Cross-Examining the Four Witnesses, Parts 1 and 2
Episodes 130-131 of this free podcast.
Concerning just the resurrection, if you are debating the subject with others or yourself, I would start by asking how many FIRST-person statements we have of people who say Jesus after his execution, “appeared” to “me.”
In the NT I only know of Paul stating briefly that “Jesus appeared to me,” in 1 Cor. and Galatians with no details at all. 1 Peter also has a first person statement but many scholars rank that letter as late and apocryphal.
So the only FIRST-person statement we have is from Paul with no details. Does God expect everyone to believe less than first person tales? And what exactly are we to believe concerning Paulʼs statement since all it consists of are the words, “he appeared to me.”
Note that in 1 Cor. Paul uses the word “appeared” with no distinctions. But according to Luke-Acts the raised Jesus had ascended bodily into heaven never to return in the body until the day of judgment, before Paul became an apostle, so whatever appeared to Paul was not the bodily raised Jesus, yet Paul implies in 1 Cor. that he was blessed with the same sort of appearance as everyone else. And since none of the appearances in 1 Cor. are told first hand, but being told second hand or more, and since 1 Cor. includes no descriptions of each appearance to compare one with the other, we know very little about any of them. Who was among the “over 500 brethren?” Where did each appearance take place? When? What time of day? How light or bright was it? How near or far away from Jesus were each of these people? How certain were they concerning what they were seeing? Did Jesus say or do anything, or nothing, during each appearance? We donʼt know. There are also discrepancies between the 1 Cor. list and later tales in the Gospels.
See also the award winning book, “Scripting Jesus,” for a discussion of the changes one can see in the retelling's of the resurrection story over time, from Mk to Mt, Lk, etc.
Also note how the alleged words spoken by the resurrected Jesus grew more numerous over time from Mk to Mt to Lk Acts and John. The story grew over time.
Additional Gospel Trajectories
You can trace various trajectories that the Jesus story took over time as it was retold/rewritten from Mk to Mt to Lk to John.
There is also a gospel trajectory related to how Judas is presented in the Gospels.
One can see Gospel stories growing bolder with various retellings from Mark -->John, attempting to enhance belief, also some deletions of negative sounding tales/passages in the earliest Gospel, Mark. Not all trajectories follow through all four Gospels, some just branch off from Mark to Matthew, or from Mark to Luke respectively. Matthew and Luke differ most from each other where they could not follow Mark, i.e., in their beginnings and endings, their nativity and post-resurrection tales, that start at an earlier point than Mark and end at a later point than Mark. And like Matthew and Lukeʼs extended endings, at some point believers also extended Markʼs ending (of which more than one extended ending exists).
And one can see where parts of the fourth Gospel appear to have been constructed based on information and tales found in earlier Gospels--for instance in the tale about the raising of Lazarus which is preceded by Jesus being anointed with oil in the fourth Gospel, John, the story combines elements from earlier anointing stories in earlier Gospels, and an earlier tale of a beggar named Lazarus in Luke. The tale of feeding the multitude in John also owes much to earlier Gospel renditions and appears to build on them. Were the newly constructed stories in John due to the fluid memory/theological artistry of John, or of preachers in his community who knew tales in the earlier Gospels? See this post that explains which elements from earlier Gospels made their way into the tale of the raising of Lazarus and the anointing of Jesus in the fourth Gospel.
You can also see how the tale of Jesusʼ burial became more aggrandized over time from Mark to Matt, Lk, John:
“Hereʼs the problem. When you look at Mark, Matthew, Luke and John, the story of the burial of Jesus, knowing that Mark is the basis for Matthew and Luke and that possibly (this is debated in scholarship) they may be the source for John, you watch the bodyʼs burial get steadily better. Itʼs a hasty hurried burial in Mark. By the time Matthew and Luke read Mark and develop the story itʼs a burial in a tomb in which nobody else has been laid and theyʼre explaining to you why Joseph of Arimathea was able to be a counselor for Jesus but not against him on Thursday night as it were. The story is developing, and by the time you get to Johnʼs account the burial of Jesus is – I wouldnʼt even say royal – itʼs transcendental, thereʼs so many spices used they would have filled almost the entire tomb, itʼs a magnificent burial, itʼs the burial of the son of God when you get to John. What happens is that as a historian when I retroject that trajectory of a burial that keeps getting better and better, and ask what was there in the beginning, it doesnʼt look very good. It looks like all they might have had in the beginning was a hope that maybe some pious non-Christian, a Jew, out of respect for the Jewish law of Deuteronomy, would have buried Jesusʼ body (instead of letting the Romans do what they usually did with the people they crucified, which was to toss the bodies in a common grave). But if a Jew asked Pilate for the body and gave it a burial that immediately raises the issue that the writers of the Gospels also must have seen, namely wouldnʼt Joseph also have buried the two robbers, presumably fellow Jews, who were with Jesus? And wouldnʼt there at least be three in the tomb? Would it be a public tomb for criminals? Then how would we know which was Jesusʼ body? And so you can see the Gospel writers, I think, grappling with the difficulties of trying to have Jesus rescued from a common grave – a story whose original I donʼt think is historical and which grew in the telling over time. I think it is their fervent hope, their best hope, that somebody took care of the body of Jesus.”
-- John Dominic Crossan as heard on “Jesus and Crucifixion, a Historical View,” Fresh Air from WHYY, Mar. 20, 2008 (with some edits by ETB)
The first three Gospels grow in length in the order Mk, Mt, Lk (while the fourth Gospel, John, only grows shorter because it lacks a birth narrative, all parables, all exorcism tales, though it does have a very talky narrator, explaining so much more than any of the narrators did in any of the previous Gospels, and of course interpreting everything in his own theological terms, and a very talky Jesus as well whose theological terms simply mirror those used by the author, and whose dialogues with others (not to mention Jesusʼ alleged final prayer) go on and on, like the author as well. Most scholars do not take seriously that the words of Jesus in the fourth Gospel are authentic, but more the result of following the theological outline of the fourth Gospel author.
Speaking of the Gospel order, Mk first, Mt second, one can see that Matthew reproduces more of Mark than Luke does. And Matthew usually just inserts passages or parables right into the Markan narrative. So Matthew is plainly the closest to Mark. And though it is debated whether the author of Luke lacked access to Matthew, or had indirect verbal access via others, or direct access to a copy of Matthewʼs Gospel, still, Lukeʼs general outline seems to echo Matthewʼs, i.e., starting with having Jesusʼ born in Bethlehem (via different tales than Matthew employs), and adding a longer genealogy than Matthewsʼ since Lukeʼs goes back not just to Abraham as Matthewʼs did, but all the way back to Adam. Luke also features not just one miraculous birth tale, as in Matthew, but adds a second miraculous birth tale, that of the miraculous birth of John the Baptist, even having people sing holy songs, itʼs a liturgical musical! Obviously a later creation, a more involved work of literature than what we find in Matthew, including an added brief tale to fill in the time from between Jesusʼ birth and baptism, i.e., a tale from Jesusʼ boyhood.
Lukeʼs post-resurrection tales are also more involved than Matthewʼs, with added sightings, and a bodily ascension tale, and no line as in Matthew that “some doubted.” Lukeʼs post-resurrection tales also take place in and around Jerusalem, a more impressive cosmopolitan setting, while the two earlier Gospels, Mark and Matthew had the disciples being commanded to venture to Galilee to see the risen Jesus, “He has gone before you to Galilee, there you will see him.” Luke does not say that Jesus had gone before them to Galilee to be seen there, not at all. Luke adds far more alleged post-resurrection words of Jesus than Matthew, and new parables that are longer and more artistic than any seen before, like the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan, etc. Neither does Luke simply insert lines and new material into Mark like Matthew did, but Luke has taken the time and effort to blend information into Markan story segments unlike Matthew who more often simply inserts stuff here and there in a cruder fashion.
I would add another trajectory as well, involving tales of Jesus raising other people. For instance In Mk Jesus is asked to HEAL someoneʼs daughter who is “at the point of dying,” he gets there and people are mourning, saying she has died and Jesus clears the room and raises her in the company of her immediate family and some disciples. Matthew repeats the tale, though when Jesus is first asked to come he is told that the child has ALREADY “died,” not being merely “at the point of dying” as in Mark. Luke repeats the same tale, but Luke adds a second resurrection miracle tale in his Gospel, that of a child who was not merely “raised” inside a private home, such a miracle being seen by only a few, but in this new tale, Jesus raises a child who is ON THE WAY TO THE CEMETERY, and this child is raised publicly. So this new resurrection miracle is grander than any that appeared in Mk and Mt. But in the fourth Gospel, John, the grandest resurrection miracle is found, someone raised not privately in a house, and not on the way to being buried, but someone already buried, for a few days, and that resurrection is the most public of all, and becomes the reason the Pharisees seek Jesusʼ own death due to how people were reacting to this very public resurrection, which also was apparently near Jerusalem, nearer Jerusalem than the others in the earlier Gospels if I recall.
Of course, Jesusʼ miracles in the Gospels also resemble reworked versions of miracles of Moses, Elijah and Elisha, including the raising of children, sometimes even copying the exact Greek phrases and settings as one can read when one compares the miracle tales in the Greek O.T. (the Septuagint) with the Gospel miracle tales involving Jesus.
Additional red flags emerge as we note that Jesusʼ most public miracle was the feeding of the multitude, but there is no mention of where it took place according to the earliest Gospel, Mark which mentions two such feedings, both of which took place “in the wilderness,” much as the OT tale of people being fed by God in the “wilderness.” Both such tales are equally vague as to the whereabouts where such miracles took place. The feeding miracle in the Gospels also resembles that of the feeding of many men with just a little bread, as in another OT tale involving a miracle-working prophet. It is only later Gospels that try to pin down the location of the feeding miracle. Luke says it took place in Bethsaida, But Mark, the earliest Gospel, does not say that, in fact Mark says that after the feeding miracle the apostles got into a boat to go to Bethsaida, but they donʼt even make it to Bethsaida because they get sidetracked. So we know from Mark that neither healing miracle that he mentions took place place in Bethsaida, only in “the wilderness.” And we also know that Luke could have derived his name of the town, Bethsaida, from Mark since that Gospel says the apostles got into a boat and tried to reach Bethsaida AFTER the miracle. But that is of course to simply use a name mentioned in Mark that is NOT directly connected with the feeding story, and, Interestingly, you can see that Luke is merely stitching matters together loosely in his retelling of the Markan tale because as soon as Luke mentions Bethsaida he copies the rest of Mark that says it was in “the wilderness,” so Luke simply reverts back to what Mark originally wrote (editorial fatigue), so Lukeʼs story remains derivative to Markʼs, and Luke probably added a place name to make it sound a bit more convincing. But as we have seen, thatʼs not what the earliest version says, it says wilderness.
Other miracles of Jesus are only seen by few apostles like the walking on water, the calming of the storm, the transfiguration. And according to the earliest version of the transfiguration tale, in Mark, the disciples are even told not to tell anyone about the transfiguration miracle until later.
In fact according to the Gospels there is no tale about Jesus entering a major city in Galilee and doing a miracle there. There were several big cities in Galilee we know from writings and archaeology, but all the places Jesus visited and allegedly performed miracles were far smaller. Small towns. In fact when Jesus does visit a city, it is Jerusalem and he gets crucified there. According to the two earliest Gospels, Mark and Matthew, Jesus is not depicted healing or exorcising anyone in the one big town he visits, Jerusalem. (Only in the last written Gospels, Luke and John, does Jesus allegedly perform healing miracles in Jerusalem, and they only mention two, the healing of the servantʼs ear which was cut off at Jesusʼ arrest, per a very short line in Luke, and the healing of the lame man by the pool per John).
Of course Jerusalem is supposedly where Jesusʼ biggest miracle took place, but according to the Gospels themselves, no one in Jerusalem actually sees Jesus exit his tomb, if there was a tomb (see Crossan above). And according to the earliest two Gospels, Mark and Matthew, Jesus appeared to his male disciples in Galilee first, not Jerusalem, the message at the tomb being, “He has gone before you to Galilee, THERE ye shall see him.” Even Luke, who has the disciples remain in Jerusalem to see the risen Jesus there, does not have anyone but the apostles accompany Jesus out of that room and out of Jerusalem (“he led them”) to a nearby mount where they alone got to see Jesus rise up to heaven, per Luke-Acts.