WHEN Jesus died, an 18th-century rationalist, Reimarus, said, it was easy for Jewish people to believe in his resurrection, since they already had stories of the dead being raised, and they knew the teachings of the Pharisees. Reimarus was clever, and there was an element of truth in this. It was still, however, an enormous over-simplification.
As to what happened to people when they died, we can actually distinguish three views that were held by Jews in the time of Jesus.
Some denied that there was significant life after death, Among them, as the evangelists note, were the Sadducees. Some — notably Philo of Alexandria — taught that the soul was immortal, in a manner obviously related to the teaching of Greek philosophers such as Plato. And some, most notably the Pharisees, believed that the dead would be raised.
Initially, this “being raised from the dead” or resurrection, was a way of describing the time when God’s promises to Israel would finally be fulfilled. Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones (Ezekiel 37) is an obvious example of this.
But then, beginning in the second century BC, we find what appears to be a second and evolved use of the idea. It became a way of describing what would happen to individuals in the Age-to-Come — both to God’s faithful and to those who had persecuted them, when each will face God’s judgement.
So Daniel: “Many of those who sleep in the land of dust shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the dome of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever” (Daniel 12.2-3).
If that is so, we might ask, where are these dead people now? For the present, apparently, the dead were disembodied “angels” or “souls”, held in a state that the passage I just quoted calls “sleep” — and so held, not because their nature was immortal (as Plato might have said), but by the creative power and covenant faithfulness of God.
Moreover, (again in distinction from Plato), this was not the last stage. The last stage, in the Age-to-Come, would be new life in a restored creation, and this also would be brought about by God’s power and faithfulness. This is the view expressed by the authors of 2 Maccabees and Wisdom, and by the later rabbis, successors to the Pharisees, who declared that “all Israel has a portion in the world to come.”
The only exception was “anyone who says that there is no resurrection of the dead in Torah” (m. Sanhedrin 10.1). In other words, if you won’t believe it, you can’t have it.
Among modern scholars, N. T. Wright has spelled out with admirable clarity what the rabbis meant by resurrection: namely, returning, after being dead, to a life that would be at least in some measure continuous with previous life.
This new life would be a gift from God. The qualification — at least in some measure — is important, for this was also hope for a life that would be changed, restored to that glory for which humankind was intended at creation, and from which it fell. This is the difference between the Israelites who had become nothing but dry bones, and the exceeding great host filled with God’s Spirit, that Ezekiel sees afterwards; or between the Jewish martyrs as they were when they died at the hands of the unrighteous, and their state when, as the writer of Wisdom says, they will run like sparks amid stubble and rule over nations (Wisdom 3.7-8).
How shall we describe this difference? Perhaps in the words of another Jew, St Paul, a former Pharisee, who wrote a little later than the author of Wisdom, and saw death and being raised by God in terms of seed and new plant. “What is sown”, he wrote, “is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power.
“It is sown a body bound to the life of the world as we know it, it is raised a body filled with the Spirit of God” (1 Corinthians 15.42-49). (I have paraphrased Paul’s Greek to bring out the meaning of the words he uses to describe our bodies as they are now, and as they will be at the resurrection.)
Paul, like the rabbis, speaks of a new mode of being. The risen dead are not simply ordinary mortals who were once dead but have now miraculously come back to life. Nor are they disembodied souls or spirits. The new mode of being is neither of these, but something else, a third option. The risen dead will indeed be body — but “body-filled-with-the-Spirit-of-God”, physicality transfigured.
All this, as Jon D. Levenson and Kevin J. Madigan have shown us, means that we must be very careful when we talk about Jews or early Christians “literally” believing in physical, or bodily, resurrection. The accuracy of such talk depends not only on what we mean by “literally”, but also on how we limit (or do not limit) the possibilities of what might be “physical” or “bodily.” Too many people talk as if either “resuscitation of corpses” or “immortality of the soul” were the only possibilities. Clearly, the rabbis and Paul are talking about a third option — what Paul calls “a new creation”.
All this is a part of what scholars call Jewish eschatology — that is, what Jews taught and believed about the last things. These last things involve God’s renewal or re-creation of the world, when what went wrong in Adam, and has been going wrong ever since, will be put right.
I think that if we believe that God is just, as Israel does, and yet see that much in the world is evil, then we are bound, sooner or later, to arrive at an eschatology something like this: that God will finally see to it that, in Dame Julian’s words, “all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” John Dominic Crossan refers to this as our hope for “the Great Divine Clean-Up”. Exactly!
WHAT, then, of the first Christians? The texts they have left us reveal a group of Jews and ex-pagans whose way of living, worship, and self-explanation at every point, and with remarkable consistency, centre on their claim about a particular raising from the dead that they rather carefully identify and, more or less, date: the raising of Jesus of Nazareth.
They base this claim on two sets of experiences: first, on an experience of absence: they found Jesus’s tomb empty on the first Easter morning (and, incidentally, had they invented that story, can anyone imagine that, in that patriarchal age, they would have done so with women as the first witnesses, rather than the male apostles?); and second, on an experience of presence: they had afterwards seen Jesus, spoken with him, and received his blessing and commission.
This “being raised” was, moreover, definitely a third-option, new-creation type of raising. The risen Jesus eats, he hugs, he even cooks! Very possibly there are apologetic elements in these stories — messages being put across — but that is not the point. The point is that there is no getting round what they claim, which is that, whatever else the risen Jesus was, he certainly wasn’t just spirit or vision. He was real.
Nor does anyone, friend or foe, seem to have doubted that this is what was being claimed by the early Christians. Contrary to various 19th- and 20th-century proposals, no one seems to have thought that the Christians were merely saying that they now understood the meaning of Jesus’s cross, or that he lived in their hearts, or that he would rise at the last day, or that his teaching lived, even though he had died.
Such ideas would have been neither difficult nor unfamiliar to them. If that is what they had wanted to say, they could have said it. They didn’t.
The Jesus they describe, however, isn’t just a resuscitated corpse, either. He comes and goes through locked doors. He is “ascending” to his Father. Only those who are to be his witnesses see him. He breaks bread, and then vanishes. And he finally passes to God. In other words, the risen Jesus is also “in power”, as Paul puts it in Romans 1.4. Or, as he says later in the same letter, “We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God” (Romans 6.9-10).
In coming from the Old Testament to the New, we regularly find both continuity and discontinuity; and the ways in which the early Christians spoke of Jesus’s resurrection are an example of that. On the one hand, they spoke of it in ways that could only have originated within the resurrection hope of Judaism. On the other, they developed what they said about it in ways for which Judaism alone does not prepare us.
To be precise, early Christians claimed that Jesus the Messiah had already risen from the dead as a “first fruits” (1 Corinthians 15.20) of the promised general resurrection, and that they themselves, by virtue of their position as Jesus’s people, were already in possession of the Spirit, and therefore, in some sense, risen with him, their sins forgiven.
However, they also still looked for a final and complete resurrection in the future, of which their present experiences of life in the Spirit were only a “first fruit” (Romans 8.23) or down-payment (2 Corinthians 5.5).
In other words, the Great Divine Clean-Up was now no longer seen as a single future event, as, I imagine, the authors of 2 Maccabees and Wisdom would have expected. Rather, the Great Divine Clean-Up had become a series of events that had already begun, and will at some time have an end. Meanwhile, Christians are living somewhere in the middle — between the “already” and the “not yet”.
Moreover, while the foundation of the Great Divine Clean-Up is still God’s mighty act, as Israel always said it would be, now the faithful also have a part to play. Just as during Jesus’s ministry they had been sent out to proclaim God’s coming Kingdom, so now they are sent out as witnesses to proclaim the Crucified and Risen One.
IT HAS been said that the resurrection stories provide happy endings to the Gospel narratives, and, of course, this is, to some extent, true. None the less, these are hardly happy endings of the “and they all lived happily ever after” variety. The risen Jesus never simply appears so that everyone knows who he is and realises that everything is all right.
Rather, these stories tell of distress, confusion, and misunderstanding, followed by gradual recognition, and only then by dawning joy. They tell of one who is at first not even recognised, but then — through a gesture, a way of speaking, a manner of presiding at table — is recognised: a joyful recognition that at once, however, brings new challenges, new tasks, and new promises.
So, in the much misunderstood ending to Mark’s Gospel (16.1-8), the faithful women at the tomb experience “trembling and astonishment” when they are told that Jesus has risen. They leave the tomb in silence, saying nothing to anyone: they have no time for idle talk by the wayside, for they are on a divine mission, and are filled with holy dread.
They do well. Jesus’s resurrection is the dissolution of a boundary that, however much we feared it, was at least secure. If that does not fill us with awe, then we have not understood it.
Mark’s account, more emphatically than any of the others, underlines the mystery and awe-fulness of the resurrection — what Rudolf Otto taught us to call the mysterium tremendum; and this warns us against trying to sentimentalise or domesticate the mighty act of God in Christ.
Dr Christopher Bryan is a priest, academic, and novelist (www.christopherbryanonline.com). Among his scholarly publications is The Resurrection of the Messiah (OUP, 2011).