Thursday, July 02, 2015

Resurrection – A Reality or a Pious Dream? Part V Matthew’s Story of Easter

by John Shelby Spong

When we come to the Easter story in the gospel of Matthew, which was written according to the best estimates of the scholars about 10 to 15 years after Mark, we discover two things immediately. First, Matthew was very dependent on Mark, which he clearly had before him as he wrote. Second, Matthew regarded Mark as incomplete and so he quite consistently filled in the blanks or sharpened the details that he believed Mark had left vague or empty in his story.

Mark says: “When the Sabbath had passed” (Mark 1:1) and only later tells us it was early in the morning, while Matthew is quite specific that the women began their journey to the tomb: “After the Sabbath toward the dawn of the first day of the week” (Matt 28:1).

Mark had identified the women who came to the tomb as Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of James, and Salome. As we discussed last week depending on where one places the comma that could be two women or three. Take that comma out and the text could be read: “Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of James and Salome,” making James and Salome siblings and seeming to identify just which Mary this was.

It seems to me that this is the way that Matthew read it for he refers to only two women, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary. We also noted last week that in Mark’s final verses of his crucifixion story, he tells us that only Mary Magdalene and another woman named Mary viewed the crucifixion from afar. In any event that seems to be the way Matthew treated it. Again, I raise the possibility, based on an earlier passage in Mark, that this second Mary was in fact the mother of Jesus.

The mother of Jesus was referred to by the name “Mary” only once in Mark’s gospel and that was by an anonymous voice in the crowd. Jesus had just spoken in the synagogue in Nazareth in what must have been a brilliant fashion, prompting this voice to cry out: “Where did this man get all this? What is the wisdom given to him? What mighty works are wrought by his hands? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and mother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon and are not his sisters here with us?” (Mark 6:2, 3).

If that is a proper reading of Mark, Salome could have been one of the unnamed sisters of James and therefore of Jesus. If this second Mary is not the mother of Jesus, then there is no biblical evidence that the mother of Jesus was present at the foot of the cross until the 10th decade when the Fourth Gospel places her there. Such a conclusion would shatter Marian piety, which has always portrayed the mother of Jesus as cradling the deceased body of her son at the foot of the cross. At the same time, this identification would indicate that the mother of Jesus did in fact have other known children, which would serve to shatter another aspect of Marian piety, namely that the mother of Jesus was “ever virgin.” Separating biblical facts from developing tradition has never been easy.

In any event, to go back to my original assertion, when we read Matthew’s story of Easter we discover that he regularly filled in the blanks that he appeared to think that Mark had left open. As Mark’s women approach the tomb, they expressed some anxiety as to how they would be able to roll the stone from the door of the tomb. When they arrived, however, they discovered it had already been rolled away. How that was accomplished was left unexplained. Matthew filled in this blank. He tells his readers that there was a “great earthquake.” In that earthquake the angel of the Lord descended out of the sky. It was this angel, he asserts, who rolled the great stone away. Matthew has clearly heightened the supernatural quality of the story. Its miraculous nature was growing.

Mark described the messenger of the resurrection as: “a young man in a white robe” (Mark 16:5). Matthew has heightened that figure also, describing him in overtly supernatural terms: “His appearance was like lightning and his raiment white as snow” (Matt 28:3).

Matthew then used this angel to take care of another problem that he himself had created. Only in Matthew are we told the story of Temple guards being placed around the tomb of Jesus, lest the “disciples of Jesus come by night and steal the body, while claiming that he had been raised from the dead.” By the time Matthew wrote, some apologetic agenda was surely operating and it found expression in this story. Having created this guard around the tomb of Jesus, Matthew now had to deal with its presence. He did so by suggesting that the appearance of the angel, who arrived on the wings of an earthquake, was so dazzling that the assigned guards trembled and fell over into a state of unconsciousness. They “became like dead men” (Matt. 28:4), says Matthew’s text. So with these two issues settled the way was prepared for Matthew’s women to arrive at the tomb and to be unhindered, so his story could unfold.

The angel in Matthew now spoke directly to the women. The message is all but identical with the words of Mark’s young man in a white robe: “Do not be afraid. You seek the one who was crucified.” Matthew had the angel call him Jesus while Mark had the messenger identify him as “Jesus of Nazareth.” Then each gave the resurrection message: “He is not here. See the place where they laid him.” That place was presumably empty. Then the angel said: “He has risen.” Note that the action has now been shifted from God who raised Jesus in Paul, to Jesus who now did the rising.

Then Matthew’s angel repeated the instruction of Mark’s young man in a white robe, with one distinction: “Go tell the disciples,” they both said, “that he is going before you to Galilee,” but Mark’s messenger said: “go tell the disciples and Peter.” Peter has, however, disappeared from Matthew. The last one sees of Peter in Matthew’s gospel is the portrait of a broken, weeping man who has just denied Jesus three times. Peter is never rehabilitated in Matthew. That restoration was destined to happen only in the epilogue to the Fourth Gospel written some fifteen years later.

At this point, however, the two stories diverge significantly. In Mark’s gospel we are told that the women “went out and fled from the tomb, for fear and trembling had come upon them and they said nothing to anyone for they were afraid” (Mark 16:8). At this point, as we noted last week, Marks gospel came to an abrupt ending. The risen Christ never appeared to anyone. There was only a promise in Mark, vague and unfulfilled, that if they went to Galilee, that is, if they returned to their home, they would in fact see him.

That ending was clearly too incomplete for Matthew so he wrote a new one. It is in two parts. In the first part, Matthew’s women did not flee in fear and say nothing to anyone. They were not, as they appear to be in Mark, faithless and disobedient to the instructions of the messenger. Matthew had them rather go at once to tell the disciples, who presumably were still in Jerusalem. They were then rewarded for their faithfulness, for before they had gone from the garden, they are confronted by the risen Jesus.

This is the first actual narrative of how the raised Christ appeared to anyone that we have in writing in the entire Bible. We note that this first appearance story was not written until the middle years of the ninth decade, or some 55 years after the first Easter. It is also in this story that the first hint that the resurrected body of Jesus was a physical reality was suggested.

The risen Jesus met these women, presumably still in the garden belonging to Joseph of Arimathea. He spoke to them first with just the single word: “Hail.” Presumably they fell to the ground in worship for the text says that they took hold of his feet. I do not know how one can take hold of feet that are not physical. Matthew’s intention was clear. Resurrection, he was asserting, was real, it was tangible. Then Jesus spoke again to the women, but his words were disappointing. He simply repeated, almost verbatim, the words of Matthew’s angel.

Grasp now the significance of this fact. The first words attributed to the resurrected Jesus in the entire Christian tradition were neither original nor unique, they are an identical repeat of the words of the angel, except they have been placed into the first person, singular: “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brethren (rather than the disciples) to go to Galilee and there they will see me.”

Matthew completed his Easter story by relating the details of that appearance in Galilee, but before he does, he had to complete his story about the Temple guards who, at the appearance of the angel, had fallen over “like dead men.” By now they had revived. Matthew had them report to the chief priests all that they had experienced. They were then, he said, bribed by the assembled elders to put out a story that Jesus’ disciples had stolen his body while they were asleep. To be asleep while on guard duty, however, was a capital offense. To admit that would be like volunteering to be executed. So these guards were given the assurance that if they would stick to this official explanation, they would be protected when these reports came to the governor’s ears. So Matthew said they took the bribe money and spread the official line. What the followers of Jesus now call resurrection, they said, was, in fact, nothing but the disciples stealing the body of the deceased Jesus. That was in Matthew’s mind the official line of the Temple authorities. The Easter stories in the New Testament do read rather differently when one isolates them and reads them in the historical order of their being written.

Matthew was destined to fill in one more Marcan omission. He will describe the Galilean appearance that Mark left only as a promise. With it he will bring his gospel to a great conclusion. Next week we will analyze that final Matthew narrative.


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