If you think the 4 Gospel stories in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were biographies of Jesus, I invite you to reconsider. Nowhere it is clearer that historical accounting was not what the Gospel writers were intending than in the narratives about what we call Holy Week, the stories of Christ’s Passion, the Death and Resurrection stories.
Let’s just glance at the Easter details:
· In Matthew 2 women went to the tomb.
· In John Mary Magdalene went alone.
· Mark and Luke say there were 3, but they are not sure which 3.
· Did the women see 1 or 2 angels, or was it a man clothed in white?
· For Peter and John it was the deflated grave cloths that were convincing.
· And then they were not so convinced until they met Jesus while fishing.
· Mary was told not to touch the risen Lord.
· Thomas needed to touch, not just to see with his eyes.
The post resurrection appearances of Jesus were just as often confounding as they were confirming. Confusion was the most likely reaction.
Everybody who searches the Bible for historical accounts is frustrated by the gaps and even more by the inconsistencies. Critics of Christianity leap on this as our greatest weakness. In our seminary classrooms we sometimes wonder why the writers didn’t at leasttry to compile a coherent account. Just the other day a friend of a friend on the Internet confessed she was embarrassed by some of the impossibilities in the Holy Week accounts.
Somewhere along the line (I think it was in the 16th century) a search for historical accuracy became more urgent. We began to need a story that is internally coherent and consistent with whatever data may be uncovered by archeologists or recovered from long-lost documents. If the Jesus story is true, that’s how it is true, how we will know it is true, and how it will stay true: it will be history.
I know it is counter-cultural to suggest otherwise. But the Easter testament requires me to suggest we try to put ourselves into the mindset of the Easter witnesses. What were they witnessing and what were the New Testament writers testifying to?
It was not testimony to the historical truth that Jesus rose from the dead. Divine figures in every religion (especially the mystery cults that were hugely popular in the Roman Empire) and many other legendary heroes rose from the dead. Many of those resurrection accounts were more spectacular than the ones about Jesus. Factual accuracy about them was never what mattered. Even in Christian lore there were other resurrection stories including at least 2 told about Jesus, how he raised the son of the widow of Nain and the raising of Lazarus. The reaction at the time to “good news” that Jesus rose from the dead would have been along the lines, “Of course, he rose from the dead! Religious heroes do that.” Only in these last 500 years have we become skeptical about that, and think it must be the one thing that validates Christianity. I had a teacher who was fond of saying, “If Christ did not rise from the dead, Christianity is a fraud.”
In the first century what mattered was “what difference does it make?” That was the religious question that needed answering if Christianity was to gain traction. Luke was quite clear that the reason he compiled his testament to the Good News was to explain why the Jewish people beginning to be called Christians had grown to be so many and so enthusiastic. Luke and the other Gospel writers gathered story after story about what happened when people allowed Christ to meet their deep needs. The Easter stories (as well as the other Gospel stories) are accounts of how Christ changed people.
Mary Magdalene experienced Jesus as the one who resolved her grief. The thing that threatened to overwhelm Mary was her grief at the death of Jesus, whom she loved. So, for Mary Magdalene, the Easter experience was the eradication of her grief.
For Thomas, the experience was quite different. Thomas experienced Jesus as the one who resolved his doubt. He was not going to believe any of the gossip about Jesus, he declared, until he had actually touched the nail prints in Jesus’ hands and the spear wound in his side. Thomas would doubt until he had physical proof of Jesus’ resurrection, and so Jesus provided him proof.
The two disciples on the road to Emmaus experienced Jesus as the one who unfolded scripture for them. They were determined to believe what they read in scripture, and as they walked along, Jesus expounded on scripture, verse by verse. How their hearts were warmed, they said, until at length they recognized him as they were breaking bread together.
Other disciples experienced Jesus as the one who resolved their purposelessness. Now that Jesus was gone what was there to do? They had invested their lives in this man for three years and now he was dead. They were without purpose until, at last, Jesus, meeting them in an Easter experience custom-made for them, gave them a new role to undertake.
Peter experienced Jesus as the one who resolved his guilt. He had denied Jesus. He had said he would not deny Jesus to his last breath and until the last drop of blood. Yet he had denied him three times without loss of either breath or blood. Peter was overwhelmed with guilt. When Peter met the risen Lord his Easter experience convinced him he was forgiven his miserable showing, and that Jesus still wanted Peter to serve him.
This is the Easter experience as the witnesses testified to it: the ones who were grief stricken experienced Easter at the tomb. The ones who were terror stricken experienced the resurrection in their locked upper room. The two who were stricken by loneliness experienced Jesus at the dinner table, and those who were adrift experienced Jesus beside their fishing nets in Galilee.
The Easter experience is the experience of God’s victory which resolves our defeats.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.