The Creed, the Resurrection, and the Strange Testimony of the Witnesses

Published April 6, 2021
Tags: The Creed

Continuing from yesterday…

***

The Curious Case of Mary Magdalene

We have already dealt with the question of the integrity of the apostolic witnesses in chapter 3.  But in addition to the fact that they are obviously honest men, there is something else worth noting about the story of the Resurrection: no first century Jewish liars would call Mary Magdalene as their first witness to the Resurrection in all four gospels.

A comparison of the gospels with the creedal summary Paul recites in 1 Corinthians 15 is instructive here.  Just as the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed is not an exhaustive account of every detail of Jesus’ life but simply gives us the high notes, so the creed Paul recites is intended to give just a quick summary of Jesus’ appearances to a few of the most important figures in the Church, as well as a notable appearance to a large crowd of witnesses.  Note that this summary therefore begins, not with Mary Magdalene or the women at the tomb, but with Cephas (aka Peter) as the first witness of the Resurrection.  This is exactly what we would expect in a Church led by male apostles speaking to a Mediterranean culture used to thinking in patriarchal terms: a summary of Jesus’ appearances to the male authority figures in the Church.  So we hear about Peter (who is head of the apostolic college) and James (who is the bishop of the Mother Church in Jerusalem), as well as the Twelve and the large crowd of five hundred.  We not only do not hear about the women, we don’t hear about Thomas, or Jesus eating fish, or of his conversation with Peter or his remarks about John.  The creed Paul cites is no more attempting to give a full account of the Resurrection appearances than the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed is trying to give us the Sermon on the Mount.  It obeys cultural convention and gives us a Jesus who appeared first to Peter because precisely what that culture wants to know is that the most important man in the Church saw the risen Christ.

Now compare that with the gospels.  If they were inventions, exactly what we would not expect is what the gospels in fact give us. Instead of obeying cultural expectations and putting Peter down as the first witness of the Resurrection, all four gospels are unanimous in relating the story of the women at the tomb, always led by the same person:  Mary Magdalene.

This is something nobody would invent for a number of reasons.  To begin with, the Magdalene was prima facie incredible to a first century Jewish audience on three counts.

First, she was a woman and her testimony is therefore regarded as dubious and inadmissible in court.[1]

Second, she was a woman from whom Jesus “had cast out seven demons” (Mark 16:9)–a rather dubious psychological profile for your star witness.

Third, she was a woman who appears nowhere else in the gospels except for a single passing mention in Luke.

And yet, here she is in all four gospels and always clearly the leader of the group of women at the tomb just as much as Peter is clearly the leader of the apostles.  This is notable, not only because the appearance to Peter sometimes drops out of the Resurrection narrative altogether (as in Luke, for instance, where an appearance to Peter is only obliquely mentioned (Luke 24:34)) but also because Mary Magdalene was accompanied to the tomb by another Mary: the mother of James, the bishop of Jerusalem (Matthew 27:56; Mark 15:40; Luke 24:10). This other Mary is also mentioned by John (19:25) as being both the “sister” (meaning “cousin”) of the Blessed Virgin Mary as well as the wife of Clopas (that is, “Cleopas” the disciple to whom Christ appeared on the Emmaus Road) (cf. Luke 24:18).  Yet this “other Mary”, despite her numerous claims to superior social status in the Church, remains always firmly inferior to Mary Magdalene in every Resurrection account.  Indeed, in John, all the other women at the tomb disappear from the account and Mary Magdalene alone is mentioned.  This is not because John is ignorant of the presence of the other women at the tomb.  He alludes to them in shorthand by recording the Magdalene saying, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him” (John 20:2). And that’s the point: Mary Magdalene is so much taken for granted as the principal figure in the story of the women at the tomb that she stands for all the women. It’s rather like when we say, “Neil Armstrong went to the moon.” We understand that he stands, not only for the crew of Apollo 11, but that he even stands for all the rest of the NASA engineers and scientists with whom he worked to get there.

The point is this: we have, in the Resurrection summary that Paul relates, the simple and obvious account of the Resurrection that would have been expected by the people in that time and place, focusing on Peter, James, and the Twelve—the natural male authority figures in the early Church.  Easy, digestible, and simple to comprehend.  That’s what summaries are supposed to be.  But in the full narrative of the Resurrection—every single time in all four gospels—the evangelists give us, not the quick official summary with Peter first (since he stands as head of the Church), but the story of the women at the tomb and the figure of a near non-entity named Mary Magdalene who, with the exception of one mention in Luke 8:1-3, simply does not exist in the gospels until her sudden and dramatic appearance in the Resurrection narratives. 

So the question is, why suddenly introduce her here? And there is only one reasonable answer: because it really happened and the gospels are simply telling us the story of a real event, not inventing fiction.

The Cumulative Weight of Many Witnesses

Some will, of course, retort that this proves too much, since indeed we would not bother with the testimony of Ima Nutt, alleged alien abductee, so why bother with Mary’s?

Because Mary is the first, not the last, witness. The records point to hundreds of witnesses–most still alive at the time 1 Corinthians was written–and give an account of the Resurrection which is, in the main, basically coherent though with differing details. An appearance to the women, to the Twelve at various times in and around Jerusalem, to various other individuals, to others in Galilee, including a large gathering of five hundred, and in various other ways for forty days, concluding at the Ascension, followed by an appearance to Paul some years later (not counting various vision phenomena which are of a different order). Nitpickers are fond of talking about the discrepancies between the gospel accounts (books written decades apart for different audiences and for differing theological purposes). But what really stands out is how similar the tale is in all of them. If the minor discrepancies that distinguish them really mean they are false, then we must also conclude that President Kennedy was never assassinated since witnesses have as many small discrepancies in their testimony.

The Empty Tomb

Indeed, it’s often the details that are so persuasive. Thus, another fact nobody would ever make up is the burial place of Christ: the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin. It’s exactly the sort of detail that gives the gospels the ring of truth. If you’re making the story up, you put the body in the tomb of some devoted but nameless disciple where it cannot be tracked, not in the unlikely final resting place of a well-known member of the ruling body which (by the time the gospels were composed) is the headquarters of the people most bitterly opposed to your message.

The mention of the tomb leads some people to another favorite theory: namely, that the disciples went to the wrong tomb, found it empty, and leapt to the conclusion Christ was risen. One can only wonder what such theorists think people are made of. It requires preternatural stupidity on the part, not only of the disciples, but of the Jerusalem authorities to suppose that such a blunder could lead to the universal conviction among the apostles that Jesus was the Risen and Glorious Lord of all. Even if all the early Christians were too stupid to find their way back to the final resting place of the Man who was the white-hot focus of their devotion, surely somebody in the Jerusalem elite who opposed the growing sect of Nazarenes could have said, “Uh, guys? Here’s the corpse. You were looking in the wrong place. Next time, ask for directions.” Joseph of Arimathea might have been of some help here. So might the women, who saw where Jesus’ body was laid.

Moreover, this theory becomes more problematic still due to the simple fact that the grave was not entirely empty: Christ’s graveclothes were still there and there was apparently something about their condition that struck at least the apostle John as so strange that “he saw and believed” (John 20:8). 

Jesus Really Died on the Cross

Which takes us, in our taxonomy of Resurrection alternatives, to the various Escape from Death/Swoon Theories, the notion that Jesus somehow avoided the cross, either by skipping town and leaving a stooge to take the fall for him or by enduring crucifixion and then escaping the tomb. It’s hard to choose which version of this theory is more preposterous. If there’s any fact of history that is not disputed, even by hard core atheist historians, it is the fact of Jesus’ death. If we know nothing else about Jesus, we know that he died by crucifixion outside the walls of Jerusalem c. 30 AD.

And yet, as some would have it, he didn’t. Like a sort of first century Elvis, he went into sudden and mysterious retirement in sharp contradiction to everything he had ever said or done and founded a dynasty or studied philosophy in some far-off land. The evidence for this? Well, there is none really. Just assertions, supposings, surmises and what ifs. It’s rather like the thinking behind Chariots of the Gods. There’s a theory in search of evidence, not a dram of evidence giving rise to the theory. Meanwhile, the people who were there give testimony, not that Jesus boarded a bus out of town right after the Last Supper (a supper at which he specifically prophesied his Passion with a creepy accuracy that would reduce Peter to tears when it all happened), but that he went to betrayal, trial, and crucifixion. (And again, why would lying cult founders make up the story of that prophecy and its very embarrassing fulfillment?) Indeed, eyewitnesses like John saw Jesus at both his trial and the crucifixion. So there’s not a lot of ways for Jesus to have gotten out of Dodge and left somebody else holding the bag.

Ah! But John only thought he saw Jesus die. Really, the Nazarene received a drugged wine, passed out, and awoke in a freezing cold tomb on a chilly morning in April. The perfect setting for a dramatic recovery from scourging, crucifixion, massive blood loss, shock, and a spear wound to the heart, as nine out of ten doctors agree. He then stumbled out (after somehow freeing himself from the bandages stuck to his torn flesh) and, shoving the zillion ton stone that sealed the tomb out of the way, limped up to the disciples on his bloody feet, showed them his hands (complete with permanently immovable thumbs due to irreparable nerve damage from the nails through his wrists), and gasped out a greeting between the stabs of agonizing pain due to the spear wound. Most people, faced with such a ghastly spectacle, would call 911. The disciples, naturally, greeted him as the glorious Conqueror of Death and Lord of the Universe and founded a religion instead. Happens all the time.

Mass Hallucination?

“Okay, fine,” says the victim of Restless Fertility of Disbelief Syndrome, “Jesus died. And the disciples didn’t steal the body and lie about it. They just… hallucinated. Together. All five hundred of them. For forty days… No…. Really.”

Well, prescinding from the fact that there’s still that troublesome empty tomb (with empty graveclothes in it) to deal with, there’s also the problem of the nature of hallucination. Mass hallucination is extremely rare. So rare, in fact, that it’s usually only invoked to explain away things like the Resurrection. The rest of the time, when five hundred people say they saw somebody and spoke with him, we believe them, particularly when they keep suffering martyrdom for saying it and have nothing to gain by saying it. But in addition, we have other problems to deal with when it comes to the Mass Hallucination Theory. First and foremost is the curious fact that hallucinations like this are supposed to be the fruition of intense wish-fulfillment fantasies. The witnesses supposedly wanted Jesus to be alive so badly that they thought they saw him. However, on at least three occasions the one they saw was not recognized. What sort of hallucination shows up in response to our deepest wish and then isn’t recognized?

More to the point, what hallucination can be touched by St. Thomas and eats fish?

Which leaves us pretty much with the last gasp “Jesus was a Divine Illusion” school of Docetist or New Age thinking. For, if the risen Christ was “really” a purely spiritual illusion sent by the divine to teach us Higher Truths about the unimportance of the body and the need to transcend our humanity, then what could be more certain to obscure this lesson than a body which can be touched, which eats fish and breathes warm breath? The apostles, at any rate, don’t seem to have picked up on these Higher Truths at all. They teach instead that the risen Christ is raised bodily and is not only fully God but fully human, albeit glorified.

Raised bodily. Glorified. Both fully God and fully Man. For “in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20). When the alternatives have all spent themselves in fruitless clamor for our attention, it’s the old Christian story that still persuades because it just happens to be the truth. It’s the story of the Conqueror of death who, as Man, has borne the sting of death and, as God, has raised our dead human nature–body and soul–out of the grave so that we too may live in “the power of an indestructible life” (Hebrews 7:16) on the Last Day as he already lives it now in Heaven.

Resurrection, Not Resuscitation

The biblical description of the risen Christ possessing “indestructible life” makes clear that the Resurrection reveals that an altogether different and transcendent form of life has broken into the world with the risen and glorified Christ.  His return from death is not like the raising of Lazarus, or Jairus’ daughter or the son of the widow of Nain (John 11; Mark 5:21-43; Luke 7:11-17).  Each of these, as well as others in the book of Acts, are truly raised from death, but to natural life, not glorified and divinized supernatural life.  Their resuscitations are signs pointing to Jesus’ power over death, but only signs.  They shall all die again and, indeed, the risen Lazarus immediately becomes the target of an assassination plot (John 11:53).  The Resurrection of Jesus reveals an entirely different kind of human life.  He is still, to be sure, fully human—indeed, more fully and perfectly human than anything we have ever known.  So he possesses a body—and that body still bears the marks of the wounds he received in the Passion. He can be touched. He performs the animal act of eating.  He speaks with a human voice.  He remains truly human.  But the gospels also strain at the limits of human language to communicate that his humanity has been transformed somehow.  He can appear and disappear at will through locked doors.  He can somehow conceal his identity and reveal it.[2]  He knows his disciples’ thoughts and is aware of the conversations they have had when he was not physically present.  He appears not only in Jerusalem, but in Galilee.  He can both breathe upon his disciples and, in so doing, confer on them the Holy Spirit.  His appearances occur for about forty days and then end, not by his fading into the ether, but by his Ascension into Heaven in front of many witnesses.  And yet he can still appear at will, and not merely to those who knew him during his earthly ministry, but to persecuting Pharisees like Saul of Tarsus.  Yet when he does so, he can make himself perceptible only to Saul and not to Saul’s companions.  He is, in short, fully human, but as God, he is no longer limited by time and space.


[1] Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Sanhedrin, Chapter 3 illustrates the traditional thinking of ancient Jews as it puzzles over the question of who can act as a witness.  Women cannot testify in criminal cases.  (Available on-line at https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/tractate-sanhedrin-chapter-3 as of May 3, 2019.)

[2] Jimmy Akin offers the intriguing speculation that the failure to recognize Jesus may have been a divinely-induced form of temporary prosopagnosia or face blindness.  (Available at http://jimmyakin.com/2017/01/how-the-resurrection-narratives-fit-together.html as of April 4, 2019.)

***

Of which more tomorrow.

One Response

Leave a Reply

Follow Mark on Twitter and Facebook

NEW BOOK!

Advertisement