Sunday, February 13, 2011 Login

The Empty Tomb (3): Gospel of Matthew

Continuing where I left off in Part 1, I want to take a look, for completeness, at how Matthew, Luke, and John re-imagined Mark’s story of the empty tomb. The easiest way to do this is through a simple comparison.


When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’ 4When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 5As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. 6But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’ 8So 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.


After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5But the angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7Then go quickly and tell his disciples, “He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.” This is my message for you.’ 8So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him. 10Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’

I have colored Mark’s words in blue, and that which is unique to Matthew in green. It is quite clear, from this simple comparison, that Matthew has significantly changed many of Mark’s details while adding some of his own. Through careful study of the way that Matthew modified, added, and I should say, all around “re-imagined” Mark’s story of the empty tomb, it becomes clear that the author of the Gospel According to Matthew did not consider himself as a historian interested in carefully recording an historical fact. He was a literary artist who was interested in higher, theological “truths” and, although he found much in Mark’s story that he liked, he also found parts of it quite unsatisfactory to his own theological understandings. Given that there was no canonical set of Christian scriptures at this time, anything could be readily changed as needed. Rather than providing an “independent witness” to Mark, it is clear from Matthew’s treatment of Mark that Matthew intended to completely replace Mark with his own gospel – never to be read side by side or in conjunction.

The first instance in which Matthew changed Mark’s empty tomb story is by dropping Salome as one of the first women to approach the tomb. Instead, we have just Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, the mother of James. Why not mention Salome? In my previous entry I noted that the character Salome does not appear anywhere else in the New Testament except in that single passage in Mark 16:1Open Link in New Window. I also mentioned evidence that there were at least two versions of Mark’s gospel floating around during the 1st century – the Mark that we have in the New Testament now and what Clement described as a “Secret Mark” which contained additional passages. One of these additional passages mentions Salome again, therefore it is quite likely that she was identified somehow in Secret Mark and her appearance at the empty tomb with the two Mary’s understandable. Yet in the version of Mark that Matthew likely used, all other traces of Salome were probably missing, so it seems reasonable to conclude that Matthew simply dropped her name because he had no idea who she was.

In Mark, the three women are on their way to the tomb so that they can anoint Jesus’s body with oil and spices, whereas Matthew drops this detail and simply says that the two women went to see the tomb for no other express purpose. Now we come to the first place where Matthew, dissatisfied with Mark, radically changes the story. Suddenly at the very moment which the women arrive, there is a “great earthquake” and the anonymous “young man” from Mark is transformed into “an angel of the Lord” who descends “from heaven” with an appearance “like lightning.” The angel rolls the stone back and sits prominently on top of it, while the two Roman guards (completely absent from Mark’s account; more on them later) are struck dead-like from fear. One might simply claim that Matthew has added a few details that Mark left out, but in reality, what he has done is change the story. For one thing, Matthew’s additions are far more spectacular than what is written in Mark. Had Mark known about this spectacular new detail, then he would have surely written as much. As Robert M. Price notes, “The less spectacular version was once deemed quite good enough by itself. Had there been something better already available, we may be sure the earlier author would have used it” (Incredible Shrinking Son of Man: How Reliable Is the Gospel Tradition?, pg. 336).

However, it is not simply that Matthew is embellishing Mark’s narrative for the sake of embellishing it. Rather, there is an ulterior motive behind Matthew’s fiction – he didn’t agree with Mark’s resurrection theology. Consider: In Mark’s narrative, the three women approach the tomb wondering how in the world they will be able to roll the stone away, but when they arrive they find that the stone has already been rolled away. There inside the tomb is the young man (if we are to follow Secret Mark, the young man whom Jesus taught all of the mysteries of the Kingdom of God), and the implication is that the young man rolled the stone away so that the resurrected Jesus could walk out. In other words, Mark believed that the risen Jesus was a resuscitated corpse (much like the young man in Secret Mark is resuscitated by Jesus), and that Jesus required the stone to be rolled away so that he could exit the tomb. The young man declares that Jesus has already left, and that he is now on his way “ahead of you to Galilee.” Matthew simply could not agree with this, so he changed the story. In Matthew, the women arrive and find that the tomb is still sealed – the stone is still covering the entrance. Then they watch as the angel rolls the stone away to reveal an already empty tomb. In other words, Jesus has already risen and passed straight through the stone as if he was some sort of phantasm. The risen Jesus was not a resuscitated corpse, but a spiritual body who could later appear as an apparition to his followers.

Matthew had perhaps an even more pressing matter to attend to, however. He was aware of stories being told by Jews in his area that Jesus had not risen, rather, his disciples had stolen the body and are now circulating a lie. Matthew even explains that “this story is still told among the Jews to this day” (Matt. 28:15Open Link in New Window). For Mark, the empty tomb alone had been evidence that Jesus had risen, but by Matthew’s day this was very clearly being scoffed at by unbelievers. Matthew’s solution is simple, if not clever: he invents the presence of Roman guards at the tomb and then blames the creation of the story that Jesus’s body was stolen away by his disciples at night to the chief priests of Jerusalem! Just prior to his empty tomb story, Matthew creates an entire new segment that is not found in any of the other gospels:

62 The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate 63and said, ‘Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, “After three days I will rise again.” 64Therefore command that the tomb be made secure until the third day; otherwise his disciples may go and steal him away, and tell the people, “He has been raised from the dead”, and the last deception would be worse than the first.’ 65Pilate said to them, ‘You have a guard of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can.’ 66So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone.

Later, after the angel unveils the empty tomb to the two women, Matthew inserts this follow up:

11 While they were going, some of the guards went into the city and told the chief priests everything that had happened. 12After the priests had assembled with the elders, they devised a plan to give a large sum of money to the soldiers, 13telling them, ‘You must say, “His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.” 14If this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.’ 15So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story is still told among the Jews to this day.

In a few clever strokes of Matthew’s pen, he had countered the most serious objection of which, at least, he was aware against Jesus’s resurrection. Not only that, he attributed the source of the stories circulating around during his time to a lie concocted by the Jewish Elders, who apparently were not the least bit swayed by such a definitive proof of the Son of God’s divine vindication. Are we really to believe, faced with such a momentous miracle having occurred directly under their noses, that the Jewish Elders would be so obstinate that they would feel the need to cover it up by concocting such a ridiculous lie? Or maybe it is just that Matthew was so intolerant of Jews who did not accept Christianity that he could put in their mouths, a chapter earlier, “His blood be on us and on our children!” Nevertheless, the addition of the guards to Jesus’s tomb quite clearly explains why Matthew deleted the passages from Mark that described the women going to Jesus’s tomb to anoint his body with oil and wondering “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” Obviously, in Matthew’s fiction the guards were placed at the tomb precisely to prevent anyone from rolling away the stone and having access to the body. Every change has a subtle reasoning behind it.

Finally, we reach the end of Mark’s empty tomb story, where the women flee from the tomb in terror and do not tell anyone about it. Mathew, like those who added new endings to Mark’s gospel, would have none of this. In his version, the women run from the tomb in fear but also with “great joy” because, unlike Mark, they intend to immediately tell the disciples the good news. Before they can do that, however, Jesus suddenly appears to them! He does not, however, have anything new to say to them that the angel had not already said – that he is going to appear in Galilee. Why would Matthew add a superfluous appearance of Jesus such as this? In Mark, the young man says, “But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” But in Matthew, Jesus has not told the women yet! So he changes the angel’s speech to read, “indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.” And thus, Jesus suddenly appears to tell the two women himself to go to Galilee, “go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” The extra vision of Jesus is Matthew’s way of dealing with the fact that Jesus had not told the women to go to Galilee yet.

Of course, whereas Mark describes no post-resurrection appearances in Galilee, Matthew must, and thus he writes:

16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. 18And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’

Curiously, Jesus had said nothing about a particular mountain, but there it is. Early Church historian Eusebius noted that there had been some tampering with the text of Matthew, so it is quite possible that the bit about Jesus directing the disciples to a particular mountain has been lost. Jesus’s final speech seems to have been derived directly from two Greek versions of Daniel 7:14Open Link in New Window, concerning the Ancient One. The first part, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” comes from “to him was given the rule…and his authority is an everlasting authority” in the Septuagint and “authority to hold all in the heaven and on the earth” from Theodotion’s version. The second part, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” comes from the same verse, “all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him.” The final part, “I am with you always, to the end of the age” comes from the end of the same verse, “His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.”

The Trinitarian baptismal formula, “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” is almost certainly a later addition to the text. In Acts 2:38Open Link in New Window, for example, the baptismal formula is given as “be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus the Messiah.” More damaging, however, is that Eusebius himself admits to seeing some copies of Matthew dating before the Council of Nicea which simply read, “baptizing them in my name,” and Eusebius believed ardently in Nicene Trinitarianism. That someone would freely alter Matthew as Matthew freely altered Mark, of course, should not at all be surprising.

Matthew was not dispassionately recording history – he was passionately revising Mark to square with his own theological understandings of Christianity. Clearly, Matthew attempted to write a “better” version of Mark, and, likely, wished for his version to permanently replace Mark in his community. Fortunately Mark still survives to this day, and we can see the extent to which early Christians like the author of Matthew freely invented stories about Jesus. One might wonder why Matthew would write “lies” such as this, but I highly doubt that Matthew would have seen it this way or that Matthew would have considered himself as being deceptive. For one thing, modern readers try and read the gospels as historical documents, whereas 1st century Christians would not (if I am right) have read them in that fashion. Matthew did not read Mark in that fashion. Matthew did not consider Mark to be a historical document, otherwise he would not have freely changed the details of the story where ever he wanted, adding and subtracting along the way. It seems to me that the only plausible explanation is that these gospels were treated not as factual histories of an event that took place in the recent past but as literary allegories that are meant to explain to the reader some higher theological truth. In other words, it was not the “facts” or “details” of the story that matter so much as whether or not the correct lesson was being conveyed. For Matthew, he understood that the risen Jesus was not equivalent to a corpse coming back alive but something more spiritual, so he simply changed the details of Mark’s story to better express this opinion.

Contrast this with Paul, who wrote a few decades before Mark’s gospel was written down. In Paul we have the theological “truth” without the narrative story. For Paul, evidence of the risen Christ is through his vision of Jesus, and everything that he knows about Christ he received through that divine revelation or from reading the Jewish Scriptures. Paul does not mention any historical details concerning Jesus’s life. He does not write with “great joy,” for example, about the “fact” of the empty tomb in Jerusalem when explaining to the Corinthians why they should have faith in the resurrected Jesus – instead he appeals plainly to Jesus’s personal appearance to himself and the other apostles of Christ:

“…5and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died 7Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8Last of all, as to someone untimely born, he appeared also to me.” (1 Corinthians 15:5-6Open Link in New Window)

That is because the historical fiction as presented in the gospels had quite simply not been invented yet by Mark or Mark’s source. Contrast this passage from Paul above with what Matthew writes concerning Jesus’s post-resurrection appearances. Paul mentions Cephas, or Peter, and James separately from “the twelve.” Who is this twelve if it does not include Peter and James? Whereas Paul claims that Jesus appeared first to Peter, in Matthew he appears first to the two women, and then to “the eleven” disciples – Judas Iscariot already being dead. It seems clear that “the twelve” meant for Paul something entirely different, as he displays no knowledge of the story of Judas’s betrayal and death.

Perhaps even more remarkable is the fact that we have another gospel, Luke, written independently of Matthew (that is, with no knowledge of Matthew’s work) and also based on Mark. As we shall see in another entry, Luke is just as judicious in re-imagining Mark as Matthew was.

Go to Part 4

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