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Resurrection: A Symbol of Hope by Lloyd Geering


Lloyd Geering is a Presbyterian minister and former Professor of Old Testament Studies at theological colleges in Brisbane and Dunedia, and Professor of Religious Studies at Victorian University in Wellington, New Zealand. He is author of Tomorrow's God (1994), The World to Come (1999) and Christianity Without God (2002). Published by Hodder and Stoughton: London, Auckland, Sydney, Toronto, 1971.


Chapter 11: Resurrection as an Historical Event


‘The Easter message awakened Easter faith, and this expressed itself in the Easter narratives’, writes Gerhard Gloege.1 Having discussed the rise and nature of the Easter message, and the Easter faith which it awakened in the earliest Christian community, we now turn to the Easter narratives with which all four Gospels conclude, and which are widely recognized to be a later development.

The New Testament references to the appearances of the risen Christ fall into two groups. The first group simply testify to the fact that Jesus ‘appeared’, and we dealt with these in the last chapter. The second group consists of the Easter narratives, stories describing the context of an appearance and the nature of it. W Marxsen declares, ‘Now scholars have no doubt at all that the first group is older in terms of the history of the tradition than the second one . . . The second group . . . represents a literary development of the first group.’2

We have already noted that the New Testament has nowhere preserved for us any narrative describing the appearance of Jesus to Peter. ‘By the time of the writing of the gospels,’ notes C. F. Evans, ‘it had disappeared, leaving behind no more than an echo, and that not in narrative but in credal form ("The Lord is risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon"), which Luke has some difficulty in attaching as an awkward pendant to his Emmaus story.’3 This in itself is an indication of the lapse of time that had occurred between the rise of the Easter faith and the stage of development reached by the Easter narratives at the time they were recorded.

The Easter narratives can in no way be reconciled with the list of appearances of Jesus recorded by Paul in I Corinthians 15,4 nor can they be harmonized with each other. During the long period when these narratives were regarded as historically accurate, based, as it was thought, on the memories of the apostles, all kinds of ingenious explanations were offered in an attempt to fit all the stories into one composite and complete picture. This was always difficult. It has now become clear that it is completely impossible.

Each of these narratives is to be regarded as complete in itself. Its purpose was to proclaim in story form the Easter message that Jesus is the exalted Lord, and each achieved this without dependence upon any other resurrection narrative. Unlike the Passion narrative, which is a continuous story from start to finish, and which is unfolded in fundamentally the same way in all the four Gospels, the resurrection of Jesus came to be proclaimed in a group of independent stories. In so far as these have been transmitted to us in some connected form, we are dependent upon the Evangelist in each case, for in no two Gospels are they linked together in the same way.

To appreciate the Easter narratives we must understand them for what they are and not force them to be what they are not. They are not historical accounts of how the Easter faith arose. When these stories were first told the Easter message was already being proclaimed and believed. The Easter narratives represented the attempt to proclaim the Easter message in another medium, the medium of a descriptive narrative set within an historical context. Such a move could not help but lead to contradictions in the end. One of the chief aspects of the first century interest in the resurrection idiom had been its eschatological character, and this meant that it was to take place at the end of history and not within it. The development of the Easter narratives meant that the resurrection of Jesus came more and more to be regarded as an event within history. As this aspect increased, the eschatological aspect decreased. This was the situation by the end of the first century. But initially these narratives were simply expressions of faith in story form. This form of proclamation came naturally to Jewish minds accustomed to the free development of midrash haggadah. Thus G. Bornkamm writes, ‘we are to understand the Easter stories too as testimonies of faith, and not as records and chronicles, and that it is the message of Easter we must seek in the Easter stories.5

Apart from the possibility that the Transfiguration story may have originated as an early resurrection narrative, the earliest Easter narrative is that of the empty tomb, for it is the only one included in Mark’s Gospel. We have already seen in Chapter 3 that there are grounds for thinking that the burial pericope was originally transmitted as an independent piece of tradition, and that the account of the women’s discovery of the empty tomb was added to the burial story at a later stage, around about the time of the writing of the Gospel of Mark. Many are confident that Paul reflects no knowledge of the story when he was writing in the previous decade. The fact that Matthew and Luke, writing some fifteen to twenty years after Mark, used Mark’s empty tomb story as the basis of their own6 suggests that there was no other account of the story (even in oral tradition) upon which these two later Evangelists could draw. The version found in the fourth Gospel may indicate that by that later stage oral tradition was now adding its own embellishments to the story.

We have already discussed in Chapter 3 the stages in which the Marcan tradition developed. What needs to be repeated and emphasized at this point is the fact that the focal point of the empty tomb story is the Easter message proclaimed by the unknown young man, ‘Fear nothing; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised again; he is not here; look, there is the place where they laid him.’7 Without the Easter message the discovery of the empty tomb was of no significance. The Easter message was not a deduction made by the women, but an announcement, a divine announcement, communicated through an unknown messenger. Thus the Marcan version of the empty tomb story testifies to the primacy of the Easter message. It further indicates that the Easter message was itself an announcement concerning the crucified Jesus delivered by God to those willing to hear it. The form of the story is thus consistent with the development of the rise of the Easter message as discussed in the last chapter.

The next paint to note is that this Marcan story nowhere implies that the body of Jesus came to life and walked out of the tomb. It points simply to the absence of the body. The absence of the body was not an observation which led to the belief in the resurrection, but a corollary drawn from the Easter message that the crucified Jesus had been raised to heaven in exaltation. The Marcan story implies simply that the crucified Jesus had been raised direct to heaven. ‘The absence of a story of Jesus coming out of the tomb is not due to accident or design, but to the fact that the earliest conception of resurrection did not admit of such a happening.’8 The view of exaltation reflected here is not unlike the traditions concerning Elijah and Moses, except that this one took fully into account the death of Jesus on the cross, and hence exaltation implied resurrection from the dead.9

The story placed the discovery of the empty tomb on the first day of the week almost certainly because of the tradition that Jesus ‘was raised to life on the third day’.10 In Chapter 2 it has been argued that the phrase arose from theological traditions and not from an historical dating. As the rising of Jesus from the grave was not an observed event, it could not be so dated in any case. But once the phrase came to be part of the tradition, it naturally played a part in shaping the developing narratives. Thus the discovery of the empty tomb by the women, along with the first proclamation of the Easter message, were set down on the first day of the week to be consistent with the tradition of ‘the third day’.

Once the resurrection of Jesus came to be proclaimed by way of a narrative set within an historical context, it is not surprising that, after the death of the apostles, Christians of the latter part of the first century expanded this tradition and produced others. While the original apostles were alive, their own Easter faith, and their testimony that Jesus had appeared to them, were sufficient for the spread of the Easter faith. But when the apostles were dead, men felt need for the Easter faith to be substantiated by more tangible evidence.

One can agree with von Campenhausen that the apologetic motive is almost entirely absent in the Marcan story11 But in the other three Gospels and the later apocryphal Gospels apologetic interests became more and more prominent. On the one hand Christian preachers used all possible means to win conviction from their hearers and, on the other hand, evidential material was sought in order to withstand the attacks of the Jews and other enemies of Christianity. Von Campenhausen himself affirms that ‘the disputes of the Christians with their opponents . . . show themselves as a factor at work on all sides, forming the old tradition and refraining it more and more.’12

It is widely recognized that Matthew has followed Mark’s Passion narrative and tomb story very closely. C. F. Evans comments, ‘It is a surprising fact, to which perhaps insufficient attention has been given, that Matthew has so little to add to the framework supplied to him by Mark when he comes to the Passion and Resurrection.’13 The additions, however, are very instructive.

First, at the very moment of the death of Jesus ‘there was an earthquake, the rocks split and the graves opened, and many of God’s saints were raised from sleep; and coming out of their graves after his resurrection they entered the Holy City, where many saw them.’14 Here in extravagantly supernatural terms the death of Jesus is linked with the general resurrection. It may reflect a comparatively early tradition which developed when it was thought that crucifixion led immediately to exaltation. It conflicts with the tradition of the resurrection of Jesus on the third day in that it makes the resurrection of the saints precede that of Jesus. Matthew attempted to resolve that conflict by distinguishing between the waking of the dead from sleep (which took place at the earthquake), and the coming forth from their graves (which took place ‘after his resurrection’). This rather clumsy attempt at harmonization was not successful however, for Matthew went on to appeal to ‘all that was happening’ as the evidence which brought forth from the centurion his spontaneous confession of faith. It is important to see how this apparently early and independent element of tradition linked the death of Jesus with the general resurrection.15

The next addition concerns the posting of a guard of soldiers at the tomb. Behind this tradition lies an apologetic motive. Once the empty tomb story began to circulate (from at least the late sixties) Jewish opponents countered it by saying that the tomb could have been empty because the disciples stole the body before proclaiming the resurrection. Christian imagination was not slow to provide the counter to this charge by claiming that the tomb was securely guarded. The Jews retaliated with a story that the body was stolen while the guards were asleep, said by Matthew to be current in his own day. Christians in turn maintained that the guards had been bribed to make this admission of neglect of duty. Thus Matthew’s Gospel preserves a skeleton outline of the continuing controversy between Jew and Christian concerning the Gospel proclamation from AD. 70 onwards. Original witnesses could no longer be appealed to on either side, but imagination could provide stories which served a similar purpose.

Matthew’s additional material concerning the guards served the further purpose of providing independent public witnesses to the resurrection event, but Matthew interrupted Mark’s story only to note that at the sight of the angel, ‘the guards shook with fear and lay like the dead’.16 This meant that when the ‘guard went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened’17 the Jewish authorities were left without excuse in their attitude of unbelief. Enemies of Christianity were already pointing out that there were no independent witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus. This tradition enabled Matthew to say that the Jewish guards did give such independent testimony, but it was deliberately suppressed by the Jewish authorities.

Matthew had already drawn attention to the cosmic significance of the death of Jesus by his description of the earthquake with supernatural accompaniments. He introduced a similar earthquake to mark the opening of the tomb by a supernatural visitor. This happened in the presence not only of the guards but also of the women (whereas in Mark they arrived to find the stone had already been rolled away). This earthquake and the opening of the tomb are almost certainly intended to mark the event of the resurrection of Jesus. C. F. Evans comments, ‘He comes as near as he can to describing the indescribable, the divine act of Resurrection itself.’18

Whereas in Mark the discovery of the empty tomb is simply a sign of the fact that Jesus had already been raised to heaven, Matthew’s additions to the story now moved in the direction of turning it into a description of the resurrection as an historical event, a process which did not become explicit until the apocryphal Gospel of Peter.

This process was advanced by the further addition made by Matthew in referring to an appearance of Jesus some little distance from the tomb. In Matthew, unlike Mark and Luke, Jesus is said to have appeared to the group of women who visited the tomb, now reduced to two. We must agree with C. F. Evans when he says, ‘it is difficult to resist the view that this owes its origin to the necessity of connecting the two traditions of the empty tomb and of the appearances . . . and Matthew does not become a witness to Jerusalem appearances.’19

Matthew closed his Gospel with an impressive little passage which is quite independent of the tomb story. It is not so much a ‘resurrection appearance’ as a Christophany, which presents Jesus as the universal ruler of the world, commissioning his disciples to take his teaching to all nations. The marks of lateness are clearly to be seen in the proclamation of the universal mission (which is certainly post-Pauline), and in the Trinitarian formula (the only occurrence in the New Testament).20

C. F. Evans sums up by saying, ‘It is plain that Matthew’s final chapter furnishes neither reliable historical information nor early Christian tradition about the resurrection, but only an example of later christological belief as it had developed in one area of the church, and of the apologetic which had been conducted in that area in the face of Jewish attacks.’21 Matthew’s Gospel, nevertheless, much more than Mark’s, leaves the reader with the general impression that the resurrection of Jesus, though undescribed, took place on the third day and was witnessed by Jewish guards and two women.

Luke, like Matthew, used Mark’s tomb story as the basis of his own, but made fewer changes than Matthew, and different ones. Since he omitted all references to appearances of Jesus in Galilee, it was necessary for him to change the message of the angelic visitors (now increased to two) so that instead of instructing the women to direct the disciples to Galilee, they reminded them that Jesus, while in Galilee, had foretold that he would be crucified and rise on the third day. Whereas Mark’s story made no attempt to date the resurrection, Matthew implied by his reference to an earthquake that it occurred on the third day, and Luke implied it by incorporating the traditional credal formula of the ‘third day’ into the message of the angels.

Luke replaced Mark’s insistence on the women’s silence by narrating that the women reported their experience to the disciples, who regarded it, however, as nonsense. At some later stage a verse22 was added which told how Peter ran to the tomb, saw the wrappings and went home amazed. It appears that someone tried to reconcile Luke’s narrative with that of John, but since this addition is not in the oldest manuscripts, modern English translations omit it. This addition, along with the two later endings of Mark’s Gospel, show how Christians continued the attempt of the Evangelists to reconcile the Easter narratives wherever they conflicted.

The most detailed Easter narrative in Luke is that of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and all the more interesting because it is referred to nowhere else. It is now interwoven with the empty tomb story but the seams are quite visible23 and were added by Luke. The story was originally related in independence of the tomb pericope, and may even be an earlier tradition.24 It is typical of the haggadic stories, and is likely to have been frequently narrated at the celebration of the eucharistic meal. After rehearsing the ministry of Jesus, his death on the cross, the biblical interpretation of his death, the story moved to a climax when the stranger ‘sat down with them at table, took the bread and said the blessing; broke the bread, and offered it to them’.25 Whatever the origin of the story, the main point of narrating it was to foster in those who shared in the eucharistic ‘breaking of the bread’ the sense of the unseen presence of the risen Christ. This is possibly the reason why it differs from all other stories of appearances in that the departure of Jesus is described as ‘vanishing from sight’. Further, Jesus is described as appearing to the two disciples very much as he might have done during his earthly ministry. C. F. Evans notes that ‘The story is the furthest possible remove from the category of heavenly vision of the Lord in glory’ 26

By the time Luke was writing, the story of the empty tomb had come to be regarded as an established fact, and this is the reason why he felt free to describe the risen Jesus in clearly physical terms when he came to report a tradition that Jesus had appeared to the eleven in Jerusalem. This is Luke’s counterpart to Matthew’s account of the divine commissioning on the mountain in Galilee, and is quite at variance with it. It is the only Easter narrative in which the narrator went so far as to say that the risen Jesus ate food himself. The pre-crucified Jesus was completely restored, the only difference being that he could now appear and disappear at will.

Luke’s Gospel ends with a very brief account of the ascension. Luke had woven his Easter narratives together, placing them all within the context of the one day on which the empty tomb had been discovered. But whereas in the original Easter message no clear distinction was drawn between exaltation and resurrection, for Luke the Easter message was the report of a series of events stretching out through a whole day. Resurrection was now the event in which Jesus left the tomb to show himself to his disciples and the Easter complex now had to be completed with an act of ascension to heaven.

For Luke, more than the other three Evangelists, the resurrection of Jesus had virtually become the resuscitation of the physical body, an historical event of which ample proof had been provided for the apostles by Jesus himself. Though they were slow to be convinced at first, it was only because ‘it seemed too good to be true’.27 In Luke’s view there was no room for the ambiguity about the Easter event which allowed for the doubt expressed in Matthew 28:17 and John 20:24-5.

There is widespread agreement that John’s Gospel is the latest of the four. While it is true that John’s Easter narratives exhibit an advanced form of the evolution of the Easter tradition, it is a mistake to think that John simply took a stage further the developments found in Matthew and Luke. It was Luke’s emphasis on the historicity of the resurrection event, and on the physical nature of Christ’s risen form, which, coupled with the traditions of ascension and Pentecost in Acts, were destined to set the pattern for the traditional view of Christ’s resurrection. In this respect Luke and Acts together form the end of the road so far as the New Testament witness is concerned.

John’s Easter narratives point back to an earlier stage in the formation of the Easter tradition. We have seen that at the first no clear distinction was made between exaltation and resurrection. In John the theme of exaltation has remained dominant and points to that which happened at the moment of death on the cross. Thus C. H. Dodd writes, ‘for John the crucifixion itself is so truly Christ’s exaltation and glory (in its meaning, that is to say), that the resurrection can hardly have for him precisely the same significance that it has for some other writers’.28

The earlier Gospels had begun to paint the picture of the Galilean Jesus in the colors which belonged to the risen Christ. In John it is the risen Christ who speaks and acts almost throughout the Gospel, though of course within the context proper to the earthly Jesus. The theme of the exaltation or ‘being lifted up’ of Jesus is introduced early in John, ‘No one ever went up into heaven except the one who came down from heaven, the Son of Man whose home is in heaven.’29 The Evangelist employed a word-play between the ‘lifting up on the cross’ and the ‘lifting up to heaven from earth’, as he himself explained in 12:33. When the reader reaches the story of the cross he already knows how to interpret it.

Thus, as C. F. Evans points out, ‘the evangelist indicates that this spiritual ascent takes place at the cross and by means of it, and through the love and obedience which lie within it. Strictly speaking, there is no place in the fourth Gospel for resurrection stories, since the ascent or exaltation has already taken place. Nevertheless, and doubtless in deference to Christian tradition, the evangelist supplies three, to which a fourth has been added.’30

First comes the empty tomb story. The original three women have now been reduced to one, Mary Magdalene, always the first to be mentioned in the other Gospels. The heavenly visitor, whose message formed the focal point of Mark’s original story, has now disappeared altogether. His place has been taken by the appearance to Mary of the risen Christ himself. C. H. Dodd has called this encounter ‘the most humanly moving of all the stories of the risen Christ’.31 It has certainly caused John’s version of the tomb story to be easily the most popular in Christian devotion down the ages. For this as well as for other reasons C. F. Evans is justified in saying that John’s version ‘would seem to represent an end-product of the development of the story of the empty tomb’.32

John’s inclusion of the tomb story meant that the exaltation of Jesus associated with the cross was subjected to a slight delay in time. Mary encountered Jesus just before the process of exaltation was completed, for Jesus said to her, ‘Do not cling to me, for I have not ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers, and tell them I am now ascending to my Father and your Father, my God and your God.’33 Whereas in the earlier Gospels the angelic visitor(s) announced the resurrection of Jesus, in John the exaltation of Jesus is announced by himself. It is altogether consistent with John’s emphasis on exaltation that ‘resurrection’ is referred to only once in Chapter 20, and that in an element which marks a further development of the tomb story.34

John’s version is the first in which the disciples pay a visit to the empty tomb. Goguel is probably correct when along with others he maintains that ‘the fragment concerning Peter and the anonymous disciple has been . . clumsily inserted into the Mary Magdalene story’ probably out of ‘a desire to make the apostles as well as a woman witness of the empty tomb’.35 But the emphasis is now no longer on the emptiness of the tomb but on the way the linen cloths have been left lying. As usually interpreted, it means that they were still in the formation they assumed as they clothed the dead body. The dead body however was gone, and the formation of the cloths precluded any simple act of resuscitation. They further showed that the body could not have been stolen. (Since Jesus was presumably clothed when he appeared to Mary outside of the tomb, this vision, too, precluded the possibility that Jesus had simply walked forth from the tomb as a resuscitated physical form). It was when the unknown disciple saw this that he believed.

John’s version does not point back to that of Luke or even that of Matthew, but rather to that of Mark, of which it is an understandable development. For in Mark we simply learn that the body was gone. It was a sign (interpreted by the angel) but not a proof, of the Easter message of the exaltation of Jesus. In the same way, but with more imaginative detail, the empty tomb has become in John a ‘sign’ of the Johannine type, pointing to the heavenly exaltation of the crucified Jesus.36

Then comes the story of the appearance of Jesus to the disciples when they were gathered behind locked doors. For John this was the occasion on which Jesus delivered to his disciples the gift of the Holy Spirit. The fact that a Gospel as late as that of John could narrate such a different account of the coming of the Holy Spirit shows that the Pentecostal story in Acts was far from being universally known and accepted at the end of the first century. The tradition here recorded by John not only places the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Easter day, but associated it with the first appearance of the exalted Jesus to his disciples. It is of some value to remember here the point made in Chapter 9 in which Elisha’s reception of the spirit of Elijah depended upon his seeing the ascending Elijah.

To this is appended the incidents concerning Thomas, by means of which the Evangelist dealt with one of the common problems of his own day. We have already noted above that Luke’s increased concern for historical evidence and a physical resurrection were due to the quest for certainty at a time when the initial burst of life was over and the first apostles gone. Thomas represents the sincere and devout inquirer who seeks certain proof before he can believe. As Goguel puts it, ‘The thought behind the story is that proofs exist, which, however, only a man of little faith can need.’37 This incident becomes the most fitting conclusion to the Gospel, for as C. H. Dodd has so well said, ‘From this moment the company no longer consists solely of the eleven disciples gathered at that particular time and place; every reader of the gospel who has faith, to the end of time, is included in Christ’s final beatitude.’38

The last chapter of the Fourth Gospel is commonly regarded as an appendix, added to John’s work at a later stage. The story it contains of the risen Jesus and his disciples beside the sea of Galilee may also stem from a quite early tradition, which took shape before the period when Easter stories came to be confined to Jerusalem. It reflects what must have been the primitive conditions in which the disciples fled back to Galilee on the death of Jesus. But whatever its origin, the story now shows an advanced stage of development and constitutes the Johannine version of the call of the church to universal mission. The draught of fishes, by virtue of the significance of the number 153,39 is probably a symbol of the mission to which the church was called. It illustrates the process by which Easter stories continued to develop within the life of the church to meet new needs.

Although no more Easter narratives were accepted into the authoritative canon of the New Testament which eventuated, such stories continued to appear in the next century, and probably far outnumbered the canonical ones, even though most of them have not survived except in fragments. They serve to illustrate, however, that they were but the continuation of a process which began in the last forty years of the first century, the process of expressing in story form the reality of the risen Christ in the life of the church.

It is of value to include here one example of those later developments. The following is recognized as a fragment of the Gospel of Peter, written perhaps about AD. 150, and was included in a manuscript found in an Egyptian cave in 1884. We quote the beginning of the account of Easter day:

And early in the morning as the sabbath dawned, there came a multitude from Jerusalem and the region round about to see the sepulchre that had been sealed. Now in the night whereon the Lord’s day dawned, as the soldiers were keeping guard two by two in every watch, there came a great sound in the heaven, and they saw the heavens opened up and two men descend thence, shining with a great light, and drawing near unto the sepulchre. And that stone which had been set on the door rolled away of itself and went back to the side, and the sepulchre was opened and both of the young men entered in. When therefore those soldiers saw that, they waked up the centurion and the elders (for they also were there keeping watch); and while they were yet telling them the things which they had seen, they saw again three men come out of the sepulchre, and two of them sustaining the other, and a cross following after them. And of the two they saw that their heads reached unto heaven, but of him that was led by them that it overpassed the heavens. And they heard a voice out of the heavens saying: Hast thou preached unto them that sleep? And an answer was heard from the cross, saying: Yea.40

The Gospel of Peter then goes on to describe the arrival of the angel from heaven, the departure of the guards to inform Pilate, and the arrival of Mary Magdalene and her women friends, who, on hearing the Easter message from the angel, turned and fled. This version seems clearly based on those of Mark and Matthew but shows no obvious influence from Luke or John.

While the Gospel of Peter ventures further than the canonical Gospels in attempting to describe the resurrection, it is very instructive to note carefully how this was done. This is no resuscitation of the physical body, such as we find implied in Luke, but an attempt to describe the ascension or glorification of Jesus. Jesus, in a form which defies description for it was higher than the heavens, is literally carried into heaven by two heavenly messengers. This is a highly imaginative elaboration of the simple Marcan announcement that the body was gone, and one in which exaltation to heaven is still the dominant note. The versions of Luke, John and Peter all stem from that of Mark but they have moved in different directions. In John and Peter the empty tomb still points to heavenly exaltation; it is Luke, who, even more than Matthew, has taken the development in the direction of an historical resuscitation of the crucified body of Jesus.

We see the end result of this in the beginning of Acts. Whether Acts was written by Luke (as most still maintain), or by a later anonymous writer, there is no denying the fact that its opening story of the Ascension is inconsistent with the closing chapter of Luke. In Luke the ascension apparently took place on the day of resurrection, but in Acts it was forty days later.

The Easter message originally proclaimed the vindication and exaltation of the crucified Jesus. Jesus was believed to have been raised to heaven by God, and in so far as this was spoken of in terms of resurrection no distinction was made between resurrection and ascension. Mark’s tomb story introduced no distinction. Luke and John both drew some distinction between resurrection and ascension, but only as two elements of a more complex Easter day.

But Luke’s greater emphasis on the physical form of the risen Jesus and on the number of the appearances of Jesus, led to the traditional chronology found in Acts. By the end of the first century men were looking for proofs of the resurrection and that is just what the author of Acts believed had been supplied by Jesus himself. ‘He showed himself to these men after his death, and gave ample proof that he was alive.’41 Stories which originated as signs, or confessions of faith, now came to be regarded as historical testimonies. Luke had been at pains to make clear that the risen Jesus was no otherworldly spirit but a physical form with flesh and bones,42 who consequently presented his disciples with infallible proofs.41 The risen Christ came to be regarded as having conducted a fresh ministry with his disciples, and in these forty days he ‘taught them about the kingdom of God’.41 But since the experience of the risen Christ was not of this character at the end of the century when Acts was written, it had to be made clear that this kind of experience was brought to an end by a new event, the Ascension. What had once been an affirmation about the divine vindication of the crucified Christ expressed in diverse forms and stories now became a sequence of historical events in chronological order -- resurrection, appearances, call to mission, ascension. Whereas resurrection had originally been almost synonymous with exaltation, it had now become only the first act of the sequence. The sequence is reflected in the Apostles’ creed, ‘The third day he rose again from the dead, he ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty.’

That was not all. It is commonly pointed out that in Pauline thought there is no clear distinction made between the Holy Spirit and the spirit of the risen Christ.43 Even in the Johannine tradition, as we have seen, the Holy Spirit was received by the disciples from the risen Jesus on Easter day. Only in Acts, of all the New Testament, is the gift of the Holy Spirit related to a festival seven weeks after Easter. This completed the chronology of the rise of the Easter faith and the birth of the Christian church. It is significant that according to this interpretation of the beginnings there was no proclamation of the Gospel until the day of Pentecost; the event of Easter day, the appearances, and the ascension, were not sufficient in themselves to send the disciples out to proclaim the Christian message.

The Luke-Acts reconstruction of the origin of the church became the authoritative one in all later tradition. The Easter narratives from the other Gospels were in practice fitted into the Luke-Acts framework, which also set the pattern for the Christian year. This is why, as it was pointed out earlier, Luke-Acts constituted the final development of the Easter narratives among the writings finally accepted by the church as authoritative. More than any other New Testament writing Luke-Acts left the impression with the reader that the resurrection was an historical event, that it attributed to the risen Jesus a physical form, and that the vindication and exaltation of Jesus consisted of a seven-week process, of which the resurrection was the beginning. Resurrection had become a historical event of the same character as the crucifixion. This view of the resurrection, reached by the end of the first century, remained fundamentally unchanged, until it finally collapsed within the last hundred years. This collapse was accompanied, however, by the discovery that the New Testament is much richer and more diverse in its witness than tradition has allowed, and this has enabled us to come to a fresh appreciation of the Easter message, as we shall later show.

 

Notes:

1. The Day of His Coming, p. 278.

2. op. cit., p. 26.

3. op. cit., p. 53.

4. See C. F. Evans, op. cit., p. 52-3.

5. Jesus of Nazareth, p. 183.

6. See C. F. Evans, op. cit., pp. 82, 92.

7. Mark 16:6.

8. Goguel, op. cit., p. 40.

9. Goguel, op. cit., p. 39, notes that it has been shown ‘that the idea of a body laid in a tomb being taken up into heaven is to be found in several Christian legends and had its origin in Hellenism’.

10. I Cor. 15:4.

II. op. cit., p. 69-77.

12. op. cit., p. 65.

13. op. cit., pp. 81-2.

14. Matt. 27:51-3.

15. Thus Goguel commented, ‘We can see the resurrection of the saints to be both a result of the victory gained by Jesus over death, not on the morning of the third day but at the very moment when he expired and an anticipation of the general resurrection. Such an idea could well ignore any thought of the third day and the empty tomb.’ op. cit., p. 41.

16. Matt. 28:4.

17. Matt. 28:11.

18. op. cit., p. 82.

19. op. cit., p. 83.

20. C. F. Evans notes: ‘As in this Gospel particularly the body of disciples begins to appear as a church under the discipline of the apostles, and the material is arranged for church use, so now the resurrection commission is in terms of church order -- to make disciples, to baptize and to instruct.’ op. cit., p. 84.

21. op. cit., p. 85. See pp. 81-91 for fuller discussion by C. F. Evans.

22. Luke 24:12.

23. Luke 24:21b-4, 34. When these linking verses are removed the theme of the original narrative flows more logically.

24. Goguel sees several features in it which point to its being a relatively primitive tradition. op. cit., p. 49.

25. Luke 24:30.

26. op. cit., p. 105. For an excellent study of the Emmaus story, see "The Origin and Nature of Christian Faith According to the Emmaus Legend" by H. D. Betz, Interpretation, Vol. XXIII, No. 1, pp. 32-65.

27. Luke 24:41.

28. The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel, p. 440.

29. John 3:13. See also vv. 14-15, 8:28, 12:32-4.

30. op. cit., p. 116.

31. op. cit., p. 441.

32. op. cit., p. 120.

33. John 20:17.

34. John 20:9.

35. op. cit., p. 54.

36. See C. F. Evans, op. cit., p. 121.

37. op. cit., p. 50.

38. op. cit., p. 443.

39. Various explanations of the number 153 have been offered. The suggestion made by Jerome is as good as any, namely, that it was commonly thought that there were 153 known species of fish. Thus it symbolized the universality of the Christian mission.

40. M. R. James, The Apocryphal New Testament, pp. 92-3.

41. Acts 1:3.

42. Luke 24:39-43.

43. e.g., 2 Cor. 3:17-18. See also Chap. 14 below.

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