Beliefnet
In anticipation of Easter, I begin a series designed to explore in-depth the foundational Christian claim that the death of Jesus culminated in his resurrection. In these columns, I will raise difficult and, for some, even frightening questions. Among them will be: "Is the literal claim of Easter still believable? Can we get beyond such legendary details as angelic messengers, empty tombs, and resuscitated bodies, and still discover a reality that is firm and convincing? Can we separate the truth from the interpreted framework that has carried that truth for so long?"

I intend to look at the biblical stories of Jesus' resurrection openly,honestly, historically, and critically. I will not fall back on the lineof last resort and insist that before such mysteries one simply "musthave faith." I will follow wherever the search for truth takes me. Ibelieve we are well beyond the day when the leaders of the church canstill protect their weakest members by not sharing with them thefindings of scholars on matters of critical religiousimportance.

I hear well-meaning but not necessarily well-informed religious leaderssay such things as, "If the biblical story of Easter is not literallytrue, if there is no physical resurrection of Jesus, then Christianitywill surely die." They actually quote St. Paul to buttress their claim.However, no creditable New Testament scholar in the world, Protestant orCatholic, will defend those simplistic propositions.

People who employ this line of defense seem to forget that at one timealmost all Christians believed that the story of Adam and Eve wasliteral history. They also asserted that the Christmas narratives ofwandering stars, angels singing to hillside shepherds, and virgins whogive birth were literally true and that all accounts of miraclesattributed to Jesus actually happened. The fact is that the greatmajority of contemporary biblical scholars have for almost 100 yearsbeen moving away from these conclusions. Yet Christianity has survivedthat transition.

Critics will argue: "Are not Adam and Eve, the Virgin Birth, and even themiracles peripheral to the Christian faith--while the resurrection ofJesus is not? Can Christianity afford to debate its originating moment?Does the possibility of saying 'no' to the physical resurrection ofJesus mean the end of Christianity?" I do not think so, but Ianticipate that some will think that is true.

I do admit that for Christians to enter this subject honestly is toinvite great anxiety. It is to walk the razor's edge, to run the riskof cutting the final cord still binding many to the faith of theirmothers and fathers. But the price for refusing to enter thisconsideration is for me even higher. The inability to question revealsthat one has no confidence that one's belief system will survive such aninquiry. That is a tacit recognition that on unconscious levels, one'sfaith has already died. If one seeks to protect God from truth or newinsights, then God has surely already died. So let me invite those whoare willing to join me in this analysis.

There are five portions of the New Testament that purport to give usknowledge of the events of Easter. The earliest one was written by Paulin the mid-50s of the first century of the common era. This biblicalsegment, found in 1 Corinthians 15, is noteworthy both in what it says andin what it does not say.
In Paul's recounting of Easter, there is no Joseph of Arimathea, noangelic messenger, no empty tomb, no women who visit the tomb, and nophysically resuscitated body. Paul does use the phrase "on the thirdday," and he qualifies it with the words "in accordance with thescriptures." He speaks of Jesus as "appearing" to chosen witnesses.But the best clue for understanding what Paul means by "appearing" seemsto be that he includes himself in this list of witnesses. He says hisexperience of resurrection was like all the rest, except that his waslast. I know of no one, certainly not Luke writing in the book of Acts,who believes that what Paul saw was the resuscitated physical body ofJesus. Indeed, most scholars place Paul's conversion somewhere betweenone and six years after the story of the crucifixion, well past thelegendary three days or even the expanded 40 days of appearancestories.

It is also noteworthy to observe that whenever Paul speaks about theresurrection of Jesus, he uses a passive verb. Jesus does not simplyrise in the writings of Paul--he is raised by God. That "raising"appears to lift Jesus from death to God's right hand, to use themetaphor of the day. The author of the letter to the Colossians wrote:"If you have been raised with Christ seek the things that are abovewhere Christ is, seated at the right hand of God."

We need to note that it would be another 30 years before Luke wouldwrite the story of the ascension of Jesus, a story made necessary by theincreasing tendency to assert that the resurrection was Jesus comingback into this world--from which he eventually had to make an exit byascending. Resurrection in its earliest New Testament understanding wasthe raising of the crucified Jesus into the presence and meaning of God.So our first conclusion is that resurrection originally meant somethingquite different from what traditional believers have been led toconclude.

Jesus does not even make a post-crucifixion physical appearance in the original version of Mark, the first gospel to be written. The idea of a bodily resurrection receivesits first mention in the ninth-decade writings of Matthew, and it ispresent in only one episode. However, it becomes fulland overt when the later gospels of Luke and John were written, betweenthe years 88 and 96 of the common era. So I state a second reality:While Christianity was certainly born in whatever the "Easterexperience" was, around the year 30, it was not interpreted as thephysical resuscitation of the body of the deceased Jesus until about 50years later. Still, its birth was marked with incredible energy andpower. Lives were changed. Power was experienced in dramatic ways.Yet the experience of the living Jesus was not described as a physicalresurrection for literally decades.

Grasp the power of that bit of evidence. It opens up all sorts of newpossibilities that lead us outside the box of our traditional Easterexplanations.

A final teaser is required to make this introductory column complete.If one were to take the four gospels and read them in the order in whichthey were written, Mark first, followed by Matthew, Luke, and John, twoother undeniable realities emerge. First, the authors of the gospels donot agree with each other in any essential detail of the Easter storyexcept the assertion that Jesus had transcended death. Secondly,reading them in order will show how much exaggeration and growth inlegendary material entered the story.

To put content into these two assertions, the reader needs to note,first, that the four gospels do not agree on which women went to thetomb at dawn on the first day of the week. Someone is wrong. Second,Mark and Luke assert that the women did not see the risen Christ in thegarden. Matthew and John assert that they did. Someone is wrong.Third, they don't agree on who was the first person to have aresurrection experience. The candidates mentioned are Cephas (or Peter),the women, the two travelers on the road to Emmaus, and Mary Magdalene.They could not all have been first. Someone is wrong. Fourth, theydon't agree on where the disciples were when they first encountered therisen Jesus. Mark says it will be in Galilee. Matthew says it was inGalilee on top of a mountain. Luke says it was never in Galilee, butalways in the Jerusalem area. John says it was first in Jerusalem andthen much later in Galilee. Someone is wrong.

If Christianity is built on a literal reading of these texts, it is onshaky ground indeed.

Add to that the fact that growing exaggerations have so clearly enteredthese texts, and confidence in their literal accuracy plummets onceagain. Yet look at just one illustration. In Mark, the resurrection isannounced by a young man dressed in a white robe. There is nothing tolead one to the conclusion that this was a supernatural figure. InMatthew, however, this messenger has become quite supernatural. He isidentified as the "angel of the Lord." He descends in an earthquake androlls away the stone. His appearance was said to be like lightning andhis raiment white as snow, causing the soldiers to fall over like deadmen. By the time Luke writes, Matthew's angel has grown to two angels.Finally, in the later gospel of John, the angel seems to become Jesushimself, for Jesus is made to repeat verbatim the words of themessenger.

So we are led to ask, What really happened at that first Easter? Thefact is, we do not know and we cannot find out. We can only view itseffects and make a judgment, and that may not be enough to keep thisfaith system going.

This story will continue. For now, let me suggest that this issufficient data from the Bible itself to destabilize the literal view ofthe meaning of Easter as the restoration to life of the Jesus who diedon the cross. That is not an insignificant step to take--but it doesnot tell us much about what the original power of Easter was.
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