Skeptic » eSkeptic » June 1, 2005

The Skeptics Society & Skeptic magazine

The following is Tim Callahan’s review of “Resurrection,” an ABC Television 20/20 special that aired on May 20th, 2005. Tim Callahan is the Religion Editor of Skeptic magazine and the author of Bible Prophecy and Secret Origins of the Bible. His next book is on the origin and purpose of myths.

The accompanying images are from Andon Lang’s Passion Plays in Oberammergau, circa 1920, (scanned from the personal collection of Daniel Robert Loxton).

image from Andon Lang's Passion Plays in Oberammergau, circa 1920

from Passion Play in Oberammergau, circa 1920

Left Below

a review by Tim Callahan
of the ABC Television 20/20 Special ‘Resurrection’

One would think that a television show examining a belief as important to worshipers of the world’s largest religion as the Resurrection of Jesus would be capable of generating at least some controversy; but, of course, such a presupposition assumes that hard questions will be asked and opposing opinions aired. This being network TV, however, one can assume beforehand that controversy will be avoided at all costs. So, when ABC’s 20/20 looked at the Resurrection, the range of opinions certainly did not include any that were either atheist or even agnostic.

In considering the ‘historical’ background of the Resurrection, the gospel accounts were tacitly assumed to be history, at least to some degree. This includes the assumption that the body of Jesus had to be swiftly buried before sunset to avoid violating religious prohibitions against working on the Sabbath. That there were twelve disciples was also accepted. In fact, the number twelve would reflect the traditional division of the Jews into twelve tribes, and the only literature saying there were twelve is the Bible itself.

The closest the show came to any dispute worth considering was the contention of some that Jesus might not have been buried in a tomb, but rather thrown into a communal pit reserved for those condemned to death. This really wasn’t explored in any detail, however. Instead, the show quickly moved on to the debate over whether the real tomb of Jesus was the garden tomb or the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Whichever it was, the show said that nobody disputed that the tomb of Jesus was empty. Well, by all accounts it was empty. What wasn’t mentioned is that the only accounts dealing with the issue are in the New Testament, so, of course, they all say the tomb was empty.

image from Andon Lang's Passion Plays in Oberammergau, circa 1920

from Passion Play in Oberammergau, circa 1920

While the show did point out that the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was built by Constantine in the fourth century, and that before then nobody had a clue as to where the tomb of Jesus might be, the impossibility of locating the burial chamber that briefly held the corpse of Jesus was ignored. In fact, since the tomb would, if it were within the city, most likely be an above-ground chamber for internment, it probably no longer exists. The Jewish historian Josephus, who was an eyewitness to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in the year 70, said that their devastation was so thorough that if they hadn’t deliberately left a few towers standing nobody passing by would ever know there had once been a city there. The Romans leveled the place, and that leveling would have included whatever tomb housed the body of Jesus.

Another point the show failed to make is that even if Jesus did not rise from the dead the tomb would have most likely been empty. The reason for this involves the peculiar burial customs of the Jews of that day. The chamber Jesus would have been laid out in would have had a slab upon which the body was allowed to decay and dessicate. Months after the internment the relatives of the deceased would open the chamber, gather up the now disjointed bones and place them in a limestone box called an ossuary. The ossuaries were stored in side chambers of the main tomb, which was a family sepulcher. So if Jesus was laid out in the family tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, one of two things could have happened to his bones. They might have been put into an ossuary in the tomb, or the ossuary might have been taken back to Galilee for final internment. If they were left in Jerusalem, how would we know? Even assuming we could find the tomb after two Roman sackings (the one in 70 and one at the end of the Bar Kochba revolt in 134, followed by later sackings by Moslems and crusaders), how would we know the identity of any skeleton interred there?

image from Andon Lang's Passion Plays in Oberammergau, circa 1920

from Passion Play in Oberammergau, circa 1920

When dealing with the various appearances of Jesus to his disciples after his death the show did mention the story of Thomas, the doubting apostle Jesus directs to search his wounds, and the story of the apostles meeting Jesus on the road to Emmaeus, but carefully skirted the fact that none of the gospel accounts agree on the particulars of who first saw the empty tomb, whether Jesus first met the disciples as a group in Jerusalem or Galilee or what precisely he said to them. The account of Jesus’ post-Resurrection appearances given by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3–8, which was written earlier than the gospels, differs from all of their accounts. Paul says that Jesus “appeared to” or “was seen by” — depending on the English translation — first Cephas (Peter), then the 12 disciples (apparently including Judas), then over 500 people, then by James, then all of the apostles and, finally, Paul. The word variously translated as “was seen by” or “appeared to” is in the original Greek optanomai, a word that is rather neutral with respect to whether these appearances were visions or involved a resurrected body. However, a few verses later (1 Corinthians 15:12, 13) Paul refers to the resurrection, using the Greek word anastasis, which means either to stand up or stand again, strongly implying physicality.

As to the nature of the Resurrection, the only contention in this program, other than the nature of Jesus’ burial, was between those who thought that the Resurrection was physical, those who thought it was spiritual, and those who thought that it was a visionary experience on the part of Jesus’ followers. Of course, the idea that it was a mix of calculated fiction and human credulity was not explored.

One point that was strongly made was that the followers of Jesus were willing to die for their beliefs, implying thereby that there must be some truth in them. Yes, they were willing to die for what they believed; then, so too were the terrorists who crashed jets into the World Trade Center.



  1. George Grubbs says:

    My view is that if this level of historical evidence was presented in support of something you already believed was true, then you would readily accept it even with its inconsistencies in details. On the other hand, you already do not believe Jesus rose from the dead, so you slough off meaningful historical evidence as if it is meaningless. Your analogy of early Christians dying for their beliefs being the same as “terrorists” dying during 9/11 is weak. American and other countries’ war fighters are willing to die “for what they believe.” Would that be the same? Can you validly generalize as you have done? I don’t think so. There were numerous reason Christians and Jews and pagans died during that time. Most had no choice as they were rounded up by the armed forces of insane dictators and put to death no matter what they believed. Are you not aware of the possibilities concerning Jesus’ burial that the discovery and ossuary inscriptions at the Talpiot Tomb present? See “James Tabor Talpiot Tomb.” I’m not saying Tabor’s hypotheses are facts, but they do present strong possibilities.

  2. James says:

    The story of Jesus and his resurrection has to many counter culture lines running through it to not be true. Could some myth have been attached to the story, (ie the virgin birth), yes, but every other aspect was so different to what a “God Being”, would have experienced coming to earth in that day, that its underlying message has to be true. A made up story wouldn’t have had Jesus poor, humble, perform miracles that only benefited those who were also poor or desperate. People were uneducated but not stupid back then. Life was to hard to waste on someone who wasn’t exceptional The apostles were all painted as flawed men, yet they went on to perform courageous acts of faith in what they saw as a God in Jesus. Jesus on the other hand could only have been one of three things, insane, a liar or like he said the Son of God. To many of his words that have survived today show he wasn’t insane. A liar would not have made people risk their lives to follow him. If you look at the whole story as factual and not try and pick it apart looking for flaws in every little detail it makes a lot of sense. How else could God have sent a message that would have survived the ages and been a cornerstone for so many lives. You have to remember, 2000 years ago, people had no idea where their next meal was coming from. They didn’t have time to waste on someone who couldn’t directly help them. Just the reaction of those who knew him is proof enough for me. This is the one subject where not being a skeptic makes it easier to come to a understanding.

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