The Gardener

One year my Vacation Bible School teacher at the local Baptist Church stumbled over apparent divergences between the Gospel accounts. It was entirely unintentional on her part. An illustration of the resurrection story showed the women holding on to the feet of the resurrected Jesus, shortly after finding the tomb open and empty. My teacher complained that this was clearly incorrect, and she showed us a verse in John to prove it:

“Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God.” – John 20:17 KJV

That dear woman would have been right if the passage were truly as presented in the King James Version. That bit about not touching him actually meant ‘don’t hold on to me,’ the meaning of which is also debated among Bible students. In any case, it didn’t mean what she thought it did. Further, the illustration that upset her so was actually based on another passage of Scripture.

“And as they went to tell his disciples, behold, Jesus met them, saying, All hail. And they came and held him by the feet, and worshipped him.” – Matthew 28:9 KJV

so much for whatever theological case my VBS teacher thought she was making. What’s really illustrated here is first the difficulty of working from translations, and second the complexity of harmonizing inharmonious accounts of the resurrection. More to the point I’ve been trying to make this week, what we find in these diverging stories about the risen Jesus is not the result of bewilderment over actual events, but the well-considered and long-elaborated stories that were passed along orally in the decades after the founding of the first church in Jerusalem. What really seemed to have been happening was that people had visions/hallucinations of their recently executed friend, and passed these along as true.

When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher).

Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

John 20:14-17 NRSV

This is a story I’ve read countless times, and yet I still vaguely remember what went through my adolescent mind the first time I read it: “What if it really was the gardener?”

Over the years as a Christian I defended this passage by saying Mary was so grief-stricken, eyes swollen with tears, that she only saw a man standing nearby and didn’t realize it was Jesus until she heard his voice. That’s a good argument, except that Mary’s failure to recognize Jesus fits the pattern of disciples not recognizing Jesus right away. There is most definitely a tradition of doubt enshrined in the Gospel accounts, one that most Christians would likely prefer to ignore.

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