My church had its final Bible study last night on John's Gospel: Wisdom from Ephesus, with Michael Card. In this post, I'll use as my starting-point one of the questions in our workbook. After citing John 20:1-9, the workbook asks:
does the reaction of Peter and John to Mary Magdalene's words
demonstrate, contrary to come skeptics' claims, that Jesus' disciples
had no part in secretly removing His body from the tomb?"
answer that people in the group gave was that the disciples were
surprised that the tomb in which Jesus had been placed was empty, that
that Jesus' clothes and the napkin that covered his head were neatly
arranged in the tomb. They couldn't have removed Jesus' body if they were later surprised to find the tomb empty, right?
I think back to this Jesus and Mo comic strip,
in which Jesus and Moe are debating Jesus' resurrection. Jesus keeps
appealing to the empty tomb in an attempt to convince Mo that the
resurrection story actually happened, and Mo said that was a no-no:
"The so-called empty tomb is part of the resurrection story. It's not
valid evidence. That's like saying the Yellow Brick Road is evidence
for the existence of the Wizard of Oz." Consequently, can we appeal to
elements of the resurrection story in seeking to refute people who are
skeptical about that very story?
But there are people who believe that the resurrection stories are authentic and reflect eyewitness testimony. I think back to a post by Messianic Rabbi Derek Leman, in which Derek said that we see in the Gospel stories "a strange perplexity and fear which underlies" them as well as "strong signs of the accounts going back to eyewitnesses." Derek states:
"The Gospel accounts are raw. How do we explain their features?...Whereas in the cross narratives we had Bible verses inserted into the
telling, marking the events of his death as filling a pattern from the
Hebrew Bible, there are none here. The message of afterlife hope is
absent here. Instead we get fear and disbelief. Is this because by the
time Luke was written the community still did not understand what
Yeshua’s raising had to do with our own hope? Not at all. This feature
requires explaining...And, as we will see in the next part of the account [in Luke 24], there were unusual qualities about Yeshua’s raised body."
from N.T. Wright and Richard Bauckham, Derek discusses various reasons
that he believes that Luke 24 reflects eyewitness testimony: women in
the narrative being the first witnesses to the empty tomb in a culture
that did not particularly value women's testimony, the significance of
names in the narrative, etc. But what stands out to me is
Derek's argument that the narrative about Jesus' resurrection is raw: it
reflects fear, bafflement, and an initial lack of understanding of what
God was doing at the time. For Derek, this is one indication that the
resurrection story was early and authentic: it conveyed what the
disciples felt when Jesus rose from the dead.
But couldn't that have been made-up?
Couldn't a devout writer composing a resurrection story have chosen to
depict the disciples and others as baffled at Jesus' resurrection, for a
literary reason? Couldn't this writer have been seeking to exalt God
and Christ by presenting them as baffling the disciples with a glorious
While there are scholars who believe
that the resurrection stories are authentic and reflect eyewitness
testimony, not everyone agrees. Last night, I read this Huffington Post article
by Bishop John Shelby Spong, in which Spong does not defend his claims
that a lot of the Gospel of John is contrived, but he refers to a book
that he wrote that supposedly does so.
religious part of me goes with Derek's view. The part of me that
recoils from Christian apologetics tends to go with the view of the
"Jesus and Mo" comic strip and Bishop Spong. I will say that, when I
read some of the resurrection narratives, there does appear to be a
personal touch in them. I liked what my pastor said last night: that
Jesus in John's Gospel was showing his disciples that he was alive by
neatly arranging his clothes and his napkin before leaving the tomb. When
Peter and John went to the empty tomb to check it out, they could
conclude that Jesus was alive, even if they did not yet understand the
theological or Scriptural context of that, for a grave robber or someone
simply moving the body would either take the body with the clothes on
it, or (less likely) would remove the clothes and toss them to the side
(see here). But Jesus' clothes were neatly arranged. (On a side note, that detail has been used in lectures that people have given about the importance of being neat. I
prefer to see that detail in an uplifting context, however, rather than
in a context that puts people down or makes them feel less-than: that
Jesus is one who brings a beneficent order----or one would hope!)
would that absolutely, positively convince a skeptic? Not
necessarily. It's not even hard evidence, for that matter. But the
stories do seem to have a personal touch that I somewhat like.