In comments on earlier posts Bradley Bowen offers some speculations about what really happened at the crucifixion. In his view, Jesus might have survived the crucifixion, and so was discovered alive on Easter morning, prompting stories of a resurrection.
As I have argued elsewhere (see my essay in The Empty Tomb), I do not think that we have enough information to establish ANY account about what really happened during “Easter Week.”
If I had to conjecture, I would imagine a scenario (and a scenario is all we can have) something like this:
After his crucifixion Jesus was not buried in an honorable tomb, but tossed into a common grave, a limed pit where criminals were dishonorably interred. The Joseph of Arimathea tales and the empty tomb stories are legendary accretions that grew up to cover Christians’ shame over the ignominious treatment of Jesus’ corpse. You can actually watch the Joseph of Arimathea legends grow as you read the Gospels. In Mark, Joseph is merely a good, pious, and respected member of the Sanhedrin. In Luke, he is depicted as actively dissenting from the Sanhedrin’s policy. In Matthew he is described as a disciple of Jesus, and in John he is a disciple, but a secret one “for fear of the Jews.” Further, as Gerd Ludemann notes, the burial itself is described in increasingly positive tones. Mark merely says that it was a rock tomb. Even better, John locates it in a garden. Matthew, Luke, and John describe the tomb as new, which would be a mark of distinction.
After Jesus’ arrest and execution, the disciples, never the most intrepid lot, anyway, went into hiding, perhaps even returning to Galilee. While thus sequestered, two or more disciples had hallucinations, visions, or perhaps just intense dreams of Jesus, and became convinced that he had risen from the dead. Hallucinations of the recently deceased are a quite common phenomenon, especially among those who have a strong sense of isolation, rejection, or depression. If two or more had such experiences, it would be easy for them to convince each other that they had encountered Jesus after his death. Returning to Jerusalem some time later, some of the disciples gathered with other followers of Jesus and hear a very strange story from Mary Magdalene about how she had found an empty tomb on Easter morning. Now Mary was a mentally unstable person (Jesus is said to have cast seven devils out of her), and it is not clear what she experienced. Nevertheless, her story would seem to corroborate the visionary or hallucinatory experiences of some of the disciples. Like sightings of Elvis, such stories and bizarre experiences feed off each other and snowball.
Also, consider that all sorts of crazy stories can grow up around historical events, even with people claiming to be eyewitnesses to things that provably did not occur. Consider the famous “Darwin legend.” Within a short time after Darwin’s death in 1882, stories began to spread that before his death he had repudiated evolution and accepted salvation through Christ. Sermons were preached on the topic and the story circulated in evangelical circles. In 1915 one Lady Hope published an account in which she claimed to have interviewed Darwin six months before his demise and said that he expressed regret for his theory of evolution and professed faith in Christ. The Darwin children, who were present throughout Darwin’s final illness and at his deathbed, consistently and vehemently repudiated Lady Hope’s story as a total fabrication, yet it continued to spread. I heard Jimmy Swaggert give a version of it in a sermon a year or two before his downfall.
Of course, we will never know what really happened. It was too long ago and the sources are just too exiguous and unreliable. Still, it is fun to speculate. When you consider the power of strange experiences and how convincing they are to the people who have them, and the various complex dynamics that make crazy stories grow and spread, you can at least get a general idea of how miracle claims get traction.