Fr Brian Gleeson CP today presents part 3 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 we really enter into the meat of his analysis with a commentary within a commentary on the meaning of the Easter stories.
Series Navigation: Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V
THE SECONDARY EVIDENCE OF THE EASTER STORIES
In the tradition, the Easter stories developed later than the kerygma, some 33 to 65 years later. The appearances which they relate in dramatic detail reflect two traditions. One tells of appearances in Galilee, the other of appearances in or near Jerusalem. Neither tradition seems to be at all aware of the other. It is impossible to harmonize them. Their one common factor is that they report that Jesus appeared to particular disciples after his death. According to New Testament scholar, Joseph Fitzmyer, 'one has to reckon with six different resurrection narratives in the New Testament', each of which he goes on to outline.
A COMMENTARY ON THE EASTER STORIES
The endings of the four gospels are all about the resurrection. All four have stories of women finding a tomb empty on Sunday morning. All have stories too of appearances of the risen Jesus, i.e. they give concrete and sometimes even elaborate details of meetings with the risen One. These range from Matthew's story of Jesus greeting the women who have just found the tomb empty, and the reverence they render him, to Luke's story of what happened both on the road to Emmaus and in the village itself, to John's stories of doubting Thomas [Jn 20] and breakfast with Jesus on the beach [Jn 21]. At first sight, then, the evangelists seem to be setting out to provide as much circumstantial evidence as any unconvinced reader might require in order to come to faith in the personal resurrection of Jesus Christ, his personal transformation into his new risen bodily state.
Who is Jesus? by Thomas Rausch
However, there are many irreconcilable differences in the details of the stories, the main one being whether they took place in Galilee or in Jerusalem or nearby. These differences suggest that the concern of the evangelists went well and truly beyond providing some kind of physical proof of the presence of a living body, that of the late Jesus of Nazareth. The differences suggest that the concern of the narratives was also to draw attention to the transformation of his disciples in faith, through their personal encounter with the transformed Jesus.
James Mackey argues that the stories should be understood as the imaginative, narrative form of the conviction which the gospel writers shared with Paul that the Jesus they now experienced as power in their lives was the same Jesus who preached and died on the cross, and that he, therefore, still lived and reigned. Thomas Rausch views them along similar lines when he says: 'Where the kerygma texts give short statements of belief, the stories are dramatic, imaginative accounts, narratives complete with dialogue and vivid detail about persons, place, and circumstance.' He concludes that they are not historical accounts of the disciples' encounter with Jesus after his death, but stories that are testimonies to their Easter faith. They have been written down to make that faith available to others [cf. John 20:31]. But their Easter experiences did not take away the freedom of their faith, did not force them to believe. All the Easter stories stress their initial non-recognition of Jesus, their confusion, doubt and fear. Belief did not come easily, but when it came it was an experience of forgiveness, acceptance, peace, empowerment, and love, a real transformative experience.
The details of touching, eating, and speaking
Dermot Lane says of the details of 'touching', 'eating', and 'speaking' in the gospel stories:
These descriptions tend to physicalise the apostles' experience with the risen Jesus in a way that reflects more the artistry of effective narration than the literal description of what really happened. ...For one thing it is to drive home the underlying identity and continuity between the historical Jesus and the risen Jesus. It is also to highlight the realness of the corporeal resurrection of Jesus as distinct from a purely spiritual resurrection which would have been the way of the Greek mind, with its philosophy of the immortality of the soul …
The interest and message of the evangelists
So the interest and message of the evangelists is more than providing evidence for Jesus' new risen state. Thus the story of the appearance of the risen Jesus on a mountain in Galilee [Mt 28:16-20] is about the great commission to his close followers to make disciples of all nations. In regard to the Emmaus story [Lk 24:13-32], the punch-lines are surely these:
- 'They said to each other, "Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?"' [Lk 24:32];
- 'Then they told what had happened on the road and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread'. [Lk 24:35]
In these details Luke seems to be suggesting to his readers that the risen Lord is still to be encountered in the company of our fellow-disciples, in the reading and explanation of the scriptures, and in the celebration of the Eucharist. Luke goes on to tell of the appearance of the risen Jesus to the whole assembly of his disciples somewhere in Jerusalem [Lk 24:36-43]. He makes the point that the disciples see Jesus and eat with him. His bodily presence is therefore real, they are not hallucinating or 'seeing a ghost' [v.37]. Yet what appears to be Luke's chief interest comes out in the instruction of the risen One to his disciples to witness to the meaning of the resurrection as a changed life-style ('repentance and forgiveness of sins' – Lk 24:47), and the gift of the Spirit to empower them to witness. Thus Jesus says in Lk 24:49: 'And see I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.'
John tells a story of an appearance of Jesus to his assembled disciples in a room in Jerusalem, during which he gives them the Holy Spirit, so that they can forgive sin [Jn 20:19-23]. He continues with the story of Doubting Thomas [20:24-29]. This is the strongest statement of all that the risen body of Jesus is real. And yet that is not the main point to this story. The main point comes out in the punch-line: 'Jesus said to [Thomas]: 'Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe' [Jn 20:29] The message of John to his readers is that they will encounter the risen Jesus today not by seeing or touching his physical body, but through the gift of the Holy Spirit and faith.
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.
Series Navigation: Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V
 Fitzmyer, A Christological Catechism: New Testament Answers (Ramsey NJ: Paulist Press, 1982), 74ff.
 James Mackey, The Man and the Myth: A Contemporary Christology (London: SCM Press, 1979), 112.
 Rausch, Who is Jesus? 117.
 Rausch, ibid., 118.
 Rausch, ibid., 120-121.
 Rausch, ibid., 122.
 Lane, The Reality of Jesus, 53. Cf. Fitzmyer, A Christological Catechism: 'The kerygma of early Christianity, which proclaimed the death, burial, raising, and appearances of Christ, originated in a Palestinian Jewish-Christian setting, wherein the notion of the afterlife was not that of the Greek philosophical dichotomy of body/soul or the immortality of the soul. It arose in a milieu in which resurrection (see Dan 12:2) would only have been understood as a bodily resurrection'(78).
The Coptic Resurrection icon used as support to this article has been sourced from Pishoy D's picass web gallery of Contemporary Coptic Icons:
Dr Brian Gleeson, a Passionist priest, lectures in systematic theology at the Yarra Theological Union in Melbourne. He recently stepped down as the Head of the Department of Church History and Systematic Theology at YTU. He joined the faculty at the beginning of 2001. His previous appointments were at Catholic Theological College Adelaide (2 years); St Paul's National Seminary Sydney (13 years); Catholic Theological Union Sydney (8 years); Pius XII Regional Seminary, Brisbane (1 year); and Good Samaritan Teachers' College, Sydney (4 years). His postgraduate studies were with the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium; the Gregorian University, Rome; and the Melbourne College of Divinity. Fr Gleeson is also an active member of ACTA (Australian Catholic Theologians' Association).
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