The Greatest Story Never Told

Do you know how many people the Bible says were raised from the dead on Easter weekend?

When Christian friends engage me in debate about the reliability of the Bible, I like to ask them that to see how well they know the book they so revere. One of the hallmarks of fundamentalism is the belief that the Bible can’t be wrong, and that has produced a plethora of problems for American society. But believing in a perfect Bible doesn’t always lead to actually knowing what the book says. So when I ask them this question, the answer I usually get is: “It says only one person was raised from the dead:  Jesus.” But that’s not correct, and what happens next fascinates me.

I have to point out to Christians, many of whom maintain that the Bible cannot be wrong, that in one place (and only one place) the Bible says that a whole bunch of people came out of their graves right after Jesus died on the afternoon of Good Friday and then walked around Jerusalem…a couple of days later. Here’s what it says in the gospel attributed to Matthew about the moment that Jesus died:

At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.

In all my years in church I don’t recall ever once hearing a preacher acknowledge from the pulpit that a bunch of people were raised from the dead and appeared to many on Easter weekend. Have you ever heard one talk about this?  Surely somebody has addressed it at some point. But most of them don’t, and never will. I find that fascinating!

This book, which many of them claim would never make a mistake (especially about something as important as the events of Easter weekend), tells a story that I’m not sure they really believe. I say that because they virtually never talk about it. This gets talked about so infrequently that even when I ask people the above question they seem unaware the book even says what it says.

They’ve heard about the earthquake. They know all about the tearing of the veil.  I’ve heard that preached about many times.  I myself have taught before about the significance of the veil because the book of Hebrews builds on that symbolism and it is rich with theological import (incidentally we have zero external historical verification for that happening, but never mind that right now). But for all the messages and sermons and studies I’ve heard on the first part of that passage, I’ve heard almost nothing about a mass resurrection or about a subsequent flash mob in the middle of Jerusalem on Easter weekend.

Now I’m picturing a scene from Thriller and hearing a voiceover by Vincent Price, except everybody’s wearing Bible clothes instead of 80’s outfits.  Somebody should totally make that happen, by the way.

Just picture ^this, but with tunics and robes and sandals.

A Story That Really Doesn’t Fit

Does anybody really believe that this fantastic story happened? I’m not sure even Christians believe this happened.  Preachers don’t talk about it, and most Christians don’t even seem aware this story is even in there. It’s the greatest story never told. The few who know it’s there just scratch their heads and say, “I’m not really sure what to do with that.” This story is problematic for several reasons.

First of all, no other gospel writer says a word about a mass resurrection. This story is unique to Matthew’s gospel. If something this dramatic really happened, why did no other gospel writer say a word about it?  And not only that, but nobody else ever says a word about it again, ever—not Paul, not Peter, not James or John—nobody! That’s insane. If this was supposed to have really happened, you’d think it would show up somewhere. It should show up everywhere. But it never does again.

Even the details of the story are really fuzzy. It says there was an earthquake when Jesus died. It was so big that “rocks split.” It’s unclear whether or not that was the cause of the graves opening, but what’s clear is that it says a bunch of people came back from the dead at that moment. How long had they been dead? Were they decomposed or had they been resurrected in fresh form? And how long did they hang around their graves before they came into town to circulate among the townspeople? All weekend? It says they were raised on Friday afternoon but curiously it says they didn’t go into town until after the resurrection. What did they do during all that time?

AwkwardMomentsBible_HeIsRisen2
(And yes, I know this wasn’t what their graves looked like but it gets the point across)

(Image courtesy of The Awkward Moments Bible, which can be found here.)

Think about how dramatically this would change the credibility of the resurrection of Jesus for everyone. I mean, imagine you are poor doubting Thomas and you missed out on the initial appearance of the risen Jesus to the rest of the disciples behind closed doors. Would you really have had any trouble accepting that one more person had come out of his grave at that point?  Would it even have been news? The town was supposed to have just witnessed a whole bunch of people back from the dead! What’s one more person added to the mix?

I can imagine the women who discovered the empty tomb rushing into the room where the disciples sat huddled, breathlessly announcing that Jesus wasn’t in his grave anymore, only to have them shrug and say, “Seems legit. I just bumped into my great great great grandfather this morning. Funny guy. Smelled really bad, though.”

This story really is a fly in the ointment for the infallibilists among evangelicals and fundamentalists. I know not everybody is hung up on having a perfect Bible, but if there’s any place they care about insisting it can’t be wrong, it’s right here on Easter weekend. They may have decided the Bible can be wrong about common ancestry, or a worldwide flood, or even the Exodus or how many wives and concubines Solomon really had, but not this.

The story of Easter weekend is a big deal—it’s central to the Christian message—and finding this random scene which never gets mentioned again is really a bit of an embarrassment. Even those who read it have to skip over it because it doesn’t really seem like it fits with the rest of the story. I think if most were willing to be honest they’d have to say that they’re not sure this story should really be in the Bible. It doesn’t belong.

A Bible Story That Nobody Believes

Just to appease my curiosity I spent the better part of a Saturday in my old conservative seminary’s library rounding up as many commentaries on this passage as I could find. I surveyed the whole gamut of biblical scholarship from the most liberal to the most conservative and do you wanna know what I discovered?

Almost none of them think this really happened. Even the conservative scholars. Even the ones committed to biblical inerrancy. The Word Biblical Commentary has this to say about the passage:

A surprising number of commentators sidestep the historical question altogether. Those who do raise it can be found to use terms such as “puzzling,” “strange,” “mysterious.” Stalwart commentators known for their conservatism are given to hesitance here…

We should not, of course, rule out a priori that Matthew may be recording historical events in these verses. If God raised Jesus from the dead, he surely can have raised a number of saints prior to the time of the general resurrection…The problem is that the event makes little historical sense, whereas what does make sense is the theological point that is being made.1

Anyone who truly wrestles with the text comes away equivocating about the historicity of this story.  They tell us we’d be better off not demanding “too much historicity” from the passage because we will come away disappointed. We’d be better off sticking with the theological meaning of the story rather than whether or not it actually happened. Even N.T. Wright, who is a staunch defender of the historicity of Jesus, has this to say:

I do not think we can find certain answers to any of these questions—which may of course mean they are, as we say, the wrong questions to be asking…

It is impossible, and for our purposes unnecessary, to adjudicate on the question of historicity. Things that we are told by one source only, when in other respects the sources are parallel, may be suspect…This is hardly a satisfactory conclusion, but it is better to remain puzzled than to settle for either a difficult argument for probable historicity or a cheap and cheerful rationalistic dismissal of the possibility.2

“Better to remain puzzled,” he says. What an interesting concession to make!  Men who are still tied to the pulpit in one way or another cannot openly admit that they don’t think this story really happened. That would get them in far too much hot water. Those who write commentaries for their benefit must also be extremely judicious in the language they choose to explain the many things wrong with this story. Most have to obfuscate and equivocate and say things like Raymond Brown says in his famous commentary here:

…this popular, poetic description is deliberately vague—its forte is atmosphere, not details…to make a matter of major concern their literal historicity is to fail to understand their nature as symbols and the literary genre in which they are presented.3

bookstack
Just a little light reading on a Saturday afternoon.

Notice how everyone keeps telling us to direct our attention away from whether or not the events described herein actually happened. What matters, they tell us, are the theological truths this incongruous tale was meant to convey. Except that’s not really how the story is being told, is it?  The writer of the gospel of Matthew isn’t speaking poetically here, no matter what parallels can be found in either Old Testament symbolism or contemporary Roman folklore. This story ventures beyond apocalyptic poetry and claims that the risen dead marched into Jerusalem and showed themselves to the residents, presumably as further proof that something supernatural has just happened. That’s how the story goes. And nobody who’s really wrestled with the implications seems to really think that happened.

Which means we’ve got a double standard at work here. The story of Jesus rising from the dead has to be true. But nobody in his right mind can make a good case that this other part of the story makes any sense. So they sweep it under the rug and then tell you to stop scrutinizing the story so meticulously. “You’re asking the wrong questions,” they say. “Pay no attention to that over there, only look at this over here. That stuff over there is mysterious, and we’re not meant to understand.”

Seams in the Fabric Show a Changing Story

This isn’t the only story that shows evidence of traditions popping up and making it into the Bible that clearly were not universally accepted. In the New Testament alone I see several instances of a changing story that should make it clear to us that this narrative evolved over time, and sometimes things got thrown in that didn’t fit with the rest of the story. The chronology of the life of Paul was a hobby of mine for years and I could go on for hours about how many ways the details of his life and work don’t match up, but I’ll spare you. We’re talking about the gospels now, so I’m going to briefly mention two details that illustrate how this story was being made up over time.

1. Jesus’s family thought he was crazy and didn’t believe in him. Or maybe they did.  The third chapter of Mark’s gospel tells us that soon after Jesus began teaching publicly, his family sought to take him home because they thought, and I quote, “He is out of his mind.” At the end of the passage they try to get in to see him but he brushes them off and says his real mother and brothers are the people who heed his words, which evidently did not include his birth family. John’s gospel corroborates this detail, informing us that even his own brothers didn’t believe any of this stuff.

But hold on a second. The other two gospels each add stories from his childhood, each story different from the other, explaining that Jesus was quite dramatically and undeniably heralded as the Son of God for the benefit of his family, once by a choir of angels and another time by gift-bearing wise men from the Far East.  After the breathless shepherds told the tale of the chorus of angels, the gospel says that “Mary treasured up these things, and pondered them in her heart.”

So in the earlier version of the story of Jesus, we’ve got an incredulous family trying to take Jesus away because “he’s out of his mind.” But when later gospels are written, a new story has surfaced which has his family becoming aware of his significance from the very beginning by means of ostentatious and undeniable supernatural occurrences (not the least of which would include a birth without ever having sex).

It seems to me that the most logical inference here is that we’re seeing the seams of a developing story, and the most sensible explanation is that the story evolved over time. That’s why these things don’t always fit.

2. John the Baptist believed in Jesus. Or maybe he didn’t. At the beginning of all four gospels we are told that John the Baptist had a following which then turned and followed Jesus. John’s gospel even puts words in the Baptist’s mouth to the effect that his whole ministry was only in preparation for the coming of Jesus. Once Jesus had arrived, John’s ministry was done. “He must increase, but I must decrease,” John said. Seems pretty clear that the Baptizer knew his place in the order of salvation, right?

But then later we learn that after quite a while, John still had his own separate disciples. Why after Jesus began his ministry would John still be keeping his own separate followers?  And why would he send people over to Jesus’s people to ask if he was really who John thought he was? Not only that, but we learn from a much later story that one of the early leaders of the church in Corinth named Apollos had been influenced by a separate tradition which emphasized John the Baptist’s ministry but left out most of the teachings of Jesus.

Come to think of it, the apostle Paul rarely ever made mention of any teachings of Jesus, either. Were there separate communities in Alexandria (where Apollos was from) that majored on John the Baptist instead of Jesus? It seems to me that many different versions of the Christian faith were growing up in multiple locations simultaneously, each one different enough from the other to make cooperation and interaction really awkward.

Now I know what some of you are thinking. The zombie flash mob (aka “The Thriller in the Levant”) at the beginning of this article sticks out like a sore thumb for so many reasons that even the conservative scholars and theologians can’t conjure a good explanation. But these other two examples could be explained away by simply saying, “Hey, people’s faith can be weak and they fail all the time. So maybe both Mary and John the Baptist knew better but they just lost their faith somewhere along the way.” I’ll grant that’s a conceivable rationalization.

But it’s awfully convenient, too, don’t you think? Isn’t it also possible that the reason each of these stories seem to contradict themselves is because at different times and in different places competing versions of the stories evolved with the end result that they didn’t agree with one another? If you’re personally invested in a perfect Bible, then that’s not an option. But if you ever allow yourself to step out of that epistemic closure, you might find that looking at these things differently makes them all make so much more sense.

Why I’m Making a Deal Over This

If people who think the Bible is infallible just minded their own business I would probably never take the time to lay out all of these contradictory details. But they don’t mind their own business. They insert themselves into everyone else’s lives and even vote to ensure their way of seeing the world is forced onto everyone else. As long as believing in a perfect book is part of why they do the things they do, I am going to point out those places where this book is clearly in error. I see no good that could come from blindly accepting the dictates of an ancient text, especially among people who should know better than to insist this book always gets it right.

________

Footnotes:

1. Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 33b: Matthew 14-28. by Donald Hagner, Word Books, 1995 (p.850-851).

2. The Resurrection of the Son of God, N.T. Wright, Fortress, 2003 (p.633, 636).

3. Death of the Messiah, Raymond E. Brown, Doubleday, 1994 (p.1126).

 

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