2016-06-30
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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 line of last resort and insist that before such mysteries one simply "must have faith." I will follow wherever the search for truth takes me. I believe we are well beyond the day when the leaders of the church can still protect their weakest members by not sharing with them the findings of scholars on matters of critical religious importance.

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

People who employ this line of defense seem to forget that at one time almost all Christians believed that the story of Adam and Eve was literal history. They also asserted that the Christmas narratives of wandering stars, angels singing to hillside shepherds, and virgins who give birth were literally true and that all accounts of miracles attributed to Jesus actually happened. The fact is that the great majority of contemporary biblical scholars have for almost 100 years been moving away from these conclusions. Yet Christianity has survived that transition.

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

I do admit that for Christians to enter this subject honestly is to invite great anxiety. It is to walk the razor's edge, to run the risk of cutting the final cord still binding many to the faith of their mothers and fathers. But the price for refusing to enter this consideration is for me even higher. The inability to question reveals that one has no confidence that one's belief system will survive such an inquiry. That is a tacit recognition that on unconscious levels, one's faith has already died. If one seeks to protect God from truth or new insights, then God has surely already died. So let me invite those who are willing to join me in this analysis.

There are five portions of the New Testament that purport to give us knowledge of the events of Easter. The earliest one was written by Paul in the mid-50s of the first century of the common era. This biblical segment, found in 1 Corinthians 15, is noteworthy both in what it says and in what it does not say.
In Paul's recounting of Easter, there is no Joseph of Arimathea, no angelic messenger, no empty tomb, no women who visit the tomb, and no physically resuscitated body. Paul does use the phrase "on the third day," and he qualifies it with the words "in accordance with the scriptures." He speaks of Jesus as "appearing" to chosen witnesses. But the best clue for understanding what Paul means by "appearing" seems to be that he includes himself in this list of witnesses. He says his experience of resurrection was like all the rest, except that his was last. 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 of Jesus. Indeed, most scholars place Paul's conversion somewhere between one and six years after the story of the crucifixion, well past the legendary three days or even the expanded 40 days of appearance stories.

It is also noteworthy to observe that whenever Paul speaks about the resurrection of Jesus, he uses a passive verb. Jesus does not simply rise 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 the metaphor of the day. The author of the letter to the Colossians wrote: "If you have been raised with Christ seek the things that are above where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God."

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

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 receives its first mention in the ninth-decade writings of Matthew, and it is present in only one episode. However, it becomes full and overt when the later gospels of Luke and John were written, between the years 88 and 96 of the common era. So I state a second reality: While Christianity was certainly born in whatever the "Easter experience" was, around the year 30, it was not interpreted as the physical resuscitation of the body of the deceased Jesus until about 50 years later. Still, its birth was marked with incredible energy and power. Lives were changed. Power was experienced in dramatic ways. Yet the experience of the living Jesus was not described as a physical resurrection for literally decades.

Grasp the power of that bit of evidence. It opens up all sorts of new possibilities that lead us outside the box of our traditional Easter explanations.

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 which they were written, Mark first, followed by Matthew, Luke, and John, two other undeniable realities emerge. First, the authors of the gospels do not agree with each other in any essential detail of the Easter story except the assertion that Jesus had transcended death. Secondly, reading them in order will show how much exaggeration and growth in legendary 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 the tomb 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 the garden. Matthew and John assert that they did. Someone is wrong. Third, they don't agree on who was the first person to have a resurrection 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, they don't agree on where the disciples were when they first encountered the risen Jesus. Mark says it will be in Galilee. Matthew says it was in Galilee on top of a mountain. Luke says it was never in Galilee, but always in the Jerusalem area. John says it was first in Jerusalem and then much later in Galilee. Someone is wrong.

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

Add to that the fact that growing exaggerations have so clearly entered these texts, and confidence in their literal accuracy plummets once again. Yet look at just one illustration. In Mark, the resurrection is announced by a young man dressed in a white robe. There is nothing to lead one to the conclusion that this was a supernatural figure. In Matthew, however, this messenger has become quite supernatural. He is identified as the "angel of the Lord." He descends in an earthquake and rolls away the stone. His appearance was said to be like lightning and his raiment white as snow, causing the soldiers to fall over like dead men. 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 Jesus himself, for Jesus is made to repeat verbatim the words of the messenger.

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

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