Five more non-miraculous explanations
The Bible teaches that Jesus was executed by the occupying Roman Army at
the time of a Passover in Jerusalem. Most theologians believe that this
happened during the springtime of either 30 or 33 CE. A common
belief is that he died on a Friday afternoon and was resurrected sometime
before sunrise on the following Sunday morning, perhaps a day or a day and a
half later. This was when, according to
the Gospels, Mary Magdalene (alone or in the company of other women; the
gospels differ) visited the tomb. Most, but not all, Christians believe that
he was resurrected (either under his own power or as a result of God's
intervention) in his original body.
When normal people die, their heart stops pumping blood through their
brain. Brain death occurs, and various degenerative processes soon begin;
the body starts to rot; rigor mortis sets in. The processes are irreversible; they never come back
to life. According to the gospels, Jesus remained dead for perhaps 33 hours
or more -- from Friday afternoon until early on Sunday morning. This would
have been a sufficient interval to "leave no doubt as to the reality of
His death." 1 Yet, he was described as having returned
to life, leaving the tomb, and subsequently appearing before various groups
of his followers. This, of course, would be a miracle.
Ever since the first century CE, alternative
explanations have been offered to account for the stories in the Gospels.
Muslims, for example, believe that Jesus' crucifixion never happened.
Rather, another person was executed in Jesus' place.
Alternative explanations have been promoted by individuals who deny that
the resurrection happened. They believe that most, but not all, of the components of the
gospel stories are correct: that Jesus was actually hung on a stake or
cross, and was believed to have died. He was removed and taken away by his
supporters. But other components are believed to be myth, fiction, and
perhaps a pious fraud.
Some alternative scenarios are:
In the early 20th century, some
Catholic modernists suggested that:
"the entrance into life immortal of
one risen from the dead is not subject to observation; it is a
supernatural, hyper-historical fact, not capable of historical proof. The
proofs alleged for the Resurrection of
Jesus Christ are
inadequate; the empty sepulchre is only an indirect argument, while the
apparitions of the risen Christ are open
to suspicion on a priori grounds, being sensible impressions of a
supernatural reality; and they are doubtful evidence from a critical point
of view, on account of the discrepancies in the various Scriptural
narratives and the mixed character of the detail connected with the
In 1907, Pope Pius X issued his Decree Lamentabili (a.k.a. the
Syllabus of Pius X). In it, he condemned 65 beliefs promoted by
modernists, including this one. Three years later, he required all Catholic
clergy to take an "Oath Against Modernism" which remained in force
The Reserpine theory:
Michael Persinger, a neuroscientist at
Laurentian University in Sudbury, ON Canada, developed another
miracle-free explanation of the resurrection story. While experimenting on
rats, he noted that when the animals were physically restrained and
injected with reserpine -- or similar drugs -- their body temperature
would decrease rapidly and they would be appear to have died. Three days
later, they revived on their own. Presumably, a similar reaction would
probably happen in other mammals. Of course, it would be impossible on ethical
grounds to conduct a similar experiment on humans.
that Yeshua of Nazareth (Jesus Christ) may have consumed reserpine
or a similar drug. This might have happened at the Last Supper, or when he
was offered a sponge containing a liquid while on the cross. It is
generally acknowledged, at least by some mainline and most liberal
theologians, that John the Baptist had been a member of the Essene
religious group. There is some evidence that the Essenes used psychoactive
drugs in their rituals. Perhaps they had found reserpine, a drug which is
has a plant origin. Yeshua certainly was restrained on the cross. The
soldiers could have believed that he had died, and released the body, only
to have Yeshua spontaneously recover a day and a half later in the tomb.
- One problem with this theory is that Yeshua is said to have returned
to life within something like 33 hours after his apparent death. But the
rat experiment showed a three day period between apparent death and
apparent resurrection. However, this difference could merely be due to
the difference between the physiology of rats and humans.
The Catholic Encyclopedia's suggestion would make Yeshua's
recovery unlikely. They speculate that hundreds of pounds of spices
would have so poisoned the atmosphere that it would have killed Yeshua,
even as he was still unconscious.
The myth theory:
Jay Ingram, host of the Daily Planet program on
the Canadian Discovery Channel suggests a much simpler possibility:
Referring to the research by Persinger, he said:
"This article is
another in a long tradition of seeking natural explanations for the
supernatural: The Star of Bethlehem was a conjunction of planets; a tidal
wave accompanying a volcanic eruption in the Mediterranean explains the
parting of the Red sea...Just argue that the [resurrection] story was made
up by the creative authors of the Gospels and leave it at that."
As for the Imposition
Theory, described elsewhere, critics of the myth theory have suggested that his disciples appeared to
be discouraged and disillusioned at the time of Jesus' arrest and death. Something
changed them so that they quickly became vigorous proselytizers, totally
committed to the spreading the gospel message, in spite of the personal
hazards involved. The critics suggest that this change could not have
happened as the result of a fictional story of a resurrection.
However, many Pagan religions in the Mediterranean and Middle East regions taught a
risen god-man as savior,, and the followers
of those religions totally believed in the story.
Belief in resurrection is a recycled earlier Jewish belief:
There is some archeological evidence that at least some ancient Jews
before the birth of Jesus expected the arrival of a great Jewish leader
who would die and be resurrected three days later.
A stone tablet believed to have been written sometime in the first
BCE is now called "Gabriel's Vision of Revelations"
or "Gabriel's Revelation" or "The Vision of Gabriel."
Israel Knohl, professor of biblical studies at the Hebrew University
in Jerusalem believes that one line on the tablet describes the Archangel Gabriel telling a "Prince of Princes" that
"In three days you shall live: I, Gabriel, command you."
Knohl suggests that the tablet could: "... overturn the vision we
have of the historic personality of Jesus. ...
This text could be the missing link between Judaism and Christianity in
so far as it roots the Christian belief in the resurrection of the
Messiah in Jewish tradition."
4 More information
In his book "Resurrection, Myth or Reality? A Bishops Search
for the Origins of Christianity," Episcopalian Bishop John Shelby
Spong suggests that the resurrection story should not be interpreted
literally. Rather, it become meaningful when
interpreted using midrash -- a Jewish literary analysis technique in which
supernatural events are explained symbolically and gain meaning by being
tied to ancient Jewish historical events. 5 For
example, many liberal Christians believe that the mass killing of Bethlehem infants by Herod
circa 4 BCE is unrelated to a
real event. If it were, it would have been recorded in the secular literature of the
time. However, when the story is interpreted with Midrash, it reflects the earlier story in the Hebrew
Scriptures in which the Pharaoh attempted to murder Moses and all of the male Hebrew
newborns. Similarly, Mary and Joseph's flight to Egypt never actually
happened; the story is an attempt to link an event Jesus' life to Moses' Exodus
from Egypt. According to Bishop Spong, the story of the resurrection
was not a supernatural incident in which Yeshua of Nazareth was bodily
restored to life in 1st century CE Palestine. Derek Miller, in reviewing Bishop Spong's book explained that
"...understood that the spirit of Jesus transcended
death because the way Jesus died was exactly like they way he lived. He
gave his life to others and for others. He loved wastefully and
selflessly. In that living and dying, the disciples concluded that Jesus
revealed the meaning of God....God is the meaning that is present in the
face of fate, tragedy, and undeserved pain. God cannot be seen in Jesus'
escape from death at Easter until God is first seen in the crucified one
who gives life as he dies, who offers forgiveness as he is victimized, who
shows love as he is hated." 6
It was this
understanding that converted Jesus' followers from a hopelessly
demoralized group into a committed, dedicated religious movement who
proclaimed "He is risen!" and "Death cannot contain him!" In
a very real sense, interpreted with Midrash, the stories explain that even
physical death could not confine Jesus' message.
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
&"Resurrection of Jesus Christ," Catholic
Encylopedia, New Advent, at:
MMichael Persinger "Science and the Resurrection:
Christ's Alleged Resurrection: Experimental Evidence for an Alternative
Hypothesis to Being Raised From the Dead by God." Skeptic magazine, Volume
Jay Ingram, "Resurrection skeptic goes to baroque
extremes," The Toronto Star, 2003-APR-13, Page A18
"Tablet stirs resurrection debate," BBC, 2008-JUL-08, at:
J.S. Spong, "Resurrection, Myth or Reality? A Bishops
Search for the Origins of Christianity", Harper San Francisco, CA,
(Reprinted, 1995) Read
reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
Derek Miller, "What Easter is All About: A Review of
John Shelby Spong's "Resurrection: Myth or Reality?" at:
Copyright © 2003 to
2008 by Ontario Consultant on Religious Tolerance
Essay originally written: 2003-APR-13
Essay last updated: 2008-SEP-30
Written by: B.A. Robinson