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Wednesday, April 26, 2006 

Et Resurrexit: Excursus

*Note: In what follows I will consistently use the term bodily in place of physical since a focus on the physical aspect of the resurrection might lead to a false understanding of the resurrection as simply a crass rescusitation. What the NT affirms is that the resurrection was something transformative. Nevertheless, the transformation was something that the NT authors believed happened to the physical body of Jesus. But in order to avoid the implications of the term physical I will use bodily in its place as a description of the nature of the resurrection.


It seems as if Michael Bird has stirred up a firestorm with his post concerning the necessity of belief in the resurrection (bodily) as marking one to be a Christian. Ben Meyers in his reply post , though himself holding to a bodily resurrection, disagrees with Michael and sides with Wright saying:

"On this occasion, I will have to side with N. T. Wright against Mike. I think Mike is exactly right about the centrality of resurrection in the primitive Christian kerygma. But the crucial question is whether any particular theological interpretation of resurrection belongs to the heart of the gospel. And it seems to me that the New Testament itself resists such a view. In fact, the New Testament witnesses don’t offer any precise theological interpretation of the resurrection. None of the Gospels tries to describe or explain the event of resurrection at all—rather, the resurrection is precisely the mystery at the centre of the story of Jesus." (emphasis Ben's)

Since I consider both to be very intelligent men and since they are two of my favorite blogs, it's unfortunate that I have to take sides on this issue. Yet take sides I must. Now Ben agrees with Mike that the resurrection was central to the primitive Christian kerygma. This is key. Where they obviously differ is in the matter of the interpretation of the event of resurrection. Ben stresses that there is no uniform theological interpretation of resurrection that the New Testament witnesses emphasize. The stress is rather on the mystery behind the event. Ben sees in this good reason for still calling those who do not affirm a bodily resurrection, Christians.

Now on the one hand Ben is correct to say that the New Testament documents witness to various theological interpretations of the resurrection. But on the other hand I think this diverse interpretation has to do with the meaning of the resurrection event rather than with an interpretation of the event itself. There is a difference. On my reading of the New Testament, what is uniformly taught or implied is that Jesus' resurrection was indeed bodily. When the NT authors (particularly the Gospels) discuss Jesus' resurrection it is never with the intent to impose on it some theological understanding which denies its bodily nature. Rather, as Michael in his reply post observed, the NT writers when treating the resurrection actually go to great lengths to restrict certain understandings of the resurrection that would deny its bodily aspect:

"The NT authors bracket out certain hermeneutical reflections on the resurrection including its denial (1 Corinthians 15), gnostics and docetic interpretations (John 21; Luke 24), and over-realized accounts (2 Tim 2.18)."

I think Mike has made an essential point here and reinforces my observation that a distinction should be made between diverse interpretations of resurrection meaning and differing interpretations of the nature of the resurrection event. It is the former which the NT witnesses to not the latter.

Yet this does not really answer the question that has been raised: "Is belief in the bodily resurrection necessary for one to properly be labled a Christian?" It seems to me the reason that we are running into a problem is due to some of our terms, particularly the label, "Christian." We need to remember that this term is anachronistic when speaking of the primitive community. It does not occur anywhere in the NT except for briefly in Acts 11:19-30. In the context of the passage it is suggested that the term is a label placed upon the community externally. This is confirmed by the fact that it is not used throughout the rest of Acts (nor anywhere else). The term that is applied consistently in the NT to the primitive community is "believers." This phrase appears in Paul (1 Cor 6:5, Gal 6:10), James (2.1), and especially in the book of Acts (Acts 1:15, 2:42, 44, 9:41). Why am I stressing this fact? Because to become a part of the 'ekklesia' you had to become a believer. The question then is, "a believer of or in what?" The simple answer is belief in the 'gospel.' However, the answer is not so simple anymore since the word 'gospel' has been loaded down with theological excess (incarnation, trinity,etc).

The proclamation uttered by the early assembly (ekklesia) was that the man Jesus who had been crucified was raised from the dead by God. He was now Lord and was exalted at God's right hand. It was by believing in this 'good news' (euangelion) that one was thereby incoporated into the community. The good news had content, and that content centered around the proclamation that God had raised this man from the dead and placed him in a position of authority. Furthermore, this proclamation 'God raised Jesus from the dead' would have been understood as bodily. There are three, I believe, decisive indications of this:

1.) The first point has already been made, namely, that the New Testament is uniform as to its interpretation of the event being bodily, even in the cases where discontinuity is emphasized.

2.) Secondly, the major contribution of N. T. Wright's The Resurrection of the Son of God was in exhibiting that when the noun and verb forms of anastasis and egeiro were used by both supporters and opposers in the Second-Temple Judaic period the referent was always concrete and was something that happened to the body. Other interpretations and/or definitions Wright, rightly dismissed:

"Nothing in the entire Jewish context warrants the suggestion that the discussion in 1 Corinthians 15 was about'resurrection in heaven', or that the Jewish literature of the period 'speaks both of a resurrection of the body and a resurrection of the spirit without the body'. Some Jews speak of eternal disembodied bliss, but this is not described as 'resurrection'; when resurrection is spoken of, it is the second stage in post-mortem life, not the instant destiny upon death. Nothing here, either, would prepare us for the use of 'resurrection' to mean 'that after his crucifixion...Jesus entered into the powerful life of God' or 'the passage of the human Jesus into the power of God'." (204)

3.) Thirdly, juxtaposed with the proclamation that God had raised Jesus from the dead, was that Jesus had previously been crucified and so had died (cf Acts 2:23ff, 1 Cor15:3ff). If, in their proclamation of the gospel, the early believers intended for the audience to understand Jesus' death as literal and so bodily then when they claimed God raised him from the dead, the same meaning would have been intended, that is, that God had bodily raised Jesus from the dead.

Given these three observations, I fail to see how the early community's proclamation would not have been understood as involving the bodily resurrection of Jesus.

Lastly, if this is how the resurrection event was meant to be understood, as something that happened to Jesus' physical body, then Paul's assertion in Rom. 10:9 carries all the more weight in this debate. Paul, who some scholars see echoing an early baptismal formula, declares that to be saved one need only to "confess Jesus as Lord" and to "believe in their heart that God raised him from the dead." These two assertions, as I stated in my previous post, are integral to one another and form a symbiotic relationship. The believer can confess Jesus as Lord because God raised him from the dead. If you excise the resurrection, by default you excise the Lordship of Jesus.

In the end, I must cast my lot with Michael. If the early community was defined by its belief in the gospel and if the content of that gospel included the bodily resurrection of Jesus then I fail to see how I can properly call someone a believer who does not believe in that message which included Jesus' bodily resurrection from the dead.

Chris, written with a good measure of grace and reason! I

(I'm sorry I don't have a blog, I just clutter up others' blogs, forgive me, or ignore me if you wish)

But...these arguments all seem not to be sensitive to the idea of historical development within the Scriptures which is the bone of contention. Some of us see the empty tomb tradition in Mark is late and not attested by Paul. Likewise the resurrection appearances.

The first and best witness is Paul who emphasizes the discontinuity and doesn't mention an empty tomb. If one does not accidentally harmonize him with the gospel apparances or Acts speeches than it appears indeed that the gospels argue for a mere resuscitation and then translation (or apotheosis?) to Heaven.

His 'raising up' or 'resurrection' is no different than Lazarus who illustrates the resurrection in John. Herod also thought John was 'raised from the dead' (physical or not) it certainly wasn't some transformed body/eschatological event like Paul is preaching about. Likewise Matthew's saints of old who were resuscitated/resurrected. Jesus appears no different. He just gets to leave.

The writers are engaged perhaps in some polemics with some resurrection deniers and so they are going beyond the early tradition of the 'Lord is the Spirit'. Luke 24 is directly challenging Paul's claims with the spirit/flesh contrast and the eating. And the 'beam me up' Ascension is what it leads to. This strikes many readers as indeed crass. His body must fly away to heaven. But few of us believe he is "up there" in that way. We coin words like "trans-physical" but that just covers up our disagreement with the writers. For the gospel writers it is more like resuscitation not resurrection. His body is maybe up behind a cloud watching us. Pilate might have re-arrested him if he had been quick and clever.

And yet the gospels as I've tried to point out on Chris Tilling's site even in the appearances seem to still remember the earlier less bodily or obvious nature of the resurrection. Jesus is only appearing to followers, in assembly, on the first day, when sharing a meal (recalling his Eucharistic spiritual presence). Jesus' disciples 'doubt' his appearance at the great commission in Matt 28. He needs powers to suddenly appear (like the spirit which they remember) so he just walks through walls. He "vanishes" like a vision in Luke. Jesus body shouldn't be touched for some reason recalling perhaps Jesus' true presence and value as life-giving spirit when he returns to the Father.

John has Jesus blessing those who believe yet don't see what Thomas sees because this is the reality. John doesn't refer people to the tomb to confirm what Thomas experienced but presumably to the Jesus who is present to the community by the spirit.

On Paul's use of the word 'resurrection'. I think it is too much to say, as Wright does, that he had to mean just one thing by that word. Considering the hellenistic context there are many possibilities. And when talking about something as mysterious as post-death existence we can expect a variety of perspectives and some semantic drift in terms between different conceptions. Paul didn't quote Maccabbees after all and say "that is what I'm talking about". I'm not convinced it's always a technical term. Add to this 1 Enoch has a 'resurrection of spirits' and I think it is made that much less certain(see Nickelsburg).

Then the question becomes must we believe a harmonized version of what the NT teaches? This seems to be what Wright and many bloggers are proposing. This latter would mean something like what the various communities would supposedly all affirm around the turn of the 1st-2nd century. Are we forced to preach and believe only that somewhat artificial orthodoxy? Why not something that may have been earlier and perhaps more authentic and more believable? Or if not that, why can't we believe the truth as we think we have now come to know it? This is not limiting God's power just questioning the historical development of an idea and the historical veracity of the witness accounts.

Isn't the more important idea that Christ is alive however that is tied to being 'raised'. He has been vindicated. He has not been abandoned to Sheol. His presence by his Spirit is how the early communities experienced him and verified his existence. They didn't care about a tomb apparently. They didn't preserve one.

Why can't Jesus have a body without it being his body in the tomb? It's possible in my mind even if an early community would disagree. I hope if Jesus body were ever to be found all these bloggers wouldn't simply leave the faith as if it were all a fantasy. Some soul-searching would be necessary but we would still have something right?

Must the reality of the Lordship of Christ fit only with their view of the historical matter surrounding the resurrection? It's not that way with creation or the fall, etc. Isn't the continuity with the early community something more found in sharing Jesus' spirit and his life embodied by us...ironically "the body of Christ", the present proof of the resurrection. Regardless of our differing historical determinations, couldn't we agree on that?

David,

Thanks for the comments. Don't worry about cluttering up my blog. I do not mind at all since I do not get very many comments. So I appreciate very much any feed back and/or criticisms you leave, however lengthy they may be.

If I could sum up your position you imply that the oldest and purest traditions assert not a bodily resurrection but a tradition you ambiguously describe as the "Lord is the Spirit."

You come to this conclusion for a few reasons. For one, Paul's failure to mention an empty tomb suggests to you that this tradition is late and secondary. Secondly, you are not convinced that when Paul uses the terms "egeiro" and "anastasis" he is using words that would have been understood to have a bodily aspect. You suggest that his Hellenistic milleau could have led Paul to use "resurrection" in a non-bodily sense. Thirdly, you see echoes of this "Lord is Spirit" tradition in some of the gospels' descriptions of Jesus' body in the resurrection narratives (disappearing and reappearing, prohibition to touch, etc.)and in the emphasis on "Spirit" experience in the early communities.

Let me take these in reverse order. Obviously the 'echoes' you see in the resurrection narratives cannot be anything more than speculation. What I see at work in the resurrection narratives is the gospel writers struggling to portray at one and the same time the physicality of Jesus' resurrection and its discontinuity with his previous body. I think this better explains the strange spirt-like phenomena than does an assertion that the writers are recalling (unconciously?) details of an older tradition that viewed Jesus as "Spirit."

You say you're still not convinced that 'resurrection' and its cognates were technical terms in Second-Temple Judaism that were understood to indicate something that occured to a body. You give a possible example from Enoch that refers to a "resurrection of spirits." Yet, if you read through the Enochean literature as a whole you will quickly discover that "resurrection" is used consistently with its "technical" definition. Nevertheless, I will allow that there might be possible exceptions to the use of "resurrection" in its technical sense. Thus it may be more accurate to speak of a "normative" use of the word "resurrection" and its cognates rather than "technical." Nevertheless, once evidence is gathered from the various sources during this time period from the Apocraphal/Deutercanonical, Pseudepigraphical, Qumranic, and New Testament literature how one cannot conclude that the normative use of the word "resurrection" was understood as "bodily" is beyond me.

But even if we supposed that this understanding was not normative such that Paul in his discussion in 1 Cor 15 on the resurrection could have been understood differently (due perhaps to his Hellenistic influence) the context of the entire chapter clearly indicates that Paul is working in the framework of this normative defintion. For all his talk about a spiritual body and his emphasis on discontinuity, the discussion presupposes the continuity with the former body. The transformation into a spiritual body is something that happens to the old body. If this is not what Paul intends his readers to understand then his anaology of the previous body as a sowed seed would simply be unintelligable. This is precisely why Paul would not have needed to qualify his discussion with a reference to Maccabees. This would have already been understood by his audience, especially if this understanding of resurrection was "normative."

That the empty tomb tradition is late and not attested in Paul is an oft repeated argument against the idea of a bodily resurrection of Jesus being central to the primitive kerygma. I have much I want to say on this topic so I am going to postpone my reply to one of my next posts.

Thanks again David for commenting. I hope you continue to read and entice me with your comments. Maybe you will also consider beginning a blog.

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