There are predictions of Jesus' own resurrection in Mark 8: 31; 9: 31, and 10: 34, but the precision of ‘on the third day’ argues against the authenticity of these sayings, which are more likely to have been the Church's elaboration of an expectation expressed by Jesus of some sort of ultimate vindication. In the gospel of John (11: 1–44) the raising to life of Lazarus serves as a kind of prediction of Jesus' own resurrection. It signifies the power of resurrection which the Father has given to Jesus. Cf. John 12: 24. But the raising of Lazarus, like that of the daughter of Jairus (Mark 5: 42–3) was, in the narrative, a resuscitation. They returned to their ordinary, mortal existence, until their eventual natural deaths. Jesus' risen life is depicted in the NT as transformation into a new bodily life: his resurrection was an eschatological rather than an observable historical event.
That God raised Jesus from the dead is a triumphant belief that rings through almost every one of the NT books but is beset with problems. For no act of a transcendent God can be open to scrutiny as though it was just another event in the course of history. Hence the gospel of Mark ends at 16: 8 without any account of the act of resurrection or of an appearance of the risen Jesus. There are, however, several ways of affirming the Christian belief in the resurrection of Jesus on the basis of the NT documents. Much depends on the evidence of the earliest witness available to us: Paul. In 1 Cor. 15: 3–8 he provides a summary of what he had, in about 50 CE, personally and authoritatively instructed that Church. Within two decades of the first Easter Paul was proclaiming Jesus' resurrection. Moreover, Paul paid a visit to Jerusalem not later than 35 CE, soon after he received his call on the Damascus road (Gal. 1: 18–19) and there conversed with Peter. It is reasonable to assume that the earliest traditions about the resurrection were not passed over in silence when they met. Paul therefore received confirmation of his own experience of his encounter with the risen Christ; and he met the infant Church of Jerusalem which was the living testimony to the truth of Jesus' resurrection. His own experience on the Damascus road was regarded by him as similar to other resurrection appearances (1 Cor. 15: 8). For unlike Luke (24: 43) Paul appears to deny the physicality of Jesus' risen body (1 Cor. 15: 20 and 50).
The gospels in fact develop a second kind of resurrection apologetic: the tomb was empty on Easter morning. A widely held view is that the gospels' accounts are late and designed to support the existing belief based on the witnesses to the appearances. The gospels have too many inconsistencies (e.g. the number of women at the tomb, and of ‘angels’; the purposes of the women's visits, and what they did about the message they were to deliver) as well as improbabilities (the rising to life of Jewish heroes to walk the streets, Matt. 27: 52–3; and 27: 62–6) to be accepted as reliable, historical records. Luke's account of appearances in which Jesus was given food to eat and was presumably supposed by Luke to be wearing clothes but nevertheless was able to pass through closed doors (24: 36)—and yet was unrecognized by his two companions who conversed with him on the road to Emmaus (24: 16)—seems to be more theological interpretation than historical narrative. The meal at Emmaus was reminiscent of the Lord's Supper; later, in Jerusalem, he ate a piece of fish (Luke 24: 42); Luke is emphasizing the continuing identity of the risen Jesus with Jesus of the ministry. His renewed ‘flesh and bones’ (24: 39) express a theological conviction of the enduring value of the human body and all its experiences. Thus it is the considered view of much modern scholarship that Paul's early account is to be accepted as the more reliable expression of early Christian belief rather than those of the gospels.
A radical view held by several NT scholars (notably Rudolf Bultmann) is that there were no objective visions of the risen Jesus. The historical truth is that there were a number of ‘individual risings to new life’. The disciples were brought to new and radical decisions about themselves. By themselves they knew they could do nothing. Now they could truly be alive. For disciples, then and now, the stories of the resurrection of Jesus are to be understood as Christian proclamation to give assurance of the victory of the Cross. In itself the crucifixion, an event of history under Pontius Pilate, is not a saving event. It only becomes that when it is preached and believed, and the resurrection is an invitation to contemplate the triumphant significance of the Cross, in faith, and experience its liberating power. Then indeed we know ourselves as we truly are. However, Bultmann's understanding of the resurrection (which is in terms of existentialist philosophy) fails to account satisfactorily for the new power which seized hold of the disciples. ‘Risings to new life’ were not what the resurrection of Christ actually meant, but are implications or consequences of resurrection belief which came to be held not by a number of individuals but a number of groups (1 Cor. 15: 3–8).
A defence of the historical value of the story of the empty tomb admits the inconsistencies between the four accounts but suggests that if there were no discrepancies in the years when the traditions were taking shape it would lead to the suspicion of a carefully constructed Christian deceit. Granted that there are legendary accretions in the narratives, nevertheless it is interesting that Paul's account, which many scholars accept, mentions that Christ was buried and was raised (1 Cor. 15: 12, 20) which implies that the tomb was empty; and therefore the NT evidence is unanimous that the tomb was empty. Moreover, ‘the third day’, instead of the rabbis' expectation of a general resurrection of the nation on a seventh day, adds to the evidence: if the tradition was false, Christians would have chosen another day. Paul, staying in the city for two weeks some six years after the crucifixion, had been in a good situation to hear about the tomb. The announcement conveyed by women, which could have been humiliating for the disciples, is a further piece of good evidence, and the discovery that the tomb was empty by the women, especially Mary Magdalene, is regarded as the most accessible evidence in the tradition for an historian. It is also claimed that the resurrection faith could hardly have survived in face of a tomb containing the body of Jesus—a faith which the Jews could have instantly refuted by producing the body; but the resurrection body of Jesus was not resuscitated like Lazarus', but was transformed and transphysical.
There are certainly difficulties about the reliability of the empty tomb narratives. Mark ends at 16: 8 with the women running away in fear, and not telling anyone what they had seen. This would seem to be an explanation by Mark to account for the story of the empty tomb not being part of the earliest kerygma. Matthew expands Mark, but his additions read like the story of the Church and the Jews in the second half of the 1st cent. rather than an account of the first Easter. Luke's narrative is historically questionable: he provides an impossible sequence of events for a single day (24: 29)—a return of 12 km. (7 miles) to the city in the dark, an appearance to the disciples, a walk to Bethany, and prayer in the Temple (24: 53). But the narratives suggest that the resurrection could be regarded by Christians as God's ratification of the values of Jesus the teacher and man of holiness. It is an eschatological event: the point at which history is transcended. After the resurrection Jesus, according to the gospels, was recognized by disciples as the one they had already known, who had gone about doing good (Acts 10: 38), and important testimony to the truth of the resurrection must be the immediate and continuing existence of a community engaged in worship on Sundays (Acts 20: 7; Rev. 1: 10); where it both testifies to lives forgiven and also offers forgiveness.
The appearances are located by Mark and Matthew in Galilee (‘of the Gentiles’, Isa. 9: 1) wherein Jesus' main ministry lay, but in Jerusalem according to Luke–Acts to comply with Luke's presentation of Jerusalem as the place of revelation: Luke writing for Gentiles is concerned to remind them that salvation is ‘from the Jews’ in the first place.
Much Western art has depicted Jesus rising out of the tomb, sometimes bearing aloft a flag and appearing more in the nature of a reanimated corpse than the Lord who has been elevated into an entirely new dimension which is Paul's implication of the ‘spiritual body’ of the risen Christ (1 Cor. 15: 45). By contrast, Eastern Orthodox iconography has traditionally treated the resurrection symbolically as a triumph over evil in a cosmic victory (1 Pet. 3: 19–20).