By Father Donald Bourgeois
Sun Episcopal Liaison
The Gospel accounts of the resurrection of Jesus vary in terms of the eyewitnesses as well as what they witnessed.
In Matthew’s account, two women — Mary Magdalene and the other Mary [the mother of James and Joseph] — come to the tomb. The tomb is sealed; the guards are on duty.
An earthquake occurs; an angel descends from heaven and rolls back the stone. Frightened, the guards become like dead men. The angel shows the women the empty tomb. The tomb was still sealed when the women arrived, but Jesus was not inside.
In Mark’s description of the resurrection, three women go to the tomb, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome. They find the stone already rolled back, but when they look inside they see an angel who speaks to them.
The women who had come from Galilee — Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Mary the mother of James — are the first on the scene in Luke’s Gospel. Coming with the spices they had purchased, they find an opened and empty tomb which puzzles them. On entering the tomb, they encounter two angels who speak to them. This trio and “others who accompanied them” went to tell the 11, but they were not believed, although Peter did go to inspect the tomb.
Jesus also appeared that day to two disciples on the road to Emmaus. These men, after recognizing Jesus in the breaking of the bread, returned to Jerusalem to tell “the 11 and those with them” the good news. While they were sharing their encounter, Jesus came and “stood in their midst.”
In John’s Gospel Mary of Magdala arrived at the opened and empty tomb. Peter and the Beloved Disciple came to investigate her story but returned home bewildered. Mary remained at the tomb weeping, and encountered the risen Lord, although at first she mistook him for the gardener. As in Luke’s account, Jesus came to the upper room “where the doors were locked … and stood in their midst.” The absent Thomas did not meet Jesus until a week later.
Unlike the Lazarus event in John’s Gospel, no eyewitnesses saw Jesus emerge from the tomb. Rather, the resurrection day (and later) appearances of Jesus are the focus of the Gospels. Also important are the facts that stone tombs (even one still sealed) and locked doors did not impede Jesus and that Jesus had corporeal existence, witnessed by the nail prints and his eating later with his disciples.
Although the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus were many, bewilderment and doubt were the initial responses.
The Oxford Guide to Ideas and Issues of the Bible may help in understanding those responses: “Like all cultures in the ancient Near East, the Israelites believed that persons continued to exist after death. … One’s spirit went down to a land below the earth, most often called Sheol.” (p. 7)
But Sheol could be a positive, negative or neutral experience where a person still had earthly-type needs.
The Guide also states that strong family bonds “enabled ancient Israelites to accept death calmly, for in death a person simply slept with one’s ancestors.” (p. 127) The author does warn, however, that such sleep was subject to disturbance.
Perhaps ancient Israelites — including the disciples — were as curious as modern Americans are about reported near-death experiences. Such events raise more questions than answers.
Catholic belief is clearly expounded in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “At the end of time, the Kingdom of God will come in its fullness. Then the just will reign with Christ for ever, glorified in body and soul, and the material universe itself will be transformed.” (#1060)
Early or modern Christians are not eyewitnesses to the resurrection event, but rather witnesses of encounters with the resurrected Jesus — encounters passed on in the scriptures.