(This post explores Jesus’ significance without reference to his resurrection. Of course, Jesus’ resurrection is at the core of Christianity as we know it, and I intend in future posts – as I have in previous posts – to explore the legitimate meanings of his resurrection. But in this article I want to examine Jesus’ meaning stripped of at least one of its noticeable supernatural trappings, and see what he how he might look in that light. I am no fan of the Jeffersonian New Testament, but as an intellectual exercise it is an interesting experiment to seek out the non-supernatural Jesus.)
Perhaps, as the Gospels claim, Jesus died and was buried in a rich man’s tomb. But perhaps Jesus’ corpse was thrown into an anonymous lime pit and there was no tomb at all, much less an empty one. Jesus’ body dissolved and there was no resurrection. How can this be seen as good news?
It can be viewed as good news because it throws us back on Jesus’ teachings and “works”, quite divorced from his purported posthumous exaltation. It throws us back on the centrality of his parables, his Sermon on the Mount, his Beatitudes, his compassionate response to suffering, his righteous indignation against exploitation, his injunctions toward social responsibility and his admonishments toward the cultivation of a non-hypocritical relationship to people and to Spirit.
Although Paul said that without Jesus’ resurrection Christian faith is in vain, I believe his claim is inadequate, and in important ways, mistaken. Certainly, for Paul, Jesus’ resurrection validated and infused Christian faith. But is this necessarily, universally, so?
First, Paul was in a doubtful osition to be making judgments about the historical Jesus – the real person who was known by the very people – the Jerusalem disciples, the “Pillars” – whom Paul so often opposed; Paul never met Jesus “in the flesh”, and came close to eschewing such knowledge as useless. Paul’s genuine letters never mention the events that led to colossal cosmic event that Paul claimed was Jesus’ salvific death. For example, Paul never mentions Caiaphas or Pilate or Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimathea – all important figures who come into play in the Gospel passion narratives. Paul never delineates the factors that led to Jesus’ execution, e.g., Jesus’ “cleansing” of the Temple, his opposition to the priesthood and to (some) scribes and (some) Pharisees, his “triumphal” entry into Jerusalem, etc.
Second, we have no way of ascertaining that Paul’s experience of the risen Christ was equivalent to that of the Judean disciples. He aligns his experience with theirs, but since none of them left records, we only have Paul’s word to go on.
Third, Paul was obsessed with his conversion experience and he seems to have generalized that his experience was a kind of sine qua non for all other Christians. Again, we only have Paul’s record. We can, however, observe that Paul’s experience of the living risen Christ was the cornerstone of his missionary career and his inner life. Like James’ claim about works, Paul’s mission is “dead” without his intensely personal experience and interpretation of Jesus’ resurrection. We can observe the major features of Paul’s resurrection-based ministry. And we can observe, albeit through a glass darkly, that the Jerusalem “church” of Jewish Christians, led by those who knew Jesus personally and who experienced his resurrection early, in Palestine, apparently had a rather different interpretation of mission than did Paul. From this, we might conclude that Paul’s ideas about the risen Jesus plausibly differed in some degree from those of Jesus’ relatives and disciples – who, with their Jewish descendents, continued to lead the Judean Jesus movement for several generations after his death.
Fourth, Paul’s obsession with own interpretation of the mystical Christ impelled him to largely ignore the historical Jesus and his impact in Galilee and Judea. For Paul, the Jesus who had come “in the flesh” was entirely secondary to the Jesus whose glory had so dazzled and transformed him on the road to Damascus. The risen, exalted, living, glorified Christ loomed larger for Paul than did the historical Jesus.
Fifth, by largely deleting from his message the biographical Jesus and substituting for him the visionary “Pauline” Christ, Paul in great measure exchanged Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God on earth for the supernatural Kingdom of heaven; Paul moved the locus of Jesus’ message from the earthly Jerusalem to the heavenly Jerusalem; from a socially just, merciful Kingdom of God on earth to a purely nonmaterial celestial Kingdom. Of course, Paul was profoundly concerned with issues of justice, compassion and morality, but only as short-term ways of belief and behavior that were apparently only to be in effect until the soon return of the heavenly Christ. But even in Paul’s advocacy of “Kingdom values”, he rarely cites the historical Jesus’ example and teaching.
Finally, the eventual victory of Pauline Christianity carried Paul’s – as opposed to the Jerusalem disciples’ – christology into the Hellenized world. And from there the network of bishops saturated the West with Paul’s message of an otherwordly Christ. Surely the Church did not ignore the historical Jesus, but, following Paul’s example, the real Jesus was subsumed into the heavenly Christ, who for reasons unknown, continued more or less passively to sit at God’s right hand, enveloped in his Father’s glory, although his return was always expected “soon”.
The important thing in these considerations is that Christian faith is in vain even with resurrection belief – if the radical imperatives of the biographical Jesus are considered secondary (on the principle that “faith without works is dead”). It is crucially important to consider the following:
Jesus is/was who he was, independent of his crucifixion/resurrection. Even if, as a Christian, you believe that Jesus is the Trinitarian Son, the Messiah, the Son of God, the suffering Savior… then you believe that Jesus is all those things by nature, by his own personal identity. His resurrection is unnecessary to what he is/was, to his central identity. It seems rather “sketchy” if not theologically dangerous to claim that Jesus’ identity – and his life, work and teachings – depend in any way on a posthumous miracle. It even seems somewhat prideful to subjugate his Sermon on the Mount, his tireless work for the outcast, and his lived-out ethic of compassion, to his resurrection. If Jesus is who Christians say he is, that ought to be sufficient in itself. Nothing should be subtracted from that evaluation – and nothing , not even resurrection, need be added to it.
A Christianity without Jesus’ resurrection still has Jesus, who remains the Son of God, the Messiah, the healer/exorcist, the transformative sage, the charismatic mediator, the revitalization movement founder, the social prophet, the examplar and portal of God’s Kingdom on earth. Saying that Christian identity necessarily depends on Jesus’ resurrection is tantamount to saying that all that went before it in Jesus’ earthly life is useless.
Moreover: there were surely “Christians” even before Jesus’ resurrection. These would include all his disciples as well as everyone else who heard and believed his message. People who lived in Palestine – and even travelers – who imbibed Jesus’ message were in a meaningful sense already “Christians”.
If for example, you were a trader or merchant who happened to hear the Sermon on the Mount, took its message to heart, and went back home telling your people about this great new teacher and his great new teaching, you were already a “Christian” – and a missionary.
But if years later, after Jesus’ death, you returned to Judea, only to have his followers tell you that Jesus had died and rose again… and that now you can only be a true follower of Jesus if you accept his resurrection, you might recoil from the sheer arrogance and shallowness of that idea.
With some justification you might tell those resurrectionists, “You’re nuts. I became a true follower of Jesus as soon as I accepted his teachings and welcomed the Kingdom of God into my heart. This resurrection stuff seems to be a strange, novel addition to Jesus’ core message, and Jesus’ core message didn’t depend on some supernatural shenanigans surrounding the disposition of his corpse. Jesus himself never made his ‘divine sonship’ or his future death and resurrection part of the Sermon on the Mount, and I don’t trust your emphasis on these spectacular but secondary events.
“I myself heard Jesus tell a rich young man that all he had to do to enter the Kingdom was to obey the commandments and give to the poor for the love of God. Jesus never told the guy that he had to believe in Jesus’ future death and resurrection in order to enter the Kingdom. Now… look at me closely: In fact, I WAS that rich young man, and Jesus welcomed me into the Kingdom then and there. And, as Jesus urged, I went on to steadfastly obey the commandments and I am now operating services for the poor, sick, and marginalized out of my own home and with my own wealth. As Jesus also urged, I have moved my central concern from cultural givens to a new life in Spirit. I am his follwer no less than you.”
To reiterate: Jesus is/was himself prior to and independent of his death and resurrection. He frequently offered entry into the Kingdom without reference to his “divine sonship” and a future “atoning” death and resurrection. That seems to have been the case historically (at least plausibly – of course we can’t be certain) – and it remains the case in the Christian scriptures as we have them today. Paul’s sincere, intense resurrectional testimony aside, it is crucial to realize that the real Jesus offered the real Kingdom in the real here-and-now. No resurrection was, or is, necessary for that.
Granted: The New Testament texts are ambiguous. Some of them do portray Jesus as predicting his death “for the sake of many”, and his posthumous vindication by God. But a significant number of texts depict Jesus offering salvation (entry into the Kingdom, immersion in the Spirit, freedom from bondage) without any dependence on a future saving death and vindicating resurrection.
This pre-resurrection – this resurrection-independent Jesus – can and ought to be the first, best, primary, true, core, central figure for Christians. This Jesus – for all who would truly emulate him – is the really relevant Jesus: His teachings, his ethic of compassion, his means of connecting with the sacred, and above all, his example – are immediately available to all – freely and without supernatural conditions, qualifications and requirements. And this earthy and earthly Jesus is as close as one’s nearest copy of the New Testament… even now, with or without the resurrection, he can take up his abode in open hearts.