One of the puzzles about the gospels is why they differ on parts of the history of Jesus. One of the most famous, and controversial puzzles concerns the four accounts of the resurrection. Only Matthew's Gospel, for example, tells us there was an earthquake-come-angelic intervention which rolled the stone away (28:2).
Some sceptics argue from these differences to the conclusion 'there was no resurrection in the physical sense that the body of Jesus left the tomb supernaturally ... there may have been a spiritual resurrection in the sense that Jesus' followers became convinced that death was not the end of Jesus so they composed stories about an empty tomb and appearances of Jesus after his death to support that conviction'.
But the Gospels seem to be doing something quite different to the process of invention which the sceptics imagine took place. What they are doing is answering different sets of questions about the resurrection, some of which seem to have arisen from ancient sceptics!
Thus John's Gospel (if we presume, as I would argue we may, that readers of John's Gospel already knew at least Mark's Gospel, if not the other two gospels) answers a question such as this in John 21, 'what happened in Galilee, where the angel in Mark 16 promised the risen Jesus would meet the disciples?'
Luke's Gospel answers some questions, possibly posed simply by believers with doubts, but may be also have been posed by sceptics. Thus 24:11 speaks of those to whom 'these words seemed to them an idle tale and they did not believe them', and goes on to outline (again) the evidence for the resurrection: Peter finds the tomb empty (v. 12), two disciples on the way to Emmaus encounter the risen Jesus (vv. 13-35), Jesus himself appears and invites those present to 'touch' him and to eat food with him (vv. 36-42).
That is, from the treasure trove of stories of encounters with the risen Jesus the Gospel writers recount those which respond to issues relevant to the Christian community in which they were present as they wrote the gospels. But they did not invent stories wholesale in order to bolster flagging belief.
With this in mind we can turn to Matthew 28 and recognise that Matthew had been made aware of this line of scepticism, 'Jesus did not rise from the dead; his disciples stole his body and hid it somewhere else.' Matthew 28:11-15 is Matthew's counter-punch to this false assertion. The disciples did not steal the body; the Jewish authorities invented the lie that they did.
But also in the story we might wonder if (say) Matthew was answering a child's question, 'Daddy, how did the stone get rolled away from the tomb?' His answer is in 28:2.
Of course Matthew is not only an apologist or defender of the fledgling Christian faith. He is also a teacher of the faith. What is the appropriate response to the presence of the risen Jesus in the life of the church? 'Worship,' is Matthew's answer, given in 28:9 and 28:17. Yet Matthew is also a pastor of the church, noting and understanding the frailty of people's faith in the risen Jesus, 'but some doubted' (28:17).
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