Friday, March 29, 2013

A Detective Story... What Happened to Jesus's Body?

Pretend that you are a detective.  Pick your favorite: Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolfe, Miss Marple.  Think about how they think; how they gather and sift information.  Now plunk that person down in a year around 30 CE.  

Now imagine that grieving family and friends of Jesus appeal to you with the startling news that his newly dead body, that of a convict, executed by the Romans - is missing from its tomb.  They want your help in figuring out what happened.  What questions will you ask?  What conclusions will you draw from what you do hear and what you don't hear, from the consistencies and the discrepancies of your sources and the evidence? Bear in mind, that as a contemporary witness, you know nothing about the later theologies of the Resurrection or the Trinity.  You just know that an itinerant Jewish teacher, seen by some authorities as a rabble-rouser, was arrested and rapidly condemned to a particularly ignominious death, and now his family and friends say his body is missing.  Hmmmmm!

Now, fast forward 2000 years.  You are still a detective, but this time, a sociological, religious detective.  You sift through the early Christian documents (the canonical gospels and the apocryphal ones and various letters that were circulating then as well), and Jewish documents and political ones.  These writers had choices about what to include and what to leave out.  What do you notice about the choices that the writers made?  What conclusions do you draw about the documents, the writers, and the believers? 

We will play both of these roles, first as contemporary detective and then as literary/historical detective. We will look at many of the same passages, first in one light and then in the other.  What do you conclude?  What questions remain?  Do they matter to you?  

The format for this detection relies on "who, what, when, where, why" questions.

The first question is likely to be "when." Detectives like to know if a client's mystery is an old one with a dead trail or a fresh one?  "When did you discover that the body was missing?" 
Part I:

When-historic:  the mystery is new.  Jesus was crucified on Friday and was discovered on Sunday or Monday, depending on different sources, which in the Canonical Gospels, variably say "on the third day" and "after three days." 

That number of days could be cited to reasonably prove that Jesus was dead as opposed to comatose, fainted, or concussed.   

When- mythic:  "Three days later" is obviously symbolic and not to be taken literally.  Three is a highly significant, religious number. Peter denies Jesus three times, Jonah remained for three days in the belly of the fish, angelic announcements occur in threes. There are numerous examples.  In addition, this language was written at least one and possibly two generations after Jesus's death in order to reinforce a Christian Sabbath day that would distinguish it from the Jewish Sabbath, when the Christians and Jews decided that they were different religions (officially observed by Rome).

Who discovered the empty tomb- historic?  This answer is remarkably consistent.  All sources say that the women close to Jesus discovered the empty tomb, and in those sources that name women, which are most of them, Mary Magdalene is ALWAYS among them, or among various sources, sometimes with another Mary, or with Salome or Drusiana.  John, the last gospel written, mentions two men, too: Peter and "the beloved disciple," interpreted but unnamed, as John. This consistency is important to a detective of 30 CE.  First of all, it is sensible that the women would have gone to the tomb, as it was the female family members who attended to both birth and death events.  In Jewish families, it would have been the wife and mother and sisters and aunts who would have washed and wrapped the body for burial.  The fact that Mary Magdalene is so prominently associated with this role is one of the strongest indications that she was, in fact, Jesus' wife.  Let's face it.  The man was 30 years old and Jewish in a period when the life expectancy was 40.  Celibacy was rare.  Those Jews, like the Essenes, who may have practiced celibacy, although recent archeology disputes it, did so away from society, whereas Jesus was clearly ministering to people in situ.  It would have been normal for him to have been married and  unusual for him to have been single at that age, in that culture.

Who - mythic:  In myths and religious stories, it is often the "little" people, the underappreciated, like elves and children and hunchbacked old crones who bear significant news, only to be disbelieved.  Although there is historical merit for women first approaching the tomb, it is also mythically and literarily consistent that women would bear the news to those who would become the leaders of the institutional church.  In the resurrection stories, it is repeatedly less important who first heard the news at the tomb than who first believed it among the disciples. The gospels were written between 70 – 100 CE.  By that time, and particularly since Jerusalem was destroyed in the 60s CE, the first AND second generation of Jesus’ followers could no longer be validated.  The importance was in the hearing and believing, not in the seeing any longer.  And this remains so, among the faithful centuries later.

It is sadly interesting that the early writings mention Mary Magdalene's key role without apology or explanation as if it is implicit, but it is later versions and church tradition that describe her more derogatorily, particularly to align her with the unnamed prostitute in one  Gospel.  Where did that connection come from?    These efforts to explain away a wife in a culture that prized family is a far cry from the Jewish culture in which Jesus lived, and possibly one of the saddest elements in Christian theology, which attempts to segregate Jesus from the culture in which he likely lived.  

Two Where Questions:  Where was the tomb and where were his followers?

Where was the tomb:  The answers to this are highly problematic.  Mark, the least romantic and fantastic gospel, refers simply to a "rock tomb."  Matthew and Luke identify the tomb as that of Joseph of Arimethea.  John puts the tomb in a garden, which would be a pretty snazzy location, indeed, particularly startling for a convict.  These are three very different versions.  One is anonymous, another named, and a third in the best burial ground in town.  Where was this tomb?  Whose tomb was it?  And why can't anyone point to it later on?

Another “where" question is this:  Where were the men and women of Jesus' group when he died?  The women are reported to be watching the crucifixion from "afar."  The men are reported to have scattered, afraid for themselves after Jesus was arrested and convicted.  Despite heart wrenching paintings of Mary and John at the foot of the cross, most of the written documents indicate that Jesus died alone, abandoned by his family and followers.      

Where - mythic:  We know where Grant's tomb is.  We know where Mohammed ascended to heaven.  We have traditions about the location of Abraham's tomb.  Do you think that if ANYONE knew where Jesus was buried there wouldn't be a parking lot and a hotel there?  Wouldn't Christians be lining up to be healed at the site of the man who "beat death" instead of at Lourdes or other places?  No one knows where Jesus was buried.  This is very significant.  From a Protestant symbolic standpoint, this indicates that it is not his death, but his resurrection that is important -  witness the empty cross in Protestant churches.  However, for Catholics, it is the suffering and dying on the cross as a sacrifice to us that is significant.  Hence the often grisly depictions of a writhing, suffering Jesus on that cross.  Catholics have built a Church of the Holy Sepulcher on a site outside the old walls of Jerusalem in a location associated with convict executions and mass graves.  However, it doesn't attract the attention of the sites for Mohammed in Jerusalem, Mecca, and Medina that are accorded historical significance.  
Now consider two "what" questions.
1) What were they going to do at the tomb?   The answer to this is rather troublesome, on several counts.  First of all, several versions contend that the women were going to the tomb to anoint a body three days dead.  This is a little late in a warm climate.  Second, one of the gospels indicates that the body wrappings were lying in the tomb and another that Joseph and Nicodemus took care of the body.  Too many inconsistencies. Third, Jesus is reported to have died much earlier in the day than anyone expected.  There was plenty of time to claim the body and prepare it for burial before sundown and Sabbath, as one version said.  But fourth and most importantly, crucified convicts’ bodies were routinely left on the crosses for the flies and the vultures as a warning to the rest of the city.  This horrific image was part of the humiliation of that punishment, designated for a certain segment of prisoners found guilty of crimes against Rome.   This was particularly heinous for a culture that honored family burials. Fifth, it is true that Jews often appealed to authorities to claim and bury their relatives, but in the story of Jesus, it is significantly reported that NO FAMILY members did so.  Some writings say "the Jews" pleaded for the body and others say that Joseph of Arimathea did so, for burial in his own or his family's tomb.  But the latter would be highly unusual for a non-family member - either to be able to claim a body or to bury it in a family tomb.  (Imagine going to a state penitentiary and trying to claim a death row convict unrelated to you.)  Furthermore, Joseph's role, like the angels’, varies and grows in various documents, from that of a "Jew," to a "good Jew" to a "rich Jew" to a member of the Sanhedrin (which condemned Jesus to death) who became a Christian convert.  Another Gospel identifies him as a secret follower.  The whole story of Joseph sounds spurious.

2)            What did they find there: According to various sources, either one or two angels or the unrecognized Christ greeted the women at the tomb and announced that Jesus had risen.  Sometimes he appeared as a ghost or a light; in other versions he appeared more solid.  In all cases, the heavenly visitor(s) told people to tell others that Christ would appear to them. In all cases, the women were amazed, often afraid.  When they did tell the other disciples of their experience, they were not believed until Jesus appeared to them himself.

Let’s now turn to two questions key to the question of Easter:  Why did Jesus die and how did he rise from the dead or disappear from his tomb.  Remember, these are the questions of a detective at that time and place. 

What did they find at the tomb? I have no difficulties with the inconsistencies of who announced the risen Christ:  one or two angels, or a "young man in white" (clearly an angelic messenger in Mark) or an unrecognized Christ, or a Jesus appearing directly to Mary. This was an astonishing moment.  Details get fuzzy in the face of strong experiences and emotions! How many of us remember every factual event when our children were born or when we married or when we were in a car accident or witnessed a crime!  Although criminal attorneys love eye-witnesses, they are apparently highly over-rated. So even if these events were historically, journalistically true, the variances at this point wouldn't bother me.

However, I don't happen to believe them.   I agree with most scholars who believe they were written generations later according to religious and literary conventions.  What happens when miracles occur?  Angels show up!  Of course! They say "Do not be afraid," and they announce things.  We should be no more surprised by this convention than if I started a story with, "Once upon a time…"  or “I was so poor that…”  or “the storm was so bad that…”  These literary devices and the similes and metaphors that follow reinforce the message; they aren’t the meat.  
Why did Jesus die? - historic  The answers are not helpful.  They don’t make sense.  Although the arrest/trial/conviction stories are quite consistent across the gospels, no Jesus supporters were in attendance; none could have witnessed anything beyond Judas’s betrayal.  Second, the Romans had different levels of punishment, including different kinds of death penalties, for various crimes and the social status of the criminal.  Lower echelon criminals were crucified.  Thieves, rabble-rousers, rebelling slaves.  Perhaps Jesus and his followers were blamed for behaviors that have been purged from the Christian records.  Perhaps the name, Iscariot, which is so similar to the term for assassins (iscarii), reflects other roles for him or those with whom he was associated, at least according to the Romans. Any family with a hanged horse thief in the background may have shaded history and relationships, too. In any case, it certainly wasn’t for many of his religious messages that Jesus was killed.  The great Rabbi Hillel with some similar "golden rule messaging" is a near contemporary who died of natural causes, in bed, at an advanced age.  Whatever the reasons for Jesus's conviction, they have been obscured. 

Why - mythic: Let's cut the chase.  Historicity is never going to be satisfied.  So, the WHY question is not so much “why did it happen” as “why do Christians want to believe in a risen Christ?"  Why is important to differentiate Hillel, as a great rabbi who died in bed, from Jesus, who was crucified, died, buried, and rose to heaven to sit on the right hand of God?  This is the crux of Easter.  This is a question that defines Christianity and that Unitarians in a Christian culture can fruitfully consider. 

 Believing that Christ rose to heaven meant that his believers would, too.  In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul says, "if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead.  If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised."  Paul saw the resurrection of Christ directly connected to our future, to an afterlife in heaven.  Paul’s description, which predates the Gospels by a generation, seeded the Christian communities outside of Jerusalem.  Their numbers swelled.

Whereas Judaism implied that success reflected God's favor, people knew from evidence all around them that this couldn’t be so.  Some people bore greater sorrow than they warranted and others enjoyed material success despite despicable moral character.  Life isn't fair.  Romans and Greeks dealt with this obvious inequity through stories of meddlesome, often petulant gods favoring some humans and hindering others.  Christianity admits that life isn't fair and offers a parting salvo:  it isn’t fair but that is because God has a plan:  He separates the wheat from the chaff in heaven.  This was hugely comforting!  Life might stink down here, but it will all even out up there. That is where the good are rewarded.  People loved this!

This Christian world view matched people's perceptions of reality in a way that found resonance with those disconnected from Judaism and other religions of the Roman Empire.  In addition, it offered the same attractive, ethical monotheism of Judaism and was easier to join.  Christianity imposed fewer rules and prohibitions and no circumcision, so it seemed much more inclusive.  A second distinction of Christianity was its democracy.  Judaism was a home grown religion that did not particularly encourage converts.  Christianity proclaimed, "Have we got good news for all of you – any of you, Jews or Zoroastrians or Romans or Egyptians!  There is more to life than you think and you are going to be OK!  Come join us and we will tell you more!"    Rather than exterminate or exclude unbelievers, they wanted to invite converts. 

How did he rise from the dead?

This was not inconceivable to that era.  Medical knowledge was not a science. Jesus himself was described as a faith healer. He supposedly raised Lazarus from the dead after three days.  In Jewish tradition, some very holy people were exalted - taken up to God rather than having an earthly tomb: Enoch and Elijah were two.  The Romans had a similar conception:  Augustinian coins show Julius Caesar's spirit ascending toward heaven as a shooting star.  Heracles was taken up to Mount Olympus by his father, Zeus, after he burned to death.  So the language and imagery was familiar.  From the various witnesses’ accounts, Jesus was a body, a spirit, or an unrecognized man when seen after his death, suggesting various interpretations of this “how” question.

As a detective, you have gathered a lot of data.  What conclusions do you draw?

One or two generations after the fact, stories have family members claiming that the body is missing from the tomb, but it appears unlikely that they know where the tomb was.  Despite Jesus's subsequent fame, NOBODY identifies a location.   According to Roman regulations for crime and punishment, it is likely that Jesus and other crucified criminals were left on their crosses as a warning to others and then tossed into a mass grave.  It is highly unlikely that the body of a convict was claimed by a non-family member to be buried in his own family’s tomb.  The conviction, the ignominious death, and the humble burial or awful spectacle of no burial would have been horrible to any friends and family, especially those who had believed that Jesus was a new leader of a new order now cut short.  Undoubtedly, they felt emotions ranging from guilt to grief, rejection to bitter disillusionment, fear to anger.  What might such people do?  What is psychologically feasible?  Afterwards might they pretend that they took care of his body, that they weren’t hiding under a bed somewhere?  Or since they couldn’t find the body anyway, claim that he rose from the dead?  Think of people who claim to have been close to Martin Luther King or other charismatic leaders… and made a career of that alleged association. 

An unlikely alternative is that Jesus's followers purposely stole the body in order to foment this story of a risen Christ.  Frankly, this seems pretty remote given the way convicts’ bodies were handled, and the repeated story in the Gospels themselves that no one believed the women’s stories that he was gone.  Maybe, as the detective, you would conclude that the followers really don’t know what happened to the body, feel guilty about that, and desperately want some closure that renders his life and death meaningful.
Part II: 

Now let's take on the role as detective of history, literature, and religion, instead of as a contemporary detective.  Let's review the same set of questions, but from the perspective that these documents were written by writers who selected what to include and what to exclude, not so much for history as for a faith story.   This distinction is important. For example,  I would not discount any of you who claimed to have the most beautiful or brilliant grandchild in the country.  Nor would I argue with anyone who said that his wife was better than the sun and the moon and the stars. Language is most limited when it is used to describe intense emotions.  Easter is THE faith story of Christianity.  Although we have questioned historical details, none of them is likely to concern a person with this faith, any more than you would be concerned if I showed you photos of five cuter children or ten other husbands who claimed that their wives were more wonderful than the sun, the moon, and the stars. Faith is NOT in the details of the wife, the grandchild or the God.  Faith is in our own feelings and how we try, often feebly, to express it.        

What: So after all of this discussion, what happened to Jesus?  Here's my perspective: I don’t think that question is all that important.  Much more important are the questions, “What happened to his followers?” and "Why is a particular belief important to those believers?"  

I think that Jesus's death terrified his followers.  The Christian documents (and those are the only sources we have - no 'dispassionate" contemporary accounts) indicate that they hid in locked rooms for fear of their own deaths.  We have already indicated that there is a credibility gap between what we know about Jesus’s teachings and the kinds of people who were crucified.  Either they were guilty of behavior purged from Christian documents, causing them to hide, or they were gathering together for literary reasons. If historical, picture the wake, which is rather what those hidden dinners must have been like. They are described in eucharistic terms because they were written so much later, by believers. But cull them down to the bare essentials: they were dinners, maybe Sabbath dinners, shared by reunited followers.  Can’t you imagine the conversations that transpired, having been in such gatherings?  They remember Jesus.  They miss him or are angry. They argue about what he said and what he meant as a leader and as a teacher. Some of his teachings have more poignancy because he is now dead.   These followers argue about who among them was more and less loyal.  They jockey for positions of blame and gain and leadership. 

 They share dreams and visions about him.  I don’t know if any of you have had visions of dearly beloveds after death.  I haven’t, but I know very grounded people who have had such experiences. They sound very compelling and often transforming – sometimes comforting, other times galvanizing life changes.  

Clearly some of Jesus’s followers were inspired and later, inspirational in their own right. Just as the grief stricken of any era will often talk and talk about the deceased, the disciples began to preach Jesus’s message, and to expand their own understanding of his teachings in light of his death and the changes that generated in his followers.  How much their interpretation of his life and teachings was influenced by guilt, and how that feeling of guilt and unworthiness permeates Christian theology is a ripe topic for another day. But clearly the  compelling Christian message is something along this line, “a vote for Jesus is a vote for yourself.” He doesn’t ask for a temple tax, he doesn’t require 636 rules of good behavior, doesn’t require circumcision.   He taught that ones innate goodness on this earth will be rewarded in heaven.  And so the early Christians developed social structures to put those good works in action, developing one of the earliest welfare systems in the Mediterranean world, after the Jews. No wonder the religion attracted adherents.

So whether Jesus’s appearances were ghost stories or hallucinations or dreams of his followers or metaphorical stories told by subsequent generations to convey the faith story is open to interpretation.

I don't think it really matters if Jesus was thrown into a mass grave, and if his followers were so embarrassed by their failure of spirit that they obscured that fact with a little heroic embellishment.  What is important is that Jesus's view of humanity and life and death gave comfort to millions who had lacked it before, by granting dignity to those toiling for good without ever realizing any earthly gain.  If his followers wanted to characterize him as a hero, in the heroic terms of their era, so be it.  Maybe there are a few lessons here for us, believers or unbelievers, worth considering. 

1 comment:

  1. The sermon is excellent. Excellent. Can't wait to pass it along to friends who ask, "How in the world does your church observe Easter?" I've been coming up with a one word answer: "Thoughtfully," but that doesn't seem to get it. Jesus's followers would have to deplore the current use of the cross as a symbol of their faith. What a foul way to die. - Dodie