Thursday, July 23, 2015

Resurrection: A Reality Or A Pious Dream, Part VIII: Luke – Mystery Recedes – Literalism Grows

by John Shelby Spong

When we come to Luke, the third gospel writer and, counting Paul, the fourth biblical witness to the meaning of Easter, we discover a dramatic shift in the language of resurrection. That language is now much more literal and much more physical. Jesus has clearly been restored, not just to life, but to the physical life of this world. He has a functioning gastro-intestinal system; on two occasions, Luke portrays him as eating. He has a functioning skeletal system; Luke portrays him as walking. He has a functioning larynx and a functioning set of vocal chords; Luke portrays him as speaking. He has a functioning brain; Luke portrays him as interpreting the scriptures, including Moses, the prophets and the psalms.

Clearly there has been significant growth and development in the language used to portray the resurrection. Luke is dated by most scholars at least a decade after Matthew, but there are some who contend that this gospel is actually a second century work. While I seriously question this later dating conclusion, it is clear that by the time Luke wrote, resurrection had ceased to be a vision and had become a physical reality. Jesus had been resuscitated. This would in time necessitate the subsequent development of a number of other additions to the story of Jesus that we shall look at before this series is completed. First, however, let me separate out from the rest of the New Testament Luke’s new and unique contributions to the growing Easter drama.

Luke, like Mark and Matthew, began with a story of the women coming to the tomb of Jesus at dawn on the first day of the week, but his list of the women was very different, including one named Joanna never mentioned before. They were bringing spices they had prepared, but for what purpose was not specified. Unlike in Mark, these women expressed no anxiety about how they might roll back the great stone in front of the entrance to the tomb, nor was there, as in Matthew, a supernatural explanation as to how the stone had been removed. Luke simply stated that, upon arrival, they found the stone rolled away and they were able to step directly into the tomb. At first, they found it empty, the body clearly missing. They were, said Luke, “perplexed” by this emptiness. Only after they had entered into this state of perplexity did “messengers” enter their awareness.

The number of these messengers had doubled from the earlier accounts in Mark and Matthew. Like Mark’s single messenger, Luke referred to them as “men,” but like Matthew’s elaboration of them, he has them clothed in apparently supernatural “dazzling apparel.” The progression over time was clear. In Mark, it was a young man dressed in a white robe. In Matthew, it was a supernatural being, who descended in an earthquake, whose appearance was “like lightning” and whose raiment was “white as snow.” Now in Luke, there are two messengers, both dazzling and clearly supernatural. The women, recognizing this, bow their faces to the ground in worship.

The announcement spoken by Luke’s angels, however, was dramatically different from earlier accounts. Mark’s messenger and Matthew’s angel both had announced that Jesus had risen and then had directed the women to tell the disciples to go to Galilee, where the promise was made that Jesus would somehow meet them there. Luke’s angels have changed the message and any proposed return to Galilee has been suppressed.

The first thing Luke’s angels said to the women was: “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” He appears to be saying that one should not seek the life of Jesus in the tomb, i.e. the tomb was not the proper place to look for him. Then instead of directing either the women or the disciples to go Galilee, these messengers simply recalled some things that Jesus said to them “while they were in Galilee.” He referred them to a recorded prediction, presumably made while they were still with Jesus in the Galilean phase of his earthly ministry. He told you there, the angels said, that “the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.”

An interesting shift in the way the days are counted had also occurred, which most people do not notice. In the gospel of Mark, which Luke had before him, Mark never said “on the third day he will rise.” Mark had Jesus predict the passion three times and on every one of these occasions, the phrase Jesus used was “after three days” (Mark 8:31, 9:31, 10:34). Please note that “on the third day” and “after three days” will not give you the same day. “On the third day” would place the resurrection on Sunday. “After three days” would place the resurrection on Monday. Was flexibility in regard to the time of the resurrection creeping into the story?

What might be pushing this change? Is this time change the product of memory or of liturgical practice? If the first day of the week had by this time become, for the followers of Jesus, the day on which the celebration of the resurrection was observed, then the words of Jesus must be made to be consistent. Actually, if one literalizes the time sequence in the gospels between the crucifixion and resurrection, it is not even three days! The burial of Jesus was accomplished before sundown on Friday, which would make it about 6:00 pm. From 6:00 pm on Friday to midnight on Saturday would be six hours. From midnight on Saturday to midnight on Sunday would be twenty-four hours. Add the two together and you have thirty hours. Then from midnight until dawn on Sunday morning would be six more hours, making a total of thirty-six hours or one and a half days. The symbol “three days” had become relative.

Perhaps that was why Luke omitted the directions for the disciples to go to Galilee in order to see the risen Christ. Galilee, less than a hundred miles away, was a seven to ten day journey from Jerusalem. If Galilee was to be the place where the reality of the resurrection was first experienced, it could not have occurred within the three-day parameter. When the risen Christ appeared to the disciples in the gospel of Luke, it was in Jerusalem and it was on the evening of Easter Day, the first day of the week. In Luke, there was never a Galilean appearance of Jesus to anyone.

At the start of Luke’s version of Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem he had Jesus set his face for that ultimate destination, which he would finally enter on what we call Palm Sunday. The narrative of Jesus’ ministry in Luke moved relentlessly from Galilee to Jerusalem without ever returning. Then, when Luke added the book of Acts to his gospel, which was simply Luke volume two, he would have Jesus and his message move from Jerusalem to Rome before his work was complete. From the provinces of Galilee, to the capital of the Jewish world, to the capital of the entire world would be the pathway that Luke would have Jesus travel.

So Luke located the Easter experience in Jerusalem, never in Galilee. Luke would go so far in countering the Galilee tradition that he would have Jesus order the disciples to “stay in Jerusalem” until they were empowered for mission. The Easter story had become, in what was probably now the 10th decade, “dramatically different.”

Luke then added three stories to his narrative not found anywhere else in the gospel tradition. I will list them and describe them briefly, but will return to them as this series unfolds.

First, there is the story of Cleopas and his traveling companion, who were walking toward the village of Emmaus on the afternoon of the first day of the week following the crucifixion. A person named Cleopas had, up to this moment, never been mentioned anywhere. In the Fourth Gospel, written well after Luke, there is one reference to a man named “Clopas” (19:25), who is identified as the husband of the sister of the mother of Jesus. It is a strange reference, however, for it says that Clopas’ wife was named Mary. Would two daughters in one family both be given the name “Mary”? Then we remember quickly that the mother of Jesus was never called “Mary” in the Fourth Gospel. The question we raise about Luke is why would he tell a story in which the first person to see the risen Christ, has never appeared in the Jesus narrative before? The Cleopas-Emmaus Road story was also quite mysterious and different from anything else in Luke.

Luke concluded this narrative by having Cleopas rush back to Jerusalem to share his experience with the disciples only to be told that the risen Christ had also appeared to Simon Peter. The primacy of Peter was preserved by a thread!

Then Luke turned briefly to his second story in which Jesus himself was said to have been standing in their midst. This was the first appearance of Jesus to those Luke called “the eleven;” Judas was clearly missing. It was set, however, specifically in Jerusalem, not in Galilee. The physicality of Jesus’ body has been expanded. Jesus invited them to handle him, to recognize that he was flesh and bones, not a “spirit.” He asked for food to eat and then ate it in front of them. Then he promised to send the Spirit upon them so that his message could be carried to all nations.
Then in his third story Luke had Jesus lead them out to Bethany, where he departed from them.

This was the moment when the story of the ascension entered the Christian tradition! Luke added it probably in the 10th decade of the Christian era.

That is Luke’s Easter story in its fullness. It is very different from anything that we have heard before. For now just embrace these differences. We will return to these Lucan episodes in more detail as this series continues next week.


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