One of the great arguments at progressive seminaries is weather it matters that Jesus was brought back to life in bodily form after his crucifixion. This is a question that has only been asked with more than one answer for the last 100 years or so. Before that people believed in a more literal reading of the Bible and took it for granted that the Bible was talking about a literal bodily resurrection. We can’t know the answer for certain. I do know that it is something that makes people really nervous.
WHAT NOT TO DO ON EASTER
There is a joke about Jesus saying to his disciples, “Listen carefully, I don’t wan’t like four versions of this.” But, that is what we have. Something we never do on Easter, probably for good reason, is to give a sermon on all of the inconsistencies in the Resurrection stories. It is not the time or the place. Here however, I have the time and space and if you do as well, we can look at them together. My point here is not to try to prove the Bible to be false or useless. I instead hope to take an honest look at what the Bible actually says.
The original ending of Mark’s gospel doesn’t have evidence of a bodily resurrection. It simply ended with three of Jesus followers, Mary Magdalene, Martha and Salome going to anoint Jesus’ body with burial spices. They found the tomb empty and a man in a shiny white robe telling them that Jesus was not there but that he was risen. They left in terror and astonishment and told no one. This ending leaves much to the imagination. Maybe too much, so another ending was added later.
In the second ending, the women told Peter and others and but no one believed them. Jesus appeared to two other groups who also told the story but the disciples still didn’t believe them. Then Jesus appeared to the disciples and scolded them for not believing. He gave them a pep talk and then was taken up into heaven.
In Matthew’s Gospel, it is Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, (no Martha or Salome) who go to anoint Jesus. An Angel descends from Heaven and tells them that Jesus is not here but raised. As the women go and tell the disciples, Jesus appears to them all and tells them to go ahead to Galilee where He will meet them. In Galilee Jesus meets them and gives them a pep talk to go out and spread the news. The last line of the Gospel of Matthew is Jesus saying that he will always be with them to the end of the age. Since he doesn’t leave, if you didn’t have the other Gospels, it might lead you to believe he never left. When we have the other stories, we read this saying of Jesus to always be with them, metaphorically.
In Lukes Gospel, we do not get the names of the women at the empty tomb but instead we are told of a man in shiny white who might be an Angel. There are also two men who tell them that Jesus has risen. He mentions nothing about going to Galilee and the disciples stay Jerusalem. All eleven are startled later when all of a sudden, Jesus is with them. They think he is a ghost so he shows them the holes in his hands and feet. He asked for something to eat and they give him some fish. He gives the pep talk about spreading the news and walks them as far as Bethany (a few miles) and then as he is blessing them he is carried into Heaven.
In Johns Gospel, it is Mary Magdalene by herself who goes to the tomb, and finds it empty. She then runs to find Peter and they and another disciple run to find the tomb empty. Peter and the other disciple go in one at a time and see the grave clothes. Then they return to their homes. Mary stays behind and sees two angels before also seeing a gardener. She asks him where they have laid Jesus and he tells her that he has risen. When the gardener talks, she recognizes that it is Jesus and calls him teacher. Jesus then tells her to go and tell the others so he can first ascend to the Father. Did he ascend and then come back? Why? The disciples, minus Thomas, are afraid and gathered together inside a locked room and suddenly Jesus appears. He shows them his hands, feet and side and this time the pep talk contains the giving of the Holy Spirit as he breathed on them. Then Thomas comes home after Jesus has gone and says that he doesn’t believe that the disciples had really seen Jesus. Eight days later, inside the locked room, Jesus appears again and shows Himself to Thomas. Then later, Jesus appeared to the disciples again at the sea of Tiberias in Galilee. He reenacts telling them which side of the boat to fish from which is also found in the beginning of the Gospel. Both contain a huge catch of fish. They come ashore and Jesus eats with them and forgives Peter for denying him. The Gospel doesn’t record Jesus ascending again.
So, just in case you are playing the home game. The differences are in how many women and whether they are believed or not. Who and how many men first saw Jesus and whether they were believed or not. In Luke, Jesus shows eleven of them His hands and feet and in John it is ten plus one later. In all of the stories except the oldest one, Mark’s original ending, He gives a pep talk but not always the same content. In John, He gives them the gift of the Holy Spirit by breathing on them and in Acts which is part two of Lukes Gospel, the Holy Spirit comes with tongues of fire and a loud noise. Sometimes they recognize him and sometimes not. twice they think He is a Ghost, one time a gardener and one time a guy who gives really good fishing advice. Once He ascends to heaven before meeting the disciples, twice after and once not at all. So it can be a bit confusing if a factual historical understanding is what you seek.
Some scholars would say that because Mark wrote first, his is most accurate. Some would say that John who wrote last and had the others to work from is the most accurate. I think that accuracy is not the point. The point is for me, that either Jesus rose in bodily form or he didn’t. Not much of a point, I know. Let me say more. Jesus’ followers believed that he was alive. They believed that death was not the end of His story or ours. I believe that if they didn’t believe that Jesus had risen there is no way that they would have risked their lives to keep his message alive. I also believe that there is no way this message would have spread without God’s help. Weather this rising happened in Jesus’ own body after the resurrection or if He was embodied in his followers in some real way, it simply doesn’t matter to me. I can say with great confidence that, “Jesus is risen” because I see it everyday in the lives of people who live his message of love.