Friday, October 5, 2012

Three questions from the Rabbi - part 3

Continued from last week…

Here is your first question in fuller detail:     (1) The Gospels teach that Jesus appeared to the disciples after his resurrection. We are unclear, however, whether those appearances took place in Jerusalem or in the Galilee (or at both locales). According to our reading, the Galilean accounts seem to rule out prior Jerusalem appearances. Where did Jesus actually appear? If he appeared in Jerusalem, how should we read the Galilean accounts?

Here is Dr. Brown’s response:

I. Post-Resurrection Appearances: Galilee or Jerusalem?

Brown admits that the apparent contradiction in records of the post-resurrection appearances is real. “It is quite obvious,” Brown writes, “that the Gospels do not agree as to where and to whom Jesus appeared after his resurrection.” Just as the Jerusalem tradition leaves little or no room for subsequent Galilean appearances, explains Brown, “the Galilean narratives seem to rule out any prior appearances of Jesus to the Twelve in Jerusalem.” Brown declares his disapproval of the simple solution to the contradiction: “We must reject the thesis that the Gospels can be harmonized through a rearrangement whereby Jesus appears several times to the Twelve, first in Jerusalem, then in Galilee.” Rather, concludes the Church spokesman, “Variations in place and time may stem in part from the evangelists themselves who are trying to fit the account of an appearance into a consecutive narrative.” Brown makes clear that the post-resurrection appearance accounts are creative, substantially non-historical attempts to reconstruct events never witnessed by their respective authors.

Here is my answer to your question and my response to Dr. Brown:
Dr. Brown insists that  “We must reject the thesis that the Gospels can be harmonized through a rearrangement whereby Jesus appears several times to the Twelve, first in Jerusalem, then in Galilee” Why must we?  It is quite possible that the first and final appearances of Jesus were in Jerusalem, and that at some time all the disciples of Jesus met at a designated place in Galilee. If we look at the Resurrection account written by St. Paul about 20 or 30 years after the fact, we see that Jesus appears to 500 of his disciples at one time, and that at the time of Paul’s writing, most of them were still alive and available to refute Paul’s chronology of events. Certainly a gathering of 500 people would be a bit dangerous in Jerusalem. Jerusalem was all a-buzz with the strange events of the most recent Passover. Two followers of Jesus were getting out of town quickly on Sunday morning, quite possibly because they might have been relatives of Jesus. One was named Cleopas who seems to be the husband of one of the women who stood at the foot of the cross. He was quite possibly  a relative of Jesus.  His companion on the road was unnamed and there is some thought that it was his wife.  Jesus asked them what they had been discussing. “One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, "Are you only a visitor to Jerusalem and do not know the things that have happened there in these days?” (the Gospel of Luke 24:18 )

We see lovely Easter cards of “a hill far away,” beautiful country scenes and flowery fields and gardens. These popular representations are nonsense. Jesus was executed and buried as close to downtown Jerusalem as possible. He was executed in full view of the northwestern gates that led from the upper City and the Second quarter going west to Joppa and the coast. Romans and the Sadducees wanted to make sure that people saw what was going on. Thus, He was killed and buried near the main westerly gates. Suddenly there are rumors about the guards and an earthquake and visions. I imagine that anyone who could walk would have gone to see if the tomb really was empty. It was not “on a hill far away” as the old hymn suggests it was right downtown, at least as close to downtown as you could get and still be outside the walls. The regime had already decided to cover up one so called resurrection. Jesus had raised Lazarus his very close friend from the dead just a few weeks before. How convenient! Jesus friend dies and Jesus raises him from the dead. A good trick, but certainly a trick. The authorities had decided to do away with Lazarus as well as Jesus at that point. (John 12:9-11) After all, to put over a fraud like that was just asking for trouble from the Romans! And now this! Would it never end?  Jesus may have appeared to the twelve who were hiding in the Essene quarter for fear of the authorities and His uncle and aunt may have been hurrying out of town, but Jesus wanted to meet with all those He would send out. Where better than Galilee on the hill they had agreed on? Most of the disciples were probably in Galilee anyway. It was the twelve who were still hiding in Jerusalem. The empty tomb was no secret. Jesus didn’t appear to just a few. Take a look at Paul’s time line in 1st Corinthians the 15th chapter:

“Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.”

Paul uses the words eita, epeita and eskhaton, “then, after that and finally” these are words that are used to express succession in time. St. Paul was writing his letters to the Corinthian Church around 55 AD. That is only 20-25 years after the events he claims to be describing and earlier than most scholars put any of the Gospels. Paul’s is the first Resurrection account and chronology. St. Paul does not mention the appearances to the women or to a woman. The Gospels don’t mention a first appearance to Peter (Cephas). 

Does that mean they didn’t happen? How often have I said, “To make a long story short...”  Though I never quite manage. But as my wonderfully wise mother use to tell, “You must never lie, but you needn’t tell everyone everything at once!”  The authors wrote the elements of the account that suited their narrative and the audience to whom they were writing. Dr. Brown and most scholars are looking through the Reformation/Protestant lens of which I suspect they are unaware in the same way that unless we really pause to notice, we are unaware that it is air we are breathing and the fish is unaware that it is water in which it is swimming. 

The fundamental Protestant and thus modern way to look at the Gospels is that they are histories. They most certainly are not. Ancient people trusted verbal accounts more than they trusted written documents. The Gospel was clearly transmitted orally. In Paul’s writings he always speaks of the Gospel which he preaches, not which he writes. The Gospel was well know in the Greek speaking Jewish world, though perhaps not as well known in the Aramaic speaking world of Babylonian Jewry. There was no need to write the story down in the first century. The Gospels were written to make certain points from the commonly known story and sayings of Messiah Jesus, not as tools of evangelism nor certainly as history. When we try to analyze something that is not a history with historical criterion we are just asking for trouble.

More next week.

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