Sunday, April 8, 2012

Resurrection Morning in the Gospels

Part of my work day practice is to start the morning off with a scripture reading and prayer. For the scripture reading I've been going over my Harmony of the Gospels. Each time through I find a typo or a place where I wonder if I've been faithful to the original text, and I have to check. I realize this makes my scripture reading a little like editing. I'm not really finding much, not on this third (or is it fourth?) time through, so maybe it is almost all reading and not editing.

As chance would have it, this last week I've been going through the Holy Week narrative. I didn't plan it that way; that's just where I was in the reading. I slowed down just a little to make sure I had Jesus' death and burial reading on Good Friday. On Monday I'll read the account of Resurrection Day, and will continue on from there.

I remember when I wrote this particular section. I was apprehensive, because I thought I would have a difficult time making it fit together. I was surprised how nicely the four gospels dovetailed. The problem was the visits to the tomb. Who went? How many visits were there? To whom did Jesus appear? Expecting difficulties, I was mildly surprised at how it came together.

Look at just one aspect of it: the time of day as described by each gospel writer, and to whom that time of day applied. Here's what they say.

Mark: Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they [Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome] were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, "Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?" (16:2-3)

Matthew: After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb. (28:1)

Luke: On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women [Mary Magdalen, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them] took the spiced they had prepared and went to the tomb. (24:1)

John: Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. (20:1)

It was only when I did the work of writing the Harmony that I noticed the difference. Of course I knew that John described a trip that Mary Magdalene made on her own, while the other three write that Mary went with the other women. I had chalked that up to fading memories of the writers, or perhaps a literary technique of the three, combining trips to save paper and ink.

However, John really gives us a clue about this, because he said "it was still dark," whereas Mark and Matthew say it was light: "just after sunrise" and "at dawn." It is light at that time, a little after sunrise. Thus it seems that the women made at least two trips to the empty tomb that morning. Mary Magdalene went quite early. It was still dark when she started out. The other women went after the sun was up; they had some light to guide them.

Perhaps Mark didn't mean to be scientifically precise when they say "just after sunrise." And maybe he didn't have the scientific knowledge we have today to know that, due to the bending of the sun's rays in the atmosphere, it gets light before the sun actually rises. And what does "as dawn" mean anyway? Is that the same thing as sunrise, or it it first light? Whichever, as I read these four accounts closely, John is describing a trip by one woman that began before daylight came to Jerusalem. The other three are describing a trip by several women that took place after first light, and so was later than Mary Magdalene's first visit to the garden tomb that morning.

So why do the other three put Mary Magdalene with the other women? It's possible they knew that Mary Magdalene went to the tomb that day, but they didn't know that she went on her own, apart from the other women, so they assumed she was with them. It's also possible they were simply trying to save paper and ink. Books (in scroll form or in codex form, which was new on the scene about then) were expensive. Any thing a writer could do to shorten the narrative while still giving essential information to their readers. I find no conflict between the gospels in the start of the Resurrection narrative.

It's Resurrection Day. He rose from the dead. Since he's still alive, we say, "He is Risen!" He is risen indeed.

No comments: