Luke 24 recounts how after Jesus’ crucifixion and burial some women (who had been following Jesus from early on in his ministry) go to his tomb early in the morning. Why? They had prepared spices and perfumes, and, having rested on the Sabbath, they are now taking these spices to the tomb to honor their Lord by their contribution to his burial.
Famously, they do not find what they expected. Allegedly, they encounter two men “in clothe that gleamed like lightning,” who ask, “Why are you looking for the living among the dead? He is not here.”
Luke then reports the following about the women:
“When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven [apostles] and to all the others. It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles. But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense. Peter, however, got up and ran to the tomb. Bending over, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves, and he went away, wondering to himself what had happened.”
If the whole of idea of a man rising from the dead seems like complete nonsense to you, you’re in good company.
Jesus’ inner ring of followers–“the eleven” (that’s the twelve apostles minus Judas)–would have agreed with you. Not only that but Peter, regarded as the spokesman of this inner ring (a first among equals, so to speak), investigates the matter firsthand. But he departs “wondering to himself what had happened.”
Later Jesus–so Luke would have us believe–appears to his disciples (out of fear they are, it seems, hiding from the Jewish leaders who had just crucified Jesus). Their response? Luke writes, “They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost.” Luke’s Jesus asks, “Why do doubts arise in your minds?” He shows them his hands and feet, revealing the nail marks, and Luke says, “they still did not believe.”
All of this is more than a little embarrassing. The inner circle doesn’t get it. He has to remind them, “This is what I told you….” And, in fact, on their own, they never do get it. Somewhat cryptically, Luke says that Jesus had to “open their minds to understand the Scriptures” before anything seems to register.
This embarrassing snippet from the end of Luke’s gospel could be multiplied many times over throughout Scripture. Again and again, followers of Yahweh and followers of Jesus are, well, full of unbelief, slow, at times acting with far less nobility than their “pagan” counterparts. (E.g., go read Genesis 20, and tell me that Abimelek doesn’t far excel Abraham in his conduct. It’s painfully obvious he does. God says as much.)
While serving in the U.S. military (in research and development), I traveled a lot and worked with a number of well-educated civil service engineers and scientists. We would arrive somewhere, check in at the hotel and usually have time to head to a bar or restaurant in time for happy hour. I recall these times with great fondness. I was the only “religious person” in the outfit (the rest were either atheists or relatively studied agnostics), and happy hours became a time when my co-workers would raise (some very good) objections about religion or Xianity.
One afternoon one of them said, “I grew up going to a Catholic school and was forced to read the Bible. As I read through the Old Testament I came to realize: all of the good guys are pretty much jerks! And I was like ‘You’ve gotta be kidding me!’ And that’s when I walked away from the whole Christianity thing. Isn’t all that more than a little embarrassing?”
Uncommonly, I was able to respond with basic agreement: “I think you more or less got it right: pretty much without exception Israel’s God chose jerks, and Jesus ate and drank with ‘sinners’ and tax-collectors. It is embarrassing, but it’s precisely the embarrassment that, to me, makes the Scriptures more believable (who would make that up? whose political agenda does that advance?) and its message really good news–but only if you’re a jerk.”
A postscript: Among historians who seek to understand who Jesus of Nazareth was, one of challenges of reconstructing Jesus as an historical figure is discerning what the criteria are for discerning the (purportedly) factual from the (purportedly) legendary: how does one separate the historical wheat from the mythological chaff? Indeed, so controversial (and convoluted?) is this discernment process that it has a name: criteriology. (I am not lying–I speak the truth in Christ, as Paul would say). Traditionally, these criteria include things like “dissimiliarity” (i.e., Jesus must somehow be dissimilar from his context in order for him to stick out from everybody else), “multiple attestation” (i.e., more than one source–that is, multiple–historical sources tell us the same thing about Jesus), etc. One such criterion is actually called “the criterion of embarrassment.” The idea is that the more embarrassing an (allegedly) historical source may be (whether to Jesus himself or to his followers), the more likely it is to be truly historical. These criteria as a whole have (quite fairly) come under some significant criticism in the past 15-20 years, and yet the “criterion of embarrassment” makes a fair point: why would anyone preserve what is embarrassing or discrediting? A very good example of this is the simple fact that the gospels record that women were the first to be witnesses of the angels at the tomb and of the resurrected Jesus. But (quite misogynistically) in the ancient world a woman’s testimony did not remotely carry the same weight as a man’s: if one is going to make up testimony about a spotting of the resurrected Jesus, it would be a no-brainer to have men to do all the spotting (and the fact that the men themselves do not believe the women makes it even worse). While we do not know for sure how Mark’s Gospel actually ends, as it presently stands the concluding episode at the tomb of Jesus is embarrassing (and anti-climactic) to say the least: after the women see the resurrected Jesus, who explicitly commands them to go back to his disciples with news of his resurrection, as well as instructions for them, Mark concludes:
“Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.”
The End (?).
I just love that.