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the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Reprinting prohibited
The Resurrection: High Point of History
The boldest claim that early Christians made was that their teacher and hero, Jesus of
Nazareth, who died and was buried, was raised from the dead.
This claim was so extraordinary that those who heard Peter preaching at Pentecost
assumed that he and the other disciples had been drinking too much new wine. When Paul
preached to a Greek audience in Athens, they were receptive to his message until he said
that God confirmed Jesus’ message by raising him from the dead. The Acts of the Apostles
tells us, “When they heard of the resurrection…, some scoffed” (17:32).
What does it mean to be resurrected?
Resurrection means the restoration of a person to bodily life after death. It is not the same
as the immortality of the soul, since resurrection involves the whole person, body and soul,
in a restoration to life. Neither is it the same as resuscitation, since the resuscitated person
will eventually die again and not be brought back to life.
The first followers of Jesus believed that Jesus, having died on the cross and having been
buried in a tomb owned by Joseph of Arimathea, was miraculously restored to life by the
one whom he called “Father.” What did early Christians believe about the Resurrection of
Jesus? Why did they believe this?
The beginnings of belief in resurrection
The early parts of the Old Testament bear
witness to some belief in life after death.
The ancient Israelites imagined that the
dead went to Sheol (the abode of the dead)
and lived on in some shadowy kind of
existence. Sheol was neither heaven nor
hell. Rather, it was something in between,
a dark and gloomy place (the “pit”), whose
inhabitants could neither find much
happiness nor praise God (see Psalm 88).
In the sixth century B.C., some of
the prophets began to describe their
hope for Israel’s future in terms of
resurrection. For example, we find in
Isaiah 26:19 the statement: “Your dead
shall live, their corpses shall rise.” In
his vision of the valley of the dry bones,
Ezekiel portrays the revival of Israel in
exile as a collective resurrection of the
dead: “the breath came into them, and
they lived” (37:10). In both cases,
however, resurrection serves as a
metaphor for the rebirth of God’s
people, not as a description of what
happens to individuals after death.
The book of Daniel, written in the
second century B.C., provides the first
explicit description of the resurrection
of dead persons: “Many of those who
sleep in the dust of the earth shall
awake, some to everlasting life,
and some to shame and everlasting
Belief in the resurrection of persons
appears also in Wisdom: “the souls of
the righteous are in the hand of God”
(3:1). In the martyrdom of the mother
and her seven sons in 2 Maccabees, one
son, at his last breath, proclaims that
“the King of the universe will raise us
up to an everlasting renewal of life,
because we have died for his laws”
(2 Mc 7:9).
Belief in the time of Jesus
Those Jews in Jesus’ time who believed
in the resurrection of the dead expected
that it would take place at the end of
history (as part of the full coming of God’s
Kingdom), that it would involve most
everyone (the general judgment) and
that the just or righteous would enjoy
eternal life with God as whole persons,
body and soul.
Among the various Jewish groups, the
Pharisees were the great proponents of
resurrection, while the Sadducees
rejected it as not present in the Old
Testament law. In this matter Jesus
sided with the Pharisees.
According to the Gospel of Mark
(12:18-27), Jesus argued against the
Sadducees, holding that reference to the
resurrection can be found in the Book of
Exodus and that resurrected life is not
exactly the same as earthly life: [H]ave
you not read in the book of Moses...how
God said to him, ‘I am the God of
Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God
of Jacob? He is God not of the dead,
but of the living” (12:26-27).
Against this background, we can see how
extraordinary belief in the resurrection of
Jesus was—and is. The early Christians
claimed that Jesus, as an individual, had
been restored to life after his death before
the end of history, that many who knew
him before he died experienced him
as once again fully alive, and that his
resurrection provides the basis of hope
for the resurrection of us all and for
eternal life in God’s Kingdom.
Jesus’ death and burial
Jesus died on a Friday, most likely in early
April of 30 A.D. According to John, he
died about the time when the Passover
lambs were being sacrificed in the
Jerusalem Temple complex. Jesus’ burial
was arranged by Joseph of Arimathea,
who offered to have the corpse interred
in a new tomb that he owned.
Jerusalem in Jesus’ time has been
described as a city surrounded by a huge
cemetery. The tombs were not holes dug
in the ground but rather caves cut out of
the soft limestone all around the city.
The Jewish Sabbath begins at sundown
on Friday, so whatever work was needed to
transport Jesus’ body and prepare it for
burial had to be done immediately after his
death. All the evangelists report that Mary
Magdalene and other women followers
witnessed Jesus’ death and burial.
When Jesus’ body arrived at the
burial cave, it would have been treated
with perfumes and spices (to control
the odor) and laid out on a platform cut
into the rock. There it would have been
left for a year or so, allowing the flesh
to disintegrate. All this time, a large
stone, probably in the shape of a large
truck tire, would have blocked the
tomb’s entrance to discourage robbers.
At the end of the year, the bones would
be gathered and placed in a stone box
called an ossuary (“bone box”), which
might be inscribed with the name of
the deceased. At least this would have
been the plan.
The empty tomb
All the Gospels agree that Mary
Magdalene and other women came to
Jesus’ tomb on Easter Sunday morning
and found it empty. They had seen
where Jesus was buried, so they did
not lose their way and go to the wrong
tomb. They went there to complete the
preparation of Jesus’ body because the
onset of the Sabbath had forced them
to leave before they had finished this
The women wondered how they
might enter the cave, given the large
stone placed at the mouth of the tomb.
But when they arrived, they found that
the stone had already been moved and the
tomb was empty. They were informed by
a “young man” or an angel: “Do not be
alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of
Nazareth, who was crucified. He has
been raised; he is not here” (Mk 16:6).
How is it that the tomb came to be
empty? The Jewish opponents of Jesus
spread the rumor that Jesus’ disciples
had stolen his body. Others argued that
the women went to the wrong tomb,
even though the Gospels name them as
witnesses to the burial of Jesus. Still
others suggest that Jesus awoke from a
coma and somehow got out of the cave. However, the only ancient sources that
we have—the Gospels—all agree that the
tomb was empty because Jesus had
been raised from the dead.
The fact of Jesus’ empty tomb does not
in itself prove his resurrection. But it is
a necessary precondition for belief in his
resurrection. More convincing are the
many accounts of early Christians who
testified that they experienced Jesus as
alive in a bodily way after his death.
In a very early summary of Christian
faith (1 Cor 15:3-8), Paul provides a list of
persons to whom the risen Jesus appeared:
Cephas (another name for Peter), the
Twelve, a crowd of 500, James, all the
apostles and Paul himself. When Paul
wrote his letter (around 55 A.D.), most
of these persons were still alive and
presumably could be questioned about
Paul’s list of those to whom the
risen Jesus appeared grows when
we take account of the appearance
narratives at the end of each Gospel.
In Matthew’s Gospel, the risen Jesus
appeared to the women who came to
the tomb and to the 11 disciples in
Galilee. In the Gospel of Luke, he
appeared to two disciples on the road
to Emmaus and to his disciples in
Jerusalem. In John, he appeared to
Mary Magdalene and to his disciples
both without and with Thomas present.
Then he appeared in Galilee to seven disciples, including Peter and the
beloved disciple. Mark’s account is
generally regarded as a second-century
summary of the appearances in the
The various appearance stories
differ in many details. What they have
in common is that the recipients knew
Jesus before his death and knew that
he had died. These persons, not without
difficulty, came to recognize the figure
that they encountered as the risen
Jesus. This risen Jesus is pure spirit
(he passes through walls) and yet still
physical (he shares meals). In Luke’s
story of the journey to Emmaus, Jesus
interprets the Old Testament Scriptures
and eats with his disciples, actions that
suggest connections with the Eucharist.
Many of the post-Resurrection stories
feature the theme of mission in which
Jesus sends forth his disciples to
proclaim the Good News.
These stories have been interpreted
by skeptics as visions, dreams or wish
fulfillments. But that so many different
persons could have been deceived seems
unlikely. Early Christians interpreted these experiences as proof that Jesus
had been raised from the dead.
The early Christian movement
Perhaps the strongest proof of the
resurrection of Jesus is the survival and
continuation of the movement he had
begun. The entire New Testament
affirms that the first followers of Jesus
underwent a remarkable transformation
after his death.
Three well-established historical
facts pertaining to Jesus’ last days
were: (1) Judas, one of his closest
followers, betrayed him at the time
of his arrest, (2) at the same time,
his male followers abandoned him
out of fear and (3) Peter denied even
knowing Jesus. After the Resurrection,
however, those who had abandoned
Jesus and fled out of fear proclaimed
the gospel fearlessly.
What happened to bring about such
a dramatic change? It must have been
their experiences of Jesus as raised from
the dead and restored to life.
The development in language and theology
about Jesus in the 20 years between
his death and the composition of the
earliest complete document contained
in the New Testament (1 Thessalonians)
has been described as an “explosion.”
In the very first line of his letter, Paul,
a monotheistic Jew, refers to Jesus as
“the Lord Jesus Christ” and places him
on the same level as “God the Father.”
The historical evidence for the
resurrection of Jesus consists of three
strands: the empty tomb, the appearances
of the risen Jesus and the success
of the early Christian movement. No one
of them alone definitively proves that
Jesus rose from the dead. But taken
together, they indicate that the best
explanation is that Jesus “was raised on
the third day in accordance with the
scriptures” (1 Cor 15:4).
What difference does it make
in your life that Christ is risen?
Imagine your life without this
belief. How would you be
different, live differently?
In what would you put your
How compelling are the arguments
explaining the empty
tomb made by Jewish opponents
of Jesus? Why do you believe
in Christ’s resurrection?
Many of Jesus’ post-Resurrection
appearances included the
theme of mission, with Jesus
sending forth the disciples to
proclaim the Good News. How
are you living out your mission
as one saved by Jesus’ death
Next: Christianity Takes Root
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