‘He was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures’
When it comes to the resurrection accounts, there is a tendency to look down on the first Christians, to dismiss them as superstitious, credulous, simple folk who didn’t know any better. But they were far better acquainted with death than we are. They saw it around them on the streets and in the gutters, in the houses and on the execution sites that studded the Roman Empire. So we should credit them with knowing the difference between death and life, between a corpse and a walking, living, fish-eating bloke.
They knew that something strange – something out of this world had happened. And that certainty is reflected in the nature of the accounts: in their passion and simplicity.
‘Take it or leave it’ they say. ‘But here are our stories.’
There is an almost naive lack of artifice. Take, for example, the choice of women as your key witnesses. Women were almost completely disqualified as witnesses in Jewish courts of law: the choice of women as the prime witnesses to the empty tomb would be a terrible piece of strategic planning, unless they genuinely were the first witnesses and the Gospel accounts were trying to get things right.
Or take the inconsistencies in the accounts. the fact is that the resurrection accounts don’t exactly match. There is some confusion between them. If the testimonies were invented by later editors, one would expect these inconsistencies to be ironed out and the difficulties to be explained away. But there is none of that, which can be only because the early church believed it important to preserve the original accounts, even where they diverged. As Wright says, ‘stories as earth-shattering as this, stories as community-forming as this, once told, are not easily modified. Too much depends on them’.
Or take the admission of doubt. The accounts recognise the unreality of the events. Matthew, for example, tells us that ‘When they saw him they worshipped him; but some doubted’ (Matt. 28.17). I can’t imagine why anyone would write that if they were trying to present an air-brushed case. The doubt is there only because some did doubt.
There are plenty of other arguments as well: the statement from Paul that in his day there were still witnesses alive, the fact that the Early Church did not venerate the tomb, never went there to worship (Why would they? There was nothing there!) Or the fact, indeed, that physical resurrection was such a weird thing to believe in. The Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the dead, but this was a final resurrection, after the day of the Lord. The pagan world dismissed the idea completely. The Christian belief that resurrection had happened ahead of the end, and that it signalled a general resurrection (as reflected in Matthew’s dead people walking about), was very strange.
Perhaps the most important evidence, though, lies in the transformation of Jesus’ followers. Something changed these people into a force. Something turned a huddle of frightened peasants into a world-changing phenomenon. Personally, I have never been able to come up with an explanation for the growth of the early church and the persistence of belief in this man that didn’t involve resurrection. Take the resurrection away from Jesus and all you get is failure. Honourable failures do not start religious movements. The martyrs at Masada are remembered, but no one started a religion in their honour.
This, then, is the crunch point of the Longest Week. Dismissing it as a nice story or some kind of spiritual metaphor simply will not do. The ancient world didn’t think that way and the Gospel writers make no such claim.
No Gospel writer claims that Jesus went into the tomb as a man and came out as a metaphor. What they claim is that it happened. It was real. No middle, metaphorical exits. An empty tomb. A new beginning.
On the Sunday before, Jesus had entered the city in triumph from Bethany. Luke brings us full circle: Jesus leads his disciples out of Jerusalem, up along the Mount of Olives as far as Bethany, where he ‘withdrew from them’ (Luke 24.51). He entered in triumph and he exits in triumph. It has been a long, hard, strange journey.
And it’s not finished yet.