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At a time when so many different ideas about Jesus are being circulated, what more authentic source for learning about him than the Gospels? And what better way of studying the New Testament than with an expert who has spent his life pondering and teaching it? Scripture scholar Father Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., is our guide.

Jesus: A Historical Portrait

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The Resurrection: High Point of History

by Daniel J. Harrington, S.J.

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 contempt” (12:2).

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 important task.

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 appearances

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 their experiences.

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 other Gospels.

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.

Faith explosion

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 hope?

• 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 and resurrection?


Next: Christianity Takes Root


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