The resurrection

Following the story of the crucifixion, the Gospels continue to tell the most controversial part of the story of Jesus, namely the story of the resurrection. Without this part, the whole story would have revolved around a religious personality who rebelled against an occupying power, but with no luck and who was executed for his deeds. It was the resurrection that created and was and is the base for Christianity. The most significant man behind the Christianity we know today, Paul, had not known Jesus himself, and was not interested in the historic and human Jesus at all. Only the godly, resurrected Jesus had Paul's interest.

The burial

But before Jesus could be resurrected, he must first be placed in the tomb. The Gospels do not tell much about this, but enough to make it interesting.

Matthew tells this story: "As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus. Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him. Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock. He rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb and went away. 61Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting there opposite the tomb." (Matt. 27.57-60) Interesting is that in the English translation it sounds like Joseph cut out the tomb himself. In Danish translation it is obvious that he had someone cut it for him.

Accordin to Mark the story goes like this: "It was Preparation Day (that is, the day before the Sabbath). So as evening approached, Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Council, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body. Pilate was surprised to hear that he was already dead. Summoning the centurion, he asked him if Jesus had already died. When he learned from the centurion that it was so, he gave the body to Joseph. So Joseph bought some linen cloth, took down the body, wrapped it in the linen, and placed it in a tomb cut out of rock. Then he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joseph saw where he was laid." (Mark. 15.42-47)

The entombement of Christ, Carravagio, about 1603, in Pinacoteca Vaticana, Rome. Joseph of Arimethea and Nicodemus embalm Christ and places him in the tomb, while the three Marys watch.

Luke says: "Now there was a man named Joseph, a member of the Council, a good and upright man, who had not consented to their decision and action. He came from the Judean town of Arimathea, and he himself was waiting for the kingdom of God. Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body. Then he took it down, wrapped it in linen cloth and placed it in a tomb cut in the rock, one in which no one had yet been laid. It was Preparation Day, and the Sabbath was about to begin. The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee followed Joseph and saw the tomb and how his body was laid in it. Then they went home and prepared spices and perfumes. But they rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment." (Luke 23.50-56)

The three stories are quite similar, but they are still different enough to make it interesting. Matthew and Luke are usually assumed to have based their gospels on the Gospel of Mark in addition to possibly one other shared source. It is very rare that the two omit something that Mark tells in his gospel; rather, they add something. However, Matthew does not tell anything about the day of preparation, and apparently he didn't know that Joseph of Arimathea bought a sheet. According to Matthew, he already had the sheet. On the other hand, Matthew is the only one of the Synoptics who knows that the tomb in which Jesus was laid belonged to Joseph himself. Mark just knows that the tomb had been carved out of the rock, while Luke can add that no one had been buried in the tomb yet. Mark knows (how he knows is uncertain) that Pilate wondered how come Jesus was already dead. Death by crucifixion usually took a long time. Only when he had summoned the officer, who had been responsible for the execution, he was convinced. Neither Matthew nor Luke know this story. Mark and Luke agree that Joseph was a member of the council (Sanhedrin), while Matthew just knows that he was rich. Furthermore, Matthew and Mark agree that a large stone was rolled in front of the tomb to cover the entrance, while Luke does not say anything about this. Matthew and Mark also name the women who followed Jesus to the tomb, while Luke just knows that they were the same ones who had followed him from Galilee.

Whether it was later editors who created the differences cannot be said today. However, there is some indication that this is one of those cases where Matthew and Luke have not just "copied" Mark, but have known independent stories, or may not have known Mark's story about the events at all. It is widely acknowledged that the end of the Gospel of Mark (Mark 16.8-20) is a later addition, perhaps because the gospel ended with 16.8 or because the original ending had been lost for some reason. Maybe Matthew and Luke used an incomplete version of Mark, where even the last verses of chaptet 25 were missing, so it did not include the story of the burial. If they had been told this part of the story orally, it may explain the differences.

For once John tells almost the same story, but he has more details:  "Later, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jewish leaders. With Pilate’s permission, he came and took the body away. He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs. At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had ever been laid. Because it was the Jewish day of Preparation and since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there." (John 19.38-42)

The texts of the four evangelists have given rise to several interpretations. Among other things, it is argued that Jesus must have survived the crucifixion, because Joseph used a Greek word (soma), which usually means a living body, when he asked Pilate to have Jesus delivered. Pilate, on the other hand, refered to Jesus with another Greek word (ptoma), which means "corpse". Another topic of discussion is the location of the tomb. John knows that it was in a garden, which was close to the place of execution. This is unknown to the Synoptic Gospels, but it may well be true anyway. There are also discussions about who was present at the burial. The three synoptic gospels leave Joseph alone for the burial, which, however, was attended by some women from some distance. John does not know anything about the women, but on the other hand lets Joseph get assistance from Nicodemus. This Nicodemus is only mentioned in the Gospel of John, not in any of the synoptic gospels. On the other hand, he is mentioned a couple of other times in John, like in the connection referred to in the quote, which originates from John. 3.1 - 3.13) and again in John 7.50. In both passages it is suggested that Nicodemus sided with Jesus, even though he was one of the Pharisees, who were Jesus' opponents according to the Gospels. (That they actually were not, is another matter, to which I return in a later article.) Like Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus was also a member of the Sanhedrin (and most likely identical to the historical Nicodemus ben Gurion, who lived at this time and who was actually a member of the Sanhedrin), and if Jesus has had two supporters in the Council, he has probably also had more, but that is yet again a story for later.

The resurrection

'So far the descriptions of the burial itself. As mentioned earlier, however, it is the resurrection that has created Christianity, so let's look at what the evangelists have to say about this. Again, I want to start with Matthew:

"After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb. There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men. The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.” (Matt. 28.1-7)

Immediately after this, in verse 9, the women meet Jesus and they fall to their knees and worship him after he has greeted them with a cheerful "Greetings" (in the Biblica Online translation; "All Hail" in King James).

Resurrection, Dieric Bouts, ca. 1455, Norton Simon Museum, Passadena, California.

The story in Mark is a bit different: "When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?” But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’ ” Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid." (Mark 16.1-8)

In Mark, Jesus appears only to Mary Magdalene at first (verse 9), and later to two of the disciples walking in the countryside (verse 12), but here with a different look from when he appeared to Mary.

Luke tells this story: "On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: ‘The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.’ Then they remembered his words." (Luke 24.1-8)

In Luke, Jesus apparently did not appear to the women, but Peter ran out and looked at the empty tomb and wondered whgat had happened (Verse 12). Later, Jesus appeared to two disciples on their way to the city of Emmaus. The disciples, however, did not recognize him at first. Only at the meal in the evening did they become aware of who they were with (Verse 30).

The story in John is relatively identical with the Synoptics: "Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen. Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.) Then the disciples went back to where they were staying." (John 20.1-10)

John lets Mary Magdalene meet Jesus in verse 14 after she has spoken to some angels. She does not recognize him, but thinks he is the gardener (verse 14-15)

Although the stories are very similar, there are some details that differ. Mark, usually considered the oldest of the four Gospels, mentions three named women who came to anoint Jesus. They were Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James and Salome. Luke just mentions some women without naming them, though in verse 10 he mentions Mary Magdalene, Mary, mother of James and Johanna as well as "the other women", but it is not entirely clear if it were these women who inform the other disciples of Jesus' disappearance, or whether some of them, are among the audience to what was told. Matthew only knows two women, namely Mary Magdalene and "the other Mary" and in John the number is further reduced to the fact that only Mary Magdalene visited the tomb. However, all the Gospels agree that Mary Magdalene was involved, so we can probably take that for granted. In the article "Was Jesus married - and to whom" I have tried to explain who the many different Marys may have been, but as it is npt really imnportant in this context, we can just assume, that they were all different people.

For once John agrees with at least one of the synoptics, namely Luke, that Jesus did not appear to anyone immediately after the empty tomb was discovered. In Mark and Matthew, Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene and all the women that were by the sepulcher, and they have no difficulty in recognizing him, whereas the disciples who later meet him cannot see that it is Jesus they are facing. This may be interpreted as meaning that Matthew and Luke did not use Mark as a source for this particular incident. It harmonizes very well with the assumption that the last verses (9 to 20) of Mark chapter 16 are a later addition, either because there has never been an ending or because the original ending has been lost. Here you can imagine that a later editor has used John or Luke as a source for his final words of Mark. If so, it is possible that the story given in Matthew is the most original.

In return, Matthew is somewhat eager in his urge to establish the supernatural at the resurrection, as he lets an angel descend from heaven and, under shouts and lightning, overthrow the stone from the tomb while the women stand and watch. However, the angel is not too credible, as it informs the women that Jesus has gone before them to Galilee, where they are to meet him. Nevertheless, they meet Jesus already in the next verse as they are on their way away from the tomb. Notice, however, that the "angel" is dressed in white. Markus lets Mary meet a single young man dressed in white. In Mark, the stone had already been overturned from the opening of the tomb, and the young man was sitting inside the tomb. Mark even knows that he is sitting on the right side of the tomb. In Luke the stone is also thrown aside when the women arriveand they meet not one but two men in luminous (white) clothes. These two men more than suggest that Jesus is not dead at all: "Why are you looking for the living among the dead?" John knows nothing of neither men nor angels. In John Mary simply discovered that the stone had been removed from the opening of from the tomb and that Jesus is gone.

Women at the empty tomb, Fra Angelico, ca. 1440, Museum of San Marco, Florence.

The only thing that the gospels agree upon in this context is that the stone is rolled from the opening to the tomb, or becomes so while the women are watching. This does not sound particularly "supernatural" to me. Had it actually been an almighty God who had miraculously resurrected Jesus, he would hardly have had to move the stone aside, but could have made the resurrection through the rock. People, on the other hand, who do not have these miraculous abilities, would probably have to use more down-to-earth means. John also tells that the linen cloths (that is, the previously mentioned sheet) lay in the tomb, while the cloth which had been placed over Jesus' head, was neatly rolled up somewhere else. Again, there is nothing in this description to suggest any particular miraculous origin. One can actually wonder why the shroud was left behind at all, and why someone took the time to roll it up in stead of just leaving it as it was. Only John knows about this, but as I normally consider John to be most valid source when it come to events in Jerusalem, it may have been correct.

Mark has previously mentioned a young man wearing only a sheet. It was in connection with
Jesus' arrest (Mark 14: 51-52). So perhaps white clothes mean something special to Mark, or perhaps rather to Simon Peter, as most scholars agree, he was Mark's most important source. Modern scholars seems to know that especially the Essenes (one of the sects with which Jesus is suspected to have been associated) were known to wear white robes. They were also known as doctors and healers, so perhaps one was present at the burial, for example to ensure that Jesus was not actually dead, or if he was replaced a substitute, as I have previously suggested, that this substitute actually WAS dead.

When those who see Jesus after the resurrection have problems with recognizing him, one might imagine that he was disguised. It would probably be natural if he had to pretend to be dead in relation to the authorities, and therefore did not want to be recognized. In any case, no one has any problems recognizing him once he makes himself known.

After the resurrection, Jesus meets the disciples on one or more occasions. In Matthew only once, in Galilee, where Jesus commands them to go out and make the al people his disciples. In what is probably a later addition to Mark, he first appears before two disciples (who were not part of the remaining 11) and finally he appears before the 11 while sitting at the table. We do not get to know it directly, but can read between the lines that this is happening while the disciples are still in or around Jerusalem. Here, too, Jesus sends the disciples out on missions. Luke has a somewhat longer account of the meeting with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, before letting Jesus meet the remaining 11. Here there is no doubt as to where it is, as it is clearly mentioned that the meeting takes place in Jerusalem. (Luke 24.33). In Luke, Jesus is clearly a physical figure and not a spiritual one, as Jesus is eating some fish. Here, too, Jesus sends the disciples out to convert all nations, but gives them direct instructions to begin in Jerusalem (Luke 24.47). Mark and Luke both give an account of Jesus' ascension; most detailed in Luke, which could also be an indication that the conclusion of the Gospel of Mark is in fact based on Luke. Luke even knows that the ascension took place near Bethany.

Common to the synoptics is that the Gospels end with the resurrection and the meeting with the disciples, in two of them following the story of the resurrection. John is, as so often, a bit different.

Jesus comes to the disciples while they are hiding in fear of the Jews. This takes place in a house in or near Jerusalem (maybe in Lazarus' home in Bethania?). He greets them and shows them the wounds in his hands and in the side, making the disciples happy. Next, he blesses them and gives them the power to forgive (or not forgive) sins, a power that otherwise belongs only to God. In John, there are only 10 disciples present as Thomas does not arrive until later and refuses to believe that it really is Jesus if he is not allowed to stick his fingers in his wounds. Here John slips from "historical" description to pure religion and adds sporadically that Jesus made many other signs to the disciples, which signs are unfortunately not mentioned in the gospel. (John 20.30). John's story does not end here, but continues with another chapter (21) in which Jesus meets the disciples once again, this time in Galilee. This was the third revelation after the resurrection. (John 21.14). Again, the meeting is very much about food and dining, although it is told as a miracle story, in which Jesus helps Peter to catch fish and then cook them. This gospel ends with Jesus appointing Simon Peter to take care of the other disciples and predicting Peter's later death as a martyr (which must mean that at least the end of the gospel is written some time after this event, which is believed to have taken place this year 67). Finally, some intricate sentences come about the disciple whom Jesus loved, that makes it unclear whether he had passed away at the time the gospel was written down or if he was still alive.

To me, there is no doubt that if any kind of resurrection has taken place, then it has been completely natural. Either Jesus' body has been removed by his followers, or possibly by others who just wanted to prevent his followers from getting hold of it. Alternatively, Jesus survived the crucifixion, and then, of course, his followers needed to get him out of the tomb before the Romans discovered what was going on. Also a potential substitute, who had died in Jesus' place, had to be removed from the tomb before people who knew Jesus well came to perform funeral rites and discovered that it was someone else who was laid to rest in the tomb.