I wonder how many preachers would be prepared to read Peter Rollin’s monologue at their Easter day service. It starts….
“Without equivocation or hesitation I fully and completely admit that I deny the resurrection of Christ. This is something that anyone who knows me could tell you, and I am not afraid to say it publicly, no matter what some people may think.”
Then a dramatic pause:………………. and continue…
“I deny the resurrection of Christ every time I do not serve at the feet of the oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor; I deny the resurrection of Christ when I close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden and lend my support to an unjust and corrupt system. However there are moments when I affirm that resurrection, few and far between as they are. I affirm it when I stand up for those who are forced to live on their knees, when I speak for those who have had their tongues torn out, when I cry for those who have no more tears left to shed”.
Now the Sermon: Risen in what Sense?
One of the marks of the mature Christian is when they get to the point where they start to trust their own thinking and experience enough to live their response. Easter provides a good test of this mark of growth.
In some ways it has never really been a question of how believable or acceptable the resurrection story is to a genuine Christian. The more interesting question is why Church members are not uniformly transformed by their claimed knowledge of the resurrection. If we look at typical behaviour of Christians today, we should at least acknowledge that some show by their actions they are uncertain as to what it all means. Celebrating in joyful worship we may well be on Easter Sunday – yet for many of us, the very next day it is back to total normality and on to the Easter sales.
Although most Christians are happy to respond to the Easter Greeting – “Christ is risen!” with “He is risen indeed!”, all is by no means clear.
Today I wish to face what some critics say as squarely and as honestly as possible. You should be assured at the outset that although I am aware of these problems I personally believe there is very important truth in the resurrection that resonates with my experience and one I believe gives a good basis for a life based on faith. Yet I also believe that if a faith is worth having it should be sufficiently robust to survive honest doubts.
It is fine to start simply with the gospel accounts, reading each one separately and using the Church three year cycle of the lectionary almost as an excuse to avoid seeing how the accounts stack up against one another. But as our faith matures, there is also a case for comparing the accounts and then allowing ourselves become open to relevant knowledge from other sources.
So to work….
We start with an observation from Justice Haim Cohn, a prominent contemporary Jewish scholar who draws our attention to some obvious problems in accepting the veracity of the account of Jesus’ evening trial in the house of the High Priest. Justice Cohn claims that the traditional story of Jesus’ trial is inconsistent with custom. First according to Jewish law and custom, the Sanhedrin were not allowed to exercise jurisdiction in the High Priest’s house or for that matter anywhere outside the Courthouse and Temple precinct. No session of the criminal court was permissible after nightfall. Passover or Pesach would not have provided the setting since no criminal trial was permissible on a feast day or the eve of a feast day. In view of the formalistic and rigorous attitude to the law, for which the Pharisees were well known, a conviction must be proceeded by two truthful and reliable witnesses and in fact the charge of blasphemy was inapplicable since it was closely defined as pronouncing the ineffable name of God, the tetragrammaton, which under Jewish law might only be pronounced once a year on the Day of Atonement – and then only by the High Priest in the Kodesh Kodashim, the innermost sanctuary of the Temple.
Next we look more closely at how the gospel accounts stack up against each other. The gospel accounts are fine if read separately – but downright confusing if they are assembled together. The difficulties are now well known and are standard teaching in many theological training institutions. Because by tradition and the three year church lectionary cycle the stories are not usually read on the same day in Church, accordingly the contradictions are less well known by typical church members apart from the more serious Bible scholars among them. For example there are different reportedly eye witness accounts with different last words on the cross. There are different versions of what was encountered at the empty tomb and who the witnesses met there. Right from the outset the gospel writers seem to have struggled to come up with a consistent and clear account of the empty tomb.
Let’s be honest. Given the requirements of news reporters today, the gospels lacked the precision and accuracy now expected of national news reporters and appear closer today with what we might more commonly associate with the tabloids. Matthew, for example has many graves opening and dead people walking around. Matthew 27 verses 52 and 53 says “There was an earthquake, the rocks split and the graves opened, and many of God’s people rose from sleep , and coming out of their graves after his resurrection, they entered the Holy City where many saw them”. Many resurrected? Really?
Strangely the other gospel writers appeared to have missed this earth shaking scene altogether and contemporary historians seem oblivious to that extraordinary newsworthy event. Mark as the writer most contemporary with the events, far from supporting Matthew’s account, attempted to close off his account before the resurrection evidence was even mentioned. The last twelve verses of Mark are widely believed by scholars to have been added much later by other authors to bring Mark’s gospel into line with the resurrection details mentioned in the other gospels. The earliest complete manuscripts of Mark’s gospel were missing these verses and the style of writing including letter formation suggests that the missing verses were added at least two hundred years after the original gospel was first composed.
Then we get to the gospel detail. Certainly contradictions in the reported versions have caused much debate about the validity of the gospel accounts of the crucifixion and the resurrection. For example: Jesus’ last words were?
Matt.27:46,50: “And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, eli, lama sabachthani?” that is to say, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” …Jesus, when he cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost.”
Or was it: Luke 23:46: “And when Jesus had cried with a loud voice, he said, “Father, unto thy hands I commend my spirit:” and having said thus, he gave up the ghost.”
Then in John’s version John 19:30: “When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, “It is finished:” and he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost.”
And for that matter who did his followers actually see at the sepulchre?
Mark 16:5 And entering into the sepulchre, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a long white garment; and they were affrighted.
Luke 24:4 And it came to pass, as they were much perplexed thereabout, behold, two men stood by them in shining garments:
John 20:12 And seeth two angels in white sitting, the one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain.
Next we move to the events immediately after the resurrection.
According to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Mary Magdalene was among the group of women who were told by angels at the empty tomb that Jesus had risen “even as he said,” and Luke went as far as to say that when the women heard this, “they remembered his words” (24:9). Such statements as these can be put together with Matthew’s claim that the women encountered Jesus, even held him, and worshipped him as they were running from the tomb to tell the disciples what they had seen, Matt 28:9 This presumably indicates the women were already convinced that Jesus has risen from the dead when they left the tomb. Yet when Mary actually meets Jesus she not only doesn’t recognize him, she tells him that his body is missing from the tomb and she doesn’t know where it has been put.
It is true that some of the minor differences in the accounts eg Was it angels or men in the tomb? How many in the tomb? Who was it who encountered Jesus afterwards? etc may indeed be little more than the typical versions of reporters struggling to remember what they believed they had been told well after the event, but at the very least it would be dishonest to say there was no room for doubt.
Now for the bit requiring clear thought. I would claim that despite the problems there was something very significant about the resurrection. This to my way of thinking was no matter how confusing the accounts now seem in retrospect, something was happening soon after Jesus crucifixion to transform some who had been close to Jesus from being frightened, highly dependent frail humans, into disciples prepared to strike out on their own, passing on Jesus’ teaching and being sufficiently inspirational to draw others to his cause. Perhaps we also need to acknowledge that not all showed these signs of life. If we assign this change to “resurrection”, as far as some were concerned, resurrection must have happened for them in some way even if it should be also allowed a metaphorical sense.
Biologically I have no idea what resurrection actually meant. Was Jesus properly dead when taken down off the cross? Was the story exaggerated through the next few decades? Truthfully, although I know what I would like to believe – I have no way of proving what I hope to be true. Yet what is absolutely beyond question is that death did not finish Jesus and his message. What is also true is that some – notice I say some – not all – were brought to a new dimension of life in the process.
I guess many of you would have heard of the resurrection plant. One of the most dramatic of these – (because there are several different plants given the same colloquial name) is the Jericho rose. When it runs out of water as it can do in the desert, it pulls up its roots and looks as if it has shrivelled up and died. But it is only hibernating. And according to one reference I read, the Jericho Rose can exist in the desiccated form for up to fifty years.
It allows the wind to blow it along in its shrivelled state until it somehow senses water. (You’ll have to ask my wife the Latin name for the plant – and ask Prince Charles what to say to one when you see one being blown along the road! He talks to plants. ) Finally having sensed water the resurrection plant puts down its roots and starts growing again.
You might well focus on the state of Jesus from crucifixion to resurrection and believe it is important to believe the detail. For what it is worth I happen to think it is far more important to individually offer the sort of environment to allow Jesus to take root in our life. Simply stopping and celebrating the detail of that first resurrection is not sufficient for me because knowing about it wouldn’t necessarily change me. In fact I know people who have passed exams in that sort of detail without allowing what Jesus stood for to take root in their lives. One of the gospel accounts has the disciples saying in summary that they had heard the women had told them Jesus was no longer in the tomb but they had a dinner appointment at Emmaus so they were heading to Emmaus instead of following up the story.
Should we seek Jesus in the empty tomb? That leaves it at history and confusing history at that. Luke’s account has Jesus asking “why do you seek him among the dead”. If he is not perceived amongst the living – sure that includes among people like us – then why would resurrection matter? In other words simply hearing about it won’t necessarily make a difference.
Metaphorically speaking, I think it is only when I allow the resurrection to come alive for me that I will be able to actually show love for my fellows. Maybe then the resurrection plant can teach us something.