THE ORIGINS OF BELIEF IN JESUS' RESURRECTION
by András Gromon
In connection with the gospel records of Jesus' resurrection it would be worth considering carefully how the Easter message of the apostles and the primitive church came into being.
On accepting the official teaching of the established church no problem can arise, the question properly speaking does not exist either. If it still does, the answer is extremely simple: God can do anything, to rise the dead makes him no difficulty at all.
If anyone is, however, corcerned about admitting and confessing responsibly that here a corps was risen despite the (usual) order of creation and has been transformed into a phantom being able to move, if he likes, in this or the other world, to become arbitrarily visible or invisible and if needed to make himself palpable (Lk 24:39: “Handle me... for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have”) and at last to go hovering on clouds into heaven (Lk 24:51, Acts 1:11), the question nevertheless makes sense: how did the Easter belief of the primitive church come into being?
One thing is cartain, after the crucifixion of Jesus something very unusual, extraordinary should have happened. Namely a few weeks later, at the same place almost where Jesus had been executed as a heretic a “primitive church” was made of Jews regarding Jesus a messiah in spite of his crucifixion and in spite of their earlier conviction that a messiah was unable to suffer (conf. Mt 16:22). This unusual, extraordinary must only be what traditionally is expressed as the resurrection of Jesus. What does, however, mean this resurrection? (But not the resurrection of the dead in general!...)
Modern theologians find a relatively easy solution for the problem: the apostles might have either visions showing Jesus resurrected or as a result of internal, psychological processes the belief in Jesus' resurrection was developed in them (e.g. “God should not have forsaken his great prophet, so he should live, accordingly he should have risen”; or the disciples' betrayal and failure caused them remorse and a wishful compensation: “he must live”) and this belief was incarnated in appropriate stories.
Such interpretations cannot be excluded but then further, very serious questions do arise.
(a) Here are some of them concerning the stories: Why to make up women witnesses hearing first the Easter message and seeing the risen Lord if they cannot be witnesses according to Jewish law? Why to make up an empty tomb and to name its owner a rich member of the high council that sceptics could make inquiries? Why to suppose “having borne” a corps (Jn 20:13,15) instead of speaking about a triumphant procession or even soaring of the Risen? Why to invent a young man (Mk 16:5) instead of an angel (Mt 28:2)? Why to feed and make the Risen drink or even lick a honeycomb troubling the sceptics again (Lk 24:42-43, Acts 10:41)? Why does Jesus always appear secretly, “shunning” if he rose “gloriously” and no harm could befall him? Why have not been invented any miracles performed by the risen Lord?
(b) Although not impossible it is, however, rather problematic from psychological point of view to represent such an Easter belief (supposed by some theologians) and it is far more problematic to tackle this belief facing persecution, execution or even the danger of them.
(c) It is almost incredible to have a belief of the above origin and to meet other witnesses or simply the contemporaries of the event if on the one hand nobody can tell a story optionally pretending to come from far away, on the other hand no pious audience is there to accept anything as if based on an established faith. For sturdy, obtuse people it is even hard to believe that there is resurrection at all so they could easily ask: “Tell me, Peter, did you really see him or just dreamt or maybe you saw a vision?” In the latter two cases they would hardly join enthusiastically the belief in Jesus' resurrection.
Real and acceptable explanation can, however, be given in the following way: Jesus did not die crucified but just lost consciousness and recovered his senses in the tomb-cave where Joseph of Arimathea found him alive, took and hid him. Thanks to careful attendance Jesus regained his health so the apostles did really meet, see and touch him, they did eat and drink with him (Acts 10:40). If they really experienced all this they could boldly come forward with the news of his “resurrection”.
(Some of the moments allowing the survival of Jesus: he was not suffering on the cross for days, as many others, but was soon taken because of the coming Sabbath and Easter; his legs were not broken like in cases of hurry; there was a man being able – according his status – to ask Pilate for the body of Jesus, otherwise he would have been cast and buried in a common tomb of criminals but so he was laid in a new cave; for lack of time he was not washed and regularly wound else his tomb would not have been opened until a next burial; the spear stab did not hurt vital organs necessarily, Jn 19:34 just informs of opening his side.)
Now it is less important to ask how this was possible than to search if it happened so, if this natural process took place like this why the apostles did not relate it in this way but spoke of Jesus “resurrected”.
Before trying to answer anything let us, however, take two points into consideration. The first one: there are references that the apostles really thought and even preached that Jesus had not died and had not been raised but the above-mentioned natural process had taken place. (a) The first and most authentic information does not say (though only women are involved here still they are the starting-point of the Easter belief) that Jesus resurrected (Gr. anesté) or God resurrected him (Gr. anestésen) but he was “awakened, aroused, set upright, revived, woke up” (Gr. égerthé, Mk 16:6). The same verb is used by the apostle Peter (Acts 10:40) in the house of Cornelius: “Him God raised up.” – (b) The first public speech of Peter (Acts 2:22-36) points rather unambiguously to the fact that Jesus did not die completely: “Ye have crucified... whom God hath raised up, having loosened (aor. part.) the pains of death... his soul was not left in hell, neither his flesh did see corruption” (2:23-24,27,31). To put it plainly: the crucifixion did not reach its goal to kill Jesus because “God hath raised (him) up, having loosened (soothing) the pains (Gr. ódinas)” leading generally to death. It is also obvious that as Jesus' “soul was not left to hell”, the kingdom of the dead, he was not dead yet, i.e. “his flesh did not see corruption”, did not begin to decompose, was not affected by a final death.
Amother point for consideration: if someone some time tells or especially comments a story he always does this within a given “paradigm” i.e. within a communication and comment pattern of his be it conscious or not. This paradigm consists of many factors but two of them are special importance: (1) the world view (or to put it in a more simplified way: the reasoning influenced by natural science) of a given man (and his age) and (2) the ideology (more exactly: the philosophy or theology, practically the dogmatics) of the person concerned. Of course, these two points are overlapping each other, thus everyone comments and tells a story according to his ideological “glasses”. In most cases they are subconscious but after having realized them one is to put aside these inner glasses to a certain degree only.
Now, let us see why the apostles nevertheless spoke of Jesus' resurrection despite our supposition that they should have known: he had “just” recovered his consciousness. In the general Jewish paradigm (way of thinking) God is the direct cause behind all phenomena and occurances of the world: everything is “moved” and arranged by him (what need not, however, be a physical causality). See e.g. such Old Testament expressions as “the Lord brought an east wind” (Ex 10:13), “the Lord troubled the host of Egyptians and took off their chariot wheels” (Ex 14:24-25), “there went forth a wind from the Lord and brought quails from the sea and let them fall by the camp” (Num 11:31). The same aspect might be revealed in some of Jesus' sayings: None of the sparrows shall “fall on the ground without your Father” (Mt 10:29) or, “the fowls of the air” are fed and “the grass of the field” is clad by God (Mt 6:26,30). Accordingly, if the apostles did know and think that Jesus had not died on the cross but just fainted and had been recovered his senses (“égerthé”: woke up), they could still give the obvious explanation, having a clear conscience, that Jesus was resurrected by God.
And what is more, they could speak so by “double rights” if compared with the general opinion and way of speaking. (a) To survive a crucifixion was quite an extraordinary, rare, one would say, exceptional event (though Josephus Flavius did mention some cases), therefore they could rightly speak (within their own paradigm) of an “increased” divine intervention. – (b) Similarly and based also on the general Jewish belief, they could see a conclusive miracle, a Deus ex machina with good reason in the survival of Jesus. It seemed to them that God had done justice to a guiltless prophet (messiah?) as against his enemies, so they might regard the miracle as a divine judgement against the much respected high council.
Even if the apostles did not think of Jesus' seeming death and the above quoted verses (Mk 16:6, Acts 2:24-27,31; 10:40) should be interpreted as expressing the real death and resurrection of Jesus, they would not prove decisively this point because the biologico-medical lerning of that age was insufficient enough to recognize unmistakably the moment of death, especially in the Good-Friday “hurry”. (The same is true of stabbing Jesus' side by a soldier's spear and the testimony of the centurion, conf. the story of Jairus' daughter: the messanger said she had already died but Jesus told them she was still sleeping. Mk 5:35,39) It also could easily happen that Jesus was only taken dead but his disciples later met him in his physical reality indeed. Only in this case could Peter say without lying: “we did eat and drink with him after he rose from the dead” (Acts 10:41). The occurance between his (seeming) death and revival (thinking within the Jewish paradigm again) the apostles could not interpret and express otherwise as “God resurrected Jesus from among the dead”. (NB. Even in the 20th c. seemingly dead people were buried in Hungary as they looked completely deceased.)
Wether the first or the second version is to be accepted (paradigmatic reasoning or insufficient biologico-medical learning) we must not make the mistake of literal adoption of an event described according to a 2000 year old Jewish paradigm and then to force it into a present day European paradigm instead of translating the real meaning of the ancient text into up-to-date expressions. By omitting this substantial transformation the same mistake is made again as when the six day creation was taken literally (and dogmatized!). In this case a time will come when we are to be smiled at just as we smile at our predecessors of not very long ago...
In addition, wether the first or the second version is to be accepted concerning the belief of the primitive church in the resurrection one more aspect must be taken into account. Here a rather general trend in history of religions has also been at work, notably the mythologizing process following the succession of traditions which is growing as time goes. The christological trend in the widest sense (the “son of man” Jesus has been transformed into a “Son of God” Christ, a historic person deified) has resulted in a decisive change: the originally natural (i.e. appropriate to nature), not miraculous but undoubtedly extraordinary Easter occurance (someone survived his crucifixion) was “improved on” and turned into a supernatural miracle. Just three evidences: (1) In Mk the women hurrying to the tomb at down on Sunday simply saw that the stone had already been rolled away from the door of the sepulchre (16:4) but no watch is mentioned yet. In Mt there was great earthquake, an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, rolled back the stone (“his countenance was like lighting and his raiment white as snow”), the keepers became as dead men for fear of him (28:2-3). In Lk two men (angels) stood there in shining garments but the women were afraid and bowed down their faces to the earth (24:4). – (2) Mk described the person sitting in the sepulchre and informing the women as a young man (16:5; the word “neaniskos” is used in the whole New Testament in this sense only: Mt 19:20,22, Mk 14:51, Lk 7:14, Acts 2:17, 5:10, 23:18-22, 1Jn 2:13). Mt makes the young man an angel (“angelos”: 28:2) and Lk adds a second man (24:4) but as they are in shining garments they also can be interpreted as angels (in fact, Lk 24:23 does interpret them so like Jn 20:12 does as well). – (3) What to Jesus happened Mk calls “égerthé” (16:6) i.e. he was awakened, aroused, woke up but Mt 28:6-7 adds: he is risen (égerthé) “from the dead”, moreover “as he said”. – This miracle producing process will blend in time with the original happenings changing them ultimately into an almost unrecognizable narrative. And later generations take everything for granted...
It would deserve a separate study to show why and how Paul's beleif in Jesus' resurrection was formed, why it was formed exactly so and why it became of paramount importance for him. Then another study deal with why the primitive church took up Paul' belief and made the words “died and resurected” the essence of its creed but not a single word does mention the teaching and acts of Jesus...
Of course, all of these questions are practically indifferent if the main point is taken into account: the teaching of Jesus (in a more concise form: Mt 7:12, or Mt 22:37-40) is in force invariably wether he died or not, wether he resurrected or not because it is just Paul's (entirely unfounded) private opinion that “if Christ be not risen, your faith is in vain; ye are yet in your sins” (1Cor 15:14,17) as well as the universal resurrection and the eternal life do not depend on wether Jesus died on Good-Friday and was resurrected on Easter Sunday.
English translation by Gábor Pikó
Adress: András Gromon
Kápolna u. 10.
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