What is the best explanation for why the Resurrection of Jesus looks like a legend evolving?

If the Resurrection is actual history then why do the narratives look so much like a legend evolving? Pay attention to how “experiencing” the Risen Jesus evolves in chronological order. Scholarly consensus dating places the documents as follows:

Paul c. 50 CE - is the only firsthand report. He says the Risen Jesus “appeared” ὤφθη (1 Cor 15:5-8) and was experienced through “visions” and “revelations” - 2 Cor 12:1. The appearance to Paul was a vision/revelation from heaven - Gal. 1:12-16, Acts 26:19 (not a physical encounter with a revived corpse) and he makes no distinction between what he “saw” and what the others “saw” in 1 Cor 15:5-8 nor does he mention an intervening ascension between the appearances. This shows that early Christians accepted claims of “visions” (experiences that don’t necessarily have anything to do with reality) as “Resurrection appearances.” Paul nowhere gives any evidence of the Risen Christ being experienced in a more “physical” way which means you have to necessarily read in the assumption that the appearances were physical, from a later source that Paul nowhere corroborates. What Paul says in Phillipians 2:8-9, Rom. 8:34, and the sequential tradition preserved in Eph. 1:20 is consistent with the belief that Jesus went straight to heaven after the resurrection leaving no room for any physical earthly appearances. If this was the earliest belief then it follows that all of the “appearances” were believed to have been of the Exalted Christ in heaven and not physical earthly interactions with a revived corpse. He had a chance to mention the empty tomb in 1 Cor 15 when it would have greatly helped his argument but doesn’t. Paul’s order of appearances: Peter, the twelve, the 500, James, all the apostles, Paul. No location is mentioned.

Mark c. 70 CE - introduces the empty tomb but has no appearance report. Predicts Jesus will be “seen” in Galilee. The original ends at 16:8 where the women leave and tell no one. Mark’s order of appearances: Not applicable.

Matthew c. 80 CE - has the women tell the disciples, contradicting Mark’s ending, has some women grab Jesus’ feet, then has an appearance in Galilee which “some doubt” - Mt. 28:17. Matthew also adds a descending angel, great earthquake, and a zombie apocalypse to spice things up. If these things actually happened then it’s hard to believe the other gospel authors left them out, let alone any other contemporary source from the time period. Matthew’s order of appearances: Two women, eleven disciples. The appearance to the women takes place near the tomb in Jerusalem while the appearance to the disciples happens on a mountain in Galilee.

Luke 85-95 CE - has the women immediately tell the disciples, contradicting Mark. Jesus appears in Jerusalem, not Galilee, contradicting Matthew’s depiction and Mark’s prediction. He appears to two people on the Emmaus Road who don’t recognize him at first. Jesus then vanishes and suddenly appears to the disciples. This time Jesus is “not a spirit” but a “flesh and bone” body that gets inspected, eats fish, then floats to heaven while all the disciples watch - conspicuously missing from all the earlier reports. Luke omits any appearance to the women. Acts 1:3 adds the otherwise unattested claim that Jesus appeared over a period of 40 days and says Jesus provided “many convincing proofs he was alive” which shows the stories were apologetically motivated. Luke’s order of appearances: Two on the Emmaus Road, Peter, rest of the eleven disciples. All appearances happen in Jerusalem.

John 90-110 CE - Jesus can now teleport through locked doors and we get the Doubting Thomas story where Jesus invites Thomas to poke him. This story has the apologetic purpose that if you just “believe without seeing” then you will be blessed. Jesus is also basically God in this gospel which represents another astonishing development. John’s order of appearances: Mary Magdalene, eleven disciples, the disciples again plus Thomas, then to seven disciples. In John 20 the appearances happen in Jerusalem and in John 21 they happen near the Sea of Galilee on a fishing trip.

As you can see, these reports are inconsistent with one another and represent growth that’s better explained as legendary accretion rather than actual history. If these were actual historical reports that were based on eyewitness testimony then we would expect more consistency than we actually get. None of the resurrection reports in the gospels even match Paul’s appearance chronology in 1 Cor 15:5-8 and the later sources have amazing stories that are drastically different from and nowhere even mentioned in the earliest reports. The story evolves from Paul’s spiritual/mystical Christ all the way up to literally touching a resurrected corpse that flies to heaven! Moreover, in Luke and John the stories have obvious apologetic motivations. So upon critically examining the evidence we can see the clear linear development that Christianity started with spiritual visionary experiences and evolved to the ever-changing physical encounters in the gospels (which are not firsthand reports).

So what other event from history that we have multiple eyewitness reports of, actually looks and grows like this story does? Is it reasonable for someone who is not of the Christian faith, who objectively looks at this data and comes to the conclusion that it’s just a legend evolving like any other?

If apologists want to claim this data is consistent with reliable eyewitness testimony then they need to provide other examples about the same event from history that grow in fantastic detail like the gospels do, yet are still regarded to be reliable historical documents. I maintain that this cannot be done. If attempted, they will immediately realize any other historical documents that grow like the gospels do will be legends.

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Welcome to Peaceful Science, DWE! :slight_smile:

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

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Nice to meet you @DebunkedWithEase.

Many of the atheists here will agree with you. However, many of the Christians will not.

I do not think that current scholarship supports several key points that you treat as fact. Most historians, as I understand it, agree that this is not true:

Moreover, the dates on many of the books are contested, and with good reason.

I wonder if you have read NT Wright’s book: The Resurrection of the Son of God (Christian Origins and the Question of God. Have you? It seems that is the definitive scholarly work right now, and it is very accessibly written for non experts like us. If this is something you are investigating, I certainly commend you in that, and look forward to hearing how his work shapes your understanding, and what points you still disagree with him on in the end.

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The short answer is that the testimony of Jesus’s resurrection in the New Testament does not look like legend forming. Not all scholars interpret the data the way the OP does. I am pretty sure the OP doesn’t represent a consensus opinion on a topic that’s had untold hours of study and research thrown at it.
Here are a few of my layman thoughts:

  1. Best estimates of the production of each New Testament book does not define when Jesus, risen, was seen, or interacted with.
  2. Paul would not have suggested that his experience with Jesus was physical. He says it is a vision. But the culture that produced these documents does not view visions as “experiences that do not necessarily have anything to do with reality”. The books of the New Testament are consistent in presenting encounters with Jesus after his ascension as visions, and encounters with Jesus before the ascension as physical.
  3. Paul did not believe that his vision was the first encounter with Jesus risen. This may not be satisfying to the OP, but Paul does not bother here to distinguish between pre and post ascension appearances.

1 Cor 15: 3-8 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.

While Paul’s vision changed his life, it seems clear that after the vision he proceeded to get the story from eye witnesses of Jesus before his ascension. In fact, Paul based everything he did on his acceptance of those testimonies.

1 Cor 15: 14-15 And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised.

  1. Mark’s ending (if it ends at verse 8) fully intends to testify that Jesus is risen. The OP discounts the ending because it does not include encounters with Jesus. I do not think Mark can be discounted this easily.
  2. I do not think that Matthew, Luke and John’s accounts of the resurrection can be discounted based on inconsistencies in their testimonies. Inconsistencies in multiple witness accounts are actually expected even when testimonies are gathered about events that happened yesterday.

I trust that a Biblical scholar could do a better job with this than I have, but this is my off-the-cuff offering.

Lastly, the final paragraph of the OP attempts to define the boundaries for responses to his post. I do not think that is how debate actually works. I just mention that in case responders feel boxed on by that last paragraph.

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Note to moderators, just in case it matters, I meant to reply to the thread in general, not to Dr. Swamidass’s post.

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It is even worse than that. Look at that paragraph:

As I understand it, one of the arguments against the Resurrection argues precisely the opposite way:

That other ancient historical documents are reliable, but always elaborate fantastical elements. So to get at the “history” we need to remove the fantastical elements, and the Resurrection (and all of Jesus’s miracles) is clearly one of those fantastical elements added on later to a basically reliable historical account

As example of an ancient sources that elaborated myths on a true history, consider the Iliad and Odyssey (and others) in relation to the Trojan War - Wikipedia. There was an actual Trojan war, and the account was based on eye-witnesses, but there were also later legendary expansions added to the stories.

The issue is that, as @Chad_the_Layman , explains correction, the accounts (not the precise documents, mind you) of the Resurrection can be dated very very early, to within years of Jesus’s death. So they were not late additions.

Of course, the accounts of the Resurrection could still be wrong, but not for that reason, not because they were late additions when they weren’t.

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Hi, I am interested in the historical origins of Christianity and researching apologetic responses to arguments put forth by skeptics. I also like chocolate chip cookies.

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Hi Dr. Swamidass,

In my experience when reviewing claims about the same historical event from multiple eyewitnesses, the reports seem to align with each other with minor differentiating details. In the case of the gospels, the differences are not minor as evident in my comparative analysis. Does NT Wright address the fact that the resurrection appearances seem to grow more fantastic, corporeal, realistic over time?

As for the dating, I gave the scholarly consensus dates meaning 90-95% of both Christian and non-Christian scholars agree on said dates. I think you may be confusing the dates given in apologetic or evangelical scholarship with representing more of a mainstream view.

If the Resurrection of Jesus didn’t happen then do you think the legendary growth hypothesis is the next best explanation of the data? If not, then what other hypothesis do you think is best if Jesus was not resurrected?

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He deals with this claim in great detail. His book is 800 pages long, but is also readable.

Rather than debating this on the forum with non-experts (none of us are experts in this space), I’d be curious your response to him?

Personal experience is a very poor guide, and it certainly is not rigorous. We expect discrepancies from multiple eyewitnesses. What counts as “minor” requires expertise in the culture at that time to discern, and some empathy to understand the purpose of the accounts in the first place.

Likewise, I’m not sure your facts are straight.

No I do not.

If Jesus did not really rise form the dead, we still would need to explain quite a bit about the early Church, its beliefs, and why very conservative Jews like Paul began to include Gentiles, etc.

Once again, none of us are experts. I would be really interested to see your response to NT Wright’s book.

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The short answer is that the testimony of Jesus’s resurrection in the New Testament does not look like legend forming.

It clearly does. In the only firsthand account the appearances are visions that grow more fantastic, corporeal, realistic in each consecutive report that is not firsthand. Luke and John have clear apologetically motivated reasons that are mentioned for the stories. What about Matthew’s addition of a descending angel, great earthquake, and the rising of the saints? Why did Mark (the account Matthew copied) leave all that out and why did none of the other gospel authors mention it?

Not all scholars interpret the data the way the OP does. I am pretty sure the OP doesn’t represent a consensus opinion on a topic that’s had untold hours of study and research thrown at it.

I never said all scholar interpret the data the way I do. I was appealing to the consensus in regards to the dates of the compositions.

  1. Best estimates of the production of each New Testament book does not define when Jesus, risen, was seen, or interacted with.

Do you not agree that each account describes a totally different way in which the Risen Jesus is experienced?

  1. Paul would not have suggested that his experience with Jesus was physical. He says it is a vision. But the culture that produced these documents does not view visions as “experiences that do not necessarily have anything to do with reality”.

He says he had a “revelation” and “God revealed His Son in me” - Gal. 1:12-16 which is more likely to refer to a subjective experience. The word for “revealed” was used in other apocalyptic texts to refer to visionary disclosures and does not necessitate ocular sighting with the eyes. The word for “appeared” in 1 Cor 15 does not either.

The fact that ancient people did not distinguish between experiences that did not have anything to do with reality and experiences that did is a problem for the one who regards the experiences to have been veridical. It’s not a problem for my hypothesis. Rather, it supports it. Certainly, you don’t think Joseph Smith’s vision or other Mormon visions had anything to do with reality, right?

The books of the New Testament are consistent in presenting encounters with Jesus after his ascension as visions, and encounters with Jesus before the ascension as physical.

We don’t get the separate and distinct ascension until Luke/Acts. Paul doesn’t mention that chronology so 1 Cor 15 can just as easily be read as all the appearances happening after Jesus went to heaven.

  1. Paul did not believe that his vision was the first encounter with Jesus risen. This may not be satisfying to the OP, but Paul does not bother here to distinguish between pre and post ascension appearances.

Exactly. So without reading your knowledge of the later gospels and Acts into 1 Cor 15, why assume Amy of the appearances happened before Jesus went to heaven. The gospels and Acts were all composed after Paul’s letters according to the consensus of New Testament historians.

While Paul’s vision changed his life, it seems clear that after the vision he proceeded to get the story from eye witnesses of Jesus before his ascension. In fact, Paul based everything he did on his acceptance of those testimonies.

I think Gal. 1:11-12 says he didn’t get his Gospel from any man. He never says he got his resurrection understanding from anyone else. Moreover, the story in Acts has him immediately convert after the experience. He doesn’t go question other Christians about their beliefs.

  1. Mark’s ending (if it ends at verse 8) fully intends to testify that Jesus is risen. The OP discounts the ending because it does not include encounters with Jesus. I do not think Mark can be discounted this easily.

But there is no appearance narrative. Matthew and Luke rewrote the ending which is evidence of development.

  1. I do not think that Matthew, Luke and John’s accounts of the resurrection can be discounted based on inconsistencies in their testimonies. Inconsistencies in multiple witness accounts are actually expected even when testimonies are gathered about events that happened yesterday.

Minor discrepancies may be expected but the differences in the resurrection appearance narratives are not minor.

Lastly, the final paragraph of the OP attempts to define the boundaries for responses to his post. I do not think that is how debate actually works. I just mention that in case responders feel boxed on by that last paragraph.

Apologists and evangelical scholars think we should read the reports and accept them as actual history. If that’s the case then they should be able to point out other reports from history that are similar.

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I read through the post again and can comment on some details.

I do not think you can read everything that Paul wrote about resurrection and conclude that he did not affirm that Jesus rose physically. And you cannot conclude that Ephesians 1:20 says that Jesus, risen, did not interact with people physically. Today I got up and went to work. Can you conclude that I did not grab breakfast and coffee?

Matthew does not contradict the end of Mark. In Mark, the young man, or angel (see “dressed in white, shinning robes” imagery in the bible) told the women to go tell the disciples, which is what Matthew has them doing.

Luke does not contradict Mark’s account. Luke and John include details that Matthew and Mark do not. I don’t think inclusion of different data makes your point.

All four gospels show that Jesus is Yahweh. N.T. Wright’s “How God Became King” is a good resource for that. Also, understanding of the Hebrew Bible is a great resource for that.
Your primary error may be something I mentioned in my first post.

Scholars actually would not say this.

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I am an atheist who denies not only the resurrection but the reasonableness of Christianity in every way. But this kind of claim should be rejected for other reasons. Put simply, it is an example of personal opinion (almost always underinformed)–about a topic involving actual knowledge and scholarship–masquerading as a credible claim. Huge proportions of creationist and science-denying pablum posted on this forum are of exactly this format.

In this case, I am sure we will discover that “in my experience” actually means “I’m not very well informed but I’ll write stuff anyway.” Even if somehow we discover that @DebunkedWithEase is better informed than, say, the average science-denying layperson on PS, we are obligated intellectually to ignore any claim beginning with “in my experience” when that claim is about scholarly consensus about empirical claims.

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He deals with this claim in great detail. His book is 800 pages long, but is also readable.

Since you seem to be familiar with the book do you have a page number reference for where he explicitly deals with something like the argument I put forth? No need in reading the full 800 pages if he gives a direct response to what I’m arguing.

Also, could you please answer the question? If Jesus did not rise from the dead then what is, in your opinion, the next best explanation of the data?

As for the early church, I don’t really see that as any different than the development of the early Mormons and their beliefs. Different religious sects and ideologies just pop up and grow every now and then, agree?

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I did not say Paul didn’t think Jesus rose physically, although one could make that argument given Paul’s “spiritual body” terminology and Jesus “becoming a spirit” in 1 Cor 15:40-45. The more important thing is whether or not these people actually saw the Resurrected Jesus. If these were originally visions that became embellished later then the skeptic is justified in rejecting the Resurrection argument.

And you cannot conclude that Ephesians 1:20 says that Jesus, risen, did not interact with people physically. Today I got up and went to work. Can you conclude that I did not grab breakfast and coffee?

If you want to claim Paul believed the physically resurrected Jesus remained on the earth in order to be be physically seen and touched then you have to actually provide evidence from Paul’s letters that says or implies that. If all we’re given is the idea that Jesus was “raised” in some sense and went to heaven then it seems equally likely that the ascension/exaltation was immediate. If you disagree that this interpretation is equally likely then you have to show Paul believing in the Luke/Acts chronological sequence to be more probable. So far, you’ve not given any reason to think that.

Matthew does not contradict the end of Mark.

Yes he does. Mk. 16:8 the women leave and “tell no one” while in Matthew 28 the women leave and tell the disciples. That is a contradiction.

In Mark, the young man, or angel (see “dressed in white, shinning robes” imagery in the bible) told the women to go tell the disciples, which is what Matthew has them doing.

In Matthew it’s a descending angel.

Luke does not contradict Mark’s account.

Luke has the women leave and immediately tell the disciples, contradicting Mark.

Luke and John include details that Matthew and Mark do not. I don’t think inclusion of different data makes your point.

Inspecting Jesus’ flesh and bone body, watching him eat and witnessing him float to heaven are some pretty conspicuously missing details…

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That’s not helpful :slight_smile:

Paul refers to correspondence with people who had first hand accounts. Those first hand accounts are included in the gospels.

All of the gospels and letters of the NT are motivated by telling the story of Jesus the Messiah, risen from the dead. If Luke and John are doing “apologetics”, then so is the balance of the NT.

The fact that the narratives differ slightly actually lends credence to their authenticity per scholars.

I just pointed out that your position isn’t concensus because of the way you present your argument.

You again say “did not have anything to do with reality”. The writers of the text you critique would disagree with you. But it’s not that they don’t distinguish between visions and physical. They do.

I think Joseph Smith probably had a vision. I just don’t think it was from the same source as Paul’s.

I don’t think dating of the books dictates how I read the NT. And, as I said, Paul actually refers to the eye witness accounts of a physical Jesus in the book that you would like for us to read first.

He says he got his message from God. He also says he conferred with others. And he also refers to eye witness reports 1 Cor 15.

This is your take, not fact.

I disagree

I think you should read the scholarship. I agree with Dr. Swamidass that N.T. Wright is a great place to start.

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Man, if I could offer anything constructive to you at all, I’d say that “No need in reading the full 800 pages” should be dropped from your method. I don’t say this just about N.T. Wright’s book, but about reading for learning in general.

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I already did

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There seems to be still a wide range of opinion on the events in the Iliad, from entirely fictional, to entirely historical, with many in between. As far as I can make out there is no definitive or widely-accepted claim that the Trojan War definitely took place (at best there seems to be evidence that it may have), let alone “eye-witnesses”. This therefore makes it an imperfect vessel for a ‘where there’s smoke there’s fire’ claim that there must be (substantive) historical details behind such myths.

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Of course.

What is notable is that the Gospels do not really fit that pattern of elaborated myth.

In what ways?

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