The resurrection


Biblical scholar April DeConick writes in her blog,

Are stories like Jesus' resurrection story useful to a historian? Absolutely. What it tells me is that some of Jesus' followers had visions of Jesus after his death, a psychological phenomenon not unusual. I had vivid dreams, what I would call "visions," of my mother after she died, all suggesting that she was really alive but hidden away by the doctors. It took a couple of years for this to subside. In the ancient Jewish culture, visions of the dead could be interpreted in a couple of ways. The person has seen the deceased "spirit" or "ghost," an interpretation that some of Jesus' followers made of their visions of Jesus according to Luke 24:37. Or the person has witnessed someone's resurrected body, the theological interpretation that became the standard interpretation in the memory of the community. This interpretation was so important that it launched a series of christological questions and formulations, and ultimately led to Jesus becoming God.
I think the internal evidence from the New Testament suggests that this is exactly what took place.

The first New Testament scripture to be written comes from someone--Paul--who did not encounter a physically resurrected Jesus during the period after Easter when the latter supposedly walked on the earth. Instead, Paul encountered Jesus, in a vision, some time after those alleged post-resurrection events depicted in Luke, Matthew, and John. Now here is the key point: Paul saw Jesus in a vision, and he asserts that this is how the other apostles also saw Jesus. Note what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:
he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.
Note that he uses the same verb each time: "appeared". Paul is making no distinction here between the nature of Jesus's appearance to himself, and Jesus's appearance to the others who preceded him. They are all listed together, undistinguished from one another. Jesus's appearance was of the same order for all of them. In each case, in other words, Paul was saying that Jesus appeared to others in a vision. Paul was not asserting that anyone saw a resurrected Jesus walking around on the earth. His conception of the resurrection, it seems clear to me, was of Jesus having been exalted into God's presence and who could be experienced in a mystical or visionary sense--not of a man walking around showing his crucifixion woulds and miraculously appearing in rooms.

After Paul, none of the rest of the New Testament writings were penned by eyewitnesses to the post-resurrection events depicted in the Gospels. The next New Testament book to be written after Paul was the Gospel of Mark, which was written some 40 years after Jesus died. Like Paul, the author of Mark refers to Jesus's resurrection, but he says nothing about any physical appearances. The Gospel ends with an empty tomb--period. No resurrected Jesus walks around and talks with his disciples in the Gospel of Mark. The Gospel does say that a resurrected Jesus would be found in Galilee--but it doesn't describe what the nature of that resurrection was.

It was only when Matthew and Luke wrote their gospels, some time later, that we see the first stories of a resurrected Jesus actually walking around on the earth. By this time, the resurrection had become mythologized. Matthew placed the resurrection appearance story in Galilee, on a mountaintop (Matthew liked to place Jesus on a mountain, in the style of Moses at Mt. Sinai--the Sermon on the Mount being another example.) Luke got more elaborate, and also for the first time placed the resurrected Jesus not in Galilee, but in Jerusalem. (In so doing, Luke dispensed entirely with the bit in Mark about the resurrected Jesus being found in Galilee--but never mind.) John continued in the same vein as Luke.

The resurrection appearances described in the Gospels are clearly mythological, and they are not particularly consistent with one another. Also, Luke has Jesus literally ascending into heaven; this reflected a primitive three-tiered view of the universe that had God residing in the sky literally above the earth, and such an "ascension" makes no sense to the modern scientific paradigm. As John Spong has pointed out, since heaven is literally not a place that someone could ascend "up" to, this means that if Jesus had ascended at the speed of light, he would now, some 2000 years later, still be rocketing through space and would not have even left our own Galaxy.

Mythologies that are not literally true are not therefore false, however, on all levels. A mythology says something deeper about how important matters can be conceived. It is these deeper truths, about what Jesus meant to his early followers, that Christians can find value in. A resurrection myth is no more "false" than a creation myth is false. In both cases, it is the deeper truths that the myths point to that matter.

Also, the notion that Jesus did not literally walk around on earth after his death does not repudiate the Christian faith. Whether Jesus really was exalted into God's presence after his crucifixion is a matter of faith, not history. Christians can believe that Jesus was not bodily resurrected in the manner described by Matthew, Luke, and John, and yet still believe that Jesus after his death was, in the words of Paul, "declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead." I do not believe that Jesus's resurrection was a historical event that could have been recorded with video cameras, had they existed at the time. Faith and history, however, need not clash with another.


Cynthia said...

I invite you to read my Easter sermon from 2006, my first one by the way.

Mama G said...

Seeker, I totally get what you say about how you interpret the descriptions of visions of Jesus after his death and I agree with you. One thing that always trips me up is this part of Paul's quote:

Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time

What do you make of this report of a simultaneous vision? I don't know what to make of it myself.

Mystical Seeker said...

Cynthia, thanks for the pointer to your sermon. I like your interpretation of Mark's Gospel ending.

Mama G, you raise an interesting question. I don't know what to make of Paul's comment about the 500, since he only alludes to it without explanation and I don't know of any other reference to that event anywhere else in the early Christian literature. Was he referring to some kind of group mystical experience? A silent epiphany in worship, a la the Quakers, or maybe an ecstatic experience like the Pentacostalists have? And did he mean literally 500 (that's an awfully round number)?

Paul said...

The idea that Jesus resurrected but not literally would be "bad news" and not the gospel for millions of Christians around the world.

The idea that Jesus was resurrected from death but not literally... A lot of words can be used to try to explain what this might mean, but it's a lot of work. Is it truly compelling? Much of the history of Christian apologetics has not been.

The NT contains so many strands of meaning. The various churches pick up on certain things and emphasize or even literalize them: for example the last supper scene turns into the doctrine of transubstantiation in Catholicism. Looks like bread and wine, tastes like bread and wine, but nope - it really is the body and blood of Christ.

The early church ended up deciding Jesus was resurrected and put that front and center, over and above Jesus' teachings. And speaking of his teachings, who knows how well they understood them?

What if Jesus' resurrection, front and center, was misguided? Buddha lived into his eighties - long enough to explicitly reject the attempt among some of his followers to divinize him.

Of course if we don't put Jesus' resurrection, whether physical or metaphysical, front and center, then it raises the question of what ought to be front and center.