The conventional presentation [empty tomb] has become so prevalent that it needs to be mentioned in order to be set aside because it flies in the face of the fact that “the empty tomb” is a latecomer to the traditions regarding how God raised Jesus from the dead. The resurrection was conceived of as bodily by Jesus’ disciples, but they did not all assert a single origin story, nor did they always conceive of his body in a physical way.
See Also: Resurrection Logic: How Jesus' First Followers Believed God Raised Him from the Dead (Baylor University Press, 2019).
By Bruce Chilton
Institute of Advanced Theology
The first followers of Jesus — those who produced what came to be called the New Testament — obviously believed that God had raised him from the dead. But they asserted at the same time that his resurrection signaled that the potential of humanity as a whole had changed. Eternal life became an aspiration for the many, not a few.
That was a global shift from ancient Near Eastern conceptions in which figures such as Osiris and Tammuz and Utnapishtim were depicted as rarities. Critical scholarship has revealed that the conception of “dying and rising gods,” deployed by James G. Frazer and popularized by Joseph Campbell, was not a generic category in which divine and human figures were readily classified. The logic of the most ancient sources is rather that anything like resurrection is a prospect for very few gods, and even fewer people.
Judaic sources from the third century BCE and later, however, reflect a profound transformation that occurred during that period. By the time Jesus lived, Judaism had democratized the hope of eternal life. Of course, today a strong tendency persists to suppose that Christianity holds a monopoly on hope of afterlife and that Judaism is strictly this-worldly in its expectation. That was not true in the first century CE, whatever the case today. Judaic texts that circulated saw resurrection in terms of ongoing life as spirits, as stars, as angels, as souls, as well as in physical flesh. There was no single conception, but a variety of views applied to righteous people generally, not merely heroes of the more ancient Israelite tradition such as Elijah.
Because critical reading of the sources shows that “dying and rising gods” was nothing like a template for people generally and because Judaism produced a pluralism of hopes for life after death, the setting in which we read the New Testament texts has changed, and we need a new approach to them. Many people believed in resurrection; Jesus’ disciples were not unusual within Judaism in that hope. What set them apart was that they asserted that Jesus had already been raised, starting the full process of humanity’s resurrection. In order to make that claim, they needed to say how that happened in Jesus’ case and how it was to happen broadly.
In my recent book, Resurrection Logic, I explain how the disciples experienced and claimed that Jesus had been raised from the dead. To do that, I explain conceptions of resurrection in Near Eastern and Greek texts from the ancient period and then within early Judaism. The central task, however, is to do justice to a feature of the New Testament that is frequently noted, but rarely explained: there are stark differences in the portrayal of how Jesus was seen by his first followers. At times, these differences are startling and have troubled generations of readers (and especially preachers); the risen Jesus might be said to disappear (Luke 24:31) and yet to be of flesh and bone, demanding and consuming food in the presence of his followers (Luke 24:39-43). He passes into a locked room (John 20:26) but offers his wounds to be touched (John 20:27). Although at first he is unrecognized when those who know him sight him after his death (John 20:14-15), an evidently visual awareness of him forms the basis of the announcement, “I have seen the Lord” (John 20:18). These and other differences have perplexed readers more than any other factor.
Instead of glossing over them, I follow the unfolding of traditions and texts over time, rather than attempting to arrive at or to impose a single view of the resurrection on them. All the viewpoints in the New Testament (and related literature) are assessed, without attempting to collapse the variants into a single, allegedly dominant perspective. The range of the disciples’ experience proves remarkable when their testimony is not forced into conformity to one normative claim or another of what the resurrection has to have been.
The earliest writer on the resurrection, and the only person who saw the risen Jesus and directly committed his experience to writing, was Saint Paul. He provides a list of those by whom Jesus “was seen” (1 Corinthians 15:3-8). I trace Paul’s sequence and link those whom he identifies to passages in the New Testament and surrounding literature: Peter, the Twelve, “more than five hundred,” James (the bother of Jesus), “all the apostles,” and Paul himself. By allowing resurrection narratives — each with a full conception of what eternal life means for all who realize that potential — their own voice, it becomes clear that differing accounts of the resurrection derived from identifiable sources are presented in the New Testament and related literatures. My exegesis details that variety. Variations appear not only in the details and the nature of experiences related but also in the worldview or cosmology that frames each account.
Within this variety, a family resemblance among the narratives also emerges, and that resemblance makes the New Testament’s portrayal of the resurrection innovative and remarkable. In every case, however much there might be variations in how recognizable or physical the risen Jesus was, the content of the experience directly involves an imperative, a commission to act. Moreover, the imperative does not simply reproduce teaching that Jesus gave during his historical existence. Rather, a new direction, and sometimes even a departure — for example, the command for a mission to non-Jews (Matthew 28:19-20) — is part and parcel of how Jesus is seen. These commands are so distinctive they required the conviction of Jesus’ bodily presence for the disciples to act upon them, although they did not all conceive of his body in a physical manner, or in any uniform fashion.
Two lines of reasoning are deployed within the New Testament in order to coordinate these disparate accounts. In one, the characteristic idiom is that of prophecy so that those who see Jesus are empowered by a spiritual vision that enables them to pursue their own resurrection imperative. In the other, an arc of narrative, including various descriptions of disciples visiting Jesus’ tomb, grounds the resurrection more in the Jesus who is seen than in the disciples whose gift it is to see.
The latter line of reasoning produced differing accounts of the visit to the tomb. In modern discussion, the need for a manageable amalgam that reduces the resurrection to a single story has been supplied by the supposed “empty tomb.” As a rule, Gospels for Easter Day, no matter which one is read, center on Jesus’ disciples going to the place where he was buried. But the fact is that there is a description of entry into the tomb only in the last two canonical Gospels to be written. Luke (24:1-3, 10) has Mary Magdalene and her companions go in while John (20:3-9) assigns that action to Peter and the disciple described only as loved by Jesus. Both Luke and John go out of their way to say the tomb was not empty since grave clothing was identified. But “the empty tomb,” a stock phrase in modern discussion, appeals strongly to apologists of varying kinds: those that demand belief in spite of doubt, those who claim the incontestable authority of the witnesses who visited the tomb, and those who contend that the disciples were mistaken in their belief.
In any case, the earliest Gospel (Mark 16:1-5) has women disciples approach to enter the tomb, but they are turned away by a young man who announces the resurrection to them. Matthew (28:1-7), on the other hand, presents a tomb reduced by an earthquake; an angel sits on the stone that had covered the entrance to explain the significance of the scene. The aggregate reading of the Gospels does not produce the monolithic narrative that is often presupposed. Yet “the empty tomb” persists as if the phrase were necessary to refer to the resurrection; sometimes, those words appear in printed Bibles as a heading to passages in which disciples do not enter the burial cave at all.
When interpreters insist on repeating what they must know is not accurate, something other than exegesis is at issue, something like a myth. In this case, the myth ignores or contradicts the earliest of the sources for the resurrection, composed well prior to the Gospels. Paul says nothing whatever of Jesus’ tomb, referring only (1 Corinthians 15:4) to a burial after his death.
The conventional presentation has become so prevalent that it needs to be mentioned in order to be set aside because it flies in the face of the fact that “the empty tomb” is a latecomer to the traditions regarding how God raised Jesus from the dead. The resurrection was conceived of as bodily by Jesus’ disciples, but they did not all assert a single origin story, nor did they always conceive of his body in a physical way. (Indeed, Paul refers to the reality as a “spiritual body” in 1 Corinthians 15:44, and I devote considerable attention to his clear distinction between what is physical and what is bodily.) Instead of agreeing on a common account of what had happened, they recounted a variety of encounters with the risen Jesus, all of which involved a nexus of insight, imperative, and experience. Apart from that nexus, it is scarcely possible to appreciate why their logic of God’s action (their theology in the proper sense of the word) proved as vital as it has over time.
A minor quibble. The disciples could not have understood, from Mt. 28.19-20, any command to disciple gentiles. Instead, they more likely thought of the Jewish diaspora as a target for discipleship. The inclusion of gentiles as co-heirs was probably "unbearable" (John 16.12). The Spirit indwelling Cornelius was the signal they conceptualized as indicating acceptance of this class of peoples. John 16.13 then anticipates this fulfillment.