Requiem for a Story?

A Waldenström — Johnson Discussion

by Phil Johnson

I had not read Waldenström's commentary on John 10:1-18 prior to writing "An Easter Story." If I had, the story might have been different. I based the story on my analysis of the various accounts — is this not what a pietist should do? As soon as I had read Waldenström, feared for the story. As it stands, does the story contradict the biblical account and, thus, die? Or, can it survive?

I first began writing stories like this under the inspiration of David Hawkinson. He introduced a Bethlehem Sunday School Class to Jewish midrash through a particular midrash on Genesis 11:28, "Haran died before his father Torah in the land of his birth, in Ur of the Chaldeans." The midrashic story is an account of how it came about that Haran died in the presence — the meaning of "before" in the text — of his father. (If you are interested in the original midrash, we will send it to you for the postage. If you are interested in my "midrash" on the midrash, double the postage from $.50 to $1.00.)

"An Easter Story" is an example of a story which is an attempt to fill in the details behind the story. One of the rules for such a story is that the story cannot contradict scripture. The story may take some liberties but it cannot contradict. It should solve riddles in the biblical account if possible.

Waldenström acknowledges how perilous it is to bring the Easter stories into harmony. His effort is close to midrash. He proceeds in the attempt with characteristic diligence and skill. He calls attention to the fact that Mary Magdalene reports what she had not really observed — that the Lord's body had been taken out of the tomb. He says that this piece of misinformation accounts for the "... way most of the inaccurate information began to circulate without anyone lying."

Following this astute observation, he proceeds to account for Mary's actions in light of this. He accepts as given that a group of women arrived together at the tomb first. I suppose he thinks that to ignore the common testimony of the 3 synoptic gospels, even though they each list a different combination of women, is ill advised.

He solves the problem presented by the fact that John mentions no other women besides Mary with the argument that John's silence does not mean they were not there. He reinforces the argument by pointing out the use of "we" (vs 2). Waldenström gets Mary alone by the hypothesis that she leaves the scene at the tomb before the other women without checking out her assumption that the Lord "has been taken."

It is she who finds Peter and John, returns with them, and has with them the experiences recorded in John 20:2-18 that none of the other gospels report clearly.

Following this approach, Waldenström recognizes that Matt. 28:9 cannot be reconciled. He handles this by hypothesizing that "what Matthew talks about is in all probability an incomplete rendering of the revelation to Mary from Magdala...." He perhaps chooses the word "incomplete" when according to the rest of the scenario he has worked out, one could say "inaccurate," the term he uses earlier.

Waldenström's thesis is as satisfying as any. It is not so satisfying, however, that it clears up all the problems and, thus, must be followed.

Among the problems are the different people who come to the tomb; in Luke, the women who have come down from Galilee (23:55), Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women (24:19); in Matthew, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary (28:1); in Mark, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome (16:1); and in John, Mary Magdalene (20:1). The time of coming: in Luke, early dawn (24:1); in Matthew toward dawn (28:1); in Mark, when the sun was risen (16:2); and in John, while it was still dark (20:1).

Matthew reports an earthquake and an angel who stuns the guards (28:2-4). This angel, sitting on the gravestone outside the tomb tells the women — the two Marys — what has happened (5,6) and sends them to the disciples with the news. They go and tell the disciples with joy (8). On their way Jesus meets them (9).

Mark reports that the stone was rolled away when the women arrived (16:4) and that they entered the tomb to find a young man, presumably an angel, who tells them the good news (6). He instructs them to tell Peter and the disciples (7), but the women — which in this case includes Salome flee in fear and say nothing to anyone (8). It is after this in the longer ending of Mark (16: 9 19) which is not found in some of the ancient texts — see Gospel Parallels, p. 191, and also note the interesting accounts from the "Gospel of Peter" pp. 186 and 187 while you are at it — that it is reported that Jesus first appeared to Mary Magdalene (9).

Luke, like Mark, reports that the women went into the tomb (16:3). Two men in dazzling apparel interrogate them (4,5) and they return to tell the eleven disciples and the rest (9) who do not believe them (11).

This brings us to John's account which presents us with information we have not yet encountered in the synoptics — a visit by Peter and John (?) to the empty tomb and an encounter between Mary Magdalene and Jesus. There arc no guards and no earthquake. The story is the most detailed and the most personal. After recognizing the impossibility of harmonizing the accounts, I decided to take the John story on its own, dismissing the problems the other stories pose by sending Mary out with the other women after her story has been told. It doesn't solve the problems, but it does free one up to deal with Mary Magdalene's story by itself.

It is at this point that Waldenström places two hard little stones in the gears which threaten "An Easter Story". They are three small letters — "we" and "s." From the use of the word "we" in verse 2, Waldenström concludes that Mary was not alone. He writes about verse I, "Though the evangelist only mentions Mary, he is by no means saying that she was alone." If in John, another woman or more was with Mary in verse 1, "An Easter Story" has to be rewritten.

To which pressure does one yield — the pressure to harmonize with the other stories or the actual words of the text? If the text, how can the word "we" in the 2nd verse be handled? On this question permit me to quote Raymond E. Brown: "Is the 'we' an implicit reminiscence that others were involved in the visit to the tomb, as in the Synoptic tradition? (Tatian and some versions read a singular here, again probably in imitation of vs. 13 which has 'I don't know.') Wellhausen and Spitta think of the 'we' as a redactional attempt to harmonize John and the Synoptics; but it is strange that, when so many differences were left in John, such a minor and subtle harmonization should have been attempted. [It poses no minor issue to me, however, since a story is at stake.) Bultmann, ... who thinks that vs. 2 is an editorial connective, judges that the 'we' is a Semitic way of speaking with Greek analogues. Support for this can be found in G. Dalman, Grammatik des judisch-palastinischen Aramaisch (Datmstady, 1960 reprint), p. 265: 'In Galilean Aramaic the first person plural was frequently used for the first person singular.' On wonders, then, why the singular appears in vs. 13." Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI The Anchor Bible, (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1970, Imprimatur 1970), p.984.

This certainly makes me feel better. There is authority for understanding "we" in this verse as singular. The story survives to meet the next hard stone "s."

Verse 10 reads in the RSV: "Then the disciples went back to their homes." Waldenström states strongly that the disciples were not together. In fact he thinks they have been scattered since the arrest reported in John

"An Easter Story" imagines a group of friends, including disciples and some women staying together. The "s" poses a difficult problem. Has the story survived "we" only to be ground to shreds by an "s" in the gears?

To our relief we discover that "homes" is not without its problems either. First, most of the people involved are from Galilee, so that they did not literally return home. They were guests somewhere in the city.

Second, the story is written such that Peter and the other disciple seem to be staying in the same place. More problems are presented by thinking they were not. Brown observes, "The repetition of the preposition 'to' [verse 2, not reflected in the RSV] has been noted by commentators [Waldenström for one]. Those who think that the Beloved Disciple was not mentioned in the original form of the story find here the sign of an addition. Others theorize that Peter and the Beloved Disciple were not at the same place (yet see vs. 19 where the disciples are huddled together); if so, this separate housing is scarcely to be related to 16: 32 which speaks of the disciples being scattered, 'each on his own.' Grass, p. 55, thinks that the two were together, perhaps the other disciples were there as well, but only these two wanted or dared to go. In any case, they are pictured as setting out for the tomb from the same place running side

Third, Luke 24:9 reports that "returning from the tomb they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest." This passage docs not say that the disciples and the others were together, but it does not in any way suggest that they were not. They seem to have been easily located.

Fourth, the word "homes" is not in the text. It says that the disciples went back pros autous — to theirs. The word home or place is to be supplied, but it is not necessarily plural. Thus, Brown translates, "the disciples went back home." He comments, "'Home' here is not Galilee, but to wherever they had been in Jerusalem when Magdalene called them. The real purpose of the verse is to get the disciples off the scene and to give the stage to Magdalene." (Brown, p. 988)

This leaves plenty of room for the story to survive as an imaginative possibility. Our thanks to Waldenström and to Brown and more especially to the gospel writers and to those who saw to it that these accounts reached even us so that we could relive this most wonderful event in human life.

Phil Johnson is Editor Emeritus of Pietisten.

See all articles by Phil Johnson