Sunday, April 14, 2013

Why did the angels say what they said?

Happy (belated) Easter to all my readers!

What happened on the first Easter Sunday morning? I'm sure most of us have heard or read some of the stories over the past couple of weeks or so. But looking at the stories with a critical eye, there are a few issues that are hard to resolve. Like this one, why did the angels say what they said?

Here is the story as told by (what most scholars agree is) the earliest of the four gospels:
Mark 16: 1-8
When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?”
But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.
“Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’”
Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.
The message of the 'young man', who we will assume to be intended to be understood as an angel (the word only means messenger anyway), is clear: If you want to see Jesus, you need to go to Galilee. The final portion of this chapter, from verse 9 onwards, is generally considered to be a later addition which was not part of the original. So we can't speculate about what the original ending might have been if, indeed, verse 8 is not the original ending, as some claim.

Matthew has a slightly different take on things:
Matthew 28: 1-10
After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.
There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.
The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.”
So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
In this version of the story, the angel delivers the same message as in Mark. But here, Jesus himself appears and, erm, says the same thing as the angel. So what was the point of the angelic message if the women were about to meet Jesus anyway, and he was going to give them the same message? Waste of a good messenger, if you ask me.

Most critical scholars agree that Matthew's account is an embellished retelling of Mark's original. It certainly appears as if Matthew thought the empty tomb was a bit of an anticlimax, and really needed a risen Jesus in his story straight away, so inserts a quick (and pointless) appearance of Jesus to the women, before the final appearance of Jesus to the disciples, in Galilee, for the great commission at the end of the chapter.

It certainly seems to me that even if there really was an empty tomb, and even if there really was an angelic messenger, that the appearance of Jesus to the women must be considered as an invention of the writer of 'Matthew', and not a historical event. That is, even if the overall Gospel message is true, and Jesus really is the risen saviour and Son of God, the gospel account of Matthew still contains stories that the author just made up. But if that's the case, how can you trust anything else in there? Sigh.

So we've got to the point of identifying major problems with the story, and we're only two gospels in. Things get more complicated when we look at Luke:
Luke 24: 1-12
On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: ‘The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.’ ” Then they remembered his words.
When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others. It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles. But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense. Peter, however, got up and ran to the tomb. Bending over, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves, and he went away, wondering to himself what had happened.
Then, in verses 13 to 32 we have the well known 'road to Emmaus' story, in which Jesus appears to two of his (presumably male) disciples in a non-Galilean setting. They specifically say that others (not the women) went to the tomb and found it empty, but saw no angels. Following this, the story continues in verses 33-36:
They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together and saying, “It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.” Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognised by them when he broke the bread.
While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 
After this, they all go out to Bethany and Jesus ascends to heaven (v 51), having never gone to Galilee.

So in this version of the story, the angel(s) have a different message. Its not 'go to Galilee to see him', it has become, 'remember what he said in Galilee'. Indeed, the story here reaches its definite conclusion in the ascension with Jesus and all the disciples never having left the vicinity of Jerusalem. It would appear that the writer of Luke knew stories that the angels had apparently said something about Galilee, but also had heard stories that Jesus had appeared exclusively in the vicinity of Jerusalem, and so modified the original wording (remember from Luke 1:1-4 that he thinks the earlier gospels were inaccurate; we assume he had access to a copy of Mark, possibly Matthew as well) to keep reference to Galilee, but not to instruct anyone to go there. So it appears that 'Luke' changed the meaning and details of the stories he had in order to harmonise them. In other words, Luke too includes stuff that he just made up.

Another odd feature of this telling of the story is in verse 34, where one of the 'road to Emmaus' disciples claims, not only that Jesus had risen, but also that he had appeared to Simon (Peter?), an event that doesn't actually occur in this telling of the story. They say this to 'the eleven' - presumably including Peter himself! i would have thought that if Peter had seen Jesus by this point, he would have known about it and not needed telling. Surely their 'gospel' message should have been 'the Lord has risen - we know because we've seen him' not 'the Lord has risen, we know because Simon has seen him'. And again, it is a pointless message as Jesus promptly appears to all of them anyway.

I think my point is pretty much made by now, but we may as well have a look at the story in John as well:
John 20: 1-20
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”
So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen. Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.) Then the disciples went back to where they were staying.
Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.
They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”
“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.
He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”
Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”
Jesus said to her, “Mary.”
She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).
Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”
Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.
On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.
In this telling of the story, we don't have a self-contradiction (as in Matthew), as the angels, though present, don't say or do anything to drive the story on. They're just there apparently in attendance on the risen Jesus, who does most of the talking. Here, as in Matthew, one of the women is the first to see Jesus, and here, as in Luke, Jesus appears to all the disciples in Jerusalem, before anyone has gone to Galilee. Of course, there is a Galilean appearance in John 21, but many people consider that chapter to be a later addition to the gospel, and not part of 'John's' original. Here it is Jesus who tells the woman (singular this time) to go and tell his disciples / brothers something, but the content of the message is not an instruction to go to Galilee, but a fairly vague message that he is about to ascend to the Father. This also is a fairly pointless message - without the text that follows it, the sense would seem to be 'I am ascending to the Father (soon? immediately?) so you won't see me again', but the story tells of immediate visitations to the disciples, so there was no need for this message. Surely he could have told the disciples this when he saw them?

All the conflicting messages in these stories are suggestive. They suggest to me that the earliest versions of the stories contained only the briefest appearance of angels (or Jesus) to a tiny subset of his disciples, while the rest had to simply accept that Jesus had risen (and ascended) on the basis of the testimony of only one or two apparent eyewitnesses. That is, the original resurrection stories were spread by only a tiny handful of people, perhaps only one or two women!

But stories grow in the telling. Appearances by Jesus simply had to be added into the mix for dramatic purposes. I mean, nobody would really believe it if Jesus only appeared to one woman, would they? But if he appeared to many, things would be different...

But if he appeared to many, and in Jerusalem, then why did the angels say what they said...?

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