The next day, while it was still very early, they took the spices they had prepared, went to the tomb, 2 and found the stone rolled away from the tomb! 3 On entering, they discovered that the body of the Lord Yeshua was gone! 4 They were standing there, not knowing what to think about it, when suddenly two men in dazzlingly bright clothing stood next to them. 5 Terror-stricken, they bowed down with their faces to the ground. The two men said to them, “Why are you looking for the living among the dead? 6 He is not here; he has been raised. Remember how he told you while he was still in the Galil, 7 ‘The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be executed on a stake as a criminal, but on the third day be raised again’?” 8 Then they remembered his words; 9 and, returning from the tomb, they told everything to the Eleven and to all the rest. 10 The women who told the emissaries these things were Miryam of Magdala, Yochanah, Miryam the mother of Ya‘akov, and the others in their circle.
11 But the emissaries didn’t believe them; in fact, they thought that what they said was utter nonsense! 12 However, Kefa got up and ran to the tomb. Stooping down, he saw only the burial cloths and went home wondering what had happened.
Trust in the risen Jesus is the heart of Christianity, yet I am going to begin this blog by giving some of the reasons why I think none of the events reported in this passage ever happened.
1. In biblical language the “third day”, which Jesus may indeed have used in expressing his hope of resurrection, is not a literal measure of time, but more akin to the English phrase, ‘in the end of the day’. The first two days show the apparent direction of the event but the third reveals the truth. In the Gospel narratives this phrase is taken literally, Friday to Sunday, or seems to be.
2. As mentioned in my previous blog, I think it’s unlikely that Jesus’ followers had any knowledge of his dead body.
3. The earliest Gospel was written around 70 CE, whereas Paul’s letter to the Corinthians was composed not later than 57 CE. In it he refers to the resurrection appearances of Jesus, ending with the words, “last of all he appeared to me, as if in an abnormal birth.” In his letter to the Galatians around the same time he describes this appearance of Jesus in the words, “It pleased God to reveal his son in me.” He makes no mention at all of the empty tomb. For Paul the resurrection is the personal and communal experience of Jesus alive, given by God and trusted as truth by the believer.
4. Although the gospel accounts have common elements they cannot be made to cohere in a common story. Mark’s gospel which finishes at chapter 16 verse 8 ends with the women exiting in terror of the message that Jesus is not in the tomb but will meet his followers in Galilee. Matthew has an angel perched like a bird on the tombstone, giving the same message to women who do believe it. Luke mentions Galiliee only as the place where Jesus announced his death and resurrection. John mentions Mary Magdalene along with Peter and John as the first witnesses of the empty tomb and Mary alone as first witness of the risen Jesus. All the ingenuity of generations of scholars has failed to make these narratives into a coherent account.
5. If resurrection actually involves the reconstitution of the molecules of a corpse, what hope is there for those who molecules have long since become part of the earth and its creatures?
For these reasons and others, I do not believe that these accounts are factual. Does that mean I don’t believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus? Not at all. If we read Luke’s story as an apocalyptic story, that is, as recording an apocalypse or revelation of God to human beings, we can understand its truth.
Luke has asked his readers to follow Jesus on his way to the execution stake. What’s more natural than a desire to honour the dead prophet? So we can accompany the women at break of day, sharing in that traditional role of mourning. Perhaps we do not notice that it is the dawn of a new day, as our sadness makes us miss its promise. So we make our pilgrimage to the tomb, only to discover that the body is absent and that two radiant beings are present, terrifying us, and challenging us with the impossible question, “Why look for the living amongst the dead?” and the announcement, ” HE IS NOT HERE. HE HAS BEEN RAISED.” Luke is telling us as plainly as he can that nothing of Jesus will be found by investigating his tomb. The signage points in a different direction: He is not here; he has been raised. The passive verb is a polite way of referring to God; God has raised him. The one who is beyond all worlds has acted in a way which is incomprehensible to human beings, but we are reminded that the executed prophet had pointed towards this mystery.
The story of the empty tomb is meant to drive us away from the tomb towards God. This is emphasised in Kefa’s visit to the tomb which gives him nothing but confusion. Rene Magritte once painted a picture of pipe with the caption, “Ceci n’est pas un pipe” (This is not a pipe). Luke gives us a story about an empty tomb which in effect says, “This is NOT the resurrection.”
As Luke continues with his story, however, we will find that the absence of a dead body, is matched by the presence of the living body of Jesus, which guarantees that he is the same Jesus who was executed. Paul describes this as a “spiritual body” which is God’s inexplicable transformation of our physical body: “sown in decay it is raised imperishable.”