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
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.