Was Jesus resurrected from the dead? I say no.
Of course, I have no way of being absolutely sure. All I can really say is that I have insufficient evidence to accept the claim. However, what is the reasonable position when you don’t have evidence enough? Is it to say "well, it’s 50-50, I have no way of assigning a truth value either way"? I don’t think so, at least not always. If the claim is extraordinary, the evidence needs to be strong enough to support it. An extraordinary claim with weak evidence earns a rating of "it seems highly unlikely, so I will not accept that claim until further evidence presents itself". This, in shorthand, becomes my "no" of the title.
Why Jesus being raised from the dead is an extraordinary claim should be obvious. Never in recorded history have we witnessed anything dead come back to life = not humans, not animals, not plants. Furthermore, we have strong scientific reasons to think that once an organism is dead, it cannot come back to life because of destructive processes like cell tissue death, oxygen deprivation (in animals) and so on.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that we can’t be wrong and that resurrection can’t happen anyway. It does mean, however, that we need some pretty good evidence that it actually did happen. If I told you that I had cornflakes for breakfast yesterday morning, you’d be inclined to make my word for it because it’s an unextraordinary claim. You know cornflakes exist, you know people eat them, you have probably eaten them yourself. On the other hand, if I tell you that I died and came back to life yesterday morning, you would be much more skeptical of this claim. And so you should be.
Now imagine that I were in a murder trial where the only thing can could save me from a conviction would be if I had eaten cornflakes yesterday morning. That would be the bulletproof alibi. Now, when I then turn around and state, why yes, I did have cornflakes yesterday morning – well, now you would demand evidence. You wouldn’t just let me go, because the truth value of the claim now has great importance. You could get a forensic test of my stomach contents, check my house and trash to see if I have an open box of cornflakes, suitable milk, etc.
Now, finally, imagine that my only alibi would be that I died and was resurrected yesterday morning. Whatever amount of evidence you’d ask for before is now even greater, because not only is the claim extraordinary, it’s deeply important.
Jesus’ resurrection fits this profile. Christians claim that accepting this fact is the most important thing in the world – it will determine if you go to heaven or to hell. It is both extraordinary and important (to Christians). And therefore, the evidence needs to be looked at carefully.
Evidence for a resurrection
So, let us start looking at the evidence. Unfortunately, unless I have missed an important source, we find no sources that claim Jesus came back from the dead outside the New Testament. Not that biblical sources can reasonably be discounted out of hand – but they have special interests in preserving the story that is so central to their religion. We will look at thoese documents in turn. Well, Yes, there is that one passage by Josephus which goes:
"When Pilate, upon the accusation of the first men amongst us, condemned [Jesus] to be crucified, those who had formerly loved him did not cease [to follow him], for he appeared to them on the third day, living again, as the divine prophets foretold, along with a myriad of other marvellous things concerning him."
Here’s the thing about that: in the very same text, Josephus espouses the roman General Vespasian as the expected Messiah:
"What did the most to induce the Jews to start this war, was an ambiguous oracle that was also found in their sacred writings, how, about that time, one from their country should become governor of the habitable earth. The Jews took this prediction to belong to themselves in particular, and many of the wise men were thereby deceived in their determination. Now this oracle certainly denoted the government of Vespasian, who was appointed emperor in Judea." (Flavius Josephus, Jewish War 6.312-313, emphasis mine)
This, along with Origen’s writing on Josephus where he plainly states that Josephus was not a Christian, makes it a little strange that Josephus seemingly reports the miraculous resurrection of Jesus (who he also called ‘the Christ’ in the same passage). This seems like a strange contradiction, pointing to a corruption of the text in at least one of the two places.
The passage about Jesus, sadly, seems to be the prime candidate for the "bad apple". No Christian writer quoting Josephus or otherwise familiar with him mention this amazing tale of a Jew rising from the dead – despite them having strong interest in as much proof as they could get their hands on. Vocabulary analysis also makes the same passage stick out of the rest of The Jewish War like a sore thumb. The consensus among scholars is that the passage did originally mention Jesus, but that the content of the passage has now been entirely corrupted, probably with pious scribes wanting to emphasize the point while copying the original text.
This brings me to the biblical texts and the way I think it is reasonable to read them: I do not think there is any fair reason to say that there are outright hoaxes and frauds in the documents. I think the authors believed that what they were writing was relevant to their readers, with no ulterior motives. The scribes corrupting Josephus were, in their own mind at least, simply adding some obviously true facts about Jesus when they came across his name. That kind of "fine tuning" of copied documents is seen all the time, to the frustration of classical scholars who are interested in the uncorrupted source. In the same way, the stories about the resurrection were passed along by people who were spreading the word of their religion as they perceived it. We must remember the historical and cultural context where these writings were made. They were written in a philosophical soup of ideas about divine beings, saviours, God-men in all the pagan religions. This was conventional wisdom at the time- tales about great men performing miracles, of divine origin, returning to the Gods, etc etc. They were everywhere at the time (just look at Roman mythology, for one. Or any of the other dozens of pagan traditions from the period.)
The early Christian writers all believed Jesus was a God–as their ancient minds understood Gods. So when they sat down to write about His life from 50AD onwards, they naturally wrote it as they understood it, in their own cultural terms. Jesus was a God who came to Earth. Gods fulfilled property. Jesus fulfilled prophesy. Gods came down from the sky through mortal women. Jesus came down from the sky through a mortal woman. Gods had the power to do miracles. Jesus had the power to do miracles(He even did the same miracles as some of the other Gods). Gods taught wisdom. Jesus taught wisdom. Gods saved. Jesus saves. Gods died on Earth and went back to the sky. Jesus died on Earth and rode a cloud back up to His God-place in the sky. There is nothing particularly amazing, from a literary point of view, about the story of Jesus – it was the way they told the story of the great, inspirational man who had appeared from Nazareth and convinced the apostles. The big mistake today would be to take it all literally. Our minds are not attuned to mythological storytelling of factual events. We expect documentary-style fly-on-the-wall stories and read the gospels like that. It’s the wrong pair of spectacles for the text.
That’s not to say that people didn’t actually believe the stories at the time, though. People believed the myths, pagan or Christian, partly because that was how the ancients understood the world – through myth. There was no more objective understanding of reality to compare the myths to – only other myths.
To this mix, all I am going to add is the human propensity to retell a good story without checking the facts, and point to modern examples of myths being created within a short time of an event. As just one example, look at the whole deal with Elvis not being really dead after all, being sighted and having thousands of believers in the "Elvis not dead" theory. I don’t intend that to be a point-by-point comparison to Jesus’ resurrection, of course. Just wanted to show that myths arise and spread quite independently of truth and evidence sometimes.