“Take the risen Christ out of the NT,” write Hageman and Beker in their Proclamation commentary, “and the rest of the story is meaningless tragedy” (page 5). Some homiletics instructors warn that it is a rookie preaching mistake to spend time on Easter Sunday “proving” or “demonstrating the truth of” the bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead on that first Easter. Yet, the veracity of the resurrection event seems to be a central concern for the Lukan author – not only in chapter 24, but throughout the body of Luke-Acts.
The group of women who witnessed the empty tomb, heard the admonition from the angels, and remembered Jesus’ own words (Luke 24:8) returned from the tomb and reported what they had seen (and not seen) and heard to the eleven apostles and all the rest of the company of disciples (Luke 24:10). “And these words appeared, in their judgment,” the Lukan author notes, “to be nonsense, and they refused to believe them.” (Luke 24:11, my translation). The Lukan author uses the rest of the chapter to demonstrate that the resurrection of Jesus was anything but nonsense.
I have found, over the years, that many of my folks came to Easter services hoping precisely for some reassurance that the bodily resurrection of Jesus has really happened. It continues to seem, as it has from the earliest days, that reports of Jesus risen from the dead may in fact be nothing but nonsense. We live in a material world, governed by relatively unchanging and reliable physical laws. A story about a process or event that seems to violate these laws and the worldview upon which they rely – such a story needs a bit more than trumpets and lilies to make it seem plausible (much less certain).
Deborah Prince notes that concerns about the veracity of Christian resurrection claims are as old as the purported event itself. We find evidence in Matthew’s gospel that guards were rumored to have been bribed to support the story. Paul acknowledges in First Corinthians that this resurrection business seems ridiculous to Gentiles and offensive to Jews. Questions about the resurrection animate conflicts in the Jewish community, according to the reports of Luke-Acts.
Prince reminds us that the controversy not only continues but increases in the centuries following the first Easter Sunday. She quotes the words of third-century pagan skeptic, Celsus, in his debate with Origen of Alexandria. Celsus describes the women as hysterical females who were probably hallucinating or engaging in wishful thinking. Or more likely, Celsus argues, the witnesses fabricated the resurrection story in order to impress and manipulate people.
She notes that many scholars have seen an apologetic agenda in the Lukan account – a desire to defend and even prove the truth of the Good News of Jesus Christ. “Although the precise definition of the genre of apologetic literature and its relationship to Luke-Acts is still highly debated,” Prince writes, “it cannot be denied that in some way and to some extent Luke is concerned with assessing the truth of his narrative to his audience” (page 26). We can see that in the first verses of the Lukan account, where the author asserts the intention to establish the “truth” for Theophilus.
Prince examines how the Lukan author may have demonstrated the reliability of the Gospel account in ways that met first-century standards for veracity. Witnesses were critical to the demonstration of a report’s truthfulness. The more ancient the witness, the greater was the credibility. In the Lukan account, the “fulfillment” of Jewish scriptures functioned as an inventory of ancient and therefore highly credible witnesses. More recent witnesses were also used, although if they stood to gain from the witnessing, their testimony was of less value. Women, children, and slaves were, by legal definition, unreliable sources of credible testimony.
The Lukan author, therefore, has an immediate credibility gap. “The Christian traditions of Jesus’ resurrection depend upon unreliable witnesses,” Prince reminds us, “women and friends, both of whom testify voluntarily. Their social status would not assist their credibility, nor would their character, which is never explicitly described in any positive way up to this point in the narrative” (page 28). The Lukan author needs additional rhetorical weight to shore up the testimony of these eyewitnesses.
First, there is the testimony at the tomb itself. The two men in shiny clothes remind the women of Jesus’ words – where, we readers know, Jesus described how his ministry fulfilled scripture. The women then “remembered these words” (see Luke 24:8). The apostles and the rest of the disciples regard the report of the empty tomb as nonsense. That’s why it’s important that Peter runs to the tomb to verify the women’s report (and one of the reasons why it is likely that Luke 24:12 was part of the original Lukan account).
Even though Peter confirms the report of the empty tomb, that’s all that is certain at this point in the narrative. “In only two verses, Luke is able to acknowledge the unreliable status of the women witnesses,” Prince argues, “and at the same time offer the first corroboration of the women’s testimony, while continuing to leave the disciples and the readers unsure of the truth” (page 29).
Therefore, the Lukan author provides additional witnesses and testimony. The two disciples on the road to Emmaus add their voices to those of the women. In addition, sometime after his sprint to the empty tomb, Peter (Simon) encounters the Risen Jesus. His testimony seems to be accepted without question. In the Emmaus Road story, the witness of Jewish scripture is added once again to the argument. Nonetheless, this is still not enough testimony to meet the Lukan standards for reliability.
The empty tomb and the missing body have been seen and verified by Peter. Jesus has appeared on at least two separate occasions. Both Peter and the Emmaus couple have identified him as the Lord Jesus. Yet, when Jesus appears directly to the apostles and the rest of the disciples, they still wonder if they are seeing a ghost. They are both joyful and not believing (verse 41). Jesus requests a snack and eats it in front of them.
“In these verses the ancient expectations that the spirits of the dead cannot be touched and cannot eat,” Prince writes, “are employed to prove that the Jesus before them is not merely an image of his living presence” (page 29). This physical evidence is amplified and supported by additional teaching from the Jewish scriptures. Prince notes that this time the scriptural witness includes the Psalms as well as Moses (Torah) and the Prophets.
“With certainty finally attained through the presentation of multiple witnesses, both contemporary and ancient,” Prince writes, “the disciples are now prepared to act as witnesses to the world, which they have in fact been doing throughout Luke’s narrative” (page 30). The Lukan author has met the standards of credibility for a first-century document and buttressed the testimony of the women, the weakest element of the evidence, in the first-century evaluation.
Prince draws several implications from her study. The emphasis on the resistance to easy belief on the part of the disciples perhaps matches the same resistance in the Lukan community and among contemporary Christians. Because the first witnesses were hard to convince, that means they were not pushovers, ready to fall for the first “idle tale” to come their way. We, who have our own doubts, are not the first ones to struggle with the credibility of the resurrection accounts in the gospels, nor will we be the last. An easy acceptance of the astonishing news of God’s victory over death is perhaps a sign of an unexamined faith rather than a sign of a secure faith.
“As educated readers, like Luke and his audience,” Prince writes, “we do not need to be content with easy and pat assertions that gloss over real concerns of reliability. Rather,” she continues, “we can be assured by Luke’s narrative that the truth of Jesus’ resurrection has been deemed credible by the ever widening and diverse testimony of those who experienced Jesus alive” (page 30). Yet, that isn’t where the Lukan author ends the account.
Instead, we move on to the Book of Acts and further experiences of the resurrected Jesus in the lives of the early believers and in the witness of the Church. “Just as the first disciples slowly grew in their conviction that Jesus was alive and recognized the reality of his presence with them through the opening of the scriptures and the breaking of bread together,” Prince concludes, “so Luke insists that those to whom he writes, both then and now, are likewise presented with multiple opportunities to witness for themselves the reality of Jesus’ living presence through our lives in Christian community” (page 30).
The Lukan account provides witnesses for the two necessary and sufficient conditions (in N. T. Wright’s argument) for proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus. Those two conditions are the empty tomb and experiences of the living Jesus. “The early Christians did not invent the empty tomb and the ‘meetings’ or ‘sightings of the risen Jesus in order to explain a faith they already had,” Wright argues. “They developed that faith because of the occurrence, and convergence, of these two phenomena” (page 707).
Therefore, the Easter Gospel is not merely an historical report. Rather, it is a promise based on both the witness and experience of Christians for over two millennia. That promise is that we, too, can and do meet the risen Christ in the gathered body of believers, in the Spirit-driven interpretation of scripture, in the breaking of the bread, and the mission of the Gospel in the larger world.
The Lukan author invites us to echo the words of the disciples in Luke-Acts, that “we, too, are witnesses of these things.”
References and Resources
Prince, Deborah C. (2012) “Resurrecting Certainty in the Gospel of Luke,” Leaven: Vol. 20: Iss. 1, Article 8. Available at: https://digitalcommons.pepperdine.edu/leaven/vol20/iss1/8.
Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2003.
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