Thursday, July 09, 2015

Resurrection: A Reality or A Pious Dream? Part VI: Matthew’s Story of the Galilean Appearances

by John Shelby Spong

Mark’s messenger of the resurrection, described in that gospel as “a young man in a white robe,” had promised a future appearance of the raised Christ to the disciples. It would not, however, occur in Judea or in the environs of Jerusalem. The messenger’s words were quite specific: “He is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you” (Mark 16:7). In his brief resurrection chapter Mark gave no more details. It was an unfulfilled promise and, as such, was intolerable for Matthew. He was committed, it seems, to fill in whatever gaps he found in Mark’s narrative. For no one actually to see the risen Christ in Mark was for Matthew a huge gap, so he created the story of the appearance in Galilee. By doing so, he has given us insights, not anticipated, into how the experience of the resurrection was understood in the early years of the Christian movement.

Christianity was, first, a Galilean movement, not a Judean movement. In the first three gospels, called “the synoptics,” Judea was a province hardly mentioned until the final week of Jesus’ life. Mark never has Jesus or his disciples enter Judea until they go at the time of the crucifixion. Matthew did move the birth of Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee, where in all probability it occurred and the location that Mark assumed to be Jesus’ place of birth, to Bethlehem in Judea. This enabled him to claim the royal heritage of being a descendant of King David and thus to meet one more of the messianic expectations of Jewish history. Matthew, however, removes Jesus quickly from the land of Judah to save him from King Herod. Joseph, Mary and the baby first flee to Egypt, then return to their home in Bethlehem after King Herod has died, only to flee again when Herod’s son began to assert his father’s authority and thus to pose a threat. Guided by an angel speaking through a dream, the holy family left Judea for good. Matthew has Jesus grow up in Nazareth of Galilee, and he does not return to Judea until the week of the crucifixion.

Luke, in his birth story portrays Mary and Joseph as citizens of Nazareth, but he also couples his Galilean origins with the expectation that the messiah must be born in Bethlehem the city of David, by creating a story of Joseph taking his wife, described as “great with child,” on a 90 mile trip by foot or donkey, to Bethlehem. This, he said, was in response to an edict issued by Caesar Augustus that all the world should be “enrolled,” a reference to either a census or a registry for tax purposes. This enrollment, he said, had to be accomplished in one’s ancestral home. Joseph, as a descendant of King David, was thus required to go to Bethlehem.

There are many things factually wrong about this attempt to create Judean roots for Jesus, which reveal that this story is nothing but mythology. The first is that there were some fifty generations between Joseph and King David. After fifty generations, the direct descendants of King David, who had numerous wives, would have numbered in the millions to billions. The idea that anybody would know of this royal lineage or that this horde of people could be compelled to travel to Bethlehem, is more than slightly absurd.

A second comes with the suggestion that this enrollment occurred when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Why was that a problem? Because secular records reveal that King Herod died in 4 BCE and that Quirinius did not become governor of Syria until 6-7 CE. So, if Jesus was born when Herod was king, he would have been 10-11 years old when Quirinius became governor of Syria. There are many other problems with treating Luke’s birth stories as history, but these two must suffice to demonstrate that Jesus’ Galilean roots are quite accurate.

Luke also added the story of Jesus going up to Jerusalem at the time of the Passover with his parents when he was twelve years old. This looks like a kind of puberty rite, a pre-bar Mitzvah activity. For our present purposes, we note that these are the only times in Luke that Jesus or his movement journeyed out of Galilee until the final journey to Jerusalem.  In the earliest narratives, there appears to be some burning desire to make sure that the resurrection would be understood as a Galilean experience. The raised Christ is never portrayed as appearing to anyone who was not a follower, and those followers were overwhelmingly Galilean. Perhaps the insight was that the raised Christ could only be seen in the place where the movement itself had been born. Perhaps they wanted to assert that resurrection was not something external to life, something that invaded time and space from some other realm, but that the meaning of Jesus, including his resurrection, would be seen when one returns to one’s roots, to one’s home and looks for him there among the mundane and familiar things of life.

Matthew, however, is the first and the only gospel writer to describe this Galilean appearance until the unknown author of the Johannine epilogue (chapter 21) does it, probably in the early years of the second century. Matthew’s description is striking and startles people when they first read what he is saying.

The details are these. The “eleven” went to Galilee in obedience to the command of the angelic messenger. Note that this is the first reference to “the twelve” having become “the eleven.” The defection of Judas has now been woven into the story. That was not so when Paul wrote his first Epistle to the Corinthians, which is dated about 54 CE or 24 years after the crucifixion. Paul asserted that on the “third day” Jesus appeared to “the twelve” (I Cor. 15:3). In Matthew’s gospel the disciples go to a mountain “to which Jesus had directed them,” Mathew says, though there is no place where we can find such a direction given, to Galilee, yes, but not specifically to a mountain in Galilee.

In the ancient world in which the planet earth was believed to be the center of a three-tiered universe, God was thought to dwell above the sky. So to go to the top of a mountain was to come as close to God as a human being could get. That is why Moses received the law from God on top of Mount Sinai. That is why we call transcendent experiences “mountain-top” moments. So in search of God, the disciples climb a mountain to wait for the risen Christ to appear out of heaven. Please note in Matthew’s mind the Christ has been raised from death, not back into the world of flesh and blood, but into the life of God. It would be out of heaven or out of God that resurrection would be seen.

This story adds force to the argument that the original conception of resurrection was not that of a physical resuscitation, as biblical literalists and fundamentalists so vigorously proclaim, but was more a kind of transformative vision, perhaps more subjective than objective, more internal than external. We have historically read into this narrative the story of Jesus ascending into the heavens. The fact is that the story of the ascension of Jesus is the creation of the author of Luke-Acts, which was not written until about a decade after Matthew’s gospel was completed. Matthew’s story is the first account of the risen Christ actually appearing to the disciples and Matthew says it took place in Galilee and that it was of the nature of a vision, not the manifestation of a physically resuscitated life. In this episode Matthew notes, rather poignantly, that the disciples “worshiped him, but some doubted.” Is that the place where the story of “Doubting Thomas” was born? I would bet it is, but we can never be sure.

Then Matthew has Jesus speak. His words were not a verbatim repeat of the statement of the messenger of the resurrection, as they were when the risen Christ spoke to the woman in the garden at dawn on Easter day. They were rather considered, unique words that revealed Matthew’s understanding of resurrection.

If the disciples were in Jerusalem, as Matthew assumed, when he had the messenger direct them to go to Galilee in order to see the risen Christ and if they were now in Galilee on a mountain top, then we know that a number of days have passed, certainly more than three, before this scene became possible.

How do we know? We know because Galilee is a 7-10 day journey from Jerusalem. So, if resurrection was an event that occurred on the third day literally, then we have a serious conflict in timing. Resurrection appears originally not to have been bound by time.

We conclude, therefore, that according to Matthew a number of days have now passed since the dawn of Easter, before the disciples see the risen Christ on a Galilean mountain top. So we ask: “What did they see?” They saw a glorified and transformed Christ. Matthew has him claim that “all authority in heaven and earth has been given to me.” The reference seems to be based on the writings of the book of Daniel (7:14) in which the prophet states that “one like a Son of man came to the Ancient of Days,” which was Daniel’s name for God, and to this “Son of man” was given “dominion and glory and kingdom that all people and nations and languages should serve him.” Daniel also stated that the dominion given to this Son of man would be “an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away and his kingdom one that should never pass away.” In the book of Daniel the prophet then approached the Son of man asking that the truth concerning these things should be made known to him.

Matthew has the risen Christ do exactly that when he speaks the words that conclude his gospel. To those defining words we will turn as this series continues.


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