graphic website title banner

The Authority Of Scripture

Dr. Craig Koester (Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN)

April 18, 2005

photo of Dr. KoesterWhen I was asked to think about the theme for the conference today, The Authority of Scripture, it occurred to me that there are different dimensions to the question of biblical authority. One of these focuses on the Bible as the norm for doctrine and practice. This aspect of biblical authority usually arises when a church is in dispute about matters of doctrine or practice, and I can’t help but think that the work for the ELCA Task Force is lurking in the background of our concerns today. Even though our topic is resurrection, I think biblical authority is a special concern because of larger questions in the church. We need to be able to appeal to the Bible as our norm when we are in situations of disagreement. We need some standard that we can turn to when we disagree with one another. In such situations the question of biblical authority is, “What is the standard by which we are going to adjudicate our differences?”

But there is also a more fundamental level of biblical authority that I don’t want to overlook. Before we are ready to appeal to the Bible as a norm for doctrine and practice, the Bible serves as the witness that evokes faith. In other words, the Bible has to have a claim on us before we are going to turn to it in order to see what is says about a certain problem. We are not going to go to the Scriptures unless we have already been claimed by Scriptures. So, initially what I am interested in, is not so much what we are going to do with the Bible, but what does the Bible do with us. Not initially what are we going to say about it, but what does it say to us. What are its claims upon us? How does it address us?

When topics of biblical authority come up, the sense of “oughtness” arises right away: We really “ought” to do more with the Bible; we really “ought” to read the Bible more; we really “ought” to quote it more in our disagreements; we really “ought”… You know the pattern. And when something is framed in terms of “I ought”, I usually think “Yes, I should so that.” And that thought, in turn, is followed by, “Yet I really don’t want to.” What I am interested in here is, What would it take for the Bible to lay claim to us? What is it about Scripture that speaks to us, that awakens the faith and generates the kind of energy that claims us, that disciplines our thinking, that captures our imagination? That’s the dimension that I want to work at first, since it is precisely because Scripture evokes faith in God and the risen Christ that I have any interest in asking how it might function as a norm at all.

So, with that as background, what I want to do is not talk “about” the Bible, but to ask what it actually says. My assigned task was to look at John Chapter 20, and I am happy to do that. For the next few minutes we are going to be reading John 20 and asking about the claims that are made by the text. We will ask how the text is speaking to us, and what we find here about the connection between witness and faith.

Here we go into John 20: “Early, on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So, she ran and went to Simon and Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb and we do not know where they have laid Him.” This is enough to start.

Focus for a moment on Mary. Mary has a piece of evidence. She goes to the tomb and sees that the tomb is open. This means that she has some evidence that is accessible to the senses; something she can perceive with her eyes. The tomb is open; the stone has been removed. That’s the data; that’s the information. Now, the question is, how is she going to process that information? Where does it go? Mary must interpret what she sees. She concludes that an open tomb means that someone stole the body. She is interpreting the information in the way that any sane person would interpret it. She tries to understand it in terms of common human practice. If you have an open tomb, it means that some human being has been messing with it. Grave robbery, body snatching—that is the logical conclusion. This is the point of view that Mary brings to that data that she has.

John’s Gospel does not explain why Mary would come to that conclusion, but body snatching could have occurred for any number of reasons. One possibility is that people might go rummaging around for valuables of some kind. Tomb robbery. It was common. Jesus probably did not have a lot of possessions, but he knew people who did, and John’s gospel says that Jesus was buried with 100 pounds of spices. That much spice created a lot of expense, so who knows, maybe there would be other valuable things for a grave robber to look for.

The other reason for grave robbery would be something like a hate crime. It is a way of demonstrating your hatred toward someone. You disturb the graves of people in order to show your antipathy toward them and those who are close to them. In the end it really doesn’t matter what we assume about Mary’s reasons for concluding that the body was stolen. What is important is that body snatching was the simple explanation, the natural explanation for seeing an open tomb. Mary interpreted the open tomb as any ordinary person would interpret it.

I find that move from perception to interpretation to be an important one because it shows that resurrection was not the easy answer to the empty tomb. It is not that Mary went to the tomb saying, “I really can’t believe that he’s gone. He must be alive somehow. An open tomb. Gosh, he really must be alive and walking around someplace.” That’s exactly what she didn’t think, according to John 20. That means that if there is going to be faith in the resurrection, it’s going to have to overcome the more plausible explanation, which is that the body was stolen. That’s an important leveling kind of an exercise: If resurrection faith is going to arise, it is going to have to overcome the more plausible explanation, which is that the body was stolen.

Let’s read on beginning at verse 3. Here we take a little detour from Mary in order to watch two other disciples, who now who go to the tomb. “Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in, and he saw the linen wrappings lying there but he did not go in. Then Simon and Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the head, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in. He saw and believed, for as yet they did not understand the Scripture that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.”

In this sequence we have more seeing and more interpreting. There are two disciples: the disciple that Jesus loved (tradition called him John; he’s not named here, that’s a later inference) and Peter, who is apparently a little slower, huffing and puffing behind. The disciple who Jesus loved arrives at the tomb first and sees more than Mary saw. He sees that not only has the stone been removed, but as he also looks in he sees the grave cloths lying there. Nothing more said about what he interpreted to mean yet. Next, Peter goes into the tomb and sees the grave cloths lying there, just as the other disciple did, but now he sees more. He sees the head cloth rolled up in a place by itself. Finally, the beloved disciple, the one who had reached the tomb first, goes into the tomb, sees all of this and believes.

I wish that the passage had simply ended right there because then you could have a great drum roll and the cymbal clash. There you would have resurrection faith. Amen. Hallelujah. Sing a chorus of ‘Jesus Christ Has Risen Today’, and you are ready to kind of go off into the prayer of the day in your worship service. That would be the way to end the whole thing. What is so weird, what is so weird, he saw and he believed. Why? The gospel goes on to say that they didn’t understand the Scripture. Is ignorance of the Bible a virtue in this case? What is the deal? And, what’s more, he didn’t say a thing! We find Mary is still weeping outside the tomb in the next verse and, if he saw and believed, why keep it to yourself? Why not go out with ‘Jesus Has Risen, Hallelujah’! It makes you wonder.

Biblical interpreters have certainly wondered what the Beloved Disciple believed if he didn’t understand what was going on, and if he didn’t say anything about it. So, there are basically two options. One is that he saw and he believed that Mary was right and that somebody had stolen the body. Why? Because he didn’t understand the Scripture. According to this approach, that would be why he did not say anything. This interpretation is a downer, but it does make sense of a few things. One gets the idea that if the disciple had just done a little more biblical homework, he would have been able to put it together and shown genuine resurrection faith at this point.

But there are problems with this interpretation. Remember how the gospel has so carefully told us about everything that people have seen this far. Mary sees the open tomb, and then the others see the grave cloths, and then they see the head cloth rolled up in a place by itself. This sounds like a very strange thing for a body snatcher to do. I have not watched any of those late-night showings of “The Return of the Body Snatchers” or anything like that, so I am not quite sure what one might expect a body snatcher to do, but it seems weird to think that somebody who is looking for valuables would take the time to unwrap the corpse and then run off with a naked body through the streets. Either you take the valuables and leave everything else, or you take the whole thing and rummage through it later, but you don’t just take the body and leave the grave cloths. That just doesn’t work.

The same thing is true if this is a hate crime. Why in the world would you take time to roll up the head cloth and kind of put it neatly over in one spot? That doesn’t fit the pattern. What is more, the Beloved Disciple is the one who sees and believes, and every time the Beloved Disciple is mentioned in the gospel, he seems to get it. But if that is the case, and the Beloved Disciple really does have some kind of genuine faith, then what do we make of the part about not understanding the Scriptures?

In order to answer that question, we need to ask how often we find people elsewhere in John’s gospel first getting their Old Testament interpretations all squared away and then coming to faith. What happens when people are settled into their interpretations of the Old Testament, and once they have done that, they ask where Jesus fits in? When that happens, people usually come to the conclusion that Jesus doesn’t fit. For example, consider the Ten Commandments, which said people are to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. The idea is that on the Sabbath day people are not supposed to work. Yet Jesus heals on the Sabbath. So if you start with the Old Testament, you usually conclude that Jesus is a lawbreaker. He doesn’t fit the way the way people read the Bible.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus speaks about being “lifted up”; being elevated, like Moses lifted up the pole in the wilderness; being elevated on a cross. When he does this, people say, “Wait a minute, we thought the Messiah was supposed to reign forever, and how can you say that some man must be lifted up, like on a pole, like in death?” (12:32-33). Crucifixion and Scripture don’t seem to make any sense. Resurrection and Scripture don’t make any sense. This is the problem. If you go rummaging around in the Old Testament Scriptures and ask, where does it say the Messiah is supposed to be crucified and raised on the third day, you have a real hard time finding anything that just says this in so many words. What’s more, when you do ask, what does the Old Testament say about resurrection say anyway? Where it’s mentioned is that it is usually something that is supposed to happen at the end of the age, at the last day, when all the dead are to be raised up, some to everlasting glory, some to everlasting shame and contempt (Daniel 12). The usual idea is that you have a general resurrection of the dead, on the last day. Here we’ve got one empty tomb, and that sure doesn’t look like the kind of resurrection that Daniel was describing.

John 20 is candid about saying that there were lots of things the disciples didn’t put together before Jesus’ death and resurrection. In John 2 and John 12 the gospel acknowledges that Jesus’ disciples didn’t understand a lot of this at first but then, after Jesus had been glorified, after he had been raised from the dead, then they understood the Scripture. The resurrection opens up a new perspective on the old text. After the resurrection, people can see connections that they couldn’t see before. It wasn’t that the disciples had it all put together and then saw how neatly Jesus fit in. Rather, Jesus messed up what people were looking for, and they had to rethink it all in light of his death and resurrection.

So far, we have had the discovery of an open tomb and the conclusion that the body was stolen. The disciples have seen the grave clothes in the tomb. One out of two disciples came to faith of some kind, though it was a faith that didn’t entail much understanding, and it was a faith that didn’t lead to any proclamation at the time. This part of the story is important because we as readers want to know that somebody checked the tomb. You can’t go around saying that Jesus is alive; amen, hallelujah; He has risen from the dead, and have somebody ask you, well did anybody bother to check the tomb. That would be a problem. If the body is still there, then you have a problem. But it is also clear that resurrection faith does not simply arise as an inference from an empty tomb. Seeing does not guarantee believing. If there is going to be resurrection faith, then it has to come from something more than inferences based on an empty tomb. And, that is where we are encouraged to keep reading.

Now, let’s look at Verse 11. “Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and she saw two angels in white sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying; one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ And she said, ‘They have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid Him.’” OK, now we not only have Mary, who has seen the open tomb; we not only have the grave cloths lying inside the tomb; now we have the intrusion of the supernatural; we have two angelic beings, right there in the tomb. And we might expect things to move ahead quickly now to some kind of recognition. After all, what usually happens when somebody in the Bible encounters angels? When somebody encounters an angel, the response is fear and trembling, right? The shepherds were keeping watch over their flocks by night, and an angel of the Lord appeared to them, the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were sore afraid, right? You remember this from every Christmas pageant you’ve ever been to. When you see an angel, you tremble with fear because here you are in the presence of a heavenly being. And now the angels are there in the tomb. We expect Mary to tremble, and what does she do? She talks to them like she talks to Peter. She is still thinking about body snatching. Does something seem amiss here? Mary has the angels right in front of her and she is still thinking about body snatching. (If you ever do the Gospel of John as a drama for your Lenten series, you don’t want to get the angels’ part. It’s a real downer. At Christmas pageant, it’s great. You get to stand up there, Behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, and everybody is trembling before your presence. Here, Mary just looks in and says, “Oh, they’ve taken my Lord out of the tomb and I don’t know where they’ve laid Him.”) Now Mary turns around. Did you notice that she doesn’t even wait to see what they say? These poor angels are in the tomb, saying, “Wait a second, Mary, we’ve got something to tell you. Don’t go away yet.” And the angels don’t even get to say that He has risen from the dead.

Now verse 14. “When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there but she didn’t know that it was Jesus. And Jesus said, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have you have carried Him away, tell me where you have laid Him, and I will take Him away.’” What information has Mary received so far? She has seen the open tomb. She is thinking about body snatching. Next, she sees the angels sitting inside the tomb. She is still thinking about body snatching. Now, she sees the risen Jesus, himself, and she is still thinking, body snatching. You have to give her credit. She is consistent.

This is the point in the story where everybody wants to know, why didn’t she get it; why didn’t she recognize Jesus? This is where the preachers often find a big space in the text to imagine why she did not get it. One might speculate that she was so deep in grief that her eyes were covered with tears. She looked at him and it was all blurry so that, she couldn’t recognize him. Or, when she came to the tomb, it was still early morning, and Jesus was standing there just as the sun was rising, and so she was looking over at him in the glare, which made it hard to see him. Or when they put him in the tomb he was wearing grave cloths and now he was wearing bib overalls like the gardener. You know how the imagination goes.

But John is not interested in why Mary did not get it. John is most interested in what it would take for Mary to see, really see what was going on. If she has seen the open tomb, and thinks of body snatching. If she has seen angels, and thinks of body snatching. If she has seen the risen Jesus, himself, and thinks of body snatching, then what would it take to have a break-through? What would it take for there to be some change in her perception? This is where verse 16 comes in. “Jesus said to her, ‘Mary.’” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” Jesus called her by name. Jesus addressed her, and when Jesus spoke to her, she turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni,” which means “teacher.” That’s where recognition occurs, when Jesus speaks and calls her by name. Seeing does not guarantee believing. The evidence does not guarantee faith. It is important that the evidence is there, but it is when the risen Christ himself calls Mary that he calls her to a recognition of what has happened.

Some of you may see analogies with the way later interpreters understood the dynamics of faith. When many of you ask, “Where does faith come from?” you may think of what Luther wrote, namely, “I believe that I cannot, by my own understanding or effort, believe.” But the Holy Spirit has called me. There has to be a call in order for there to be a recognition. There has to be a call for there to be faith. There has to be something from God’s side, and in John 20 it comes through the risen Jesus, whereas later it comes through the work of the Holy Spirit. People believe because the word calls them to believe. That was Mary’s experience, and that is the experience of later generations of believers too.

In Verses 19 and following, we find Jesus appearing to the disciples behind the locked doors. At the end of Verse 19, Jesus says, “Peace be with you.” After this, he showed them his hands and his side, and the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit; if you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” At this point now, the disciples move from being those who encounter Christ to those who proclaim Christ. The resurrection will be something to which they bear witness, and they witness to people who have not seen.

Let’s consider what happens when the resurrection isn’t a matter of immediate experience but is something that comes to people via witness. Verse 24 says that Thomas, who is called the twin, one of the 12, was not with them when Jesus came. So, the other disciples bear witness to him. They told him, “We have seen the Lord.” He said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hands in his side, I will not believe.”

Thomas is a great test case. Where does resurrection faith come from? What’s the role of witness in evoking it? The disciples do bear witness, saying “We have seen the Lord.” Their words are straightforward first person declaration. This is what we have seen. This is the evidence that we are presenting to you, and the immediate result to that is…unbelief. Their witness is as effective as the stone that had been moved from the tomb. Their witness seems to be lifeless material. That their witness is as ineffective as the two angels sitting in the tomb. Their witness is as ineffective as Mary seeing the risen Jesus standing in front of her. It doesn’t go anywhere. It’s important that it’s there but it certainly doesn’t guarantee belief. And yet, the witness is important, even though it doesn’t work like magic.

Let’s look more carefully at the figure of Thomas in the Gospel of John. What do we know about Thomas? Where does he come from? What brought him to this point? Thomas is mentioned three times in John. The first time is back in Chapter 11, which was the story of raising of Lazarus. (Interesting that the first time he is mentioned is in the connection with the resurrection.) Jesus is talking about going back to Bethany to raise Lazarus from the dead. Thomas says, “Come let us also go and we will die right along with him.” Thomas recognizes that Lazarus is dead; he’s in the tomb; Jesus has enemies. Thomas assumes that the disciples are all going to die right along with Jesus. There is have plenty of room in the tomb, I guess. Good thing they make tombs with extra guest chambers, you know. Assuming Thomas indeed went along, it seems that seeing the raising of Lazarus—which was the dress rehearsal for Good Friday and Easter—didn’t do much for Thomas’s faith. Seeing didn’t guarantee believing.

The second time Thomas appears is in Chapter 14, at the Last Supper, when Jesus says, “You know the way where I am going.” Thomas says to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you’re going. How can we know the way?” Jesus says, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you knew me, you would know my Father also. Henceforth, you do know Him and you have seen Him.” Jesus says, “If you really see me, you see God. If you really see who I am, you see who God is.” That’s the word of testimony that Jesus gives to Thomas. To see Jesus is to see the Father.

And the third time Thomas appears is here, in Chapter 20. When the disciples bear witness, “We have seen the Lord.” It’s clear that none of this witness works like magic. None of these words works automatically. And yet, when Jesus encounters him, the witness is made effective through the work of the risen Christ. On its own, it does nothing; through the work of the risen Christ, it does everything.

Look at what happens. Verse 26. A week later his disciples were, again, in the house and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” He said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Look now at what Thomas confesses. When he first says, “My Lord,” he gives his affirmation to the disciples’ witness. They had told him, we have seen the Lord, and now Thomas, in the presence of the risen Christ says, “My Lord.” Next recall that earlier in the Gospel, Jesus said to see who I am is to see who God is; to see me is to see the Father. And now, Thomas gives affirmation to Jesus’ words when he confesses, “My God.” The encounter with Jesus makes the testimony that Thomas had received effective. On its own, the words are mere words. But in and through the work of the risen Christ, the testimony shapes Thomas’ own words. Testimony is what shapes Thomas’s ability to make a confession of faith at all. The testimony is enlivened and becomes Thomas’ own witness, on his own lips.

Very briefly, let’s think about the implications. What we find in the stories of the disciples and Mary Magdalene and Thomas is that witness is important. It’s important that somebody checked the empty tomb to find that the body wasn’t there. It’s important that somebody can say we have seen the Lord. It’s important that there be witness, and yet witness on its own guarantees nothing. Seeing on its own guarantees nothing. Data on its own guarantees nothing. If no one saw the empty tomb, we’ve got a problem. If no one saw the risen Jesus, we’ve got a problem.

On the other hand, the mere reports of those things don’t guarantee a thing. Faith in the resurrection arises precisely when the risen Christ evokes it through the witness of the Scriptures. The witness of the early disciples comes to us through the pages of the New Testament. Their verbal witness becomes written witness, and that, in turn, is the way the witness comes to us. The word is the channel through which the risen Christ evokes faith. If Jesus isn’t alive, the Scriptures remain dormant.

Three quick observations. First is I recognize that John 20 is a part of the Christian canon. There are other witness, other voices, and there are differences in detail among the various accounts. Since the Christian community adopted a canon with four Gospels and not just one, the church agreed to live with the tensions and to let each of the four evangelists have his own moment, his own way of speaking and communicating. I have been working with just one of these, John 20, and I have been working at the level of the text, asking what the text communicates, how it addresses us.

I have not been trying to get behind the text to reconstruct something that might have happened. I have not been trying to reconcile the differences between the Gospels but rather to let the Scripture have its way, to let John talk to me. Historical reconstruction can take us to a point where we picture a scenario that is more or less plausible, a scenario in which have a sense as to what did or didn’t happen on that first Easter morning, but the reconstructions never take the place of the text itself. The text is the means through which faith is evoked.

Finally, John 20 makes the claim that Jesus’ followers didn’t create faith in the resurrection but rather that such faith was called forth in them, called forth in them by the risen Christ himself. According to John’s Gospel, the disciples recognized that Jesus was dead. His body should have stayed in the tomb by anybody’s measure of what was normal or expectable. Resurrection faith was not the answer that they came up with in response to an empty tomb; rather, resurrection faith had to emerge by overcoming more plausible explanations. According to John’s Gospel, it was called into being by the risen Christ, himself.