Did Jesus(as) Really Die, Rise from the Dead and Ascend to Heaven?4 Comments | March 2012
The physical resurrection and ascension of Jesus(as) is a most crucial facet of the Christian faith. The entire foundation of Christian belief is based on the supernatural and miraculous resurrection of Jesus’(as) atonement for the sins of mankind through his death. If, however, we choose to believe that Jesus(as) actually died on the cross, we would also have to admit that all his efforts were lost in vain, and that it was a shameful end of his ministry on the cross. The previous articles in this Edition explained how God saved the Prophet Jesus(as) from being killed on the cross to prevent him from dying an ‘accursed death’, and in answer to his supplications to be saved. Here, we will examine evidence that the reliability of the Gospel accounts is highly contentious and does not provide any firm evidence of Jesus’(as) physical or spiritual resurrection or ascension. If this is proved to be true, it would indicate that Jesus(as) survived the crucifixion and was alive.
The Credibility of the Resurrection Narratives
Jesus’(as) Body Placed in the Tomb
In Mark 15:46 and Luke 23:50-54, Joseph of Arimathea takes the body of Jesus(as) and lays him in an open tomb. According to Matthew 27:59-60, 66, Joseph of Arimathea takes the body of Jesus(as), lays it in his own new tomb and the Roman guards secure the front of the tomb. John 19:41 has a different interpretation altogether where Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea take the body of Jesus(as), anoint him with spices, wrap the body and place it in the open tomb in the garden nearby.
Visiting the Tomb
According to Mark 16:1-2, Mary Magdalene, Mary (follower of Jesus(as)) Mother of James and Salome , take spices to anoint the body and arrived at the tomb when the sun had risen. In Mathew 28:1 Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the grave as it began to dawn. According to Luke 24:10, Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of James, Joanna, and other women took spices which they had prepared the night before to anoint Jesus(as) body and they arrived at early dawn. John 20:1 says only Mary Magdalene went to the tomb when it was still dark.
When is the Tomb Stone Rolled Away? Who is at the Tomb?
In Mark 16:3-4,5, the women arrive at the tomb, the tombstone is already rolled away and one angel is sitting on the right side, inside the tomb. According to Matthew 28:1-2, the women arrive at the tomb, there is an earthquake, then an angel appears, removes the tomb stone and sits on it. In Luke 24:2, 4, when they arrived, the stone had already been removed and two angels are standing by the women, inside the tomb. In John 20:1-2, 12, when Mary arrived, the stone had already been taken away, she sees the missing body, runs out and when she comes back the second time then she sees two angels one at the head and the other at the feet where Jesus(as) was laid.
The Reaction of the Women after Discovering the Missing Body, and the First Appearance of Jesus(as)
According to Mark 16: 6-8, the angel was told to go and tell the disciples that Jesus(as) has risen and was travelling towards Galilee. The women left the tomb trembling with fear, and did not say anything to anyone. In verse 9, Jesus(as) appears to Mary Magdalene. It is not clear where he met her. It was some time after she fled the tomb. Matthew 28:4-8, 9, mentions how the guards shook with fear at the appearance of the angels. The women were told to go and tell the disciples that Jesus(as) has risen and would see them in Galilee. The women left quickly with joy and ran to let the disciples know, but they met Jesus(as) on the way in Jerusalem before they saw the disciples. Matthew further adds, in verses 11-14, that while the women were on their way, the guards went into the city and reported what had happened to the chief priests. They assembled with the elders who consulted and decided to give the soldiers a large sum of money, and instructed them to tell people that:
‘You are to say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole Him away while we were asleep. And if this should come to the governor’s ears, we will win him over and keep you out of trouble.’
They took the money and did as they had been instructed; and this story was widely spread among the Jews, and is to this day.
In Luke’s story (24:5-11) the women are terrified, the two angels tell them that Jesus(as) had risen. They return and inform the disciples, who would not believe them. Peter runs to the tomb and sees the linen wrappings. Luke’s account of the first appearance of Jesus(as) is different to Matthew and Mark. Luke mentions that on their way home about 7 miles away from Jerusalem in Emmaus, Cleopas and another (not Mary Magdalene) met Jesus(as) who accompanied them on their way, but they do not recognise him. When they reached the village they asked him to stay, and they recognised Jesus(as) when he sits to eat with them, but after that, he disappears.
John 20:11-18 gives a completely contradictory account in comparison to the synoptics (Mark, Matthew and Luke). The angels ask Mary why she was crying. As Mary was about to respond, she turned around and saw Jesus(as), disguised as gardener, standing there. There are no angels giving instructions to Mary in John’s story. On the contrary, in the Fourth Gospel, it is Jesus(as) who appears to Mary in person, not the two angels, telling her that he has risen. John’s account also does not mention the Roman soldiers, whom Matthew places at the tomb. Without the presence of the guards at the tomb, John’s Mary believed that Jesus(as)’ body had been removed from the tomb.
Jesus’(as) Other Appearances after Leaving the Tomb
It is widely believed that Mark 16:9-20 is a much later insertion which is not found in the earlier ancient manuscripts of the New Testament Gospels. However, the later addition asserts that Jesus(as) appeared to the eleven disciples telling them to preach to the whole world. However, in Matthew 28:16-20, the eleven disciples proceeded to Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus(as) had designated. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some were doubtful. Then Jesus(as) told his disciples to preach: ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations.’ In Luke 24:36-49, Jesus’(as) followers were startled and frightened and thought that they were seeing a spirit. He said to them:
‘Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself; touch Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.’
And then showed them his hands and his feet. He said, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ They gave him a piece of fish; which he took and ate in front of them. Then Jesus(as) explains the Law of Moses, the prophets and Psalms to his disciples indicating that they must be fulfilled. According to John 20:19-30, in the evening on the same day, Jesus(as) met his disciples behind closed doors for fear of the Jews, and he showed them his hands, feet and his side. According to Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus(as) made this appearance to all the eleven surviving Disciples. Paul’s version mentions the presence of all twelve Apostles (1 Corinthians 15:5), although Judas had long since died (Matthew 27:5, Acts 1:18). Contrary to all this, John’s story places only ten disciples at the scene, Thomas being absent! (John 20:24).
Strangely, Paul never mentions the physical, bodily resurrection of Jesus(as). He also does not mention the empty tomb, appearances to the Disciples, or the ascension of Jesus(as) into heaven. In Galatians 1, he mentions that he first met Jesus(as) in a ‘revelation’ on the road to Damascus, not in the flesh. 1 Corinthians 15; Paul says the original eye-witnesses—Peter, James, the twelve Disciples, and hundreds of others—saw Jesus(as) the same way Paul did, then he describes how the body that dies is not the body that rises. This indicates quite strongly that Paul did not believe in the physical resurrection, but something completely different.
The Resurrection and Ascension
Many scholars, including Constantine Von Tischendorf—the noted German Biblical scholar and author of Criticial Edition of the New Testament—generally agree that the author of Mark pureposely stopped at verse 16:8. This means that the original version of the Gospel did not describe any post-resurrection appearances of Jesus(as). According to the later additional verses of Mark 16:14-19, Jesus(as) went up to heaven and sat at the right hand of God, but there is no clear evidence that this is an accurate reference. There is only one account of the ascension in Luke 24:50-51. This was also omitted in the early ancient texts. The cross-reference to the ascension is in Acts 1:9-12; the author of Acts is also Luke. If the original reference was omitted in Luke, then it does not have much credibility in Acts at all.
The resurrection narratives would thus be deemed unreliable and a cause for real concern, because of the conflicting inconsistencies. In fact, it appears that the resurrection became a growing legend over time as the Gospels slowly emerged one by one several decades after the crucifixion (each author of the Gospel adds an addition to the story one after the other) because of contradictions in the accounts. The main issue to bear in mind is that, how can it be possible that such a crucial and essential tenet of the Christian faith as the resurrection is recorded so poorly and inaccurately? If this was truly a divine and miraculous event, then surely God would have enabled the account of Jesus’(as) resurrection to be safeguarded and preserved in its actual form of the Biblical narratives as a primary and fundamental source of reference for its followers.
The Gospel narratives clearly indicate that the appearances to the Disciples were real and actually happened. The evidence that the New Testament narratives provide, are that Jesus(as) was alive and he was not roaming the world in a supernatural state as a ghost or spirit. He had all the faculties and signs of a living human being, expressing the need to physically eat and drink, and his followers could touch his physical body. He was disguising himself and was hiding out of fear of persecution. Yet he was mindful of his incomplete mission, and continued to guide his disciples whilst in hiding. All of these facts indicate that he was not God. For arguments sake, even if he was, then why would there be a need for God to be incarnated and resurrected? It is very likely and plausible that the idea of the physical resurrection was borrowed from the idea of gods being expected to raise people bodily from the dead. Associating Jesus(as) with this idea would have been a very easy mistake to make at the time:
‘Babylonian folklore claimed that Tammuz was worshipped during the spring. However, after he was slain, his mother (Easter) so wept that he became alive again. The manifestation of his resurrected life was the arrival of vegetation in the spring. When Jesus(as) arose in the spring following his crucifixion, logic seemed to dictate a connection between ignominious fable and the glorious fact. Then, when the church later desired to become popular with pagan and saint, it amalgamated the celebration of Jesus(as) resurrection with the fertility rites, eggs, and other accoutrements of a pagan holiday. After all Easter celebrated the arrival of spring, the resurrection of life from the dead of winter. What could be more appropriate?’
The inaccuracies, contradictions and inconsistencies in the New Testament cast a great shadow of doubt on its reliability and accuracy. In view of this, the most ardent scholars have attempted to go back to the original early sources (ancient texts of the Bible in the form of Codices, fragments and manuscripts) in the aim to try and trace exactly what happened during the life of Jesus(as). Such ancient sources have come to light through archeological findings. After decades of excavation, archaeological discoveries have provided evidence and assisted researchers in the verifying the reliability of the Old and New Testaments. Some discoveries have shed completely new light on the Biblical stories. Amongst the discoveries were:
‘Over 1000 previously unknown documents, written in Greek, Arabic, Syrian, Armenian, Ethiopian, Gregorian and Latin. This astonishing collection, buried for nearly 200 years and unknown to the outside world for nearly 2000, must be included in the sequence of major twentieth-century discoveries that includes the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Gnostic Gospels’.
Amongst the discovered Codices, the masterpiece was the Codex Sinaitcus, which is the oldest surviving Bible in the world. The Codex Sinaticus is also one of the most important witnesses to the Greek text of the Septuagint (the Old Testament in the version that was adopted by early Greek-speaking Christians) and the Christian New Testament. This manuscript of the Christian Bible written in the middle of the Fourth Century has immensely contributed to the reconstruction of the original Christian Biblical text and history.
Resurrection and Ascension References in the Early Texts
When examining early texts, the process of searching for the truth becomes ever more complicated for Christians:
‘According to St Marks Gospel, as contained in Codex Sinaiticus, They went out and ran away from the tomb, beside themselves with terror. They said nothing to anybody, for they were afraid. There, according to codex Sinaiticus, the Gospel of mark comes to an end. It does not so end, of course, in the Authorized Version of the English Bible, nor in the received texts of any of the orthodox Christian Churches. Their version all continued with a further 12 verses.’
‘The scribe who brought Mark’s Gospel to an end in Codex Sinaiticus had no doubt that it finished at chapter 16, verse 8. He underlined the text with a fine artistic squiggle, and wrote, The Gospel according to Mark. Immediately following begins the Gospel of Luke.’
In Luke 24:51 we are told how Jesus(as) left his Disciples following the resurrection. ‘He blessed them, was parted from them, and was carried up into heaven.’ This last phrase ‘and was carried up into heaven’ does not appear in Codex Sinaiticus or in Codex Vaticunus. According to the textual critic C.S.C. Williams, if this omission is correct, then ‘There is no reference at all to the Ascension in the original text of the Gospels.’
Interestingly, Bentley points out that:
‘The early century manuscripts Codex Sinaiticus, Codex Syriacus, Codex Vaticunus and Codex Bobiensis do not contain the last twelve verses of the Gospel of Mark. This is a notable omission: it is these verses only which contain the description of Jesus(as) resurrection appearance. Since Mark’s (in accordance with the Synoptic theory, discovery of who wrote first amongst Mathew, Mark and Luke) account seems to be not only the earliest but also that on which Matthew and Luke based their accounts, a question arises: what is the basis for the accounts of Jesus’(as) bodily resurrection according to Matthew, Luke and John?’
The Ending of Mark
Regarding the abrupt ending of Mark, Bentley writes:
‘Once we assume that Mark was written first and used by at least two of the other evangelists, we are forced to ask whether or not they, so to speak, watered down what he had to preach. John Fenton makes no bones about this. Mark’s theology, he asserts, was too rigorous for the church, and the revisions that were made by Matthew, Luke and John were adaptations to meet the weakness of human nature. Everywhere in his Gospel, Mark presupposes that Jesus(as) is alive…The extra twelve verses we have already quoted were probably added by a presbyter named Aristion in the second century.’
Did Jesus(as) Predict his Own Resurrection?
‘And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven.’ (John 3:13)
This reference relates to a visit by Nicodemus (John 3). Nicodemus was afraid, or ashamed to be seen with Jesus(as), therefore he would visit him in the night. Jesus(as) welcomed him. Nicodemus did not talk with Jesus(as) about the state affairs, though he was a ruler, he discussed his own concerns of his own spiritual state. Jesus(as) explained the necessity and nature of regeneration or a new birth to be born again. Here Jesus(as) is talking about a spiritual rebirth and reformation. Nicodemus misunderstood Jesus(as) and he acknowledged this, which showed his desire to be better informed. What Jesus(as) was trying to preach was the necessity for change in order to be fit enough to ‘enter into the kingdom of God till we are born again.’ This refers to the hereafter and the Day of Resurrection, not Jesus’(as) own bodily resurrection and ascension. Christians have interpreted this verse to mean that Jesus(as) was omnipresent, but Jesus(as) never made such a claim. What the Biblical references refer to is that he was fearful of times to come and spoke very clearly and openly.
Christians traditionally believe that Jesus(as) died and rose supernaturally, and miraculously. However, others have provided other theories relating to the empty tomb. One such theory is that Jesus’(as) body went missing, or was stolen. Regarding this, Hadhrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad(rh), the Fourth Successor to the Promised Messiah(as) said:
‘We know for certain that the Jews were unhappy and disturbed at not finding the body of Jesus Christ(as). They wanted to be sure of Jesus’(as) death and for that they needed the universally acceptable proof of death, that is, the presence of a dead body. Their complaint, lodged with Pilate, evidently displays their uneasiness about its potential disappearance. The real and simple answer, however, lay in the fact that as Christ had not died in the manner that was believed so the question of a missing body was totally irrelevant, and in keeping with his promise he must have left Judea in search of the lost sheep of the House of Israel. Obviously he could not be seen again.’
Christian belief relies on the historical event of the resurrection. If Jesus(as) was not bodily resurrected, He was not God, He did not redeem mankind and Christianity would have no standing. As Paul Says:
‘If Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins!’ (1 Corinthians 15:17.).
If Jesus(as) could not rise from the dead, He is not the saviour and faith is a lie. The fact remains that God saved Jesus(as) from dying as a result of the most extreme, shameful form of punishment, that of crucifixion. He did not die as a criminal, openly, shamefully and disgracefully in the eyes of the world:
‘Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree.’ (Galatians 3:13).
Jesus(as) has been a dominant figure in history for over the last two thousand years, but more evidence will continue coming to light to prove that Jesus(as) did not die on the cross, he was not resurrected and he did not ascend to heaven. God the Exalted says in the Holy Qur’an:
‘O Jesus(as), I will cause thee to die a natural death and will exalt thee to Myself, and will clear thee from the charges of those who disbelieve, and will place those who follow thee above those who disbelieve, until the Day of resurrection; then to Me shall be your return, and I will judge between you concerning that wherein you differ. (Ch.3:V.56)
Prior to his crucifixion, Jesus(as) instructed his followers:
These twelve Jesus(as) sent forth, and commanded them, saying, Go not into the way of the Gentiles, and into any city of the Samaritans enter ye not: But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matthew 10:5-7)
But when they persecute you in this city, flee ye into another: for verily I say unto you, Ye shall not have gone over the cities of Israel, till the Son of man be come. (Matthew 10:23)
Jesus(as) escaped the clutches of his persecutors and the son of man continued his mission in search of the lost sheep of Israel.
Navida Sayed is on the Editorial Board of The Review of Religions. She has been the Coordinator of the Ahmadiyya Community’s Lajna Research Team UK since 1992, whose work has predominantly revolved around Biblical Studies.
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- Bentley, J. (1985). Secrets of Mount Sinai the story of finding the world’s oldest Bible – Codex Sinaiticus. London: Orbis Publishing Ltd., p.22
- Bentley, J. (1985). Secrets of Mount Sinai the story of finding the world’s oldest Bible – Codex Sinaiticus. London: Orbis Publishing Ltd., p.138
- Bentley, J. (1985). Secrets of Mount Sinai the story of finding the world’s oldest Bible – Codex Sinaiticus. London: Orbis Publishing Ltd., p.139
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