In 1963 the body of fourteen-year old Addie Mae Collins, one of four African-American girls tragically murdered in an infamous church bombing by white racists, was buried in Birmingham, Alabama. For years family members kept returning to that grave to pray and leave flowers. Then in 1998 they made the decision to disinter the deceased for reburial at another cemetery. But when workers were sent to dig up the body they returned with a shocking discovery: the grave was empty.
Last week we saw that there is a credible case to be made for claiming that the tomb of Jesus was vacant. However, it is unlikely that the Jesus movement would have taken off if all that happened was that the tomb was found empty. Indeed, look at Mary Magdalene; she knows that the body is not in the tomb but she assumes that someone must have taken it. Let’s look at one of the resurrection appearances.
The resurrection is historical
Bible scholar, Craig Evans, explains that, ‘No serious historian of any religious strip doubts that Jesus of Nazareth really lived in the first century and was executed under the authority of Pontius Pilate, the governor of Judea and Samaria.’ But these facts alone don’t explain the rapid emergence of the Christian church.
In fact the death of Jesus should have ended the Jesus movement. That a movement would begin, centred on a crucified messiah is astonishing; the Romans saw crucifixion as shameful and scandalous, and the Jews believed it was a sign of being under God’s curse. How could a church be established in the very city where Jesus was seen to be defeated and dishonoured? Something must have happened!
Again, it is worth noting the apparent discrepancies between the gospel accounts. Mark talks of a young man dressed in white, Matthew speaks of an angel whose clothing was as white as snow, Luke speaks of two men in dazzling apparel, and John speaks of two angels dressed in white. So were these men or angels and how many of them was there?
Well, we need to realise that angels in the New Testament did not look like the angels of modern superstition; there didn’t appear with feathers! Angels often took the form of people. After all the writer of Hebrews talks of people entertaining angels without knowing it; because these angels appeared like anybody else. What we have in the resurrection stories are angels that have taken a human form. As for their number: it is possible to only mention a spokesman without referring to those who accompanied him.
As I said last week, I believe the apparent discrepancies between these accounts are strong evidence of their authenticity. Professor John Lennox writes:
If several witnesses to an event make statements in court that agree in every detail, word-for-word, any judge would be likely to deduce that the testimonies were not independent; and, worse still, that there had possibly been collusion to mislead the court. On the other hand, testimonies of independent witnesses, which were hopelessly in disagreement on all the main points, would be of no use to a court either. What is looked for in independent testimonies is agreement on all the main facts, with just that amount of difference which can be accounted for by different perspectives etc.
I also mentioned last week that the prominent role played by women in these stories is highly significant. In that culture women were not considered to be reliable; their testimony was not admissible in court. If you were making this story up you would not have given women centre-stage; particularly a woman like Mary Magdalene—who had previously been possessed by demons.
William Lane Craig points out that it would have taken around a hundred and fifty years for legend to develop. Interestingly, that is around the time when other gospels, like the Gospel of Thomas, emerged. But the accounts in the four gospels of the New Testament have none of the form of legend. For example, a legendary Jesus would never have been portrayed as too weak, after a flogging, to carry the beam of his cross.
One so-called gospel, referred to as ‘the Gospel of Peter’, was written in the second half of the second century. This has Jesus coming out of the tomb with a huge body that reaches up beyond the sky, and the cross comes out of the tomb and actually talks. Now that sounds like legend! But the four gospels do not sound like legend, but rather like accounts based on eye-witness recollections.
If you were making the story of Jesus up you would never have him cry from the cross, ‘my God, my God why have you forsaken me’; such a detail is too open to misunderstanding (as Craig Evans writes, ‘except that they be historically true, these words are much too scandalous to be true’). Similarly, if you were making this up you would be vague about names so that people could not investigate witnesses, but each of the gospels mention Joseph of Arimathea (an unlikely hero given that he was a member of the Jewish council that opposed Jesus), and Mark goes so far as to talk of ‘a certain man from Cyrene, Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus (it seems that his readers were acquainted with these men).
Sir Edward Clarke, a British High Court judge who conducted a thorough legal analysis of the events surrounding the resurrection concluded:
The resurrection is personalTo me the evidence is conclusive, over and over again in the High Court I have secured the verdict on evidence not nearly so compelling. As a lawyer I accept the gospel evidence unreservedly as the testimony of truthful men to facts that they were able to substantiate.
Our passage opens with Mary Magdalene, alone at the tomb after the others have gone home. She is weeping. She looks into the tomb and sees two angels. They ask her, ‘woman, why are you crying?’ From the standpoint of heaven there is nothing less logical than crying at the tomb of the risen Jesus! Then Mary becomes aware of a man in her midst; who she, wrongly, assumes is a gardener.
It is interesting that she doesn’t recognise Jesus straight away. Again, I think this is a great indicator of the authenticity of these accounts: if people fabricated this story, would they have shown portrayed people as slow to recognise Jesus? While the morning haze may have affected her ability to see him, and she certainly wasn’t expecting to meet him, the main reason people did not recognise Jesus was that he had entered into a new level of existence. Jesus was not merely resuscitated; he was raised in a glorious resurrection body. This body had both continuity (it bore the scares) and discontinuity (it would never die again). It is the sort of body that the apostle Paul tells us that we will receive when Jesus returns to earth.
Mary thinks that this gardener may have removed Jesus’ body (she was not anticipating the resurrection). Then the gardener speaks her name: ‘Mary’. Earlier Jesus had taught that he was the good shepherd that lays down his life for his sheep, and that the sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name … the sheep follow him, for they know his voice (John 10:3-4, ESV).
There is something very personal about Jesus’ dealing with Mary. It is the same personal relationship that he has with all his people. The apostle Paul wrote to the Galatians about, the Son of God, 'who loved me and gave himself for me' (Gal. 2:20). With regards to this text in Galatians, Martin Luther advised us to:
The resurrection is news to be sharedRead the words "me" and "for me" with great emphasis. Print this "me" with capital letters in your heart, and do not ever doubt that you belong to the number of those who are meant by this "me." Christ did not only love Peter and Paul. The same love He felt for them He feels for us. If we cannot deny that we are sinners, we cannot deny that Christ died for our sins.
N. T. Wright is a leading New Testament scholar; he was formerly Bishop of Durham, and now lectures in the University of Saint Andrews. He explains that,
… after Jesus of Nazareth had been executed, anybody two days, three days, three weeks, or three years after that would never have said he was the Messiah, unless something extraordinary had happened to convince them that God had vindicated him …
That vindication was his resurrection, and our duty is to proclaim this good news—this is our concluding point!
Jesus tells Mary not to cling to him, for he has not yet ascended to the Father. Jesus may be saying that she will have other times to be with him before he ascends to heaven; or he may be saying that when he ascends to heaven she will get to experience him more intimately. Either way, she is to go and tell the others. Bible commentator Bruce Milne writes:
Tragically, over the centuries the Christian community has shown a far greater interest in sitting at Jesus’ feet, holding on to him amid the comfort of his presence, than in going out into the world to share the good news of the risen Lord with broken, needy hearts who have as valid a claim to be known of him as we.
Lee Strobel was educated at Yale Law School, and was an award winning legal editor of the Chicago Tribune. He described himself as an atheist until he began a twenty one month investigation into the claims for the historic Jesus. He became convinced that the Jesus of the Bible was the Jesus of history and that he is now the risen king. This truth changed his life; his five-year-old daughter went to her mother and exclaimed, ‘Mommy, I want God to do for me what he has done for daddy.’ Now he writes books arguing in favour of Christianity. These are well-worth reading and include The Case for Christ and The Case for Faith. Strobel knows this good message is not to be kept to ourselves and that our lives are to be spent sharing what we have learned about Jesus.