Resurrection: A Symbol of Hope by Lloyd Geering
Lloyd Geering is a Presbyterian minister and former Professor of Old Testament Studies at theological colleges in Brisbane and Dunedia, and Professor of Religious Studies at Victorian University in Wellington, New Zealand. He is author of Tomorrow's God (1994), The World to Come (1999) and Christianity Without God (2002). Published by Hodder and Stoughton: London, Auckland, Sydney, Toronto, 1971.
Chapter 9. The Path Prepares for a Sudden Turn
With the advent of Christianity the idiom of resurrection, whose path we have been following, assumed a new mode of expression and this transformation was comparatively sudden and dramatic. We may isolate three particular features of this change, which were substantially new to the idiom. First, it moved right into the center of the picture, so far as the Christians saw it, and this was in contrast with the secondary role that it had played in Judaism hitherto. Secondly, it was applied to a particular historical person, whereas within Israelite thought it had been used only of the whole community or of a class of people within it. Thirdly, it became proclaimed as a present fact whereas up until now it had been looked forward to only as a future hope. All three features are contained in the affirmation which is generally agreed to have been fundamental to Christianity from the beginning, namely, that God raised Jesus from the dead.
This raises for us two crucial questions. What gave rise to the Christian proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus? What exactly did they mean by this proclamation? Ever since the end of the first century the traditional view of the resurrection appeared to embody reasonably clear and final answers to these questions and it was supported by the New Testament records, which quickly came to be regarded as historical evidence written by eye-witnesses. Owing to the modern collapse of this tradition, already traced in Part I above, we now find ourselves faced with a question to which it is impossible to give a detailed answer. What was the course of events which gave rise to the Christian faith in the period of approximately twenty years between the death of Jesus and the writing of the earliest New Testament documents, the letters of Paul?
This difficulty is part of a larger one. Many New Testament scholars have now reached the conclusion that we do not possess sufficient data to write a history of the life of Jesus. G. Bornkamm begins his Jesus of Nazareth with the words, ‘No one is any longer in the position to write a life of Jesus. This is the scarcely questioned and surprising result today of an enquiry which for almost two hundred years has devoted prodigious and by no means fruitless effort to regain and expound the life of the historical Jesus, freed from all embellishment by dogma and doctrine.’1
How much more difficult it is to write the history of the rise of Christianity in the first twenty years! We have no contemporary documents from this period relevant to our quest. When the New Testament documents came to be written, the Christian movement had already become firmly established and was in the process of moving rapidly afield. The New Testament everywhere affirmed the resurrection of Jesus, or what is commonly called today the Easter faith, and none of it would have been written if it had not been for this faith. But the account of how the Easter faith originated is recorded in traditions most of which were written within the last twenty years of the first century AD.
These traditions, such as the resurrection narratives and the opening chapters of Acts, certainly give us some very valuable clues concerning the rise of the Easter faith, but each of these has to be examined and evaluated before it can be used in constructing even a skeleton history in the events immediately following the death of Jesus. There is a similar problem in the Old Testament. The faith of ancient Israel was founded upon the tradition that Moses led the Hebrew tribes out from slavery in Egypt into the promised land and that their journey was made possible by the intervention of their God YHWH at certain strategic points. Nearly all of the Old Testament is written in the light of this tradition, but our only evidence for this migration is now embedded in traditions which were not committed to writing until some three hundred years later.
For lack of the necessary historical evidence it is no longer possible to write historical accounts of either the Mosaic migration upon which the faith of Israel was founded, or the rise of the Easter faith on which Christianity is founded. In discussing the impact of modern historical enquiry upon theological study, W. Nicholls writes: ‘The aim of the historian is to reconstruct a situation which could have left just these traces and no other, but the aim is almost unattainable. Only if we knew that every significant aspect of the past situation had left a commensurate trace could we be assured that our reconstruction was authentic, given a perfect technique of assessment of the evidence and deduction from it. In practice, the traces are always incomplete and doubtless disproportionate to the structure of the situation that produced them. It is always possible that several different situations could have left the traces we have, and we have very few objective criteria for distinguishing between their relative probability.’2
It has sometimes been claimed by the defenders of the traditional view of the resurrection, that such was the nature of the Easter faith, that only that series of events to which it refers (from the discovery of the empty tomb to the Ascension forty days later) could adequately explain the rise of Christianity. While it is no longer possible to give an historical account of the rise of the Easter faith, it is possible to show that there are ways of understanding its origin other than the old tradition which has now collapsed. This we propose to do. First we shall turn to the most important relevant factors which existed in the situation at the death of Jesus. In the next chapter we shall show how they could have contributed to the rise of the Easter faith. Later we shall indicate how the Easter faith could have led to the New Testament traditions.
At the beginning of this book it was pointed out that it is fatal to assume that the word ‘resurrection’ can mean only one thing. In our study of the resurrection idiom we have now reached a point that is of vital importance. We cannot adequately approach the question, ‘What gave rise to the Easter faith?’ unless we also ask the question, ‘What exactly was meant when the affirmation that God had raised Jesus from the dead was first made?’
It is this question which leads us to the first important factor in the situation. Resurrection-talk was not new. No Easter faith would have arisen if there had not been already to hand the resurrection language in which it came to be expressed. The resurrection idiom in its eschatological form was a lively element in Jewish thought, and an essential pre-requisite for the rise of the Easter proclamation. Resurrection belonged to the end-time. It was to be one of God’s final and mighty acts before the great judgment. Resurrection was believed to have cosmic significance. It was in a different class altogether from such miracles as told of the restoration of a dead man to life.3
Further, resurrection was regarded as a future divine act which had special reference to those who had died a martyr’s death. Concern for the ultimate vindication of the martyr had been a prominent factor within Jewish thought in promoting the hope for a final resurrection. Even if no others were to be raised from the dead at the last day, the martyrs certainly would be. There was even the hint from time to time that some element of divine rule would be delegated to them in the New Age. We must not overlook this close association between martyrdom and resurrection. It was already present in Jewish thought and it continued to play a prominent part in Christian thought, so much so that martyrdom came to be regarded as the quickest and surest way to the heavenly realm.4
Resurrection was an eschatological hope, and this usually meant that it was a divine action which was to take place at the end-time. But we have also seen in the previous chapter that there were various ways of understanding this event. In some of the more spiritual versions of the resurrection hope, those destined for the resurrection life could be thought of as entering into that promise at the point of death. It was this stream of thought that came to expression in the Passion narrative where Luke recorded Jesus as saying to the penitent thief; ‘today you shall be with me in Paradise’.5 We must be careful to do justice to the fluid nature of the forms in which the resurrection hope was expressed, and to recognize that they were alternatives which could not be easily reconciled with each other.
The final aspect of this factor that we must remember is that the political and religious situation was such that many thought the end-time was very near and about to break in upon them ‘like a thief in the night’.6 For a section of the Jews, as for the early Christians, there was an air of expectancy. The end of the present age was imminent. If the end was near, the resurrection was near. One important aspect of the Easter proclamation was the conviction that the New Age had already broken into the remaining short period of the Old Age.
The second factor (and one that is often not given sufficient attention) was the central place already given in Jewish thought to Holy Scripture. Christianity, in its origins, was closely associated with the synagogue, and it was not until thirty or forty years later that the growing rift became final and the two movements became mutually exclusive. The life of the synagogue centered round the reading, study and expounding of Holy Scripture.
The Jewish methods of studying and interpreting their Bible were very different from those we employ today. We find ourselves quite unconvinced by much of the ancient rabbinical reasoning, a little of which is reflected in the letters of Paul.7 Nevertheless the Jews spent much time trying to learn how the Scriptures they had inherited from a former period were to be seen as relevant to their own day. New and striking events were linked with ancient prophecies. Men turned back to the Scriptures to see what light they shed on the events of their own time. The first Christians inherited this concern with the Bible from their Jewish origin, and they used similar methods of interpretation. These had their origin in the post-exilic period, even though most of the material to which they gave rise was not written in its final form until the first few centuries of the Christian era.
Any exposition which intended to penetrate beneath the simple straightforward meaning of the text and gain from it all that it might be regarded as saying by implication was called a midrash.8 There were two types of midrash. That type which led to a clear and more precise understanding of the law as it was to be observed in one’s own daily life was called midrash halachah (lit, ‘walking’, because it showed the mode of behavior in which one should walk). That type which was more homiletical and devotional, intended to strengthen conviction, and to aid the understanding of the Jewish heritage, was called midrash haggadah (lit. ‘narration’, for it achieved its aim very often by telling a story).9 Since the Semitic mind was quite unaccustomed to our kind of philosophical and abstract thought, midrash haggadah fulfilled a very important function in Jewish education. Haggadah included ‘often by way of biblical exegesis, ethical and moral teaching, theological speculation, legends, folklore . . . and expressions of messianic faith and longing’.10 It elaborated ‘the stories of Scripture so as to draw from them the maximum of moral instruction’10 but it also made use of ‘the free individual creation of every generation’.10 It eventually abounded in stories and anecdotes bearing upon the lives of biblical characters and post-biblical Jewish saints and heroes.
The book of Jonah is sometimes regarded as an early midrashic writing, stemming from the study of 2 Kings 14:25, but with its own distinctive message to proclaim. The story of the flight into Egypt by Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus may have originated as a midrash inspired from the text by Hosea, ‘1 called my son out of Egypt’.11 If the story of the burial by Joseph of Arimathea owes anything at all to the influence of such a verse as Isaiah 53:9, then it would be a further example of the midrashic study of the Bible as a method of answering current problems. As the disciples and their friends lived through the first weeks and months after the crucifixion of Jesus it is most unlikely that they abandoned the Bible, and if; from it, they sought illumination for their perplexity, then the methods of interpretation12 we have here briefly outlined throw some light on how they would have gone about it.
Thirdly, we turn to some Jewish beliefs of the first century which could have a bearing on the rise of the Easter faith. There were some very important antecedents. Jesus was not the first person who was believed to be still alive after his earthly life had come to an end.
We need not dwell on the mythical Enoch, for although his name was being used by apocalyptic writers as an obvious person through whom divine revelations might be thought to be made, he contributes little to our enquiry at this point. It is quite otherwise, however, with Elijah, the ninth century prophet, who, according to the Biblical tradition, had been carried up to heaven in a whirlwind riding in a chariot of fire, drawn by horses of fire.13 Elijah had made such an impression on the men of his own generation as a man of vitality and divine power that he continued to be a living legend. The story of his ascension to heaven evidently arose from the fact that such a man of God could not be conceived as having died like other men.
In first-century Judaism Elijah was universally accepted as being still alive. The very last verse of the biblical books of the prophets reads, ‘Look, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will reconcile fathers to sons and sons to fathers, lest I come and put the land under a ban to destroy it.’14 In popular Jewish thought Elijah came to be regarded as ‘the ever-present prophet, wandering incognito over the earth, sometimes in the garb of a nomad, to aid in moments of distress and danger, appearing to mystics and scholars to teach them hidden truths, and acting as celestial messenger’.15 He was thought to be present at every ceremony of circumcision as the guardian spirit and witness, and on such occasions a special chair was reserved for him. There was a strong expectation that Elijah would come down to earth from heaven just prior to the end-time, and it was said that all doubtful interpretations of the law would be resolved ‘when Elijah comes’. At the annual celebration of the Passover festival it was the custom to set aside a cup of wine in readiness for the prophet.
In the period we are studying, Elijah had become an eschatological figure and was becoming increasingly prominent in Jewish thought and imagination. The New Testament gives ample evidence that the expectation of the return of Elijah was a very live issue in the first century. The Gospels report that some wondered if Jesus was the returned Elijah, and that Jesus, in turn, identified him with John the Baptist.
The disciples put a question to him: ‘Why then do our teachers say that Elijah must come first?’ He replied, ‘Yes, Elijah will come and set everything right. But I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they failed to recognize him, and worked their will upon him; and in the same way the Son of Man is to suffer at their hands.’ Then the disciples understood that he meant John the Baptist.16
The first point to note about the Elijah tradition is that in the first century AD. the Jews were already well acquainted with the idea that a man from past history was still alive, and though he was usually hidden from sight by being present in heaven, he could influence men by giving them understanding for their minds and courage for their distress. He could even appear among men from time to time but only the very discerning would recognize him. In periods of crisis the expectation of an imminent appearance grew stronger.
The second point to note is that when the biblical legends stemming from the historical Elijah were taking shape, there was no current belief at all in resurrection. If, however, there had been, then it is possible that resurrection stories might have grown up about Elijah instead, or alongside, of the ascension story. As it happened, the belief that Elijah was still alive was expressed in another and simpler way. There is a common Hebrew word, usually translated as ‘take’ or ‘receive’, which was used to signify the divine act by which, it was believed, God sometimes delivered men from the extinction of life entailed by death. Pre-historic tradition stated that ‘Having walked with God, Enoch was seen no more, because God had taken him away.’17 The word is used five times in the legend which tells how ‘The time came when the Loan would take Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind.’18 We find the Psalmists using it when they expressed their ultimate hope as follows:
But God will ransom my life,
Thou dost guide me by thy counsel,
Thirdly we must note that there are some quite striking parallels between the traditions of Elijah current in first century Judaism, and the convictions which the infant Christian church came to entertain about their crucified Lord. Both Elijah and Jesus were regarded as prophets, of both it was said that they restored the dead to life, both were believed to have ascended heaven, of both it was claimed that they had passed on their spirit or power to others, and both were expected to return in person at the end-time. Elisha had been told by Elijah in response to his request for a double share of Elijah’s spirit, that if he saw Elijah as he was taken up into heaven, the wish would be granted.21 The apostles were the witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus, and the Spirit was given to them on the day of Pentecost (according to Acts) or on Easter day (according to John).
Such parallels as these are hardly all accidental. It seems quite possible that the Elijah tradition exerted some influence on the shape the stories of Jesus began to assume in the early period after his death. There were of course some very important differences between the two men, and one of these was that whereas no one knew what happened to Elijah at the end of his earthly life, it was an established fact that Jesus had been crucified by the Roman authorities. If the followers of Jesus, for any particular reasons, were to regard Jesus as at least the equal of Elijah, then the knowledge of the way their master had died called for something more specific than the simple claim that God had ‘taken’ him. The language of the current resurrection hope met that need.
There was another figure in Jewish tradition to be coupled with Elijah and that is Moses. In the intertestamental period Moses came to be regarded as easily the most significant person in all Jewish history, being the human vehicle through whom was conveyed from God not only the written law, but also the oral tradition which had come to accompany it. In the Bible the humanity and fallibility of Moses were strictly maintained. Moreover his death was reported there, though in a curious way. ‘There in the land of Moab Moses the servant of the Loan died . . . He was buried in a valley in Moab . . . but to this day no one knows his burial-place.’22
In spite of this biblical report of his death, various haggadic stories grew up about his ultimate destiny and they fastened on the odd way in which his burial was reported. When Jesus son of Sirach came to sing the praises of ‘Moses of blessed memory’, he said that ‘The Loan made him equal in glory to the angels’,23 and this suggests that he was destined for an honored place with Elijah in the heavenly realm.
In the first century there was a widespread legend that Moses had not really died but had been taken bodily into heaven. Josephus describes it as follows:
Now as he went thence to the place where he was to vanish out of their sight, they all followed after him weeping; but Moses beckoned with his hand to those that were remote from him, and bade them stay behind in quiet, while he exhorted those that were near to him that they would not render his departure so lamentable. Whereupon they thought they ought to grant him that favor, to let him depart according as he himself desired; so they restrained themselves, though weeping still towards one another. All those who accompanied him were the senate, and Eleazar the high priest, and Joshua their commander. Now as soon as they were come to the mountain called Abarim, . . . he dismissed the senate; and as he was going to embrace Eleazar and Joshua, and was still discoursing with them, a cloud stood over him on the sudden, and he disappeared in a certain valley, although he wrote in the holy books that he died, which was done out of fear, lest they should venture to say that, because of his extraordinary virtue, he went to God.24
Acquaintance with this legend formed part of the necessary background to the Gospel account of the transfiguration of Jesus in which it is reported that three of the disciples were led by Jesus up a high mountain where he conversed with Elijah and Moses as they appeared to him. The same legend prompted the writing of a book entitled ‘The Ascension of Moses’, which was probably familiar, to the author of Jude25 and was known to Clement of Alexandria and Origen.
Besides these widespread beliefs concerning Elijah and Moses there is one further story worth mentioning, for it illustrates how easily the memory of a highly honored figure could give rise to a belief in his exaltation following his death. It also shows what comfort and inspiration men received from such a story in a time of stress and crisis. This story revolves round Onias, a high priest in Jerusalem in the second century BC., reputed to be a holy and righteous man, who was believed by some to have been martyred for his faith.26
The author of 2 Maccabees tells us how Judas Maccabaeus encouraged his soldiers by relating an experience he had had.
He also told them of a trustworthy dream he had had, a sort of waking vision, which put them all in good heart. What he had seen was this: the former high priest Onias appeared to him, that great gentleman of modest bearing and mild disposition, apt speaker, and exponent from childhood of the good life. With outstretched hands he was praying earnestly for the whole Jewish community. Next there appeared in the same attitude a figure of great age and dignity, whose wonderful air of authority marked him as a man of the utmost distinction. Then Onias said, ‘This is God’s prophet Jeremiah, who loves his fellow-Jews and offers many prayers for our people and for the holy city.’ Jeremiah extended his right hand and delivered to Judas a golden sword, saying as he did so, ‘Take this holy sword, the gift of God, and with it crush your enemies.’27
This account of a ‘trustworthy dream’ or ‘waking vision’, attributed to Judas Maccabaeus, did not develop into a belief about the continuing influence of Onias. But it is a relevant illustration of how readily the believed martyrdom of a saintly and venerated figure could not only bring encouragement but originate convictions about his ultimate destiny. The greater the impression such a man made upon his fellows, the more likely it would be that in the event of his martyrdom they would be stimulated to affirm his heavenly exaltation.
At the time of the death of Jesus the last and most important factor in the situation, which could have led to the rise of the Easter faith, was the impression that had already been made by the person of Jesus himself. Those who maintain that only a miraculous and supernatural event could have led the disciples from despair to the Easter faith, unwittingly belittle the impact that Jesus had made in the course of his short ministry. It is a travesty of the Easter faith to think of it as arising because at last a man had given to his friends unmistakable evidence that he had conquered death, and that this man happened to be called Jesus, and that because of this they began to take a fresh interest in what he had said and done. The truth rather is that Jesus had left with his disciples such a vivid impression of the quality of life to be found in him, that when they were confronted with his death on the cross, they came to believe that death could not overpower a life of this quality. It is Jesus himself who is the key to the Easter faith. Since men had already been ready to believe that Moses and Elijah had been raised to heaven, how much more should those who had been Jesus’ intimate disciples, and who had recognized in him one greater than Moses, come to the conviction that God had raised him from the dead! The early Christians did not believe in the resurrection, as such, but in the risen Christ. The Easter faith was not an affirmation of the resurrection hope, but an affirmation about Jesus himself; expressed in terms of the idiom of resurrection.
1. p. 13.
2. Systematic and Philosophical Theology, pp. 55-6
3. The title Man Alive which Michael Green chose for his popular study of the resurrection of Jesus misses the eschatological significance of the Easter proclamation and puts the emphasis in quite the wrong place.
4. e.g. Rev. 20:4-6.
5. Luke 23:43. It has often been noted that these words are inconsistent with the common tradition that Jesus rose on the third day.
6. Thess. 5:2.
7. e.g. Gal. 3:16.
8. We first meet this term in 2 Chron. 13:22, 24:27.
9. Sometimes the term is written as Aggadah.
10. The Encyclopedia of the Jewish Religion, p. 15.
11. Hosea 11:1.
12. In Acts (e.g. 2:16, ‘this is what the prophet spoke of’) we have examples of the method of interpretation used in the Dead Sea Scrolls and known as pesher (‘interpretation’ or ‘explanation’).
13. 2 Kings 2:11.
14. Malachi 4:6.
15. The Encyclopedia of the Jewish Religion, pp. 126-7.
16. Matt. 17:10-13.
17. Gen. 5:24.
18. 2 Kings 2:1.
19. Ps. 49:15.
20. Ps. 73:24.
21. 2 Klrigs 2:9-1O.
22. Deut. 34:5-6.
23. Ecclesiasticus 45:1-2.
24. Antiquities of the Jews, IV:VIII:46.
25. See Jude 9.
26. Scholars disagree as to whether the account of his martyrdom is historical.
27. 2 Maccabees 15:11-16.