Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Resurrection of Jesus

by John Shelby Spong

The literal details are familiar: the third day, the empty tomb, the experience of seeing the risen Christ. These details stand at the heart of the Christian story, forming its essential climax if you will. It is celebrated annually in Easter services, normally with packed congregations. Its secular observances involve Easter parades, Easter egg hunts and the prolific Easter Bunny. It comes, at least in the northern hemisphere where Christianity was born, in the spring of the year when the doldrums of winter have been pushed aside by new shoots of green and new flowers to brighten the countryside. It captures and speaks to the deepest human anxiety, the experience of mortality and finitude.

Death is a reality for every living thing, but only human beings are self-consciously aware that this destiny awaits us all. Only human beings anticipate death, plan for it, fear and dread it and seek to avoid it. Is it possible that the story of Jesus’ resurrection is an expression of human wish fulfillment? Or is there something about the story of the resurrection that is real, that is trustworthy and that is measurable inside the flow of history? The whole of Christianity seems to rest on the answer being “yes” to each of these questions.
We start our examination of the resurrection of Jesus by examining the biblical texts that purport to tell us about it. The reality of resurrection is assumed in almost every verse of the New Testament, but the details that purport to describe the resurrection are consistently both confused and in many cases actually contradictory.

There are five separate sources consisting of only six chapters in the entire New Testament that purport to tell us about what happened at the time of the first Easter. The first and earliest of these five sources is Paul and his account is found in I Corinthians 15. That epistle was written in the mid-fifties, or some twenty-five years after the crucifixion and about two decades before the first gospel, Mark, ever saw the light of day. Paul is, however, quite sparse in details. He gives us the first specific time reference. It happened, whatever “it” was, he says, “on the third day,” presumably following the crucifixion. When Paul talks about the resurrection of Jesus he always uses a passive verb form. Jesus did not rise in Paul’s writing, he “was raised,” presumably by God, and it was done, he says, “in accordance with the scriptures.” There being no New Testament in existence when Paul was writing, this reference was clearly to the Jewish Scriptures, which Paul, as a rabbi, knew quite well. To what particular biblical texts he was referring, however, he failed to say, leaving us only to speculate. The primary Old Testament reference, to which most scholars now believe he was alluding, seems to be II Isaiah (40-55), but there is nothing in that segment of the book of Isaiah that hints at what we now call resurrection. It does, however, talk about the indestructibility of the “servant” figure who gives his life away.

Then Paul proceeds to give us a list of those to whom this raised Christ had appeared, i.e., those who have been enabled to see and thus to be called “witnesses.” To this list, however, he provides not a single narrative detail. The list includes three individuals: Peter, James and Paul and three groups of people: “the twelve,” “500 brethren at once” and “the apostles.” Note that “the twelve” and “the apostles” appear to be two different groups, which many find surprising. The “500 brethren at once” is a reference not corroborated by any other note found anywhere in the written Christian tradition. The most fascinating of these witnesses, however, is Paul himself. Most scholars, following the lead of the early 20th century church historian Adolf Harnack, date the conversion of Paul somewhere between one and six years following Jesus’ crucifixion. If whatever it was that Paul saw up to six years after the crucifixion, was, as he claims, identical with what others saw, it could hardly have been a resuscitated body that walked out of a tomb three days after being crucified. Literalists are thus confounded. Paul, the first figure in the New Testament to write about what came to be called “resurrection,” could not possibly have been referring to a physical body; yet whatever Paul’s experience was, he believed it was real, and it was certainly life changing. So we have in this our earliest source in the New Testament the elements that constitute an ultimate mystery. Whatever the resurrection of Jesus was, it was real, but it was not physical.

Paul gives us a hint as to what it was to which he was referring when he writes later in his letter to the Romans that “Christ being raised from the dead will never die again. Death no longer has dominion over him” (Rom. 6:9). If Paul was referring to a physically resuscitated body that returned to the life of the flesh, then presumably at some point this Jesus would have had to die again. That is the nature of all things that are living and physical. So, whatever it was that this epistle was trying to communicate, it is not about a body resuscitated and restored to the physical realm of human history. This Romans text goes on to say that “he died to sin once for all, but the life he lives, he lives to God.” The clear implication in these words is that Paul’s concept of the raising of Jesus was that he was raised into the life of God from which he “appeared to certain chosen witnesses,” among whom Paul included himself. It also means that whatever that appearance to Paul was, it would have had to have occurred somewhere between one and six years after Jesus’ death. Studying the biblical accounts of the resurrection is not quite as simple as literal-minded Christians want to make it.

The interpretive task became even more complicated when the first gospel was written. The resurrected Jesus is never seen in Mark’s narrative. All Mark gives us in his Easter morning story is an announcement made to the women at the tomb in which it is stated: “He is not here, he has been raised.” This announcement was made by a messenger, Mark says, who is not yet regarded or pictured as an angel. So what do these words mean? Was Jesus raised back into the physical life of this world or was he raised into the life of God? That is a question that Mark does not answer. The messenger goes on to direct the women to go tell “Peter and the disciples” that the raised Christ will go before them into Galilee and there they will see him.  If the disciples are still in Jerusalem when this announcement was first made, as this text suggests, we need to know that Galilee was a seven to ten day journey, so the promised “appearance” in Galilee of the raised Jesus would fall outside the three day time measure. So in this earliest gospel the promise of a future appearance is made, but in fact in this account the raised Christ appears to no one after the crucifixion. That is to many a startling reality, but it is also a biblical fact.

When Matthew writes the second gospel a decade or so after Mark, he has Mark in front of him and he incorporates most of Mark directly into his account. He also changes, heightens and adds to Mark’s text from time to time and this happens in his account of the first Easter. First the messenger in Mark has become in Matthew a clearly identified, supernatural angel. Second the raised Christ actually does appear to the women in the garden in Matthew and in a form physical enough for them to “grasp his feet.” Matthew then adds a second appearance story designed to give content to the messenger’s promise in Mark that the disciples would see the raised Christ in Galilee. It occurred, said Matthew, on top of a mountain. The disciples presumably trudged up the mountain, but the raised Jesus came mysteriously out of the sky. Does this imply that he has come out of heaven or out of God? He is transformed and clothed in the garments of the Son of Man, who, in Jewish mythology, was to come at the end of the age. For the first time in the Bible, this resurrected figure is given words to speak. They constitute a charge: “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel,” followed by a promise: “For I am with you always, even to the end of the world.” The resurrection story is clearly growing as the years roll by.

When Luke, the author of the third gospel, written about a decade after Matthew, pens his version of the story, the angelic messenger in Mark, who became an angel in Matthew, has now become two angels and the physicality of the raised Jesus has been enhanced to the place where we are told that he walks, talks, eats, offers his flesh to be felt and interprets scripture. Luke also says that all of the resurrection appearances occurred in the Jerusalem area, dropping all references to a return to Galilee. Then Luke introduces the story of Jesus’ ascension. Having made the resurrection into the physical resuscitation of a deceased body, he has to provide a way to get this physical body out of the world without dying again. The ascension was his answer.

Finally, when the Fourth Gospel is written near the end of the first century (95-100), its author offers new and sometimes contradictory material. There are four apparently separate vignettes that the Fourth Gospel has woven together, sometimes rather awkwardly. The first one stars Mary Magdalene alone at the tomb. The second vignette focuses on Peter and the “beloved disciple” coming to an empty tomb, and we are told that the “beloved disciple” believes without ever seeing a physical body. The third focuses on the disciples in a secured upper room on the evening of the first day of the week, and that is the time for this gospel when the disciples receive the Holy Spirit; that is, Easter is viewed in this final gospel as the Pentecost transformational experience for the disciples. The fourth episode stars Thomas, and its message is “Blessed are those who do not see (a resuscitated body) and yet who still believe.”

That is a brief summary of all the specific resurrection material in the New Testament. It remains now to weave this material together into a coherent form. That I will do in the next episode, which will conclude this series.


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