Rethinking The Resurrection

IF CHRIST IS NOT RAISED, SAINT Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians, "then our preaching is in vain and so is your faith." This is the week Christians round the world gather to remember the passion and death of Jesus on a criminal's cross. Once again, the familiar story will be relived in liturgy, sermon and song: the somberness of Good Friday, the tomblike silence of Holy Saturday, followed by the radiance of Easter Sunday proclaiming Christ's resurrection to new life by the power of God. As the Apostle Paul insisted, the Risen Christ is the center of the Christian faith, the mystery without which there would be no church, no hope of eternal life, no living Christ to encounter in eucharistic bread and wine. By any measure, the resurrection of Jesus is the most radical of Christian doctrines. His teachings, his compassion for others, even his martyr's death--all find parallels in other stories and religious traditions. But of no other historical figure has the claim been made persistently that God has raised him from the dead.

From the very beginning, the resurrection of Jesus was met by doubt and disbelief. To the Jews of Biblical Jerusalem, it was simply blasphemous for the renegade Christians to claim that a crucified criminal was the Messiah. To the cultivated Greeks, who believed in the soul's immortality, the very idea of a resurrected body was repugnant. Even among Gnostic Christians of the second century, the preferred view was that Jesus was an immortal spirit who merely discarded his mortal cloak. And yet, if the New Testament is to be believed, it was the appearance of the resurrected Christ that lit the flame of Christian faith, and the power of the Holy Spirit that fired a motley band of fearful disciples to proclaim the Risen Jesus throughout the Greco-Roman world. According to the late German Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch, "It wasn't the morality of the Sermon on the Mount which enabled Christianity to conquer Roman paganism, but the belief that Jesus had been raised from the dead. In an age when Roman senators vied to see who could get the most blood of a steer on their togas-thinking that would prevent death- Christianity was in competition for eternal life, not morality."

Christianity won, but the battle for the spiritual imagination is never ending. Every generation reinterprets for itself the meaning of Jesus; it's one way to keep faith--and its traditions--alive. While believers head for church and even lapsed Christians prepare holiday lambs, this season academics, most of them committed Christians, do battle. Over the past five years, scholars have published more than two dozen books and scores of footnoted articles, initiating a fierce debate over the Risen Jesus. In their relentless search for "the historical Jesus," various Biblical scholars argue that the Gospel stories of the empty tomb and Jesus' post-resurrection appearances are fictions devised long after his death to justify claims of his divinity. To hear them tell it, the Resurrection is an embarrassment to the modern mind and a disservice to the itinerant Jewish preacher from rural Galilee.

THEY PUBLISH, THEY QUARREL and they meet. In February, Oregon State University hosted a national symposium celebrating "Jesus at 2000." And next week, beginning Easter Monday, an equally august group will gather for a four-day Resurrection Summit at the seminary of the Catholic Archdiocese of New York. They will present an assortment of theological and philosophical papers. At St. Patrick's Cathedral they will listen to two sopranos from the Metropolitan Opera. And they will publish yet another book.

Now as before, Jesus lives in controversy. The questioning could not be more basic, more subversive, or more relevant to believers and professional critics alike. What can be known about the real Jesus? Can the historical Jesus be separated from the Risen Christ of faith? Does Christianity owe its origins to the Resurrection? What do Christians mean when they claim that Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven? Must a Christian believe in Jesus' bodily resurrection?

For answers, the scholars deploy the tools at hand. They search for traces of a historical figure who did not leave behind contemporaneous accounts. They apply the critical tools of today: text chopping, psychological speculation and colleague-bashing. And then they take leaps of faith, often of their own creation. Of the dozens of recent books denying the resurrection stories, many are written by liberal scholars who think the time has come to replace the "cultic" Jesus of Christian worship with the "real" Jesus unearthed by academic research. Theirs is not disinterested historical investigation but scholarship with a frankly missionary purpose: by reconstructing the life of Jesus they hope to show that belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus is a burden to the Christian faith and deflects attention from his role as social reformer.

Most Christians still believe in the Risen Jesus. For fundamentalists, the Bible is as good as its word, whichever translation happens to be in use. Since the Scriptures say Jesus returned physically from the dead, then that's what happened. But very few Christians are literalists on this point, and among Christians there is a range of opinion on what the Resurrection means. For example, a Harris poll taken in 1994 found that 87 percent of Americans believe that Jesus was raised from the dead. But a survey conducted last month by the Barna Research Group, a conservative Christian organization in Glendale, Calif., finds that 30 percent of "born again" Christians do not believe that Jesus "came back to physical life after he was crucified."

Nor does German New Testament scholar Gerd Ludemann, a visiting professor at Vanderbilt Divinity School. To him, the Resurrection is "an empty formula" that must be rejected by anyone holding a "scientific world view." In his latest book, "What Really Happened to Jesus: A Historical Approach to the Resurrection" (147 pages. Westminster John Knox Press), Ludemann argues that Jesus' body "rotted away" in the tomb. The Risen Christ that appeared to the Apostle Peter, according to Ludemann, whose book evoked a roar of protest from German Christians, was a subjective "vision" produced by Peter's overwhelming grief and "guilt" for having denied Jesus when he was arrested. For the Apostle Paul, who had previously persecuted Christians, his vision of the Risen Jesus was the resolution of an unconscious "Christ complex." And what the New Testament describes as Jesus' appearance to "more than 500" followers was a "mass ecstasy." In short, modern psychology reduces the Risen Christ to a series of interpsychic experiences that produced in the disciples a renewed sense of missionary zeal and spiritual self-confidence.

For John Dominie Crossan, a prolific Biblical scholar at DePaul University in Chicago and a former Roman Catholic priest, the tomb of Jesus was indeed empty. The reason: his body had already been devoured by wild dogs-a fate, claims Crossan, typical of crucified Roman criminals. There were no post-Resurrection appearances either, not even visions or ecstasies; Crossan does not believe that any of these stories from the New Testament have historical roots. In his most recent book, "Who Killed Jesus?".(238 pages. HarperCollins), Crossan argues that "the Easter faith... did not begin on Easter Sunday." Rather, it began during Jesus' lifetime in rural Galilee. According to Crossan's historical reconstruction, Jesus was a peasant philosopher preaching an inclusive kingdom of God among Israel's outcasts. Although Jesus' revolutionary agenda challenged the Jewish religious establishment of his day, Crossan insists that only the Romans were responsible for his death. Eventually, the original Jesus movement died, too, the victim of a developing Christian establishment that transformed the human Jesus into a divine son of God.

Sound familiar? In many of their basic conclusions, contemporary questers for the historical Jesus echo the findings of earlier generations of Biblical skeptics. More than 150 years ago, David Friedrich Strauss published "The Life of Jesus Critically Examined," which argued that the early Christians applied to Jesus all the myths that had accumulated about the expected Messiah. Today, scholars in search of the Jesus behind the "myths" have more exacting historical-critical tools for dissecting sacred texts. They also rely on recently discovered texts, such as Gnostic Gospels and the Dead Sea scrolls. From these, critics fashion rather different biographies of Jesus than those found in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

According to one international best seller, "Jesus and the Riddle of the Dead Sea Scrolls" (451 pages. HarperCollins), the historical Jesus was really "the wicked priest" mentioned in the scrolls of the Essene sect at Qumran. Australian author Barbara Thiering uses the scrolls to unlock what she considers the secret story encoded in the canonical Christian Scriptures. What they reveal is that Jesus was actually crucified at Qumran and buried in a cave by the Dead Sea. But he only appeared to be dead, thanks to a slow-acting poison administered to him on the cross. Later, Simon Magus, a magician mentioned in the New Testament, gave Jesus a purgative and some myrrh to soothe his mucous membranes. Thus revived, Jesus went on to marry Mary Magdalene, father three children, divorce her and marry Lydia, another minor New Testament figure. Eventually, he died in Rome.

However fanciful, all these efforts at recovering the historical Jesus share certain assumptions that even more traditional scholars readily accept. All agree that the New Testament was created by believers whose main concern was to preach the "good news" of Jesus Christ. All recognize that the Gospel narratives were composed from oral traditions at least 40 years after the death of Jesus, each with its own theological bent. All accept the fact that the Gospel stories-like the Epistles and Luke's Acts of the Apostles--reflect controversies within the early church. All acknowledge that the New Testament authors interpreted Jesus in light of various images and beliefs from the Hebrew Scriptures. And all are trained in the intricate historical-critical method of placing specific scriptural passages in their historical context.

According to this elaborate academic protocol, the Resurrection is ruled a priori out of court because it transcends time and space. Historians then have to find another reason to explain the origins of Christianity. Thus the Gospels' narrative frame is discarded and the pieces of Scripture are reshuffled to reveal the scholar's own "historical" Jesus. In some ways, this is what the Gospels do themselves. Each of them is a written composition that brings together parables and stories, events and theological assertions, that existed earlier only in oral form. Each offers different facets and insights into a figure who otherwise slips into the crevices of first-century Palestine. What holds these pieces together is the belief that the Risen Christ is living yet--a belief that many contemporary reconstructors do not share.

Even the most orthodox Scripture scholars recognize that the brief, almost enigmatic accounts of Jesus' resurrection and its aftermath are fraught with special problems for the historian. For one thing, there were no witnesses to the Resurrection. As Ignatius of Antioch aptly put less than a century later, "Jesus rose in the silence of God," and no New Testament writer describes what happened. For another, the post-resurrection stories contain a variety of factual discrepancies about the main characters, places, times and the messages attributed to the Risen Jesus. For example, the Gospel of Matthew has Jesus appearing first to Mary Magdalene and other women. Luke gives the first appearance to Peter, and (with the exception of a later addition to his Gospel) Mark contains no post-Resurrection appearances at all. Luke's Gospel says that Jesus appeared to the apostles in the Jerusalem area; Matthew says it was in Galilee. In short, the post-Resurrection narratives are ambiguous stories allowing ample room for historians to imagine what really took place.

But there is little doubt that God's raising of Jesus to new life was an early Christian conviction. The New Testament offers two sets of signs that point to the resurrection: the empty tomb and the various appearances of the Risen Christ. Some scholars think the story of the empty tomb was invented by Mark, the earliest Gospel, as a way of saying that Jesus had risen. In itself, however, the empty tomb merely indicates that the body was not there. Matthew's Resurrection story even anticipates that doubters would immediately claim the corpse had been stolen. In Matthew's account, the empty tomb is discovered by Mary Magdalene and another woman who are told by an angel that Jesus is risen. They then meet Jesus, who instructs them to tell the apostles that he will meet them later in Galilee. What is significant here is that the first witnesses to the Risen Christ were women, not men. Had the story been invented solely for propaganda purposes, the early Christians would have made men the first witnesses, since the testimony of women carried far less authority in the patriarchal Jewish society.

Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, which predates all the Gospels, reports that Jesus made several post-resurrection appearances: to Cephas (Peter); then to the 12 apostles; to a group "of more than 500 brethren at one time"; to James; to "all the apostles," and finally to the convert Paul himself. But what was it that they saw? What did they hear? What was the character of the Resurrection experience? These are some of the questions scholars will take up next week in New York at the Resurrection Summit.

On one point scholars are unanimous: resurrection does not mean the resuscitation of a corpse. R is not as if"the soul of Jesus left his body and then returned to it like someone going out of the house at night and coming back in the morning," says Father Gerald O'Collins, a specialist on the Resurrection at the Jesuits' Gregorian University in Rome and cochairman of the summit. "We are talking about a glorified body, one that has been transformed by the power of God, and something none of us have ever seen." The Gospels themselves admit of various interpretations. On the one hand, they describe the Risen Jesus eating with his disciples. In John's Gospel, the apostle known as "doubting" Thomas refuses to believe that Jesus has returned from the dead until Christ allows him to put his finger into the hole in his side, where a soldier's lance had pierced him during his slow death on the cross.

On the other hand, several Gospel stories clearly indicate that Jesus' resurrected body was not at all like normal human flesh. He mysteriously appears and disappears, passes through closed doors and, as in his appearance (in Luke's account) to two disciples on the road to Emmaus, often goes unrecognized by his own close companions. To some theologians, this suggests that only those of deep faith actually saw Jesus, and then only in a God-given vision. Indeed, most scholars believe that in Paul's case, that is exactly what happened. But Stephen T. Davis, a philosopher at Claremont McKenna College in California and cochair of the Resurrection Summit, takes the minority view that even a nonbeliever with a 20th-century camera could have captured the Risen Jesus on film. "A glorified body is still a body," he writes in a paper for the Resurrection Summit, "still a material object that can be seen."

For most believing Christians, what matters is not only what the apostles experienced 2,000 years ago, but what they meant when they preached that God raised Jesus from the dead. "A resuscitation is excellent news for the patient and family," observes Luke Timothy Johnson, professor of Christian Origins at Emory University's Candler School of Theology in Atlanta. "But it is not 'good news' that affects everyone else. It does not begin a religion. It does not transform the lives of others across the ages. It is not what is being claimed by the first Christians." Indeed, what was most distinctive about the claims made for Jesus was not that he was the Messiah or that he was "King of the Jews," as the Romans mockingly suggested. Rather, in proclaiming that Jesus had been resurrected, they were asserting something profoundly new about God as well as about Jesus himself.

AS JEWS THEMSELVES, JESUS' apostles knew only one God--the Yahweh of Hebrew Scriptures. From those Scriptures they could hardly have expected that they would ever see their disgraced and executed master again. According to those Scriptures, even Moses died, and of the other Hebrew prophets, only two--Elijah and Enoch--had ascended to heaven. But neither rose from the dead. "The Hebrew Bible is very reticent to talk about life after death," says Alan Segal, professor of religion at Barnard College in New York, a Jew who is the only non-Christian participant in the Resurrection Summit. "There must have been beliefs in life after death, but the people who edited the Bible kept them out."

But during the Maccabean revolt (circa 167 B.C.), the idea of bodily resurrection began to surface among the Jews. In a nationalist revolt against Greek rulers, young Jewish men were dying as martyrs in defense of what they considered the laws of God. A just God, it was believed, would eventually restore them to life. Early Christianity was born in a climate of apocalyptic expectation created by the Maccabees' revolt, Segal believes. In Jesus' $$-year lifetime there were Pharisees who thought that the just would be resurrected by God at the end of secular time. "But they didn't speculate about how it would take place," says Segal.

Against this background, the resurrection of Jesus was a provocative claim for anyone to make. In a highly original paper prepared for next week's summit, New Testament scholar Carey C. Newman points to another tradition in the Hebrew Scriptures that helps explain what the first Christians saw in Christ's resurrection. According to that tradition, "The Glory of Yahweh"--meaning the divine presence--appeared at key moments and places in Jewish history: in the Exodus cloud, at Mount Sinai and over the temple, among others. Those moments, says Newman, who teaches at Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Ky., also signal major changes in Yahweh's dealings with his people. For the early Christians the Resurrection was another of those moments, Newman argues. It brought them together as a new religious community and immediately distinguished them from other apocalyptic Jewish movements. The early Christians claimed that in the Risen Christ, the Glory of Yahweh was made manifest in a new and unexpected way. It revealed the dawn of a "new creation"-the church-and a new hope, that "in Christ" everyone could reliably expect his or her own resurrection from the dead.

From the very beginning of Christianity, Christ's "victory" over death, as Paul put it, was not his alone. It was also a victory promised to those who were baptized into his body, the church. Throughout two centuries of Roman persecution, countless Christian martyrs went to their deaths convinced that in God's coming kingdom they would rise again with a new, glorified body. In her magisterial new study, "The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200-1336" (368 pages. Columbia University Press), medieval historian Caroline Walker Bynum traces the persistent Christian conviction that the body as well as the soul would inherit eternal life. It wasn't easy. "Right through the Middle Ages," says Bynum, "you find spiritual and material interpretations of both the resurrected body of Christ and of our own resurrected bodies." But time and again in contention with neo-Platonists, Gnostics and other spiritualizers, advocates of the more physical interpretation win out over the more vaporous explanations. Why? "They saw the body as the carrier of particularity, including gender and race," Bynum says. "Choosing for the body was choosing for individual identity for all eternity."

For as long as death remains a mystery, so, too, will resurrection. That Jesus rose from the dead is a statement of Christian faith and of human hope--and implies a bond of trust between those who live in the presence of Christ today and those who first carried the Easter message 2,000 years ago. Bonds like these sustain all religious traditions. "If we can dismiss as 'unhistorical' most of the Gospels' Jesus of Christianity, what can we of faithful Israel save of our rabbi, Moses, for Judaism?" asks Rabbi Jacob Neusner, a distinguished Talmudist at the University of South Florida in Tampa. "Religion does not merely recite secular facts about what happened in ordinary affairs on a particular day. Religion speaks of God's intervention into the world, and that claim does not come before the court of secular history, to be judged true or false by historians' ways of validating or falsifying ordinary facts."

AFTER 150 YEARS OF SCHOLARLY search, there are signs that the quest for the "historical" Jesus has reached a dead end. There have been no new data on the person of Jesus since the Gospels were written. And though ,scholars continue to piece together information from archeology and other disciplines, these are valuable chiefly for fashioning a better understanding of Christian origins and how the Gospels, in particular, were composed. In the best of the recent flow of books, "The Real Jesus" (182 pages. HarperCollins), Emory's Luke Timothy Johnson offers a devastating critique of those scholars who prefer their own reconstructed Jesuses to the one attested to in the New Testament. As Johnson demonstrates, truth is not always historical, and what seems warranted by historical evidence does not always turn out to be true. Unfortunately, apart from what is found in Scripture, there is little that one can say about the identity of Jesus. Like Socrates, Jesus is inscribed in the words of those who wrote about him. And all of them proclaimed his Resurrection from the dead.

The Resurrection is not all that they proclaimed. They also claimed "that after his death [Jesus] entered into an entirely new form of existence, one in which he shared the power of God and in which he could share that power with others," Johnson writes. In the New Testament, Jesus' death and resurrection are united with his ascension and the apostles' Pentecost experience. As Johnson puts it, "The sharing in Jesus' new life through the power of the Holy Spirit is an essential dimension of the resurrection." Not everyone can or will accept that belief. But without it there is no Easter.

The new religion took root in the tumultuous world of the Roman Empire.

THE WORLD                     CHRISTIANITY



                              4 B.C. Probable birth 

                              of Jesus in Bethlehem

0 World population esitimated

at 170 million                



A.D. 14 Augustus, first 

Roman emporer, dies; succeded 

by Tiberius                   27 Baptims of Jesus by 

                              John the Baptist



                              30 Probable year of Jesus'

                              crucifiction



                              32-35 Paul's conversion

42 Caligula succeeds 

Tiberius as emperor



43 Rome invades Britain;

London is founded             50 Paul writes epistles to

                              Thessalonians



64 Great fire in Rome         64 Nero begins persecutions of

                              Christians; Peter crucified



                              67 Paul beheaded in Rome



70 Jerusalem destroyed        67-70 Gospel according 

by Romans                     to Mark

                              

79 Mt. Vesuvius erupts, 

destroying Pompeii; 20,00 die

                              A.D. 85 according to Matthew; 

                              Gospel according to Luke

100 World -population 

estimated at 180 million

                              90 Gospel according to John, 

                              thought to be the last Gospel



98-116 -Roman Empire

reaches greatest 

geographical extent



164-180 The Roman army carries 

the Great Plague from Parthia 

(Iraq) into the empire

                              190 By this time, Catholic 

                              bishops' power is established 

                              and a new testament is formulated



200 World population estimated 

at 190 million

                              202 Roman Emperor Septimus Severus

                              makes baptism a criminal act

220 Goths invade Asia

Minor and Balkan peninsula 



248 Rome celebrates its 

1,000th anniversary

                              250 Emperor Decius increases

                              persecutions of Christians



286 Roman  Empire splits, with

eastern capital in  Byzantium 

                              312 Constantine accepts Christianity;

                              reunited empire



                              313 Constantine mandates tolerance

                              of Christianity

Join the Discussion