Tuesday, October 7, 2008

A Chronological Analysis of the Empty Tomb

The following is a conversation I had with a Christian on a message forum regarding differences in the four gospel accounts of Jesus' resurrection:

"There seems to be one consistency, the tomb was empty."

Tombs can be empty for many reasons. If you and I were walking together in a cemetery and we came upon a hole in the ground, would the first thing you conclude is that there is a corpse walking around nearby?

"Please if you are going to paraphrase the Bible you have to give the verse. How am I to verify what you are talking about? It's better to just quote what it says then to draw your own gist and retell it, is this not the reason why the Bible is (NT) already confusing? The fact that these stories were written on different eye witness' accounts after being retold then wrote down by someone else and how much they all have in common after this shows that it is more reliable, not less."

Okay, lets take a look:

Matthew 28
1After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb. 2There 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.

Mary watches an angel descend from heaven and roll away the stone. (Where is Jesus, by the way? Did he teleport out of the tomb beforehand?) What does John have to say?

John 20
1Early 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 rather than Mary arriving in front of a closed tomb, surviving an earthquake, and watching an angel roll away a tomb stone, John says she showed up after all the action was over. Luke confirms this:

Luke 24
1On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. 2They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.

Mark confirms it too:

Mark 16
4But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away.

So three writers have Mary arrive to find the tomb stone already rolled away, or one says she sees an angel come down from heaven, cause an earthquake, and roll the stone away as she's watching. Which scenario is more likely? Are the two different scenarios really that close enough to sweep under the rug of the "different narrators" explanation?

So what happens to Mary next?

Mark 16
5As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. 6"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. 7But go, tell his disciples and Peter, 'He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.' "

Mark says a single young man tells Mary that Jesus is risen, and orders her to tell the disciples that Jesus is waiting for them in Galilee.

Matthew 28
 5The angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. 6He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. 7Then 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."

Matthew promotes Mark's one young man into an angel but he gives Mary the same story.

Luke 24
4While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. 5In 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? 6He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: 7'The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.' " 8Then they remembered his words.

Luke turns Mark's one boy and Matthew's one angel into two men in lightning-bright clothes. They tell Mary that Jesus is risen, but there's no mention of any future meeting with him in Galilee. Reading the Luke narrative alone, one would not guess that Jesus will ever appear on stage again, but that he's ascended to heaven . But what does John say?

John 20
2So 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!"

Mary, having seen only a rolled-away stone, immediately bolts off the scene to find Peter. She doesn't have a conversation with any angel, or young boy, or two shining men. She forgets about the earthquake. She just tells Peter that Jesus' body has been stolen. This is a contradiction.

Matthew 28
8So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples.

This seems logical. Having been ordered by an angel to tell the disciples that Jesus is alive and will meet them later, Mary does exactly that. Mark, though, tells it differently:

Mark 16
8Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

Instead of "afraid yet filled with joy," they are just afraid, and more importantly, they don't tell anyone anything. They don't tell Peter, or any other disciples, or even the author of Mark, if his own words are to be believed. So how did this portion of Mark, the first gospel, ever get written? How does Mark know what the boy told the women if the women "said nothing to anyone"? 

Luke 24
9When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others...11But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense.

Looks like they should all be called Doubting Thomases. 

John 20
3So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. 4Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first.

Most scholars identify this unnamed disciple as John, so I will too. Having heard Mary's story that Jesus' body is missing, Peter and John run for the tomb, John getting there first. 

John 20
5He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. 6Then Simon Peter, who was behind him, arrived and went into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, 7as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus' head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen. 8Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. 9(They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.)

Peter and John see the empty tomb for themselves, but still haven't put two and two together. They now believe Mary's report that Jesus' body is missing, but, according to verse nine, they still don't think that Jesus is resurrected. Let's go back to Matthew:

Matthew 28
8So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9Suddenly Jesus met them. "Greetings," he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. 10Then Jesus said to them, "Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me."

Another contradiction. Forget the part from John about Mary telling Peter that she doesn't know where Jesus' body has been taken. And forget what Matthew's angel told them just two verses earlier, that Jesus will appear to them in Galilee sometime in the future. It turns out that Jesus was standing right behind them during the whole earthquake-and-stone-rolling incident. They clutch onto Jesus, and he updates what the angel said: NOW, go and tell the disciples, not that my body is missing, not that someone told you that I am risen and will meet you later, but that you know for yourselves that I'm risen, and will meet you later. Back to John:

John 20
10Then the disciples went back to their homes, 11but Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb 12and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus' body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. 13They 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."

So Mary, despite having been told (in Matthew's account) first by an angel that Jesus is risen, and then by Jesus himself that he is risen, is somehow still distraught that Jesus' body has been taken somewhere. Now she's approached by two angels this time. Apologists are quick to assure us that John's two angels and Matthew's one angel are the same angel, that one is a 'spokesperson' for the both. But they sure don't act like the same person, and she doesn't seem to remember what the 'one' angel told her or what Jesus himself told her. Plus, unlike every other gospel account, these two angels don't tell Mary anything: nothing about Jesus' resurrection, or where they'll see him again and when. Their sole function in John is to ask why she's crying. Also, these angels hang around for Mary to go tell the disciples and come back, but when Peter and John arrive, the angels aren't there. It's only after Peter and John leave that Mary sees the angels sitting in the same tomb that Peter and John had just inspected moments before. Is there a reason that only Mary can see these angels? What's more, where did Jesus go? If he was hanging around the tomb in Matthew's account, why didn't he wait for Peter and John to show up? Maybe he did:

John 20
4At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. 15"Woman," he said, "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." 16Jesus said to her, "Mary." She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, "Rabboni!" (which means Teacher). 17Jesus said, "Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, 'I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'" 18Mary 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.

So Jesus was standing behind them all this time, watching Peter and John poke around the tomb. Unlike what Matthew told us, Mary doesn't know who this person is, this Jesus that she loved so much. Again, she just wants to know where Jesus' body is, because she wants to get it and bring it back to be properly buried this time. When he says her name, she suddenly recognizes him. But instead of letting her touch him like she did in Matthew, Jesus orders her to keep her hands off. He tells her to go and tell the disciples NOT that they'll ever see Jesus again, in Galilee or anywhere else, but that Jesus is going to the Father. Which she does.

So let's sum up. Scholars universally agree that Mark was written first, so let's do the same. I'm also estimating the time of events to get a sense of the chronology. These times are total speculation, and I'm willing to hear reasonable counter-arguments. I assume that the women's home and the disciples hideout are each thirty minutes walk away from the tomb, but without knowing the exact location that's of course debatable. The order of events in Mark are:

1. Three women arrive at the tomb to find the stone already rolled away (Call it 6:00 AM)
2. They enter the tomb (6:02)
3. Inside, one young boy tells them that Jesus is risen (6:03)
4. He orders them to go tell the disciples and wait for Jesus to see them in Galilee (6:05)
5. The women disobey this order and go home, telling no one anything. (Home by 6:35)

Matthew next:
1. Two women arrive to find the tomb sealed up tight. (6:00 AM)
2. An earthquake happens (6:05)
3. One angel descends, rolls away the stone, and sits on it, not inside the tomb itself. (6:10)
4. The guards (not appearing in any other account) faint dead away (6:10)
5. The angel tells them Jesus is risen, and invites them to inspect the now-opened tomb. (6:11)
6. The angel orders them to inform the disciples that Jesus will see them in Galilee (6:15)
7. The women run to tell the disciples (6:16)
8. Jesus stops them and lets them worship him (6:20)
9. Jesus orders them to tell the disciples he'll see them later in Galilee (6:25)
10. The women happily tell the disciples what they saw. They must believe them because no one checks out their story. (6:55)
11. Later that day or perhaps some other day, the disciples go to Galilee and wait for Jesus to appear.

Now Luke:
1. An unknown number of women arrive at the tomb to find the stone already rolled away (6:00 AM)
2. They enter the tomb to investigate (6:02)
3. Two men suddenly appear beside them (6:04)
4. They tell the women that Jesus is risen (6:05)
5. The women go tell the disciples what they saw (6:35)
6. The disciples don't believe them (6:40)
7. Peter goes by himself and checks out their story (7:10)
8. Peter goes back "wondering what happened" (7:45)

And finally, John:
1. Mary Magdalene alone goes to the tomb and finds the stone rolled away (6:00 AM)
2. Mary goes back to find Peter and tells him Jesus' body is missing (6:30 AM)
3. Peter, John run to see for themselves, with Mary coming along behind (6:45 --only 15 minutes travel to reflect they ran instead of walked)
4. John peers into the tomb (6:46)
5. Peter goes into the tomb itself and inspects the grave clothes (6:48)
6. John next goes in the tomb and looks for himself (6:52)
7. John also believes that Jesus' body is missing (6:53)
8. The disciples leave, but Mary stays behind to cry (6:55)
9. Mary peers into the tomb and sees two angels inside (6:56)
10. They ask her why she's crying (6:57)
11. She tells them she doesn't know where Jesus' body is. (6:58)
12. She turns around and sees "the gardener" (6:59)
13. He asks her why she's crying and who she's looking for (7:00)
14. She tells him she just wants to know where Jesus' body is so it can be buried again. (7:01)
15. He says her name, and she realizes its Jesus (7:02)
16. He tells her not to touch him, but to tell the disciples that Jesus is going to Heaven now. (7:03)
17. Mary has no problem leaving her beloved behind and goes and tells the disciples what she saw (7:35)

I'm sorry, but this really doesn't appear to be a case of different narrators telling the identical story with slight coloring and variations. These are four different stories, plain and simple, and only in Christian apologetics is it declared that when four people can't get their stories straight that somehow strengthens their case. We can quibble over my time estimates if you want--maybe they spent more time in conversation with Jesus, maybe it was only a five-minute walk to the tomb, etc. But to this skeptic, something about these narratives just doesn't add up.

After that, the person whom I was conversing replied:

"From a historical point of view, not a Christian, there only being one hour difference in all four stories is remarkable....I will not dispute your time lines, they seem okay. I am not perplexed by this. It was 2000 years ago, one hour no biggy. Quite amazing if you asked me."

This short reply suggested that the gospel accounts are not a record of a fixed historical event, but more like an expensive clock, that after 2000 years has only lost an hour.

I welcome any comments if my time estimates seem unreasonable.

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