Tim O’Neill is an excellent atheist. Being widely read in ancient historiography, certainly over a much longer period and knowing far more than I do, he eventually became sick of the atheist misrepresentations of ancient history and launched the blog History for Atheists, a favorite of mine. In it, he refutes various myths told and retold by the oddly unskeptical skeptics about the history of Christianity, including absurd claims of Christians having destroyed the ancient works by showing, in fact, that under the new dominance of Christianity in light of the conversion of the Roman Empire, non-Christian works were almost as likely to survive into the present day as Christian works. He debunks the ridiculous idea that Christians destroyed the Great Library of Alexandria or that Nicolas Copernicus waited until his deathbed to publish his heliocentric theory in fear that the Christian orthodoxy would clamp down on him. In a series of posts, he’s basically laid to rest any credibility of the work of Richard Carrier, a failed historian and unbelievably biased quack whose created an entire (rather unsuccessful) career out of trying to claim that Jesus didn’t actually historically exist. Such is but a small contribution made by O’Neill in his new blog.
Of course, I’ll have to hold up some disagreements with O’Neill as well. This post, in particular, will be devoted to responding to his detailed and lengthy argument on Quora arguing against the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus (in response to someone’s question ‘What evidence is there for Jesus Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection?‘). I think the first paragraph of O’Neill’s answer in his question summarizes his argument;
The source evidence that exists that purports to show that Jesus “rose from the dead” actually indicates how this idea most likely developed and evolved over time. It indicates that the idea that Jesus was somehow “resurrected” was a way his followers dealt with his sudden and unexpected execution and that this idea developed from an abstract one into one of a more concrete, physical revivification. The contradictions in the various accounts, which date from the 50s AD through to the 90s-100 AD, show this process of development.
So, the source evidence (Paul’s letters and the Gospels) reveal that the claim of Jesus’ resurrection was actually a sudden response to his unexpected execution and that, as can be gleaned from a study of the texts, our surviving accounts reveal that the story has been evolving over time, which helps discredit them. Let’s see what I can do here to weaken the case. To set up, I’ll outline the most important areas where me and O’Neill are on the same page. Jesus had an apocalyptic theology, Paul is the only first-hand surviving account, and the Gospels were written between 70-100 AD (I’d just say 90-100 AD, but O’Neill suggests John is between 90-120 AD).
O’Neill begins by pointing out that a text making a miracle claim isn’t identical to it being historically accurate, and that even the highly credible Roman historian Tacitus, closely associated with the court of the emperor Vespasian, reports miracles taking place here. Then, O’Neill writes;
One form of miracle that was widely believed in was the idea of apotheosis, where a great man is physically taken up in to the heavens and raised to divine status. It was claimed that Romulus, the founder of Rome, underwent this process and later appeared to his friend Julius Proculus to declare his new celestial status. The same claim was made about Julius Caesar and Augustus, with supposed witnesses observing their ascent into the heavenly realm. Lucian’s satire The Passing of Peregrinus includes his scorn for the claim that the philosopher was taken up into the celestial realm and was later seen walking around on earth after his death. The Chariton novel Callirhoe has its hero Chaereas visiting the tomb of his recently dead wife, saying he “arrived at the tomb at daybreak” where he “found the stones removed and the entrance open. At that he took fright.” Others are afraid to enter the tomb, but Chaereas goes in and finds his wife’s body missing and concludes she has been taken up by the gods.
Remember, Jesus was exalted again after His death back to the status of divinity (Philippians 2:6-11), and, therefore, can be likened to a form of apotheosis. Assuming O’Neill’s argument is that in the world of Roman paganism, apotheosis was largely common and so may help describe the psychology of the early Christians in accepting a theological apotheosis for their own just-dead prophet, there appears to be some crucial problems. One would be the sheer extent to which pagan apotheosis was rejected by 1st century Jews as a component of their monotheism. Larry Hurtado, perhaps the worlds leading historian of early Christian Christology, writes;
Second, the Jewish monotheistic stance forbade apotheosis, the divinization of human figures, and thus clashed with a major theme in pagan religion of the time. Philo’s quip about Gaius Caligula’s claim to divinity aptly illustrates Jewish attitudes, and is all the more important in coming from a diaspora Jew who in some other respects shows a cosmopolitan attitude: “Sooner could God change into a man than a man into God” (Embassy to Gaius 118). This rejection of apotheosis as ridiculous and blasphemous seems in fact to have been characteristic of devout Jews of the Roman period, and this in turn makes highly implausible any explanation of the Christ-devotion attested in, and affirmed by, Paul as resulting from the prevalence of the notion of apotheosis in the Roman era. Though Jewish writings of the time show that principal angels and revered human figures such as Moses or Enoch could be pictured in a highly exalted status, and described in terms that can be compared with divinization, the refusal to accord any such figure cultic worship shows that we are not dealing here with a genuine apotheosis. In light of the allergic sensitivity of devout Jews of the time about claims of apotheosis, any scholar who wishes to propose the relevance of this category for explaining the Christ devotion of the first couple decades of the Christian movement is obliged to provide a cogent description of the specific process by which Christian Jews could have adopted this repellent category without realizing it. (Hurtado, Larry W. Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2005, 91-93)
In a footnote (n. 34), Hurtado describes the weaknesses of a similar proposal by Adela Yarbro Collins, that Jews unconsciously adapted such pagan tropes. Elsewhere, he points out that likening what happened with Jesus to apotheosis is simplistic, and that this wasn’t apotheosis since Jesus didn’t become an additional God to Christians, rather Jewish monotheism was reconfigured to include Jesus (pg. 51). The prevalence of this pagan belief can’t help explain the readiness of early Christians to accept Jesus’ resurrection and deity. Hurtado writes, “we have no other Roman-era example of a religious movement with similar ties to the Jewish religious tradition of exclusivistic monotheism and with a devotional pattern that involved so thoroughly a second figure in addition to God” (pg. 7). I also highly recommend the discussion on this subject in Michael Bird’s Jesus the Eternal Son: Answering Adoptionist Christology (Eerdmans 2017) pp. 34-62 where he demonstrates the pagan doubts to apotheosis in the same period and that Mark (and I’d add the entire New Testament) was clearly part of a strand of monotheistic Judaism in the period that had no room for something like belief in human deification.
I’ll also mention that O’Neill goes on to explain the story of the pagan deity Apollonius of Tyana in the works of Philostratus, and notes the numerous similarities it has with the story of the resurrection of Jesus. Of course, the Life of Apollonius is a third-century writing and, as O’Neill points outs, these stories may very well have been borrowed from the story of Jesus. O’Neill also easily refutes an apologetic (that wont be argued for here) that the resurrection of Jesus was unthinkable at the time, since there was no idea of individuals being resurrected before the end-time general resurrection itself. Even in the New Testament, several resurrections before Jesus’ are mentioned, including that of Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:21-43) and Lazarus (John 11:1-46).
In a recent paper, John Granger Cook has detailed that there were several other places in the Jewish literature where the resurrection happens;
From the second century BCE onward clear traces of resurrection can be
found in some Jewish texts. Claudia Setzer summarises the ambivalent views of ancient Judaism admirably:
… Jewish materials from the second century BCE through the first century CE exhibit a range of understandings of the afterlife. Fairly explicit claims of bodily resurrection appear in texts like 1 Enoch (51), 2 Maccabees, 4Q521, and Sibylline Oracle 4. A mix of concepts of resurrection of the body and immortality of the soul appear in 1 Enoch (91, 103), 1QH, 4 Ezra, 2 Baruch and Pseudo-Phocylides. Ambiguity prevails in works that nevertheless imply resurrection, such as ‘the Book of the Watchers’ [1-36] in 1 Enoch, The Testament of Judah, Psalms of Solomon, and CD 2:7–12. (Cook, John Granger. “Resurrection in Paganism and the Question of an Empty Tomb in 1 Corinthians 15.” New Testament Studies 63.1 (2017): 60-61.)
This paper will become important in just a moment. Now that we’ve seen how O’Neill outlines the background of the story of the resurrection, we’ll move into his latter argument; the evolution of the stories of the Gospels themselves. O’Neill analyzes five sources to outline how the resurrection story evolved, in order of their dating. First, Paul’s writings (c. 50 AD), then the Gospel of Mark (c. 70 AD), then Luke (c. 80 AD) and Matthew (c. 80 AD), and finally, John (c. 90-120 AD). This will show that the stories of the resurrection in the Gospel clearly underwent literary development, evolution and embellishment over a series of decades, and, according to O’Neill, shows a transition from describing a purely spiritual resurrection in Paul’s theology, where Jesus never undergoes any bodily resurrection, to the Gospels, where bodily resurrection is fully envisioned and the details of the story become increasingly legendary. Here’s what O’Neill says about Paul (to read O’Neill’s entire comment, see here).
Paul then goes on to scold some of the Corinthians for saying there was not going to be a general resurrection of the dead – as already noted above, this idea was not universally accepted by all Jews and it seems to have become disputed in the Corinthian community of the Jesus sect. Paul asks “if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?” (v. 12) and goes on to call Jesus’ resurrection “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep”, ie the pre-figurement of the coming general resurrection. He goes on to address the question of whether this coming resurrection will involve the rising of physical bodies and says in response “How foolish!”. Then he goes on to explain that the coming general resurrection will not be physical but involve “spiritual bodies”.
If Jesus’ resurrection is the pre-figurement of the coming general resurrection of the dead, therefore, it is clear that for Paul his rising did not involve a physical body. This is why Paul’s references to and insistence on the fact of the rising of Jesus makes no mention of the evidence of a physical revivification of his dead body that features in some of the later accounts: the empty tomb, discarded grave cloths, people touching Jesus, Jesus eating and his physical form flying up into heaven. For Paul, at this early stage of the development of the story, the risen Jesus is a spiritual concept involving visions, not physical encounters.
As far as I’m concerned, the proposition that Paul believed in a spiritual resurrection, and that Jesus never bodily rose from the dead according to Paul’s theology, is a minority view in scholarship. Nevertheless, I’ve written a complete critique and refutation of this claim here. The following will be a full reposting of this evidence.
Spiritual resurrection in Paul is argued for in a few ways, including arguing that some terminology Paul uses when discussing the resurrection of Jesus is compatible with a spiritual interpretation of the resurrection. Before I begin, I’ll just note that the Greek word ōphthē, conjugation of ὁράω (horao) which Paul uses to say that he saw Jesus and O’Neill mentions in his case for spiritual resurrection, simply means “to perceive with the eye” (doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with spiritual sight) and so can’t be used to open up the possibility that this was a spiritual vision and, thus, a spiritual resurrection, any more then I claiming to have seen a lion with my eyes implies that I saw a spiritual lion from heaven. Here’s the definition of the Greek word from Frederick Dankers’ Concise Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Chicago 2009), pg. 254. I’m posting a screenshot since it’s difficult copying and pasting this.
Here, Dankers lists the primary definition of horao as to perceive with the eye, as in, you’re looking at something physical. Dankers lists the use of horao in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 here, and not under the tertiary definition of “extraordinary mental or inward perception”, listed in the bottom half of the screenshot (where verses like Hebrews 2:8, which says we can’t see everything God subjects to Himself, are listed). The way Paul uses the term for seeing Jesus’ resurrection, is, at best, neutral. Just had to take care of this little detail first, since I’ve seen others use it to argue for spiritual resurrection here.
The terminology Paul uses to describe the resurrection only refers to someone physically coming back to life and isn’t compatible with spiritual resurrection. The Greek word Paul uses for ‘raised’ is ἐγείρω (egeirō) which has been conclusively shown by James Ware to mean someone physically waking up from sleep, or in this context, physically getting up (The Resurrection of Jesus in the Pre-Pauline Formula of 1 Cor 15.3–5, 2014, 492-497). Both terms imply a physical movement upwards when describing resurrection. There is no evidence that these Greek terms include the possibility of spiritual resurrection.
There’s more. Cook has recently shown that in the context of Jewish and pagan belief in the centuries revolving Jesus’ life resurrection was solely viewed as a bodily phenomenon, showing that in the context of Jesus’ era, his followers would have assumed physical resurrection and the presence of an empty tomb. That’s to say that the historical context to early Christianity suggests Jesus ‘spiritually ascending to heaven’ despite a rotting corpse outside Jerusalem likely wouldn’t have been a possibility. While some have tried to argue spiritual resurrection can be found in Daniel 12, Cook points out;
A convincing defence of bodily resurrection may be found in A. Chester, Future Hope and Present Reality, vol. I: Eschatology and Transformation in the Hebrew Bible (WUNT 293; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2012) 291–5. The Hebrew verb in Dan 12.2 (יקיצו) should be compared with the verb used for Gehazi’s failure to raise the dead boy in 2 Kings 4.31, who showed no signs of waking/rising (הקיץ לא), translated in 4 Reg 4.31 with the very material οὐκ ἠγέρθη. Cf. Levenson, Resurrection, 186.” (pg. 61, n. 34)
Therefore, the cultural context of when Christianity came on the scene shows Jesus’ followers could only have believed in physical resurrection and their appearance experiences must have been physical in nature.
Some argue for spiritual resurrection by appealing to 1 Corinthians 15:44, which, in the English translation, appears to suggest that Paul did view resurrection as spiritual. O’Neill cites this text as well.
1 Corinthians 15:44: It is sown a natural [ψυχικόν] body, it is raised a spiritual [πνευματικόν] body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.
The use of this verse to defend spiritual resurrection, however, becomes untenable when we look at the Greek terms being translated as ‘natural’ and ‘spiritual’. The Greek psuchikon (ψυχικόν) which translates to ‘natural’ is only used by Paul in one other passage, that is, 1 Corinthians 2:14. Here, it’s used to refer to those who live in sinful desire and has nothing to do with physicality. Richard Hays writes about the meaning of this term;
The term psychic is difficult to translate properly; it refers to human beings living in their natural state apart from the Spirit of God and therefore unenlightened and blind to the truth. They don’t ‘get it.'” (Hays, Richard B. First Corinthians. Westminster John Knox Press, 2011, 46)
The second Greek word to look at here, translated as ‘spiritual’, is pneumatikon (πνευματικόν), sometimes used in the New Testament to refer to immaterial beings (such as in Ephesians 6:12). However, Paul mostly uses this term to simply refer to spirituality, such as spiritual wisdom, gifts, blessings, songs, etc (Galatians 6:1; 1 Corinthians 2:13, 9:11, 12:1; Romans 5:19, etc). To sum up, in 1 Corinthians 15:44 Paul is contrasting the spiritually unenlightened (natural people) with the spiritually enlightened (spiritual people). For a more detailed refutation of this argument, see historian Michael Licona in his The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, pp. 406-413). For a more direct further refutation, also see this online article by James Ware showing that the contextual and lexical evidence renders a spiritual resurrection reading of this passage untenable.
Sometimes, advocates of spiritual resurrection even cite Paul in Acts 9 and 21 to claim Paul experienced a spiritual resurrection, since those chapters just record that Paul just saw a light and heard a voice. Of course, the same passages also say that the people traveling with Paul also saw the light he saw, which would rule out a spiritual appearance only taking place in Paul’s mind. Not only that, but an attempt to appeal to Luke-Acts for support of the concept of spiritual resurrection turns out to be a case of cherry-picking verses to support your argument, since all the other resurrection appearances mentioned by Luke-Acts are unequivocally physical (see Luke 24; Acts 1:6–11, Acts 10:41). Which implies that Luke, like Paul, had no concept of spiritual resurrection, and so Acts 9 and 11 are just less clear instances of a physical appearance happening.
Hence, it appears to me that it is highly plausible that Paul didn’t believe in spiritual resurrection. To summarize;
- All the terminology Paul uses in his epistles to describe Jesus’ resurrection are either consistent with or directly implies bodily resurrection
- In the era of Jesus, almost if not all conceptions of resurrection in Judaism were believed in terms of bodily resurrection — hence, Cook notes that the idea of spiritual resurrection at this time in Judaism is a “category mistake” (pg. 61)
- Although O’Neill and others appeal to the visions described by the Acts recounting Paul’s appearance, a look at Acts’ description of resurrection elsewhere shows the author believed in a physical resurrection (it might as well be special pleading if one admits that the other appearance in Acts are physical but this one is spiritual)
Also see James Ware’s recent paper Paul’s Understanding of the Resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:36–54 (JBL 2014), where Ware shows that Paul’s grammar also strongly indicates bodily resurrection. I should also add that Pharisees (like Paul was) firmly believed in physical resurrection (Josephus, War 2.163; Ant. 18.14; Acts 4:1–2; 23:6–10). Thus, O’Neill’s most significant piece of ‘evolution’ in the Christian understanding of the resurrection, the transition from belief in spiritual to bodily resurrection, doesn’t actually exist.
[UPDATE: It appears as if O’Neill has now changed his mind on Paul believing in a spiritual resurrection. Very nice.]
O’Neill now begins to address the stories and development of the four Gospels. I’ll pick out a number of flaws here and there throughout O’Neill’s argument, before moving to my major argument.
On the way there [the women going to visit Jesus’ tomb] they ask each other “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?” (Mark 16:3), which should strike most readers as a question they should have asked before they set out, if this story was historical.
Really, should it strike us? Well … not really. As far as I’m concerned, it’s not too uncommon for people to not actually have thought out all the details before going out with each other, especially on something so emotional where these women … might just really wanted to have seen Jesus as soon as possible. Surely, this is not such an absurd possibility to consider?
Secondly, the use of the word ἀποκυλίω (to roll away) indicates that the stone closing the tomb in the gMark account is meant to be round. A survey of First Century Jewish rock cut and cave tombs by Amos Kloner found that 98% of them were closed by square stones prior to 70 AD, with only four of the surveyed sites closed by a rolling round stone. After 70 AD, however, round stones became far more common. So this detail seems to be indicating the kind of tomb in the later First Century, given that a tomb of this style was exceedingly rare in Jesus’ time. This could just be the writer of gMark indicating the kind of tomb in the time he was writing or it could be that the tomb itself, an element conspicuous by its absence in Paul’s version, was an addition to the story.
The details seem to be accurate; most stones closing tombs in the Jewish land at this time were square stones, and round stones only appear later on in the century. So perhaps this sly detail in the Gospels, where they say the stone was rolled away, gives away ahistoricity? Nope. As scholar and archaeologist Urban C. von Wahlde has pointed out to the Biblical Archaeology magazine, the square-shaped stones would also have been rolled. It’s a bit obvious if you think about it. What else were they going to do? Carry around the gigantic rocks?
It is not necessary to change the definition of kulio to make sense of the Gospel accounts. Von Wahlde points out: “It may very well be that people rolled the ‘cork-shaped’ stones away from the tomb. Once you see the size of a ‘stopper’ stone, it is easy to see that, however one gets the stone out of the doorway, chances are you are going to roll it the rest of the way.” Although they certainly would not have rolled as easily as round (disk-shaped) stones, cork-shaped stones still could have been rolled.
Moving on, O’Neill points out there are no resurrection appearances in the Gospel of Mark. Though he neglects to mention that in Mark 14:28, Jesus explicitly tells his disciples that after his resurrection, he’ll go ahead and meet them at Galilee (therefore, the appearances are implied). O’Neill also argues, along the lines of a number of others, that Jesus would not have received a burial in a tomb but rather, like other criminals of the day, would have simply been buried in one of the mass graves available at the time. However, whether or not this explanation is true depends on the historicity of the story of Joseph of Arimathea and his burial of Jesus. If there was such a Joseph, Jesus would certainly not have been placed in a mass burial. O’Neill suggests that while Joseph of Arimathea may be historical, it’s also possible he was invented to make the Gospel story fit better with Old Testament ‘prophecy’ (i.e. Isaiah 53). Another possibility is as scholar Jodi Magness explains, Joseph’s actions seem to be the likely consequence of following Jewish law;
Joseph of Arimathea seems to have been motivated by a concern for the observance of Jewish law. On the one hand, Deut 21:22-23 mandates burial within twenty-four hours of death, even for those guilty of the worst crimes, whose bodies were hanged after death. On the other hand, Jewish law prohibits burial on the Sabbath and festivals. Because Jesus expired on the cross on the eve of the Sabbath, he had to be buried before sundown on Friday, because waiting until after sundown on Saturday would have exceeded the twenty-four-hour time limit. Since there was no time to prepare a grave, Joseph of Arimathea placed Jesus’ body in his family’s rockcut tomb. (Magness, Jodi. Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit: Jewish Daily Life in the Time of Jesus. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2011, 165. Also see pp. 164-171.).
While not in his Quora answer, I’ve more recently seen O’Neill offer another argument against the historicity of the story of Jesus’s burial by Joseph of Arimathea. A certain PC1 wrote to O’Neill on his blog about the historicity of the Joseph story:
It isnt just apologists who argue the contrary. For example, archaeologist Jodi Magness has said “In my opinion, the notion that Jesus was unburied or buried in disgrace is based on a misunderstanding of the archaeological evidence and of Jewish law….I believe that the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ burial are largely consistent with the archeological evidence…the Gospel accounts describing Jesus’ removal from the cross and burial are consistent with archaeological evidence and with Jewish law”.
And O’Neill responded:
“largely consistent with … archaeological evidence and with Jewish law” and “the most likely scenario” are not the same thing. Especially when Paul, strangely, makes no mention of any “empty tomb” when trying to convince the Corinthians of the physical reality of the resurrection, while Acts 13:27-29 records an early tradition whereby it’s “those who live in Jerusalem and their rulers” who execute Jesus and then says these enemies “took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb”. An early variant of John 19:38 also has the Jews taking Jesus away for burial. This is also found in the Gospel of Peter 6:21 and in Justin Martyr: Dialogue 97.1. Then the Secret Book of James has Jesus refer to how he was “buried in the sand”. The idea his followers lay him in a tomb seems to be a later development, aimed at refuting the idea that he was not buried at all or they just went to the wrong tomb. It is a prop for the later resurrection stories, not evidence for them.
Ah, so the Gospels and a few second century texts preserve earlier traditions where “the Jews”, that is, the Jewish opponents of the early Christians, were responsible for the burial of Jesus, unlike the preserved narrative on how the Sanhedrist Joseph, who is considered a secret believer in the Gospels (Matthew 27:57), was responsible for burying Jesus. However, there is an alternate explanation for the data here. After going over the same argument O’Neill mentions, Craig Evans writes;
” … the context suggests that the “they” may be the Jewish opponents of Jesus rather than his disciples. The plural may simply be a generalization of the memory of Joseph (who scarcely did the whole burial alone), a Sanhedrist responsible for sentencing Jesus but active in burying him out of fidelity to the Jewish law.” (The Historical Jesus: Jesus Death, Mission, and Resurrection, 2004, 249)
So when Acts 13:27-29 describes the Jewish opponents of Christianity burying Jesus, this can, after all, simply be referring to Joseph, per the evidence of Evans. The rebuttal would be that this can’t be true because Joseph is considered, as I’ve explained, considered a secret believer in the Gospel stories. But if there was any such Sanhedrist Joseph, it’s clear that the tradition of him being a secret Christian believer is the later development and that the variant tradition preserved in the passages O’Neill goes over preserve the recognition by the earliest Christians that Joseph in fact was no such secret believer. So what we’re told by these texts that O’Neill mentions is that Joseph, who buried Jesus, was no secret believer after all contra the Gospels. While O’Neill claims that being buried in a tomb was a later development, he only seems to find this in the Secret Book of James from the 2nd century. In contrast, these variant readings in Acts and elsewhere, which remember that Joseph was an opponent of Christianity, are clearly very early traditions contradicting the official Gospel narrative and so we here have very clear evidence for an extremely early tradition recounting the historicity of the burial by Joseph. While O’Neill comes in looking for evidence of a later development for the Joseph story, it kind of looks like he ended up finding a very early source for it instead.
Let’s talk about some actual (well, supposed) development. O’Neill, throughout his answer, places emphasis on two discrepancies in the four resurrection accounts. The first is the number of women that visited Jesus’ tomb. Mark says that there were three women (16:1), Luke says has an unspecified amount but at least five (24:1, 10), Matthew has two (28:1), and John has one (20:1). Clear development of the story? Asides from the fact that there’s no linear pattern of development through the four Gospels, as Michael Licona points out in his recent monograph Why are there Differences in the Gospels? (Oxford 2016), an analysis of the Gospels in the background of their genre (ancient biography) shows many of the differences between Gospel accounts are the product of the literary techniques commonly seen throughout ancient biographical works (neither I, nor Licona, are inerranists). In the case of the number of women, it’s clear that the Gospels are using the literary technique of spotlighting. No development happening. Imagine a stage of dancers performing at a show. The stage goes dark, you can’t see anyone. The spotlight shines on a single dancer. You know all the other dancers are there, but you can only see one. That’s spotlighting. Literary spotlighting is a single person being mentioned in a story while the author/reader knows that others are present, even if not explicitly mentioned. Quite common in ancient biography. In fact, when it comes to the resurrection stories and the number of women present, we know literary spotlighting is happening.
John 20:1: Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2 So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”
Remember, John’s Gospel only reports one woman, Mary, visiting the tomb. So what did Mary mean when she said “we” in the above verses? It’s clear that John, even though he doesn’t mention other women being present, is explicitly aware of them. Hence, we know that the variance in the number of women between the Gospels is a product of literary spotlighting, rather than contradiction or literary development. This isn’t the only place where literary spotlighting happens in the resurrection accounts. Licona points out another;
Now look 12 verses later [Luke 24:12], when Jesus is talking with the Emmaus disciples. Luke says they were kept from recognizing Jesus and told him that their women friends had gone to the tomb that morning, discovered it empty, and were told by angels that Jesus had risen from the dead. They added that when the women informed them of this, “some of those with us” went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said (24:24). In 24:12, Luke only mentioned Peter. But it’s obvious that he knew of others in 24:24. Luke was shining his literary spotlight on Peter in 24:12.
In Luke 24:12, Peter is described as going to the tomb, but a few verses later, the word “us” is used to describe the people going back to the tomb. Another example of the Gospels describing one person at a scene while knowing others are present.
Another supposed theme of development O’Neill cites is the men/angels present at the tomb when the women get there. Mark says that when the women get there, they see a man (16:5), Luke mentions two men (24:4), Matthew mentions one angel (28:1-2), and John mentions two angels (20:1-2, 12). Is any development happening? Is the number of people increasing, or are the authors turning the men into angels as time goes on? The discrepancy between the number of angels/men present can clearly be attributed to literary spotlighting — Mark and Matthew are aware of more then one angel, they simply don’t mention them. But were they men or angels? Clearly, all the Gospels are describing angels. Mark describes a “young man dressed in white”, whereas Luke describes “two men in dazzling clothes stood”. White/dazzling clothing is regularly used all throughout the New Testament as a mark for heavenly visitation (e.g., Mark 9:3; Matt 28:3; John 20:12; Acts 1:10; 10:30. See also Dan 7:9; 2 Macc 3:26, 33; 2 En 1:4–11; Gos Pet 36, 55; Josephus, Ant 5:277). In fact, as it happens, Luke even ends up calling the men angels in a tucked away verse later on anyways (24:22-23). No development.
O’Neill also says Matthew places little emphasis on Jesus being physically resurrected — though, this is irrelevant, I’ve already shown there’s no evidence of spiritual resurrection in earliest Christianity (or Judaism at all), and Matthew clearly believed in physical resurrection. O’Neill mentions that Matthew is the only Gospel that mentions an earthquake taking place during this time. Here, I’ll simply point out that in 2012, a number discovered of scientists discovered (see this paper in the geological journal International Geology Review) that a 6.3 magnitude earthquake took place in this region between 26-36 AD (the authors note the possibility of this being Matthew’s earthquake). So I wouldn’t discount the story too quickly.
We’re then told that the guard present in at the tomb in Matthew also appears to be a product of legendary development. Here, I’ll reference a defense of the historicity of the guard in the journal New Testament Studies. These points are hardly as indefensible as O’Neill makes them out to be. O’Neill also claims another contradiction exists in the accounts — in Matthew, the tomb is rolled away after the women arrive, whereas it’s already rolled away in the other Gospels. But as Licona points out, the grammar of Matthew’s Gospel allows for a reading where the stone is already rolled away. O’Neill continues;
In the other two gospels [Mark and Luke], the women are specifically going to the tomb to anoint the body. This is strange, because the Jewish custom was to do this at burial – there is no evidence of people ever doing it afterwards. Given Jewish taboos about dead bodies, it is a very unlikely thing for them to do.
I’m not familiar with this topic myself, so I’ll assume O’Neill is right and that this detail is, at best, implausible in light of Jewish customs at the time. What O’Neill doesn’t bother doing is taking the next step and talking about how accurate the Gospels are as a whole in their description of Jewish burial customs. We’re about to see why. Byron McCane writes in his explanation of burial customs in 1st century Palestine writes;
As soon as death was certain, the deceased’s eyes were closed; the corpse was washed, and then wrapped and bound. According to the third-century C.E. Jewish tractate Semahot, men could only prepare the corpse of a man, but women could prepare both men and women. Literary depictions often suggest that perfumes or ointments were used for this washing. The body was wrapped and bound in strips of cloth. John 11 has such preparations in view: Lazarus’s “hands and feet [were] bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth” (John 11:44).
After primary burial, the procession returned to the family home, where expressions of condolence continued. Rituals of death continued for several days thereafter. Literary sources, including John 11, agree that for the first seven days, the immediate family remained at home in mourning. If mourners left the house during this time, it was presumed that they would go to the tomb. In John 11, Mary leaves the family home, and neighbors and friends assume “she was going to the tomb to weep there” (John 11:31).
Archaeological evidence has been decisive in the interpretation of some New Testament texts about tombs, graves, death, and burial. In particular, the saying of Jesus in Matt 8:21-22 presupposes secondary burial: “‘Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead” (a parallel passage occurs at Luke 9:59-60). Luke 11:47-48’s “tombs of the prophets” most likely refers to the monumental Hellenistic tombs in the Kidron Valley. And the Lazarus narrative in John 11 accurately represents typical customs of mourning, tomb construction, and grave wrappings.
Jodi Magness (who I mentioned earlier) is a world-renowned expert on precisely this topic, and is quite clear that the Gospel description is overall largely consistent with the historical evidence;
The Gospel accounts of Jesus’ burial appear to be largely consistent with the archaeological evidence. In other words, although archaeology does not prove there was a follower of Jesus named Joseph of Arimathea or that Pontius Pilate granted his request for Jesus’ body, the Gospel accounts describing Jesus’ removal from the cross and burial accord well with archaeological evidence and with Jewish law. The source(s) of these accounts were familiar with the manner in which wealthy Jews living in Jerusalem during the time of Jesus disposed of their dead. (pg. 171)
So, while one particular detail here and there may be implausible throughout the whole of the Gospel descriptions regarding the resurrection of Jesus, it’s evident that, by and large, the Gospels are rather accurate on the topic and that this supports the case for the resurrection if anything. Perhaps O’Neill was just tired when he wrote that, his answer is a long one.
Now, we can finally move on to perhaps my major argument. Rather than think of the argument myself, I’m just going to appropriate the evidence O’Neill provides. O’Neill offers this highly useful chart on to prove the ‘development’ of the Gospels. I’ll use the same chart to prove precisely the opposite.
There ya go, clear evidence that there is no decipherable ‘development’ in the sources at all. The order of the sources in this chart is Paul first, then Mark, Matthew, Luke, and finally John. There are 20 rows under the first row that describes which sources have which details, each row being devoted to explaining which sources contains which resurrection details. In the following, ‘Row 1’ will be the row with the Sunday appearances details, and the rest follow numerically. In the entire chart, the only details mentioned by Paul are found in rows 13-16. Why? An early stage in the later development? Actually, Paul is just writing letters to the churches addressing their various theological problems, rather than giving a detailed account of the events leading up to and surrounding the resurrection of Jesus. The other Gospels, however, are all biographies of Jesus and so we would naturally expect them to have much more information. In fact, the only details Paul qualifies for, rows 13-16, are from 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 — a section of Paul’s letters that he didn’t even compose himself. 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 is just an early creed, dating to within a few years or perhaps a few months after Jesus’ died (as scholars have known for a while) that Paul is simply passing on in his own letters. In other words, Paul actually devotes no space of his own whatsoever to deal with the actual history of the resurrection (and just quotes a short creed to do that for him), and so it’s obviously completely unsurprising why he has so little information. This topic of the actual history of the events was secondary to the purpose of Paul’s letters — i.e. dealing with the theological issues of the early churches he’s connected to and helped establish. It’s hardly methodologically sound to compare the biographical details of Paul, in his utterly non-biographical descriptions, to actual biographical accounts. Let’s try looking at the Gospels.
The Gospels all agree on the details in rows 1, 3, and 5, so no development there. Rows 2 and 7 are about the number of women and the angels, row 8 is about the earthquake, and row 15 is about the appearance to the disciples, which I’ve already dealt with. The following will focus on the rest of the chart. Other than that, most of the details in this graph … show very little evidence of any linear development. For example, row 6 has a “rolled stone”. The first three Gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke) qualify for this detail, but the final Gospel, John, mentions no such thing. So is the development happening in the inverse direction of time? Other details are totally ambiguous and no line of development can be made out. In row 4, which has “anointing” (of Jesus), the first Gospel has it, the second doesn’t, and the third does, and the fourth doesn’t. Where is the ‘development’? Another phenomenon that takes place is that the Gospel in the middle, Matthew, mentions several details that no other Gospel mentions (rows 8, 9, 11, 18), Luke has two details mentioned nowhere else (rows 19 and 20, although apparently row 20 is ‘implied’ by John), and John, the latest of the Gospels, has one detail not mentioned in the other Gospels (row 12).
Taking a look at this, it seems to me that the distribution of details … is actually quite random. All Gospels have unique details, and there’s no clear evidence that the latest of the Gospels tend to accumulate in details nowhere present in the earliest (I can only seriously see this in 2 out of all 20 details, in rows 17 and 20, and since there’s only two such examples, that’s not much to make a case out of). There’s only two completely unambiguous cases of what looks like development through the four Gospels, and that’s regarding how many people the women told about the empty tomb after seeing it and the intimacy of each resurrection appearance. Perhaps just a wee bit of legendary development such as in an element here and there in Matthew and John, quite minor, can help explain this all away. And yet, bits of development here and there isn’t much to make a case out of. The case made for the resurrection by Christian historians, such as in Michael Licona’s The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (InterVarsity 2010), is quite a lot more convincing. Also see Michael Licona smash agnostic historian Bart Ehrman in their 2016 written debate on TheBestSchools (warning: it’s incredibly long) on the topic of the evidence for Christ’s resurrection. In truth, while O’Neill sets up a long case, very little of it survives, perhaps far too little to have grounds for seriously challenge the Christian resurrection.
O’Neill ends by taking a look at the psychology of the earliest Christians, claiming that the psychological evidence indicates that when expectations/prophecy of a religious group get dashed, they reinterpret the prophecy to make it out to be a victory or something. The examples O’Neill gives for this are quite modern (Jehovah’s Witnesses and some UFO cult in the 1950’s). Apparently, this explains why the Christians came up with the idea of a resurrected Jesus — O’Neill comes up with the convenient explanation that after having their hopes shattered by Jesus’ death, they just looked at Isaiah 53 and just put the rest together. A few years ago, O’Neill answered another question on Quora regarding who the Messiah claimants in Jesus’ era were (besides Jesus). The only one definitively known to have claimed to have been the Messiah is Simon ben Kosiba, who led a major uprising against Rome, and O’Neill points out that a number of these other characters may have been interpreted as Messianic figures as well. And yet none of their followers continued the cult after the Romans smashed their leader. If we actually look at ancient Judaism, we realize that when a group of Jews lose their Messiah claimant, they tend not to depict him as resurrected or continue the cult at all.
Before Christianity, there was actually no expectation of a dead or resurrected Messiah among Jews at all, let alone one crucified by the Gentile Romans. If the followers of Jesus ever did come to some psychological conclusion in light of his death (the evidence suggests they wouldn’t have, instead, they would have just disbanded following Jesus’ crucifixion, as we’ve just seen), they would have never come to the belief that Jesus had been resurrected from the dead. Instead, they simply would have come to the belief that Jesus had ascended to heaven, like Elijah. There’s no reason why the early Christians should have come to the belief in resurrection or appearances on O’Neill’s hypothesis. Secondly, there’s another little detail O’Neill forgets that his thesis can’t account for. Remember, he claims that the followers of Jesus simply reinterpreted his death as a triumph in light of his death because of their psychological trauma … OK … what about Paul, who had never met Jesus and was a persecutor of the early Christians, who came to the belief that the risen Jesus appeared to him? What psychological trauma did he have when a preacher he had never heard of got crucified?
It looks to me like all this evidence in my point-by-point response to O’Neill is weakening if not fatal to O’Neill’s case against Jesus’ resurrection. And hallelujah for that. Enjoy a nice, long and excellent video on the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection by InspiringPhilosophy;