The Mythology of Easter I: What Actually Happened and What is Myth?

Easter is perhaps the most mythological of our holidays, but in the Christian tradition the Resurrection of Christ is considered a historical event, without belief in which there would be no Christianity. As St. Paul put it, “if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain” (1 Cor 15:14). In order to be able to analyze the mythological content of Easter, we must first decide what part of the Easter tradition is actual history and what part is myth and legend. This first of three Easter blog posts addresses this issue, while the other two will discuss the mythological aspects that I will have identified.

Historians determine the historicity of an event based on its probability after having examined the relevant sources, taking into account their reliability. The evidence can be physical (archaeological discoveries), eyewitness accounts, writings of contemporary or near-contemporary scholars, and so forth. In New Testament studies, scholars consider factors such as whether the reported event (an act or saying of Jesus) is multiply attested by independent sources, whether it fits credibly within the contemporary historical context, and whether it suspiciously appears to be made up later by the Christian author to suit his theological agenda (as opposed to something “embarrassing” or “dissimilar” that does not fit that agenda). Thus, for example, historians discount the several Gospel passages in which Jesus is said to predict his execution and his resurrection on the third day (e.g., Mt 12:40; Mk 8:31) (Vermes, p. 82), while they tend to accept as factual his baptism by John the Baptist (because that report tends to show that, at least as of the moment, John was the superior while the Gospel writers of course regard Jesus as superior; hence the Gospels added accompanying language aimed at explaining that Jesus was nevertheless superior). Having such a methodology is important since no physical evidence of Jesus exists and because the Gospels are not eyewitness accounts but were written a generation or more after the events they narrated and on the basis of traditions that had already developed, and are not meant to be historically objective but rather make theological arguments which the adduced facts are meant to serve.

These methods/criteria are not infallible and must be used judiciously, but they work reasonably well for most events narrated in the New Testament. When, however, a historian tries to verify the historicity of miraculous events such as the miracles and Resurrection of Christ, he or she faces a conundrum. By their very nature, such reported supernatural miracles have close to a zero probability of occurring. That’s why they are called miracles! No historian using normal historical methods has access to the kind of information that would enable him or her to establish whether an ancient “miracle” happened. Almost any alternative non-supernatural explanation has a greater likelihood of being true (in this case, for example, that Jesus survived the crucifixion, or that the body had been moved, or that the women went to the wrong tomb); from a historian’s perspective, these explanations would first have to be eliminated before accepting a supernatural explanation that is by definition less probable.

Be that as it may, now let’s look at what evidence we do have. The best evidence, and indeed almost all of it, is contained in the four canonical Gospels and certain epistles of St. Paul. It falls into two separate categories, the first known as the “empty tomb” tradition, according to which the women discover that Jesus’s tomb is empty, and the second being the “appearances” tradition, according to which various disciples, St. Paul, and some others claimed to have seen Jesus after the crucifixion and, in some cases, watched him ascend to heaven. Although historically an empty tomb would have to precede any appearances, many scholars believe that the appearances tradition arose first. (Interestingly, Paul, who wrote well before the Gospels were composed, never mentions the empty tomb.) The empty tomb stories seem to have arisen as part of an argument to prove that Christ was resurrected bodily, not merely in spirit, in order to combat Greek beliefs prevailing among the gentiles that during life the spirit is imprisoned in the body and is released upon death and goes to the Elysian Fields. Hence 1 Corinthians 15:12 (“how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?”) and Paul’s unsuccessful speech to the Athenians (Acts 17:32: “When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed”). Empty Tomb

The empty tomb stories face a threshold problem because the notion of there being an empty tomb for someone crucified by Rome as a criminal contradicts standard Roman practice, which was let the corpses of crucified criminals remain on the cross for a while in order to further humiliate the offenders and deter other people from committing such crimes. The corpses would decompose and be eaten upon by scavengers, and eventually what was left would be tossed into a common grave.(See Hengel, p. 87.) (To make the point, the eminent Catholic New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan (ch. 6) colorfully argued that Jesus’s corpse was probably eaten by dogs.) The only exception to this practice that we know of is that reported by Philo of Alexandria, who noted that if the criminal was executed on the Emperor’s birthday then the body might be given back to family members at their request. But Easter was not the Emperor’s birthday, nor do the Gospels report that family members of Jesus (who were from Galilee) requested and were given the body. So it is not likely that there was a tomb to be empty in the first place. Ehrman 2014, pp. 156-68.

But if there was a tomb, the story becomes more fantastic. In all three Synoptic Gospels, when the women come to the empty tomb, they encounter one or two angelic beings dressed in white, one of whom reports that Jesus is no longer there and has been raised (Mt 28:5-6; Mk 16:5-6; Lk 24:4-5); in John the notion that the body was not moved but had been resurrected is implied by the neatly folded burial head cloth found in the tomb (Jn 20:7), which presumably would not be the case had the body simply been moved. New Testament scholars generally view the Synoptic Gospels as historically more reliable than John, but what is a historian to do when the idea that Jesus was resurrected is grounded solely on a statement by an angelic being? According to historical methods, he or she cannot accept this kind of report.

Nor did the people featured in the empty tomb stories accept it. No one in those stories believed that Jesus had risen based on the angelic being’s testimony. Rather, they came to believe this only as a result of subsequent appearances of Jesus. As reported, these too are supernatural events that a historian cannot verify (or disprove). Logically, a vision of a deceased person does not necessarily imply the kind of resurrection attributed to Jesus. Thus, according to the Hebrew Bible, in pre-exilic times, when all Jews adhered to what is known as the “annihilationist” position that there is no resurrection and no afterlife, Saul through a medium was able to call up and see and recognize the spirit of the dead Samuel (1 Sam 28:8-19), but no Jews considered this a resurrection in the way that we understand it.

One might dismiss the appearance stories in the Gospels and Acts simply as legendary traditions, but in Paul’s case we have a report of a first-hand witness who claims to have had a vision of the crucified Christ (1 Cor 15:8; Gal 1:11-12), so scholars must address this differently. Paul could have made it up, of course, which I consider plausible because he was competing for apostolic status with Jesus’s disciples in Jerusalem who had previously claimed to have seen the risen Christ, and he wanted and needed something not derived from those apostles to give him that status, and voilà he gets a direct revelation from Christ himself. But as an alternative to both that and a supernatural explanation, scholars and other commentators have evaluated Paul’s report, and so too the other reports of appearances, on the basis of modern psychology.

St. Paul's vision on road to Damascus

Depiction of St. Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus, Acts 9:3-9, during which he reportedly heard Jesus say, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”

According to the psychological approach, these visionary experiences of Paul and others, assuming they were not made up entirely, were most likely visions or hallucinations resulting from psychological factors. In the case of Jesus’s original followers, it could have been a case of bereavement, in which case even modern people have visions of recently deceased people close to them. And in Jesus’s case, he appears to have taught his disciples (at least privately) that he was the prophetic Son of Man who would descend from heaven to establish the Kingdom of God on earth (Ehrman 1999), which meant that after his crucifixion (expected or not) he would have had to have been transported to heaven first. So the power of suggestion may have been at work. Alternatively, to the extent that the disciples did not expect Jesus’s death or resurrection, the visions could have been a case of cognitive dissonance reduction, in which the shock of the crucifixion and seeming shameful end of the Messiah was compensated for by convincing oneself that Jesus had been resurrected and seen again. This is indeed the kind of thing that has happened when the prophecies of modern messiahs have not worked out and when they have unexpectedly died, as was recently the case in the Jewish Lubavitch cult when their messianic leader died (Komarnitsky; Dein). In the case of Paul, there would be a different twist: Having violently persecuted Christians (Gal 1:13) while presumably being familiar with their beliefs, at some point he became sympathetic to them and experienced not only guilt but outright fear that he would be among the condemned on judgment day as predicted by Jesus, so he did an about-face and repented, in which case a vision-experience of the crucified Christ is perfectly explainable according to modern psychology. According to the account in Acts, after all, out of all things that Jesus could have told Paul (i.e., what Paul perceived he had heard), Jesus said, “why do you persecute me? . . . I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:4-5). Thus, Carl Jung concluded, “the apparition of Christ came to St. Paul not from the historical Jesus but from the depths of his own unconscious” (Jung, p. 121). This explanation is admittedly speculation to some extent since the story is ancient and Paul is not available for examination, but it is an educated one based on Paul’s own report and modern knowledge, and from the historian’s standpoint this explanation has a much greater probability of being correct than a supernatural explanation, and from that  perspective seems to be the best one.

In sum, from the historian’s standpoint, while the crucifixion is generally regarded as historical, the subsequent story of the Resurrection cannot be viewed as historically authentic. Outside the peculiar field of biblical studies, I am not aware of a single instance in which any modern historian has concluded that an event is historical on the basis of a supernatural explanation. If someone believes that the Resurrection occurred, it is not because of what any historian would consider to be solid historical evidence, but because of his or her theological beliefs and faith. The mythologist must then examine what myth people are living by, and why, which I will do in the next two Easter posts.

In any event, historically the resurrection story took on a life of its own, gaining an emotional, spiritual hold on people. Indeed, as time went on, the stories (as reported in the timeline of the canonical Gospels as well as in later non-canonical accounts) became magnified and more legendary and mythical. This in itself suggests that something mythological and, hence, psychological was going on. So in order to understand our Easter holiday, it is essential to examine the story of the Resurrection from the perspective of myth, so stay tuned for the next two posts.

Sources and Bibliography

Crossan, John Dominic. Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography. San Francisco, HarperOne, 1994.

Dein, Simon. “What Really Happens When Prophecy Fails: The Case of Lubavitch,” Sociology of Religion 62:383-401 (2001).

Ehrman, Bart. How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee. New York: HarperOne, 2014.

Ehrman, Bart. Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Festinger, Leon. A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1957, 1985.

Hengel, Martin. Crucifixion. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977.

Jung, Carl. The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. Collected Works, vol. 9.1.

Komarnitsky, Kris. “Cognitive Dissonance and the Resurrection of Jesus,” The Fourth R 27.5:7-10, 20-22 (2014). (The Fourth R is the journal of The Westar Institute, which among other things held The Jesus Seminar.)

Sheppard, Beth. The Craft of History and the Study of the New Testament. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2012.

Vermes, Geza. The Resurrection: History and Myth. New York: Doubleday, 2008.

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One Response to The Mythology of Easter I: What Actually Happened and What is Myth?

  1. Pingback: The Mythology of Easter II: Was Christ a “Dying and Rising God”? | Mythology Matters

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