Naive readers and wilful ignoramuses

Text: John 11:1-45 (Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead)

How do we react when different books of the Bible contradict each other? This was one of the things we discussed last Wednesday at “The Big Question” group; and the subject is in my mind again today as I reflect on the story of Lazarus from today’s Gospel reading.

In this reading, we find ourselves in Bethany at the outskirts of Jerusalem and on the eve of Jesus’ entry into the city on Palm Sunday. The reading reminds us that the Season of Lent, during which we engage with the stories of Jesus’ journey from Galilee to Jerusalem, is almost over. Here, near the end of the road, we encounter death and resurrection with Lazarus.

Jesus began the journey by asking his friends to take up their cross to follow him. In Jerusalem, they will confront religious and political power, and as a result, Jesus will be killed. Jesus assures us that death leads to new life, but it comes at a cost.

When Jesus tells his friends that he will stop in Bethany because Lazarus whom he loved has died, Timothy encourages the others to follow Jesus to Lazarus’ tomb so that they can die with him. Timothy seems to understand the dire nature of Jesus’ call to take up one’s cross. He is willing to ‘come out’ as one who risks everything for justice and love on the journey with Jesus.

Four days after Lazarus’ death, Jesus issues the command, “Come out!” And Lazarus walks out of his tomb.

A large crowd watches as Lazarus, still wrapped in his burial cloths, emerges. In contrast, no one sees Jesus emerge from his own tomb just over a week later, and only a handful see him afterward. The earliest of the gospel writers, Mark, doesn’t show any physical appearances. Matthew shows two: a moment with a few women as they run in fear from the graveyard on Easter morning and another moment with 11 male disciples in Galilee. Luke and John write of more appearances.

Many people who witness the resuscitation of Lazarus come to believe in Jesus. But only a handful believe in Jesus after his own resurrection. It will take the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost 50 days later to put flesh on the bones of the early church. A century will pass before the church includes millions instead of thousands. And it will be 1700 years before news of Jesus’ resurrection reaches here along the North Saskatchewan River, and then only because of European exploration and conquest.

Like Palm Sunday and the Crucifixion, the emergence of Lazarus from the tomb is a public affair. In contrast, the resurrection of Jesus is witnessed by no one.

John says that the revival of Lazarus precipitates the plot to kill Jesus. In the verses immediately following today’s reading, John writes:

“Some who had seen Lazarus emerge from the tomb went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. The Pharisees and the chief priests called a meeting of the religious council . . . They said ‘Jesus is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our Temple and our nation.’ Caiaphas, the high priest, said, ‘It is better that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish’ . . . So from that day on, they plotted to take his life.” (John 11:46-53)

But is this true? Did Jesus really revive the corpse of Lazarus and is this what caused the religious leaders to plot to kill him?

The other three gospel narratives, Matthew, Mark and Luke, do not include the story about Lazarus. Perhaps they thought it wasn’t dramatic enough to warrant mention! Unlike John, they say it was Jesus’ action of overturning the tables of money changers in the Temple that led to the plot to kill him. This event, they all say, happened just after Palm Sunday, four days before Jesus’ death.

John, on the other hand, says that Jesus overturned the tables in the Temple two years earlier (John 2). For John, the incident in the Temple is the first act of Jesus’ public ministry and not his last. Nor does John connect it with the plot to kill Jesus. So which gospel is right — John with his story of Lazarus, or Matthew, Mark and Luke with their story of the money changers in the Temple?

Contradictions between biblical accounts might grab out interest, but I am not troubled by them. I trust that the path to death and resurrection is true regardless of the historical accuracy of the Lazarus story or of the sometimes conflicting details of the four different accounts of Good Friday, Easter, and beyond.

On Wednesday, I brought a magazine called “The Bible– 50 news ways it can change your life” to our discussion group. It had caught my eye the day before at Shopper’s Drug Mart. I don’t mind some of what it includes. But I am annoyed that it makes a false claim that The Bible was written by eye-witnesses.

Biblical scholarship of the last 200 years has shown that none of the texts of the Hebrew or Greek Bible, including the four gospels, were written by eye-witnesses.

None of the authors of the Gospels signed their work, although the ancient church named them Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. A layperson who reads them might reasonably assume that they were written by people who knew Jesus, even though the texts nowhere claim this.

But all serious Bible scholars say that whoever the unnamed writers were, none of them ever met Jesus. The gospels were written 40 to 70 years after the crucifixion by men who were not present at it.

So, how do scholars know that the gospels were not written by eye-witnesses? They gather all relevant data, compare the Greek words of the surviving manuscripts with other historical sources, develop hypotheses based upon archaeological research, share and discuss their questions, and present results in peer-reviewed journals and at academic gatherings over decades and centuries.

In short, scholars learn about the Bible in the same way that we learn about all the other phenomena in the world — by science. To the layperson, it might appear that the four gospel accounts are in harmony with each other. But careful observation proves they are not. The same thing is true of the natural world. To the layperson, it appears that the sun orbits the earth. But careful observation proves it does not.

Many Christian churches ignore the last 200 years of Bible research even though most of us trust the methods and findings of science. To claim today that the sun orbits the earth exposes one as an anxious idiot. The same is true, I believe, of church leaders who ignore the results of biblical research.

Some people reject this research because it challenges their faith. But if one’s faith rests on a naive reading of the texts of the Bible and not on the God who is Love, then it is a faith that one should lose, in my opinion.

Those who claim that the gospel writers were eye-witnesses despite the evidence are also likely to ignore other results of science. They may be among those who say that the earth is only 6,000 years old or those who deny that life evolved over billions of years of natural selection. They may be among those who claim that men are superior to women and that homosexuality is a sin because “the Bible says so.”

The magazine I got at Shoppers Drug Mart is based on willful ignorance of biblical scholarship. Its false claims do a disservice to the stories in the Bible on which our church is founded.

For me, the truth of the Lazarus story and of Easter stand regardless of actual historical events. They remind us that God in Christ walks with us and supports us on the painful paths of life and that God raises us to new life when our illusions die. They help us remember that we will be fully liberated from our egos and their fears and desires at the end of life.

I love the stories of the gospels regardless of contradictions between them. They reflect the truth that all individuals and empires die. Being aware of this can help us to rise to new life with Jesus, which is available to us both when we walk on the road with him as well as at the end of life.

We don’t have to ignore the biblical scholarship of the past 200 years to preach this truth. The stories of Lazarus and of Easter are not eye-witness accounts. They are reminders that we live in the light of God’s Love, both now and always.

Jesus says to us, “Come out!” And we emerge from our tombs into resurrection.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

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