The expected Messiah was not supposed to die. He was supposed to save the nation of Israel from the Roman Empire, not be killed by a bunch of religious bureaucrats using the Roman imperialists as their henchmen. The outcome was all backward, and it would take years (two millennia and counting) to explain how the death of Jesus fulfilled rather than contradicted his prophetic message.
You can go to the hillside cemetery behind Burning Bush Baptist Church just before sunrise on any Easter morning. Stand shoulder to shoulder with other weary souls, your heels sinking into the soft ground. Everyone avoids standing on grave tops, so that the crowd draws together with holes in between like a crocheted table cloth. The grass soaks the hems of your pants as the preacher retells the story of that morning when a group of women went to the tomb and found it empty.
If you’re lucky, he will point out the holes in the sparse tale: The writer says the women were afraid, but it is women we find at the tomb while the men are cowering in some hidden place, fearing the Roman authorities who put their leader to death. In the oldest version of the story, the women were so afraid they didn’t tell anyone about the empty tomb. Even when an angel directly charged them to take this news to the disciples, they were too scared. Mark 16:8 says, “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.”
Clearly there are problems with ending the story there. If the women said nothing to anyone, how is it you are now standing in a cemetery waiting for the sun to pop up over the tree line like the risen savior? How is it we have these celebrations at all, whether our props include fake grass in wicker baskets, thorns painfully twisted into a crown, or a splintered cross shouldered down the street and up the church steps like a casket?
If the story had ended there at Mark 16:8 with a little huddle of women too scared to open their mouths, there would be no Gospel, no Easter, no church. But we have this whole body of scripture predicated on the outrageous claim that Jesus rose from the dead. He lived, taught, performed miracles, was killed, and was reportedly seen after death by numerous people. These are facts, supported by the secular historical record as well as the Bible. What we make of them — well, that takes some thought and perhaps a measure of faith.
Someone recently said to me that theologians are just trying to explain away the problems in scripture. As a student of theology, I would say that’s fair. And really, that is all any of us are doing, whether we focus on the Bible, the religion we inherited, or the world around us. Theology is the struggle to solve problems involving our understanding of God. We all struggle to figure things out: Why are we here? Why is life so beautiful yet so painful? Is death the end? The authors of scripture dared to ask these same questions, and to struggle toward answers. We can fault them for what we see as flawed arguments, circular logic, and incomplete stories — or we can struggle along with them to understand.
Jeannie Babb is a Ringgold native. You can find her on FaceBook or pedaling a neon green bike through the Sewanee fog to the School of Theology, black academic gown billowing behind like a sail. Send email to email@example.com.