What did the Resurrection of Jesus Really Mean?
Since my article on the discovery of the alleged burial boxes of Jesus and Mary Magdalene I have had a lot of questions about what the resurrection of Jesus truly meant and whether many Christians today really understand what the official belief of the churches about the Resurrection actually is or where it fits into what Jesus came to accomplish.
There were no direct witnesses to the Resurrection of Jesus. Everyone is agreed on that. We have six different accounts of it in the New Testament, that date from approximately 20-70 years after the event; one in each of the four Gospels, in the book of Acts, and in Paul's first Letter to the Corinthians. In the fourth century the Resurrection account in Mark's Gospel was considerably expanded by someone who added eleven interesting verses to chapter 16.
There are major inconsistencies in these accounts. Mark's Gospel says in the original ending of that Gospel that it was a group of women who discovered what had happened on that first Easter morn, but they were so terrified they said nothing to anyone. Matthew says that it was Mary Magdalene and "the other Mary" who went to the tomb. Luke says it was a group of women who rushed back immediately to tell the disciples what had happened but they thought it was "an idle tale" and didn't believe them. John's Gospel says the discovery was made by Mary Magdalene alone and that she told Peter and "the disciple whom Jesus loved" (So much for those who identify her as that disciple in Leonardo's painting!).
The resurrection accounts are also disjointed on what these people saw at the empty tomb. John says Mary Magdalene saw two angels and then Jesus, who asked her not to touch him as he had not yet ascended to his Father. Matthew says the two Marys saw a young man at the tomb and then Jesus. Luke says a group of women, three of whom he names, saw two men in brilliant white, but not Jesus himself. All the Gospels describe him appearing to a group of disciples later. But Luke and John say that appearance happened in Jerusalem, while Matthew and Mark said it took place miles away in Galilee. Whatever we may make of these inconsistencies in the New Testament it would be hard to construe it as a well orchestrated program to deceive.
The earliest written account of the Resurrection comes from Paul who wrote it down about 20 years after the Passion of Jesus. Paul, or Saul, as he previously was, had a brisk career harassing the early followers of Jesus before they were yet called Christians. He became "Paul" after a conversion experience he had on the road to Damascus, which was followed by what must have been the contemporary version of going into rehab - fifteen days in Jerusalem with Peter and James whom (at the risk of scandalizing many contemporary Christians), he referred to as "the brother of the Lord." This visit may have taken place as early as 35-37, but it certainly was well within a decade of the Passion.
To add to the confusion Paul, who was the earliest to write about the Resurrection of Jesus, says nothing at all about an empty tomb, or about angels or young men dressed in white garments. The Gospel of Thomas, written by the twin brother of Jesus, is becomingly increasingly acknowledged as a very early document. It's interesting to note that Thomas not alone does not mention the miracles of Jesus during his ministry, or the appearances at the empty tomb, but omits all mention of the resurrection entirely. Given that Thomas regarded what he did write as the information that was of central importance about Jesus, this should give us much food for thought.
However, leaving all that aside for now, the accounts we do have and the extraordinary transformation of the Apostles from a group of terrified and disillusioned men into powerful preachers and workers of extraordinary phenomena within a very short space of time, must lead us to conclude that something extraordinary did happen, and that at least part of that was that Jesus was alive after the Passion.
Various ways to account for this of course have been produced down through history; I'd sum them up as follows:
a. the disciples stole his body from the tomb.
b. someone else stole the body without the knowledge of the disciples.
c. The disciples hallucinated when they thought they saw Jesus.
d. Jesus managed to survive the Crucifixion and was resuscitated in the tomb after which he traveled to the East.
e. Jesus truly did rise from the dead.
f. Jesus was sentenced to death by crucifixion, but was substituted for by Simon of Cyrene on the way to Calvary, so that while tortured he was never actually crucified.
With regard to the last suggestion, if you believe that the reason Jesus came here was to suffer and die for us so as to appease the vengeance of God against us, then this cannot be good news. On the other hand if you believe that Jesus came here for something much more powerful and sublime both for himself and for us, then this suggestion opens up a range of fascinating possibilities.
We will look further at this in the next issue.
Copyright © 2007 Míceál F. Ledwith All rights reserved