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.