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.