We continue today with the theme of the meaning of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. As I said previously, the meaning of an historical event is determined by its surrounding circumstances. To understand the impact of the resurrection faith on the disciples and their interpretation of its meaning, we need to set the resurrection event into three contexts: (1) the life of Jesus as experienced and remembered by his disciples; (2) contemporary speculations, beliefs, and hopes surrounding death and resurrection and beliefs about God’s historical plan for defeating evil and saving his people; and (3) the impact of the resurrection appearances themselves.
Last week, we dealt with the first context, the life of Jesus. We saw that Jesus was remembered as an extraordinary figure, as performing miracles, forgiving sins, speaking with authority, exhibiting unheard of familiarity and intimacy with God, and making claims about himself that struck his adversaries as blasphemous. These extraordinary acts and claims left everyone asking, “Who is this?” This question voices their sense of not having a category into which Jesus easily fit. Something new is happening. But then he was crucified by the Romans at the instigation of the religious leaders of the Jews for blasphemy and rebellion. The judgment and execution of Jesus as a blasphemer and a rebel contradicted the entire trajectory of Jesus life and teaching and negated the expectations that had arisen in the hearts of those who knew him best and loved him most.
The question “Who is this?” seemed to have been answered: not what we had hoped. But the resurrection placed the question “Who is this?” on a completely different plane. Not only must the disciples ask, “Who is this who raises the dead, speaks with authority, opens the eyes of the blind, makes the lame walk, and forgives sins?” The resurrection forced the addition, “and who was crucified as a blasphemer and rebel but whom God raised from the dead?” Who is this?
The second context within which we must interpret the resurrection faith is “the contemporary speculations, beliefs, and hopes surrounding death and resurrection and beliefs about God’s historical plan for defeating evil and saving his people.” When the first disciples concluded from the resurrection appearances and the discovery of the empty tomb that Jesus had been raised from the dead, what did they think about its significance? The most important data relevant to this question come from the New Testament itself. There are also relevant data in documents contemporary with the New Testament, but we must be cautious about generalizations. Historians who study this era point out that there is no one “Jewish” view of resurrection and eternal life. Some did not believe in the resurrection or in any form of life beyond death and others may have believed in the survival of the spirit at the death of the body. We see in the New Testament itself that not every one believed in resurrection; for example, the Sadducees did not. But the Pharisees believed that God would bring about a future age in which (at least) the righteous dead would be raised bodily to everlasting life. For the Pharisees, the resurrection of the dead signaled the end of the age of death, sin, disease, violence, and oppression and the dawning of a new age.
Jesus’ teaching on the resurrection was clearly nearer to the Pharisees than to the Sadducees. He argued for the resurrection, claiming that the Sadducees do not understand Scripture and don’t know the power of God (Matt 22:23-32). If you follow Jesus in this age, enduring the suffering that accompanies discipleship, you will be rewarded “in the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14:4). Paul argues with those in Corinth who do not believe in the resurrection of the dead (1 Cor 15). He refutes crude caricatures of resurrection as restoration of our present corruptible bodies. Nevertheless, he argues for a bodily resurrection at the end of the age. The resurrection overcomes death, transforms the corruptible and mortal body into an incorruptible and immortal body. Paul clearly affirms the resurrection of the body, not merely the survival of the spirit. But the resurrection of the body is also a radical transformation of the body. For Paul, resurrection means restoration of life in continuity with the identity, history, and bodily existence that otherwise would be negated forever by physical death. Also, like the Pharisees, Paul sees the resurrection as signaling the end of the age and a transformation of the world.
In this context it stands out clearly that Paul and the rest of the New Testament see the “resurrection” of Jesus as the restoration of his life that had been extinguished in death, as the transformation of his physical body that had been buried in the tomb, and as his translation into a mode of life expected only at the end of the age, namely incorruptibility and immortality. The notion that Paul (or any other New Testament witness) could have conceived of Jesus’ “resurrection” merely as the survival his spirit or justness of his cause, is highly implausible.
Now we have another piece of the puzzle to help us understand the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection. The early disciples, the first Christians, understood Jesus’ resurrection as an “end time” event. He was saved from death by God through the restoration of his life and transformation of the body in which he had been born and lived, performed his works, and died on a cross.
“Who is this?” He is the beginning of the resurrection of the dead, the end of the age of sin and death and the beginning of the new age of eternal life. Through his resurrection Jesus’ universal significance is revealed, for the resurrection of the dead is about the destiny of the whole world, all time and space, and everyone. And because his resurrection possesses universal significance, so does his death, his teaching, his acts, and his birth.
Next week we will examine the significance of the resurrection appearances and the empty tomb on the witnesses’ understanding of the nature and significance of the resurrection of Jesus.
Note: If you are interested in knowing more about ideas of the resurrection in documents contemporary with the New Testament and in the New Testament itself, see two books by N.T. Wright: The Resurrection of the Son of God and Surprised by Hope.
There is a line of thought to the effect that Paul, writing in 1 Corinthians and predating the Gospels, only has a sort of resurrection in mind that is spiritual in nature. Some who have espoused this idea include Dale Martin, John Dominic Crossan, and Marcus Borg, but I will try to do my best to represent their thought here. Drawing on the passage from 1 Corinthians 15:42-45, they point to a series of contrasts that Paul sets up concerning the Resurrection. He contrasts the “natural” body of our earthly existence with the “spiritual” body of the next. This seems to suggest that our existence in the afterlife will not be like the natural/physical life we currently experience, but will simply be spiritual in nature. He also emphasizes that the resurrection body is not perishable, and it at least seems difficult to envision a body that is still physical (where physical means made of matter) but is not subject to atomic decay. Finally, in v. 45, Paul contrasts what Jesus (“the last Adam”) became with the existence of the first Adam; he labels the first Adam as a “living being,” but says that Jesus (presumably after the Resurrection) “became a life-giving spirit.” Taking these three features of the passage together, it is understandable that these and other scholars are led to conclude that Paul only has a spiritual, immaterial existence in mind when speaking of the afterlife.
This reading of Paul concerning the nature of the Resurrection goes nicely with a view of Paul’s experience of Christ on the road to Damascus as spiritual/immaterial. The thought goes that Paul’s experience was a vision and that Paul likewise never claimed that the appearances to Peter, the disciples, the 500, James, and the apostles (1 Cor. 15) were anything more than visions as well. The fact that Paul includes himself in the list of appearances would suggest that Paul considered his experience to be “on par” with the experiences of the other individuals and groups in the list. However, even on the orthodox view, it seems like Paul’s experience cannot be of the physically risen Lord, since Christ had already ascended bodily into heaven. This leads the same scholars to conclude that our earliest information from Paul only teaches that the post-Resurrection Christ appeared spiritually rather than physically.
I’m not at all advocating these viewpoints, but if one looks only at Paul and leaves out the Gospels (due, say, to dating the Gospels fairly late or citing the Gospel writers’ theological agenda), it can be more daunting to establish an early Pauline belief in the Resurrection of the Body, both of the church and Christ himself. I myself have an interesting history of views and beliefs concerning the Resurrection of the Body, so it is always a fruitful task to examine different ways of looking at it.
It is precisely against this viewpoint that I am implicitly arguing. Paul speaks of the burial of Jesus at the beginning of 1 Cor 15 as something he received as of “first importance.” So, he knows about the empty tomb, though he does not mention it. He does not need to! If Jesus was buried and on the third day raised, the tomb is empty. The scholars you mentioned, if I remember correctly, believe the empty tomb is a legend and that Jesus’ body rotted or was eaten by dogs. Whatever his understanding of the trans natural form of the resurrected body of Jesus, Paul clearly believes that the dead body of Jesus was raised. I find it incredible that the resurrection faith could have originated with the first disciples had the tomb not been empty or had they known where his body could be found. I will have more to say later about liberal revisionist theology. As one of my old teachers used to say, “I’ll take my atheism straight.” No need to coat it with equivocations about a “resurrection” that is not a “getting up”, which is what the Greek word for resurrection means.