Easter Challenge followup

March 30, 2013

(Update: Since I originally published this essay, the Theology Web experienced an apparent computer malfunction that caused it to lose most of its forum data. As a result, the link in the first paragraph no longer works.)

The latest attempt that I know of to meet Dan Barker’s Easter Challenge was presented in the Theology Web forum by a poster called Adam, who thought he could pull it off by omitting the so-called “long ending” of Mark, verses 9-20 of Chapter 16, given the mainstream academic consensus that they were not part of the original document. Whether Barker would agree to this, I don’t know, though I suspect he would not. Being interested in seeing whether Mark 16:9-20 was the only obstacle to producing a coherent narrative, I told Adam that if he was successful, I would say so on my Web site, for whatever that might be worth—very little, I suspect, given its near-invisibility.

Barker, in correspondence with the author of another submission, faulted that author not only for omitting some details but also for his narrative's implausibility. His challenge, as published and as I understand it, says nothing about plausibility, and I assured Adam that I would not disqualify his narrative on that ground, that I would judge it solely on the basis of its logical consistency. That is because, as I suggested in my earlier essay on the subject, the challenge is practically pointless except as a test of inerrancy.

Adam’s original submission was little more than a mere copying-and-pasting of the biblical narratives rearranged into a single sequence interspersed with a few time-and-place markers. This made it almost too unintelligible to analyze for coherence, so I volunteered to rewrite it into plain English. When I was done he agreed that it was equivalent to what he had done. In his words: “You have said what I said.”

This is the narrative, slightly reformatted and with trivial editorial corrections:

Day 1

An earthquake struck Jerusalem at around 3 a.m. At the same time, an angel appeared at Jesus’ tomb and rolled away the stone from its entrance. The guards at the scene were frightened into a stupor.

Around two hours later, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene arrived and saw that the stone had been moved. She left and returned an hour later, around sunrise, accompanied by Salome and Mary, James’s mother. The three women were bringing spices and wondering aloud among themselves how they could find someone to move the stone away from the tomb entrance. Upon arrival at the tomb, they found the stone already moved away. They then entered the tomb but saw that Jesus’ body was missing. Instead they saw a young man in a white robe, who said to them, “There is no need to be so amazed. You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is not here. He has risen, as he said he would. Here is the place where they laid him; see for yourselves.”

Next the women saw two men in bright clothing. Now terrified, they prostrated themselves. The men said to the women, “Why look among the dead for someone who is alive? He is not here; he has risen. Remember what he told you when he was still in Galilee, that the Son of man was destined to be handed over into the power of sinful men and be crucified, and rise again on the third day. But you must go and tell his disciples and Peter he has risen from the dead. He is going ahead of you to Galilee; that is where you will see him. He told you so, and look, now I have told you.”

By now it was around 7 a.m. The women remembered Jesus’ words and fled the tomb, frightened; and, because of their fear, they said nothing to anyone.

About a half-hour later, Mary Magdalene was back at the tomb, weeping, when she saw two angels. They asked her why she was crying. She replied, “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they laid him.” She then turned around and saw Jesus but did not recognize him. He asked her, “Why are you crying and who are you looking for?” Assuming he was the gardener, she said, “Lord, if you have removed him, tell me where you laid him, and I will take him away.” Then Jesus spoke her name, and she replied, “Rabboni.” Then he said, “Do not touch me, because I have not ascended to the Father yet. Go to my brothers and tell them that I am ascending to my Father and your Father and my God and your God.”

Another half-hour passed, during which time the other women rejoined Mary at the tomb. Jesus said to them, “Greetings,” and they clasped his feet, paying homage to him. He said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers that they must leave for Galilee. They will see me there.” Now elated, the three women left the tomb to find the disciples and give them the news.

Around 9 a.m., Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and the other Mary, James’s mother, found the eleven disciples and told them what had happened. The men dismissed their reports as nonsense. However, Peter and another disciple, John, went to the tomb to see for themselves. John arrived ahead of Peter and looked inside the tomb without entering it, seeing only the burial cloths. Peter caught up and they both went inside. They saw nothing but burial cloths. It was now around 9 a.m.

While all this was going on, some of the guards were on their way into the city to tell the priests what had happened earlier that morning. They met the priests around 10 a.m. and made their report. They were given a large amount of money and instructed: “This is the story you’re going to tell anyone who asks: You fell asleep, and while you were sleeping, his disciples came and stole the body. And don’t worry about the governor finding out. We’ll arrange things with him so that you won’t get into any trouble.” The guards took the money and did as they were instructed. The story persists to this day among the Jews that Jesus’ body was stolen.

Later, during that afternoon, Cleopas and another man who had learned of the women’s reports were on the road to Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, discussing everything that had occurred. They were joined by Jesus, who asked them what they were talking about. Not recognizing him, they said to him, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know what has been happening?” He responded, “And what has been happening?” They replied, “We’re talking about Jesus of Nazareth. He was a prophet, mighty in deed and word before God and everyone. We were hoping he would be Israel’s redeemer, but our chief priests and rulers set him up to be condemned and crucified. That was three days ago. Now some of our women are saying that they were at his tomb this morning and didn’t find his body. They say they saw some angels who told them he was alive. Some of our guys went to the tomb to see for themselves. And, like the women said, the tomb was empty and Jesus wasn’t there.”

Jesus then said to them, “You fools! You won’t even believe what the prophets said. Was it not necessary for the messiah to suffer these things and enter into his glory?” Then he expounded on Moses and all the prophets, interpreting everything the scriptures had said about himself.

Jesus was done talking about the time they arrived at Emmaus. He appeared to be going further, but they said, “It’s almost evening. Why don’t you stay with us,” and he accepted their invitation. As they began supper, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. Suddenly they recognized him. Suddenly, too, he vanished out of their sight. They said to each other, “Did we not feel a warm glow within us while he talked to us on the road, while he was explaining the scriptures?”

At around this same time, Jesus appeared to Cephas in Jerusalem. It was now about 4 in the afternoon. Cleopas and his companion immediately left Emmaus to return to Jerusalem. They arrived two hours later and found the eleven disciples, except for Thomas, in a room behind closed doors. The two men said to the others, “The Lord really has risen and has appeared to Simon!” and then reported on their encounter with Jesus that afternoon. While they were talking, Jesus appeared among them and said, “Peace to you.”

Everyone was startled and scared, thinking they were seeing a ghost. Jesus showed them his hands and side, saying, “What is your problem? See my hands and my feet? It’s really me. Ghosts don’t have flesh and bones like this.” They were still not sure what to think. Jesus asked them for something to eat. They gave him some fish, and he ate it. Then he said to them, “I’m telling you again what I’ve already told you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses, and the prophets, and the psalms, must be fulfilled.”

Then he made them understand the scriptures. He said, “It is written: The messiah had to suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and repentance and forgiveness of sins would be preached in his name to all nations starting Jerusalem. You are witnesses to all of this. Now, peace to all of you. The father sent me, and now I’m sending you.” He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven to them, and if you retain anyone’s sins, they have been retained.”

Day 2

The next day, around noon, some of the disciples found Thomas and told him, “We have seen the Lord.” Thomas answered, “I’m not believing until I see the nail wounds and feel them.”

Day 8

The disciples, this time with Thomas among them, met again in a room behind closed doors in Jerusalem. Again, Jesus appeared in their midst and said, “Peace to you.” Then he said, to Thomas, “Feel my wounds and stop being so skeptical.” Thomas responded, “My Lord and my God.” Jesus said to him, “So, you believe now that you’ve seen? Those who believe without seeing are the blessed ones.”

Day 9

The next morning around 8, the 11 disciples left Jerusalem headed for Galilee.

At around noon the same day, some 500 of Jesus’ followers were assembled somewhere, and they saw Jesus. That evening at around 6, James saw him.

Day 11

After a two-day walk from Jerusalem, sometime between noon and 3 p.m., the 11 disciples arrived in Galilee were met by Jesus. They bowed down to him, some hesitantly. He said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me, and so go now and make disciples of all nations. Baptize everyone in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teach them to observe all the commands I have given you. I will always be with you, from now until the end of time.”

Day 15

Four days later, Simon Peter was with Thomas, Nathanael, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples, and Peter said to the others, “I am going fishing.” The others replied, “We will go with you.” They got into the boat and spent a whole night fishing without catching anything. The next morning, around 6 a.m. just after daybreak, their boat was about a hundred yards offshore when they saw Jesus standing on the beach but did not recognize him. Jesus said to them, “You haven’t caught anything, have you?” They answered, “No, we haven’t.” He said, “Try casting on the right side of the boat. You’ll catch something there.” They did that, and their net was so full they could not haul it in.

Then one of the disciples said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” Peter had been working undressed, but when he heard that, he put some clothes on. After getting dressed, he jumped into the lake. In the meantime, the others brought the boat ashore, towing the net full of fish with them.

Back on shore, they saw a charcoal fire with some fish on it, and bread to the side. Jesus said to them, “Bring those fish that you have just caught.” Peter hauled the net ashore. There were 153 fish in the net, which was still intact.

Jesus then said to them, “Have some breakfast.” Nobody was asking him who he was, because they knew who he was. Jesus took some bread and fish and gave it to the disciples. This was the third time he had appeared to them after rising from the dead.

They were finished eating by around 9. Jesus then had a talk with Simon Peter.

“Simon, do you love me more than these?” Jesus asked. “Yes, Lord," Simon replied, "you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” Then he asked Simon a second time, “Do you love me?” Simon replied again, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus told him, “Tend my sheep.” Jesus asked him a third time, “Do you love me?” Simon was now feeling hurt, and he answered, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”

Jesus then said, “I’m telling you the truth. When you were young, you dressed yourself and went wherever you wanted to go. When you get old, someone else will dress you and take you where you would rather not go.” This was a forecast of how Simon was going to die for the glory of God.

Next Jesus said, “Follow me.” Peter turned and looked at the disciple called the beloved, who had leaned close to Jesus at the supper and had asked who the betrayer was. Peter said to Jesus, “What about him, Lord?” Jesus replied, “If I want him to stay behind until I come, what does it matter to you? You are to follow me.” A rumor later arose among the brothers that this disciple would not die, but that was not what Jesus had said to Peter. He did not say, “He will not die,” but rather, “If I want him to stay behind till I come, what does that matter to you?” This disciple is the one who vouches for these things and has written them down, and we know that everything he says is true.

Day 40

Forty days after his resurrection, Jesus and the disciples were back in Jerusalem. Around 9 a.m. after sharing breakfast with them, he told them to stay in Jerusalem to wait for what the Father had promised. “John baptized with water,” he said, “but in a few days you are going to be baptized with the Holy Spirit. I am sending you what the Father has promised. Stay in the city until you are empowered from heaven.”

Afterward he led them to the outskirts of Bethany and gave them a blessing. It was now around noon, and they asked him, “Lord, has the time come for you to restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “That is not your concern. You will be empowered by the Holy Spirit you are going to be my witnesses, here in Jerusalem, and throughout Judea and Samaria, and in due course to the ends of the earth. He gave them a blessing, began walking away, and was carried up to heaven. As they watched him rise, he vanished into a cloud. They were still staring into the sky when suddenly two men in white appeared beside them. The men said, “Why are you Galileans standing here looking into the sky? Jesus is going to come back the same way you watched him go.”

It could still use a lot of editorial polish, but at least we have a readable story here. I dare say that few people would regard it as a credible story unless they were antecedently committed to biblical inerrantism. But again, we are not concerned here with plausibility. We just want to know whether it possibly could have happened exactly this way.

Not quite, but the omission of Mark’s long ending gets us almost there. I found three remaining problems. (1) “The three women [including Mary Magdalene] were bringing spices to anoint the body, and wondered aloud among themselves how they could find someone to move the stone away from the tomb entrance” (Mark 16:2). This is not consistent with Mary’s having been there earlier and seen the stone rolled away (John 20:1). (2) “After a two-day walk from Jerusalem, the 11 disciples arrived at the mountain in Galilee in midafternoon and were met there by Jesus.” This is not possible. The straight-line distance from Jerusalem to the southern border of Galilee was more than 60 miles, but the entire route is mountainous, so the walking distance was certainly much longer, probably something like 80-100 miles. An adult human in good health is perhaps capable of walking 30 miles in one day on level terrain, but half that distance is far more realistic. (3) “This was the third time he had appeared to them after rising from the dead” ( John 21:14). This contradicts the previous portion of the narrative, in which there are already three appearances. If we deny that John could have been mistaken, then the meeting on the mountain reported by Matthew had to have occurred after this incident.

The first two are not unresolvable. For the first: When Mark said “they asked each other . . . ,” it is possible that he meant only that such a conversation occurred, not that all three participated in it. We can only speculate as to why Mary Magdalene did not tell the others, “Oh, that won’t be a problem. Somebody already rolled the stone away.” Maybe she just wanted to see the looks on their faces when they discovered it for themselves. Or maybe she doubted her own recollection of what she’d seen and was waiting for her friends to confirm it. Either is possible. As for the walk from Jerusalem to Galilee, the meeting in Galilee reported by Matthew could have happened a week or more later, with the lakeside meeting reported by John moved back accordingly.

That still leaves John’s assertion that the lakeside meeting was the third of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances to the disciples. In this version of the story, there is no way it could have been: It was clearly the fourth appearance. It is, of course, only the third appearance of those reported by John, and it could be argued that they were the only ones his sources mentioned. But although that would explain the discrepancy between John’s account and the others, it wouldn’t make it not a discrepancy. If (a) the author was aware of only two appearances (both in Jerusalem) previous to the one at the lakeside, but (b) there was at least one other previous appearance in Galilee, then he was mistaken, pure and simple, when he wrote “This was the third time.” And if he did know of any previous appearances that his sources didn’t mention, then he intentionally made a statement contrary to fact.

I suggested to Adam that he could move the Matthean meeting to sometime after John’s lakeside meeting. I have not noticed anything in the biblical accounts that this would contradict. However, Adam declined my suggestion and thus failed to meet the challenge.

Under Barker’s rules, he failed in any case. Adam says Barker was “ambiguous” about whether the long ending of Mark had to be included. Barker was not ambiguous. He said there were 165 verses that had to be accounted for, and you don’t get that number without counting Mark’s long ending.

But suppose Barker agreed to disregard those verses? Can a logically possible narrative then be written? If we disregard credibility, it seems so. Adam’s narrative, with my proposed revisions, could do it. If apologists could forget about insisting that Mark 16:9-20 is part of the inerrant word of God, then they could say, “This is how it possibly could have happened without supposing that any of the NT writers made any mistakes.” We could then move on the question of whether we have good reason to take the writers’ word for it—every writer and every word—that it did happen just that way.

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