Sunday, March 30, 2008

Unreliable Witnesses

In the Sunday school class I'm co-facilitating, we're spending Easter season looking at the post-resurrection narratives in the Gospels. Those narratives are endlessly fascinating, not only for what they say, but also for what they leave unsaid and unexplained (like, how did the resurrection happen?), and also for the similarities that exist in the midst of so many differences between them.

This morning we compared and contrasted the accounts of women finding Jesus' tomb empty in Mark 16:1-8 and in Matthew 28:1-10. I find it very significant that it's the women who discover the empty tomb, it's the women who first encounter the risen Lord, and it's the women who first proclaim to the male disciples and to the world, "The Lord is risen!"

Based upon my own research, I prefaced the session by noting that the Christian claim for the resurrection of Jesus was surprising and "off the charts" in light of the spectrum of possible beliefs about life after death current within the paganism and Judaism of the day. Add to this that in Jesus' day, "women were not allowed to testify in court" and "were not considered reliable witnesses" (cf. Brian P. Stoffregen) and here's what we have: "unreliable" witnesses making an utterly fantastic claim about Jesus, a claim that flies in the face of every (then) conceivable view of what happens to persons after they die. In short, by insisting that the women were the first apostles (eyewitnesses to the resurrection), the evangelists undermine the credibility of their post-resurrection narratives in the eyes of their male-dominated society right from the get-go.

Why would they do that? Could it be because this illustrates how the first are now last and the last are now first? Could it be that this is a striking instance of God choosing what the world views as "foolish," "unreliable," and "weak" to shame what the world considers "wise," "reliable," and "strong" (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:18-25)? Could it be because, the differences in their accounts notwithstanding, each of the evangelists is telling the truth?

Concerning the testimony of the women and the truthfulness of the Gospels, here's what one scholar says: "In view of the prejudice against women's testimony in antiquity, no one would have invented the testimony of the women attested in all four Gospels; indeed, Paul even omits it" [Craig S. Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (William B. Eerdmans, 1999) , p. 702]. Certainly, this does not prove beyond all doubt the reliability of these accounts. But I'm inclined to agree that, in addition to other factors, this gives further credibility to the evangelists' claim about the resurrection.

So thank God for Mary Magdalene, Mary, Salome, Joanna, and the other women who not only discovered the empty tomb of Jesus, but who also had the courage to proclaim the Good News that Jesus is risen indeed.

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