Tuesday 9 September 2008

A Study of the Easter Texts - An Essay

A Study of the Easter Texts

To work on the gospel texts and the "Easter Accounts", in particular is a very difficult and troubling task. It is very easy to sit back and take faith at face value, but when one is working on the Holy books or sacred texts of their own fa
ith, that task becomes harder. One must constantly be striving to remain objective, yet realize the impossibility or improbability of this task.

With that in mind, I am trying to overcome my own bias and preferences in attempting to examine these texts as I would any other document. Part of the problem this task creates is that it is like reading 4 biographies and two history texts all recounting the same events, but each aimed at a different audience and each through the filters that the individual authors look at the world through. To do such a thing with William Wallace, St. Patrick, Pierre E. Trudeau, or even a denominational leader would be a far far easier task. Here it is easier to accept discrepancies and contradictions. But when the issue is faith, the heart is at war with the mind, making it harder to stay academically focused.

Thus, to endeavor an analysis of these texts, one must first determine where they are similar and where they differ. In order to do this a meticulous reading of the text (breaking them down into the individual components) is required. Chart #1 is an attempt to do just that. As chart 1 indicates, there are many more areas of overlap in these texts than spots where they do not. I will attempt to explain the findings of the chart, condense them into a unified view, and interpret this data. After this
consolidation of the data, there will be an attempt to explain these findings.
Chart #1

As is seen in chart #1, there are 28 key points from the six texts that I have decided to correlate and compare. Of the 28 points 14 of them do not have exact duplicates in more than one text. Yet if one is willing to gloss over minor differences (for various reasons that we will cover later) such as

a. how many women went to the tomb,
b. how many angels appeared at the tomb
c. the location of Jesus appearance(s)

Then we actually have worked the list of specific datum down to 10 events that can be seen here in chart #2.

Chart #2

These 10 events all have at least 2 points of contact between the 6 texts. In fact I will now do a third and final chart that will show the co
rresponding versus for each of these groupings. I will use the Number and lettering codes in reference to these points from this point on. Thus when I make reference to 1a I am referring to Matthew 28:1, or if I make reference to 1 I am referring to the Women (woman) being the first to see the empty tomb. So as can be seen by Chart #3 each of these ten areas of constancy have confirmation from the other texts involved in this study.
Chart #3

Of these ten items only have four of them have confirmation in 4 or more sources thus giving us a 67% confirmation rate. But when we factor in the audience and intended purpose of each text, that is a surprisingly high rate. These 4 areas of greatest consistency are:

i. Women(woman) being the first to the tomb
ii. Angels being at the tomb
iii. Jesus appearing to the disciples (both in Jerusalem and Elsewhere)
iv. Commandment to preach and teach all they have learnt, heard and seen.

I think it is important to note that the women went to the tomb thus, in most accounts were the first to see the risen Jesus. For in a patriarchal culture to have women as the key players in a historical event and a very significant historical event would not have been the common practice. Yet I believe that there is no mistake in this being in the texts. For it is consistent with what we see from Jesus himself in being counter cultural, in having women followers, and women whom he teaches, and even women who pay the bills, or carry the purse's for Jesus and the twelve "male" disciples.

As well, of great significance is the appearance of Angels in all four of the gospel accounts. This clear supernatural intervention must have had a strong impact on the original witnesses to these events. Significant for both building up the faith and belief of those witnesses, and also as a tool in bringing others to faith. Having seen the risen Lord Jesus, and having seen Angels at the tomb. This would have lent great authority to this new sect of Judaism. For the appearance of angels is a very old tradition within the Hebrew history. It would be interesting to know what the effect of this supernatural Angelic influence in the story would have had on the Greek hearers. If they responded as I did with awe and wonder it would be another factor to sway them in belief of these events. For the Jew it would be something they are used to. So the two kinds of "Jesus Followers" would have responded very differently to this specific event.

Not only had Jesus appeared after his death and resurrection, but did so an various times and various places and up to over 500 people having witnessed these events, would have been a great witnessing tool for the early church. For the witness of so many people would be overwhelming evidence to the accuracy of these events.

I also believe it is of great importance that Jesus appeared many times and in many ways after his resurrection. According to these texts, he appeared in Jerusalem, Galilee, on the Road to Emmaus, The Road to Damascus, and others places as well. So that there could be no doubt in this movement's membership, Jesus appeared to them after his death with much proof's and with power, thus enabling the believers to follow his final words to them "To go and make disciples" (10a,b,e,f). It appears Jesus didn't want to just leave behind his little band of followers but that he wanted them to make more believers. This can be seen in 4 of our texts 10a, 10b, 10e, and 10f in each of these cases Jesus commanded them to teach and pass on these traditions.

I started with the idea of trying to explain these texts and there discrepancies. I have come to the conclusion that I can not do such a thing due to space limitations and my own personal limitations. I would need much more research and study to accomplish that task. I can only give some ideals and theories of why there is variance in the datum. Why some things might have been changed, or even just mistakenly reported. That is what I will attempt to do in the next few paragraphs. I will share my belief and thoughts on what that data means. Why do we not have 4 identical gospel accounts, and for what reason do we have for the consistency and inconsistency in the texts?

First that some of the variance may come from the authors intended audience. Luke, for example, was a physician writing to a fellow Roman Citizen. He is not likely going to include as much information on specific Jewish aspects to these events as Matthew does, which is the most Jewish of the gospels.

One of the other possible reasons for slight variations, could be either mistake in retelling in the earliest oral traditions, and copying errors in early texts. Or even deliberate changes by early scribes due to how they thought the story could be told better or with more power.

Yet another possible cause of these variations could be the very fact that we are dealing with matters of faith, and people may have wanted to put some things in a better light then they originally appeared.

As has been stated earlier most of the discrepancies are really minor variances. But there is one large variance that must be addressed here, and that is the one of people touching the risen Jesus. In the Jewish tradition the touching of a dead person would have caused uncleanness. Yet Jesus commands Thomas to touch him. And the contradiction comes in Matthew, the women in the garden touch Jesus (MT 28:9), in John he commands them not to for he has not ascended yet. To be honest I have no understanding or explanation for this contradiction.

This is the most confusing detail in these sections for me. Unlike the others it is not just a slip in numbers or a missed or changed minor detail. It is a true contradiction. And I do not have an answer to it, nor do I want to hypothesize on such a blatant statement. Some thoughts that come to mind make it even more of a contradiction, that of Jews being made unclean by touching the dead. But why then would Matthew have the women touching Jesus? From this there could be two interpretations of the resurrection: The first that Jesus was made clean again by his resurrection, and that he was still unclean from having been dead. The second one is that he never really died, and therefore was not unclean.

I do not have an explanation for this confusing detail. And can not say why it is there in the texts. But this discrepancy does not affect my faith.

As can be seen from this short and inadequate study there appear to be more areas of uniformity then inconsistency when it comes to the biblical texts. What one needs to be able to do, is gloss over minor variations. Then look at the major contradictions and decide which of them will or could affect their faith, or academic pursuit of the material.

(First written for Tom Yoder-Neufeld Ph.D. for RS100F New Testament Survey Winter Term 2000.)

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