Monthly Archives: March 2012

That Darned Stone

Considering arguments that Jesus’ resurrection was a physical event in space-time, in human history, by definition involving a resuscitated corpse (imbued with supernatural abilities) and a vacated tomb, we can only ponder with some puzzlement the Gospel narratives of the “rolling away” of the tomb’s “great stone”.

Even if we consider that Jesus’ resurrection was not purely spiritual, mystical, and visionary – that is, even if we consider that it very much involved his resuscitated corpse, a corpse that could be seen, felt, that could prepare meals and eat – still, the empty tomb and the rolled-away stone loom as highly problematic elements in the resurrection narratives.

The reason for this is that even the “physical resurrection” stories incorporate distinctly non-physical, and even supernatural details. For example, although the risen, bodily Jesus can offer his crucifixion wounds to be probed, still he appears out of nowhere, in the midst of locked rooms; although he can prepare a breakfast of grilled fish, he can bilocate between Jerusalem and Galilee, again appearing out of nowhere; although he can walk with two disciples and break their bread in Emmaus, he can just as easily “vanish from their sight”.

The problem emerges. If Jesus’ post-resurrection physicality presents no difficulty for him in appearing/disappearing at will, no difficulty for him to simply ignore solid walls and locked doors, then what in the world is the rolled-away stone doing at Jesus’ tomb – and more importantly, what is it doing in the Gospel narratives at all?

After all, if the risen Jesus can disregard matter, how is it that the great stone has suddenly – among all manner of other physical barriers – become the one insurmountable barrier? If Jesus can pass through walls, why can’t he pass through the tomb’s walls without needing to remove the stone? If Jesus can simply will himself to locate/travel from one point to another, then how is it that he can’t simply will himself from the tomb’s enclosed depths to its external entrance, bathed now in the light of the world’s first Easter Morn?

The stone has become a stumbling-block. It contradicts the other reports that insist that matter presents no barrier to the risen Christ. It collapses the “spiritual body” of the risen Christ back into a mere resuscitated corpse – like Lazarus – still constrained by the limitations of normal biology and space-time functioning. It suggests that the risen Jesus – far from being an exalted, glorified being possessing an unprecedented, new kind of “spiritual physicality” – either has to muscle his way out of the tomb, or requires help – human, angelic, or divine – to free himself. Such a vision of the Victorious Christ vitiates the rest of the Gospel resurrection accounts. Additionally, it is a horrific artistic and dramatic faux pas. It simply does not fit the image and concept that the Gospel writers convey in every other resurrection scenario.

Ironically, the rolled-away stone has become the Gospel’s single strongest argument against Jesus’ resurrection. Ideally, the tomb ought to have been discovered as-was on the evening of Jesus’ crucifixion: a sepulchre tightly sealed by a large stone.  With as much help the task required, the tomb-visitors would roll away the stone … and then discover that Jesus’ body is missing. This scenario would preserve the Easter affirmation that Jesus’ “spiritual, resurrection body” could pass unhindered through physical barriers.

As it is, however, that darned stone most unattractively lies as a fly in the very center of the resurrection ointment



The Historical Jesus: a Brief Consideration

In New Testament/biblical studies, the “Mythicist” school claims either that Jesus did not exist, or (more moderately) that there is no sound evidence to support his existence. But on serious investigation and reflection, it is possible to make the counter-claim that there is nothing intrinsically fictive about the main outlines of Jesus’ ministry as recorded in the Gospels.

Mainstream scholarship recognizes what are called “the seven authentic letters of Paul”.

In those letters, Paul mentions his personal knowledge of Jesus’ closest disciples, the “Jerusalem Pillars”, including Peter, John, and Jesus’ own brother James. If these letters are authentic, then clearly Paul virtually establishes Jesus’ existence via his acquaintance with Jesus’ own family members and closest disciples. One sound reason for viewing Paul’s references to Jesus’ disciples is the fact that most of Paul’s references are extremely critical of the Jerusalem disciples. If Paul’s letters were a secondary creation of an ideology-driven proto-Catholic church, then it would be very doubtful that Paul’s enmity with those who knew and traveled with the historical Jesus would be preserved – as it apparently is –  in all  its vitriol. On the contrary, the expectation would be that the church would smooth over, or even delete, these Pauline critiques, in order to present a false, manufactured picture of a nascent church as “one happy family”. But since the letters do present the conflict and the vitriol, consensus scholarship finds their historicity plausible and probable.

Even if it should turn out that these Pauline letters are, after all,  invalid, we still have the very historical plausibility of James, Jesus’ brother, and his long influence in Jerusalem and the early Jerusalem Jesus movement; and we still have records of the direct descendents and relatives of Jesus leading the Judean church for a hundred years after Jesus’ execution. These people and institutions point back to the strong likelihood that a real, Jewish, historical figure was their causitive agent.

Another item related to Jesus’ personal historicity is the Gospel record of his miracles and his theological claims. As it turns out, these issues are not as problematic as some would have it.

Most of Jesus’ miracles (cures, exorcisms) do not require a supernatural cause (obviously miracles like walking on water, storm-stilling, turning water into wine are exceptions to this rule, and are not under consideration here).
In fact, Jesus fits very well into religious-social categories that have been well-documented cross-culturally, globally, throughout time, including the modern era. The issue is not whether  miraclesand/or theological claims are supernatural. The issue is whether they happen via the actions and teachings of a healer/mystic. The answer is: of course they do. They happen all the time, especially in “third world” cultures not too dissimilar from Jesus’ own culture.

There follows a short list showing how Jesus fulfills well-known, documented religious-social functions that include both the miraculous and religious claims.

renewal movement founder
charismatic mediator
wisdom teacher
parable teacher
social prophet / religious rebel
messianic figure
spirit person/holy person/shaman

We can see that there is no pressing reason to leap to supernatural categories for the main outlines of Jesus’ ministry, nor is there any good cause to deny their reality, since from the evidence of  cross-cultural studies and anthropology, we know they exist in all cultures. There is nothing outlandish or preposterous about Jesus’ religious-social functions and roles; in short, nothing that supports the  Mythicist “improbability-to-Jesus’ non-existence” trajectory.

The issue, of course, is about plausibility, not certainty. Certainty relative to Jesus’ historicity cannot be achieved without access to time travel technology. But since we must rely on plausibility, all the indications support the notion that Jesus was a divine union mystic, an exorcist/healer, social prophet, and religious reformer. All of these attributes could be “Gospel fictions”. But if they are, support for their fictitiousness must be garnered from sources other than the extremely plausible Gospel accounts. That is, if the Gospel authors were spinning Jesus’ story out of thin air, they happened to find a narrative mode that conforms perfectly to the findings of modern scientific/anthropological research, with its substantiation of authenticity concerning religious figures, their healings, exorcisms, teachings, and claims.

Mythicists are free to make a “leap of faith” to an unhistorical, wholly mythological Jesus, but the New Testament documents themselves encourage a much more pragmatic, close-to-home, and research-supported view.


A Vanishing Easter “Egg”

Bernard Brandon Scott has written a fascinating book on Jesus’ resurrection:

The Trouble with Resurrection (Polebridge Press, Salem OR: 2010)

Its main premise suggests a lesson from the nursery rhyme Humpty Dumpty. Scott asks what we would draw or how we would describe the figure of Humpty Dumpty. The univeral answer, of course, is “an egg”.

But, as Scott proves in this clever book: there is no egg. He reveals the simple fact that originally, there were no particular associations with, or depictions of, Humpty Dumpty. The egg idea only evolved over time, with the development of an easily-pictured example of a figure whom “all the King’s horses and all the Kings’ men” could not put together again. In a world of fragile and delicate – easily broken, difficult to repair – items, the egg eventually won out as Humpty’s chief descriptor. So the popular, set image of Humpty as egg is a mere convention, not original to the real scenario. Scott argues that a similar situation pertains to the most common notion and image of Jesus’ resurrection when conceived as a radiant, resuscitated Jesus stepping out of tomb whose stone has been rolled away,, and who then appears to disciples in various guises and under varying conditions. Scott argues that this idea and this image are the “egg” in the Christian resurrection narrative: that is, the real story is utterly absent of the standard resurrection imagery.

By a careful sifting through the New Testament resurrection data, in chronological order, Scott works from the earliest Jewish notions of resurrection, through the original Jewish-Christian ideas about the resurrection, to late New Testament depictions and concepts about Jesus’ final victory over death. In this process, Scott separates the actual story from its final expression as “egg”.

Scott cogently establishes that the earliest resurrection affirmations were “anything-but” the Easter morning scenarios of the later Gospels (and of  most of our modern depictions). As it turns out, as with Humpty Dumpty’s story, with Jesus’ resurrection equally: there is no egg, because there never was an egg to begin with. There was no physically restored Jesus exiting a tomb, appearing to disciples on the road, breaking bread with them, inviting them to probe his crucifixion wounds. Rather, there was a hope and a subsequent experience that conformed to the hope.

In the Second Temple period, Judaism had incorporated afterlife beliefs. These were chiefly driven by the fate of the Maccabean martyrs. The idea was that, in a period where righteous Jews were being slain by Hellenistic interlopers, God would not stand by and let the situation go without redress. The theological solution was to have God honor the righteous dead in an afterlife. Some were even visible to the eye as stars, which were thought of as angelic beings in the heavens. Thus we have the first stage of resurrection: it is applied to righteous Jews who died for their God and nation.

The second stage was Jesus’ own martyrdom. Since heavenly exaltation and glorification for murdered righteous ones was an idea already “in the air” at the time, it was only natural that Jesus would now be thought of as having been posthumously transformed into a heavenly, angelic being after his martyr’s death.  Here we have the second stage of resurrection: the martyr’s heavenly exaltation now specifically applied to Jesus. These two stages represent the hope element in the formation of belief in Jesus’ resurrection.

But it is very clear that Jesus, in his followers’ estimation, was much more than just one more posthumously-vindicated Jewish martyr. He was also “seated at the right hand” of God; he would return as Messiah; he would judge the nations with God’s own judgment; he could even be addressed in the Maranatha prayer: “Come, Lord Jesus”. Certainly Jesus was a vindicated martyr … and yet much more. At this point the third stage enters: the stage of subsequent experience congruent with the first two “hope” stages.

Scott refers us to the earliest extant resurrection data, that of Paul the Apostle. As opposed to any other descriptions or imagery (even that of the Acts of the Apostles), Paul’s own testimony about his experience of the risen Christ is quite spare. It does not depend upon, or even refer to, an empty tomb or to a miraculously resuscitated body imbued with preternatural powers. On the contrary, Paul describes his experience of the vindicated Jesus by use of the term, ophthe. The word’s main connotation is “having been seen for”, and it suggests insight rather than physical seeing. Paul describes it as God “revealing his Son in me“.

“Having been seen for” strikes us as unusual syntax. But it is constantly found in biblical descriptions of otherwordly perceptions.  It means that a divine reality has been grasped as insight, that a revelation has been granted “for” the recipient’s sake, in an internal, subjective manner. Scott shows that this is the earliest connotation of resurrection available to us, namely, Paul’s insight that Jesus is a living Lord, an insight not granted by human agency, but by divine will. In this way, Paul was assured that Jesus is far more than a recently-executed martyr. Yet Paul was not alone in experiencing this type of insight; moreover, there was a distinct cultural wave that Scott brings forth, namely, the continued experience, after his death, of Jesus’ “spirit”;  the continuation of the Kingdom of Heaven that was central to his message.

Scott shows that Jesus’ death at Roman hands had not succeeded in eradicating the Kingdom that Jesus had taught and embodied. A “holy spirit” continued to be highly active in the early Christian communities, with seemingly ever-increasing effects; the cures and exorcisms performed by Jesus continued on in his disciples’ lives; his teaching, in their preaching.

Scott argues that it did not take long for these inheritors of Jesus’ life and message to realize something profound, something which reinforced their hope and their subsequent experience. This great something was the understanding that Rome and its collaborators among the Jewish elite, in killing Jesus, had lost. Scott marks the simple social fact that the early Christians discovered that the Kingdom that Jesus preached was greater even than Jesus, its agent and representative. The Holy Spirit lived and moved among a movement which – to judge by the fates of most similar movements – should have quickkly disbanded and vanished after the death of its charismatic leader.

Scott maintains that it was from this seemingly miraculous continuation of Jesus’ message – despite his sudden, ignominious execution – through the survival and flourishing of the Kingdom he had embodied, that multiple instantiations of the Pauline ophthe rolled like a wave through the early communities. They took the survival of Jesus’ message, its victory over Roman-Sanhedrine opposition – as God’s vindication of Jesus. Jesus had taught God’s Kingdom. Yet after Jesus’ death the Kingdom was still there, and even more significant, it was burgeoning.  Thus they claimed that, because of God’s vindication,  Jesus had been ophthe (seen by insight); had been raised up; had been exalted to heaven. In this, Scott is in close agreement with other writers, such as Thomas Sheehan in The First Coming (Random House, NY: 1986).

It was only much later that, probably in order to combat the idea that Jesus had never “come in the flesh”, that Matthew, Luke, and John in their resurrection accounts, felt obliged to literalize ophthe, and physicalise the risen Christ into the bodily form with which we are so familiar. This literalization of the subjective ophthe and the social claim of Jesus’ vindication created the fateful Easter “egg”:  the assignment and reification of “Jesus/Humpty” into a definitive, but fictitious, image and identity.