The last film my husband and I watched together was called Red Notice. It’s a silly, funny action movie about art thieves trying to steal three bejeweled eggs that the Roman general Mark Antony supposedly gave to Cleopatra 2,000 years ago.
Early in the film, one of the main characters (played by Dwayne Johnson) alerts an art museum in Rome that the egg on display there may have just been stolen. The museum director doesn’t believe him. So, Johnson takes a Coke from a small boy and pours it on the supposedly invaluable metalwork from antiquity. The egg disintegrates.
Without the bodily resurrection of Jesus, the Christian faith lies as dead and entombed as Jesus’s corpse on that first Saturday. The wild claim first heard by his mother Mary, that Jesus is God’s everlasting King, falls flat on its face. There is no truth or hope or life in Christianity if Jesus was not raised.
All four Gospels invite us to see Jesus’s death and resurrection through the eyes of women.
Some scholars, like Bart Ehrman, argue that when we examine the four Gospel accounts of Jesus’s death and resurrection, the resurrection claim disintegrates before our eyes, like the Coke-baptized egg. But if we look more closely at the Gospel passages, we find the opposite: not evidence of a fake, but signs of authenticity. One of these signs is that all four Gospels invite us to see Jesus’s death and resurrection through the eyes of women.
Seeing Is Believing
“I’ll believe it when I see it” is one of my husband’s favorite lines. He’s a born-again follower of Jesus, but in other respects, a natural skeptic. Like my husband, historians in Jesus’s day placed a high value on seeing: “I’ll believe it if you saw it” would have been a fitting motto for their guild. With this no doubt in mind, the Gospel authors repeatedly make the women in their final chapters the subjects of seeing verbs. As Richard Bauckham notes,
[The women] “saw” the events as Jesus died (Matt 27:55; Mark 15:40; Luke 23:49), they “saw” where he was laid in the tomb (Mark 15:47; Luke 23:55), they went on the first day of the week to “see” the tomb (Matt 28:1), they “saw” the stone rolled away (Mark 16:4), they “saw” the young man sitting on the right side (Mark 16:5), and the angel invited them to “see” the empty place where Jesus’ body had lain (Matt 28:6; Mark 16:6).
“It could hardly be clearer,” Bauckham concludes, “that the Gospels are appealing to their role as eyewitnesses.” In light of this, Mary Magdalene’s announcement, “I have seen the Lord,” is doubly significant. Like a modern-day journalist with photo footage to back up her story, she’s standing as an eyewitness of Jesus’s resurrection, not only to the apostles but also to the reader.
The fact that all four Gospels make the women central to their resurrection claim appeals to us as 21st-century readers. But it would have had the opposite effect on literate men in the Greco-Roman world. As Bauckham explains, “Women were thought by educated men to be gullible in religious matters and especially prone to superstitious fantasy and excessive religious practices.”
When he took aim at Mary Magdelene, the second-century Greek philosopher Celsus was voicing what many of his contemporaries would’ve thought:
After death [Jesus] rose again and showed the marks of his punishment and how his hands had been pierced. But who saw this? A hysterical female, as you say, and perhaps some other one of those who were deluded by the same sorcery.
From Celsus’s perspective, Mary Magdalene and the other weeping women who witnessed Jesus’s so-called resurrection were a joke. If the Gospel authors had been making up their stories, they could have made Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus the first resurrection witnesses: two well-respected men involved in Jesus’s burial. The only possible reason to emphasize the testimony of women—and weeping women at that—is if they really were the witnesses.
The only reason to emphasize the testimony of women—and weeping women at that—is if they really were the witnesses.
At first, even Jesus’s apostles were skeptical. Luke tells us, “It was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles, but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them” (Luke 24:10–11). These women had traveled with Jesus throughout his ministry. They should have been trusted by his male disciples.
But as usual, the Gospel authors faithfully preserve the apostles’ most mortifying failures: from Peter’s denial that he even knew Jesus (John 18:17–27) to Thomas’s refusal to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead unless he saw it with his own eyes (John 20:24–29). Again, if the Gospel authors had felt free to fabricate, they surely would not have dreamed up this embarrassing portrayal of key leaders in the early church. But the apostles seem to have embraced these humbling records of their great mistakes, as they threw light on the great triumph of their Savior.
Put to the Test
Like the film Red Notice, the story of the Gospels depends on a claim about something that happened 2,000 years ago. The premise of Red Notice is a fake. As far as anybody knows, Mark Antony didn’t give Cleopatra three bejeweled eggs. The movie is a fun-filled fiction from its beginning to its sequel-setup end.
But the Gospel accounts of Jesus’s death, burial, and resurrection are the opposite of fake. Indeed, they fail to fit the script of what first-century authors would have made up in a host of ways. They offer us a crucified Messiah whose resurrection was first seen by weeping women, and the more we understand of how biographies were written in that time and place, the clearer it becomes that the Gospel authors are presenting us with life-changing, authentic, unexpected eyewitness testimony.
We may choose not to believe it. But unlike the fake egg in the museum scene, the women’s claim that they saw Jesus crucified, entombed, and raised to life on the third day does not disintegrate when tested. And if it’s true, it’s far more valuable than any ancient artifact. It is the very source of life itself.