Chapter 9: The Story: (III) The Sequel
The story as told in the gospels does not end with Jesus dead and buried. They go on to say that he had risen again.1 That this was so is a conviction that runs through the whole of the New Testament. As I said earlier, it is not a belief that grew up within the church; it is the belief around which the church itself grew up, and the "given" upon which its faith was based. So much the historian may affirm. Can he go further and ask what actually happened to give rise, or to give tangible form, to such a belief?
Our gospels never set out to describe the resurrection of Jesus Christ as a concrete occurrence (though some apocryphal gospels do). The question with which we should approach them is, how did his followers, who knew that he had been put to death by crucifixion, come to be convinced that he was still alive? To this question they give two answers: first, that the tomb in which the body of Jesus had been laid was subsequently found empty; and secondly, that he was seen, alive after death, by a number of his followers.
First, then, all four gospels report that on the Sunday morning after the Friday on which Jesus had died his tomb was found to be vacant. The discovery was first made by a woman follower of his known as Mary of Magdala, either alone or in the company of other women, all of whom had been present at his death. So far all gospels agree.
Luke adds that the discovery was afterwards confirmed: "Some of our people went to the tomb and found things just as the women had said." John particularized: the persons in question were Peter and another disciple. The condition in which they found the tomb, described in meticulous detail, confirmed, and more than confirmed, what Mary had told them; and they "saw and believed." The story is told with the dramatic realism of which this writer is master. It looks like something as near first-hand evidence as we could hope to get. Perhaps it is, and if so, it becomes the sheet anchor of belief in a "bodily resurrection." But the relation between seeing and believing is one of John’s favorite themes; and at this point he is preparing the way for the pronouncement in which his gospel, as originally designed, found its climax and conclusion: "Happy are those who did not see and yet believed." Is he, then, here constructing an "ideal scene" in which the conditions for belief as based on "sight" are as favorable as they could possibly be, only to suggest that such belief is not, in the end, the most important or permanent kind of faith? It may be so.
At any rate it is remarkable that this is the only place in the gospels where the belief that Christ had risen is a direct inference from observation of the state of the tomb. In Matthew and Mark an angel assures the women, "He is not here; he has been raised again." In Luke, "two men in dazzling garments make a similar announcement. In the Bible, where angels are introduced, it is very often an intimation that a truth is being conveyed which lies beyond the reach of the senses, a "revelation." We might think of a discovery made (there are many such on record) by an imaginative, or "inspired," leap beyond the immediate data, to be verified by subsequent experiment. On this analogy, what the women saw brought only perplexity; then, by a leap beyond the evidence of the senses, they knew what it meant. But it still awaited verification from later experience.
It is indeed upon this verification that all the gospels lay stress. They seem unwilling to rest their case on negative testimony ("They failed to find the body," as Luke says), and they tend in a curious way to minimize it. According to Mark the women "said nothing to anybody" about what they had seen. According to Luke, they did report to the disciples, "but the story appeared to them to be nonsense, and they would not believe them"; nor does he suggest that the confirmatory visit brought any more positive conviction. According to Matthew, the women were on the way to report when Jesus met them -- and this was news better worth the telling. In John, Mary, finding the tomb laid open by the removal of the covering stone, concludes without investigation that the body has been removed by some person or persons unknown, and reports to the disciples in that sense, but as in Matthew, a meeting with Jesus himself resolves all uncertainty. The writers were evidently aware (perhaps they had learned by experience in trying to win credence for their message) that the mere fact that the tomb appeared to be untenanted, even if it were accepted, would not necessarily prove their case. The body might have been removed by friendly or by unfriendly hands; 2 both possibilities are allowed for (only to be refuted, of course). In any case the tendency is to shift the emphasis from the evidence of the empty tomb to the personal encounter with Jesus.
Elsewhere in the New Testament the evidence of the empty tomb is never adduced, though most of its writers have much to say about the resurrection of Christ. But an examination of the language they use may show that it implies more than we might suppose. It is true that they sometimes express their belief in such noncommital phrases as "Christ died and came to life again," 3 or, "In the body he was put to death; in the spirit he was brought to life." 4 But far more frequently they use such expressions as, "He rose from the dead," or, "He was buried; on the third day he was raised to life." The natural implication would be that the resurrection was (so to speak) the reversal of the entombment. The same implication seems to emerge from a careful reading of some other passages, though it may not be on the surface. Passages such as I have cited can be traced back to a time well before the composition of the gospels. It seems hard to resist the conclusion that this is how the early Christians, from the first, conceived the resurrection of their Lord. When they said, "He rose from the dead," they took it for granted that his body was no longer in the tomb; if the tomb had been visited it would have been found empty. The gospels supplement this by saying, it was visited, and it was found empty.
In Jewish circles at the time, those who believed in a life after death at all seem mostly, though not universally, to have imagined it as some kind of resuscitation of the body which was buried. Is it possible, then, that the earliest Christians, convinced on other grounds that Jesus was still alive, gave expression to this conviction in an imaginative or symbolic form suggested by the common belief, and that this was the origin of the story in the gospels? It may be so. Or, again, it may not. As we have seen, the story about the women at the tomb, on the showing of the authors themselves, circumstantial as it is, remains inconclusive as evidence apart from further verification. It looks as if they had on their hands a solid piece of tradition, which they were bound to respect because it came down to them from the first witnesses, though it did not add much cogency to the message they wished to convey, and they hardly knew what use to make of it.
I should be disposed to conclude that while the general tradition held that Christ "rose from the dead" (commonly understood to mean that he emerged from the tomb in which his body had been laid) it preserved also a genuine memory that on that Sunday morning his tomb was found broken open and to all appearance empty. At first the discovery was disconcerting and incomprehensible; later it was understood to mean that Jesus had in some way left his tomb. Whether this meaning was rightly attached to it, and if so in what sense, is another question, and one which lies no longer in the sphere of the historian. He may properly suspend judgment.
The main weight, in any case, is placed on the testimony that Jesus was "seen," alive after death, by a number of his followers, and here we are on firmer ground. We may start with the earliest known recital of the facts.5 This takes us back a long way behind the gospels. It is cited in one of the letters of Paul. Writing about a quarter of a century after the death of Jesus, he says that the tradition passed on to him, presumably when he became a Christian some twenty years earlier, contained the following statements: "that Christ died; that he was buried; that he was raised to life on the third day; and that he appeared to Cephas and afterwards to the Twelve. Then he appeared to over five hundred of our brothers at once, most of whom are still alive, though some have, died. Then he appeared to James, and afterwards to all the apostles." On these facts, he says, all Christian teachers are in full agreement, whatever differences of opinion there may be about other matters.
It is apparent that Paul sets store by the consensus, as evidence for the facts: if anyone doubts, he is free to interrogate those whom he mentions. They include Peter (Cephas), the leading member of the most intimate circle of the disciples of Jesus, and James, his own brother. Paul knew them well. He had met them both, and spent a fortnight with Peter, when he visited Jerusalem a very few years after Jesus was crucified -- almost certainly not more than seven years, possibly no more than four. We have here, therefore, a solid body of evidence from a date very close to the events. Something had happened to these men, which they could describe only by saying that they had "seen the Lord." This is not an appeal to any generalized "Christian experience." It refers to a particular series of occurrences, unique in character, unrepeatable, and confined to a limited period.6
It is with this background in mind that we should read the reports of the appearances of the risen Christ in the closing pages of the gospels. One thing the attentive reader will notice at once: the continuous narrative which ran from the account of the entry into Jerusalem to the discovery at the tomb is now broken. We have something more like a number of detached incidents. It is true that Luke and John show some ingenuity in weaving the incidents they relate into a single story, but the result looks artificial, and in any case it is not the same story. We have the impression that the occurrences described were not of a kind to enter into a developing narrative. They were sporadic, elusive, evanescent, yet leaving in the minds of those to whom they happened an unshakable conviction that they had indeed, for a short space of time, been in the direct presence of their living Lord.
The incidents are reported in stories of various types, some concise and almost bald, stating the bare minimum of fact, some told at length with deliberate artistry. But the pattern of all is the same: the disciples are "orphaned" (the phrase is John’s) of their Master; suddenly he is there -- it may be in a room, on the road, in a garden, on a hillside, beside the lake, wherever they happen to be. At first there is amazement, with some doubt or hesitation (sometimes made explicit, always perhaps implied), and then, with overwhelming certainty, they recognize him. In Luke, two travelers entered into conversation with a stranger on the road; he sat down to supper with them, and suddenly "their eyes were opened and they recognized him." In Matthew (whose account is much more formalized) the disciples in Galilee were aware of a presence which some of them recognized at once, "but some were doubtful"; then he spoke, and they knew perfectly well who it was. In John, Mary of Magdala, by the dim light of early morning, sees someone in the garden. She thinks it is only the gardener, but he speaks: "Mary." "My Master!" she replies. The fisherman in their boat on the lake after a disappointing night’s work, catch sight of an unknown figure who hails them from the beach. He encourages them to make one more attempt, which succeeds. "It’s the Lord!" one of them exclaims -- and so it is. This is the dramatic motive of all these stories. In almost all other particulars they differ, and the attempt to harmonize them is not hopeful. In describing occurrences which, ex hypothesi, lay on the extreme edge of normal human experience, or beyond it, the writers are hardly to be pinned down to matter-of-fact precision in detail; and indeed the accounts they give, taken literally, are problematic if not contradictory. In various ways they are trying to justify, even to rationalize, what was for the original witnesses an immediate, intuitive certainty needing no justification. They were dead sure that they had met with Jesus, and there was no more to be said about it. It was the recovery of a treasured personal relationship which had seemed broken forever. It was also, as we have seen, their reinstatement after their failure in the "hour of testing." Now they were new men in a new world, confident, courageous, enterprising, the leaders of a movement which made an immediate impact and went forward with an astonishing impetus.
Clearly something had changed these men. They said it was a meeting with Jesus. We have no evidence with which to check their claim. To propose an alternative explanation, based on some preconceived theory, is of dubious profit. What was the nature of this meeting we cannot pretend to know. What actually happened, if by that we mean what any casual observer might have witnessed, is a question that does not admit of an answer. But the events that make history do not consist of such "bare facts." They include the meaning the facts held for those who encountered them; and their reality is known through the observable consequences. In this instance we may be clearer about the meaning and the consequences than about the "facts" in themselves, but this would be true of other momentous events in history. We are dealing with a truly "historic" event. It was the culmination of previous events in the lives of these men (summed up in their memories of Jesus), and the creative starting point of a new sequence of events of which the world was soon aware. It made them new men, but it was also the birth of a new community. Or rather, as they would have said, it was the rebirth of the people of God, the rising of Israel from the dead, and they were in it. It is because they speak out of the very center of this "new creation" that their witness carries weight. They themselves had passed through death to new life. The darkness and desolation of Good Friday and the miserable Sabbath which followed it had emptied life of all meaning for them. On the "third day" they were raised to life with Christ," as Paul put it; 7 and that is a confession of faith hardly less basic than the proclamation, "Christ is risen."
The "appearances" of the risen Christ, as we have seen, are represented as a series limited in time, and distinct from any subsequent type of "Christian experience." Luke, in his second volume (the Acts of the Apostles) has marked the close of the series by a symbolic scene in which, after "forty days" (a conventional number), Christ finally vanished from human view: "a cloud removed him from their sight." That chapter is closed, never to be repeated. But the entire New Testament is witness that the real presence of Christ was not withdrawn when the "appearances" ceased. The unique and evanescent meetings with the risen Lord triggered off a new kind of relation which proved permanent. The focus of this new relation is hinted at by John when he recounts how the risen Jesus gave bread to his disciples, and by Luke when he says that he was "recognized by them at the breaking of the bread." Both writers, no doubt, are looking back to the words and actions of Jesus at his last supper, and both certainly have also in mind the "breaking of bread" which was the center of the Christian fellowship as they knew it, and remained so. In the fellowship the presence of the Lord no longer meant a sudden flash of recognition, utterly convincing but soon over. It was an enduring reality, creative of a new corporate life.
Within that corporate life, as it matured and expanded. and larger perspectives broadened out, their understanding of what had happened went deeper. It was not simply that their lost Leader had come back to them. God himself had come to them in a way altogether new. And that put the whole story in a fresh light. Matthew has made the point in the way he begins and ends his gospel. At the beginning he says that the true name of Jesus is Emmanuel. that is, "God with us." 8 He closes it with the words of the risen Lord: "I am with you always, to the end of time." 9 All that lies between, he means, is the story of how God came to be with men, for good and all. Starting from there the church embarked on the far-reaching intellectual enterprise which is the building of a Christian theology, and philosophy of life, upon the foundation thus laid. But that is another story, and it is not yet finished.
1 Resurrection narratives are in Matt. 28, Luke 24, John 20-21. and Mark 16. 1-8. In most of the ancient manuscripts the Gospel according to Mark ends with 16.8: whether he deliberately stopped there, or meant to write more but was prevented, or did write a conclusion which was afterwards lost, is an open question. The remaining verses are a later addition.
2 By the gardener, Mary first thought; by the disciples, according to a Jewish rumor (Matt. 28. 13-15).
3 Romans 14.9.
4 I Peter 3.18.
5 I Corinthians 15. 3.7,
6 When Paul claims (I Corinthians 15.8) that he had himself "seen the Lord," after all the others, he admits that this was something unexpected, exceptional, and abnormal, an appendix to a series already closed.
7 Colossians 3.1.
8 Matt. 1.23.
9 Matt. 28.20.