I finished part 1 of this mini-series with this:
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)?
Funnily enough, this morning's sermon, preached by a colleague at an induction, provides an insight into story-telling which is at odds with itself. Some readers here will know the name Lester Pfankuch, a clergyman of this and the Nelson Dioceses. Lester has gone to be with the Lord, but he was an extraordinarily funny story-teller and his stories enlivened many sermons and talks, to say nothing of hilarious conversations. To be frank, some of his stories seemed a little too good to be true and I think he took some poetic licence when he told some stories. Mostly fact-filled but perhaps some twirls and frills to lend colour and add humour to the yarn? Anyway, in this morning's sermon my colleague told a Pfankuch story about how he came to be called to be the vicar of a certain parish. But in my mind that story was at odds with a different Pfankuch story I had heard many years ago about his calling to the same parish! The only three facts common to the stories were (1) Lester himself, a real person; (2) the parish concerned; (3) the bishop concerned. Actually, there is a fourth fact: (4) Lester was the same story-teller of the (apparently) contradictory stories!
Variations across the scriptural accounts of the resurrection arguably also involved some similar kinds of common facts such as (1) Jesus himself, a real person; (2) an empty tomb discovered on the third day by women; (3) conviction on the part of many disciples that Jesus was alive; (4) description of the meaning of the empty tomb and the conviction that Jesus was alive in terms of "resurrection," "raised from the dead," etc; (5) an associated conviction that the risen Jesus wanted his followers to continue the mission.
But recognising that some common facts across most, if not all the scriptural accounts can be plausibly proposed may help our sense of solid history to the resurrection (the tomb was empty, Jesus did appear to many, and the many became convinced that Jesus was raised from the dead) but it does not change our bewilderment as readers of these accounts.
Why is there not a stronger trace of the (most likely) earliest written account of resurrection appearances (1 Corinthians 15) in the later accounts (likely, in order, Mark, Matthew, Luke, John)? Surely, if the risen Jesus spoke specific words of commissioning to his disciples there would be greater similarity in words at the ends of Matthew and Luke's gospels? How, in short, do we explain the variations across the scriptural accounts?
I confess, by the way, that I have not reminded myself of what Tom Wright has said in his bog book on the resurrection, Jesus and the Victory of God. Here is my suggestion ...
1. We recognise - in keeping with the list in 1 Corinthians 15 - that there were many appearances of the risen Jesus,thus many stories were told and each gospel writer had a range of testimonies to report, whether in fairly direct fashion (e.g. the startling discovery of the empty tomb) or in a creative manner, where "creative" means a bare story is told in order to make theological points (e.g. the road to Emmaus story (Luke 24: 13-35 and compare with Mark 16:12-13) or the Sea of Tiberias catch of fish (John 21).
2. We set John's Gospel to one side. John through 19 chapters has already done his own thing with the stories and speeches of Jesus and he does that again in chapters 20-21. He connects with the synoptic tradition (empty tomb, encounters in Jerusalem [Luke, Matthew] and an encounter in Galilee [Matthew, Mark], consistent presence of Mary Magdalene and Peter as key figures in the synoptic tradition), includes a story about doubt (compare Matthew 28:17; Luke 24:38) and, like the Synoptics, does not follow Paul's Corinthian list re order of appearances. But the overall effect of John's narration is a very different testimony to the risen Jesus, including testimony to Jesus saying things in keeping with the theological themes of John 1-19.
3. We then ask what were the three situations the accounts of Matthew, Mark and Luke were likely responding to.
4. Mark, likely the earliest of the gospels, presents the drama of discovery of the empty tomb, a key material fact in the conviction that Jesus rose from the dead. By stopping there (i.e. I count 16:9-20 as a later supplied ending, not Mark's original ending) Mark complements the Corinthian list. Dare we say that he presumes his readers know of that list of appearances and expects them to remember that list as the "what happens next"?
4. Matthew and Luke both mention doubts among the disciples (Matthew 28:17; Luke 24:38). Both include stories which appear to be intentionally apologetic, defending the claim that Jesus rose from the dead from alternative explanations. Matthew 28:11-15 defends the Christian claim against the (apparently continuing) explanation that the tomb was empty because the disciples spirited the body of Jesus away from the tomb.* Luke 24:36-43 defends the Christian claim against the explanation that the appearances of Jesus as one raised from the dead were simply appearances of the ghost of Jesus.
Thus each gospel seems to be shaping its resurrection narratives to deal with questions their respective communities (i.e. audiences) were grappling with. Perhaps this is a further sign that each gospel is written many decades after the death and resurrection of Jesus, at a point when the impressiveness of the Corinthian list was losing its lustre.
When Paul wrote about the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 in the 50s AD, his readers, potentially at least, could have talked to Peter or James or other apostles. If, as many scholars suppose, Matthew and Luke are written down in the 80s AD, that is after most people in Paul's list have died (an exception being the author of John's Gospel, likely still alive in Ephesus), then we can imagine a community in which some sceptics are wondering what the "appearances" were all about: was it just the ghost of Jesus which was seen? No, says Luke. What, it was being said in a Matthean community close to Jerusalem, about the explanation our Jewish cousins and friends keep putting about, that the disciples stole Jesus' body? No, says Matthew. Not so.
In sum: is the best explanation for the variations across the scriptural accounts an explanation which makes some assumptions about varying situations for the communities within which and for which the gospels were written?
*Incidentally, we should not presume that the tomb of Jesus remained empty for long after the resurrection so that a sceptic in Jerusalem in (say) 50 AD (or in 2018 AD) could be taken along to it and shown the tomb in all its emptiness. The first Christians were not museum makers or maintainers. There is no reason to suppose that the tomb was not subsequently used to receive another burial and thus was resealed with a different body resposing in it.