Sean King

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Knoxville, Tennessee, United States

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Parsing the Gospel Accounts of the Resurrection

What do the gospels tell us about Jesus's resurrection? Not what most people think. When viewed as historical testimonies rather than as spiritual analogies, our four "witnesses" to the resurrection provide different and even contradictory accounts of this most important of Christian events.

Here's what the gospels actually say on the matter:

By all accounts, Mary Magdalene approached Jesus's tomb early on Sunday morning. This is the one thing on which all our "accounts" seemingly agree. But, even on this point, they contradict each other on the details. For instance, Mark says that the sun had already risen when they approached while John insists that it was still dark and the other two witnesses (Matthew and Luke) state that it was about dawn. Mark says that two other women accompanied Mary Magdalene, Mathew mentions only one other woman accompanied her, Luke indicates that more than two other women accompanied her, and John implies that she approached the tomb alone.

Luke, Mark and John agree that the tomb was unguarded and that the stone had already been removed by the time that Mary arrived, but Matthew disagrees on both counts, emphasizing that guards were present and that an angel from heaven rolled way the stone before Mary's very eyes. Luke, and John agree that two others announced the good news to Mary at the tomb, Luke saying simply that they were "men" while John says they were "angels". By contrast, in Mark's account, only one "man" delivers the good news to Mary, and in Matthew's, a single "angel".

In Mark's account the women then run away from the empty tomb and, being afraid, say nothing to anyone, and the original version of Mark's story ends there (i.e., our oldest versions of Mark do not contain any verses after 16:8). Thus, in original Mark, the risen Jesus never appears to Mary or anyone else.

By contrast, in Matthew’s account, the women are the first to meet the risen Jesus face to face (in the garden) and do so before delivering the good news to any other disciples. In Luke, the women deliver the good news of the empty tomb to the disciples, but never actually meet Jesus face to face in the garden at all. John splits the difference by having Mary Magdalene race to describe the empty tomb first to Peter and the “disciple whom Jesus loved” before latter meeting Jesus in the garden and then going on to tell other disciples.

So, to reiterate, in original Mark the women tell no one of the good news (i.e., the empty tomb), for they are afraid. In Luke, the women tell some other disciples of the good news (empty tomb) but never meet the risen Jesus. In Matthew the spread the good news to othersonly after meeting the risen Jesus. And, in John, they do so both before (with respect to Peter and the "beloved disciple) and after (with respect to other disciples) meeting the risen Jesus.

John stresses that the risen Jesus only appeared to the other disciples on three occasions (not counting his appearance to Mary, a mere woman, apparently). And, unfortunately for Literalists, John describes all three: He appeared to them once in a closed room in Jerusalem on the same day that he appeared to Mary (i.e., the same day as his resurrection), he appeared to them again eight days later (also in a closed room, perhaps the same one, presumably in Jerusalem), and he made his final appearance at a beach in Galilee.

By contrast, our earliest Gospel, Mark, in it’s unaltered form, knows of no post-resurrection appearances. How could Mark have failed to mention such important things?! In Matthew’s account Jesus appears once to the women on the day of his resurrection, and then makes one other appearance to the other disciples on a mountain in Galilee, contradicting John’s insistence that he appeared only three times before , first in a room in Jerusalem, again eight days later in the same room, and then once more on a beach (not a mountain) in Galilee. Luke's Jesus, by contrast, never goes to Galilee at all. Rather, his Jesus first appears to two men traveling on the road to Emmaus. Jesus then makes a single appearance in a closed room in Jerusalem, all before leading the group of believers to Bethany (not anywhere near Galilee) where Jesus then ascends to heaven. Mark, Matthew and John seem to know nothing about Jesus’ ascension into heaven from Bethany to sit on the right hand of the Father, a fact they surely would not have failed to report had they known it.

Many Literalist try to reconcile these gospel discrepancies by taking a "both/and" approach. For instance, Mary must have approached the tomb once before dawn, ran away, and then came back again after the sun had risen. The first time the tomb must have been unguarded and the stone was still blocking the entrance. The second time guards were present and the rock was moved. Oh...wait....that doesn't work. So, maybe it's the other way around. Maybe the tomb was guarded and the stone present on the first approach, but not the second? Wait...no...that doesn't work either. Hmmm.

And so, Literalists keep trying to construct a narrative that will reconcile the varying gospel accounts by assuming that all these things happened just as the evangelists wrote. It's just that each of them only told part of the story, you see. So, both Luke is right and Mark is right and Matthew is right and John is right. To get the "full picture", the real gospel story, we have to add all the accounts together.

But, this begs the question: Why in the world would any one of our four evangelists have told only part of such an amazing story?! For instance, why would Mark, Luke and John have have chosen to omit Matthew's angel descending from heaven to roll away the stone in front of Mary, or the great earthquake that followed in which the dead rose from their graves and walked around the city of Jerusalem? And, why would Mark, John and Matthew have omitted the story (told by Luke) of Jesus leading believers to Bethany and ascending from there to heaven to sit at God's right hand?

It is inconceivable that any true Christian "witness" of the time would not have known about such amazing things, and it is likewise inconceivable that any evangelist of the gospel would have neglected to mention them if they did.

And, when we remember that Matthew and Luke had Mark in front of them as they compiled their accounts, many of the contradictions between Matthew and Luke and Mark cannot be explained by the "both/and" approach. Where Matthew and Luke choose to contradict Mark, they don't simply say "Mark only told part of the story, and here's the rest." Rather, they consciously rewrite Mark's account, directly refuting it in places, without explanation and without any attempt to harmonize their's with his. In fact, they don't even seem to wish to give Mark any credit at all since neither one ever mentions him (though both clearly plagiarized his work, quoting extensive passages verbatim)! No, it's clear that Matthew and John intended to set Mark's account straight in places and not simply to supplement Mark's story with additional information that Mark chose (for inexplicable reasons) to omit.

And finally, even if it were reasonable to take a both/and approach to interpreting scripture, the test of whether we've got it right must be whether or not we can construct a cohesive and non-contradictory narrative by employing this technique. And, with the gospels in general and the resurrection narratives in particular, we can't. It's not possible (believe me, I've tried!).

No, we simply can't account for all the facts offered by the four gospels in such a way that we gain a consistent gospel story. For instance, there is no way that we can reconcile John's claim that Jesus appeared to the disciples three times in three specific places with Luke's or Matthew's that he appeared at other times, in a different order, at other places. If Jesus appeared first to disciples in a closed room in Jerusalem, then to them again in the same place eight days later, and then on a beach in Galilee; and if the Galilee appearance was Jesus' third, all as John insists, then Jesus could not have appeared first to two disciples on the road to Emmaus as Luke states.

Thus, in this example, either Luke is wrong, or John is. And, for me, that's okay. The significance of the resurrection story doesn't depend upon its historicity. In fact, by historizing it, we may very well miss its meaning entirely.

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