Why a “Spiritual” Resurrection is the Only Sensible Option

Jews, Christians, and Muslims all affirm the doctrine of “resurrection of the dead” as a central tenet of eschatology–that is, the understanding of the “last things” or how human history is to end. One common misunderstanding, especially among Christians, is that resurrection of the dead is equivalent to the idea of corpse revival, namely that in order to “make the dead live” (which is the literal Hebrew expression), God would somehow revive the physical bodies of those who have long since perished and turned to dust or ashes–or otherwise been completely absorbed into our planetary ecosystem. This view of resurrection of the dead is often given the label of “literal,” which is taken to mean “actual.”  In other words, in the case of Jesus, unless one believes Jesus’ corpse was “literally” raised to life–i.e., his dead and mutilated body was revivified–then his resurrection would not be “literally” true. The alternative idea, that the “old body” is left behind, like a worn out form of clothing, with the dead “returning to life” in a new transformed state or “mode of being,” is often seen as a threat to Christian apologetics–i.e. the faith that Jesus was truly raised from the dead.

Spiritual BodiesWhat such a view misses is two important things. First, our earliest source for Christian faith in resurrection are the letters of Paul–who clearly affirms a “literal” but spiritual resurrection–for both Jesus and those at the end of history. The dead are raised in an embodied form–but their bodies are no longer “flesh and blood,” but transformed into what he calls a “pneumatikos” body–that is a non-physical “spiritual” mode of being. As Paul puts it–as Adam was “dust of the earth,” so Christ, as a “new Adam,” is a transformed “life-giving Spirit.” Second, the early Christian view of resurrection for the most part developed along similar lines. For most sophisticated Christian thinkers the resurrection of the dead, though seen as “bodily,” was no longer “flesh and blood” and did not necessitate any revival of the literal bones or perished remains of the deceased. After all, only a tiny fraction of human beings who have ever lived on this planet have identifiable “tombs” or graves, from which they might be raised. Clearly the idea of the dead “coming forth from their graves” might be viewed as “actual” but surely not “literal.” Using metaphors to express concepts beyond our physical experience is not robbing the concepts that lie within the metaphor of reality.

I realize that some of the latest gospel accounts of the “sightings” of Jesus present us with Jesus’ physical body–eating meals and displaying his wounds as “proof” that he is no “ghost,” but these have to be laid out chronologically alongside the complex of “appearance” traditions. I have written rather extensively on these subject in both my books (The Jesus Discovery and Paul and Jesus), as well as on this blog, see here. When all our accounts are taken together I am persuaded that Paul’s view of “leaving the old clothing behind” was the earliest–and was shared by the first witnesses he names in 1 Corinthians 15–namely Peter, James, the Twelve, and the “500” brothers.

The discussion of the important differences between the Greek affirmation of the “immortality of the soul,” and the Jewish concept of “resurrection of the dead,” is an essential part of this discussion. Most students of Christian Origins are introduced at some point to Oscar Cullmann’s classic Ingersoll lecture at Harvard in 1955, “Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead?: The Witness of the New Testament,” subsequently published with other s in an edited volume, Immortality and Resurrection (Macmillan) by Krister Stendahl, now out of print. Fortunately, there is a version of the substance of lecture on the Web. What Cullmann showed so clearly is that one must not gloss over the important differences in these two classic Western ways of viewing death and afterlife. However, a half century of research subsequently has shown that the theological differences Cullmann pinpoints are not as airtight as they might appear, when viewed through the lens of the critical historian of ideas. The magisterial study of Alan Segal, Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion changes the entire landscape of the discussion in this regard. Its rich content and analysis is essential to any informed discussion.

If anything one finds that there is a blurring between the sharp distinctions that Cullmann posited, with Jews affirming “resurrection of the dead,” or even “resurrection of the body,” in complex and nuanced ways, often parallel to so-called “Greek” views of immortality. One result is that the literal physical remains of the dead play little to no part, other than in a metaphorical way, in the more sophisticated affirmations that the “dead” experience ongoing existence either in another realm, or in an age to come. Thus in the book of Revelation (20:11-13), the “sea gave up the dead that were in it,” and those resurrected dead “stand” before the throne of God in judgment, but the writer obviously has no interest in affirming a literal recovery of “bones and flesh,” or reanimated corpses, long ago “returned to dust.”
Jews and early Christians were quite aware of the complex nuances of their affirmation of “resurrection of the dead,” and that a literal view of restored “bones and flesh” was not their central concern nor their most fundamental challenge. There was something much more profound at stake that had to do with an “anthropological” view of the whole human person–thus Paul’s category of a “new body,” but a spiritual one, not one of flesh and blood. This was in contrast to the “naked” state of death, before the spirit is “reclothed.” We are essentially dealing with metaphors here but the clothing analogy seems to be a good one, as Paul develops it in 2 Corinthians 5. He apparently likens the body of flesh and bones to old clothing, and one’s immediate “death” as a naked state of the disembodied “spirit,” (i.e., Greek “immortal soul”). Accordingly, putting on a “new spiritual body” is akin to putting on new clothing, with the old shed or left behind. In that system of understanding resurrection literal “tombs” are irrelevant, whether literally in the ground, or symbolically “in the sea.”

That is why finding the decayed bones of Jesus in an ossuary, as might well be the case Talpiot tomb in Jerusalem, as I have argued here on this blog and extensively in our book, The Jesus Discovery, does not contradict the earliest faith in Jesus’ resurrection by his first followers. What has happened is that people have conflated the later accounts in the Gospels, especially in Luke and John, where Jesus clearly appears as a “revived corpse” and even asks for food to eat–declaring himself to be “flesh and blood,” with the much earlier views the gospel of Mark (with no appearances of Jesus), the fragment ending of the Gospel of Peter, and Matthew–that are much more compatible with Paul’s earlier view (50s CE) of “seeing” Jesus’ spiritual body. The idea those who “sleep in the dust” awakening, or the sea “giving up” the dead that are in it, makes it crystal clear that resurrection of the dead has to do with a transformed “heavenly” existence, not a revival of the scant remains of those long ago turned to “dust and ashes” as the phrase goes (Daniel 12:2-3; Revelation 20:13). One might also recall that, according to Jesus, those who experience the “age to come” and the resurrection of the dead, are transformed into an “angelic” state, no longer male or female with physical bodies (Luke 20:34-38).

Keith Akers, author of The Lost Religion of Jesus: Simple Living and Nonviolence in Early Christianity, has a thoughtful post from a few years back titled “Implications of the Jesus Family Tomb at Talpiot” at his Website which is as relevant today as when he first wrote it. I really appreciated Akers’s book on Jesus and learned a lot from him. I have found anything he writes to be well thought through and valuable to read. In his on the Talpiot Tomb he raises the issue of how diverse groups of early Christians began to formulate their understanding of what was essentially affirmed in the teaching of “resurrection of the dead,” whether that of Jesus, or the raising of the dead more generally at the end of the age.

Thinking Through Easter: What Do Our Sources Really Say?

Most people raised in our Christian culture have a vague story in their heads as to what is supposed to have happened Easter morning, whether drawn from attending church services, reading the Bible themselves, or even from various “Jesus” films. Around Easter Jesus usually makes the cover of some of our major magazines. Even one who is non-Christian or secular can’t help picking up on the basic story-line, which goes something like this:

Early Sunday morning after Jesus’ Good Friday crucifixion several of his women followers went to his tomb only to find the heavy stone blocking the entrance removed and the tomb empty with the grave clothes left behind. They were told by two dazzling angels dressed in white “He is not here, he is risen, come see the place where he lay.” They were dumbfounded, as were the other apostles to whom they reported these strange events. Later that day Jesus appeared to the apostles and allowed them to examine his body with its wounds, assuring them it was him, and that he had been raised from the dead. Various other appearance of Jesus followed over a period of weeks until Jesus departed this earth, taken up in the clouds of heaven.

What will come as a complete surprise to many people is that our historical sources for this scenario offer wildly differing accounts of Easter morning. Historians work with sources and evidence and when it comes to Easter all we have are six ancient texts–our four New Testament gospels, namely Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, and the fragments of the more recently discovered Gospel of Peter. I have written recently about the Gospel of Peter here, and I have offered an extended analysis of Paul’s understanding of resurrection of the dead with a lot of historical background here.

What I want to do in this post is take closer look at our earliest three sources, taken in chronological order–Mark, Matthew, and Luke, viewing them side-by-side, in “Synoptic” fashion, when it comes to their accounts of the empty tomb of Jesus and the subsequent “appearances” of Jesus to his various followers. Readers who have never bothered to do this will find much of surprise I think. All you need is a copy of the Bible with the New Testament included, any translation will do fine.

Most scholars are agreed that Mark is our earliest gospel. What few non-spets realize is that Mark’s account of the empty tomb stands in the sharpest contrast to those written after him.

Mark 16:1-8 provides the early core account with what scholars consider to be the original version of Mark ending abruptly with verse 8:

And when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Salome, bought spices, that they might come and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb when the sun was risen. And they were saying among themselves, “Who shall roll us away the stone from the door of the tomb?” and looking up, they saw that the stone was rolled back–it was very large. And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe; and they were amazed. And he said to them, Be not amazed: you seek Jesus, the Nazarene, who has been crucified: he has been lifted up; he is not here: behold, the place where they laid him! But go, tell his disciples and Peter, He goes before you to Galilee: there you will see him, just as he told. And they went out, and fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them: and they said nothing to any one; for they were afraid.

This is how our earliest manuscripts of the gospel of Mark end!

Later copies of the Mark supply one of several added endings, clearly finding such an abrupt ending to the gospel story inadequate, so you will find in most Bibles the additional verses 9-20, which were composed by in the 3rd or 4th century by someone who wanted to round the story out and make it more in harmony with the endings of Matthew, Luke, and John ((In fact, this unknown editor simply drew from stories in the other three gospels, as is quite obvious if one examines the interpolation carefully. The appearance to Mary Magdalene is lifted from John, the appearance to the two disciples on the road as well as Jesus sitting with the apostles for a meal from Luke, and the “Great Commission,” from Matthew, and the ascent of Jesus into heaven, again, from Luke. In addition to this interpolated ending there are two others that achieved less popularity but some translations of the Bible put them in footnotes.))

Please note the rather astounding fact that Mark’s original ending has no appearances of Jesus. A young man, not an angel, tells the women Jesus has been “lifted up,” with a promise that they will “see him in Galilee,” which is in the north of the country. ((The verb used here, egeiro/εγειρω means “to lift up, raise up” or even “be carried away. It is used in Mark 2:12 for the paralyzed man whom Jesus heals and tells to “lift up” his bedroll and walk.)) This was apparently the earliest faith of Jesus’ first followers–namely, that Jesus had been taken up to heaven, and that the disciples would see him at a later time in Galilee. I have argued, see the post noted above, that this is also the understanding of Jesus’ resurrection we find in Paul, and ironically, it is the view of resurrection we find in the newly discovered Talpiot tomb inscription about God “lifting up” (Greek hupso/υψω) the dead–see our book, The Jesus Discovery. Paul reports Jesus was transformed into a “life-giving spirit,” and the subsequent “sightings” of Jesus, by him and the earlier apostles, were seeing Jesus in his heavenly glory (1 Corinthians 15:42-50, compared with vv. 3-7). To be “lifted up” in this way is to leave the physical body behind, like old clothing, and thus to be “absent from the body,” but present with God (2 Corinthians 5:1-10). This was the earliest Christian resurrection faith.

As far as the age old question, “What happened to the physical body of Jesus,” the most likely explanation is that it was reburied by Joseph of Arimathea after being placed temporarily in an unused tomb near the site of crucifixion. I have written extensively about this “first burial” of Jesus here. ((On this idea of a first burial see Amos Kloner, “Did a Rolling Stone Close Jesus’ Tomb?” Biblical Archaeology Review (Sept/Oct, 1999), who argues that the tomb used by Joseph of Arimathea was a borrowed or temporary cave used for a limited time, pressed by the arrival of the Sabbath, with the intention of completing the rites of burial after the Passover holiday. See also Richard Carrier, “Jewish Law, the Burial of Jesus, and the Third Day,” as well as his revised version of this article in The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave, edited by Robert Price and Jeffrey Lowder, pp. 369-392. ))

Matthew and Luke, written a decade or more after Mark, are clearly not satisfied with Mark’s abrupt ending. Even though Mark is their basic narrative source, they are bound and determined to expand the tradition and supply expanded versions of his ending that will be more dramatic and impressive, and in the case of Luke and John–introduce a wholly new understanding of the resurrection of Jesus as the resuscitation of his physical corpse. One has to keep in mind this is not an idea that Paul supports, in fact he speaks emphatically against the notion of confusing the “body of dust” with the “spiritual body” or “life-giving spirit,” as noted above.

Both Matthew and Luke recast this core scene of the women’s visit to the tomb and they are each clearly relying on Mark as their source. What obviously bothers them about Mark’s story is the final line, about the women fleeing the scene and saying nothing to anyone, end of story! That Mark has no appearances of Jesus is a huge problem for them. Both Matthew and Luke are keen to expand this abrupt and problematic ending. Each of them recasts that final line, so that it can lead into what comes next, notice carefully:

“So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples” (Matthew 28:8).

“And returning from the tomb they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest” (Luke 24:9).

At this point their dependence on Mark drops off.  Matthew has his one “sighting” of Jesus in Galilee, taking his cue from Mark’s line about “there you will see him,” while Luke removes that line about Galilee entirely and adds a string of “appearances” in Jerusalem.

What this means, in terms of the Synoptic tradition is that Matthew and Luke only follow their source Mark up to the point where the women flee the tomb, and thereafter, they are presenting their own independent and quite differing traditions of what the “resurrection of Jesus” meant within their separate communities and traditions.

It is altogether striking that at this point there are absolutely no parallels whatsoever between what they quite separately relate. It is not the case of differing witnesses to the “same event” reporting slightly differing accounts, as Christian apologists often insist. It is the case of both Matthew and Luke at this point losing their core source Mark, leaving it behind, and going their separate ways entirely!

What this means for our historical reconstruction is that Matthew and Luke reflect independent witnesses to the growth and apologetic (in the sense of defense) development of traditions defending the notion of Jesus being raised from the dead for the post-70 CE generation. Mark is content to relate his story with no appearances of the risen Jesus, and yet nonetheless attest to resurrection faith, looking forward to the Parousia (return of the “Son of Man” in the clouds of heaven), probably expected in Galilee. But both Matthew and Luke have other concerns that they have to address.

What is clearly the case is that neither Matthew nor Luke are relating history, but writing defenses against charges that are being raised by opponents who are denying the notion that Jesus literally rose from the dead. Luke is clearly worried about claims that any so-called “appearances” of Jesus were simply hallucinatory apparitions–in other words, “ghost stories.” He has good reason to worry. We know various pagan critics of Christianity were beginning to heap fun on the Christians for naïvely swallowing the unstable fables of women and ignorant peasants.  ((See “The Christians as the Romans Saw Them,” as well as the important study of Deborah Thompson Price, “The ‘Ghost’ of Jesus: Luke 24 in the Light of Ancient Narratives of Post-Mortem Apparitions,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament (2007) 29:287-301.)) He is keen to show that Jesus, though not always readily recognized, nonetheless could be touched, and that he ate with his followers, clearly showing his “bodily” existence. He is interested in what he calls “proofs,” and he repeats this concern in Acts 1:3.

What we can be quite sure of, from a historical point of view, is that none of these so-called proofs has any historical basis whatsoever. Mark knows nothing of such stories, nor does Matthew. They are not part of any early and core tradition of Jesus’ resurrection and they have no correspondence to the type of visionary “appearances” claimed by Paul for himself and for others.

And just as important, notice, Luke is also concerned to shift the emphasis to Jerusalem, away from Galilee, where the family of Jesus originated. Mark’s focus is on the apostles seeing Jesus in Galilee, as is Matthews. They know nothing of any Jerusalem appearances.

Matthew has two concerns. First, he wants the resurrection to be a dramatic cosmic event, and second he wants to refute the story that is being spread in Jewish circles that Jesus’ followers came Saturday night and moved the body to another location. At the death of Jesus he has already added earthquakes, tombs splitting open, and multiple corpses of the dead coming alive and appearing to various people in the city (Matt 27:51-53). So here, to Mark’s stark account of the empty tomb discovery, he adds another earthquake, an angel as bright as lightning descending from heaven and moving the heavy stone from the tomb entrance. He also relates that Pilate, the Roman governor, had authorized a band of soldiers to seal and guard the tomb against the possibility that someone might take the body and claim he was raised. At the sight of the angel they fell as dead for fear of the terrifying heavenly being. None of this is in Mark. Matthew’s account is quite patently a theological and apologetic embellishment on Matthew’s part. What we need to ask is what Matthew intends to address with such a dramatic retelling of his source Mark? Unlike Luke, he knows nothing of multiple appearances of Jesus in the city of Jerusalem, and he has only one mountain top sighting of Jesus by the apostles in Galilee, where Jesus gives to them the so-called “Great Commission” with some of them doubting what they saw! Those are obviously the most theologically constructed set of verses in his entire gospel, but even at that he notes that some of the Eleven “doubted” that they were really seeing Jesus, a most telling admission (Matthew 28:16-20).

It is obvious that for Matthew, unlike Luke, “appearances” are not much on his radar screen. Rather what really concerns him is refuting the story that “is told among the Jews to this day,” that followers removed Jesus body and reburied it on Saturday night. To do this he needs the earthquake, and the angel from heaven descending with blinding light, and a tomb sealed and guarded by Roman soldiers–none of which can possibly have any historical basis whatsoever. They are clearly constructed, even imposed on the bare account of Mark, to address this “Jewish” story.

What Matthew unwittingly provides is a witness that a generation after Jesus’ death it was being claimed in certain Jewish circles that Jesus’ body had been taken from the initial tomb into which it had been temporarily put by Joseph of Arimathea and presumably reburied. What the historian must consider is whether that “story,” to which Matthew provides such a definitive witness, is in fact based on what actually happened. This would not mean that the disciples “stole” the body to perpetuate a lie, as Matthew frames the story against his Jewish opponents, but only that the core story itself, that they removed the body Saturday night, is our best account of how the tomb became empty. What makes this possibility all the more likely is that it fits in with the initial, temporary, emergency burial of Jesus by Joseph of Arimathea as the Passover Seder approached the afternoon of the crucifixion. A Saturday night removal to a place of permanent burial is precisely what one would expect.

I have recently noted how the Gospel of Peter, particularly with its broken off ending, gives strong support to the early account of Mark, see “The Last Passover and the First Easter–When Apostles and Angels Wept.” There we read clearly that the disciples wept and mourned for Jesus in Jerusalem for the entire eight day Passover week–hardly compatible with Luke’s dramatic appearances in Jerusalem the very day the empty tomb was found–before returning to their fishing business in the Galilee. What is quite amazing is that the appended chapter 21 of the gospel of John parallels this account. This version has to be read independently of John’s account of multiple appearances of Jesus in Jerusalem on Easter morning including the famous encounter with “doubting Thomas,” in chapter 20–the original ending of John’s gospel. An editor has added what he claims is an early “eyewitness” account of an “apparition” of Jesus on the Sea of Galilee when the disciples have returned to their fishing business. One can tell from the tone of the account that this is obviously presented as their first “sighting” of the risen Jesus.

I understand how pious readers of the New Testament are not comfortable with this sort of critical readings of our historical sources but once one takes a close look at the texts, and the clear and obvious elements I have gone through in this post, there is hardly any other recourse. Ironically, for believing Christians, rather than such an analysis being a threat to resurrection faith, it turns out to provide an glimpse of the original version of that faith–namely that Jesus left his body behind, that he was transformed into a “life-giving spirit,” and was  “lifted up” to God’s right hand.

Postscript: Until very recently these six texts were all we had in attempting a historical evaluation of the origins of faith in Jesus’ resurrection. With the 1980 discovery of the Talpiot “Jesus” tomb, and the recent exploration of the “Patio” tomb nearby, I believe we have for the first time, archaeological evidence that potentially supplements what we had from our texts. I am speaking in particular of the “Jonah and the fish” image, on one ossuary, and the Greek inscription celebrating “lifting up” from the tomb, on another. I am convinced that the earliest understanding of Christian faith in resurrection, as seen in Paul, Mark, and John 21, has now been corroborated by these findings. See our book, The Jesus Discovery for full details and arguments.

For further reading see the following posts that explore the details I have touched upon here:

The Strange Ending of the Gospel of Mark and Why It Makes all the Difference

The Earliest Christian View of Resurrection of the Dead

The Earliest Account of the Discovery of Jesus’ Tomb–What it Says and What it Does Not Say

The Two Verses on the Discovery of the Empty Tomb that Ring True Historically

The Lost Gospel of Peter–A Valuable but Neglected Ancient Source

The Last Days of Jesus: A Final “Messianic” Meal

From more of this story read my book The Jesus Dynasty, available at discount prices and in all formats–Kindle, iBook, Nook, CD Audio, which also has notes and references to this material.

NT_Jerusalem

On Wednesday Jesus began to make plans for Passover. He sent two of his disciples into the city to prepare a large second-­story guest room where he could gather secretly and safely with his inner group. He knew someone with such a room available and he had prearranged for its use. Christian pilgrims today are shown a Crusader site known as the Cenacle or “Upper Room” on the Western Hill of Jerusalem that the Crusaders misnamed “Mount Zion.” This area was part of the “Upper City” where Herod had built his palace. It is topographically higher than even the Temple Mount. It was the grandest section of ancient Jerusalem with broad streets and plazas and the palatial homes of the wealthy. Bargil Pixner and others have also argued that the southwest edge of Mt Zion contained an “Essene Quarter,” with more modest dwellings and its own “Essene” Gate mentioned by Josephus, see his article “Jerusalem’s Essene Gateway,” here.

Jesus tells his two disciples to “follow a man carrying a jug of water,” who will enter the city, and then enter a certain house. The only water source was in the southern part of the lower city of Jerusalem, the recently uncovered Pool of Siloam. This mysterious man apparently walked up the slope of Mt Zion and entered the city–likely at the Essene Gate. The house is large enough to have an upper story and likely belonged to a wealthy sympathizer of Jesus, perhaps associated with the Essenes. Later this property became the HQ of the Jesus movement led by James the brother of Jesus, see Pixner’s article “The Church of the Apostles Found on Mt Zion” here.

Later Christian tradition put Jesus’ last meal with his disciples on Thursday evening and his crucifixion on Friday. We now know that is one day off. Jesus’ last meal was Wednesday night, and he was crucified on Thursday, the 14th of the Jewish month Nisan. The Passover meal itself was eaten Thursday night, at sundown, as the 15th of Nisan began. Jesus never ate that Passover meal. He had died at 3 p.m. on Thursday.

The confusion arose because all the gospels say that there was a rush to get his body off the cross and buried before sundown because the “Sabbath” was near. Everyone assumed the reference to the Sabbath had to be Saturday—so the crucifixion must have been on a Friday. However, as Jews know, the day of Passover itself is also a “Sabbath” or rest day—no matter what weekday it falls on. In the year a.d. 30, Friday the 15th of the Nisan was also a Sabbath—so two Sabbaths occurred back to back—Friday and Saturday. Matthew seems to know this as he says that the women who visited Jesus’ tomb came early Sunday morning “after the Sabbaths”—the original Greek is plural (Matthew 28:1).

As is often the case, the gospel of John preserves a more accurate chronology of what went on. John specifies that the Wednesday night “last supper” was “before the festival of Passover.” He also notes that when Jesus’ accusers delivered him to be crucified on Thursday morning they would not enter ­Pilate’s courtyard because they would be defiled and would not be able to eat the Passover that evening (John 18:28). John knows that the Jews would be eating their traditional Passover, or Seder meal, Thursday evening.

Reading Mark, Matthew, and Luke one can get the impression that the “last supper” was the Passover meal. Some have even argued that Jesus might have eaten the Passover meal a day early—knowing ahead of time that he would be dead. But the fact is, Jesus ate no Passover meal in 30 CE. When the Passover meal began at sundown on Thursday, Jesus was dead. He had been hastily put in a tomb until after the festival
when a proper funeral could be arranged.

There are some hints outside of ­John’s gospel that such was the case. In Luke, for example, Jesus tells his followers at that last meal: “I earnestly wanted to eat this Passover with you before I suffer but I ­won’t eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God” (Luke 22:14–16). A later copyist of the manuscript inserted the word “again” to make it say “I ­won’t eat it again,” since the tradition had developed that Jesus did observe Passover that night and changed its observance to the Christian Eucharist or Mass. Another indication that this is not a Passover meal is that all our records report that Jesus shared “a loaf of bread” with his disciples, using the Greek word (artos) that refers to an ordinary loaf—not to the unleavened flatbread or matzos that Jews eat with their Passover meals. Also, when Paul refers to the “last supper” he significantly does not say “on the night of Passover,” but rather “on the night Jesus was betrayed,” and he also mentions the “loaf of bread” (1 Corinthians 11:23). If this meal had been the Passover, Paul would have surely wanted to say that, but he does not.

As late as Wednesday morning Jesus had still intended to eat the Passover on Thursday night. When he sent his two disciples into the city he instructed them to begin to make the preparations. His enemies had determined not to try to arrest him during the feast “lest there be a riot of the people” (Mark 14:2). That meant he was likely “safe” for the next week, since the “feast” included the seven days of Unleavened Bread that followed the Passover meal. Passover is the most family-­oriented festival in Jewish tradition. As head of his household Jesus would have gathered with his mother, his sisters, the women who had come with him from Galilee, perhaps some of his close supporters in Jerusalem, and his Council of Twelve. It is inconceivable that a Jewish head of a household would eat the Passover segregated from his family with twelve male disciples. This was no Passover meal. Something had gone terribly wrong so that all his Passover plans were changed.

Jesus had planned a special meal Wednesday evening alone with his Council of Twelve in the upper room of the guesthouse in the lower city. The events of the past few days had brought things to a crisis and he knew the confrontation with the authorities was unavoidable. In the coming days he expected to be arrested, delivered to the Romans, and possibly crucified. He had intentionally chosen the time and the place—Passover in Jerusalem—to confront the powers that be. There was much of a private nature to discuss with those upon whom he most depended in the critical days ahead. He firmly believed that if he and his followers offered themselves up, placing their fate in ­God’s hands, that the Kingdom of God would manifest itself. He had intentionally fulfilled two of Zechariah’s prophecies—riding into the city as King on the foal, and symbolically removing the “traders” from the “house of God.”

At some point that day Jesus had learned that Judas Iscariot, one of his trusted Council of Twelve, had struck a deal with his enemies to have Jesus arrested whenever there was an opportunity to get him alone, away from the crowds. How Jesus knew of the plot we are not told but during the meal he said openly, “One of you who is eating with me will betray me” (Mark 14:18). His life seemed to be unfolding according to some scriptural plan. Had not David written in the Psalms, “Even my bosom friend, in whom I trusted, who ate of my bread, has lifted the heel against me” (Psalm 41:9). History has a strange way of repeating itself. Over a hundred years earlier, the Teacher of Righteousness who led the Dead Sea Scroll community had quoted that very Psalm when one of his inner “Council” had betrayed him.

When Judas Iscariot realized that the plan for the evening included a retreat for prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane after the meal, he abruptly left the group. This secluded spot, at the foot of the Mount of Olives, just across the Kidron Valley from the Old City, offered just the setting he had promised to deliver. Some have tried to interpret ­Judas’s motives in a positive light. Perhaps he quite sincerely wanted Jesus to declare himself King and take power, thinking the threat of an arrest might force his hand. We simply ­don’t know what might have been in his mind. The gospels are content simply to call him “the Betrayer” and his name is seldom mentioned without this description.

Ironically our earliest account of that last meal on Wednesday night comes from Paul, not from any of our gospels. In a letter to his followers in the Greek city of Corinth, written around a.d. 54, Paul passes on a tradition that he says he “received” from Jesus: “Jesus on the night he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me’ ” (1 Corinthians 11:23–25).

These words, which are familiar to Christians as part of the Eucharist or the Mass, are repeated with only slight variations in Mark, Matthew, and Luke. They represent the epitome of Christian faith, the pillar of the Christian Gospel: all humankind is saved from sins by the sacrificed body and blood of Jesus. What is the historical likelihood that this tradition, based on what Paul said he “received” from Jesus, represents what Jesus said at that last meal? As surprising as it might sound, there are some legitimate problems to consider.

Priscilla Banquet

At every Jewish meal, bread is broken, wine is shared, and blessings are said over each—but the idea of eating human flesh and drinking blood, even symbolically, is completely alien to Judaism. The Torah specifically forbids the consuming of blood, not just for Israelites but anyone. Noah and his descendants, as representatives of all humanity, were first given the prohibition against “eating blood” (Genesis 9:4). Moses had warned, “If anyone of the house of Israel or the Gentiles who reside among
them eats any blood I will set my face against that person who eats blood and will cut that person off from the people” (Leviticus 17:10). James, the brother of Jesus, later mentions this as one of the “necessary requirements” for non-­Jews to join the Nazarene community—they are not to eat blood (Acts 15:20). These restrictions concern the blood of animals. Consuming human flesh and blood was not forbidden, it was simply inconceivable. This general sensitivity to the very idea of “drinking blood” precludes the likelihood that Jesus would have used such
symbols.

The Essene community at Qumran described in one of its scrolls a “messianic banquet” of the future at which the Priestly Messiah and the Davidic Messiah sit together with the community and bless their sacred meal of bread and wine, passing it to the community of believers, as a celebration of the Kingdom of God. They would surely have been appalled at any symbolism suggesting the bread was human flesh and the wine was blood. Such an idea simply could not have come from Jesus as a Jew.

So where does this language originate? If it first surfaces in Paul, and he did not in fact get it from Jesus, then what was its source? The closest parallels are certain Greco-­Roman magical rites. We have a Greek papyrus that records a love spell in which a male pronounces certain incantations over a cup of wine that represents the blood that the Egyptian god Osiris had given to his consort Isis to make her feel love for him. When his lover drinks the wine, she symbolically unites with her beloved by consuming his blood. In another text the wine is made into the flesh of Osiris. The symbolic eating of “flesh” and drinking of “blood” was a magical rite of union in Greco-­Roman culture.

We have to consider that Paul grew up in the Greco-­Roman culture of the city of Tarsus in Asia Minor, outside the land of Israel. He never met or talked to Jesus. The connection he claims to Jesus is a “visionary” one, not Jesus as a flesh-and-blood human being walking the earth. See my book, Paul and Jesus for a full elaboration of the implications of Paul’s visionary revelations.  When the Twelve met to replace Judas, after Jesus had been killed, they insisted that to be part of their group one had to have been with Jesus from the time of John the Baptizer through his crucifixion (Acts 1:21–22). Seeing visions and hearing voices were not accepted as qualifications
for an apostle.

Second, and even more telling, the gospel of John recounts the events of that last Wednesday night meal but there is absolutely no reference to these words of Jesus instituting this new ceremony of the Eucharist. If Jesus in fact had inaugurated the practice of eating bread as his body, and drinking wine as his blood at this “last supper” how could John possibly have left it out? What John writes is that Jesus sat down to the supper, by all indications an ordinary Jewish meal. After supper he got up, took a basin of water and a cloth, and began to wash his disciples’ feet as an example of how a Teacher and Master should act as a servant—even to his disciples. Jesus then began to talk about how he was to be betrayed and John tells us that Judas abruptly left the meal.

Mark’s gospel is very close in its theological ideas to those of Paul. It seems likely that Mark, writing a decade after ­Paul’s account of the last supper, inserts this “eat my body” and “drink my blood” tradition into his gospel, influenced by what Paul has claimed to have received. Matthew and Luke both base their narratives wholly upon Mark, and Luke is an unabashed advocate of Paul as well. Everything seems to trace back to Paul. As we will see, there is no evidence that the original Jewish followers of Jesus, led by Jesus’ brother James, headquartered in Jerusalem, ever practiced any rite of this type. Like all Jews they did sanctify wine and bread as part of a sacred meal, and they likely looked back to the “night he was betrayed,” remembering that last meal with Jesus.

What we really need to resolve this matter is an independent source of some type, one that is Christian but not influenced by Paul, that might shed light on the original practice of Jesus’ followers. Fortunately, in 1873 in a library at Constantinople, just such a text turned up. It is called the Didache and dates to the early 2nd century CE. It had been mentioned by early church writers but had disappeared until a Greek priest, Father Bryennios, discovered it in an archive of old manuscripts quite by accident. The title Didache in Greek means “Teaching” and its full title is “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles.” It is a type of early Christian “instruction manual” probably written for candidates for Christian baptism to study. It has lots of ethical instructions and exhortations but also sections on baptism and the Eucharist—the sacred meal of bread and wine. And that is where the surprise comes. It offers the following blessings over wine and bread:

With respect to the Eucharist you shall give thanks as follows. First with respect to the cup: “We give you thanks our Father for the holy vine of David, your child which you made known to us through Jesus your child. To you be the glory forever.” And with respect to the bread: “We give you thanks our Father for the life and knowledge that you made known to us through Jesus your child. To you be the glory forever.”

Notice there is no mention of the wine representing blood or the bread representing flesh. And yet this is a record of the early Christian Eucharist meal! This text reminds us very much of the descriptions of the sacred messianic meal in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Here we have a messianic celebration of Jesus as the Davidic Messiah and the life and knowledge that he has brought to the community. Evidently this community of Jesus’ followers knew nothing about the ceremony that Paul advocates. If ­Paul’s practice had truly come from Jesus surely this text would have included it.

There is another important point in this regard. In Jewish tradition it is the cup of wine that is blessed first, then the bread. That is the order we find here in the Didache. But in ­Paul’s account of the ­“Lord’s Supper” he has Jesus bless the bread first, then the cup of wine—just the reverse. It might seem an unimportant detail until one examines ­Luke’s account of the words of Jesus at the meal. Although he basically follows the tradition from Paul, unlike Paul Luke reports first a cup of wine, then the bread, and then another cup of wine! The bread and the second cup of wine he interprets as the “body” and “blood” of Jesus. But with respect to the first cup—in the order one would expect from Jewish tradition—there is nothing said about it representing “blood.” Rather Jesus says, “I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom comes” (Luke 22:18). This tradition of the first cup, found now only in Luke, is a leftover clue of what must have been the original tradition before the Pauline version was inserted, now confirmed by the Didache.

Understood in this light, this last meal makes historical sense. Jesus told his closest followers, gathered in secret in the Upper Room, that he will not share another meal with them until the Kingdom of God comes. He knows that Judas will initiate events that very night, leading to his arrest. His hope and prayer is that the next time they sit down together to eat, giving the traditional Jewish blessing over wine and bread—the Kingdom of God will have come.

Since Jesus met only with his Council of Twelve for that final private meal, then James as well as Jesus’ other three brothers would have been present. This is confirmed in a lost text called the Gospel of the Hebrews that was used by Jewish-­Christians who rejected ­Paul’s teachings and authority. It survives only in a few quotations that were preserved by Christian writers such as Jerome. In one passage we are told that James the brother of Jesus, after drinking from the cup Jesus passed around, pledged that he too would not eat or drink again until he saw the kingdom arrive. So here we have textual evidence of a tradition that remembers James as being present at the last meal.

In the gospel of John there are cryptic references to James. Half a dozen times John mentions a mysterious unnamed figure that he calls “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” The two are very close; in fact this unnamed disciple is seated next to Jesus either at his right or left hand. He leaned back and put his head on Jesus’ breast during the meal (John 13:23). He is the one to whom Jesus whispers that Judas is the betrayer. Even though tradition holds that this is John the fisherman, one of the sons of Zebedee, it makes much better sense that such intimacy was shared between Jesus and his younger brother James. After all, from the few stories we have about John son of Zebedee, he has a fiery and ambitious personality—Jesus had nicknamed him and his brother the “sons of Thunder.” They are the two that had tried to obtain the two chief seats on the Council of Twelve, one asking for the right hand, the other the left. On another occasion they asked Jesus for permission to call down fire from heaven to consume a village that had not accepted their preaching (Luke 9:54). On both occasions Jesus had rebuked them. The image we get of John son of Zebedee is quite opposite from the tender intimacy of the “disciple whom Jesus loved.” No matter how ingrained the image might be in Christian imagination, it makes no sense to imagine John son of Zebedee seated next to Jesus, and leaning on his breast.

It seems to me that the evidence points to James the brother of Jesus being the most likely candidate for this mysterious unnamed disciple. Later, just before Jesus’ death, the gospel of John tells us that Jesus put the care of his mother into the hands of this “disciple whom he loved” (John 19:26–27). How could this possibly be anyone other than James his brother, who was now to take charge of the family as head of the household?

Late that night, after the meal and its conversations, Jesus led his band of eleven disciples outside the lower city, across the Kidron Valley, to a thick secluded grove of olive trees called Gethsemane at the foot of the Mount of Olives. Judas knew the place well because Jesus often used it as a place of solitude and privacy to meet with his disciples (John 18:2). Judas had gone into the city to alert the authorities of this rare opportunity to confront Jesus at night and away from the crowds.

It was getting late and Jesus’ disciples were tired and drowsy. Sleep was the last thing on Jesus’ mind, and he was never to sleep again. His all-­night ordeal was about to begin. He began to feel very distressed, fearful, and deeply grieved. He wanted to pray for strength for the trials that he knew would soon begin. Mark tells us that he prayed that if possible the “cup would be removed from him” (Mark 14:36). Jesus urged his disciples to pray with him but the meal, the wine, and the late hour took their
toll. They all fell asleep.

Vanderbilt Lecture: Was Paul the Jew the Founder of Emerging Christianity?

I am giving the 2014 Forrest Reed Lecture sponsored by Disciples Historical Society/Disciples Divinity House at Vanderbilt Divinity School on Monday at 10AM. My topic is both controversial and provocative:

Was Paul the Jew the Founder of Emerging Christianity? Details below and linked here. I hope to meet some of my blog readers at this event.

Vanderbilt JDT March 2014

 

Paul & Jesus–Did the Apostle Transform Christianity? A Dialogue Between Drs. James D. Tabor and Michael Brown

I am greatly anticipating the public dialogue on my book, Paul and Jesus this week with Dr. Michael Brown hosted by Southern Evangelical Seminary. I think Michael and I both agree that the influence of the apostle Paul was critical in the emergence of what became the new religion of Christianity but we sharply differ on whether Paul remained faithful to his Hebrew Torah heritage or departed therefrom. As the late great Alan Segal put things–was Paul an apostle or an apostate? This is not a debate but a respectful dialogue. You won’t want to miss this event if you are within traveling distance from Charlotte.

Thursday, February 20, 2014 at 7pm at Southern Evangelical Seminary, 3000 Tilley Morris Rd., Matthews, NC 28105 (www.SES.edu). No tickets necessary, $10 admission at the door, students with ID free.

Tabor and Brown Final

Click on Poster to Enlarge

 

 

Paul Never Met Jesus: My Latest Interview on the “Paul & Jesus” Book

Listen (and watch–nice graphics inserted along the way) to my interview on my book Paul and Jesus with Jono Vandor and Jason “Spiritualbabies” of Truth2U.org. We hope in the near future to continue our conversation on this and related topics, including my book, Restoring Abrahamic Faith.

You can access or share the link to this program here.

Audio: Jono www.Truth2U.org 
Video: Jason www.Spiritualbabies.net

Links to this book and others mentioned in this show can be found below.

Paul and Jesus

The Jesus Dynasty

Restoring Abrahamic Faith

Corpse Revival is Not “Resurrection of the Dead”

In Paul’s view of resurrection of the dead the body is left behind like an old change of clothing, to turn to the dust, whereas the spirit is “reclothed” with a new spiritual body. Resurrection is neither corpse revival nor transformation of the physical “body of dust” into a spiritual form.

cocoonThe Hebrew Bible says very little about resurrection of the dead. The single unambiguous passage is from Daniel, but it is a key to understanding the concept at its core:

And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time; but at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. And multitudes of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament; and those who turn many to righteousness like the stars forever and ever. (Daniel 12:1-4)

The metaphor of “sleeping in the dust of the earth” and then awakening captures precisely the core idea of resurrection of the dead. The bodies of the dead have long ago decayed and turned to dust, so this is no resuscitation of a corpse, nor is it even Ezekiel’s vision of reclothing dry bones with sinew and skin. This is an entirely new concept that has begun to develop in Jewish thought and Jews like Jesus, as well as the Pharisees, believed that on the “last day,” the dead would be raised. What people mix up is the literal idea of resuscitation or the “standing up” of a corpse, and the fully developed Jewish idea of resurrection at the end of days. The latter does not involve collecting the dust, the fragmentary decaying bones, or other remains of the body and somehow restoring their form. According to the book of Revelation, even the “sea” gives up the dead that are in it—which can hardly mean one must search for digested bodies that the fish have eaten and eliminated—as unpleasant as the thought may be (Revelation 20:11-15).

Resurrection of the dead is neither corpse revival or transformation of the physical “body of dust” into a spiritual form. This might be the view of a child who does not yet understand the idea, or metaphorically one could speak of the dead “coming out of their tombs,” as in the famous Michael Jackson video “Thriller,” but no one thought of it literally that way in terms of what would happen at the end of days.

The fully developed view of resurrection of the dead among Jews in the time of Jesus was that at the end of days the dead would come forth from Sheol/Hades—literally the “state of being dead,” and live again in an embodied form. The question was—what kind of a body? And it was there that the debates began. The Sadducees, who denied the resurrection, poked fun at the Pharisees, who affirmed it. How could God raise the dead—what if a woman had had seven husbands in her life, each of whom died and she kept remarrying—in the resurrection whose wife would she be? Jesus was confronted with this question in the gospels (Luke 20:34-40). His answer was clear and unambiguous—when the dead come forth they will be in a transformed body, much like the angels, not the literal physical bodies that they once inhabited—there will be no “marriage or giving in marriage” as there will be no “male or female” in terms of physical sexual gender. There will be no birth, no death, but a new transformed life.

Paul is the crystal clear on this point. Some of his converts in the city of Corinth were denying the resurrection of the dead. They were most likely thinking along the lines of Plato—if the immortal soul is freed from the prison of the body at death, why would it ever return to the body? And yet that is precisely what Paul defended—a return to a body—but as he makes very clear, it is not a natural or “physical body”—the one he calls the body of “dust,” but a spiritual body—literally “wind body,” (pneumatikos), that is transformed and not subject to death (1 Corinthians 15:42-50). One thinks of the “aliens” in Ron Howard’s 1985 film “Cocoon,” in which these “light beings” had form and shape but clearly were beyond any kind of physical or biochemical composition.

Resurrection of the dead, according to both Paul and Jesus, has nothing to do with the former physical body. Paul’s objectors taunted him—“How are the dead raised? In what kind of a body will they come forth?—he called them fools—as obviously they had no clue about the concept of resurrection, mistaking it for corpse revival (1 Corinthians 15:34). Paul says that Jesus had become, what he calls, a life-giving spirit. The difference between this idea and that of the Greek notion of the immortal soul is difficult to understand, but in the Hebraic view of things the distinction was important. Simply put, in Greek thought death was a friend—that released one from the bonds of the lower, mortal, decaying, material world. In Hebrew the created world is good—even very good—and death is seen as enemy—but one that can be conquered. Paul writes that the “last enemy to be destroyed is death,” and then the creation, which is good, will be “released from its bondage to decay” (1 Corinthians 15:26; Romans 8:21).

The whole concept turns on the notion of how the created world is viewed—as something to abandon and escape, or something to be transformed and changed. That is why the Bible speaks of a “new heavens and a new earth,” rather than leaving this earth to go to heaven (Isaiah 65:17; Revelation 21:1). The kingdom of God is when the will of God is done on earth as it is in heaven. In both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament the ideal future is when God comes down to the renewed creation, not when we leave a hopeless world to join God in heaven (Revelation 21:3).

Paul makes clear that in Christian resurrection the body is left behind like an old change of clothing, to turn to the dust, and the spirit is “reclothed” with a new spiritual body. He compares the physical body to a temporary tent, and the new body is a permanent house (2 Corinthians 5:1-5). He even throws in a polemic against the Greek Platonic view of the “unclothed” or disembodied immortal soul—he says our desire is not to be naked, which is the state of death before resurrection, but to be clothed again! There is a continuity between the old physical body and the new spiritual one–but it is not that the physical is somehow “transformed” into the spiritual. The continuity is the “spirit” of the person, that survives the death and decay of the body and is then subsequently “re-clothed” in a form Paul refers to as a “life-giving spirit.”

This has everything to do with the earliest Christian view of Jesus’ resurrection and the resurrection hope his first followers held. That is why the presence of bones—even the bones of Jesus, next to statements of faith in resurrection, were not a contradiction. The confusion has come over the accounts in the gospels of the empty tomb of Jesus, and his “appearances” to his followers following his resurrection–all of which were written after 70 CE when the links with the faith of the Jerusalem community had been severed.

The confusion has come in the gospels because of a fundamental misunderstanding of the empty tomb. There was an empty tomb—but it was the first tomb, the temporary one in which Joseph of Arimathea placed the corpse of Jesus until the Passover and Sabbath were past. This is no threat to the original Christian resurrection faith, it is actually an affirmation of that faith. Paul knows nothing of that first empty tomb. He knows that Jesus died and was buried and on the third day he was raised up. Paul’s focus is on the heavenly exaltation of Jesus, raised to the right hand of God (Philippians 2:5-10). Jesus then appeared to his followers, not as a resuscitated corpse, but in Paul’s words, as a “life-giving spirit” (1 Corinthians 15:3-8). These words of Paul are our earliest testimony to faith in Jesus’ resurrection. Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John were written between 70-100 CE. The names on the books are traditional. They are not included in the text but added later as “titles” to the manuscripts. In other words, Mark does not begin, “I Mark, having witnessed these things, do hereby write…” Nor does Matthew, Luke, or John. In that sense all four gospels are pseudonymous—we don’t know their real authors.

What is particularly telling is that if you take the gospels in order, beginning with Mark there are no appearances of Jesus—just the statement that he will “go before them to Galilee.” I understand this as a reference to his second coming, namely, the expectation that they will see the “Son of Man coming in the clouds of heaven” as Jesus predicted, parallel to his transfiguration on the high mountain in the Galilee (Mark 9:1; 14:62). In Matthew the women at the tomb see Jesus and later the eleven apostles on a misty mountain top—but some doubted. He gives them their commission to take the gospel to the world (Matthew 28:18-19). Here we have clearly left the world of history and entered the world of theology. The “Great Commission” is Matthew’s view of the Christian mission until the end of the age. Scholars do not take these as words as those spoken by the historical Jesus. Luke expands things further and first introduces the idea that Jesus came back in a physical body—wounds and all and asking for food to eat. He includes Jesus appearing to two men on the road to Emmaus, and then to the eleven apostles and other disciples. They mistake him for a ghost, but he lets them know that he has “flesh and bones” and is not a spirit. He then eats fish in front of them (Luke 24:39). John, like Luke, promotes this same view—that Jesus shows his wounds to Thomas and later meets a group of the apostles on the Sea of Galilee and is cooking fish on the shore on a charcoal fire (John 20:24-25; 21:9-14).  See Deborah Thompson Prince “The ‘Ghost’ of Jesus: Luke 24 in Light of Ancient Narratives of Post-Mortem Apparitions,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament (March 2007) 29:3, pp. 287-301.

What Luke and John introduce here, namely that Jesus appeared in the same body that had been placed in the tomb represents a major departure from early Christian resurrection faith. This understanding of Jesus’ resurrection has led to endless confusion on the part of sincere Christians who do believe Jesus was raised from the dead. These stories are secondary and legendary. We know this because Mark, who wrote decades earlier, does not know them, and Paul, who is still earlier says plainly that the new body is not “flesh and blood” (1 Corinthians 15:50). Apologists have tried to reconcile these accounts by saying Jesus had “bones and flesh” but it was somehow “different” bones and flesh—it was “spiritual” not physical. They have compared it to stories of the appearances of angels or messengers in the Hebrew Bible, who appear, even eat, and then depart (Genesis 18:1-8). The parallel is not valid. The angelic messengers in the Hebrew Bible are often humans, spoken of a mal’akim—the normal word for messenger but mistranslated “angel.” Other times they are portrayed as beings from the other realm who appear and disappear at will, sometimes rising in a puff of smoke (Judges 6:19-22).

These accounts of Luke and John are quite different. They were written for apologetic purposes against pagan critics like Celsus who charged that the “appearances” of Jesus to his followers were merely based on hysteria and delusion. By the time Luke and John wrote, at the turn of the first century or even later, the battle the Christians were fighting was with the non-Christians and Jews who did not accept Jesus born of a virgin or raised from the dead. The pagans charged that the resurrection appearances were delusional but within Jewish tradition it was known that the body was moved. Matthew’s polemic against this view, protesting that it was a Jewish lie, actually testifies to its partial truth (Matthew 28:11-15). Matthew, in his typical anti-Semitic fashion, charges that the Jews were easily bribed for money and willing to spread a lie, saying “The disciples came and stole him away.” Part was true—they did come by night and take the body away, but they hardly stole it. Joseph of Arimathea had been given permission to take care of the burial by the Roman governor himself—Pontius Pilate. When Matthew says the “story” is spread among the Jews to this day,” that is likely also partially true. Jews who lived in Jerusalem knew that Jesus body had been moved, and reverently buried by his family and his followers. What one has to remember is that the gospel writers, removed five or six decades from the events, know nothing of the Christianity in Jerusalem that thrived and grew even before Paul came along. Jesus died in 30 CE, Paul writes in the 50s CE, and the gospels were written between 70-100 CE, or even later. They are far removed from the original followers—most of whom are dead, including Paul, Peter, James, and most other first witnesses.

The question I get asked most in this regard is how could one believe that the followers of Jesus were running around Jerusalem three days after Jesus died claiming he had been raised from the dead if his tomb was just two miles to the south of the Old City. This question assumes a fundamental misunderstanding. It takes legendary accounts written many decades after the events, and the history of the movement as narrated by Luke in the book of Acts, as if it reflects things as they were in the period 30-70 CE. For that Paul and the book of James are our only witnesses, plus the restored document Q.

The Q document and the letter of James are wholly concentrated on the ethical teachings of Jesus. They contain no Christian theology at all. The letter of James only mentions Jesus twice, both times in passing, but says nothing about the resurrection of Jesus. Paul, on the other hand, has begun the development of what we come to know as classic Christian teachings—Christ as the incarnate divine Son of God, his death and resurrection for sins, forgiveness through his blood, baptism as a mystical rite of union, and the Eucharist as eating the body and blood of Christ. Paul is early enough though to have the notion of resurrection of the dead straight and he says he received what he passes on in this regard—presumably from the first witnesses (1 Corinthians 15:1-8).

In an ironic sense, though I believe that Paul’s theology is far removed from that of Jesus first followers, his view of Jesus’ resurrection comes directly from them—and it did not involve bones or corpses being revived. He makes that crystal clear.

I realize it is hard to imagine, given the confusion the later gospel accounts have introduced, that early followers of Jesus would have visited the Jesus family tomb and declared their resurrection faith, while honoring and remembering their revered Teacher, the one they believed was the messiah. When one understands the Jewish culture and context that is precisely what one would expect. Within Judaism the tombs of the zadikim—the righteous ones, are honored, remembered, and considered holy. Accordingly, finding the tomb of Jesus and his family would not be a threat to early Christian faith, but a vehicle for recovering the Jewishness of Jesus and his first followers, serving as a bridge between these two great religions—Christianity and Judaism, as their common roots are better understood. On the probability that the permanent tomb of Jesus and his family has been found south of the Old City of Jerusalem see my overview here, and for the latest evidence, the book, The Jesus Discovery (Simon & Schuster, 2012).