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Biblical Foundation for the Resurrection Narratives

A Christian birthed and nurtured in the Catholic faith and tradition. Joshua has degrees in both philosophy and sacred theology.


The Centrality of Resurrection Narratives

The resurrection narratives are central to the Christian faith. This is more evident in the encounter of the risen Jesus with the disciples and Apostles. Seeing the risen Christ move about, eat, and speak with the disciples, one spontaneously comes to think of him as a reanimated body.

Still, it is appropriate to see the resurrection of Jesus not simply as an astonishing fact but as a mystery expressed in his affinity with the Church. Hence, St. Paul says, "if there is no resurrection, we are of all men most to be pitied (1 Cor. 15:19). The kerygma of the resurrection has been the principal constant of the Christian tradition from the earliest generations. It is found in the creed, the liturgy and writings of Christian authors of all ages.

To establish the centrality of the resurrection narratives to the Christian faith, we have to look at its development from the biblical background: What do the Testament cannons say of resurrection and resurrection narratives? What was the proof of the resurrection? To whom were the resurrection narratives proven?

What Is Resurrection?

Two assumptions dominate the biblical understanding of resurrection:

  • First, "the Lord kills and brings to life" Faith in the living God, author and master of all life, prevents him from being confused with the cycle of nature since, by contrast with the divinities of other religions, he cannot die in order to live again.
  • The second assumption is that the body is not a "component part of man: it is man himself in his outward appearance. For man is manifested in full in soul, flesh, mind and body." These assumptions form the basic understanding of resurrection in the Old and New Testaments.

The term "resurrection" means "to bring back to life," "to call forth," and/or "to awaken." It is the return to life of a man who, through illness, has fallen into the hands of death, or of a nation fallen from grace, which in its lamentable state can only be compared with a corpse. Resurrection is the reviving of a dead person to life again.

What Is a Resurrection Narrative?

The concept of resurrection is derived from Jewish apocalyptic literature. In earlier Old Testament writings, there is no belief in life after death. When this belief eventually developed, it was in the form of the dead's resurrection rather than the soul's immortality. So, resurrection denotes a complete transformation of the human being in their psychosomatic totality.

The resurrection narratives consist of the Easter events: the empty tomb, the appearance experiences, ascension and, finally, the Pentecost, which inaugurated the church and its eventual expansion by the Apostles.

As an Easter event, it has a cosmic and historical dimension. The climax of salvation sums up the whole of the past and already includes eschatology. Understood in this light, therefore, it is the mystery in the absolute sense without which the experience of humanity in the Old Testament and our preaching would be meaningless and vain.


Resurrection in the Old Testament

The term "resurrection" appears only once in the Hebrew bible. It is not impossible that influence originating in neighbouring cultures (Egypt and Persia) played a part in the opinion of resurrection in the Old Testament. Mackintosh consolidates this reality when he asserts that strong evidence exists for the hypothesis that the idea of the resurrection extends the Hebrew mind from Persia.

While supporting this claim, Salmond maintained that it is not sufficiently warranted. He says further that the Old Testament doctrine of God is itself enough to explain the entire history of the Old Testament conception of a future life. De Bondt, following the claim of Salmond, concludes that there is not a single people among those with whom Israel came in contact which had a doctrine of the resurrection that might have served as a pattern for the representation of it that was current among Israel. And further, that faith in the resurrection, which finds expression in the Old Testament, is based on revelation of Israel's God.

Strong support of this claim is furnished by De Bondt when he points to the experience of the death of the martyrs during the persecution of Antiochus Epiphanes around 167 B.C. From this event came the conviction that the all-righteous God could not allow those who had borne witness to his covenant to remain in Sheol.

Until a late period in its history, the religion of the Old Testament knew of no resurrection of the body: human life was limited to this world. The Hebrews conceived the human as an animated body, not an incarnate soul. After the Maccabean period (2 Macc 7), the belief in the resurrection prevailed in Palestinian Judaism. Both the Apocalyptic writings and Pharisee Rabbis attest to it.

While it is true that we find no clear statements respecting the doctrine of the resurrection before the time of the prophets, Jesus found that it was already implied in Exodus 3:6. More so, the Letter to the Hebrews intimates that even the Patriarchs looked forward to the resurrection of the dead. It is also more clearly discussed in Isaiah 26:19 and Daniel 12:2 and probably implied in Ezekiel 37:1-14.

Simply put, the Old Testament underscores resurrection as vindication for the righteous and complete oblivion for the unrighteous. Will the New Testament accept this understanding, or will it drift away from it?


Resurrection in the New Testament

Belief in the resurrection or eternal life as God's vindication of the individual or communal suffering for righteousness was not commonplace in Jesus' days. The New Testament understanding of resurrection begins with the Easter kerygma that "God raised Jesus who was crucified." Hence, in the New Testament, resurrection is not a special power or achievement of Jesus; it is God's confirmation and vindication of Jesus' faithfulness. We shall now look at how the Gospels and the Pauline tradition emphasised this basic claim.

The Gospels and Resurrection Narratives

The central nucleus of the testimony of the Gospels remains: "the Lord has risen and has appeared alive." The Gospels use the theme of the resurrection as the presence of Christ. For Matthew, the promise "I am with you always until the end of the world" reminds us of the name that the angel gave to the expected child, and they shall call him Immanuel, which means God is with us.

In the Gospel of John, the guiding presence of the Spirit-Paraclete, who comes after Jesus returns to God, is complemented by the promise that Jesus and the Father will come and dwell with the disciples. In Luke's Gospel, this presence of Christ came to be associated with the Eucharistic blessing, breaking and distributing the bread.

In the days of Jesus, there were opposing opinions respecting belief in the resurrection. The Pharisees' belief in the doctrine of the resurrection, propelled by the power of their influence, became a general national belief and dogma which was incorporated into the "Shemone Esre" to be recited daily by every Jew. The resistance to this came with the Sadducees who—according to Rabbinic literature and Josephus (as well as in Mk 12:18ff, Mt 22:23, and Acts 4:2ff and 23:8)—absolutely and actively opposed this belief on the basis that it is contrary to reason and not attested by the Torah: it was also rejected by Hellenistic Judaism.

Pauline Tradition and Resurrection Narratives

Paul faces two different examples of Christian disbelief about the doctrine of the resurrection:

  • First, the Thessalonians were insecure about what to think of the fate of community members who had died. Paul assures them that the dead will come with Jesus and the community will be restored to the unity which seems broken by death.
  • Second, in Corinthians 15, Paul faces a more deliberate polemic against belief in the resurrection; in fact, he was met with mockery when he spoke about it in Athens. In this polemic, Paul develops a real theology of the resurrection for the Christians in Corinth who, under the influence of Hellenistic or Gnostic thought, denied the resurrection.

The Gnostics regarded the matter as inherently 'evil,' and so denied the resurrection of the body. Influenced by this thought, the Corinthians do not believe in bodily resurrection; hence, they live by the principle: enjoy and fulfill what your body desires now because when you die, you are gone forever.

Paul made the Christians understand that the resurrection of the faithful constitutes the core of the Christian faith and that salvation is only completed by resurrection in the new body. Fundamental to the Pauline idea of the resurrection is the connection that he draws between Christ's resurrection and that of Christians. He says that, since Christians are united with Christ in baptism and through the spirit, they should also expect to share in Christ's resurrection.

Paul also speaks of the condition of the risen body. He says that God's creative power will transform what we know as the material body into a spiritual one. The risen body is different in kind from the fleshly or "animated" body, for it is imperishable and immortal. This he calls "Pneumatic."

Finally, Paul concludes by saying that without hope in the resurrection, the suffering he has endured to preach the Gospel would be absurd, and the new life of reconciliation and forgiveness the Corinthians experience would be impossible (1 Cor. 15:17). In the New Testament, therefore, no facet of the Christian life has not been shaped by the conviction that God raised Jesus, the crucified, from the dead. This kerygmatic formula is made real by the different appearances of the risen Jesus.


Post-resurrection Narratives

Post-resurrection narratives specifically refer to the appearances of Jesus after his rising from the dead. These appearances include those of the Easter evening and that of the 40 days (which we find in Act 1:1-11) and finally, Paul (Gal 1:1). The appearances are the primary ways the disciples came to know that Jesus has been raised to new life.

The appearances contained Jesus' initiative, the recognition of Jesus by the Apostles, and the mission mandate of being witnesses of the resurrection. In the post-resurrection appearances, what is decisive is that the disciples "saw" the risen Christ. These appearances caused the Easter faith. They are concrete evidence of the resurrection.

The Resurrection Permeates All of Christian Life

From the biblical foundation of the post-resurrection narratives, we can establish a firm belief in the resurrection of Jesus, bearing in mind that the resurrection narratives occupy a central place in the expression of the Easter faith—that is, the Christian faith. The prefigurement or shadowing representation of the resurrection reality in the Old Testament finds clear and full realization in the time of Jesus through the New Testament canon, as evident in the Gospels and Pauline tradition.

For the Gospels, as for Paul, the post-resurrection appearances were still the decisive factor. The appearances, however, were also witness to the new dimension of the risen one, his mode of existence, "according to the spirit," which was new and different from his earlier mode of existence "according to the flesh."

The doctrine of the risen Jesus permeates every facet of the Christian life and as such, provides the basis for the foundation of Christianity and the foundation of the church through witnessing of the risen Lord by the apostles. The apostles saw the risen Jesus and were made official communicators of this truth not by any human authority but Jesus.


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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.