Sunday, April 20, 2014

For most of the world's Christians, this is the weekend to remember and celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, which Christians have proclaimed from the earliest days of their faith. Anyone who has attended an Easter service has surely heard one or more of the Gospel narratives of the death and burial of Jesus, followed by the finding of the empty tomb on Sunday morning and various subsequent appearances of the risen Jesus. It is these narratives that shape most Christian and non Christian understandings of what the church has always proclaimed: a corporeal resurrection some forty hours post-mortem.

This, however, is not the oldest account we have of what became of Jesus. The oldest description, such as it is, comes from a letter composed some twenty years after Jesus was put to death. We know it as First Corinthians, a letter or, more likely, a composite of two or more letters written to a first century Christian community in Corinth by Paul the apostle. Paul writes:

I passed on to you as most important what I also received: Christ died for our sins in line with the scriptures, he was buried, and he rose on the third day in line with the scriptures. He appeared to Cephas (Peter), then to the Twelve, and then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at once--most of them are still alive to this day, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me, as if I was born at the wrong time. (1 Cor. 15:3-8; Common English Bible with Apocrypha, Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.)

Read through the lens of the passion narratives in the gospels, tinted with nearly two thousand years of Christian tradition and a century of Hollywood, this account seems in line with what the churches proclaim. But Paul wrote nearly twenty years before Mark, almost certainly knew some of the actual followers of Jesus and, though his account is brief, differs in important ways from the commonly received account. Let us look at that account which is, in fact, four similar but not very consistent accounts.

The earliest, according to most scholars, was written about 70 CE, forty years after the death of Jesus and nearly twenty years after Paul wrote to the Corinthians.

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they could go and anoint Jesus' dead body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they came to the tomb. They were saying to each other, "Who's going to roll the stone away from the entrance for us?" When they looked up, they saw that the stone had been rolled away. (And it was a very large stone!) Going into the tomb, they saw a young man in a white robe seated on the right side; and they were startled. But he said to them, "Don't be alarmed! You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised. He isn't here. Look, here's the place where they laid him. Go, tell his disciples, especially Peter, that he is going ahead of you into Galilee. You will see him there, just as he told you. Overcome with terror and dread, they fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid. (Mk. 16:1-8; op.cit.)

So, according to Mark, three women, followers of Jesus, came to the tomb, found it empty, were told by an unnamed young man that Jesus had been raised and that they should tell his disciples to expect him back in Galilee. However, out of fear they told no one. This oldest version of Mark records no post-mortem sightings of the risen Jesus.

The next account comes from Matthew, written about ten years after Mark.

After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to look at the tomb. Look, there was a great earthquake, for an angel from the Lord came down from heaven. Coming to the stone, he rolled it away and sat on it. Now his face was like lightning and his clothes as white as snow. The guards were so terrified of him that they shook with fear and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, "Don't be afraid. I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He isn't here, because he's been raised from the dead, just as he said. Come, see the place where they laid him. Now hurry, go and tell his disciples, 'He's been raised from the dead. He's going on ahead of you to Galilee. You will see him there.' I've given the message to you." With great fear and excitement, they hurried away from the tomb and ran to tell his disciples. But Jesus met them and greeted them. They came and grabbed his feet and worshipped him. Then Jesus said to them, "Don't be afraid. Go and tell my brothers that I am going into Galilee. They will see me there."
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus told them to go. When they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted. (Mt. 28:1-10,16-17; op.cit.)

Next comes Luke's account, not long after Matthew's.

Very early in the morning on the first day of the week, the women went to the tomb, bringing the fragrant spices they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they didn't find the body of the Lord Jesus. They didn't know what to make of this. Suddenly, two men were standing beside them in gleaming bright clothing. The women were frightened and bowed their faces toward the ground, but the men said to them, "Why do you look for the living among the dead? He isn't here, but has been raised. Remember what he told you while he was still in Galilee, that the [Son of Adam] must be handed over to sinners, be crucified, and on the third day rise again." Then they remembered his words. When they returned from the tomb, they reported all these things to the eleven and all the others. It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles. Their words struck the apostles as nonsense, and they didn't believe the women. But Peter ran to the tomb. When he bent over to look inside, he saw only the linen cloth. Then he returned home, wondering what had happened. (Lk. 24:1-12; op.cit.)

And, finally, near the end of the century, almost 70 years after Jesus died, John writes:

Early in the morning of the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. She ran to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said, "They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don't know where they've put him." Peter and the other disciple left to go to the tomb. They were running together, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter and was the first to arrive at the tomb. Bending down to take a look, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he didn't go in. Following him, Simon Peter entered the tomb and saw the linen cloths lying there. He also saw the face cloth that had been on Jesus' head. It wasn't with the other clothes but was folded up in its own place. Then the other disciple, the one who arrived at the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. They didn't yet understand the scripture that Jesus must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to the place where they were staying. (Jn. 20:1-10; op.cit.)

Some of the obvious inconsistencies among these accounts are:

  • The differing numbers and identities of women who go to the tomb on Sunday morning — in Mark, three (Mary Magdalene, James's mother Mary, and Salome); in Matthew, two (Mary Magdalene and another Mary); in Luke, at least five (Mary Magdalene, Joanna, James's mother Mary and "other women"); according to John, only Mary Magdalene — what all four agree on is that Mary Magdalene was at the tomb before any of the apostles and she is named first in all four accounts, indicating her great status in the early church.
  • The manner in which the stone is removed — in Mark, Luke and John, the stone is gone before anyone witnesses it, while Matthew reports an earthquake and an angel rolling the stone away in the presence of guards, who are so terrified they faint
  • The messenger(s) at the tomb — Mark reports a young man dressed in white; Matthew, "an angel from the Lord;" Luke, two men in radiant clothing; and John, none.
  • The failure of the women to tell anyone what they saw or heard at the tomb in Mark's account, while some or all of the apostles are told in the other three gospels — all eleven according to Matthew and Luke (Judas has committed suicide in Matthew's account, while Luke saves the mystery surrounding the betrayer for the sequel to his gospel) but only Peter and an unnamed disciple in John's account.
  • The fate of Judas — all four evangelists agree that Jesus was betrayed by Judas Iscariot, but only Matthew records his repentance and suicide; neither Mark nor John mention him again after he identifies Jesus to the temple guards; Luke, as I mentioned above, saves the fate of an unrepentant Judas for another story:

During this time, the family of believers was a company of about one hundred twenty persons. Peter stood among them and said, "Brothers and sisters, the scripture that the Holy Spirit announced beforehand through David had to be fulfilled. This was the scripture concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus.This happened even though he was one of us and received a share of this ministry." (In fact, he bought a field with the payment he received for his injustice. Falling headfirst, he burst open in the middle and all his intestines spilled out. This became known to everyone living in Jerusalem, so they called that field in their own language Hakeldama, or "Field of Blood.") [Acts 1:15-19; op.cit.]

John's lack of concern for Judas stands out because both Matthew and Luke refer to the apostles as "the eleven" after Jesus is raised, indicating that Judas is no longer one of the twelve, either by death or resignation. John, however, continues to refer to the apostles collectively as "the twelve" (20:24). Though he never mentions Judas as one of them, he actually only identifies five in any of the post resurrection appearances: Peter, Thomas, Nathanael and "Zebedee's sons." (21:2) So John seems either disinclined to dignify the memory of Judas even by omission, or he teases his readers with the possibility that Judas, like Peter (who denied knowing Jesus in his hour of greatest need), was forgiven and welcomed back by the risen Jesus.

Going back to Paul's account of the risen Jesus, it may seem there is no serious inconsistency, other than that Paul, like John, refers to the twelve rather than the eleven when referring to the Lord's apostles. He does not seem to deny that Jesus appeared to them in corporeal form. But he ends his account with Jesus' appearance to Paul himself. Does he maintain that he also saw Jesus as an embodied, resurrected Lord? Two accounts would indicate not.

First is Luke's account of Paul's conversion in the Acts of the Apostles (Paul had not yet changed his name, so Luke refers to him here as Saul):

[Saul] went to the high priest, seeking letters to the synagogues in Damascus. If he found persons who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, these letters would authorize him to take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. During the journey, as he approached Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven encircled him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice asking him, "Saul, Saul, why are you harassing me?"
Saul asked, "Who are you, Lord?"
"I am Jesus, whom you are harassing," came the reply. "Now get up and enter the city. You will be told what you must do." Those traveling with him stood there speechless; they heard the voice but saw no one. (Acts 8:1b-7; op.cit.)

The fact that others were present yet saw nothing, while Saul/Paul conversed with a blinding light, makes it clear that Luke did not believe Paul had ever seen a corporeal Jesus. But this is a second hand account written years after the death of Paul. What does Paul himself say about the nature of his encounter with the risen Jesus?

"Even though we used to know Christ by human standards, that isn't how we know him now." (2 Cor. 5:16b; op.cit.)

Paul, who asserts he has seen the risen Jesus (1 Cor. 9:1) insists that Jesus can no longer be known as a human being. So, even if some "witnesses" to the resurrection of Jesus experienced him in a human form, that was not the nature to which Paul believes he was raised: it was temporary or, as the Gnostics believed, illusory.

What of the tomb? Was there a tomb? Four evangelists say yes, but Paul, who wrote about the death and resurrection of Jesus twenty to forty years before the evangelists must have known nothing of these amazing proofs of Jesus' resurrection, or he surely would have mentioned them. He simply says he was buried, which may have been based on accounts given him by followers who did not care to admit that they abandoned Jesus rather than die with him. The unpleasant historical likelihood, according to Reza Aslan (Zealot, 2013) and others is that Jesus was not buried, but rather was left on the cross to be eaten by scavengers, which was the usual fate of victims of Roman crucifixion.

Why am I so skeptical? How can I believe that so many people in the years following the death of Jesus would subscribe to the same outlandish story, which they knew to be outlandish in the normal way of things, yet were so convinced of its truth that they would rather die than deny it? Because I know how quickly myths can arise full blown from the flimsiest of beginnings. Neuroscience tells us that the human brain is hard wired by evolution to find patterns and meaning as an aid to survival and to bind communities together. Our need to find meaning is so deeply ingrained that we even find meaning where there is none.

In 1971 I became involved in a movement that would now be identified as emergent Christianity. We operated outside the formal structures of any established denomination, meeting to worship in homes and coffee houses. We had no name for ourselves but "church" or "house church." Among the evidences we believed showed us to be acting according to the will of God was that many of us "spoke in tongues," apparently communicating to God miraculously in languages we had never learned.

I recall one occasion when I, with one or two other members of our group, were praying with a friend who was not a believer in Jesus. He was, in fact, a member of the Baha'i Faith who had been attempting to convert us as we attempted to convert him. He came from a Jewish family and had studied biblical Hebrew. As we were praying, some of us in tongues, our friend looked at me and stated, "That's Hebrew." He said that I had uttered what sounded like a Hebrew phrase meaning "because the Lord...." The rest was unintelligible. Within months of this, it had spread among other members of our movement, who had not been there, that I had recited, in Hebrew, the Suffering Servant passage from the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah, which must have been a sign from God that what we were telling this friend was the truth. Though I assured people who mentioned it to me that it was not so, that at most I had said two words in Hebrew, I know the story was believed and repeated as recently as ten years ago. I suspect that everything I said while speaking in tongues was complete gibberish, but I am not surprised that I could come up with four syllables that sounded like Hebrew to an emotionally overwrought young man.

Compare that to what we know of the experience of grief for a loved one. Many people report seeing or hearing their deceased in times of stress. Imagine what followers of Jesus, some of them members of his immediate family, who were convinced that he was the promised Messiah (Lk. 24:21), would have made of reports that he had been seen alive, especially since they could not find any remains of his lifeless body. My experience was of no historical significance. Theirs could and did change the history of a planet.

Why do I care? What difference is it to me if people wish to believe in an empty tomb, a living, breathing Messiah who invites doubters to feel his wounds and watch him eat fish? (Jn. 20:27; Lk. 24:38-43) It matters to me because any good that may come of the Christian message is lost in the wake of fantastic tales that make us not a bit better than we are. We fall prey to charlatans who manipulate us with tales of borrowed tombs and a death that must have been for us, even though non Christians like Mahatma Gandhi live far more exemplary lives than most followers of Jesus — despite the example of Christians like Martin Luther King, whose sacrifice unto death has demonstrably changed the lives of people we all know, for the better. I can say with far greater confidence that Gandhi and King died for me, than I can say that Jesus died for anyone in the last nineteen hundred years.

That is my Easter message.

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