As we have only a few weeks left now of Liturgical Year B and I am coming to the end of the commentaries on St Mark, I am preparing a piece to commemorate that, but in so doing, I have had occasion to re-read Eusebius of Ceasarea’s The Proofs of the Gospel, which dates from around A.D. 314 (with thanks to the indefatigable Roger Pearse), and was much struck by the comments he has to make on that Gospel.
Eusebius, still writing in a world where it was dangerous to be a Christian, engages with critics of the Gospel, and points out that it is implausible to think that the Apostles and earliest disciples all conspired not only lie about Jesus, but to maintain the very same lie (the shameful crucifixion, the resurrection, the ascension). This is especially true, he argues, given the number of embarrassing (to Christians) things Mark records about the ignorance and weakness of the disciples. No one, he argues, would put such things in their sacred book unless they were true. That being so, we have to assume that Jesus taught his disciples the value of the truth so well that they included even things which reflected badly on them. That being so, it is absurd, he thinks, to argue that the disciples would have lied about the miracles of Jesus or the words he spoke.
Eusebius points out that had the disciples omitted all the embarrassing things, and ironed out what some saw as inconsistencies between the Gospel accounts, then by his own time, no one would have known that had happened, and the life of the apologist would have been much easier. But that did not happen, and it did not happen because the Gospel writers were men bound to tell the truth as it had been revealed to them, and they did so, regardless of what men thought.
Written as it was seventeen hundred years ago, this still seems to me one of the best pieces of apologetics on the subject. I can think of no other sacred text where the authors present themselves in such a poor light, or where they so obviously leave themselves open to being contradicted by their own words.
We might add to these considerations one which seems to me overwhelming. On Good Friday we see a defeated and firightened bunch of men slink away to lick their wounds. Only the young John is there with the women at the foot of the Cross. Yet, a few days later this same demoralised crew is up and out there and proclaiming what must have seemed arrant nonsense – that the crucified Jesus had risen. It is not simply that the Roman were unable to produce the body (although we know from the Gospels that they claimed it had been stolen away), it is the actions of the disciples themselves. Men who had robbed a tomb and were hiding the rotting body of their dead Master would not have had the courage or nerve to go out and risk, and accept, martyrdom for that. No, something happened that third day after the crucifixion, and it changed their lives, as it changes our lives. He is Risen!