Just to make sure it is abundantly clear, Price is assuming the historical accuracy of the Gospels for the sake of argument only. He is not seriously proposing these theories.
In chapter 9 of The End of Christianity, Robert Price takes the basic historical accuracy of the Gospels for granted and tries to show that, even if you start from this premise, naturalistic explanations of the resurrection are plausible. This is an interesting approach since much disagreement between atheists and Christians centers around the historical accuracy of the Gospels and not merely the strength of the resurrection as an hypothesis of agreed upon data. If you start from a more or less Christian position and still show that naturalistic explanations of the resurrection are probable then you have a much better chance of changing a Christian’s mind. Note that, in actuality, Price is one of the most skeptical scholars when it comes to the historical accuracy of the Gospels. Nonetheless we can appreciate the exercise.
He begins by trying to support the swoon theory: the belief that Jesus did not actually die on the cross. Hebrews 5:7 seems to say that Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane was answered and he was saved from death: “During his earthly life Christ offered both requests and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death and he was heard because of his devotion” (NET). In Mark 15:43-45 Pontius Pilate is surprised to hear that Jesus died so quickly, which suggests that perhaps he did not die. In Mark 15:36-37 we read that Jesus was offered a drink, perhaps a drug, and then he died, or passed out. The mockery in Mark 15:32, “Let the Christ, the king of Israel, come down from the cross now, that we may see and believe!” (NET), can be seen as irony in light of Jesus coming down from the cross alive. The note that Joseph of Arimathea was a rich man (Matthew 27:57) provides motivation for the tomb to be broken into by grave robbers and, as in novels of the time, see the prematurely buried Jesus greet them instead of riches. The point of Luke 24:36-43, where Jesus demonstrates his corporeality, is to show that he had not died after all. John 19:34-37 and 20:25, 27 add details to make it clear that Jesus really died. These details needed to be added because some people were insisting he did not actually die. John 7:35 laughs off the speculation of Jesus’ enemies, that he might travel among the Diaspora, because that is where he actually went after he survived the crucifixion. He had to flee Palestine. Another possibility is that the ascension account was a euphemism for Jesus’ death, which followed shortly after his crucifixion.
Price’s swoon theory is the product of eisegesis, not exegesis. The author of Hebrews clearly believed Jesus had died (2:9-10, 14; 9:12-15), therefore Hebrews 5:7 must mean that Jesus was saved from death by being resurrected from the dead (13:20). Pilate was surprised that Jesus died so quickly, but he had a centurion confirm that Jesus was truly dead. The drink offered to Jesus was “sour wine,” a cheap vinegar wine diluted by water, not a drug. The mocking of Jesus is not seen as irony by Mark, for Mark believes Jesus truly died (15:37). No Gospel has tomb robbers come upon Jesus, so that suggestion leads nowhere. The point of Luke 24:36-43 is clearly to show that Jesus physically rose from the dead (24:6, 34). Note how in Luke 24:39-40 Jesus shows his disciples his hands and feet, similar to the account in John 20:25, 27. This means John did not add those details merely to prove Jesus truly died. Price abandons his hypothetical position when he doubts John 19:34-37, where Jesus’ side is lanced. Clearly if he accepted the account as historically reliable it would disprove his theory so he simply tries to explain it away. But we have no records of anyone claiming Jesus did not die on the cross. Even the Jews thought Jesus’ corpse was stolen by his disciples (Matthew 28:11-15)! In context, John 7:35 merely shows that Jesus’ opponents did not understand him, while it is clear that Jesus’ words mean he was going to the one who sent him, God (7:33-34). The accounts of the ascension follow accounts of Jesus’ death and resurrection, so there is no basis for seeing them as a euphemism for his eventual death.
The second hypothesis argued for is the reburial theory: the belief that Jesus’ body was reburied in another tomb. In John 19:41-42 we are told that Jesus was buried in the garden tomb because the Sabbath was quickly approaching. In John 20:11-15 Mary Magdalene initially asks a man she assumes to be the gardener (but who is actually Jesus) if he has moved Jesus’ body. These clues suggest to Price that Jesus’ body was reburied without the disciples’ knowledge and that they never learned of the final resting place of Jesus’ corpse.
The first thing to note is that this theory contradicts the swoon theory. On the one hand, Price wants us to believe that if we take the Gospels seriously as history we are led to believe that Jesus did not die on the cross. On the other hand, Price wants us to believe that if we take the Gospels seriously as history we are led to believe that Jesus died on the cross and was reburied. The reason Price can reach opposing conclusions is because he starts with his theory and then tries to find snippets from the Gospels to support his theory. The parts of the Gospels that do not fit the current theory are merely ignored. Normally an historian would let the earliest sources inform his theory, but Price can’t follow that method since it supports the resurrection hypothesis. But there is an important point in Mary’s words in John 20:15: “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will take him” (NET). She did not assume that Jesus had been raised from the dead solely because the tomb was empty. Thus, the reburial theory fails to explain why Jesus’ followers thought he was raised from the dead.
The reburial theory needs an associated theory to explain why Jesus’ followers thought he rose from the dead. Price proposes the mistaken identity theory: the belief that Jesus’ followers mistook another man for Jesus. The two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35) walked with Jesus but did not recognize him as Jesus until after he left. In Matthew 28:17 the disciples still doubted. In John 20:14 Mary Magdalene does not recognize Jesus. In John 21:4 the disciples, who are in a boat, do not recognize Jesus, who is on shore. These passages suggest, to Price, that the disciples only identified the figures in these encounters with Jesus at a later date.
If the road to Emmaus account was the only account of Jesus’ resurrection appearance then Price might have a point. But note at the end of that account we are told that Simon Peter also saw the risen Jesus (Luke 24:34). Luke goes on to note that the disciples got a close look at Jesus (Luke 24:36-43) over a forty day period (Acts 1:3). The mistaken identity theory makes the most sense if the encounters were brief and few, if any, words were exchanged. It does not make sense of the continual nature of the appearances or the interaction between Jesus and his disciples. At the very least you would need to propose that someone was impersonating Jesus. But it is unlikely that someone would look like, act like, and speak like Jesus so convincingly that his closest family and friends were fooled. There is the also the matter of why anyone would attempt to impersonate Jesus (in front of Jesus’ disciples nonetheless). The other passages mentioned by Price are even weaker. Some of the disciples did initially doubt Jesus had risen from the dead in Matthew 28:17. But this shows that the disciples were not as gullible as many skeptics make them out to be. Matthew does not narrate further appearances but it is clear, from Luke and John, that the disciples came to be sure Jesus rose from the dead. Mary’s inability to identify Jesus in John 20:14 could be due to nothing more than the tears in her eyes. It would be quite strange for an actual gardener to say to Mary, “Do not touch me, for I have not yet ascended to my Father. Go to my brothers and tell them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (John 20:17 NET). The initial failure of the disciples to recognize Jesus from the boat in John 21:4 could be due to the distance to the shore and the darkness (it was very early in morning). It would be quite shocking that someone who was not actually Jesus should cause the miraculous catch of fish and have the ensuing dialogue. Once again, Price is picking out a verse here and there and ignoring the accounts as a whole.