There are no birth narratives in Mark, John, the Acts of the Apostles or the Epistles. The nativity stories are in the gospels of Matthew and Luke and they are so often conflated in hymns, prayers, Sunday School plays, even musical theatre, that it’s easy to think of them as an integrated whole.
But the resurrection stories are quite different. Each of the five stands in its own right, has its own perspective on events, involves different individuals and different settings. It’s easy for non-believers to dismiss them as inconsistent and totally implausible.
The earliest written account is in Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians. Paul writes as a recorder of a tradition: that Christ died for our sins, in accordance with the scriptures, he was buried, he rose from the dead on the third day, appeared to Peter, and afterwards to the twelve. hen he appeared to five hundred of [our] brethren at once, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James and afterwards to all the apostles. Last of all he appeared to [me]. It was like a sudden, abnormal birth. Later in this section of the letter, Paul asserts with typical firmness: the truth is, Christ was raised to life, the first fruits of the harvest of the dead. Since a man brought death into the world, a man also brought resurrection of the dead.
Paul has no problem with the idea of bodily resurrection. If he had been a Greek he would have accepted the classical view that a physical resurrection meant imprisonment in a physical body, in other words a fettering of the spirit, not a release into a new kind of life. But Paul was a Jew. The book of Daniel contains a clear statement of the Jewish belief about life after death – Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake, some to everlasting life and some to the reproach of everlasting abhorrence. Elijah raised a widow’s son in Nain. Jesus perfomed the same miracle in the same place 9 centuries later. He raised Jairus’s daughter, the centurion’s servant, Lazarus. Resurrection wasn’t commonplace, but it wasn’t unknown.
Paul’s account differs in many respects from the gospel stories. There’s no reference to the rolling away of the stone over the sepulchre. There are no women. No angels or men in white robes. The order in which Jesus appears on Easter day is not the same. Paul is keen to elevate the narrative so that the intellectual challenge of the resurrection is presented as theology. Elements of the story such as grave clothes, ointment, earthquakes are peripheral to Paul’s purpose.
But details are significant. In Mark’s gospel, the three women who were the first people to visit the tomb were named – Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome. They were key witnesses to the scene – the stone rolled away, the empty tomb and the messenger. The women were very frightened. In Matthew’s gospel, there were two women and they reacted to the angelic message with joy. This account is the only one to mention that there had been soldiers guarding the tomb, on the orders of Pontius Pilate who was responding to a warning by the Pharisees that Jesus’s followers would steal the body. In fact the chief priests bribed the guards to say that this was what had happened.
One of the most extraordinary aspects of the resurrection narrative occurs in Luke. Two friends of Jesus, walking to Emmaus from Jerusalem were joined by a stranger. When they reached Emmaus, after walking 10.4 miles, they shared a meal with him. As he broke the bread, their eyes were opened and they realised that their companion was the risen Christ.
John’s gospel is balanced in favour of the part played by a woman. Mary Magdalen went to the tomb and had a personal encounter with a man whom she thought to be a gardener. He called her by name and she responded by calling him Rabbi, teacher. A week later he appeared again in the same room and allowed Thomas to touch him, Thomas, who had doubted the truth of all the stories he had heard.
There are several convergences in these disparate reports. All mention a stone which had been rolled away, revealing an empty tomb. The role of women, though their reactions are different, was to be key witness to the resurrection. The risen Christ carried on teaching his disciples, he carried on being their Rabbi. Jesus was not a ghost. He could eat and drink. Sometimes Jesus invited his disciples to touch him, but famously when he greeted Mary he said: touch me not.
Flavius Josephus, a 1st century Roman left us one of the few historical texts of the period. “John the Baptist and Jesus were two holy men. When Pilate, upon the accusation of the first men amongst us, condemned Jesus to be crucified, those who had formerly loved him did not cease to follow him, for he appeared to them on the third day, living again, as the divine prophets foretold.” This is as near as we get to a detached almost contemporary account.
Between the NT stories and this little scrap of writing by a minor historian, there isn’t a great deal of authenticated information to build a religion on.
But a common thread running through it all is perspective. As we read these stories we accept that they represent points of view.
The resurrection is the great miracle of our religion. If you believe in the supernatural, you can accept that in his role of creator of the universe it is well within God’s power to break his own laws. Bringing a dead body back to life is another manifestation of his power over all he made.
The Catholic catechism acknowledges the enigmatic quality of the resurrection. Although [it] was an historical event, verified by the sign of the empty tomb and the apostles’ encounters with the risen Christ, it remains at the very heart of the mystery of faith, something that transcends and surpasses history. Certainty and ambiguity combined in one sentence.
What does the resurrection mean for us?
I can’t believe that the meaning of the resurrection is to prove the almighty power of God. If it were so then we must ask why this God doesn’t use this power to deal with all the horrors that are and have been in the world, affecting individuals and whole nations.
It can’t mean irrefutable fact as we understand it. When we watched an eye witness on TV describing the fall of the Berlin Wall, we saw the men climbing up with hammers and pick axes. There were clouds of dust. People clawed at the structure and ran over no-man’s- land into the West, stopping to look at the collapse of the barrier that had dominated their lives. Everyone there would have their version of what happened to pass on to family, friends, neighbours. But the basic threads of the story could be verified by anyone who looked at archive film or old newspapers.
His effect on them was so powerful that they began to see him in everyone they met
From my perspective as a 21st century Christian humanist, I see the resurrection as a series of metaphors, recorded by a disparate group of men and women who wanted to make sense of the most extraordinary experience any group of people has ever experienced. They had spent three years with Jesus who embodied all the qualities of God. They had met the word made flesh. And he had died. But his effect on them was so powerful that they began to see him in everyone they met. Mary met a gardener. He responded to her intense grief with compassion, with sensitivity, with love. She recognised Jesus in him. Two friends, also immersed in grief, encountered a stranger as they were walking. He responded to their bewilderment by making them aware of the inevitability of suffering that must be the result of human limitations. They realised that they had encountered Jesus. When they broke bread together, they understood the meaning of Jesus’s promise that when two or three are gathered together in his name, he is there in their midst. When they honoured the dignity of even what society regards as its dregs, they were honouring Jesus. When they visited the sick, fed the hungry, they were doing it as if to Jesus.
My favourite representation of Jesus’s resurrection in art is a drawing by Michelangelo in the British Museum. He’s naked. The tomb is an elaborate alabaster box. Jesus is balanced on one foot on the edge. He has the musculature of a very athletic, energetic man in the prime of life. He’s thrusting with both arms towards the sky, throwing his head back and gazing upwards. The message is clear. The jaws of death could not contain this man. We must look for him and recognise him whenever we meet him.
Margaret is a Reader (Licensed Lay Minister) at the Church of the Ascension Blackheath.
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