Jesus died quickly. Unlike many victims of crucifixion who often endured several days of pain before they died, Jesus died quickly. The Roman soldiers were as surprised as anyone at his early demise and even checked to be sure that he was dead by poking his body with a spear. Though none of his followers were directly at the foot of the cross, many of the women who had followed him were nearby and saw him die. After his death a follower of his, Joseph of Arimathea, went to Pilate and asked for the body…a very brave act considering Jesus has been crucified for sedition. Permission having been granted Joseph took the body and had it placed in a family tomb. A stone was rolled in front of the tomb and everyone went home. The Sabbath had come.
This much of the story would seem to be commonly agreed upon by most commentators. I say that for several reasons. First no one in the first century would have made up a story about someone being crucified. It was a humiliating and ritually unclean way to die. Second crucifixion meant one was an enemy of the state…hardly a selling point for a religion in the first century. Finally there are both Jewish and Roman sources which confirm the crucifixion. At the most basic level then, most people will acknowledge that Jesus lived and died. The question that has divided people is what happened to the body.
Where Jesus' story begins to take a turn for the unusual is that when the women (or woman) arrived at the tomb on Sunday, after the Sabbath they discovered that the tomb was empty and the body gone. What remained were the grave clothes only. Depending on which Gospel we read they were informed by men in bright clothing, an angel or a number or angels that Jesus was not here but had been raised from the dead. Next we have various accounts of what message the people received, who saw Jesus first and how those persons interacted with him. There is little consistency within these elements of the stories. What is consistent however is that Jesus' body is gone and that all the persons are told he has been raised and is alive. In other words he has been resurrected.
I want to take a moment and make sure that we are all on board with what resurrection means. Resurrection means that someone who was dead…clinically dead…no heartbeat and no brain activity…is now alive…heart beating and brain working. Resurrection is not that a person dies and becomes a spirit or a ghost. Resurrection is not that someone lives in our memory. I say this because the Greek language has words to describe ghosts, spirits and memories. The Gospels do not use those words to describe what happened to Jesus. They speak of resurrection, meaning being made alive in a fully physical sense. This being alive is confirmed by people touching Jesus (Mary), Jesus eating with his friends and the witness of more than 500 persons (according to Paul) who interacted with Jesus after his resurrection.
Across the centuries people have had trouble with this resurrection thing. The Romans claimed that the disciples stole Jesus' body so they could claim he was raised from the dead (hardly seems likely since the disciples were not expecting him to be raised). Some have claimed that he was probably a specter of some kind (note my earlier comments). More modern scholars have spoken of resurrection as a common memory (not sure why anyone would have made up a memory of a living Jesus when it went against almost all understandings of life and death in both Jewish and Roman cultures).
Ultimately, according to the Apostle Paul, our faith rises or falls upon the resurrection of Jesus. If he was not raised then Jesus is just another dead Jewish teacher. If he was raised then the world has been changed.Orthodox Christianity profess that he was resurrected and lives even now. I understand completely that many of you reading this will not agree with this diagnosis and that is fine. Even so I hope you will ponder the possibility that the resurrection was a real event in time and space.