It’s that time of year again: Ghosts and zombies, graveyards, disguises and spooky stories. That’s right. Easter is upon us, the season that celebrates the revivification of an executed corpse, a story so fantastical that it makes Halloween look like child’s play.
Zombies? Look at this phantasmagorical tale in the Gospel of Matthew, at the time Jesus was crucified:
“The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.” (Matthew 27:51–53)
This little “Night of the Dead Living” story is lobbed so quickly into the Easter narrative that I want to say, “Wait a minute, back up! If this really happened, it’s more interesting than Jesus’ resurrection!”
It should be relatively easy for a god to revive (in the religious scheme of things), but all these regular people, crawling out of the graves that their rotted bodies had occupied for years, maybe centuries, well, that is news! Tell me more. What did they look like? Were their joints creaky? What did they smell like!? Did they stumble back to their shocked families and former spouses with arms outstretched? Did they get their jobs back? This would be the most amazing headline in history!
But I want to focus on that word “appeared” in the final sentence: “They . . . appeared to many.”
The story is a legend
Much has been written about how the Easter legend has origins in ancient spring mythologies. The very word is of pagan origin, from the fertility goddess Eostre (Ishtar, Astarte). The story has been critiqued on many other fronts. In my book Godless, I list many of the internal contradictions in the accounts related by Paul, Mark, Matthew, Luke and John. According to scholars, these episodes show signs of legendary growth, from the early simple stories of Paul and Mark to the more elaborate exaggerations of Luke and John, decades later.
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But as I was reading through the passages again, something jumped out at me, something I never saw when I was a believer. Easter is a ghost story! I used to preach that Jesus rose bodily from the grave: The stone was physically moved (by angel or earthquake) in order for the material person of Jesus to walk out, with heart beating and lungs pumping air. Like a regular guy.
Most Christians think this is critical, showing that Jesus didn’t simply “die and go to heaven” like Grandma or anybody else whose spirit (they believe) ascends while the corpse rots, but that a solid miracle occurred, conquering death in every way. The empty tomb was an empty physical tomb — a real rock was rolled away to make way for a real body.
But if we look at the actual words of the text, this is not at all what happened. The New Testament authors change the words they use to describe Jesus after the resurrection.
Vision or hallucination?
Before Easter morning, in all of the gospels, Jesus is described in normal narrative terms, meeting people, sitting, standing, coming and going. He was seen, watched, heard, touched and followed. But when the stone was rolled away from the tomb, suddenly Jesus is not just passively seen — he actively appears.
Like a ghost.
Before the resurrection, even when the disciples thought Jesus might have been a spook, the narrator assures us he was not, using normal vision to describe the scene, as in the famous story of walking on water:
“But when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’ ” (Mark 6:49–50)
Notice: He didn’t “appear” to them, no matter what they might have imagined. They “saw” him, the writer assures us. In the New Testament, if it is a vision or ghost, words like “appeared” or “showed himself” are used, otherwise it is a natural viewing. The narrator of Mark is obviously emphasizing this distinction because otherwise there would have been no miracle. Any old ghost can float above a lake.
The opposite happens before the resurrection, with the author of Matthew careful to state that what happened was not material. At the transfiguration of Jesus on a high mountain, Moses and Elijah “appear” to Peter, James and John. Boo! These guys had been dead for centuries, so it could hardly have been their physical bodies on that summit.
“Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” (Matthew 17:9)
Notice he did not say, “Tell no one what you saw.” In Greek, the word “vision” is from the same root as “appear.”
But after the crucifixion, the writers strangely alter their vocabulary when referring to Jesus. Here is the earliest account we have of Easter, written by Paul about 25 years after the supposed event:
“Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and he was buried, and he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to someone untimely born, he appeared also to me.” (I Corinthians 15:3–8)
That’s the same word — appeared — that Matthew used to describe the zombies, and the angel who spoke to Joseph when Mary was pregnant, and the ghost of Moses on the mountain. Paul could have simply reported that “the disciples and apostles saw Jesus, and so did I,” so it is telling that he or his source chose instead to describe them as active appearances, spectacular presentations, rather than simple visits.
Saying that someone “appears” is an unusual way to describe meeting a real person. That wording doesn’t occur with Jesus until after he is dead.
Suppose you asked me if my neighbor was home, and I said, “Yes. I went up to the door, and he appeared to me. I know he was there because when I entered the dining room, he showed himself to me again!” You would think I was talking about a haunted house.
The plot thickens
The next Easter story is in Mark, written about 40 years after the supposed event:
“Now after he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene. . . . After this he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country. . . . Later he appeared to the eleven themselves as they were sitting at the table.” (Mark 16:9–14)
Mark, the writer of the first gospel, also switches to “appeared.” But “in another form?” What is that all about? When Luke later describes this scene on the road to Emmaus, he writes that the men’s “eyes were kept from recognizing him.” (Luke 24:13–31) Jesus was obviously disguised in some way. Halloween costume!
After they ate a meal, it gets spooky: “Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.” Whooo! Trick or treat!
Is this the way to describe a real person? Luke does present the next scene at the table in Jerusalem using relatively normal words (standing, eating, touching his body), and avoids the word “appeared” that Paul used to describe the same event, but it obviously didn’t seem real to the 11 disciples.
Jesus magically “stood in the midst of them” (the opposite of the vanishing act) and “they were startled and terrified and thought that they were seeing a ghost.” He then went outside and “was carried up into heaven.” I hate to eat and run.
John, about 60 years after the alleged event, who never used “appeared” in his gospel prior to the Easter story, tells his first resurrection tale using normal words, but then says:
“After these things, Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberius. . . . This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.” (John 24:1,14)
He “appeared”? He “showed himself”? This is not the way to talk about a man meeting his friends. (And no, I will not try for a crude joke here.)
The Easter story may be meaningful to millions, but according to the original writers it was not a human body that walked out of that tomb. It was probably a black cat.
[This story originally appeared in the March 2012 Freethought Today, in a slightly different form, with the title “Ghostbuster Bags Zombie Jesus.”]