By Riley Manning
And when they looked, they saw that the stone was rolled away: for it was very great. And entering into the sepulchre, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a long white garment; and they were affrighted. And he saith unto them, Be not affrighted: ye seek Jesus of Nazareth, which was crucified: he is risen; he is not here: behold the place where they laid him.
This moment from the book of Mark, is arguably the defining moment of Christianity, when Jesus proved himself to be more than man, teacher, even more than a healer of lepers and worker of miracles. When, on the third day, Jesus rose from the dead, Christ’s claims of being the son of God became legitimized.
This narrative, the Easter story, comes not only to Christians but to the world primarily through the Gospels. The lack of non-Christian sources about the events of Christ’s death has deep implications for scholars, skeptics, and the faithful, who use context and culture to decide what to make of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John’s accounts.
It may come as a surprise, but the death of Jesus didn’t exactly make headlines around the ancient world. Outside of the gospels, early records of Christ’s death are hard to come by. In fact, the Gospel of Mark is recognized as the earliest written record of his crucifixion.
“From the Roman perspective, Jesus was just one of several thousand troublemakers they executed in Judea,” said James Bos, professor of philosophy and religion at the University of Mississippi.
Bos said Tacitus, a Roman historian and senator, mentions Jesus early in the second century, but it’s impossible to know if he first heard about Jesus from a Christian source, governmental archives, or by other means. However, according to Dr. James Bowley, professor and chair of the Religious Studies Department at Millsaps College, Tacitus’ mention of Jesus is thought by most scholars to be independent of the Gospels, and dependent on Roman records.
“The evidence is pretty good for the basics of a man named Jesus who was crucified. But I’m less sure about the missing from the tomb part, because there are no non-Christian sources for it,” Bowley said. “Some scholars, even some Christians like John Dominic Crossan, argue Jesus was never buried, since burial wasn’t the usual practice for crucifixion.”
The first written account then, comes from the Gospel of Mark, which Bos said circulated orally until it was penned around 70 CE, a generation after Christ’s death. Mark became one source for the authors who wrote the Gospels of Matthew and Luke soon after, and added a bit of their own information gleaned from their own oral traditions.
“The author of Mark was not present at Jesus’ death or his tomb, and likely did not know anyone personally who was because most had died by the time he wrote. All other later Christian accounts of Jesus’ last days are dependent on one or more of these earlier Gospels,” Bos said. “So from the perspective of a critical historian, we are not dealing with historical evidence but rather with legends circulating in the oral tradition.”
Different audiences, different genres
The Rev. Paul Stephens, Rector at All Saints’ Episcopal Church, said it was important to understand the Gospels as not so much history, not so much biography, but as narrative proclamations written in different styles to different audiences.
“All four books are narratives, but they aren’t set in the mode of biography, and lack an in-depth explanation of cultural context and social motivations,” Stephens said. “The Gospels are purposed to convince people Jesus walked the earth and was – is – the son of God.”
For instance, he said, the book of Mark was written so an orator could memorize it and share it through spoken word. The book of Matthew, on the other hand, focused on Jews. Stephens said Matthew is replete with Old Testament images, prophecies and events.
“Basically, Matthew is telling Jews that Jesus came to fulfill their prophecies,” he said. “Matthew’s geneaology of Jesus ties him to the house of David.”
Luke’s Gospel begins with an address to someone named Theophilus, and claims to be “an orderly account,” investigated “from the beginning.” Little is known about Theophilus, according to Stephens, but he is speculated to be someone of status.
“Luke’s Gospel is directed toward Gentiles,” Stephens said. “Women play the biggest part in Luke, and Samaritans are involved in a different kind of way.”
John’s Gospel is thought to be the last written, around the end of the first century CE, and its language is focused in yet another direction.
“John has many more what you might call ‘editorial additions. John doesn’t just convey the events, he interprets them as one trying to explain the mystery of Jesus,” Stephens said.
For the Rev. Jason McAnally, pastor of Origins church, it’s a stretch to say as some critical scholars do that the disciples completely falsified Christ’s resurrection. If they did, he said, they certainly didn’t do themselves any favors.
“Firstly, their use of women would have actually discredited the story. At the time, women weren’t even allowed to testify in court,” McAnally said. “Then there’s the disciples themselves, who didn’t exactly paint a favorable portrait of themselves. If you’re Peter, leading the church, would you admit denying Jesus three times?”
Not to mention, disciples of Christ usually met violent ends. With no political power gained, it’s hard, McAnally said, to see any incentive to die for something they knew was untrue.
Furthermore, the oral stories eventually written down in the Gospels differed strikingly from the myth-like style of fiction of the day. Though there are some discrepancies among the Gospels, Jesus is raised from the dead in each one.
“When other leaders were killed, their followers scattered. When Jesus died, his followers grew. The stories had decades to die down before they were written, but they didn’t,” he said. “Maybe it can’t be proven scientifically, but historically, there is as much foundation for it as any other event at the time. The problem is, it’s miraculous.”