I'm currently leading an adult Sunday school class at my church, Rainbow Mennonite, using Jonathan Pennington's Reading the Gospels Wisely (Baker: 2012) as a textbook. This week, we discussed Chapter 4, "The Joy and Angst of Having Four Gospels," in which Pennington notes the difficulties of having four conflicting accounts of the same historical events. Since the earliest years of the faith, Christians have instinctively attempted to harmonize the differences among the Gospels, leading to some pretty wacky interpretive shenanigans. Appropriately, today we spent a good chunk of our time discussing differences among the varying accounts of the resurrection of Jesus. In Chapter 4, Pennington devotes a bit of space toward discussing what he calls the "Maximalist Harmonization" perspective, which holds that everything in the Gospels happened exactly the way it was reported; the trouble here, Pennington notes, is that it creates a lot of undue stress on the text to be solved into a workable narrative. For instance, what do Maximalist Harmonizers do with the different order of Jesus' temptations in the wilderness in Matthew and Luke? Are we to conclude that Jesus was tempted the same way multiple times in various orders? Probably not.
To illustrate the difficulty with harmonizing narratives, I brought in a copy of the brief Gospel harmony that I wrote using the various resurrection narratives for a class I took on resurrection in the New Testament last fall. The students were given the task of making the details of the resurrection in Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, and 1 Corinthians fit together in a reasonable and discernible way—a more difficult assignment that it appears on the surface. For instance, how many angels are at the tomb, and where are they located? Is the tomb sealed, or is it open when the women arrive? Are there multiple women, or just Mary the Magdalene? Following the resurrection, does Jesus ascend that same day (as in Luke), or does he ascend forty days later (as in Acts)? Depending on which book you read, each of the answers to these questions is different. The professor teaching my resurrection class gave us this assignment not to suggest that harmonization is the best way of interpreting the scriptures, but to illustrate how different the scriptures really are. So you may notice in the narrative below that I had to do some interpretive gymnastics to get everything to "fit" right.
Despite the numerous conflicting details of the resurrection narratives (even the accounts in Luke and Acts disagree with one another, and they're written by the same person!), they all agree on two important parts: 1) The event of the resurrection was discovered by women, who were not considered reliable witnesses at the time; and 2) The tomb is empty.
The Resurrection of Jesus
(a harmony narrative)
Late in the evening, when the Sabbath had ended, the women who had followed Jesus left the disciples and went to the market to purchase spices with which to anoint the Lord for burial. Among them were Mary the Magdalene, Mary (the mother of James), Salome, and Joanna. Early the following morning—the third day after Jesus’s death on the cross—they arose, dressed, and left their homes to prepare the body. They arrived at the tomb just before dawn, as the sun was beginning to rise, bringing with it the light of a new day. As they were nearing the garden, the women began to whisper to each other, “How will we move the heavy stone that seals the tomb?”
Suddenly, the earth trembled, and the massive stone rolled away from the entrance! A blinding light ripped the heavens open, and when the women could see clearly once again they noticed that the tomb was empty, and two men dressed in white were before them. One was seated atop the stone, while the other stood in the entrance of the tomb, not far from where Jesus’s body should have been lying. The guards who had been placed at the entrance shuddered fearfully and collapsed in a dead faint.
“Do not be afraid!” the man seated on the stone outside told the women. “You are searching for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.”
“But why do you seek the living among the dead?” asked the second man from within. “He is not here. See?” He pointed to the place where the body of Jesus was supposed to be. The linen wrappings used to dress the corpse were neatly folded on the stone bench. “He is risen from the dead, just as he told you would happen! Now go and tell Peter and the other disciples what you have seen.” When they had finished saying these things, they vanished as suddenly as they had appeared.
Out of fear, Mary (the mother of James), Salome, and Joanna fled from the tomb, telling no one of what they had seen because they were so terrified. Only Mary the Magdalene remained behind, kneeling by the stone, weeping.
Suddenly, Jesus appeared, standing behind her. “Why are you crying?” he asked. “Because,” she answered him, thinking he was the gardener, “someone has taken the body of my Lord, and I don’t know where they have put him. If you have taken him, please tell me where you have put his body, and I will go and retrieve it.”
Jesus looked at her calmly and uttered her name: “Mary.”
Turning to look at him, Mary suddenly realized who he was, and cried out “Rabboni!” (which means “teacher”).
“Do not hold onto me,” he said, “For I have not yet gone to be with the Father. Instead, go and tell my brothers and sisters that ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ Go! Run!”
And so Mary the Magdalene ran as fast as she could with a message on her lips: “I have seen the Lord!”
Just then, the guards awoke from their stupor and beheld the dead man, alive again. Frightened beyond measure, they ran into the city and told the religious officials what they had seen. Disturbed by this news, a meeting of the elders was called, and the guards were summoned and given a large bribe. “You must tell no one of what you have seen,” the elders said. “If anyone asks, you must say that the disciples of that Nazarene came in the night and stole his body away. If the governor hears about it, we will corroborate your story.” So this is what they did, and it is a story that many continue to spread to this day.
Meanwhile, as Mary (the mother of James), Salome, and Joanna fearfully made their way down the road, Jesus appeared to them. “Peace be with you!” he said. When they realized that what the men at the tomb had said was indeed true, they fell down at his feet and worshiped him. “Do not be afraid!” he said. “Go and tell my brothers and sisters that you have seen me.” And with that, they joyfully headed by way of the Mount of Olives to Jerusalem, where the rest of the disciples were staying.
When Mary the Magdalene arrived, she could barely contain her excitement. “I have seen the Lord!” she exclaimed. Just then, the rest of the women arrived with the same message. But this news sounded like nonsense to the disciples. However, Peter and another disciple were curious, and jumped up and ran to the tomb to see if what the women had said was true. The other disciple outran Peter and arrived at the tomb first, but did not go inside. Peter, however, ran inside, and they both saw the empty folded linens resting on the spot where Jesus’s body had been laid. Then they both believed, for until then they hadn’t understood that in order to fulfill the Scriptures Jesus had to rise from the dead. After this, they returned home, puzzling over the mystery they had just witnessed.
Later that same day, two of Jesus’s followers were traveling along the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus. Jesus joined them and appeared to them as a stranger, and as they discussed the events of the previous week, he began to point to all of the places in Scripture concerning himself—throughout Moses and the prophets. As it was getting late, the travelers invited Jesus to stay the night with them. When they sat down to eat, Jesus broke the bread, and suddenly their eyes were opened and they realized who he was—but he vanished! “Did not our hearts burn within us as he talked with us on the road?” they said, and immediately set out for Jerusalem to tell the other disciples all that they had seen.
That night, the rest of the disciples were meeting behind locked doors for fear of the religious authorities. Suddenly, Jesus appeared among them and said “Peace be with you!” But the disciples were terrified, thinking they were seeing a ghost. Jesus said again, “Peace be with you! Why are you afraid? It’s me! Look at my hands and feet. You can see that I am real, not a ghost; ghosts do not have bodies as I do.” They stood staring at him in joy and wonder, and he asked, “Do you have anything to eat?” So they brought him a broiled fish and watched as he ate. After eating, he told them, “My Father has sent me, and so I am sending you. Receive my spirit.” Saying this, he breathed on them, and added, “If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven. If you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” And he left them.
Later, Thomas (called the Twin) joined them. “We have seen the Lord!” the disciples cried. But Thomas did not believe them.
“Unless I touch the nail wounds in his hands and the wound in his side I will not believe it.”
A little over a week later, Jesus appeared again to the disciples. This time, Thomas was with them. “Peace be with you,” he said. Then, turning to Thomas, he said, “Here. Touch my wounds. Don’t be faithless any longer. Believe!”
“My Lord and my God!” Thomas exclaimed.
“You believe because you have seen me, but blessed are those who believe without seeing,” Jesus said.
After spending the night with Peter and the rest of the disciples, Jesus spent the next few weeks in Jerusalem—forty days in all—and was later seen by at least five hundred of his followers at once, followed by James and the rest of the apostles. Afterward, he led them to a hillside outside the city and said to them, “Do not leave Jerusalem until the Father sends you the gift that he promised you. John baptized with water, but in just a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit. And you will be my witnesses, telling everyone about me throughout Jerusalem, Galilee, Samaria, and the ends of the earth, giving them this message: there is forgiveness of sins for all who repent. Now go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And know this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” And with that, he blessed them, and as he was blessing them he was taken up into the clouds and disappeared from sight.
As the disciples stood there, straining their necks to see, two men dressed in white appeared behind them. “You Galileans!” they said, “Why are you staring up into heaven? Jesus has been taken up to the Father, and some day he will return to you in the same way you saw him go.” With that, they returned to Jerusalem, and they were continually in the Temple, praising God.