According to our Gospel sources, Jesus was taken down hastily from the cross a few hours before sundown on the preparation day for the Jewish Passover. His initial burial was both rushed and temporary. Joseph of Arimathea, an influential follower, stored his body in an unfinished rock-hewn tomb that just happened to be near the place of crucifixion. He closed it up with a blocking stone to prevent predators, intending that after the Passover and Sabbath day the traditional Jewish rites of burial could be completed.
Although some have mistaken the "Last Supper" for a Passover meal, recent scholarship has established it was an ordinary meal eaten in hiding the night before Passover (see "Was Jesus' Last Meal a Passover Seder?"). Passover was a joyous family affair whereas the "Last Supper" was a solemn all male farewell gathering.
Just after sundown the entire Jewish populace of Jerusalem, swollen by tens of thousands of pilgrims, gathered to eat the Passover meal. Jesus' core followers, including the 12 apostles, and a band of disciples, both men and women, who hopefully followed him down to the festival from Galilee were in utter despair. Their Teacher was dead, brutally executed by the Roman authorities for sedition in the most shameful of deaths -- crucifixion.
Jesus' followers had scattered at his arrest the night before, and we are not told where or how they observed Passover that night -- but as Jews they surely did. We can only imagine it would have been a most solemn affair. Present would have been Mary Magdalene, Jesus' mother and brothers, the 11 apostles, as well as other close followers. All were surely broken with grief and despair.
Our Gospels record nothing of that evening or of the Passover day and Sabbath following. We must assume there was little to be said. A dead Messiah is no Messiah and all the talk about the kingdom of God being at hand had become meaningless.
The four New Testament Gospels variously report what happened next (see "What Really Happened Easter Morning?" for an attempt to sort through these accounts). They do not agree on any of the substantive details.
What few have realized is there are two substantially different Easter stories embedded in our texts. The one most familiar and most loved is the tale of Mary Magdalene and a group of women visiting the tomb early Sunday morning before daybreak to complete the burial rites but finding it open and empty. As they flee in fear Jesus meets them and they come to believe he has been raised from the dead. Later that evening Jesus appears bodily to the gathered group of disciples and apostles, proving to them that he had been raised from the dead. Easter is a day of triumph, rejoicing and a recovery of faith.
The second alternative tradition has no appearances of Jesus at all following the discovery of the empty tomb. We find this in the Gospel of Mark, which is our earliest account. The original text ended abruptly at chapter 16:9 (see "The Strange Original Ending of the Gospel of Mark"). Instead, the disciples are told that they will "meet Jesus in Galilee," which is three days journey north of Jerusalem. Fortunately, we have another ancient source, not included in the New Testament, that seems to confirm this tradition: the Gospel of Peter, discovered buried in Egypt in 1886. There we read:
Now it was the final day of the Unleavened Bread (seven days after Passover); and many went out returning to their home since the feast was over. But we twelve disciples of the Lord were weeping and sorrowful; and each one, sorrowful because of what had come to pass, departed to his home. But I, Simon Peter, and my brother Andrew, having taken our nets, went off to the sea.
According to this tradition Peter and the rest of the disciples spent the Passover week, which lasted eight days, in Jerusalem with no appearances of Jesus and no resurrection faith. They subsequently returned home to Galilee, and resumed their fishing business, weeping and sorrowful. Easter had come and gone and Jesus was nowhere to be seen.
We seem to have a garbled reflection of this forgotten tradition in the Gospel of John -- right under our noses, so to speak. The writer ends his Gospel with a crescendo in chapter 20, but strangely there is another chapter appended -- John 21 -- that hardly seems to fit. There, as in the Gospel of Peter, the disciples return to Galilee and resume their regular lives, when Jesus finally appears to them -- seemingly for the first time. Matthew also seems to know this tradition in his final verses, where the disciples see Jesus in a misty scene on a cloud-filled mountain.
Christians today celebrate Easter as a day of rejoicing, but it seems that this alternative tradition has much to say for itself. First, it is early, and second, one can see how the church would not want to emphasize or pass it on -- hence the bogus ending added to Mark. No one was rejoicing that weekend or through the next seven days. In this version of the story the return to Galilee was a painful one, leaving behind the body of their Teacher, likely buried permanently in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea. The apostles did come to believe that Jesus had been exalted to heaven, but their recovery of faith took place in Galilee, not in Jerusalem. Theirs was a resurrection faith that clearly had nothing to do with "bodily" appearances of Jesus at the tomb but like Paul's, a vision of the glorified Christ. This is precisely what Paul reports in 1 Corinthians 15. The body is given back to the dust, like putting off old clothes, but the spirit is "reclothed" with a new immortal spiritual body. This was Paul's experience, and he likens it to the "appearances" to the apostles before him. Ironically, the apostle Paul is both our earliest and best source for this view of a spiritual resurrection, rather than the recusitation of a corpse (see "The Earliest Christian View of Resurrection").