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Why Resurrection Cover-ups Failed

Christ Appearing to Mary Magdalene, ‘Noli me tangere’ , Rembrandt (1651) Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum, Germany

Cover-ups have a bad historical track record for one reason:  people talk!  While that might be disastrous to a conspiracy being hatched, it was ideal for Christianity.  Isn’t that one of many reasons 2.2 billion Christians continue to celebrate an event that rocked the world 21 centuries ago?  And there are more.

Check out Paul’s account in I Corinthians 15.  The letter was written sometime in the mid-50’s, about 15 years after Jesus’ resurrection but before a Gospel account recorded it.

…That he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.  Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died (I Cor. 15:4-6, NRSV).

Those 1st century Jews who believed in resurrection, having poured over Daniel 12, knew it wasn’t some amorphous event but “the literal reanimation of a dead corpse”, as the New Living Translation explains.  But huge effort was made to disguise its actuality when it happened to Jesus.  The arguments ranged from: ‘he never really died but was just unconscious’, to ‘the disciples only dreamed it’.

But my favorite ‘it never really happened’ explanation was the one Matthew’s Gospel records in chapter 28.  Matthew gives us the back story of the Jewish religious leaders asking Pilate to order soldiers to guard the tomb so Jesus’ followers wouldn’t steal the body.   When the guards found it empty on the third day, they told the priests who called an emergency meeting then bribed the guards with this response:

  You must say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ 14 If this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” 15 So they took the money and did as they were directed (Matt. 28:13,14). 

So with all the efforts of an attempted cover-up that makes Watergate pale by comparison, how did the truth emerge?  Here are six reasons and would love to hear others you think made a difference.

  1. The simplest:  the tomb was empty. Something happened to the body that had been placed there.
  2. Women were witnesses. Why would anyone conceive such a bizarre account and then use women to confirm it when it was culturally assumed they would be less reliable?!
  3. The consistency of the several accounts of those who saw him: the disciples in the upper room; then when Thomas joined them and Jesus appeared again in the same place; the witness of Cleopas and his friend from Emmaus; the morning meal prepared for the disciples by the risen Jesus Christ;
  4. The significant shift in the disciples – from fearful followers to bold apostles.
  5. Jesus’ followers’ ability to prevail over the disgrace and dishonor embedded in Deut.21:23 (anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse). Similar to having women as eyewitnesses, why would you conceive of a Jewish leader with such a resume?!
  6. The healing ability of his followers, accounts which fill the book of Acts, indicating what he did was not confined to him personally but could be replicated by those who followed his teachings.

It leaves us with the question for today:  how do people know by my life that ‘He is risen’?  Only you can answer that one!  Happy post-Easter everyone.

If you’re interested in learning more about “The Week that Changed the World”, listen to a free video talk given by me on Good Friday (3/30/18) for Third Church of Christ, Scientist, New York  (thirdchurchnyc.org) and download the free handout.

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Gethsemane: Holy Place of Prayer

Gethsemane– a word almost universally recognized and filled with meaning like few others—is the subject of the February video and blog.

Although mentioned only once each in Mark (14:32) and Matthew (26:36), Christians know it well as the place of Jesus’ difficult prayer prior to Judas’ betrayal and the Master’s arrest.

        They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray (Mark 14:32).

Its 1st century use as an olive orchard located on the Mount of Olives gave the garden its name and meaning, gath shemane being Hebrew for ‘oil press’.  While Luke’s Gospel certainly recounts this momentous night of prayer, he refers to the larger area, the Mount of Olives.

Luke also gives us a hint of how often Jesus must have gone to this peaceful garden, so close to Jerusalem yet with the Kidron Valley between to provide some distance from the urban clamor.

        He came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him (Luke 22:39).

In fact, the frequency of Jesus’ retreats there to pray are why scholars believe Judas knew where to tell the Jewish authorities to find him later that night.

One can’t help but wonder if Jesus, on this night or previous ones of prayer, thought also of David’s experience on the Mount of Olives.  Knowing the Hebrew Scriptures and identified as the prophesied Messiah and ‘Son of David’, Jesus must have been familiar with the story of David fleeing to this sacred place as he was forced to escape Jerusalem. Absalom was out to kill David and take the throne, so with family and loyal friends around him, the Bible relates David also paused here at a critical moment:

            David walked up the road to the Mount of Olives, weeping as he went. His head was covered and his feet were bare as a sign of mourning. And the people who were with him covered their heads and wept as they climbed the hill (II Sam 15:30).

The Gospels reveal Gethsemane as the lowest point of Jesus’ earthly career, evidenced by what Matthew relates he told his disciples:

            My soul is crushed with grief to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me (Matt 26:38).

Yet Gethsemane also represents that consummate moment of self-surrender that shines as a model for all who want to yield to God’s will for their lives:

            My Father! If this cup cannot be taken away–unless I drink it, your will be done (Matt 26:42-43).

More than any place in Israel I’ve traveled, Gethsemane is ‘holy ground’.  A wall surrounding these ancient olive trees, still bearing fruit,  helps Christian pilgrims pray quietly where the Master prayed, look across the Valley to Jerusalem, and hope that their lives provide even a fraction of the healing oil of his.

 

 

 

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Debate over Jesus’ burial and resurrection site: The Holy Sepulchre or The Garden Tomb?

Visiting Jerusalem as a Christian pilgrim and searching for the site where Jesus was buried and arose can be a conundrum.  Why?  Because tour guides take you to two sites, not one!

First is The Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the second is known simply as ‘The Garden Tomb’.  Both are beautiful and moving in their own way yet Christians for centuries have tried to determine which is authentic.

To solve the mystery, it’s helpful to get grounded in the Gospel story and the facts it relays:

  • That Golgotha, Hebrew for ‘the place of the skull’ (Luke 23:33) was the site of the crucifixion and near the city (John 19:20). This means it was not IN the city walls.
  • Three of the gospels agree that Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb was the site of Jesus’ burial and that the tomb was carved from rock. See Matt. 27:57, Luke 23:50-51; and John 19:38.
  • John’s gospel explains the tomb was new and describes its location in relation to the crucifixion: “The place of crucifixion was near a garden, where there was a new tomb, never used before” (John 19:41).
  • All four gospels concur that a large round stone was rolled to block the entrance to the tomb and seal it. See Matt. 27:60, Mark 15:46, Luke 24:2, and John 20:1.
  • A verse in the book of Hebrews reiterates that Golgotha was outside the city walls:  Therefore Jesus also suffered outside the city gate in order to sanctify the people by his own blood ( 13:12, NRSV, emphasis added).
    During Constantine’s reign (306-337), the Emperor’s mother, Helena, traveled to ancient Palestine to locate sacred sites of Christendom.  After all, her son was the newly proclaimed Holy Roman Emperor.  The 4th century tradition claims that she located the site of Jesus’ tomb with the help of locals whose families had always lived in that area.  The result?  The first building of today’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

The problem scholars began to identify in the 19th century, however, was that the Biblical accounts told the story in such a way that both Golgotha and Jesus’ tomb had to be located outside the walls of 1st century Jerusalem. The problem was that The Church of the Holy Sepulchre had been found to be inside city walls archaeologists found in the 19th century.  Was one of the most holy sites of all of Christendom a topographical and historical error?

The May/June 2016 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review has shed new light on the controversy, and very convincing light to many.  Two scholars* report that the wall discovered in 1893, believed to be the ancient city wall of Jerusalem in Jesus’ time, was is in fact too small for a city wall and also not built until the 4th century A.D.  This meant that The Church of the Holy Sepulchre could indeed have been located outside the city walls, since both Roman and Jewish custom conducted crucifixion and burial outside such walls.

In addition, archaeological work in the 1970’s revealed that underneath The Holy Sepulchre Church was a rock quarry that had been in use since before the 1st century BC.   This fit the Biblical description of Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb carved from rock.  Such a quarry would have been located outside the city walls.

Also discovered were traces of gardens dating to the first century A.D., supporting Mark 15:21, Luke23:26 and John 19:41 that indicate the place of Jesus’ crucifixion was surrounded by gardens and fields.

There are other hints, but suffice it to say that all this work has done much to convince rigorous investigators that today’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher appears to be the location of Golgotha and the Master’s tomb.

Why tourists appreciate seeing both The Church of the Holy Sepulchre and The Garden Tomb is their vast difference.  For all the ritual, tradition and ceremony of The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, The Garden Tomb is quiet, modest and seems unchanged in two thousand years.  One can go inside to see the rock-ribbed walls surrounding a single slab of stone where a body would have been laid.  It feels sacred and holy yet as their website explains, ‘where Jesus died is of little importance compared with why”.

As archaeology continues to find reason to believe The Church of the Holy Sepulchre might indeed be the authentic site of Jesus’ tomb and therefore the crucifixion and resurrection, organizations like The National Geographic are taking notice.

The National Geographic Society has recently opened an exhibit on the tomb that you can explore here for a virtual tour.  Fascinating!

Video from National Geographic of virtual exhibit of Church of the Holy Sepulchre

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Jerusalem: City of David – part 1

Jerusalem–the holy city for the world’s three monotheistic religions.  It evokes life-changing events for millions and history unparalleled for centuries with political,  religious and archaeological claims to every holy square inch.  To see it for the first time, perhaps standing on Mt. Scopus at sunset, is to have a moment forever etched in memory.

 

Byzantine mosaic map in St. George’s Church, Madaba, Jordan.

The city’s importance through the Byzantine period, in the 6th century CE, is tangibly seen in Madaba, Jordan.  Here a mosaic map, created to show not just locations of sites, but their importance by size, reveals Jerusalem as the center of the world.  As the photograph reveals, “The Holy City of Jerusalem” contained six gates and twenty one towers surrounded by city walls, all displayed in stunning mosaic that covers 15′ square feet of floor in the St. George Byzantine church.

Today, 3000 years later, the City of Jerusalem, working capital of the country of Israel since its founding, continues in daily news headlines as a center of political and religious controversy. Whether it is the potential relocation of the American Embassy to Jerusalem, or the response of Palestinians to sharing their beloved city with others, Jerusalem seems anything but the city of peace.

Bible Roads will be sharing four brief videos from a recent trip to Jerusalem, each one explaining a different facet of the city.  This current vlog (video blog) highlights the Dome of the Rock, that iconic gold dome in virtually every city skyline photograph of this ancient capital city.  It serves as a sacred destination for Jews since it is thought to be the rock on which Abraham started to sacrifice his son, Isaac.  It also is thought to be the site where the holiest of holies was located for both the Temple Solomon built in the 9th century BCE, and the second Temple built after return from the Babylonian Exile in the 6th century BCE.

For Muslims, this site is a shrine — not a mosque–for those pilgrims who want to commemorate where Muhammad was supposed to have ascended, and was built in the 7th century CE.

The Dome of the Rock sits on what is known as The Temple Mount, which rises above the Kidron Valley and sits directly across from the Garden of Gethsemane.  Following his night in the garden praying, Jesus was taken to the Temple Mount where the palace of Annas, the High Priest, was located.  After his questioning, Jesus was transferred to the palace of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, nearby.   As mentioned, every square inch:   holy ground.

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Why Jesus’ baptism is told differently

The Baptism Site on the Jordan side of the Jordan River is one of the most important recent discoveries in biblical archaeology. Excavations only began here in 1996, following Jordan’s peace treaty with Israel in 1994, but have already uncovered more than 20 churches, caves and baptismal pools dating from the Roman and Byzantine periods. (Picture from Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic)

The fact that our New Testament contains four Gospels by four writers with four viewpoints can sometimes be tricky to navigate when some events of Jesus’ life are told differently.  Yet there are substantial blessings in having these four accounts for Bible students twenty centuries later:  we gain a fuller picture and understanding of Christ Jesus’ life and ministry.

The Master’s baptism is one of a number of examples where there is diversity in the four accounts.  This video blog tells the story of two versions of the baptism, one from Matthew and the other from Luke, that will perhaps shed light on some discrepancies you’ve no doubt noted.

Before reading further (spoiler alert!), you might want to reread Matthew 3:13-17, Mark 1:4-8, Luke 3:21-22 and John 1:29-34, the four evangelists’ versions of the baptism of Jesus.

The video below was taken on a recent trip to Israel, standing at the traditional site of the Jordan River where historians believe this pivotal event of Christianity took place. (The picture above is from the Jordanian side of the river where new excavations are occurring.)  Christian tourists travel from every continent to be baptized as was the Master Christian.  Here are the hopes of a lifetime to experience the purification that this 2000-year-old immersion in water symbolizes for believers.

Since Mark is believed to have been the first Gospel written, we see how significant the baptism is to the early Christians as Mark chooses to open the story of Jesus not with his birth, but his baptism.

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved with you I am well pleased (Mark 1:9-11).”

John baptizes Jesus as he has so many others but this time a sense of God’s presence is so vivid that John hears a voice claiming Jesus as God’s son and identify Jesus.

But in the Luke version, John is not even at the baptism.  He is miles away imprisoned in one of Herod’s fortresses, just before his death.  Again, by rereading the Luke version below, you’ll see the writer is telling us John is well off the scene so that Jesus is known to be unmistakably the Son of God.  There would be no confusion, in Luke’s relating of the story, which figure was the son of God.

20 “…he shut John up in prison.  When all the people were baptized, it came to pass that Jesus also was baptized; and while He prayed, the heaven was opened”  (Luke 3:21,22).

One baptism.  Two versions.  Each writer had his own reasons…thus the beauty of four distinct gospels.

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