I have been doing some thinking about the resurrection of Jesus. That thinking was spurred forwards towards this mini-series of posts by an unsolicited paper from a friend. That paper, in summary, underlines our Christian conviction that Jesus was raised from the dead, while highlighting all the problematic aspects of the scriptural testimony to the resurrection across the four gospels and 1 Corinthians 15:1-8. These five testimonies are the "scriptural accounts" of the resurrection. We should also note that on some aspects of the post resurrection appearances of Jesus, Acts 1 is a sixth account.
In this first post I want to highlight some problems with the scriptural accounts which, frankly, have taken me a long time to recognise. (I could blame the lectionary: we read one gospel at a time and not all together! Some problems are only manifest when we compare the gospel accounts.) A little research shows that I did write something about these problems in 2016!
When we read the scriptural accounts synoptically (side by side, in one overview of them all) we likely will be struck by
(1) how few details are common to the accounts;
(2) how distinctive each of Matthew, Mark and Luke's accounts are, given that on some matters of Jesus' life before his death, Matthew, Mark and Luke are capable of common material (all three, or any two of the three);
(3) there is only one matter on which all scriptural accounts are agreed: that the disciples of Jesus were convinced that Jesus rose from the dead;
(4) Jesus never appeared to anyone who was not already a follower of Jesus, that is, the resurrection life of Jesus was not a public event in the way that his life prior to death and burial was;
(5) the one material or physical fact presented by the four gospels as a public fact is that the tomb in which Jesus was buried became an empty tomb "on the third day."
(By "public fact" I mean that the public of Jerusalem could have visited the tomb and seen for themselves that it was empty. Note that the empty tomb by itself as a public fact is not conclusive evidence for the resurrection of Jesus since it could have been explained by the disciples stealing his body and relocating it somewhere else, as Matthew 28:11-15 observes to us.)
It seems a bit messy and we are more than entitled to ask why the scriptural accounts do not have more in common. But there are some matters on which a little reflection may yield for us a stronger sense of consistency across the accounts. This reflection can begin by dealing with two critical questions.
(6) Who saw Jesus first?
(7) Was the tomb empty?
Who saw Jesus first?
The four gospels are consistent that the first people present to see that the tomb was empty and to hear that Jesus had been raised from the dead were women (Matthew 28:1-6; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-11; John 20:1-13 [but in that account the angels do not declare that Jesus has been raised from the dead]. The one woman common to these four accounts is Mary Magdalene.
But these same gospels vary in terms of who was the first to experience an appearance of the risen Jesus:
Matthew: Mary Magdalene and the other Mary (28:9-10).
Mark: indeterminate but it is implied that the Twelve will be the first to do so, in Galilee, with Peter getting a special mention. Intriguingly, when John tells the story of an appearance in Galilee, in John 21, Peter is the first to recognise who the stranger on the beach is.
Luke: Cleopas and an unnamed disciple (24:13-35) vie with Simon [Peter] (24:34).
John: Mary Magdalene (20:14-18).
Alongside these accounts we must then place the tradition Paul has received about "appearances" of the risen Jesus (presumably from the Jerusalem leadership, including apostles and James the brother of Jesus):
1 Corinthians: (in sequence) Cephas [Simon Peter], then the twelve, more than five hundred brothers, James, all the apostles, (after an interval) Paul (15:3-8).
In competitive terms we could (siding with Peter in Luke ahead of Cleopas and his companion) make this: Peter (two votes, Luke, 1 Corinthians) = Mary Magdalene (two votes, Matthew, John). Mark, somewhat indeterminate, cannot break the tie! Nevertheless, between Peter and Mary Magdalene we pretty much have a contradiction as to who was the first to see the risen Jesus. Or is it?
Let's dig a bit deeper, bearing in mind that each of the gospel writers, as well as Paul, have an "angle" on this important but mysterious, if not confusing situation in which each writer is convinced that Jesus rose from the dead but none say quite the same thing.
We should take Paul's recitation of the tradition he received as a solid record of appearances of the risen Jesus (because he would have received it just a few years after the resurrection) while also noting its obvious bias towards leaders of the Jesus movement experiencing these appearances. The exception is the appearance to more than five hundred brothers. Paul's recitation of this list is clearly favourable to his own difficulty with the Corinthian congregation: they doubt he is a notable Christian leader. This list underscores his claim that he is: he is on a par with Cephas, James, the twelve and all the apostles.
That is, the fact that no women are mentioned on this list does not mean that Mary Magdalene was not the first (or among the first) to receive an appearance of the risen Jesus.
Given the importance and authority of the tradition Paul receives, I suggest we must reckon with the gospel writers also receiving as strong a tradition that women were importance witnesses to the resurrection: to at least the empty tomb (all four gospels) and to seeing the risen Jesus (Matthew, John).
We could then refrain from thinking that the traditions are, in one sense or another, in competition with each other. Clearly a variety of people at a variety of times and places received appearances of the risen Jesus. It is understandable as reports of these many appearances were made, passed on orally, then, eventually written down, that some accounts were more treasured by one group of Christians than another. Presumably the gospel writers and Paul, between them, have access to one or two or more of these treasured traditions. What to us is a bit messy if not a lot messy if now downright contradictory likely to each writer is their doing their best to tell their readers three basic facts: Jesus rose from the dead, he was seen by more than one person, he commissioned his followers to take his message and mission beyond Judea and Galilee.
Was the tomb empty?
Just as Paul's 1 Corinthian 15 account is a puzzle in the light of the gospels because of its omission of Mary Magdalene, so it is disturbing - at least to various scholars and sceptics through the years - because it does not refer to the empty tomb.
This omission opens the way for various post-Enlightenment speculations that Jesus' body remained in the tomb even though the resurrection was, in some sense, a real, definite and definitive event.
However I do not see that what Paul says is consistent with the bones of Jesus remaining in the tomb (and thus, potentially, discoverable by us today).
Look carefully at what he says in 15:3-4:
"that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures,
and that he was buried,
and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures ...".
(The appearances then become a fourth "that" in the sequence: "that he appeared ...".)
The sequence here is of things which happen to the body of Jesus: killed, buried, raised. But what is Paul's reason for writing so confidently that the resurrection was an event which preceded appearances? Why not write something like, "... died ... buried ... appeared from the third day onwards ..."?
It is reasonable to assume that Paul understands that there was an event in which the body of Jesus was raised to new life and it is coherent with this event that the tomb was empty as a result. That is, Paul is not denying that the tomb was empty by not mentioning its emptiness. It is also reasonable to understand that Paul is saying that the resurrection as an event preceded the appearances which is what the four gospels also say.
To be clear: no one witnesses the raising of the body of Jesus to new life (all scriptural accounts agree); there are witnesses to the empty tomb (so four gospel accounts); Paul's received account of the resurrection is consistent with the tomb being empty; all scriptural accounts tell of appearances of the risen Jesus to multiple people.
So I conclude that the tomb was empty - an objective sign of the subjective reality of multiple witnesses experiencing the risen Jesus in a variety of ways.
But that leaves us with a question,
Why are the scriptural accounts so at odds with each other?
Even if we can make some generalised sense of the five accounts, why are they so different to each other? Why couldn't, say, at least one of the gospels tell us of the encounter with more than five hundred men? How come one woman does not make it into the list Paul reproduces? (It is not as though his ministry was averse to naming, welcoming and commending leading women.) Why does Luke make such a crass subversion of Mark 16:7 in his 24:6, reversing Galilee as a destination to meet the risen Jesus to a place where Jesus predicted his resurrection? (Matthew is more subtle: he repeats Mark and then promptly tells us the risen Jesus met the women in Jerusalem.) Why do Matthew, Luke and John each have different commissionings by Jesus (respectively Matthew 28:16-20; Luke 24:44-53; John 20:21-23)?
I will come to these questions in a subsequent post ...