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The Resurrection Debate

April 25, 2015

As Easter came and went, so did the usual debates on the resurrection. It was our yearly appointment with those who wished to confirm, deny or redefine the story of the empty tomb. As usual, they came with persuasive arguments but little evidence, for after so long it’s hard to get anything more than a learned opinion. Yes, there are proofs that Jesus existed, that he lived in the period indicated by the gospels, that he was crucified and that his movement had a rapid expansion in the first century. Historians even acknowledged that the first disciples were convinced of the resurrection, but actual miracles cannot be historically verified.

Various discrepancies in the accounts also fuel the debate. The first Gospel, Mark, alludes to an empty tomb but says no more. Decades later, the other gospels extended the narrative but contradicted each other on many things. We know that the Gospels were not written with the present criterion for historicity, that the intentions were quite different and that each author used ample creativity. It wasn’t easy to put into writing what had been, up to that time, an oral tradition made of short stories and sayings. There was need of order, chronological, geographical, of persons, and that’s where most discrepancies are, because the writers had to create it. We must understand that in antiquity, when dealing with written works, accuracy wasn’t as important as it is today. Most people couldn’t read anyway and the written work was designed for effect, while being read aloud.

In any case, it’s obvious that something out of the ordinary had convinced the first Christians of the resurrection. It took a few decades, however, before this event passed from an oral tradition to a written text. Each author also gave a somewhat different renditions and the apostle Paul was the first. He did not offer details about it but affirmed its centrality, saying that without resurrection the Christian faith would be in vain (1Cor.15,17). He also said that over 500 people met the resurrected Christ and that, a few years later, he did too (Acts 9.3 to 9).

Somewhat problematic is that he compares his mystical encounter to that of the earlier apostles, as if it was of the same nature (1Cor.15,7-8). He also makes no reference to the resurrection details included some decades later in the gospels of Matthew, Luke and John. They were things of considerable significance, to which he should have made at least some indirect allusion. All this points to a well attested fact, that in early Christianity there were different ways of understanding the resurrection and neither Paul, nor the gospel authors, saw it exactly the same way.

Being that scripture presents us with different opinions and interpretations, we may rightly ask what’s literal and historical and what, instead, is non-literal and figurative. A good deal is obviously historical but some isn’t, it’s metaphorical, designed to illustrate complex theology by way of a simple story. Besides that, there is a lot more which we don’t really know how to classify. Some stories, for example, have an historical basis but, like parables, they were adapted for teaching purposes. A typical example is in the last gospel, where the crucifixion (historical) is made to happen a day earlier in order to match the killing of the Passover lamb. The change was probably made to illustrate more effectively the concept of Christ as the sacrificial lamb (theological).

These are some of the things that have emerged from over a century of exegetical studies. Applying the criterion of this discipline, scholars are still sorting out which words and events do trace back to Jesus and which, instead, are the tools, interpretations and symbols used by the writers. It’s a task that will never see completion, but there is consensus on a partial classification between that which is clearly historical, metaphorical or uncertain.

Does it matter?

How important is all this for a believer? How crucial is the historicity of each account, the verbatim accuracy of each dialogue and the fidelity of subsequent translations? For some it’s vital and there could be no faith without it. Either the bible is the absolute word of God or it’s nothing at all, and they don’t take it kindly when anyone proposes any other view. Scholars, even believing ones, who challenge such bible absolutism, are accused of heresy, much the same as the Catholic Church did with Galileo, also a believer, and for the same reasons.

But if the Christian faith is so dependent on the historical or scientific accuracy of a book, what happens to that faith when physics, astronomy, history or archeology shows it to be less than accurate? That’s what happened when Copernicus, Galileo and others, challenged the prior understanding of a three layered cosmos. The faith that was accustomed to the idea of a heaven above the clouds and a hell below, was seriously shaken when things turned out to be round and there was no more up or down. Now we’ve accepted a different cosmology from that of the middle ages, which has led us to find also a different and new paradigm for our faith; but just as with cosmology, history too has made great progress, and so much so that a new paradigm of faith is needed once again. Today, the myth of a perfect and inerrant holy book, written by men but exempt from human influences, is as unsustainable and superstitious as the worship of any sacred object.

Why the book works

That said, in spite of its imperfections and contradictions, the book does work, but how? Certainly not because of its historical or scientific reliability! What makes it special, instead, is the inner testimony of a search, an interaction, a dialectic leading humanity to mature in its understanding of God. There is movement in it, which reveals a sense of direction and is capable of moving us also, at the experiential level. It speaks to us about invisible realities which we can sense by the action of faith, a will that proceeds from the yearning of the soul. In it’s absence, however, there is only one alternative, mental belief, but that needs visible support, like miracles or things that are in some way demonstrable, historically or scientifically.

For almost two thousand years, Christian apologists have tried to furnish such demonstrations, but proofs of accuracy and infallibility are a hindrance and a distraction. It’s the illusion of a rational and intellectual faith that needs such demonstrations. True faith doesn’t, because it doesn’t depend on visible and demonstrable things, but on a living experience of that which isn’t. Why then be distracted by that which is visible and imperfect if it holds us back from discovering that which, alone, is invisible and infallible?

The search for God and meaning in life, does not hinge on a demonstration of historicity, nor does it require feats of philosophical rationality. These are not the most reliable means and even fictional characters, irrational ones like Don Quixote, can teach us more about it than a shallow apology for biblical inerrancy. A gospel story, whether it be true, interpreted, or created, can show us the way, lead us to experience the transcendental and reveal us hidden truths. The problem is that the man, who does not know the subject of the story, deifies the story itself and falls into superstition and biblical literalism.

If a parable lightens our way, it isn’t necessary for it to be historically true in order to follow its teachings. If they who have known the invisible, use their creativity to weave a story that leads us to experience the same, it needs not to be literal for it to be true. As Origen (185–254) commented on the fourth gospel, “John does not always tell the truth literally, he always tells the truth spiritually.” In Matthew also we find a useful criterion “by their fruits (effects) you shall know” (Matt 7:20).

The road to Emmaus

Returning to our theme of the resurrection, there is a story in particular that fits our case; it’s in the Gospel of Luke (24, 13-35) and it talks about some disciples walking from Jerusalem to the nearby town of Emmaus. A number of sites claim to be that ancient town but there are no definite proofs for any. What’s more, in one of the oldest surviving copies of Luke’s gospel, the name isn’t even Emmaus but Oulammaus, the Septuagint’s name for the place where Jacob saw a ladder from heaven. Since Jacob’s ladder is often used as a symbol of Christ, there are those who believe that the story and location involved are symbolic, rather than literal.

In any case, the story goes like this: It is three days after the crucifixion and two disciples are walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus. As they discuss what had just happened, a stranger approaches them and asks them what they are talking about. Surprised that he doesn’t know, they answer “about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people; how our chief priests and our rulers delivered him to be condemned to death and crucified him. We had hoped that he would free Israel.” With these words they reveal their previous enthusiasm, as well as their present despair, the cognitive dissonance of a disappointed hope. Maybe they were even tempted to believe popular rumors, that Jesus had simply been another false Messiah, that his sect had deceived the people, that his prophecies had failed and that, instead of ushering in the kingdom, he had died shamefully and discredited. They were confused, disappointed and unable to understand the meaning of what they had experienced with him.

At this point the stranger explains how they misunderstood the prophets; how their hopes had been too literal and earthly; how God had a different plan and things had gone according to it. When evening comes, the disciples arrive at their destination and they invite the stranger in, which he accepts. While they dine he breaks bread and they recognize him as Jesus. The story doesn’t say that his appearance changed, but only that their eyes were opened, which obviously isn’t literal and seems to imply a momentary capacity to see the invisible. Next, we are told that, as they recognize him, he immediately vanishes out of their sight. Pondering on it, they then say: “Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the scriptures?” These are the signs which the author stresses, as further confirming the divine encounter. The story closes with the disciples renewed in their faith and returning immediately to Jerusalem.

The symbols are obvious and even if there was an historical basis, the tale is woven in such a way as to reveal more than mere facts. For example, it tells us that Jesus is met along the road of despair, doubt and the earnest search for a way up (ladder); that he’s met in the midst of disappointment, when we wonder if what we’ve believed is right, or which part of it is right; that when we are willing to learn and the right questions arise within us, then God answers, even in the form of a stranger, who sheds light on things and in whom we see the invisible God; that we can see him in our giving, in sharing a meal, and sense him as our heart burns and our mind is enlightened by revelation; that true faith is met on the road of doubt, when rational faith collapses and we enter into a living experience of the invisible, where God comes into us and walks with us in a new life. The list is endless, of things that go beyond the actual story, that are symbolic, spiritual, subtle and imperceptible to the inattentive eye, but that need not to be historical to be true.

The box and the contents

When, instead, we depend on the historicity of the account, we risk flattening everything down to that which is observable, needing historical demonstrations and apologetics, or else it becomes a lie and we lose faith in it. In essence we risk being prevented from discovering that reality which isn’t so apparent and literal, but which was woven into the story, a mere tool to convey it. The story, like a box, is not the most important thing, but it’s what’s inside.

We could talk at length about the reasons and times when our way of reading the gospels changed, especially within certain traditions. Sufficient to say that, in our pragmatic world, we lost the ability to see beyond the lines, through the symbols and the creativity of the evangelists. In our “modern” understanding, the resurrection story is either myth or history, each annulling the other and both missing the mark. A literal interpretation of every word in the Gospels is as artificial as its very opposite, the opinion that Jesus never existed. Both views are tenuous structures that lack historical backing and rest mainly on ideologies, either fundamentalism or atheism.

I am convinced that more than being about an actual event, the resurrection story is about our human experience of the divine, about a personal rebirth and resurrection; about something that transcends the old story and time itself. Though first manifested in the historical Jesus, the resurrection became an abiding personal experience, and that’s what drove the first Christians to tell everyone about it.

When writing their testimonies and stories, they told us that we can experience the same, if we leave Jerusalem to find Emmaus, if we leave the old, what we used to believe, in order to find a stairway to heaven. Though disappointed and doubtful, unsure of everything we’ve known so far, if we ask the right questions and are willing to listen, God will answer. It may not be as we expected; it may look like a stranger but if we are willing to lay aside preconceived ideas he will shed new light on us. If we then invite the stranger and his strange new wine to stay with us, we might recognize the word made flesh. From there it’s a new start, a resurrection, and we can even return to Jerusalem, to the old faith and friends, because even that will no longer be the past but the future.

This, for me, is the resurrection story, while those aspects that are so hotly debated, are only the box in which the real bread and the real wine are held, and I’m not speaking of rituals.

The story of the Resurrection is that endings are not final.

The story of the Resurrection is that Creation is wired for new beginnings.

The story of the Resurrection is that fear and hate and grief do not win the day.

Love does.

The story of the Resurrection is that “resurrection” is a verb – not a noun.

It’s something we live into; it’s not merely an event we remember.

Mark Sandling – The Resurrection is Real, But Not How You Think it Is

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From → Bible, History, Theology

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