The Orthodox Pages
TALK ON THE FOUR GOSPEL
ACCOUNTS OF THE
After our rather long break over Lent and Easter, I would like to welcome you all back to our weekly talks which sadly will only be until the end of May because then we break again for the summer holidays and start again with the new season in October. I hope you all had a great Spiritual and enlightening Pascha.
Two Sundays ago we celebrated our Lord's Life-giving Resurrection from the dead. The Christian faith is based on the fundamental truth and absolute fact that Christ arose from the dead. Christ's Resurrection is the guarantee of our salvation and together with His Ascension it brings to perfection God’s union with us for all eternity. St. Paul says that “if there be no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen: And if Christ be not risen, then our preaching is in vain, and your faith also is in vain.” (1 Cor 15:14) What he is saying is that there is no Christian faith without the Resurrection; it is pointless and futile to even mention Christ if we do not accept that he died a real death on the Cross and miraculously arose from death on the third day.
Many Bible critics reject the resurrection because they say the narratives in the four Gospels contain hopeless contradictions. If the four accounts were placed in parallel columns, a number of apparent differences would be highlighted. Matthew says that “As it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulchre. And, behold, there was a great earthquake: for the angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat upon it.” Here Matthew tells us that there were two women and an earthquake caused by the angel that rolled away the stone from the door.
Mark says that there were three women Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, who brought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him. Here there is no earthquake as the stone is already rolled away. But further down Mark says that “when Jesus was risen early the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene,”
Luke mentions women who came with Jesus from Galilee and that “upon the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they came unto the sepulchre, bringing the spices which they had prepared, and certain others with them”. He then mentions that “It was Mary Magdalene and Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and other women that were with them, which told these things unto the apostles.”
John says that “The first day of the week cometh Mary Magdalene early, when it was yet dark, unto the sepulchre, and seeth the stone taken away from the sepulchre”.
In one account there is one angel and in another there are two, in one account there is only one woman at the sepulchre, in another two, in another three and in another many women. In one account Christ appeared to the two Maries and that they held him by the feet and in another that Christ appeared only to Mary Magdalene and there he told her not to touch him.
Critics of the Bible delight in these discrepancies and say that they prove the resurrection is a lie. On the other hand Western Bible scholars and apologetics claim that these apparent differences ultimately confirm the truthfulness of these accounts, rather than refute them. If all four Gospels gave exactly the same story, in exactly the same order, with exactly the same details, we would immediately become suspicious. We could also wonder why all four writers did not simply attach their names as co-authors of one account. In support of the resurrection they claim that the differences do not concern the main points of the story which are agreed upon by every witness. If fact the differences add to, rather than subtract from the validity. As long as the main points are agreed upon the variations in detail of the four different writers are insignificant. One such insignificant detail is the time the women came to the tomb. Mark has the women coming to the tomb at the rising of the sun while John states that Mary Magdalene came to the tomb when it was dark. This difficulty, they claim is easily solved when it is realized that the women had to walk quite some distance to reach the tomb. It was dark when they left the place in which they were staying, but when they arrived at the tomb, the sun was beginning to shine. Therefore, Mark is speaking of their arrival, while John refers to their departure.
Another discrepancy which has generated a lot of discussion concerns the angels who were at the tomb. Matthew and Mark relate that one angel addressed the women, while Luke and John say that two angels were at the tomb. This they say is again easily solved because Matthew and Mark do not say that there was only one angel at the tomb, but that one angel spoke to the women. This does not contradict Luke and John, for Matthew and Mark specify that one angel spoke, but they do not say there was only one angel present, but only one angel spoke. Quite possibly, one of the angels served as the spokesman for the two, thus he was emphasized. There is no need to assume a discrepancy.
The arguments put forth by western scholars are not very convincing and are only proof that they do not have the spiritual enlightenment to read between the lines. They try to explain everything with human logical reasoning but forget that the Scriptures are God-inspired. True the Gospel writers are only men and four accounts of the same story written by four men would certainly bring about some variations, but when these men have been inspired by the Holy Spirit to put in writing the things concerning God, then no discrepancies are acceptable. The Holy Spirit does not allow for any mistakes or discrepancies. Another reason why western scholars do not fully understand the scriptures is that they do not have the tradition of the Church to guild them, but rely solely on their own rational understanding and explain things at face value without looking deeper to see why these differences should exist in writings they accept as God-inspired.
For the Church there is no confusion and these seemingly discrepancies are non existent, because she has always understood that there was not just one visit to the sepulchre, but probably two, three or even four and each evangelist is giving different details of these visits. Another thing that escapes the understanding of western scholars is that all four Apostles are trying to conceal the identity of one of the Maries - not to the faithful who knew who she was, but to the unbelievers who would have used her testimony of the Resurrection to discredit that it actually happened. This Mary is none other than the Mother of God who instead of calling her the Mary the Mother of Jesus is disguised as Mary the Mother of James or the Mother of Joses or the other Mary and sometimes intentionally not mentioned at all. James and Joses were Joseph’s children from a previous marriage and although they were older than Mary, legally they were considered her children and Jesus’ stepbrothers. The woman mentioned as Salome is also Joseph’s daughter and is the mother of James and John the sons of Zebedee. Thus Salome is Jesus’ stepsister.
St. Gregory Palamas, the Archbishop of Thessaloniki and great theologian of the 14th century interpreted the various Gospel accounts of the Resurrection in such a clear way and proved that the Mother of God was the first to see the Risen Christ, because she was the purest and holiest of all. He says that:
“When Christ was risen from the dead, no man saw him because no one was present. But later according to St. Mark, he was seen by Mary Magdalene. But this is not how it was, because before Mark mentions this he says that Mary Magdalene went to the sepulchre on a previous occasion with other women and found the tomb empty and left. So the Lord had risen much earlier that when Mary saw him. If we try to pinpoint the time of the visit we will notice that Mark says of the first visit that is was very early but St. John says that it was still dark. And again according to John, Mary not only came to the tomb, but left without having yet seen the Lord. In fact she runs to Peter and John, not to tell them that the Lord is risen, but that “they have taken away the LORD out of the sepulchre, and we know not where they have laid him.” Thus up to this moment she had not seen the Lord and when she finally did see him there was complete daylight. But there is something that is mentioned by the Evangelist in an obscure way which I will reveal to you. Truly the joyful news of the Lord’s Resurrection, first before all other men, as it is proper and just, was received by the Mother of God from the Lord himself and she first saw the Risen one and first enjoyed his divine words. And she did not only see him with her eyes or just hear him with her ears, but with her hands was the first to touch him, only she touched his pure feet. The Evangelists do not mention all these things clearly because they don’t want to show his Mother as a witness of the Resurrection so that they do not give any cause for suspicion to those who don’t believe in the Resurrection. But because now we are addressing ourselves to the faithful we will reveal this also.
When they buried Christ and placed the great stone at the door of the tomb, there was present according to Matthew, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, sitting opposite the sepulchre. With the phrase “the other Mary” the Evangelist means the Mother of God. Again according to the Same Evangelist, as it began to dawn on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to the sepulchre. From what I can surmise, and according to what I have already said, first before all the Myrrhbearers came the Mother of God to the tomb of her Son and God and brought with her Mary Magdalene. Then a great earthquake took place, because an Angel of the Lord, having come down from heaven, rolled the stone from the door of the sepulchre.
All the other women came after the earthquake and found the tomb open and the stone rolled away. But the Mother of God reached there at the time of the earthquake. And although the guards left because of fear, the Mother of God delighted in what she saw. I even think that the tomb was first opened for her (for because of her and through her everything was opened for us, whatever is above in heaven and down here on earth). And for her sake also the angel did shine as lightning so that she could see even though it was still dark. She not only saw the empty tomb, but also the burial clothes as they were laid and testified to the resurrection. The angel was none other that Gabriel. As soon as he saw her running to the tomb. He who at the Annunciation told her “Fear not Mary, for thou has found grace with God” now rushes and comes down to tell her the good news of the Rising from the dead of Him who without seed was born of her and to remove the stone and show the empty tomb thus verifying the joyful message.
While the other Myrrhbearers were still afraid, because they didn’t realise the great mystery, the Mother of God received the great joy of the Resurrection and was filled with light because she had reached the greatest purity and with divine grace she recognized the truth and believed the Archangel.
How could she not believe after all the things that had happened? The great earthquake, the angel coming down from heaven as lightning, the removal of the stone, the empty tomb, the burial clothes untouched and intact and held together with the dry flowers and spices yet at the same time empty of a body.
When they came out of the tomb after the joyful news of the angel, Mary Magdalene is as though she had not seen or heard the angel and the only thing she can verify is the fact that the tomb is empty. She doesn’t even notice the burial clothes and runs to Peter and John and tells them that someone has taken the body of the Lord and we know not where they have laid him. How then is this possible, if she had seen him and touched him with her hands and heard him speak, would she not have mentioned this to the Disciples?
Therefore, first of all the women to meet the Risen Lord, to recognise him and to fall down and touch his feet was the Mother of God. Later when Mary Magdalene was met by the Lord he told her not to touch him. How is it possible when the Evangelist says that they held him by the feet to mean also Mary Magdalene when the Lord didn’t allow her to touch him? Therefore Christ only allowed the Mother of God to hold him by the feet. The Evangelist just simply avoids speaking of the Mother of God clearly so that it would not appear that the news of the Resurrection was circulated by his Mother.”
St. Gregory's explanation of who first saw the risen Lord helps us to put a time sequence to the four accounts of the resurrection. John mentions that while is was still dark Mary Magdalene came to the sepulchre and found the stone taken away and thinking that someone had stolen the body runs to Peter and John to tell them of what she suspected had happened.
John's account says that Mary Magdalene found the stone already rolled away but it could be the same visit to the sepulchre as Matthews account. Matthew says that as it began to dawn came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary and there was a great earthquake and the angel of the Lord rolled back the stone from the door. As it began to dawn is still fairly dark and possible when they set off to visit the sepulchre is was still dark and by the time they reached the tomb the first signs of the red sun began to dawn. Now John's account intentionally doesn't mention the other Mary and that Magdalene seeing the tomb was empty runs back to tell Peter and John that someone had stolen the Lord's body so she was not witness to the stone being rolled away by the angel. On the other hand Matthew's account leaves us to assume that both Maries were present when this happened.
The purpose of the visit was so that they could bring sweet spices to anoint the body. We must remember that the burial was done rather hastily because the Sabbath was about to begin and they were not allowed according to the law to do anything once it began. The body was wrapped with some of the sweet spices, but they had not finished all the preparations. St. Luke tells us that after the burial the women who followed Jesus from Galilee returned and prepared spices and ointments; and rested the Sabbath day according to the commandment. That evening they must have agreed to meet up at the tomb early in the morning to finish the burial rituals. With this in mind, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary being the Mother of God set off together with some of the spices but out or respect Magdalene carried the bulk of the spices not allowing the Mother of God to carry anything. Because of this Magdalene tarried a little behind and the Mother of God came first to the tomb just in time to see the angel rolling back the stone. By the time Magdalene caught up with her the angel had already shone brightly for the Mother of God to see inside and had disappeared. Matthew intentionally mentions the two women together to avoid that the news of the Lord's resurrection was circulated by his Mother who in the sight of many would not have been a convincing witness. Magdalene didn't hear anything of the angel's message, all these things happened just before she reached the tomb. Matthew continues saying that as they went to tell the disciples, Jesus met them and they came and held him by the feet and worshipped him. Here again he is concealing that the Mother of God was the first to see the risen Lord and to touch him. Magdalene had run off to tell the apostles so in reality the Mother of God was on her own when her Son appeared to her.
Mark tells us that three women came to the tomb; Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome. Mary the mother of James is again concealing the identity of the Mother of God. This need not be a separate visit. Mary Magdalene and the Mother of God went first. Magdalene runs off to inform the Apostles leaving the Mother of God on her own. A little later still very early in the morning came Salome and met her. Mark simply doesn't mention that Magdalene had run off and leaves us to assume that they were all together. Mark then says that they wondered among themselves who will roll away the stone for them because it was very great. Although he mentions this in the plural, it could only have been Salome who thought of this because the Mother of God was witness to the stone being rolled away. Thus with Salome reaching the tomb and finding the stone rolled away the Mother of God doesn't tell her of what she had seen and heard, but together with Salome enter the tomb. On entering they see an angel sitting on the right side and we are told that they were frightened by what they saw. Mark again speaks in the plural but only Salome was frightened by the appearance of the angel, the Mother of God was by now quite accustomed to their visits. Mark then makes what seems like an intentional insertion of telling us that when Jesus was risen early the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had cast seven devils. This intentional insertion was again to conceal that the actual person to first see the risen Lord was his very own Mother.
Luke continues from where Mark ends and tells us that more women came to the tomb. At first he doesn't give us any names for the women but simply says that the women who followed Jesus from Galilee came to the sepulchre very early in the morning and certain others with them. Further down he identifies some of the women as Mary Magdalene and Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and other women that were with them. Here we have the arrival of Joanna and other women. Mary the Mother of God and Salome had already been inside the sepulchre and had probably met the arrival of the other women outside. Whether they were informed of what had already happened we cannot be sure, but now these new arrivals at the tomb also enter the tomb to see for themselves. On entering they see two angels who inform them that Christ is risen from the dead. After this the women leave the sepulchre and with haste go to inform the apostles of what they had seen and heard. From here Luke's account ties in with John's account of the resurrection each giving details that supplement the other.
In John's account we saw that Mary Magdalene, without seeing visions of angels, runs off to tell the apostles that someone had stolen the Lord's body. Before setting off to verify for themselves that the Lord's body was missing, Luke tells us that the other women told the apostles of what they had seen which seemed to them as idle tales and didn't believe them. Luke then tells us that Peter arose and ran unto the sepulchre; and stooping down, he beheld the linen clothes laid by themselves, and departed, wondering in himself at that which was come to pass. Of this visit John gives us more details as he also went with Peter to investigate. John takes up the story: "Peter therefore went forth, and that other disciple (meaning himself), and came to the sepulchre. So they ran both together: and the other disciple did outrun Peter, and came first to the sepulchre. And he stooping down, and looking in, saw the linen clothes lying; yet went he not in. Then cometh Simon Peter following him, and went into the sepulchre, and seeth the linen clothes lie, And the napkin, that was about his head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself. Then went in also that other disciple, which came first to the sepulchre, and he saw, and believed. For as yet they knew not the scripture, that he must rise again from the dead.
All the while Mary Magdalene had remained outside not actually knowing of what had happened. If she hadn't rushed off to inform the disciples of what she suspected she also would have been blessed with the vision of angels like the other women and would have believed that her Blessed Jesus had risen from the dead. But Christ had something special in mind for her. When the disciples had left, Mary remained outside the sepulchre weeping. At some point she decided to look inside the tomb and saw two angels in white, one sitting at the head and the other sitting at the feet of where Jesus' body had lain. They speak to her saying "woman why are you crying?" She still believed that someone had stolen the body and replied: "because they have taken away my Lord and I don't know where they have laid him." Suddenly she turns back and sees Jesus standing but didn't recognise him. She thought he was the gardener and asks him if he had taken away her Lord's body. Jesus then calls out her name and Mary immediately recognised her Master's voice. Jesus then tells her those famous words: "Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father". Touch me not does not necessarily mean that Mary Magdalene did not touch Jesus. The Greek "μή μου ἅπτου" can be interpreted as "stop holding onto me." We had a talk on this "Touch me not" three years ago, but whether you were all present or if you can still remember what was said, maybe it would be a good subject to review for next week.
So with this we can see that the four Gospels do not contradict each other. There may be four versions of the Gospel but in truth there is only one Gospel. When with pride we believe we are knowledgeable and insist on listening to our own rational minds like western scholars, we will come across many such contradicting passages in the Bible and we will not be able to explain them, but when we accept with humility that we understand nothing and let the church give us the proper interpretations, which she has safe-guarded through Holy Tradition, then everything falls into place: our eyes are opened and we see the wisdom with which the Holy Spirit has inspired the Evangelists to write four variations of the same event, which may at first seem contradictory, but in fact supplement, complement and corroborate each other.
In St. Gregory's account of who first saw the resurrected Christ he mentions that the Mother of God saw the burial clothes as they were laid and testified to the resurrection. The burial clothes indeed testify to the resurrection, but also testify that the Lord's body had undergone a transformation from a mortal body to an immortal body.
During the Forty days, after the Resurrection, Christ appeared and talked many times with the Apostles. The Gospels tell us of some of these occasions although there must have been many other occasions that we are not told about. I want us to look at a couple of these appearances because they tell us something very important about this immortal body Jesus had after the resurrection which we will also have after the General Resurrection after the Second Coming.
In previous talks I have mentioned many times that before Adam fell from grace his body was immortal so it had to be different from the bodies we now have which are mortal and decay. An immortal body must therefore have different attributes and we see this in Christ’s resurrected and immortal body. The first evidence that this resurrected human body is different can be deduced from the evidence found in the tomb itself.
Most of us have see the various films on the life of Jesus and much of what people understand has been influenced by these films. Many people believe that they are true interpretations of the events and that the films are a word for word account of the Gospels. What people don’t realize it that films like “Jesus of Nazareth” are interpretations of the script writers and the Directors who not only do not read the Gospels with spiritual understanding, but try to make everything more logical by adding storylines which according to their way of thinking help to add drama and a sense of reality. For us Orthodox these films can be very damaging because they give a very wrong teaching, and if we don’t know the true interpretations then these images are embedded into our memories and we assume that they must be true. I remember one film in particular which has Peter coming out of the tomb waving some white rags as though the rags were prove that Christ had risen from the dead. In all truth the burial clothes with which Christ was wrapped were proof that he had risen, but western spirituality has missed the point of why they were proof. By just waving some rags cannot be considered proof of the resurrection and nowhere in the four Gospels does it mention that Peter took the burial clothes in his hand let alone start to wave them around.
When we read the Gospel accounts we must be careful to read between the lines to understand what the Evangelists are actually telling us in an obscure way. St. John’s account of the Resurrection is of special interest and it is he who tells us about the burial clothes. John describes how Peter entered the tomb and saw the linen clothes lie and the napkin that was about his head not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself. Then John himself enters the tomb and he saw and believed. But what did John see that made him believe that Jesus was resurrected? By seeing an empty tomb is not proof of the Resurrection for as he himself says immediately after “For as yet they knew not the scripture, that he must rise again from the dead.” (John 20: 9) An empty tomb could also be interpreted that Christ's body was removed by someone. So what did he see, what did he notice that was so extraordinary and so convincing that he mentions that when he saw he believed that Christ arose from the dead? Peter who entered first doesn’t seem to notice, because up to that moment John was speaking in the plural but now he suddenly changes from the plural and states in the singular case that he saw and believed. Only his eyes noticed something totally extraordinary and illogical which was proof enough for him to believe that Christ was Risen.
What John saw made him the first, after the Mother of God, to believe in the resurrection. It is believed that what he saw was that the linen clothes were still on the burial stone in exactly the same way they were when they were wrapped around Jesus’ body together with the sweet-spices used for the burial. In other words Jesus didn’t get up and remove his burial clothes, but passed through them leaving them behind exactly in the same shape as they were on the stone slab. The cloth which covered his head was a separate piece and that could have fallen from his face when he stood up and which he carefully folded and placed in a separate place from the other burial clothes although I will mention more on this in a moment. Thus the film which has Peter waving the rags in the air is far from the Orthodox understanding which explains why John believed when he saw the burial clothes.
The evidence of the intact and not unwrapped grave clothes revealed that Jesus' body was not stolen by His friends or enemies either. If someone, either friend of foe, had wanted to steal the body away, they would have been in a great rush and would have taken him as he was with the burial clothes; they certainly would not have gone to all the trouble to first unwrap the burial clothes, take the body out and then rewrap the burial clothes with the sweet spices in exactly the same way they were had the body still been inside. But why was the napkin wrapped together in a separate place by itself? Firstly, we need to understand that this was not a table napkin. In Greek the word is soudarion which was a cloth large enough to be wrapped around the head and not just placed on top. Secondly, it was not folded neatly as some English translations suggest but rolled together as it was when it was wrapped around Jesus’ head. The question is why was it found in a separate place and not with the rest of the burial clothes? There must be a logical reason why the head cloth was in a separate place but I have not come across a reasonable explanation for this in either Orthodox or western writings.
I have a theory which is plausible but keep in mind that it is just a theory. Jesus passed through all the burial clothes and left them as they were with the myrrh and aloes still wrapped inside. We are told that the weight of the various spices used for the embalming were one hundred pounds. These would have made a great bulk and even without the body inside the burial clothes, the mass of the spices would have given the impression to someone looking into the sepulchre that the body was still inside. This impression or illusion would have seemed more real if the head clothes were also in their original place. It is therefore possible that Jesus moved the head clothes to reveal that the other burial clothes were empty of a body. Like I said it is only a theory: what is undeniably the truth is that the burial clothes declared that Christ had truly risen from the dead, but they also tell us that Christ’s Resurrected body has undergone a transformation and could go through solid matter. This we see in other accounts of the Resurrection story.
Matthew tells us that as it began to dawn, in other words while it was still fairly dark, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, meaning Mary the Mother of God came to the sepulchre and suddenly there was a great earthquake because an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and rolled back the stone from the entrance to the tomb. This he did, not as some imagine in order to let Jesus out, but to reveal that Jesus was not there. Now if the stone was rolled away to reveal that Jesus’ body was no longer in the tomb, where did it go? This is our first encounter with a resurrected immortal body and how it differs from our mortal bodies. Although it is still a material body, in other words it is not a ghost, it can actually pass through other solid matter. If the Body was no longer in the tomb then we can only assume that it passed through the solid stone walls of the sepulchre and was already outside of the tomb before the Mother of God witnessed the angel roll the stone away.
Thus already from the tomb we see that the Resurrected Jesus still has the same human body, but in a new and glorious form. It is still flesh and blood but can pass through other solid matter. Matthew tells us that as the two Maries run to tell the Apostles the angel’s message, they were met by Jesus and they held him by the feet and worshipped him. I have already explained that only Magdalene run to the apostles and only the Mother of God held his feet, but here I mention it again to show that the Mother of God did not see a spirit but a real tangible person.
Christ appeared many times to the Apostles, sometimes to one or two and at other times to all the Apostles together. He appeared to Peter separately and to Luke and Cleopas whilst they were on their way to Emmaus. He spoke with them explaining the scriptures concerning himself to them for hours yet they didn’t recognise him. Only after the blessing and braking of bread were their eyes opened to see who their walking companion was and then he vanished from their sight. So another attribute of the Resurrected body is that it can appear in another form probably with different characteristics and can appear and disappear at will.
The Emmaus story is told us by Luke who was the unnamed disciple walking with Cleopas. After their encounter with Christ he then mentions that they immediately returned to Jerusalem to tell the other Apostles of their experience. While they recounted what had happened Christ again appeared in their midst. Luke tells us that they were all terrified and frightened because they thought they had seen a ghost. Christ then reassures them that he is not a ghost and showing them his hands and his feet with the wounds from the nails, invites them to touch him to verify for themselves that he is indeed a human being made of flesh and bones for as Christ himself tells them: “for a spirit hath not flesh and bones as ye see me have.” But the disciples still disbelieved their eyes so Christ asked them if they had anything he could eat. They gave him a piece of broiled fish and a piece of honeycomb which he ate in their presence. He had of course no bodily need to eat. He ate in order to show the Apostles that he was not a spirit because spirits cannot eat. The Resurrected body has no need of sustenance, but can eat if it so desires. Remember that Adam before the fall, when his body was still immortal, could eat of all the fruits in the garden of paradise. The immortal Resurrected Body has therefore many attributes which we would only expect to find in science fiction films. To summarize: Christ in his new and glorious form could appear at will in different places instantaneously. He could pass through solid matter or appear and disappear at the blink of an eye. He can appear as he is or can change his appearance so as not to be recognized and could eat and drink if he so wished. This then is the kind of body we will all have after the resurrection of the dead at the Second Coming of Christ.