Sunday, April 21, 2024

Still the Easter Season, so Resurrection Narrative thoughts

Hard not to think about what is going on in Scripture in respect of history when Christmas rolls around, and then Easter. The Gospels do differ!

Christmas: Mark and John opt out od details re birth of Jesus. Matthew and Luke unite on Mary, conception by Holy Spirit, Joseph as husband of Mary, birth in Bethlehem, notable visitors. Nazareth as place of upbringing of Jesus. Pretty much everything else differs. Why? Is it different perspectives (Matthew sees things through Joseph's eyes, Luke through Mary's)? Is it differences in historical details, Matthew and Luke each in touch with different versions of the history? If so, what is contradictory and what is complementary? Some great difficulties to explain such as Nazareth being a place from which the Holy Family comes to get to Bethlehem (Luke) and to which the Holy Family flees, via Egypt (Matthew). Are differences theological? History combined with fables - common history to Matthew and Luke with different fables, all to make differing theological points?

Easter is a bit more complicated because, aside from the four gospels (none opting out on the resurrection this time), there is Paul's handed down account in 1 Corinthians 15. And where the four gospels have some things in common, they all differ from 1 Corinthians in several respects.

The four gospels have in common that women discover the empty tomb (Matthew, Mark and Luke: women plural; John: a woman singular (but a named woman who is part of the group in each of the other gospels).) Paul mentions no women explicitly - perhaps women are implied by his mentioning a group of 500 people seeing the risen Jesus. Nor does Paul mention the empty tomb explicitly but it seems reasonable to conclude that he does think the tomb was emptied by the raising of Jesus from the dead. We might note that all four gospels ascribe the tomb's provenance as associated with Joseph of Arimathea.

The four gospels also have in common appearances of the risen Jesus to disciples: in Jerusalem (Matthew, Luke, John); in Galilee by implication (Mark); in Galilee (Matthew, John); not in Galilee (Luke, who mentions Galilee but in a strange way, putting these words in an angel's mouth, contrary to what Luke would have read in his Markan source, or, even, if used, his Matthean source: "Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee," (24:6).) It is as though, Luke, who has a strong attachment to Jerusalem as the locus of critical action in the Jesus movement, cannot omit Galilee as a reference in the resurrection narrative he tells, but also cannot have any resurrection appearance further away from Jerusalem than Emmaus, seven miles away.

Putting the four gospels together, they focus on places, events, and encounters: Jesus is buried in a tomb, women go after the Sabbath to visit the tomb, and discover it is empty. Messages are given to them by an angel or angels. Appearances of the risen Jesus subsequently take place, or are predicted to take place: to the women, to disciples among the Eleven and to disciples not among the Eleven.

By contrast Paul's narrated history concerns encounters: Jesus appeared to both key leaders among the disciples, to groups of people and, last of all, also and in a similar way, to Paul himself.

Is there a competition going on? Do the gospels (all almost certainly written after Paul wrote 1 Corinthians) seek to put Paul right? Are the accounts complementary? All good questions but perhaps the thing to look for (similarly to Matthew and Mark and their birth and infancy narratives of Jesus) is this: what are the four gospel writers and Paul trying to convey theologically to us about the way they tell the history of the resurrection?

Let's face it: each account has an oddity or three in their reports to us. 

If Mark is first gospel account, then in 16:1-8, he narrates no appearances. Obviously there were appearances (see Paul in 1 Corinthians; try to explain why Mark would write his gospel if there were no appearances). 

Matthew has "colour" no one else has (earthquake, soldiers guarding the tomb) and seems to be at pains to rule out the possible explanation the tomb was empty because the body was stolen. 

Luke has the Emmaus story not found elsewhere, omits, as we saw above, reference to appearances in Galilee, and, perhaps most odd of all, tells a story in Luke 24 which could all have taken place in one long day and then, in Acts 1, tells us the same story as far as appearances go too place over 40 days. Luke seems to be at pains (similar to John) to verify that the risen Jesus has a new material body (whatever else was new, different, amazing about it), that could eat and drink as per human normality

John cuts the group of women down to one woman, Mary Magdalene; has the Doubting Thomas scene no one else has; and gives us a wonderful fishing trip in Galilee, omitted from all other accounts. John's risen Jesus gives final teaching and a commissioning to his disciples in keeping with the Johannine Jesus, and somewhat different to the commissionings in Matthew and Luke, and particularly different when we compare the "Johannine Pentecost" with the "Lukan Pentecost."

What Paul reports misses, as we noted above, any direct reference to women being the first witnesses to the resurrection, and lays out a sequence of appearances to disciples difficult to square with the sequences given in any of the four gospels, through for all five accounts, Peter is important!

In the end, in 2024, as I reflect on these things, I have been struck by the core details of the gospels' narrative: early on that Sunday morning, one or more women went to the tomb in which Jesus had been buried, and discovered the tomb was empty. Subsequently Jesus appeared to disciples, female and male, in Jerusalem, its surrounds, and in Galilee.


Anonymous said...

+ Peter, I believe Mark invented the resurrection narrative and I think it was sincerely written as a theological / allegorical fiction trying to promote Pauline christianity against its rivals. The unknown author I never meant it to be taken historically. He hoped his readers would do the work to decode the symbolic and allegorical meanings. But that’s not what happen. Instead others (i.e Matthew, Luke, John etc etc) copied and changed it, and probably wrote with some kind of sincere belief in its historical veracity.

Mark tells us his intention is to conceal! He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that, “they may be ever seeing but never perceiving,
and ever hearing but never understanding….otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!


Peter Carrell said...

Hi Tom
That is a plausible scenario (Mark invents, the others copy/change).
A challenge, (particularly if Mark is promoting Pauline Christianity) is why he doesnt focus on male witnesses to the resurrection (as Paul does in 1 Corinthians 15)?
Possibly a similar question should also be posed of Luke's version: the Luke/Paul relationship is complex (what did Luke actually know of Paul's writings, he seems to have different theological emphases in his portrayal of Paul than Paul himself has, etc) but Luke is not above changing things to suit, and he doesn't change the female witness angle of Mark, even though he does change what Mark says about Jesus appearing in Galilee.

Mark Murphy said...

What to make if the variety of resurrection narratives?

The natural, reasonable diversity of (post-traumatic) human memory? In this understanding, it would be much more disturbing if they agreed with each other in every detail.

Different writers writing to different audiences, embellishing different teaching points?

Gosh, some scholars (who it be uncharitable for me to suggest they are likely to be of a Reformed mindset) working hard to tidy up all the apparent contradictions - like an obsessive Hercule Poirot putting all the confusing pieces together in the whodunnit finale is truth must be forensically uniform...

Tom's preferred take - competition, rivalry, and polemic invention...politics determining truth at every step - even though the bulk of scholarship from antiquity to present times would disagree.

If we need an "explanation" my favourite is the first of these above possibilities. I confess to enjoying the sheer variety, and enjoy that scripture is so various, rich, and sometimes confounding concerning its deepest mysteries. What is God saying to us in this?

Moya said...

I remember reading in one of Eugene Peterson’s books about a ‘quartet of witnesses’ that tell something astounding happened from different perspectives for different purposes, but which we shouldn’t try to fit together. It’s a mystery!

Anonymous said...

"who it [sic] be uncharitable for me to suggest they are likely to be of a Reformed mindset ..."

Yes, it would be uncharitable of you, unless you are suggesting Tatian, Origen and Augustine were 'of a Reformed mindset' (Reformers ante litteram?) because they all practiced harmonization of the Gospels. So did everyone until Reimarus. A bit like M. Jourdain, 'Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme':

"Par ma foi ! il y a plus de quarante ans que je dis de la prose sans que j'en susse rien, et je vous suis le plus obligé du monde de m'avoir appris cela."


Mark Murphy said...

Dear James,

While clearly not wanting to pick a fight with any of the Fathers you mention, do have a look at the website I quoted. I don't know if you'd quite call it "harmonization" - to me it's more of an obsessive intellectual exercise in ironing out *all* differences, conflicts, and contradictions that are present in scripture. And that makes for an inhuman, soulless Christianity IMHO.


Mark Murphy said...

And yes it was uncharitable of me to use the word Reformed like that. Clearly it means a lot to you, so forgive my carelessness please.


liturgy said...

Kia ora, Tom,

If Matthew, Luke, and John based their resurrection stories on Mark's while having a "sincere belief in [Mark's] historical veracity" then one would expect the OPPOSITE of what we encounter: they wouldn't have altered Mark's reification of Paul to end up with four conflicting accounts!

As an aside - if Paul has some sort of "spiritual" resurrection, what are we to make of Paul's "on the third day"?!

As to some of the other reflections here - that the accounts are varying human memories - is a helpful model, but must be a challenge for those who hold to total biblical inerrancy.

Easter blessings


Anonymous said...

+ Peter, given Mark’s narrative agenda and regardless of the actual / allegorical facts, the tomb has to be empty, in order to surprise the expectations of the reader, just as a foreign Simon must carry the cross instead of Peter, a Gentile must acknowledge Christ’s divinity instead of the Jews, a Sanhedrist must bury the body, and women must be the first to hear the Good News. What are your thoughts?

Best regards, Tom

Anonymous said...

Hi Bosco,

But M,L & J simply couldn’t help themselves! You must know that Jewish scripture is shot through with the 3 day motif.

The Christ was raised on the third day after his burial, AS SCRIPTURE REQUIRED (1 Corinthians 15:4). Many Jews believed that for three days after death the soul tries to return thinking it can enter the body but when it sees any degradation it leaves. Midrash Rabbah Genesis 100:7, Then of course there is Jonah, Hosea and a few others! It’s symbolic.

Shalom, Tom

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Tom
Again, what you propose has a certain plausibility.
But if Mark's agenda is to use "surprise" and then we explain a whole bunch of things via that trope, are we left with any history at all? Is Jesus just an amazing fictional character in a document (which spawned other documents) which anticipates something akin to the "modern novel"?
The alternative is not that Mark is "pure" history - there could be a mix of the historical and the fictional.

On the "three days" - yes, Scripture has that motif, and it could be applied as you say; but it could also be that the strength of the motif means it figures in the NT writers' minds such that they take the actual chronology (Friday night burial, early Sunday morning rise) and slap the motif on it: "Look, [the writers imply] despite the rising being about 36 hours after death and burial, it can be described as three days [Friday, Saturday, Sunday] and thus Scripture is fulfilled."

liturgy said...

Kia ora, Tom,

is there any evidence that Paul could have been thinking of some sort of "spiritual" resurrection? I posit that 'person' was still identified as body - the Greek separation of soul from body entered Christian thought later.

You haven't responded to Peter's point: if Mark is reifying Paul's 1 Cor 15, why has he abandoned all the named people in Paul's list (all the named people being male) and invented a whole new set of named people (all female)?

And other than your "they couldn't help themselves", why would Matthew, in misunderstanding Mark's resurrection as being history, remove Salome and the spices; Luke remove Mark's names, and add a new "man"? And John remove two women, the spices, and the "man"? This seems far from sourcing their material in Mark, especially if they (mis)regard, as you say, this as history.



Anonymous said...

Tom expresses his doubts, but Peter offers a rock to stand on and Bosco a way out of the woods. What more to add?
If Paul had been talking in an elaborate way in 1 Corinthians 15 about a "spiritual resurrection" for Jesus, what exactly would be the cash value of such a belief? That some part of Jesus (his mephesh, psuche or pneuma) had survived death and was now in a state of post-mortem blessednesss ('Abraham's bosom). But first century Jews already believed in post-mortem blessedness for the righteous (except the Sadducees, and that's why they were sad, you see). This was the whole point of Jesus' encounter with the Sadducees in Mark 12.18-26: "He is the God of the living, not the dead. You greatly err."
Bosco suggests that "the Greek separation of soul from body entered Christian thought later' but I don't think it's all Greek to me. Ideas about the soul that some have alleged are "Greek" or "Hellenistic" (Boman, Bultmann etc) had actually been present in Judea and maybe Alexandria for centuries previously (cf. The Wisdom of Solomon), and Martin Hengel blew apart simple "Jewish v. Greek" dichotomies (see Hengel, 'Judaism and Hellenism'). Read Mark and inwardly digest!

Pax et bonum
William Greenhalgh

Liz C. said...

"The alternative is not that Mark is "pure" history - there could be a mix of the historical and the fictional." ~ +Peter (24/4 8:43)

I've read a book review this morning that reminded me of +Peter's above comment:

"Brown takes a different perspective, one that allows for invention, such that the original writers made use of their imagination to convey truth."

Brown "is an Anglican priest who has taught at Oxford, Durham, and St. Andrews Universities. His scholarly work has focused on philosophy, theology, as well as religion and the arts. He brings all of this scholarly background into conversation with biblical scholarship."

The book's Gospel As Work of Art: Imaginative Truth and the Open Text /by David Brown


I wonder if any ADU readers have already seen the book, it looks interesting!


Mark Murphy said...

Thanks for that Liz. Sounds interesting!