Did Jesus really rise from the dead? The case of the empty tomb

by: John Cornwell

Australian Magazine
March 26, 2005 Saturday

The crucifixion and resurrection define Christianity, but scholars –
and a best-selling book – question what really happened.

The Da Vinci Code is only the latest in a series of books challenging
the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. John Cornwell examines
both sides of the argument.

Holy Saturday: Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem. Within the
ancient, ornate shrine, arguably the holiest place in all Christendom,
worshippers from many denominations and ethnicities – Greek and
Russian Orthodox, Armenians and Ethiopian Copts, as well as Catholics,
Anglicans, Lutherans, Christian Zionists and Evangelicals – ponder
a crucial question. Is this church, with its crypts, murky chapels,
forests of silver lamps and smell of incense, the actual site of
Christ’s tomb? And did Christ actually rise from the dead on this spot?

Answering these questions is like exploring the history of the Holy
Sepulchre church itself. It’s a bewildering rabbit warren of an edifice
that has been knocked down, rebuilt, and fought over by Jews, Muslims
and, scandalously, by and among Christians, ever since Helena (mother
of Constantine the Great) identified it as the site of Christ’s tomb
in the fourth century.

Each year on the Vigil of Easter Day, however, there is another more
tangible and immediate test of faith and reason. The contentious
assortment of Christians, tensely watched by Israeli police, gather
to celebrate the most enduring alleged miracle on the planet. Within
a tiny inner chapel known as the aedicule, said to be the site of
Christ’s actual burial slab,

a “holy fire” miraculously self-combusts, traditionally observed
in strictest secrecy by the Greek Orthodox patriarch of Jerusalem,
accompanied by a senior Armenian Orthodox priest. Heaven, on schedule,
is favouring eastern Christians with a token of the truth of the
Resurrection of Christ’s body from the dead. The priests light their
candles from this holy fire, which is said to be at first pale blue
and cold, incapable of burning even the skin on your face. They emerge
into the main body of the church to share the miraculous flame with the
massed congregation, many of whom have queued for a day and a night
to get a good spot. The holy fire is then rushed to the airport at
Tel Aviv in special lanterns, which are dispatched to Moscow, Kiev,
Istanbul and Athens to be spread throughout the Christian Orthodox
world on Easter Day.

In an investigation of the basilica, the ceremony and its significance,
Victoria Clark, author of a new book, Holy Fire: The Battle for
Christ’s Tomb, recently winkled from a senior official of the Greek
Orthodox church in Jerusalem the admission that for some years now
the Easter fire has been generated not by a miracle but by a common
or garden plastic lighter.

The revelation, repudiated by the aghast faithful, is only marginally
less scandalous, though substantially less harmful, than the tensions
that have reigned among the warring Christian guardians of the Holy
Sepulchre and the punch-ups that routinely occur there. Intricate and
pedantic rights exerted by different denominations over the sacred
space, right down to shared ownership and cleaning rights of a tiny
manhole, are jealously measured in square millimetres. Even on the
roof of the basilica, where Ethiopian monks and nuns live in squalid
shelters without water or electric light, territorial disputes with
the neighbouring Egyptian Copts are intense to the point of physical

But nothing compares with the conflicts in the heart of the basilica.
In 2002, the patriarch and the Armenian prelate came to blows within
the aedicule over who should ignite the lighter; two Orthodox monks
joined the fray and Israeli police had to storm the chapel to restore
peace. This was nothing new. Back in 1834, the holy fire ceremony
prompted an affray that caused a stampede and the deaths of several
hundred onlookers. An English writer described the church walls
“spattered with the blood and brains of those who had been felled,
like oxen, with the butt-ends of the soldiers’ bayonets”.

The Orthodox faithful will no doubt learn to live with the news that
their holy fire is less than miraculous, just

as Catholics now have mostly come to terms with the prosaic fact that
the annual liquefaction of martyr San Gennario’s blood in Naples
Cathedral is a special clay found in the vicinity of Vesuvius that
boils at a low temperature.

What Christians will resist, however, is the proposition, currently
spreading like out-of-control bird’flu, that Christ did not in fact
die on the cross.

Successive fictional versions of the death and resurrection over
more than 200 years culminating in Holy Blood, Holy Grail (1982),
by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln – stunningly
boosted by Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, which has sold 17 million
copies since 2003 – have served to promote the notion that the empty
tomb was not evidence of the death and resurrection but that Jesus
survived the crucifixion and escaped the tomb alive (hence no need
for a resurrection). The issue is crucial: without the death and the
resurrection of Jesus Christ, there is no Christianity.

>>From the outset there were attempts to undermine the reality of
the resurrection story. Matthew’s gospel claims that enemies of the
disciples were insisting that the body had been stolen from the tomb.
Heretical sects in the second and third centuries argued that a
substitute for the Messiah had been crucified, while the real Jesus
lived to ridicule their mistake. The Koran records that Christ,
a human rather than a divine prophet, was not killed; he survived
and lived to rejoin his disciples.

In the modern period, “rationalists” have drawn close parallels
between the “Christian resurrection myth” and widespread mythologies
of gods who die and become reborn. In oriental religions there are
multiple legends featuring dying and rising gods and goddesses,
including Adonis, Isis, Dionysus, Demeter, and assorted corn-kings
and corn-mothers. In the dark and ancient north, moreover, Balder
the Beautiful, offspring of Odin, dies only to rise again. Fertility
rights in spring, and the gift of eggs, are a pagan backdrop to the
Christian story. Is Jesus, ask the clever anthropologists, just one
more of these myths? But they ignore the fact, according to one of
the world’s most distinguished Resurrection scholars, the Australian
Jesuit, Professor Gerard O’Collins of the Gregorian University in Rome,
that Christ rose only once, and that he was God and not “a” god.

But the story that Christ actually survived his passion, rather
than resurrected, assumed powerful imaginative impetus from the
mid-18th century onwards with the publication of a fictional version
of the Christ story by the German writer Karl Heinrich Venturini
(1768-1849). Venturini exploited the existence of the Essenes,
a community of radical Jews at Qumran by the Dead Sea, proposing
that they took Him down from the cross still alive and subsequently
revived him in their monastery.

Albert Schweitzer, a physician in an African leper colony and himself
author of a life of Jesus, commented in 1906 that the Venturini story
“may almost be said to be reissued annually down to the present day,
for all the fictitious lives go back to the style which he created.
It is plagiarised more freely than any other Life of Jesus, although
practically unknown by name.” Today Schweitzer would have recognised
in The Da Vinci Code a precise example of the prediction.

One of the most famous subsequent versions of Venturini appeared a
century later in The Brook Kerith: A Syrian Story by the Irish writer
George Moore. Moore depicts Jesus as a crude shepherd philosopher who
suffered the delusion that he was the Messiah. As Moore puts it, Jesus
is lifted from the cross in a coma. When he comes round he perceives
that he was “mistaken in all things: angels did not come down from
Heaven to lift him from the cross and bear him back to his father,
and the world still subsists the same as before”. He is buried in a
tomb owned by a rich man, Joseph of Arimathea, who finds him revived
there the next day and takes him away. Christ then returns in secret
to his life as a shepherd with the Essene community on the brook of
Kerith. It is Paul of Tarsus, according to Moore, who invents both
the resurrection story and the Christian Church after his vision on
the road to Damascus. Meanwhile, the real Jesus has come to believe
in a form of pantheism – the idea that God is everything.

Moore’s book invokes natural explanations for everything, including
Christ’s appearance to the two disciples on the way to Emmaus. The
disciples were suffering, he argues, from a simple case of mistaken
identity. Moore ends his account by suggesting that Christ travelled
eastwards and spent his final years as a missionary in India. To this
day there are Muslim sects in India who venerate a tomb of Christ.

Similarly sensational in its time was D.H. Lawrence’s novella
The Man who Died (1931). Lawrence has Christ saying to onlookers
after his supposed death on the cross: “I am not dead. They took
me down too soon.” He comes round in the tomb and simply walks out
to be cared for by compassionate peasants until meeting up with Mary
Magdalene, who conspires with him to perpetrate the resurrection story.
Subsequently he meets by chance some of his disciples (who swallow the
resurrection account), and eventually escapes to the Lebanon where he
becomes involved with a woman who runs a temple to Isis. She falls
in love with him, believing him to be the god Osiris, and together,
in true Laurentian style, they discover the meaning of sex and earthly
existence. When she falls pregnant with his child, however, he abandons
her, saying: “I have sowed the seed of my life and my resurrection,
and put my touch forever upon the choice woman of this day, and I
carry her perfume in my flesh like the essence of roses.”

Another bizarre alternative is that of Robert Graves, poet and author
of the famous First War memoir Goodbye to All That. Graves’s book,
Jesus in Rome, purports to be a factual account, but it is a tissue of
conjectures and sources regarded as apocryphal by biblical experts. A
crucial feature of Christ’s survival, according to Graves, is the
embalming ointment donated by Joseph of Arimathea and the “extreme
sultriness of the weather” which combined to create a sort of life
support system for the half-dead Jesus in the tomb. Graves has the
Roman soldiers breaking into the tomb to steal this ointment only to
find Jesus alive. The sergeant not only lets Christ go, but later
accepts a bribe from Nicodemus to broadcast the news of the bogus

In 1966 came The Passover Plot by Hugh Schonfield, a Jewish writer
who used his own translations of the gospels to argue that Jesus
conspired with the disciples to arrange his death. Jesus is depicted
as ransacking the Old Testament for prophecies of his passion. He
takes a drug before his arrest which enables him to suffer torture and
crucifixion and the eventual semblance of death. He is buried alive
but revives the next day, whereupon he finally succumbs and dies for
real. Mary Magdalene, Christ’s close friend, is described as demented;
she believes that everybody she meets is the Christ.

The American novelist John Updike added to the fictional survival
accounts in 1971 with his New Yorker story, “Jesus on Honshu”. Basing
himself on the members of the Japanese Mahikari cult, Updike has Jesus,
aged 21, travelling to Japan where he is taken on by a guru called
Etchu. Aged 32 he returns to Jerusalem to choose his 12 apostles. In
a passion and death worthy of a parallel universe, it is Judas who
is executed. Christ meanwhile escapes via Siberia back to Japan where
he lives until the age of 106 as a teacher and miracle worker.

Donovan Joyce’s Jesus Scroll, published in 1973, repeats the survival
story and expands on the link between Christ and Mary Magdalene that
would become familiar in the Holy Blood, Holy Grail concoction and
The Da Vinci Code. Basing himself on the Gospel of Philip (regarded
as apocryphal by scholars), Joyce asserts that Christ was married
to Mary Magdalene, who anointed him before his triumphant entry
to Jerusalem with the aromatic ointment spickenard, a symbol of
kingship. Joyce claims that Christ, accompanied by Mary Magdalene,
escaped Jerusalem after causing an uprising; eventually he joins the
Essene community at Qumran by the Dead Sea.

With Holy Blood, Holy Grail (1982), by Michael Baigent, Richard
Leigh and Henry Lincoln (Sir Leigh Tebbing, in The Da Vinci Code,
is drawn from the authors’ names), the Christ story begins to shoot
off in wildly eccentric trajectories. The book claims that Christ
married Mary Magdalene at the feast of Cana. Among their children
was Barabbas, the criminal released by Pontius Pilate at the request
of the Jews. The authors argue that Christ’s family bribed Pilate
to give the body to Joseph of Arimathea. But the crucifixion was a
staged affair in which the victim was a substitute. Baigent and his
colleagues are not forthcoming about the whereabouts of the escaped
Jesus, but they claim that Mary Magdalene went with the children to
southern France. The sacred bloodline, sang real, or royal blood,
which is the Holy Grail, rather than the cup of the Last Supper,
continued through the Merovingians, the Carolingians and the House
of Lorraine to the Habsburgs.

More recent books with scholarly pretensions, notably J. Duncan
Derrett’s The Anastasis (1982) and Barbara Thiering’s The Gospels
and Qumran (1992), repeat the survival theory. Thiering, who has
gained much publicity because of her claims to have deciphered the
secret code of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament, insists
that Jesus lived for many years after his crucifixion, travelling
around the Mediterranean before dying in his sixties. She claims
that Jesus had three children with Mary Magdalene; that he divorced
her and married Lydia (who appears in the Acts of the Apostles),
passing his latter years in Rome.

Professor Gerard O’Collins and, independently, world-class
scripture scholars such as T.N. Wright (now bishop of Durham), J.
Murphy-O’Connor and the late Raymond E. Brown protest that the
non-fiction exponents of the survival theory routinely misuse
documents, indulge in outlandish interpretation techniques and invoke
shadowy sources unavailable for checking by bona fide scholars. At
least Dan Brown, who sometimes gives the impression that he believes
the Holy Blood, Holy Grail thesis, has had the good grace to name
one of his lead characters Bishop Aringarosa, which translates as
red herring.

Scepticism of the survival theorists, however, does not indicate
that we can trust the story of the death and the resurrection in
the same way as we trust the death and the burial, say, of Princess
Di. But Christian biblical scholars assert that there is sufficient
evidence to make their belief reasonable. They stress that there is
ample evidence for Jesus’s death, pointing out that the Romans were
good at killing people and that there is clear evidence that they
finished him off – the lance thrust into his chest, producing a gush
of water and blood, is firm and plausible, they say. That the tomb was
found to be empty by reliable witnesses who had no motive to lie, they
argue, is also supported by the evidence. Here is Mark, for example:
“When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the Mother of James,
and Salome brought aromatic oils, intending to go and anoint him …
They went into the tomb, where they saw a youth sitting on the right
hand side, wearing a white robe; and they were dumbfounded.” The
young man, who we can take to be an angel, or perhaps a good-looking
gardener, told them: “He has been raised again; he is not here.” He
tells them that Jesus has gone on ahead into Galilee.

The accounts of his appearances after the resurrection differ from
each other but they are impressive. Mary Magdalene sees him in Mark’s
version, then “two of his followers” see him, and eventually the 11
remaining apostles encounter him. Paul, who is given most credence by
scholars as an early witness (as early perhaps as two years after the
death and alleged resurrection), reports that Jesus appeared to Peter,
then to the apostles, and later to more than 500 of “our brothers
at once, most of whom are still alive, though some have died”. He
concludes: “In the end he appeared even to me.” The facts that Jesus
ate meals, and that the resurrected Lord invited Doubting Thomas to
put his finger in his Lord’s side, indicate for believers that he
was neither vision nor hallucination.

The difficulty for any reader following the gospel stories of the death
and resurrection, however, is that we are not dealing with reportage in
the style of a modern-day journalist or historian. The gospel texts are
fraught with religious significance. They are as much, metaphorically,
about the story of the spiritual redemption of humankind as they are
about supposedly actual events. And yet, even practised journalists
who know the difference between factual and fictional accounts, and
stories that are essentially although not necessarily strictly true,
have been impressed by the detail and vividness of the gospels.

A telling and intriguing testimony is given by Graham Greene, a
Catholic writer who throughout his life was agonised by scepticism.
Not long before he died, I interviewed Greene at his home in Antibes,
on the French Riviera. We were talking about belief in the resurrection
and I had commented, “It sounds as if belief is a struggle for you.” He
said: “What keeps me to … it’s not strong enough to be called
belief … is St John’s gospel. It’s almost a reportage – it might
have been done by a good journalist – where the beloved disciple is
running with Peter because they’ve heard that the rock has been rolled
away from the tomb, and describing how John manages to beat Peter in
the race … and it just seems to me to be first-hand reportage,
and I can’t help believing it … I know that St Mark is supposed
to be the earliest gospel, but there’s just the possibility of St
John’s gospel having been written by a very old man, who never calls
himself by name, or says ‘I’, but does describe this almost funny race,
which strikes me as true.”

However compelling the story, however authentic the feel of the
evidence, in the final analysis it comes down to a decision to believe
or not to believe. And beyond belief are the consequences of faith
and of faith communities of all kinds.

As the Christians meet once again in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre
there appears to be hope for a new beginning for the peace process
between Arabs and Jews in the land of what Christians traditionally
call the holy places, the holiest of which is the site of the tomb of
Christ. With any luck the ceremony of the holy fire will have passed
off peacefully; but it is an apt time to ponder, as Victoria Clark has
put it, “the mistakes made and the crimes committed by a succession
of Christian powers over hundreds of years” in the Middle East. On
the pretext that they were reclaiming and protecting the site of the
death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Crusaders massacred
Jews, Muslims and fellow Christians, and the conflicts prompted for
ownership and control of the Christian holy places have continued
to the present day. The latest claimants are Christian Zionists who
have made common cause with radical Jewish Zionists calling for the
territorial integrity of ancient Israel and the ousting of Muslims
and Christian Arabs alike in the expectation of the reconstitution
of the promised land and the second coming of the Messiah.

In a region tragically riven with ethnic and religious hatred, a
Christian is inclined to wonder whether the redemptive story of the
resurrection at the heart of the Christian message would not best
be exemplified by the relinquishing, at last, of the Holy Sepulchre
church. For it appears after centuries of conflict not so much a holy
focus of Christendom as a living metaphor for all that is delusional,
violent and divisive in Christianity’s turbulent internal history
and its relationship with other religions.

John Cornwell is the author of Pontiff in Winter: the Dark Face of
John Paul II’s Papacy, published by Viking-Penguin. His last story
for the magazine was “Stranger than fiction” (Feb 12-13), on the
Vatican’s secret history.