A friend here was telling me about various Palestinian Easter traditions (especially the special Easter cakes), including the following legend: On the very first Easter, early in the morning, people were out doing their shopping in the markets in Jerusalem—bargaining for only-slightly-wilted vegetables with traders who had come up from Jericho, maybe, and buying fresh eggs from urban chicken farmers. Just then, Mary Magdalene raced into the market, laughing, waving her arms around in her excitement, and telling everyone that Jesus, who had been crucified on Friday, was alive! She raced out just as quickly, on her way to find the other disciples.
Well, no one believed her. “What a nut!” said one shopper. “Yes,” her friend added, “perhaps grief has driven her mad.” Just then, the sellers and buyers of chicken eggs noticed something strange: The eggs had all turned colors! Shocking pink, deep purple, green as the weeds sprouting out of cracks in the walls—shoppers all over the market gaped at the eggs in their baskets, and the chicken farmers scratched their heads in confusion. This strange occurrence made people think twice about Mary’s message. Perhaps she wasn’t so crazy after all… and that, my friend, is why you dye eggs at Easter.
Of course, my friend added, this is just a story for children, to explain Easter eggs. I like this story, though, for its reminder of the unbelievable strangeness of resurrection. In Luke, no one believes the women’s story of the empty tomb:
It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them—they were telling the apostles these things [about the stone rolled away from the tomb, the missing body, and the message of the two men in bright white clothing]. But to the apostles, these words seemed like nonsense. They did not believe the women (Luke 24:10-11, my translation).
In part, the unbelievability of the women’s message comes from basic distrust of women’s testimony, especially when it’s about strange events in cemeteries. It was women’s work to care for the dead, as the women among the disciples are doing on the first Easter Sunday. But the association with the dead was reason for suspicion too. Cemeteries were unclean space for the Jews, and being in that space, touching dead bodies, made the women ritually unclean. And across the Mediterranean world, cemeteries were also places of witchcraft. Since it was women’s work to mourn the dead and maintain tombs and memorials, women could be accused of witchcraft (cf. 1 Sam. 28!). The Marys et al., with their story of an empty tomb and angelic visitors, could be dismissed by the male disciples as examples of female hysteria.
The disbelief of the reports of Jesus’ resurrection also, however, reflects the fundamental unbelievability of the idea of resurrection. After all, the male disciples’ stories are also greeted with derision. In John 20:24-25, Thomas famously refused to accept the other disciples’ reports of meeting the risen Jesus; Paul spends fifty-eight verses in 1 Corinthians 15 arguing for the reality of this crazy, topsy-turvy idea of resurrection (both Jesus’ resurrection in the past, and the physical, embodied resurrection of all believers “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet”).
According to Matt. 28:17 and Luke 24:36-42, some of the disciples doubted even as they were in the presence of the risen Jesus. For Jews and Gentiles, the idea of Jesus’ physical resurrection was madness. For the Greeks, physical resurrection was impossible—the reason Paul has to spend so much of 1 Corinthians insisting on the possibility of physical resurrection. For (at least some of) the Jews, physical resurrection was an acceptable idea, but it was not going to happen until the end of time, on the day of judgment. To have Jesus being raised from the grave in the middle of time was incomprehensible. The world had clearly not ended; the general resurrection of the dead had clearly not occurred; what were these followers of Jesus talking about when they said Jesus was alive again?
According to the early church, the crucifixion and resurrection did, in fact, mark the end of the world, the turning of the times, the apocalypse—the beginning of the new creation. One of my favorite traditions of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem is the location of Adam’s grave directly below the site of the crucifixion, with cracks in the rock that allowed Jesus’ blood to drip onto Adam’s bones. This tradition is historically implausible, but theologically it is spot on.
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for just as everyone dies in Adam, in the same way everyone will be made alive in Christ (1 Cor. 15:20-22 NRSV, slightly modified).
Jesus’ resurrection was unexpectedly ahead of time, according to Paul, but truth nonetheless, and a foretaste of the harvest to come. And Jesus’ resurrection marked the beginning of the end of the story of humanity that started with Adam and Eve. Adam brought death into the world—Jesus, the new Adam, brings life.
Christ is risen; he is risen indeed. Happy Easter, everyone.