Concerning Jesusʼs post-resurrection appearances some apologists contend that we have accurate objective ‘eyewitness’ reports in 1 Cor. 15 and the Gospels and book of Acts.
Yet Paul does not give a single detail as to what anyoneʼs eyes ‘witnessed,’ not even himself (except for Lukeʼs account of what Paul saw, which amounts to no more than a bright light and a voice — which seems to be what most religions are based on). How does such evidence constitute ‘eyewitness reports?’
As for the Gospels, they were written at a later date than Paulʼs ‘witness.’ And the Gospels raise questions of their own:
Approximately 91% of Mark is paralleled with only minor variations in Luke and/or Matthew. The same thing can be said of about 50% of Matthew and about 41% of Luke. Of these parallels, many of them agree in exact order and wording. This has lead to the elucidation of the ‘synoptic problem.’ How are we to explain the obvious similarities in wording that we find in these passages, especially since Jesus spoke and taught primarily in Aramaic, and these agreements in exact wording are in Greek? A related problem is the question of why, when John reports a similar incident or saying in the life of Jesus, there is little or no exactness present in the wording, i.e., compared with the three synoptic Gospels.
Such data suggest literary links between the three synoptic gospels, i.e., they do not resemble each other because they are three separate ‘eyewitness’ reports of what Jesus said and did, but because they were based upon shared written documents, i.e., branches of the same literary tree, individually ‘ornamented’ (revised/redacted). One of the most prevalent theories so far is that Mark was one such primary document. The other primary document contained the parallels shared by Matthew and Luke but not shared by Mark, this second document being known as ‘Q’ (the first letter of the German word for ‘source’ — I am adding these explanations for the benefit of our readers, not for you, as I know you are familiar with all of this).
In ‘Q’ the message of Jesusʼs death and resurrection was not central. While the other major literary source, Mark, ends merely with the empty tomb, and no appearances, only a ‘young man’ who tells the women, “He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him.” No ‘eyewitness’ data here, like Paul, the other earliest source of evidence.
A quick sidelight here on the ‘young man in a long white garment’ sitting in Jesusʼs empty tomb in the Gospel of Mark. There is no mention of the ‘young man’ being an ‘angel.’ In fact Mark mentions a ‘young man’ (same Greek phrase) at Jesusʼs arrest. Again, attention was paid to what the ‘young man’ was wearing, which was only a ‘linen cloth’ when Jesus was arrested. Someone tried to grab the ‘young man’ who ‘fled’ away ‘naked,’ leaving behind the linen cloth. (Mark 14: 50-52) So the ‘young man in a long white garment’ sitting in Jesusʼs empty tomb on Sunday morning could be the same ‘young man’ at Jesusʼs arrest. Mark could be trying to impress the reader with the faith of an anonymous ‘young man’ who was the last to leave Jesus when he was arrested (who had to flee away naked), and also the first to arrive at the empty tomb, clothed in a ‘long white garment’ covering his previously naked body. The ‘young man’ could remain unidentified in both cases to draw readers into the tale of Jesusʼs resurrection, to allow them to envision themselves as that young man, and imagine how he went from being naked to clothed in a long white garment - the last to leave Jesus on the night of his betrayal and the first to arrive at Jesusʼs empty tomb full of faith. So by using the phrase, ‘young man’ twice at such crucial times in that Gospel, the author may have been trying to get his readers to identify with that human figure and his faith. But sometime between the writing of Markʼs Gospel and the later three (Matthew, Luke and Johnʼs Gospels) Markʼs description of a ‘young man’ was dropped in favor of purely ‘angelic’ figures. The other Gospels also failed to mention Markʼs story about the ‘young man’ who ‘fled naked at Jesusʼs arrest.’ Instead, at the tomb they have ‘two men in shining garments…a vision of angels’ (Luke 24:4 & 23), or “the angel of the Lord who descended from heaven; his countenance like lightening, and his raiment white as snow” (Matthew), or ‘two angels in white’ (John).
Nor do comparisons between the Gospels, and the questions they raise, end there. In Mark, the words spoken at the tomb are changed from “He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see him” to “Remember how he spoke to you while He was still in Galilee, saying that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day raise again.” Luke has ‘redacted’ (revised) Mark. Neither is the Lukan redaction difficult to spot. ‘Galilee’ was changed from a place to go to see Jesus (in Mark), to the place where Jesus gave his discourse about the Son of Man being raised (in Luke). But why should it be important where Jesus merely spoke about the resurrection? Didnʼt Jesus speak about the resurrection not just in Galilee, but also in Judea? The Markan announcement is more to the point: “He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see him.” But Luke needed the disciples to remain in Jerusalem to make his Jerusalem appearance stories make sense. So Luke redacted the message at the tomb, otherwise the disciples would have been depicted as running off to Galilee (fifty miles from Jerusalem) to see Jesus who had gone on there before them, as Mark (and Matthew) say.
The Jerusalem appearance stories in Luke include seeing Jesus in Emmaus, seven miles from Jerusalem; then in Jerusalem, where the disciples are gathered; and then on a mountain in Bethany (again not very far from Jerusalem), where Jesus ‘parted from them.’ In Acts, Luke added that Jesus told his disciples ‘not to leave Jerusalem.’ and that Jesus ascended from mount Olivet, ‘near Jerusalem, a Sabbathʼs day journey away.’
The difference between Mark and Luke is clear. The earliest known manuscripts of Mark contain no appearance accounts, and say Jesus went on before them to Galilee for that was where they would see him. But Luke contains stories of appearances solely around and in Jerusalem. Which is true? This is an honest question based on a “face value” reading of the Gospels.
Even Robert H. Stein, an Evangelical Christian professor at Bethel Theological Seminary, has examined arguments both for and against Markʼs literary priority, and concluded in favor of it in his book The Synoptic Problem: An Introduction (Baker, 1987). But, such a priority affects how ‘literally’ you view the resurrection stories in later Gospels, like Luke and John. Need I add that among the synoptics, Matthew and Luke diverge most from each other exactly at those points where they could not follow Mark, namely, in their accounts of Jesusʼs infancy and resurrection. (Mark lacks an infancy narrative and the earliest copies of Mark end simply with an empty tomb and a promise of a sighting in Galilee, so Mark supplies no details about Jesusʼs resurrection appearances.)
Further comparisons raise further questions. Both Matthean and Markan stories agree in having the ‘young man’ (Mark) or ‘angel’ (Matthew) announce at the tomb, “He is going before you into Galilee, there you will see him.” However in Mark the women ‘flee from the tomb, and say nothing to anyone’ out of ‘fear,’ while in Matthew the women depart quickly ‘to report’ what the angel told them to the disciples. In Matthew the women even meet Jesus on the way! Jesus says, ‘Do not be afraid!’ Matthew is not only redacting but also strengthening Markʼs story. Neither is such a process of redacting and strengthening difficult to spot when other stories in Mark and Matthew are compared. For instance after Jesus walks on the water in Mark 6:51-52 the disciples “were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.” However when Jesus walks on the water in Matthew 14:33, “They worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’” Matthew even relates similar events to Mark but doubles the number of lepers healed (one becomes two), blind men healed (one becomes two), demon-possessed men exorcised (one becomes two), even the number of animals that Jesus rode into Jerusalem (one becomes two). The Matthean strengthening process at work in the resurrection story is also not difficult to spot. Matthew adds guards at the tomb, and the raising of many saints. And it is not difficult to spot the further redaction that was made to justify the ‘guards at the tomb’ story. Mark mentions no guards, and the women go to the tomb ‘to anoint’ Jesusʼs body. But in Matthew where ‘guards’ are assumed, and contact with the body would not be foreseen as possible, the women no longer go to anoint Jesus, but merely to ‘look at the grave.’
Matthew, like Mark, agrees that the disciples saw Jesus in Galilee. Though the Gospel of Matthew adds details about two resurrection appearances, one to the women leaving the tomb, and one on a mountain in Galilee (not Mt. Olivet in Judea, as in Luke)., they are relatively brief, and only serve to illustrate later Christian dogmas about Jesusʼs authority, baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, etc.
Comparing Mark with both Matthew and Luke we see additional redactions. Luke agrees with Matthew that the women immediately reported what an ‘angel(s)’ told them (contra Mark which stated ‘they told no one’). Luke omits Jesusʼs appearances to the women (in Matthew) on the way back to the disciples. However, some manuscripts of Luke add that Peter ran to the tomb to verify the womanʼs tale of its emptiness. Luke adds more appearances, Matthew listing only two. Luke adds the road to Emmaus appearance, the appearance to the eleven during which Jesus ate a piece of fish and honeycomb to convince them he was not a spirit, but had flesh and bones, “And he led them out as far as to Bethany, and he lifted up his hands, and blessed them.” (Luke 24) (Imagine parading through Jerusalem ‘led’ by a resurrected Jesus! Makes you wonder whether Jesus led them via a path that took them past Pilateʼs, Herodʼs, or the chief priestʼs house. Surely, if there was a time for palms being flung in his path, and Hosannas, this was it). And Luke adds an appearance to Simon alone(though no description is given of it).
By the time we get to the fourth and last Gospel, John, we find yet more appearances. In that Gospel we have Mary Magdalene seeing Jesus; Peter and a second disciple verifying the tombʼs emptiness; Jesus appearing in Jerusalem to all the disciples but Thomas; Jesus returning to convince Thomas; ‘many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book;’ Jesus manifesting himself again, at the sea of Galilee.
It is part of a theological progression it would seem from Mark-Matthew-Luke-John to the many additional Gospel stories and Acts of the Apostles that continued to be composed by Christians afterwards — or, as the fourth and last Gospel states, “There are many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written.” Thatʼs a lot of books for a ministry that lasted only a few years. All four Gospels total no more than about 100 pages (in my NASB), which makes them skimpy collections of what Jesus ‘did’ by the reckoning of that verse mentioned above in John. Two of them even repeat about 91% of what appears in one Gospel, Mark! “The world could not contain all the books?” That is the language of faith speaking, not reason. It sounds to me like the author is hinting at the existence of many apocryphal stories circulating among Christian in his day. He is certainly leaving the door open for such stories to grow even more widespread.
Speaking of apocryphal stories, there is evidence that the Gospels themselves contain them. There is the added ending to Mark (16:9-20). We both agree that “almost no scholars would argue for the authority of those verses. I donʼt think we should use the passage in Mark when that text is rejected by most scholars. (The problem here is that most believe that those last twelve verses are a later addition to the manuscript)” [from your March 21st letter]. Yet these ‘additions’ are of resurrection appearances.
Or take Johnʼs story of the woman caught in the act of adultery. It first appears in some Old Latin New Testament manuscripts written in the fifth century or later, and in Codex D (5th or 6th c.), but not earlier.
Another addition is Luke 22:43-44, the story of an angel from heaven appearing and strengthening Jesus in Gethsemane, while Jesus in agony sweat drops of blood. This story is not in the 3rd cent. Papyrus P75, nor in Codex B, written in the middle of the fourth century. It appeared later.
How can the Gospels be considered ‘eyewitness’ testimony knowing such additions took place, the most embarrassing one being the addition in Mark of a resurrection appearance? There are in fact three different endings to Mark that feature brief resurrection appearances reminiscent of those at the end of Matthew. However none of those alternative endings are found in the earliest known manuscripts of Mark, only in later ones. It would seem that Markʼs original ending, which featured merely an empty tomb and women ‘telling no one,’ was not an ending that early Christians considered satisfactory. Perhaps that also explains the need for additional Gospels and their redactions and ‘enhancements?’
Another sidelight on the fourth and last Gospel concerns the story it alone contains of the ‘raising of Lazarus.’ In your Dec. 21st letter you proposed that “we have good reason to believe that these [resurrected] individuals [like Lazarus and others in the Gospels] appeared in their natural bodies.” I admit to being ignorant of ‘good’ reasons to that effect.
Concerning the raising of those other than Lazarus, the Gospel stories are few and unspectacular. For instance in Mark (which I take to be the earliest source) the synagogue rulerʼs daughter was ‘at the point of death,’ or in Matthew ‘had just died’ when Jesus healed/raised her. Such things seem possible. In one afterlife book (Beyond the Light, I think), I read about a man who had been declared dead in the hospital, then a little while later he woke up alone on a stretcher in the hallway. According to another book, Dannion Brinkley was struck by lightning, declared dead, but then came back to life. But none of those people had been dead for long. The Lazarus story involves someone dead for ‘four days,’ whose body ‘stinketh.’ What ‘good reason’ do we have to believe that story?
Letʼs look at the story of Lazarus in depth also, beginning with our knowledge of another story in John, the story of Lazarusʼs alleged sisters, ‘Mary and Martha,’ and how ‘Mary sat at Jesusʼs feet,’ ‘anointed them’ with perfume, and ‘wiped them with her hair’ in the town of ‘Bethany.’ (John 12) Stories similar to that one are found in the earlier three Gospels, but with a few differences:
Mark 14:3 — An unnamed woman anointed Jesusʼs head in Bethany at the house of Simon the Leper.
Luke 7:37-38 — An unnamed sinner anointed Jesusʼs feet and wiped them with her hair in Nain at the house of a Pharisee.
Luke 10:38-39 — Mary, the sister of Martha, listened at Jesusʼs feet in an unnamed town at her house.
Now consider this: Did you ever get confused about similar events like those listed above? Say, in a Sunday School discussion, you mixed up the name of the town where the woman anointed Jesusʼs ‘head’ with the name of the town where the woman anointed Jesusʼs ‘feet.’ Was it Nain or Bethany? Or you confused the woman who ‘listened’ at Jesusʼs feet with the woman who ‘anointed’ Jesusʼs feet? The unnamed sinner lady in Nain, became, until you looked it up, Mary, sister of Martha? Well, something like that appears to have happened in the minds of Christians before the Gospel of John was composed, the last written of the four Gospels. By that time, similar persons and events from the earlier Gospels had become amalgamated in peopleʼs minds. In John 12:3, Mary, the woman who simply ‘listened’ at Jesusʼs feet is now also anointing them and wiping them with her hair. Thus the unnamed woman of the town of Nain became amalgamated in peopleʼs minds with ‘Mary, Marthaʼs sister.’ And the unnamed town where Mary lived became amalgamated with the town where the woman who anointed Jesusʼs ‘head’ lived, ‘Bethany.’ And Mary used expensive ‘spikenard ointment’ on them, as the lady in Mark (and possibly Luke) did. Only this time is it not at Simon the Leperʼs house, nor at the house of a Pharisee, but at ‘Maryʼs house.’
What does the above discussion have to do with the ‘resurrection of Lazarus’ story? Well, it shows how the Gospel of John amalgamates things from earlier Gospels. And only the Gospel of John depicts Lazarus as a real person. Luke mentions a real Mary and Martha, but says nothing about them having a brother, nor in which town they lived. So the author(s) of the Gospel of John appear to have amalgamated Mary and Martha, the town of Bethany, and the ‘Lazarus’ from a parable in the Gospel of Luke — a parable in which a poor beggar named ‘Lazarus’ dies and goes to ‘Abrahamʼs bosom,’ while a rich man suffering in nearby ‘Hades’ sees Lazarus and pleads with Abraham to ‘send Lazarus to my Fatherʼs house, to warn my brothers, so they may repent [and avoid going to Hades],’ to which the answer was, “neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.”
Think about it. A ‘Lazarus’ who dies and someone who hopes Lazarus will be ‘raised from the dead’ to ‘persuade others’ ‘to repent.’ But such persuasion is predicted not to work. Where does that appear outside of Luke?
Why in John. Johnʼs ‘Lazarus’ is now a concrete person, the ‘brother’ of Mary and Martha from Luke. (Neither is this Lazarus a poor ‘beggar,’ since heʼs rich enough to have his own tomb and live in a house with his ‘sisters.’) He is ‘raised from the dead’ — a parable come true. And, as predicted in the parable, such a miracle fails to persuade those who refuse to listen to Moses and the prophets, namely the Pharisees: “Many therefore of the Jews, who had come to Mary and beheld what He had done, believed in Him. But some of them went away to the Pharisees, and told them the things which Jesus had done.” The Pharisees refuse to repent, and even decide, after hearing of this great miracle, to seize Jesus and have him executed. What a coincidence! Two ‘Lazaruses,’ one in Luke and one in John, both die, both illustrate that “even though he be raised from the dead, they will not be persuaded,” in fact, ‘Lazarusʼs resurrection’ in the Gospel of John elicits even a stronger negative response!
Not surprisingly, when you add a whole new miracle found in none of the other Gospels, and make it the focal point for the Phariseesʼ decision to have Jesus seized and executed, you have to do something with the fact that all three of the earlier Gospels agreed that it was Jesusʼs overturning of the tables in the Temple that made the Pharisees decide to have Jesus crucified. So the author(s) of John decided to remove the table-turning episode from the end of Jesusʼs ministry and move it to the beginning of Jesusʼs ministry. All so that the Pharisees would decide to have Jesus seized and killed due to the unsettling nature of the stunning resurrection miracle that was added to the last Gospel.
The question remains, did the ‘raising of Lazarus’ actually take place or might the story have been a later invention, based on an amalgamation of information and names found in earlier Gospels? The moving of Jesusʼs ‘table-turning’ episode from the end of the earlier Gospels to the beginning of the last written Gospel adds to the force of such a question, since the author(s) of John made it appear quite obvious that it was now necessary to make room at the end of their Gospel to display the totally new miracle and make it the new reason why the Pharisees decided to seize and crucify Jesus.
And there is also the even wider question raised by the fact that the Gospel of John concentrates on a handful of major miracles in Jesusʼs ministry, the Lazarus miracle being used to illustrate that Jesus was ‘the resurrection and the life.’ The author(s) have Jesus speak those very words, along with a lot of ‘I ams,’ one after each major miracle. How unlike the Jesus who is portrayed in the earlier three Gospels, who asked his disciples not to tell anyone he was the Messiah, and who did not speak in such an ‘I am’ manner even after healing people, performing exorcisms, or raising the synagogue rulerʼs daughter who was ‘at the point of death’ (in Markʼs version) or who had ‘just died’ (per Matthewʼs version).
The Gospel of John is a theological creation from its opening verses of Greek philosophy which constitute the author(s)ʼ interpretation of Jesus (“In the beginning was the Word.”) — to Jesusʼs long-winded prayer in the garden, allegedly spoken on the eve of his death. Keeping in mind that the latter prayer was uttered only once in Jesusʼs life, and while the apostles were all asleep, or at least falling in and out of sleep, it seems quite a feat to be able to write down all twenty-six verses of it (chapter 17). (The Gospel of John also has Jesus speaking in the same semi-gnostic language as John the Baptist and the author of the prologue to that Gospel.) And the Fourth Gospel ends by stating that it was written ‘that ye may believe.’ How objective could such a work be?
Oh, and concerning the parable in Luke that may have been the inspiration for the “Lazarus story” that later grew and found its way into the Fourth Gospel, not even the Lukan parable may have been original. Stories about a rich and poor man both dying, and the rich man getting sent some place bad and the poor man getting sent some place good, have been found in both ancient Egypt and ancient Judaism. Itʼs a typical ‘reversal of fortune’ parable. [Richard Bauckham, “The Rich Man and Lazarus: The Parable and the Parallels,” New Testament Studies, Vol. 37, 1991, pp. 225-246]
Those are some of the reasons I doubt the N.T. literature, written by and for believers, containing second-hand stories of resurrection appearances that appear, even by a ‘face value’ comparison of all the Gospels, to have grown in the telling.
A further important point. Regardless of how ‘real’ a person views the ‘appearances’ I do not believe that the evidence substantiates a bodily resurrection. I base my opinion on the reasons given in my letters, notably, on the earliest stories including those in 1 Cor., and the ‘concretization’ process that may be traced in the Gospels, from Mark to John. Even you admitted in your Dec. 21st letter that the “‘middle ground’ position [of a ‘less than physical resurrection’] is very popular in critical circles at this present time, perhaps even the predominant view.”
I remain a little to the left of middle. I suggest that these ‘middle ground’ scholars maintain such a view of less-than-physical yet ‘real’ appearances because they are Christians or somewhat conservative Jews, and their faith has to have something ‘real’ to hold onto.
As I see it, for the faithful, all it takes is a possibility (no matter how remote) that their interpretation might be right, for them to believe it is. A ‘maybe’ is as good as a ‘certainty,’ or increases the faith they already possess. For the non-faithful, a possibility is just that, a maybe is as good as a maybe, an ‘appearance’ remains an ‘appearance,’ nothing more, nothing less: Protestants see Jesus and angels but seldom Mary because the awe/respect that Catholics pay Mary is denigrated by Protestants. Catholics see Jesus and Mary. Native Americans experience illuminating visions of animal spirits. Hindus may be visited by personae from their vast pantheon, while Buddhists may experience the compassionate ‘amida Buddha’ as they pray, ‘Save me, amida Buddha.’ A different school of Buddhists even experiences ‘born again’ like experiences of hellish fears followed by the relief of salvation (as discussed in Conrad Hyersʼs book, One-Born, Twice-Born Zen). New Agers see chakra colors and UFOs. A Gallup poll revealed that Southerners hear Godʼs voice much more often than Northerners. Just whose voice are these people hearing and does it sound Southern to them? (Protestants stress hearing Godʼs voice more and the value of ‘the Word,’ while Catholics stress seeing God more, which may explain the greater number of visions they experience in general.) What about J. B. Phillipsʼs story that C. S. Lewis ‘appeared’ to him after Lewis had died? (Cannon Phillips had corresponded with Lewis ‘a fair amount’ before Lewis died, and only saw him in the flesh once before. When Phillips mentioned that appearance to a certain saintly Bishop, the Bishopʼs reply was, “My dear J., this sort of thing is happening all the time.”) My friend, Will Bagley, told me that in a very realistic dream, Rajneesh, the Hindu guru, once appeared to Will at the foot of his bed with a brief message. My former fiancé told me about how a Catholic aunt of hers once saw Jesus before going to bed one night. (She told Jesus she was tired, and went to bed!) Dr. Robert Price knew a woman who ran a religious bookstore who claimed that Jesus appeared to her often. (Ask him about that story sometime.) My step-fatherʼs great aunt was very ill and staying with me and my Mom and Step-Dad when she seemed to be hearing voices and seeing lights before she passed away. I have also read stories on the web of Near Death Experiences as told by people from different cultures such as a person in Thailand who claimed to have seen some deities from their Buddhist religious backgrounds, including a talking turtle.
Statistically, Near Death Experiences do not often involve religious figures, and of those that involve figures of any kind they are usually compassionate beings of light who leave people of all religions (or even no religion) with the feeling that love is whatʼs important and death isnʼt as scary as they once thought it was. There are some nightmarish NDEs as well, but they are a distinct minority. And in fact I know of one that started out hellish but the person was saved by a compassionate ‘being of light.’ (Howard Storm was the fellowʼs name who had that last mentioned NDE, and he was transformed by it from a self avowed egotist and chair of a university art department to becoming a universalistic type of Christian minister.)
After reading the above it should become clear that a personʼs life and culture play a role in how things ‘appear’ to them. Also, if there is ‘reality’ involved in such appearances, it appears to be a universal reality, not a solely Christian or Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist one.
The difference between my approach and that of, say, a Christian apologist, is that I am not trying to say Christianity is ‘it,’ and then when faced with a difficulty in proving my apologetics superior, retreat into mystery and faith. My ideas originate in mystery, doubt, etc. I endorse Protagorasʼs (and Robert Anton Wilsonʼs) approach: During our brief spans of life, limited to our particular language and culture and whatever scientific/historical/philosophical knowledge each of us has time to pursue, we each gain only a limited understanding of ‘God’ and other immense questions. Heck, we havenʼt even crawled off the surface of the cradle planet.
Concerning the Bible, it raises ‘face value’ questions it does not answer. So ‘fundamentalistic’ Christians take the ‘face value’ method only so far, except when they run into knotty questions. Then they opt for ad hoc explanations of their own making to deliver themselves from historical-critical questions and more open-ended explanations. So, in my opinion, even the most rigid fundamentalists are as ‘humanistic’ in their boundless faith in their own ad hoc subsidiary explanations, as their most uncompromising critics.
A point I neglected to cover, above, concerning the account of the empty tomb — you “just do not think it is the case that the writers had to simply use women because there was no other alternative.” My reply is to study the Gospels. In Mark, ostensibly the earliest, the story goes that the disciples ‘all left him and fled’ in the garden. A young man following Jesusʼs captors was seized and escaped naked. Peter is afraid to admit to knowing Jesus. While at Jesusʼs crucifixion, only women are mentioned, “And there were also women looking on from afar.” “And Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of Joses were looking on where Jesus was laid.” Any subsequent empty tomb story would therefore be limited to women, since we are told in the earliest Gospel that the men fled.
In Matthew, ‘all the disciples left him and fled,’ adding at the crucifixion that ‘many women were looking on from a distance.’ And when Joseph sealed Jesusʼs grave, “Mary Magdalene was there, and the other Mary, sitting opposite the grave.” Only women again.
Luke is the first to omit that the disciples all fled at Jesusʼs arrest. But he does note that it was “the women [who] followed after, and saw the tomb and how His body was laid,” i.e., women again, who saw where Jesus was buried. [Luke 24:12 about ‘Peter running to the tomb’ is a later insertion that does not appear in the earliest manuscripts.]
John, the last Gospel written, bursts this mold open. The women are no longer watching the crucifixion ‘at a distance’ as in Mark and Matthew, but ‘they were standing by the cross of Jesus,’ and now there is also at least one man with them. This is a necessary redaction, since John has two men race each other to the tomb once Mary Magdalene tells the disciples it is empty, and they couldnʼt run there unless they knew where it was, and they couldnʼt know unless they had attended the crucifixion, which John says they did.
I would say the earliest version of the empty tomb story had to employ women (see Mark above about the men ‘all’ having ‘fled’). And the earliest story about the women ‘not telling anyone’ (in Mark) explains the relatively late appearance of the legend of the empty tomb, i.e., ‘no one’ was ‘told,’ nor heard, about an empty tomb until later. The empty tomb legend only arose after various ‘appearance’ stories, like those related by Paul (who does not mention an ‘empty tomb’) had already spread.
Numerous theologians (See for instance, The Anglican Archbishop of Perth, Peter Carnelyʼs, The Structure of Resurrection Belief; or Thomas Sheehanʼs The First Coming) have suggested on the basis of a comparative study of the Gospels that the earliest stories of Jesusʼs resurrection and subsequent ‘appearance(s)’ probably arose in Galilee after Jesusʼs disciples fled there. According to the earliest Gospel, Galilee was where the risen Jesus ‘went’ and where they would ‘see’ him. That was where ‘the eleven’ pondered for weeks their leaderʼs tragic fate and came to believe that matters would not, must not, could not end simply with Jesusʼs death. We have no records of what the apostles when through in Galilee, but it is no secret that small groups can exert enormous influence over their individual members, shaping perceptions, including conformity, and so forth. All the more so when the groups in question are fiercely partisan, and in the grip of some transcendent passion. And a passion for resurrection was not uncommon to that time and place, neither was a passion for a soon coming resurrection of all the dead in final apocalyptic judgment. Perhaps a ‘visionary experience’ or very real ‘dream(s)’ that he had appeared to them to continue his movement, mission, passion, to preach the soon coming kingdom of God, of which his resurrection was the first-fruits.
The historical order of accretion of what (the Jewish theologian) Pinchas Lapide has called a “dense wreath of resurrection legends” would then be:
- Claims of ‘appearances,’ no details — Paul
- Claims of ‘appearances’ (“You shall see him in Galilee”), augmented by the claim of an ‘empty tomb,’ but still no details as to any of those appearances, since the earliest Markan manuscripts end with merely the promise of an appearance in Galilee. And no appearances mentioned in Jerusalem. — Mark
- Two relatively brief ‘appearance’ stories with a few sparse details and words of the risen Jesus (to go with the new empty tomb legend), one near the tomb, and the second in Galilee — Matthew
- More appearance stories, longer, more detailed, that all take place in and around Jerusalem (for which the angelʼs message at the tomb had to be changed), including a tendency to ‘concretize’ Jesus more (he eats some fish and honeycomb to convince them he is not a ‘spirit,’ and even takes them on a little walk to Bethany). — Luke
[Note: The long ending to Mark (16:9-20) was probably composed sometimes between 3) & 4)]
- Yet more appearance stories in Jerusalem and also some in Galilee, including Jesus appearing to ten of the apostles, then appearing to them all again with Thomas present, so he could be offered a chance to ‘put’ his ‘hand’ in ‘Jesusʼs side;’ Jesus fixing [and eating?] food with the disciples [in both Jerusalem and Galilee respectively]; and the announcement, “…there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written, every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written,” a supposition they may have been based on the spread of further Jesus stories among the faithful. (I am not judging the nature of such stories, only the fact that they seem to keep growing from Mark to John and beyond.) — John
- Among those ‘many other things which Jesus did,’ some of which can no doubt be found in the bevy of other Gospels and Acts that believers continued to write, most of which we know only by brief mentions in other Christian works. One of which (The Gospel of Nicodemus) expanded on the incident in Matthew of ‘the raising of the many’ (identifying them as ‘Adam and Eve’ and some other Hebrew prophets). Others told of miracles Jesus performed in his infancy and youth. And one of which (the Gospel of Peter) told of Jesus actually being seen stepping out of his opened tomb (and followed by a talking cross).
A joke I recently heard maybe add a bit of lightness to this otherwise top heavy exchange:
After serving his followers for decades, the revered rabbi of an orthodox congregation died. His faithful flock, wailing and crying, beseeched God to grant them a glimpse of their beloved rabbi now that he had gone to meet his reward. God was moved by their prayers and granted them their request. The congregation looked up at the vision before them, and there was their beloved rabbi, sitting in heaven with a beautiful blonde on his lap.
“Rebbe, rebbe,” they cried. “How could you, the most holy man we know, after a lifetime of exemplary behavior, end up with a buxom blonde as your reward?”
“My good people,” replied the rabbi, peering down. “This woman is not my reward. Iʼm her punishment.”
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