Fr Brian Gleeson CP today presents part 2 of his lengthy and comprehensive analysis of some of the best contemporary analysis of the meaning of the Resurrection by today's theologians. Because of the length of his analysis we have split into five parts. Today Fr Brian focuses on the scriptural evidence and how we ought interpret that.
THE BIBLICAL TESTIMONY IN GENERAL
The only biblical evidence for the resurrection is the appearances of the risen Jesus and the empty tomb. Nobody saw the resurrection happening. Nobody saw Jesus coming out of his tomb. It is significant that the only early documents, e.g. the apocryphal Gospel of Peter [9:35-43], which claim that certain people saw it happening, have been judged apocryphal, i.e. false, spurious. In fact, as an act of God which is so completely different from all other events, it could not have been seen. It is a trans-historical event, i.e. an event that occurred on the other side of death and therefore beyond space and time and human observation. So Hans Küng suggests: 'There was nothing to photograph or record.' The language about it is metaphorical. It describes the transition and personal transformation which happened to Jesus after his death. All that can be seen from an historical point of view are the results of the action of God on Jesus — 'the appearances, the empty tomb, and the reality of Christianity itself', all of which have happened in history.
As with many other facts of life, the truth of the resurrection is known indirectly, through circumstantial evidence. To speak more specifically, it is known from 'the appearances' of the risen Jesus to his first followers, the original members of the Jesus movement. Paul's emphasis on the appearances to the witnesses he names is particularly important. The stories of the discovery of the empty tomb, on the other hand, count as secondary, back-up evidence. They illustrate, symbolize and corroborate the faith in the risen Christ, which was given to certain chosen witnesses when the risen Jesus 'appeared' to them. On the finding of the tomb empty, Gerald O'Collins says: 'The discovery of the empty tomb served as a secondary sign, which was ambiguous by itself but which taken with the appearances served to confirm the reality of the resurrection.' It is true that his opponents tried to explain away the missing body as a case of theft by the disciples [Mt 28:11-15]. But there is no evidence that anyone, whether friend or foe of Christianity, has ever claimed that the tomb of Jesus still contained his body.
THE PRIMARY EVIDENCE OF THE EASTER KERYGMA
The content of the kerygma
Because the truth of the resurrection is so fundamental, one might expect the NT writers to be unanimous in the ways they present it. This is not the case, and reminds us that they are speaking of a great mystery, and that human language is inadequate for communicating the full truth about it. Thomas Rausch makes the observation: 'The Easter tradition in the New Testament can be broken down into two distinct strands, the Easter kerygma or proclamation and the Easter stories.' The most complete summary of the tradition about it, the basic proclamation (kerygma), is given by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8. [See also 1 Thess 1:10 and Rom 4:25 as statements of the kerygma].] It states the belief of the early communities that Jesus has been raised and that there are witnesses to this. Paul points out that this is not a tradition he started but one already in circulation. He says that he passed on to his community at Corinth the tradition about it that was passed on to him:
For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received; that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. (1 Cor 15:1-8).
'In Paul's world … to say that someone had been buried and then raised three days later was to say that the tomb was empty…' When Paul says that the risen Jesus appeared to him 'last of all', he is not referring to the ordinary Christian experience of knowing the risen Jesus within the life of prayer, faith and sacraments. He means rather something individual and special — his encounter with the risen Jesus on the Damascus road. NT (Tom) Wright comments about this first paragraph of 1 Corinthians 15:
But perhaps the most important thing about the first paragraph of 1 Corinthians 15 is what Paul understood the resurrection to mean. For him it was not a matter of the opening up of a new religious experience. Nor was it a proof of survival, of life after death. It meant that the Scriptures had been fulfilled, that the kingdom of God had arrived, that the new age had broken in to the midst of the present age, had dawned upon a surprised and unready world… Paul can then, in the course of verses 12-28, argue that the coming of the new age is a two-stage affair: the Messiah first, then finally the resurrection of all those who belong to the Messiah. We should note most carefully … that the Messiah is not envisaged as being in the present time a soul, a spirit or an angel. He is not in an intermediate state, awaiting a time when he will be finally raised from the dead. He is already risen; he is already, as a human being, exalted into the presence of God; he is already ruling the world, not simply in some divine capacity but precisely as a human being, fulfilling the destiny marked out for the human race from the sixth day of creation.
Wright goes on to assert:
On this basis, Paul can move in verses 29-34 to assert most emphatically the future embodiedness both of the Christian dead and of the Christian living, or to put it somewhat more precisely, the future embodiment of the Christian dead and the future transformed embodiment of the Christian living.
The language of the kerygma
The tradition states four facts about what happened to Jesus. He died, he was buried, he was raised, and he appeared (alive and in glory) to particular individuals and groups. The language of 'rising' or being 'raised' is taken from the daily experience of awakening or rising from sleep. Paul intends it to indicate the transition from one way of existing to a new way.
The significance of ophthe ('he appeared')
In the kerygma the Greek verb for 'he appeared' (ophthe) is difficult to understand and accurately translate. The best English equivalent is that 'he was seen' or better, that 'he was made manifest'. It suggests 'the presence of some external phenomenon coming in on the recipient from the outside'. It implies that Jesus let himself be seen rather than was seen by someone. But the expression 'he appeared' also suggests an experience which is a revelation to those to whom the risen One appears. Paul, for example, says of the appearance he experienced: '…God was pleased to reveal his Son to me …' (Gal 1:16) The experience would include the subjective dispositions of those receiving the revelation whereby they now experience and understand Jesus in a new way. So what they experience is 'probably best understood in terms of a visual experience giving rise to new insight' the insight of personal faith.
'a person-to-person transforming experience' [Dermot Lane]
This language of the kerygma gives no support to the claim that has sometimes been made that the resurrection was a purely subjective event, just an interior feeling of the disciples. Rather, the living risen Jesus disclosed himself in a new way, a way that Dermot Lane calls a 'person-to-person transforming experience'. 'As such,' he says, 'it was an experience of a new, living, real and personal experience that allowed them to affirm that God had raised Jesus from the dead.'
Brian Gleeson CP — This commentary was first published with the title of 'The Resurrection of Jesus and the Jesus Movement' in the Australasian Catholic Record (January 2009). Submitted to Catholica on 05 Nov 2011.
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©2003-11Dr Brian Gleeson CP