One of the unusual aspects of the Four Gospels is that while an inordinate amount of the writing is devoted to the last week of Christ’s life (His arrest, crucifixion and resurrection), relatively little explanation is offered in the Gospels themselves explaining the theological significance of these events. Notions of the atonement, relating Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection to the human condition including sin and mortality, are much more the themes of St. Paul, who in turn spent little time writing about the details of Passion Week and the Resurrection, but rather focused on their theological implication for the entire human race.
One idea that came to me while reading CFD Moule’s BIRTH OF THE NEW TESTAMENT is that the Gospels are written in such a way as to reflect both the growing disputes and antagonisms between Jesus and the other Jewish traditions prevalent in His day as well as the growing partisanship pitting Christians against the Jews who rejected the messianic claims of Jesus’ disciples. The Gospels are probably trying to convey the sense that neither in direct disputes with Jesus nor later in history in arguing with the disciples were the Jews able to fully refute His messianic claims. The Gospels offer a plethora of evidence to uphold the claims of Jesus to being God’s chosen One: miracles, the voice of God, events that fulfill scriptural prophecy, Jesus’ unique and particular use and interpretation of the Torah and all Jewish scriptures, Jesus’ own teachings and wisdom and commands, Jesus’s prophecy and prediction about what was to happen, even the witness of demons and non-Jews! As the Gospels have it, the evidence is overwhelming, and really only those who perniciously and defiantly reject God are not convinced by the truth presented in the Gospels.
In the end, the Gospel tradition presents the Jews as unable to refute Jesus’ Messianic claims, and yet unwilling to admit to the truthfulness of these claims. So, almost as a means to avoid cognitive dissonance, the Jewish leaders plot to let the Romans take over the situation. By turning Jesus over to Rome and accusing Him of political crimes, the Jewish leaders never have to fully deal with their inability to refute Jesus in discussion and debate over the Scriptures. Jesus is executed by Rome, and the Jewish leaders can take the safe route that “if God had chosen Jesus or really wanted Him” God will save Him. Obviously at the crucifixion God does not save Jesus from criminal execution, which thus safely closes the case for the Jewish leaders – “we may not have been able to overcome His clever arguments, but God has judged Him.”
The twist in the story of course is the resurrection. For though Jesus is condemned to death as a cursed criminal and though for all practical purposes the disciples are scattered – sent cowardly into hiding — suddenly and completely unexpectedly (despite Jesus’ own prophecy) news emerges about claims that He is risen from the dead: God favored Him after all and has judged Him as righteous, chosen and favored beyond anything the Jews had imagined to that point in their dealings with God.
The Gospels present the disciples, including the women disciples, not at all looking for the resurrection. The women go to the tomb to anoint the corpse: they are surprised as anyone to discover the empty tomb and do not in fact interpret the empty tomb as a sign of the resurrection until itis explained to them as a sign by the angelic visitors. Even at that point, the women remain unsure and the men disciples are equally doubtful about their witness. Everyone, including Jesus’ own inner circle of followers is totally astonished by the news of the resurrection and they all have to scramble to understand what the resurrection might mean.
All four Gospels are written following this same basic format: even the followers of Jesus do not know exactly what they are looking at or for. Jesus does tell people to believe Him, or if not Him, then believe the works that He does. He tells them even to believe God – none of the evidence He offers convinces anybody of anything. Christ also tells a parable in which someone rising from the dead will not be enough to convince those who stubbornly choose blindness rather than seeing the truth.
The Gospel tradition seen in this way is thus not so much offering a theological understanding of the implications of the death and resurrection of the incarnate God. This understanding will become clear through time. The Gospel tradition seems more geared toward dealing with those who for whatever reason refuse to accept the witness of Jesus, His works, or His disciples, by asking everyone to consider what was God’s ultimate judgment of Jesus? The Gospels bring us to the point of challenging us to believe in Christ based upon how He was judged by God, not by His enemies or even by His disciples. It will remain for the Church to then explain how we should live together in this (unbelieving or even hostile) world as disciples of the Risen Lord. As believers, we must now read again and often the teachings of Christ to further study them as Jews studied Torah to understand the will of God.