Where Were the Disciples When They Saw? part III, Spong on the Resurrection

Examining the Meaning of the Resurrection, Part III: Where Were the Disciples When They Saw?

When people have a life-changing experience, they tend to freeze in their minds forever where they were and even what they were doing when the news broke or the new awareness entered their world.  I can recall to this day where I was when, as a ten-year old child, I heard the news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  When I was 32 and a young priest, I remember my precise circumstances in which I learned of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.  Almost everyone in America, but especially those of us who live in the New York City area, can recall where we were and with whom when the recognition dawned that the World Trade Center had been attacked with commandeered commercial airliners being driven into the Twin Towers.

Each of these moments was a shaping experience and each would be lived and relived in our memories for the rest of our lives.  The recent navy seal raid on Bin Laden’s secret hideout in Pakistan and the death of the planner and perpetrator of this monstrous act caused many to relive that original moment and to recall just how its awareness not only entered, but also shaped our lives.

The New Testament clearly regarded the moment we have named “Easter” as a life-changing experience, indeed so powerful a moment was it that eventually the followers of Jesus decided to make it indelible for all of history by making the decision to view the life of Jesus as the life by which history was itself divided.  So all of human history came to be seen and understood as having two distinct parts.  There were the years before Christ, which were to be called BC, and the years after Christ referred to as years lived in the power of his ongoing and continued presence, which we called Anno Domini, or AD, “The Year of our Lord.”

Given both that human proclivity of remembering and the impact which the first Easter brought to the followers of Jesus, it is surprising, perhaps even amazing, that the New Testament does not seem to know where the disciples were when whatever the experience occurred that we came to call “the resurrection of Jesus.”  The gospels simply do not agree on the disciples’ location when Easter dawned in their conscious awareness.  There are two centers that appear to compete for the honor, one is Galilee and the other is Jerusalem.  Let me now go through the available biblical data and lay out the evidence contained therein.

We start with Paul because he is the first author of any book or work that is today contained in the New Testament.  Paul, however, turns out not to be particularly helpful.  He gives us no location for any of his “witnesses.”  All he tells us is that Peter was the first to see and then “the Twelve.”  Clearly their natural setting would be Galilee since all of them were in fact Galileans.  We are told, however, that they did go to Jerusalem for the Passover so they could have been in Jerusalem.  If the connection between Passover and the crucifixion is a liturgical interpretation more than a historical recollection, as I have previously suggested, the argument would be stronger that the “appearances” to which Paul is referring were events that happened in Galilee.  The best we can say, however, is that the witness of Paul on this issue is ambivalent and so we move on.

Turning to Mark, the earliest gospel (70-72), we find the anomaly to which I have previously referred, namely, that this original gospel does not relate a resurrection appearance by Jesus to anyone.  Mark has only a tomb story that would clearly be in Jerusalem, but at the tomb the women find the grave empty and they hear a proclamation from one who is described only as “a young man in a white robe,” who tells them that Jesus has been raised and who then directs the women to tell the disciples that Jesus “goes before you to Galilee and there you will see him as he said unto you.”  The last few words in this quotation refer back to an earlier text in Mark in which Jesus predicts that the disciples will be scattered, but “after I am raised up I will go before you into Galilee.”  It is clear that Mark believes that the disciples would and did encounter the risen Christ in Galilee.  It is also clear to biblical scholars that Mark’s gospel ends at 16:8 and that both the shorter ending (16:9-10), an account of an appearance to Magdalene, and the longer ending (16:14-20), which recounts an appearance “to the Eleven” are added to Mark many years later, probably in the second century, in an attempt to harmonize Mark with the other gospels.  The earliest manuscripts of Mark did not contain these additions and they are universally regarded in the world of biblical scholarship as inauthentic.  So we have a probable vote in Paul and an overt suggestion in Mark that Galilee is the place where the disciples are located when the meaning of Easter comes to them and captures them.

Matthew is a further witness to the Galilean tradition.  This second gospel, written in the early to mid eighties, however, does contradict Mark, whose gospel he obviously has in hand and from which he draws much of his material, by suggesting that the women saw the raised Jesus at the tomb.  That would be a witness to the Jerusalem tradition.  Mark had said that they did not.  Luke agrees with Mark and says the women did not see him, so Matthew’s contrary view is highly suspect.  Matthew, however, does agree that it was only in Galilee that “the Twelve” have a resurrection experience.  This, in fact, is the first biblical account of the risen Christ appearing to the disciples anywhere.  Matthew, having heard by now the story of the defection of Judas, calls them “the Eleven.”  This Matthean narrative is, however a very strange one.  The risen Christ who appears is not a physically-resuscitated body, but rather a transformed and glorified one, and though the ascension story had not yet been written, he is clearly an ascended, heavenly being.  He comes out of the clouds to a mountain top.  Matthew says that Jesus had directed the disciples to this particular mountain, though there is no indication as to when that direction was given.  Then in that Galilean setting, Jesus is said to have given the great commission: “Go into all the world.”  This was the first time that a suggestion was made that the raised Christ had spoken to anyone.  Matthew, though ambivalent is surely in the Galilee column.

Luke counters the Galilean tradition sharply.  The resurrection of Jesus for him is a Jerusalem area only event.  In Luke the women do not see Jesus at the tomb, but Cleopas and his unnamed traveling companion experience him in the breaking of bread in the village of Emmaus, less than six miles from Jerusalem.   Luke later tells us that the raised Christ has also appeared to Peter, presumably that was also in Jerusalem.  Finally, according to Luke, Jesus appears to all the disciples in the afternoon of Easter Day, bids them peace, identifies himself clearly, asks for food to eat, opens their minds to understand the scriptures, directs them to remain in Jerusalem until “empowered” from on high and then departs.  Luke specifically denies any Galilean experience connected with Easter.

When we come to the Fourth Gospel, Jesus first appears to Mary at the tomb, then to the disciples that evening in Jerusalem in a locked and barred room without Thomas being present.  One week later, still in Jerusalem, John tells us that Jesus appears again to the disciples, but this time with Thomas present.  That is where the gospel of John seems to end.  Then, however, we have an epilogue, relating yet another appearance to the disciples, but this time it is much later and it is in Galilee by the Sea of Galilee, and with this narrative the epilogue ends.

That is the biblical data and it reveals significant conflict about where the disciples were, physically, when Easter was dawned on them.  Paul probably, Mark by inference and Matthew specifically say that the disciples were in Galilee when they “saw” the risen Christ.  Luke refutes that and makes the Jerusalem area the sole locale of resurrection.  John supports Luke in the Fourth Gospel itself, but in the attached epilogue, the scene is clearly Galilee.  With such inconclusive data, our next step is to look at the various accounts of the resurrection in each of the two locales.  When we do that the scales begin to tilt toward Galilee for a number of reasons.  The Galilean narratives are vague, primitive and mysterious and thus appear to be original.  They express something of the stunned and startled response that feels natural in those circumstances.  In the Jerusalem narratives, the miraculous has been heightened and the body has become quite physical.  The resurrected body of Jesus can even be touched and handled.  Only in the Jerusalem stories does the risen Christ do such physical things as eat, walk, talk and interpret scripture.  By every measurement, Galilee seems to be original and Jerusalem seems to be a later development.

We have one final test.  Remembering that no gospel is written except in the light of the resurrection, we examine some other stories in the gospels that are set in Galilee and which seem to have resurrection themes attached to them.  The accounts of Jesus walking on the water and stilling the storm are both Galilean stories.  The narrative of the disciples confessing Jesus as messiah has a Galilean setting.  Jesus being transfigured before their eyes together with the long- deceased Moses and Elijah is set in Galilee.  All of these narratives have a numinous, mysterious quality about them.  These are the data that tip our conclusion toward an original Galilean setting.  It is far easier to understand how the resurrection experience might have been shifted out of Galilee to the much more prestigious location in Jerusalem, than it is to imagine a shift going in the other direction.  Recall that the birth of Jesus, which in all probability occurred in Nazareth of Galilee, was also shifted to Bethlehem near Jerusalem to provide Jesus with a more prestigious place of birth.

Our clues thus begin to be assembled.  Peter appears to have been the first to “see” and thus the first to experience whatever resurrection was.  That experience appears to have occurred to him in Galilee.  We turn next to the “when” question and examine the meaning of “three days.”

~John Shelby Spong


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