The Easter Moment: Drawing Conclusions
Armed with historical clues, we can speculate on the moving drama that came to be called the Resurrection.
We have analyzed the biblical texts that purport to tell us the story of the resurrection. We have noted the gap of 40 to 70 years between the Easter experience and the gospel accounts. We have identified the places in the narrative where exaggeration entered the texts, where miraculous elements were heightened, and where history forced new details into the ancient story.
Next we put on detective clothes, got out our spyglasses, and searched for clues that might carry us closer to that original burst of life-changing power. Using a series of questions that begin with the familiar words of where, who, when, and how, this study led to these conclusions:
Whatever the Easter experience was originally, it dawned in Galilee-not Jerusalem.
Simon, later to be called Peter, stood uniquely in the center of that experience.
Noting the time-sequence gaps in the gospels, we suggested that "three days" was a symbol, not a measure of time. This opened the possibility that months may have separated the day of the crucifixion from the dawning of Easter.
Finally, we noted the subjective quality of the Easter narratives, including the fact that in those texts only believers ever see the risen Christ. A close connection also seems to exist between their ability to see and the interpretive act of remembering Jesus during the liturgical meal. The food references are constant. "He was made known to us in the breaking of bread."
Armed with these clues, we are ready to begin the speculative re-creation of the drama that came to be called the resurrection.
Jesus was arrested. That occurred, the text suggests, in the middle of the night. At that moment the disciples fled. A note in John's gospel, clearly written after the fact, tried to explain their desertion by having Jesus predict it. "You will all be scattered each to his own home," he says, in a reference echoing the book of Zechariah, which seems to be the book that shaped the entire passion story more directly than people have previously imagined. The disciples fled, perhaps in groups of two or three, but they all headed for Galilee, their home. Galilee was a seven- to 10-day journey from Jerusalem.
The route the disciple band traveled to get to Jerusalem had been through the desert, east of the Jordan River, so they could avoid the dangers of Samaria. I wager they returned almost instinctively by the same route. Perhaps Simon lingered long enough to see if his worst fears were realized, but when he found himself accused, and denied that he ever knew this Jesus, he decided to get out of the city as quickly as possible. By the time the crucifixion had done its cruel worst, the disciples were no longer in Jerusalem. I think it is obvious that Jesus died alone. It is interesting to note that not until the late ninth or early 10th decade did stories enter the tradition that placed the disciples in Jerusalem for the Easter experience.
The first stop for Simon, I believe, was the house in Bethany where Mary and Martha lived. This house, earlier texts suggested, had been Jesus' headquarters during the last week of his life, before he and the disciples went to Jerusalem to observe the Passover. Not only was it on Simon's route home, but depending on when he left Jerusalem on the day of the crucifixion, he did not have long before the sun went down and the Sabbath began, when Jews are forbidden to travel. Bethany was a safe haven where the Sabbath could be observed. So I suspect Simon got no further than Bethany on the first day of his flight. There he stopped, and there he heard the news, confirming that Jesus was dead. There this little group of followers mourned amid the other emotions that always accompany grief: anger, fear, despair and guilt. I suspect that this was when the details of everyone's desertion and Peter's denial first were shared by those involved.
Normal custom dictated by the Palestinian elements was for travelers to walk only from sundown until the pitch black of night sent them seeking shelter. Then, at the first light of dawn, they would journey until mid-morning, when the sun drove pilgrims to the shade. So I suspect Simon was on his way toward Galilee as soon as the sun sank on the Sabbath. Perhaps a week later, he arrived in Galilee, where he could feel the security of his home.
Over the next several days the others arrived, still traumatized, still fearful, still grief-stricken and immobilized by their bereavement. So they did, I suspect, what all grieving people do: They processed their feelings, recalled final memories, replayed the tapes of their relationship with Jesus, and tried to make sense out of what they had experienced. There was sufficient anger and blame to go around, and it was shared, not always helpfully, as each sought to save his own reputation. Days passed, and then weeks. The thick darkness that engulfed them did not seem to lift.