There’s no doubt, as we have seen, that the Easter event was highly unusual to say the least, totally beyond the disciples’ experience. But the “high strangeness” of the Risen Christ was only part of it: there are other disturbing problems with the Easter accounts themselves.
Although not easy by any means, it is possible to fashion a fairly consistent narrative of the events of Jesus’ life from the four Gospels. The exercise, however, becomes much more difficult in synchronizing events after his burial. For then the story narrows down sharply to a specific series of events starting at dawn the Sunday after his death and entombment. Yet the accounts of those events differ more and more throughout the accounts. In fact, several flat-out contradict each other.
All four begin with Mary Magdalene going to the tomb at dawn on the first day of the week after the sabbath. In Matthew she goes with “the other Mary” in Mark, with Mary the mother of James and a woman named Salome, while Luke adds Joanna in place of Salome plus unidentified “others” and in John, it’s the Magdalene all by herself. So there are discrepancies right from the start.
She finds the stone moved, and the tomb opened – save in Matthew, which adds the dramatic effect of an angel descending from Heaven, rolling the stone away with an earthquake, and then sitting on it. But strange figures who enigmatically address them – whether identified as angels or not – are all seen by the women (and only by them at the tomb) in all accounts.
Matthew probably includes that detail because he’s also the only one who mentions the guards set at the tomb to prevent the disciples from robbing the grave. Sure enough, it works – not only do the guards “tremble, becoming like dead men” but when some report back to their superiors, who check out the scene, something apparently about that quake indicates they are telling the truth. Enough so that they are given hush money and a cover story rather than being quickly nailed up for failing in their duty.
Likewise, whatever happened also persuades the disciples. Only in Matthew’s rendition do they unquestioningly accept her tale – in all the others, they disbelieve her like she’s gone nuts again. Yet on her way to inform the disciples, she (and the other women) encounter Jesus, except in John’s account, where as we have seen, she runs into him alone at the tomb and first thinks he’s the gardener.
The disciples’ reaction
Luke and John’s tales of the empty tomb are the most similar. In both, Peter goes to check out the scene and notes the disturbed grave cloths, “and returns home wondering”. John’s, however, is precisely detailed, almost like an eye-witness account provided by the mysterious “beloved disciple” who accompanied Peter.
There were later encounters with Jesus, too, which generally match. John records three: one where the disciples (save for Thomas) are present in a room having dinner, another similar occasion when Tom was present, and the final meeting at the Sea of Tiberias. Luke also has a meeting where Thomas was absent, as well as the encounter by two disciples on the road to Emmaus, about 15 miles away.
This latter rendezvous is seemingly confirmed by Mark, as is the dinner meeting with all the apostles including Thomas. At Luke’s meeting without Tommy present, Jesus challenges them to examine him and asks for a fish – which happens in John when Thomas arrives.
Paul’s later recounting (1. Cor 15:3-8) also mentions Jesus meeting Peter privately, then to 500 all at once (some still alive at that time), then with James (presumably his brother), and finally all the apostles. And, of course, eventually Paul himself. (Paul’s tale about that encounter gets bigger each time he retells it, too, but that’s a different story. Likewise is the fact that despite the Catholic Church’s lovely tales of the devotion of Christ’s mother, her baby boy is never recorded as visiting Mary, or having another word for her since the Crucifixion, but again, a different story for another time.)
Jesus got around, but so far all these tales are not too far apart. The variations may simply be due to the nature of the oral tradition which came before the Gospels were written. After all, doubtless rumors began the moment the Magdalene announced what she had seen to the disciples. The disciples on the road mention the wild tale of the women and the empty tomb to Jesus, and he appears to the other disciples just as these guys are trying to make them believe. Doubtless contradictory rumors spread throughout the traumatic community of followers, and soon to the mass of the population.
But it’s the Ascension where the real contradictions dwell. In Matthew, there are no meetings with the disciples in Jerusalem. the angel tells the disciples via the women that Jesus has gone to Galilee where he will meet them. Presumably they quick-time it there, Jesus meets them and departs from a mountain – just a few days, at most, after the Resurrection.
Luke, however, has Jesus taken up from Bethany after dinner, or maybe the Mount of Olives (according to Acts) and in Mark, Jesus leaves right from the room in Jerusalem where all the disciples were having dinner. (Although there is evidence that the originally ending of Mark was chopped off after 16:7 – once again, something to be discussed later.) And John, who never bothers to mention how Jesus came into the world, doesn’t bother to address his leaving, either. His last scene has Jesus cooking the boys breakfast by the shore while they argue about who loves what and how long John will live.
It seems like a dream…
These differences can’t be reconciled, unless one theorizes that Jesus left and returned several times, so they’re usually overlooked. And they seem to be greater than just what differing oral traditions might produce. The details of when and where the last meeting with their beloved teacher took place one might think would be something to remember clearly.
The reason might just be the uncanny nature of the events themselves. For the most part, there’s a decided lack of “special effects” in the stories. When Jesus does appear, he’s just not there one moment and present the next, and vice versa. And, like an encounter with a dead person in a dream, nobody loses it or freaks out. Mary just wants to hold him, and when he finally catches up with the cowering apostles, it’s to berate them for their lack of belief.
This exhibits, IMHO, a curious dreamlike quality, which is not to suggest the events themselves were dreams or hallucinations or purely psychic in nature. Rather, it was like the Transfiguration, the previous occasion recorded in Matthew where Jesus was glorified before their eyes. There, they see Moses and Elijah chatting with the Lord, and so what does Peter do? Asks if he needs to build them shelters. Such blending of fantastic events and mundane concerns is a sure sign that whatever happened, it was not within the confines of ordinary consciousness.
The Transfiguration, Resurrection, and Ascension were all highly spiritual, highly strange, numinous events that still perplex us two millennia later. The witnesses were transported into a different mental state as surely as if they’d dropped LSD. And like a powerful psychedelic experience, it opened their eyes to a new level of reality and altered their lives forever.
And with their lives, history and civilization as well.
We may never have comfortably scientific or historical answers to these questions. But there is evidence contained in these accounts that prove that there were other meanings to these events which embodied secret teachings. And the clue to it is a fishing yarn.