After the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices to go and anoint the body of Jesus. Very early on Sunday morning, at sunrise, they went to the tomb. On the way they said to one another, "Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?" (It was a very large stone.) Then they looked up and saw that the stone had already been rolled back. So they entered the tomb, where they saw a young man sitting at the right, wearing a white robe -- and they were alarmed.
"Don't be alarmed," he said. "I know you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is not here -- he has been raised! Look, here is the place where he was placed. Now go and give this message to his disciples, including Peter: "He is going to Galilee ahead of you; there you will see him, just as he told you.' "
So they went out and ran from the tomb, distressed and terrified. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.
- Mark 16:1-8
It is fashionable among theologians and "historical Jesus" scholars to assert that the empty tomb is a late addition to the resurrection stories. The followers of Jesus experienced something powerful, something life-changing, and had trouble finding the words to express it.
Classical historians who look at the gospels -- even if they don't believe in Christ -- tend to reach the opposite conclusion.
But in the end, when every argument has been considered and weighed, the only conclusion acceptable to the historian must be that the opinions of the orthodox, the liberal sympathizer and the critical agnostic alike -- and even perhaps of the disciples themselves -- are simply interpretations of the one disconcerting fact: namely that the women who set out to pay their last respects to Jesus found to their consternation, not a body, but an empty tomb.
- Geza Vermes, Jesus the Jew
Mark, as we have seen, had heard that the three women saw it together. But according to John, the first to see it was Mary Magdalene all by herself. Either of these reports is likely enough to represent the authentic occurrence, since the early Church would never have concocted, on its own account, the statement that this most solemn and fateful of all discoveries was made by women, including a woman with an immoral record at that. Perhaps John's version is the original one, and the other women were added to the story later to make it less shocking.
Who had taken the body? There is no way of knowing. Mary Magdalene thought at first that the cemetery gardener had removed it -- whereas the Jews, not unplausibly, maintained that it had been taken by Jesus' own disciples. At all events it was gone. And because it was gone, and no one knew where it was, this made it easier for people to believe, three days later (a period equated with scriptural predictions,) that they were seeing Jesus alive again and returned to the earth, risen from the dead. The Resurrection is the subject of some of the greatest pictures ever painted, but there is no actual description of it, and nobody claimed to have seen it happen. Yet those who believed that Jesus had appeared to them on the earth after his death have their alleged experiences recorded in a number of passages of the New Testament. Their testimonies cannot prove them to have been right in supposing that Jesus had risen from the dead.
- Michael Grant, Jesus: An Historian's Review of the Gospels
Those testimonies are varied, but generally fall into one or more of four categories:
- Apperances of the Jesus the disciples knew and recognized
- Apperances of a Jesus the disciples did not recognize
- Appearances of a Jesus who can appear and disappear at will
- Apperances of Jesus in a vision
In the first group is John 21, where the disciples see Jesus at the seashore, and Jesus asks Peter three times, "Do you love me?". Also in this group is Matthew 28:16-20, wher e Jesus meets the disciples in Galilee and gives them some final instructions. Jesus' conversation with Thomas in John 20:24-29 also fits into this category.
In the second group is the story of the walk to Emmaus in Luke 24:13-32. The two disciples walk and talk with him but do not know it is him until the very end. In John 20:14-17, Mary Magdalene at first does not recognize Jesus when he appears to her at the tomb.
The walk to Emmaus also fits in the third group, as Jesus vanishes once the disciples recognize him. Also in this category are stories in John 20:19-23 and Luke 24:36-43 telling of Jesus appearing to his disciples inside a locked room. In the Luke account, Jesus then proves he is not a ghost by eating a piece of fish. Jesus' conversation with Thomas mentioned above can also fit in this category, as he had once again appeared inside a locked room.
The most famous example in the fourth category is the appearance to Paul on the road to Damascus, recorded in Acts 9 and repeated with slightly different details in Acts 22 and 26. The most vivid example is the vision given to John of Patmos, now known as the book of Revelation.
It is impossible to reconcile every detail of all the apperances. In Matthew 28:10 Jesus tells the disciples to return to Galilee, but in Acts 1:4 he tells them not to leave Jerusalem. In some gospels, Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene at the tomb, but in others he doesn't. No matter how we put the pieces together, there are elements of the resurrection experiences that must remain a mystery to us.
But for a secular historian like Michael Grant, the only mystery of that first Easter morning is: Who took the body? The great irony is that the empty tomb can be utterly convincing as a historical event, yet utterly unconvincing as evidence of the resurrection. By itself the tomb proves nothing.
That may be at the root of liberal attempts to minimize the importance of the tomb. Because, for the disciples, it was not the disapperance of the corpse that transformed their lives, it was the reappearance of the living Christ. It was the fact that he returned to them, many times and in many ways. And he continues to be present in the lives of Christians even today.
That's where we find the meaning of the resurrection. Christ is alive! He has conquered death, and he will be with us to the very end of the age.
Labels: faith, resurrection, scripture