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The Only Christian
Notre Dame High School : Sherman Oaks, circa 1971, Freshmen Year
If I remember correctly it was an early morning religion class with Father Costello, a Dominican Priest, and it was an offhand remark he made which I am not quite sure any of my classmates would still recall. However, it made a lasting impression on me.
I was only 15 at the time and a bit too inquisitive for my own good, especially given the strict orthodoxy of our teacher. I asked what I thought was a relatively pertinent question concerning the resurrection of Jesus Christ, “Has there been any research done on trying to find Jesus' burial tomb; you know, the one that his disciple, Joseph of Arimathea, made out of stone?”
Father Costello animatedly responded that it didn't really matter, since Jesus' remains were not there. I then interjected, “But what about the possibility of his bones still being there?”
This set Father Costello off and he excitedly muted my skepticism with “No, they will never find his bones, because that would mean that Jesus didn't resurrect and that all of Christianity is a lie. If that were to be the case, I would rip off my Dominican robes and party like a hedonist.”
Father Costello's unexpected rejoinder struck me and a few of my friends as quite odd, since it looked as if he really did want to party but couldn't do such given his a priori conviction in Jesus' bodily ascension.
It was at this juncture that I probably should have shut my mouth, but being a precarious teenager I had a tendency to push hot button issues, especially if it related to religion. So I quipped, “You don't really love Jesus, but rather a glorified image of him.”
Oops. I went too far. I got kicked out the class and got yet another detention (which was Notre Dame High School's way of punishing you by staying after school in a classroom with other truants and staring at the clock for another 30 minutes).
This incident has stayed with me for all these years because much of Christianity (especially in Roman Catholic and evangelical forms of the faith) is centered precisely on the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. Doubt that such a thing transpired and for many Christian churches, you end up living an eternity with Satan and his comrades in horns.
But something seemed amiss to me, especially after I did a close reading of the New Testament and comparing the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, which are for Christians worldwide the essential narratives in which the resurrection of Jesus Christ is delineated.
One must take any account of Jesus and his ministry with a large particle of intellectual salt since no known writings of Jesus exist nor anything dating from his lifetime. While there are a few scattered non-Christian sources about Jesus' life and teachings (ranging from Josephus to Tacitus), the bulk of what we think we know about him comes from decidedly Christian converted sources. Whether these are reliable guides, of course, is still open to serious debate. Thankfully, we now have access to one of the earliest versions of the New Testament in Greek, Codex Sinaiticus, which is online and available for close inspection, especially for the illustrative display of the many corrections made on the text itself (see: http://www.codex-sinaiticus.net/en/). But even this most primordial of texts is at least 3 centuries removed from the central character it describes.
The variances in the four gospels concerning the resurrection of Jesus Christ are so apparent that one doesn't have to any special training to immediately notice them. Indeed, whenever the issue of Jesus' resurrection comes up in my Science and Religion course at California State University, Long Beach, I simply have my students take out a piece of paper and draw four columns on it and we proceed to systematically compare and contrast the four gospel accounts. Invariably, most of my students are startled by what they uncover since many have never consciously read the gospels in such a horizontal fashion.
Evidence that doesn't demand a verdict
The Four Gospels
The first thing we notice is that after Jesus' death, one of his personal disciples, Joseph of Arimathea, requests the dead body of Jesus from Pilate so that he may lay it in a new tomb which he had hewn out of rock.
But in the gospel of Matthew, we learn “the chief priests and Pharisees” who had opposed Jesus' ministry argued to Pilate that they feared his disciples would simply steal his dead body and claim that he was resurrected. For that reason, they requested that the grave be secured for three days and guards placed to protect it.
In that same gospel we learn that two women, Mary of Magdalene and “the other” Mary visit the tomb on the third day after Jesus' crucifixion to take care of his body. In the other three gospels, the number of women who show up on that day changes. Mark has three women (Mary of Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome). In Luke he has at least four women who appear (Mary of Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and “the rest of the women with them”). The gospel of John only has one woman, Mary of Magdalene, and she is the only woman to show up in all four gospel accounts.
In Matthew after a great earthquake an angel of the Lord descends and rolls away the stone. In Mark there are no earthquake and no angel descending but the women, though worried about how to move the stone, realize after “looking up” that the stone has already been rolled away. In Luke, the women find the stone rolled away without any explanation, and in John Mary notices that the stone had been “taken away.”
There are other variances as well, perhaps the most contradictory one being that in the gospels of Matthew and Mark there are two differing versions on how the women reacted when discovering the empty tomb. In the gospel of Matthew, the two women after learning of Jesus' resurrection are overcome with great joy and reported the good news to the other disciples. However, in the gospel of Mark the three women after learning from a young man inside the tomb that Jesus has been “raised” and who are directly instructed to tell all of the disciples, particularly Peter, about the news don't do so (“They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”).
In Luke, however, when the apostles are told of Jesus' resurrection they do not believe and call it “nonsense.” In Mark, we find a similar response when Mary Magdalene tells the disciples of Jesus' appearance to her, which they did not accept. There are still other discrepancies as posted on http://www.religionfacts.com and illustrated in the appendix of this magazine.
Yet, the most unusual, yet deeply revealing, passage occurs in the gospel of John where Mary of Magdalene, after informing John and Peter that the tomb was empty finds herself back at the empty tomb wondering where his body has been moved. It is very clear that she doesn't think that he has resurrected but rather that somebody or some group has moved his body somewhere else. She even pleads with a gardener near the tomb to provide her with instructions about what happened to Jesus' body. It turns out, however, that there is no gardener at all. It was Jesus she was talking to but didn't recognize him.
As John retells it,
“But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look* into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, 'Woman, why are you weeping?' She said to them, 'They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.' When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was him. Jesus said to her, 'Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?' Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, 'Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.' Jesus said to her, 'Mary!' She turned and said to him in Hebrew,* 'Rabbouni!' (which means Teacher).”
I personally think the preceding is the most beautiful passage in the entire New Testament because it reveals something that is oftentimes neglected in most Christian Churches. Mary of Magdalene doesn't believe that Jesus has resurrected even after she personally sees that the tomb is empty. She just wants to tend to his dead human body.
I have read these passages innumerable times and several years ago something stood out that I hadn't really thought about before. Not only did Jesus' disciples not expect him to resurrect from the dead, they were downright skeptical when they first heard reports from their fellow disciples that he had indeed emerged from the dead.
This is odd on the surface of it, since we are repeatedly told that Jesus had prophesized such a thing and even his detractors believed that the disciples would deceptively fake his resurrection. In Matthew, we learn that the Pharisees and chief priests thought that the disciples would “steal” Jesus body from the tomb and say to the people “He has been raised from the dead.”
One could easily infer from this consensus that Jesus didn't make such a belief in his bodily resurrection a requirement to follow him when he was alive, since none of his disciples, including his most devoted, seemed to think such a thing would occur, even after some witnessed an empty tomb. Or, if he did indeed teach such a thing, apparently he had some very slow learners among his disciples as not one of them seems to have taken it seriously.
But all of this is secondary to a much more important point that I think gets at the very heart of the matter. Mary of Magdalene went to the empty tomb to take care of a Jesus, because she didn't care if such a body resurrected or not. She loved Jesus himself, regardless of whether he turned out divine or human. We see this quite poignantly in her query to the gardener, where in her tears she pleads,” They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him. . . . Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”
Putting aside the strange fact that Mary mistook Jesus for a gardener (was he trimming the hedges around the tomb?), the unmistakable impression we are left with is a bereft woman whose number one concern is to take care of the crucified body of her deceased teacher. In sum, she loves Jesus regardless of whether he resurrects or not.
Today, when I ask Christians if they love Jesus Christ, they immediately respond with an immediate “Yes.” However, when I ask them if they would still love Jesus if he didn't resurrect, almost all of them with the same immediacy say “No.”
At this stage I then raise up the issue about what we think love means and what it implies. So I give them an example designed to touch their emotional selves. Imagine a boyfriend who says that he loves you only if you are absolutely perfect. You must always look stunningly beautiful, always provide a ready smile, and never (not even once) succumb to a changed mood. In other words, if you are always 100% perfect, your boyfriend will love you. If, however, you deviate even slightly from that ideal, your boyfriend will dump you.
Alright, let's imagine the opposite type of boyfriend. This man loves you despite any obstacle you may put in his way. You may be insecure, unattractive, unbalanced, or fill in the blanks, and he stays with you through good and bad times no matter what may arise. If given a choice between these two obviously extreme examples, which person do you think truly loves?
So let's put this in much sharper relief. The earliest Christian account that we have concerning Jesus' resurrection reveals that his closest disciples did not think he was going to resurrect from the dead. Yet, at least one of Jesus' very closest followers, Mary Magdalene, demonstrated by her actions that she loved Jesus even if such an event never transpired. Apparently, the requirements to be a Christian when Jesus was alive (or even a few days after his death) didn't include an absolute belief in his bodily resurrection. Yet, according to some forms of Biblical fundamentalism today, if we freeze frame the moment when Mary sees the empty tomb and thinks Jesus' body was moved or even stolen and she died right at that moment as an unbeliever in the risen Jesus, she would, given certain strict orthodox interpretations of that cornerstone event, go to hell for eternity.
Indeed, in some Biblical circles, if you confess that you love Jesus only as a human being and don't believe in the most central of all miracles of the faith (that Jesus conquered death) you are not a Christian at all and thus are relegated (Dante's inferno not withstanding) a secure place in eternal damnation.
Now to my eyes this type of theological spin (which, lest we forget, only occurs after Jesus is long gone) seems utterly absurd. In fact, one could argue that nobody today loves Jesus at all but rather an idealized image of him that is literally created out of words spoken and written by followers of him twenty to sixty years after his death and even then in a language that Jesus most likely never spoke.
Just taking the New Testament as our guide, we might be surprised by how little we actually know about Jesus. Quite frankly, we probably know more about our next door neighbor than we do about Jesus. The following checklist will underline this point:
The list goes on. While I understand that for many Christians answers to such details may seem inconsequential, I do think it is ironic that if we went back in time we would be unable to pick Jesus out of a mug line-up, which of course begs the question of how one can be sure that one's vision of Jesus in this or the afterlife is really indeed Jesus.
Yet, the most vital question of them all still remains. What is it that we love? One could argue that there are no Christians today in the Mary Magdalene mold because her love, bizarre as it may sound, would be regarded as complete heresy in most of the Christian churches in the world. Why? Because she loved Jesus no matter what. Can any Christian today honestly say the same?
Perhaps there should be a revival of this most ancient form of Christianity that seems to have been lost over the ages which is to reflect on what Mary Magdalene demonstrated so movingly on the third day after her master's death. Despite all the circumstances and all the invectives that were cast upon Mary, she went to the tomb of her teacher to tend to his dead body because she, unlike the millions of Christians today, loved Jesus unconditionally.
When I think back on Father Costello's heated reaction on what he would do if Jesus' bones were found (quit the order and party) and compare it with what Mary Magdalene did after she discovered the empty tomb (weep and try to find out where his body had been moved), it makes me pause and wonder: Was Mary Magdalene the only Christian?
Eventually, this questioning attitude of mine got me into more serious hot water and by the end of my junior year I was summarily dismissed from the school with the words “You are not a Notre Dame man.” Which coming directly from the Vice Principal turned out to have an ironic twist, since he himself eventually left the brotherhood and declared his homosexuality and started a new line of work as a plumber in Van Nuys where he moved in with his boyfriend. I should add as a further side-note that several years later I found myself teaching religious studies in the same department with Father Costello at a Catholic High School. This time, however, we were both teaching sex education but in different classrooms and with apparently different agendas. One section of the book was too risqué for him so he had thirty pages of the required text stapled together so that the students wouldn't be able to read such scandalous materials. Of course when I was told about it, we immediately read those sections aloud in class. Such were my heretical ways.
THE FOUR GOSPELS COMPARED