Matins

30 March 2008 at :00 am

Personally I thought the whole series was very well produced, convincingly acted, beautifully filmed and it gave probably the best possible film recreation that could be achieved of the gospel accounts. But there is a problem, however, inherent in the very exercise. How can you make a single film of four different gospel accounts, each of which was written with its own theological purpose as well as with an historical one, and about which there are considerable scholarly debates?

Now the discussion that goes on among biblical scholars about the resurrection narratives is often presented as a debate between modern scepticism and ancient credulity. In fact it is far more complicated than that. I have always believed that the church should be more open about the issues scholarship raises than is often the case. Maybe Low Sunday, and especially a Low Sunday when we have had an hour’s less sleep, is a good day on which to look more closely at the problem, but I must warn you that it is quite complex.

The New Testament was written over about a fifty to sixty year period, and the pictures we have of the resurrection come from different times over that period. The earliest books to be written were not, as you may have thought, the gospels, but the letters of St Paul.

In those letters St Paul develops a detailed theological understanding of the resurrection, but his description of what happened is fairly limited. The earliest report we have of the resurrection is in his first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 15, probably written twenty to twenty-five years after the first Easter. He lists those to whom Jesus appeared, first to Peter, then to the twelve, then to more than five hundred brethren at one time, then to James and then to all the apostles. But the difficulty with that list is that it does not correspond at all closely with what the Gospels tell us; there is nothing in Paul’s list about the women going to the tomb, indeed there is nothing in St Paul explicitly about the empty tomb at all, and the gospels have no detailed account of Jesus appearing first to Peter although St Luke reports the disciples mentioning it. Also, St Paul gives no description of the appearances, he simply says Christ appeared. So that chapter of his letter raises as many questions as it answers.

Almost all scholars now agree that the first gospel to be written was St Mark’s, probably written about the years 65 to 70, some 30 to 35 years after the death of Jesus. Virtually all scholars also now agree that the last part of the last chapter of St Mark was a later addition from the second century. His original gospel ends with the women returning from having found the tomb empty and with the words ‘but they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid’ and he gives no account of any resurrection appearances.

The Archbishop of Canterbury in the questions following his lecture here on Faith and History just before Easter followed the explanation a biblical scholar R H Lightfoot put forward in 1950 suggesting that this was a deliberate ploy on St Mark’s part, because Mark felt that God’s intervention in the world always produced fear and awe, so the last words of the gospel pointed to an act of God. Lightfoot and the Archbishop may well be right, but the fact that St Mark does not describe any of the resurrection appearances has also been described by other scholars as ‘the greatest of all literary mysteries’.

The next two gospels to be written were Luke and Matthew but there is no real agreement on which came first. Both were probably written after about the year 80 AD but before the turn of the first century. Matthew follows Mark in much of the story of the Empty tomb, although it is Matthew, and Matthew alone, who talks about ‘a great earthquake’ that moved the stone, who describes the conspiracy by the Jewish authorities to spread a story that the disciples stole the body, and who adds a very curious verse after the death of Jesus that ‘the tombs were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many’; I think all serious scholars think that is a legendary addition.

But, unlike Mark, Matthew does give accounts of appearances by Jesus, but they are very limited. He adds at the end of the account of the women visiting the tomb that Jesus met them, and said ‘Hail’; they worshipped him and he told them to go to Galilee. And then Matthew’s gospel ends with Jesus appearing to them in Galilee, with him giving them the great commission to go to make disciples of all nations. But those two appearances, one in Jerusalem and one in Galilee, are all that Matthew tells us of the risen Christ. Personally I find it very perplexing to work out why he did not include more resurrection stories if they were well known to him or to the church where he was writing some fifty years after the event, and if they were not known to him then, in a way that is even more perplexing.

It is only when we get to St Luke’s Gospel, probably written in the 80s, that we get to one of the stories with which we are so familiar, the story of Jesus appearing to two disciples on the road to Emmaus and then to all the disciples in Jerusalem. Before that Luke largely follows St Mark’s account of the visit to the tomb by the women, with no account of any appearing by Jesus there at the tomb. And the Emmaus story is followed by the story of the Ascension, where Luke’s gospel ends, although St Luke gives a more developed account of it at the start of his subsequent book, the Acts of the Apostles.

Then we get to what most scholars, though not all, think is the last Gospel to be written, St John’s Gospel, probably written down late in the first century or some would even say early in the second century, and it is there that we get many of the other stories with which we will be familiar; the appearing to Mary Magdalene by the tomb, a more detailed description than Luke of his appearing to all the disciples in Jerusalem, the meeting a week later with St Thomas, still in Jerusalem, and then, in the final chapter of St John’s Gospel, the encounter with some of the disciples, including Peter and John by the lakeside in Galilee.

Now it is against that background of the New Testament being written over that fifty or sixty year period, with most of the detailed resurrection appearances only being written down towards the end of the period, that the scholarly debate exists about what actually happened. There are certainly many scholars, including the present Archbishop of Canterbury, who believe that there is a core of accurate history in the picture as a whole, including the story of the empty tomb and that is undoubtedly a perfectly academically respectable position to take, but there are others, who, on scholarly grounds, wonder whether it quite as clear cut as that, and whether some of the stories of the resurrection appearances and possibly even the story of the empty tomb were not later theological constructions to illustrate the convictions of the gospel writers. It was not a case of their fabricating evidence, for their primary purpose was theological, not historical, but they told theological truths in the way Jesus told truths, by telling stories. Now how you make a film of those accounts that is true to that whole scholarly debate I do not know, and that for me is the problem with the BBC’s otherwise excellent attempt.

But lest that all sounds very negative, and leaves everyone here in a state of unconstructive questioning, let me also say something that can be asserted with complete conviction. The disciples were radically changed by whatever happened. At the time of the crucifixion they either ran away, or, like Peter, denied Christ. John alone is presented as being at the crucifixion. Yet after the first Easter those same disciples were filled with such conviction and courage that they were willing to face persecution, abuse, huge physical suffering and death itself. And they started a process that, within a few hundred years, had won over the Roman Empire itself to Christianity. And they ascribed that change to their firm belief in the resurrection. They were convinced that Jesus was not ended by his death, but was alive in them and working through them. And I think it is very difficult to think that change was simply self-generated, as though the resurrection was purely a changed perspective on the part of the disciples as they thought about what had happened. Something must have happened to have brought about that dramatic change.

And let me also say that the disciples’ belief that all that Jesus was and stood for was not ended by his death I certainly believe as well. And I believe that not just for then, two thousand years ago, but for the church now. The evidence of the Resurrection can still be found in the church today, where men and women demonstrate by their lives that Christ is alive in them, profoundly influencing their actions, their beliefs, their way of treating other people.

What exactly it was that happened that caused the authors of the New Testament to write as they did when they did remains, I believe, something of a mystery. But to get at the contemporary meaning of the story we can take one image from that familiar story of doubting Thomas, which, according to St John’s Gospel happened on this, the first Sunday after Easter.

You will remember that in St John’s account Jesus says to Thomas ‘Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless but believing.’ Well, we can do something very similar to that. We can take a picture of the crucifixion, or a crucifix, we can gaze on the wounds in the hands, and in the side. And then we can say what St Thomas said ‘My Lord, and my God’. And, if we mean that so that Christ is alive in us as our Lord and as our God, then we shall know what the resurrection is about.

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