The Resurrection: Searching for Answers

ByABC News

May 20, 2005 — -- Sometime around A.D. 33, Roman authorities in the city of Jerusalem sentenced to death a young Jewish rabbi named Jesus of Nazareth. He was ordered crucified for treason.

Crucifixion was a common method of execution. "It was the Roman way of letting it be known that they were the boss," said New Testament scholar the Rev. Jerome Murphy-O'Connor.

And it's a particularly brutal sentence. "It's a death that involves, first, a scourging, a beating," said Lee Strobel, host of PAX television's "Faith Under Fire."

The condemned had to make their way through the crowded streets of the city, dragging a heavy wooden cross.

"Many people died before they even got to the cross," Strobel said.

Today, conventional wisdom suggests that everyone in the streets stopped to watch Jesus' struggle and crucifixion. But because crucifixions were fairly common, scholars say Jesus' crucifixion probably went largely unnoticed by the people of Jerusalem. "The attitude would be what we do in an accident on the highway, 'Isn't this awful?' But we're losing time,' " said Albert Baumgarten of Jerusalem's Bar Ilan University.

"You have to remember that the original Jesus movement was a very, very small group. They all get together in one room for dinner. So that will give you some notion of just how small they are," Baumgarten said.

Most of Jesus' closest friends -- his disciples -- had run away. "Jesus was now marked out as a criminal, and therefore anyone who was associated with him, especially those who were in his inner circle, so to speak, would expect that they might be next," said the Rev. Richard McBrien of the University of Notre Dame.

According to the Gospel stories, only one of Jesus' male disciples, John, was at the crucifixion site along with a few women, including Jesus' mother.

"Peter wasn't there and the other heavyweight Apostles were not there. They weren't even there at the foot of the cross. It was all over for them," said McBrien.

William Lane Craig, research professor at the Talbot School of Theology in LaMiranda, Calif., said Jesus' death sentence was a more devastating blow to the Apostles than many today might imagine. "I think it's difficult to underestimate the catastrophe that the crucifixion was for these first disciples. They had hoped Jesus of Nazareth would be the messiah who would bring the Kingdom of God to Israel. And instead he was crucified and now dead," he said.

The frightened disciples did not even show up to bury Jesus. The Gospels say that after he died, John and two mysterious sympathizers named Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus helped the women take Jesus' body off the cross.

Many of those crucified under Roman rule were denied burials. "They simply left the body of the person who'd been crucified out, and the dogs and the birds finished off whatever was left of the person who had been crucified," Baumgarten said. "In the case of Jesus, they were able to get permission to bury him."

In the place where he was crucified, there was a garden, according to the Gospels. "His body is wrapped in linens. And he was laid inside the tomb and a rock was rolled in front of that tomb," said Strobel.

Three days after Jesus was crucified, according to the Gospels, the women went to the tomb where they had buried him to take care of the body -- to wash it and put spices in the burial shroud.

But the women arrived to see that the huge stone had been rolled away from the entrance, and the tomb was empty. "The burial cloth was simply lying there on the place where they had laid the body," McBrien said.

The immediate reaction was panic and concern that someone had taken Jesus' body. But what happened next stunned the women, according to the Gospels. "They see an angelic apparition in the tomb who informs them that Jesus of Nazareth has risen from the dead, and they are absolutely unraveled by this. Filled with trembling and fear, they flee from the tomb," Craig said.

"And then the word begins to spread," said Strobel. "The women have discovered the tomb empty. That's impossible. How could it be? He's resurrected? That's absurd!"

The story of Easter Sunday has been retold for two millenniums. "It is the pivotal event of all history. History is broken into two parts -- a faith has gone around the planet. Billions of people are followers of Jesus, down through history, as a result of this story from the first century," Strobel said.

For centuries Christians have believed that Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre was the place where Jesus was buried and rose from the dead.

But nearly every single detail of the Easter story remains a question of debate. Among them : Was the tomb really empty? And even more basic: Was Jesus was ever buried in the first place?

"Most people who were crucified were probably put into large burial pits," said Kathleen Corley of the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.

This has led a number of scholars to question the whole account of Jesus' burial -- as perhaps made up by the Gospel writers later on.

"I think they were unsuccessful in finding the location of his body, because I think Jesus was probably buried in a criminal's grave that would have been a large pit for a large number of people," Corley said.

But Jewish scholars also familiar with first-century history say it's very feasible that the Romans permitted Jesus' followers to bury him. "I'm not sure that we can settle any of these questions with the sort of certainty we would like. I don't see any reason to doubt the Gospel tradition," said Baumgarten.

Daniel Schwartz, a professor of history at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, said it rings true to him that Jesus could have been removed from the cross and buried by his followers. "I think that there's plenty of precedent, plenty of evidence for people who were crucified and buried," he said.

It would be easy enough to prove Jesus had a tomb, if anyone could say for sure where it was. But the early Christians didn't seem to have marked the spot. Two shrines in Jerusalem are said to be the location -- the large, often-visited Church of the Holy Sepulchre and a site called the Garden Tomb just down the road from the church. The Garden Tomb was discovered only in the 1850s.

Ken Trestrail, a guide at the Garden Tomb, said it is believed to be the site where Joseph of Arimathea had a garden.

The only thing the Bible really tells us about the location of Jesus' tomb is that it was close to the place of the crucifixion, Golgotha. But it gives no information about where Golgotha, which means "place of a skull," actually was.

Most today think of the crucifixion as taking place up on a rocky hill, but Trestrail told "20/20's" Elizabeth Vargas that in Jesus' day people were actually executed in a desolate valley that was once a quarry. He showed Vargas a cliff above what is now a municipal bus station that he believes gave the place its haunting name.

In the rock you could make out shapes that could look something like a skull, eye sockets and a nose, he said. But Trestrail later admitted the cliff didn't look much like a skull any longer. According to earlier accounts, Trestrail says, it did. But the rock has since eroded.

Still, the majority of Christians believe the site of the crucifixion and the tomb is in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

The church was built in the year 325 by Constantine, the first Christian ruler of the Roman Empire. It is said that local Christians led Constantine's mother to the site when she asked to see Jesus' tomb. When Constantine's men dug below the temple, it is said they found a tomb there.

Inside the church, a simple rock tomb has been housed in an 18th-century shrine. Murphy-O'Connor thinks Jesus' body was laid somewhere along an eerie tunnel lined with narrow shafts for the dead.

Scholars say there's little dispute about whether the tomb was empty. Even those who doubted the Resurrection, Baumgarten says, never doubted that the tomb was empty.

The only point of dispute is: Why was it empty?

"Christians said the tomb was empty because Jesus had been resurrected and Jews said that the tomb was empty because the disciples stole the body, and they did that as kind of a plot to fool people," said Baumgarten.

Strobel said the disciples had no motive to take the body. "The disciples weren't about to steal the body and then willingly die for a lie. The Romans weren't about to steal it. They wanted Jesus dead. So I think that idea is easily dismantled," he said.

Indeed, if the body had been stolen, there may have been some account of its removal through the centuries. But there are no stories of individuals or groups claiming to have removed the body.

"If the body had been discovered, there would be no Christian church today. It would have died out as a little sect in the Judean wilderness probably and everybody would have laughed about a crucified criminal being the son of God, come on," said Paul Meier of Western Michigan University.

"It's discovered that the body is not there. And that's the point of major importance. That's where it all begins," said Schwartz.

But even if there is pretty good historical reason to believe there was an empty tomb, does this mean that Jesus was resurrected from the dead?

The Bible says that starting on Easter Sunday -- and for a brief period afterward -- the resurrected Jesus of Nazareth actually appeared to his followers.

In one story, he appears to Mary Magdalene in the garden right beside his tomb, just after she has discovered his grave is empty.

"Distraught her beloved master's body is gone and she then sees him and thinks it's the gardener and Jesus just turns to her and says, 'Mary.' And she recognizes his voice and falls at his feet in worship. I think this is one of the tenderest moments in the Resurrection appearance stories," said Craig.

And there are stories about Jesus appearing to his original followers in various places over the next 40 days. In one, he appears to two other followers as they are walking home from Jerusalem to a place called Emmaus -- today a Palestinian village called Qu'beibeh.

A stranger just appears beside them and asks why they are so depressed. The three continue walking and talking for some time talking together. But it isn't until they stop to eat, to break bread, that the disciples realize the man they've been walking with is Jesus. There is a church in Qu'beibeh commemorating the story.

Did anything like this really happen? Historians can't agree on what -- but most agree that something happened. Something powerful enough to convince the people who knew Jesus in life, that he was back from the dead.

"I think definitely something happened. I don't know how they convinced themselves. But the historical fact is, you've got people who are convinced he was resurrected," said Schwartz.

Historians point out that we know of half a dozen leaders who claimed to be the messiah around Jerusalem in the first century. But their movements all died when the Romans crucified them.

"There were lots of executions. There were lots of people who claimed in one way or other to be redeemers of the world," said Baumgarten.

"The people who crucified Jesus and wanted him removed were almost certainly working on the assumption, which is, if you have a movement like this, and you get rid of the leader, eventually the movement collapses," he said. But what makes the Jesus story so interesting, Baumgarten said, is that this movement did not collapse.

Instead, the disciples who had abandoned Jesus changed -- dramatically. The men who had fled after his crucifixion were now in the streets proclaiming Jesus as the messiah.

"I think there can be no doubt that the earliest disciples sincerely believed that God had raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead," Craig said.

"I don't think there would have been a New Testament or a Jesus movement had there not been some astonishing experience of power," said Bishop John Shelby Spong, retired Episcopal bishop of Newark, N.J.

The Bible gives no description of the Resurrection. There is no information about what exactly happened in that tomb. And faith is an important component in the equation when considering the Resurrection was a physical event or a vision by Jesus' followers.

"The first question is, do you believe in the Resurrection? My answer is, if you don't ... you're not a Christian. But that's the easy question. The second question is well, what do you mean by the Resurrection? That's where the difference of opinions come in," said McBrien.

Today, the notion of a physical Resurrection seems otherworldly. But the concept of Resurrection was familiar to early Jews. The Old Testament Book of Daniel talks of physical Resurrection.

And for Christians today who believe in the physical Resurrection of Jesus, the hope of a physical triumph over death remains the central point of Christianity.

"If the world view is this is only a material world, and there can be no outside intervention, then, you got a problem explaining the Resurrection," said Strobel. "But ... if God exists and created the universe, this is child's play for him."

But some historians think there was no physical resurrection. They believe the resurrection stories were made up and written decades after Jesus' death.

They say after the crucifixion, the disciples -- dispirited and defeated -- simply went home to their lives as fishermen on the Sea of Galilee. Instead of a physical return of Jesus, they say, the stories in the Gospels are describing dreams or visions that Jesus' closest followers had.

"The kind of resurrection body that the Gospels talk about -- the Gospel of John, for example, where Jesus appears in a room with locked doors is not physical in our understanding of the body. Those kinds of experiences suggest not the kind of physical body that we would see today. But something that we -- if we have to use our categories would look much more like a visionary experience," said Karen King of the Harvard Divinity School.

Scholars also say that dreams to people in the first century were no less real than waking reality. "In the ancient world, dreams were real. If you had a dream at night, the assumption was that it was real," said Arthur Dewey of Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio.

The University of Wisconsin's Corley thinks the disciples visions of Jesus grew from their extraordinary grief. "I talked about grief experiences. It's been documented in modern times that people in times of extreme mourning and bereavement will see -- actually see -- honestly believe they see the dead person before them," she said.

Baumgarten agrees. "People whose hopes have been dashed in that awful way very often come up with various items of belief," he said.

While these scholars don't believe there was a physical resurrection, they agree that something extraordinary occurred.

Shelby Spong, like many other Christians, believes the Resurrection was a spiritual event."I think it's real. I think it took place in Galilee. I think Peter stood in the center of it. I think it has something to do with the breaking of bread. He was made known to us in the breaking of the bread. I don't know exactly what that is. But it is clear to me that there was something that opened their eyes to see a dimension of reality that I believe is beyond the boundaries of normal," he said.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events