In a previous posting, I discussed the icon type known as the “Myrrh-bearing Women” (https://russianicons.wordpress.com/2014/01/18/traffic-lights-at-the-tomb-the-myrrh-bearing-women/). There we looked at a Russian example, and encountered some of the discrepancies among New Testament accounts of the Resurrection.
It is generally believed that the Gospel called “of Mark” was the first to be written, and that both that called “of Matthew” and that “of Luke” were merely edited expansions of the text of Mark. It is noteworthy that Mark has no birth story of Jesus and no story of resurrection appearances of Jesus, both of which were added to the beginning and end of “Matthew” and “Luke.” The post-resurrection appearance of Jesus now found in Mark 16 (after verse 8) was added later. The Gospel called “of John” has no birth story, but it does have a resurrection account, and just as Matthew and Luke differ from one another significantly in telling their tales, so does John differ from both. All of the resurrection stories in the Gospels have substantial discrepancies.
That brings us back to the icon of the “Myrrh-bearing Women,” the image of the women coming to the tomb of Jesus early Eastern morning and finding that his body was not there. As we saw in the previous posting, the Gospel accounts differ on just who came to the tomb and why.
Let’s look at a fresco of the Myrrh-Bearing Women from the Monastery of Dionysiou on Mount Athos in Greece:
In it we see two women bearing vessels of myrrh, and at the right two angels. The Gospels disagree on the number present. The painter here seems to have gone with “Matthew” for the number of women (“Mary and the other Mary”) and with Luke and John for the number of angels (Matthew has only one). We see the empty tomb with the linen graveclothes in it, and below are the unconscious Roman soldiers who, according to “Matthew,” were set to guard the tomb (the other Gospel accounts have no soldiers).
The common inscription usually found on Greek icons of the “Myrrh-bearing Women” is simply Αἱ Μυροφόροι in Greek — Hai Myrophoroi — pronounced “ay mee-ro-FOR-ee” in modern Greek. It means simply “The Myrrh-bearers.” But in the Dionysiou fresco, we do not see that title. Instead, we find this inscription:
ΙΔΕΟΤο ΠΟΣ ΟΠοΥΕΚΑΤοΟΚΣ
As you can see, we find linked letters used. We see a “τ” atop an “o,” and a “v” atop an “o.” Those linkages give us “to” and “ou.” And we also find an abbreviated word, KC for ΚΥΡΙΟC So we can transliterate the inscription as:
IDE HO TOPOS HOPOU EKATO ΗO KYRIOS
Remember that if you see an inscription you have not encountered before, look for any familiar words. You know TOPOS from the English word “topography.” Topos means “place” in Greek. And if you read my earlier postings on reading Greek inscriptions, you should recognize the common word HO as the masculine form of “the.” And the last word KYRIOS you should know means “Lord.” So we can understand this much:
IDE THE PLACE HOPOU EKATO THE LORD
Now if you are familiar with the New Testament — as every student of icons should be — even this small translated amount, when connected with the illustration of the empty tomb, should remind you of the words of the angel to the women in the Gospel of Matthew, 28:6:
“…see the place where the Lord lay.“
And in fact that is what the inscription means. In the Greek New Testament it is found as:
Δεῦτε, ἴδετε τὸν τόπον ὅπου ἔκειτο ὁ κύριος.
Deute, idete ton topon hopou ekeito ho kurios
Come, see the place where lay the Lord
In the Dionysiou fresco, there is also a small inscription just above the tomb:
Ο ΑΓΙΟς ΤΑΦΟC
The Α (a) and Γ(g) are linked together, and the ς (s) is placed below the O.
Transliterated, it reads:
HO HAGIOS TAPHOS — “THE HOLY SEPULCHRE.”
A taphos is a grave, sepulchre, or tomb.
Now very interestingly, if we look at the different Gospel accounts of what the angel (or angels) at the tomb supposedly said to the women, we get an insight into how the writers of Matthew and Luke altered the original Markan speech. Let’s examine them:
You seek Jesus, the Nazarene, the crucified. He is risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he goes before you into Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you.
For I know that Jesus, the crucified, you seek; he is not here, for he is risen, as he said. Come see the place where he lay. And go quickly, tell his disciples that he is risen from the dead. And behold, he goes before you into Galilee. There you will see him. Behold, I have told you.
Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here but is risen. Remember how he spoke to you, being still in Galilee, saying the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men…
What in Mark is a prediction made by Jesus that they would see him in Galilee becomes in Matthew a prediction made by the angel that they would see Jesus in Galilee, and in Luke it is changed even more drastically to become something that Jesus predicted in Galilee of his crucifixion!
Why would Luke want to change this statement that the disciples were to see the risen Jesus in Galilee to something quite different that Jesus had formerly said in Galilee? The answer is simple, but surprising to those who do not read the Bible carefully. In Matthew, the disciples go to Galilee after the resurrection and see the risen Jesus there. But in Luke, the disciples do not go to Galilee. Instead, Luke has Jesus appear to a couple of disciples on the road to Emmaus that same day, and again on that same day, he appears to the disciples in Jerusalem. Luke has no appearance of Jesus to the disciples in Galilee, so he had to eliminate the prediction found in Mark and Matthew, and he did so by changing it to a prediction Jesus made in Galilee that he would be crucified.
It becomes quite obvious, then, that the writers of the Gospels used the materials they had for their own purposes, altering them as they saw fit. “Gospel truth” is not the same as historical truth. So when reading the Bible, as in reading the hagiographic accounts of saints’ lives, it is always wise to keep in mind the saying of Sportin’ Life in George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess: “It ain’t necessarily so.”