Since we're coming up on Easter Sunday, I thought I would point out that the story of Jesus' resurrection is one of the loveliest stories in all of literature. It appears in different versions in all four canonical Gospels, but I think I like the version in the Gospel of John the best. Here it is, in the translation known as the New International Version, courtesy of Bible Gateway.
1 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. 2 So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”
3 So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. 4 Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, 7 as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen. 8 Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. 9 (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.) 10 Then the disciples went back to where they were staying.
11 Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb 12 and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.
13 They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”
“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” 14 At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.
15 He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”
Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”
16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.”
She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).
17 Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”
18 Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.
There are variations among the four Gospels, as is typical when dealing with an oral tradition that has been passed down through different communities. In my opinion, it would be groundless to assume that any version–or some composite version–represents the factual, literal truth. Undoubtedly all four versions benefited from a great deal of embellishment and symbolism. But do they speak to an actual underlying event?
It is at least arguable that they do. For one thing, it is difficult to explain the rapid growth of the Christian cult in the absence of a triumphant reappearance of Jesus after his crucifixion. In those days it was not unusual for someone to proclaim himself the Messiah, but if he was arrested and killed by the Romans, his claims were dismissed, and he was subsequently regarded as a false prophet; his disillusioned followers dispersed, and he was largely forgotten. Indeed, one of the so-called Messiahs of the period is known to us today only by the sobriquet “the Egyptian,” his real name having been lost to history.
Something must have happened to turn the earliest Christian disciples from utter despair and disenchantment to hope and newfound religious fervor. Many of them were willing to die for their cause, and some of them did die in awful ways. It's unlikely they would have thrown their lives away for someone whose earthly crusade had ended in unambiguous failure. They certainly acted as if there had been some postmortem reappearance of their leader, and this was the core of the message they preached at their own risk.
Since I have no problem with the idea of postmortem appearances in general, and since some of the appearances described in the Gospels are consistent with reports of apparitions in more recent times (such apparitions often being surprisingly lifelike and tangible, albeit with the ability to appear and vanish at will, pass through walls, etc., just as Jesus was said to do), I'm inclined to think that the apostles really were reunited with Jesus not long after his death on the cross. Whether or not he was physically resurrected is, I think, somewhat irrelevant, since an apparition can seem convincingly physical and real, and can even be touched or embraced.
Another argument, which is often advanced by Christian apologists, is that if the story of the empty tomb had been entirely invented, it would not have depended on the testimony of women–one woman, Mary Magdalene, in John's version, and two or more women in the other versions. Women were not considered reliable witnesses in the ancient world, and according to what I've read, their testimony was not accepted in court. If someone wanted to make up a story out of whole cloth, he probably would have provided more respectable and authoritative eyewitnesses, especially considering that Mary Magdalene apparently had a checkered past as a victim of demonic possession, or what we would call mental illness, before being healed by Jesus. Who would choose someone with that background as the cornerstone of their story? Perhaps there was some subtle symbolic reason for the choice, but to me it seems more likely that she and the other women were mentioned because there were authoritative traditions that one or more women were indeed the first witnesses.
Finally, I can't help but mention the always controversial Shroud of Turin, purportedly the burial cloth in which Jesus' body was wrapped prior to burial in the tomb. In the 1980s, carbon dating of a few pieces of the cloth established that it originated in the Middle Ages, but this did not settle the matter, because later investigation showed that the corner of the cloth from which all the samples were taken was a patch, not part of the original. The patch is presumably newer than the original, but how much newer? Could the original, which includes the mysterious photonegative image of a crucified and scourged man, actually date back to A.D. 30? We'll probably never know, but even today no one has succeeded in precisely reproducing the subtle image on the cloth, though many people have tried and at least one has come pretty close.
Could the Shroud actually be the burial cloth in question, and could this haunting image have been impressed on it during a supernatural dematerialization of the physical body? I'm certainly not insisting on it, but I wouldn't rule it out.
But these factual and historical issues are, in a sense, beside the point. As Aristotle put it, “Poetry is finer and more philosophical than history; for poetry expresses the universal, and history only the particular.” What makes the Easter story great is not its factual accuracy, which can be endlessly disputed, but its enduring emotional resonance. Its truth is not literal, but allegorical; not a matter of objective facts but of subjective interpretation and meaning.
Even if we were to assume that the story of the first Easter is entirely fictional, it would still remain one of the sweetest and most poetic stories ever told. In a few simple words, with a bare minimum of description and characterization, the basic tale still has the power to stir the imagination and to summon feelings of renewal and hope. And in the end, that's what the Easter season is about.