A Word from Richard

If the Gospels records are so different about the resurrection, how can the diversity add to our confidence in these as historical records?

In my last Word from Richard, I remarked that within the 4 Gospel stories of the resurrection (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), there are only three common themes, on which they all agree:
1/ The tomb is empty
2/ The Resurrection is announced
3/ The disciples physically meet Jesus

That’s true, but … there are a set of common details that seem to coalesce round these three common themes, so much so as to be like planets round the sun of the 3. I’m grateful to Ian Paul for listing these so helpfully:

- That women first went to the tomb early on the Sunday morning;
- That the stone had been rolled away, and that the tomb was empty;
- That there were angelic beings present;
- That some male disciples came to the tomb in response to the report of the women, and found the same;
- That the consistent response of all the disciples (both men and women) was a mixture of wonder,  confusion, and fear;
- That Jesus himself appear to a wide range of people on different occasions;
- That the people he met consistently failed to recognise him at first, quite possibly as a result of their lack of expectation;
- That he was both bodily, in the sense that he could be touched, and he ate, and yet he was also transformed, in that he could appear and disappear at will;
- That after a period of time, he was taken up to heaven.

It is these very details, circling our ‘sun of three common themes’ that provide us with greater certainty that Jesus is indeed risen from the dead, that the unbelievable (and that’s what it seemed to the first disciples as well) had truly happened.

No one rises from the dead. The dead are dead. Well, yes, occasionally, we hear from someone who ‘died’ for a few moments, and even for some minutes, and then are resuscitated back to life again. But not one who died on a Friday and rose to life again, without medical help, two days later. The dead are dead. No one rises from the dead.

So, unbelievably, for the disciples and for all who want to know ‘Who is Jesus?’ he is the only recorded person to have died and risen to life again. The evidence for such would have to be pretty amazing, wouldn’t you think?

What in diversity gives unity to these stories from our Gospel writers?

I love the details. We easily read over them, eager to get to the heart of the story, but the details are important. They offer us a real sense that the person who is writing was an eyewitness or relied heavily on eyewitness testimony. If we just look at John’s story and the arrival of Peter and John at the tomb, we first note the race to get there and that John (our writer) arrives first: a completely unnecessary detail to the story. Indeed that Peter goes past John, standing at the entrance, to boldly go where no one had gone yet – very Peter with his confident impetuosity – is another detail owing to someone who was there. And then in the tomb, John writes how the grave clothes are separated: John 20:5-7:

“He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the cloth that had been wrapped round Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen.”

You would have to have been there to notice and remember such a detail.

Notice also that John had to bend over to look into the tomb. It’s small point but an accurate reflection of what we are learning about 1st century tombs, especially those of the wealthy. This tomb was Joseph of Arimathea’s. He was a rich man (Matt 27:57), a respected member of the Jewish high council, the Sanhedrin (Mark 15:43), and had not consented to that council’s actions (Luke 23:50-51). John tells us that Joseph of Arimathea was a secret disciple of Jesus (John 19:38). The tomb of the wealthy, of whom Joseph of Arimathea was one, were constructed for families, had a round disk to roll over the entrance, which was usually low (hence the need to ‘bend over’ to look in [John 20:5]) and large enough to enter in. That need to bend over and physically go in also points the reality that the person outside would not see all that was happening inside: the angels at each end of the stone ledge on which a body was placed; the separation of the grave clothes.

It is these extra details, given by each of the authors – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – that strongly suggest they were aware of the main story (my three common themes) and also aware of the eyewitnesses’ memories of such a momentous day.

This suggests to me a strong correlation with truth – the resurrection did happen – and with a community trying to make sense of the completely implausible – genuine eyewitness details are there.