Richer for the Variety

Wednesday, April 11, 2012Wednesday in Easter Week

Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p. 959)

Psalms 97, 99 (morning) // 115 (evening)

Exodus 12:40-51

1 Corinthians 15:(29)30-41

Matthew 28:1-16

[Go to for an online version of the Daily Office including today’s scripture readings.]

Today we move to Matthew’s version of the resurrection. Matthew had access to Mark’s gospel and used some parts of it word for word. Comparing the resurrection appearances helps us see a common form of development in the story of Jesus. Matthew adds some dramatic elements — a great earthquake, and angel who rolls away the stone, fearful guards. In Mark, the women at the tomb meet a “young man dressed in a white robe.” In Matthew, it is an angel with an “appearance like lightning and clothes white as snow.” The women get the same instruction — to tell the disciples Jesus has risen and will meet them in Galilee.” Unlike Mark’s account, where the women are afraid and tell no one, the women of Matthew’s story run with fear and joy to tell the disciples. Mark’s account ends with these words: “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” But in Matthew’s version, Jesus appears to the women, they take hold of his feet and worship him, and he speaks to them.

In Biblical narratives as well as in our everyday life, stories tend to accumulate details and more drama as they are repeated over time. Sometimes repetition will invite exaggeration or creative elaboration. An earthquake adds drama. A young man becomes an angel. The women’s fear and silence becomes a joyful reunion with the Risen Lord.

As the early church developed its teaching and story, the church looked to the past to interpret their present. Early on the church saw in Isaiah’s suffering servant a tradition that helped them to interpret the death of Jesus, after all, it was a more common expectation that the Messiah/Christ would be a triumphant leader who would expel Israel’s enemies and establish the nation as the greatest of nations. In finding interpretations to help them understand the meaning of Jesus’ death and their experience of his resurrection, the early preachers incorporated some elements of the Hebrew Biblical narrative and prophecy into their story of Jesus. Some elements of detail and elaboration came into the story because they showed how Jesus was the fulfillment of scripture. So Matthew adds to Mark’s simpler account a detail about the soldiers dividing Jesus’ clothes among themselves and casting lots, drawing upon the words of Psalm 22: “they divide my garments among them; they cast lots for my clothing.”

One of those places of debate and conversation among scholars is the question of how many of these details that we have in our gospels are “history remembered” or “prophecy historicized.” Such studies make for great sport among scholars. I’m satisfied to read with devotion the various accounts that we have been given, to honor them as the faithful preaching of our evangelist ancestors, to draw meaning from it all, and not to get too exercised over the unknowable question of “what really happened” in detail. After all, does it really matter whether or not little George Washington really did cut down the cherry tree? What matters is that he was an honest man. The story tells us that truth, whether it is history remembered or a metaphorical fiction.

Matthew and Mark are addressing two different audiences and in many ways are doing two different things. We can be thankful that our ancestors preserved both accounts for our benefit and didn’t try to edit or exclude because of inconsistencies in their stories. We are richer for the inconsistencies.

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