The Development of Historical Biography and the Gospel Resurrection Accounts

My experience deals with mainly talking with skeptics from an apologetics standpoint. So, in many respects, my treatment of the accounts of the different resurrection will be utilizing the same thought process in those discussions. One of the key objections that I’ve encountered that is mentioned by Dr. Ramage in his lecture on the Resurrection in the Gospel of Mark is that skeptics will say that the reason that the older manuscripts have no resurrection narrative scenes with Jesus is that Jesus didn’t rise from the dead. (Dr. Ramage, the Resurrection Mark 16; Romans 8, 4:50.)

Honestly, I’ve always found this objection to the resurrection puzzling because more or less the Gospel of Mark in the first eight verses has the essential circumstantial evidence of the tomb of Jesus being empty. Pope Benedict expresses this point by writing, “Naturally, the empty tomb as such does not prove the Resurrection. Mary Magdalene, in John’s account, found it empty and assumed that someone must have taken Jesus’ body away. The empty tomb is no proof of the Resurrection, that much is undeniable. Conversely, though, one might ask: Is the Resurrection compatible with the body remaining in the tomb? Can Jesus be risen if he is still lying in the tomb?” (Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth: Part Two: Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection, 254.)

There must be an empty tomb for the resurrection to even be a plausibility, this much is found in the textual evidence of Mark’s Gospel. Mark’s account has every bit of a resurrection of Jesus as any other Gospel account, simply minus the details. What is interesting about Mark’s account is that it doesn’t address the skepticism of the empty tomb—this appears to be a development of the narrative. The Gospel of Matthew addresses it from the standpoint of the Jewish leaders instructing the people that the body had been stolen (Mt. 28:11-15). What is interesting is that the Gospel of John appears to be the full development of addressing of the missing body within the narrative, John writes, “2 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.” (Jn. 21:2)

I think the women witnesses are key to the Resurrection Narrative. In fact, there so key within the relationship of understanding 1st-century Palestinian culture that a woman cannot give testimony that it would be an embarrassment for Christians to claim such a thing that modern skeptics seem to be trying their very best to dispel this criterion of embarrassment. Personally, in my discussions, I have not heard a compelling counter since it is so well known the role of women in 1st century Palestine.

I’ll be operating under the Farrer hypothesis with my synthesis of the Synoptic Gospel accounts. Naturally, from a historian’s viewpoint, I’d claim that there is a natural development of the narrative within the frameworks of the Farrer hypothesis. For example, think of how a modern biography is initially written about a historical person which in most cases is very foundational with the first account. For example, there are several biographies on Abraham Lincoln; a famous one being written by Carl Sandburg. In the 21st century, Michael Burlingame wrote a more definitive account on Lincoln that made both corrections and filled in the details left out by Sandburg, so as one sees the next biographer uses that particular narrative to launch off for his own record. Of course, there will be other biographers that will use both accounts to write an account of the life of Abraham Lincoln. I’d argue that the Gospels very much do the same thing. In Mark’s account, what is found is: three people: Mary Magdalene, Mary Mother of Jesus, and Salome; the stone was rolled away; a young man who informed them that the tomb was empty; and they ran away afraid. (Mk 16:1-8)

The next biographer Matthew comes in to write his own account of the resurrection. So, the natural question is what did he add to Mark’s narrative and why? One notices that Matthew doesn’t mention Salome, but this isn’t a big deal, an omission of a person isn’t a contradiction but merely a silence. Mark’s gospel doesn’t record any reason for the stone being rolled away, but simply states that it had been done. One can certainly speculate that Matthew is filling in missing details to add some color to his narrative by referencing an angel and earthquake that cause the stone to roll from the tomb. What is interesting is that in Matthew’s account claims that the witnesses were both afraid and full of joy. Again, there is a silence that occurs in Mark’s account that the next author felt obliged to explain. Furthermore, in Matthew’s account, Jesus appears to these women who witness the tomb being empty, Mark’s Gospel is simply written for action, not detail.

Luke’s Gospel speaks of two angels being present at the discovery of the empty tomb. Of course, this could be added on for theological reasons or more description of the account. Luke names different women in the account; however, he does specify there were several others, it’s not out of the question he just names others that the earlier accounts do not.

The historical perspective deals with differing details of accounts. In fact, if there were no differing details in the schools of thought in historiography, the development of fact-based accounts wouldn’t be possible. The building of biographical detail is very much in the same vein of iron being sharpened by iron.” (Proverbs 27:17).