|Image: adapted from Raphael’s Transfiguration|
The physical resurrection of Jesus Christ is central to Christianity. But the evidence for this claim is nonexistent outside the Bible, and contradictory within it.
In the earliest written Biblical reference, Paul says the risen Jesus appeared to more than five hundred people at one time [1 Cor 15:3-8].
1 Cor 15:3 For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. 6 After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have [b]fallen asleep. 7 After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. 8 Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time.
Yet in the earliest written Gospel, called Mark, the allegedly risen Jesus does not appear to anybody. A different writer later added that part [16:9-20] to the Mark story, with the risen Jesus saying that people who believed in him could safely drink poison.
16:9 Now when He rose early on the first day of the week, He appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom He had cast seven demons. 10 She went and told those who had been with Him, as they mourned and wept. 11 And when they heard that He was alive and had been seen by her, they did not believe.
12 After that, He appeared in another form to two of them as they walked and went into the country. 13 And they went and told it to the rest, but they did not believe them either. 14 Later He appeared to the eleven as they sat at the table; and He rebuked their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they did not believe those who had seen Him after He had risen.
The Gospels called Matthew and Luke, written a decade or more later, were the first to include the risen Jesus physically appearing to people. But in Matthew, this seems relatively commonplace, with the bodies of many dead people being physically resurrected, coming out of their tombs, and appearing to many people [27:51-53]. None of the other Gospels mention this incident.
27:51 Then, behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth quaked, and the rocks were split, 52 and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; 53 and coming out of the graves after His resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many.
Nor do the Gospels agree on where and how many times the risen Jesus physically appeared. In Mark he does not appear at all. In Matthew he appears twice, to the two Marys on a road [28:8-10] and to his disciples on a mountain in Galilee [27:16-17].
28:8 So they went out quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to bring His disciples word. 9 And as they went to tell His disciples, behold, Jesus met them, saying, ‘Rejoice!’ So they came and held Him by the feet and worshiped Him.
28:16 Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had appointed for them. 17 When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some doubted.
In Luke he appears three times: to a man and his companion on a road [24:13-32], to Peter in an unspecified place [24:33-34], and to his disciples and others in a house [24:36-53].
24:13 Now behold, two of them were traveling that same day to a village called Emmaus, which was seven miles from Jerusalem. 14 And they talked together of all these things which had happened. 15 So it was, while they conversed and reasoned, that Jesus Himself drew near and went with them.
24:33 So they rose up that very hour and returned to Jerusalem, and found the eleven and those who were with them gathered together, 34 saying, “The Lord is risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!
24:36 Now as they said these things, Jesus Himself stood in the midst of them, and said to them, “Peace to you.” 37 But they were terrified and frightened, and supposed they had seen a spirit. 38 And He said to them, “Why are you troubled? And why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39 Behold My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself. Handle Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have.
In John he appears four times: to Mary Magdalene who thinks he is a gardener outside his tomb [20:11-18], to his disciples twice in a house [20:19-23, 26-29], and to some of his disciples for breakfast after a fishing trip [21:1-14].
20:14 Now when she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, and did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?
20:19 Then, the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were [e]assembled, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in the midst, and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 20 When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.
20:26 And after eight days His disciples were again inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, “Peace to you!” 27 Then He said to Thomas, “Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing.
21:1 After these things Jesus showed Himself again to the disciples at the Sea of Tiberias, and in this way He showed Himself: 2 Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of His disciples were together. 3 Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.
21:14 This is now the third time Jesus showed Himself to His disciples after He was raised from the dead.
None of the Gospels include Paul’s remarkable claim that the risen Jesus appeared to more than five hundred people at one time.
These fantastic and inconsistent stories may have seemed convincing in more primitive times, written as they were as standalone stories in different places for different audiences, many of who believed the world was coming to an end within their lifetimes.
They are no basis today on which to build a worldview about the nature of reality or how we should live together as sentient beings.
For a comprehensive analysis of these and similar themes, read the work of Bart Ehrman and other academic textual critics of the New Testament.
All of this puts aside the question of whether Jesus existed, and the question of how the Bible was written and by whom. This article focus only on the different stories in the Bible about the resurrection of Jesus.