Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Last Error

Of all the great mysteries to be found in the Gospels, one of the most extraordinary - and timely in the Lenten season - has never, to my knowledge, been seriously addressed: what became of the body of Jesus?

The four gospels contained in The New Testament address the topic with surprising brevity: Matthew covers the discovery of the empty tomb in just twenty verses (chapter 28); Mark in twenty (chapter 16); Luke in fifty-three (chapter 24); John in fifty-six (chapters 20 and 21). The narratives also have glaring variations in detail. What they agree on is who claimed the body when Jesus was discovered to have expired on the cross, and who first ventured into the tomb after the burial. All four gospels identify a man named Joseph of Aramathea, "an honorable counsellor" (Mark 15:43), and himself a clandestine disciple of Jesus, who "begged the body of Jesus" (Matt 27:58/Luke23:52), "craved the body of Jesus" (Mark 15:43), or "besought Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus" (John 19:38). This Joseph was given the body, which he then "wrapped ... in a clean linen cloth/And laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn out in the rock: and he rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre, and departed." (Matt 27:59-60).

On the day of the foretold resurrection, Mary Magdalene and "the other Mary" (in Matthew) go to the sepulchre where "there was a great earthquake" caused by "the angel of the Lord" which "descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat upon it." The angel tells the women that Jesus is no longer inside, that they should see for themselves "the place where the Lord lay" and go and "tell his disciples that he is risen from the dead." The women depart "with fear and great joy".

In Mark "Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James," and someone named "Salome" go to the sepulchre, but there is neither earthquake nor angel there. Only "a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a long white garment" is within, who tells them that "he is risen; he is not here: behold the place where they laid him" and to go and tell his disciples the news.

In Luke, it's "Mary Magdalene, and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and other women that were with them" who find the "stone rolled away from the sepulchre". They went inside and "found not the body of the Lord Jesus," but instead "two men in shining garments".

In John, Mary Magdalene, evidently alone, finds the sepulchre empty and runs to Simon Peter and an unidentified "other disciple". Peter and the other disciple returned to the sepulchre and "saw the linen clothes lying". They enter and see "the napkin, that was about his head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself". These details of John's are interesting because of their strangeness and their total absence from the other accounts. And because finally John identifies himself as "the other disciple ... which testifieth of these things". John, then, is the only disciple of the four who was there in the sepulchre.

After Peter and the other disciple depart, Mary Magdalene stays. Looking into the sepulchre, she sees "two angels in white sitting, the one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain". Then the language of John gets confusing, since Mary "turned herself back, and saw Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus". She thinks it must be "the gardener" until he speaks her name, and she recognizes him and calls him "Master".

Matthew's account of the burial of Jesus is hopelessly complicated by the absurd lengths to which he goes to incriminate the Jews. Matthew reports that, after Joseph of Aramathea takes the body of Jesus to the sepulchre, "the chief priests and Pharisees came together unto Pilate,/Saying, Sir, we remember that that deceiver said, while he was yet alive, After three days I will rise again./Command therefore that the sepulchre be made sure until the third day, lest his disciples come by night, and steal him away, and say unto the people, He is risen from the dead: so the last error shall be worse than the first./Pilate said unto them, Ye have a watch: go your way, make [it] as sure as ye can./So they went, and made the sepulchre sure, sealing the stone, and setting a watch."

Once Mary Magdalene and the others discover the tomb empty and go to tell his disciples the news, "behold, some of the watch came into the city, and shewed unto the chief priests all the things that were done./And when they were assembled with the elders, and had taken counsel, they gave large money unto the soldiers,/Saying, Say ye, His disciples came by night, and stole him [away] while we slept./And if this come to the governor's ears, we will persuade him, and secure you./So they took the money, and did as they were taught: and this saying is commonly reported among the Jews until this day."

All this begs many questions, one of which is if the men who stood watch over the tomb did not witness the disciples or someone else robbing Jesus's body, what exactly did they see? So what became of the body of Jesus?

The great Egyptologist John Romer related a story: "I once worked with a bloke who once excavated on the Mount of Olives outside Jerusalem. He said, 'We were working on a cemetery of the first century, mainly crucified people, it was fascinating.' I said, 'Oh, yeah? You must've learned a lot about crucifixion, eh?' 'Yeah,' he said, 'funny thing . . . . We found a coffin, and on the lid it said "Jesus bar Joseph" — Jesus son of Joseph.' 'Good lord, that must've been interesting,' I said; 'Did you publish it?' 'No,' he said, 'we found hundreds and hundreds of graves, we just gave a general description of the site.' I said, 'But you couldn't have found that many of Jesus bar Joseph — I mean, blimey, it could've been the Jesus!' And he looked at me and said, 'Naw, it couldn't have been the Jesus, he went to Heaven.'"

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