In 1998, a debate on the resurrection was held in Chicago between William Lane Craig and John Dominic Crossan, moderated by William F. Buckley. It was published some time later by Baker Books Press and the resulting volume contained some appendixes, responses to the debate from a few distinguished scholars in the field. The following is one of those appendixes (chapter 7, titled What Do Stories About Resurrection(s) Prove?). It is in my opinion a very well constructed and thought out response from Robert J. Miller. While the debate itself was interesting enough, this essay is the real gem in the book, getting right down to the heart of the function of apologetics in general.
The debate between William Lane Craig and John Dominic Crossan is about the historical accuracy of the resurrection stories in the Gospels. Craig maintains that these stories are evidence that the resurrection is literally true (that is, that Jesus' corpse came back to life and left the tomb). Crossan believes in Jesus' resurrection, but believes that the Gospel stories do not provide evidence that the resurrection is historically true in the literal sense.
I agree with Crossan. However, instead of responding directly to Craig's argument, I will step back from it and analyze its format, message, and audience. I take this approach because Craig's message about the resurrection and the way he communicates it to his audience are similar in some very important ways to the message of the Gospels and the way they convey it to their audience. Understanding Craig's method and message can thus clarify our understanding of the meaning of the resurrection stories in the Gospels.
In the first part of my essay I analyze Craig's attempt to persuade us that Jesus' resurrection is a historical fact. I pay special attention to how and for whom this kind of persuasion works. Then I will use these insights to analyze the resurrection stories in the Gospel of Matthew. My aim is to discern what Matthew thought he was doing in telling these stories in just the way he did and how his audience understood them.
Apologetics and Outsiders
Craig's central thesis is that the bodily resurrection of Jesus is a fact that can be demonstrated by historical evidence and sound reasoning. According to Craig, we don't really need faith to affirm the resurrection; we need only think clearly and objectively about the evidence and draw unbiased conclusions. Craig's argument is an apology for Jesus' resurrection. The term apology here has nothing to do with saying that one is sorry. In the sense the term has here, an apology is a rational defense for a certain belief. In general, an apology for the resurrection is an argument that it is reasonable to believe that Jesus was raised from the dead, though Craig's apology goes beyond this. He not only argues that belief in the resurrection is a rational option, he argues that it is the only reasonable option, and thus it would be irrational not to believe in it.
Craig presents his apology in a debate with Crossan, which is confusing since Crossan also believes in the resurrection. Two people cannot debate an issue on which they agree. Craig's argument appears to be designed for a debate with someone other than Crossan, someone who does not believe in the resurrection. 1 That is how apologies in general seem to work: they seem to be addressed to outsiders (those who do not share the belief being defended). They look like attempts to persuade others to change their minds and adopt new beliefs. But is this understanding accurate? Are apologies really meant for outsiders? This is an extremely important question. The way we anwer it determines how we approach the whole issue of the historical accuracy of the Gospel stories.
For whom are apologies really intended? In this case, the Craig-Crossan debate took place at Moody Memorial Church in Chicago. What percentage of that audience was non-Christian? How many of the listeners were outsiders in the sense that they did not share the belief that Craig defended? And what percentage of the readers of this book published by Baker Book House will be non-Christian? The answer to all these questions is the same: very, very few, if any at all.
In the few cases when outsiders do read or listen to apologies, they seldom take them seriously (i.e., in the spirit in which they present themselves). Outsiders approach apologies with caution, for the simple reason that apologies ask them to change their beliefs. Most outsiders assume that apologies are greatly biased, that they tell only one side of the story. Outsiders read apologies more often out of curiosity or out of a desire to figure out how to refute them than out of a willingness to give up their own beliefs. 2 (You can check this by asking whether in reading literature from the Hare Krishna movement you would seriously open your heart and mind to the possibility that Krishna is the Supreme Lord of the Universe.)
An Apology for Islam
We can get a feel for how outsiders regard apologetics by briefly considering an apology for a religion other than Christianity. Islam is an interesting case for Christians to consider because both Christians and Muslims believe that their religions originated through the direct intervention of God, through a divine miracle that is unparalleled and unsurpassable. Both believe that God had intervened at various times in the past to reveal his will for humanity, but that those revelations were provisional and incomplete. Both Christians and Muslims believe that God finally intervened with a perfect revelation that gives us everything we need to know to do his will and find salvation. For Christians, this miracle of perfect revelation is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. For Muslims, this miracle is the Qur'an revealed through the prophet Muhammad.
Muslim apologists maintain that unbiased consideration of the evidence confirms the belief that Islam was established by God through the miracle of the Qur'an. Although this miracle was not in itself public (there was nothing to see), reason can nonetheless confirm it by assesing its effects. That is, the divine origin of the Qur'an is the only rational explanation for a number of otherwise inexplicable realities.
First, the Qur'an is completely inerrant. It contains no contradictions and no errors of any kind, not even scientific ones. In fact, some of its descriptions of natural phenomena are consistent with scientific discoveries made centuries after Muhammad.
Second, the Qur'an is unsurpassed in the beauty of its poetry and the grandeur of its language (which can be fully appreciated only in Arabic). The Qur'an even challenges those who do not believe in its divine origin to create a chapter, or even one verse, that compares with it. The Qur'an is a literary masterpiece, yet Muhammad was uneducated and illiterate.
Third, the Qur'an has great spiritual power. It had a profound effect on those who first heard it, moving them deeply and leading many to immediately convert to Islam.
Fourth, the Qur'an's sublime monotheism and its elevated moral teaching were far ahead of the time and place of its earthly origin. Seveth-century Arabia was a place of deeply rooted polytheism and of rampant violence, widespread vice, and harsh social oppresion. The Qur'an's uncompromising monotheism and its demand for social justice and strict personal morality were utterly foreign to its environment.
Finally, Muhammed never wavered in his claim that the Qur'an was from God and not from him. This claim reflects his sincere belief, for Muhammad was neither a liar nor a megalomaniac nor delusional. He was famous for his honesty; even his enemies admired his integrity. far from being a megalomaniac, his lifestyle was modest and unassuming, and he drew a strict distinction between the times he was relaying revelation and the times he was expressing his own thoughts. Neither was Muhammad delusional. His enormous successes as a social reformer and as a political and military leader amply demonstrate his keen grasp of reality.
Further evidence for the divine origin of Islam is the speed at which it grew in a time and place that were hostile to it. Nothing in the culture of seventh-century Arabia favored Islam's monotheism or its elevated and demanding morality. In fact, there were powerful religious, economic, social, and political forces arrayed against it. Muhammad's first followers in Mecca were cruelly persecuted, and his fledgling community in Medina was attacked by vastly superior military forces. Islam not only survived, but spread so rapidly that by the time of Muhammad's death just two years after his return to Mecca, virtually all of Arabia had embraced Islam.
Please bear in mind that all this is merely the rough sketch of an apology for Islam. A muslim scholar of Islam (which I am not) could present these ideas and others with much more force and eloquence. Yet even if this apology were laid out with far greater skill than I can manage, how convincing do you think it would be to Christians? How many Christians would it convince that Islam is the religion God intends for all humanity? How seriously does it make you question your beliefs?
Muslim apologists maintain that the Qur'an would not be so inerrant, profound, beautiful, and compelling if God were not its author, and that Islam would not have been accepted by so many so quickly unless it were divinely guided. Muslims find this line of argument utterly convincing. Non-Muslims, however, will not be persuaded, even if they do not know how to explain the admirable qualities of the Qur'an or the impressive growth of early Islam. They will assume that even if they themselves do not know how to refute the apology, there are experts who do. Similarly, many readers of this book are confident that even if they personally cannot answer Crossan's arguments, surely someone like Craig can.
Outsiders seldom read apologies and seldom take them seriously when they do. As for the few non-Christians who do read an apology like Craig's and do give it serious consideration, how many are actually persuaded by it? Again the answer is very, very few, if any at all.3
Looking at the Resurrection from the Outside
Having considered how an apology for some other religion looks to us (for the sake of the argument I am assuming that my readers are Christian), we can round out the process with a "thought experiment." Imagine that you are not a Christian, but that you've come across Craig's apology for the literal historicity of Jesus' resurrection. For whetever reason, you take it seriously and decide to make a careful study of the relevant Gospel stories. As you read the stories about the empty tomb and the appearances, you notice again and again how different they are from Gospel to Gospel. So you construct charts that lay out the similarities and differences.
Empty Tomb Stories
|Time||sunrise||before dawn||daybreak||still dark|
|Persons involved||Mary Magdalene,|
Mary James' mother,
the other Mary
Mary James' mother,
Joanna, other women
|Position of stone||stone already moved away||stone rolled away by an angel during an earthquake||stone already rolled away||stone already rolled away|
|Figures at the tomb||a young man sitting inside the tomb||an angel sitting on the stone outside the tomb||no one at first, then two men||two angels sitting inside the tomb|
|Message||"Tell the disciples to go to Galilee"||"Tell the disciples to go to Galilee"||"Remember that Jesus told you all this would happen"|
|Reaction||fear||fear and great joy||Mary mistakes Jesus for the gardener, but recognizes him when he says her name|
|Response||the women tell no one||the women tell other disciples||the women tell the apostles (Peter comes to the tomb and sees the linen wrappings)||Mary tells the other disciples|
Easter Appearance Stories
|Persons involved||the women who came to the tomb||two disciples||Simon||the Eleven and others||disciples|
|Place||between the tomb and hideout||on the road to Emmaus||?||a room in Jerusalem||a room in Jerusalem|
|?||fear; they mistake Jesus for a ghost; "they believe for joy"||gladness|
|Confirmation||?||Jesus invites them to touch him; he eats fish||Jesus shows them his hands and side|
|Message||"Tell the disciples to go to Galilee"||(Jesus interprets scripture)||?||(Jesus interprets scripture and commissions them to preach repentance and forgiveness in his name)||(conferral of the Holy Spirit and authority to forgive and retain sins)|
|Conclusion||they recognize him as he breaks bread; he vanishes; they return to Jerusalem||?||Jesus leads them to Bethany and ascends into heaven (end of Gospel)|
Post-Easter Appearance Stories
|Matt. 28:16-20||John 20:26-29||John 21||Acts 1:1-11|
|Time||?||one week later||some time later||over a forty day period|
|Persons involved||the Eleven||disciples|
|seven disciples||the apostles|
|Place||a mountain in Galilee||a room in Jerusalem||the Sea of Tiberias||Jerusalem|
|Reaction||some worship him; some don't||recognition|
|Confirmation||Jesus invites Thomas to touch him|
|Message||the Great Commission||blessing on those who believe without seeing||"feed my lambs (to Peter)"; discussion of the fate of the beloved disciple|
|Conclusion||(end of Gospel)||(end of Gospel)||Jesus ascends into heaven|
It is natural for outsiders to focus on differences and the historical problems they create. But what about insiders? Do they grow skeptical when they reflect on all the differences among the resurrection stories? A few might begin to have some doubts, but the vast majority of insiders are not bothered by the disparities. Insiders seldom notice them; if they do, they do not regard them as real inconsistencies. In fact, some apologists even flip these differences over to increase insiders' confidence in the historical reliability of the stories. They do this by arguing that, even with all the disparities, the versions all still agree that some followers of Jesus found his tomb empty.
The point I want to make is that while insiders and outsiders may read the same stories, they will use very different standards in evaluating their historical reliability. Imagine that another religion had a story of how God had worked mighty miracles that demonstrated the truth of that religion. Imagine also that there were several versions of this story and that these versions had numerous discrepancies, inconsistencies, and contradictions. Wouldn't you, a Christian and thus an outsider to this religion, point to those disparities as evidence for the unreliability of the stories? People are naturally more charitably inclined to their own stories than they are to those of outsiders.
To consider a specific example, how many non-Mormons take seriously the story about Joseph Smith discovering the golden tablets that contained the Book of Mormon and deciphering them with spectacles made of stone? Non-Mormons find this story unbelievable if not mildly amusing. But most Mormons find it easy to believe, and those few with doubts can overcome them by strengthening their faith through prayer. Why should non-Mormons find the story hard to believe? After all, it is no more implausible than dozens of stories in the Bible (for example, Jonah and the whale) that many Christians believe with no difficulty at all. The difference has very little to do with the stories themselves and a great deal to do with whether one approaches them as an insider or an outsider. To put it a bit crudely perhaps, stories about our miracles are easy to believe because they're true; stories about their miracles are easy to dismiss because they are far-fetched and fictitious.
Why Doesn't Apologetics Succeed
Why is it that very few, if any, outsiders will be persuaded by Craig's apology? From the way he presents it, we get the impression the he thinks that nobody who is informed, rational, and sincere could disagree with it. So why doesn't it work? There are really only two alternatives: the apology fails to convince either because it is unpersuasive, or because outsiders miss the truth, usually by reasoning incorrectly and drawing the wrong conclusion, or by seeing the truth but not accepting it. In other words, there is a defect either in the apology or in the "apologee," and, since few apologists present an argument they believe is defective, they are more or less forced to blame the apologee for failing to see, or to admit, the truth. 4
The problem with blaming the apologee is that not only is that self-serving, it is also gratuitous. What evidence is there that the apologee is not smart enough to follow the apologist's reasoning, or not sincere enough to want to know the truth, or not honest enough to admit it? The only answer the apologist gives is that if the apologee were really rational and well intentioned, he would agree with the apologist. Needless to say, most people are not impressed by this line of reasoning.
I used to think this way myself when I was a fervent believer in the power of apologetics. I was a philosophy major at a Catholic college. I was utterly convinced not only that Christianity was the one true religion that God intended for all humanity, but also that the Catholic Church was the one true church that Christ intended for all Christians. From my study of Thomas Aquinas and modern Christian apologists, I clearly saw that the central truths of Christianity (and of catholicism) could be grasped by reason if only one was sincerely seeking God's truth, was humble enough to accept it, and took the time to inform oneself and follow the arguments.
All of this made perfect sense to me, and none of my teachers or fellow students (all of whom were catholics) gave me any reason to question it. I tried out various apologetic arguments on my like-minded friends, who found them quite convincing. Occasionally they suggested improvements in my arguments, but none of us doubted the effectiveness of apologetics. The only real puzzle in my mind was this: since the truths of Christianity and Catholicism are so evident, why are they not more universally recognized? I concluded that those outside my religion or my church just did not know or did not understand these apologetic arguments, or that they were not completely sincere about seeking the truth. It amazes me now that I believed this without any feelings of superiority or smugness. I was sincerely grateful to God for the blessing of having been raised in the Christian religion and the one true church, and I prayed for the wisdom and the courage to be able to help others to see the truth as clearly as I did.
This mind-set held together until I went to graduate school at secular universities and got to know people who had different religions. For the first time in my life, I got to know people who took other religions as seriously as I took mine. I knew these people were well educated and highly rational, and I could tell from our conversations that they were sincere. A few were people of great goodness and spiritual depth. Yet none of them was persuaded by my apologetics. It took several years, but gradually I accepted the fact that informed, intelligent, sincere, and spiritual people are almost never persuaded by apologetics to change their core beliefs. Looking back, I can now see that a big reason for this is that most apologists use assumptions that only insiders take for granted. It is usually only from an outsider's perspective that one can see how problematic these assumptions really are.
In summary, apologies almost never reach outsiders. When they do, they are almost never taken seriously; when they are, they are almost never persuasive. So if the purpose of apologetics is to convince outsiders to adopt new beliefs, then apologetics are almost always abject failures. They fail, not because their authors are inept (like Craig, many of them are intelligent and capable writers), but because it is practically impossible to argue people into giving up their religious beliefs and adopting new ones.
However, there is another, more promising way to evaluate the apologetic genre. We can determine its audience, not by whom it seems to be aimed at, but by who actually reads it. And we can determine its purpose, not by what the author seems to intend, but by how it actually functions. If we proceed like this, we reach two important findings: (1) the audience for an apology is insiders; (2) its function is to support what the audience already believes.
This is nothing new to apologists, who know full well that their audiences are insiders. (Why else would Craig speak at Moody Memorial Church or write for Baker Book House?) So why do apologists write as though they were addressing outsiders? They do that, not because they are mistaken about their audience, but because that is the convention of the apologetic genre. An apt comparison is the genre of the open letter. An open letter may begin, "To the President of the United States," but both author and readers understand that the real audience is the general public. Readers don't think they are reading the president's mail. Everyone knows the difference between an open letter and a personal letter that is leaked to the press. The general public knows the letter is intended for them, even though it is addressed to the president. Every genre has its own conventions. Authors of fables write about talking animals because that is how fables go, not because anyone thinks that animals really talk.
Aquaintance with the conventions of apologetics makes a difference because it helps us understand what Craig's writing is really about. Since it is meant for insiders, even though it seems to be addressed to outsiders, we have to distinguish its message (that is, its message to its real audience) from its content. It's content is an argument aimed at convincing outsiders that they should believe in the resurrection literally because that is the rational thing to do; indeed, to do otherwise would be irrational. But the message to the real audience is that their belief in Jesus is far more than wishful thinking; it is founded on solid evidence and can be defended by someone with impressive academic credentials against an eloquent detractor. (There is, then, a mismatch in the Crossan-Craig debate. Crossan does not deny the resurrection, though he does deny that the Gospel stories about it are literally true - a position Craig ridicules as "Peter Pan theology.")
The Audience of the Gospels
It should now be clear that in order to understand what a text is really about, we need to take into account who its audience is and how it functions for that audience. Only after we figure out these elements can we make an informed judgment about what the message of the text is. Let's look, as an example, at the resurrection stories in the Gospels.5 Who is the audience for these stories? What did their authors think they were doing in writing what they did? And how did these stories function for their audience?
Craig treats the Gospel stories as literal accounts of what really happened. For him these are stories about how faith in the resurrection got started: the earliest Christians believed that Jesus was raised because some of them had actually seen him in his physical body after his death. Craig argues that if people today properly understand these stories, they will conclude that Jesus was physically raised from the dead, and from this they will conclude that Jesus is God. Craig folds these Gospel stories into his own argument, which seems aimed at outsiders but is actually for believers. Craig's argument thus appears to be intended to induce faith, but it actually functions to confirm the faith of those who already believe.
We need to ask: Who is the audience of the Gospels? For whom did the Evangelists write? The answer is clear: the Gospels were written for Christians. They presuppose that their audiences already believe in Jesus. Although a few outsiders may read the Gospels, it is most unlikely that any of them will come to believe in Jesus by reading that text. That is especially so in the case of the resurrection stories. How likely is it that a Jew or a pagan would read one of these stories and then conclude that Jesus had been physically raised from the dead and that therefore he is God? No, the resurrection stories presume a friendly audience, people who already believe that Jesus has risen. The stories presuppose and build on that belief in order to teach about the meaning of Jesus' resurrection and its implications for the Christian life.
The Resurrection of the Righteous Jews
To get specific about what the Evangelists are trying to communicate in the resurrection stories, we need to focus on one specific Gospel as an example. Any one will do, but Matthew is especially appropriate because some features unique to this Gospel give us strong clues as to its author's intentions.
A fascinating peculiarity of Matthew is that he tells of other resurrections in addition to Jesus'. According to Matthew, many righteous Jews were raised from the dead along with Jesus. At the very moment that Jesus died,
the earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many (Matt.27:51-53 NSRV)
What should we make of this strange story? Did it really happen? And what does it mean?
We need to take a close look at this brief account because it can tell us a great deal about what Matthew thought he was writing and what his audience thought they were reading. The first question we have to tackle is whether the story is historical.
To put it bluntly, there is no good reason to think that this event really happened. For it is mentioned nowhere else - not in another Gospel, not in any other Christian writing, not in the writings of Josephus (a well-informed and meticulous Jewish historian of the time). In most cases it is invalid to conclude that an event did not happen because it is mentioned in only one source -- after all, lots of things occur that are not recorded even once. But this story is a very special exception because it narrates what by any measure has to be the most amazing event of all time: large numbers of dead people coming to life and appearing to large numbers of witnesses. It is inconceivable that an event so sensational and of such magnitude would not be noticed by the historians of the day. It's especially inconceivable that no other Christian source would mention it.6 The people who had left their tombs on Easter would have been hugely famous among Christians. A few lucky disciples could claim to have seen the risen Jesus, but these people were even more privileged: they had been raised from the dead along with Jesus. Yet their story left no trace anywhere outside these three short verses in Matthew.
Unless one is committed to belief in the literal historicity of every passage in the Bible, there is no basis for taking Matthew 27:51-53 to be the report of an actual event. Does this mean that Matthew was misinformed or that he was lying? Not at all. Matthew never intended this account to be taken literally. He assumed that his audience would take it symbolically and understand its message accordingly.
What is that message? Two features of this brief narrative furnish clues that would have been clear to Matthew's readers: the earthquake and the way that Matthew characterizes those who rise. Both features told Matthew's readers that the death/resurrection of Jesus is the decisive event in salvation history, the event that ushers in the time time of the fulfilment of God's plans for humanity. This account has the same message as do twelve others in which Matthew interrupts the Gospel narrative to tell the readers that a certain event fulfils what was foretold by the prophets - that God's promises to Israel are coming true in Jesus, that Jesus (in his birth, life, death, and resurrection) is the culmination of Israel's hopes and of God's plans for his people.
One feature in 27:51-53 that conveys Matthew's message is how he describes those who are raised from the dead: he calles them "holy ones" or "saints" (hagioi in Greek). This designation is important because early Christians and most Jews believed that those who had lived in obedience to God's will would be raised from the dead on the Last Day. Matthew 27:51-53 thus sends the message that Jesus' death and resurrection were the beginning of the End, the apocalyptic turning point in salvation history. 7
The earthquake is the other feature that conveys Matthew's message. Earthquakes are one of the disasters that prophetic and apocalyptic writings associate with the arrival of the End. These cataclysmic events are used to symbolize the enormous importance and consequences of God's intervention in our history. (We still use this imagery in much the same way today when we speak of an "earth-shaking" event. Everyone knows we we are not referring to a literal earthquake.) Matthew's mention of an earthquake also helps him explain how the tombs were opened. He uses this symbol again at the scene on Easter morning (28:2), even though he does not need it to explain how Jesus' tomb was opened. As Matthew tells it, an angel rolled away the stone, but Matthew adds the earthquake nonetheless, thereby linking Jesus' resurrection with those in 27:51-53. Jesus' tomb was already empty, so the earthquake was doubly unnecessary here. Its sole function in 28:2 is as an apocalyptic symbol.
Biblical authors intentionally used disasters like earthquakes as symbols. This can be seen clearly in Acts 2, where Luke tells the story of the first Pentecost. People are amazed that they each hear the apostles' preaching in their own language (Acts 2:5-12). Peter explains that what is happening is fulfilling the prophecy of Joel. Peter then quotes a long passage from Joel, part of which reads: "I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord's great and glorious day" (Acts 2:19-20 NRSV, quoting Joel 2:30-31). Note that Peter claims that Joel's prophecy is being fulfilled in the events of Pentecost, not that it will be fulfilled at some future date. Obviously, Peter was not asserting that the moon was literally turning into blood as he spoke, or that the sun was being darkened by actual smoke. Peter assumed that his audience would understand these apocalyptic descriptions symbolically, and Luke expects his readers to do so as well.
Historians have no real choice but to conclude that the resurrections mentioned in Matthew 27:51-53 did not really happen. Of course, there are some Christians who reason that since everything in the Bible is historically true, this story must be historically true as well. Laypersons are free to believe anything they want, but historians are not free to claim that something happened simply because they want it to be so - just as juries are not free to reach any verdict they want. Historians and juries must be guided by evidence. And in this case there is no objective evidence for the historicity of the event. Except for those already committed to literalism, very, very few biblical scholars would argue that Matthew 27:51-53 is historical. (It would be interesting to learn Craig's position on this and his reasons for it.)
To sum up, we can reach the same conclusion on the historicity of Matthew 27:51-53 from two directions. On the one hand, we have no objective basis for claiming that the event really happened. On the other hand, we have strong clues from the way Matthew writes the story that he never intended it to be taken literally.
What Did Matthew Think He Was Writing?
If Matthew can create historical fiction like the resurrection of the righteous Jews, what does that mean for the other stories in his Gospel? Perhaps Matthew 27:51-53 is an anomaly, a passage where Matthew proceeds in a way totally unlike the way he writes in the rest of his Gospel. If so, it can tell us nothing about the Evangelists' overall perspective on the kind of truth they intended to communicate. But since there is no good reason to regard Matthew as an anomaly, we have to assume that it can help us understand Matthew's (and other Evangelists') perspective on the historical value of the stories in the Gospel.
To gauge how Matthew regarded the historicity of the events he narrates, we have to keep in mind that Matthew relies on Mark as one of his sources. Sometimes he virtually copies from Mark, sometimes he paraphrases. Sometimes he abbreviates Mark's narrative, deleting nonessential detail while retaining the substance of the story. At other times, though, Matthew deliberately alters Mark. He does not simply reword the account, but he changes its content in such a way as to alter Mark's meaning - sometimes a little, sometimes a lot; sometimes subtly, sometimes obviously.
An unusually clear clear example is the way in which Matthew 20:20-23 alters Mark 10:35-40. Mark tells of Jesus teaching his disciples that he will be put to death in Jerusalem (Mark 10:33-34). James and John the approach Jesus with the request that he grant them the places of highest honor when he comes into his glory. Because they had just heard Jesus' prediction of his passion, their request appears incredibly crass and shows that James and John totally failed to grasp the meaning of Jesus' teaching. When Matthew tells this story, he has the mother of James and John make the brazen request on behalf of her sons (Matt. 20:20). Why did Matthew make this change? Did he think that Mark was historically wrong at this point and that he had the real story of what had actually happened? There is not the slightest indication that Matthew made this change to set the record straight. Mark has a number of other scenes in which the disciples act stupidly or selfishly, and each time Matthew alters the scene in such a way that the disciples act wisely and behave as role models for Christians (cf., e.g., the disciples' response to Jesus in Mark 6:51-52 and in Matt. 14:32-33). In the present scene Matthew's small but significant modification enables him to retain the valuable lesson the scene teaches but without besmirching the reputaion of the two famous apostles.
There are dozens and dozens of places where Matthew alters Mark. Careful analysis of these changes (a process called redaction criticism) helps us to understand the messages Matthew is communicating through his distinctive version of the words and deeds of Jesus. These changes show beyond the shadow of a doubt that Matthew felt free to change Mark's story when he did not agree with some aspect of its message. These changes show either that Matthew did not regard Mark's Gospel as a literal report of actual events or that he did not care one way or the other. For Matthew (and, by extrapolation, all the Evangelists), facts were far less important than the meanings the expressed. After all, the facts could be changed to enhance the message.
Turning to the Easter stories, we can see how Matthew has altered Mark's version of the scene at the empty tomb. Two women (not three, as in Mark) go to see the tomb (not to annoint the body) before sunrise (not after). As they arrive, there is an earthquake, during which and angel rolls away the stone, terrifying the guards. (In Mark the women find the stone already rolled away when they arrive; Mark mentions neither an earthquake, nor an angel, nor guards.) Matthew's angel speaks to the women from outside the tomb; in Mark a young man speaks to them after they step inside. The scene in Matthew concludes when the women, instead of fleeing in fear and telling no one (as in Mark), depart in fear and great joy" and tell the disciples.
Matthew does not think mark was misinformed. He is not setting the record straight. It is not a question of whether Matthewis right and Mark is wrong or vice versa. Matthew obviously does not think that Mark gave a literal report of an actual event, and there's no good reason for us to think that Matthew considered his own version to be a literal report either.
Matthew did not write his own account to prove that Jesus' resurrection is a fact of history. Did Matthew believe that there was a historical kernel to his story that was literally true - that Jesus had in fact been buried, that people knew where, and that some women had discovered the tomb to be empty? We really don't know, and there is no way of telling from the Gospel he wrote some fifty years after Jesus' death. All we know is that Matthew inherited this story from Mark and felt free to alter it considerably in order to proclaim his faith in Jesus' resurrection. And that, it seems to me, is the key: faith. The Evangelists are interested in faith far more than in facts. We also know that they felt free to invent "facts" by creating stories out of whole cloth if this would enhance their proclamation of faith.
Can Fiction Express Truth?
Our consideration of the story about the earthquake and the rising of the Jewish saints in Matthew 27:51-53 leads to the conclusion that it is not the report of an actual event, that Matthew did not intend it to be, and that his ancient audience understood that. So is the story false? That depends on the precise meaning of the question. If it means, "Is the story a fiction, a narrative of an event that did not in fact happen?" the answer is "Yes, it is false." But if the question means, "Is what the author intends to communicate false?" then we have to ask a more basic question: Is Matthew's message false simply because the story he used to convey it is not historical? Matthew's meaning is that the death and resurrection of Jesus are the turning point in savation history, God's decisive intervention in human affairs. Are we guilty of what Craig derisively calls Peter Pan theology if we profess the truth of Matthew's message and acknowledge that Matthew 27:52-53 is not historical?
Well, millions of Christians believe Matthew's message without actually knowing the story of Matthew 27:51-53. (In my long experience as a Bible teacher, many Christians are surprised when they encounter this story. Even those well acquainted with the Bible say thing like, "I don't remember reading this before.") This was all the more so in the first century, when very few Christians had access to Matthew's Gospel. Mark, Luke, John, Paul, and the other New testament authors surely agreed with Matthew that Jesus' death and resurrection were God's decisive act in salvation history, even though nothing indicates that they knew the story related in Matthew 27:51-53.
Another way of getting at the issue is to ask, Which came first, the story or the belief in its message? Does Matthew's story provide the basis for the belief that Jesus' death and resurrection are the dicisive event in salvation history, or does the story express this belief? In other words, what caused what? Did the story give rise to the belief, or did the belief give rise to the story? In light of our historical considerations, the answer is clear: the story presumes and expresses the belief in its message. Matthew (or someone in his tradition) created the story to express faith in the supreme spiritual importance of Jesus' death and resurrection. The story is addressed to an audience that believes in Jesus and so understands and believes its message.
Considering the matter from another direction also shows that the story presupposed, rather than gave rise to, faith in Jesus. At the time Matthew wrote his Gospel, Jesus was a very controversial figure. Most Jews rejected the claim that he was the Messiah, a few accepted it (i.e., the Christian Jews, or Jewish Christians - either label will do), but nobody was neutral about Jesus. How could one be? There is no middle ground. It is inconceivable that a serious Jew could have said, "Maybe Jesus is the Messiah, and maybe he isn't; either way is all right with me." Because of the polarized religious situation, Jews who were not followers of Jesus were hostile toward what they thought he stood for and toward his disciples, whose movement posed a threat to Judaism. Now what are the realistic chances that someone like this would read or hear the story in Matthew 27:51-53 and as a result conclude that Jesus must have been the one through whom God had decisively intervened in human history? The odds of that happening are even lower than the ods that any reader will be converted to Islam by reading the Muslim apologetic that I so clumsily outlined above. 8 Mathew's story would simply not persuade outsiders. They would understand its message, but they would reject it on the spot because they would have no prior belief in Jesus. In fact, Matthew 28:11-15 explains why many of those who knew Jesus' tomb was empty did not believe in his resurrection.
What Does an Empty Tomb Prove?
Try to see the situation from a Jewish perspective. Matthew 28:11-15 reflects Matthew's bitter animosity toward the Jewish leaders, to who he here imputes corrupt and deceitful motives. But if we step back from Matthew's extremely one-sided perspective, we realize that all that most Jews knew was that followers of Jesus claimed that he had risen from the dead. To get some idea of how this must have sounded to Jews of the time, imagine our response to reports bu some members of a cult that their recently deceased leader (whom they had buried) had risen. Their reports that his grave was empty would hardly persuade many. Even if it was confirmed that the grave where they claim he was buried was empty, what would that prove? Nothing. We would conclude either that they had removed the body or that he was never buried there in the first place. Suppose they told stories of seeing angels at the empty grave or of the grave being opened by an earthquake. Suppose that they claimed that our leaders were involved in a conspiracy to cover up the truth about the resurrection of their master. Suppose they told of having seen him alive, of having spoken and eaten with him. And (though I can't imagine how this would come about in our society) suppose that some of these witnesses were willing to die for their belief in their leader.
What would we make of such people and their belief in their messiah? Probably something similar to what ancient people made of the earliest Christians. (As a thought experiment, ask yourself what it would take to convince you that this cult leader had truly risen from the dead.)
Empty tombs don't prove anything, except to insiders. Nor do reports of appearances of risen leaders. In the Gospels the risen Jesus appears only to those who already believe in him. Those who see him after his resurrection are those who followed him during his lifetime. John's Gospel originally ended with a blessing for those who believe in Jesus without needing to see him firsthand. 9 The implication was that it took little faith to believe when one had actually seen the risen Lord. Matthew, however, does not agree. At the very end of Matthew's Gospel is a fascinating and unexpected statement. He reports that even some of the apostles who saw the risen Jesus in person had their doubts. Just before Jesus sent forth the Eleven with the Great Commission, they prostrated themselves before Jesus, "but some doubted" (Matt. 28:17). This Gospel thus closes with a cryptic admission that even some of these ultimate insiders were not convinced by a face-to-face encounter with the risen Lord. Matthew's abrupt comment comes as a complete surpise, and its precise meaning is puzzling. But this much at least is clear: Whatever else the Gospels may teach about the resurrection, faith in the risen Jesus requires more than stories about him - no matter how convincing these stories may be to insiders.
Robert J. Miller is associate professor or religion and philosophy at Midway College in Midway, Kentucky.