The Resurrection

Many years ago I heard of a man who found his faith from reading the Book of Numbers – you might think this unlikely. So did I, until one day I was given an insight into what might have caused his epiphany.

Numbers is a bureaucrat’s delight: census results, rules, instructions and lists of squabbles, infringements and penalties. Plus a few slipped in joke-over-a-pint-extras like Balaam and his talking ass. But in all this it conveys a sense of individuals, families and groups doing the best they can and often getting it wrong. It lists who went where and who did what. There is something very ordinary about it, and a sense that they were, like me, making their own personal journey. Not always getting it right – not even Moses, Aaron and Miriam.

In a similar way I came to understand the resurrection through an account in which the event itself is hardly mentioned. Mark, who among other things was Peter’s interpreter in Rome, wrote an action packed account of Jesus’ ministry and execution about thirty years after it happened, but with very little about the resurrection.

According to Paul, Jesus’ resurrection and later appearances were witnessed by over 500 people. Quite a few were named. Most were still living when Mark wrote his gospel, and still living when John’s writings were put together at the close of the century. Long before John’s account the number of children, grand-children, friends and acquaintances of first-hand witnesses would have been in the thousands, assuming only moderate family sizes and sharing the news. Where are the ones saying, ‘ My grandfather/boss/mother etc. was there and it didn’t happen?’

There were some. Matthew’s account of the ascension says some doubted, but nevertheless the consensus confirming it was overwhelming. In spite of that, knowledge of Jesus’ earlier life and ministry would have been limited outside Palestine. Mark’s account, written in the mid-first century, was addressed to Christians in Rome who, however convinced they were by the resurrection, would have known little of what lead up to it.

Its opening words read like a title: The Beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Some manuscripts, including two of the most respected, end at the eighth verse of chapter sixteen with the empty tomb. This is usually regarded as its last verse. Others have marginal comments pointing out that earlier Greek copies ended there, and some indicate the extra text as spurious. Verses from other manuscripts with extra endings are included in most bibles. They read differently to the rest of Mark and seem to be later additions. In any event these extra endings, even the so-called ‘longer ending’, are very short.

It is unlikely the Gospel was let unfinished, or that an ending was lost before it was copied (the end of a scroll is harder to come adrift than that of a book). The author appears to have stopped here deliberately, feeling no need to add something already well known to his readers. The extra endings are almost certainly later additions, not by the author and not in his style, and do not fit with his stated intention in his title of presenting an account of the beginning.

People in Rome, like those in the Book of Numbers, were much like you and me but something, perhaps the large number of astonished eye-witnesses, convinced them. For me Mark’s Gospel, filling that desire for more background and yet needing no further evidence of the resurrection is strong evidence in itself.

Genesis

You can talk of the Day of the Jackal.
You can talk of the Day of the Dead.
In Cromwell’s day, so it is said,
the days were black and the days ran red.

But the days that are as a thousand years,
and the thousand years as a day,
belong to Him who made the world
in six, plus one for play.

I have long wondered at the scientific accuracy of the biblical seven days as described in the first chapter of Genesis and the beginning of the second, and how few Christians think it has any accuracy at all, usually describing it as ‘truth dressed in story’. Its accuracy is particularly remarkable as it bears all the hallmarks of an oral tradition which predated writing. Even in the bronze age when it probably first found written form there was little scientific basis to draw on.

As in the poem above, biblical folk used day in the same varied way that we do. Peter, quoted in the second verse, gave an inspired explanation of this (2 Peter 3:8). I have interleaved the complementary biblical and scientific accounts below (or see children’s version, September 2016).

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was formless and void,
Space-time traces back to a chaotic void, in which possibilities, eventualites, shimmer in and out of being.
darkness covered the deep
an unstable, pregnant darkness.
and the spirit brooded over the waters.
The initial conditions had to be just right, in perfect balance…
God said, ‘Let there be light.’
… for electromagnetic waveforms to survive.
He separated the light from the darkness
Those first waves separated, producing others in the primaeval void.
***
God said, ‘Let there be an expanse…to separate waters from waters
The new waveforms burst in a vast expansion…
God called the expanse ‘sky’
… and space was created.
***
God said, ‘Let the waters under the sky be drawn together…
Waveforms condensed to particles, protons, neutrons, electrons…
… and let dry ground appear.’
… atoms condensed out of this ‘soup’ of particles, …
God called the dry ground land, … the waters he called seas.
… mass and gravity brought them together. Solids and liquids formed and eventually the Earth with its amazing landforms and sea-scapes.
Then God said, ‘let the land produce vegetation…
Primitive vegetal life began, probably in hot inland springs, and travelled to the seas.
***
God said, ‘Let there be lights in the sky to separate day from night, and let them serve as signs to mark seasons, days and years…
The tidal forces of the sun and moon and stars drive and mark the seasons, days and years, which in turn drive evolution.
***
God said, ‘Let the water teem with living creatures…
Animal life, primitive at first, formed in the oceans…
… and let birds fly above the earth and across the expanse of the sky…
… then spread to land. Many early forms perished, including the dinosaurs, of which birds are probably the only descendants.
***
God said, ‘Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: livestock, creatures that move along the ground, and wild animals each according to its kind…
After the great Permian extinction mammals proliferated and became the predominant large creatures on land…
God said, ‘Let us make man in our own image, in our likeness…
…of which man, the latecomer, came with the ability to wonder at creation and to love it…
… and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over livestock over all the earth and the creatures that move on the ground.
… and with the immense responsibility this brought.
***
... on the seventh day God rested from all his labour…
… like the first it lasted less than a millisecond.

Then the real work began.

The events and order in this early creation account match modern science almost too accurately. Then there is the coincidence of waters and waves and the apparently contradictary concept of a formless or chaotic void, translations of the original which quantum physics now supports. Those with a statistical bent may work out the odds. But whether we can, whether we want or need to, we can still be amazed. We should still wonder.