|Series Theme: The Resurrection of Jesus Christ|
|Meditation No. 3|
|Meditation Title: Is he dead?|
Mk 24:44.45 Pilate was surprised to hear that he was already dead. Summoning the centurion, he asked him if Jesus had already died. When he learned from the centurion that it was so, he gave the body to Joseph.
Cynics looking for reasons not to believe in God, looking for reasons not to believe the Bible, come up with a variety of evasive tactics. At foundation level they say you can't trust the documents, and then at a content level they say Jesus didn't die.
The ‘documents query' is quickly dealt with by a challenge to investigate what scholars have found over the last fifty years as they have studied the problem. The numbers of ancient manuscripts making up the New Testament outweigh any other ancient historical documents a hundred-fold. F.F.Bruce, an acknowledged leading world expert said, “There is no body of ancient literature in the world which enjoys such a wealth of good textual attestation as the New Testament.” He also stated, “... the last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed. Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the NT may be regarded as finally established.” F.J.A.Hort, one of the greatest textual critics ever, wrote: “In the variety and fullness of the evidence on which it rests, the text of the NT stands absolutely and unapproachably alone among ancient prose writings.” Oh no, only the utterly ignorant declare, “You can't trust the documents!”
But before we come to examine the actual content of the text, there is another shallow evasive criticism that is often posed: “Well the documents might stand up to scrutiny, but the writers were just making it up. It didn't actually happen” or even, “The writers were conned by Jesus Christ.” The evasive tactics come thick and fast by those who are more interested in avoiding the truth by shutting down their minds with clichés.
The ‘making it up' approach is, again, quickly disposed of by considering two simple but quite different facts. The first is the difficulty of writing and the effort therefore required to produce this wealth of documentation, both biblical and extra-biblical which survives from the first century AD. What was the point if it was all a myth, a made up story? The second is the variety of the writings from obviously a number of writers, but all coming up with essentially the same story. Yet it is obvious that they wrote from their own standpoint, expressing their own personalities as (we believe) they were inspired by God. A detailed investigation of these two points completely demolishes these particular tactics, and so all you are left with is to examine the content, which is what we do in these ‘meditations'.
(If you are a Christian reading these notes and you feel frustrated by the additional background detail and want to get on to the content, may I suggest that there is a need to understand the areas of discussion at least if we are to be able to say to those who come seeking, but with big questions, “There ARE legitimate and good foundations to belief. You CAN believe with intellectual integrity. Your faith can be built on historical fact.”)
So here we have (eventually!) Matthew recording for us this little incident involving Pilate. Joseph of Arimathea has come asking for the body and Pilate, who knows about executions, is surprised that it is all over so quickly. The reason for the haste, we are told, is to clear away the bodies before the Jewish feast started so that there would be nothing unseemly hanging around to spoil the holiness of the event. John's Gospel explains it as follows: “Now it was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. Because the Jews did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down.” (Jn 19:31). So first of all Pilate's permission is requested to speed up the execution, but once it has all happened he is surprised at the efficiency of his men having achieved it so quickly. The main point here is to note that there was concern to make sure that the bodies were dead. The centurion would never have confirmed death to his leader unless he had been absolutely sure.
The Jewish authorities were already concerned to make sure that Jesus was dead as is witnessed by their actions the next day: “The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate. "Sir," they said, "we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, `After three days I will rise again.' So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first."(Mt 27:62-64). Admitted that this happened on the Saturday but they didn't just suddenly feel that; they had been aware of it the whole time and would have been watching carefully at the Cross to ensure it had actually happened. They were convinced of it by what they had seen, which was why they now didn't want the dead body snatched away to create rumours of a resurrection!
So what had convinced them of Jesus' actual death? It had been watching the executioners' activity concluding the executions: “The soldiers therefore came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with Jesus, and then those of the other. But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus' side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water. The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe.” (Jn 19:32-35). These were seasoned Roman executioners and they did not make mistakes. The Romans and the Jewish leaders had a lot going on Jesus' death. They made sure it happened! Any reasonable person has to conclude from the evidence that Jesus was well and truly dead. there is no way he could have survived in these circumstances.
So as we get nearer to considering the resurrection appearances, be quite clear in your mind: we are talking about resurrection from the dead. Of that there is no doubt (at least for those who take the time to investigate the evidence!).