According to the Scriptures (not)

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Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures. He was buried (and) was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures…

This is Paul’s claim in 1 Corinthians 15.3-4, where he is probably quoting an early Christian creed. He uses the phrase ‘according to the scriptures’ twice, meaning that what he’s claiming fulfils prophecy from the Jewish scriptures. He is not referring to the gospel accounts of Jesus’ death and resurrection as these ‘scriptures’ had yet to be written at the time of 1 Corinthians (circa 54/55AD.) Mark’s gospel was still fifteen or so years away.

So where in the Jewish scriptures – the Christian Old Testament – is there any prophecy that the Messiah would die for the sins of the people? Where the prediction that he would rise from the dead on the third day?

As Michael J. Alter notes, there is no prophecy either that the Messiah would die for the sins of the people nor that he would then rise from the dead. Not one. Passages that are pressed into service by Christians ancient and modern to demonstrate that Jesus’ death and resurrection were presaged in the Old Testament are either not prophecy or they don’t have any bearing on either Jesus’ death or supposed resurrection.

Let’s look at a couple:

In Matthew 12.40, Jesus is made to equate his time in the grave – three days and three nights – with the time Jonah spent in the belly of a great fish. But the Jonah story has nothing to do with events hundreds of years later. It is an ancient fable, not a prophecy delivered by one of the Old Testament’s recognised prophets. In any case, in the story Jonah is being disobedient and is running away from his God-given mission. Jesus, according the gospels, doesn’t do either of these things. Moreover, Jonah does not have to die to spend three days in a fish. He does not resurrect when the fish spews him out. The only aspect the two stories have in common is the period of three days and nights, which as we have seen, bear little relation to how long Jesus was actually in the tomb. Matthew has press-ganged an irrelevant story into service, in an attempt to show that Jesus really was the Messiah. Why does he do this? Because he can’t find any ‘scripture’ that points incontrovertibly to the Messiah dying and resurrecting. Jonah is literally the best he can do.

Modern Christians like to tell us that Isaiah 53 is a prophecy that Jesus would die as a sacrifice for sin. Significantly, none of the New Testament writers attempt to make Isaiah’s ‘suffering servant’ narrative fit Jesus. This is because the suffering servant it describes is the beleaguered Jewish nation; earlier chapters say so several times. To insist that Isaiah 53 describes Jesus’ death and resurrection is to render it incompatible with all the Old Testament prophecies that are actually about the Messiah. For those who created these scriptures, this figure was a warrior, a human who would route the enemies of Israel and usher in the Messianic age. Isaiah 53 is about how the rulers of the kingdoms of this world will stand in awe of this feat. Jesus does not fulfil this role; he was not a warrior, he did not redeem the Jewish nation, he did not route its enemies, he did not bring about the Messianic age. Jesus died an ignoble death and was ‘seen’ afterwards in visions; he was as far from the anticipated Messiah as could be envisaged.

Jesus’ death and resurrection did not happen ‘according to the scriptures’. There are no prophecies in the Old Testament that pertain to Jesus, no foreshadowing of what happened to him. Christian can try to retrofit selected scriptures as much as they like to make it seem as if there are, but none hold up under scrutiny.

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Death’s Sting

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Image copyright DC Comics

 

A long time friend of mine died suddenly a couple of days ago. Tom was in his comic shop, putting together orders, and, it appears, suffered a heart attack. He died there alone.

Death still has its sting – for both those who die (which is all of us) and those who are left behind. Paul’s rhetorical question, ‘Oh death, where is thy sting?’ (1 Corinthians 15:55) has always seemed to me to be particularly fatuous, not to mention deceitful. He said it, of course, in the belief that faith in his Christ meant life would resume on the other side of the grave. Even if this were so, dying would not be without its pain, and grieving not without deep sorrow.

And what about that word ‘sting’? The Greek Paul uses, ‘κέντρον’, means ‘a sharp point’ as if death is nothing more than a pin prick, a short sharp shock no more troublesome than an injection. In my experience, spending time with people who are dying, it is far from that. The body’s shutdown is often slow, relentless and unbearable. Morphine helps, not Jesus.

Mourning too is persistent; an emptiness and a profound sense of loss, as we often acknowledge when offering condolences. I takes time to subside, but never truly disappears. Every death, especially of loved ones, depletes us. As John Donne puts it:

Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

God Nature, whose product we are, is insensible and indifferent to our suffering. It neither knows nor cares that we are self-aware, emotional beings who grieve and suffer. Death, which troubles us so much, is one of the engines of evolution. Once we have passed the stage at which we might viably reproduce we are programmed to decline and  die. We must make way for new creations, which is not, despite what Christians claim, in a brand new body on a new earth or in heaven. The new creations are those who follow us. Paul, as he was in so many respects, is wrong to say that because of the futile hope of resurrection, death has lost its sting and the grave its victory. Death will never lose its sting, its pain and finality.

Tom will be remembered by those to whom he mattered in life. This is the best we can do; this and living our lives to the full while we’re still here, loving others and being kind.

Farewell Tom, my friend.

Why Jesus can’t possibly have known he’d ‘rise from the dead’.

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I said at the start of this series of posts about the date of Jesus’ crucifixion that the gospel writers perhaps felt unable to exclude Jesus’ predictions about rising from the grave after three days because these were too well-known. On reflection, it seems more likely that Jesus didn’t make any such prophecies. It is more probable that the gospel writers introduced them into their stories about him decades later.

I’ve written before about how the Resurrection appearances were nothing more than visions and dreams. Paul’s experience of the risen Jesus most certainly was – he says so himself – and Mary’s encounter with angels, telling her Jesus was no longer in his tomb, is described as ‘a vision’ in Luke 24.23. The subsequent accounts of Jesus’ post-mortem appearances also bear all the hallmarks of hallucinations; he disappears at will; passes through closed doors; isn’t always recognisable, drifts up into the sky and so on.

These mystical experiences, those that really happened anyway (it’s safe to say some – the Emmaus story, for example – are complete inventions: see Alter, pp536-8) quickly became a conviction among Jesus’ early followers that he had somehow risen from the grave. By the time of Luke’s and John’s gospel, 50 to 70 years later, this idea had evolved into a full-blown bodily resurrection.

The question is, did Jesus know that this was what was going to happen? Could he have had foreknowledge that he would be seen again after his death? Could he, during his life, have predicted he would rise bodily from the grave?

Christians will tell you that as God or God’s Son, Jesus was omniscient and therefore of course he knew these things in advance. There are, however, several good reasons why we can be sure he didn’t:

  • According to Paul, it was the resurrection that elevated Jesus to his god-like status, not his divinity that enabled the resurrection. Christians who argue that Jesus rose from the dead because he was divine have it back to front. Paul says clearly that Jesus ‘was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead‘ (Romans 1.4; my italics). Without the resurrection, Jesus was, Paul argues, of no great significance (1 Corinthians 12.15-19). However, the only ‘evidence’ for the resurrection is the contradictory, incompatible accounts offered by only three of the gospel writers and by Paul himself. So implausible is this evidence that we can safely conclude, with Michael J. Alter, that there was no such event. How, then, could Jesus possibly ‘know’ he’d rise from the dead when in fact he didn’t?
  • While he suffered from the delusion that he was going to rule God’s imminent Kingdom, it is unlikely Jesus thought he would have to die and be resurrected in order to do so. There was nothing in the Jewish scriptures to suggest either the Son of Man (a figure from Daniel with whom Jesus appears to have claimed some affinity) or the Messiah would be put to death only to rise again. This wasn’t what these characters were about and it wouldn’t have been how Jesus thought.
  • The Kingdom of God did not come about in the way Jesus believed. His death therefore did not bring about the apocalypse, judgement and rule of God he predicted and anticipated. In fact, his death took his cult off in a completely different direction, thanks mainly to Paul’s intervention. Jesus, and to a significant degree, the synoptic writers appear to have little awareness of this seismic shift. The Jesus they portray has little cognisance of events following his demise. Any suggestion he foresaw the creation of the Church is anachronistic, written back retrospectively into the accounts of his life. This was not what his ‘good news’ was about.

  • From their reactions preserved in the gospels, Jesus’ execution evidently came as a shock to both himself and his followers. None of them appear to have been expecting anything like a resurrection. Immediately following his death and burial, not a single one of his followers recalled his supposed predictions of his resurrection, nor did they express the sure and certain hope he would be returning. Even the discovery of the empty tomb (if it happened at all) failed to elicit such an expectation, nor any recollection of his words. The gospels say all those who witnessed the empty tomb were ‘frightened’, ‘astonished’ or ‘amazed’ that the body was missing, but not that they believed he must have risen from the dead. All those who witnessed the empty tomb behaved as if they’d never heard Jesus’ predictions that he’d be returning – probably because they hadn’t

  • It wasn’t until the ‘visions’ started that some of them began to consider the possibility that Jesus had ‘risen’. Not all were convinced, however. Matthew 28.16 notes how a number ‘doubted’ that the apparition they were seeing was Jesus. Significantly, at no point do any of those who think they’re seeing the risen Jesus say, ‘I remember him predicting this would happen.’ On every occasion, either angels or the risen Jesus himself has to explain it to them. (Of course, it’s the gospel writers doing the explaining for those hearing these stories decades later.)

All of this points to the fact that, while he was alive, Jesus didn’t make any predictions about rising from the grave on the third day, after three days, or after three days and nights; these prophecies, incompatible with each other and with the synoptic timeline, were created later, probably much later, after belief in the resurrection had become a central plank – the central plank – of the new cult. They were subsequently written back into the gospels, and placed on Jesus’ lips on the basis to show that of course he knew he’d rise again and knowing would have spoken about it.

The circle was thus complete; his early followers created the myth of Jesus’ return while later ones invented the ‘prophecies’ to bolster the belief that Jesus must have known he would. He said so, didn’t he?

Jesus’ dates with destiny

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I hope you’ll allow me a little speculation…

Here are the few days leading up to Jesus supposed resurrection as related by the synoptic gospels:

Nisan 15: Wednesday sunset to Thursday sunset. The Day of Preparation when thousands of Paschal lambs are slaughtered ready for the following day’s (i.e. Thursday evening’s) Passover. Jesus instructs his disciples on the arrangements he has made for the feast.

Nisan 16: a. Thursday evening: Jesus celebrates Passover.

b. Thursday evening and night: Jesus is arrested and tried.

c. Friday 9.00: Jesus is put to the cross

d. Friday 15.00: Jesus dies.

Nisan 17: a. Friday ‘evening’: The start of the Sabbath: Jesus is buried by Joseph of Arimathea.

b. Friday evening to Saturday sunset: Jesus body lies in the sealed tomb.

Nisan 18: Saturday sunset to ‘early’ Sunday: The body remains in the tomb overnight(?) but by early next morning is missing.

John’s timeline, however, is markedly different. He says that Jesus is arrested on the Day of Preparation for Passover – that’s Nisan 15 according to the synoptics, which started at sunset on Wednesday (John 13.1; 19.14.) In John, therefore, Jesus does not eat a Passover meal with his disciples. He shares an ordinary supper with them on the Wednesday evening, when he washes their feet. Judas slips out to inform on him just as he does in the synoptic gospels, a day later (Mark 14.16-17; Matthew 26.19-20; Luke 22.33-45.) John significantly alters the timing of events though he retains Judas leaving, though from a different meal. In the fourth gospel, Jesus is arrested on the Wednesday evening, the start of Nisan 15. John mentions in 18.28 that the temple officials involved in the arrest have yet to eat their Passover meal; it still awaits on Thursday evening.

In John, Jesus is tried during the night of Nisan 15, or the early hours of Thursday. Eventually, at around noon on the Thursday he is nailed to the cross and dies rapidly (John 19.14, 31, 42). By the time everyone else is eating the Passover meal later that day – a meal Jesus is present for in the synoptic gospels – John’s Jesus is well and truly dead. He is placed in Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb at some point Thursday evening, either the end of Nisan 15 or the start of Nisan 16. He remains there during Friday and Saturday (the Sabbath) but by Sunday morning his body, according to the story, is missing.

It has been argued – given we don’t know the year Jesus was crucified – that John has his Passover falling on the Saturday, the Sabbath (John 19.31), as happened on occasion, and that therefore John’s ‘Day of Passover Preparation’ was not the Thursday – as it is in the synoptics – but the Friday. According to this line of reasoning, Jesus’ arrest in John was also on Thursday evening, at the start of Nisan 16 and his crucifixion was on Friday, as in the synoptic gospels. But the Day of Passover Preparation cannot be freely moved around to accommodate both versions of events; either it was on the Thursday (Nisan 15) as the synoptics record, or it was on the Friday (Nisan 16) as those who seek to locate John’s crucifixion on Friday argue. Either John is wrong about when the Day of Passover Preparation fell or his Jesus was crucified a day earlier than in the synoptics on their Day of Preparation, Nisan 15.

There is further circumstantial evidence for John’s crucifixion being on the Thursday. While the synoptics have the chief priests, scribes and elders witnessing the crucifixion for themselves, John doesn’t mention their presence. In his Thursday scenario, they are too busy preparing for that evening’s Passover, overseeing the ritual slaughter of thousand of animals, to attend the crucifixion. Similarly, the various activities after Jesus dies – the buying of linen and spices, the removal of the body from the cross, the preparation for burial, sundry visits to Pilate and the posting of guards (though John does not report the latter.) – do not entail any infringement of the Sabbath regulations.

Moreover, John has Jesus in the tomb for three days and nights, more or less; the supposed resurrection does indeed occur ‘after three days’ as Jesus is made to predict numerous times (19 in total.)

Nisan 16: Jesus is buried at the start of Nisan 16 (our Thursday evening),

Nisan 17: Jesus remains in the tomb throughout Nisan 17; 6pm Friday to 6pm Saturday.

Nisan 18: 6pm Saturday to the early hours of our Sunday. He remains in the tomb until some indeterminate point, either before dawn (according to John) or just after (the synoptics.)

As well as a resurrection ‘on the third day’, John’s version of events provides an added bonus. By having his crucifixion on the Day of Passover Preparation, John  is able to draw an analogy between the slaughter of the sacrificial lambs and his ‘Lamb of God’ who, in his death, replaces them as an atonement offering.

I don’t know; maybe I’ve got this all wrong. There’s a problem, I concede, with John 19.30 which implies Jesus is on the cross on Friday (though by John 19.42, when Jesus is buried, it looks like the narrative has reverted to the day before the Sabbath; Friday day time.)

The effort to harmonise the two different timelines, that of the synoptics and that of John, involves having two different Days of Passover Preparation (Thursday and Friday) and indeed, two Passovers (Friday and Saturday). Does this seem likely to you? Two lots of lambs to be slaughtered and two celebrations on two consecutive days – I mean, these people weren’t made of money! Isn’t it far more likely there was one Day of Preparation and one Passover? If so, who is right about when they fell? John or the synoptic writers? They both can’t be. Whether apologists like it or not, isn’t it more likely that the fourth gospel has Jesus crucified on the same Day of Preparation that the synoptics mention (the Thursday), while in the synoptics – all based, let’s remember, on Mark’s account – he dies on the Friday after the Passover meal as they relate? It makes more sense of the conflicting timelines than attempting to mash them both together when they won’t. One or other, John or the synoptics, got it wrong about the day Jesus died; perhaps both did.

One thing’s for sure, what follows is pure unadulterated myth.

What if… the resurrection really happened?

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The Christian faith rests entirely on the resurrection of Jesus. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15.17 & 19:

…If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

Of course neither Jesus nor Paul’s invention, the Christ, were raised from the dead; those encounters with him, described in the gospels are, like Paul’s, visions and sensations of his presence (later ‘the Holy Spirit’) embroidered in the 40 or more years between when they occurred and when they were recorded.

Let’s though, suppose that Jesus really did rise from the dead and work backwards from there. What difference did it make? More specifically, what does the bible say were the results and consequences of Jesus being raised?

The Coming of the Kingdom

According to the New Testament (Matthew 25.34; Romans 15.12; Revelation 20.4-6), the resurrection was a clear sign that Yahweh’s Kingdom was finally arriving on Earth.

Was God’s wonderful reign established here on Earth back in the first century? Were all wrongs righted, the social order inverted, and war and suffering abolished (Mark 10.31; Matt 5.2-11; Rev 21.4)? New Testament writers believed that following the resurrection, all of this would be happening –

in reality, none of it happened; not then and not since.

The Resurrection of the Dead

Did Jesus’ resurrection result in even more people rising from the dead? Paul said it would; he said Jesus was the ‘first fruits’, meaning the first of many, with others following him in being raised from the dead (1 Corinthians 15.20-21). Has any ordinary person – anybody at all – ever returned from the dead, long after they passed away? Not one; never mind the hundreds or thousands Paul and other early cultists had in mind. No Pope, no shining example of Christian piety, no activist or worker in the Lord’s vineyard has ever been resurrected during Christianity’s entire history. The dead have always remained stubbornly dead.

So no, this didn’t happen either.

After-life in Heaven

Did the resurrection result in people going to heaven after they died? This seems to be the view held by many Christians today. Unfortunately, it is not what the New Testament offers. Its writers believed that the Kingdom of Heaven would be coming to Earth in their very near future, not that ordinary mortals would invade God’s home post-mortem. Granted there are traces of this view emerging in the later books of the New Testament (given the failure of earlier predictions about the Kingdom coming to the Earth), but it is not what the founders of Christianity believed and hoped for.

In any case, who has ever died, again from the billions who have lived, and gone to heaven? No-one. Predictably, Christians now say that this transition won’t happen until the final judgement, scheduled for some unspecified time in the future (looks like God is as limited by time as we are.) That’s Christianity for you: always winter but never Christmas, everything in an ever-distant future.

No-one has gone to heaven as a result of the resurrection and no-one ever will.

New Creatures

Did the resurrection result in those who believed becoming ‘new creatures’? Paul said it would (2 Corinthians 5.17). He also said members of the new cult would be loving, forgiving and non-judgemental (1 Cor 5.12 & 13.14). There’s no evidence, from his letters, that they were, nor is there evidence from the long and often cruel history of the church. Christians today don’t always radiate loving-kindness either. Those who are caring and gentle before they become Christians remain so; those who are self-gratifying, vindictive or exploitative find a new context in which to be so. As I’ve said before, religion is like excess alcohol; it exaggerates the essential characteristics of a person, for good or for bad.

What it doesn’t do is make shiny ‘new creatures’.

So, what conclusions can we draw from this? Perhaps that nothing went to plan in post-resurrection Christianity. The promised results all failed to materialise. If the effects of the resurrection were and are not what they should have been, what does this say about their supposed cause?

If a storm is forecast and yet, when the time comes, there is no rain, wind or damage, wouldn’t we say that there was no storm?

If a woman said she was pregnant but during the ensuing nine months there was no physical evidence of pregnancy and ultimately no baby, wouldn’t we say she wasn’t pregnant at all?

If God’s Kingdom on Earth, brand new creatures, the resurrection of ordinary believers, the final judgement and eternal life in heaven failed to materialise, wouldn’t we say there can have been no resurrection? The supposed causal event of all these non-effects really can’t have happened. Jesus died and like all dead people stayed dead. The visions, dreams and imaginings of his early followers gave rise to a cult in his name, one that, ultimately failed on all levels to deliver what it promised.

There was no resurrection.

 

What A Dream I Had

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Last night.

I dreamt I was troubled and anxious about something or other, even though I’m not aware of being this way in reality.

In the dream, a couple of people drop by to console me. One of those people is my dad. He asks what’s wrong, listens and offers advice. He’s concerned and wise, positive and supportive. I have no doubt this is my father; he looks and sounds like him, but he’s an idealised version of him. I’m dimly aware in the dream that he’s behaving differently from the way he would in life – we rarely had heart-to-heart talks – but I’m so grateful for the help he’s offering, and it’s good to feel close to him.

In reality, my father died over ten years ago. I’m not sure I was aware of this in the dream or perhaps I just ignored it. I certainly ignored the way he was acting slightly out of character; I just was glad to see him again. I woke this morning feeling invigorated by the time spent with him (or the illusion of time spent with him) and with other friends who appeared in the dream to offer support.

I don’t for minute believe that the father I experienced in my dream was really my dad, returned from wherever he’s been these last ten years to offer words of comfort. My real dad has been nowhere for the past decade. He ceased to be in 2007. The version of him in my dream was a construct of my own mind, made from memories, wishful thinking and – okay, I admit it – a glass or two of wine. He was an image of how I’d like my dad to have been, perhaps – not that I give that much conscious thought. Nevertheless, this version of him is evidently buried somewhere in my head, waiting to be resurrected when the dream circumstances are right.

This is what it must surely have been like for those few individuals who, in visions and dreams, experienced Jesus after his death. In their grief and turmoil, the need to embrace the dream version of their friend must have been overwhelming. They would have persuaded themselves it really was him, communicating with them from beyond the grave. The fact one or two others had a similar experience can only have reinforced the compulsion to believe: ‘You saw him too? Then it must really have been him.’

It wasn’t, of course. What those who witnessed the risen lord experienced was, as Paul suggests in Galatians 1.16, a creation of their own minds, constructed from religious fervour, wishful thinking and a powerful need to believe.

From this, all else followed.

The Resurrection Explained

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The earliest reference to Jesus being raised from the dead appears in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians: 

Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said. He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said. He was seen by Peter and then by the Twelve. After that, he was seen by more than 500 of his followers (Corinthians 15.3-6).

Scholars are generally agreed that Paul is quoting from a very early creed, created within a few years of Jesus’ death. Ftbond, a commenter on Escaping Christian Fundamentalism, asks that if this creed was in existence

within a year or two or three after Jesus crucifixion (and, obviously, claimed resurrection), then one must ask: What was so important, so astounding, so amazing, so desirable, so attractive, so encaptivating (sic) and charismatic about that person that anyone would think him to be a “candidate” for resurrection in the first place?

It seems to me all of these questions and attendant adjectives are irrelevant and that ftbond is looking at the resurrection claims the wrong way round.

First, the creed doesn’t refer to ‘resurrection’. ‘He was raised’ is the term favoured by these earliest of Christians, one that doesn’t suggest they could only have had a reanimated corpse in mind.

There is no justification for supposing that ‘he was raised’ meant the same, either in Paul’s mind or that of the creed writers, as ‘bodily resurrection’. To assume they’re the same is to impose all the later accretions of the latter term onto the much simpler earlier one. We know Paul’s ‘risen Christ’ was a ‘revelation’ in his own head (let’s call it an hallucination) and nowhere does he suggest that Jesus was brought back to life in his old body. Paul talks only of Jesus being raised as ‘a life giving spirit’, not a ‘corrupt’ body of flesh at all (1 Corinthians 15.46).

Hallucinations of a ‘raised’ Jesus, then, long preceded the idea that he had returned in the same physical body that two days earlier had died on the cross. The notion that he was alive again resulted from the ‘visions’ – quite possibly dreams – that two or three of his early followers had. They took these visions to mean that Jesus had returned spiritually from beyond the grave.

Others came to believe in the risen Jesus, not because they personally experienced a vision or dream about him (though Paul insists there were some who did), but because of the reports of others experiencing them. Still more became believers as a result of reports of reports (of reports.) These experiences were then incorporated into creeds like the one quoted by Paul, and ultimately into the gospels when they were written 40-100 years later. By that time the original hallucinations were being worked up into real encounters with a Jesus physically resurrected in the flesh.

No-one needed to find Jesus ‘captivating’, ‘astounding’ and all those other adjectives ftbond applies to him; most converts, like Paul, would never even have met him. It is all a matter of interpretation; either a few early believers convinced themselves they’d experienced their late charismatic companion alive again, or, if he didn’t actually exist (and he is so mythic this is a possibility), they concocted a back story for their mystical experiences. The result was the creation of stories about Jesus, largely cobbled together from the ‘Scriptures’ (as Paul all but admits.)

This seems to me to be the most likely explanation of the ‘resurrection’. There is so much special pleading in the gospel accounts, so much that is clearly invented and designed to fulfil prophecy, so many inconsistencies and anomalies, that the entire enterprise smacks of imaginative invention, designed to lend credence to a few people’s innervisions.