Now make up a story about it

Bible4

So there we have it. The accounts of Jesus’ resurrection all derive from imagined sightings of him post-mortem. Call them hallucinations, visions or revelations, none of them were encounters with a real, revived physical being.

Except that’s not quite it, because it’s worse than that, Jim.

Most of our accounts of the resurrection appearances are fifty years or more too late. Paul’s is the only first hand account we have and even that is sketchy and recounted several years after it happened. For at least three of those years, Paul meditated on his seizure and interpreted it as a revelation from the Lord. Undoubtedly, others had similar experiences; the stories of the resurrected Christ came from somewhere and the resurrection seems to have been central to Christian faith from its earliest days. Paul cites in 1 Corinthians 15:4-8 those he says have encountered the risen Christ:

He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also.

Paul implies here that his own experience is the same as that of the others on his list; they too, then, had visions of the risen Christ within their imaginations. Significantly, Paul omits Mary Magdalene, the first to ‘see’ the post-mortem Jesus according to the later gospels, while some of the other encounters Paul claims to know about do not find their way into those accounts. Of those that do, we can be confident the details are wrong. They were most certainly not as they are described in the stories that eventually came to be written.

The earliest copies of Mark’s gospel famously have no resurrection appearances. The women discover the empty tomb, which Matthew and Luke later lift into their gospels, and, bizarrely, decide not to tell the disciples about it. By the time we get to last canonical gospel, written some thirty years down the line, its author embellishes Luke’s attempts to suggest that the risen Jesus has some physicality; he allows his old friends, especially Thomas, to poke around in his wounds and he eats fish. Nonetheless, as in the earlier gospels, the disciples all have trouble recognising him, even on a third occasion, and are afraid to ask him who he is (John 21.12). Did his followers simply experience, as John 14.15-20 and Matthew 18.20 seem to suggest, an intense sense of Jesus’ presence? This would make the reports of actual sightings evidence of later believers’ need for something more substantial than flashing lights and fuzzy feelings. Which is how, over time, surrounding detail came to be added.

In their specifics, the resurrection appearances in the gospels and Acts are stories that accrued around the visions and inner traumas experienced by Jesus’ friends and other zealots. As such they are fiction; the angels at the tomb – probably the empty tomb itself – the encounter on the road to Emmaus, the fish breakfast and the rest. Bart D. Ehrman demonstrates convincingly in Jesus Before The Gospels, that the oral tradition was not capable of transmitting the details of Jesus’ life and ministry accurately over a 40 year period (when Mark’s gospel was written). The same is true, perhaps moreso, of individuals’ idiosyncratic inner experiences. Over 50+ years, after which Matthew and Luke’s gospels were composed, reports of these visions would have been altered innumerable times by those relating them, ever onwards and outwards; details would inevitably have been changed, added, removed and invented in a protracted game of Chinese whispers. In all probability the gospel writers themselves introduced their own embellishments.

So then, from a small number of visions/hallucinations/feelings, via significantly altered accounts of these same subjective experiences, together with others that are pure invention, to the eventual recording of such stories 50 to 80 years later, this is the evolution of the fantasy that is the risen Christ.

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