Wednesday, April 23, 2014

God in the Odd: 13 Unusual Details About the Resurrection That Incline Me To Believe It



If the Devil is in the details, then it may well be said that God is in the odd. What makes me inclined to believe the story of the resurrection is not merely the fact that the story happens to be a resolution of all the hopes and dreams of a dying humanity (though that would seem to be reason enough), but rather in the story's unpredictability. Interestingly, when I grade tests as a teacher, the easiest way to detect a cheater is not by comparing correct answers, but rather by comparing the wrong ones. After all, people that are making things up tend merely to mimic what has already been written. They are unimaginative because the one thing that the liar cannot predict is how unpredictable reality can be. Therefore, his or her guesses tend to be rigid and oversimplified in a way that does not account for the variability of life. On the other hand, because the truth is in a certain sense unscripted, there are often variables that cannot be anticipated by those who are attempting to render their best guess. So it is that the story of the resurrection rings true to me, not only because I want to believe in everlasting life, or even because I am attracted to a person named Jesus Christ, but because of all of the unusual details that attend the event. To be clear, I am not saying that any of these examples cannot be dismissed off-hand for good reason, what I am saying is that for me collectively they make an incredibly compelling case.


1. No one recognizes him


Occasionally in soap operas when the writers inexplicably insert a new actor into a part formerly played by someone else, they may offer some convoluted explanation, or they may simply pretend that nothing has changed at all. All the same, no one is in doubt that this is a different person, and so we just have to play along until hopefully time makes us forget. Perhaps we even like the new actor enough that we even come to prefer them. Nevertheless, history in this sense is nothing like a soap opera. For who in their right mind would attempt a similar kind of switch with an historical figure without offering some kind of explanation? Thus, if you were trying to convince someone of something as incredible as the resurrection, would you not try to downplay this extremely odd detail; "Jesus came from the dead, but no one recognized him…" Perhaps this inability to recognize Jesus could be justified if it only happened on one occasion, but my goodness, it happens practically every time they encounter him post resurrection. My point is if this didn't actually happen in the way it is described, to what end would anyone recount it? Equally perplexing is the fact that none of the Gospel writers felt the need to explain this discrepancy. It seems that everyone agrees that Jesus in his glorified body looks different, but they also seem quite comfortable with the idea that it is still the same person. And while we may want more of an explanation, they ultimately didn't feel the need to offer one. Strange.


2. Christ's resurrected body is nothing like what anyone would have expected    


One of the things that points to the truth of the resurrection is the nature and substance of Jesus' resurrected body. Whether you're talking about the people of the ancient Near East, or skeptics and believers today, few seem to comprehend the precise nature of this transformation. In Scripture we can see this confusion played out. On one occasion, for example, we see Jesus tell the disciples rather directly that he is "not a ghost", for apparently some may have suspected that he was. On the other hand, he is also quick to point out that he has not merely returning as he was before, for, as the Gospels inform us, he "appears in their midst" even when the doors are locked. Thus, in the simplest of terms, his resurrected body is still a physical body, but one which is apparently not bound by space and time. Even today people quite often conflate the resurrection of the body with what may more accurately be described as "resuscitation" (as was the case with Lazarus). Others imagine that the resurrection had to have been more of a kind of "spiritual" appearance rather than one that was bodily (by "spiritual" I mean the spirit of his ministry remained with them). However, what was far from their minds at the time, and still is very little understood, is the fact that Jesus is a marriage- in his own body- of heaven and earth, of spirit and matter. He has not simply "come back from the dead", he has mastered death and is now capable, in some mysterious way, of transforming it. This may in the end explain why his wounds are still visible, another odd detail which will be dealt with later.                      


3. He still eats


I am not sure why this is so comic to me, but it is worth noting that just about every time Jesus appears in his resurrected body, there's some eatin' goin' on. On one particular occasion, he arrives in the upper room unannounced, and after inviting "doubting" Thomas to stick his hand in his wounds, Jesus inquires as to whether anyone's "got something to eat". Now it might just be my imagination, but I always imagine him saying it in a very down to earth sort of way, like a friend coming over to your house who feels extremely comfortable to the point of checking out what kind of food you have in your refrigerator. But whatever your view of the incident, who would feel the need to insert this in the story were it not the case. Unless you believe that the Son of God is hungry after traveling to hell and back again, and you want to emphasis this fact. Presumably if you were making this story up whole cloth, you would want him to be as ethereal and beyond human grasp as possible, but these appearances often combine both human an divine elements (which is consistent with the fact that he is both). Apparently this "superman", in spite of his heavenly origins/destination, still enjoys a nice meal, which frequently includes bread and fish, not to mention, more frequently than not, some good wine.


4. What's up with the burial cloths?



One mistake that some liars make when attempting to convince you of their story is their tendency to explain too much. What is beautiful about the Gospels is how they avoid this exaggerated need to explain everything (though in some instances we may wish there was more). So why is it that the Gospel writers on many occasions undersell some of these details that would be so easy to "oversell"? This is hard to say, but perhaps they were not thinking of us when they wrote it, but rather a community who knew exactly what they meant by what they meant. In other words, they weren't writing a novel, or a biography, they were leaving their memories with a community who knew how to flesh them out. Various details are left out because the evidence (in whatever form it still took) was before them already, so there was less need to explain everything. For example, the burial cloths of Jesus seem to be part of this unexplained evidence that is strangely clear to the first generation, but perhaps a little odd to us. Who cares that Jesus' burial cloths were lying in the cave? If I see burial cloths and no body, the only thing that I'm thinking is "I wonder what happened to the body?" It certainly says nothing about the resurrection. The first thing I would assume is that it meant, well, somebody probably took him… but where (as Mary Magdalene concluded)? Yet all four Gospels mention these burial cloths as if they are suggestive of something more. Now you might assume that maybe the Gospels mention this detail simply by way of observation that there was no body there (which is significant in itself), but the emphasis, especially in the Gospel of John, suggests something more. In fact, the language that is used implies some evidence of the resurrection. Now I am not saying that this incident in itself lends credence to the so-called Shroud of Turin, but I cannot help assuming that if such an image existed on the burial cloths (like a photographic memento), they would preserve it rather than throw it in the garbage. The Gospel of John is the most explicit in this regard, for it all but testifies to the the fact that the disciples see something on the shroud, and as a consequence believe in the resurrection:

"So Peter and the other disciple went forth, and they were going to the tomb. The two were running together, and the other disciple outran Peter and came to the tomb first. And he, stooping down and looking in, saw the linen cloths lying there; yet he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb; and he saw the linen cloths lying there, and the handkerchief that had been around His head, not lying with the linen cloths, but folded together in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who came to the tomb first, went in also; and he saw and believed. For as yet they did not know the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead."      

What is interesting about the language employed in this passage is the fact that the Greek word for "saw" implies more of a sense of deep contemplation in relation to the burial cloths (and their arrangement in the tomb), rather than some ocular observation about the vacancy of the tomb. And thus whatever they saw on/with the cloth, it was apparently sufficient enough to bring them both to faith… even though, as the passage suggests, they did not know that he must "rise again from the dead".


5. No one suspected that Jesus would rise from the dead in spite of the fact that he told everyone that he would... repeatedly

Speaking of not knowing that Jesus was to rise from the dead… File this under the category of things impossible to fathom if you know anything about the Christian story. Ask any Christian to tell you the central theme of the Christian story, and you will likely hear something about the resurrection (I hope). Therefore, it is difficult to overlook the strange fact that in the Gospels, though Jesus told them over and over again, few understood that he was soon to die, and even fewer understood that he would rise again on the third day. Indeed, not one person in the story, in spite of this being the whole point of his ministry, seems to believe and/or expect that he would come back. To call this a kind of strange comedy routine would not precisely capture it, but how do you explain the fact that the writers of the Gospel seem aware that this was a part of his plan all along, while simultaneously admitting that no one had a clue about it... even after encountering the resurrected Christ? Who would tell the story this way? It's one thing to describe yourself (meaning the disciples) as grateful and in awe for all that has happened, and quite another to depict yourself as someone about as clueless as Jim Carrey in Dumb and Dumber. Yet when you consider just how utterly unique and solitary such an event would be in the history of the world, it is perhaps not so difficult to understand their incredulity.


6. Even when they were looking straight at him they "doubted"



At the end of the Gospel of Matthew, the apostle recounts the fact that the disciples worshiped the risen Christ on a mountain in Galilee, but "some doubted". In this particular passage Jesus is sending his disciples into the whole world in order to baptize the nations in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. So much for "seeing means believing," right? At this point one has to wonder how it is even possible to stand (or kneel) looking straight at this man named Jesus, and still wonder if what you are looking at is in fact what you are looking at. This certainly lends credence to Jesus' parable about the rich man that wants to return from the dead in order to warn his family about the potential for future calamity in the next life. Jesus responds to him by saying that "if they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, then neither will they believe it should someone rise from the dead." Whatever you want to say about this mysterious passage, it certainly demonstrates the limits of the five senses, and ultimately begs for a "sixth" one, namely the kind that requires faith to "believe one's own eyes."


7. St. Paul goes from killing Christians to converting the entire Mediterranean

Dismiss the followers of Jesus as ignorant fishermen if you will, but how does one explain the figure of St. Paul? Indeed, St. Paul didn't just want to destroy Christians, he was the ring leader for accomplishing it (Exhibit A: St. Stephen). This was a man who was as well connected and established as anyone in Jerusalem. Not only was he a learned doctor of Jewish Law, but he was also a Roman citizen. He had everything to lose and nothing to gain by embracing this new sect. And yet, inexplicably on the road to continuing his systematic persecution of Christians, something unbelievable happened, something so life altering and historically significant, that one cannot even envision the Mediterranean world today without first mentioning it. To put it into perspective, it would be as if someone like Osama Bin Laden had had a mystical vision, and as a result chose to travel about the Middle East, peacefully attempting to convert everyone from Islam to Christianity, and ultimately succeeding, only to lay down his own life in order to save the same Christians he formerly attempted to murder. Such a turnabout requires some sort of satisfactory explanation, it certainly cannot (at least it should not) be easily dismissed as an accident of history.


8. The angel at the tomb tells the women to inform the disciples that Jesus Christ is risen and in response the women "tell no one"


The conclusion of the Gospel of Mark is a bit of cliff-hanger (according to most scholars a longer version was added later). In essence, the holy women (Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Salome) bring spices to the tomb, and upon arrival they see that the stone has been rolled away. Sitting inside the tomb, according to the text, is some sort of angelic being. This messenger tells the women that Jesus is risen and that he will eventually meet them in Galilee. Their instructions are simple; "Go and inform Peter and the disciples of these events." It is hard to say exactly what one would do under these circumstances, but what the Gospel suggests is a bit surprising; "Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid." Indeed, if you were expecting the kind of reaction of an individual looking to report any kind of superstition that comes her way, these are not the kind of "ignorant peasants" you would be looking for. After all, they see what they believe to be an angel who tells the best news that anyone has ever heard in the history of the world, and they chose to keep it to themselves? Yet when you put it all together, their response is remarkably consistent with everyone else's reaction to these events. The adjectives that describe their behavior upon encountering the risen Christ (or at least the news about it) says it all; "bewildered", "afraid", "trembling", "unbelieving",  "perplexed", "weeping", "ecstatic", and "skeptical". Seems like a reasonable cross-section of responses. What this reveals is not (as some might suppose) a people given uncritically to believing any kind of wishful outcome. The truth is superstition is easy to believe- what is challenging to believe is the miracle right in front of your face; the historical reality that imposes itself on your own preconceptions. In this case, the resurrection, it seems, is literally stretching what is even in their capacity to believe, much less comprehend.


9. Why does Jesus still have wounds after the resurrection?          


Another unusual detail concerning the risen body of Christ is the fact that he apparently still bears the wounds of the crucifixion. We discover this during at least two of his appearances to the disciples in the upper room. In John, he singles out Thomas in particular for not "believing without seeing." Some have complained that by criticizing Thomas in this instance Jesus is promoting a kind of uncritical faith. However, clearly there is more to his unbelief than that. After all, it should seem obvious by now that others "doubted" the resurrection as well. At any rate, the problem with the doubts of Thomas go well beyond a struggle to believe. In fact, it could be argued that Thomas not only "doubted" the resurrection, but was completely unwilling to even be open to the possibility of it. We see this lack of openness when the other disciples tell him about their encounter with the risen Christ. He responds by telling them that he will not believe unless he puts his own fingers into the wounds of Christ. He says this not in the spirit of rational inquiry, but rather as a form of mockery, for presumably he cannot even imagine a resurrection, much less one that would involve fresh wounds. Hence, what Thomas is using here is a bit of dark sarcasm concerning the dead body of Christ. Yet, once again, how strange. If Jesus is truly resurrected, and victorious over death, then why is he still walking around with the marks of a "loser" on his body? One would think that you would want to put that part of the story behind you as quickly as possible. Maybe Jesus is looking to rebuke Thomas in his own sarcastic way. Yet whatever the case, clearly the scandal of the cross is not a negligible part of the story; it is, as G.K. Chesterton once put it, quite literally the "crux" of the issue. Indeed, not only are the wounds of Christ not something he sought to hide from everyone, they are in fact strangely emblematic of the type of victory he won. He is not running from the infamy of the cross. To the contrary, he is actually using his wounds as a means to identify himself:

"Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them; "Peace be with you." And when he had said this he showed them both his hands and his side." John 20:19-20

10. Post-resurrection encounter at the lake of Tiberias is spectacular for being unspectacular   

After Jesus' death and resurrection, some of the apostles return to their former way of life, which is to say, they go back to their fishing business (or at least the business of fishing). While out fishing on the lake of Tiberias, they see the resurrected Christ on the shoreline (but they do not recognize him again). He tells them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat, and after they do so their nets are immediately filled with fish. Consequently, like a young boy, the oldest, Peter, jumps out into the water and runs/swims the rest of the way to shore (about 100 yards). After everyone else arrives, Jesus invites them all to breakfast around a charcoal fire. Then the scene concludes with this remarkable statement; "None of the disciples dared ask him 'Who are you?' For they knew it was the Lord" John 20:21. I have already harped on the strangeness of such statements, so I will not repeat myself. What I will point out is just how unique this encounter is for the simple fact that it is not. It reads in many ways like a purely mundane and boringly believable encounter. Here is the resurrected Christ in front of a number of his apostles, and so what litany of miracles does he perform (beyond the catch of fish)? None. He invites them to a morning meal, cooks for them, and then takes Peter aside for a little post meal walk and talk (a little come to Jesus, if you will). Hence, what rings true here is just how incredibly down to earth and unsensational this heavenly encounter appears to be. With Jesus there is apparently very little interest in "showing off". What strikes me as "sensational" as well is the fact that the writer of the Gospel is not attempting to embellish the story at all (which it would be understandable to do), rather he seems more interested in recounting the events dutifully and in detail.                  


11. The change after Pentecost


What is thoroughly striking to me about the Gospel writers is just how willing they are to depict themselves as clueless buffoons and cowards during Christ's ministry, during the time of his suffering and death, and even up until the time of Pentecost. They say that the victors get to write history, and that may well be true, but who has ever heard of the "victors" depicting themselves as a bunch of treasonous clods? I do not say this by way of insult, but rather as a way of pointing out the believability of their claim. For it is not I who depicted them this way, but rather they themselves. My larger point is this- if we were trying to make a convincing case about something most extraordinary, pointing to the buffoonery of the story tellers themselves (at least while Jesus was alive), might not be the best route to take. It certainly wouldn't get you hired for any good job. Throw in there the dismal way in which the story appears to conclude, and it really does not bode well for their larger cause. But hold on, you say, Jesus rose from the dead, so no worries about all that previous confusion. Regardless, to somebody who has never heard the story before, the confusion on the part of the apostles makes the narrative feel more than a little uneven and odd. If the "victors" were really going to ingratiate themselves (and their Lord) to their audience, why would they include so many negative details? Yet what if this was the only story they had to work with? I do not disagree that this is the story they had to work with, what perplexes me is that they worked with it at all... and it worked! Even more inexplicable, is the fact that these figures/disciples, who clearly understood nothing before the day of Pentecost, and who subsequently spent a good deal of time hiding in the Upper Room for fear of persecution, emerged from that same Upper Room on the day of Pentecost completely transformed with an understanding and courage that was plainly absent before. I suppose you could argue that this was their only alternative. They were backed into a corner, and they decided to fight and die instead of continuing to cower. However, such a characterization would be facile and incomplete. What the disciples experienced that day (and everyone that encountered them) was far more transformational than some Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid moment. Such an immediate transformation would be about as inexplicable as someone who is borderline illiterate composing the entire works of Shakespeare out of the blue, or someone who was formerly tone deaf singing like Andrea Bocelli just for kicks. It is one thing to find the courage and bravery to say what needs to be said to a hostile audience, and quite another to travel to the four winds, with knowledge, confidence, courage, and the capacity to convert the known world- as well as the grace to die a gruesome death in the name of that message. I'm sorry- there are just some things which require too much faith for me to believe in, and in this case it simply requires less faith to believe that there were special little tongues of fire/grace over their heads of each of the disciples which propelled them on that day and beyond. This, in my opinion, is far easier to accept than the idea that a whole community of formerly ignorant disciples, rallied around a failure who didn't really rise from the dead, and managed to convince all subsequent generations of this story… even though it is a dumb vacuous lie. Incidentally, there have been many "editors" in history who have tried to clean up this story and make it "more neat and tidy" (and therefore less down to earth), but these sanitized accounts were always rejected by these so-called "victors".                


12. All other explanations for the empty tomb just strike me as silly by comparison


Few people, including the religious leaders of Jesus' day, ever doubted the fact that the tomb was empty. This seems to be the historically accepted view, for no one in the subsequent generations really questioned this aspect of the story. Over the centuries, what skeptics have proposed are a variety of alternatives to the notion that Jesus rose from the dead. Some have argued that Jesus wasn't really dead when he was taken down from the cross, others have suggested (as did the Jewish authorities), that Jesus' disciples stole the body (though this latter explanation offers nothing to account for how they got past the guards and/or stealthily moved the tremendous weighty stone that would have sealed the tomb). Another hypothesis suggests that the mourners visited the wrong tomb, and thus concocted an entire narrative from this misunderstanding. A similar explanation has Joseph of Arimathea moving the body from his family's tomb after a short period of time, and then placing it in a criminals graveyard. Other religions, like Islam, suggest that another man died in Jesus' place, while God took Jesus up to heaven. Buddhists and Gnostics believe that whatever appeared to have happened to Jesus, in actuality Jesus was never truly in the flesh, so he was not really crucified. What these alternatives reveal (at least to me) is that people in general have such a problem with the heart of the Christian story, that they will invent even more outrageous stories, if only to obfuscate the unbelievable possibility that the resurrection actually occurred. And while I certainly understand doubts that people have regarding these miraculous events, I do not think it wise to multiple miracles and impossibilities in order to cover up the central one. Taken in isolation, these alternatives may work on some level, but considering all the events that follow, such explanations seem flimsy. To put it another way, in order for me to really entertain the possibility that Jesus didn't rise from the dead, I would need more than somebody arguing that mass hysteria and/or a "zombie Jesus" inspired everyone to go into all the world to spread the Gospel to all nations as well as generations.      


13. I'm sorry- the claim that the resurrection is a plagiarism of other mythological tales just doesn't hold water

Before the time of Christ (and after) there were others stories and legends of gods/creatures who rose from the ashes of oblivion. But never before was there a story so firmly rooted in real historical events, with real human reactions, too strange to be scripted, and too counter-intuitive to be the invention of some fraud who would probably have been inclined to edit out all of the human foibles. Should it really seem so bizarre that men in ages past might have "daydreams" and/or "fantasies" about overcoming death and rising from the grave? Of all the predictable myths/stories, this would seem to be the most obvious one. Frankly, I am surprised that there are not more stories of this kind. What sets the Gospels apart is not that it involves a story of a divine figure who beats death, but rather how genuinely historical and down to earth these accounts are (as I have spent this entire blog post pointing out). In fact, who would even begin to claim that Mithras, Osiris, or Ishtar, whatever their similarities with Christ, were even historical figures with which to be compared? Please, if you can, share with me the Oprah-like details from the life of Ishtar. Regale me with particular accounts of individuals who had a personal relationship with Mithras. It would delight me to hear tell of the lineage and family stock of that Everlasting Firebird which sometimes goes by the name Phoenix. I do not discount the idea that these myths have something to them. What I would suggest, however, is that that "something" is probably more of a hope or a foreshadowing of a real event, than it is a personal history of a real human being, who was really born, walked this earth, had friends, and according to accounts from over four hundred people, really did die and rise again from the dead. This may explain the strange connection between the word Easter, and its supposed connection to the goddess of Spring. Of course it has always occurred to mortal men (at least post-lapserian mortals) that death is a part of life, but it has also occurred to them, via natural revelation (i.e. reasonable observation), that things can, and in fact do, "spring" back to life in a most miraculous way. Thus, Christ came not come to destroy what was good in paganism, rather he came to fulfill it.



8 comments:

  1. Love this! My fave detail is again about the burial cloths. In John it describes the cloth which covered His head not with the others but rolled up in a separate place. I just picture Jesus (in a manifestation of His sacred humanity) unwinding that cloth, balling it up and tossing it in a corner. I can see my husband doing that, can imagine myself doing it. Just a little detail that has always made the Resurrection totally real to me. :)

    ReplyDelete
  2. Excellent observations. Loved reading your take on the 13 odd details. (Although the white on black background was killing my eyes.) I'm sharing your link with friends!

    ReplyDelete
  3. This is a fantastic posting. Thanks for sharing.

    Another odd detail is that the Gospel writers highlight rather than hide the fact that it was women rather than men who were the first eyewitnesses to the resurrection. This is odd because women were considered "unreliable witnesses" in Jesus' day. Why highlight such a detail when it risks undermining the credibility of your account from the get-go?

    ReplyDelete
  4. One of the details of the resurrection story that always caused me to pause was the part about the angels rolling the stone back from the tomb. Why, I wondered, would Jesus's glorified body need that when he could simply "walk through" the stone to the world outside, much as he appeared in the midst of the apostles in the locked upper room. Then it dawned on me: the stone was rolled away not for Jesus but for us. "Us," that is, in the persons of Mary, Peter, and John who would serve as the first eye witnesses of the resurrection. It's another seeming inconsistency that is just stated simply with no reliance on amplification or explanation. This excellent article insightfully explores the other "oddities" of the resurrection story, many of which I have not been smart enough to discern.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Thanks for the additional oddities. I was hoping folks would contribute their own...

    ReplyDelete
  6. Beautiful work! I have to rally to St. Thomas' defense, however, as he is truly the underappreciated Apostle. Who else could go to India and evangelize a people with "Reincarnation? Show me. Resurrection? Yup, seen it and probed the wounds." Love that guy!

    ReplyDelete
  7. Much like St. Peter, it was in some ways necessary for him to be brought low in order for him, by the grace of God, to reach great heights. This seems to be the pattern for most of the disciples.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Order a professional Sparkling White Smiles Custom Teeth Whitening System online and enjoy BIG SAVINGS!
    * 10 shades whiter in days!
    * Professional Results Are Guaranteed.
    * Better than your dentist.
    * Same strength Teeth Whitening Gel as dentists use.

    ReplyDelete