The Christian Defenders’ 5 Reasons: The Criterion of Embarassment

For other posts in this series, please visit the series’ page.

 The Christian Defenders’ second reason for believing that the Bible is true is that the Bible contains “embarrassing details.” They begin,

If I were to create a religious book I would make sure its theology, details, and people were flawless. I wouldn’t leave questions unanswered that should be addressed. But this is not what we see in the Bible. In fact, no man in the ancient world would want to admit to certain details in the Bible, especially if it made men look weaker.[1]

What they are attempting to get at is what is commonly referred to as the “criterion of embarrassment,” one of the criteria of historicity used in studies of the Gospels and their relationship to the historical Jesus. The standard criteria include:

  • Criterion of independent attestation: “[I]f a saying or deed of Jesus is attested independently by more than one source, it is more likely to be authentic.”[2]
  • Criterion of dissimilarity: [I]f a saying or deed of Jesus does not coincide with (or works against) the agenda of early Christians, it is more likely to be authentic.”[3]
  • Criterion of contextual credibility: “[I]f a saying or deed of Jesus cannot be credibly fit into his own first-century Palestinian context, then it cannot be regarded as authentic.”[4]

The criterion of embarrassment is in some sense a subset of the criterion of dissimilarity in that it “focuses on actions or sayings of Jesus that would have embarrassed or created difficulty for the early Church”[5] and thus would have worked against their agenda. One classic example of the criterion in action is in analyses of the story of Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan. The Gospel of Matthew records John as telling Jesus, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Matthew 3:14) This question from John to Jesus is missing from Matthew’s source, the Gospel of Mark (Mark 1:9-11). Why would Matthew insert it? Because the one being baptized was usually considered to be inferior to the one doing the baptizing. But how could that be? Jesus was the Messiah and clearly superior to John! Mark’s account, therefore, was to be amended and so in the Gospel of Matthew we find a modification to explain away what seems problematic in the Gospel of Mark.[6] What this means in practical terms is that the story of Jesus’ baptism is probably rooted in a historical event.[7]

Yet this criterion is not in and of itself strong enough to determine the authenticity of a saying or action of Jesus. It “has its limitations and must always be used in concert with other criteria.”[8] One of its limitations is that it isn’t always clear what would have been considered embarrassing to the earliest Christians. There’s a lot we don’t know about them and so determining what would have been “embarrassing” or “worked against” their agenda is difficult to determine.[9] As Meier cautions, “The…criterion of embarrassment – like any other criterion – must not be invoked facilely or in isolation.”[10]

Facilely and in isolation is unfortunately how pop-apologists often employ the criterion. For example, SJ Thomason in a recent post on the existence of Moses wrote,

The character of Moses meets the criterion of embarrassment. If authors of the Bible were trying to dupe their audiences with grand stories and majestic claims of Divine inspiration, including weak “heroes” with multiple flaws would seem absurd. Yet just about every character in the Bible is weak in some way.[11]

This is truly a perplexing series of sentences and I have no plans of offering a full analysis here. What it shows is that Thomason not only doesn’t understand the criterion’s proper use, she also renders it absolutely devoid of value for in employing it to explain everything she in effect explains nothing. But this is a common tactic of pop-apologists and one that demonstrates their utter lack of credibility.

The Criterion and the Empty Tomb

The Christian Defenders apply the criterion of embarrassment to the stories of the discovery of the empty tomb in the Gospel accounts. They write,

We see examples of this in the gospels when women went to Jesus’ tomb and found it empty, (Matthew 28:1-10, John 20:1-18, Luke 24:1-12, and Mark 16:1-8). Such a major discovery (if fabricated) would include men making this discovery due to the fact that, in Jewish culture a woman needed 2 witness’ to validate her testimony.

The argument then is that had the Gospel writers wanted to make the story more palatable they would have had men discovering the empty tomb and not women. The story’s authenticity is secured by virtue of the fact that it wasn’t men but women who made the discovery.[12] Superficially this argument makes sense, but it is when you begin digging into the details that it falls apart.

THE GOSPEL OF MARK AND THE EMPTY TOMB

Strictly speaking, none of the four canonical Gospels contain a resurrection narrative but rather feature “a demonstration that Jesus has risen.”[13] For these authors, the empty tomb is the first evidence that Jesus is alive and it is therefore pivotal to the ensuing narrative both rhetorically and historically. For if there was no empty tomb and Jesus had remained dead then, as the apostle Paul makes plain, “your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:17). Setting aside the question of whether the apostle Paul was aware of an empty tomb,[14] a tradition concerning it and its discovery as it relates to the resurrection of Jesus developed at some point in the earliest days of Christianity. The earliest account of the empty tomb and its discovery is found in the Gospel of Mark (16:1-8) and it is upon this version that both the Matthean and Lukan authors base their own.[15]

The Empty Tomb Narrative of Mark (16:1-8)

1When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2 And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3 They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” 4 When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” 8 So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.[16]

Before we dive into the text, it would do us well to consider what has transpired to get us to this story in the final chapter of Mark’s Gospel. On a Friday following Passover Jesus dies, the victim of Roman crucifixion at the instigation of Jewish authorities (Mark 14:53-65; 15:1-15). Of all the things we can say positively concerning the historical Jesus, this is the most secure.[17] The portrait of Jesus’ death is that the would-be messiah has been abandoned by those closest to him. The disciples all had fled (Mark 14:50-51; cf. 14:27) and the only ones nearby were those who intended to mock and deride him (Mark 15:25-32; 15:35-36). In the midst of his pain and feelings of abandonment, Jesus utters a cry of dereliction: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34) Even God himself, Jesus believes, has left him.[18]

As he is dying there are women who were “looking on from a distance” (Mark 15:40). The text suggests there were many women present (Mark 15:41) but singles out three: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and Joses, and Salome (Mark 15:40). With the possible exception of Mary the mother of James and Joses, these women have never appeared in the Gospel of Mark before this moment,[19] despite the Markan comment that they “used to follow [Jesus] and provided for him when he was in Galilee” (Mark 15:41). Yet as we will see, their presence in the story that follows is vital.

640px-Accademia_-_Crucifixion_by_Andrea_Previtali
Italian painter Andrea Previtali’s (1480-1528) depiction of the crucifixion. This depiction is more in line with the Johannine account of Jesus’ death in John 19. (Wikimedia Commons.)

Following Jesus’ death, a “respect member of the council [i.e. the Sanhedrin]” (Mark 15:42) by the name of Joseph of Arimathea goes “boldly to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus” (Mark 15:43). Joseph too is a character never before mentioned by Mark and as a member of the council would have participated in the trial of Jesus before the high priest (cf. Mark 14:53-65). But we are told that Joseph “was also himself waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God” (Mark 15:43), a way of saying he was awaiting the coming of the messiah. Normally family members or followers would be among those to request the body[20] but in Mark’s Gospel Jesus is seemingly estranged from his family[21] and all of his disciples have fled. It is therefore up to someone who has no familial relationship to Jesus and is certainly not a disciple to request the body for burial. His presence in the narrative as a sympathizer is similar to that of other Markan characters in the Passion narrative who function as a sharp contrast to his disciples.[22]

Upon hearing Joseph’s request “Pilate wondered if [Jesus] were already dead” and so he asks the centurion to confirm that Jesus is deceased (Mark 15:44; cf. Mark 15:39). The centurion confirms it and gives permission to Joseph to take the body for burial (Mark 15:45). Why does Mark include the back and forth between Pilate and the centurion over whether Jesus was dead? It perhaps has something to do with the claims of opponents that Jesus had not been resurrected because he was never dead. But Mark makes it clear that before Pilate released the body of Jesus to Joseph he made sure that Jesus was dead.[23] Jesus has not escaped Roman justice.

Having procured the body of Jesus, Joseph purchases a linen cloth, takes Jesus’ body down from the cross, wraps it in the cloth, lays the corpse “in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock,” and rolls a stone in front of the entrance. (Mark 15:46). That someone who had no prior relationship to Jesus and was inclined to declare him guilty of the crime of blasphemy was now willing to go through this much trouble to offer Jesus a proper burial would have no doubt surprised Mark’s readers. But again, the role Joseph plays in the Markan narrative is one who is to be contrasted with Jesus’ disciples. The lesson for the Markan audience is clear: they should behave more like Joseph, one who was merely a sympathizer, than like the Twelve who had abandoned Jesus entirely.[24]

As Jesus is buried and the stone is rolled in front of the tomb’s door, two of the women mentioned in Mark 15:40 observe “where the body was laid” (Mark 15:47). That last clause seems like a throwaway line, but its importance cannot be understated. What Mark is saying is that in the narrative of 16:1-8 the women did not go to the wrong tomb as some had claimed because they knew precisely where Jesus had been buried. Therefore, the clause serves an apologetic purpose.[25]

Having considered its context, let us look at the text of Mark 16:1-8 in brief detail.

16:1

  • “When the sabbath was over…”

Recall that in the Markan narrative Jesus has been killed on a Friday and had been buried that evening on “the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the sabbath” (Mark 15:42). Consequently, Jesus’ body had not been properly anointed.

  • “…Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome…

These are the three women mentioned in Mark 15:40, two of which were present for Jesus’ burial (Mark 15:47).

  • “…brought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.”

“Spices” are aromata and refers to spices, oils, and salves that are often used in the context of burial rites.[26] That it is women who have come to perform this duty is unsurprising as “Jewish women played a central role in preparing corpses for burial.”[27] The purpose of the anointing is two-fold: to pay respect to the dead and to keep the corpse from offending the nostrils.[28] On a literary level, the need to anoint Jesus is the pretense upon which the women go to the tomb and find it empty. Without it, there is no reason for the women to be there.

16:2

  • “And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb.”

The first day of the week would be Sunday and the women get up “very early…when the sun had risen”[29] to go to Jesus’ tomb to perform their duty.

16:3

  • “They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’”

Because it was “very early” on Sunday and because apart from Joseph of Arimathea these women were the only ones who knew the location of the tomb, there is a concern[30] that no one will be present on site to remove the stone that had been placed in front of it. On the surface this question is somewhat perplexing. Surely if Joseph had been able to roll the stone in front of the tomb’s entrance the Friday before (Mark 15:46)[31] then the women could roll it back. In reality, the women’s question functions as a literary device foreshadowing what is about to transpire and subsequently highlight their utter lack of any expectation to find what they found.

16:4

  • “When they looked up…”

Mark employs a participial form of anablepō, “I look up.” Elsewhere in Mark the verb is used with regards to those whose eyesight has been restored (Mark 8:24; 10:51-52). Mary Ann Beavis writes that “the women see that the stone has been rolled away, presumably through divine agency.”[32]

  • “…they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back.”

With the stone rolled back the women’s concern is addressed though their question is not. Who has rolled the stone back? The Markan author inserts that the stone was one that was “very large [megas sphodra]” and so whoever rolled it back must have had the power to do so. But who?

16:5

  • “As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side…”

Now the question of Mark 16:3 is answered. Or is it? While it is true that they find within the tomb a “young man [neaniskon], this does not mean that he is the one who has rolled the stone away. The women stumble upon the scene to an already opened tomb and therefore do not witness who has removed the stone from the door.[33]

  • “…and they were alarmed.”

Regardless of who removed the stone, they are certainly surprised by the presence of the young man, who is sitting inside the tomb on the right side in a white robe.[34] Mark employs the word exethambēthēsan to express their astonishment. Of all the Gospel writers – indeed, of all the New Testament writers – Mark is the only one to use the verb ekthambeomai and he does so in contexts where it expresses both amazement (Mark 9:15) and emotional distress (Mark 14:33). But given that the women had expected to find the body of their deceased master and not a mysterious stranger, it is likely the latter that is intended by Mark. Who was he? Had he stolen the corpse? What has happened to Jesus?

16:6

  • “But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed…”

Picking up on the emotional reaction of the women, the young man issues a negative command using the same verb in Mark 16:5: Mē ekthambeisthe – “Do not be alarmed [or distressed].” What he tells them next is intended to allay their fears.

  • “…you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him.’”

The young man knows that they have come to anoint Jesus, the one “who was crucified.” But as he makes plain, Jesus was not present but rather “has been raised [egerthēnai].” These words both allude to Jesus’ words in Mark 14:28a (“But after I am raised up [ēgerthē]”) and demonstrate through the use of the passive voice that it was God who raised Jesus from the dead.”[35] As proof for this unexpected miracle, the young man invites the women to see “the place they laid him.” The implication is that because Jesus’ body is no longer in the tomb that he must be alive. But how could this possibly demonstrate resurrection? The mere absence of the body does not mean that Jesus is alive. The recognition of this fact is implied by the command of Mark 16:7.[36]

16:7

  • “’But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’”

Without direct interaction with Jesus there would be no way of knowing whether his corpse was stolen or if he had truly been resurrected. The appearance of Jesus to those who had followed him would constitute confirmation that the unexpected had happened. Or, at least, what was unexpected to Jesus’ disciples.

That Peter is singled out is a subject we will consider shortly. (See “Mark 16:1-8 and Paul” below). One question that must be asked is what the young man means when he tells the women that “he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” Each “you” is plural and could in theory include the women. But I find such a reading doubtful. The word “that” is hoti[37] and is often used in Mark the way we use quotation marks at the beginning of a quote, i.e. for direct discourse. So this could simply read, “But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’”[38] In this case, the women are not part of the group to whom Jesus will appear in Galilee. Supporting this view is the addendum to the command: “just as he told you.” This is a reference to the words of Jesus Mark 14:28: “But after I am raised up [cf. Mark 16:6] I will go before you to Galilee.” Both Jesus and the young man use the same verb – proagō. In Mark 14:28 the verb used was future tense, anticipating the resurrection. Here it is in the present tense since Jesus had been raised and was on his way to Galilee to make an appearance to the disciples. Since the women were not present for Jesus words in Mark 14:28, they are not included in the appearance alluded to in Mark 16:7.

The appearance of Jesus to the disciples isn’t just for show. In the Markan narrative, the disciples have acted terribly toward Jesus: they all abandoned him (Mark 14:50) and Peter thrice denied he knew him (Mark 14:66-72). The Markan audience would have likely understood the appearances to be a sign that the disciples had been forgiven and that Jesus desired communion with them once again.

The disciples’ cowardice has been forgiven. Even Peter is to be included, despite his having proven to be too rocky to bear fruit, too eager to save his life, too ready to deny his identity as a follower of Jesus, too ashamed of Jesus and his words and therefore one of the adulterous and sinful generation of whom the Son of Man should be ashamed on the day of judgment. The news this Gospel has to tell is much better than Jesus’ initial statement that “the reign of God is at hand.” The truly astonishing, amazing good news is, “even Peter.” Even Peter is to be included in the story about to begin anew in Galilee, the place of service and witness.[39]

The women were to bear this message of reconciliation to the disciples.

16:8

  • “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them…”

The NRSV renders the Greek conjunction kai as “so” but this translation is too suggestive. Normally the word “so” is used to indicate a causal connection, akin to the word “therefore.” But Mark uses the word kai as a means to move the narrative along and perhaps here it should be rendered simply as “then,” i.e. “Then they went out….”

Mark describes their departure from the scene with an aorist form of pheugō. Its usage here is no doubt intended to remind the reader of the actions of the disciples in Mark 14:50 – “All of them deserted him and fled [ephygon].” That is, the women have the same response to the young man that the disciples had to Jesus. The reason the disciples had fled is because the shepherd was being smote (cf. Mark 14:43-50; cf. 14:27); the reason the women have fled is expressed in a gar clause: “for [gar] terror [tromos] and amazement [ekstasi] had seized them.” While this reaction is consistent with theophanies,[40] what follows next is quite perplexing.

  • “…and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Given all we’ve learned about the women – their remaining to witness the crucifixion when others had deserted, their watching the burial of Jesus, their faithful visit to anoint his body – gives us the impression that they will do exactly as the young man commands: they will go and they will tell the disciples the hopeful message. But Mark emphasizes that they don’t do any such thing: the women “said nothing to anyone [oudeni ouden eipan].” And why didn’t they? The gar-clause explains it: “for [gar] they were afraid [ephobounto].” This response, rooted in fear, is another indication that the women have become like the disciples who had also responded in fear (cf. Mark 6:50). Fear is faith’s opposite (cf. Mark 4:40) and the women are acting without any faith at all.

A Fitting Ending

This is how Mark’s Gospel ends.[41] In some ways, it doesn’t seem quite right. After all, the Markan community knew about Jesus’ resurrection so the women must have said something to someone, right? How does this ending fit in with the Markan narrative overall?

First, in the narrative of structure of Mark there is a particular symmetry such that the opening narrative (Mark 1:2-9) and the closing narrative (16:1-8) function as bookends.

  • In both narratives there is a messenger: John the Baptist in the opening and the young man in the closing.[42]
  • In both narratives clothing sets apart the messenger: John wears clothing made from camel’s hair and has a leather belt (1:6) and the young man is clothed in a white robe (16:5).[43]
  • In both narratives the messenger makes an announcement concerning Jesus: John the Baptist declares Jesus will “baptize…with the Holy Spirit” (1:8)[44] and the young man declares Jesus has risen (16:6).[45]
  • In both narratives Jesus is stated to be from Nazareth (1:9; 16:6).
  • In both narratives Galilee plays a role in Jesus’ actions: he “came from Nazareth of Galilee” (1:8) and “he is going…to Galilee” (16:7).[46]

This structuring seems intentional.

Second, the account plays on many Markan motifs and themes that readers of Mark have no doubt encountered. For example, Timothy Dwyer has written extensively on the “wonder motif” and observes that the silence of the women in Mark 16:8 “is a function of the wonder, subordinate to it, and not the main feature of the narrative.”[47] He offers a number of examples found in the Gospel which illuminate not only how the motif has already been at work in the Gospel but can also “help one understand 16:8.”[48]

  • In 6:45-52 the disciples initially respond in fear to the sight of Jesus walking on the sea because “they thought it was a ghost” (6:49) and they “were terrified [etarachthēsan]” (6:50). However, Jesus tells them to “not be afraid [mē phobeisthe]” (6:50) and when he gets into the boat with them, the wind ceases and they become “utterly astounded” (6:51).[49] Here “there is an initial fear at the sight of the ‘phantom,’ which is comforted, and then a greater awe follows.”[50]
  • In 4:35-41 the disciples respond in fear to the storm that threatens to capsize them: “He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid [Ti deiloi este]?” (4:40) Their response to Jesus’ ability to calm the stormy sea is one of wonder: “And they were filled with great awe” (4:41).[51]
  • In 5:35-43 Jairus is told his daughter has died and becomes fearful: “Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, ‘Do not fear [Mē phobou], only believe” (5:36). Fear gives way to “amazement [ekstásei megálēi]” (5:42) when Jesus resuscitates the deceased child.

Dwyer observes that

16.1-8 follows the same pattern. There is a reaction at the ‘young man’ (vv. 5-6) which is soon comforted [i.e. 16:6]. After the message of the resurrection, a greater and more lasting wonder follows. The sight of the ‘young man’ causes astonishment, but this is not what the women should be astonished about. When they are told that God has intervened and raised Jesus from the dead and that Jesus will appear in Galilee, they are struck with a greater wonder. This is more lasting, and fully appropriate.[52]

Not only is there the motif of wonder, but the Gospel of Mark revolves around two important themes: the importance of discipleship and the identity of Jesus. These two themes are intertwined in narratives that highlight both.

For example, in Mark 4:35-41 we observe the disciples are afraid that the storm and sea will capsize the ship and drown them all and so they wake up Jesus and ask him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (Mark 4:38) The actions of the disciples in waking up Jesus and asking this question suggests they think he can do something about their circumstances. And yet when Jesus calms the sea they not only respond with awe but they then ask, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:41). They have failed to grasp what was before them. This theme of the disciples’ misunderstanding is prominent in the Gospel of Mark.

  • In 6:50-52 the disciples react in fear at the sight of Jesus walking on water and the reason they were “utterly astounded” (6:51) was because “they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened” (6:52).
  • In 7:17-23 the disciples ask Jesus about “the parable” (i.e. 7:14-16) to which he replies, “Then do you also fail to understand?” (7:18)
  • In 8:14-21 the disciples misunderstand Jesus’ reference to “the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod” (8:15) which results in Jesus asking them, “Do you not yet understand?” (8:21)

Why emphasize the disciples’ misunderstanding this way? Because how one responds to Jesus and his message is important to Mark. His Gospel is as much about Jesus as it is about those who followed him and are following him, i.e. the Markan audience. The response of the disciples is a sign that even those who had walked and talked with Jesus failed miserably; sometimes expectations were not met.[53] For his paradigm Mark had to look no further than the Hebrew scriptures wherein “God’s love is met by infidelity and failure, but only to be renewed by God.”[54] 

 Mark has intended for his readers to identify not only with the Twelve but also with the women. Yet his portrait of them is as complicated as it is brief. As we’ve already discussed, they are initially painted in a positive light, being among the few who remain with Jesus to the end and beyond. But they do not grasp fully the message of the young man and they fail to convey his message to the disciples. As Joel Williams observes, there is a juxtaposition of promise and failure.[55]

Consequently, Mark’s ending serves as an encouragement to the reader. Yet Mark’s ending is not only an offer of hope, but is also a warning. Mark moves the reader to identify with the women as the tomb, and then he creates a distance between the reader and the women because of their disobedience. In moving away from an identification with the women, the reader must acknowledge that failure, fear and disobedience are all still possible in the period between the resurrection and the parousia.[56]

In some sense, Mark is inviting his audience to consider what they will do with the message of the young man. Will they respond in fear, saying “nothing to anyone,” or in faith?

Mark 16:1-8 and Paul

At this point we must return to the question of the criterion of embarrassment. Specifically, we must address how this story came into being and whether it is rooted in history or legend. Recall that the argument put forward by the Christian Defenders is that the story is unlikely to be a fabrication because the testimony of women was of so little value in antiquity no one would believe it. A fabricated story would have men discover the empty tomb, not women.

365px-Bacchiacca_-_Maria_Maddalena_(Palazzo_Pitti)
A painting of Mary Magdalene holding a container of myrhh by Bachiacca, an Italian painter of the sixteenth century (Wikimedia Commons).

From the standpoint of the narrative, the women are not the first to discover that the tomb is empty. That honor belongs to the young man (Mark 16:5). But setting that aside, even if the women were the first eyewitnesses to the tomb, they are not eyewitnesses to the resurrection. Mark 16:1-8 is not a resurrection narrative. Jesus does not make an appearance in the closing narrative of Mark’s Gospel and thus his presence is only alluded to in the command of Mark 16:7. The fact of the resurrection is contingent not upon the empty tomb so much as it is upon the appearance of Jesus “the disciples and Peter.” While the empty tomb plays a central role in the narrative as the first evidence of resurrection, it does not function as the most important evidence of resurrection.

The essence of the Markan Passion narrative and the account of the empty tomb is this: Jesus died, he was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day. Implied in Mark 16:7 is that he appeared to “the disciples and Peter.” This tradition is no doubt one of the oldest in Christianity as it is also echoed in the words of the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8. There he says that Jesus died (15:3), was buried, and was raised from the dead on the third day (15:4). Paul also mentions that Jesus “appeared to Cephas [i.e. Peter], then to the Twelve” (15:5) as well as to a host of others (15:6-7) including Paul himself (15:8). So what Mark has done it seems is constructed a more “fully developed Passion narrative” based upon this tradition about which Paul also knew.[57] Does this mean, then, that Mark and his audience would have thought of the Gospel as fiction?

Far from “fictionalizing” the narrative, however, the goal of the author was to bring it to life for the audience. They assumed that the story was “true” in its basics, but giving it a narrative quality required texture and detail that the older tradition [i.e. 1 Corinthians 15:3-8] simply did not provide. The interaction of the author and audience – storyteller and hearers – was a driving mechanism in composing the story.[58]

But why women? Why not men? After all, in the tradition Jesus first appeared to men and not to women. The reason for this can be accounted for in yet another Markan motif: the reversal of expectations.[59] As we observed previously, Mark wasn’t simply writing a Gospel as an academic exercise in historiography. He wasn’t some impassioned investigator who intended to just relay the facts. Mark’s Gospel is a deliberate crafting of the story of Jesus for a particular audience. Therefore, the women aren’t necessarily included in the story because of a tradition stating they were there but because female followers in the Gospel of Mark “supplement and complement the Markan portrayal of the disciples, together forming, as it were, a composite portrait of the fallible followers of Jesus.”[60] Could he have made the female characters male instead? Certainly, but the Markan Gospel is all about the reversal of expectations because the reign of God is about such a reversal: “[M]any who are first will be last, and the last will be first” (10:31).

From the first-century Jewish and Jewish-Christian point of view, one could hardly be more of an outsider to the central drama of religious faith and practice than a Roman centurion – or a woman! But the reversal of outsiders and insiders is basic to the good news of Jesus according to the good news of Mark….

I find Mark’s Gospel permeated (narratively) by the reversal of expectations – historically conditioned expectations. It would seem that the historical reality of women’s lower status and the historical reality of women’s discipleship together support in Mark’s Gospel the surprising narrative reality of women characters who exemplify the demands of followership. How do the women characters shed light on what it means to follow Jesus? By following and ministering, by bold and active faith and self-denying service. Why are women characters especially appropriate for the role of illuminating followership? Perhaps because, in the community of the author, women were in a position to bear most poignantly the message that among the followers the “first will be last, and the last first.”[61]

Thus in Mark 16:1-8 it is the women who are on the scene when men, especially the disciples, should have been. In constructing his narrative this way, Mark lauds female followers of Jesus both in the narrative and in his community. And yet as we have seen, their women’s failure to follow the command of the young man demonstrates that they are fallible and serves as a warning to the Markan community.

What then do we make of the criterion of embarrassment as it relates to Mark 16:1-8? Well, the criterion simply has no bearing upon it. The story is first and foremost a literary creation, crafted in language, motifs, and themes that are thoroughly Markan. Furthermore, His work was intended for an audience of those who were already followers of Jesus. It is doubtful that he had evangelistic purposes in mind when composing it.[62] The community was composed of both male and female followers and so the addition of female followers who have such promise but fall into such peril serves as a reminder of the pitfalls of failing to obey the gospel.

How can the criterion of embarrassment have any bearing on this?

THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW AND THE EMPTY TOMB

The earliest interpreter of the Gospel of Mark was the author of the Gospel of Matthew.[63] The account of the empty tomb in Mark 16:1-8 serves as a paradigm for Matthew 28:1-10 though with significant modifications that serve Matthean motifs as well as expansions to shore up what was apparently lacking in the Markan account. As I did with regards to Mark 16:1-8, I will offer a brief examination of the context in which the Matthean account is found, beginning with the women observing from a distance in Matthew 27:55-56.

The Women Observing from a Distance

Matthew 27:55-56

Mark 15:40-41

55 Many women were also there, looking on from a distance; they had followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him.

56 Among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.

40 There were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome.

41 These used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem.

It is apparent at first glance that the two accounts are virtually identical: not only are many of the details the same but in their essence they are congruent with one another. However, there are particulars that stand out and should be considered.

27:55

  • “Many women were also there, looking on from a distance…”

Matthew has taken the “many other women” of Mark 15:41 and moved it up to the beginning of this section in the Passion narrative. He has also described the women as “looking on from a distance” using the exact same language in Mark 15:40.

  • “…they had followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him.”

As in Mark 15:41, these women are all that is left of Jesus’ followers that had come from Galilee. Matthew omits the line from Mark 15:41 that they had “come up with him to Jerusalem” as the narrative already makes clear that they had followed Jesus to Jerusalem. In Galilee these women had “provided for him,” language that is identical.

27:56

  • “Among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.”

As in Mark 15:40, three women stand out as being among those who had followed Jesus and were observing the crucifixion at a distance. However, Matthew has made some changes.

First, in the Gospel of Mark the second Mary was “the mother of James the younger and of Joses.” Unless this is the mother of Jesus[64] then it is a character that has never before appeared in the Markan narrative. In Matthew’s redaction of Mark he has changed it so that James is simply “James,” not “James the younger.” He has also changed Mark’s “Joses” to “Joseph.” The only other James and Joseph who are associated as siblings are the children of Mary and therefore siblings of Jesus (Matthew 13:55). Given other changes Matthew has made to the Markan narrative concerning Jesus and his family,[65] it is very possible that this Mary is also the mother of Jesus. However, it seems odd that he not only does he not come out and say this is his mother but also that she appears second in the list of women.

Second, in the Gospel of Mark the third woman was Salome but here in Matthew it is “the mother of the sons of Zebedee.” Zebedee was the father of James and John, two fishermen who had been called to follow Jesus (Matthew 4:21). As a character in the Gospel of Matthew, she makes an appearance in Matthew 20:20-23 where she requests that Jesus allows her sons to sit on his right and left hand in his kingdom (20:21).[66] Given the words of Matthew 27:55, she has been a follower of Jesus along with her sons from perhaps the start of his ministry.[67] So either Matthew has understood the Markan “Salome” to be the name of the “mother of the sons of Zebedee” or he has found Mark to be in error by including Salome.[68]

Jesus’ Burial

Matthew 27:57-61

Mark 15:42-47

57 When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus. 58 He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. 59 So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth 60 and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock. He then rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away. 61 Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.  42 When evening had come, and since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the sabbath, 43 Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. 44 Then Pilate wondered if he were already dead; and summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he had been dead for some time. 45 When he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the body to Joseph. 46 Then Joseph bought a linen cloth, and taking down the body, wrapped it in the linen cloth, and laid it in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock. He then rolled a stone against the door of the tomb. 47 Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where the body was laid.

Again, Matthew has clearly followed the sequence of events in the Gospel of Mark but continues to make specific modifications that play into how he tells the story of Jesus.

27:57

  • “When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus.”

Matthew has streamlined the Markan wording found in Mark 15:42 – “When evening had come, and since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the sabbath” – into simply “[w]hen evening had come.” The reason for this is plain to anyone who has read the Gospels of Mark and Matthew. Throughout the Gospel of Mark we find explanations for Jewish customs that reveal his intended audience, though Christian, was likely made up of many Gentiles for whom these customs were foreign.[69] Generally speaking, Matthew has no need to do so since his audience was perhaps almost entirely Jewish and for whom the Markan explanations were unnecessary. Here the Matthean audience would have understood that since Jesus was crucified on a Friday that it was naturally the day before the sabbath and therefore the day of Preparation for it.

With regard to Joseph of Arimathea, it is clear that Matthew has deliberately changed the Markan Joseph so that he appears in a better light. In Mark 15:43, Joseph was described as a “respected member of the council” and therefore among those who had called for Jesus’ death (Mark 14:55; 14:64), a scene that also appears in Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 26:59; 26:66). Matthew has deliberately omitted that detail for two possible reasons. First, there may be an allusion to Isaiah 53:9 – “They made his…tomb with the rich.”[70] Second, Craig Keener explains that

[g]iven early Christian experiences with and feelings toward the Sanhedrin, the invention of a Sanhedrist acting piously toward Jesus (Mark 15:43) is not likely.[71]

Matthew has also altered the rather generic phrasing found in Mark that Joseph “was also himself waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God” into the more specific wording of discipleship.[72] Joseph is no outsider and he is not a mere sympathizer. He is instead a follower of Jesus, one who belongs to the Christian community. His behavior toward Jesus in seeking out his corpse makes perfect sense (cf. Matthew 14:12).

27:58

  • “He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus…”

In the Markan narrative, Joseph is said to have gone to Pilate “boldly [tolmēsas]” (Mark 15:43). Why “boldly”? It may have to do with the different portrayals of Pilate in the Markan and Matthean narratives.

In Mark’s Gospel, Pilate goes along with the condemnation of Jesus with only mild reservations. He is “amazed” at Jesus’ silence at accusations put forward by the chief priests (Mark 15:4-5) and seems to be taken back by the cry of crucifixion that comes from the crowd (Mark 15:14). Yet Pilate’s reservations about Jesus’ guilt are set aside since he would rather “satisfy the crowd” (Mark 15:15) than let Jesus go. Instead, at the urging of the crowd, Pilate releases Barabbas, one who “with the rebels…had committed murder during the insurrection” (Mark 15:7). Following this, Pilate sends Jesus away to be flogged and crucified (Mark 15:15). Mark tells us that Jesus was crucified between two “bandits,” a word that translates the Greek term lēstas (from lēstēs). At its most basic meaning, lēstēs refers to robbers and brigands and in Roman society they “fell within the scope of the lex Cornelia de sicariis et veneficiis…and later were condemned to be killed by beasts or crucified.”[73] Lēstai are described as ruthless, pictured as beasts and warmongers, causing people to live in fear for their lives.[74] But in Josephus, whose writing appeared in the decades following the writing of the Gospel of Mark, the term lēstēs becomes “almost…a technical term for Jewish freedom fighters under the Roman empire.”[75] For example, we read in The Jewish War,

The impostors and brigands [lēstikoi], banding together, incited numbers to revolt, exhorting them to assert their independence, and threatening to kill any who submitted to Roman domination and forcibly to suppress those who voluntarily accepted servitude. Distributing themselves in companies throughout the country, they looted the houses of the wealthy, murdered their owners, and set the villages on fire. The effects of their frenzy were thus felt throughout all Judaea, and every day saw this war being fanned into fiercer flame (The Jewish War, 2.264-265).[76]

But are freedom fighters – veritable insurrectionists – what Mark intends here? France writes that

there is nothing in Mark or, indeed, in any of the gospels to associate these two [lēstai] explicitly with Barabbas or any other nationalist movement. But the coincidence that at the time of Jesus’ arrest some men were in fact awaiting execution as insurrectionists, that one of their number was released instead of Jesus, and that Jesus’ alleged crime was political treason is enough to convince most interpreters that these were [lēstai] in Josephus’ sense, and thus that the [basileus tōn Ioudaiōn] was appropriately placed between two other ‘revolutionaries’ from whom, in Roman eyes, he could be distinguished only in that his claim as [basileus] was more audacious than theirs – hence his place in the middle of the group.[77]

So if Mark indeed intends to portray Jesus as an insurrection crucified among insurrectionists then we now have a tenable explanation as to why Joseph goes “boldly” to Pilate to request Jesus’ body for burial: he risked being associated with Jesus’ alleged crime. And as a member of the Sanhedrin, such an association not only risked expulsion from the council but death by the Romans as insurrection was not tolerated.

But Matthew has made changes to the narrative such that Joseph no longer needs to go “boldly” before Pilate for his request. As we already observed, Joseph is only “a rich man” in Matthew’s Gospel and not a member of the council. And while he is considered to be a disciple, the risk of guilt by association is minimized by Matthew’s portrait of a sympathetic Pilate. He does so in a couple of ways.

First, Matthew inserts a brief story about how while Pilate was asking the crowd whether they wanted to release “Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is the Messiah” (27:17), he receives a message from his wife who had a dream about Jesus: “Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him” (27:19).[78] This adds further emphasis to the statement of Matthew 27:18 that Pilate “realized that it was out of jealousy that they had handed [Jesus] over” (cf. Mark 15:10). Jesus, whoever he truly was, was an innocent man.

Second, while Mark claimed that Pilate handed Jesus over “wishing to satisfy the crowd” (Mark 15:15), Matthew claims no such thing. Instead, he has inserted a narrative in which Pilate, for fear of a riot but know Jesus was innocent, takes some water, washes his hands, and in front of the crowd declares, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves” (Matthew 27:24). With these narrative developments, “Matthew has made it clear that Pilate did not regard Jesus as guilty.”[79] 

Therefore, in the Markan narrative Joseph goes “boldly” before Pilate because there is a risk of association between Joseph, a member of the Sanhedrin, and the crucified insurrectionist. But in Matthew, this association has been erased such that the need for boldness is not needed. Joseph is going to request the body from a sympathetic Pilate, a man who not only believed that Jesus was innocent but also demonstrated that belief publicly in front of the crowd.[80]

  • “…then Pilate ordered it to be given to him.”

Matthew has omitted the Markan back and forth between Pilate and the centurion over whether Jesus was dead (Mark 15:44-45). Mark had included it as an apologetic against claims Jesus had not died from crucifixion. But for Matthew, this is not as important: Jesus is dead and the proof is seen in the events of Matthew 27:51-54. Instead, as we will see, Matthew presents another apologetic for a separate issue that apparently developed within his community.

27:59

  • “So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth….”

Matthew has added to the Markan narrative by inserting that the cloth in which Joseph wrapped Jesus’ corpse was “clean.”[81]

27:60

  • “and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock. He then rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away.”

The Matthean improvements upon Joseph’s character continue, this time by stating that Joseph had not simply placed Jesus in any tomb that had been hewn from rock (Mark 15:46) but rather had placed him in “his own new tomb.” This tomb was no doubt expensive and it had been recently made. The giving of it to Jesus is “a tribute to his deep attachment to Jesus.”[82]

As in the Gospel of Mark, Joseph is said to have rolled a stone in front of the tomb’s entrance. However, Matthew has taken the reference to the stone’s size in Mark 16:4 and moved it up in the narrative. This is because, as we will see, there is no concern from the women who visit Jesus’ tomb on Sunday morning about who will roll the stone away from the entrance (cf. Mark 16:3).

Following his actions at the tomb, Joseph is said to have “went away.”

27:61

  • “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.”

Though Joseph has left, two women remain at the tomb sitting opposite from it.[83] As in Mark’s Gospel (Mark 15:47), this is meant to counter any notion that come Sunday morning the women had gone to the wrong tomb. It also functions to highlight the women’s faithfulness to Jesus who remain with him to the end.

Summary

The Matthean redaction of Mark in Matthew 27:57-61 reveals the author’s interest in both improving upon the piety of Joseph of Arimathea as well as that of the women who remain at the tomb for an unspecified period of time. Furthermore, Matthew has distanced Joseph from the Markan claim that he was a member of the Sanhedrin, something that would have no doubt been seen as libelous in Matthew’s post-70 CE community.

The Guards at the Tomb

Matthew 27:62-66

Mark (no parallel)

62 The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate 63 and said, “Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ 64 Therefore command the tomb to be made secure until the third day; otherwise his disciples may go and steal him away, and tell the people, ‘He has been raised from the dead,’ and the last deception would be worse than the first.” 65 Pilate said to them, “You have a guard of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can.”66 So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone.

No parallel

The Matthean narrative of 27:62-66 is interesting for a number of reasons. First, there is no parallel to it in any of the other Gospels, including the Gospel of Mark. It is therefore unprecedented. Second, the story highlights the wickedness of the religious authorities, particularly the Pharisees who are the subject of a lengthy diatribe in Matthew 23, a diatribe unprecedented both redactionally and historically.[84] Matthew has it out for the religious authorities. Third, this story is part of an apologetic against a claim that Jesus had not been resurrected but rather that his corpse had been stolen, perhaps by the disciples (cf. Matthew 28:11-15). The apologetic is essentially that since there were guards at the tomb the body could not have been stolen. Ergo, Jesus must have risen from the dead.[85]

27:62

  • “The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate….”

Joseph had buried Jesus on Friday and therefore before the sabbath had begun. Consequently, Joseph (and the women) are able to honor the sabbath properly. This pericope opens on the day “after the day of Preparation,” a circumlocution for the sabbath. Though not explicit in the text,[86] there does seem to be some irony in the fact that the Pharisees had attempted to trap Jesus by asking him if it was lawful to cure someone on the sabbath (Matthew 12:9-14) and yet here they are with the chief priests coming before Pilate on the sabbath asking for Jesus’ tomb to be guarded.

There is some deliberate contrast that is going on in this text between faithful Joseph and faithless religious authorities. Joseph had gone to Pilate to do the honorable thing: have Jesus buried properly. The religious authorities have gone to Pilate to do the dishonorable thing: seal off the tomb from those wishing to view Jesus’ body.

27:63

  • “and said, ‘Sir, we remember what that imposter said while he was still alive, “After three days I will rise again.”’”

It is quite telling that the religious authorities refer to Pilate as kyrie (“sir” or “lord”) but refer to Jesus as ho planos (“that imposter” or “the deceiver”). As the narrative continues it is revealed that Jesus is truly kyrios by virtue of his resurrection and that the religious authorities are in actuality hoi planoi.

The authorities claim to remember something Jesus had said before his death: “After three days I will rise again.” This is an interesting claim because there is no evidence within the Matthean Gospel that Jesus ever said any such thing to the religious authorities. He most certainly does so with the disciples present (Matthew 16:21; 17:23, 20:19). And while Jesus does mention “the sign of the prophet Jonah” (Matthew 12:39) explaining to “the scribes and Pharisees” (Matthew 12:38) that “just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:40), he never uses a form of egeirō. And given the fact that the disciples do not fully grasp Jesus’ words when he plainly states he will die and be raised on the third day, it is unlikely the Pharisees would have understood the reference to the sign of Jonah in such a way.[87]

27:64

  • “Therefore command the tomb to be made secure until the third day; otherwise his disciples may go and steal him away, and tell the people, ‘He has been raised from the dead,’ and the last deception would be worse than the first.”

The fear of the authorities is that if the tomb remains unsecured the disciples may go and steal Jesus’ corpse, declaring that the empty tomb is evidence of Jesus’ resurrection. If such a thing were to happen, they contend, “the last deception would be worse than the first.” That is, the claim that Jesus was the messianic king would be nothing compared to the claim that such a king has been resurrected and therefore vindicated by God. And so they demand[88] that Pilate make the tomb “secure until the third day” to avoid any problems.

27:65

  • “Pilate said to them, ‘You have a guard of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can.”

Pilate, perhaps recognizing that claims of resurrection might lead to insurrection, tells the religious authorities to take care of it. Whether the “guard of soldiers” is reference to temple police or to Roman troops is not clear.[89]

27:66

  • “So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone.”

So the religious authorities along with the guard of soldiers go to the tomb and secure it “by sealing the stone.” This perhaps involved the use of a wax seal “to ensure that any attempt to open the tomb would be detectable.”[90] Between the seal and the contingent of soldiers, the hope was that no one would want to disturb the tomb. This was, of course, intended to be a temporary measure and the guards would be gone after the third day. But what the guards and religious authorities do not know but the reader does is that neither a seal nor a contingent of soldiers can prevent what is about to transpire on Sunday morning.

Summary

What is the historical value of this narrative? Given that we find it only in the Gospel of Matthew we may question where he got this story. How is he aware of the inner workings of the religious authorities? How could he have known of the conversation between the authorities and Pilate? Why doesn’t Mark – our earliest Gospel – mention it? Why doesn’t the author of Luke – one who had claimed he had done careful investigation in producing his Gospel – bring it up?[91] Why doesn’t the author of John?[92]

Furthermore, given its function in the Matthean narrative it seems that the story was created to account for a rumor that had developed that the disciples had stolen the body while the soldiers were asleep (cf. Matthew 28:11-15). But again, this seems very contrived as mere apologetic posturing. Dale Allison imagines a conversation between Matthew and “critical Jews” on the topic.

Matthew: Jesus rose from the dead and his tomb was empty (28:6).
Opponent: Did Jesus really die?
Matthew: A Roman guard kept watch over him; surely he was dead before his body was released (27:36).
Opponent: There was a mix-up in tombs?
Matthew: The women saw where Jesus was buried (v. 61).
Opponent: The disciples, seeking to confirm Jesus’ prophecy of his resurrection after three days, stole the body.
Matthew: The disciples had fled, they were nowhere near (26:56).
Opponent: Then someone else stole the body.
Matthew: A large stone was rolled before the tomb; it was sealed; and Roman soldiers kept watch (28:2-6).
Opponent: The soldiers fell asleep.
Matthew: They were bribed to say that (28:12-15).[93]

It is not my intention here to consider all the arguments for or against the historicity of this pericope. Based upon its function in the narrative flow, I suspect that it is not an authentic account. However, it is very likely that the early Christians encountered naysayers who claimed that Jesus was still dead and that the disciples were the ones who had whisked the body away.[94]

The Empty Tomb Narrative

Matthew 28:1-10

Mark 16:1-8

1After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2 And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5 But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6 He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” 8 So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9 Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” 1When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2 And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3 They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” 4 When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” 8 So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

Matthew 28:1-10 follows Mark 16:1-8 but makes very apparent changes such that they end up being stories with entirely different imports. As already stated, this is not a resurrection narrative so much as it is an empty tomb narrative. Yet as we will see, we do have our first post-resurrection appearance of Jesus at the end of this section.

28:1

  • “After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.”

Matthew has a tendency to abbreviate Mark’s redundancy and so he keeps the essence of Mark 16:1 (“When the sabbath was over”) but streamlines the wording of Mark 16:2 from “very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen” to simply “as the first day of the week was dawning.”[95] But why have they come so early? In the Gospel of Mark they do so to anoint Jesus’ body (Mark 16:1) but here it is simply “to see the tomb.” Though perhaps unnoticed by most readers, this change is significant.

In the Gospel of Mark the women do not anticipate the resurrection: they went to the tomb to anoint a cadaver, not a king. Since in the Matthean narrative the women do not come to anoint Jesus’ body, they have only come to see his tomb and therefore also have no expectation that Jesus will be raised. Gone is the question that plagued them in Mark 16:3 – “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” That question had presupposed the women would be at the grave alone. But in Matthean narrative the women will not be alone for there are people present: the guards. And since they don’t need to get into the tomb, the women’s question is omitted by Matthew.

Mark’s Gospel had mentioned three women: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome. Matthew has only Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” (i.e. the mother of James and Joseph) going to the tomb. As they were the ones to witness the burial (Matthew 27:61) it is narratively fitting that they are the ones to go to the tomb. Apart from Joseph (and the guards), they are the only ones who know where to find it.

28:2

  • “And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.”

Just as an earthquake signified the death of the messiah and was a precursor to a resurrection (Matthew 27:51-52), so too an earthquake functions as a precursor and signifier of a resurrection. The cause of the quake is explained by the actions of “an angel of the Lord.” He has rolled back the stone, previously described as “great” (Matthew 27:60), and triumphantly sits upon it. Since the angel of the Lord is God’s representative, this is Matthew’s way of declaring that God is victorious over death, having raised Jesus from the dead.

There is a certain symmetry in the way Matthew has constructed his narrative about Jesus. As we will see, the angel is the one who declares the resurrection of Jesus (Matthew 28:6) just as the angel of the Lord had declared his birth (Matthew 1:20-23). And just as Joseph obeys the command of the angel of the Lord (Matthew 1:24; 2:14) so too the women will obey the command of the angel (Matthew 28:8).

It should also be noted that the Markan and Matthean narratives strongly disagree on what happened Sunday morning. In Mark’s Gospel, the women arrive to a tomb that has already been opened and only witness the young man upon entering (Mark 16:4-5). Yet here the tomb was still sealed when they arrived and they witness its opening by the angel (Matthew 27:2). There is no reasonable way to reconcile these two accounts and it seems clear Matthew has altered the storyline for dramatic effect.

28:3

  • “His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow.”

This description of the angel elevates the young man of Mark 16:5 from one who could be mistaken for a mere mortal to one who has divine authority. When Jesus was transfigured before the disciples, Matthew says that “his fact shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white” (Matthew 17:2).

28:4

  • “For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.”

Just as there was an “earthquake [seismos]” when the angel came down and rolled back the stone, so also the guards “shook [eseisthēsan] and became like dead men” at the sight of the angel. Not even the soldiers could stand before the awesome presence of the divine.

28:5

  • “But the angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified.’”

Matthew has essentially followed Mark 16:6. However, he alters the Markan Mē ekthambeisthe (“Do not be alarmed”) to Mē phobeisthe hymeis (“Do not be afraid”). As we noted above, the word choice of the young man was determined by the word choice of the Markan narrator who stated that at the sight of the young man the women became exethambēthēsan (“alarmed”). Here the word choice is determined by the reaction of the guards who “[f]or fear of him [tou phobou autou]” shook and passed out (Matthew 27:4).

28:6

  • “He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.”

As the young man had done in Mark (16:6), the angel informs the women that Jesus was not in the tomb and had been raised. But the angel adds the words “as he said,” words that the young man in Mark does not. The words akin to “as he said” in Mark belong not to the resurrection per se but rather to the prediction that Jesus would appear in Galilee to the disciples in keeping with Mark 14:28 (Mark 16:7). This change reveals the emphasis Matthew has placed upon Jesus’ resurrection and recalls not simply Jesus’ own words (i.e. Matthew 16:21) but also that of the religious authorities who were worried that the disciples would steal the body since they did not believe Jesus would actually be raised (Matthew 27:63-64).

We can also see that Matthew has followed Mark 16:6 in having the angel invite the women to see where Jesus’ body had been laid. This is further evidence that Jesus has been raised: his body is gone.

28:7

  • “Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message to you.”

Matthew has modified the command of the young man in Mark 16:7 so as to include the declaration that Jesus “has been raised from the dead.” This addition is curious and is perhaps a sign that Matthew considered Mark 16:7 to be wanting. Consequently, the angel’s command is to not only tell the disciples that Jesus will appear to them in Galilee but also that Jesus “has been raised from the dead.”

28:8

  • “So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.”

With Matthew 28:8 and 28:9 Matthew has changed the Markan narrative radically. No longer do the women flee in fear and say “nothing to anyone” (Mark 16:8); now they leave the tomb “quickly” because they were commanded to do so quickly (Matthew 28:7), their fear now mingled with joy, and they run to inform the disciples of the angel’s message.

28:9

  • “Suddenly Jesus met with them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him.”

Since the Gospel of Mark ends with the failure of the women and their fear, there are no post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. But Matthew has changed this so that the women not only obey the angel’s command (Matthew 28:8) but also are the first to witness the resurrected Jesus.

Jesus’ first word to the women is the first word the resurrected Jesus utters to anyone: Chairete, “Hail,” or “Greetings!” This is the word with which Judas greeted Jesus in the garden when he betrayed him to the religious authorities (Matthew 26:49). It is the word which was wielded as a verbal weapon when the Roman soldiers dressed him as a king and mocked him (Matthew 27:29). But now, on this Sunday morning where hope for the future has been restored, it is a greeting of joy. It too has been resurrected.

Upon hearing Jesus speak to them, the women respond with worship: they “took hold of his feet, and worshipped him.” There is more Matthean symmetry at work here. In the beginning of the Gospel, Magi came to Bethlehem to find “the child who has been born king of the Jews” (Matthew 2:2). When they find Jesus, their response is one of worship (Matthew 2:11). Now, at the end of the Gospel, the risen king is worshiped by the women before they go to tell the disciples the good news.

28:10

  • “Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’”

Jesus’ message is a reiteration of the angel’s (Matthew 28:5, 7). Like the angel, he tells them Mē phobeisthe, “Do not be afraid.” He also expresses the message of the angel that the women are to tell the disciples that Jesus would meet them in Galilee. In Mark’s Gospel, we took this as an indication that they had been forgiven. Indeed, the reference to “the disciples and Peter” (Mark 16:7) suggests that Peter has been singled out for both his desertion of Jesus in the garden as well as his denial that he knew Jesus multiple times. Here in Matthew 28:10 this message of forgiveness is amplified for now Jesus doesn’t simply refer to the Twelve (really, eleven) as his disciples but rather as his “brothers,” expressing kinship that goes beyond physical bonds (cf. Matthew 12:46-50).[96] And as we discover in Matthew 28:16, Jesus does indeed fulfill his word to the disciples (Matthew 26:32) and to the women that he would appear to them.

Summary

What do we make of this version of the resurrection story? For starters, it is abundantly clear that Matthew depends on Mark’s sequence of events: the women go to the tomb, the tomb is discovered to be empty, a statement about Jesus’ resurrection is made, the women are commissioned to go and tell the disciples, and the women exit the tomb. But he has changed many of the details.

  • The women do not come to anoint Jesus’ body (Mark 16:1) but to simply see the tomb (Matthew 28:1). Consequently, there is no concern that no one will be present to assist them with rolling back the stone (cf. Mark 16:3).
  • The women do not arrive and see that the tomb is already open (Mark 16:4) but rather they witness the opening of the tomb by an angel of the Lord (Matthew 28:2). Consequently, they do not enter the tomb to find one who shouldn’t be there (i.e. the young man) and become “alarmed” (Mark 16:5).
  • The women do not flee the tomb in fear, saying nothing to anyone (Mark 16:8) but rather quickly leave the tomb “with fear and great joy” and rush to tell the disciples what has transpired (Matthew 28:8). Consequently, the women do not experience an appearance of Jesus on the way (Matthew 28:9-10).

The change in details is also a sign that a change has been made in the overall tone of the Markan narrative. The women in Mark are portrayed initially as faithful followers: they are at the crucifixion (albeit from afar) when the disciples have fled, they pay close attention to the site of Jesus’ tomb, and they get up early on Sunday morning to anoint Jesus’ body. But this faithfulness ends with fear and therefore faithlessness. It is an ending that is both surprising and unsurprising. The Markan author has his readers expecting the women to go and tell but ends with their being more like the disciples who also fled. But in Matthew’s Gospel the women are exemplary throughout the account. They too are at the crucifixion, they too see the place where Jesus had been buried, and they too rise up early on Sunday morning to go to the tomb. But their response to the angel is not one of fear but fear mixed with joy and they carry out the mission for which the angel has commissioned them. As a result, their faith is rewarded with the first appearance of the risen Jesus.

A logistical issue also arises when analyzing Matthew’s account. Presumably the removal of the stone is so that the risen Jesus can exit. This is what is suggested by the Markan narrative: the stone is removed, the body is gone, and Jesus is on his way to Galilee. But in Matthew’s narrative the women witness the stone being rolled back and yet still the initial sign of Jesus’ resurrection is that his body was no longer in tomb. They do not see Jesus come out! So then Jesus must have already left the tomb before the angel came to roll back the stone. If this is the case, then what bearing does an empty tomb have for the narrative? Jesus could have simply appeared to the women at first and that would have demonstrated that he had been resurrected.

Noel-coypel-the-resurrection-of-christ-1700
A depiction of the resurrection based upon the account in Matthew. Notice the seated angel, a woman (Mary), and a stunned (Roman) soldier. Painted by the French artist Noël Coypel around 1700 (Wikimedia Commons).

One final question that should be addressed: why has Matthew made these changes to the Markan narrative? One does not change one’s source without good cause. He must have detected inadequacies in both the details of Mark’s account as well as the motifs implicit within it. And yet he grants it enough authority to retain its basic outline. If Matthew’s version of events is closer to the truth we cannot know. Apart from Mark, his sources are lost to us. What we can say is that the Matthean narrative serves his interests and that of his community. This is seen especially in the fact that the empty tomb narrative of 28:1-10 is sandwiched between two connected stories about the duplicitous nature of the religious authorities (Matthew 27:62-66; 28:11-15). Given the Matthean community’s apparent conflict with religious authorities, these stories serve as a polemic against them as well as an apologetic for the resurrection of Jesus.

All this also means that the criterion of embarrassment can hardly have any bearing on the narrative of 28:1-10. Matthew has gotten his information from Mark and Mark has included the women for narrative and thematic purposes, not historical ones. Matthew has no problem with this but apparently does disagree with the picture Mark ends up painting of the women and the resurrection generally. He adds correction and expansion that serve his purposes, regardless of whether they are rooted in what really transpired.

The Rumor of the Stolen Body

Matthew 28:11-15

Mark (no parallel)

11 While they were going, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests everything that had happened. 12 After the priests had assembled with the elders, they devised a plan to give a large sum of money to the soldiers, 13 telling them, “You must say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ 14 If this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” 15 So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story is still told among the Jews to this day.

No parallel

This pericope is a continuation of the narrative in Matthew 28:1-10 and picks up the scene of 27:62-66. It’s absence from the other Gospel accounts is telling.

28:11

  • “While they were going…”

Matthew is continuing the story of 28:1-10, expressing that the women are fulfilling the command of the angel (Matthew 28:7) and of Jesus (Matthew 28:10).

  • “…some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests everything that had happened.”

As the women are on their way to declare the truth of Jesus’ resurrection to the disciples, so also “some of the guard” go to Jerusalem to report “everything that had happened.” The author is setting up a contrast now between the disciples and the religious authorities. The former do not cover up the resurrection when they learn of the message while the latter do. Nevertheless, the soldiers are themselves “a further witness to the reality of the empty tomb.”[97] But whereas the women have a message of hope, the soldiers have a message of failure for not even the schemes of men could thwart the divine plan.[98] Consequently, the coverup that ensues intensifies the guilt of the religious authorities.[99]

28:12

  • “After the priests had assembled with the elders, they devised a plan to give a large sum of money to the soldiers….”

Rather than confess that Jesus is the messiah and the true king of Israel, the religious authorities devise a scheme to bribe the soldiers from speaking of what has transpired. For the reader of Matthew, this scheming is further evidence that Jesus has in fact been raised.[100] It also serves a narrative purpose for Matthew: this is the last time these religious authorities have assembled to plot against Jesus.[101] Their conspiring is what led to Jesus’ crucifixion (cf. Matthew 16:21; 21:23; 26:3; 26:47, etc.) but now that they have failed to keep him sealed in the tomb they try to suppress the truth. And they utterly fail as the ending of Matthew (28:16-20) implies.

28:13

  • “telling them, ‘You must say, “His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.”’”

Their plan is not without humor. First, how could the religious authorities think anyone would believe that the soldiers could sleep so soundly that the disciples could come to the tomb without making a sound, roll the stone back without any noise, and whisk away the body without making a disturbance. Second, asking them to do so was a veritable death sentence as falling asleep on duty warranted execution. Why would anyone take that deal?

The scene here can be compared to the story of Judas’ offer to betray Jesus to the chief priests (Matthew 26:14-16). In both money is exchanged and in both the religious authorities are involved. But in 26:14-16, money is offered to reveal information while in 28:12-13 it is offered to suppress it. And Judas, a disciple of Jesus, fails to live up to his expectations: he dies unaware that Jesus’ death is not permanent (Matthew 27:3-10). The soldiers on the other hand reported what actually transpired which cause a negative reaction from the religious authorities.

28:14

  • “If this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.”

The threat of execution is real and the religious authorities claim to guarantee they will protect the soldiers should Pilate become aware that they purportedly fell asleep on duty. But given their duplicitousness with regard to the truth of the resurrection, why should the guards trust that the authorities will keep their word? They should not and yet the do.

28:15

  • “So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story is still told among the Jews to this day.”

The NRSV’s choice of “as they were directed” masks the underlying Greek word: an aorist passive form of the verb didaskō (“I teach”). Matthew is employing irony here in that while Jesus has been teaching the truth to his followers which is vindicated by his resurrection, the chief priests are teaching lies which is contradicted by the resurrection.[102]

We also find out that at the time of the Gospel’s writing this rumor was still in circulation among the Jews. If the Gospel of Matthew had been written not long after the death of Jesus this statement would be unnecessary. The language therefore suggests that a considerable amount of time has transpired between the events described and the writing of the Gospel of Matthew.

Summary

This section is complicated in that we can recognize elements of historicity as well as elements of apologetic and polemic.

Evidently the Jewish opponents of Matthean Christianity…did not dispute the historicity of the empty tomb but rather assigned its cause to theft in the cause of piety. Our story answers that slander in kind: the rumour of theft was a self-serving lie fortified by money. Clearly Matthew’s Christian community knew and cared about what the synagogue across the street was saying.[103]

Consequently, this text is a mixed bag. The story concocted by the chief priests to explain the empty tomb is so obviously ridiculous that it strains credulity. Surely it is an invention of the Matthean author to counter claims of grave robbery. And yet it is unlikely that the claim itself is not historical, namely that the Jews had been saying the body was stolen. Matthew must have been reacting to something. The question is this: is his response objectively the case or is it just an apologetic meant to explain it all away?

Whatever the answer to those questions is, its function in the story is certainly clear: to cast doubt on the Jewish religious authorities and to magnify the resurrection of Jesus. The sharp contrast between the women and the chief priests highlights the reversal motif that Matthew has borrowed from Mark’s Gospel. If anyone should be proclaiming the truth it should be the religious authorities who are to be trusted figures who lead God’s people. And yet they are the least trustworthy of anyone. Matthew, then, has changed the women’s failure in Mark by not only changing the tone of the encounter but also by contrasting them with the utter failure of the religious authorities to rightly tell all that “Jesus who was crucified…has been raised” (Matthew 28:5, 6).

The Ending of Matthew

Though I will not be offering commentary on Matthew 28:16-20, a couple of quick observations are in order.

First, it functions as the fulfillment of Jesus words both before the crucifixion (Matthew 26:32) and after (Matthew 28:10). Second, the disciples’ response to seeing Jesus is the same as the women’s: worship (Matthew 28:17; cf. 28:9). Third, Matthew notes that this worship is mingled with doubt, the reason for which perhaps has to do with their frequent response to Jesus in the Gospel. Fourth, this doubt is done away with by Jesus’ reassuring words in 28:18-20, namely that he has been given authority over all things and he would remain with them to the end of the age. Therefore, while Mark’s Gospel ended in fear and silence, Matthew’s Gospel ends with worship and proclamation. It is a fitting ending.

THE GOSPEL OF LUKE AND THE EMPTY TOMB

We now come to the second interpreter of the Gospel of Mark, the author of Luke-Acts.[104] As we will see, Luke follows Mark but makes significant changes of his own to the presentation. There is far more exposition in Luke’s Gospel than in Matthew’s and the tone is certainly different from Mark’s. Yet Luke ends up being in many ways far more faithful to Mark’s Gospel than Matthew is.

In this section I will only be offering a verse-by-verse commentary on Luke 23:49-24:12 but will mention the narratives found in Luke 24:13-53 as they relate to other texts.

The Women Observing from a Distance

Luke 23:49

Mark 15:40-41

49 But all his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things. 40 There were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome.

41 These used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem.

That Luke is drawing from Mark is certainly clear but his rearrangement makes for a smoother read.

23:49

  • “But all his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.”

In the Markan narrative of 15:40-41 the only ones who “stood at a distance, watching” the crucifixion were the women who had followed and provided for him in Galilee. But here in Luke it is not only the women but also “all his acquaintances [pantes hoi gnōstoi auto],” or, more literally, “all those who knew him” of whom the women are a part. This is obviously a Lukan exaggeration since not all those who were acquainted with Jesus were watching the crucifixion scene. But it does raise the question as to whether the disciples are present. Recall that in Mark the disciples had not only fled the scene of Jesus’ arrest (Mark 14:50) but were predicted to do so (Mark 14:27). But this is missing from the Gospel of Luke. Luke has deleted that section of Mark because it included a prediction from Jesus that following the resurrection he would appear to the disciples in Galilee (Mark 14:28). Luke cannot have that since for him Jesus appears to the disciples in Jerusalem, not Galilee (Luke 24:36). The city of Jerusalem plays a central role in Luke’s Gospel.[105]

The scene at the Mount of Olives (Luke 22:39-54) concludes with Jesus’ arrest but not with the flight of the disciples and the author tells us that “Peter was following [Jesus and those who arrested him] at a distance” (Luke 22:54), similar language to what we find in Luke 23:49 with regards to Jesus’ “acquaintances.” There is therefore nothing in the Lukan narrative itself that precludes the disciples from being part of this group.[106]

Summary

Luke, in his redaction of Mark, includes the women as witnesses to the crucifixion of Jesus though he does not name them as Mark had done. Further, Luke has included them as part of Jesus’ “acquaintances” in the language of the NRSV, thus expanding the circle of witnesses to more than just a few women.

Jesus’ Burial

Luke 23:50-56

Mark 15:42-47

50 Now there was a good and righteous man named Joseph, who, though a member of the council, 51 had not agreed to their plan and action. He came from the Jewish town of Arimathea, and he was waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God. 52 This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. 53 Then he took it down, wrapped it in a linen cloth, and laid it in a rock-hewn tomb where no one had ever been laid. 54 It was the day of Preparation, and the sabbath was beginning. 55 The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid. 56 Then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments.

On the sabbath they rested according to the commandment

 42 When evening had come, and since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the sabbath, 43 Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. 44 Then Pilate wondered if he were already dead; and summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he had been dead for some time. 45 When he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the body to Joseph. 46 Then Joseph bought a linen cloth, and taking down the body, wrapped it in the linen cloth, and laid it in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock. He then rolled a stone against the door of the tomb. 47 Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where the body was laid.

Again, Luke is following the Markan order of events (more closely than Matthew does) and even lifts directly from the Markan text. His modifications to the Markan text reveal his desire to create a smoother narrative that captures not only what he believes transpired but to make it a better read for his audience.

23:50

  • “Now there was a good and righteous man named Joseph, who, though a member of the council….”

Luke, unlike Matthew (Matthew 27:57), is willing to keep Joseph of Arimathea as a member of the Sanhedrin though with significant caveats (cf. Luke 23:51). He has prefaced the mentioning of his membership on the council with the notice that he was “a good and righteous man,” language that reminds us of other characters in the Lukan narrative (cf. Luke 1:6) including Jesus himself who just a few verses before was declared by the centurion to be dikaios (Luke 23:47), “righteous” or “innocent” (NRSV).

23:51

  • “had not agreed to their plan and action.”

In Mark it is implied that Joseph had agreed with the plan of the Sanhedrin and their decision to accuse Jesus of a capital offense. But Luke is quite explicit that Joseph had not done so.

  • “He came from the Jewish town of Arimathea, and he was waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God.”

Of Joseph Mark had written, hos kai autos ēn prosdechomenos tēn basileian tou theou – “one also who himself was waiting for the kingdom of God.” Luke has written something similar, condensing Mark: Joseph is hos prosedecheto tēn basileian tou theou – “one waiting for the kingdom of God.” In this regard, Joseph is like Simeon (Luke 2:25-26), one eagerly awaiting the coming messiah.

23:52

  • “This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus.”

Luke begins to simplify the account of Mark 15:43-45.

23:53

  • “Then he took it down, wrapped it in a linen cloth, and laid it in a rock-hewn tomb where no one had ever been laid.”

The exchange of Pilate with the centurion found in Mark 15:44-45 has been erased entirely. We are left to assume that Pilate granted Joseph’s request.

As in Mark, Joseph takes Jesus’ body down, wraps it in a linen cloth, and lays it in a tomb. But the description of the tomb is that it is one “where no one had ever been laid.” In the Gospel of Matthew, Joseph buried Jesus in a rock-hewn tomb that was intended for Joseph’s use and was brand new (Matthew 27:60). Similarly, while Luke does not claim that tomb was for Joseph, it is one “where no one had ever been laid” and therefore likely new.

23:54

  • “It was the day of Preparation, and the sabbath was beginning.”

Following Markan language (Mark 15:42),[107] Luke points out that it is Friday, the day prior to the sabbath.

23:55

  • “The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid.”

Mark mentions these women by name: Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses. Luke refrains from identifying them until Luke 24:10. In any event, their purpose is the same as Mark’s: they know where the tomb is so that any accusation they went to the wrong tomb in Luke 24:1 is unfounded as is any claim that they placed a different body in the tomb: “they saw the tomb and how his body was laid.”

23:56

  • “Then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments. On the sabbath they rested according to the commandment.”

The spices and ointments are no doubt intended to anoint Jesus’ body for his burial, an act rendered impossible by the rapidly approach sabbath (cf. Luke 23:54). Luke emphasizes both their faithfulness to Jesus in making preparation for Jesus’ burial and to Jewish law regarding the sabbath.

Summary

Luke follows the Markan ordering of events and even borrows directly from Markan wording. But it is clear he has streamlined much of what Mark has written, producing a reading that is smoother but has its gaps. He has also improved upon the character of Joseph, retaining his status as a member of the Sanhedrin but qualifying that he was a “good and righteous man” who did not go along with the council’s plan.

The Empty Tomb Narrative

Luke 24:1-12

Mark 16:1-8

1But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. 2 They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3 but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. 5 The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. 6 Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7 that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” 8 Then they remembered his words, 9 and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. 10 Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. 11 But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12 But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened. 1When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2 And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3 They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” 4 When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” 8 So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

We now come to the Lukan empty tomb narrative which, as we will see, follows the general outline of the Markan narrative but has significant changes.

24:1

  • “But on the first day of the week, early at dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared.”

The language is similar to that of Mark’s – “And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen” (Mark 16:2). The purpose of the visit to the tomb is to anoint Jesus’ body, though the women here are not concerned about who will remove the stone as they are in Mark’s account (Mark 16:3).

24:2

  • “They found the stone rolled away from the tomb….”

Luke is rephrasing Mark 16:4.

24:3

  • “but when they went in, they did not find the body.”[108]

Luke, though basing his account on Mark 16:5, has changed the narrative. In Mark’s Gospel the women enter the tomb and see a young man. Here they enter the tomb and they see nothing at all, not even the body that should have been lying there.

24:4

  • “While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them.”

Whereas Mark had but one man clothed in a white robe and sitting within the tomb on the right side (Mark 16:5), Luke has two men in “dazzling clothes” appearing suddenly and standing beside the women.

24:5

  • “The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.’”

Luke has followed Mark 16:5 in that the women respond in a fearful manner but Luke mentions that these women “bowed their faces to the ground.” Their message is thematically similar to what we read in Mark 16:6 but the wording is obviously different: “He is not here, but has risen” is essentially the inverse of the Markan wording while the question “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” is absent from Mark’s Gospel. The tone of the men is one of accusation: they were expected to recall what Jesus had predicted (cf. Luke 24:6-7).[109]

24:6-7

  • “Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, be crucified, and on the third day rise again.”

The two men are no doubt referring to the words of Jesus in Luke 9:21-22. The implication then is that the women were present when Jesus had these discussions with his disciples. Note that in the Gospel of Mark, the young man commands the women to go tell the disciples that Jesus will meet them in Galilee “just as he told you,” recalling Mark 14:28. Since Luke has omitted that pericope and there is no command to go and tell, this reference is entirely lost.

24:8-9

  • “Then they remembered the words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and the rest.”

Unlike the women in Mark who fail to deliver the message to the disciples (Mark 16:8), in Luke they inform the disciples “and the rest” of what has happened. But they aren’t commanded to do so and are said to have “remembered the words” that Jesus spoke.[110] The emphasis then is on their reaction, set in contrast to Mark’s Gospel. They don’t need to be told to spread the good news since it arises naturally from what has transpired.

24:10

  • “Now it was Mary Magdalene Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles.”

Finally, Luke identifies the women. He is in agreement with Mark that Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James (and Joses) are in the group. But he omits Salome’s name and includes Joanna. But in the Markan narrative, both Mary Magdalene and Joanna have precedent (Luke 8:2-3) and they are too among those who “provided for [Jesus] out of their resources” (Luke 8:3; cf. Mark 15:41). The identity of Mary the mother of James is not certain.[111]

Luke refers to the disciples as “the apostles,” something Mark does sparingly. But given that the Gospel of Luke is the first of two books the author has written and that the second is about the growth of the early Christian movement under the apostles Peter and Paul, the use of “apostle” to refer to the disciples functions as a way to anticipate what is soon to come.[112]

24:11

  • “But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.”

The immediate response of the disciples is that of unbelief.

24:12

  • “But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen clothes by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.”

Luke continues his departure from Mark for Mark has no such story about Peter going to the tomb and seeing for himself that Jesus’ body is not there. However, there is some debate as to whether this verse belongs in the Gospel of Luke at all.[113] Regardless, Peter’s response is more akin to the women of the Markan narrative, setting up a direct contrast between the women of Luke and Peter. Peter goes to the tomb, sees that it is empty in accordance with the message of the women, but doesn’t announce it to anyone. He may be “amazed at what had happened” but such a thing “is neither tantamount to faith nor does it portend the eventuality of genuine perception or faith.”[114]

Summary

Just as Matthew found the Markan ending in 16:8 to be inadequate, so also Luke has expanded upon the Markan narrative so that the response of the women is one of faithfulness and not failure. But whereas there is a command of the young man to go and tell in Mark, no such command comes from the two men of Luke. Rather, Luke’s portrait is such that the women naturally want to go and tell the disciples the good news.

So what bearing does the criterion of embarrassment have on the Lukan text? As we concluded in our discussion of Matthew’s redaction of Mark, Luke is getting much of his information from Mark and making changes appropriate to his themes. He is also correcting Mark where he sees error (i.e. Mark 16:8). For example, the appearance of Jesus to the disciples in Galilee is entirely absent and simply cannot be reconciled with either Mark or Matthew. Perhaps Luke has it right and Mark and Matthew have it wrong. Or perhaps Luke has it wrong and Mark and Matthew have it right. Or perhaps they are all wrong and no one is right. But all three cannot be correct in their version of the account. This complicates using the criterion because the themes important to Luke are woven into the story such that any historical data is mixed in with Lukan motifs. How are we to then discern what has a historical referent and what doesn’t? The historicity of the Lukan empty tomb scene is therefore doubtful.

The Ending of Luke

Luke includes two stories not found in any of the other Gospels. The first is the visit of Jesus to two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35) and the second is his appearance to the disciples wherein he proves he is not a ghost, commissions them to spread the gospel, and ascends to heaven (Luke 24:36-53). In keeping with Luke’s view that Jesus is the savior of the whole world (Luke 2:11, 14), Jesus commissions the disciples to proclaim the gospel “to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47).

THE GOSPEL OF JOHN AND THE EMPTY TOMB

It is simple to do analysis of Matthew and Luke because as Synoptic Gospels they share so much with the Gospel of Mark. John breaks the mold in many ways. Yet there is evidence that John had access to similar traditions as that of Mark and Luke or had direct access to the texts of Mark and Luke themselves. It is difficult to be certain which is the case.[115] In any event, this commentary will focus primarily on two connected passages: John 19:38-42 and John 20:1-18. Invariably, surrounding texts will come into play.

Jesus’ Burial (John 19:38-42)

38 After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. 39 Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. 40 They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. 41 Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. 42 And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.

The similarities between the Johannine account of Jesus’ burial and that which we find in the Synoptics should become obvious to any reader. We will consider them in the commentary below.

19:38

  • “After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body.”

All four of the Gospels contend that it was Joseph of Arimathea who took it upon himself to provide Jesus with a proper burial. Matthew and Luke derived their information from Mark’s Gospel whereas it is not entirely clear where John derived his. Regardless, Joseph is presented in John’s Gospel as “a disciple of Jesus,” something he shares with the Gospel of Matthew’s depiction (Matthew 27:57). But John has added an interesting caveat: “though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews.” Elsewhere in John’s Gospel people fear the Jews because of the threat of expulsion from the synagogue for confessing Jesus as messiah (John 9:22; 12:42; cf. 16:2). This threat, however, seems to be somewhat anachronistic as so called aposynagōgos does not seem to belong to the era of the historical Jesus but to that of the Johannine community in the period following 70CE.[116]

Joseph goes to Pilate to request the body of Jesus in conformity with the Synoptic tradition and, as in the Synoptic tradition, Pilate gives him permission to take down Jesus’ body from the cross which Joseph then does.

19:39

  • “Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds.”

The character of Nicodemus appears only in the Gospel of John and his role in the burial subverts the story line of the Synoptics. Nicodemus, we are reminded, is the one who came to Jesus by night (John 3:1-21). He also appears in John 7:45-52 where he appears sympathetic to Jesus. However, Nicodemus is not presented as a believer in Jesus. Rather, “John’s Joseph is similar to Matthew’s, but his Nicodemus resembles Joseph in Mark and Luke.”[117] Here he accompanies Joseph so that he might assist in burying Jesus properly. To that end, he brings “a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds.” As the Roman pound was about twelve ounces by today’s standards, the total weight of the mixture was roughly seventy-five pounds,[118] an impressive amount. As Craig Keener observes, “In a setting where Jesus has been condemned for treason as a messianic claimant, Nicodemus lavishes gifts on him as a true king in his death.”[119]

19:40

  • “They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen clothes, according to the burial custom of the Jews.”

In the Gospel of Mark Joseph is said to have “bought a linen cloth, and taking down the body, wrapped it in the linen cloth, and laid it in a tomb” (Mark 15:46; cf. Matthew 27:59-60 Luke 23:53). The women, having observed that Jesus had not been anointed, “bought spices [aromata], so that they might go and anoint him” (Mark 16:1). John’s sequence of events completely contradicts that which we find stated in the Gospel of Mark for here Joseph and Nicodemus take the body down and wrap it “with the spices [tōn arōmatōn], according to the burial customs of the Jews” before Sunday morning. In fact, when Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb on Sunday morning, there is no indication in John that she does so with spices to anoint Jesus’ body.

That Jesus was thus embalmed with spices (without a hint that the process was incomplete) is not easily reconciled with the information in Mark and Luke (but not Matthew) that on Easter morning the women came with spices to the tomb.[120]

19:41

  • “Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid.”

The notion that the tomb in which Jesus was buried was “new” is found also in the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 27:60) though there it is stated that the tomb was Joseph’s “own new tomb.” The notion that it was a tomb “in which no one had ever been laid” is found also in the Gospel of Luke (Luke 23:53). The notion that this tomb was located in a garden near the site of crucifixion is foreign to all of the Synoptics but recalls the garden of John 18:1.

19:42

  • “And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.”

The use of a tomb near the site of crucifixion is a consequence of the chronology within the narrative: “John’s language points not to the indignity of this location but rather to the haste with which Jesus is buried.”[121]

Summary

Whether John knew of the Synoptic accounts of Jesus’ burial or simply of traditions upon which they may or may not have drawn, he has certainly added elements in that subvert the account found in the Synoptics.

  • The Synoptics only mention Joseph’s participation in the burial, not Nicodemus’.
  • The Gospels of Mark and Luke suggest that the burial of Jesus happened so quickly that it was not possible to give Jesus a proper anointing and this was the purpose of the women’s visit on Sunday morning.
  • Nicodemus seems to take on the traits of the Markan and Lukan visions of Joseph.

These developments are in keeping with John’s theological purposes and so their historical value is debatable. However, they do confirm at least two things: 1) the centrality of Jesus’ burial in the Christian tradition and 2) the role of Joseph in that burial.

The Empty-Tomb Narrative (John 20:1-10)

1 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2 So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” 3 Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4 The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7 and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8 Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9 for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to their homes.

The stories of John 20:1-2 and 20:11-18 sandwich the story of 20:3-10 and it is to Mary Magdalene that the first appearance of the risen Jesus happens. But there are various problems with the narratives throughout John 20 that make it quite apparent that John is not so much narrating history as he is theology.

Nowhere, it has to be said, does the evangelist move further from history than in these four episodes [of John 20]. They are not accounts of what actually happened, but moral tales that allow John to drive home a series of important lessons. [122]

Of course, John no doubt believes that what he is doing is telling his audience what has transpired on that Sunday morning but the way in which he constructs the account reveals his motives and not, as it were, those of a historian.

20:1

  • “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.”

The Synoptics all convey the idea that though it was early on Sunday morning, it was light out, not dark. This discrepancy is perhaps best explained by Johannine motifs, specifically the conflict between light and darkness (cf. John 1:5). Keener writes, “[T]he light of the world was about to be revealed in its darkness.”[123] Specifically, Mary’s darkness will soon be vanquished by the light of the resurrection (cf. John 20:11-18).

Congruous with the Synoptic tradition, Mary Magdalene is named as one to be first on the scene of the empty tomb. Though she is the only one mentioned by name, it is clear that she is not alone (cf. John 20:2).[124] However, unlike the Synoptic accounts Mary neither sees an angel remove the stone (Matthew 28:2) nor enters the tomb to either be surprised at the sight of a stranger in the tomb (Mark 16:5) or by the sudden appearance of two strangers (Luke 24:4). Instead, she sees merely that the stone (which to this point has never been mentioned) has been “removed from the tomb” and runs to report what she has discovered.

20:2

  • “So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved…”

The primacy of Peter is seen even in the Gospel of John and will be evident later in John 20:6 and in John 21:15-19. The identity of the disciple “whom Jesus loved” is debated.[125]

  • “…and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’”

Mary has no expectation that Jesus has risen. She thinks someone has taken the body and laid it someplace else. This is not a surprise as grave robbing was a known problem in Palestine in the region and had been for some time,[126] as the so-called Nazarene Inscription makes clear.[127] There is some panic to what she is saying, however, and it is surely intended to be indicative of her commitment to Jesus.

20:3

  • “Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb.”

The primacy of Peter is reiterated here (cf. John 20:2). This account also brings the Lukan narrative to mind for there also Peter runs to the tomb (Luke 24:12). However, the “other disciple” is not mentioned; Peter runs alone.

20:4-5

  • “The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there….”

The beloved disciple reaches the tomb first but he does not enter. Rather, the Johanne author writes that he “bent down [parakypsas] and saw the linen wrappings lying there.” The Lukan author had used the exact same participle (parakypsas) to describe the activity of Peter in Luke 24:12, the implication there being that Peter did not actually enter the tomb but observed from the entrance that Jesus’ body was gone and only the “linen cloths” remained.

20:6-7

  • “Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself.”

The beloved disciple defers to Simon Peter and allows him to enter the tomb first. Peter discovers the linen wrappings lying in the tomb and that the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head was set in a different place. This is a sign to Peter that Mary’s concern is unfounded: “The placement of the cloth speaks against body snatchers.”[128] The suggestion made by some that Jesus passed through the clothes such that they were lying there in the outline of a body is unfounded.

Peter’s actions here differ from what happens in the Gospel of Luke. As noted in the comments on John 20:4-5, in the Gospel of Luke Peter does not enter the tomb but only stoops in (Luke 24:12). Here in the Gospel of John he actually enters the tomb where he observes not simply the linen clothes that the beloved disciple had but also the wrapping for the head.

20:8

  • “Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed….”

Why has the Johannine author included the beloved disciple as one who witnessed the empty tomb? The answer is two-fold. First, the testimony of the empty tomb is founded upon not simply the word of Peter alone but also of this other disciple. Herman Ridderbos writes,

The dominant emphasis is not on the differences in the conduct of the two men but – and this was of far greater importance for the church – on what they saw together as two important witnesses…that early morning Jesus’ tomb was empty.[129]

Second, the ending of the Gospel of John purports to communicate the testimony of the beloved disciple: “This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true” (John 21:24). The fact that he was among the first to not only see the empty tomb but enter it magnified his status in the community and added further legitimacy to his role in that community. This status is further commended by his response to what he saw: “he saw and believed.” George Beasley-Murray observes that in the Gospel of John the verb pisteuō (“I believe”) “when used absolutely, as here, means genuine faith (see e.g., 5:44; 6:47; 19;35; 20:29.”[130]

20:9

  • “for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.”

Interestingly, the belief of the beloved disciple is contrasted with his misunderstanding, specifically of “the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” To what the Johannine author is referring is not clear. Jo-Ann Brant speculates that he may be referring to passages like Daniel 12:2-3 or Psalm 16:11 (cf. Acts 2:25-28) “that were understood by many in the late Second Temper period to signify resurrection (see 1 Corinthians 15:4).”[131] Regardless, the author intends to highlight not simply the misunderstanding but also that Jesus’ resurrection had been foretold by the authors of Holy Writ (cf. Luke 24:25-27; 1 Corinthians 15:4).

20:10

  • “Then the disciples returned to their homes.”

This ending is anticlimactic. There is no indication they return to the rest of the disciples to proclaim what they’ve found. Instead, Peter and the beloved disciple return to their respective homes (cf. Luke 24:12).

Summary

The Johannine empty tomb narrative centers on the figures of Peter and the beloved disciple. It began with the concern from Mary that Jesus’ body had been taken, though it isn’t clear upon what basis she has that concern since we are not told she enters the tomb to see. Regardless, this concern of grave robbers is akin to the Matthean claim that some Jews had circulated a rumor that the disciples had stolen Jesus’ body (Matthew 28:11-15). There the counter claim was that the religious authorities had paid the guards to say that (Matthew 28:12-13). Here the concern over grave robbers is countered by the eyewitnesses Peter and the beloved disciple who observe that, while the body of Jesus is missing, the linen wrappings remain and the head wrapping has been rolled up and set aside, an odd thing for grave robbers (who would have no doubt been in a hurry) to do.

But this new narrative comes at the cost of disagreeing with the Synoptic traditions on a host of issues. For example, while the Johannine narrative agrees with both the Gospels of Mark and Luke that Mary Magdalene and the women found the stone covering the tomb’s entrance already rolled back, the Gospel of John makes no mention of these women either entering the tomb or of the surprising find of someone other than Jesus inside it. And while of the three Synoptics the Gospel of Luke does mention Peter as coming to see the empty tomb, it is only Peter who does so and there is no mention of any other disciple coming along. And of course it is clear that the Markan narrative with its abrupt and unexpected ending is contradicted at the outset of the Johannine narrative.

Is John presenting a more historical account of what actually transpired on that Sunday morning? Given the late appearance of the Gospel of John in the history of Christianity it is difficult to tell. Furthermore, there are obvious Johannine motifs at work which include the necessity of faith, a response that is perhaps highlighted by the absence of any angels, as Ashton writes,

By leaving the angels out of this story John opens the door to faith. He is able to record the response the beloved disciple makes, not the voice of an intermediary, but to a vision of emptiness. [132]

John has also crafted the narrative such that the visit to the tomb by Peter and the beloved disciple is sandwich by stories about Mary. This should be enough to make us very skeptical about the historical value of the narrative. How this relates to the criterion of embarrassment will be taken up at the end of the next section.

The Appearance to Mary (John 20:11-18)

11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

The scene here contains elements of the Synoptic traditions but John has reworked them in keeping with not simply the narrative he has created but also the themes he emphasizes. Not only that but he

draws on the conventions of classical Greek literature in order to achieve what Aristotle…judged the telos of a superior tragedy, a sudden reversal in the circumstances of a main character.[133]

These elements include 1) an encounter, 2) a delay in recognition, 3) presentation of tokens of identity, 4) a moment of recognition, and 5) reaction and reunion.[134] Each of these elements are present in the Johannine narrative.

This narrative is the other end of the “sandwich” from John 20:1-2 which featured Mary arriving at the tomb, finding the stone rolled away, and running to inform the disciples. The ensuing narrative did not feature Mary at all but was focused upon Peter and the disciple who Jesus loved. Here Mary is again featured.

20:11

  • “But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb…”

The NRSV is problematic here in at least two ways. First, the verb translated as “weeping” conveys the notion not simply of crying but of wailing, a true lamenting of the circumstances in which Mary has found herself. Not only has Jesus died but his body has come up missing.[135] Second, the phrase translated “to look” does not appear in the Greek text and is wholly unnecessary since the next verb implies that the reason for her bending over into the tomb was to look.

John uses the same verb to describe Mary’s bending over into the tomb as he did for the beloved disciple (John 20:5) – parakyptō. In this way John is highlighting the difference in response to the empty tomb by Mary and the disciple. The beloved disciple responded in belief (John 20:8) but Mary, as we will see, remains in unbelief.

20:12

  • “and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet.”

The position of the angels is perhaps an allusion to the ark of the covenant upon which two angelic beings (i.e. cherubim) faced one another with wings outstretched (Exodus 25:10-22).[136] But if this is what John intends with the imagery, it is wholly lost on Mary whose reaction to seeing the angels is still unbelief.

20:13

  • “They said to her, Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’”

This response to the question of the angels is staggering: “The view of the interior of the tomb produced faith in the disciple; Mary, however, still thinks only of tomb robbery.”[137] She persists in unbelief.

20:14

  • “When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.”

Thus begins the encounter with Jesus which continues with a delay in recognition.

20:15

  • “Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’”

Mary, standing before Jesus whom she is seeking, does not recognize him. Instead, she mistakes him for the gardener. Brant writes, “The misidentification points to the degree to which Jesus’s appearance is unexpected.”[138] From the risen Jesus she requests the body supposing that this “gardener” has taken it away. But she is about to get the surprise of a lifetime.

20:16

  • “Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher).

The speaking of her name represents the token of recognition in the narrative. With it, Mary recognizes Jesus for who he is with the word “Rabbouni.” But John is also playing up a theme that has appeared earlier in his Gospel: Jesus as the good shepherd.

The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all of his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.

I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep….For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father….

My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand (John 10:2-4, 14-15, 27-29).

The shepherd has called his sheep by name: “Mary!” And with that she recognizes Jesus for who he is: “Rabbouni.”

20:17

  • “Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”’”

Jesus’ command to Mary to not “hold on to” him has perplexed exegetes. The word John uses here is the present imperative of haptomai, a verb that at its most basic meaning is communicated by the English word “touch.” If by using haptomai the Johannine Jesus is telling Mary not to touch him in any way, then we have a conflict with John 20:26-28. John Ashton writes,

We embroil ourselves in similar absurdities if we try to read the third episode, the appearance to the disciples, as if it followed upon the second. After informing Mary that he was about to ascend to heaven to the Father, did Jesus go up and spend an hour or two in heaven, only to redescend that very same evening for a visit to the disciples?[139]

However, Ashton may be going a bit overboard since it is possible that haptomai may be used to express precisely what the NRSV communicates, namely that Mary was holding on to Jesus and thereby not letting him go. For example, the Corinthians had used haptomai in their letter to Paul which the apostle references in 1 Corinthians 7:1 – “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: ‘It is well for a man not to touch [haptesthai] a woman.’” Given the context there the connotation is more than just a mere touch but suggests something more physically involved. Similarly, John’s Jesus tells Mary to not continue with her physical apprehension of him; she cannot keep him there for he had “not yet ascended to the Father.”

The message that Mary is to give to Jesus’ disciples is that of ascension. That is, for the Gospel of John, Jesus’ ascension is as important as either his crucifixion or resurrection.

John makes clear that the elevation of Jesus which effected human salvation involves the chain of crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension; these constitute his ascent to his Father, reversing the incarnation process by which he descended to earth.[140]

Jesus’ words – “my Father and your Father,” and “my God and your God” – recall the words of Ruth to Naomi: “But Ruth said, ‘Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16). However, as Beasley-Murray notes, as apt as the parallel is,

it should be noted that while it is Ruth who chooses to come under Naomi’s God, it is the Redeemer who has chosen to come to us, and in virtue of his saving activity, living, dying, rising, and ascending, makes us the sons of the Father and the people of God.[141]

The Johannine message is that Jesus has made those who believe in him part of the family of God. The disciples have become his “brothers” since they now share the same Father.

20:18

  • “Mary Magdalene went out and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.”

Mary is obedient to Jesus’ command and informs the disciples that Jesus has risen and delivers the message she has been commissioned to give.

Summary

Though this narrative shares some elements with the Synoptic tradition, John has created a narrative that is at its core wholly unlike it.

For starters, the sight of the young man in Mark’s Gospel creates such alarm that the women “said nothing to anyone” (Mark 16:8). Similarly in both Matthew and Luke the sight of angelic beings stirs an emotional response although there it is met with faith and not only fear. But in John’s Gospel the angels hardly matter at all; the main feature is the Christophany. And the only one of the Synoptics that features a Christophany is the Gospel of Matthew.

Why is John’s Gospel so different from, say, the Gospel of Mark? Fundamentally it has to do with their divergent visions of Jesus. Mark’s Jesus is wholly human, a regular Joe from Nazareth who has been chosen by God to be the messiah. He heals the sick, raises the dead, and casts out demons. But while John’s Jesus certainly heals the sick and raises the dead, he doesn’t perform any exorcisms and therefore lacks exchanges between Jesus and these evil spirits. In those exchanges the demons recognize Jesus for who he truly is but Jesus commands them to not speak, choosing to keep his true identity a secret for the time being (see Mark 1:23-26). But John cannot have any such exchanges because there is no so-called “Messianic Secret.” Ashton writes,

The fourth evangelist, wrestling throughout his work with the paradox of the genre, has renounced the solution widely attributed to Mark and known as the Messianic Secret. The Christ of the early part of his narrative has been given from the outset the lineaments of divinity. This means that John, unlike Mark, is unable to hint at any reservations on the part of Jesus himself: the before/after is continually stressed, but its Johannine application, the two levels of understanding, concerns not Jesus himself but Jesus’ contemporaries on the one hand, including the disciples, and the readers of the Gospel on the other. There is no split or uncertainty in Jesus’ own consciousness. A divine nimbus surrounds him even while he is still on earth, and at his death he simply passes to another mode of glorification. The transformation this entails is of the subtlest and easy to miss. In a sense, then, John – unlike Mark – may be thought to require a recognition scene in order to establish the identity-in-difference between the earthly and the risen Jesus.[142]

For the Johannine Jesus, the cat is out of the bag so to speak. He is the divine Logos who has been with God from the very beginning (John 1:1) and the one who makes God known (John 1:18). The reader of John’s Gospel has a firm grasp on Jesus’ identity and knows throughout the narratives twists and turns that Jesus must be triumphant for who can thwart God?

Coupled with the intentional structuring of this text along the lines of Greek literature, what can be said of the passage’s historical value? In what sense does the criterion of embarrassment come into play? I do not think it can. In the next section I will propose a hypothesis as to why the women have become part of the narrative that doesn’t necessitate there being a historical core to the narrative.

THE ORIGIN OF THE WOMEN IN THE EMPTY TOMB NARRATIVE

The earliest inference of an empty tomb comes from the words of the apostle Paul:

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, (1 Corinthians 15:3-5a).

Paul’s claim, then, is that the gospel of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection originates in both tradition (“what I in turn had received”) as well as in the Hebrew scriptures.[143] Scholars have long recognized that Paul seems to be reciting a creed, a “stereotyped formulation” that includes four clauses introduced by the word hoti (“that”).[144] It did not originate with Paul but likely first appeared sometime between 30 and 33 CE.[145]

The creed is not fleshed out for us in great detail but Paul’s own theology as recorded for us in his letters helps us understand some of these. For example, though the creed tells us merely that “Christ died” using the aorist form of the generic apothnēskō, we know from various statements in Paul’s epistles that this death was by crucifixion (1 Corinthians 1:23, 2:2, 2:8; 2 Corinthians 3:14). And while the statement that Jesus “was raised the third day” suggests immediate translation to heaven, we know both from what Paul wrote in the rest of 1 Corinthians 15 and from how Jews understood resurrection in the Second Temple period generally[146] that the creed posits a physical resurrection.

However, neither Jesus’ burial nor the appearance to Cephas are explained directly. The way Paul writes, it was to Cephas that the risen Christ first “appeared [ōphthē].” However, as we’ve already seen, in the Gospels of Matthew and John the first appearance isn’t to one of the Twelve but to Mary Magdalene. If it is indeed the case that the traditions found in the Gospels concerning the empty tomb originated with the disciples, then why did Mary fail to be mentioned in the creed? Paul’s view on women were such that “there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28) so why would he not make the appearance to Mary more explicit?

Nor does Paul make much of the empty tomb itself. He clearly believed Jesus had been buried following his death but the lack of any details leads us to only speculation.[147] That Paul fails to mention Joseph of Arimathea or the women visiting Jesus’ tomb on Sunday morning doesn’t necessarily mean that these events did not take place. But the tomb doesn’t seem to play as important role in Paul’s thought as it did in the Gospel writers for those writers believed the tomb to be the first, though not the primary, evidence of Jesus’ resurrection. In the creedal formula Paul recites, the burial is just seen as the logical counterpart to Jesus’ crucifixion. A dead body has to be placed somewhere. The emphasis is on Jesus’ resurrection, the appearance to Cephas, and the Pauline expansion of appearances in verses 5b-8.

365px-Caravaggio-The_Conversion_on_the_Way_to_Damascus
Paul’s famous conversion on the road to Damascus. This story is featured in the book of Acts though Paul does not go into any details about such an experience in his epistles. Nevertheless, he claims to have had a vision of Jesus on part with that of Peter and the other disciples. This painting is from Michelangelo Merisi, an Italian artist of the late sixteenth and early seventheen centuries (Wikimedia Commons).

So from where did the narrative originate? I believe that it may be the creation of the author of Mark’s Gospel. Mark no doubt had access to the creed of 1 Corinthians 15 and so any bios[148] of Jesus required the inclusion of his death, burial, and resurrection. To tell his story, then, required filling in some of the gaps created by the ambiguity of the creed, in particular the empty tomb. But with what could he do so? Largely, the scenes in and following the Markan Passion narrative come from a reading of the Hebrew scriptures. For example, Mark 15:22-32 is made up of allusions to Psalm 22 and Psalm 69. Consequently, the “core narrative” of that section is as follows:

Then they brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means the place of a skull)….And they crucified him….It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him. The inscription of the charge against him read, ‘The King of the Jews’ (Mark 15:22-26).[149]

But allusions to scripture are not the only place from which Mark received his information. Some of it was born out of an apologetic concern. Since the early Christians were claiming that the evidence of the resurrection of Jesus was that he had appeared to his followers, the natural reply from opponents would be that they had seen a spirit.[150] The Markan narrative is thus created to show that the women had discovered the tomb of Jesus to be empty. This in no way detracts from the statement in 1 Corinthians 15:5 that Jesus appeared to Peter because the Markan narrative allows for it as a consequence of the women’s silence. The message of Jesus’ resurrection must have gotten out somehow and it did so by the appearance of Jesus to the disciples in Galilee. There is no conflict between the creed in 1 Corinthians 15 and the empty tomb narrative of Mark. The narrative serves both Markan purposes that fit with his themes and motifs and also an apologetic concern that developed in the years between Jesus’ death and the writing of the Gospel of Mark.

The women enter the narrative as the polar opposite of the disciples. While the male disciples are part of Jesus’ inner circle, they still flee the scene and abandon Jesus in his hour of need (Mark 14:50). The women, on the other hand, function as minor characters often do in the Markan narrative: exemplars of belief. They had been in the background, providing for Jesus while he was in Galilee (Mark 15:41) and at Jesus’ final hour they are there for him, albeit from a distance (Mark 15:40). They also are there for the burial (Mark 15:47) and they are there for the first evidence of the resurrection – the empty tomb (Mark 16:3-5). But though they enter the narrative as exemplars of faith, the women end up behaving just as the disciples had, fleeing the scene and saying “nothing to anyone” (Mark 16:8). Mark, therefore, is able to preserve the tradition in the creed that it was to Cephas (i.e. Peter) that Jesus first appeared. Mark’s work in “[l]imiting the story to this simple form in no way diminishes the belief of the first followers of Jesus.”[151]

The presence of the women in both Matthew and Luke, then, is derived from Mark. They are borrowing the narrative from him and reshaping it as they needed. The criterion of embarrassment simply doesn’t apply for it seems more likely that if they truly were embarrassed by such a detail they would have simply repudiated it. Instead, Matthew and Luke trusted Mark’s work, assuming that either Mark was reliable and had not invented the scene or that it didn’t matter since one of the key issues was a demonstration that Jesus was alive against claims to the contrary. The Gospel of John had been made aware of the Markan creation but manipulated it for his themes.

Any claim that the early followers of Jesus would not have invented the empty tomb narrative with the women’s involvement falls flat. In this case, then, the criterion of embarrassment is not useful.

NOTES

[1]5 Reasons How We Know the Bible is True” (12.7.18), christiandefenders.org. Accessed 19 March 2019.

[2] Bart Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, sixth edition (Oxford University Press, 2016), 549. See also pp. 243-245.

[3] Ibid. See also pp. 245-247.

[4] Ibid. See also pp. 247-248.

[5] John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (Doubleday, 1991), 1:168.

[6] The Gospel of Luke avoids the conversation by employing the passive participle baptisthentos and dropping any reference to John (Luke 3:21; cf. Mark 1:9). The Gospel of John doesn’t mention the baptism at all (John 1:29-34).

[7] Meier, 1:168-169. See also Ehrman, The New Testament, 246.

[8] Meier, 1:170.

[9] Ehrman, The New Testament, 247; Meier 1:170-171.

[10] Meier, 1:171. Bart Ehrman also cautions against the misuse of the criterion of dissimilarity when he writes, “[I]t is always easier to make a judgment concerning a particular tradition when it passes both of the criteria [of independent attestation and dissimilarity].” See Ehrman, The New Testament, 247.

[11] S.J. Thomason, “Did Moses Exist?” (3.17.2019), christian-apologist.com. Accessed 21 March 2019.

[12] A similar argument is made by Darrel Bock in his commentary on Mark. He writes,

The church never would have created such a scenario to carry their core resurrection claims. Selling a difficult idea (resurrection) through the testimony of people (women) who do not count culturally as witnesses was not a plan designed in some budding church leaders’ conference room to turn around a discouraged community. The women are in the account because they were in the event.

See Darrell Bock, Mark, New Cambridge Bible Commentary (Cambridge University Press, 2015), 379.

[13] R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007), 1098.

[14] For a brief discussion, see Gerd Luedemann, The Resurrection of Jesus: History, Experience, Theology (Fortress Press, 1994), 45-47.

[15] For an overview of the Gospel of Mark that explains key themes, see Keith F. Nickle, The Synoptic Gospels: An Introduction (Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 63-102.

[16] Unless otherwise stated, all quotations from scripture are from the New Revised Standard Version.

[17] Paula Fredriksen, Jesus of Nazareth: King of the Jews (Vintage Books, 1999), 8.

[18] See my post “Jesus’ Death in Mark and Luke: A Response to Pop-Apologist Mike Winger on Bart Ehrman” (1.23.19), amateurexegete.com.

[19] The identity of the mother of James the younger and Joses is debated. It could be that she is Jesus’ mother since among Jesus’ siblings in Mark 6:3 are both a James and a Joses. However, it would seem odd for Mark to not mention that this Mary was also Jesus’ mother if that is indeed who she was. He has clearly had no problem identifying her as such before. Furthermore, 15:41 states that these women “used to follow [Jesus] and provided for him when he was in Galilee.” Yet we are told that it is Jesus’ family – his mother included – who think Jesus has “gone out of his mind” and head to Capernaum to take hold of him (3:21, 3:32). It seems doubtful that she would offer him and his disciples material support if she believed he was not in his right mind.

[20] William L. Lane, The Gospel According to Mark, NICNT (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974), 579.

[21] John Dominic Crossan, “Mark and the Relatives of Jesus,” in David E. Orton (editor), The Composition of Mark’s Gospel (Brill, 1999), 84.

[22] For example, the Roman centurion who stands at the cross and observes Jesus’ final breath declares, “Truly this man was God’s Son” (Mark 15:39). This is not even something the disciples themselves recognize and they have spent far more time with Jesus than this centurion! See my post, “Musings on Mark: Minor Markan Characters – The Centurion at the Cross” (11.17.18), amateurexegete.com.

[23] John R. Donahue and Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Mark, Sacra Pagina vol. 2 (The Liturgical Press, 2002), 454. See also Craig A. Evans, Mark 8:27-16:20, WBC vol. 34b (Thomas Nelson, 2001), 520.

[24] For more on Joseph of Arimathea, see Joel F. Williams, Other Followers of Jesus: Minor Markan Characters as Major Figures in Mark’s Gospel (Sheffield Academic Press, 1994). 188-191.

[25] Evans, 521-522.

[26] F. Wilbur Gingrich, Shorter Lexicon of the Greek New Testament, revised edition (The University of Chicago Press, 1983), 28. See also Rodney J. Decker, Mark 9-16: A Handbook on the Greek Text (Baylor University Press, 2014), 271.

[27] Mary Ann Beavis, Mark, Paideia Commentaries on the New Testament (Baker Academic, 2011), 241.

[28] R.T. France, The Gospel of Mark, NIGTC (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002), 677.

[29] On the issues surrounding the grammar of the text, see Evans, 534.

[30] The verb translated in the NRSV as “had been saying” is the imperfect elegon. The Markan author could have used an aorist verb to communicate the idea that this was a conversation they had but once on the way to the tomb but the use of the imperfect perhaps suggest that this was a central concern that they discussed along the way.

[31] It has been suggested to me that the statement of Mark 15:46 should be understood to mean that Joseph had others perform the work for him, akin to how the Deuteronomistic Historian tells us that “Solomon built the house [i.e. temple], and finished it” (1 Kings 6:14). This is certainly possible but I have my doubts. It is clear from the context that Solomon did not personally build the temple but utilized workers from Israel and other regions (1 Kings 5:13-18). We are not told that Joseph either hired help to assist with Jesus’ body or that as a “respected member” of the Sanhedrin (Mark 15:43) he had servants that could do so. Furthermore, Joseph’s actions are meant to give the reader a sense that he is a man of duty and that what he has done for Jesus was very noble. He is concerned enough about Jesus’ fate that he takes upon himself the task of shutting up the tomb’s entrance.

[32] Beavis, 242.

[33] Robert Stein suggests that the fact that the verb “had been rolled away” is in the passive voice that it is “a divine passive indicating that God was the ultimate cause for the stone’s removal from the entrance of the tomb.” See Robert H. Stein, Mark, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Baker Academic, 2008), 730.

[34] The young man (neaniskos) is understood by both Matthew (Matthew 28:2) and Luke (Luke 24:4, 24:23) to be an angel (or, as in Luke, two angels) and this may well be what Mark has intended in his narrative. However, for an alternative view see my post “The First Witness to the Empty Tomb” (4.28.18), amateurexegete.com. There I argue that it is possible Mark was drawing attention to the neaniskos in Mark 14:51-52, using him as a stand in for the disciples and therefore as a message of hope and restoration. See also Bock, 380.

[35] Donahue and Harrington, 458.

[36] As C.M. Tuckett observes,

The resurrection is almost assumed without question, and the empty tomb interprets it by the (self-evident) fact that Jesus is ‘not here.’ He is not present. There is thus no sense in which for Mark the empty tomb guarantees the reality of the resurrection or assures the presence of the risen Jesus. Almost the reverse is the case: the empty tomb is an empty tomb. Jesus is not here to be experienced as a tangible objective proof of anything. If then he is not here, where is he to be found? The next verses provide an answer – albeit enigmatically.

See C.M. Tuckett, “Mark,” in John Barton and John Muddiman (editors), The Oxford Bible Commentary (Oxford University Press, 2001), 920-921.

[37] See Rodney J. Decker, Mark 1-8: A Handbook on the Greek Text (Baylor University Press, 2014), 18.

[38] Decker comments that this instance of hoti “[i]ntroduces the clausal complement (direct discourse) of [eipate].” See Decker, Mark 9-16: A Handbook on the Greek Text, 276.

[39] Sharyn Dowd, Reading Mark: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Second Gospel (Smyth & Helwys, 2015), 420.

[40] For example, Daniel 10:7 says, “I, Daniel, alone saw the vision, though a great trembling fell upon them, and they fled and hid themselves.”

[41] In truth there are four endings to the Gospel of Mark. For an overview, see Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, second edition (Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1994), 102-106. See also David Alan Black (editor), Perspectives on the Ending of Mark: 4 Views (Broadman and Holman Publishers, 2008). My position is that 16:8 is the original ending of Mark’s Gospel.

[42] David E. Garland, A Theology of Mark’s Gospel (Zondervan, 2015), 177.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Technically John declares there was one to come who would baptize with the Holy Spirit. It isn’t clear that John knows this to be Jesus, either from his words or even from the baptism narrative of Mark 1:9-11. However, the reader knows that it is about Jesus.

[45] Ibid., 177-178.

[46] Ibid., 178.

[47] Timothy Dwyer, The Motif of Wonder in the Gospel of Mark (Sheffield Academic Press, 1996), 192.

[48] Ibid.

[49] The wording of the NRSV makes for smooth reading but the wording of the Greek is far more interesting. Mark has written kai lian ek perissou en heautois existanto, which is literally, “And exceedingly in abundance in themselves they were astounded.”

[50] Dwyer, 192.

[51] The Greek text reads kai ephobēthēsan phobon megan, which is literally, “And they feared with great fear.”

[52] Dwyer, 192. It should be noted that while I agree with Dwyer on the presence of the “motif of wonder” found in the Gospel of Mark generally and in 16:1-8 particularly, I take the silence of the women to be a sign of their failure to follow the command of the neaniskos just as the disciples had failed to follow the commands of Jesus. Dwyer does not. See Dwyer, 191-192.

[53] John R. Donahue and Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Mark, Sacra Pagina vol. 2 (The Liturgical Press, 2002), 29.

[54] Ibid., 33

[55] Williams, 202.

[56] Ibid., 202-203.

[57] L. Michael White, Scripting Jesus: The Gospels in Rewrite (HarperOne, 2010), 153.

[58] Ibid.

[59] This motif may be rooted in the teachings of the historical Jesus himself. See Dale C. Allison, Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet (Fortress Press, 1998), 131-136.

[60] Elizabeth Struthers Malbon, In the Company of Jesus: Characters in Mark’s Gospel (Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), 47.

[61] Ibid., 60, 61.

[62] On the reasons the Gospels were written, see Nickle, 65-68.

[63] Along with the consensus of New Testament scholars, I accept the position of Markan priority. For an overview, see my video “The Synoptic Problem: The Two Source and Four Source Hypotheses” (12.31.18). For an overview of the Gospel of Matthew, including his themes, see Nickle, 103-133.

[64] See note 18.

[65] In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus’ family isn’t estranged from him as he is in the Gospel of Mark (see note 20 above).

[66] Matthew 20:22 is a good example of the phenomenon of editorial fatigue. Mark Goodacre explains editorial fatigue:

When one writer is copying the work of another, changes are sometimes made at the beginning of an account that are not sustained throughout. The writer lapses into docile reproduction of the source. Like continuity errors in film and television, editorial fatigue results in unconscious mistakes, small errors of detail that naturally arise in the course of constructing a narrative. This phemonenon of ‘fatigue’ is thus a telltale sign of a writer’s dependence on a source.

See Mark Goodacre, The Synoptic Problem: A Way Through the Maze (T&T Clark International, 2001), 71-72.

In Mark’s Gospel the request to sit beside Jesus in his kingdom is made James and John (Mark 10:35-37) and not their mother (Matthew 20:21). In the Matthean version, when the mother approaches Jesus to ask for a favor he asks her, “What do you want?” The verb Jesus uses is theleis, the second person singular form of thelō. This makes sense since he is addressing one individual: the mother. In Mark’s Gospel Jesus uses the second personal plural thelete since it is James and John together that are asking (Mark 10:36). After she makes her request in Matthew he replies, “You do not know what you are asking” (Matthew 20:22a). But whereas Jesus had used second person singular verbal forms he now uses second person plural. Why? Because Matthew has slipped back into his source, the Gospel of Mark, which also uses second personal singular forms (Mark 10:38). We should have expected singular forms since he is responding to the mother’s request. But he uses the plural because he is copying directly from the Gospel of Mark.

[67] There is a measure of tragic irony in the role the mother of the sons of Zebedee plays. David Turner writes,

The mother of Zebedee’s sons previously envisioned her sons sitting on both sides of Jesus’s throne (20:20–21), but now she watches Jesus’s cross with revolutionaries crucified on both sides of him.

See David L. Turner, Matthew, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Baker Academic, 2008), 671.

[68] In his commentary on Matthew, Grant Osborne just combines all the accounts and states that

there were at least four women present at the cross: the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Mary the wife of Clopas and mother of one of the Twelve, and Salome, probably Mary’s sister and mother of James and John.

See Grant R. Osborne, Matthew, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Zondervan, 2010), 1048. This seems a bit much and involves too much syncretism of all the accounts, ignoring what makes each unique.

[69] Mark often explains Jewish customs, an exercise unnecessary if his audience was made up of primarily Jews. One classic example is found in Mark 7:1-23 where Jesus is confronted by the Pharisees and scribes about why some of his disciples “eat with defiled hands, that is, without washing them” (7:2). 7:3-4 is Mark’s attempt to explain why such a practice existed at all, something he would not have to do if his audience was Jewish. However, Mary Ann Beavis contends that it is possible that Mark’s audience was made up of many Jews but not Palestinian Jews and so they may not have been familiar with the particulars of Jewish sects like the Pharisees. See Beavis, 13-14.

[70] R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007), 1089.

[71] Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007), 690.

[72] R.T. France observes that Matthew’s

unusual use of the verb rather than the noun (literally, “who had been discipled to Jesus”; cf. 28:19) reminds us of the “discipled scribe” in 13:52, one who has come into the Jesus movement from an unusual background.

See France, The Gospel of Matthew, 1089.

[73] Ceslas Spicq, Theological Lexicon of the New Testament (Hendricksen Publishers, 1994), 2:395.

[74] Ibid., 2:292.

[75] France, The Gospel of Mark, 646.

[76] H. St. J. Thackeray (translator), Josephus with an English Translation by H. St. J. Thackeray in Nine Volumes, (Harvard University Press, 1956), 2:426, 427.

[77] France, The Gospel of Mark, 646.

[78] Dreams play an important role in the Matthean narrative, particularly in the beginning where Joseph’s dreams keep him from divorcing an unexpectedly pregnant Mary (Matthew 1:20-24) and stir him to take Jesus and Mary to Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod the Great (Matthew 2:13-15). Here too in Matthew 27:19, a dream about Jesus is intended to preserve his life but, ultimately, fails.

[79] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 1090.

[80] Ibid.

[81] Herbert Basser and Marsha Cohen write,

As for the designation of Joseph of Arimathea as a man of means, it is noteworthy that Joseph used linen cloth, which the wealthy would not have used. The Talmud suggests linen was used for paupers during this time period and the relatives were always ashamed to admit they could afford no better.

See Hebert W. Basser and Marsha B. Cohen, The Gospel of Matthew and Judaic Traditions: A Relevance-based Commentary (Brill, 2015), 709.

[82] Donald Hagner, Matthew 14-28, WBC vol. 33b (Thomas Nelson, 1995), 859.

[83] Joseph’s departure from the tomb is described using the aorist apēlthen while the women are described using an imperfect periphrastic: Ēn…kathēmenai. France observes that the comment that Joseph “went away” “provides a contrast with the women who remained at the site.” See France, The Gospel of Matthew, 1091.

[84] It is doubtful that Jesus would have had such a conflict with the Pharisees in his historical context. It is more likely that texts like Matthew 23 reflect the historical circumstances of the author of Matthew rather than that of the historical Jesus. For more, see White, Scripting Jesus, 312-317 and Dennis C. Duling, “The Gospel of Matthew,” in David E. Aune (editor), The Blackwell Companion to the New Testament (Blackwell Publishing, 2010), 304-306.

[85] Dale C. Allison, Jr., “Matthew,” in John Barton and John Muddiman (editors), The Oxford Bible Commentary (Oxford University Press, 2001), 885

[86] If Matthew intends for there to be some criticism of the religious authorities for coming to Pilate on the sabbath, he does not make it clear. However, perhaps the circumlocution of referring to the sabbath as the day after the day of Preparation is Matthew’s way of saying that if the religious authorities were truly concerned about Jesus’ burial they should have prepared for this on the appropriate day.

[87] Hagner writes, “It is a mistake to suppose that the Jewish authorities had a very clear conception of what Jesus had predicted. Matthew’s formulation of their word reflects later, more specific knowledge.” See Hagner, Matthew 14-28, 862.

[88] The word translated as “command” is keleuson, an aorist verb in the imperative mood.

[89] Though if Roman soldiers are implied, it would make what happens in 28:1-10 far more interesting because it would be suggestive that the Matthean author viewed the resurrection as a display of power against the Romans who certainly viewed themselves as the greatest power in the world.

[90] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 1095n20.

[91] Luke fails to mention the guards at all but follows more closely the Markan narrative.

[92] This is especially true for the Gospel of John and its anti-Jewish slant. Such a story would serve his purposes well if it were rooted in a known fact from the time of Jesus.

[93] Allison, “Matthew,” 885.

[94] For a discussion of this, see Donald A. Hagner and Steven E. Young, “The Historical-Critical Method and the Gospel of Matthew,” in Mark Allan Powell (editor), Methods for Matthew (Cambridge University Press, 2009), 31-43. See also Luedemann, 122-125.

[95] However, there is still some awkwardness to the Matthean language. See Osborne, 1061; France, The Gospel of Matthew, 1098-1099.

[96] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 1103.

[97] Osborne, 1075.

[98] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 1104.

[99] Hagner, Matthew 14-28, 876.

[100] Margaret Davies writes,

Nevertheless, the references to the necessary bribing and to the reassurance that Pilate could be dissuaded from taking action (soldiers who slept on guard normally suffered the death penalty) reinforces the readers’ understanding that Jesus had indeed been raised from the dead.

See Davies, Matthew, second edition (Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009), 236.

[101] Hagner, Matthew 14-28, 876.

[102] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 1106.

[103] Allison, “Matthew,” 885.

[104] For an overview of the Gospel of Luke, including key themes, see Nickle, 134-163.

[105] Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Sacra Pagina, vol. 3 (The Liturgical Press, 1991), 14-15.

[106] John Nolland observes that the reason there are onlookers “at a distance” in Luke is because “Luke is likely to see witnessing the crucifixion as a foundation for later being able to function as witnesses to the resurrection, and Luke has both women and men firmly in this role.” See Nolland, Luke 18:35-24:53, WBC vol. 35c (Thomas Nelson, 1993), 1160.

[107] Though Luke “economizes” the Markan text. See ibid., 1165.

[108] Some manuscripts of Luke end with “they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.” For more, see Metzger, 156-157.

[109] Nolland, 1189

[110] See Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, NICNT (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997), 838-839.

[111] It may be a reference to Jesus’ mother but this is not certain. See notes 20 and 64 above.

[112] Nolland, 1191.

[113] See Metzger, 157-158; Johnson, 388-389.

[114] Green, 840.

[115] Frank Kermode observes,

There are…problems arising from [the Gospel of John’s] resemblance to [the Synoptic Gospels]. Indeed there is a long list of questions calling for answers from historical critics, and it is fair to say that the answers are always changing, and the list of questions always lengthening.

See Frank Kermode, “John,” in Robert Alter and Frank Kermode, The Literary Guide to the Bible (The Belknap Press, 1987), 440.

[116] For a discussion on the issues surrounding aposynagōgos, see J. Louis Martyn, History and Theology in the Four Gospel, third edition (Westminster John Knox, 2003), 46-66.

[117] René Kieffer, “John,” in John Barton and John Muddiman (editors), The Oxford Bible Commentary (Oxford University Press, 2001), 996.

[118] Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Baker Academic, 2003), 1163.

[119] Ibid.,1164.

[120] Raymond E. Brown, The Gospels and Epistles of John: A Concise Commentary (The Liturgical Press, 1988), 96.

[121] Jo-Ann A. Brant, John, Paideia Commentaries on the New Testament (Baker Academic, 2011), 256.

[122] John Ashton, Understanding the Fourth Gospel, new edition (Oxford University Press, 2007), 477-478.

[123] Keener, 1178.

[124] Herman Ridderbos writes,

The Johannine resurrection narrative begins with traditional material: the Evangelist took for granted that his readers knew of the story. He mentions only one woman, but has her speak in the plural: ‘we do not know…” (vs. 2).”

See Ridderbos, The Gospel of John: A Theological Commentary, John Vriend, translator (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997), 631.

[125] For a discussion, see Michael J. Kok, The Beloved Apostle? The Transformation of the Apostle John into the Fourth Evangelist (Cascade Books, 2017); George R. Beasley-Murray, John, second edition, WBC vol. 36 (Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999), lxxii-lxxv; Kieffer, “John,” 961.

[126] Beasley-Murray, 371.

[127] See Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, second edition (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1993), 550-551.

[128] Brant, 267.

[129] Herman Ridderbos, 632.

[130] Beasley-Murray, 373.

[131] Brant, 268.

[132] Ashton, 481.

[133] Brant, 265. Cf. Keener, 1189-1190.

[134] Brant, 267.

[135] Brant writes,

Translating the Greek klaiousa with the word “weeping” risks filling the action with behaviors normative to a culture that is not Mary’s. This is not silent weeping but wailing aloud, with streaming tears as a sign of the depth of her sorry and respect for the dead as well as the added grief over the possible disrespect done to Jesus’s body.

See Brant, 268.

[136] Ibid.

[137] Brown, 97-98.

[138] Brant, 269.

[139] Ashton, 478.

[140] Brown, 98.

[141] Beasley-Murray, 378.

[142] Ashton, 484.

[143] As Margaret Mitchell observes,

And yet [Paul] himself was working with existing materials. Paul’s message of Christ crucified (the logos tou staurou, “the word of the cross”) was a claim that came with proof – scriptural proof. The four-episode version of Paul’s gospel narrative twice includes the refrain kata tas graphas, “according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3-4). The great wordsmith, therefore, was not only a writer but also a reader, an interpreter, of the scriptures of Israel.

See Margaret M. Mitchell, Paul, the Corinthians, and the Birth of Christian Hermeneutics (Cambridge University Press, 2010), 8.

[144] Joseph A. Fitzmyer, First Corinthians, Anchor Yale Bible vol. 32 (Yale University, 2008), 541.

[145] Luedemann, 38.

[146] See Shaye J.D. Cohen, From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, second edition (Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 85-88. Other conceptions of resurrection and immortality existed in the Second Temple period as well. See George W.E. Nickelsburg, Ancient Judaism and Christian Origins: Diversity, Continuity, and Transformation (Fortress Press, 2003), 131.

[147] John Granger Cook argues persuasively that “Paul and his readers, Jewish or pagan, would have assumed that a tradition about the burial of Christ and his resurrection on the third day presupposed an empty tomb.” See his piece “Resurrection in Paganism and the Question of an Empty Tomb in 1 Corinthians 15,” New Testament Studies (2017) vol. 63 no. 1, 56-75.

[148] It is generally accepted that the canonical Gospels, Mark included, fall into the genre of bioi, that is a kind of biography of Jesus. See Gerd Theissen, The New Testament: A Literary History (Fortress Press, 2012), 53-58.

[149] See White, 135-137.

[150] Ibid., 147. White observes,

This same charge seems to be a concern in both Luke and John, where disciples are told to touch him, and Jesus eats food (Luke 24:36-43; John 20:24-29). The Lukan version of the appearance to the disciples makes this earlier charge more explicit, as Jesus says, “Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (24:39). A story about finding the tomb empty is both a natural way of responding and a logical inference to the fact that he was buried and was raised.

[151] Ibid.

BIBLIOGRAPHY 

 Allison, Dale C., Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet (Fortress Press, 1998).

Allison, Jr., Dale C. “Matthew,” in John Barton and John Muddiman (editors), The Oxford Bible Commentary (Oxford University Press, 2001).

Amateur Exegete, “Jesus’ Death in Mark and Luke: A Response to Pop-Apologist Mike Winger on Bart Ehrman” (1.23.19), amateurexegete.com.

Amateur Exegete, “Musings on Mark: Minor Markan Characters – The Centurion at the Cross” (11.17.18), amateurexegete.com.

Amateur Exegete, “The First Witness to the Empty Tomb” (4.28.18), amateurexegete.com.

 Amateur Exegete, “The Synoptic Problem: The Two Source and Four Source Hypotheses” (12.31.18).

Ashton, John, Understanding the Fourth Gospel, new edition (Oxford University Press, 2007).

Basser, Hebert W. and Cohen, Marsha B. The Gospel of Matthew and Judaic Traditions: A Relevance-based Commentary (Brill, 2015).

Beasley-Murray, George R., John, second edition, WBC vol. 36 (Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999).

Beavis, Mary Ann, Mark, Paideia Commentaries on the New Testament (Baker Academic, 2011).

Black, David Alan. (editor), Perspectives on the Ending of Mark: 4 Views (Broadman and Holman Publishers, 2008).

Bock, Darrell, Mark, New Cambridge Bible Commentary (Cambridge University Press, 2015).

Brant, Jo-Ann A., John, Paideia Commentaries on the New Testament (Baker Academic, 2011).

Brown, Raymond E., The Gospels and Epistles of John: A Concise Commentary (The Liturgical Press, 1988).

Christian Defenders, “5 Reasons How We Know the Bible is True” (12.7.18), christiandefenders.org.

Cohen, Shaye J.D., From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, second edition (Westminster John Knox Press, 2006).

Cook, John Granger, “Resurrection in Paganism and the Question of an Empty Tomb in 1 Corinthians 15,” New Testament Studies, vol. 63 no. 1.

Crossan, John Dominic, “Mark and the Relatives of Jesus,” in David E. Orton (editor), The Composition of Mark’s Gospel (Brill, 1999).

Davies, Margaret, Matthew, second edition (Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009).

Decker, Rodney J., Mark 1-8: A Handbook on the Greek Text (Baylor University Press, 2014).

Decker, Rodney J., Mark 9-16: A Handbook on the Greek Text (Baylor University Press, 2014).

Donahue, John R. and Harrington, Daniel J. The Gospel of Mark, Sacra Pagina vol. 2 (The Liturgical Press, 2002).

Dowd, Sharyn, Reading Mark: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Second Gospel (Smyth & Helwys, 2015).

Duling, Dennis C. “The Gospel of Matthew,” in David E. Aune (editor), The Blackwell Companion to the New Testament (Blackwell Publishing, 2010).

Dwyer, Timothy The Motif of Wonder in the Gospel of Mark (Sheffield Academic Press, 1996).

Ehrman, Bart. The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, sixth edition (Oxford University Press, 2016).

Evans, Craig A., Mark 8:27-16:20, WBC vol. 34b (Thomas Nelson, 2001).

Ferguson, Everett, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, second edition (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1993).

Fitzmyer, Joseph A. First Corinthians, Anchor Yale Bible vol. 32 (Yale University, 2008).

France, R.T., The Gospel of Mark, NIGTC (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002).

France, R.T., The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007).

Fredriksen, Paula Jesus of Nazareth: King of the Jews (Vintage Books, 1999).

Garland, David E. A Theology of Mark’s Gospel (Zondervan, 2015).

Gingrich, F. Wilbur. Shorter Lexicon of the Greek New Testament, revised edition (The University of Chicago Press, 1983).

Goodacre, Mark, The Synoptic Problem: A Way Through the Maze (T&T Clark International, 2001).

Green, Joel B., The Gospel of Luke, NICNT (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997).

Hagner, Donald, Matthew 14-28, WBC vol. 33b (Thomas Nelson, 1995).

Hagner, Donald A. and Young, Steven E. “The Historical-Critical Method and the Gospel of Matthew,” in Mark Allan Powell (editor), Methods for Matthew (Cambridge University Press, 2009).

Johnson, Luke Timothy, The Gospel of Luke, Sacra Pagina, vol. 3 (The Liturgical Press, 1991).

Keener, Craig S. The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Baker Academic, 2003).

Keener, Craig S. The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007).

Kieffer, René “John,” in John Barton and John Muddiman (editors), The Oxford Bible Commentary (Oxford University Press, 2001).

Kermode, Frank, “John,” in Robert Alter and Frank Kermode, The Literary Guide to the Bible (The Belknap Press, 1987).

Kok, Michael J. The Beloved Apostle? The Transformation of the Apostle John into the Fourth Evangelist (Cascade Books, 2017).

Lane, William L. The Gospel According to Mark, NICNT (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974).

Luedemann, Gerd, The Resurrection of Jesus: History, Experience, Theology (Fortress Press, 1994).

Malbon, Elizabeth Struthers In the Company of Jesus: Characters in Mark’s Gospel (Westminster John Knox Press, 2000).

Martyn, J. Louis, History and Theology in the Four Gospel, third edition (Westminster John Knox, 2003).

Meier, John P. A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (Doubleday, 1991).

Metzger, Bruce M., A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, second edition (Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1994).

Mitchell, Margaret M., Paul, the Corinthians, and the Birth of Christian Hermeneutics (Cambridge University Press, 2010).

Nickelsburg, George W.E., Ancient Judaism and Christian Origins: Diversity, Continuity, and Transformation (Fortress Press, 2003).

Nickle, Keith F., The Synoptic Gospels: An Introduction (Westminster John Knox Press, 2001).

Nolland, John, Luke 18:35-24:53, WBC vol. 35c (Thomas Nelson, 1993).

Osborne, Grant R., Matthew, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Zondervan, 2010).

Ridderbos, Herman, The Gospel of John: A Theological Commentary, John Vriend, translator (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997).

Spicq, Ceslas, Theological Lexicon of the New Testament, vol. 2 (Hendricksen Publishers, 1994).

Stein, Robert H. Mark, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Baker Academic, 2008).

Thackeray, H. St. J. (translator), Josephus with an English Translation by H. St. J. Thackeray in Nine Volumes, (Harvard University Press, 1956).

Theissen, Gerd, The New Testament: A Literary History (Fortress Press, 2012).

Thomason, S.J., “Did Moses Exist?” (3.17.2019), christian-apologist.com.

Tuckett, C.M., “Mark,” in John Barton and John Muddiman (editors), The Oxford Bible Commentary (Oxford University Press, 2001).

Turner, David L. Matthew, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Baker Academic, 2008).

White, L. Michael, Scripting Jesus: The Gospels in Rewrite (HarperOne, 2010).

Williams, Joel F., Other Followers of Jesus: Minor Markan Characters as Major Figures in Mark’s Gospel (Sheffield Academic Press, 1994).

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons.

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The Weekly Roundup – 2.22.19

“The stories of the ancestors of the Israelites do not come from any one period but developed over time. It is best to see the ancestors as composite characters.” – John McDermott

  • Bart Ehrman asks and answers the question “Why does it matter if Mark’s Gospel was written first?” What it boils down to is that once we realize Mark’s Gospel was in all likelihood the first of the Synoptics to have been written we then have a framework with which to interpret Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels. They must have edited Mark’s Gospel for some reason. If we can deduce what those reasons were then we “have some purchase on the question of what [their] ultimate concerns and objectives were.”
  • Related to Ehrman’s piece, a post over at Broken Oracles discusses the redaction of Mark 14:47 in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Both try to resolve Markan ambiguity about the moral nature of the violent action undertaken by the anonymous disciple with particular additions. It is an interesting example of Markan priority at work.
  • Over a decade and a half ago John McDermott’s Reading the Pentateuch was published and its first chapter laid out the case for why it cannot be read as “strict history.” Some of that first chapter is available online. McDermott discusses the historical Abraham, the Exodus, and more.
  • Bradley Bowen at Secular Outpost wrote an introduction to a series making the case for atheism. In that post he briefly discusses strong vs. weak theism as well as type 1 atheism vs. type 2. As he defines it, atheism is at its core a rejection of theism and there may be a variety of reasons for which a person rejects theism.
  • Scholars have long observed that the Gospel of John appears to have gone through different stages of redaction. Back in 2015, Paul D. on his blog Is That in the Biblepublished a post examining the reasons why scholars think this. His discussion centers on two kinds of aporia or contradictory texts: geographical and chronological. This piece provides an excellent summary for the evidence of Johannine redaction.

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons.

Musings on Mark: The Johannine Calling Narratives of John 1:35-51

In the Gospel of Mark, the first four disciples that Jesus calls to follow him (akoloutheō) are Simon, Andrew, James, and John (Mark 1:16-20). All four of those men were fishing on the Sea of Galilee when Jesus walked by and all four of them dropped their nets to follow him. Both the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke include this calling narrative. Matthew (4:18-22) follows Mark’s version almost verbatim while Luke (5:1-11) makes some rather interesting changes.1 Despite their differences, all three of the Synoptics are univocal in their portrayal of Jesus’ disciples as fishermen and that this is what they were doing when Jesus found them.

But not the Gospel of John. While we may infer their status as fishermen from the end of the Gospel (21:1-4),2 we do not get this impression from the beginning. And this is because the calling narrative of John’s Gospel looks nothing like that of Mark’s.

Disciples of John the Baptist

One of the main differences between the Markan calling narrative and the Johannine narrative is its location. Whereas in Mark the setting is the Sea of Galilee (Mark 1:16), in John the setting is “in Bethany across the Jordan” (John 1:28). While the exact location of this Bethany is disputed3 it is clear that it is not in Galilee (cf. 1:43). Rather, John’s work is generally associated with the region of Perea, an area under the control of Herod Antipas who also ruled the region of Galilee.4 In the Johannine Gospel, John baptizes in Bethany and in “Aenon near Salim” (3:23), another town whose location is unknown but from the given context is somewhere near the Judean countryside and close to sufficient water for Jesus to perform baptisms (3:22).

With the Sea of Galilee not in the picture, there are no fishers for Jesus to call to become fishers of people (Mark 1:17). So from where do Jesus’ first disciples originate? According to the Johannine author, some of Jesus’ first disciples were actually disciples of John the Baptist!

The next day [cf. John 1:29-34] John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed [ēkolouthēsan; cf. Mark 1:18] Jesus (John 1:35-37).

In what follows (1:38-42) we discover that one of the disciples’ name is Andrew and that he has a brother named Simon (1:40). So Andrew is in the Gospel of John a disciple of John the Baptist before he begins following Jesus. This detail – one that seems rather important – is nowhere to be found in the Markan text.

The calling of Simon in the Gospel of John consequently differs from what we find in the Gospel of Mark. Rather than being found fishing in the Sea of Galilee with Andrew, he is instead in a location other than where both Jesus and Andrew were (cf. 1:39). The narrative thus has Simon coming to find Jesus at the prompting of Andrew rather than Jesus finding Simon and calling him himself (1:41-42).5 

Substituting James and John

Another striking difference between the Markan and Johannine calling narratives is that John’s Gospel makes no mention of the calling of James and John. In fact, James and John are only alluded to with the moniker “the sons of Zebedee” (John 21:12; cf. Mark 1:19-20). In each of the Synoptic Gospels their calling plays an important part of the narrative and they as characters engage in conversations with Jesus that result in teaching moments about the fate of Jesus’ followers (i.e. Mark 10:35-45). Yet in John’s Gospel they are mentioned but once and then not even by their own names but by their father’s.

Instead of a calling narrative concerning James and John we find a calling narrative about Philip and Nathanael. Philip is known from the Synoptic Gospels where we find him mentioned in the list of disciples (Mark 3:18; Matthew 10:3; Luke 6:14). Nathanael on the other hand is not attested in the Synoptics at all and is wholly a Johannine character. But he is surely a member of the Twelve since he is among those listed in 21:2 which include disciples about whom we know from the Synoptics like Simon, Thomas, and James and John.

The narrative structure of 1:43-51 is similar to that of 1:37-42.

  • Philip, like Andrew, begins to follow Jesus (1:43).
  • Philip, like Andrew, seeks out another (i.e. Nathanael) to follow Jesus (1:44).
  • Philip, like Andrew, says that, “We have found [heurēkamen; cf. 1:41]” a messianic leader.6
  • Nathanael, like Peter, comes to Jesus (1:47).
  • Jesus, simply seeing Nathanael, announces his true character – “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” (1:47) which is similar to Jesus’ renaming of Cephas upon simply seeing him. (See note 5.)

Nathanael’s amazement at Jesus’ insights is to acknowledge that he is “the Son of God” and “the King of Israel” (1:49). Yet Jesus is quick to say that compared to what Nathanael will see, Jesus’ statement in 1:47 (cf. 1:48) is small peanuts (1:50): “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (1:51). This plays into the Johannine motif of the role that signs play in having faith in Jesus (John 20:30-31; cf. 21:24-25).

An Attempt to Reconcile

The Johannine calling narratives reveal that their author wrote with theological and rhetorical interests at heart. Because of this, the Markan and Johannine narratives are in direct conflict with one another. But this has not prevented attempts to reconcile the tensions. For example, Eric Lyons in a post entitled “When Did Jesus Call the First Apostles?”7 claims that “John is describing a totally separate incident from the one the synoptists describe.” The Synoptic narratives are about the call of the disciples to become apostles whereas the Johannine narrative is about their relationship to Jesus as Messiah.

John records Peter and Andrew’s first meeting with the Christ. The synoptists, however, testify of a later meeting, when Jesus called them at the Sea of Galilee to become “fishers of men.”

But this apologetic only results in a more confusing narrative and doesn’t take the language of John’s Gospel seriously.

The Johannine narrative takes place over a series of days (1:29, 1:35, 1:43, 2:1), culminating in Jesus’ appearance with “his disciples” (2:2) at a wedding in the Galilean city of Cana (2:1-11). Undoubtedly, among his disciples were Andrew, Simon, Philip, and Nathanael who had just interacted with Jesus both temporally in the days before and narratively in the preceding context. In the narratives that follow, there is no sense that these disciples have abandoned Jesus for the Sea of Galilee: they follow him to Capernaum (2:12), to Jerusalem (2:13-25), and so on. At what point does Jesus have to go back to Galilee to call the disciples to be “fishers of people”? As Raymond Brown noted,

The standard harmonization is that Jesus first called the disciples as John narrates but that they subsequently returned to their normal life in Galilee until Jesus came there to recall them to service, as the Synoptics narrate. There may be some basic truth in this reconstruction but it goes considerably beyond the evidence of the Gospels themselves. In John, once the disciples are called, they remain Jesus’ disciples without the slightest suggestion of their returning to normal livelihood. Nor in the Synoptic account of the call in Galilee is there any indication that these men have seen Jesus before.8

In other words, the Gospel narratives do not allow any such reconciliation. In both, the disciples continue with Jesus without interruption. Lyons contrived explanation simply doesn’t work.

No Harmonization Needed

In truth, no harmonization is needed. If the Johannine author was working from traditional material then it is clear that there was a version of Jesus’ first interactions with Andrew and Peter that differ from that found in the Markan narrative. And if the author was working with some version of Mark or Luke9 then he has clearly reshaped preexisting narratives to suit his own particular purposes, especially with regards to his rather high Christology. In either case, a harmonization simply isn’t possible. The authors of the Gospels of Mark and John were clearly writing with different criteria in mind.10  These are portraits, not snapshots, of Jesus. And they are portraits painted with the brushes of later authors in historical situations different from Jesus’ own.

NOTES

1 Not only does Luke’s version of the calling narrative come after Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law, in the narrative it is stated that Jesus gets into Simon’s boat (Andrew is nowhere to be found) and that James and John were Simon’s fishing partners!

2 The Johannine addendum shares particular similarities with the Lukan calling narrative of Luke 5:1-11. For example, in both the Lukan and Johannine accounts we see Simon mentioned without Andrew and we also find James and John, although they are referred to as “the sons of Zebedee” (John 21:2). Both accounts also include a miraculous haul of fish (John 21:6; cf. Luke 5:5-6) as well as a specific response from Simon (John 21:7; cf. Luke 5:8).

3 See Rainer Riesner, “Bethany Beyond Jordan,” in David N. Freedman, editor, Anchor Bible Dictionary (Doubleday, 1992), 1:703-705.

4 See Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Baker Academic, 2003), 1:449-451.

5 There may be more going on with Simon’s name change in John 1:42 from “Simon son of John” to “‘Cephas’ (which is translated Peter).” Not only is it Andrew rather than Simon who affirms that Jesus is the Messiah (1:41; cf. Matthew 16:16), Simon’s change of name to Cephas/Peter occurs far earlier in the Johannine narrative than in the Matthean. Bradford Blaine, Jr. has suggested some Christological motivations for “transplanting the naming episode to the front” of the Gospel of John.

First, Jesus has not met Peter and yet knows enough about him to give him the name “Cephas” which means “rock.” In this way, “John highlights both Jesus general foreknowledge (cf. 4:25; 6:6; 14:26; 16:30, etc.) and his specific foreknowledge concerning the fates of the disciples (14:16; 15:20 and 16:32).

Second, Peter’s statement of Jesus’ identity and that he is the one who has “the words of eternal life” (6:68-69) in the midst of many of Jesus’ disciples leaving him (6:66-67; cf. 6:60-65) serves as a “profession of loyalty in a time of crisis” and not simply as a confession like what we find in the Matthean text. Jesus’ role as Messiah has already been acknowledged (1:41) and the name change is not connected to a Petrine confession. In other words, the Johannine Jesus has already established Peter’s faithfulness.

Third, “by bringing the name change to the front of the Gospel but leaving the confession [i.e. 6:68-69] in its ‘original’ context…John introduces the familiar character of Peter without letting him overshadow Andrew, Philip, and Nathanael.” Consequently, the Johannine author creates “a powerful chain of witness” in the earliest stages of Jesus’ ministry.

See Bradford B. Blaine, Jr., Peter in the Gospel of John: The Making of an Authentic Disciple (Society of Biblical Literature, 2007), 38-39.

6 If we compare Andrew’s statement to Peter – “We have found the Messiah” (1:41) – with Philip’s statement to Nathanael – “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth” (1:45) – we see an example of narrative exposition. Philip in essence explains what the word “Messiah” means to the Johannine community: the one about who the Hebrew scriptures wrote, seen in its fullness in Jesus of Nazareth. So then for this community there is no doubt who the Messiah is: it is Jesus!

7 Eric Lyons, “When Did Jesus Call the First Apostles?” (2007), apologeticpress.org. Accessed 16 January 2018.

8 Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John (I-XII) (Doubleday, 1966), 77.

9 There is some evidence that John may have known of the Synoptic Gospels of Mark and Luke, including both direct verbal parallels and knowledge of Synoptic episodes. See L. Michael White, Scripting Jesus: The Gospels in Rewrite (HarperOne, 2010), 354-355. See also Thomas L. Brodie, The Quest for the Origin of John’s Gospel: A Source-Oriented Approach (OUP, 1993), 67-120.

10 The clearest sign of this is that there is not even a whiff of the secrecy motif that is so prevalent in Mark’s Gospel found in John’s. From the outset, Jesus is declared to be the Messiah and the one about whom the Hebrew scriptures had foretold (John 1:41, 45). This is absent from Mark’s Gospel as virtually no human characters – especially not the disciples – understand who Jesus is.

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons.

Bart D. Ehrman: The Significance of John 9:22

Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, sixth edition (OUP, 2016), 187-188.

This verse [i.e. John 9:22] is significant from a socio-historical perspective because we know that there was no official policy against accepting Jesus (or anyone else) as messiah during his lifetime. On the other hand, some Jewish synagogues evidently did begin to exclude members who believed in Jesus’ messiahship toward the end of the first century. So the story of Jesus healing the blind man reflects the experience of the later community that stood behind the Fourth Gospel. These believers in Jesus had been expelled from the Jewish community, the community, presumably, of their families and friends and neighbors, in which they had worshiped God and had fellowship with one another.

Their expulsion from their synagogue had serious implications for the Christian community’s social life and for the way it began to understand its world and its stories about its messiah, Jesus.

Hopelessly Confused: Heather Schuldt Takes on Bart Ehrman, part 5

This is the fifth and final post in a series examining pop-apologist Heather Schuldt’s attempt to take down New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman. The four previous posts can be viewed here:

In this post we will be looking at Schuldt’s attempt to reconcile the seemingly divergent times recorded in the Gospel accounts surrounding Jesus’ death. At the end we will summarize the series, observing briefly the way Schuldt as a pop-apologist engages with the biblical texts and with biblical scholarship.

WHAT TIME WAS IT?

In the Gospel of Mark we are told that Jesus, having been arrested and tried before the religious authorities, is brought before Pilate on the morning which followed (Mark 15:1). Not long after we are told that Pilate has Jesus crucified. The specific time listed is hōra tritē, literally “the third hour” which the NRSV renders as “nine o’clock” (15:25). A few hours later darkness covers the land for three hours (Mark 15:33). The specific times listed are hōras hektēs, literally “the sixth hour” (NRSV, “noon”), and hōras enatēs, literally “the ninth hour” (NRSV, “three in the afternoon”). At enatē hōra, literally “the ninth hour” (NRSV, “three o’clock”) Jesus finally begins to die (15:34).

In the Gospel of John we are told that Jesus, having been arrested and tried before the religious authorities, is brought before Pilate on the morning which followed (John 18:28). Not long after we are told that Pilate has Jesus crucified (19:14). The specific time listed given is hōra…hōs hektē, literally “about the sixth hour” (NRSV, “about noon”). Sometime after this Jesus finally dies (19:30).

It is clear that by reading these accounts that they do not sync up at all. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus had been crucified around 9am. But in John’s Gospel the crucifixion takes place around noon, well after what Mark reports. Interestingly, in some manuscripts of Mark 15:25 the word tritē is replaced with hektē in a bid to harmonize the Markan with the Johannine account while in some manuscripts of John 19:14 hektē is replaced with tritē in a bid to harmonize the Johannine account with the Markan account.1 Clearly later copyists noticed the discrepancy and tried to fix it.

Schuldt’s Response

How does Schuldt resolve this difficulty? She offers four points by which she means to rescue inerrancy. Let’s consider each in turn.

First of all, it is important to understand how they told time back then. Ehrman completely overlooks this historical time telling system. The first hour was at sunrise. The third hour was mid-morning. The sixth hour was mid-day. The ninth hour was mid-afternoon. The twelfth hour was twilight/sunset.2

Someone of Ehrman’s caliber hasn’t overlooked anything, and if he has then we can also blame evangelical scholars like Craig Evans for doing the same.3 Since the hours of the day were from sunrise to sunset and roughly twelve hours, Schuldt’s reckoning is correct. So the third hour was midmorning, commonly seen as 9am, the sixth hour was midday, roughly noon, and the ninth hour was midafternoon, roughly 3pm.

Next she writes,

Second, try not using a modern clock for just one month and see if you can figure out when it is 10:30 AM and when it is 11 AM. The point is that it is difficult to distinguish between the end of the third hour and the beginning of the sixth hour.

This is almost comical. Rather than read the text as we have it, Schuldt has to shift goals and avoid the obvious. Furthermore, she is missing the very reason John has changed Mark’s “third hour” (9am) to “about the sixth hour” (noon). In John’s Gospel, Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). By changing Mark’s 9am to noon, John aligns the crucifixion of the “Lamb of God” with the time when the sacrificial lambs were slaughtered in the temple! Pilate’s words coupled with the sending off of Jesus to be crucified shows that “Jesus is the true paschal lamb, about to suffer death at the appropriate hour of the appropriate day for the life of his people.”4 John, therefore, is portraying Jesus in a particular way, a way different from how Mark is portraying him.

Next, Schuldt says,

Third, the third hour might have included anything from 9 AM-11 AM, which is the accepted time frame of when Jesus was crucified. John was not wrong when he said it was “about” the sixth hour. He was estimating.

The assumption here is that the author of John’s Gospel was an eyewitness to the event. He wasn’t. And if she accepts inerrancy she would need to believe that none of the disciples were present at the crucifixion as Mark makes abundantly clear (Mark 14:26-31, 50-52). Her claim that John was “estimating” is just apologetic posturing with no exegetical warrant.

Finally, she says,

Fourth, the two accounts actually give us more information that the time must have been closer to the beginning of the sixth hour, closer at the end of the third hour, and not during the beginning of the third hour. 

This is absolutely bewildering. The Markan text makes it clear that “as soon as it was morning” the religious authorities discuss taking Jesus to Pilate which they then do (Mark 15:1). The next time marker tells us that it was 9am when he was crucified, not about 9am (15:25). Then we are told that at noon darkness comes over the land until 3pm at which time Jesus begins to die (Mark 15:33-34). If all you had was Mark’s Gospel then you wouldn’t think, “Well, maybe it was around 11am when he was actually crucified.” No, you would think that he was crucified at 9am. Schuldt has to resort to hermeneutical gymnastics to avoid the obvious.

Summary 

Schuldt resorts again to very contrived explanations to rescue inerrancy. She has forced an explanation that just doesn’t work. And it is one that ruins what John was trying to do in his version of events.

In the final analysis, then, we need not be concerned with whether the Johannine version is more correct at the level of “history” [than the Synoptic version]. It is not a claim about history at all, but about the theological significance of the death of Jesus as understood within the Johannine community. Nor is it necessary – or even possible – to force the Johannine chronology to fit that of the Synoptics. To do so would destroy the entire effect of the Johannine story. In other words, unless the audience allows the Johannine author to change the story in these significant ways, the all-important Johannine message regarding Jesus’ death – and the image of Jesus as the Lamb of God – cannot come through.5

Schuldt, with her eisegetical tendencies, has disrespected not only the texts themselves but the communities for which they were written. They were telling their story about Jesus, not the one of later harmonies. For them, it was less about the historical sequence and more about the meaning of the events of Jesus’ death. She’s missed it.

SERIES SUMMARY

As was the case with SJ Thomason, Heather Schuldt shows all the signs of the quintessential pop-apologist: ignorance of basic scholarship, the inability to pay attention to the way texts are written, and the assumption that their knowledge on a little translates to knowledge about a lot. Whatever one may think about Ehrman, there is no doubt that he is an expert in his field and to claim otherwise is (as I’ve said before) the height of hubris. What books has Schuldt written? Where has she been published? How long has she trained in biblical languages? Where does she teach?

But you will observe that in my response to Schuldt I didn’t resort to this kind of argument from authority. Instead, I presented the relevant data and I tried to do so while engaging with actual scholarship as well as the biblical texts directly. Meanwhile, Schuldt has provided 1) no evidence for the early dating of the Gospels, 2) no evidence for traditional authorship of the Gospels, 3) no reason to think the oral tradition behind the Gospels wasn’t malleable, 4) no exegetical reason to think that John and Mark agree on the Seder meal and the Passover, and 5) no appreciation for the way John’s Gospel was written with regards to the hour of Jesus’ crucifixion.

One of the utter failings of Schuldt’s approach is that she does not appreciate the Gospels for what they are. They were never intended to be read as snapshots of Jesus. The Synoptic Problem reveals this clearly. Instead, the Gospels were intended to be portraits of Jesus. The late New Testament scholar Robert Guelich wrote that

the presence of four distinctive gospels demands that each be taken seriously with its own divinely inspired message. Harmonization that obliterates the distinctiveness of the four gospels in the interest of reconstructing the life and teachings of Jesus can actually distort the plain meaning of the text. To read the four gospels as an unscrambled Diatessaron misses the genius of having four distinct gospels.6

I do not share in Guelich’s view on inspiration but I do share in his view that the Gospel authors were writing distinct accounts of Jesus’ life and that any subsequent attempts to harmonize them “obliterates the distinctiveness of the four gospels.” Yet obliterate Schuldt does when she tries to force the texts to align. Her high view of the doctrine of inerrancy results in a very low view of the biblical texts and serves as a parable for those seeking to understand the Gospel accounts: she is like one stumbling in the dark, putting together four different puzzles that portray four different images. Such attempts at harmonization result in fifth kind of Gospel, one derived from all four Gospels, but also one that has so distorted these portraits of Jesus that he is not even recognizable. Instead of a portrait of Jesus, Schuldt’s technique results in something far more abstract and far less interesting.

Schuldt reminds me of myself when I was younger and had received a lot of information about topics that I was interested in but lacked the conceptual framework with which to harness it. As a result, I was running with arguments rather than learning to walk or to even crawl with them. Schuldt is a student as Southern Evangelical Seminary in their graduate program of apologetics. No doubt in her classes she has been receiving a lot of information. But the way apologetics works is to confirm biases, not question them. And so she is being trained not to think critically. Therefore all the information they give her is filtered through particular views of the Bible that simply do not align with the biblical texts themselves. With what she’s learned she ends up being like a bull in a china shop and ends up absolutely wrecking the biblical texts. She certainly thinks she is defending the Bible but in reality she has done it a disservice. And frankly, SES has done a disservice to her and all their students.

One thing that cannot be overemphasized is that apologists like Schuldt simply do not spend very much time in the biblical texts. Rather, they spend a considerable amount of time in texts other than the biblical texts. But if you want to understand the Bible then spending large amounts of time in the Bible is indispensable. This may seem obvious but so often it isn’t to those who claim to actually believe the Bible in all it says. I saw this when I was an evangelical and I continue to see it as an atheist: the people of the Book have no appreciation of the Book because they don’t read the Book.

Maybe Schuldt will learn her lesson. But I have a feeling she won’t.

NOTES

1 See Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the New Testament, second edition (Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1994), 99, 216.

2 Heather M. Schuldt, “5 Examples Why Bart Ehrman Is Not a Gospel Expert” (10.17.18), Ladyapologist.com. Accessed 8 Nov 2018.

3 See Craig A. Evans, Mark 8:27-16:20, WBC vol. 34b (Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2001), 503.

4 FF Bruce, The Gospel and Epistles of John (Eerdmans 1983), 365.

5 L. Michael White, Scripting Jesus: The Gospels in Rewrite (HarperOne, 2010), 16.

6 Robert A. Guelich, “The Gospels: Portraits of Jesus and His Ministry,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (June, 1981), 121. Accessed 9 November 2018.

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons.

Hopelessly Confused: Heather Schuldt Takes on Bart Ehrman, part 2

In our first post we discussed Heather Schuldt’s blog post “5 Examples Why Bart Ehrman Is Not a Gospel Expert.”We addressed specifically issues concerning the dating of the Synoptic Gospels, briefly giving an overview of why Mark is dated to around 70 CE and Matthew and Luke to post-70. We also showed that Schuldt’s use of the Q source to demonstrate the early attestation of the Gospel records serves to undermine her own views on their dating and reliability. In today’s post we will briefly address the issue of authorship again and how it relates to claims that the Gospel writers were eyewitnesses to the stories about which they wrote.

GOSPEL AUTHORSHIP

Next in her response to an unidentified video featuring New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman, pop-apologist Heather Schuldt writes,

Authors and Eyewitnesses – Ehrman claimed that there were no eye witnesses in the video? Did he misspeak? Of course the four gospels have eye witnesses directly to Jesus himself. Matthew was a tax collector who was a direct disciple of Jesus. Mark worked closely with Peter who was a direct disciple of Jesus. Luke traveled with Paul who had a remarkable encounter with the risen Lord Jesus Christ that forever changed his life. John was a direct disciple of Jesus. The authors of the four gospels were most certainly qualified to report the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. For more information about early gospel dates and the reliability of the gospel writers, please read this short booklet, Why Four Gospels? The Historical Origins of the Gospels by David Alan Black. 

There is some charm to the incredulity with which Schuldt regards the notion that the Gospel accounts are not eyewitness reports. In some ways her view is very simple, if not simplistic. But it is not parsimonious, at least not with regards to the available data.

The Gospels Are Anonymous

For starters, all four of the Gospels are anonymous. This may come as a surprise to many Christians who assume that the titles to these ancient works – “The Gospel According to Matthew,” “The Gospel According to Mark,” etc. – are indicative of their authors. But there is no internal evidence to identify specific individuals as the authors of the Gospels.

In the modern understanding of authorship the traditions that form the basis of our Gospels are anonymous. In most instances there is little reason to doubt that the traditions originated with the first disciples who had been intimately associated with Jesus during his lifetime. But there is no way for us to ascribe a particular tradition to a specific disciple with certainty. They were told and retold by too many Christians on too many and too diverse occasions over too extended a period of time. The entire early Christian community is author of the Jesus tradition.2

So from where did the titles that attribute these works to particular individuals come?

For the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, that attribution came from Papias, a Christian leader who lived in the first and second centuries CE. Papias had written a five-volume work entitled Logiōn Kyriakōn Exēgēsis – Exposition of the Lord’s Words or Exposition of the Sayings of the Lord. However, this work is lost to history and we can only read fragments of Papias’ words in the works of Irenaeus (second century CE) and Eusebius (fourth century CE). It is in Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History that we find Papias’ views on Matthew and Mark.

Papias on The Gospel of Mark

Regarding the Gospel of Mark, Papias has this to say:

And in his own writing he [Papias] also hands down other accounts of the aforementioned Aristion of the words of the Lord and the traditions of the presbyter John, to which we refer those truly interested. Of necessity, we will now add to his reports set forth above a tradition about Mark who wrote the gospel, which he set forth as follows:

And the presbyter would say this: Mark, who had indeed been Peter’s interpreter, accurately wrote as much as he remembered, yet not in order, about that which was either said or did by the Lord. For he neither heard the Lord nor followed him, but later, as I said, Peter, who would make the teachings anecdotally but not exactly an arrangement of the Lord’s reports, so that Mark did not fail by writing certain things as he recalled. For he had one purpose, not to omit what he heard or falsify them.(Ecclesiastical History, 3.39.14-15)3

Assuming Eusebius is reporting accurately what Papias wrote, it seems Papias is connecting his claim concerning Markan authorship to an earlier tradition that came from “the presbyter John.” Who is this John? Some have asserted that this John was “in all probability the apostle John,”4 a view that is based on a particular reading of the Johannine literature we find in the New Testament.5 Both the epistles of 2 and 3 John identify the sender as “the elder [ho presbyteros]” (2 John 1; 3 John 1) and this connection coupled with the view that it was the disciple John who wrote the Johannine literature of the New Testament has led many to believe Papias was a disciple of the apostle John. However, this connection is dubious and owes its origin to the gradual evolution of the so-called “beloved disciple” (John 13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7; 21:20) into the disciple John.Yet there is no indication in what little we have in Papias’ words that there was such a connection. This “presbyter” John could have been an important figure within a particular Christian community but not an actual disciple of Jesus. And it could be that Papias was not telling the truth at all about his sources. Either option seems more probable than Papias knew the apostle John.

Regardless of where Papias got his information, he quotes the presbyter at length and thereby makes certain claims about Mark’s Gospel that are of historical interest. Fundamental to them all is that the presbyter traces Mark’s Gospel to the apostle Peter (3.39.15), the de facto leader of the fledgling Christian community. Thus Mark’s Gospel has apostolic authorization, as it were, and belongs in the Christian community. There is no way to assess the truth of such a claim whether on external or internal evidence. Michael Kok writes, “There is no sound basis in the earliest external evidence or the internal evidence of the Gospel that the author really was the interpreter of Peter.”7 And while pop-apologists have attempted to connect the Gospel of Mark to Peter on internal grounds, their efforts are far from convincing.8 At most we can say that a tradition arose wherein Mark was connected to Peter that was added to the notion that Mark wrote the Gospel attributed to him.

In claiming Petrine influence upon Mark’s writing, the presbyter has admitted implicitly and explicitly that Mark was not an eyewitness to the events he records: Mark “neither heard the Lord nor followed him” (3.39.15). Mark’s function seems to have been as an amanuensis, jotting down what Peter said about Jesus said or did. The presbyter suggests that the result of Mark’s efforts was a Gospel that was disjointed as Mark was going off Peter’s memories which apparently were not offered in a chronological manner but “anecdotally” (3.39.15). Yet this does not diminish the Markan arrangement of material since it stems from Peter’s own recollections: “Mark did not fail by writing certain things as [Peter] recalled. For he had one purpose, not to omit what he heard or falsify them” (3.39.15). So then “Papias’ observations suggests that according to his standards Mark’s work consisted of a collage of traditions faithfully passed on but rhetorically ineffectual.”9 

There has been some debate over whether Papias was speaking of some kind of proto-Mark or the Gospel as we know it today. In reading the Gospels of Matthew and Luke we find that the order of events contained within them follows almost exactly that which we find in the Gospel of Mark. So then what could it mean that the work was written in a disorderly fashion? And as Papias also comments on Matthew’s Gospel but doesn’t mention it being disorderly, could this mean that Papias was speaking of entirely different works than what we find in the New Testament canon? It is difficult to tell but we can be certain that no matter to what Papias through the presbyter was referring Eusebius uses Papias as evidence for the purpose of connecting Peter to the Gospel of Mark.

Papias on the Gospel of Matthew

Papias as recorded in Eusebius has little to say on the Gospel of Matthew.

Now this is reported by Papias about Mark, but about Matthew this was said, Now Matthew compiled the reports in a Hebrew manner of speech, but each interpreted them as he could. (Ecclesiastical History, 3.39.16)10

Papias’ words on Matthew are very brief and perplexing. The above translation renders the first clause from Papias as suggesting he thought Matthew had written in a Semitic style of speech. However, it is also possible that he meant that Matthew was written in the Hebrew (i.e. Aramaic) language.11 Regardless of what Papias meant, we know that many Christians came to think that Matthew’s Gospel had indeed been first written in Hebrew before it was then translated in Greek. For example, the second century Christian writer Irenaeus claimed that “Matthew…issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect.”12 Augustine followed this line of thought and also claimed Matthew had written in Hebrew: “Of these four, it is true, only Matthew is reckoned to have written in the Hebrew language; the others in Greek.”13 These seem to have been based upon the testimony of Papias and therefore represents the earliest interpretation of him. This also helps to make sense of what Papias means when he says that “each interpreted them as he could.” For those who were not fluent in Hebrew, reading and utilizing the Matthean text would prove difficult and so the usefulness of the Gospel of Matthew was dependent upon the ability of the one who “interpreted” it.

But there is no direct evidence that Matthew’s Gospel, as we have it, is a translation from Hebrew to Greek. All of the earliest manuscripts of Matthew (13745, etc.) are in Greek and none are in Hebrew. The case for a Hebrew original is virtually nonexistent. Some have argued that Papias may have been referring to an Aramaic version of Q or some kind of proto-Matthew14 but if Q did exist it seems to have been written in Greek and a proto-Matthean text would still have had to have been translated into Greek from Hebrew and there is no indication in the Gospel as we have it that this is the case. 

There is also the issue of the relationship between Matthew and Mark mentioned above. Papias considered Mark’s Gospel to be disjointed and disorderly. Yet he makes no such statement about Matthew’s Gospel despite the fact that the order of events in Matthew generally matches the order in Mark. So was Papias talking about the Gospel of Matthew as we have it today? And if he wasn’t, was he perhaps talking about a different version of the Gospel of Mark than what we have as well? If this is the case then the claim that Papias gives early attestation to Matthean and Markan authorship is wrong.

However one evaluates the overall trustworthiness of Papias, he does not provide us with clear evidence that the books that eventually became the first two Gospels of the New Testament were called Matthew and Mark in his time.15

Who Wrote the Gospel of Luke? 

The authorship of the Gospel of Luke is inexorably tied to the authorship of the book of Acts since whoever wrote the former must have written the latter. But the author never identifies himself and so we simply do not know who wrote it. Some have seen in the Lukan text of Acts subtle references to the author in the classic “We Passages.” In these passages the narrator suddenly inserts himself at particular points using the first personal plural whereas before he had not. For example, in Acts 16:10 we read, “When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.” This phenomenon is repeated throughout Acts (16:10-17; 20:5-15; 21:1-18; 27:1-28:16) leading some to believe that the individual composing Acts had joined Paul’s ministry team (see Acts 16:1-4 where it the author speaks of “they” rather than “we”).

The natural reading of these passages is that the author of Acts was present during the events he narrates in these passages and that he kept a diary or itinerary report that he incorporates into the Book of Acts.16

Unfortunately we are not told explicitly that it was Luke. In fact, Luke appears nowhere in the whole book of Acts! And in the whole New Testament Luke appears by name only three times: Colossians 4:14, Philemon 24, and 2 Timothy 4:11. Those passages do not give us any explicit information that Luke was the author of the “We Passages.”

In what other ways could these “We Passages” be explained? Ehrman has suggested that the author of Acts was using the first person plural to make it seem as if he was present for the events and therefore an eyewitness even though he was not.

Throughout the Christian literature there are passages in which an author will suddenly start using the first-person pronoun (“I” or “we”) in order to convince his readers that the account is completely trustworthy, since it is (allegedly) by an eyewitness (e.g., 2 Peter 1:16-19; 1 John 1:1-4; Gosp. Pet. 26, 59-60; the Coptic Apocalypse of Peter, and many other instances). An author who does this does not need to call attention to the fact that he is claiming to be an eyewitness. By speaking in the first person, it is obvious to the reader (or at least it is meant to be obvious) that the author was present for the accounts that he is narrating, and that therefore he can vouch for them. Is something like that happening with the “we-passages” of Acts? Does the author want us to assume that he accompanied Paul at times on his journeys? If so, he was remarkably successful: for centuries, readers have naturally assumed that he was Paul’s traveling companion.17

The “We Passages” therefore do not constitute evidence for Lukan authorship or even that the author was a participant in the ministry activities of Paul in the passages that the first person plural is used. Furthermore, William Sanger Campbell argues that the

“we” characters primary role is to replace Barnabas as Paul’s companion and witness in urgent times, to defend Paul’s credibility in the story in ways that the apostle himself cannot, and to provide reassurance that Paul carries out God’s directives as charged in spite of obstacles constructed by human characters or by nature. Paul is unable to provide this witness on his own merits because the narrative portrays his reversal of position with respect to the jesus movement as creating a credibility problem for him among Jews and Gentiles inside and outside the movement….The narrative provides two characters with impeccable credentials, Barnabas and the “we” narrator, to bridge Paul’s credibility gap in the story and for readers.18

So the “we” character is support for Paul and the authenticity of his ministry and its presence does not necessitate it being an actual historical eyewitness.

But there are other problems with connecting Luke with Acts that call into question the accuracy with which he wrote. For example, in the book of Acts we are told that Paul leaves for Athens without Silas and Timothy (Acts 17:15). Yet in 1 Thessalonians Paul clearly states that Timothy was with him while in Athens (1 Thessalonians 3:1-3). There are other incongruities as well.19 What this tells us is that whoever wrote Acts, if they did accompany Paul, didn’t get it completely right. (Or that Paul didn’t get it right.) And if Luke didn’t get the things to which he was actually an “eyewitness” right, can he be trusted with those things for which he clearly wasn’t (i.e. the Gospel of Luke)?

The Gospel of John

We come to the final of the canonical Gospels, the Gospel of John. Yet John is a bit different because we find at the end of it a claim of authorship: “This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true” (John 21:24; cf. 19:35). In context, “[t]his disciple” is a reference to “the disciple whom Jesus loved” whose fate is contrasted with that of Peter’s in 21:20-23. Despite multiple references to the individual who has become known as the “Beloved Disciple,” there is no place in all of the Gospel of John that explicitly identifies him with John the disciple. As I’ve discussed elsewhere,20 in the Gospel of John very few of the disciples are mentioned by name. They are Simon Peter, Andrew, Philip, Thomas, and Judas. There is also a disciple that appears in no other Gospel: Nathanael (see John 1:43-51). James and his brother John are only alluded to with the phrase “the sons of Zebedee” (21:2). This seems strange if John was the author of the Gospel. Why not mention him by name?

There is also evidence that the Gospel of John was produced in stages and perhaps from various source material. Within the text of John we see what some have referred to as literary or editorial “seams.”21 These are places where it appears that the text of John’s Gospel underwent some kind of redaction. For example, in John 5-6 we see a series of events that seem out-of-order. At the end of chapter four, Jesus was in Galilee in the city of Cana (4:46). In 5:1 he makes a trip to Jerusalem, a distance of about seventy miles. In Jerusalem Jesus performs a healing miracle (5:2-9) which results in an exchange with the Jews (5:10-47). Then suddenly in 6:1 we read how “Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee.” This is odd since we were just told he was in Jerusalem, seventy miles from the Sea of Galilee. But if chapter five originally belonged after chapter six then the narrative flow makes much more sense.

Another seam is seen in the end of John’s Gospel. Following his appearance to Thomas in 20:24-29, we read these words:

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name (20:30-31).

This feels like a natural ending to the Gospel of John. Jesus has confirmed that he is alive through multiple appearances to Mary (20:11-18) and to the disciples twice (20:19-29). What further proof is needed? And yet there is a whole other chapter of John left! What follows in chapter twenty-one differs in both language and style from the rest of John’s Gospel. It also shows evidence that it was added after the death of the Beloved Disciple. In 21:20-23 Peter and Jesus interact over the issue of the death of the Beloved Disciple. Peter had been told his fate (21:18-19) and then asks about the Beloved Disciple, “Lord, what about him?” (21:21) Jesus responds, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!” (21:22) The text then tells us that in “the community” a rumor had spread that the Beloved Disciple would not die but that this was not what Jesus intended by those words (21:22-23).

This editorial comment tells us several things about the authorship of the Gospel. First, it shows that the Gospel, as we now have it, was completed only after John’s (or the “beloved disciple’s”) death. Several early legends held that John was the last of the original disciples to die, in about the year 95 CE. The testimonial also shows that there were some Christians who thought John would not die before the return of Jesus, so the occasion of his death has caused chagrin that the author is trying to allay. Since the rumour is attributed to a saying of Jesus himself, it may well derive from a variation of the statement reported in Mark 9:1: “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.” John’s death raised once again a traditional apocalyptic expectation that the author(s) of the Gospel had to dispel. On the other hand, the testimonial finally says that this is indeed “John’s” Gospel; however, it also adds an affirmation: “and we know his testimony is true” (21:24). Here we have evidence that others in the community, people who thought of themselves as disciples of the “beloved disciple,” have carried on the process and completed the Gospel after his death.22

We have no direct evidence, then, for Johannine authorship but it is very possible that it is the product of a Johannine community, one that had been under the ministry of John himself and learned about Jesus from his teaching.

New Testament scholar George Beasley-Murray, after examining the texts featuring the Beloved Disciple and how they “hold well together and present a consistent picture,” thinks that there are some things about the Beloved Disciple that can be tentatively said.23

  • He was presented as a historical figure among Jesus’ early disciples and in the Church.
  • He was not a member of the Twelve or a person well-known among Christians.
  • He is not the author of the Gospel of John.24
  • He is presented as an eyewitness of certain events in John’s Gospel, especially the Resurrection.
  • His authority extends beyond events he may have witnessed.
  • The relationship between the Beloved Disciple and Peter requires exegetical examination.
  • He served as an authority figure in his community and had teachers who followed him.
  • The identity of the Beloved Disciple is the secret of the author of John’s Gospel.

Whoever this Beloved Disciple was, it is clear that his role in the Johannine community was vital and that the community looked to him for teaching about Jesus. His death forced changes to be made to the Gospel of John that sought to correct misconceptions about him and though he was not one of the Twelve, he was important enough that his views of Jesus served as the basis for some of the stories in the Gospel.

Or at least that is what the author of John’s Gospel would have us think.

The Gospels in the Second Century

Justin Martyr, a Christian author writing in the second century, alludes to the Gospels in his First Apology. Speaking of the Eucharist, Justin offers as a source for Jesus’ words at the Last Supper the Gospels: “For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them” (1 Apol. 66).25 Later he writes,

And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits…. (1 Apol. 67)

Justin serves as evidence that these “memoirs” were part of early Christian worship as a collection. And it also serves as evidence that the titles by which we refer to the four Gospels were not in circulation. There is debate over whether Justin knew of John’s Gospel,26 but it seems clear from other writings that he knew of the Synoptics.27 If the Gospels were written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, why does Justin never refer to them as such?

Beginning with Irenaeus at the end of the second century we start to see the Gospels referred to by the names by which we know them today. Irenaeus writes,

It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are. For, since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the Church is scattered throughout all the world, and the “pillar and ground” of the Church is the Gospel and the spirit of life; it is fitting that she should have four pillars, breathing out immortality on every side, and vivifying men afresh. (Against Heresies, 3.11.8)28

He then mentions all four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Ehrman notes,

This is remarkable. Before this time and place, nowhere are the Gospels said to be four in number and nowhere are they named as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Justin, living in Rome just thirty years earlier, did not number or name the Gospels. But now, near the end of the second century, in sources connected with Rome, they are both numbered and named. How do we explain that?29

At the beginning of the second century there does not appear to be a collection of the Gospels into the four as we know it as most communities had access to but one of the four Gospels.30 This seems to have persisted up until the time of Justin Martyr. But Justin’s mention of memoirs need not imply a canonical collection of Gospels existed yet. But even if it did, the lack of titles as we have them is quite telling. The historical situation in Rome must have changed such that attaching titles to the Gospels was born out of the necessity to differentiate between them whereas before this was not necessary. Ehrman’s hypothesis is that during the time of Justin Martyr, the Gospels lacked names because few had access to more than one. But between Justin’s day and Irenaeus’ a definitive collection of the four Gospels was circulated with the titles in order to set each apart within the collection. And it is this collection that then becomes the norm for orthodox Christianity. Writes Ehrman,

These ascriptions [i.e. “According to Matthew,” “According to Mark,” etc.] made perfect sense to people who read the books….This edition of the Gospels was rapidly copied and recopied and became common property. Since Rome was the theological and practical center of Christendom at the time, and since it had so many people – Christians included – come to and from the city, this edition of the Gospels spread quickly throughout the worldwide church. Scribes who copied these books started giving them their titles. Everyone familiar with these Gospels within a couple of decades was accepting the idea that they were written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Those are the apostolic names that came to be associated with these books all over the Christian map. That is how the Gospels came to be title everywhere. That is how the Gospels came to referred to, from that time down to today.31

This is certainly a plausible scenario but one that is difficult to test. What we can say is that from the time of the writing of the Gospels to Irenaeus, there appears to be no attribution to the traditional four of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, a fact problematic for Schuldt.

Summary

The Gospels are anonymous and the titles by which we now refer to them are unknown until the late second century CE. Consequently, the particular individuals to whom attribution is given is arrived at through very tenuous and often contrived means. Thus, when Schuldt writes that “the four gospels have eye witnesses directly to Jesus himself” she is not in line with the available evidence. Rather, she is regurgitating what she’s read in apologetic literature or in one of her classes at SES.

NOTES

1 Heather M. Schuldt, “5 Examples Why Bart Ehrman Is Not a Gospel Expert” (10.17.18), ladyapologist.com. Accessed 3 November 2018.

2 Keith F. Nickle, The Synoptic Gospels: An Introduction (WJK Press, 2001), 8.

3 Papias as quoted by Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 3.39.14-15, hypotyposeis.org. Accessed 3 Nov 2018.

4 William Hendricksen, Mark, New Testament Commentary (Baker Academic, 1975), 12.

5 For example, the anonymous letters of 1 John, 2 John, and 3 John show some kind of interconnectedness though it is not clear that the same person wrote all three of the letters. For example, whereas the epistle of 1 John frequently speaks in the first-person plural (“we”) the other two epistles attributed to John speak in the first person singular (“I”). It is possible that the first letter was sent by multiple church leaders in a Johannine community and 2 and 3 John were sent by individual leaders.

6 For treatment of this issue see Michael Kok, The Beloved Apostle? The Transformation of the Apostle John into the Fourth Evangelist (Cascade Books, 2017).

Michael Kok, The Gospel on the Margins: The Reception of Mark in the Second Century (Fortress Press, 2015), 267. In his volume, Kok effectively argues that by connecting Mark’s Gospel to Peter the “centrist” Christians made sure that fringe groups who were using Mark to support their views on Adoptionism and other “heresies” could do so no longer. Consequently, Mark’s “voice” was somewhat muted as it faded into the background of the more prominent Gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John. See Kok’s conclusion in that work (pp. 267-269).

8 For example, see J Warner Wallace, “Good Reasons to Believe Peter Is the Source of Mark’s Gospel” (8.24.18), coldcasechristianity.com. Accessed 3 November 2018. It is incredibly frustrating to see how Wallace treats Gospel literature, believing his credentials as a “cold case detective” somehow translate into the ability to do analysis of biblical texts and history. It is even more frustrating to see just how many people believe him!

9 David E. Garland, A Theology of Mark’s Gospel, Biblical Theology of the New Testament (Zondervan, 2015), 56. Garland suggests that the point of Papias’ remarks were not to directly connect the Markan Gospel to Peter but to show that it faithfully represented what Petrine teaching. Eusebius, on the other hand, was using Papias to establish Peter as the source behind the Markan Gospel (pp. 56-57).

10 Papias as quoted by Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 3.39.16, hypotyposeis.org. Accessed 3 Nov 2018.

11 The Greek text reads, Matthaios men oun Hebraidi dialektō ta logia synetaxato. A reasonable translation could be, “Now Matthew composed the words in the Hebrew dialect.”

12 Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.1.1, earlychristianwritings.com. Accessed 3 Nov 2018.

13 Augustine, Harmony of the Gospels, 1.2.4newadvent.org. Accessed 3 Nov 2018.

14 Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1-13, WBC vol. 33a (Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1993), xlvi.

15 Bart Ehrman, Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior (HarperOne, 2016), 118.

16 DA Carson and Douglas Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, second edition (Zondervan, 2005), 290.

17 Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, sixth edition (OUP, 2016), 330.

18 William Sanger Campbell, The “We” Passages in the Acts of the Apostles: The Narrator as Narrative Character (Society of Biblical Literature, 2007), 90.

19 For example, Todd Penner writes that

Acts and Paul’s letters exhibit significant divergences. For instance, the letters narrate conflict between Paul and people in his communities—rather than between Paul and Jewish and Gentile authorities, as we see in Acts. Acts says nothing of Paul the letter writer, and he is not called an apostle except in one instance (Acts 14:4, Acts 14:14). Most notable is the incongruity between Paul’s gospel message in Acts and the message we see in his letters, especially Romans and Galatians. Paul’s emphasis on “justification by faith” is completely absent from his speeches and sermons in Acts, where he seems more aligned with Peter’s mission to the Jews (compare Acts 2 and Acts 13). Indeed, the so-called Jerusalem Council dealing with issues arising from Gentiles entering the new movement looks quite different in Acts (Acts 15:1-35) and Galatians (Gal 2:1-10).

It should be noted that Penner still believes that both the book of Acts and the epistles of Paul can be viewed as “true and historical” and that perhaps these incongruities are less about Paul and the book of Acts and more about our modern preconceptions. See Todd Penner, “Paul and Acts” (n.p.), bibleodyssey.org. Accessed 3 November 2018.

20 Amateur Exegete, “Some Thoughts on Carey Bryant’s ‘The Gospel of John as an Eyewitness Account‘” (10.29.18), amateurexegete.com.

21 See Ehrman, The New Testament, 179-181.

22 L. Michael White, Scripting Jesus: The Gospels in Rewrite (HarperOne, 2010), 357.

23 George R. Beasley-Murray, John, WBC vol. 36, second edition (Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999), lxxiii-lxxv.

24 “The texts in which the disciple features present him as the witness on which the Gospel rests, not its author.” Ibid., lxxiii.

25 Justin Martyr, 1 Apology 66earlychristianwritings.com. Accessed 6 November 2018.

26 Arthur G. Patzia, The Making of the New Testament: Origin, Collection, Text & Canon, second edition (IVP Academic, 2011), 93; C.E. Hill, “Was John’s Gospel Among Justin’s Apostolic Memoirs?” in Sara Parvis and Paul Foster, editors, Justin Martyr and His Worlds (Fortress Press, 2007), 88-93 (accessed 6 November 2018).

27 Or, perhaps, a harmony of them. See Ehrman, Jesus Before the Gospels, 119.

28 Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.11.8earlychristianwritings.com. Accessed 6 November 2018.

29 Ehrman, Jesus Before the Gospels, 121. See also Gerd Theissen, The New Testament: A Literary History (Fortress Press, 2012), 216.

30 Theissen, 211.

31 Ehrman, Jesus Before the Gospels, 124-125.

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons.

Some Thoughts on Carey Bryant’s “The Gospel of John as an Eyewitness Account”

Over at his blog Theology in Motion, Carey Bryant posted a piece entitled “The Gospel of John as an Eyewitness Account,” summarizing why he thinks the Johannine Gospel is an eyewitness account to the life of Jesus. He makes four main arguments:

  1. The author was familiar with Jewish culture.
  2. The author seems to identify himself as the disciple “whom Jesus loved.”
  3. The author has insider’s knowledge of events that happen in the Gospel of John.
  4. The author claims to be an eyewitness.

All this Bryant claims constitutes “strong internal evidence” for Johannine authorship. But is it?

John and Jewish Culture

Bryant points out that in the Gospel of John we see various quotations from the Hebrew Bible as well as a familiarity with Jewish customs. He also points out that the Pool of Bethesda mentioned in John 5:2 has been found in archaeological digs of Jerusalem. Bryant writes,

These details are easily explained if [the author] was a Jew living during the time of Jesus This by itself is by no means decisive, but it is a starting point.

I appreciate Bryant’s candidness here because he is right – this is in no way whatsoever decisive. All this demonstrates is that it was written by a Jew who was familiar with Judaism and Jerusalem. 

The Disciple Whom Jesus Loved

In multiple places in the Gospel of John we read about “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (see 13:23; 19:26-27; 20:1-10′ 21:7, 20-24). But nowhere does the Gospel of John come out and say, “Hey, the disciple whom Jesus loved was John the brother of James!” Interestingly, though we know Jesus had twelve disciples in the book of John (see John 6:67, 70-71; 20:24) we are not given a list of them as we are in the Synoptics (i.e. Mark 3:13-19).

A Comparison of Disciples in the Markan and Johannine Gospels

Disciples in Mark’s Gospel
(Mark 3:13-19)

Disciples in John’s Gospel

Simon Peter Simon Peter (1:42)
James the son of Zebedee Not mentioned but alluded to in 21:2
John the brother of James Not mentioned but alluded to in 21:2
Andrew Andrew (1:40)
Philip Philip (1:43)
Bartholomew Not mentioned
Matthew Not mentioned
Thomas Thomas (11:6)
James the son of Alphaeus Not mentioned
Thaddaeus Not mentioned
Simon the Cananaean Not mentioned
Judas Iscariot Judas “son of Simon Iscariot” (6:71)
Not mentioned Nathanael (1:45)

As the above table shows, James and John aren’t even mentioned by name in the Gospel of John and they are only mentioned in passing in 21:2 as “the sons of Zebedee.” Isn’t it bizarre that the Gospel of John never once mentions John by name?

Insider Knowledge

Bryant suggests that certain details in the Gospel of John suggest that the author had first-hand knowledge of the events. He offers three examples: 1:39, 2:11, and 6:19. But none of these suggests first-hand knowledge. Instead, it reflects a narrator writing omnisciently as narrators tend to do. For example, the narrator knows of the secret meeting between Nicodemus and Jesus in John 3:1-10 and of the conversation Jesus had with the Samaritan woman while the disciples were off buying goods in town in John 4:7-30. This is the narrator at work, detailing for the reader what has transpired. It isn’t insider knowledge.

Is the Author an Eyewitness? 

Bryant thinks that passages like John 19:35 or 21:24 demonstrate that the author was an eyewitness. But let’s consider the implications of this.

In John 19:35, we are told that the writer saw a soldier pierce the side of Jesus with a spear indicating that he was dead (19:34). If this is John the son of Zebedee we have a fairly significant problem. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus tells the disciples, “You will all become deserters” (Mark 14:27) and this is precisely what happens (14:50). There are no disciples present at Jesus’ death in Mark (15:21-41) and the same is true of both Matthew (27:32-56) and Luke (23:26-49). In the Synoptics, the only ones who knew Jesus who witnessed his death were a group of women who had followed him and, per Luke, “his acquaintances” which is not a term that Luke ever uses to describe the twelve disciples.

So either John is an eyewitness and thus contradicts the Synoptics or John is not an eyewitness and is in error about his claim in 19:35. It is a lose-lose situation, particularly for inerrantists.

John Was Not the Author

It seems unlikely that John, the disciple of Jesus, was the author of the Gospel that bears his name. Perhaps some of the material contained in it go back to John but the idea that John wrote it is dubious at best. The “strong internal evidence” for Johannine authorship turns out not to be very strong at all.