Friday, July 12, 2013

A Touch of Mary

After Jesus died, and those watching regretted killing Him, Joseph of Arimathea buried Jesus' body in a vacant tomb on the evening of the Passover. Before sunrise on the second calendar day since Jesus' death, one, two, three, or possibly several women went to Jesus' tomb, but found that Jesus' body was not there. However, there may have been one or two angels there, who either instructed the women to tell the Disciples to meet Jesus in Galilee, or simply reminded them of Jesus' words regarding His resurrection.

The lack of clarity in the above summary is due to the disparity in the stories.

A Touch of Mary
Throughout the Gospels, there are incidents recorded where the Disciples were not eyewitnesses. They had to rely on third party testimonies from time to time, witnesses from beyond the inner circle of the Twelve Disciples. Were the Gospel writers able to capture those testimonies with high fidelity? Were these anecdotes actual testimonies, or were they rather convenient constructs used to make a point?

Matthew 28:8-15
Mark 16:9-11
John 20:10-18
Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were on their way to tell the Disciples of the empty tomb. (Jesus appeared "first" to Mary Magdalene, but there are no details of where this happened.) (There is no encounter between Mary Magdalene and the resurrected Jesus.) Mary Magdalene was alone at Jesus' empty tomb after the Peter and the other Disciple had checked it out and left.
(No angels mentioned.) (No angels mentioned.)

She saw two angels in the tomb who asked why she was crying.
Suddenly Jesus appeared to them. (No details of the appearance.)

Jesus appeared behind Mary outside the tomb.
They reacted by grabbing His feet and worshiping Him. (No details of Mary's reaction.)

Mary first mistook Jesus for a gardener, and asked if He had taken the body.
Jesus told them to tell His "brothers" (the Disciples) to meet Him in Galilee. (No details of what Jesus said.)

Jesus told her not to touch Him because He had not yet gone to God, but would soon.
Meanwhile, the Chief Priests bribed the tomb-guarding soldiers to claim that the Disciples had stolen Jesus' body. The Disciples did not believe Mary when she told them that Jesus was alive.

Mary told the Disciples that she had seen Jesus, and told them what He had said to her.

Let us quickly discuss Mark and Luke. As mentioned in the previous post, the original version of Mark's Gospel actually ended with Mark 16:8. The verses of Mark 16:9-20 were later appended to the Gospel, and they appear to be an abbreviated and concise summary of post-resurrection events covered in the other Gospels. Yet that "summary" is not without its own contradictions to the other Gospels.

Luke did use Mark as a primary source for creating his Gospel, and, given that the original Mark skipped this meeting between Jesus and Mary, Luke's omission of it suggests that he may have been using one of the earlier versions of Mark as a resource. However, we will see some evidence suggesting a late-Mark-version in the next study, so there may have been some other reason why Luke elected to drop Mary.

So now we come to Mary's account as recorded by Mathew and John, and they are as far apart as the east is from the west. Sure, there are some trivial differences; the number of women present, the location, the timing. However, there are two fundamental differences which contradict each other to the extent of rendering at least one version of the account fully fictitious.

The first deviant deviation is whether or not Mary touched Jesus when she saw Him. According to Matthew 28:9, she grabbed His feet. According to John 20:17, Jesus explicitly commanded her not to touch Him, as if He would become unclean by her touch.

That leads to the second deviation, because the reason Jesus explicitly gave Mary in John 20:17 for the forbidden touch was that He had not yet ascended to God. As you may remember from the previous study, according to John, the tomb was open by the time Mary had arrived to it, allowing Jesus plenty of time to walk out of it in non-glorified, bodily form. From that same study, Matthew's version tells us that Mary was there for the tomb opening, and the tomb was empty by the time it was opened, implying that Jesus, body and all, had gone up to God, as implied by the "He has risen!" statement made by the angel there. So by the time Mary grabbed Jesus' feet in Matthew 28:9, He had already stopped by and said hello to His Dad.

Can we reconcile these two accounts? Sure, at the cost of all logic: Matthew forgot about Peter checking out the empty tomb, and that Mary had hung around the tomb weeping, and eventually saw two more angels plus Jesus. John forgot that it the tomb was actually sealed when Mary arrived there, that there was an earthquake and an angel opened the door, that prior to the tomb opening Jesus had teleported out of the tomb, but to some terrestrial location as opposed to going to see His Father. So Jesus appeared to Mary at the tomb, told her not to touch Him, went up to see His Father, came back down and appeared to Mary again in His fully glorified status, allowing her to touch Him this time.

Did that make sense? Obviously not. That means that at least one of these story versions is utter rubbish, which is the last thing you want in a book of "Truth", especially when you need credibility the most to establish that Jesus had actually risen. The fidelity of the eyewitness account was not preserved, not even roughly. Furthermore, it opens the door to speculation that these were not eyewitness accounts, but were rather fictitious narratives serving a purpose.

That purpose? It is not clear, but perhaps the authors wanted a witness to the resurrected Jesus in proximity to the tomb, or in Jerusalem (Matthew's and Mark's other appearances happen outside of Jerusalem), or perhaps to add a little more credibility to a bodily-resurrected Jesus as opposed to just a ghost, or perhaps they just wanted to fill-in-the-gap between the tomb and Jesus' later appearances.

Finally, let us consider the very interesting way that Matthew wrapped up his exclusive guarded-tomb narrative. The guards were bribed to say that Jesus' disciples came and took His body while they were sleeping. In the words of Matthew 28:18, "this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day."

If the story that Jesus' disciples had taken the body was widely circulated, that indirectly supports an actual empty tomb. Why? Because, otherwise, if there was no empty tomb, there would not need to be any kind of explanation! So this appears to be a little gold nugget of truth which the faithful can bank on. Well, maybe...

Why maybe? Consider the source, or sources in this case. First, as mentioned before, the other three Gospels mention nothing about the guarded tomb or this conspiracy to hide the truth. Second, the other three have the tomb already open prior to Mary getting there, which, together with the lack of guards, obviously would allow for someone to have taken away Jesus' body.

It may be that Matthew, prior to writing his Gospel, started out orally with a similar story to the others, but in his particular region, there were one or two skeptics who put two and two together to counter with the idea that "Jesus' disciples must have stolen the body", and did so in front of an audience, which then helped to spread that idea throughout the region. This, in turn, made it appear to Matthew that there had been widespread circulation of this idea. So maybe Matthew reasoned that a slight tweak in the story could undermine this "widespread" objection, and thus he created the guarded tomb and the witnessed tomb opening.

Also, we should consider the nature of the claim of the empty tomb. There were only a finite number of eyewitnesses to where Jesus was buried; Joseph, Nicodemus, and "the women". So it would be very easy to claim to others that pretty much any empty tomb was the tomb where Jesus had been buried. Because of that fact, an empty tomb claim is pretty much meaningless. It is the post-resurrection appearances which much carry the bulk of the credibility. Unfortunately, as we have seen in this study and will see in the ones to come, that credibility crumbles with scrutiny.


  1. Hmmm, touch vs commanded not to touch. Interesting.
    And Jesus said it would make him "Unclean" -- hilarious -- good ole Judaism.
    John, his brother, tried to preserve Jesus' Jewish strictness, but Paul won.
    I must say, reading your post, it is very very hard to hold this whole story with all its variants in my head. You do a great job, but I get lost. I left here with the foot story. The rest sort of overwhelmed me. I do better with little bites.

    Perhaps people with a real passion for the bible (your audience) do a much better job.

    First, I must confess that I am ashamed of myself. I was suckered into reading this long post because it had a nicely laid out table. I am a table wimp. And all the fine research and work you do is incredibly inviting. There, now with the warm fuzzies out of the way:

    I have a suggestion (or three) to improve your rambling style. Break it into more sections with labels just as you did with "Background" and "A Touch of Mary". But make those titles explanatory (instead of cute) and in such a way that they draw me forward and keep me reminded of a smooth flow of idea or education so that I can look back and them and sort of remember the argument (yours get so long that I often forget any main point as there are many, many points with lots of links out. Try not to let a section go more than 3-4 paragraphs, I certainly should not be able to scroll without seeing a new paragraph head in the imageless desert of print.

  2. Hi Sabio! Thanks for the comment!

    Minor clarification: The text does not explicitly claim that Jesus said Mary's touch would make Him unclean. That is just a implication.

    Your comment precisely illustrates one of my main contentions: The Bible is too big to keep it all in your head at one time, which makes critical analysis of it too daunting for most people. You have read only a few pages worth of text here, and have experience some of that difficulty

    Sorry for suckering you in! ;-) Excellent suggestion on the headings! I have done this once or twice in the past, but apparently have forgotten all about that strategy now. :-) I will likely go back and put in some headings in these posts in the months to come, as these latest posts have a tendency of running much, much longer than my original 1.5 page target.

  3. Hmmm -- implied about "unclean" -- (maybe that should be footnoted before Raf asks you to take down the whole post!)