Tag Archives: Resurrection

How Does the Gospel of Mark Really End?

Yesterday’s Easter sermon covered the last few verses in the Gospel of Mark…. or did it?

If you pick up any copy of any modern English Bible translation, Mark 16 starts off telling the reader that the women came to the tomb, where Jesus was laid after the crucifixion, early on Sunday morning, only to find that the stone at the entrance of the tomb had been rolled away, and a “young man” (an angel perhaps?) sought to answer the questions that the women had in their minds at that moment:

‘And he said to them, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid’ (Mark 16:6-8 ESV).

The end.

It is a very awkward ending to the Gospel. This unknown figure announces that Jesus has been risen from the dead, but there are no resurrection appearances of Jesus to the women. That is really odd, but that is what you have here.

The graveyard at Bruton Parish Church, in Williamsburg, Virginia. What if you were among the women to visit the grave of Jesus, and Jesus was not there, but someone told you that Jesus had been raised from the dead?

However, what is interesting is that most every modern Bible translation will then include a note. The English Standard Version (ESV) modestly reads, “Some of the earliest manuscripts do not include 16:9–20.”  The New International Version (NIV) is bolder and more direct, “The earliest manuscripts and some other ancient witnesses do not have verses 9–20.

Most of these modern translations will then have a footnote describing what is called the “shorter ending of Mark.” They will often include, in the main body of the text, what is called the “longer ending of Mark.” The most interesting feature of the “longer ending of Mark” is that it includes the infamous snake-handling verse (Mark 16:18), that some Christian groups in Appalachia use as a prooftext for handling live snakes in their worship services (Link to creepy National Geographic story on snake handling).

So, what is the story with these alternative endings for Mark?

Many Christians familiar with the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible will notice that there is no note at the end of verse 8, but that verses 9-16 are included anyway (the longer ending of Mark).  Many therefore conclude (understandably) that the longer ending is the authentic ending for the Gospel of Mark.

However, most scholars (Christian and non-Christian) do not believe that the “longer ending” (or even the “shorter ending”) of Mark are authentic. But scholars differ as to why most of our earliest sources lack anything after verse 8. Perhaps Mark just left the Gospel as a cliff-hanger at the end. Perhaps the original ending to Mark’s Gospel simply got lost, as though the last few inches of Mark’s papyrus got ripped off. A handful of scholars even suggest that some type of oral tradition gives us the alternative endings to Mark that are found after verse 8. Others say that it just seemed too awkward for Mark to end the Gospel at verse 8, so other endings were invented to smooth out the ending of the story.

The bottom line is that we simply do not know how to account for Mark’s abrupt ending at verse 8. Aside from the snake-handling verse, which is perhaps an allusion to Paul being bitten by a snake on the island of Malta, and surviving (Acts 28:1-7), (and the related bit about drinking poison), there is nothing in verse 9-16 that is not repeated or covered elsewhere in the New Testament. No theological problems here. So, we do not lose any specific Christian doctrine if we recognize verses 9-16 as not being authentic.

But it does make for some interesting conversation!!

For a “shorter” summary of the broad scholarly consensus on Mark 16:9-20, you might want to briefly look at the 2 1/2 minute video below from a recent Mike Licona debate. For a “longer” summary, you can consider Mike Winger’s 2-hour video teaching on the topic. Mike Winger is one of most popular Christian Bible teachers / apologists today on YouTube, with over 400,000 followers. As a church pastor, with a YouTube channel on the side, Mike Winger says he spent 150 hours researching this topic. Did you ever think it was possible to spend 150 hours studying the final 12 verses of the longer end of Mark?

 

 


Zombie Apocalypse on Good Friday?

Here is one of those Bible passages you probably never hear a sermon about:

50 But Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and gave up his spirit.51 Suddenly, the curtain of the sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom, the earth quaked, and the rocks were split. 52 The tombs were also opened and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. 53 And they came out of the tombs after his resurrection, entered the holy city, and appeared to many. (Matthew 27:50-53, Christian Standard Bible)

It is Good Friday. Jesus had just died, after being crucified on the cross. Verse 51 is loaded with interesting details, but the really weird part starts in verse 52. At first glance, it seems like something out of the 1968 movie, The Night of the Living Dead. Does this mean we really have “zombies” in our Bible?

... Another post in a series on “historical criticism” of the Bible. Go ahead and skip the video clip linked here, for The Night of the Living Dead, if you do not want to get freaked out….

A “Zombie” Apocalypse on Good Friday?

What makes this text all the more strange is the fact that only in the Gospel of Matthew do we have this story about the “zombies.” None of the other three Gospels even hint at this. You would think that the Resurrection of Jesus is a big enough event, but to have a whole group of raised saints wandering around Jerusalem would have really caused a stir. Where did they all go? What is going on here?

There are two basic ways of interpreting this passage: The traditional view suggests that this is an historical event that Matthew uniquely records. Yet trying to grapple with who these “saints” are, and what this all means, are both provocative questions.

The most common explanation is that these raised “saints” are Old Testament believers, such as some heroes of the faith, like the great prophets of the Old Testament, like Isaiah and Jeremiah, perhaps.  Some tie this story of these raised “saints” with the Harrowing of Hell, commonly associated with the phrase, “He descended into hell/hades,” found in the classic early creed of the church, the Apostle Creed, which some suggest teaches that between his death on Good Friday, and his Resurrection on Sunday, Jesus is preaching the Gospel to those who have died, raising those who believe to new life.

The apocalyptic/metaphorical view suggests that this story in Matthew is not an historical event, but rather a type of prophetic vision of what will happen in the End Times, which is the reason why it is called “apocalyptic.” The appearance of raised saints points forward to the future, whereby all true believers in Jesus will be raised permanently to eternal life. While the apocalyptic/metaphorical view does not insist that this actually happened historically on Good Friday, it is nevertheless still true, since it is anticipating the reality of the future Resurrection.

Dr. Michael Licona, a New Testament scholar, and probably one of the most able defenders of the Bodily Resurrection of Jesus, against the skeptics who deny Jesus’ Resurrection, takes this metaphorical view.  Dr. Licona came under severe criticism about ten years ago, or so, by suggesting that this story is an example of “special effects” added in by Matthew, to better explain the meaning of Christ’s death. Defenders of the traditional view say that inserting a fictionalized literary device smack dab in the middle of an historical narrative like this interrupts the flow of the story. But even more serious, Licona’s critics accused him of denying biblical inerrancy by “de-historicizing” this element of Matthew’s narrative.

So, which view is right? The traditional, historical view or the apocalyptic/metaphorical view?

A still frame from George Romero’s 1968 horror film, Night of the Living Dead. Matthew the Evangelist did not have this in mind regarding the risen dead that walked the streets of Jerusalem, following Christ’s Resurrection. But this peculiar incident in Matthew’s Gospel raises some interesting questions: Did Matthew mean this to be part of his historical narrative, or was this an apocalyptic metaphor, looking to the future?

Examining the Evidence

In classical debates about how best to interpret difficult passages like this, it is always the prudent idea to place the burden of proof on the non-traditional view. The traditional view, by the very fact that it has been embraced by Christians for a long period of time, even back to the period of the early church, should enjoy the favor of place in these type of discussions. It is up to defenders of the apocalyptic/metaphorical view to see if they can meet the burden of proof, in order to overturn the tradition.

Furthermore, defenders of the traditional view are concerned that the metaphorical view might call other miraculous events in Scripture into question. This is a very reasonable concern: Where do you draw the line here, and on what grounds do you make a distinction between an historical narrative account versus a prophetic, metaphorical vision of some sort?  Jesus spoke in parables, which are fictional teaching devices, but the Gospels also claim that the Resurrection of Jesus is a real historical event, in space and time. The Bodily Resurrection of Jesus has the unanimous consensus from our New Testament sources, including all four Gospels. For if Jesus is risen from the dead, then this opens up the historical possibility of other miraculous Bible events having happened in history as well. But does this necessarily mean that the best explanation for another difficult passage requires a “miraculous” explanation? Another “non-miraculous” explanation, that fits the data better, might actually make better sense of the text. But does the evidence really support this? Traditionalists have a right to be worried, as some Christians, who find no difficulty in accepting the Bodily Resurrection of Jesus, will go to great lengths to dismiss other miracles, such as the Virgin Birth of Jesus, as a pious fiction, a view which causes all sorts of mischief.

From the perspective of an historian, one could argue that both the traditional and apocalyptic/metaphorical views are historical possibilities.  Only those skeptics who reject the supernatural would rule out the traditional view as a possibility, because the idea of people walking around after being dead is most definitely a supernatural event. For some who employ the historical critical method, the impossibility of the miraculous is the starting point, and the divine inspiration of the text is an assumption that can be safely set aside, for the sake of getting at the “real” history. In other words, if you treat the miraculous with utter disdain, or you reject the concept of God-breathed inspired Scripture, then the whole business about Matthew’s Gospel “zombies” as historical event will probably just come across to you as completely silly. For historically orthodox Christians, the use of historical critical method does not require one to take those kind of skeptical steps.

However, it is not enough to determine an event’s possibility. What is more difficult is to try to determine how plausible an event might be, considering the evidence, and then try to weigh that evidence to figure out what view is more probable, compared to the other alternatives.

The sheer weight of tradition is not something to dismiss lightly. However, there are a number of factors to consider, that are frankly ignored or otherwise distorted by some commentators who defend the traditional view.

The first thing to consider is what did it mean for these saints to be “raised?” After all, Jesus himself had raised Lazarus from the dead (John 11:1-44). But was the raising of Lazarus the same as the raising of these saints on Good Friday?

Most scholars would agree that Lazarus was risen from the dead, but that he eventually died at some later time. You will be hard pressed to find anyone who believes that a 2,000 year old Lazarus is still living in some New York City high-rise apartment, collecting social security. Likewise, there are some who believe that these raised saints on Good Friday eventually died again, just as Lazarus did. Unfortunately, the text in Matthew does not tell us anything about the eventual fate of these raised saints.

If these saints who were raised died again, it does make you wonder what the point of the whole story was about.  For if these raised saints were Old Testament believers, what would the point be for them to be raised, and then die a second time?

The other alternative would be that these raised saints remained alive after this event. Does this mean that a whole group of “zombies” are living in New York City apartments, collecting more social security, and making our taxes so high? Well, most probably not. Unfortunately, if these saints did remain alive, we have no record of an ascension of these saints (Though some do suggest that this is implied by another weird and difficult passage, Ephesians 4:7-10, and/or that these saints quietly ascended to heaven along with Jesus at Jesus’ ascension).

The real tricky part is trying to make this historical reconstruction of events fit with other parts of Scripture. Here is the Apostle Paul:

20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep…. 23 But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. 24 Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. (1 Corinthians 15:20,23-24 ESV)

Some commentators say that the raised saints on Good Friday are some of the “firstfruits” of the resurrection promised to all believers. Some suggest that verse 23 above should have a comma after “Christ” but before “the firstfruits“, to therefore read: “But each in his own order: Christ, the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.”  In other words, first Jesus is raised, then the “zombie” saints in Jerusalem, and then finally associated with the event of the Second Coming, everyone else is raised. 

There are several problems here. To take verse 23, and divide it up into three separate events does not mesh well with verse 20, where the Resurrection of Christ, by itself, is equated with the “firstfruits” of the Resurrection. The answer to this objection is that “firstfruits” is plural, which would suggest that multiple events can be associated with these “firstfruits.” In other words, both the Resurrection of Christ AND the raising of these saints together are the “firstfruits.”

True, firstfruits is plural here, but this is a grammatical construction that can have a singular referent. A good example in English is the word mathematics. I majored in mathematics in college, but it does not mean that I double-majored, or triple-majored in multiple mathematic subjects. To say that I majored in mathematics is the same as saying that I majored in math, which is singular. I majored in one subject, mathematics. Likewise, it is perfectly consistent with the biblical text here to say that the (singular) Resurrection of Christ is equivalent to the (plural) firstfruits of the Resurrection. Furthermore, we can find another example of this singular referent to the plural firstfruits in a passage like Romans 16:5, where Epaenetus is described as the “first convert” (firstfruits) to Christ in Asia.

However, the most serious difficulty is that the order of events described by Paul here in 1 Corinthians does not mesh well with the traditional historical interpretation associated with Matthew. A number of commentators will say that in Matthew’s narrative that Jesus was Resurrected on Sunday morning, and then followed by the raising of the saints, who made their way about Jerusalem. This reconstruction might fit 1 Corinthians, if it was possible to interpret the firstfruits of 1 Corinthians 15 with multiple events.

However, a careful reading of the text shows that this simply is not true. In the Matthew passage quoted above, in the Christian Standard Bible translation, Jesus dies upon the cross on Good Friday (v. 50), then followed by the phrase, “Suddenly….” in verse 51, describing all of the events associated with the death of Jesus, which includes the opening of the tombs and the raising of the saints, all happening there on Good Friday (see verses 51 and 52). It is not until Sunday, after Jesus’ Resurrection do these saints leave their tombs and appear about the city, as we find in verse 53.

What the raised saints were doing in their tombs over the weekend is anyone’s guess…. perhaps they were waking up from their long sleep?? But the point here is to say that the raising of these saints preceded Christ’s Resurrection, which if understood in a non-metaphorical manner, would contradict with what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15. That is a serious problem.

The “Suddenly…” of the Christian Standard Bible (CSB) in verse 51 is obscured in the otherwise excellent English Standard Version (ESV), which has the more archaic “Behold...” The New International Version (NIV) renders this as “At that moment…” There really is no way that you can delay the raising of the saints, in their tombs, until two days later, if the traditional historical interpretation is to be adopted.

However, the most pressing concern is the theological meaning behind the whole “zombie” episode. For if the point of the episode is to tell us that a number of saints were resurrected before Jesus’ Resurrection, it really messes with the whole theology of Resurrection that Paul is trying to describe in 1 Corinthians 15.

Unlike the “resurrection” of Lazarus, who eventually did die sometime in the 1st century timeframe, the Resurrection of Jesus is quite different. When Jesus died on the cross, and then was Resurrected, this Resurrection was (and “is”) permanent. In other words, Jesus will never die again. Likewise, the hope that Paul is trying to give to the Corinthian church is that Resurrection for us as believers, is unlike the story of Lazarus. Instead, our Resurrection will be like that of Christ’s Resurrection. For those believers who have died prior to Jesus’ Second Coming, they will be raised to eternal life, and they will never die again, following the example, the firstfruits, set by Jesus himself.

If this is indeed the point of the Matthew story, then we really are not dealing with something out of a “zombie” horror movie. Rather, the raising of the saints is a look into the future, whereby Matthew wants to reassure the reader that the coming Resurrection of Jesus two days later, after the Crucifixion, is the same hope that we can have as believers, that in the “End Times,” all who have died in Christ will be raised in Christ…. permanently!!

For the Christian, Jesus has conquered death, permanently. That is Good News!!

This is why the “special effects” apolocalyptic literary device mentioned by Michael Licona makes sense with the metaphorical interpretation, in contrast with the traditional, historical interpretation of this passage in Matthew’s Gospel.  Historical critical analysis of this particular text chimes in well with the generally accepted view today that the Gospels fit within the literary genre of Greco-Roman biography. For example, Virgil describes the death of Julius Caesar with all sorts of reports of various apocalyptic phenomena, such as cattle speaking, streams standing still, pale phantoms being spotted at dusk, the opening up of the earth, and a comet being seen. It would have been perfectly acceptable for Matthew to use a similar literary device to make a theological point about the believer’s hope in a future Resurrection.

Where Do You Land on Understanding the “Zombie” Passage in Matthew’s Gospel?

So, which is the better interpretation of this passage? Is it the traditional, historical view, or the metaphorical, future-looking ahead view? Scholars will weigh the evidence differently, in order to make a judgment on the probability of an event. This is not a hill that I am willing to die on, but in my mind, the evidence favors the metaphorical view as the better interpretation, when examining all of the evidence. Has the burden of proof been met, to overturn the traditional view? I would say, yes, but many other devoted Christians would probably disagree with me here.

What does bother me is when some advocates of the traditional, historical view regard advocates of the apocalyptic/metaphorical view as somehow having a lower view of the Bible. With all due respect to such critics, the idea of promoting a particular “miraculous” interpretation of a difficult passage that results in postulating a contradiction in the Bible is not a good way of trying to supposedly “defend the Bible.”

Nevertheless, what both the traditional, historical view and the apocalyptic/metaphorical view have in common is the affirmation that God has the power to conquer death, and that God has done this through the Resurrection of Jesus. That message should give us hope that death does not have the final word. When all seems bleak, and at its darkest, we can trust in the reality that “Sunday is a’coming.”

In these early years of the third decade of the 21st century, we have endured the stench of death from the loss of friends and family who have suffered from Covid-19, and now more recently, we recoil from the horror of bodies left piled up on the streets of the cities of Ukraine. Thankfully, the story of the Christian faith gives us a sense of hope that a Resurrection awaits those who put their trust in Jesus, no matter how dark our world seems today. That is a message worth pondering on Good Friday.

 

In the next post of this series on “historical criticism,” I will review a book written by one of the finest conservative Bible scholars alive today, that uses the tools of “historical criticism” in a very responsible manner, without falling off any theological cliffs, as so many other advocates of “historical criticism” have repeatedly done. Look for it in a week or so.


The Resurrection Gave Us Christianity

What gave us Christianity? The New Testament, or the Resurrection?  In 90-seconds, apologist Frank Turek tells us why it is all about the event of the Risen Jesus (a re-post from Easter last year).


Andy Stanley and Jeff Durbin: An “Unbelievable” Discussion About Apologetics

Veracity readers will know that I have posted several times about Andy Stanley, pastor of one of the largest churches in America. Last month, my wife and I attended the Buckhead branch of Andy Stanley’s church in Atlanta, Georgia. Though pastor Stanley was not preaching that week, it was eye-opening to experience how Stanley’s NorthPoint community network of churches function, to reach a large city like Atlanta.

Andy Stanley has become rather “infamous” for coining the phrase that Christians should “unhitch” their faith from the Old Testament, a theme present in his bestselling book Irresistible. Despite what one might think of this controversy, Andy Stanley is more fundamentally known as a preacher who engages in what is called evidentialist apologetics, in an attempt to reach the non-believer with the Gospel. Evidentialist apologetics is a way of establishing common ground with a skeptical non-believer, seeking to share the Truth of Christ, by making an appeal to scientific and historical evidences that support the validity of the Christian faith. Some good examples of Christian apologists who make use of evidentialist apologetics include J. Warner Wallace, Frank Turek, Michael Licona, and the most well-known of them all, William Lane Craig.

In Andy Stanley’s particular approach, Andy Stanley says we should not start with the Bible, but rather start with the Resurrection of Jesus. We build our case for Christ by making a series of arguments in sequence, beginning with the reality of Christ’s resurrection, which leads to establishing the divine authority of Jesus, which then leads to the authority of the Bible, and its salvation message. The simplest way to put it is that it is the event of the Resurrection that gives us the text of the Bible, as we have it today, and not the other way around.

So, I was really excited to learn that Justin Brierley, of the British apologetics podcast, Unbelievable?, was able to get Andy Stanley together with presuppositionalist apologist Jeff Durbin, in order to discuss the nature of apologetics. In contrast with evidentialist apologetics, presuppositional apologetics takes a different approach, whereby you begin with the self-attestation of the truthfulness of Scripture first, and only then speak of the various doctrinal claims of the Christian faith, including Christ’s resurrection. Jeff Durbin himself is a pastor in Phoenix, Arizona, who has been mentored by perhaps the most influential presuppositional apologist, of a Calvinist persuasion, of our day, James White, of Alpha Omega Ministries, also headquartered in Phoenix, Arizona. Durbin, a popular YouTube Reformed apologist, has the unique distinction of being cast in several martial arts movies.

While I do believe that presuppositionalist apologetics does have its place, I am more of an evidentialist. Perhaps that is because that is how God reached me with the Gospel. I tend to differ with Durbin’s brand of apologetics, as presuppositionalist apologetics often begs the question: How do you build a case for Jesus, based on the Bible, when the non-believer does not believe the Bible to be trustworthy in the first place?

Sure, you could begin an evangelistic discussion by asking your listener to pretend that the Bible is reliable and true. But there is a big gap between pretending to believe the Bible, versus actually believing the evidence that exists, to support the authenticity of its message.

Even Christians often come to the Bible with their own negative judgments. An evidentialist approach seeks to build a bridge, that can help the skeptic or puzzled Christian to rethink their own reason for looking down at the Bible, or certain parts of the Bible. A presuppositional approach works great, if the person shares the same presuppositions. But a purely presuppositional approach tends to lead people to talk right past one another. In the worst cases, the presuppositional approach blows up bridges instead of building bridges, in our evangelistic or discipleship conversations.

A more troublesome question for presuppositional apologetics is this: Why start with the Bible? Why not the Book of Mormon? Or the Koran? Or the Bhagavad Gita?

Even if you start with the Bible, as opposed to starting with the evidence for the Resurrection, you still have to figure out which systematic view of the Bible you plan to go with: A Calvinist view? An Arminian view? A dispensationalist view? A charismatic view? Which one?

Andy Stanley’s particular approach does have some problems, as I have discussed before, so it is great to have someone like a Jeff Durbin, with whom I still have more disagreements with, on the other side of the debate, to challenge him. In the end, it is quite clear that there is no “one size fits all” approach to Christian apologetics that works for everyone. The discussion between Stanley and Durbin is great way to figure out where you stand, with respect to how you defend your faith, when engaging a skeptical non-believer. A riveting 90-minutes. This really is an amazing discussion!!


Why the New Testament Did Not Give Us Christianity (In 90 Seconds)

The New Testament did not give us the Resurrection; the Resurrection gave us the New Testament. Some Christians strangely think this is controversial. But this is spot on. Thanks, Frank Turek. It all comes down to the Risen Jesus.

Praise the Lord! HE IS RISEN INDEED!!


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