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

For example, several public accounts of the Resurrection in particular are dated to within at most just years after Jesus’s public death, and belief in these accounts (whether that was was correct or incorrect) was a foundational component in the early Church.

That is far too quick a timeline to explain as a later expansion.

How do we date things that early? That is derived from evidence that very few, if any, serious scholars dispute. The dating comes in part from how several different sources (e.g. I Corinthians, which would have a later date) refer to their own source material, and the relation of the NT sources to the destruction of the temple in 70 AD. That event is a fundamental milestone in Jewish thought, and it is closely connected the present day Jewish holiday of Hanaka.

The fact that none of the new testament (except possibly Revelations) discusses the destruction of the temple or Hanaka is very strong evidence that, even if they were composed in present form after 70 AD, they were largely drawn from pre-70 AD sources.

A key point here to be careful of conflating the dates of particular manuscripts or compositions with the best historical dates of particular beliefs/creeds of the Church inferred from those documents. What is far more important than, say, the date of the book of Mark in its final form, is the dates of the original version of Mark and what was in it.

Keeping that conflation straight, the vast majority of scholars will agree that some sort of real “Resurrection event” is a necessary component of explaining the rise of the early Church. They certainly claimed to be willing to die because they had seen the Resurrected Jesus. That does not, necessarily, mean that Jesus really rose from the dead (maybe they were confused or lying), but it doesn’t make sense to see this as a later legendary expansion.


Michael Licona’s is on par with, if not better than, Wright’s. One could add Richard Baucham’s book on eye-witness testimony.


I cited scholarly consensus in regards to the dating of the documents and distinguished my own personal experience. There is no “masquerading” here, or at least, that was not intentional. I took it as a pretty reasonable claim. If the earliest and only firsthand account says one particular thing, then all the later accounts written by people who are not regarded to have actually witnessed the events (another mainstream scholarly view) start telling wildly different and fantastic stories, then something is amiss. How else are we supposed to distinguish between legend and fact? Something has to give.

1 Like

You are equivocating here between dates of particular documents and the beliefs in the early Church.

You are ignoring the scholarly consensus that the 1 Cor 15:3-7 (quoted by @Chad_the_Layman ) creed dates to merely within years of the death of Jesus.

You are ignoring the scholarly consensus that the dominant sources of the final New Testament texts had to be pre-70 AD.

1 Like

Citation please. Wikipedia offers a citation for the claim that:

Most scholars date [the Gospel of Mark] to just after 70 CE, when Titus (a Roman general and subsequently emperor) destroyed the temple

(Citation is to Perkins, Pheme (2007). Introduction to the Synoptic Gospels, p. 137.)

1 Like

This doesn’t affect my argument. The belief in the resurrection and visions from 1 Cor 15 happened quite early. All the physical/corporeal stuff develops later in the stories that are written in third person. Only Paul’s claim is firsthand - “Jesus appeared to me” and this was a vision. The only other firsthand claim is in Revelation 1 but this is a vision as well. You do not have Peter or James or any of the 500 writing in first person saying “I saw Jesus and this is what happened.” No, you have later anonymous stories written in third person which the later church attributed to eyewitnesses. But if you actually read the accounts themselves there is no compelling evidence that any of the reports actually go back to eyewitnesses.

1 Like

Do you think it is unreasonable for a person who is not already theologically committed to the truth of the text to read these stories and come to the conclusion that it’s a legend? Do you see how/why a rational non-Christian would think that?

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

The gospels are written in third person and scholars do not agree that these come from anyone who actually knew Jesus. Paul is the only one who says “Jesus appeared to me” and this experience was a vision. He places his “vision” alongside the other “appearances” in 1 Cor 15 without making a distinction in regards to their nature.

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.

I meant, for instance, the part in Luke 24:39 “touch me and see a spirit does not have flesh and bones as I have” - obvious rebuttal to people who thought Jesus was a spirit and Acts 1:3 “Jesus provided many convincing proofs he was alive” - where the motivation becomes apparent that the stories may have been invented to show the resurrection was real. The Doubting Thomas story in John has the apologetic purpose to show that even though people haven’t seen Jesus, if they “just believe” they will be blessed. Also, notice how none of these stories are independently corroborated by other eyewitnesses. They are unique to each gospel.

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

Ok, I think you and I have very different ideas of what “differ slightly” means.

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

I never said or implied that it was. I consider myself to be a reasonable person and was just offering what I thought to be a reasonable argument.

You again say “did not have anything to do with reality”. The writers of the text you critique would disagree with you.

Of course they would but that doesn’t mean we should just believe every vision claim there is. I guess when Hindus see visions of their gods then that means their gods are real huh?

But it’s not that they don’t distinguish between visions and physical. They do.

Paul seems to have trouble distinguishing whether or not his “vision” in the third heaven took place “in or out of the body” - 2 Cor 12. Peter has trouble distinguishing his vision of an angel from reality in Acts 12:9-11.

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

Let me guess. Demons were responsible?

I don’t think dating of the books dictates how I read the NT.

You don’t think it’s a little bit suspicious that each consecutive account seems to either grow more fantastic in detail or tell and entirely different story from the last one?

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.

No he actually just says “Jesus appeared to them and appeared to me last.” He uses the same verb ophthe for each “appearance” in the list so you don’t have any reason to regard them as different. Since the appearance to Paul was a “vision” then we now have grounds to doubt the veracity of such an “eyewitness” account.

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.

Right, he got a “revelation” from God, not “I saw a physically resurrected person with my eyes.” As for “conferring with others” all you have is an inference they just had “visions” too because he does not distinguish his experience from theirs.

This is your take, not fact.

No, it is almost unanimous in modern scholarship that Matthew and Luke copied Mark (Markan priority). They added to Mark’s ending obviously since the original version of Mark ended at 16:8.

I disagree

Do Paul or Mark mention anyone physically touching Jesus or watching him ascend? Do any of the gospels match who Paul said Jesus appeared to in 1 Cor 15:5-8?

  1. Please specify which “several public accounts” you are alluding to. This allows us to establish when they were written and what exactly they say.

  2. I don’t think anybody is arguing that the Ressurection isn’t at or very near the ‘core’ from which this purported ‘elaboration’ evolved. That Jesus (i) died for our sins, (ii) was Ressurected, and (iii) appeared to a number of people thereafter, is almost all Paul’s Epistles says about his life after all.

Yet a number of scholars seem to interpret passages in the NT as revealing that some of its writers were aware of these events (and therefore place them as being written after these events).

And is there any hard evidence allowing any certainty on this issue?

1 Like

Those are not first-hand accounts. When someone else relays them, they become second-hand, at best.


As I stated from the get go, I am not an expert here, and I am willing to defer to experts on this too. Both @deuteroKJ have suggested resources to go to that are better than wiki.

Of course! You’re not wrong about that and I really like your question (“What is the best explanation?”) though personally I’d make it “What are the most reasonable explanations?”

Where you went wrong IMO, and this continues to be a theme in your writing on this thread, is presenting your judgments (they’re actually preferences IMO) as somehow credible or persuasive. In fact it is an interesting and scholarly issue to consider–in the context of any historical account, ancient or otherwise–the details of reports from primary and secondary sources and witnesses etc. Such consideration would go far deeper than you do. For example, it would attempt to use “controls” in the sense that it would look at how accounts of a verified event differ or evolve over time. Is there a substantive difference between accounts of the resurrection, as opposed to accounts of the JFK assassination or accounts of the sacking of Rome? How does intense stress factor into the later recollection of seemingly eyewitness accounts of traumatic events? Those are just a couple of things that come to my mind, and I’m not remotely an expert on the specific scholarly topics that are in play here.

Just as soon as someone writes “it seems to me” about a question like this, I have an intellectual responsibility to view their musings as nothing more than comments about themselves. When it’s time to assess the credibility of a set of accounts of a historical event, it doesn’t matter what you think about the resurrection or what you think about whether accounts of a traumatic event should align to a particular extent. Much less so if we discover that you’re not even an expert on the relevant topics.

Final note then I’ll get back to work: Christianity, and therefore the resurrection, is already thoroughly discredited for me. I don’t care whether the “witnesses” to the resurrection colluded or were deranged or were otherwise susceptible to intellectual demolition, since their “spiritual descendants” so clearly are. For me, the resurrection is reduced to laughable nonsense by the fact that if it did happen, it accomplished nothing of value and is therefore some kind of perverse parlor trick.

1 Like

Joshua, a citation, even in a Wiki, still beats both (i) no citation at all & (ii) resources that may or may not have something pertinent on this specific point.

1 Like

Welcome to the group.

I am an atheist, but agree with others here that this is not a very strong argument. While elements of the story have been added over time, the belief in the resurrection arose quite soon after Jesus’s death. That’s what I understand scholarly opinion to be.


Fair point. I was thinking of Paul having first hand reports from Peter and the twelve based on 1 Cor 15. So, you’re right, I’m reading second hand at best.

The question that @Tim asked, which is completely legitimate, was whether you had a source for your confident proclamation that he (Tim) was “ignoring the scholarly consensus that the dominant sources of the final New Testament texts had to be pre-70 AD.”

Tim didn’t cite Wikipedia. He cited a source he found there. He asked you for a source and got that response.


Ouch. I can understand how some of us have given folks this opinion of Christians. It makes me sad, for sure. Daniel (in the OT) repented for the sins of his nation, and we need Christians that act with humility regarding our poor witness to the resurrection. I know many followers of Jesus, changed by the resurrection who don’t fit your description. I don’t know that it will be enough to stem the tide of the culture’s growing mistrust of us, though.


This is a good reason for Matthew’s gospel not to be a copy of Mark and for the gospels not to legends that evolved but books that were written each for their own reason. If not, why wouldn’t John then want to make the stories more appealing by including Matthew’s fantastic elements if Jesus followers were aware of them? Are you aware that all of the church fathers who mention it, say that Matthew was written first?

How does Acts fit into your hypothesis? Obviously it had to be written after Luke, but describe either legends or history known earlier.

Acts 3

The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus. You handed him over to be killed, and you disowned him before Pilate, though he had decided to let him go. 14 You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you. 15 You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this.

Acts 5

Peter and the other apostles replied: “We must obey God rather than human beings! 30 The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead—whom you killed by hanging him on a cross. 31 God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might bring Israel to repentance and forgive their sins. 32 We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”

Hmmm. I don’t doubt that there were some embellishments here or there throughout the oral tradition, but the way I see it, I could grant that all of the main points in the text remain just as told by the original alleged witnesses, and still not come close to considering a resurrection anywhere near to being the most probable explanation.


Yeah, I think that’s just right. It seems to me that attempts to knock down the credibility of the gospels by suggesting that they show signs of the tale having grown taller with the retelling are not necessarily “wrong” but they don’t really go to the heart of the matter, which is that it doesn’t matter much whether the tall tale is 63 axe-handles high or 64 axe-handles high. Tales of the paranormal are still tales of the paranormal, from whatever age, and we actually do know how to regard such stories when we are not engaged in some form or other of special pleading for them.


So are you saying that there’s another explanation for Jesus’ body being missing? Or the body wasn’t missing and their belief in the resurrection were a vision, like the OP hypothesizes? If the second, how are you granting their main points? That isn’t clear to me how you could do that - maybe it’d be helpful to clarify “main points.”