In the various Gospels we have complementary accounts of the resurrection of Jesus and the diverse responses that people had to this news. We tend to think that these first century people easily accepted that God had raised Jesus from the dead. However, that is not the reality, at least as we find it in the Gospels. It took repeated appearances and stern words from Jesus himself before some were ready to believe that his resurrection had happened. The implications of such an event were enormous and people wanted firm evidence that it was true before accepting that Jesus truly was Messiah. After all, a dead Messiah, in any Jewish setting, was a contradiction in terms.
One of the more surprising responses is reported by Luke (24:11). Women went early on Sunday morning to complete the burial preparations for Jesus. When they arrived at the tomb they found the stone door no longer blocking the tomb’s entrance. They entered the tomb and found no body. While they were considering this, two angels appeared and announced Jesus’ resurrection, in accordance with Jesus’ own words. The women rush back to report this “to the eleven and the rest” (24:9). Luke tells us this group of women included Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the rest with them (24:10). However, to the eleven “these matters appeared before them as nonsense (lēros).” This is the only occurrence of this word in the New Testament.
Why did Luke choose this word to describe the response of the eleven to the women’s witness about Jesus’ resurrection? Danker suggests the translation “that which is totally devoid of anything worthwhile, idle talk, nonsense.”1 During Josephus’ trial before the Roman commander Vespasian, his claim to have foretold the capture of the city of Jotopata is described by another prisoner trying to discredit his prophetic claims, as “a nonsensical invention (lēros)”.2 According to IV Maccabees 5:11 the Syrian emporer Antiochus Epiphanes urged Eleazer, a Jewish priest, to eat swine flesh and reject the “nonsense of his reasons (tōn logismōn sou ton lēron)” that his Jewish tradition taught him not to eat swine and thereby avoid the torture and death that awaited him. Philo uses the term to describe the religious practices of the Egyptians and other similar religious ideas as “the nonsense of myths (muthikon lēron).”3 In another context where he is commenting on Noah’s drunkenness he uses the cognate verb to describe a person who is “being silly in his cups (tōi lērein en oinōi).”4 In a second century B.C. papyrus the related adjective is linked with the word “lying” (“much stupidity and lying”). Finally, the noun occurs in medical texts to describe the delirium that fever produces.5
In Luke’s narrative the report of the women about the resurrection of Jesus is treated as a ludicrous nonsense by the eleven and other disciples. Of course, this reaction of the eleven to this news is not unique to Luke’s account, but he uses a rather strong and unusual word to define it. The eleven completely discount this testimony as contrary to reality and the ravings of hysterical women.
Mark records the same event. However, I want to focus on the way he defines the reaction of the women to the announcement by the angelic messenger. He says they left “trembling and bewildered” (tromos kai ekstasis) (16:8). Both words occur rarely in the Gospels, but occasionally elsewhere in the New Testament.6 In the case of Mark, however, this is the only place he uses tromos (trembling) and ekstasis only occurs elsewhere in Mark 5:42, where Jesus raises the daughter of Jairus from the dead. The only other uses of tromos in the New Testament come in Paul’s letters where it is always linked with phobos (fear), e.g. “with fear and trembling”.7 Mark does use the cognate verb tremō once at 5:33 where he also describes the response of a woman, this time to Jesus. He has healed her and he demands that she identify herself publicly and she does so “fearing and trembling”.
Tromos describes the external symptoms of fear – quivering, shaking. The fear is so great that it shows itself physically. In the case of the women in Mark 16 their experience has left them shaking with fear. This corresponds with the other things Mark says about them – they flee and they remain silent. The theophany has had a severe impact upon them. This divine revelation has totally overwhelmed them and the message seems to get lost in their reaction.
The other term ekstasis occurs at Mark 16:8 and 5:42. As well Mark uses the cognate verb (existēmi, I am astonished) at 2:12; 3:21; 5:42; and 6:51. While there are various senses that this word expresses (e.g. 3:21 where Jesus is reported to be ‘deluded’ or ‘in a prophetic state of ecstasy’ (exestē)8), in 16:8 the term describes “astonishment and bewilderment to the strongest degree.”9 Apparently tromos kai ekstasis summarizes the response of the women to the appearance of the heavenly messenger. When first “they saw” (16:5) this angelic being, they are overcome with “shuddering awe” (exethambēthēsan 16:5). This verb in Mark’s Gospel is associated with divine interventions (1:27; 16:5,6) or expressions of the divine will (10:24,32). Then they flee. The reason for their flight is their “quivering and bewildering astonishment”. They realize that they have experienced God’s presence and God’s words and like Peter on the Mount of Transfiguration the spiritual shock is so great that they do not know what to do or say – so they flee. Mark concludes this paragraph with one more reference to their fear – ephobounto gar (“for they were afraid’). Mark piles up the words for fear, amazement, bewilderment, visceral terror to describe the women’s response to the empty tomb, but perhaps more significantly, the presence of the angelic messenger to explain that God has raised Jesus from the dead.
Mark could not have emphasized or defined more fully this response of the women. It heightens the wonder of the resurrection. It is an eschatological event without parallel in human history and they have witnessed it.
Today we read about the resurrection stories and rightfully are caught up in the divine glory and vindication it reveals about Jesus Messiah. For those immersed in these events, however, the resurrection of Jesus at first generated heart-thumping fear and quivering bewilderment, causing them to flee in terror. When they did try to share their experience, they were labeled as delusional, talking nonsense. The implications of the resurrection are enormous and these first witnesses struggled to come to terms with its reality.
- do we appreciate the amazing thing that God did in the resurrection of Jesus? This miracle expresses the apex of his kingly rule in the life and ministry of Jesus.
- The resurrection marks the beginning of “the end of days”, the last period before the Messiah returns. God’s revelation to these women at the tomb began this momentus epoch in which we now live and serve.
- Are we appropriately astonished at what God in raising Jesus? Are we also overcome with awe at the fact that one day we too will participate in and experience resurrection ourselves as Jesus’ disciples?
- The resurrection was as astonishing to the first disciples as the crucifixion. They neither anticipated nor understood either event, until God explained them clearly – through angels, through the appearance of the resurrected Jesus, and now through the gift of his Holy Spirit.
- 1. F.W. Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, based on the third edition of BDAG (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000): 594.
- 2. Josephus, Jewish Wars III.405.
- 3. Philo, Posterity and Exile of Cain 165.
- 4. Philo. Noah’s Work as a Planter 142. He uses the word similarly in his discourse on Drunkenness 4, 5,6,11.
- 5. Hippocrates 3 Epid.1.1.
- 6. Ekstasis occurs in Mark 5:42; Luke 5:26; Acts 3:10; 10:10; 11:5; 22:17. tromos occurs in 1 Cor. 2:3; 2 Cor. 7:15; Eph. 6:5; Php. 2:12.
- 7. This combination occurs frequently in the Greek Old Testament, e.g. Genesis 9:2; Exodus 15:!6; Deuteronomy 2:25; 11:25.
- 8. Philo indicates that this term has four meanings: (1) mad fury, producing mental delusions; (2) extreme amazement at events that happen suddenly and unexpectedly, producing great agitation and consternation; (3) passivity of mind; (4) divine possession or frenzy, something that happens to prophets. Philo, Who is the Heir 249-250.
- 9. Timothy Dwyer, The Motif of Wonder in the Gospel of Mark (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press:1996): 120.