Paul Prather: Why John's account of Jesus' resurrection is my favorite

Contributing columnistApril 19, 2014 

This is Easter, the holiest day on the Christian calendar.

Christmas gets a lot more ink and airtime, but Easter's the truly big day.

Today, we who believe in him celebrate Jesus' resurrection from the grave, a miracle without which, St. Paul said, our whole faith is otherwise worthless.

Christianity hinges on Jesus having been raised from the dead, far more than on his having been born of a virgin or having walked on water.

The resurrection story is recorded in each of the New Testament's four gospels, the books that tell about Jesus' life: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

The gospels' authorship is disputed among scholars, but tradition says two writers — Matthew and John — were Jesus' close companions and present in Jerusalem when he was killed and returned to life. Tradition says two — Mark and Luke — weren't there, but heard the story secondhand from people who were.

Each gospel's writer shapes the story slightly differently.

To me, those discrepancies add credence to the resurrection.

I've been a newspaper reporter; I spent years out interviewing sources for articles about Derby parties, medical mistakes and corporate takeovers.

I can assure you of this much: Take any real-life event, ask what happened of several people who were present or a block away or who knew somebody who was there — and you'll end up with competing, contradictory details.

Doesn't mean the event didn't occur. What it means is that each person filters information through his or her own eyes and memories and wishes and biases.

All the witnesses to a fire might agree the courthouse burned down. They'll vary wildly, though, about when the blaze started, who first noticed it, how many ladder trucks fought it and how long it took the building to collapse.

To me, that's why conflicting details in the resurrection accounts make the overall story more credible, not less. Apparently, the writers didn't agree on a single, perfect, unified version, even if some or all of them were familiar with the others' versions.

Yet they absolutely agree Jesus was resurrected.

My favorite rendering is John's.

I explained this long ago in a column I wrote for the Herald-Leader. An expanded version later appeared in my 1999 book, Back Porch Faith (long since out of print).

John says that on the morning of what would turn out to be the first Easter, Mary Magdalene visited Jesus' tomb and found it empty.

She hurried to fetch Simon Peter and another disciple, traditionally thought to be John, this gospel's writer. They also saw the vacant sepulcher.

Peter and John left, but Mary Magdalene stayed in the cemetery, distraught and confused. She stooped to look into the cave-like grave again. She saw two angels there, dressed in white.

She turned, perhaps to flee, and found herself facing a third man who appeared so ordinary she mistook him for the groundskeeper.

He asked why she was crying.

"Sir," she said, "if you've moved the body, tell me where it is and I'll go get it."

Then he said: "Mary!"

She suddenly recognized the gardener as Jesus himself.

They talked, she tried to hug him, but he told her to stop and sent her to proclaim the resurrection to his followers.

Thus the first post-resurrection evangelist was Mary Magdalene.

This is a remarkable, almost staggering, anecdote for a couple of reasons.

First, Mary Magdalene was a woman, in an age and place where women were treated not an awfully lot better than cattle.

Second, she was a woman with a checkered past. Mark's gospel tells us Jesus had previously cast seven demons from her. Not one demon. Seven. Some traditions hold that she'd been a prostitute, too, although the Scriptures don't say it.

Think of this. It's the morning of the defining event of all history.

Jesus has conquered Satan, the grave and death. He'll soon ascend into heaven to sit at God's right hand. He's got dazzling angels on the scene.

Here's what he doesn't do first.

He doesn't zoom off into the clouds to see his heavenly father. He doesn't appear to his apostles. He doesn't strike down Caiaphas the high priest or Pilate the governor, who were responsible for his murder. He doesn't clothe himself in blinding splendor, sound trumpets and put on a show to convert the mighty emperor of Rome.

Instead, the first thing he does is materialize looking like a workingman who's shown up to prune shrubs.

He approaches, of all the people on Earth, Mary Magdalene, a messed up woman with a sordid background.

Why?

Because she's there. Because she's hurting. Because she's his friend.

She's of no consequence to the rest of the world. She's flawed and flaky.

But Jesus cares more about relieving her anguish than about receiving his glorious due from God, angels, apostles or emperors.

If that doesn't make you tear up even a little bit, if that doesn't tell you what you need to know about Jesus' central message of love, compassion and grace, then you're made of stonier stuff than I am.

I've read John's account scores of times.

And it still gets me.

Every time.

Paul Prather is the pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You can email him at pratpd@yahoo.com.

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