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Life Arts    H3'ed 4/4/21

Easter Reflection: Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?

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Readings for Easter Sunday:ACTS 10:3A, 37-43; PS 118: 1-2, 16-17, 22-23; COL 3:1-4; JN 20: 1-9.

Did Jesus really rise from the dead? Or is belief in his physical resurrection childish and equivalent to belief in the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus?

I suppose the answer to those questions depends on what you mean by "really." Let's look at what our tradition tells us.

Following Jesus' death, his disciples gave up hope and went back to fishing and their other pre-Jesus pursuits. Then, according to the synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke), some women in the community reported an experience that came to be called Jesus' "resurrection" (Mt. 28:1-10; Mk. 16: 1-8; Lk. 24:1-11). That is, the rabbi from Nazareth was somehow experienced as alive and as more intensely present among them than he was before his crucifixion.

That women were the first witnesses to the resurrection seems certain. According to Jewish law, female testimony was without value. It therefore seems unlikely that Jesus' followers, anxious to convince others of the reality of Jesus' resurrection, would have concocted a story dependent on women as primary witnesses. Ironically then, the story's "incredible" origin itself lends credence to the authenticity of early belief in Jesus return to life in some way.

But what was the exact nature of the resurrection? Did it involve a resuscitated corpse? Or was it something more spiritual, psychic, metaphorical or visionary?

In Paul (the only 1st person report we have - written around 50 C.E.) the experience of resurrection is clearly visionary. Paul sees a light and hears a voice, but for him there is no embodiment of the risen Jesus. When Paul reports his experience (I Cor. 15: 3-8) he equates his vision with the resurrection manifestations to others claiming to have encountered the risen Christ. Paul writes "Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me."

In fact, even though Paul never met the historical Jesus, he claims that he too is an "apostle" specifically because his experience was equivalent to that of the companions of Jesus who were known by name. This implies that the other resurrection appearances might also be accurately described as visionary rather than physical.

The earliest gospel account of a "resurrection" is found in Mark, Ch. 16. There a "young man" (not an angel) announces Jesus' resurrection to a group of women (!) who had come to Jesus' tomb to anoint him (16: 5-8). But there is no encounter with the risen Jesus.

In fact, Mark's account actually ends without any narrations of resurrection appearances at all. (According to virtually all scholarly analysis, the "appearances" found in chapter 16 were added by a later editor.) In Mark's original ending, the women are told by the young man to go back to Jerusalem and tell Peter and the others. But they fail to do so, because of their great fear (16: 8). This means that in Mark there are not only no resurrection appearances, but the resurrection itself goes unproclaimed. This makes one wonder: was Mark unacquainted with the appearance stories? Or did he (incredibly) not think them important enough to include?

Resurrection appearances finally make their own appearance in Matthew (writing about 80) and in Luke (about 85) with increasing detail. Always however there is some initial difficulty in recognizing Jesus. For instance, Matthew 28:11-20 says, "Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshipped him; but some doubted." So the disciples saw Jesus, but not everyone was sure they did. In Luke 24:13-53, two disciples walk seven miles with the risen Jesus without recognizing him until the three break bread together.

Even in John's gospel (published about 100) Mary Magdalene (the woman with the most intimate relationship to Jesus) thinks she's talking to a gardener when the risen Jesus appears to her (20: 11-18). In the same gospel, the apostle Thomas does not recognize the risen Jesus until he touches the wounds on Jesus' body (Jn. 26-29). When Jesus appears to disciples at the Sea of Tiberius, they at first think he is a fishing kibitzer giving them instructions about where to find the most fish (Jn. 21: 4-8).

All of this raises questions about the nature of the "resurrection." It doesn't seem to have been resuscitation of a corpse. What then was it? Was it the community coming to realize the truth of Jesus' words, "Whatever you do to the least of my brethren, you do to me" (Mt. 25:45) or "Wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there in their midst" (Mt. 18:20)? Do the resurrection stories reveal a Lord's Supper phenomenon where Jesus' early followers experienced his intense presence "in the breaking of the bread" (Lk. 24:30-32)?

Some would say that this "more spiritual" interpretation of the resurrection threatens to destroy faith.

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Mike Rivage-Seul is a liberation theologian and former Roman Catholic priest. Retired in 2014, he taught at Berea College in Kentucky for 40 years where he directed Berea's Peace and Social Justice Studies Program. His latest book is (more...)
 

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