What would first-century Jews have thought when they saw a man heal cripples and still storms? An extract from The Miracles of Jesus explains the cultural relevance, and the deeper Biblical meaning, behind Jesus's works.
By Michael Symmons RobertsLast updated 2009-09-18
What would first-century Jews have thought when they saw a man heal cripples and still storms? An extract from The Miracles of Jesus explains the cultural relevance, and the deeper Biblical meaning, behind Jesus's works.
Jesus went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went along with him. As he approached the town gate, a dead person was being carried out - the only son of his mother, and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the town was with her. When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her and he said, "Don't cry."
Then he went up and touched the coffin, and those carrying it stood still. He said "Young man, I say to you, get up!" The dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother.
They were all filled with awe and praised God. "A great prophet has appeared among us," they said. "God has come to help his people." This news about Jesus spread throughout Judea and the surrounding country.
It's a captivating story - Jesus interrupting a funeral cortège to bring the deceased back to life. It isn't hard to picture the scene: the distraught mother weeping and wailing, supported by friends on either side; the confusion and unease as this stranger Jesus approaches the coffin, telling the mother not to cry; the shock and sheer incredulity of the crowd as the boy sits up in his coffin and talks; the boy himself, blinking in the daylight.
But what are we to make of it? Maybe Jesus really did bring the boy back from the dead. Or perhaps the boy wasn't dead in the first place, merely in a coma. There will never be an answer to satisfy everyone. To those people who saw it happen there was no doubt - Jesus had brought the widow's son back to life. A pretty astonishing thing to witness. No wonder they were 'filled with awe'.
But the triumph of life over death was not what really got the crowd going. If you look closely at the biblical account you find that this miracle reminded them of another miracle that took place a thousand years earlier, performed by one of the holiest men in Jewish history - the prophet Elijah. In fact, it more than reminded them. The symmetry was unmistakable.
The story - as told in the book of Kings - goes that Elijah was staying with a widow in a small town when her son fell ill. The woman - though poor - had been generous in her hospitality to Elijah, so he was distressed to see her son grow worse and worse, and finally stop breathing. The widow was desperate, consumed by grief.
She said to Elijah, "What do you have against me, man of God? Did you come to remind me of my sin and kill my son?" "Give me your son," Elijah replied. He took him from her arms, carried him to the upper room where he was staying, and laid him on his bed. Then he cried out to the Lord, "O Lord my God, have you brought tragedy also upon this widow I am staying with, by causing her son to die?" Then he stretched himself out on the boy three times and cried to the Lord, "O Lord my God, let this boy's life return to him!"
The Lord heard Elijah's cry, and the boy's life returned to him, and he lived. Elijah picked up the child and carried him down from the room into the house. He gave him back to his mother and said "Look, your son is alive!" Then the woman said to Elijah, "Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the Lord from your mouth is the truth."
1 Kings 17:18-24
The similarities between the two miracles are clear: a widow's only son, a premature death, a distraught mother met at the town's gate, a restoration of life by a holy man. Same circumstances, same outcome.
Jesus' miracle, which looks at first glance like a spontaneous act of compassion towards a grieving mother, was at the same time the spitting image of Elijah's miracle. The original Greek phrase at the end of the story, in which Jesus 'gave him back to his mother' is identical with the phrase used of Elijah after his miracle. No wonder the crowds were astonished. Raised on the Jewish scriptures, taught to revere Elijah as the greatest of prophets, everyone who saw or heard about Jesus and the widow of Nain would make the link with Elijah.
According to Luke's Gospel account, one of them even shouts, 'A great prophet has appeared among us.'
But what does it mean, this copycat miracle? If it was more than an outlandish coincidence, if Jesus was acting out a 'sign' in public, then what was the message of the sign? What was he trying to convey by drawing this parallel with Elijah?
To answer that question, the focus has to shift from Jesus, the widow and her son, to the bystanders. Only by understanding the audience can we hope to understand the message they received when Jesus healed the widow's son at Nain. But how is that possible?
There are obvious pitfalls in transplanting a modern sensibility into a resident of Nain two thousand years ago. The way we would react as eyewitnesses is conditioned by our experience, upbringing, education and beliefs. That environment would be radically different for a bystander in first century Nain.
For centuries, it seemed an impossible pipe dream that scholars might attain a real insight into the minds of these ancient people, and find out what and how they thought. But in the middle of the twentieth century a remarkable discovery offered the hope of doing just that.
The landscape of the Christian story is full of hills and mountains: Mount Tabor is where Jesus is said to have been transfigured - lit up with heavenly radiance - in front of his disciples; the Mount of Olives was the setting for Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, and the reported site of his ascension; and Gethsemane was the place of his betrayal, which set the course for his dramatic final days on earth. Add to this list the location for the Sermon on the Mount, and the high mountain on which we are told Jesus endured one of his temptations by Satan, and a clear pattern can be seen.
But there is another significant hill in the gospel narratives, a lesser-known hill that provided the setting for a remarkable event. The hill has been located on the north-east shore of the Sea of Galilee, and in ancient times it was known as 'the desert'. Today, it is not hard to see how it came by its name. It is a bleak, uninhabited part of the landscape. But the Bible recounts that two thousand years ago, on these dramatic slopes, Jesus fed a hungry crowd.
The feeding of the five thousand has always been one of the most memorable biblical miracles. Although perhaps not as world-changing as the raising of the dead, this apparently practical response to the physical needs of a crowd and the description of how it was done make it a wonderful story. Jesus does not stand over the meagre loaves and fishes, then magically transform them into a banquet for thousands. Instead, he starts to break the bread and divide the fish and hand them to the crowd. But as he prays, the bread keeps breaking and the fish keeps dividing until everyone is fed. It sounds like a kind of miraculous sleight of hand.
The original account can be found in the Gospel of Mark:
The apostles gathered round Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, "Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest." So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place. But many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them.
When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things. By this time, it was late in the day, so his disciples came to him. "This is a remote place," they said, "and it is already very late. Send the people away so that they can go to the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat." But he answered, "You give them something to eat." They said to him, "That would take eight months of a man's wages! Are we to go and spend that much on bread and give it to them to eat?" "How many loaves do you have?" he asked. "Go and see." When they found out, they said, "Five - and two fish." Then Jesus directed them to have all the people sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to his disciples to set before the people. He also divided the two fish among them all. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces of bread and fish. The number of men who had eaten was five thousand.
It was late, and the people were hungry. Men, women and children all clamouring for a meal from five loaves and two fish. There have been many theories over the years that attempt to explain away this miracle. Some have claimed that the crowds were whipped into a frenzy of religious fervour on hearing Jesus speak, and that fervour suppressed their appetites.
Others have speculated that the mood of harmony and selflessness spread by Jesus' teaching might have inspired the crowd to offer up their own private supplies of food and share them with each other. But as with Jesus' healing of the widow's son at Nain, the key element here is the belief of the crowd that a miracle had taken place. They were convinced that from such meager rations Jesus had fed everyone, and left them all satisfied. As with the miracle at Nain, what the crowd witnessed would have made a huge impact on them, but that impact would come as much from the explosive message - the symbolism contained within the miracle - as from the supernatural feat with the bread and fish.
The feeding of the multitude would put first-century Jews in mind of a towering figure in Jewish history, someone even greater than the prophet Elijah. When those eyewitnesses saw Jesus handing out food, they could not help but think of the father of the Jewish faith himself - Moses. Everything about the miracle, from the setting right down to the smallest details, would suggest a powerful identification of Jesus with Moses. But why?
To unravel this symmetry, we need to go back to the Dead Sea Scrolls and delve deeper into the hopes, fears and expectations of first-century Jews. We have already seen - through discoveries such as the War Scroll - that Jews at the time of Jesus were anticipating the arrival of a great prophet. But the Dead Sea Scrolls reveal that this was only one of several visions of the Messiah.
As scholars unravelled the meaning of the scrolls, it became clear that first-century Jews were looking out for a great military saviour too. This man of war would come to liberate the Jews from Roman oppression. If the great prophet was one crucial agent of their deliverance, come to reignite the passion and conviction of the Jewish people, then the great warrior was another.
It seems that the Jews had a pretty fleshed-out idea of the kind of saviour they were expecting. It would have to be a man with the military and leadership qualities of their greatest military hero. Moses had freed the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt and had led them on the treacherous journey to freedom, through the Sinai wilderness to the edge of the promised land on the River Jordan. It was a spectacular achievement, a cornerstone of Jewish history which is still remembered every year in the Passover festival.
Jews at the time of Jesus were praying for a military saviour who could do to their Roman oppressors what Moses had done to the Egyptians. But this was a tall order for anyone, never mind a miracle worker from the rural northern outpost of Galilee. How on earth could the crowds imagine that Jesus might be the new Moses?
Well, there are vital clues in the detail of the miracle of the loaves and fishes, clues that betray striking symbolic parallels between Jesus and Moses. Those parallels begin where the story begins, when Jesus and his disciples get on a boat, cross the waters of the Sea of Galilee and reach a place the gospels describe as lonely. In fact, they reach a place on the north-east shore of the lake that is so lonely it is known as 'the desert'.
How had Moses' journey to the promised land begun? Well, first he had crossed the waters of the Red Sea, and then he had stopped in the Sinai desert. An interesting parallel perhaps, but not enough to astonish the onlookers.
However, once they reach the desert, Jesus' disciples ask him how two loaves and five fishes are going to feed such a substantial crowd. As soon as Moses reached the Sinai wilderness his Hebrew people asked him what on earth they were going to eat, to sustain them in that barren landscape.
Just before the miracle, Jesus orders the people to sit together in squares of hundreds and fifties. Moses ordered his Hebrew people to sit down in companies one hundred, or fifty, strong. In the Old Testament book of Exodus, Moses is advised by his father-in-law, Jethro, to 'select capable men from all the people who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain, and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens'.
It's an impressive symmetry, but it doesn't end there. At the climax of the story - the miracle itself - Jesus hands out the loaves and fishes, and somehow manages to multiply them so the food goes to everyone who needs it. Back in the Sinai desert, Moses presided over an equally miraculous multiplication of food. In the mornings the ground was covered with manna - the bread of heaven - like a fall of snow. In the evenings, the skies above the camp were alive with quail. Loaves and fishes, manna and quail: the menu may be different, but the significance would not be lost on a first century crowd.
According to the Gospel of John, the people tried to mob Jesus after they had witnessed the miracle. That response is hardly surprising, as the possibility had dawned on them that this man could be the great military saviour they were waiting for, the leader who would overcome the Romans and liberate the long-suffering Jewish people.
Was Jesus the new Moses? Well, another more fundamental question is, would the new Moses be able to accomplish the job alone? After all, Moses had led the Hebrew people to the edge of the promised land, but died before they made the final conquest. He got almost within touching distance, to the top of Mount Nebo in modern Jordan, where his people looked out across the land of milk and honey, but he never set foot there himself.
He had freed them from bondage to the pharaohs in Egypt. He had led and sustained them through the years in the wilderness, and had shaped their moral code, their sense of community, their legal system and their pattern of worship. Moses had fashioned these exiled slaves into a people of God, but he was not the man who delivered them into the promised land. That job fell to his successor - Joshua.
It was Joshua, the great general, who assembled the Hebrews on the east bank of the Jordan, and led them across the river into the land of Canaan. And so began the final conquest of the promised land, beginning with that most historic armed struggle, the battle of Jericho.
By the end of his military campaign, Joshua had completed what Moses began. He had given birth to the Jewish nation. The Jewish people of Jesus' time were not just looking for the new Moses. They were waiting for a military saviour who could do to the Romans both what Moses did to the Egyptians and what Joshua had done to the Canaanites. In other words, they were waiting for the man who would reclaim the promised land for the Jewish people.
Could Jesus be seen as the new Moses and the new Joshua? Well, there's nothing in the miracle of the loaves and fishes that suggests he was. But that's the way the miracle signs work. No single event gives you the whole picture. According to the gospel accounts, the feeding of the five thousand is immediately followed by another extraordinary feat. And this time, the symbolism all points to Joshua.
As the news of Jesus' remarkable healings spread, more and more people came to hear him and brought their sick and dying loved ones to him. Although Jesus regularly withdrew to be alone and pray, he spent much of the time besieged by desperate people, hanging on his every word. According to the gospels, it was on such a day that one of his most moving healing miracles took place.
Jesus was in the small town of Capernaum, where he and the disciples had made their home. He was teaching inside a house, and the house was packed with people. Mark's Gospel suggests that this was Peter's house. Some of the crowd were locals, but Luke says there were also Pharisees and teachers of the Law there. These officials had travelled from every village in Galilee, and from Judea and Jerusalem, to hear him. They sat and listened, but they had an agenda. This preacher was a maverick, a threat to their authority. There were plenty of rumours about him, but now they had come to see for themselves.
As Luke sets the scene, he adds that 'the power of the Lord was present for him to heal the sick'. Perhaps that power was palpable to some of the onlookers.
Some men came carrying a paralytic on a mat and tried to take him into the house to lay him before Jesus. When they could not find a way to do this because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and lowered him on his mat through the tiles into the middle of the crowd, right in front of Jesus.
It is a memorable image - the packed, hushed room disturbed as plaster and dust fall from the ceiling and a paralyzed man is lowered down on a stretcher in front of Jesus. It sounds like an extraordinary feat, to climb onto the roof of a house with a sick man and lower him down. But it is not as hard as it seems.
Many Middle Eastern houses today are built in very much the same way as in Jesus' time. In a town like Capernaum, the houses would be clustered together in an intricate network of courtyards, stairs and rooms interconnected on all levels. Those desperate friends of the paralyzed man could have reached the roof through a neighbouring house. Once there, all they had to do was make a hole. The roof - like many still today - would be made of sticks, straw and mud.
You might think Jesus would be furious, or shocked, when his teaching was interrupted so dramatically. But according to the gospels, his reaction was far from angry, as shown here in Luke's account:
When Jesus saw their faith, he said "Friend, your sins are forgiven." The Pharisees and the teachers of the law began thinking to themselves, "Who is this fellow who speaks blasphemy? Who can forgive sins but God alone?"
Jesus knew what they were thinking and asked, "Why are you thinking these things in your hearts? Which is easier: to say, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Get up and walk?' But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins..."
He said to the paralyzed man, "I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home." Immediately he stood up in front of them, took what he had been lying on and went home praising God. Everyone was amazed and gave praise to God. They were filled with awe and said, "We have seen remarkable things today."
Of course, some have argued that the paralysed man may have suffered from a psychosomatic illness, that his paralysis did not have a physical cause and was therefore more susceptible to suggestion. Many, however, accept that a remarkable healing took place that day in the house at Capernaum.
Either way, it was another astonishing spectacle from Jesus. It is not hard to imagine the reaction of the onlookers. In Luke's words 'everyone was amazed'. But the reason for their amazement was not the healing itself. To a first-century Jewish audience, the jaw-dropping moment came just before Jesus told the man to take up his mat and walk home.
'Friend, your sins are forgiven.' In the Jewish faith, only one person has the authority to forgive sins, and that is God himself. Of course, people offended by others can choose to forgive them for that offence, but no one can forgive all a man's sins except God. For the Pharisees and teachers of the Law, it confirmed what they suspected about Jesus - that he was a blasphemer.
No mere man could forgive another man's sins. Jesus had crossed a significant and dangerous line in the eyes of the authorities, and he had done it in a crowded public place.
What must his disciples have thought, as they went back to their fishing boats after the people had gone home? First, the message of Jesus' miracles showed him to be a prophet like Elijah, then a great military leader like Moses or Joshua. By forgiving the sins of a paralyzed man was he now acting as if he were God himself? It's a question that must have altered the way the disciples saw another of Jesus' great signs, walking on the water. When they saw Jesus walking on the Sea of Galilee - and thereby crossing the River Jordan - it may have struck them that he was acting out the role of Joshua, who crossed the Jordan to conquer the Canaanites and claim the promised land. If they had understood that by forgiving the sins of the paralyzed man Jesus was claiming to be God, perhaps they would now see another powerfully symbolic strand in Jesus' walking on the water.
Jews who knew the ancient scriptures would have been familiar with the idea that evil dwelt in a fiery hell. But the scriptures made it clear that evil had another home - the sea. One of the most evocative Jewish representations of evil was Leviathan, a monster who dwelt in the sea. And those ancient scriptures did more than locate the sea as a place inhabited by evil. They also set out who has power over that domain. The book of Job said of God, 'He alone stretches out the heavens and treads on the waves of the sea.' He alone?
When they saw Jesus acting as Joshua - crossing the River Jordan - close to their boat on the Sea of Galilee, it may have crossed their minds that this was a sign of something even greater. If by walking on the sea Jesus was symbolically trampling evil underfoot, then he was acting as God.
This raises a major question. How conscious was Jesus that his miracles were acting as signs? What was going on in his mind? Did he see himself as a prophet - the new Elijah? As a military saviour like Moses and Joshua? Or did he see himself as God? How clear was his sense of his own role and identity? To answer that question, we need to understand the language of the healings and exorcisms. They too will need to be decoded by exploring the mindset of first-century Jews.
So far the signs have revealed that Jesus was seen by his contemporaries as a long-awaited saviour. But the precise identity of this saviour has been less clear. Some miracles showed him to be a great prophet like Elijah, heralding a new age of peace and prosperity. Others showed him as a type of political leader like Moses, or a longed-for warrior like Joshua. Perhaps Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah who would set the Jews free from Roman occupation.
However, another famous miracle gives us a glimpse of a third possibility - that Jesus saw himself as more than a prophet, leader or warrior.
As Jesus and the disciples set out on one of their many trips across the Sea of Galilee, they were hit by an unexpected and violent crisis, as recounted here in the Gospel of Mark.
That day, when evening came, he said to his disciples, "Let us go over to the other side." Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped.
Certainly this part of the story appears to be accurate. Sudden violent storms from the east in the early evenings of winter are well known in the area. The fisherman here call them Sharkia, Arabic for shark. The disciples are fighting for their lives. So does Jesus join the battle to save the boat? Not according to the Bible account:
Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, "Teacher, don't you care if we drown?" He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, "Quiet! Be still!" Then the wind died down and it was completely calm. He said to his disciples, "Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?" They were terrified and asked each other, "Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!"
It's the act of someone with incredible power, and it makes the disciples question who on earth Jesus was. Not surprisingly, the Bible says they are awestruck. Jesus - it appears - can control the very elements...
"Who is this that even the wind and sea obey him?"
Now, of course, from a modern western scientific perspective, the fascinating question is 'what really happened?' Perhaps the storm was about to subside anyway, and the 'miracle' may have been little more than good timing.
But in order to understand the miracle as a sign, we need to focus on the meaning of the event rather than the event itself. That meaning was what left the disciples awestruck. It was more than shocking, it was scandalous.
Once again, the key to unlocking the significance of Jesus' actions lies in the ancient prophecies of the Jews, prophecies that the disciples would have heard in childhood, and were later made to learn by heart.
According to these ancient texts there was only one person who had the power to control the stormy seas - God himself.
One passage from the book of Psalms recalls occasions in the history of the Jewish nation when God had used his power to rescue his people, and the way he used that power is strikingly reminiscent of the way Jesus used his power that day on the Sea of Galilee.
The Psalm describes how God's people were in boats in a storm and cried to God for help, and how in response he is said to have stilled the storm and calmed the waves.
Others went out into the sea in ships;
they were merchants on the mighty waters.
They saw the works of the Lord,
his wonderful deeds in the deep.
For he spoke and stirred up a tempest that lifted high the waves.
They mounted up to the heavens and went down to the depths;
in their peril their courage melted away.
They reeled and staggered like drunken men;
they were at their wits' end.
Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble,
and he brought them out of their distress.
He stilled the storm to a whisper;
the waves of the sea were hushed.
They were glad when it grew calm,
and he guided them to their desired haven.
Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love
and his wonderful deeds for men.
Let them exalt him in the assembly of the people
and praise him in the council of the elders.
The disciples would have made the connection with the Psalms immediately as they watched Jesus command the storm. By rebuking the wind and the sea, Jesus was showing that he had authority over the elements. As only God could claim such authority, Jesus was acting as if he were God.
But for the disciples, that revelation was not to be greeted with unalloyed joy. It was much too complicated for that. They were all too aware that for a Jewish man to act as if he were God could mean two things. Either he really was God in human form, or this was nothing short of blasphemy, and blasphemers were mad or demonic. Either way, they were usually dead before long.
As it has passed down the centuries, the miracle of the stilling of the storm has lost its edge. It has arrived in the twenty-first-century as a story to comfort the anxious and afflicted, a familiar metaphor for Christian therapy or meditation groups. But it didn't leave the disciples calm and liberated from their troubles. Far from it.
If Jesus' miracles were signs or clues to his identity, then his followers must have had a growing sense of excited anticipation as his teaching, preaching and healing hit its climax. In his final months and weeks, which culminated in his arrival in Jerusalem and a showdown with the Jewish and Roman authorities, they must have felt that those signs were finally being fulfilled.
Here, at last, was the prophetic voice with the timbre of Elijah's voice, speaking hard truths to those in political and religious power. Here, at last, was the leader who would take up the mantle of Moses and Joshua, who would foment revolution, overthrow Roman tyranny and liberate the people of Israel.
All those signs were there in his miracles; all those identities, all those hopes. What then must those followers have thought, as he hung from a bare wooden cross with nails through his hands and his feet, defeated and dying? In those desperate hours, he must have looked more like another deluded rebel who had got it badly wrong; just another young man with big ideas who had underestimated Roman power. Even his closest disciples must have agonized. Who exactly had Jesus been? And what was his life about?
The gospels claim that the answer came when the executed Jesus was physically resurrected. That twist in the tale, say the evangelists, made Jesus none other than the Son of God.
And on the back of that belief, a great world religion was built. Without the feeding of the five thousand or the walking on water, we'd still have Christianity. But without the resurrection, it would be just a minor cult in first-century Judaism. This one miracle - more than any other - changed the world, and if the miracles are signs, then the resurrection is the most important sign of all. To understand it, we need to examine its effects.
It begins with a young man's body hanging from a cross. His followers are leaderless and aimless. Their new movement which promised so much is now on the verge of extinction. Yet, days later, the belief began to spread that this man had risen from the dead. Not only does this idea take hold among his followers, it explodes into a movement that wins converts across the Roman empire.
Its missionaries are persecuted without mercy, but to the amazement of onlookers they seem unafraid of death, so strong is their belief in the resurrection of their leader. These Christians become martyrs in ever increasing numbers. Yet all the time their movement grows and grows, until it finally becomes the official religion of the Roman empire, sanctioned and nurtured by an emperor - Constantine - who becomes a Christian himself. What could account for that extraordinary transformation? What turned a tiny Jewish sect into a worldwide religion?
It all seems to boil down to one event: the resurrection of Jesus. It's the defining moment in the history of Christianity. Today, in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, tourists and pilgrims file past the place where the resurrection is said to have taken place. But what do they make of it? What exactly is the evidence that Jesus was raised from the dead?
Did the early Christians, in their despair and disappointment, simply imagine it? Or were they witnesses to a genuine and unprecedented event in human history?
The story of the miracle of Jesus' resurrection is told in all four gospels - Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. According to these accounts, some of his female followers - in Mark's account it's Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, but it's 'Mary Magdalene and the other Mary' in Matthew - made their way to Jesus's tomb to cover his body in oils, herbs and spices. This was a traditional way of honouring the dead. But as they stepped inside the tomb they found a heap of clothes where the body should have been. The grave clothes in which Jesus was laid to rest had been shrugged off, and the body was gone. As the women try to make sense of what they have seen, a mysterious figure shrouded in white appears to them. The gospel writer Matthew describes the scene:
His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men. The angel said to the women "Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: 'He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.' Now I have told you."
So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples.
The women's experience was followed by a series of appearances by Jesus to those who had known and loved him. Matthew's Gospel tells how, on the way to see the disciples, the women saw Jesus himself coming to meet them.
Suddenly Jesus met them. "Greetings," he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshipped him. Then Jesus said to them, "Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me."
Luke's Gospel reports how Jesus also appears to a follower called Cleopas and his companion on the road to Emmaus:
Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. They were talking with each other about everything that had happened. As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them: but they were kept from recognizing him. He asked them, "What are you discussing together as you walk along?" They stood still, their faces downcast. One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, "Are you only a visitor to Jerusalem and do not know the things that have happened there in these days?" "What things?" he asked. "About Jesus of Nazareth," they replied. "He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people."
Jesus continues in conversation with the men all the way to Emmaus, and they tell Jesus - as yet unrecognized - the story of his own life and death. Jesus, in return tells them that all they have described was foretold in the scriptures. In Luke's account, it is only when they reach the village that they realize the identity of this talkative stranger.
As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus acted as if he were going no further. But they urged him strongly, "Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over." So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognised him, and he disappeared from their sight. They asked each other, "Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?"
John's Gospel finds Peter and the fishermen working through the night on the Sea of Galilee, but to no avail. They are preparing to come back in with empty nets, when in the half-light of dawn they catch sight of Jesus standing on the shore.
Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realise that it was Jesus. He called out to them, "Friends, haven't you any fish?" "No," they answered. He said, "Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some." When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish. Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, "It is the Lord!"
As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, "It is the Lord," he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. The other disciples followed him in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from the shore, about a hundred yards. When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread. Jesus said to them, "Bring some of the fish you have just caught." Simon Peter climbed aboard and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn.
Jesus said to them, "Come and have breakfast." None of the disciples dared to ask him, "Who are you?" They knew it was the Lord. Jesus came, took bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead.
Biblical theologians believe that the earliest written account of the resurrection, and of the resurrection appearances in particular, is in Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, written around twenty years after the events described, even before Mark's Gospel. Paul includes his own encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus among Jesus' resurrection appearances. That encounter changed Paul's life, and changed the course of Christian history.
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
1 Corinthians 15:3-8
According to Paul, Jesus is said to have appeared to more than five hundred people in total. And that is the historical evidence on which the resurrection is based - an empty tomb and several dramatic appearances by the risen Jesus to his disciples. The idea that a man could be raised from the dead has been a stumbling block to many believers, and a source of scepticism to many unbelievers. Is it possible that the whole thing was based on a mistake? Did the women go to the wrong tomb? Did the disciples imagine the whole thing?
Well, the truth claims for the resurrection begin with the empty tomb, left vacant by the dead man who walked away. And there are tombs from the time of Jesus still left in Jerusalem. These have helped archaeologists to answer questions about some details, like the size and shape of the stone that was rolled away from the mouth of the tomb. But there are some scholars who regard the study of tombs like this as utterly irrelevant to any investigation into the resurrection. For them, the resurrection story falls down even before it reaches the tomb. According to this theory, the body of Jesus was never in the tomb in the first place.
In 1968, a team of builders was hard at work laying foundations for some new houses and roads in Giv'at Ha'mivtar, a suburb of north Jerusalem. At the time, the whole area was a wasteland, and the builders were digging it up in preparation for this new development. One morning they stumbled across something unusual. They suspected it might be important, so they called in experts to advise them. The experts confirmed that they had found an ancient tomb.
But the most amazing discovery was yet to come. When they looked inside the tomb, archaeologists discovered an ossuary - a stone box - containing bones from the time of Jesus. It was the custom in Jesus' time for the bones of the dead to be removed from their tomb after six to twenty-four months, and placed in an ossuary to make the tomb available for other corpses.
In this particular ossuary, the archaeologists found one bone that particularly caught their attention. What made this bone distinctive was the rusty nail still lodged in it. After further investigation, they established that these were the remains of a crucified man called Jehohannan.
For the archaeologists, it was a breakthrough moment. Jehohannan was the first victim of crucifixion ever found in Israel. Experts at the time believed he would be the first of many, because the records showed that the Romans had crucified thousands of Jewish rebels.
Yet to their surprise, after nearly four more decades of digging, no more victims of crucifixion have ever been found. Why not? In Tel Aviv, curators at the Israel Antiquities Authority museum had a unique opportunity to find out. They have access to an extensive collection of Jewish ossuaries from the time of Jesus. Surely among all these examples there must be a clue as to what became of all the crucifixion victims. But despite combing through every ossuary, the Tel Aviv experts did not find any bones that suggested the victim had been crucified.
The implications of this lack of evidence were unsettling. One of the central tenets of Christian history was under threat, and the case for the resurrection of Jesus potentially undermined. The logic was clear. If the bones of crucified rebels were not ending up in ossuaries, then perhaps it was because the original victims were not being placed in tombs in the first place. And if that were true then was it possible that the body of Jesus was never placed in a tomb? Perhaps his tomb was found to be empty by his followers simply because it was never occupied at all?
If that is the case, then it raises a big question: where, if not in a tomb, did the bodies of Jewish rebels like Jesus finish up? To answer that one, archaeologists began to hunt in the unlikeliest locations. Just south of the city of Jerusalem is one such place. Today it is a park, but from the evidence of chiselling all over the rock face, it is clear to archaeologists that this was once a quarry. At the time of Jesus, quarries had a dual purpose. Not only were they used to cut stone for building, they were also used by the Romans for public executions. Historians now believe that Jesus would have been crucified in just such a quarry. But places like this served other purposes too. The remains of some tombs hewn from the rock suggest that people were not just killed here, they were buried too. Was this the fate of Jesus' body, to be placed in a simple quarry tomb close to the place where he died?
Well, perhaps not, because quarries like this fulfilled yet another purpose for the people of Jesus' time, and even today the local people use it in the same way. Scavenging stray dogs and birds of prey are drawn here not because it is a park, but because one corner is a rubbish dump.
Since the first century, quarries have doubled as city rubbish dumps, but two thousand years ago they were places of execution too. The people who nailed Jesus to the cross were Roman soldiers, and crucifixion was the lowest form of punishment they knew. To suffer the ignominy of dying on a cross marked you out as beneath contempt, an outcast. It is hard to see those soldiers bothering to treat the bodies of their crucified victims with honour and respect. Surely the easiest solution would be to take the bodies down and throw them on the garbage dump, to be dealt with by the dogs and birds.
Maybe that would explain why not a single bone of a crucified rebel was found in all those ossuaries? According to this theory - shocking though it may sound - the body of Jesus never made it to a tomb: it was thrown on a rubbish tip and eaten by dogs. This theory held some sway in the 1990s, but then came the evidence against it - evidence which suggests not only that Jesus' body may not have been thrown to the dogs, but that his body must have made it to the tomb, exactly as depicted in the gospel accounts. The case begins with the nails themselves.
Jerusalem is a huge city, and there are thousands of tombs still waiting to be excavated. Perhaps that is one reason why only one victim of crucifixion has been found to date. The tombs most likely to have survived were the well-built, well-situated tombs of the wealthy, and they were most unlikely to have been crucified. In fact, there could be numerous tombs of crucifixion victims that remain undiscovered; but even if every last one was found, the odds on finding another bone with a nail through it are remote to say the least.
The truth is that most rebels were not nailed to their crosses, but tied to them. Some would have been nailed to their crosses - it was a Roman practice - but historians believe there is little chance of finding any of their remains. The reason is simple: the nails of crucified victims were regarded as some of the most powerful charms, or amulets, in the ancient world. Ordinary people prized them very highly, believing that they had healing properties. And apart from their popularity as charms, the crucifixion nails were often reused by the Roman soldiers. So immediately after crucified victims were cut down from their crosses, the nails would be removed from their bodies and pocketed.
No wonder the bones of only one clearly crucified victim have ever been found - not because animals ate the remains off a rubbish tip, but because there is no way for archaeologists to tell if the bones found in tombs were those of crucifixion victims or not. Those tell-tale signs, like nails stuck through bones, are always missing.
So why was the bone of Jehohannan discovered with a nail still through it? Why didn't looters make off with it, or Roman soldiers reuse it? Well, the answer lies in that particular nail. It has a bent tip. When they took his body down from the cross, they must have found they could not prize it out. When Jehohannan was nailed to his cross, this nail must have hit a knot in the wood and bent, fixing it to the bone for good. So the discovery of this bone does not mean that Jesus' body was thrown to the dogs. In fact, there are strong grounds for thinking that Jesus - like all Jews - would have been given a proper burial.
Under Jewish law everyone, even the most despised criminal, had to have a proper burial in order to save the land from being defiled. To that end, there were strict procedures for the disposal of bodies, which had to be laid in tombs by sunset on the day of death. All the evidence suggests that the Romans would have respected local religious customs. The strength of their empire was built on adaptability and tolerance of indigenous beliefs, as long as they didn't contradict the aims and beliefs of the Romans themselves. History records that, more than once, Pontius Pilate himself caved in to Jewish demands.
To expose the corpse of an executed Jew beyond the interval permitted by the Law, and then to allow it to be mutilated by scavengers just outside the city of Jerusalem, was a recipe for a riot. So, what would have happened to Jesus' body? The normal practice would have been to wash, perfume and bind the body so that it wouldn't smell in the heat at the funeral seven days later. This was a laborious procedure which could take up to twenty-four hours. It was governed by religious custom and by a powerful sense of respect for the body.
But if Jesus died in the afternoon, as the gospel accounts suggest, then there would not have been sufficient time to prepare the body that day. The women would be forced to leave the body unwashed in the sealed tomb, then come back another day to finish the job. However, the timing was very unfortunate. According to the gospel accounts, Jesus died on a Friday, in which case the women could not return the following day - Saturday - because that day was the Sabbath. The earliest opportunity for the women to attend to the body of Jesus was first light Sunday morning, precisely when the gospels say the women did return to the tomb.
So, it is perfectly plausible that Jesus' body was placed in a tomb after his death, and that the women came to it on the third day, just as the gospels describe. But the gospel writers claim much more than that. They suggest that the tomb was empty because a miracle had taken place, because Jesus had risen from the dead. How can that claim be examined?
Well, theologians set about the task in much the same way that we examine any remarkable or contentious event in our own time: by scrutinizing the motives and accounts of eyewitnesses who were there at the right place and time, and the reporters who mediate the eyewitness accounts to us. Did the eyewitnesses or the reporters make the story up? Who can we believe?
Extract from The Miracles of Jesus by Michael Symmons Roberts, the official book of the BBC One series which was first broadcast in the Summer of 2006. The book features illustrations throughout including many stills from the programmes (ISBN 0 7459 5194 5, £14.99).
In this 2002 broadcast Dr Mark Goodacre, Senior Lecturer in New Testament at the University of Birmingham, and Dr Ed Kessler, executive director of the centre for Jewish-Christian Relations at Cambridge, discussed the historical evidence concerning the resurrection of Jesus with Prof Daryl Schmidt (now deceased), former Professor of New Testament at Texas Christian University and Fellow of the Jesus Seminar.
In 2008 Professor Gary Habermas, one of the USA's most respected philosophers, gave an interview to the Today Programme on BBC Radio 4. He talks about his claim that there's historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus.
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