Word Magazine June 1977 Page 11-12
FACT OR FICTION
By Antony Bassoline
Not too very long ago we all stood in church filled with anticipation, joy and peace as we eagerly awaited the moment when the Priest, in his most brilliant vestments, came out of the Royal Doors in the completely darkened church to offer us “the Unconquered Light” and to invite us to “glorify the Christ risen from the dead.” How thrilling it was taking the New Light, singing “Christ is Risen,” and participating in the bright Paschal Matins and Liturgy. Later in the day the participation of our children, in their Easter finery, was highlighted at the Agape Vesper Service, and the Gospel was proclaimed in as many languages as possible. Curiously though, one wonders how many people are aware of the fact that our grand and soul-stirring Easter celebration ends every year on a sour note! After all the shouts of “Christ is Risen,” after all the victorious Resurrection hymns, the Gospel on Easter Day ends with a tremendous “thud” — Thomas is not present when Jesus appears to the other ten, and we are left after our fabulous paschal “high” with his negative statement: “Unless I can put my fingers in the holes of the nails; unless I can put my hand into His side, I WILL NOT BELIEVE.” (John 20:25)
Belief in the Resurrection of Jesus is crucial to Christianity. If Christ is not alive, then there is no need or purpose for the Christian Religion. This was understood from the very beginning. Thus St. Paul states in his first letter to the Christian Community in Corinth: “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.” (I Cor. 15:14).
Is Jesus actually risen from death, or is the message of the Resurrection a terrible hoax or possibly a delusion on the part of the little band that followed Him, who in their grief convinced themselves that He was still alive? Where do we find the proof of the Resurrection?
ACCOUNTS OF THE GOSPELS
Let us look into the account (or rather accounts) of the Resurrection and post-resurrection appearances as presented to us by the Four Gospels. Even the most superficial reading will make one thing obviously clear — the details of the Resurrection as they are reported to us are EXTREMELY CONFUSED. For example, is it one young man in radiant apparel or two sitting on the slab where the body of Jesus had been laid? Where are the disciples first to see Jesus in Jerusalem, or in Galilee? Even more basic than this we are faced with the question of who was the first to see the Risen Christ! According to John, Mary Magdalene, according to Matthew, several women, according to Paul and Luke, Peter is the first! Now this leads to other questions — If we assume that the women (except for Mary Magdalene, different names for the women present are given by Mark, Matthew and Luke) are the first to receive the announcement of the Resurrection, we must ask ourselves what were they doing at the tomb in the first place! According to Mark they came to complete the process of burial interrupted by the Sabbath (very unusual when we consider the Jewish Law of uncleanliness associated with contact with a corpse). According to Matthew they came to “sit shiva” (mourn at the tomb by Jewish custom). Also, did the stone roll away in front of them, or did they find the stone already rolled away — again the accounts differ. Do the Apostles first see Jesus on a mountain in Galilee, as St. Matthew reports (Matt. 28:16), or behind closed doors in Jerusalem, as St. John reports (John 20:19)?
It is precisely this confusion and contradiction which point to the reality of the event. No attempt is made to harmonize the versions and thus they can hardly be called contrived. Many people whose faith depends on the literal word for word interpretation of the Bible have attempted to put all the accounts of the Resurrection together as one continuous narrative, e.g., the women first hear the news (Mark), Mary Magdalene stays behind weeping at the grave and sees Jesus, whom she thinks is the gardener (John), meanwhile the other women, still running, see Jesus on the road (Matthew), etc. If anything is hopelessly contrived and artificial, it is just such attempts as this. We know that the Gospel message was originally transmitted by oral tradition. As is natural in such a process, in time the details began to differ. But this in no way can be used to prove that the basis of the tradition is untrue. As an example of this we can use the illustration of several witnesses to an accident. All are called to court a year after the accident, all were direct witnesses, all have different versions of what happened at the accident! What does it prove? That there definitely was an accident. If not, what provoked the testimony of the witnesses, as conflicting as it might be? We can use the same reasoning in regard to the Resurrection — something had to initiate the preaching of the Resurrection!
Some basic facts emerge from the tangle of the accounts. On these all the accounts seem to be based. (1.) the empty tomb (2.) the testimony of the women.
IS IT A HOAX?
Now let us address ourselves to the question of whether or not the story of the Resurrection is a hoax. If we believe that the teaching of the Resurrection was a fraud, we are already in trouble since we will have to explain the very core of the story — the testimony of the women. Why would the primitive Church, which was completely Jewish, use the testimony of women as the basis for something as crucial as the story of the Resurrection? THE TESTIMONY OF WOMEN WAS INADMISSABLE IN JEWISH LAW! (this probably explains, by the way, why Paul, a rabbinic scholar, mentions the appearance to Peter and avoids mention of the women). Further, if the story is contrived, why do the apostles have themselves portrayed as cowards? If the story is fiction, they certainly could have presented themselves in a better light. On the very practical level, how do we explain the empty tomb? One of the troparia we sing at Saturday evening Vespers contains the statement: “Who has ever seen a corpse, naked and embalmed being taken from the tomb . . . the question is a valid one, especially when we consider that the followers of Jesus were all pious Jews. If they did not finish something as important as the process of burial for fear of breaking the Sabbath, we can hardly imagine that they would break the Law by handling and transporting an unclean corpse!
Is belief in the Resurrection the result of a delusion or hysteria caused by excessive grief and despair? First of all, it is possible to believe on the practical level that one or two people could convince themselves that Jesus was alive, but are we to believe that the whole group of His followers suffered from mass hysteria! Let’s look again into the Gospels. The accounts give us several important clues concerning the reaction of Jesus’ followers. (1.) the women certainly were not expecting to find Jesus alive and thus were not approaching the tomb with any preconceived hopes. The Greek words used by St. Mark very vividly describe their reaction. The literal translation is: “They left the tomb SHAKING UNCONTROLLABLY FROM FEAR ….,” (Mark 16:8) Is this the reaction of people who are deluding themselves into believing that Jesus is alive? Why would they have brought ointment in the first place, if they expected a resurrection? (2.) The apostles themselves are presented as incredulous. They remain locked away in secret for fear of their lives. Note the reaction of Thomas. In fact the apostles accused the women of suffering from delusion. (“They did not believe the women; the tale seemed to them to be utter nonsense.”) (Luke 24:11) If this is the case, and we insist on saying that the Resurrection was a delusion, then when and how did the disciples acquire faith in the Resurrection?
What are we left with then? We find a group of simple and cowardly peasants from Galilee suddenly becoming wise and brave; the ignorant are suddenly found preaching and winning converts to the point where their message is now proclaimed in all the corners of the earth. It is a preaching which St. Paul says is “a scandal to the Jews and ridiculous to the Greeks.” (1st Cor. 1:23). On the surface it seemed to have no appeal to anyone, yet it caught on.
We find a man, Saul of Tarsus, a hater of the followers of Jesus, become Paul, early Christianity’s greatest teacher. We find the apostles and their successors willing to undergo hardship and even death for the sake of the message. For the past nineteen hundred years the lives and hearts of men have been changed and touched by this message. As illogical as it is, as unexplainable as it is, as unbelievable as it is, it has a power. No one saw the actual Resurrection of Jesus, but the power of the Resurrection was felt and brought into being the Christian Church. That power is still being felt by those who open themselves to it. One thing is certain, myths and delusions do not have the ability to last so long a time or to change the course of history.
In the stillness of that first Easter dawn something was found — and the world hasn’t been the same.
Father Antony is pastor of St. George Orthodox Church of the Greater Philadelphia Area and is Teen SOYO Advisor in Eastern Region.