Are they true? (The Gospel Accounts of the Resurrection)

The following is an extract (p 62ff) from the book "Where did Jesus Go? - The truth and meaning of the Resurrection" by DRJH.

John's Gospel

The Gospels are four different accounts of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. They are quite unique in the history of literature; they are not biographies in the modern sense. A disproportionate amount of them is given over to the last week of Jesus' life. John says of what he has written in his Gospel, especially the 'signs' - and the greatest sign is the Resurrection - that he has been selective. He has only written a fraction of what he could (John 21.25). He says:

"These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name" (John 20.31).

John clearly had a theological purpose. But he is not for the moment suggesting he is fabricating 'signs'. He says he makes his theological points by selection from actual incidents and events - that is what he thought he was doing; there is not the slightest hint he was making his theological points by the creation of imagined incidents and events. But can we trust John?

John's Gospel has been 'rehabilitated' in the second half of the twentieth century after a significant period of destructive and sceptical dismissal by academics. For many years it was said that John's Gospel was written late. It was said that the writer, whoever he was (and according to this view he certainly had nothing to do with the Apostle John of the twelve), just took Matthew, Mark and Luke and rewrote them. He rewrote the facts even. This was the reason, it was said, why John seems so different from the other three synoptic gospels (synoptic means literally 'seeing together'). But the argument went on like this: if John could freely rewrite the other existing Gospels, why shouldn't those other three have done just the same with their sources? Why not, indeed?

Then C.H.Dodd, a Cambridge New Testament scholar, gave the Sarum Lectures for 1954-55. These were published as Historical Tradition in the Fourth Gospel. He proved overwhelmingly that John was not dependent on the other Gospels for his sources. He did not rewrite them therefore. He couldn't have done. Rather, Dodd showed, in John's Gospel we have an independent tradition of material from Southern Palestine. We can't dismiss what John says about the Resurrection.

So when C.H.Dodd came to look at the narratives in John about the Resurrection and in particular Peter and John's visit to the tomb, he saw evidence of eyewitness rather than fabrication. He saw this in the account of the two Apostles' visit to the tomb. When they got there, they

"saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus' head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen" (John 20.6-7).

The body of Jesus had been wrapped in long strips of cloth and spices had been put in between. The 'burial cloth' was a separate piece of linen wrapped over the head and under the chin to keep the jaw in place. What John's Gospel says is that when John saw the 'strips of linen' he believed. He believed, that is to say, not when he saw the empty tomb, but when he saw the 'burial cloth' still separate from the rest of the strips of linen wrappings that had been round the trunk and legs; it seemed as though the body had passed through the linen cloths. This was no resuscitation. It was a resurrection! The body had not revived, it had disappeared. "The story," says Dodd, "is told with dramatic realism of which this writer is master. It looks something as near first-hand evidence as we could hope to get. Perhaps it is, and if so, it becomes the sheet anchor of belief in a 'bodily resurrection'."

Again it was Dorothy Sayers who was quite convinced of the 'eyewitness' nature of John's Gospel. Looking at the Gospel as a novelist herself and so from the viewpoint of someone used to 'creating' or 'fabricating' stories, she says this: "It must be remembered that, of the four Evangelists, St John's is the only one that claims to be the direct report of an eyewitness. And to anyone accustomed to the imaginative handling of documents, the internal evidence bears out the claim."

Luke's Gospel

But John is not the only Gospel writer who tells us what he is aiming to do as he selects his material. Luke also tells us of his aims:

"Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account" (Luke 1.1-3).

Despite attempts to discredit Luke over the years, it is quite remarkable how he has withstood the test. Indeed what is noticeable is how modern experts who approach the New Testament from the view point of secular ancient history find Luke convincing. Those used to evaluating ancient documents and sources from the classical world of Greece and Rome say Luke is a good historian. A.N.Sherwin-White, a Roman Historian, was amazed at the scepticism of some New Testament critics. Having examined the New Testament, especially Luke and Acts, from the view point of Roman law and culture, he found it remarkably reliable.

One of the reasons why Luke has been 'attacked' is because he has an interest in the miraculous. This is undeniable. But G.B.Caird, an Oxford New Testament scholar, has written this:

"Sober criticism cannot get behind the gospel record to a plain, commonplace tale, devoid of the miraculous and the supernatural. The early Christians believed that, in Christ, God had been at work in new and astonishing ways and they had the evidence of their own eyes to support their faith. Luke cannot justly be accused of exaggerating the miraculous element in his narrative. He omits Mark's most difficult miracle, the story of the barren fig tree. It is true that he also goes one step beyond Mark in recording a cure performed at a distance by the word of command; but this story, the healing of the centurion's servant, was taken from Q [a hypothetical collection of sayings of Jesus], his most trustworthy source. He has sometimes been taken to task for emphasising the physical nature of the Resurrection since it is in his Gospel alone that the risen Jesus eats and drinks with his disciples. But here too he is simply reproducing with fidelity the sources on which he is relying. For in Acts 10.37-43 he puts into the mouth of Peter an almost credal utterance which is clearly derived from an Aramaic source and which represents the same picture of the Resurrection as we find in the Gospel."

How accurate is accurate?

But how accurate are the four Gospels? For example, did Jesus ever actually say, "I am the Resurrection and the life" as is reported in John's Gospel? R.P.C.Hanson, a bishop, who also was a professor of Theology, once suggested it was an incredible thing to believe that Jesus actually said such words. But is there not confusion here?

Of course, few would believe that Jesus actually uttered the syllables "I am the Resurrection and the life". Most know that Jesus spoke neither in English nor always in the Greek of John's Gospel but often in Aramaic. But what many, including experts, would want to say is that Jesus said something somewhere in Palestine which through the agency of tradition and translation has come down to us in English as "I am the Resurrection and the life." And we will not be misled if we take this as the gist of what he taught.

We need to understand the nature of New Testament reporting. It followed its own conventions. The Gospel writers saw no problem in 'paraphrasing' or giving the 'gist' of someone's speech and then putting it as direct speech (they would have put this between inverted commas if they'd been invented as we now do; but there were none in the original). R.T.France, formerly Principal of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, comments: "The use of inverted commas in [our] translations of the Gospels may lead us to expect, on the basis of our own conventions in reporting speech, a degree of verbatim accuracy which the writer did not intend. So many of the sayings which the Gospels introduce with 'Jesus said' may in fact be paraphrases. But that does not mean they are inventions." Someone once said the Evangelists are intending "to report accurately the substance of Jesus' teaching in meaningful terms to their readers, not to record his precise words in every instance." It is, however, accurate enough. And Jesus himself, of course, promised that the Holy Spirit would enable his disciples to remember what he had taught (John 14.26). So that is why today at the end of the twentieth century we can, and must, trust these apostolic reports from the Gospel writers.

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