Chapter 7 – Resurrection

© Jay Parini. Reproduced by permission of the author.

Toward the end of this chapter, Jay Parini writes,

… the triumph of Jesus over death shifted the focus from the kingdom of God – often a theme that Jesus put forward in his teaching – to a renewal of life in the moment of “belief.” This does not mean – as some Christians will continue to argue – that Jesus wanted people to give intellectual assent to a set of dogmas, thus making it possible for them to be “saved.”

In its Greek and Latin roots, the word “believe” simply means “giving one’s deepest self to” something. The Latin is credo: I believe. [Credo] derives from cor-do: “I give my heart.” The English word “believe” connects, via root meanings, to the Middle English bileven: “to hold dear.”

And so to believe in Jesus means to hold him dearly, to value his presence and example. As Reinhold Niebuhr, the influential American theologian, once said, belief does not mean that we should claim to know anything about “the furniture of heaven or the temperature of hell, or to be too certain about any details of the kingdom of God in which history is consummated.” That would be to reduce the unknowable to something thin and paltry, far too literal to contain the larger truth of eternal life – the good news in its fullest sense.

What do you think of Parini’s interpretation?

All faith is resurrection faith.   – Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Prayer

To rise from history to mystery is to experience the resurrection of the body here now, as an eternal reality; to experience the parousia, the presence in the present, which is the spirit; to experience the reincarnation of the incarnation, the second coming; which is his coming in us.
– Norman O. Brown, Love’s Body

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming!
– W. B. Yeats, “The Second Coming”

The Burial Scene

The burial of Jesus took place in haste, in keeping with Jewish law, as commanded in Deuteronomy 21:22-23: “And if a man have committed a sin worthy of death, and he be to be put to death, and thou hang him on a tree: His body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but thou shalt in any wise bury him that day.”  One can only imagine the eagerness of those who loved Jesus to remove his body from the cross, a position of extreme exposure and embarrassment, and to lay it gently in a crypt, safe from mocking Roman eyes. At last, the torture was over.

Having acquired permission to take charge of the body, Joseph of Arimathea wrapped it carefully in fine linens and, with the help of Nicodemus, put it in a crypt hewn from rock not far from the site of the execution on the outskirts of Jerusalem.   Nicodemus had brought a mixture of embalming spices: aloes and myrrh. One recalls the lines from “We Three Kings,” a mid-nineteenth-century Christmas carol:

Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in the stone cold tomb.

A large stone sealed the entrance to the cave: not uncommon in the burial caves of wealthy people in the time of Jesus, as archaeologists have confirmed. The care taken by these men with the body of their beloved teacher underscored the importance of honoring the dead in appropriate ways. In Genesis, for example, Abraham had been instructed by God to bury the dead only in the choicest of tombs, and so he bought a cave “in the field of Machpelah” in Canaan for the body of his wife, Sarah (Genesis 23:4-19). The law required that even the enemies of Israel, when slain in battle, deserved an appropriate and respectful burial (I Kings 11:15). Moses actually warned his companions that if they didn’t follow the laws of God in this regard, they risked being slain and not buried, their corpses left for the birds and wild beasts to pick apart (Deuteronomy 28:25-26). It should not have surprised anyone in the first century that a man whom many considered an important teacher, if not the messianic Son of God, deserved a proper burial.

It was unusual for the bodies of executed men to be buried with respect, however. Soldiers often just tossed the remains into shallow graves or burial ditches, where wild dogs fed on whatever was left. This might have happened to Jesus, as John Dominic Crossan has argued – not, in my view, persuasively. (1)   The public would surely have been outraged by such crassness, as Jesus had attracted a sincere (if rather small) following, especially among Galilean pilgrims; with so many visitors in Jerusalem for the Temple celebrations, Pilate would not have wished to unsettle this group, however small by comparison with the others. (2)  A discreet burial for Jesus was politically astute as well as in keeping with Jewish customs, and the archaeological as well as written evidence suggests that such burials did occasionally take place after an execution. (3)

Jesus lay in the cave through Friday night, Saturday, and early Sunday: a period of three days, ending with Easter and the Resurrection, known as the Triduum or “three days.” Commentators on the life of Jesus often pass over the hours of his entombment, which embrace a painful mental state described in “Waiting” by the Welsh poet R. S. Thomas as “the mind’s tree of thorns.” But Holy Saturday forms a corridor between the death and resurrection of Jesus, in his remarkable (and theologically complex) passage from Jesus to Christ. Alan E. Lewis, a theologian who wrote a book about Holy Saturday during the final year of his own struggle with terminal cancer, said: “If confidence in the resurrection tends to modify the deadliness of Calvary, likewise it is only those who have first looked into the mouth of hell and seen the world abandoned to its godless fate who then can truly see the meaning of the Easter day reversal.” (4)  In other words, the mythos needs to be heard in two ways – “as a story whose ending is known, and as one whose ending is discovered only as it happens … the truth emerges only when both readings are audible, the separate sound in each ear creating, as it were, a stereophonic unity.”

Most of us will for a time occupy this anxious, transitional space between two worlds, as described by Lord Byron in Don Juan (Canto Fifteen): “Between two worlds life hovers like a star, / ‘Twixt night and morn, upon the horizon’s verge.” Holy Saturday unfolds in this dark space, in the tomb where Jesus lay in a kind of unrealized state, perhaps plunging into psychic or spiritual depths in what has often been called the Harrowing of Hell – a legend without much scriptural basis suggesting that Jesus made a kind of wild descent, with mythic overtones, into the underworld. In fact, mythologies often describe a turn when the hero descends to a deep pit or a place of psychological, spiritual, or physical confinement, as when Jonah spent three days in the belly of the whale or Gilgamesh descended into the underworld in a quest for immortality. Nearly all heroic or mythic tales include a part of the heroic cycle where the hero visits some version of Hell or Hades in his or her quest for immortality (Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess, is a female example). In any case, the Sacred Sabbath, as it’s often called with reference to Easter weekend, represents a place where Jesus dives into the darkness before the Resurrection. It lies between two loud claps of thunder, an emptiness wherein we sense a horrifying loss of life, on the one hand, yet remain expectant: in a state of gradually realizing awareness of the life to come. This difficult space is one of the symbolic gifts of the Triduum in its second day: a timeless time that suggests that “God himself has plumbed these depths and has brought creation out of the darkness and into resurrection life,” as Richard McLaughlan has written. (5)  

Easter Morning and Beyond

Easter morning arrived with a holy hush, the day after the Sabbath, with little fanfare. The gospels pass over the Resurrection, and we never actually see Jesus waken, rub his eyes, stand and stretch. We don’t even see the rock that sealed the tomb actually rolled away. The joyous resurrection of Jesus happens off-stage, as it were. The first inkling of change occurred when some of the women close to Jesus came to visit his tomb. The gospel narratives vary on who turned up in the garden first:  Mary Magdalene alone or with Mary, the mother of Jesus, and with Salome (Mary’s sister or the mother of James and John). In John, the story plays out in suspenseful detail as Mary Magdalene visited the tomb by herself to mourn. To her amazement, she found the stone removed. In panic, she ran to tell Peter and another (unnamed) disciple, who hurried back to the tomb and discovered it empty, much to their distress and confusion. They assumed that someone had stolen the body. Meanwhile, Mary Magdalene sat outside the tomb by herself, crying softly. She could hardly believe the things that had happened in the past few days, and the missing body of Jesus was really too much to bear.

After a while, she returned to the dark, heavily scented crypt, where she “saw two angels in white.” They spoke to her, and then a mysterious male figure appeared at her side. The man said to her in a gentle voice: “Why are you crying?”

She didn’t recognize this person and apparently thought he was a gardener.

Jesus responded with a single word: “Mary.”

At once she realized who stood beside her: “Rabboni!”  Her response was in Aramaic, meaning “teacher.” The intrusion of an Aramaic exclamation in a Greek text serves to underscore and convey a sense of authenticity. That Jesus would first appear to Mary Magdalene was, of course, a disconcerting matter for some, such as Peter, who must have wondered why he didn’t get to meet the risen Christ before her. In three of the Gnostic Gospels – Gospel of Philip, Gospel of Mary, and Dialogue of the Savior- one sees a rivalry developed between Peter and Mary.  Elaine Pagels, in her study of the gospels discovered at Nag Hamrnadi, notes that these writings outside the canon often “use the figure of Mary Magdalene to suggest that women’s activity challenged the leaders of the orthodox community.”(6)  The raw facts remain: Jesus first appeared to Mary Magdalene. Furthermore, she didn’t recognize him.

Nobody recognized Jesus at first – a point of huge significance, as it underscores the difficult and mysterious nature of the Resurrection, which defies all norms and defeats rationalization. The embodied spirit of the Messiah returning from the dead was not exactly the same person who died but some altered version of Jesus, transmogrified more than restored to his former state. In reality, the manifestation of Jesus after his death beggars the imagination: he acquired a spiritual body, as we read in 1 Corinthians 15:44: “It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body.” There is a subtle teaching here: We should not expect to recognize Jesus at first, even as he wakens within us. (One thinks here of the Buddha, who also awakened to new life in his moment of Enlightenment at the Bodhi Tree, which entails an awareness of Nirvana, a condition of bliss that comes from the blowing out of the three flames of greed, hatred, and delusion.) Recognition takes time, becoming in fact a process of uncovering, what I often refer to in this book as the gradually realizing kingdom: an awareness that grows deeper and more complex, more thrilling, as it evolves.

Jesus walked free of the tomb, appearing to various disciples and followers over the next forty days. One vivid appearance is described in Luke 24:13-32, where the narrator elaborates a story only mentioned briefly in Mark 16:12-13. Two followers of Jesus walked along a sandy road from Jerusalem toward Emmaus. They discussed between themselves the astonishing rumor that Jesus, their beloved teacher, had awakened from the dead. (Obviously word of this occurrence had spread quickly, though nobody quite knew what to believe.) As they talked, a third man appeared beside them, emerging from the shadows. “What are you talking about?” he asked. They looked at him incredulously: “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who doesn’t know what’s happened?”

They told the mysterious stranger about this “prophet, powerful in word and deed,” a man called Jesus of Nazareth, someone who enjoyed a special relationship with God. They retold the story of the women who visited his tomb but did not find him there.

Jesus listened patiently, then scolded them: “You are so foolish, and slow to believe everything the prophets have spoken!”

But even this rebuke didn’t alert them to the identity of their companion, whom they nevertheless invited to share their dinner. He agreed to join them that evening. Taking the bread in his hands, he gave thanks for it, “and then their eyes were opened, and they saw who was before them.” Somewhat bizarrely, as soon as they recognized their teacher, he disappeared – poof.  It’s a strange but compelling story, suggesting that it’s difficult to possess the vision, to retain it. The risen Jesus requires sustained focus, strong belief, and devotion.

Even his closest disciples failed to recognize him, as in the first fourteen verses of John 21, where we hear that he appeared to Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, and two other disciples, one of them the mysterious Beloved Disciple. In the days following the Crucifixion, this cluster of core disciples had returned to Galilee. One assumes they were forlorn, confused, and deeply anxious about their future. Without Jesus to lead them, how would they operate in the world? How would they feed themselves? In situations like this, people often return to familiar habits, and these men were fishermen, so they fished. But the fishing didn’t go well.

It was early morning on the Sea of Galilee, and the disciples despaired of catching anything. Suddenly Jesus stood on the shore, although none of them recognized him.

He called in a loud voice: “Friends, not having any luck?”

They explained glumly that no fish seemed to be biting. It seemed quite hopeless.

Jesus offered them a tip: “Throw your net over the right side of the boat, and your luck will change.”

They probably wondered: Who is this arrogant man? Haven’t we already tried everything we know? Yet he must have spoken with authority, as they took his advice, and their nets filled up at once. They couldn’t even drag them into the boat, they so bristled with the catch. It was, of course, a miracle.

Peter suddenly realized – alone among them – who stood on shore. “It’s the Lord!” he said with a gasp.

They came ashore warily, however. Who was going to trust Peter? The stranger stood by himself, cooking breakfast over coals. He looked up, offering them bread and fish. His radiance was undeniable. Now they “knew it was the Lord,” and yet they scarcely believed their eyes. Was this some kind of trick? Did a ghost hover before them? Had they fallen into a dream-state of some kind?

A larger truth informs these stories. Jesus did not, like Lazarus, simply get up and walk out from the burial crypt and resume life in ordinary time. The Resurrection was not the Resuscitation. As noted above, his closest friends didn’t recognize him, not even Mary Magdalene. He was otherworldly now, fully transfigured. What this part of the mythos invites is meditation as well as a blunt refusal to accept easy answers, a willingness to submit to the incomprehensible, to what the great German theologian Rudolf Otto called the idea of the holy. Here we discover a sense of the numinous – the so-called mysterium tremendum – a “tremendous mystery” difficult to embody in speech or thought, an “all-pervading, penetrating glow” that in its otherness resists the intellect and cannot be discerned easily. (7)

As one moves through the four gospels and the letters of Paul, the accounts of post-Resurrection appearances by Jesus vary markedly in their nature and sequence.  There is a summary of these appearances in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (15:5-8): “He appeared to Cephas [Peter], and then to the Twelve. Then he appeared to over five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom remain alive now, though some have fallen asleep. Then he showed himself to James, then to all the apostles. Finally, he appeared to me.”

Written twenty years or so after the events described, this letter suggests two things: a lot of stories circulated about Jesus and the Resurrection, not all of them consistent. These storytellers had their own agendas, and their narratives shifted according to the perceived audience. The author of Mark nearly avoids any mention of post-Resurrection appearances, except for one brief passage (16:9-20), which is not included in the earliest manuscripts of his gospel. In Matthew, there is almost nothing about his reappearance except for a few verses in the twenty-eighth chapter, where Jesus meets the remaining eleven disciples and gives them the Great Commission: “Go and create disciples everywhere, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, teaching them as I have commanded you. And know that I am always with you, even to the end of time.” Luke includes not only the story of the Road to Emmaus but glimpses of the post-Easter Jesus by Peter, plus a further visit with the eleven remaining disciples in Jerusalem. In Acts, which is an extension of Luke, Jesus makes numerous appearances to his disciples during the forty days before he ascends to heaven. In John, he meets Mary Magdalene in the tomb itself, visits with the disciples in Jerusalem, and – as the story related above – meets others by the shores of Galilee, with the miraculous catch of fish: no doubt a symbolic as well as literal catch, perhaps meant to remind these fishermen of their role as “fishers of men” or missionaries who will “catch” men and women with the good news of the gospel. The work of reading here, as suggested earlier, is one of remythologizing the story, finding its symbolic contours while not discounting the genuine heft of the literal tale. (8)

The characteristics of the resurrected body of Jesus shift, depending on the text at hand. In one case, Jesus asks Thomas, the doubter, to touch his wound, just to prove to him that he’s really there and not some phantasm. This proves that he has a physical presence, and it satisfies Thomas. In John, Jesus passes through locked doors like a ghost – an unsettling image that suggests an incorporeal aspect, stressing his spiritual nature. In Luke 24:41-43, he astonishes his disciples by eating “a piece of broiled fish” as well as swallowing honey. It’s as if, by looking at him, they didn’t expect as much. He has to prove his real presence. For the most part, the appearances of Jesus retain a dreamlike quality, as in Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, where he hears a voice from the Lord, which says: “I am Jesus, the one whom you persecute” (Acts 9:5). When Paul opens his eyes, however, he sees nothing. The spirit has vanished.

Huge questions confront anyone thinking about Jesus. Did he really rise from the dead? Was there an actual Resurrection?  If so, what would that look like? A large number of Christians throughout history have imagined a resuscitation, refusing to countenance the slightest hint that the Resurrection should be regarded as something beyond human understanding. I myself  would argue this: life and death are mysterious, at best, and the membrane between the living and the dead is a porous one, perilously thin. Jesus rose from the dead, the scriptures say. I see no reason to doubt this. And yet a literalistic belief in the Resurrection cannot be, as many fundamentalist churches insist, the only important part of the “good news” of Christianity. The message of God’s love in operation in the world trumps everything and must be regarded as the necessary extension of the idea of rebirth, the social basis for true spiritual enlightenment. Nowhere more so than here does it matter that we find a proper balance between the literal and the figurative, giving full weight to the concrete meaning while relishing the mythic contours of the story.

Jesus put before human beings an example, a way to reconcile with God, the source of creation, the ground of all being.  Overall, the Resurrection represents, for me, a joy that is probably diminished by a reading of this event that fails to embrace the mystical aspect, the idea that the transfigured body of Jesus defies human comprehension. Perhaps Doubting Thomas needed a physical manifestation, and some people still do. But the gospel writers repeatedly suggest that the risen Jesus confounded everyone, and that different people regarded this part of the story in different ways – even at the time, among his closest associates. Jesus himself seemed to revel in the mystery, as on the road to Emmaus. He didn’t expect, even wish for, instant recognition.

Literalism is reductionist and limits access to God in the fullest sense. I’d go further here to argue that it’s downright dangerous to dwell exclusively on the literal aspects of the story. Norman O. Brown wrote in Love’s Body that the Resurrection should be regarded as an awakening, a coming back to life: “The resurrection is to recur, to be fulfilled in us: it is to happen to his mystical body, which is our bodies; in this flesh.” This seems, to me, more useful as a way of thinking about the Resurrection than the kind of dour Christianity that argues one is not “saved” unless one “believes” in resuscitation in the most physical way.

The fundamentalist view of the cross, with its emphasis on the sacrificial or “substitutionary” aspect of the Crucifixion, evolved in the Middle Ages and solidified with Martin Luther’s insistence on the single, simple, and stable meaning of scripture; the text of the Bible itself became a mighty fortress that resists symbolic interpretations. (I would note that early in his career Luther was much more amenable to symbolic readings of scriptural passages.) To many, the idea of Christ as sacrificial lamb becomes the whole of the Christian message, to the disparagement of every other reading, leading to an exclusionary view of  salvation. (9)  Yet the apostle Paul himself warned early Christians in his second letter to Corinth that to become an able minister of the new covenant one should not read the scriptures in ways that undercut their fullest meanings, “for the letter kills, but the spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6).

Paul followed his own advice, taking an obviously multilayered view, as when he suggested that those who follow the way of Christ shall “all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22). He wasn’t talking about “the dead” here, who required bodily resuscitation. He meant that a spiritual awakening must occur, and this would confer new life on those who understood what they had experienced.  It’s a feeling not unlike what Thomas Merton, the poet and Trappist monk, experienced in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) in the late sixties, when he encountered the great Buddha statues in Polunnaruwa: “Looking at these figures I was suddenly, almost forcibly, jerked clean out of the habitual, half-tied vision of things, and an inner clearness, clarity, as if exploding from the rocks themselves, became evident and obvious.”(10)   This very much echoes the kind of awakening described by Paul.

 The Ascension

So forty days after the Resurrection, having made his presence felt, Jesus led his disciples to a hill outside of Jerusalem, at Bethany, where he lifted his hands and blessed them: “And it came to pass that, while he blessed them, he parted from them. He was lifted into heaven” (Luke 24:51). The event occurs only in Mark and Luke, but it’s a stunning image, a necessary conclusion to the life of Jesus. Needless to say, the disciples felt utterly at a loss, even bereft. Once again, they had lost their teacher.   At this point, an angel spoke to the mystified disciples, saying, “Men of Galilee, why are you gazing up into heaven like this?  This same Jesus, who was taken from you into heaven, will in the same way return” (Acts 1:11). They felt a pervasive joy when they heard these angelic words and returned to the Temple in Jerusalem, where they praised God for this vision of Christ rising to heaven. (11)

The message from the angel refers to the Second Coming, as it’s called, which signals the return of the Messiah, embodied in the Greek word parousia (which occurs two dozen times in the New Testament, seventeen times referring to an appearance of Jesus). In translation, the word means “arrival” or “real presence.” But it also means “manifestation,” and can be understood in a variety of ways. Some Christians believe Christ will actually reappear and lift up the dead with him, snatching those still alive from their workaday routines in a dramatic moment called the Rapture. This idea emanates from the Book of Revelation, which has its origins in dream-visions as seen in the Book of Daniel. Daniel, in fact, might easily be considered the first book of the New Testament, with its many influential ideas about the Son of Man. (12)

In truth, the notion of an afterlife that involves bodily resurrection had little currency in the Hebrew Bible. In the Torah, life after death seemed unknown or uninteresting, scarcely worthy of mention. The dead went to Sheol, a shadowy place like Hades in Greek mythology, a kind of garbage dump for souls. Jews, then as now, wished to keep their focus on the present life, leaving what comes after to fate. During the period of the Babylonian exile, however, notions of deliverance for the whole of Israel morphed into a belief in individual resurrection, so that by the second century BCE, when Daniel was written – one of the last books of the Hebrew scriptures – it was thought that the dead might rise in the sky and shine among the righteous “as the stars for ever and ever” (Daniel 12:3).

By the time of Jesus, the Temple elite, the Sadducees, remained firm in their understanding of the afterlife as nothing much; it largely escaped their consciousness, or they preferred not to discuss it. As we read in Acts 23:8: “The Sadducees say there is no resurrection, neither angel nor spirit.” It’s a view confirmed among Jewish historians, such as Josephus, who wrote, “The doctrine of the Sadducees destroys the souls along with the bodies.”(13)  The Pharisees, by contrast, developed the concept of bodily resurrection, and this influenced the early Christians, who developed a thoroughgoing notion of survival in some form, with the idea of a “spiritual” or “glorified” body elaborated through the centuries by theologians, especially those influenced by Paul. As for Jesus himself, he explained to his followers somewhat vaguely that when the dead woke up “they would be like the angels in heaven” (Mark 12:25). His teaching focused on the present life, as he argued repeatedly that his true followers must behave in ways that set them apart from everyone else: “By their fruit you will recognize them” (Matthew 7:16). This is amplified and complicated beautifully in James 2:20: “Faith without works is dead.” In the Beatitudes, he emphasized that the kingdom of heaven opened immediately to those who practiced the virtues he put forward, such as meekness, humility, mercy, peacefulness, and so forth.

Pentecostal Fire

The disciples gathered in Jerusalem ten days after Jesus ascended to heaven, for the Festival of Weeks (Hebrew: Shavuot), which was traditionally held fifty days after Passover. Among Greek-speaking Jews, this celebration was called Pentecost, meaning “fifty days,” as this marked the passage of time between the liberation of Israel from Egypt and the giving of the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai. The Christian feast of Pentecost recapitulates the Judaic tradition here, although it takes on a specific aura of its own.

The disciples crowded in a room in Jerusalem with Mary, the mother of Jesus, and many other followers. In Acts 2:1-6 one reads what happened, and it’s a nugget of narrative enchantment:

When the day of Pentecost had arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly came a sound from heaven like that of a rushing wind, and it filled the house where they sat. And there appeared to them forked tongues like fire, and it hovered upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit allowed. Now Jews and other devout men lived in Jerusalem, out of every nation under heaven, And when this was relayed abroad, the group met together, astounded because every man heard them speak in his own language.

This is the miracle of the tongues, when God sent the Holy Spirit – the third person of the Trinity – for comfort and assistance. A crown of Pentecostal fire hovered above their heads, a flame of hope.

The arrival of the Spirit must have terrified everyone in the room. In “Little Gidding,” T. S. Eliot imagines this moment when a “dove descending breaks the air / With flame of incandescent terror.” Now, with the spirit of God present in the world, the disciples had a kind of invisible wind at their backs. Needless to say, there is something peculiar about the notion of a ghost who floats into the room as “tongues of fire” and makes its presence felt, allowing a kind of transcendental understanding that cancels out the distinctions of separate languages – the curse of Babel. As ever, one looks for precedents and parallels, which yield a rich literature of speculation about what the idea of the Holy Spirit means.

Raymond E. Brown notes, for example, that the Jewish writer Philo described angels as taking what God had said to Moses out to the people on the plain below, with the sound of a mighty wind: a mirroring Pentecostal moment in Judaic history. (14)  One thinks back to a lovely passage in Numbers, where God assists Moses by giving him and a group of seventy “men of the elders of the people” the assistance of the spirit: “And the Lord came down in a cloud, and spake unto him, and took of the spirit that was upon him, and gave it unto the seventy elders: and it came to pass that, when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied, and did not cease” (Numbers 11:25). Just as the presence of the Holy Spirit marked a covenant between God and Israel, so the Christian Pentecost signaled a new covenant between God and humanity.

At the feast in the upper room at Pentecost, Peter was moved to deliver a major sermon (Acts 2:14-36), wherein he laid out the essentials of Christian belief: seeing the Pentecost as the fulfillment of signs often given in the Hebrew scriptures, as in Joel 2:28: “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions.” It’s remarkable how the gospel writers, and Paul as well, managed to locate passages in earlier scriptures that reinforced whatever happened in the present. Everything they said or did, much as nearly everything that Jesus said or did in his life, fulfilled a prophecy. Now the Holy Spirit would pour out from heaven, and the men and women in the Jesus movement would dream wild dreams, would entertain lively visions.

The Resurrection engendered a sharp turn for the followers of Jesus. There had, indeed, been other prophets and teachers in earlier years: John the Baptist, for example. But the triumph of Jesus over death shifted the focus from the kingdom of God – often a theme that Jesus put forward in his teaching – to a renewal of life in the moment of “belief.” This does not mean – as some Christians will continue to argue – that Jesus wanted people to give intellectual assent to a set of dogmas, thus making it possible for them to be “saved.” In its Greek and Latin roots, the word “believe” simply means “giving one’s deepest self to” something. The Latin is credo: I believe. This derives from cor do: “I give my heart.” The English word “believe” connects, via root meanings, to the Middle English bileven: “to hold dear.” And so to believe in Jesus means to hold him dearly, to value his presence and example. As Reinhold Niebuhr, the influential American theologian, once said, belief does not mean that we should claim to know anything about “the furniture of heaven or the temperature of hell, or to be too certain about any details of the kingdom of God in which history is consummated.”(15) That would be to reduce the unknowable to something thin and paltry, far too literal to contain the larger truth of eternal life – the good news in its fullest sense.

The early followers of Jesus and, soon, a growing number of apostles and faithful servants, dedicated their lives to bringing the good news to the world, and they succeeded beyond their fondest imaginings in the work of fulfilling the Great Commission. The early church began to organize in different parts of the Roman Empire, with some Christians focused on James, the brother of Jesus, in Jerusalem, while others went as far abroad as Rome and beyond. In the middle of the first century CE, Paul would encounter a vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus, and his brilliant letters to disparate churches in Rome, Corinth, Ephesus, Colossae, Philippi, Galatia, Thessalonica, and elsewhere formed the bedrock of Christian theological reflection, while theologians from Origen, Augustine, and Aquinas to the present time would elaborate and refine, dispute and codify, the ideas that Jesus put forward in the course of his tumultuous public ministry and through his Crucifixion and Resurrection.

Yet in its various forms, the essential message of Jesus, who became Christ – the Messiah – remains that of Mark 8:34, where he said with astounding simplicity: “If people wish to be my disciple, let them deny themselves and take up the cross and follow me.” The nature of this cross may vary – in its weight and texture, its concrete horrors and degrees of agony – but its burden is beyond dispute. But so is the joy of reconciliation with God, with the exhilaration and comfort of Easter morning, which doesn’t fade but continues to fill disciples of Jesus with zeal to repair a broken world, finding in his countenance the human glimmer of God’s love. As the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote so memorably, “I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am.” (16)



Greek words for life

In the English language, three different Greek words (bios, psuche, and zoe) are all translated with the same word: life – but in Greek each word has a different meaning. Here are some examples:

Bios,  Luke 8:14: “they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasure of life…” Bios refers to the life of the physical body – and is the root of English biology.

Psuche,  Matthew 16:25: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”  Psuche refers to the life of the human soul – the mind,  emotion, and will – and is the root of English psychology.

Zoe,  John 1:4: “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” Zoe refers to the uncreated and eternal life of God, the divine life uniquely possessed by God.

Let’s revisit the Gospel of John, replacing English life with the original Greek zoe:

What has come into being in him was Zoe, and the Zoe was the light of all people… John 1:4

Jesus said, “I have come that they may have Zoe, and may have it abundantly.”   John 10:10

Understanding the Greek distinction between bios, psuche, and  zoe  makes it clear: John (and Jesus) are speaking of the eternal Zoe life of God.

   עֵץ הַחַיִּים עֵץ הַחַיִּים‎  The Tree of Life

In Genesis (2:9) the Tree of Life stands for the divine, uncreated, eternal, incorruptible, and indestructible ( chai ) of God:  “Out of the ground יהוה   made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, and the  עֵץ הַחַיִּים עֵץ הַחַיִּים‎ ( Etz haChayim ) is in the midst of the garden….”  

In Revelation (22:14) the Tree of Life appears again:  “Blessed are those who wash their robes and do his commandments, so that they will have the right to the tree of Zoe…”

Jesus said “I came that they might have Zoe…. and have it abundantly.”

Notes to Chapter 7- Resurrection

1.  See John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995). Crossan argues that most people – political rebels, many of them- were not buried after having been crucified by Romans in the first century. They were left to hang to terrify the population, who might harbor among them other revolutionaries. But this does not constitute an argument that Jesus was not properly buried. The burial is mentioned in every gospel as well as in I Corinthians 15:3-4. And Pilate might well, as suggested above, have had political reasons for allowing the body to be buried. There was the added influence of two members of the Sanhedrin.

2. For a full discussion of this hypothesis, see Dale C. Allen, Resurrecting Jesus: The Earliest Christian Tradition and its Interpreters (New York: T & T Clade, 2005), 352-62.

3. In 1968, archaeologists discovered the remains of one Yehohanan, who had been buried after a crucifixion. A four-and-a-half inch nail was still lodged in one ankle. One hears about burying convicts during religious festivals in both Philo and Josephus. See Helen K. Bond, The Historical Jesus: A Guide for the Perplexed (London and New York: T & T Clark, 2012), 164.

4.  Alan E. Lewis, Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), 42. For a full discussion of Lewis in relation to the poetry of R. S. Thomas, see Richard McClaughlan, “R. S. Thomas: Poet of Holy Saturday” in The Heythrop Journal, v. 52, Issue 6 (November 2011), 976.

5. McClaughlan, 985.

6. Pagels, 64.

7. Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, 2nd ed., trans. John W. Harvey (New York: Oxford University Press, 1950), 34. See also Melissa Raphael, Rudolf Otto and the Concept of Holiness (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997).

8. I’m not so much contradicting Bultmann’s idea of demythologization as putting the emphasis more firmly on the balance between literal and figurative readings, while stressing the fictive aspect: the shaping spirit of the gospel narratives.

9. See, for example, Jason B. Hood, “The Cross in the New Testament: Two Theses in Conversation with Recent Literature (2000-2007),” Westminster Theological Journal 71 (2009), 281-95. A survey of the foot-notes here alone reveals a vast literature on the subject.

10. The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, eds. Naomi Burton, Patrick Hart, and James Laughlin (New York: New Directions, 1973), 233.

11. See Acts 1!9-Il, Mark 16:19, and Luke 24:50-53 for accounts of the Ascension, which are very brief.

12. One grows tired of hearing fundamentalist preachers digging into dream-like passages in Revelation and connecting dots that cannot connect. I often wish they would heed the good advice offered in the Book of Job, where God says: “If you have anything to say, say it.” He adds: “If not, hold your peace” (Job 33:32-22).

13. Josephus, Antiquities 18.16

14. Brown, 283-84.

15. Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, v. II (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1996), 294. This major, two-volume work originally appeared in 1943.

16.  From “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and the comfort of the Resurrection.”


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