After Easter we opened a new unit of columns designed to study exactly what the Bible says about Jesus’ resurrection. We noted that while resurrection is assumed in every verse of the New Testament, the earliest attempts to say what resurrection actually was did not occur until some twenty-four years after the crucifixion. That came in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians written around the year 54 CE. Two things stand out in this first Pauline reference. First, the verb that Paul used to speak of Jesus’ resurrection was passive, i.e., Jesus was raised, Jesus did not rise.
In the first account of Easter, please note, the action, whatever it was, was imposed on Jesus, it did not originate with Jesus. So we are driven to ask: Who raised him? Into what was he raised? Second, this raised Jesus was said by Paul to have “appeared” to certain chosen witnesses. The Greek word translated “appeared” was “ophthe,” which seems to refer to insight, to second sight or even to mystical sight, more than it does to physical sight. No narrative details were provided for any of these stated “appearances,” but the names of those to whom he was supposed to have appeared were. The list is fascinating, but it raises more questions than it answers. Today we continue our probe of what the New Testament actually says about Easter. People are surprised to discover these things because that was not the way most of us were taught in our traditional Sunday schools.
Paul’s list of those to whom the risen Christ “appeared” began with Peter, who was called Cephas. When Paul wrote I Corinthians, the gospels were still years away from being created, so those who first read this Corinthian letter would have had no image of Peter, though clearly in Paul’s mind, he was a significant leader. When gospels finally do appear, Peter emerges as a person in a constant, internal struggle. He is regularly the spokesman for the twelve, but his words are frequently embarrassing and insensitive. He will be portrayed as the first to confess that Jesus is the Christ, but also and at the same time, not to have understood what messiah meant. He will collapse under the pressure of Jesus’ arrest, first by fleeing and then by denying. Yet he is always listed first every time the twelve are named. Paul was certainly aware of Peter’s status of being first among equals. Paul’s readers, however, were not.
Second on Paul’s list of those to whom the raised Christ appeared was “the twelve.” That is also intriguing for we note that Paul said Jesus was raised “on the third day” following the crucifixion. This means that these appearances would have come very soon after the crucifixion. Yet “the twelve” is still intact. That implies that Judas Iscariot was still part of this group. It is as if the betrayal never occurred or that Paul had never heard of this tradition. It is not until the ninth decade that the disciples begin to be thought of as “the eleven.” Have you ever wondered why? Had the Judas story not yet been developed? That would be an interesting proposition!
Next, Paul says the raised Jesus appeared to “500 brethren” at once, some of whom are still alive.” No narrative material is found in any gospel that puts content into this appearance unless Luke’s story of Pentecost was designed to be that. At best, that seems a big stretch.
Paul then proceeds to what seems like a second list with three more names on it. They too are intriguing. The first name on this second list is James. Who is he? There are three James’s in the New Testament, but only one of these appears to be a factor in the developing Christian story that Paul is describing. That James is James, “the Lord’s brother,” who is mentioned in both Galatians and Acts. Did Jesus have brothers and sisters? When the gospel of Mark was written the author did not question that fact. Indeed he referred to Jesus’ four brothers by name. They were: James, Joses, Judas and Simon. He also stated that Jesus has “sisters,” but he did not name them.” The brothers of Jesus were also referred to in the Fourth Gospel.
The consensus of current scholars is that the James on Paul’s list of those to whom the risen Christ appeared is none other than this James, the brother of the Lord.
The next name on Paul’s second list is “the Apostles.” Who are they? He has already named “the twelve.” Is this a different group? Apparently in Paul’s mind they were and “the apostles” appear to be related to James in the same way that “the disciples” were related to Peter. Is Paul’s list of witnesses a description of the authenticating authority of two different groups in the early life of the Church? That is clearly a possibility.
Finally came the most intriguing name of all. Paul claims that this raised Christ had also appeared to him. The only difference between the appearance of the resurrected Jesus to Paul and to all the others was, he says, that the appearance to Paul was last. If Paul’s conversion came one to six years after the crucifixion, as most scholars today believe, then resurrection is not and could not be the physical resuscitation of a deceased body. If resurrection was meant to have been understood as physical resuscitation, then surely many people would have seen the newly alive Jesus beyond Paul’s scant list. If none of these “appearances” was meant to have been understood as physical, as Paul seems to imply, then is not the traditional understanding with which we have lived for so long been simply wrong?
The book of Acts called Paul’s Damascus Road experience “a vision.” Paul himself speaks of one who was “caught up in the third heaven.” Paul says he does not know whether this person was “in the body or out of the body,” but he does assert, in what appears to be an autobiographical account being related in the third person, that this person “heard things that cannot be told, which man (or woman) cannot utter.”
Embrace now what these biblical details mean.
The earliest account of the resurrection we have in the New Testament is not a picture of a physical restoration to life. It is not a deceased body from a tomb being restored to life in this world. It is rather an indescribably mystical, transformative experience. Was it delusional? It does not appear to be. Its reality served to embolden those who experienced it, to alter their lives in dramatic, life-changing and life-affirming ways. The recipients of this experience were forced, by whatever resurrection was, to redefine the oneness of God in such a way as to include Jesus in their newly expanded understanding of God. This experience was so powerful that when it got connected with the first day of the week, it turned that day into a new holy day that rivaled the Sabbath in importance within one generation. Paul and the other witnesses were clearly convinced of the reality of Jesus being raised from the dead, but they did not see resurrection as the resuscitation of a physical body. With that point clear, we now go to the rest of Paul to see if he puts more content into what he means by the words, “Jesus was raised.”
In Romans, (circa 58 CE) Paul says, “Through Christ Jesus our Lord…we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God” (Rom 5:2). He goes on in this same epistle to say: “If we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Rom 6:5). Then, as if to clarify his thinking once and for all, Paul writes in this same epistle: “For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again. Death no longer has dominion over him” (Rom 6:9). To be restored to life in this world cannot, therefore, be what resurrection meant to Paul. A person called back to life from the grave will inevitably have to die again; that is the nature of mortality.
Whatever resurrection was in Paul’s mind, it was not physical resuscitation back into the life of this world. He was raised into something beyond death’s power. Death has no more dominion over him. The life he now lives, he lives to God. Jesus was raised for Paul into the life and meaning of God. He was raised into the timeless eternity of God. He “appears” out of God to those whose eyes were opened to see eternity in the midst of time, to see God in the presence of the human. Of course, words failed Paul as he tried to grapple with what this meant. He will try to explain it later by saying that the body of the resurrected Jesus was now appropriate to the new realm of life that the resurrected Jesus had entered.
Still struggling to find appropriate words, he described the transformation that was resurrection this way: “What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body; it is raised a “spiritual body” (I Cor. 15:42-44). Paul concludes that the raised Jesus has become “a life giving spirit.” Resurrection for Paul was clearly not about a body walking out of a tomb alive again. It was about being transformed, about entering a new dimension of consciousness, about having one’s eyes opened to see the reality beyond the limits of our humanity.
Does this witness of Paul as now laid out, surprise you? What it reveals is that at the beginning of the Christian movement, resurrection was not about a physical restoration to life. That definition would come only later when literal minds would try unsuccessfully to embrace these new realities. At the beginning of Christianity, however, Easter was not a description of a supernatural miracle. It was about entering a new dimension of life, of truth and of faith. When people today reject the physical resurrection of Jesus as unbelievable, they are rejecting something that was never meant to be the meaning of Easter at all. Perhaps it would be wise to read what the Bible actually says before we begin either to talk about it or to reject it.
Next week, we will look at the witness of Mark, the first gospel to be written. Surprises will also meet us there.