The genre of historical literature—as we know it today—did not exist at the time the Gospels were written. And, the Gospels were written decades after the resurrection. You know how the memory of events, evolves with time.
The authors of the Gospels aimed for a truth far beyond historical facts. Their true goal was theological—to say something definitive about God—rather then historical reality.
Beyond the evolution of memory, these authors utilized literary license in how they presented their stories about the resurrected Jesus. You can better understand the Gospels, if you are attuned to their theological and literary characteristics, instead of reading them as straight history.
During this week after Easter, we hear varying accounts of the resurrection. For example, in John 20, Mary Magdalene sees the empty tomb and weeps, thinking Jesus’ body had been stolen. When Jesus stands before her, she mistakes him for the gardener. In Luke 24, the disciples on the road to Emmaus are walking with the resurrected Jesus, “but their eyes were prevented from recognizing him.” They only recognize him at the breaking of the bread. In John 21, the disciples did not know that it was Jesus preparing a shore lunch. So, these stories about Jesus’ close friends who cannot see the resurrected Jesus, even when he’s right in front of them, suggests that either they are shocked, dense, or unprepared.
When we ask literary and/or theological questions regarding the Gospel presentation of the resurrection, we might ask what are the authors’ theological or literary agendas might be? What exactly are they trying to say? (This is different than asking: What happened?)
Obviously, these authors understood the difficulty of presenting the fact of the resurrection. Many Jewish persons at that time may not have believed in resurrection. On the other hand, afterlife was important to people of Greco-Roman background, but, they were also familiar with the Romans, who terrorized people through crucifixion.
Let approach this in another way. The evangelists believed the resurrection was more than a one-time historical occurrence. They saw it as a deep pattern of God’s activity. Jesus’ bodily resurrection is like a down payment (the “first fruits,” to use Paul’s language) of what the experience of resurrection will be for believers.
All the persons in the Gospel who have an encounter with the risen Jesus have it not on their terms. It is not what they expected. The Gospel authors are suggesting that we ought not view the resurrection as a one-time occurrence in the past but as an ongoing reality mediated through the sacraments and encounters with others.
The tragedy for us in this time of “social distancing” is the lack of encounters with the sacraments.
The resurrection is not an historical event, but rather, a theological truth—it tells us something about God. The resurrection is all around us, and this week’s Gospels can help open our eyes to its reality.
Adapted from the writing of Micah D. Kiel, professor in Davenport, Iowa.