Friday, March 25, 2016

Parsing the Resurrection of the Christ

Christian communities in the West celebrate Easter this year on Sunday March 27, but the Easter celebration in Orthodox Christianity will not happen until May 1, 2016.  Easter, as virtually everyone in this country knows, celebrates the revivifying of the dead Christ.  At some point between 26 and 36 of the Common Era Jesus was crucified near Jerusalem (Mark 15:22; John 19:17-20) under the administration of the Romans. There are no eyewitness accounts describing either crucifixion or resurrection that are contemporary with the event. The earliest mention of the resurrection is little more than a formulaic confession, which is thought to derive from the early Palestinian Christians, some 20 years or so before Paul; he quoted the brief confession in a letter (ca 50):
            I have delivered to you [the Corinthian Christians] as of first importance what I also received,
            That Christ died for our sins
                        according to the scriptures,
            and that he was buried,
            and that he was raised on the third day
                        according to the scriptures,
            and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve (1 Cor 15:3-5 RSV).
The confession is frustrating in its lack of detail.  It doesn't describe specifically what the disciples saw; did Christ appear bodily (compare, Matt 27:51-53); did they have a vision (Acts 9:10, 17), or a dream (Matt 1:20-21)?  Did they see a spirit (Luke 24:37) or a phantom (Mark 6:49)?  Perhaps they only saw his "angel" (Acts 12:15)?  The nature of the experience is conditioned by what they saw, or thought they saw.
            Paul himself had no personal knowledge of what had occurred earlier except for what he learned through the confessional report.  He himself claimed, however, to have had an experience similar to what is suggested by the Palestinian confession (1 Cor 15:8; Gal 1:15-16), but he does not describe this experience further (but compare another claim, 2 Cor 12:7-9).
            Paul's early analysis of the post-crucifixion "sighting" by the Palestinian followers of Christ finds it to be a spiritual experience, which specifically denies that the Christ was seen in some sort of bodily state (1 Cor 15:44, 50).  In short, the physical remains of the Christ had been transformed (1 Cor 15:20, 51-53), and he came forth a "life-giving spirit" (1 Cor 15:21-22, 45).
            Some twenty years or so after Paul, the gospel writer we call Mark in describing the origins of the gospel that his church preached (Mark 1:1) reports only that Jesus was raised (16:6); there are no reports of sightings. Only an empty tomb and the promise that he could be seen in Galilee (16:7) greeted the mourners coming to the tomb that first Easter morning; it was a terrifying experience (16:8).  Towards the end of the first century the resurrection state of the Christ has become something more substantial than a vision, dream, or bodiless spirit. In the romantic accounts of the later gospels he was described as being seen in a bodily state (Matt 28:9; Luke 24:36-43; John 20:24-29).  In the early 2nd century such statements suggesting a bodily state were seized upon to argue that "he was in the flesh even after the resurrection" (Ignatius, Smyrnaeans, 3:1-3).
Is the resurrection of the Christ an historical event?  A reported sighting of a dead person following his burial is not what we usually think of as an historical event—that is, as an event open to verification by a neutral third party.  The witnesses to the resurrection (Peter and the disciples, Paul, and the others he reported having seen him [1 Cor 15:6-8]) all shared faith in Jesus as the Christ, and, hence, are scarcely neutral third parties).  The historical event of Easter is that they claimed to have seen him. That they claimed to have seen him is open to historical verification. What they claimed to have seen is a part of a salvation or theological history (a history that traces out the claims of the perceived acts of God in human history).  It is not a common human experience that people are raised from the dead by the activity of God.  People that die remain dead.  Hence, it is only the claim that God has intervened in human history and performed a miracle by raising Jesus from the dead that is verifiable as historical event.  The resurrection itself is a part of a theological history.  What can be observed by anyone should not be confused with what can be seen only by a few.  In this case what the few saw they saw with the eye of faith (John 20:3-9); the many, however, see with the natural eye.
How do you see it?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
"Parsing": to sort into its component parts.
Roy W. Hoover, "Was Jesus' Resurrection an Historical Event? A Debate Statement with Commentary," The Fourth R 23.5 (September-October 2010): 5-12, 24.
Charles W. Hedrick, When History and Faith Collide. Studying Jesus (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1999), 1-13.


Anonymous said...

Hi Charlie,
Thank you for this insightful outline of what can be said about the resurrection. I think we have a difference of opinion about "body." You wrote that , "Paul...denies that the Christ was seen in some sort of bodily state (1 Cor 15:44, 50)." I think of the verses as follows:

15:44 "sown a physical body, raised a spiritual body" (NRSV), "a body fit for earthly life...a body fit for God's new world" (Authentic Letters). To me this means a "body" under control of the mind, on the one hand, and a "body" under control of the spirit, on the other. The spirit is unconstricted with regard to the physical laws of the universe (e.g. John 3:8).

1 Cor 15:50 "the perishable (flesh and blood) cannot inherit the imperishable" (NRSV) "The corruptible (flesh and blood) cannot inherit the incorruptible" (Authentic Letters).

I take this verse to reference, not body itself, but the condition of body: i.e., the body under the control of mind cannot inherit the kingdom but the body under control of spirit will inherit. Presumably a person's identity is not obliterated. Perhaps what Paul means by "body" (soma) is "identity."

I don't know what a spiritual body/identity would look like but it sounds like great fun: all kinds of opportunities zooming here and there to love, to be joyful, to experience peace, to be patient and kind and generous, to be faithful and gentle, and to exercise self-control. (Gal 5:22)

Gene Stecher
Chambersburg, Pa.

Community Christian Church said...

For those of us who want to interpret the gospel accounts as metaphor along the lines of "The assassination of MLK did not end the Civil Rights Movement but rather emboldened the transformative forces in society," the testimony of Paul does not really serve our purposes. For Paul, the resurrection was neither physical, in the ways that Matt., Luke, and John would have it, nor even an empty tomb per Mark, but rather a vision. If Paul is right, that hundreds of people reported having had such a vision at such an early date, that undermines the desire to interpret the early church myth as a literary transformation into a metaphorical account. Still, I always take Paul with a grain of salt (and a double shot of tequila).
Roger Ray

Elizabeth said...

Charlie, in other pagan religions besides Judaism- weren't these kinds of "resurrection" claims commonplace? Mithras, Dionysus, Horus, Osiris, etc. To us in modern times, this claim of witnessing a resurrection would seem far-fetched and fantastic. But back then, don't you think pagan-worshipping people were more open to fantastic claims such as being resurrected from the dead and born of a virgin?

Have you ever read Josephus's writings on the crucifixion laws in the Roman Empire? I've never personally read his writings, but I did hear a rabbi speak about the illegality of removing a corpse from a wooden cross. He said Josephus described crosses all over the landscape with rotting corpses as an example to other lawbreakers. It was illegal to remove or bury them. So how could the disciples have placed Jesus's body in a tomb- and why would Roman guards be place to protect it when the very act of burying the body was illegal to begin with?

St. Louis, MO

Charles Hedrick said...

Hi Elizabeth
Stories of resurrection are not as widespread as one might think. And then it depends on what you mean to say by "resurrection." See the entry by T. H. Gaster. "Resurrection" in the IDB 4:39-43 (esp. 40-41), and also the entries on resurrection (OT, NT) in ABD 5:680-91.
On your second question in my view many people today are just as willing to believe "far-fetched and fantastic" claims.
On your third question according to Craig Evans "Crucifixion" NIDB 1:806 the Romans did permit bodies to taken down and buried. He cites sources in evidence one of which is Josephus. I checked the index to Josephus' writings and di not find any entry for crucifixion.

Anonymous said...

Hi Elizabeth, to follow up on Charlie's observations about the body taken down from the cross, this issue is addressed in Komarnitsky's Doubting Jesus' Resurrection: What Happened in the Black Box, p. 22-25.

He writes: "There appears to have been exceptions during peacetime, where crucified bodies were sometimes allowed to be removed from the cross and buried."

The evidence: there's one archeological example of skeletal remains with nail/wood buried with the victim, Philo refers to bodies in Egypt taken down on Roman holidays (Flaccum 10:83-84), Cicero mentions a governor in Sicily who released bodies for a fee (Verrem 2.5.45), Augustus apparently gave back crucified victims (Digest of Justinian (48.24), five gospels (usual 4 + GPeter) and Paul (1 Cor 15:4) all tell of a buried crucifixion victim, and Jewish traditions were incredibly strong on the need for burial: e.g., Deut 21:22-23, Num 11:33-34, Tobit 1:18-20, b. Meg. 3b, Sipre Num. 26 [Num 6:6-8], Gen 23:4-19, et. al.

Regarding resurrection stories, some years back Robert Price wrote a article for the 4thR about instances of resurrection in the Greco-Roman literature. I couldn't find the article on a quick check.

Gene Stecher
Chambersburg, Pa.

Gary said...

Are our pastors telling us the truth?

Are Christian pastors honest with their congregations regarding the evidence for the Resurrection? Is there really a "mountain of evidence" for the Resurrection as our pastors claim or is the belief in the Resurrection based on nothing more than assumptions, second century hearsay, superstitions, and giant leaps of faith?

Check out this Christian pastor's defense of the Resurrection and a review by one of his former parishioners who lost his faith and is now an nonbeliever primarily due to the lack of good evidence for the Resurrection: