How to evolve a resurrection myth

Since a lot of people are celebrating Easter this weekend, I thought it might be a good time to review how easy it is to end up with a resurrection story in the absence of anything supernatural. This account is a bit different from some of the better-known explanations of the Gospel story, but I think it’s more plausible than at least some of them, and might be the most plausible explanation of all.

My theory is that the modern resurrection gospel evolved in two main stages. In the first stage, Jesus only rose from the dead “spiritually,” which is a version of the Gospel championed (unsuccessfully) by the apostle Paul. This spiritual resurrection story then evolved, fairly early on, into a literal, physical, flesh-and-blood resurrection story (but with remnants of the earlier, spiritual resurrection still present in the text).

Here is one possible scenario by which this could come about. For purposes of this scenario, we’ll assume that there was an actual, living rabbi named Jesus, so if you prefer a mythicist interpretation of the New Testament, please just bear with me here.

We start with a living rabbi and faith “healer” named Jesus, wandering around, collecting donations from his followers and doing the kind of “healing” where you watch an epileptic kid having a seizure, have some small talk with the dad for a few minutes until the seizure is just about over, and then just before it ends, command the “demon” to come out, and then declare the kid healed when he stops shaking. By the time the poor kid has his next seizure, you’ll be long gone with your followers, and if dad ever catches up with you, you’ll declare that the kid got re-possessed, probably because of the dad’s sin. Standard fare for faith healers.

Along the way, this Jesus makes a few enemies among the powerful, with whom he is competing for followers, and eventually crosses a line somewhere and gets himself sentenced to death. He is crucified after having been savagely beaten and dies shortly thereafter due to loss of blood and other injuries. Per the story as we have it today, he is placed in the tomb belonging to a member of the Council.

Now, this Council member is secretly a Christian, but there are at least some disciples who don’t know that because, hello, he’s secretly a Christian. As far as these disciples are concerned, the Council that killed Jesus has also confiscated his body, and that’s just wrong. Despite its being the Sabbath, in the stress and trauma and poor judgment of the situation, these disciples “rescue” the body of Jesus and move it to a temporary grave somewhere else, without the knowledge of any of the apostles or other famous/important disciples. This happens prior to the following morning, where (Matthew claims) the Pharisees allegedly decided to go to Pilate and ask for the tomb to be guarded.

At this point the body of Jesus becomes lost. Perhaps the disciples lost faith in Jesus and were too remorseful for having broken the Sabbath in moving his body. Perhaps they got arrested and didn’t want to explain whose body it was for fear of being crucified along with him. Or they might have gotten ambushed by bandits preying on pilgrims coming to the city for the Passover holiday, and been killed themselves, without anybody realizing who else’s body was there among the dead. Or perhaps they just buried it in an unmarked grave somewhere, unembalmed, and by the time anyone went to look for it, there was nothing left to find. But then again, maybe nobody would have any reason to go look for it, as I’ll explain shortly.

Fast forward to Sunday morning. The women and/or the apostles arrive at the grave and find it empty. They have no idea that other disciples have moved the body, and thus no explanation for the empty tomb. The apostle John tells us, in his gospel, that he immediately concluded that Jesus had risen from the dead, just on the basis of finding the tomb empty. But notice, this is not like the story of Lazarus walking out of the tomb, since Jesus obviously is not there now. The tomb is as empty of a living Jesus as it is of a dead one. So John decides that Jesus has risen from the dead in a “spiritual body,” and that’s why they can’t see him.

John spreads his good news of Jesus’ spiritual “resurrection,” and people begin reinforcing his story with tales of mysterious appearances and personal encounters with the spirit of Jesus. These stories have a lot of common elements with the ghost stories of urban legend: spooky tales of people who appear to be one thing, and then suddenly are revealed to be something else; spirits materializing inside rooms with locked doors and shuttered windows; inexplicable, supernatural manifestations occurring in conjunction with the sudden appearance of the departed, and so on.

Meanwhile, word is leaking out that the original body was actually stolen by disciples. Not the Twelve Disciples, but disciples small “d”. As Matthew records, there are widespread reports in Palestine that disciples had stolen the body, which is why he tries to discredit the reports by claiming bribed guards. But the reports are true. Disciples did steal the body. But so what? Christians at that time believed Jesus rose from the dead in a spiritual body, not in his original flesh and blood. If someone could go out and discover Jesus’ physical remains, that would no more damage the Christian’s faith than a fossil Archeopteryx would convert Ken Ham to Darwinism.

This would be, then, the unique incubator for the modern Gospel story. In its fledgling state, it would appeal only to those who already worshiped Jesus, but for those who truly wanted to believe it, it would form the foundation of an invincible faith. Energized by the rebound from their traumatic loss, the early disciples would be transformed by the idea that Jesus’ death was actually the salvation of all mankind (rather than being the material proof that they’d all been duped into following an ordinary con man, thus harnessing tremendous power of human desire to have been right all along). The mere physical remains of Jesus’ physical body would be, pardon the expression, immaterial.

This version of the Gospel can still be found in I Corinthians 15, possibly the earliest written record of the Christian Gospel. In this passage, Paul can be found dealing with the consequences of trying to reach outside of the core cadre of Jewish believers, to convince skeptical Greeks and Romans that a “spiritual” resurrection was a genuine resurrection. Thus, we find him addressing questions of “what kind of body” the dead are raised with, and how is it that they actually “come back” from the dead. He tries to defend the idea that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God,” and that it’s perfectly reasonable to think that you could have a resurrection without raising the body that was actually buried. He gives a number of examples intending to persuade us that it’s actually better to raise a different “body” than the body that was buried.

These are not the kind of issues you have to deal with when you believe and preach that a previously-dead person, in their original, physical body, had returned to life in their original physical body. Just like when Lazarus is portrayed as being raised from the dead by Jesus, there’s no argument over “what kind of body” he’s coming back in, or whether he can now walk through locked doors. When we’re talking about dead bodies coming back to life, we don’t have the issues Paul was having in I Corinthians 15 because we’re talking about a literal resurrection instead of a spiritual one. Paul’s Gospel, and the source of his woes in Corinth, was the Gospel of a spiritual resurrection in a spiritual body that was different from the “soulish” body that got buried.

This version of the gospel, however, was ultimately unsuccessful. Greeks and Romans were practical people—materialists, so to speak—and for them a resurrection wouldn’t be real unless it was a physical resurrection. And that’s not an unreasonable point. So the Gospel evolved. Yes, Jesus rose from the dead in a spiritual body, but when we say “spiritual,” what we mean is that it was his real body, transformed into something better that could still manifest in physical ways, but could also magically appear and disappear, and walk through walls and locked doors, and so on. (Never mind that spirits have always been alleged to have the ability to manifest physically, as when Lot entertained the angels and fed them and offered to wash their feed, in Genesis 19.)

Thus, by the time the Gospels of Mark and Matthew and Luke were written, the spiritual resurrection of Jesus had evolved into a literal physical resurrection, embellished with a number of details to refute Paul’s initial claims that flesh and blood could not inherit the kingdom of God. The Jesus of the later Gospel writers goes out of his way to prove that he is no ghost (despite having all the abilities a ghost would have), which is a bit anachronistic, since there would have been no need for such proofs if the resurrection had been a literal, physical resurrection all along. The proof would have been the fact that he was there, and that non-believers could see him. Assuming, of course, that any non-believers ever could.

So there you have it. No gods, no miracles, only ordinary human superstitions, rationalizations, and creative thinking, and you still get a Gospel story whose founders would die for their invincible faith without any actual, literal resurrection. And the remnants of the original, spiritual resurrection story are still there, in I Cor. 15 and the ghost stories of the gospels.


    • Deacon Duncan says

      I suspect the “Easter” aspect is more a cross-cultural bleedover rather than any conscious effort to appropriate a pagan holiday for sectarian purposes. It’s interesting that in Eastern Orthodox churches they don’t call it Easter, they call it “Pascha,” which is closer to the original term.

  1. says

    I like your theory; it’s consistent with human behavior regarding con artists: cognitive dissonance plus post-facto rationalization. There have been so many end of the world cults or personality cults that have ended in a prediction failing, followed by denial and retroactive construction; it’s hard not to see what happened with jesus as a pretty obvious case.of the same thing.

  2. david says

    Perhaps it was the other way around. Historically, some people survived crucifixion for over a day – 6 hours may not have been lethal. Jesus hung on the cross for 6 hours, and perhaps was near death but not really dead when they took him down. Historically, somve been lethal. After a couple day’s rest, he recovers, visits his disciples briefly, and then flees before the Romans find him. So the disciples invented the “resurrection story” to fit the facts as they saw them.

  3. Uncle Ebeneezer says

    My theory is that the modern resurrection gospel evolved in two main stages. In the first stage, Jesus only rose from the dead “spiritually,” which is a version of the Gospel championed (unsuccessfully) by the apostle Paul. This spiritual resurrection story then evolved, fairly early on, into a literal, physical, flesh-and-blood resurrection story (but with remnants of the earlier, spiritual resurrection still present in the text).

    Would love to hear fellow Ftb’er Richard Carrier’s take on this. Just sayin’. That would make a real interesting interview (unless you already did so and I’m just failing to remember it.)

  4. grumpyoldfart says

    You can also see the Easter story evolving over the years if you follow the tale of Judas:

    In 1 Corinthians 11:23 Paul says that Jesus was betrayed but he doesn’t name the betrayer. Later, in 1 Corinthinans 15:5, Paul says that after the resurrection, Jesus appeared to “the Twelve”, so Judas was not yet dead, and apparently not regarded as a betrayer either. Judas was still with the apostles and apparently still being treated as an equal; certainly not dead.

    Twenty years later, however, by the time Mark wrote his gospel in 70AD, it had become accepted that Jesus was betrayed by Judas, but there was no indication that Judas had died.

    Ten years after that, when Matthew wrote his gospel in 80AD, the legend had grown to the point where Judas had seen the error of his ways and committed suicide during a fit of remorse.

    And another ten years after that, Luke invented a much more mysterious death for Judas, saying that he fell over and his bowels gushed out. Luke makes no mention of suicide. Luke is trying to give the impression that Judas was zapped by God himself.

    In 50AD Judas was still an apostle with not a stain on his character.

    In 70AD Judas had become the apostle who betrayed Jesus.

    In 80AD He was the betrayer who died at his own hand.

    In 90AD He was the betrayer, struck down by a miracle from God.

    We can see the legend growing bit by bit as each book is written.

  5. busterggi says

    Considering the apostles didn’t recognise the ‘resurrected’ Jesus an there was confusion about John the Baptist being the resurrected Elijah I’d say anyone with a taste for power could have claimed to have been the ‘resurrected’ Jesus even if no actual Jesus ever existed.

  6. Ed says

    I like your speculations, but mine are simpler. Very few crucifixion victims were buried or preserved in any way. They were left to scavengers. So there would have probably been no body or tomb to begin with.

    As the myth evolved from a simple “his spirit returned to Heaven” to an elaborate physical reesurrection story (reflecting his followers` desire for physical immortality and the need for a miracle story), the lack of an identifiable body or burial place would bolster the claim.

    “Prove he didn’t physically come back to life, unbelievers! Where’s his body, then?” The story of the donated tomb and his close associates finding it empty on Sunday morning might have developed to counter the obvious response of “how many crucified people do you know who were taken down and buried?”

    It also gives the gruesome crucifixion story some dignity, having the hero be tended to and buried with honor in a rich man’s tomb.

    • Deacon Duncan says

      That’s also a possibility, but I like mine better for a few reasons (well, in addition to the fact that it’s my theory, that is 🙂 ). First, I think that if there were an actual empty tomb, the shock of finding it empty would immediately give the story a tremendous kick-start, urban-legend-wise, and would also make a big enough impression on the apostles that they would later be willing to literally die for their belief that Jesus rose from the dead. The alternative would be to propose that the apostles were all also fictitious and only died for their faith fictionally, which in turn would suggest that some or all of the early “Church Fathers,” such as Polycarp, were also fictitious, etc. That seems like a more difficult line of reasoning to sustain, but I could be wrong or unaware of some important information.

      Another reason I like my theory better is that it provides a setting in which it would make sense for there to be widespread reports in Palestine to the effect that the disciples had moved the body. We know that there were widespread reports like that because Matthew found it necessary to invent the story of the guards in order to discredit the reports. Of course, Matthew could have invented those reports as well, but that seems like a counterproductive fabrication. If nobody were claiming that the body had been moved, why would a gospel writer a new speculation for how Jesus might not really have risen?

      Lastly, I think my version fits the available timeframes better. If the body had simply decayed in situ at the cross, or been eaten by animals, people would know, and it would take longer to displace the actual facts with a more mythological outcome. Plus I think in I Cor. 15, Paul would have used the dissolution of Jesus’ body to bolster his argument that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God,” had he been aware of it. A suddenly-missing body makes for more immediate rationalization about spiritual resurrections, even a more materialistic story is needed to appeal to the masses.

      Plus, I don’t think it’s surprising to suggest that the body of a beloved rabbi would be treated differently than the bodies of murderers and rapists and others that were more typically crucified. If anybody were ever claimed from a cross and buried, it seems perfectly reasonable that someone like Jesus would be.

  7. RJW says

    Another explanation is that Christians simply assimilated pagan myths of sacrifice and resurrection, so as to give the new religion some credibility, after their prophet’s rather inconvenient demise.

    • Deacon Duncan says

      That’s also a possibility. There is some speculation that the story of the resurrection of Lazarus was really a garbled and Christianized version of the story of the resurrection of the god (Hebrew: “el“) Osiris. “El Osiris” => “Lazarus”. The name “Lazarus” is otherwise a very peculiar and un-Hebrew name for a Palestinian Jew to be given, or so I’ve heard.

      • RJW says

        All religions are syncretic to some degree, a Sumerian flood myth became a Hebrew flood myth for example. It’s interesting to speculate, however, I’d put my money on the Resurrection as a desperate attempt by proto-Christians to put some positive ‘spin’ on the death of Jesus, and they succeeded beyond all expectations. Many were educated in the Greco-Roman tradition, so they could find inspiration there. The actual events after Jesus’ death are probably irrelevant.

      • Deacon Duncan says

        One actual event that would be significant, I think, would be if the body were moved without the apostle’s knowledge. Imagine if the National Inquirer (or for that matter, got hold of a story whose headline was something like “Widow Attends Funeral, Finds Husband’s Casket Empty.” Can you imagine the virality of a story like that? It’s got urban legend written all over it, and if there was, in fact, a real widow who really was shocked to find an empty casket that should have had her late husband’s body in it, then it’s just that much more compelling and viral. If a similar event happened at the inception of Christianity, it would explain a lot.

  8. Nick Gotts says

    First, the majority view is that John was the last gospel written, not the first – that being Mark. I understand that this is not by any means beyond question, but surely worth mentioning if you’re going against the majority view. Notice that Mark, if we subtract the last few verses, which are widely thought to have been added later, doesn’t include any post-resurrection appearances.
    Second, if the physical body had disappeared, why would John (or anyone else) say that the resurrection was a “spiritual” one? These two elements of your scenario don’t seem to me to hang together.
    Third, I think there’s a much simpler explanation for a missing body than this Carry On scenario of corpse-stealing and subsequent corpse-mislaying; it was never buried where those who came looking for it thought it was. Take a gander at this essay, written by a Christian. The tl;dr version of it is that Jesus was given a “shameful burial” in Jewish terms, the signs of this being gradually obscured in later gospels (the Council would not have wanted any Jew unburied over the Sabbath and Pilate would probably have granted a request from them to bury Jesus without ceremony); and that few if any of Jesus’s followers would have witnessed the burial – and if any did, only from a distance. So (this is my take, not the author’s), quite possibly the women who came hoping to anoint the corpse went to the wrong grave – they were, after all, not residents in Jerusalem, and if they saw the burial at all, it would have been from a distance, and when in a highly emotional state. The grave was empty simply because no-one had been buried there; meanwhile, the body of Jesus was quietly rotting elsewhere.

    • Deacon Duncan says

      Oh dear, I certainly didn’t mean to imply that John’s gospel was earlier than any of the others. The earliest gospel story that I’m aware of is the one in I Cor. 15. Mark and the rest came after that, and John last of all. I’m firmly with the majority view on this point. I only mentioned Matthew, Mark, and Luke separately from John because they came so much earlier than John did.

      As to why John would equate a missing body with a resurrection, I suspect his first thought would have been that Jesus had gotten up and gone straight to heaven. Then, when he started telling people that Jesus had come back from the dead, you’d start getting Elvis stories, which would get back to John, and convince him that the “risen” Jesus was still present on earth, in some kind of spirit form. So he’d start with the idea that Jesus had risen in some kind of physical sense, and then that would swiftly morph into a spiritual resurrection.

      I’ve heard the “misplaced burial” theory before, and I suppose it’s possible. It seems less plausible to me that such a trivial error could be sustained for long enough to produce the subsequent myth, but it’s not altogether impossible, especially if you combine it with the idea of a “spiritual resurrection” gospel morphing into a “physical resurrection” gospel after the remains of Jesus had decomposed.

      • Nick Gotts says

        Pardon me if this or similar appears more than once: I had problems logging in.

        I’ve heard the “misplaced burial” theory before

        I came up with it independently, but I guess it’s no surprise I don’t have priority!

        It seems less plausible to me that such a trivial error could be sustained for long enough to produce the subsequent myth

        But if McCane’s burial scenario is correct, then it’s quite possible none of Jesus’s followers knew the correct site – and if the Council members had come out with it after wild stories started circulating, they would have been disbelieved as just trying to discredit the resurrection.

        I still don’t get your point about the idea of a spiritual resurrection coming first – if it was prompted by a supposedly vanishing body, surely a physical resurrection fits better.

      • Deacon Duncan says

        A physical resurrection fits better IF you have a physically-resurrected Jesus to back it up. A “spiritual” resurrection is a better fit for “appearances” where Jesus isn’t actually physically there, which would be essentially all of the “appearances” being rumored and/or subjectively experienced by believers. Later on, after the gospel has spread to people who (unlike the apostles) have no reason to expect to see an appearance of Jesus, the physical resurrection story would become more appealing again, because the spiritual resurrection story solves a problem that outsiders/latecomers wouldn’t have. Plus you would have the Ascension story by then, at which point the spiritual/physical character of the resurrection body would be a moot point.

  9. CJO says

    Greeks and Romans were practical people—materialists, so to speak—and for them a resurrection wouldn’t be real unless it was a physical resurrection. And that’s not an unreasonable point.

    I suppose it wouldn’t have been, but it didn’t come up in those terms because you have it backwards. A disembodied, immaterial soul (psyche) was old hat to traditional Greco-Roman polytheists and “materialist” philosophers alike (scare quotes because, yeah, not materialists in any meaningful sense). But in Semitic culture, there really is no equivalent concept. Souls (ruach, divine breath, wind, spirit) were attached to bodies and had no function or ability outside of one. Think of ossuaries: Judaeans stacked the bones of their their dead in boxes inscribed with the names of the deceased so that God could find and identify them for judgment at The End of Days. Talk about “materialist”!
    So, schemes like the general resurrection at the end of time necessarily imagined a physical world of some exalted or “new and improved” kind, with physically resurrected people inhabiting it in new and improved exalted bodies of some kind. This is the widespread 2nd-Temple understanding by the 1st century BCE, and so forms the background for the myth of the physical resurrection of Jesus. Conversely, for Greco-Roman polytheists, a physical resurrection was a yucky idea, like a walking, decomposing corpse, a zombie.

    • Deacon Duncan says

      You raise an interesting point. If, as you say, the Jews had a very physical concept of resurrection, then they would have been right at home with the kind of resurrection story Christians tell today, i.e. a physical resurrection. Conversely, if the early Christians had started out preaching a spiritual resurrection, then there would have been a theological clash, because the spiritual body wouldn’t match their expectation of what kind of body a resurrection body would be. The point of contention would be “How are the dead raised, and with what kind of body do they come?” exactly as it happened in I Cor. 15. And the congregation in Corinth, according to Acts 18, was started by Paul preaching in the synagogue there, so there would have been converted orthodox Jews to dispute the resurrection with him. And they wouldn’t have had anything to disagree with him over, if he had been preaching the kind of physical resurrection they were expecting.

      So maybe you’re right. Maybe the impetus to adopt a more “physicalized” resurrection came from the Jewish believers, especially from religious leaders with more theological training. The common folk might be satisfied with ghost stories and untutored superstitions, but the pushback from learned Jewish converts might have turned the tide.

      Thanks for pointing that out.

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