Telling the Truth about Easter

Jesus, a radical preacher who advocated for the poor, was crucified for turning over money tables at the Temple and other insurrectionary acts. His body was likely left to wild animals, but his chroniclers sought to glorify his ending with myths about a resurrection, as Rev. Howard Bess explains.

By the Rev. Howard Bess

On Easter morning, at 6:30 a.m. when sunlight is just beginning to glow over the mountains to the east of Palmer, Alaska, I will, as is my custom, arrive at a sunrise Easter service to celebrate the resurrection of my Lord. I have already checked the lectionary and reread the resurrection story as recorded in Matthew 28:1-10. Millions of my Christian brothers and sisters will be reading the same ten verses.

Millions of sermons will be preached based on the Matthew account of the resurrection, but very few preachers will make mention of the history and background of the passage. A typical minister will not share what he/she learned in theological seminary about the resurrection passages.

Depiction of Jesus's Crucifixion by 16th Century artist Mathis Gothart-Nithart.

Depiction of Jesus’s Crucifixion by 16th Century artist Mathis Gothart-Nithart.

Figuring out what happened to Jesus is not a simple journey. I do not recall when I first started raising questions. I do know that it began when I laid the resurrection accounts down side by side and started comparing the differing stories of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. They cannot be reasonably reconciled.

For instance, in Matthew an angel caused an earthquake and rolled the stone away from the entrance into the tomb. The angel then engaged women in conversation. The other story tellers mention no earthquake and no angels. The Matthew account was beyond my own personal experience with earthquakes and angelic conversations. Believing in the resurrection story as history became more difficult to embrace.

The next step in my journey was to learn that the story cannot be connected to any eyewitnesses. There is no known verification that any of the followers of Jesus, including his disciples, saw and touched a real live post-death flesh-and-blood Jesus. There are reports of ghost-like appearances that float in and out of places and finally into a cloud in the heavens.

But these ghostly appearances are hardly verification of a flesh-and-blood resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

The Matthew account – written at least 50 to 60 years after the death of Jesus – looks more and more like a writer of fiction, not a reporter of history with verifying witnesses.

Nevertheless, no one can doubt that within a few years a rapidly growing number of people believed that Jesus was raised from the dead. Under the leadership of Paul, a whole theological interpretation was given to the death and resurrection of Jesus.

The humble prophet from a small village in northern Palestine was made into a universal figure that demanded recognition as the central figure of all human history. An ugly death on a Roman cross could not wipe out his significance. God raised his son, Jesus, from the dead. For these early believers, the history of this transformation took place in real time, in real history, in real life.

So, every Easter presents people with a murky question: Did Jesus come back from the dead in real flesh and blood? If he did not, can a devout Christian hold fast in his/her faith? Can a questioning person still sing all those great Easter songs and celebrate Christ’s resurrection without crossing his/her fingers?

I have resolved the dilemma to the satisfaction of my own head, heart and soul. I do not believe Jesus was raised from the dead in flesh and blood. I do not believe he had a respectful burial. It is more likely that he was crucified and left for dogs to tear at his dead flesh and for scavenger birds to peck at his dead body.

I do not believe that I am reading history when I read the resurrection narratives of the four gospels. Rather, I believe I must read the resurrection narratives as mythology written by devout and believing followers who claimed Jesus as their Lord.

Our respect for mythology as a carrier of truth needs a rebirth. I contend that mythology is a time-tested and honored literary tool to do truth-telling, although not literal truth. Technically, mythology is any story or report in which God or a god is the primary actor. Mythology will always defy historical analysis, so I should never attempt a fool’s chase.

Jesus was killed because he was a speaker of God’s truth. He was an unrelenting advocate of justice. The resurrection stories make a profound declaration: Truth can never be killed and the truth-teller can never be defeated. [For more on the crucifixion, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Misunderstanding Jesus’s Execution.”]

At Easter sunrise service, mine will be a hearty voice singing “Up from the grave he arose” and “He lives, he lives, Christ Jesus lives today.”

The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska.  His email address is hdbss@mtaonline.net.   

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21 comments on “Telling the Truth about Easter

  1. Rehmat on said:

    All divine messangers including Jesus were “radicals” and “reformers”.

    It was Judas Iscariot (Luke 22), a Jewish hero, who took Roman soldiers to the hiding place of Jesus. According to Gospel of Barnabas, when Judas entered the hiding place, God changed his face to “Jesus look-alike”, and when he came out to tell Roman soldiers that Jesus escaped – they took him as Jesus and hanged him.

    Holy Qur’an has testifies in Surah Imran (named after an Israelite tribe) and Surah Mariyam (named after Jesus’ mother Mary) that prophet Jesus was saved from crucification by Allah and raised alive to Heavens, and he will return to Earth as a Believer (Muslim) and experience a natural death like the rest of human-beings.

    http://rehmat1.com/2014/04/19/jesus-dies-at-auschwitz-for-jews-again/

  2. I am aware of the contradictions in the Gospel accounts. In fact, I expect different witnesses to have differing points of view. I would be suspicious otherwise. That said, I find the similarities more striking. When someone comes up with evidence for dogs eating Jesus’ flesh, let me know. The Gospel of Barnabas is hardly Scripture. The Holy Qur’an is hardly a disinterested witness. When Bess and Rehmat, and the rest of the commenters that will contribute, can offer an equally compelling narrative based on evidence, not just a bunch of unverifiable theories, for the origin and spread of the church, then you will have given something to seriously consider. If the resurrection was not historical, I will revert back to the agnosticism from which I came. I am waiting; you all have the floor.

    • Hi bobzz

      I have no more than a general knowledge of ancient or biblical history, so I don’t have anything to say about evidence of what really happened or might have happened 2000 years ago.

      I do understand that one of the major points of the Christian faith is that Jesus not only was resurrected, but is alive now, and a person can have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. And such a relationship is supposed to make the all important difference in a person’s life.

      I did once “accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior” many years ago, and took (or tried to take) the above things seriously. I found, and came to realize, after taking Christianity seriously for a period of 15 years, that the Christian faith, and my supposedly having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, had been of absolutely no help to me in enabling me to better deal with some very painful circumstances in my life, or with anything that was a source of personal pain, frustration, or unhappiness for me. I am as certain as I am of anything that this is the case for me.

      That being the case, I no longer consider myself to be a Christian. In particular I have absolved myself of any duties and obligations specifically imposed by the Christian faith (as opposed to those incumbent on any good or moral person). I am as certain as I am of anything that this was the right and healthy thing for me to do, and am happy about having done so.

      That being said, however, I am also not an atheist. I have some problems with taking atheism to some of its final logical conclusions. I would consider myself to be just on the believing side of agnostic, and really more a Deist that anything else. And the matter of life after this present life is an open question for me; however I definitely do lean toward believing in something after this present life, especially given the near-death experiences which we hear about.

      And thanks, bobzz, for your nice response to a recent post of mine, one in the last previous article by Howard Bess. One to which somebody else responded in a way that was not at all nice, and really was very nasty. To put it bluntly, this person made up some things that were untrue about my motives for saying what I said in my post.

      • mark paren on said:

        Dont Blame on GOD …blame on SATAN coz he make you think that way..coz that’s what he want..beside if you follow Jesus there is alots of obstacle and how long you can stay firm..

        • And screw you too.

          And you can take your advice and preaching and shove it.

        • And if it suits you or anybody to believe that I am choosing hell or choosing Satan, that is your business. I am not going to let it bother me or intimidate me.

          And anyway this book known as the “Holy” Bible was written by fallible human beings, and exhibits human fallibility and human prejudice like anything else that has ever been written. Anybody believing otherwise imposes absolutely no obligation on me.

        • Boiled Frog on said:

          IOW
          Looking(observing) is of Satanic yet ignorance is Godly?

          If heaven is for the ignorant, I choose damnation.

      • bobzz on said:

        Hey, Mike, sorry to be late in answering. Life is more complex than a lot of people think. The early church was a great support to the brothers and sisters. Western individualism is a serious deterrent to strong fellowship today. My guess is that you were let down.

  3. fosforos on said:

    Rev. Bess says:”. I do not believe he had a respectful burial…” In fact he had a respectful Jewish burial supervised by Joseph of Arimethia, and there is archaeological proof (the ossuary inscribed as containing his bones, together with the ossuaries of his family) found in a tomb in the Talpiot section of Jerusalem. See Tabor, James: The Jesus Discovery

  4. Morton Kurzweil on said:

    God, by definition all knowing and all powerful, like Nature limited to certain principles, must be predictable. With His ability to make His presence known directly to His creations, why are there as many Gods as there are cultures that invent the morality and acceptable rules of behavior that favor the ruling class?
    Why invent a Son, a Mother, and an aunt? Why a God the Father who dominates and teaches subservience instead of humility and social cooperation?
    Why are all other forms of life inferior to humans when everything is God’s creation?
    Humans are tool makers, as are many life forms. We learn, not by observation but by imitation and from the mistakes we make to learn our arts. Belief is a tool. A tool is useful but it is in itself never a source of truth.

    • Generally, I avoid these discussions, so this will be my last entry. Morton, yours is the philosopher’s god of abstract logic. He is not “by definition” all knowing and all powerful. These are Greek philosophical concepts. Hebrew Scripture points to events he did not foresee; he holds back on his power to allow humans to choose their course of action freely, i.e., to reject or accept him. He has changed his mind occasionally—not in his overall goal for mankind, of course. Your ‘why’ questions are simply complaints of why he did/does things the way he did/does. The problem lies with your premises, not your logic. As for a God that “dominates and teaches subservience instead of humility and social cooperation”, you are stuck in your own concepts. He teaches, instructs, reproves, and the faithful grow by that. The whole of Biblical religion is love of God and neighbor as ourselves, so he certainly teaches social justice. What angers him most is our inhumanity to each other. I am aware of the church’s cultural captivity, but your meaning of ‘subservience’ is not part of Biblical religion. God freed the Hebrew slaves. Christians did not knuckle under to Rome. We obeyed their laws and paid out taxes, but we did not join the legions that oppressed and enslaved the Levant until Constantine, and we paid the price, because we wanted to work with God to humanize society. We did not hold public office; we did not cooperate in the evil of the empire—a worthy work for us today if we were not culturally seduced. You might look up the courageous actions of the Barmen’s confession or the godly non-violent resistance of the Jehovah’s Witnesses or the Christadelphians under fascist Germany (I am neither incidentally). This is not subservience but freedom under the harshest of circumstances. God can’t catch a break. we criticize him for not making all things right, but if he did we would be robots. But there will come a time when he will make his full power known to all, but for now, people are free to choose. The resurrection is the guarantee.

    • I really like your comment and Bobzz below. They add a lot to the conversation. But I disagree with Raziye, when he reverts to the position that any ONE religion is superior to the other.

      In general, most religion has one God, (Allah or Yahweh). The claim of superiority has no merit, given we share the same rock spinning through the heavens. God didn’t “choose” one people to rule the rest and provide only them with the secrets of life. “Chosen” was written by the victors of ancient war.

      Does arguing over the details of “immaculate conception” or that Jesus was put in a tomb and arose…. or eaten by dogs…. really take away from his message?

      If it does, then step back and look at the bigger picture of his life. He preached to abide by the law and to love one another. His message was peace not war and he showed us what CAUSES war…money.

      The Bible says he became violent only once. Certainly he had times of anger and rebuked his followers but true anger, satan inspired anger, did not possess him, he made the choice that we are told, was of God. He threw the money changers from the temple…physically and violently. Being a wise man he knew the consequences…but he had reached a tipping point. We are told God spoke to him about it and he was acting on Gods will. I believe that true.

      He confronted the chief priests and scribes on their own turf (the temple). They were Jewish, his own religion and to say that they did not take it well is an understatement. In fact his message, that he knew would cost him his very life, was to separate religion from money ….that had corrupted the church (and often does today).

      Did he get the message across? Does it matter that he was born of a virgin or resurrected from the dead? Not really!

      Or can you focus on his life and message, knowing who killed him and why? The message is not in the details written years later by man, it is that he was savagely tortured and killed 5 days after upsetting the money changers. He was killed by his own religious people (with the acquiescence of Pilate) and government soldiers.

      So what DOES God want for man…endless war and killing over money…or to use the wisdom Jesus has given his life for?

      Look at the blood trail of the west and ask if God could be behind it. Hardly.

  5. Inspiring. Truly loved the article.
    Check out this one here for more information in regards to the truth about Easter. http://www.matt-stinson.com/the-true-story-of-easter/

  6. raziye on said:

    I totally agree with rehmat.
    The point is that the holy quran is the truthworthy source of being aware of what is right and what is wrong, what happened and what didn’t happen.
    The holy quran and prophet Mohammad are the perfect that God sent to us.
    The holy quran is the exact words of God. It was written when prophet Mohammad was alive not like the bible which was written after more than 200 years by different writers,it obvious that it should contain lots of contradictions.
    According to Allah’s words in quran Jesus didn’t not crucified and one day he will come back to this world

  7. bobzz on said:

    The New Testament was not written 200 years later. Paul’s letters were contemporary. The Synoptic Gospels were written 30-35 years after Christ, and the Jews were excellent transmitters of tradition. Discrepancies are much more troubling to Muslims because Muslim scholars destroyed copies of discrepant manuscripts of the Qu’ran so it would appear as mistake free. Yeah, they did.

  8. That is one of the major problems, and a very big problem, I have with any of the “revealed” religions, in which it is alleged that the Bible, the Pope, the Koran, the Book of Mormon, or anything else is the (or a) “true” revelation from God.

    It seems then that a person is supposed to make the correct guess as to which of several alleged revelation(s) is (are) the true revelation(s) from God. And which alleged revelation a person will accept as being true will usually depend on where a person is born and how a person is brought up.

    A fundamentalist Christian typically believes the Bible is the true and only “Word of God”, and anything else, such as the Koran, is a false revelation, and those adhering to the Koran are condemned to hell. In other words, according to a fundamentalist Christian, a person is “saved” by guessing correctly that the Bible is the true “Word of God”, and that Jesus is the only Way to God, and a Muslim is condemned to hell for making the incorrect guess that the Koran, rather than the Bible, is the true revelation from God.

    That is a major reason that I cannot adhere to any of the “revealed” religions such as Christianity, Judaism, or Islam.

    I would consider myself to be a Deist. Deists believe that reason leads one to conclude that there is (very likely) a Creator; however Deists reject any alleged revelation from God as actually being such. A revelation from God to a person, if there is such, is a revelation only to the person. Any supposed revelation from God in the Bible or the Koran is thus second-hand, or actually third-hand, or fourth hand, or however far down.

    • And I will add that God is a despicable tyrant if a person’s bliss in a future life (if there is such) is dependent on the person correctly identifying, or guessing, which among several alleged revelations from God is the one true revelation from God.

  9. Maria on said:

    Excellent article ! When I was 12 yrs old a Jesuit priest, told me the following: “All religions are a mix of myths and doctrine. The myths and legends, are important to the Church, because they explain the religious doctrine. No sacred book should be read literally, because, any sacred books, just like the Bible, the Koran or Popul Vu, are just a compilation of ancient universal myths.
    The Popul Vu (Mayan Bible), gives a detailed explanation of human evolution, -god before creating human beings, created monkeys-. Any reader that change in the biblical genesis, days for era, get an almost accurate description of life evolution in earth”. I always valued the honesty of that Catholic Jesuit priest, like I value after reading this article the honesty of Reverend Howard Best.

  10. bobzz on said:

    The historical resurrection is God’s bearing witness to his son. Its grounding in history lifts it above mere “myths and doctrine”. If I thought Christianity were mere “myth and doctrine”, I would forget it altogether. The Israelite writers of the creation accounts were not interested in cosmogony as the fundamentalists believe. Their concern was to launch broadsides against the politically oriented mythologies of the Ancient Near East. One can readily see this by reading the Akkadian Ennuma Elish and the Epic of Gilgamesh. Space forbids going in to a full discussion, obviously. As for evolution and old earth the scientists’ findings are correct; this is a big deal for fundamentalists, but not for a lot of us.
    When my Muslim friend says, “The holy quran is the exact words of God. It was written when prophet Mohammad was alive…”, the same could be said of the Bahai leader Bah’allah (sorry about the spelling) or Joseph Smith. None of these men, including Mohammad, were raised from the dead. This is what separates Christianity from other religions.
    As for judgment of outsiders, I leave it to a wise God who will give mercy and judgment where he will. It gives me serious pause that God’s judgment will begin with the CHURCH, not outsiders. The main reason people do not have a clear picture of God is that the church, with some exceptions through the centuries, lost its character when it became entangled with various states since Constantine and especially the Theodosians. Today, one could call Republicans the Christian Nationalist Party. Well, I am rambling now, so I will stop. ‘Preciate the conversation.

    • KHawk on said:

      Another great acknowledgement by Bess.

      Many people BELIEVE what God is/thinks/wants/does. Nowbody KNOWS any of these things and never has. God exists only in the gaps of our understanding of the cosmos and the human psyche, and as such, will continue to dwindle over time as intelligent species are able to fill the gaps with knowledge, or there is no one left to contemplate the concept.

      • Doe we have the wisdom however to choose peace over endless war? Jews and Muslims say no.