Resurrection of Jesus
(pdf available here)
talk given to an ecumenical churches audience in Birmingham,
The previous talks in this series have
been devotional. But this time we are going to do some Bible
study, focussing on the New Testament material on the resurrection.
As we hear the Gospels read in church, or read them ourselves
at home, we normally hear or read a single passage by itself.
And it is natural to assume that this is an eye witness account
of what the reporter observed. But when, following the New Testament
scholars, we compare the different accounts of the same event
or saying in the different Gospels, problems arise. And these
problems and their implications have been pursued in detail
by the New Testament scholars.
of you will know a lot about the results of modern biblical
scholarship, but others not. So let me start with some basics.
The first thing to be said is that the scholars differ among
themselves about most things. When we take account of their
work we have left the firm ground of unquestioned certainties,
which we all instinctively prefer, and we've entered the inevitable
uncertainties of historical research. There is however a central
area of very wide consensus among reputable scholars, although
even here there is always someone somewhere who differs on some
point. But there is nevertheless a broad central consensus.
What is this consensus? It is agreed that none of the Gospels
was written by an eye witness, or even by people who had met
Jesus in person. The earliest gospel, Mark, was written around
70 AD, then Matthew and Luke in the 80's, using Mark as their
primary source, along with another presumed common source called
Q (which however some major scholars dispute), as well as other
separate sources and inventive writing of their own. And finally
John's Gospel was written towards the end of the century, in
the 90's or possibly even later. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are
called the synoptic Gospels because they have so much material
in common, in contrast to John, which has a very different character.
In the synoptics, Jesus speaks in his unforgettable parables
and short vivid sayings and commands, whilst in John he often
utters long theological discourses, and the theology embodied
in them is much more developed in the direction of what became
Christian orthodoxy than in the synoptics.
The sources which they used would be stories handed down within
different parts of the Christian community, which by then, thanks
mainly to St Paul, had moved out into the gentile world and
was sprinkled around the Mediterranean. Many people before the
days of widespread literacy did have an extremely retentive
memory for traditional stories; but even so traditional stories
tend to develop in the telling and retelling over the decades
and generations, particularly when they spread into new environments
and cultures far from the place of their origin.
Further, the current trend in New Testament studies today, the
dating of the documents having been pretty well established,
and what is called textual criticism and form criticism having
been absorbed, is to concentrate on the different points of
view and creativity of the different Gospel writers. I am not
however going to stress this now because I am dealing mainly
with prior issues.
What is the effect of all this on the resurrection narratives?
In our usual understanding of the resurrection we tend to amalgamate
what the different Gospels say, not noticing the many points
at which they disagree. Easter centres on the resurrection message
that Jesus was crucified and buried, and on third day rose from
the dead. The questions raised by the New Testament scholars
focus on what 'rose from the dead' means. There can be no doubt
that something enormously significant happened which we call
the resurrection. But what was that event or series of events?
There are two streams of New Testament tradition which can call
the bodily tradition and the visions tradition. The bodily tradition,
according to Luke in his Gospel and in Acts, is of an empty
tomb and the risen body of Jesus appearing to the disciples
from time to time over a period of forty days, and then ascending
bodily into heaven. The visions tradition is one of probably
several of visions of Jesus which gave the disciples a powerful
sense of his presence with them and inspired them to remain
faithful to him and to witness to his memory and his teachings.
I ought to mention at this point a very radical possibility,
and then leave it hanging, so to speak, because I'm not going
to take it up - I just don't know what weight it has. But some
scholars (e.g., Marianne Sawicki, Seeing the Lord, 1994, Fortress
Press, p.180; followed by John Dominic Crossan, The Birth of
Christianity, 1998, New York: HarperCollins, pp. xxvii, 528,
555) believe that the whole story of Joseph of Arimathea and
his family tomb, and Jesus' burial in it, is a later creation.
According to them the dead bodies of crucified criminals were
thrown by the Roman soldiers into a limed pit, which dissolves
the body quickly and hygienically, and this is the reason why
virtually no skeletal remains have been found of the thousands
who were crucified outside Jerusalem in the first century. Is
this correct? It could be, but frankly I don't know and I'm
not going to assume so.
What I would like to do is to ask you to notice the inconsistencies
that appear when we compare the different Gospels. Part of the
bodily tradition is that Jesus' body was laid in a tomb provided
by Joseph of Aramathea. But that is incompatible with another
strand of Christian tradition which says that it was not his
disciples who buried Jesus but the Jews who had engineered his
death. We get this in Acts 13: 18-19, reporting a speech by
St Paul in which he says, 'Though they [the Jewish authorities]
could charge him with nothing deserving death, yet they asked
Pilate to have him killed. And when they had fulfilled all that
was written of him, they [the Jewish authorities] took him down
from the tree, and laid him in a tomb'. This seems incompatible
with the Joseph of Aramathea story. Some commentators make the
point that Luke is concerned to blame the Jews for Jesus' death.
But one puzzle is that Luke's Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles
are both believed to have been written by the same person, whom
we call Luke. So Luke in Acts differs here from Luke in his
Gospel, which has the Joseph of Aramathea story (chap. 23).
What are we to make of this? I don't know. But this is the sort
of problem that appears when you start to look closely at the
Let us now return to the empty tomb and the bodily resurrection
tradition, and focus on the physical aspect. On the one hand,
the disciples saw the wounds in the hands and feet of the risen
Jesus (Luke), the women at the tomb, meeting Jesus in the garden,
'held on to his feet' (Matthew), and he ate fish with them in
Galilee (Luke and John). That indicates something thoroughly
bodily, physical. None of this comes, however, in the earlier
Mark. But the bodily tradition also holds that the risen Jesus
could suddenly materialise in a room without having come through
the door, and could equally suddenly disappear after breaking
bread at supper with the two disciples on the Emmaeus road.
This materialising and dematerialising would also have to apply
to his clothes. There is also the strange fact that the resurrected
Jesus was several times not at first recognised - in John's
gospel by Mary Magdalene at the tomb, who thought him to be
the gardener, and in Luke by the disciples on the Emmaus road
who carried on a long conversation with him without realising
that this was Jesus. And there is also Matthew's puzzling statement
that Jesus appeared to the disciples on a mountain in Galilee
'but some doubted', though 'doubted' may possibly be too strong,
with something like 'wondered' instead (Matt. 28: 17). But either
way, there are strange aspects, and what is customarily said
is that the risen body was indeed the body that had been placed
in the tomb, but somehow transformed or transfigured or transmuted
so that it did not now have to obey the ordinary laws of physics.
This would account for Jesus suddenly appearing in bodily form
in a locked room, but not for some of his disciples not recognising
him. So there are still many puzzles.
Yet another puzzle is, why would the transformed Jesus, if he
could pass through walls into a locked room, and appear and
disappear at will, need any help in getting out of the tomb?
Why should an angel have to come down and roll away the stone
(Matthew)? Would it not have been a much stronger proof of his
bodily resurrection if the tomb had remained sealed, and then
officially discovered to be empty when they opened it up? So
it seems that the fact that the tomb was already open when the
women arrived early on the Sunday morning weakens, if anything,
rather than strengthens the traditional story - not only because
it seems unnecessary but also because it leaves space for the
allegation, which was in fact made at the time (Matt. 28: 11-15),
that someone removed the body. These are difficult, possibly
unanswerable, questions, and I can only leave them with you.
Going back now to the scholarly consensus, another part of it
concerns the last chapter of Mark's gospel, telling of appearances
to Mary Magdalene, then to two unnamed disciples, then to the
rest and to the eleven as they sat at table, and charging them
to preach the gospel throughout the world, saying 'He who is
baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be
condemned'; and finally reporting that Jesus was taken up into
heaven to sit at the right hand of God. However none of this
is in the earliest manuscripts and is universally believed to
have been a later addition. Because of this many modern versions
in English now leave a gap in the print between Mark 16: 8 and
what follows, the original gospel having ended at 16:8. This
original ending is enigmatic. The two Marys, Magdalene and Jesus'
mother, go to the tomb early on the Sunday morning to anoint
the body. They find the stone already rolled aside and a young
man in a white robe - in Mathew this is an angel and in Luke
two angels - who in Mark tells them that Jesus is risen and
will appear to Peter and the disciples in Galilee; and then
it ends 'And they went out and fled from the tomb; for trembling
and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to
anyone, for they were afraid.' So Mark gives us the empty tomb
and a promise of appearances to come to Galilee, but no actual
appearances, and by implication rules out any appearances in
Matthew and Luke follow Mark as far as his original ending,
but then diverge so much that it is not possible to harmonise
them with one another or with John. Luke has no appearances
in Galilee. According to him the only appearances are in Jerusalem
and on the nearby Emmaus road. There is also an appearance to
Peter, and then all the disciples together, Jesus suddenly appearing
among them, and then they go out to Bethany, and Jesus is carried
up into heaven. All this happens in the Jerusalem area on the
same day. And the Acts of the Apostles, by the same writer,
again restricts the appearances to Jerusalem, instructing the
disciples to remain there until they are baptized with the Holy
Spirit - referring to Pentecost. Acts then describes the ascension:
'And when he had said this, as they were looking on, he was
lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight' (Acts 1:
9). That's Luke.
Matthew on the other hand reports an earthquake and an angel
descending to remove the stone from the tomb, and says there
were guards at the tomb, presumably Roman soldiers, who trembled
and became like dead men. Then the women meet Jesus in the garden
and he tells them to tell the disciples to go to Galilee where
he will meet them. There are no more appearances in Jerusalem,
contrary to John's gospel. In Matthew the disciples do go to
Galilee where Jesus meets them on a mountain, though Matthew
adds 'but some doubted' or 'wondered' (28: 17). There Jesus
gives them the missionary commission to go and make disciples
of all nations. Matthew on the other hand does not have an ascension
John, writing later, has extensive appearances in both Jerusalem
and Galilee, over a period of forty days, but again no ascension
So when we bring the different gospel narratives together there
are mysteries which it is impossible to ignore. Their versions
cannot all the right. They represent different traditions. In
Mark, the earliest, there is the enigmatic ending and no appearances.
Then there is the major contradiction between Matthew and Luke
in that Mathew has appearances in both Jerusalem and in Galilee
spread at least over some days or weeks, traditionally forty
days, whereas Luke has appearances only in and around Jerusalem,
and all within a matter of hours. There is the puzzle that in
Luke and John the first people to see the risen Jesus do not
recognise him. And there is the even more mysterious feature
of the risen Jesus being able to appear and disappear at will.
There is one other item in Matthew's Gospel which on the one
hand supports the bodily resurrection tradition and yet on the
other hand raises a question about it. This is Matthew 27: 52-3,
which tells us that 'many bodies of the saints who had fallen
asleep [died] were raised, and coming out of their tombs after
his [Jesus'] resurrection they went into the holy city [Jerusalem]
and appeared to many'. This reminds us that for Jews of that
time resurrection meant bodily resurrection. So for them this
meant that if Jesus was said to have been raised from the dead
this must mean that his body came out of the tomb. But on the
other hand, it also fits the alternative New Testament tradition
of visions only. For if the original proclamation of the disciples
was that Jesus had appeared to them, meaning that they had seen
visions of him, and if this was enough for them, their proclamation
of the risen Lord would almost inevitably as time went on have
come to be understood to mean that they had seen his resurrected
body, and the Gospels one and two generations after the event
would be likely to have taken this form.
The significance for us today of this story of many of the dead
coming out of their graves and walking into Jerusalem and being
seen by many is that it shows us what Matthew's readers in the
80's could be expected to accept without question. For in the
ancient world physical miracle stories were common and were
not received, as they are today, with probing questions. And
yet such an event is historically extremely improbable. Such
an extraordinary event would surely have found its place in
the Roman records of the time. But Josephus and Tacitus, who
do mention the fact that there was a teacher called Jesus and
that he was executed by the Romans, make no mention of stories
either about his resurrection or about this mass resurrection
of people coming out of their graves and being publicly seen
in Jerusalem. But it is hard to see how the Roman authorities
in Jerusalem could fail to have been aware of such a startling
mass phenomenon, and how it could fail to be recorded as an
extraordinary historical event. Imagine a lot of people rising
from their tombs in Lodge Hill cemetery and walking down Bristol
Road into the town centre and being seen by many!
Further, the story of the empty tomb, present in all four gospels,
seems to have been a late addition to the tradition. It was
not part of the original message that Paul received from the
apostles, and does not seem to have been known by Paul. It is
not mentioned in any of his letters, and first appears in Mark's
gospel around AD 70. It seems to many scholars to be a dubious
element in the Gospels.
So far we have been talking mainly about the Gospels. But the
earliest reference to the resurrection is not in any of them
but in Paul, in I Co. 15:4, dated in the early 50s. This is
particularly significant because Paul is also the only person
from whom we have a first-hand account of an encounter with
the risen Christ - or at least the author of Acts' account of
Paul's account. We will come to that in a moment. But in I Cor.
Paul reminds his readers of the gospel that he received from
the apostles after his conversion in the year 33 or 34 - it
being believed today that the crucifixion occurred in AD30.
The message was that 'Christ died for our sins in accordance
with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised
on the third day according to the scriptures, and that he appeared
to Cephas [Peter], then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more
than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still
alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James
[Jesus's brother], then to all the apostles'. Last of all, Paul
adds, as to one untimely born, he appeared to him also. The
big question is whether his being raised and appearing means,
in this original message, that he was raised bodily, the physical
body coming out of the tomb, or does it consist in Peter and
some of the others having visions of him. If we read the much
later gospel stories into Paul's earlier words, as we customarily
do, it means a physical resurrection, but if not, it is consistent
with both the bodily and the visions tradition.
A comment on Paul's reference to the risen Lord appearing to
more than five hundred of the brethren at once - why, incidentally,
no women, or is 'brethren' perhaps meant inclusively? We would
expect most of any five hundred people to be still alive only
two or three years later. So most probably that was not part
of the original message that Paul received but something that
had become part of the tradition during the nearly twenty years
before Paul was writing.
Paul's own account of his encounter with the risen Lord is described
first in Acts 9: 1-9 and then in his speeches reported in Acts.
In Acts 22: 6-9 Paul says, 'As I made my journey and drew near
to Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone
about me. And I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying
to me, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" And
I answered, "Who are you, Lord?" And he said to me,
"I am Jesus of Nazareth whom you are persecuting".
Now those who were with me saw the light but did not hear the
voice of the one who was speaking to me'. In other words, in
this account, it was an inner voice. On the other hand, in the
passage in chapter 9 the others hear the voice but see nothing.
And later, in Acts 26: 13-16, where Paul is speaking to king
Agrippa, Paul repeats his story, saying that on his way to Damascus
'At midday, O king, I saw on the way a light from heaven, brighter
than the sun, shining round me and those who journeyed with
me. And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice
saying to me in the Hebrew language, "Saul, Saul, why do
you persecute me? It hurts you to kick against the goads".
So here again his companions see the light but do not hear the
voice. Here the voice speaks for much longer than in the other
account, Jesus going on to commission Paul as his apostles to
Now Paul (according to Luke, the author of Acts) reports this
experience as the risen Lord appearing to him. You remember
that in his listing of Jesus' appearances he includes this.
'Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me'
(I Cor. 15:8). This was of vital importance to Paul because
it was this that made him an apostle. He refers to himself as
an apostle in his letters (for example, Gal. 1:1) and says (Galatians
1: 16) that God 'was pleased reveal his Son to me'. In I Cor.
9:1 he asks, 'Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our
Lord?' - using the same Greek verb, opthe for this as for the
other apostles' seeing the Lord. However the scholars are widely
agreed that this word, followed by the dative, is better translated
as 'appeared to' or 'was seen by'. In other words, it is compatible
with visions rather than a physical presence.
So in this overwhelming experience on the Damascus road Paul
saw a bright light, received a vision of Jesus, and heard a
voice. There was no physical presence of Jesus, not only because
Paul does not speak of one but also because if there had been,
those who were with him would also have seen it. He had a vision
of Jesus and heard an inner voice. And it seems very reasonable
to treat Paul's experience as our clue to the earlier experience
of the first apostles. If so, they had visions of the risen
Lord, but no bodily presence was involved.
Indeed the idea that Jesus' resurrection was a physical event
would be incompatible, for Paul, with his belief that 'flesh
and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God' (I Cor. 15: 50),
and his belief that the resurrection of the faithful will not
be in their physical body but a spiritual body. He says, 'It
is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there
is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body' (I Cor.
15: 44). If this was what Paul believed, he may well have thought
that what he saw in his vision was the spiritual body of Jesus.
There is however a possible difficulty in the visions tradition.
It is natural that several people at once would see a physical
presence, but could they all have the same vision at the same
time - all the disciples at once, and the five hundred? It is
not uncommon for an individual to have a fleeting vision of
a recently dead loved one. (I have had such a vision myself).
But what about collective visions of the dead? It may be relevant
that the annals of parapsychology do record a number of cases
of collectively perceived apparitions . But the much stronger
likelihood is that the stories of all the apostles together,
and the five hundred, seeing the risen Jesus simultaneously
are later creative developments within the developing tradition.
I pointed out earlier that the five hundred cannot have been
part of the original message that Paul received from the apostles.
So this is another unresolved question.
So we are left with a lot of questions. Whether we opt for the
bodily or the visions interpretation of the complex biblical
material taken as a whole, we are have to accept what are probably
Finally, what does Easter mean to me - which is the title of
this series? Well, what it means to me has nothing to do with
all these unresolved puzzles and conflicting indications in
the texts! If nevertheless you ask me, what among all of this
incompatible and often conflicting material I feel sure of,
I would have to say that I feel sure that there must have been
visions of Jesus after his death. I do not feel at all sure
that there was a physical body. But my faith in Jesus as lord
does not depend on a balancing of the sort of considerations
I have been outlining; and I would not want to have a faith
that was precariously balanced on such conflicting indications.
Nor however would I want to have a faith which ignored them.
I know of course that many are happy to set all that aside,
and affirm a simple straightforward belief that Jesus rose bodily
from the grave, and I have no quarrel with them, although I
cannot in honesty share their certainty.
So for me Easter is a joyful symbol of a central element of
the gospel, God's gift of renewal, of ever new beginnings, of
rebirth, of life transcending death. That it comes at spring
time when nature is renewing itself is a happy coincidence.
But Easter is our Christian symbol of hope, of the ongoing fact
of new life, of freedom from the grip of the past, of openness
to the future, to new possibilities, ultimately openness to
the Kingdom of God and an intimation of life beyond death.
©. John Hick. 2006
April 24th 2009: Reprinted - The Many-Faced Argument: Studies on
the Ontological Argument for the Existence of God, edited by John
Hick and Arthur McGill
July 20th 2009: New Article : Resurrection
Oct 2008 - 'Who or What is God?' was published November 2008