Historical Cultural Context
In 1984 the Boston College biblical scholar, Pheme Perkins, wrote. “The theological task of articulating the significance of resurrection for twentieth-century Christians still remains to be undertaken” (Resurrection, Doubleday, p. 30).
Despite her own and many fine publications since then, her judgment still stands.
The grossly inaccurate discussion of this topic by journalists in Time, Newsweek, and US News and World Report at Easter time in 1995 suggested that even as scholars increasingly make their research available to the public, the message still needs to be more clearly articulated.
Scholars are agreed that Jesus’ resurrection is not at all a miraculous return from the dead or something like a near death experience. The real differences in the reports and interpretations of the evangelists and other New Testament authors make it quite clear that there is no, single, unified picture of resurrection in the tradition.
From this perspective, it is very significant that the Gospel passage assigned for this great feast of Easter, John 20:1-9, is the story of the finding of the empty tomb! None of the resurrection appearances of Jesus was selected.
One purpose of the empty-tomb tradition is to remind believers that faith comes from hearing. John’s report that the Beloved Disciple “sees” (the empty tomb and folded wrappings) and “believes” (that Jesus has been raised rather than that his corpse has been stolen) seems to replace the angelic proclamation in other accounts that “the Lord is risen!”
Mary Magdalene represents the community grieving over Jesus’ death and needing consolation. Her report that “they” have stolen the body very likely refers to enemies of Jesus but could also reflect the community’s concern about the charge that some Messianists stole the body to support their tale that Jesus was raised from the dead.
The early Peter tradition is of no help because, according to that report, he came to the tomb, found it empty, and returned to his friends without any understanding of what had happened (Luke 24:12). In John’s report Peter enters the empty tomb first, and then the Beloved Disciple’s reaction interprets what they both saw.
In this Gospel passage, faith in the resurrection of Jesus developed from the discovery of an empty tomb and not from an appearance of Jesus. It developed from what the first believers reported and how they interpreted what they experienced.
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch was a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible
**From Saint Louis University