrection to Easter Sunday morning, nor do they claim that anyone saw Jesus rise physically from the dead and exit the tomb. They do not even assert that the resurrection took place at Jesus’ tomb. In fact, catechetical popularizations aside, Christianity does not claim that the resurrection was a historical event, a happening in space and time.

But if the gospel accounts of Easter are myths rather than historical accounts, what actually did happen after the crucifixion? Bereft as we are of historical access to the resurrection, we find ourselves thrown back on the claims of Simon Peter and other early believers that they had certain religious experiences (“appearances”) which convinced them that Jesus continued to exercise power after his death. The first recorded claim of such appearances (I Corinthians 15:5– 8) was not written down by Paul until some twenty-five years after the crucifixion.

Let us attempt to imagine a scenario of historical events that actually took place in the days and weeks after Jesus died.

Reconstructing the Original Easter

According to the best scholarly estimates, the last historical event in the life of Jesus of Nazareth was his death on April 7, 30 c.e., following the torture of crucifixion. No coroner was present to record the medical facts, but the Scriptures and the Christian creed put the matter simply and directly: He died and was buried. Jesus had not fainted. He was dead. And in the spirit of the New Testament we may add: He never came back to life.

The Passover festival of 30 c.e. came and went, and life returned to normal. Jesus’ closest disciples probably knew of his death only by hearsay. Most likely they had not been present at the crucifixion and did not know where he was buried. Having abandoned Jesus when he was arrested, they had fled in fear and disgrace to their homes in Galilee. There, grieving at their loss, they faced the crushing scandal of those last days in Jerusalem.

The scandal was not that Jesus had been condemned to die on the cross. Traumatic as it was for the disciples, the murder of Jesus was not entirely a surprise; indeed, it seemed to be almost inevitable. Death was the price that heroes like him had long paid (John the Baptist was only the most recent case) for threatening the cherished world of the religious establishment and the vaunted omnipotence of empire. Jesus had known what was in store for him, and had accepted it with courage, trusting himself without reserve to the cause of God with humankind. By living the kingdom and becoming what he lived, Jesus demonstrated his conviction that not even his death could cancel God’s presence. This is what Jesus finally meant by “Abba”: everything, even death, was in the hands of his loving Father.

The scandal of those last days in Jerusalem was not that Jesus was crucified, but that the disciples lost faith in what he had proclaimed. Jesus’ every word had been a promise of life, but the disciples fled when threatened with death. He had trusted utterly in God; but they feared other men. On the night before Passover, they abandoned Jesus to his enemies, just after sharing with him the cup of a fellowship that was supposed to be stronger than death.

We can imagine the scene. Simon, later to be called Cephas or Peter — a fisherman perhaps thirty years of age — had returned in haste to Capernaum, his village on the Sea of Galilee. He thinks of his friend, whose body has begun to rot in a grave outside Jerusalem. Long after the event Matthew reconstructs Peter’s thinking. He has him recall their last meal together.

Simon declared to Jesus, “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away!” Jesus said to him, “Truly, I say to you, this very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” Simon said to him: “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you.” — Matt 26:33–35

Matthew has Simon remember the darkness of Gethsemane that same night as Jesus went ahead into the grove to pray. Suddenly the arrival of armed men, the torchlight red on sweaty faces, a kiss of betrayal. Then Simon’s cowardly flight through the olive grove and away into the night.

A Key Role for Simon in the Construction of Easter

Throughout the gospels and in the early part of Acts, Simon is a central character. So let us imagine a role for Peter that was so special that it could give rise to these later traditions.

In those dark days after Jesus’ death, Simon had a religious insight, a “revelatory experience” that he took as a message from God’s future. We cannot know exactly how the insight dawned on him. But we do know that pious Jews of the time felt at home with a broad spectrum of ecstatic visions and manifestations: theophanies (Acts 7:55), angelophanies (Luke 1:11), revelations (Gal 1:12), epiphanies of returning prophets (Mark 8:28), and stories about how Gentiles had converted to Judaism after having visions of blinding light (the way Saul of Tarsus would turn to the Jesus movement: cf. Acts 9:3). It was this lexicon of revelation-experiences that later tradition has Simon spontaneously draw upon when he first tries to put into words the “Easter experience” that he underwent in Capernaum. In his darkest despair, the Father’s forgiveness, that gift that was God himself, had swept him up again and undone his doubts. Simon “saw” — God revealed it to him in an ecstatic vision — that the Father had taken Jesus into the God’s own power and would send him again soon, in glory, to usher in God’s kingdom.

And having “turned again” under the power of God’s grace, Simon took the lead (Luke 22:32). He hastened to gather Jesus’ closest followers together at his own house and share his experience with them. They all reflected on what they had earnestly hoped for and renewed their faith. They spoke of their master, recalled his extraordinary message, and prayed his comforting eschatological words in a new and fresh way: “Abba, thy kingdom come!”

They began to call their new leader “Simon Kepha,” the rock of faith. They clung to that rock, and they too sensed the gift of God’s future undoing their lack of faith. They too “saw” God’s revelation and had their own Easter experience.

There in Capernaum — without having laid eyes on Jesus since the moment he was dragged off to his trial, without seeing Jesus’ tomb in Jerusalem or hearing that it was supposedly empty — Simon and the other disciples experienced Easter. We cannot know the psychological genesis of that experience, but we do know its result. They believed that Jesus had been swept up into God’s power and would soon return. God’s reign would quickly be realized.

The Jesus movement was born—or rather, was reborn, since it had already existed during Jesus’ lifetime—as Simon and the others began proclaiming the message of Jesus in the same synagogues of Capernaum, Chorazin, and Bethsaida where he himself had preached it. “Repent!” they exhorted the people. “The kingdom of God is at hand!”

How did Simon (and the other disciples) put this experience into words? We should not conclude too hastily that Simon proclaimed that Jesus had been physically raised from the dead. The “resurrection” was not a historical event but only one possible way, among many others, in which Simon could interpret the divine vindication of Jesus that he claimed to have experienced. In fact, “resurrection” was probably not the first term that he used to express what he had “seen.” Probably the earliest way that Simon put into words his renewed faith in God’s kingdom was to say that God had “glorified” his servant (Acts 3:13), that he had “exalted” him to his right hand (2:33), that he had assumed him into heaven and “designated” him the agent of the coming eschaton (3:20)—without any mention of a physical resurrection. Later believers would say merely that Jesus had “entered heaven” and “appeared before God.” Simon and the disciples probably used these and other ways to express their Easter experience, their discovery that Jesus had been rescued from death and been appointed God’s special eschatological deputy.

Of course, the language of resurrection was also available, but in the apocalyptic context of the times a resurrection did not necessarily mean that a dead person came back to life and physically left his grave. Some rabbis, to be sure, did promise a dramatically physical resurrection at the end of time, when bodies would return with the same physique that they formerly had (including blemishes) and even with the same clothes. But these fanciful hopes were only one part of the broad spectrum of eschatological hopes, which included as well the promise of resurrections that entailed no vacating of the grave.

The Gospels, for example, say that Herod Antipas thought Jesus was really John the Baptist raised from the dead (cf. Mark 6:16). Today we might suggest that the tetrarch could have allayed his fears by making a trip to the Dead Sea and having John the Baptist’s body exhumed. But that thought probably did not even occur to Herod (nor to the writers of the gospels) any more than it occurred to Simon to go down to Jerusalem from Galilee to check whether Jesus’ bones were still in the tomb. In first-century Palestine, belief in a resurrection did not depend on cemetery records and could not be shaken by exhumations or autopsies. Resurrection was an imaginative, apocalyptic way of saying that God saved the faithful person as a whole, however that wholeness be defined (see, for example, I Cor 15:35ff.). Resurrection did not mean having one’s molecules reassembled and then exiting from a tomb.

Regardless of whether Simon used the apocalyptic language of exaltation or of resurrection to express his identification of Jesus with God’s coming kingdom, neither of these symbolic terms committed Simon to believing that Jesus went on existing or appearing on earth after his death. Affirmations of resurrection or even appearances are not statements about the post mortem history of Jesus but religious interpretations of Simon’s Easter experience. And for Christianity, Simon’s experience is the first relevant historical event after the death and burial of Jesus.

In other words, according to the popular and mythical Easter chronologies that some Christians try to establish from the Gospels, the order of events after the crucifixion is as follows:


However, the actual sequence of events after the death of Jesus seems to be quite different, and on our hypothesis would look like the following.


Let me explain the difference between the two accounts.

The Easter Experience

I have suggested that something happened to Simon and the other disciples in the order of space and time, perhaps even over a period of time — an experience that could have been as dramatic as an ecstatic vision, or as ordinary as reflecting on the meaning of Jesus’ life and death. In any case it was an experience to which no one else, whether believer or nonbeliever, could have direct, unmediated access. In fact, not even Simon could claim unmediated access to the experience he underwent: He knew it only by interpreting it. Eventually Simon and the others who interpreted his role would speak of his experience in one of the many apocalyptic symbols that were at hand: “Jesus has appeared to Simon.” But such an appearance need not have been a physical-ocular manifestation of Jesus. Simon understood his experience as an eschatological revelation that Jesus had been appointed the coming Son of Man. Simon now believed that God had taken Jesus into the eschatological future and would send him to usher in the kingdom at the imminent end of time.

A Secondary Formulation of the Easter Experience

The rescue of Jesus from death and his exaltation and imminent return soon came to be codified in yet another of the available apocalyptic formulae: “God has raised Jesus from the dead.” Eventually the term “resurrection” became the dominant and even normative word for expressing what Simon and the disciples believed had happened to Jesus.

But even then, for the early believers to speak of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead did not mean that they looked back to a historical event that supposedly happened on Sunday, April 9, 30 c.e. The “event” of the resurrection is like the “event” of creation: No human being was present, no one could or did see it, because neither “event” ever happened. Both creation and the resurrection are not events but interpretations of what some people take to be divine actions toward the world.Thus, all attempts to “prove the resurrection” by adducing physical appearances or the emptiness of a tomb entirely miss the point. They confuse an apocalyptic symbol with the meaning it is trying to express.

For Simon and the others, “resurrection” was simply one way of articulating their conviction that God had vindicated Jesus and was coming soon to dwell among this people. And this interpretation would have held true for the early believers even if an exhumation of Jesus’ grave had discovered his rotting flesh and bones.

In short, the grounds for Simon’s Easter faith were neither the discovery of an empty tomb (Simon most likely did not know where the prophet was buried) nor the physical sighting of Jesus’ risen body (this is not what an eschatological appearance is about). Easter happened when Simon had what he thought was an eschatological revelation, which overrode his doubts and led him to identify Jesus with the one who soon would come to bring in God’s reign.

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