Academic and Mormon Views of Easter

So, I’ve been checking my blog stats, and with Easter upon us, it seems my post from last year about why Mormon’s don’t celebrate Easter is getting the most hits.  While last year’s post was a little negative-that I think Mormon celebrations of Easter are lacking compared to other Christians’ Easter celebrations, I hope to talk more about some scholarly insights into Jesus this year as we discuss Easter.

Yes Mormons do believe in Easter-I just wish we did a better job of celebrating the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, rather than the Easter bunny.  Related to this current post, I did a similar, smaller post over at Mormon Matters, where I primarily asked the question if there is a Mainstream acceptance of the Mormons’ Easter story?  My post there was very short, but I have much more information here from a National Geographic DVD titled, In Search of Easter, produced around Easter 2004.  Here are some of the things I found interesting.

Discrepancies in the Gospels telling of the Easter story

Three days after the death of Jesus, comes the breathless incident, where God reveals he has awakened Jesus from the grave.  But each gospel has a slightly different version of these moments.  John offers the briefest account.  He writes that Mary Magdalene, the most prominent female disciple, discovers that the stone sealing the tomb of Jesus, has been rolled away.  She is shocked to find that his body is missing.

In Mark’s version, additional women join Mary and they also encounter an angel.  “On entering into the sepulcher, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a long white garment.  And they were affrighted, and he saith unto them, Be not affrighted, ye seek Jesus of Nazareth, which was crucified: he is risen; he is not here.  Behold the place where they have laid him.”

Luke’s gospel adds another angel to proclaim the resurrection while Matthew tells of an earthquake which has rolled the stone away.  The sentries that only Matthew mentions have been rendered unconscious.

Alternative explanations of Jesus Resurrection

The ancient Romans were anxious to dispel the rumors of Jesus resurrection.  In Matthew, there is the familiar ancient tale that the followers of Jesus stole the body.  However, the DVD has some other interesting ideas.

Prof of Biblical Studies, Daniel Smith-Christopher, Loyola Marymount University, “Why didn’t the enemies of the early Christians, particularly the Romans who killed him in the first place, simply quash this whole Christian business at the source and simply say, ‘Look, here is the body!  Enough of this nonsense!’  The fact that they cannot do that, this obvious move, lends an even greater mystery to the events that we see as the resurrection of Jesus.”

If the body of Jesus was missing from the tomb, is it possible that it was never there in the first place?

Thomas Sheehan, professor of Religious Studies at Stanford University, “Probably no one knew where Jesus’ body was located because he was executed as a common criminal, the chances are he was buried either in a common grave, or left for animals to devour.”

John Dominic Crossan, Professor emeritus, DePaul University, “The Roman execution and crucifixion tended to leave the body there until there was nothing left to be buried.  That’s what crucifixion meant.  It wasn’t a question of making you suffer; it was a question of annihilating your identity, not even leaving enough to be buried.  That is the awful possibility that that’s [sic] what the Romans did to the body of Jesus.”

Luke Timothy Johnson, professor of New Testament and Christian origins, Emory University, “History has to do with the exceptions, rather than with the norm, that is Jesus had followers, he had sympathizers.  He had people who cared for him. It’s far more plausible to me historically, that something like the version that Jesus was buried in a tomb by somebody who was sympathetic to him, is roughly reliable.”

Women’s role in the Resurrection

Women who announce Resurrection actually lends credibility to the story, according to scholars.

Smith-Christopher, “If you were to make up this story, and to make it more believable, you certainly wouldn’t choose the witness of women, because at the time of Jesus, women’s social standing was very low indeed.  Women would not have been trusted as the most reliable witnesses.”

(Luke 24:9)  “And they returned from the tomb and reported all these things unto the eleven and to all the rest.  And these words appeared unto them as nonsense, and they would not believe them.”

According to John’s gospel, only Peter and an unnamed disciple are curious enough to investigate the empty tomb for themselves.  (John 20:6)  “Then cometh Simon Peter following him, and went into the sepulcher, and seeth the linen clothes lie, and a napkin that was about his head, not lying within the clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself.’  John’s Gospel goes onto report that the amazed Peter, and his companion, depart the tomb, leaving Mary Magdalene to behold the impossible.”

Amy Jill-Levine, Professor of New Testament studies, Vanderbilt University, “A man calls her, she turns and sees, she supposes him to be the gardener.  And she says, ‘please sir, tell me where you have taken the body so that I can claim it.  And when the man calls her by name, Miriam, she recognizes in fact that this is no gardener, this is her resurrected Lord, appearing to her in the flesh.”

Why did people fail to recognize Jesus?

Smith-Christopher, “The way John  goes on to tell the story, Mary has, what we would take to be a very natural reaction-she wants to grasp and hug Jesus, and Jesus tells Mary, ‘no, not yet.  I can’t be touched yet.’  And it lends an interesting any mysterious air to the whole episode.”

Mary’s encounter, according to the Gospels, is only the beginning.  Luke describes another sighting that occurs later that day.  Two of Jesus’ followers, who have just witnessed the crucifixion, are travelling on the road to Emmaus, a road north of Jerusalem.  They are not aware that their martyred teacher intends to extend their education.

Johnson, “The two disciples are walking along disconsolate, after the events that have taken place in Jerusalem.  And they’re discussing what had happened.  And as they’re walking along, they’re joined by a stranger, who they don’t recognize, and who enters into conversation with them.”

Jill-Levine, “They’re surprised that the stranger had not heard about the death of Jesus, and as they continued to talk and to walk, they describe to this stranger, what Jesus had done, what he stood for.  And as day started to progress toward night, the stranger announced that he would leave.  And the followers said, ‘No, no, no.  Why don’t you come and have supper with us?”  And the stranger agrees. And as they’re sitting at supper, the stranger begins to explain to them the truth of the story of Jesus, unpacked through the sacred scripture that all Jews held at the time, what Christians today would call the Old Testament.”

Crossan, “And the stranger gives them almost a graduate course in the interpretation of scripture, showing them that if they understood their scriptures, they would not have been surprised that even the messiah would be executed.  Then comes the crucial point of the story.  Jesus takes the bread, blesses it, breaks it, and hands it out, the Eucharistic formula, and they recognize Jesus!”

Smith-Christopher, “And it’s only  as they begin to comprehend the significance of what this stranger has been saying, we have this movement of comprehension, when they recognize their former teacher.  I think that this is very important, the sense of which, the gospels tells us, it’s when we recognize the importance of what he taught us, that we suddenly recognize him.”

Luke’s account then takes an abrupt twist.  At the very moment that the disciples recognize Jesus, he suddenly vanishes.

Why does Jesus keep disappearing?

Johnson, “This odd appearing/disappearing of Jesus and the appearing accounts has a very important message, and that is the resurrection is not resuscitation.  Jesus does not open an office.  He’s not there permanently.  He’s not there in his former somatic limitedness.  He’s a surprising presence.  He intrudes, he interrupts, he is not predictable, he is not controllable, and in that sense, he shares the life of the living God.”

Smith-Christopher, “The appearing and disappearing are kind of moving us towards the reality that we are going to live with for the rest of time, and that is that we don’t  have the physical presence of Jesus anymore with us, we have as it were the spiritual presence of Jesus with us.  There’s a sense of we’re getting used to the fact that now, the physical presence of Jesus is no longer going to be accessible to us.”

The Mormon Easter Story

Could yet another possibility exist that explains Jesus sporadic appearances.  Is it possible that he did not limit his visits to ancient Israel?  This is the intriguing scenario described in the Book of Mormon.  The book which emerged in 19th century America is revered by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints as God’s Holy Word.”

Kathleen Flake, Assistant Professor of American Religious History, Vanderbilt University, “The Book of Mormon is an account of a civilization that lived in the Americas between about 600 years before Jesus was born, until about 400 years after he died.  The centerpiece of this story, is Jesus’ appearance to them, after he died, and was resurrected.  He comes to the Americas with business in mind.  Jesus will say to these people in the Americas, now I said to the Jews in Palestine ‘other sheep I have which are not of this fold, and they misunderstood me.  They thought I meant the gentiles, but no.  I meant you.  I meant you’re the other sheep; I must come visit you, I must manifest myself unto you so that you can bear witness to the world about the nature of God, and how to receive a forgiveness of sin, or more to the point, how you can overcome the circumstances of the world and be made one with God.'”

According to the Book of Mormon, the risen Jesus remains with America’s ancient tribes for 3 or 4 days.  He then vanishes and then makes sporadic appearances for an unspecified period of time.

Jesus appearance to 500

One episode in the New Testament’s eastern narrative cries out as perhaps its greatest paradox.  Why would Jesus’ appearance before the greatest number of people, be described in the fewest number of words?

Johnson, “In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul gives a recitation of those who had experiences and appearance of Jesus.  He includes a puzzling reference to 500 at one time, some of whom are still around and are able to bear testimony to this fact.  The most puzzling thing about this is that there is no story about it in the gospels as such.  We would think that if there were such an event, it certainly would be included among the resurrections stories of Jesus, or the appearances.”

Smith-Christopher, “Now for Paul, he just sort of mentions this in passing.  Now of course, when we moderns read that, we want to say, “Stop!  Wait!  Back up!  What do you mean 500 people?  Who were they?  What were they?  Where were they?  When did this happen?’  And we’re terribly frustrated about the fact that Paul just sort of mentions it in passing.  Clearly, his concerns were elsewhere.  He was already arriving at the issue of ‘what does all this mean’?  Not, ‘did it actually happen?'”

I could write more, but what do you think of some of these things?  Are Mormon scriptures beginning to get some mainstream acceptance?  Were Jesus bones never found because there was nothing left?  Why don’t we know more about this appearance to 500?


2 comments on “Academic and Mormon Views of Easter

  1. Jesus does not open an office

    I like that, as well as the fact that people are writing about Stop! Wait! Back up! What do you mean 500 people? Who were they? What were they? Where were they? When did this happen?’ And we’re terribly frustrated about the fact that Paul just sort of mentions it in passing. Clearly, his concerns were elsewhere.

  2. Thanks for stopping by Stephen! Yes, I found some of these theologians insights into the scriptures as truly refreshing. Until I saw this video, I was not aware of Jesus appearance to 500.

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