Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Which Resurrection?...

Back around Resurrection Day (Easter) I received an e-mail from a reader named Darren who inquired about potential discrepancies contained within the four narratives on the Resurrection of Christ. He said, among other things,
If you contrast the accounts of the resurrection in the book of Matthew to that written in the book of John, there are some discrepancies that make the resurrection seem less than plausible. In Matthew we read of a post-resurrection story where the two Marys are greeted at the tomb by an angel who had just rolled away the stone from its entrance. After revealing to both women the empty place where Jesus’ body once laid, the angel proclaims to them that Jesus had already risen from the dead. The angel goes on to instruct both Marys that they are to tell the disciples that Jesus had gone before them to the Galilee to meet them. (Matthew 28:1-7) If that encounter wasn’t convincing enough for the two women, Matthew continues to relate how, after leaving the tomb, both Marys unexpectedly meet the resurrected Jesus himself, whom they both worship. Jesus then essentially repeats the angels instructions to them, and sends the women to inform the disciples that they are to meet the resurrected Jesus in the Galilee. (Matthew 28:8-10) In Johns version of the first Easter morning, when Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb, there is no angel there to greet her with information about Jesus’ whereabouts or instructions about a rendezvous in the Galilee as we find in Matthews account (Matthew 28:5-7). On the contrary, in Johns story, after Mary finds the empty tomb, she concludes that someone had removed the body from the grave. Mary certainly had no reason to believe otherwise. She therefore quickly runs back to the disciples and reports, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him!” (John 20:1-2) The above account is entirely inconsistent with Matthews post-resurrection narrative. Why didn’t Mary know that Jesus’ body was not laid anywhere? In Matthews story, the angel had already reported to her that Jesus rose from the dead and had gone to the Galilee. It would therefore have been ridiculous for her to think that someone had moved the body when the angels had already informed her that Jesus’ resurrection had occurred. Moreover, if the angels instructions to her were not convincing enough, Matthew maintains that Mary also met the resurrected Jesus himself right after leaving the tomb (Matthew 28:9); and all this transpires before Mary ever sees the disciples. Why then in Johns Gospel is Mary clueless as to where Jesus’ body was moved, when according to Matthew, Mary had already heard from two reliable sources, the angel at the tomb and Jesus himself, that Jesus rose from the dead?
Not surprisingly, Darren also had questions about whether the doctrine of the Trinity is truly taught in the Bible. I will not address Trinitarian doctrine on this post but concentrate, instead, on the Resurrection. There are many sources of information with regards to the historicity of the Resurrection accounts, e.g., William Lane Craig, or Jeremy Pierce (from Parablemania), but I found two sources to be particularly helpful with regards to the issue of contradictions within the accounts. One was Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible, by John W. Haley, and the other was Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, by Gleason Archer. Archer states, with regards to the four Gospel accounts,
The very fact that each of the four writers contributed individual details from his own perspective and emphasis furnishes the most compelling type of evidence possible for the historicity of Christ’s conquest over death and the grave. A careful examination of these four records in comparison with another demonstrates that they are not in any way contradictory, despite the charges leveled by some critics. It is helpful to synthesize all four accounts in order to arrive at a full picture of what took place on Easter itself and during the weeks that intervened until the ascension of Christ.
In our Western cultural mentality we tend to look for detailed and exact accounting with regards to historical presentation. Our typical view of a genealogical listing, for example, is that it be as detailed, precise, and comprehensive as possible. Yet cultures from the past, the Middle East in particular, viewed a genealogy as a means of identifying how ancestor A got to ancestor Z, regardless of whether every intermediate ancestor was listed. Reading a genealogy, written in a different culture, with our 21st century mindset may give us a false impression of the information being conveyed. Similarly, we need to understand that multiple accounts of the same event need not be exactly the same, so long as they are not formally contradictory. That said, it should not be surprising that events listed in one account of the resurrection may or may not be listed in another account. Further, we must be careful not to make the assumption that if an event was not listed in an account, then it means that the event did not occur. An omission of data is simply that – an omission. Also, we should be aware that a writer may skip a portion of the narrative that he felt unnecessary to include. That seems contrary to our mentality which states that if we want to prove a point (e.g., the resurrection), then we should outline all the pertinent facts. Of course this ignores the probable fact that the Gospel writers did not include every detail anyway. Lastly, we need to be cognizant of the fact that we are reading the account with full knowledge of events prior to and after the resurrection. We understand the meaning and purpose of Jesus’ resurrection only because of the chasm that the initial witnesses spanned as it was revealed to them. Archer analyzes the four Gospel accounts as such:
On Saturday evening three of the women decided to go back to the tomb belonging to Joseph of Arimathea, where they had seen Christ’s body laid away on Friday at sundown. …There were three women involved (Mark 16:1)… They apparently started their journey from the house in Jerusalem while it was still dark, even though it was already early morning (John 20:1). But by the time they arrived, dawn was glimmering in the east (Matt. 28:1).
Where the women were, when the earthquake occurred in which the angels rolled away the stone from the tomb, we are not told. They were apparently unaware of the event given their reaction upon reaching the tomb and finding the stone rolled away for them. Archer continues,
They then entered the tomb, side-stepping the unconscious soldiers. In the tomb they made out the form of the leading angel, appearing as a young man with blazing white garments (Mark 16:5), who, however, may not have shown himself to them until they first discovered that the corpse was gone (Luke 24:2-3). But then it became apparent that this angel had a companion, for there were two of them in the tomb.
The angel tells the women not to be afraid, yet one can hardly expect them to immediately calm down. The angel also reminds them that Christ Himself had spoken of His resurrection and that they are to go and tell His disciples that He had risen from the dead. In the Gospels we see, time and time again, that Jesus’ identity as Messiah is intentionally revealed and not necessarily deduced. That his resurrection could be both knowable and yet unexpected should not surprise us. We are told in John 20:9, “For they did not yet understand the scripture that Jesus must rise from the dead.” It is sometimes difficult for us to realize the paradigm shift in thinking that the disciples had to go through, e.g., even after they understood that Jesus was resurrected, they still expected Him to begin His earthly reign as Messiah (Acts 1:6). Thus, the women leave the tomb, for the first time, and tell the disciples that, “They have taken the Lord away from the tomb, and we don’t know where they have laid Him!” (John 20:2). The Jewish concept of the resurrection was that all were resurrected at the end of the age. That Jesus was to rise from the dead, on his own, was a foreign concept to them, not to mention that at this point in time they had yet to see Jesus for themselves. Regardless, Peter and John decide to inspect the tomb for themselves (John 20:3). Archer states,
John arrived there first, being no doubt younger and faster than Peter. Yet it turned out that he was not as perceptive as Peter, for all John did when he got to the entrance was stoop down and look into the tomb, where he saw the shroud… But Peter was a bit bolder and more curious; he went inside the chamber and found it indeed empty. Then he looked intently at the winding sheet… Instead of being spread out in a long, jumbled strip, it was still wrapped together in one spot…
It appears that Mary Magdalene decided to return to the tomb after Peter and John. There is no mention of whether Peter and John saw her at the tomb or on their way back home. After she returned to the tomb she was once again greeted by the angels who asked her why she was crying. She apparently still had not understood the full meaning of what the angels had initially told her. After asking the angels, “They have taken my Lord away, and I do not know where they put him,” Jesus appears behind her. She turns to see him but does not recognize him. We are not told whether this was intentional on Jesus’ part or whether it was due to Mary’s emotional state. Per Archer,
It was at this point that the kindly stranger revealed Himself to Mary by reverting to His familiar voice as He addressed her by name, “Mariam!” Immediately she realized that the body she was looking for stood right before her, no longer a corpse but now a living, breathing human being – and yet more than that, the incarnate God. “Rabbouni!” she exclaimed (that is to say, “Master!”) and cast herself at His feet.
Jesus then instructs her to return and tell His disciples that He must briefly ascend to the Father (John 20:17). Conferring with Matthew 28:9 we see that the other women also returned to the tomb and were met by Jesus as well, although we are not told if they met Jesus specifically at the tomb. That point is important because Peter appears to be the first male disciple to be visited by Jesus after His resurrection for when the women returned the second time from the tomb to report their news of meeting Jesus, the disciples replied, “The Lord has really risen, and has appeared to Simon!” (Luke 24:34). We are told that Jesus had appeared to Peter, but we are not told when or where the event happened. This is just a brief analysis of the Gospel accounts regarding the resurrection. Far from being contradictory in nature, the Gospels provide a rich tapestry of detail with regards to the various events surrounding that unique day two thousand years ago.


GinTN said...

Thank you for this post! I wonder, have you read Lee Strobel's The Case for Christ? His interview with William Lane Craig on this subject was very interesting.

Rusty said...



No I haven't yet read TCFC, but I've got The Case for Faith sitting on my shelf in the "yet to read" stack (which gains books faster than I can read them!).