Skeptical New Testament scholars agree that the New Testament is a reliable historical account, but do not believe the Jesus actually rose from the dead.
To admit the resurrection happened is to admit Christianity is true. To avoid this conclusion, while simultaneously concluding that the New Testament is historically accurate, they explain that the disciples believed Jesus rose from the dead, but that it didn’t really happen. There are several theories they suggest explain what actually took place.
One theory is that the disciples were hallucinating. In The Gospel Part 4, we weighed that theory in the balances, and it was found wanting.
What if the disciples mistakenly went to the wrong tomb?
That’s not likely. The Jews (including Jesus’s disciples) knew exactly where the tomb was. It was one of their tombs! In fact, it was the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy member of the Jewish Sanhedrin. The site of the tomb was well known to the Jews. In fact, Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” were present when they laid Him in the tomb (Matthew 27:61).
It was also well known to the Romans, who posted their own soldiers at the tomb. This leads us directly to one of the same issues the hallucination theory had. If Jesus did not raise from the dead, the Romans would simply have ordered their soldiers to open the tomb and parade Jesus’s crucified body around Jerusalem, proving that Jesus was still dead.
Even if the disciples somehow got mixed up and went to the wrong tomb, this would explain the empty tomb, but not the subsequent appearances of Jesus of Nazareth alive.
The empty tomb was just one of the historical events agreed upon by skeptical and believing New Testament historians alike. Immediately after finding the empty tomb, most of the disciples lost all hope in Jesus.
In fact, when the empty tomb was discovered, Mary Magdalene thought someone (perhaps the Romans or Jesus’s enemies) had stolen Jesus’s body. She immediately ran and told Peter and John, and the three of them rushed back to the tomb. Upon seeing the empty tomb, only John believed. John explained that “as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” (John 20:9, ESV; rest of account based on John 20:1-10)
Mary Magdalene did not believe Jesus had risen from the dead until she saw Him alive (John 20:11-18). When she told the other disciples she had seen Him, they did not believe her. In fact, her “words seemed to them an idle tale” (Luke 24:11, ESV). Later on, He appeared to two disciples on the road to Emmaus, but they were kept from recognizing Him at first. He rebuked them for their unbelief, saying, “O foolish ones, slow of heart to believe all the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” After their eyes were opened, and they realized Who they had been speaking with, Jesus disappeared. By the time they reached the Eleven (the Twelve core disciples, minus Judas Iscariot), they were discussing how Jesus had appeared to Peter. These men had not been convinced by the empty tomb, and remained in doubt until Jesus personally appeared to them (you can read this account in Luke 24:13-35).
At this point, Jesus appeared and some of them still did not believe! They actually thought they were seeing a spirit–Jesus’s ghost. Jesus was forced to rebuke His doubting disciples once again. He said, “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” (Luke 24:38-39, ESV). Some of them still didn’t believe until He ate some fish and opened their minds to understand the Scriptures (full story in Luke 24:36-49).
How embarrassing. Jesus’s own disciples, who had lived with Him for three years had trouble believing He had risen from the dead, even as He stood in front of them. They had been taught by the greatest Bible teacher of all time, but they failed to understand the Scriptures. No wonder Jude advises us, “Have mercy on those who doubt” (Jude 1:22, ESV).
The New Testament was written by these same doubting disciples (or in the cases of Mark and Luke, based on the eyewitness accounts of these doubting disciples). If they were making these things up, they would not have included such embarrassing details about themselves. They certainly would not have been willing to die later on for their testimony that Jesus literally, physically rose from the dead.
It is for these very reasons that even skeptical New Testament scholars agree that the disciples believed they saw Jesus of Nazareth alive three days after being thoroughly executed by the Romans. They are unwilling to admit Jesus really rose from the dead, but they have to admit, based on the evidence, that He really died, and later the disciples sincerely believed He was alive. They believed He was alive so strongly that they proclaimed His resurrection boldly, and were even willing to die for their testimony.
In fact, His disciples were not the only ones changed forever when they believed they saw Jesus alive. Skeptics like James and Saul of Tarsus were also transformed by similar experiences.
Going to the wrong tomb cannot explain how any of this happened.