Chronological Snobbery and the Empty Tomb

On the readings for Easter Sunday, The Resurrection of the Lord, April 1, 2018

Fresco from the Chora Church, Istanbul (Wikipedia/Gunnar Bach Pedersen)

Readings:
• Acts 10:34A, 37-43
• Psa 118:1-2, 16-17, 22-23
• Col 3:1-4 or 1 Cor 5:6B-8
• Jn 20:1-9 or Mk 16:1-7 or Lk 24:13-35

Recently, I have been teaching a weekly Bible study of the Acts of the Apostles. Written by St. Luke, Acts was written as a sequel of sorts to the Gospel of Luke, and it is the only history of the early Church in the New Testament canon. In the course of the study, I’ve emphasized a simple but important fact: all of the events and speeches described in Acts took place within a few years of the death, Resurrection, and Ascension of Christ. On one hand, we all know this; on the other hand, it’s easy to lose a clear sense of chronology and thus lose a sense of the startling nature of what took place in those first decades of the nascent Church.

The address given by St. Peter, the head apostle, to the household of the centurion Cornelius is a case in point. Peter’s speech was similar in ways to his address at Pentecost (Acts 2), although somewhat more simple and shorter. It emphasized the anointing of Jesus as Messiah, the works and miracles performed by Jesus, and then his death “on a tree”. Peter stated, “This man God raised on the third day and granted that he be visible, not to all the people, but to us, the witnesses chosen by God in advance, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.”

So, when did Peter give his speech? Three or four decades after Jesus’ death? No, it was about seven years after the Resurrection. If Peter had given the speech today, the Resurrection would have occurred in 2008. And, of course, when Peter declared, on Pentecost, that Jesus had been raised up by God, “releasing him from the throes of death, because it was impossible for him to be held by it” (Acts 2:23-24), it was only a few weeks after that astounding event. And yet no one yelled, “Hey, wait a second—we can show you the body of this Jesus!” On the contrary, whenever Peter, Paul, or others declared the fact of the Resurrection, they were met with either belief or outrage—but never with evidence that the tomb still held the body of Jesus.

Put simply, chronology matters, for Christianity is the most historical of religions. The response, by many skeptics, is not a historical argument but a hysterical swipe, what C. S. Lewis termed “chronological snobbery.” The simple version is that the first Christians were either too stupid or easily swayed by emotion to come to grips with the death of Jesus. But Luke, a very cultured and educated man, was well aware of those sort of retorts. In his account of the Resurection, he describes how the women first found the stone rolled away from the tomb, then returned to tell the others of what they saw. Yet the apostles and disciples were not convinced, for “their story seemed like nonsense and they did not believe them.” Peter instead ran to the tomb, entered it, and saw the burial clots, “then he went home amazed at what had happened” (Lk 24:10-12).

The Roman leaders and many of the Jews, especially the religious leaders, were fully invested in keeping Jesus in the tomb, as St. Matthew noted (Matt 27:62-66). After the Resurrection, they quickly concocted the story that Jesus’ body had been stolen (Matt 28:11-15), a remarkable feat for a crushed group of men who would have had to overcome their paralyzing fear, several Roman guards, and a very heavy tomb stone.

There are many people today who are invested in keeping Jesus in the tomb. But we, as Christians, believe in the witness of St. Peter, St. Luke, and the others. We proclaim the truth and glory of the Resurrection, and we worship Jesus Christ, risen from the death. Christ is Risen!


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About Carl E. Olson 1113 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications.

8 Comments

    • It would have been difficult, especially on such short notice, to find another body with the distinctive wounds of Christ.

      • If Christ’s body had not been resurrected then I’m pretty sure another “30 pieces of silver” would have been made available to anyone who knew where His body could be found.

    • The Anastasis icon shows Jesus pulling Adam and Eve out of the now-opened Underworld. Its shattered gates lie below. On the left stand John the Baptist, David, and Solomon. On the right are a host of holy people from Old Testament times. This has long been the Eastern Church’s preferred way of representing the wonder of Easter.

  1. Call me a Romanophile. I’ve been called worse. Let us not forget brothers in Christ it was the Roman centurion in command at the Cross who is the first After the Crucifixion and death of Jesus to proclaim to the world, “This man truly was the Son of God!” (Mt 27:54). It was the Sanhedrin that concocted the myth that Jesus’ body was stolen by the disciples, and several Roman soldiers assigned to guard the tomb their purchased accomplices. There is no historical record of Pilate or Roman officials suppressing belief in Christ at that precise time despite fraud playwrights intent on popularity. The following does not appear a Roman conspiracy to suppress: It was Roman tribune Claudius Lysias who protected the Apostle Paul from Jews intent on murder. It was Rome that permitted The Apostle to preach throughout the Empire and when under house arrest permitted him for two years with absolute freedom to preach in the heart of Rome Crucified and Risen. Happy Easter.

  2. Sandra thanks for your comment that explains the Anastasis ikon of which I have a similar copy. I wasn’t certain who the bearded figure was perhaps Noah. Also it’s important to recognize Hades the ancient Jewish habitat of the dead you cite as the “underworld”, which is distinct from Gehenna or the Hell Christians understand as the fiery place of condemnation. Although in the Credo the word Hell leads many to believe Christ descended to the place of the damned. Insofar as “place” the words refer more to a state than place as in physical locale.

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