CHAPTER 1: The Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus
CHAPTER 1: The Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus
1.1 INTRODUCTION TO THE CHAPTER
Although this part of the narrative represents the end of the four so-called canonical Gospels, these will make up the first part of this series. There are a few reasons for this. First, this is the most important part of Christian theology; Jesus died, descended into hell, after three days rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, and through this incident (or ‘these incidents’ ) we are supposedly saved. Of course I do not believe this happened, although some of my readers might. So the challenge of this part of the narrative is the first to cover. In comparison, no other part of the narrative (with perhaps the exception of the crucifixion itself) does not compare in terms of importance.
Second, I write a lot about how the figure of Jesus never existed historically, so often I do not need to touch on this subject. This is because I don’t hold to any of the story containing any elements of historicity instead of what many other modern critical scholars do, which is accepting some parts of the Gospel accounts while dismissing primarily the resurrection and ascension doctrines of the Gospels and Paul. This had perhaps lead to my resignation on the subject, as I feel that it has been so thoroughly beaten to death by the historical Jesus quests (all of them) that adding more to it would seem as though I were throwing more metaphorical dung on the dung heap.
But after much scratching and gnawing of teeth, I decided to pick myself up and start putting together an overview of the four Gospel accounts, their resurrection stories, and why they are legend. More importantly, I will discuss them in a way that seldom is discussed – not as the emotionally-driven experiences of four eyewitnesses and not as the babblings of four blundering followers of a cult centuries after the events happened, without leadership and without understanding of Jesus’ apparent death. I will not discuss the events as if they really happened, as if there were a theft of the body in the night. Instead, I am going to discuss the events as intentionally created narrative. It is not as described above, but carefully articulated story line derived from earlier literature (both Gentile and Jew alike), written with rhetorical themes in some cases, others more mystical and secretive (but not so secretive that the readers of the gospels would not pick up on it).
I will not be focusing on who the authors were or on where they were written. These questions concern a different subject (specifically they deal with the authorship itself and now what was authored). To be clear, there will be a few obvious (if not down right staring-you-in-the-face-glaring) contradictions expressed in this article as well as the follow-up chapters to come. But, I do not want the reader to be hung up on this issue for a very pressing reason; that is, I am arguing that the contradictions exist as intentional altercations to the text. So, for now, not only are we accepting the fact that contradictions do exist, but that the author purposefully contradicted earlier texts.
1.2 THE GOSPEL OF MARK
Ironically speaking, the resurrection narrative of Mark is not very explicit. There is no discussion of a resurrection at all, nor any post resurrection stories.
When the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. And they were saying to one another, "Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?" And looking up, they saw that the stone had been rolled back—it was very large. And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe, and they were alarmed. And he said to them, "Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you." And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. (Mark 16:1-8; where it is likely the original story has ended)
To sum; the two women (both named Mary – from the Hebrew word mriy – root: maw-raw, meaning rebellious or disobedient) play a very specific role here. Note that these women have relatively small parts in the narrative. In other Gospels, the narratives are a bit more exaggerated, and these women will receive a larger part to play. In Mark, however, this is not the case. But do not be mistaken, the cameo appearances here are still important. The problem is that the literary values of these characters are ignored, instead often assumed to represent real persons of history. When one examines the nature of their names however, the scene takes on an entirely different perspective.
There are two Mary’s, one of whom whose surname is Magdala from the Hebrew root gaw-dal’, or gdil, to exceed or nourish, although often a word for tower. The second Mary is the mother of James, or Jacob, from the Hebrew aqab or Ya’aqob, meaning heel catcher, circumventer, supplanter; the other son is Salome, from the Hebrew word for peace, favor and health, shalowm. Here are two women who represent different things to the story line. These two women were also present at Jesus’ crucifixion in Mark 15:40. The first part of the literary value is Mark’s apparent knowledge of Paul’s epistles. Jesus was “born of woman” (genomenon ek gunaikos; Gal. 4:4), as we are all born of one of two women, as Abraham’s sons were born of two women (Gal. 4:21-31). These women represent the rebellion among the Jews against the will of God, which subsequently caused the fall of the Temple, which Mark alludes to earlier in the narrative; and the peaceful and pious Jews of heaven who did not rebel against the will of God; the nourished disobedient and the mother of God’s peace on earth. These Mary’s are Abraham’s women. Mark is telling us that these are the mother of God’s promise of peace and the mother of temptation. Jesus awaits the disciples in Galilee (from the Hebrew galiyl or gaw-leel’)–the circle of judgment. The boy here is saying “Choose”. The message of Mark is complete. Jesus makes no appearance; he is gone—because he was never really there. He was always inside of them, leading them to make the right decisions. This is Mark’s ultimate message. No miraculous ascension on any heavenly object, no disciples touching wounds, it is just a very humble narrative that ends with the women leaving afraid.
1.3 THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Matthew clearly had copies of Mark. This is apparent through several observations. The core story is essentially the same, although Matthew moved around a lot of things chronologically, and added in some additional content, including a birth narrative and a much more detailed resurrection and post-resurrection narrative. Matthew also adds this interesting tidbit:
The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate and said, "Sir, we remember how that impostor said, while he was still alive, 'After three days I will rise.' Therefore order the tomb to be made secure until the third day, lest his disciples go and steal him away and tell the people, 'He has risen from the dead,' and the last fraud will be worse than the first." Pilate said to them, "You have a guard of soldiers. Go, make it as secure as you can." So they went and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone and setting a guard. (Matt. 27:57-66)
Some have suggested this is evidence in Matthew’s time of people complaining that the disciples took the body. However, they ignore the mimetic influence of the Hebrew Bible on Matthew’s narrative. Matthew is not concerned with the theft of the body, nor is he getting complaints from gentiles or Jews about such incidents. In fact, Matthew adds this to the narrative in the very same fashion that he adds the birth narrative to the story. Matthew is interpreting Hebrew scripture. The Pharisees here have become the Philistines (1 Samuel 31:1-13). They have trapped and butchered Saul. The disciples who fled Jesus’ arrest and trial are the Israelites who fled the towns beyond the Jordan. Jesus has fallen on his sword. But unlike Saul, the “good news” of Jesus’ death is not that he is slain, but that he will rise again. But the Pharisees do not know this. So they want to prevent an incident where the valiant disciples come and reclaim the body of Jesus, in the manner where the men of Israel rioted up and took back the body of Saul. And like Darius in the story of Daniel in the Lions Den, Pilate was instigated by the naysayer to seal Jesus in the tomb. “They went” and secured the tomb the way Darius had used his signet to seal the tomb behind Daniel. When the women (instead of the disciples who should have come) now approach the tomb the next day, this is what happens:
Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and behold, he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him. See, I have told you." So they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. (Matt. 28:1-8)
Like in Mark, two Mary’s came to the tomb. But Matthew does not have the same message that Mark had. Matthew has a new message and he uses a new literary source to show this. He has to, because Jesus’ body is no longer sealed in the tomb by Joseph, but guarded by Romans. He has to have an escape plan. It starts with the women. In Matthew’s narrative, it is not the Mary, mother of peace and of usurper who comes with the Mary in need of nourishment. It is the “other” (allê) Mary; Matthew is shortening the meaning, but keeping his intentions clear. Unlike Mark, who’s two Mary’s discuss who should open the tomb, and more like Daniel’s story once again, an Angel appears “like lightening” and in “snow-white clothing”, while the guards—like Daniels traveling companions—are stone cold as if dead. The Angel opens the tomb by rolling away the stone. Mark’s humble story, with the boy inside the open tomb who represented the child who had run from the guards at Gethsemane earlier in Mark’s narrative, has become an Angel in white who opens the tomb for the women. Surely the message of the Angel would have been enough for the women, but the Angel opens the tomb precisely so he can invite the women in to see for themselves. This is, of course, preceded by an earthquake. Then, as with Mark, he tells the women to send for the disciples, that Jesus will meet them at Galilee. But Matthew does not end his story here. Instead, Matthew draws on more literary tropes to build up this very important thing. Matthew is very interested in the concept of “seeing is believing”.
And behold, Jesus met them and said, "Greetings!" And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, "Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me." (Matt. 28:9-10)
Matthew reiterates the need to go to Galilee. But he has Jesus telling it once more instead of just the boy, as in Mark’s story. This is also the first noted appearance in a canonical Gospel of a post-resurrection Jesus. But Matthew has to resolve another issue before he can fully elaborate on Jesus’ good news, which is so much more than Saul’s to the Philistines. He has guards at the tomb who witnessed all this, and Pilate who, as Darius, is expecting Jesus’ body to still be there.
While they were going, behold, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests all that had taken place. And when they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave a sufficient sum of money to the soldiers and said, "Tell people, 'His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.' And if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble." So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story has been spread among the Jews to this day. (Matt. 28:11-15)
Pilate, unlike Darius, did not go himself. He sent others instead. Matthew has this happen to show the value of the Gods will. In the story of Daniel and the lions den, Darius rejoiced at seeing Daniel alive and threw the naysayer’s into the den to be eaten alive because they had gone against the will of the God of Daniel. In this instance, the naysayers have all the power because Pilate is left in the dark. But still Jesus is greater than Daniel, because his word will continue to be spread, because his will is greater than any kings. And of course to prove this point, Matthew ends with something new: a great commission to spread his word. It will not be Pilate, the governor of the land, who spreads the message, but those who follow the will of God.
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age." (Matt. 28:16-20)
Finally, at last, Matthew wraps up his narrative. Mark starts his narrative with the promise that there will be good news, and at the end, the good news is the resurrection of Jesus and the promise of judgment upon the righteous and the wicked. In Matthew, he starts his Gospel out with a birth narrative (after a genealogy) which announces that he is getting his narrative from scripture – that Jesus will be the new Immanuel, which means “God is with us”. Matthew ends his narrative by making Jesus say this himself, “I am with you always.” Another promise delivered. However the keen reader will note that there is no ascension in this account either. More on this below.
1.4 THE GOSPEL OF LUKE
Luke is one of the greatest Christian novelists. He uses more literary models than Matthew and Mark and represents his Jesus to a much broader audience. Luke takes heart with what Mark’s end-goal is, and also with Matthew’s reliance on Jesus as the new Moses and combines the two in a unique way. There are more rebellious Mary’s in Luke than in Mark and Matthew, and this time, Mary Magdalene has a purpose in the story. Luke has befitted her with the honor of having not one, not two, but seven demons cast out of her by Jesus. She does once more show up at the tomb. But the stories are against different. In Mark, it is Joseph alone who buries Jesus, a man seeking the kingdom of God. He places Jesus in his own tomb. In Matthew, the Romans aide in this process and post watch at the door. In Luke’s narrative, he removes the account of the theft of the body entirely, and makes Joseph of Arimathea a member of the Sanhedrin who put Jesus to death. Once more, the women (presumably Mary Magdalene included) saw where Jesus was buried, a tomb where “no one had ever yet been laid.” Then, unlike Mark and Matthew, the women do not come on the next day, but rather rest on the Sabbath according to the law. For the first time in a canonical account, a day goes by in a resurrection narrative. Once more we see Mark’s humble narrative rewritten:
But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared. And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel. And as they were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, "Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise." And they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb they told all these things to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles, but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter rose and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; and he went home marveling at what had happened. (Luke 24:1-12)
Something interesting has happened here. Mark’s one boy inside the tomb has been combined with Mark’s one angel outside the tomb. Now, there are two men in “dazzling apparel” (estheti astraptousei). Like Mark, the tomb stone was already rolled away, but something else happens. When the two men tell of Jesus’ resurrection, the women do not enter the tomb to find out if this is so. They simply believe. The women then run off to tell Peter, who thought these were as much as “idle tales”. It is once more evidence of who has faith and who doesn’t. The man closest to Jesus, the “rock” of Jesus’ new covenant, has no faith, and runs back to the tomb “stooping and looking in” because he “did not believe.” It was not until he saw the linen cloths that he understood. This is a reversal of what was happening in Mark’s Gospel, as well as Matthews, where the women had faith enough to stay out of the tomb. This scene will set up additional narrative in John’s Gospel later. Interesting also is that the number of women has multiplied. Why Mary continually pops up in the resurrection account is most probably a huge concern to Christians in Luke’s day, perhaps unaware (or maybe too aware) of Mark’s use of the names for a specific eponymic quality. This may be why Mary Magdalene gets an additional pat in the narrative, and why John seems obsessed with Mary’s in his Gospel.
Back to the post-resurrection stories, Luke takes a page from Matthew and also adds additional material here. Luke does not have Jesus merely meeting the women on the road to have them meet him again in Galilee; Luke uses literary models to construct a whole meeting on the road. We’ll point out where he makes this clear.
That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and they were talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, "What is this conversation that you are holding with each other as you walk?" And they stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, named Cleopas, answered him, "Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?" And he said to them, "What things?" And they said to him, "Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things happened. Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning, and when they did not find his body, they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see." And he said to them, "O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?" And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.
So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He acted as if he were going farther, but they urged him strongly, saying, "Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent." So he went in to stay with them. When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, "Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?" And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem. And they found the eleven and those who were with them gathered together, saying, "The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!" Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread. (Luke 24:13-35)
Matthew’s small paragraph of Jesus meeting the women on the road has now been transformed by Luke into a narrative of its own! Luke has replaced the two women with “two disciples”, and has made them def, dumb and blind. Luke has them walking towards Emmaus, away from Jerusalem. This is opposite of Mark 10:32-34, where Jesus is explaining to his def, blind and dumb disciples what is to come. In this scene, the disciples still do not know, they have not yet been awakened. Even after the events transpired, they have no recollection of the man before them. He has changed and they do not recognize him. Luke is taking a trope right from the Roman god and founder Romulus.
“For while the Romans were yet in doubt whether divine providence or human treachery had been the cause of his disappearance, a certain man, named Julius, descended from Ascanius, who was a husbandman and of such a blameless life that he would never have told an untruth for his private advantage, arrived in the Forum and said that, as he was coming in from the country, he saw Romulus departing from the city fully armed and that, as he drew near to him, he heard him say these words: ‘Julius, announce to the Romans from me, that the genius to whom I was allotted at my birth is conducting me to the gods, now that I have finished my mortal life, and that I am Quirinus.’” (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, 2.63.3-4)
“The other, which I follow, has been the prevailing one, due, no doubt, to the admiration felt for the man and the apprehensions excited by his disappearance. This generally accepted belief was strengthened by one man's clever device. The tradition runs that Proculus Julius, a man whose authority had weight in matters of even the gravest importance, seeing how deeply the community felt the loss of the king, and how incensed they were against the senators, came forward into the assembly and said: "Quirites! at break of dawn, to-day, the Father of this City suddenly descended from heaven and appeared to me. Whilst, thrilled with awe, I stood rapt before him in deepest reverence, praying that I might be pardoned for gazing upon him, 'Go,' said he, 'tell the Romans that it is the will of heaven that my Rome should be the head of all the world. Let them henceforth cultivate the arts of war, and let them know assuredly, and hand down the knowledge to posterity, that no human might can withstand the arms of Rome.'" It is marvellous what credit was given to this man's story, and how the grief of the people and the army was soothed by the belief which had been created in the immortality of Romulus.” (Livy, From the Founding of the City, 1.16)
“But Julius Proculus was coming from Alba Longa; the moon was shining, and there was no need of a torch, when of a sudden the hedges on his left shook and trembled. He recoiled and his hair bristled up. It seemed to him that Romulus, fair of aspect, in stature more than human, and clad in a goodly robe, stood there in the middle of the road and said, “Forbid the Quirites to mourn, let them not profane my divinity by their tears. Bid the pious throng bring incense and propitiate the new Quirinus, and bid them cultivate the arts their fathers cultivated, the art of war.” So he ordered, and from the other other’s eyes he vanished into thin air. Proculus called the peoples together and reported the words as he had been bid. Temples were built to the god, and the hill also was named after him, and the rites observed by our fathers come round on fixed days.” (Ovid, Fasti 2.491-512)
“We may, therefore, perhaps attach some credit to this story of Romulus’s immortality, since human life was at that time experienced, cultivated, and instructed. And doubtless there was in him such energy of genius and virtue, that it is not altogether impossible to believe the report of Proculus Julius, the husbandman, of that glorification having befallen Romulus, which for many ages, we have denied to less illustrious men. At all events, Proculus is reported to have stated in the council, at the instigation of the senators, who wished to free themselves from all suspicion of having been accessories to the death of Romulus, that he had seen him on that hill which is now called the Quirinal, and that he had commanded him to inform the people, that they should build him a temple on that same hill, and offer him sacrifices, under the name of Quirinus.” (Cicero, Republic 2.10)
This is not the first time Luke takes a page from Roman legend. (More on that later on in the book) As one can see, in both accounts, a man named Proculus Julius is walking along the road to Rome. In one story, Julius did not know who the man was at first, clad as he was in a “goodly robe”. Luke replaces Proculus Julius with the two disciples, one aptly named Cleopas from the Greek kleos and patros, or report and Father, who gives Jesus—the father—the report of the ‘Good news’ but does not yet know that it is good. It is not until Jesus “interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” that they understood. But really, this is a cue to us from Luke. This is not the only time Luke gives us this cue either, as he also brings this up elsewhere. It is not Jesus “interpreting to” the disciples the things about him, but the author of Luke explaining to the reader how to interpret what is happening. He is sending the reader a notice: ‘Pay attention, I used scripture to build the narrative of the resurrection.’
This scene is also an allusion to Luke’s own Gospel. When Jesus breaks the bread with the disciples, their “eyes were opened;” They remembered what Jesus has said during his last supper, and became aware of his interpretations on the road. Luke had already made it aware to us that something was being interpreted, but it would not be until he “vanishes” before their eyes, much in the same manner that Romulus had in front of Proculus, that we as reader are made aware. Luke has truly “opened us” to the scriptures. Not just the Jewish scriptures, but those of the gentiles as well. But there is still more that Luke has to say.
As they were talking about these things, Jesus himself stood among them, and said to them, "Peace to you!" But they were startled and frightened and thought they saw a spirit. And he said to them, "Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have." And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. And while they still disbelieved for joy and were marveling, he said to them, "Have you anything here to eat?" They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate before them. (Luke 24:36-43)
Luke, like Matthew and Mark, take a page right out of Homer. “Why do doubts arise in your hearts?” This question seems almost comical considering the nature of the story. After all, didn’t Jesus just die a few days ago? But yet, Luke finds no reason to doubt, because this is his narrative, and this is really his Jesus. Just as Homer’s Odysseus stands before his father Laertes in book 24 of the Odyssey, and his father demands from his son a sign that he is who he says he is. “First observe this scar,” (oulên men prôton tênde phrasai ophthalmoisi) answers Odysseus to his father, a scar which he knows his father knew well. In a similar vein, Luke had crucified Jesus, as had Mark and Matthew before him (to be discussed in another chapter); the wounds of Jesus’ crucifixion would be there. “See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself,” Luke has Jesus say. It doesn’t end here as Luke takes it a step further and demands that the disciples “touch” Jesus’ wounds to verify that they are real. This is a direct response to Matthew’s Gospel, where “some doubted”. Luke removes that doubt. He follows this up the same way Homer does, by giving the protagonist (Jesus in this case, Odysseus in the other) something to eat. But he doesn’t finalize this scene, cementing his point, until he adds in the ascension:
Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God. (Luke 24:50-53)
And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold two men stood by them in white robes. (Acts 1:9-10; Added because it was also written by Luke)
Finally we have the first instance of ascension in the narrative. Like in his resurrection account, two men in white apparel flanked him. We now know who they are. They aren’t angels but the two men who were crucified with him (discussed later). Here too, Luke takes from his Roman model, painting Jesus as the new Romulus. But Luke is not just alluding to Romulus here. He has more models than simply Mark, Matthew, the Hebrew Scriptures, and the legend of Romulus. He is also drawing heavily from Josephus. Jesus is also the new Moses.
And as he was going to embrace Eleazar and Joshua, and was still discoursing with them, a cloud stood over him on the sudden and he disappeared in a certain valley, although he wrote in the holy books that he had died which was done out of fear lest they should venture to say that because of his extraordinary virtue he went to God. (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 4.8.48, 326)
With this final bit Luke cements not only his own narrative, but also a new way of looking at the narrative of Jesus which would stick by Christians for thousands of years. The ascension was so popular that it found its way into many narratives that were written after. But to say that this was an actual event is a stretch, as Luke would certainly not have us believe this.
1.5 THE GOSPEL OF JOHN
John is in many respects the entertainer. Where Luke uses the most literary models to create his narrative, John uses much fewer, but unites them in a way that beats out Luke’s multi-model approach. The story-teller John is probably symbolic of the times in which it was written, some time mid-late second century CE. Christian authors were so vividly elaborating on Mark’s tradition that the story became almost a genre unto itself. It wasn’t all done to out-do the other sect, but also as a form of literary masturbation. We will see a lot of this in John’s reworking of all three aforementioned Gospel traditions throughout this study. But to start, we will examine his narrative of Joseph of Arimathea. The reason is because John is telling his own unique story, and we have to backtrack just slightly to read it for what it is.
After these things Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus, and Pilate gave him permission. So he came and took away his body. Nicodemus also, who earlier had come to Jesus by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds in weight. So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews. Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid. So because of the Jewish day of Preparation, since the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there. (John 19:38-42)
Joseph (now a disciple of Jesus, repeating Matthews Gospel, and not just a passerby as in Mark, or as in Luke’s Gospel, a member of the Sanhedrin) and Nicodemus (who does not appear in earlier narratives) bury Jesus in a random, nearby tomb in a garden out of convenience. John uses Mark’s narrative and continues his tradition where the tomb does not necessarily belong to Joseph (it is just there). He uses Luke’s wording; where “no one had yet been laid” (hou ouk ên oudeis oupô keimenos) except John words it in this manner; hôi oudepô oudeis ên tetheimenos. John weaves the three previous Gospels together to create his own unique fabric that makes up the quilt of the Jesus legend. To show this in full detail, we’ll fast forward to the resurrection and ascension accounts in John and examine them against the other Gospels.
Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him." So Peter went out with the other disciple, and they were going toward the tomb. Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. And stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples went back to their homes. (John 20:1-10)
Hopefully the astute reader will know what has transpired here before I explain it in detail. At the very least, something ‘smells rotten in Denmark.’ In this instance it is only Mary Magdalene who comes to the tomb early. Perhaps John felt the other symbolism was unnecessary, but his theme is still the same as Mark’s original; the once-rebellious who repent are first to God’s kingdom. Mary, shocked, does exactly what she and the other women have done in Luke, except in this narrative they assume that somebody took the body. This is John’s response to Matthew’s empty tomb narrative, where instead of alerting the reader to what is happening as Matthew had done, John makes the reader wonder more, causes him to be alert. In this instance, as in Luke, Peter runs to the tomb to see for himself. As in Luke, John has his Peter and the other disciple (who is added to the narrative, and who arrives first) “stooping to look in”, using the same phrase (kai parakupsas blepei). This back-and-forth between Mary and the disciples is John reaffirming things. Those who are blind, def and dumb to God’s wisdom will be last to the kingdom. Indeed Peter, the closest disciple, was also the weakest of understanding, and often fought with Jesus’ interpretation of things in the narrative, which is why he was last to arrive to the tomb. John reassures his readers that everything will be okay, “as they did not yet understand.” Once more the narrative author interprets the situation for us and shows us how we are to read it. John does something else unique too, bringing back the Lukan Emmaus story, although he tells it differently by rejecting the gentile models Luke used but keeping all the same tropes.
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one 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." Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?" 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 Aramaic, "Rabboni!" (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, "Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, 'I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'" Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, "I have seen the Lord"—and that he had said these things to her. (Luke 20:11-18)
Mary replaces the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Instead she is back at the tomb, trying to figure things out in much the same way that our friend Cleopas was trying to figure things out. Jesus appears to Mary in much of the same way he does to the disciples on the road: with a question he knows the answer to. “Why do you week?” “What is the conversation you are holding?” These questions are not simply ironic (although they are meant to be read as such), they hold the very core message of Jesus’ teaching. Those who see, see. Those who hear, hear. The disciples did not know at first, but needed scripture to be interpreted for them. Mary, on the other hand, is more observant, even though she does not recognize Jesus in his new form. When he says her name, she understands and remembers. Once more Jesus sends Mary out as the bringer of the Gospels to the disciples who did not understand. John brings this trope out much later in the post-resurrection stories.
On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, "Peace be with you." When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. (Luke 20:19-20)
John has Jesus appear to the disciples all together (with the exception of Thomas, for another purpose), a trope he is also echoing from Luke. He makes sure to include the fact that the “doors being locked” were significant—Jesus did not come in through the doors. Yet, he appeared before them. Foregoing all doubt, John has his Jesus show his wounds without any question of doubt mentioned. He saves doubt for its own section.
Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord." But he said to them, "Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe." Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!" Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed." (John 20:24-29)
Again Jesus does not use doors but opts for the more dramatic entrance—spiritual emergence. Jesus answers Thomas’ demands for evidence, reluctantly. This trope of the ‘reluctant prophet’ is echoed throughout the Hebrew Bible, from Moses to Elisha, and reflects God’s reluctance in the wilderness to prove himself to a doubtful people who he had just saved from exile. It reflects Moses attitude towards the Israelites who demanded drink, food, and shelter. It reflects Elijah’s unwillingness to attend to the rich woman’s son who had died, sending first his servant, much in the same way that Jesus sends Mary to the disciples first, who demand a sign instead. There is no ascension in John, as John ends his narrative a different way. John ends his Gospel with a message: Blessed are those who believe without seeing. The world is in darkness, John admits in the beginning of his narrative, and one has to find the light. When you discover the light, you see clearly. “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” (John 1:9) John kept his promise.