In one of the more memorable scenes in Greek drama, Oedipus reacts to the sudden revelation of his actions by moving off-stage and blinding himself. Critics over the centuries have pointed out the tragic meaning of his inner blindness before, contrasted with his outer blindness afterward. But while Oedipus’s blinding occurs out of sight, a messenger describes the gruesome details.
Jocasta has committed suicide. Oedipus has at long last fully understood the awful truth:
Bellowing terribly and led by some
invisible guide he rushed on the two doors, —
wrenching the hollow bolts out of their sockets,
he charged inside. There, there, we saw his wife
hanging, the twisted rope around her neck.
When he saw her, he cried out fearfully
and cut the dangling noose. Then as she lay,
poor woman, on the ground, what happened after.
was terrible to see. He tore the brooches—
the gold chased brooches fastening her robe—
away from her and lifting them up high
dashed them on his own eyeballs, shrieking out
such things as: they will never see the crime
I have committed or had done upon me!
Dark eyes, now in the days to come look on
forbidden faces, do not recognize those
whom you long for—with such imprecations
he struck his eyes again and yet again
with the brooches. And the bleeding eyeballs gushed
and stained his beard—no sluggish oozing drops
but a black rain and bloody hail poured down.
So it has broken—and not on one head
but troubles mixed for husband and for wife.
(Oedipus the King, Sophocles Translated by David Grene)
Some dispute surrounds the etymology of the word “obscene,” although many insist that it comes from the Greek ob-skene — referring to actions such as explicit sex and violence that must occur off-stage. But while the death of Jocasta and the blinding of her son-husband may be obscene to look at, the Greeks apparently did not find them too obscene to describe.
Oddly, however, the death of Jesus in the canonical gospels occurs “on-stage” and “on-camera,” while his resurrection does not occur within the narrative, nor is it described in a flashback. In Mark, generally believed to be the first narrative gospel, Jesus is crucified, and the people pass by, mocking and deriding him. And when he dies, it happens in full view of Jewish and Gentile witnesses.
And yet Jesus’ resurrection does not occur in the flow of Mark’s narrative. It happens with no witnesses. It happens — when? After sunrise? Or in the dark?
The young man at the tomb tells them:
Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. (Mark 16:6b, ESV)
Who is the young man? Just as in a fairy tale, the women don’t know, don’t ask, don’t care. How did Jesus rise? Was he instantly elsewhere? Did he rise under his own power? Were angels involved? What happened?
Matthew adds several details, including an earthquake and an angel who rolls away the stone and sits on it. The Roman guards quiver and then pass out. But it seems Jesus has already left the building. The angel says the same thing as Mark’s “young man.” They seek him here, but he is elsewhere. “He is risen.”
Why does the burial scene come to a close, followed by the discovery of the empty tomb? Let’s consider some reasons.
♦ No Witnesses
Those looking for historical reasons for the lack of a description could point to the narrative “fact” that nobody was present to witness the resurrection. The gospels indicate that his followers had left to observe the Sabbath, and that no one returned until Sunday morning. Hence, logically we might assume that with no witnesses, the resurrection had to remain a mystery.
Yet we have other narratives in the gospels in which only Jesus is present. He prays alone at Gethsemane as the disciples sleep. Before walking on the sea, he prays alone on a mountain top. Satan tempts Jesus, even transporting him to different vantage points. These events had no human witnesses, but we have records of what happened. So why was the resurrection different?
♦ A mystery?
Perhaps the mechanics of the resurrection process were part of the inner mysteries of the cult given only to the disciples and certain initiates. Was the soul reunited with the body? By what means?
Did the original myth entail some sort of full transformation into what Paul called “a spiritual body”? Or did that not happen right away? Was he in some weird transition state, leading John to add the story about Jesus asking Mary Magdalene not to hold him? (I have not yet ascended to the Father.)
John, whose risen Jesus actually appears at the tomb, implies that Jesus’ outward aspect after the resurrection may have been different, since Mary did not at first recognize him.
♦ A taboo?
If early followers deemed it a mystery, then a literal, narrative description of the resurrection may have become taboo. They may have even considered it a kind of blasphemy to describe the moment of reanimation and exit from the tomb. This taboo would exist as a powerful tension against the normal requirement for gospel miracle stories to contain amazed witnesses who go and tell others.
Mark’s sole witness can only say that Jesus is risen. Actually, the verb here is in the passive voice, and I’ve fallen into an apologist trap. The correct translation of the Markan passage is: “He has been raised.” To use the present tense of the verb to be with the past participle of the verb to rise allows a certain amount of theological ambiguity; it focuses on the current state of Jesus. But Mark clearly wrote that Jesus was raised, presumably by God.
Some commentators have suggested that the legend of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead in the Fourth Gospel serves as a stand-in for the “real” resurrection. The audience wants to witness a resurrection scene, and by God, John was going to give them one.
(Note: In the Gospel of Peter, the stone rolls away of its own accord, and two exceptionally tall men enter the tomb. They escort Jesus — also very tall — out of the tomb, and are followed by a talking cross. This seems to be a rather late and obscure legend.)
♦ Theological considerations
According to scholars, the Passion Narrative probably existed before the first full narrative gospel, and that Mark probably used it as a source. They note that the narrative style changes, as the vignettes are longer and become more connected when compared, for example, to the earlier pericopae of Mark, which are brief and often connected only with the introductory adverb, immediately.
The main points of the extended passion story include the entry into Jerusalem, the ruckus at the Temple, the Last Supper, the betrayal, the Trials, and the Crucifixion. But the resurrection itself is merely alluded to after the fact.
On the other hand, the main points of Paul’s kerygma include Jesus death, his burial, the resurrection, and his post-resurrection appearances. These seem to be key features in the Christian confession from quite early on. Yet one of the four corners of Paul’s foundation remains un-narrated and un-depicted in the canonical gospels.
Adelbert Denaux put it this way in “Matthew’s Story of Jesus’ Burial and Resurrection (Mt 27,57–28,20)“:
We discover the four core data of the kerygma in the gospels, even though they have necessarily been broadened and given new emphases. To begin with, it is remarkable how an extensive narrative of Jesus’ passion precedes the short description of his death. In its integration into the passion narrative, the motif of the death is the most strongly developed, both narratively and theologically. Jesus is betrayed, misunderstood, denied, abandoned, arrested, falsely accused, condemned to death, maltreated, ridiculed, robbed of his human dignity, and finally crucified. The cruelty of Jesus’ death is hereby illustrated, but at the same time also made acceptable and “interpreted” in the light of the Scriptures.
At the other end of the four gospels, the motif of the ascension is added by Luke. Mk 16,19 also mentions Jesus’ ascension, but this mention does not belong to the original gospel of Mark; it is a part of the inauthentic ending 16,19-20 being added later. Moreover, an appearance narrative was also lacking in the original gospel (Mk 16,9-18 as well was added later by a second hand); one finds (at most) an allusion to it (16,7).
In the gospels, three out of the four traditional data are described as visible events: death, burial and appearances. One datum is not described, namely the resurrection. This event is communicated, revealed and leaves a negative, ambiguous trace in the world, namely the empty tomb. (Denaux 2002, emphasis mine)
These are just some of the things I’ve been mulling over on this cold Easter day. Your thoughts?
A few other posts on Vridar in which we’ve discussed Oedipus:
- The Young Man in the Tomb in “The Existential Jesus”
- Jesus was no physician
- Are the Gospels Really Biographies? Outlining and Questioning Burridge
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