Sunday, April 24, 2011

The story of Easter


We just celebrated Easter in which thousands of sermons were preached all over the world on the resurrection of Jesus. It’s a good bet that very few of them mentioned all the apparent inconsistencies and “contradictions” in the gospel accounts of the resurrection. For example,

Matthew says Mary Magdalene and another Mary went to the tomb. Mark says Salome was with them. Luke alone adds Joanna. Only John writes about Mary Magdalene.

Matthew and Mark say the women were met by an angel. Luke says it was two angels.

John says it was still dark. Matthew and Luke say it was early dawn. Mark says the sun had risen.

Luke tells about the disciples on the road to Emmaus. Matthew and John don’t mention this.

Matthew tells about the guards being bribed. The other gospels don’t mention it.

In John, Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene alone. In the other gospels, he appears to the women together.

In Luke the women told the disciples what the angels said about Jesus raising from the dead. In John, Mary Magdalene tells the disciples they have stolen the body and we don’t know where they put it.

Critics never seem to tire of arguing that these stories are hopelessly contradictory and therefore, cannot be believed. Is there an answer to this charge?

First, the argument is all smoke and mirrors. Don’t believe for a minute that if the stories were perfectly in alignment, that the critics would believe them. The real problem is not “inconsistencies” or contradictions. The real problem is unbelief. People refuse to believe that a man rose from the dead so they come up with all kinds of convoluted excuses to justify their unbelief. We know this because the stories about Jesus’ crucifixion contain the same kind of supposed inconsistencies and contradictions as the resurrection story, but there are virtually no Jesus scholars who deny that Jesus was crucified.

The fact is that inconsistencies and contradictions do not necessarily prove that a story is historically unreliable. There were all kinds of inconsistencies, inaccuracies and even contradictions in the 9/11 reports, and yet no one doubts that 9/11 happened. The same is true of virtually all historical events for which there are more than one source.

When historians wanted to find out what happened with the sinking of the Titanic, for example, they didn’t just talk to one eyewitness, they talked to numerous eyewitnesses and even to those who knew eyewitnesses. Historians know that no one source could possibly provide the complete picture of what happened. They have to reconstruct the full picture by piecing together the sources. Sometimes this is difficult to do because the sources--even eyewitness sources--sometimes seem incompatible. Sometimes they seem to flat-out contradict each other. Historians do not automatically conclude that the event didn’t happen.

This is true of virtually any historical event for which there are more than one source. And yet, when Evangelical scholars attempt to reconstruct the story of Jesus' resurrection from Gospel sources, critics charge them with “harmonization.” They say that harmonization is illegitimate. Nonsense! “Harmonization” is what historians do! Contrary to critics repeated assertions, the resurrection stories can be harmonized quite successfully.

Using a little “sanctified imagination” the following story is a reconstruction of the resurrection stories in a way that makes sense of the four Gospel accounts, showing that they are not nearly as inconsistent or contradictory as the critics claim.

The Story of Easter

Many in Jerusalem were undoubtedly awakened by the early morning earthquake. It is hard to imagine that Mary Magdalene and the other women were sleeping very well anyway in light of what had happened to Jesus.

Jesus had died and was placed in a tomb just before the Sabbath began at sunset on Friday. The women were prohibited from anointing the body on the Sabbath, so they would just have to wait until the Sabbath was over on Sunday morning. Surely Jesus deserved a proper burial. That’s the least they could do. In fact, it was all they could do now.

First thing Sunday morning, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Sa’lome, Joanna and Susanna were up gathering spices and other necessities. They headed off toward the tomb while it was still dark. As they talked it suddenly occurred to them: who would move the large stone away from the entrance? They hadn’t thought of that, but these were determined women. They were not about to let a rock stand in their way.

By the time they got to the tomb the sun had just barely risen but it was light enough to see from a distance that the stone had already been rolled away!

That could only mean one thing. The body had been stolen! Mary Magdalene was crushed! She didn’t go any further. She didn’t need to see any more. Mary immediately ran back to the home where the disciples were staying and cried out, “They’ve taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”

The disciples were undoubtedly shocked, but they were not sure what to do with this information. What could they do? Mary, overwhelmed with grief, just turned around and walked slowly back to the tomb.

Meanwhile, the other women had cautiously entered the tomb, allowing their eyes to adjust to the darkness. Sure enough, Jesus was gone!

Just then two men suddenly appeared in dazzling white garments. One of them said,

Don’t be afraid—it was too late. They were already terrified—You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth. Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here. He is risen as he said.

Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: ‘The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful man, be crucified and on the third day and be raised again.” But go tell his disciples—and Peter—that he is raised from the dead and is going on ahead of you into Galilee. You will see him there just as he told you.

The women, still trembling and bewildered, raced back to the home where Jesus’ disciples had been hiding out, saying nothing to the few people who happened to be up at the crack of dawn. The women burst into the room shortly after Mary Magdalene had left to go back to the tomb. They told the disciples about the empty tomb and the angels’ message, but the disciples thought they were speaking nonsense and didn’t believe them.

But, first Mary, now the other women? Peter and John had to see for themselves. They raced to the tomb, passing Mary Magdalene on the way.

John got there first and bent over looking into the tomb. Peter got there right after John and actually went into the tomb. John followed him in. Sure enough, the tomb was empty except for the strips of linen and the burial cloth that had been around Jesus’ head. The head cloth had been folded and placed separately from the other linens. Peter and John went back to tell the others.

A little later, Mary Magdalene finally got to the tomb again. This time she bent over to peer into the entrance. Just as she feared, Jesus was indeed gone. She turned around falling to her knees, weeping uncontrollably, tears in her eyes, head in her hands. She didn’t even look up when she heard a man ask, “Woman, why are you crying?”

“They have taken my Lord away and I don’t know where they have put him!” “Sir, if you’ve have carried him away, tell me where you put him, and I will get him”


Mary turned around and looked up.

Rabboni!!! Mary exclaimed as she jumped up and wrapped her arms tightly around Jesus.

This was not a very politically correct thing to do publicly in those days, so after a while Jesus said, Mary stop holding on to me, for I’ve not yet returned to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.

Mary obeyed and ran back to the disciples to tell them that she had seen the Lord! The other women had already left the home, possibly to tell to tell Mary, Martha and Lazarus in the village of Bethany.

As they were walking along, from out of nowhere, Jesus suddenly met them.

“Greetings,” he said.

Terrified, they fell prostrate to the ground grabbing his feet worshiping him! Jesus said, Don’t be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee. They will see me there.”

Meanwhile Cleopas and another man (possibly Luke) also left the house to go on a seven mile journey to Emmaus. As they walked a stranger joined them asking what they had been discussing. Looking downcast Cleopas asked, “Are you only a visitor to Jerusalem and don’t know the things that have happened there?

What things?

So Cleopas explained that Jesus of Nazareth was a prophet, powerful and word and deed before God, and how the chief priests and rulers had handed him over to be crucified.
We had hoped, Cleopas explained, that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. What’s more, it is the third day since all this took place and this morning some of our women amazed us with stories about how they had found the tomb empty and how angels said Jesus was alive! Some of our friends went to the tomb and found it empty just as the women had said.
The man replied, “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and the prophets, he explained to them what was said in the Scriptures concerning himself. But they were kept from recognizing him.

When they arrived at their destination, they urged the stranger to stay for supper. He accepted their offer. He took bread, gave thanks and broke it. As he handed it to them, their eyes were opened and they recognized that is was Jesus!

He disappeared from their sight.

The two men immediately returned to Jerusalem. It was getting late as found the disciples and others assembled together. Before they could say anything, the disciples exclaimed to them, “It is true! The Lord has risen! He appeared to Simon!”

Then the two told what had happened on the way to Emmaus and how they finally recognized Jesus as he broke bread.

While they were still talking about all this, Jesus himself stood among them and said, Peace be with you. They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost.

Jesus said, “Why are you troubled? Look at my hands and feet. It’s me! Touch me and see! A ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.

Then he asked, “Do you have anything to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish and he took it and ate it in their presence. Then he said to them,
“This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms, that the Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are my witnesses of these things.”
A week later Jesus appeared to the disciples again—this time with Thomas who had not yet seen Jesus alive.  Earlier in the week Thomas had said, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it!

Jesus told Thomas, “See my hands? “Put your finger here.” Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

“My Lord and my God,” Thomas exclaimed!

Jesus later appeared to his disciples while they were fishing in the Sea of Galilee. He cooked fish for them on the seashore and invited them to have breakfast with him. He then assured Peter of forgiveness even though Peter had denied him three times.

Finally, after various appearances over a 40 day period, Jesus appeared to over 500 people at once and was taken up from their sight, giving this final commission,

"Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."

(See the Easter Enigma by John Wenham for a discussion and defense of this scenario).