The Resurrection of Jesus


A report by Douglas Lockhart on Joan Bakewell’s BBC documentary on the resurrection of Jesus, and the debate that followed with Michael Gouldrer, Professor of Biblical Studies at the University of Birmingham, Gerd Ludenmann, Director Institute of Early Christian Studies at the University of Gottengen, John Durrant, Professor of Public Understanding of Science, Imperial College, London, John Warwick Montomery, Professor of Law at the University of Luton (also practicing Barrister and theolgian), Du Tal Ilan, Lecturer in Jewish History and Early Christianity at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, the Very Reverand Dr Tom Wright, Dean of Litchfield Cathedral, and last but not least Polly Toynebee, Associate Editor of The Independent.

Douglas Lockhart

Joan Bakewell’s presentation of BBC television’s Heart of the Matter program on Jesus gave me food for thought; it was a thoroughly good thrash complete with impertinent questions, astute observations and what might eventually prove to be the religious discovery of the century. Writing as well as presenting this adventurous piece on Jesus, Bakewell led us on a guided tour of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, where we learned that this ancient limestone quarry and burial site is still considered by archaeologists as the most likely place of burial for Jesus – and that in spite of the fact that it has disappeared under a series of burial vaults and can no longer be touched or examined at first hand. Alternative sites have of course been suggested, but when all is said and done the one traditionally thought correct is still the more likely in expert opinion.

No other site carries the same validity. The problem seems to be that there was a break in access to the tomb over the first three centuries due to two Roman invasions of Judea (there is no mention of Jesus’ “empty tomb” in Christian literature over this period), and it is not until 325 CE that a temple to Aphrodite built over the site by Hadrian was removed and the original Jewish tomb uncovered. Isolating the tomb chamber, a circular building – the Anastasius – was erected around it, and this is indisputably the same tomb as excavated and rebuilt by a certain Macarius in the fourth century. Holding property in the assorted buildings around this central point of focus, various other ancient branches of the Christian Church all have equal rights within the Sepulchre itself, a state of affairs which has produced bitter dispute down the centuries.

The Modern Evidence

The first two pieces of modern evidence for it being the right spot is that at the time of Jesus this particular site was outside the city wall – a prerequisite for burial under Jewish religious law in Jesus’ day – and that behind the Holy Sepulchre is another tomb answering tantalisingly to the one described in the New Testament as belonging to Jesus’ secret disciple and benefactor, Joseph of Arimathea. Taking us behind the scenes, Bakewell talks us through the gloomy, water-logged and stinking caverns with their burial niches, and we emerge back into the harsh Jerusalem light to learn why such tombs were necessary, and why dead bodies were left in an unsealed tomb for three days.

The answer to the first question is simple enough; the answer to the second is an absolute eye-opener. Lack of soil cover necessitated cavern burial in the first instance; in the second instance a three day waiting period after the body was deposited on its tomb rock shelf was due to the fact that the deceased’s relatives often couldn’t tell for sure whether the body was dead or not. Crucifixion in particular could throw the body of the victim into such a state of shock that it was impossible to tell whether death had actually occurred. And so to make sure, all bodies (whatever the circumstances of death) were given a three day period of grace before the tomb was sealed and the remains left to putrefy. One year was the stipulated time for putrefaction to complete its course and the air within the tomb to clear. This was called the “primary burial”, and was followed one year later by a “secondary burial” of the bones in a smallish stone box, or ossuary. The rock shelf was then ready for use again, and the next occupant would be another member of the same family. This is to say that whole families could be found in the one cave, the bones of more than one family member sometimes being mingled together.

And then comes the mind-blower; and so casually introduced by Joan Bakewell. Staring innocently into the camera she informs us that she and her team had gone looking for unusual ossuaries in a storeroom belonging to the Israeli Antiquities Authority, and guess what, they had stumbled not only on ossuaries bearing the names of Simon of Cyrene and Caphias (both important New Testament characters), but also a group of ossuaries bearing the name “Jesus son of Joseph”, “Joseph”, “Mary”, “Judah son of Jesus”, “Matthew”, and another “Mary” whose name was written in Greek rather than Hebrew. Startling stuff. And although seven other ossuaries bearing the name “Jesus” have been found, and one of those also carries “son of Joseph” after the name “Jesus”, the sheer improbability of finding a three generation family group of ossuaries bearing the New Testament names of Jesus’ immediate family plus a son of Jesus, a named disciples of Jesus and a second Mary, is just too much of a coincidence to be pushed aside. And not known about until now because Joseph Gatt, the archaeologist who discovered this amazing collection, had died of a heart attack soon after in 1980, and no more than his brief field report was ever published.

How odd. How extremely odd that no one thought such a find worth mentioning. Then sixteen years later, after only a few hours (or minutes?) digging around in the Israeli Antiquities’ Authority storeroom, Joan Bakewell and her team just happened to find the lot, and all probably on the same afternoon! Imagine their surprise, their delight, their astonishment as the names on the ossuaries were read out: Simon of Cyrene (the man said to have carried Jesus’ cross), Caphias (the High Priest in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus), and then Jesus son of Joseph, Joseph, Mary, Judah son of Jesus (a surprise find with explosive implications if the family is the correct one), Matthew (a disciple of Jesus), and again Mary (the Magdalene?) in Greek and not Hebrew. But surely not by chance such a find? Assisted surely in their search by some expert or other, some unnamed expert who just happened to know exactly where to look. Too, too much of a coincidence otherwise; and quite obviously the principle reason for Bakewell and her team being in Jerusalem in the first place. And in the final shot of this sequence Joan Bakewell staring innocently into the camera and saying that there seems to be important evidence going a-begging in this storeroom.

An Interesting Combination of Names

The other experts consulted about the find on the program also said some novel things; although there was a certain ‘dragging of feet’ on occasions, as Bakewell puts it. First came Du Tal Ilan of the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, to whom the find was not necessarily the real thing, but certainly an interesting combination of names. Then came Professor Amos Kloner of the Bar-Ilan University Tel Aviv, an expert in Jewish burial practices, who gave valuable information on how the ossuaries were moved around during the first century due to changes in Jerusalem’s boundary lines. Then came Joe Zias of the Israeli Antiquities Authority who thought the find, very, very interesting, and to whom metabolic shock in the crucified person meant that signs of life were difficult to detect, so making the determining of death a risky business. Then we were back with Kloner, the burial expert, who spoke of the Jewish custom of not sealing the tomb on the first day, and of leaving it for three so that death could be accurately determined. All in all an enlightening experience which the rest of the program – a debate, of sorts – did not measure up to.

But what caught my attention was the fact that the second Mary’s name was written in Greek and not in Hebrew. Referring to this second Mary, Joe Zias talked of the Gnostics of the first century and reminded us that the these writers had spoken of a very close relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. But as I listened, my mind was elsewhere. Where had I recently read of Jesus’ mother’s name being rendered in Greek and not Hebrew? And then I remembered, in Paul Johnson’s History of the Jews. (1) Johnson had noted that in the New Testament Joseph had a Hebrew name, whereas his mother Mary had a Greek name, the Hebrew “Miriam” not being used for some reason. Now there are all sorts of complications and transliterations involved in this, but what it boils down to is that the Jesus family, like just about everyone else, seems to have been influenced by things Greek. So was this significant? Could it be that the “Mary” surmised by Zias to be the Magdalene, was in fact Jesus’ mother instead?

But why use the Greek name for the mother, yet stick to the Hebrew name for the father? And what of the fact that two of Jesus’ brothers, Judah and Simon, had Hebrew names, whereas two others, James and Joses, had Greek names? Was it just possible that Jesus mother had been a Gentile of some sort, and that the family reflected Greek and Hebrew names for that reason? And what of Matthew’s ossuary being found along with the Jesus family? A mistake? Or an odd kind of proof by way of association? And what of there being two Mary’s in the collection? Might it just be that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had been as close as the Gnostic Gospels suggested, and that the ossuary bearing the name Judah son of Jesus was confirmation of that relationship? Alas, who could tell for sure; it was all too difficult to unravel, too complicated, too speculative, too . . . dangerous?

But as near as we may ever get to determining what happened way back then by way of circumstance and burial custom. For the facts of everyday Jewish life at the time of Jesus strongly uphold the possibility of his having managed to survive his crucifixion, and of his being married. It is just possible, as Professor Kloner’s evidence suggests, that Jesus could have suffered severe metabolic shock, fallen unconscious and recovered the day after his burial. No elaborate resuscitation theory is required, just the brutal circumstances of crucifixion reducing the chance of accurate diagnosis, and the spontaneous resuscitation of the corpse later, perhaps during washing and anointing. But if planned and attended with pharmaceutical skill, then an excellent chance of Jesus having successfully recovered. Not too great a stretch of the imagination when death was so difficult to determine under ordinary circumstances, and how much more so when the shock of crucifixion alone could reduce vital life signs to an absolute minimum.

The Debate in Cameo

The debate which followed was conducted with due seriousness between Joan Bakewell and seven persons of various background and expertise. They were as follows: Michael Goulder, Professor of Biblical Studies at the University of Birmingham; Gerd Ludenmann, Director Institute of Early Christian Studies at the University of Gottengen; John Durant, Professor of Public Understanding of Science, Imperial College, London; John Warwick Montgomery, Professor of Law at the University of Luton (also practicing Barrister and theologian); Du Tal Ilan, Lecturer in Jewish History and early Christianity at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem; the Very Reverend Dr Tom Wright, Dean of Litchfield Cathedral; and last but not least Polly Toynebee, Associate Editor of The Independent. An interesting mix to say the least, and capable of some very straight talking once things got underway.

But it was the Dean of Litchfield who attracted my attention most, his reasoning and general approach to the whole subject of Jesus’ resurrection touching upon something I myself feel to be important, but for quite different reasons: the fact of Christianity’s rapid growth after the crucifixion. It went totally against reason, he argued, that this Kingdom of God movement should not only continue after its founder was arrested and crucified, but that it should successfully attract followers and grow into the kind of movement it did. Such a thing would not have happened if Jesus had died on the cross and been buried like everyone else. Messianic movements abounded at the time, but when their founders died they died – so why not the same result for Christianity? Why the insistence that Jesus had not died? Why the certainty that the resurrection had taken place, that Jesus was alive, that he was physically transformed, and that he was neither apparition, vision or dream? What had happened to keep these people going?

The alignment between The Very Reverend Tom Wright and John Montgomery was noticeable, but in the end it was fairly obvious that their views were not backed by the same kind of reasoning. Wright was arguing for a transformed Jesus in the sense of his physical body having undergone some kind of integral change in structure; Montgomery was arguing for virtually the same thing, but not with Wrights intellectual flexibility. Arguing like an evangelical, this professor of law at the University of Luton presented a series of New Testament literalisms; whereas Wright’s stance – in spite of its tendency to straddle theology, history and the science of logic in a sometimes maddening manner – did seem to offer a more adventurous set of religious propositions to anyone broad-minded enough to listen. But alas, not many were listening. A patently disillusioned Michael Goulder, and an equally disillusioned Gerd Ludenmann argued for Jesus having died like any other man of his time, and on the basis of this belief rejected the resurrection story and held to the theory that Jesus’ disciples and Paul had been subject to nothing more than hallucinations. The scientist John Durant was in agreement that Jesus had died, but was ultimately unconvinced that specialists like Goulder, Ludenmann or Wright had sufficient evidence to argue for anything beyond that basic truth. Michael Goulder parried with the fact that in AD 50 Paul had had access to information on Jesus no older than two or three years after the crucifixion, and John Montgomery asked why the Gospels, as primary documents, should not be accepted at face value. We then learned from Ludenmann and Goulder that the Gospels were not considered to be primary documents, but rather secondary documents, Paul’s letters having come first.

Ludenmann’s opening statement on whether there had ever been a body got the ball rolling, but in a rather peculiar direction. Arguing that contrary to Christian opinion the body had decayed, he then said that the disciples didn’t know where the tomb was. Why? Because they had had their visions in Galilee, not Jerusalem. And then, in response to a question on whether he thought the ossuary find in Jerusalem significant, he said that he didn’t really believe the Christians would have personally collected Jesus’ bones because they believed he had been physically raised from the dead, and in believing such a thing would have had no reason to go looking for bones. It stood to reason that Jesus’ bones were somewhere, but so many people had been crucified it was unlikely they would be found. So was the investigation of Jesus’ life relevant at all, Bakewell asked. Ludenmann thought it was. Christianity had been insisting for two thousand years that Jesus had risen physically from the tomb, so it was something we had to come to terms with evidentially if we wanted to be Christians. He thought it was a ludicrous claim personally, but it still had to be dealt with. Durant chipped in that he couldn’t quite work out why Christianity should be dependant on evidence. Wasn’t the demand for evidence a fracturing of everything religion stood for? Goulder admitted that evidence was a tricky business, but if you relied totally on “faith”, then ultimately you could believe in any old thing.

As a Barrister and theologian, John Montgomery was convinced that there was sufficient evidence in the Gospels themselves for what Christians believed. In fact the evidence was so good it would stand up in any court of law. Tal Ilan came back with the observation that such evidence would not have stood in a Jewish court of law at the time of Jesus because the principle witnesses were all woman. Women were considered unreliable as witnesses, and that was why Paul in his evidence for the resurrection did not mention the women – no one would have believed him otherwise. Michael Goulder drew another slant on this by pointing out that in Mark’s Gospel the women were said to have been so frightened that they hadn’t said anything to anyone. So how had the story got out? Simply by way of elaboration over an extended period. When asked many years later why Christians hadn’t been told about the physical resurrection of Jesus, Mark had been able to say that the women had been too frightened to talk about it at the time. Building on this, Bakewell asked Goulder if he felt that the Gospels, as they got later and later, were no longer in touch with the historical events as they had actually happened. Yes, that was the case, in Goulder’s opinion. As you read the Gospels you could see the Evangelists doing their elaborations on the texts.

And then back to the crucial question, the question of what had actually happened after the crucifixion, and why there were so many different stories in the Gospels. For Wright, the Gospel discrepancies were due to no more than interpretation by the Evangelists. That was utterly normal, he thought. Interpretation of events could not be avoided; it was construed as “propaganda” by the cynically inclined. There was only a problem if you took the extreme view and concluded that the Evangelists were trying to hoodwink the reader. If that was your approach, then there was little reason to believe anything – you could sweep all the evidence to one side, deny it authenticity and sidestep the greater problem of explaining how Christianity had got going.

Bakewell collared Ludenmann on this point and asked him to state what he believed about Christianity’s inception. Ludenmann repeated his visionary experience theory and added that the visions had resulted from stress, from the grief process of trying to grapple with the brutal facts of Jesus’ death on the cross. John Montgomery utterly rejected such an approach – Ludenmann’s visionary experience theory was nothing more than psychological reductionism. Ludenmann’s response was that psychology was a legitimate part of history. Wright observed that psychology would be a legitimate part of history if it were possible, which it was not. Ludenmann’s problem was that he was trying to psychoanalyse people two thousand years dead – the chance of success in such an enterprise was remote. So why wasn’t Ludenmann’s point of view acceptable, asked Bakewell. Because that’s not what the disciples said had happened, argued Wright. They did not talk about having had a new visionary experience, they talked about Jesus of Nazareth rising from the dead. Unlike the Messiahs of other groups, Jesus had survived the cross, and that meant he was the legitimate Messiah of Israel.

Michael Goulder sided with Ludenmann against Wright and remarked that lots of people did not think Jesus had ever claimed to be the Messiah. And as conversion visions were a well-known phenomenon in Christian history, why not such experiences right from the beginning of the faith? Because, said Wright, such experiences did not explain Messiahship.

Focusing on Ludenmann, Joan Bakewell asked what had changed his view of the resurrection. Ludenmann’s reply lifted the debate on to a new level by introducing a personal note, and at the same time inadvertently revealed how Christian academics responded to the existence of taboo areas in their own specialist topic. Ludenmann’s father had died, and as a result he had had dreams in which his father appeared. Realising that the disciples of Jesus could have easily had similar experiences, Ludenmann had concluded that dream-type visions were the probable answer to the resurrection problem. And then came the revelation – he had never previously dared to ask questions about the resurrection because it was a taboo topic. But in an attempt to be honest, he had eventually put this perfectly plausible theory together because it made good sense.

Manoeuvring her way through this minefield of views and opinions, Bakewell inquired of John Montgomery if only one of the views put forward was acceptable to him, or whether he took on board the rich tapestry of views presented. Montgomery was terse. The term “rich tapestry” sounded nice, but if you believed that Jesus’ body had decayed rather than risen, then it wasn’t a rich tapestry you were dealing with, it was a garment so severely rent that the frame of reference, namely the resurrection, could not longer operate. So a bodily resurrection of Jesus was necessary, ventured Bakewell. That’s what Paul and the Christian Church had been saying for two thousand years. Ludenmann came in. So where had the body gone? A gesture from Montgomery suggested upwards. Enter Tom Wright with Paul’s statement that Jesus’ body was transformed, that it had entered a new mode of physicality. An incredulous Ludenmann reminds Wright that the New Testament says that the body went up into heaven. Yes, but not literally. Heaven should be understood as God’s space. The very late idea of a three-decker universe was not operative then. The word “heaven” was merely a metaphor for where God resided. It was just good old Danielic imagery and it had to be understood in that light. So was the body physical, asked Bakewell. No, but it had continuity with the physical, and such a view made perfect sense within the Jewish world view.

Enter Polly Toynebee, Associate Editor of The Independent, from the wings, with the statement that she disliked the resurrection scenario most of all because it promised what could not be delivered. And anyway, why the sudden contract with humanity? Why the sudden change? It was important that people came to terms with the world, and selling people impossible dreams did not help them live in the real world. And did Wright really believe in miracles? Ludenmann stepped in. The laws of rationality had applied then as they did now, and Wright was talking on two levels simultaneously, historically and mystically. Not permissible, in his opinion. You simply could not talk on the historical level and then suddenly switch to talking about God in the same breath. Wright shot back that the 18th century idea of a split between God, history and logic was no longer an acceptable platform. And anyway, Christianity was not about having a great future in the hereafter, Jesus’ prayer was about doing God’s will on earth. What we had to do was stop fantasising about the hereafter and realise that God had stepped into human history. Christianity’s future was not about pie in the sky, and neither was it about interior subjectivity, it was about God transforming the world.

But why step in when he did, asked Toynebee. Why turn everything on its head with a new contract built around the life of one person? And if we were going to believe in miracles, then the story had to be true, literally and historically true. Reliable. We couldn’t allow for maybe its true, maybe it isn’t true. If people were being asked to suspend rationality, then they had to be absolutely sure that what they were being asked to believe in had some sort of validity. Wright corrected Toynebee. It was not a matter of suspending rationality; it was a matter of deciding what kind of rationality had to be used. Choosing bits and pieces of reality was our way of doing things now, and God was perfectly willing to work with us in the middle of this rough and tumble of logic. Polly Toynebee looked amazed, she thought that a very “modern” approach. John Durant suggested that the old world with its miracles did not resemble the world we now lived in. Ludenmann agreed. It did not matter what age we lived in, the laws of rationality still applied. Tom Wright was constantly speaking on two levels, the historical and the spiritual, and it was not permissible to mix these levels as he was so prone to do. Wright shot back that Ludenmann was talking as if the 18th century had got it just right, history was separated from God and never the twain should meet. For him it was the other way round, God and history were one topic.

Hard and Soft Facts

The credits ran and I sat wondering what to make of what I had just heard. Ludenmann was right, the Dean of Litchfield had a bad habit of speaking on two levels simultaneously. Mixing history with a kind of pragmatic mysticism, he somehow managed to create a hybrid reality of words within which the boundary between these subjects disappeared and left one with the uneasy feeling that one had been thrust into another dimension. It was clever and it was certainly sincere, but was it honest? I’d read and researched Wright’s book on Jesus when writing my own book on early Christianity’s origins, and had found his thinking both helpful and infuriating, enlightening and maddeningly contradictory. Something odd began to happen when this thinker talked about his God, and it had to do with his tendency to collapse categories and pretend that nothing untoward had taken place.

Or was that unfair? Could it be that Tom Wright was sensing something that he simply found impossible to articulate without causing language to behave awkwardly? The more I listened to what he had to say the more convinced I became that that was the problem, but knowing that did not remove the impediment of language failing to realise its objective. You simply could not say that the resurrected body of Jesus wasn’t physical but that it had continuity with the physical. Such statements made a mockery of reason and did not even answer to being poetry. And if Christianity wasn’t about pie in the sky, then what was it about? The whole point of Christianity was “eternal life” for the believer, surely, and Jesus’s prayer, although focused on God’s will being done on earth, was also concerned with it being done as it was done in heaven. That left wide open the question of what “heaven” might be in spite of Wright describing it as God’s space. Language of this sort did not realise its objective, it was a rubbery contribution which left everyone none the wiser. And yet he had a point when arguing for the Resurrection being more than an hallucination. The question of what had kept these early Christians going was still a mystery.

When all was said and done, Gerd Ludenmann’s approach was not much better than Wrights on occasions. Arguing for Jesus’ body having decayed, he had presented a topsy-turfy case for the disciples not knowing where the tomb was because their visions of Jesus had taken place in Galilee and not in Jerusalem, and rounded this off with the observation that the early Christians would not have personally collected Jesus’ bones because of their belief in the resurrection. My brain creaked over the circularity of such statements. And anyway, wasn’t it recorded that the most important of these meetings with Jesus had taken place in Jerusalem? So why would these early Christians have ignored the physical fact of Jesus’ death if all they had had to rely on were visions? If the Dean of Litchfield was right about anything, he was right about these men and women being able to tell the difference between a vision, or dream, and an actual event. Even if presented with a vision so real that they could not tell the difference between dream and reality, there would still have been the reality of a body and a tomb and all the gory facts of death and decomposition to deal with. The only way to avoid this rather obvious and disturbing fact was to say that they did not know where the tomb was, and the only way to make that stick was to selectively ignore the detailed evidence of the Gospels.

But why assume that they did not know where the tomb was? Why accept one set of information and reject another? Why force visions on everyone when it was equally plausible and possible that the body had simply hiccupped back into life when metabolic seizure had lessened? Using Occam’s razor, was it not easier to explain Christianity’s astonishing success on the basis of a lucky (or contrived) resuscitation of Jesus’ body than on credulity-stretching visions? And was it not just a bit odd that during the collective vision of Jesus turning up in Galilee, that some of the disciple should have doubted or rejected his power claims? What kind of vision is it where everyone is seeing and hearing the same thing, but some aren’t willing to take the vision’s statements at face value? No, there’s something wrong with almost all of the New Testament post-crucifixion meetings with Jesus – they are far, far too utilitarian to be treated as visions. Given the burial procedures of the time, and their undoubted uncertainty, is it not more likely that Jesus may have survived his crucifixion? If so, his keeping a low profile after the event would not be surprising, he was after all in danger of rearrest.


(1) Johnson, Paul, History of the Jews, Phoenix, London 1994, p 126