[Dialogue] 10/15/15, Spong: Creating Easter IV When? The Question of Time

Ellie Stock via Dialogue dialogue at lists.wedgeblade.net
Sat Oct 17 14:11:31 PDT 2015





Re-Creating Easter IV
When? The Question of Time
Life-changing “revelations” may well be timeless, but the one receiving these revelations is always bound in time. These insights invade time at a particular moment. We seek now to discover just when it was that the meaning of Easter first broke into human consciousness.
The original Easter story provides us with some time references but, like most of the details in the biblical narrative, the content of those references is confusing and contradictory. Paul is the first New Testament writer to attach a time reference to the Easter story. “On the third day, he was raised,” Paul asserted. What does “the third day” mean? Is it a literal measure of chronological time? Or is it a symbol that stands for an undefined period of time? Literal minds have always assumed that Paul’s words “on the third day” referred to a specific day, perhaps as much as seventy-two hours later, for that is what the term “on the third day” usually means.
When Mark, writing about a decade after Paul’s death, picks up the story he changes Paul’s time designation from “on the third day” to “after three days.” This change, however, does not give us the same day. If we are measuring from Friday, the day of the crucifixion, then “on the third day” would be Sunday, with Friday being day one, Saturday day two and Sunday the third day. If, on the other hand, the phrase “after three days” is a literal time measure, it means after Friday, Saturday and Sunday, so that Monday becomes the resurrection day.
It is thus of interest to note that Matthew, who had Mark in front of him when they wrote, changed Mark’s time references to “after three days” (Mark 8:31, 9:31, 10:34), to “on the third day” (Matt 16:21, 17:23, 20:19). Matthew, however, is not consistent elsewhere. In a story that only he relates about the chief priests seeking Pilate’s permission to place a guard around Jesus’ tomb to prevent his disciples from stealing his body, Matthew seems to forget that he has made this change and in this narrative, he quotes Jesus as having said, “after three days I will rise” (Matt 27:63). Mathew complicates this time reference further by having Jesus say to the Pharisees, who were asking him for a sign: “As Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a whale, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matt 12:40). Three days and three nights? Count the time. Jesus was buried at sundown on Friday so Friday sundown to Saturday dawn is one night. Saturday dawn to Saturday sunset is one day. Saturday sunset to Sunday dawn is two nights. Sunday dawn to Sunday sunset is two days. Sunday sunset to Monday dawn is three nights. Monday dawn to Monday sunset is three days. That is not the first day of the week. The symbol “three days” wobbles significantly in the New Testament. The wobble is introduced by Matthew.
Turning now to Luke, who also has Mark in front of him when he writes, we note that he changes two of Mark’s references to “after three days” to “on the third day” (Luke 12:20, 13:32) and he omits the third. Luke also builds “the third day” into his Emmaus Road story (Luke 24:13-35) and he reiterates this time measure by placing it into the mouth of the raised Jesus himself (Luke 24:46). Clearly pressure seems to be coming from some source in the early church to have the words “on the third day” become the proper time measure for marking the resurrection of Jesus. Can we identify the source of that pressure? I think we can.
By the time the gospels were written, 42-70 years after the crucifixion, a liturgical pattern had developed among the followers of Jesus. The gospel narratives all date the dawn of Easter as having occurred very early on “the first day of the week.” This day later would be called the day of the resurrection and celebrated as such in Christian worship. Since the crucifixion was identified with Friday, the resurrection came to be identified with Sunday, “the first day of the week.” This meant that it was “the third day.” A resurrection liturgy, observed on the first day of the week was then read back into the Easter narratives. It was not the other way round.
This means that even though the third day symbol was set when the gospels were created, an earlier debate was still remembered. The earliest time reference to the Easter event does not appear to have been set firmly or literally and each gospel in its own way bears witness to that.
As we noted earlier, Mark never tells us a story of the risen Christ appearing to anyone. He rather presents a messenger who makes the resurrection announcement to the women at the tomb at dawn on the first day of the week. Obviously, the tomb was located in Jerusalem where the crucifixion occurred outside the city walls. The messenger directed the women to instruct the disciples, who presumably were still in Jerusalem, to return to Galilee with the promise that in Galilee they would “see” the raised Christ. If Jesus was to be seen as “resurrected” in Galilee by his disciples, however, there was no way that this “seeing” could have occurred within the framework of a three-day period. Galilee was a seven to ten day journey from Jerusalem. So how could this reality fit into Mark’s suggestion that the resurrection occurred within three days after the crucifixion?
Matthew, who does describe this Galilean appearance of the raised Jesus, has the same problem. For the disciples to have returned from Jerusalem to Galilee to “see” the raised Christ there, that could not have happened inside the parameters of the three day symbol.
Luke addresses this problem by omitting any return to Galilee. The Easter experience for Luke was a Jerusalem phenomenon. The disciples did not return home. So Luke has the first appearance of the raised Christ occur to a man named Cleopas in the village of Emmaus near Jerusalem at about sundown on the first day of the week. Luke is, therefore, clearly within the traditional three days’ time frame. Luke is not, however, confined to that time frame. He goes on to refer to multiple appearances of the raised Christ that supposedly occurred over a period of forty days (Acts 1:3). “On the third day” is thus coupled with another time measure, namely “forty days.” “Forty” is a familiar measure of time in the Bible. Jesus fasted in the wilderness for forty days. So Luke now suggests that resurrection appearances also occur over a similar period of time. These appearances, says Luke, cease quite abruptly when Jesus is taken from them in an act, which Luke alone relates, called “the Ascension.”
Finally, we look at the time line regarding the resurrection in the Fourth Gospel. Easter dawns in this gospel when the empty tomb is discovered by Mary Magdalene alone early on the first day of the week. She runs, we are told, to the disciples, who presumably are still in hiding in Jerusalem, to inform them of this emptiness. Two of them, John says, Peter and the “disciple whom Jesus loved,” came to check out that fact. Both see, but only the “Beloved Disciple” believes. John then follows this narrative with a story of the risen Christ actually appearing first to Mary Magdalene at the tomb later, and on that same day at the time of the evening meal, to the disciples in Jerusalem, where they were hiding in a secure place with the windows shut and the doors locked. When this narrative is complete, we are surprised to discover that one of the twelve, Thomas, was not present. So the story is repeated “after eight days,” on the first day of the second week. So resurrection in the Fourth Gospel is extended to cover eight days. With this second episode, most scholars believe that the writer of the Fourth Gospel completed his story.
An Epilogue, Chapter 21, however, has been added to the text of this gospel by an unknown hand. This epilogue is set in a very different period of time. Weeks, perhaps months, have passed since the crucifixion. The disciples’ grief is less intense. A degree of normalcy has returned. These followers of Jesus have begun to pick up the routines of their pre-Jesus lives. First, Peter announces, “I am going fishing” (John 21:3). That is not a reference to a recreational activity. It is a statement that he is returning to the fishing trade of his life. The others say, “We will go with you.” They are already in Galilee, near the sea where they plied their fishing trade. So off they go into the Sea of Galilee to trawl the waters with their nets. We are told that they catch nothing. As the dawn breaks, they return to the shore. There a stranger suggests they cast their nets on the other side of the boat; they do so and the catch is so large that their nets break. They now recognize the stranger as Jesus. Coming ashore, they build a fire, place some of their catch on the coals to cook. They take bread which they had with them on the boat and together they eat a meal on the shore. Bread and fish had once fed the multitudes, now bread and fish will feed the disciples. The raised Jesus is the host for this meal, he takes the bread and blesses it. He does not break it, but he distributes it. In the mind of the epilogue writer there was only one time when the bread of life was broken and that was on the cross. Then Peter is restored in a direct confrontation with the resurrected Jesus. That completes the New Testament memory about the “time” when Easter dawned.
So did resurrection dawn on the third day, after three days, 7-10 days later in Galilee, over a period of 40 days, over eight days, or was it even months after the crucifixion when resurrection dawned on the consciousness of first Peter and then on the rest of the disciples? We break open the literalness of the three day symbol and we place a long lasting, but undetermined span of time into our story. We entertain the possibility that Easter might be separated from the crucifixion by months, perhaps even as long as a year! The clues are many. A new perspective on Easter is emerging. The story is not yet complete, so stay tuned.
John Shelby Spong
Read the essay online here.
Question & Answer
John Foster, Retd. Lt. Col. of the USMC, writes:
I was listening to an audible.com book created through the Great Courses that addressed Books that Changed the World. During one of the discussed books (the Book of Job), the professor stated that the best translation of the Bible books was the King James Version. I was taken aback by this. From my earlier studies, I learned from Dr. Ehrman that the King James translators failed to work off the oldest of the known copies of ancient manuscripts; hence, we must assume that the King James Version might not be as accurate as one might expect. Have you come to a conclusion on which published Bible is the more accurate reflection of ancient Bible books?
Dear John,

Thank you for your letter. I too listen to the Great Courses from the Teaching Company, which enrich my life enormously. I take 10-12 of their university professors, including Bart Ehrman, a year and still cherish the hope that someday I will be an educated man.

In regard to your question, Bart Ehrman of the University of North Carolina is correct. The King James Version of the Bible is a beautiful, treasured Elizabethan expression of the English language. King James did the world a great service when he ordered it to be translated. The translators also did a magnificent job. What was known about biblical sources in 1611, however, is but a fragment of what is known about them today. If it is accuracy you cherish, then the King James Version is not the biblical source that you ought to read.

I still prefer the Revised Standard Version though I cringe at some of its sexist language. The New Revised Standard Version sought to get rid of that sexist aspect but, in the process of being politically correct, I believe it violated the intention of the original gospel writers in a number of places. I still use the NRSV along with the RSV, but if I had to pick one, it would still be the RSV.

I note that you are retired from the Marine Corps. Our daughter was a marine for nine years, serving three tours of duty in the II Iraq war. I came to admire what the Marines have done and what they stand for, without always approving of the wars in which our nation has engaged, so I want to thank you for your service.

John Shelby Spong
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