The first written account of the Resurrection is found in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, which was written several years before the gospel accounts were put to papyrus. Paul wrote:
“Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures: And that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve: After that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep. After that, he was seen of James; then of all the apostles. And last of all he was seen of me also” (1 Corinthians 15:3-8).
Paul noted the fulfilment of prophecy and cited a great number of witnesses to the Resurrection, but he did not tell us anything about how it came about. Each of the evangelists wrote an account that began with women visiting the tomb early on Sunday morning. All accounts agree that the tomb was empty. All have angels playing a role, but each is a little different in what the angels did or said. There are other variant details. It is evident that there is a common tradition and that the gospel writers edited and drew on that tradition to make different points in their writings.
John the Beloved adds to our understanding
However, John was the only person whom we know was present in each situation: in the garden, at the Crucifixion, and at the empty tomb. Perhaps for that reason, but also for the power and beauty of his writing, we lean heavily on John’s account for our understanding of what transpired.
When modern authors, composers, or film makers set out to portray the passion of Jesus during His final days, they give a very different story to what we find in the Bible. They spend little time on the Garden of Gethsemane where the agony of His Atonement began. They often portray a prolonged scene of suffering with excruciating details of the scourging and subsequent Crucifixion of our Saviour. Yet in Matthew’s account of the actual Crucifixion, it is one phrase, a part of one sentence: “And they crucified him” (Matthew 27:35). The other three gospels are similarly brief.
The gospels tell us many things about what Jesus said and did while on the cross. They tell us much of what brought Him to that moment, and what others were doing while He was suffering, but they say very little about the process of scourging and crucifixion—about what He was experiencing. Most of what we might visualize about His pain and agony and what was done to produce those feelings, has come to us through other sources in commentary, films, paintings, or other media.
The Resurrection of the Saviour
As with the Crucifixion, so too with the Resurrection, we do not get a description of the event itself. John focused on the experience of Mary Magdalene. She went to the tomb early before daybreak. She saw that the stone was removed from the tomb’s mouth. She ran back to Peter and John and reported that they (the other women with Mary) didn’t know where the Lord’s body was. They assumed that someone had moved Him. Mary then met the Saviour in the garden and attempted to hold Him but was told that she must not, for He had not yet ascended to His Father.
Upon hearing what the women said, Peter and John ran to the tomb. John, the younger man and faster runner, got there first. He stooped down and looked in through the low doorway. He saw the linen burial shrouds lying on the slab where Christ’s body had been, but he did not go in. Peter arrived and went straight in. He saw the linen shroud in which Jesus’ body had been wrapped and the towel that was laid over His face, set apart from the shroud. The orderly arrangement of the burial clothing spoke against any supposition that the grave had been robbed, and is the sort of thing an eyewitness would have noted. Then John entered too, looked around, and had faith that Jesus had risen from the dead. These and other tender scenes were told with considerable details and dialogue.
We note that no gospel writer attempted a description of the actual Resurrection. This is good evidence for the authenticity of these accounts. No mortal saw Jesus’ coming back to life. A person manufacturing a false history of Jesus would doubtless be sorely tempted to expansively surround this most marvelous event in the entire story with elaborate description and celestial pyrotechnics, but the gospels are silent. As they had done in their treatment of the Crucifixion, the gospels described only the surrounding events of the happening: the moved stone, the empty tomb, the stunned soldiers, the folded linen, and Jesus’ later appearances.
After a century and more, later Christians, whose writings did not become scripture, would attempt more dramatic description of the Resurrection. Such writings portrayed a towering Jesus whose head was above the clouds with His coming out of the tomb accompanied by a cross that spoke. These were the sort of stories that were fabricated from the imaginations of men. The true gospels are altogether more level-headed.
This leaves us with some questions to ponder
Why was there relatively little emphasis on what happened to Jesus at the moments of agony and resurrection?
What elements of those days were written in some detail?
What are the evangelists therefore asking us to look at most closely?
Why might those elements still be important for us?
Are we like Peter, James, and John?
Are we too tired to read attentively and to learn something?
What might the apostles have learned had they stayed awake and watched the first part of His infinite Atonement?
When Jesus described the experience over eighteen centuries later, what was His approach to the details (Doctrine and Covenants 19:15-19)?
In the only account that we have of Jesus’ describing those moments, He began to speak of the experience, but then He too broke off and was similarly silent—simply concluding that He had done it for the glory of the Father and for each of us. About His suffering He said:
“How sore you know not, how exquisite you know not, yea, how hard to bear you know not. For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent; But if they would not repent they must suffer even as I; Which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit—and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink—Nevertheless, glory be to the Father, and I partook and finished my preparations unto the children of men” (Doctrine and Covenants 19:15-19).
Glory and thanks indeed to the Father and to the Son as we ponder their gift to all at this Easter season.