Easter Without the Resurrection?
This article is a response to a recent one by Gerald R. Baron in which he declared his belief in the resurrection of Jesus, and why this is so important to him. He believes that this is “the central and most important issue in Christianity”, and that “belief or unbelief rests on this single, crucial question”. He acknowledges that it is difficult to believe that only one person in the history of the human race has returned from the dead; the idea is bizarre, counterintuitive and of course one that violates the laws of nature. This belief nevertheless sustains him, and of course he is not alone, because he claims that more than a third of the world’s population share it.
He then continues by saying that “a significant and growing percentage of those who identify as Christian may be ambivalent about the resurrection or even reject it outright”. However, “from an orthodox Christian viewpoint, Christianity without the resurrection has lost its meaning”.
He says that he considers himself a “reasonably rational and analytical thinker”, that “truth matters to me more than anything else”, and that “I’ve always said that I would follow the evidence where it leads”. So here I’m going to present an alternative viewpoint, not intended as ‘truth’, merely food for thought, to open up a discussion with him and perhaps others. It will be interesting to see what he makes of it.
His article raises two important questions. Can we actually believe in the truth of the resurrection? And if we don’t, then can it still be meaningful to call oneself a Christian? Is it possible to have an unorthodox Christian viewpoint, and not believe in the resurrection?
Before I begin to address these questions, I should say that, although I am very interested in Christianity, indeed fascinated by it, I have no firm opinions about its meaning. I believe that its origins are something of an impenetrable mystery, but we have to do what we can to at least work our way through some of the fog, thus trying to eliminate what cannot be true, and what is unlikely to be true.
Baron thinks that the resurrection is the most important issue in Christianity. I would agree that it is important, but think that the question of whether Jesus was God incarnate is even more fundamental. (If he was God, and therefore anything like omnipotent, then there is no reason to believe that he could not have broken this law of nature.)
It is easier to consider the reasons why one should not believe this. What most Christians forget, or perhaps do not even realise, is that Christianity as we know it was the creation of the Roman Catholic Church over a period of a few hundred years; the religion which emerged, and with which we are familiar today, may or may not have had anything to do with what the original disciples around 30 AD believed. In this early period there were many differing, conflicting beliefs, especially about the true nature of Jesus — his status in relation to the Divine.
The first serious attempt to create a unified religion was the Council of Nicea in 325 AD, nearly 300 years after the original events. The Catholic Church was trying, under the orders of Constantine, to create a single religion to unite the Roman Empire. Since it needed to attract pagans to it, it would not be surprising if its leaders adopted the significant pagan motif of a dying-and-resurrecting saviour god as its principal feature, thereby turning mythology into history.
I believe the following to be facts, but would be happy to be corrected if anyone has any firm evidence to the contrary:
- we have no versions of the gospels believed by scholars to date earlier than the Council of Nicea. (That is what I’ve read. SenderSpike has responded that there are versions around 200 CE, which is still significantly after the events.)
- around that time there was an orgy of book burning, which was presumably an attempt to destroy any literature which contradicted the new official version
- the gospels, as we have them, have been edited, so that we don’t have access to the original texts, which have been lost, whether burnt or not.
The most significant passage in the gospels strongly suggesting the Divine incarnation is the prologue to John, most notably in verse 14: “the Word became flesh and lived among us”. Everyone knows that this Gospel is completely different from the other three, which have strong similarities, hence their name the Synoptics. In these Jesus frequently addresses his ‘Father’ as a separate being, thus does not identify with God. The most outstanding example is in the Garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus says: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22.42). This does not sound much like someone who believes himself to be God.
It is much more reasonable therefore to believe that Jesus, if he actually existed, was some kind of spiritual teacher rather than God incarnate. So is it possible that a spiritual teacher could be brought back to life, having died?
That brings us back to the general point that the dying-and-resurrecting saviour god was a common theme in ancient mythology. There are many examples, including Dionysus, Osiris, Attis, Adonis, Mithras, and Bacchus. I’m not aware of anyone who believes their stories to be literally true, yet the Christian Churches expect us to believe the story of the dying-and-resurrecting saviour God Jesus¹. The parallels are so strong that several commentators have assumed that a historical Jesus figure did not even exist. For example, Tom Harpur, using as sources the research of Godfrey Higgins, Alvin Boyd Kuhn, and Gerald Massey, comes to the conclusion that “there is nothing the Jesus of the Gospels either said or did… that cannot be shown to have originated thousands of years before, in Egyptian Mystery rites.”². For example, “there was a Jesus in Egyptian lore many thousands of years ago. His name was Iusu, or Iusa, and that name means ‘the coming divine Son who heals or saves’ ”. He also points out that the presumably mythical Horus, son of Isis “anticipated by thousands of years most of the sayings and the miracles of Jesus Christ — that he too had a virgin birth, and that in one of his roles, he was ‘a fisher of men with twelve followers’ ”³.
Having considered that general point, there are two specific trains of thought, and possible evidence, as to why we should doubt the resurrection story. They are contradictory, at least at first glance, so seemingly cannot both be true.
1. It is claimed that the Catholic Church is or was in possession of documents in the Vatican Library and the now destroyed Monastery of Monte Cassino, primarily Hebrew fragments of the Essene Gospel in the Aramaic version. These were scrutinised by the scholar Edmond Szekely, who had special access to them. He discovered that there were two ‘Christs’. One was the leader of a Jewish Messianic movement, a pretender to the throne of Judea, named Ioannes. He was the one condemned to crucifixion by Pontius Pilate. The other was an Essene preacher/spiritual leader, who was captured on the same day, and presented to Pilate, who released him. The second one was obviously the one upon whom Christianity is based, and he was not even crucified. I have described this story in detail in this article. Unsurprisingly the Vatican has denied the existence of these documents, and that Szekely ever did his research.
In this context, it is interesting to note that the Koran says that Jesus did not die on the cross, because another person was substituted for him. (Could there be any connection between this and what Szekely says?) If Christians are sceptical of such a claim, it is worth pointing out that we do not have to believe that this information came from a divine revelation — which is what is claimed for the Koran in general. For Muhammad had a Christian mentor Waraqah Ibn Nawfal, who apparently owned copies of ancient literature now lost to us⁴. This information could therefore have come from such a source. (I’ll discuss that verse from the Koran in more detail below.)
2. The second alternative argument is that the spiritual teacher Jesus was crucified, but did not die. This is based on the account in the Gospel of John, which provides significant details not found in the other gospels, various modern scholars believing that only this Gospel rests on an eyewitness account of the Crucifixion. I have discussed this at length in this article, but the relevant details are:
- the short length of time on the cross
- the possibility that the ‘sour wine’ given to Jesus was in fact a soporific drug, thus an anaesthetic which would give the appearance of death, or perhaps even some form of poison, which created the same effect. (It fortunately happened to be there, ready and waiting.)
- the failure to break the legs of Jesus, which would have accelerated his death; this did not happen because he was believed to be dead already (because of the drug he had been given).
- the spear which pierced Jesus’s side, following which “at once blood and water came out”. From a medical point of view, this indicates that he was alive, even though the text states that he was dead.
- the role of Pilate. It was apparently a flagrant breach of procedure to hand over the body to Joseph of Arimathea — according to Roman custom, it should have remained on the cross. Furthermore, in the original Greek version of Mark’s Gospel, when Joseph asks for Jesus’s body, he uses the word soma — a word applied only to a living body, instead of ptoma which means corpse.
- the arrival of “a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about an hundred pounds”. Myrrh is claimed to be a form of sedative, which would be strange for a dead person, and aloes a strong and fast-acting purgative, which would have been useful to help expel the poison from Jesus’s body.
These were all claims that researchers had made, which I merely reported while I was working on that article, and I didn’t check them further. However, on a quick Google search today for ‘myrrh/sedative’, I discovered that it is “used for its restorative properties. The scent is said to boost the spirits and the soul, and is often used to alleviate the symptoms of nervous system disorders”. It is also used as an analgesic⁵. One wonders therefore why on earth it was being brought to the tomb of a dead person, and in such vast quantities! In the light of all the above, resuscitation might be a more appropriate word than resurrection. (For further observations on this theme, see Tony Atkinson’s response to this article.) We know, in modern times, that someone can be pronounced clinically dead, yet somehow return to life, having had a so-called near-death experience. Something like this would seem to be more likely in the case of Jesus than the Christian version.
It is very interesting that the Koran seems to be in complete agreement with this version of events. The relevant verse is 4:157. As we know, sometimes subtleties of meaning can get lost in translation, so I have compared three versions. The simplest is: “they neither killed nor crucified him, though it so appeared to them”⁶. A second version says something with the same meaning: “they did not kill him, nor did they crucify him, but they thought they did”, but then adds that the text literally meant “he was made to resemble another for them”, suggesting that this translation is an interpretation of the original text. The following verse says “they did not slay him for certain”⁷. A third version conflates these two, as if that were the original text, not merely an interpretation: “They did not kill him, nor did they crucify him, but [another] was made to resemble him to them”⁸.
We have complete agreement between the three versions that Jesus did not die on the cross. It is not clear, however, whether this was because a substitute was used, or whether Jesus simply survived. (One wonders why the first translator omits the details about the substitute.) However, this is not relevant to the question of whether Jesus was resurrected or not, since this becomes meaningless if he never died. The more important problem of interpretation is that the text says that, not only did they not kill him, but they did not even crucify him. That would concur with Szekely’s discovery, but to make this fit the account in the Gospel of John, we would have to interpret ‘crucify’ as ‘put to death by crucifixion’, not merely ‘hung up on a cross’.
Returning now to this Gospel, what on earth is going on, if so many clues are being given, suggesting that Jesus did not really die? It is possible that John is merely reporting details that an eye-witness saw without understanding their implications. If, however, he did understand what he was writing, then we have to speculate about his train of thought.
What follows is an unusual take on this account. I have never seen it proposed elsewhere, and it seems somewhat unlikely, even to me who am suggesting it. It is hard to believe that a gospel writer would do what I’m about to suggest; it nevertheless makes sense, in the light of everything I’ve said so far.
In John chapter 3 Jesus is visited by a Pharisee named Nicodemus, described as “a leader of the Jews”. These are the key points of their discussion. Jesus tells him that “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above”. Nicodemus replies: “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answers: “no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit”. Nicodemus asks “How can these things be?”, and Jesus replies: “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?”
What is going on here? As is clear from Nicodemus’s question, the conversation is about death and rebirth — and in order to be born again, one would have to die. Ego death and rebirth is an important stage on the spiritual journey, one initiation in the esoteric Mystery traditions. Jesus knows about these things, but Nicodemus obviously has no idea what he is talking about. He is therefore identifying himself as someone from an exclusively exoteric religious tradition.
John is outlining the theme of his gospel here, right at the beginning, that Jesus is an esoteric teacher, who understands what is involved on the spiritual path, whereas the Pharisees represented by Nicodemus know nothing about this. (In that context, it is worth noting that in the other three gospels the Pharisees are portrayed as being obsessed with rules and regulations rather than spiritual transformation, which seems to confirm John’s point.)
So here John is making a clear statement that the purpose of his gospel is to proclaim a spiritual, esoteric religion, not necessarily telling a story of death and rebirth to be understood literally. In which case, is there a hidden agenda in his text? Is he playing some kind of joke on the reader, by giving the impression that Jesus has died, while at the same time leaving behind all these clues that in fact he survived? Does he believe that those who have ears to hear will understand his message, and see through the game he is playing?
In that context, one very interesting detail is that it is the same Nicodemus who brings the myrrh and aloes mentioned above to the tomb (19.39). Is that another cryptic element in John’s allegory? Has Nicodemus got the message?
It can therefore be argued that neither the Divine incarnation nor the resurrection are true. So let’s hypothesise, at least for the sake of the argument, that this is the case. Could it still be meaningful to call oneself a Christian? Tom Harpur, mentioned above, certainly believes so. He says: “the allegorical, spiritual, mythical approach to the Bible and to Christian faith — that is, the true spiritual Christianity, before official Christianism took over — solves the enigmas of Scripture and the Christos story as nothing else can do… Our own potential for Christhood, and for experiencing the indwelling spirit of God here and now, sounds forth in a clear and relevant message for everyone. Hope for a truly cosmic faith is kindled and fanned into full flame” (p4).
He does not believe that there ever was a Historical Jesus, rather that the accounts we have of his ‘life’ are one more expression of the ancient myths. I am not so sure. If Jesus did actually exist, however, it is far more reasonable to assume that he was ‘merely’ a great spiritual teacher - an Essene if Szekely is correct - rather than God incarnate. (This would be in accordance with Islam, which acknowledges Jesus as a prophet, and is heavily critical of Christianity for believing otherwise.) In that case we can also assume that he would have been teaching one version of the Perennial Philosophy, the Ancient Wisdom of all ages, including the teaching of spiritual death and rebirth, as proclaimed in John’s Gospel. (That would explain why everything in his life and teachings can be found much earlier in Egypt, one source of this Ancient Wisdom.) In that context Harpur says: “Our fresh (yet ancient, more universal) understanding of the Jesus theme opens up doors to other faiths that orthodox Christianity as it is now can never hope to pass through” (p4).
We can remain Christians therefore, by following the teachings of this Jesus. We can perhaps become even better Christians by following his esoteric teachings, as advocated by the Gospel of John, rather than the exoteric religions of Roman Catholicism and the Pharisees.
Gerald Baron says “truth matters to me more than anything else”, and that “I’ve always said that I would follow the evidence where it leads”. So I don’t know whether anything I’ve said here would constitute truth or evidence in his eyes. I’m hoping that he will respond with his thoughts.
I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, politics and astrology. All these articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here).
1. The events in the story of Jesus are even closer to those of an earlier prophet — not a god — Issa, which can be transliterated in Greek as Jesus, See Conspiracy in Jerusalem: The Hidden Origins of Jesus, Kamal Salibi, I. B. Tauris & Co., 1988, p49–51
2. The Pagan Christ, Thomas Allen, 2004, p10
3. ibid., p5–6
4, as 1, chapter 5
6. Al-Qur’ān, A Contemporary Translation by Ahmed Ali, Princeton University Press, 1994, with revisions 2001
7. The Koran, Penguin Classics, 1990, with revisions 1999
8. The Qur’ān, Saheeh International Translation, The Quran Project, 2014