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 10: Resurrection as an Idiom for Exaltation
What happened to the disciples after the death of Jesus? There is an early tradition that ‘the disciples all deserted him and ran away’.1 This is probably a reliable pointer to what actually happened, for a story with such cowardly implications is not likely to have been invented by later imagination if in fact some or all of the disciples actually stayed within the precincts of Jerusalem. Further, it is widely recognized that the earliest references to appearances of the risen Christ are located in Galilee rather than in Jerusalem. Such clues suggest that on the capture and crucifixion of Jesus the disciples fled from Jerusalem, and before very long returned to their home territory of Galilee.
It is common to assume that the crucifixion of their Master left the disciples bewildered, depressed and utterly disillusioned. This may well be correct for the short initial period. But what then? Is it reasonable to maintain that, in the absence of any further dramatic event, they would then have returned to their original homes and individual callings as if nothing had happened to them at all during the period of their discipleship? Such a thought does no justice to the character of the man with whom they had recently spent so much of their time. However much the Gospel portraits may have to be scaled down to enable us to see the historical figure of Jesus, they still show us a man who made an impact of such magnitude on those who knew him best and who had left all to follow him, that no unexpected calamity, such as the crucifixion, could have erased this from their thoughts and their experience. Goguel pertinently remarks, ‘The first germ of the idea of resurrection must be found in the thoughts of Jesus’ disciples before their master’s death. The faith which possessed their hearts after the crisis of the passion was not new but was transfigured and transposed.’2
Jesus, by his teaching, his bearing, his faith, his magnetic personality, and indeed everything about him, must already have influenced his disciples to such an extent that it was impossible for them simply to accept his crucifixion as an unfortunate event. The death of such a man as this, and particularly by a method implying the curse of divine rejection, must have been an ‘offense’3 to them, an enigma which would not let their minds rest until they found the answer. But where was an answer to be found? To whom or what could they turn to find a solution to the ‘scandal’ of Jesus’ death?
Perhaps the disciples turned to the teaching of Jesus himself. If we had access to all that they had been taught by Jesus, we would perhaps find there some very important clues which could help to explain the rise of the Easter faith. If, for example, Jesus had clearly informed his disciples in the few months prior to his death that he was to fall into the power of his enemies and be killed, and then rise again after three days,4 as the Gospels report, they could hardly help but be in some state of expectation after the crucifixion, even if we allow that ‘they did not understand what he said, and were afraid to ask’.5 But such prior intimations as these are frequently regarded by scholars today as prophecies after the event, these utterances being placed in the mouth of Jesus by later Christian tradition. While we must reckon with the possibility that Jesus sowed the seeds of the Easter faith in the minds of his disciples before he died, we are not in a position to substantiate this, partly because much of his teaching has not survived, and partly because that which has survived can not be clearly isolated from the form and expression given to it by the early church some time after the Easter faith had already taken root.
Let us turn next to something we do possess, namely, the Jewish Holy scriptures. The New Testament makes it clear that the early Christians studied the scriptures in the belief that they held many clues to the identity and work of Christ. It is possible therefore that the disciples themselves searched the Scriptures to find the answer to the problem posed by the death of Jesus. The later Easter narratives still contain hints suggesting that this was in fact the case.
When the two despondent disciples on the road to Emmaus expressed to the stranger their bewilderment that such a powerful prophet as Jesus should have been condemned to death and be crucified, we are told that the risen Christ ‘began with Moses and all the prophets, and explained to them the passages which referred to himself in every part of the scriptures’.6 The story implies that the Scriptures, when properly interpreted, made it clear that the Messiah was ‘bound to suffer thus before entering upon his glory’7 When finally they recognized the identity of this stranger as they shared the evening meal before he vanished from their sight, they said to each other, ‘Did we not feel our hearts on fire as he talked with us on the road and explained the scriptures to us?’8 Later in the story we are told how they shared their experience with the rest of the disciples. Once again they became aware of Jesus in their midst.
And he said to them, This is what I meant by saying, while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and in the prophets and psalms was bound to be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures. ‘This,’ he said, ‘is what is written: that the Messiah is to suffer death and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that in his name repentance bringing the forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed to all nations.’9
This Easter story comes to us in a late form, as the reference to the universal mission indicates; it consequently illustrates that late in the first century, when one might have thought that apostolic testimony to the appearances of the risen Christ would have been sufficient evidence to support the Easter faith, references were still being made to the connection between Scripture and the rise of the Easter faith. In the same way the comment of John the Evangelist, ‘until then they had not understood the scriptures, which showed that he must rise from the dead’,10 implies that a right understanding of scripture was an important step in leading men to the Easter faith.
When we turn from these late narratives to the earliest testimony to the Easter faith which we possess, we find the same insistent appeal to scripture. It is widely recognized that when Paul wrote to the Corinthians on this subject about the middle of the first century, he was quoting a well-established credal formula which he had received from early Christian tradition and which ran, ‘Christ died for our sins, in accordance with the scriptures; he was buried; he was raised to life on the third day, according to the scriptures.’11
The early Christians evidently believed that there were Scripture passages, which, when rightly interpreted, made it clear why a servant of God, of the caliber they had recognized in Jesus of Nazareth, should have ended his life in a criminal’s death. They believed that Scripture further indicated that, far from being a final disaster, the sufferings and death of Jesus were the prelude to his entering into glory. What were those -- passages?
The most obvious passage which could be interpreted as a forecast of the death of Jesus is what is now commonly called the Fourth Servant Song, Isaiah 52:13-53:12. This not only paints a vivid picture of a righteous man being unjustly put to death, but it declares it to be all part of a divine plan, for the man suffers vicariously for the sins of others.
Yet on himself he bore our sufferings,
Once this passage is applied to the crucified Jesus, we need search no further, for this in itself would have been quite sufficient Scriptural warrant for that element of the Easter message which proclaimed ‘Christ died for our sins, in accordance with the scriptures.’11 To those who understood the ‘Christian’ meaning of this prophecy (and such other passages as were so used), the cross of Jesus ceased to be an ‘offence’ and became part of the message of Easter joy. The Easter message began with the right understanding of the crucifixion. It continued to be the main plank of the Christian proclamation, so that Paul could write: ‘But God forbid that I should boast of anything but the cross of’ our Lord Jesus Christ.’13‘I resolved that while I was with you I would think of nothing but Jesus Christ -- Christ nailed to the cross.’14 In Paul’s letters the references to the death of Christ are about half as many again as the references to his resurrection.
However, if the Fourth Servant Song was really to be understood as a prophecy of the crucifixion of Jesus, and if this meant that by means of this scripture God was declaring that his death was not a miserable failure but a victory, in that it was becoming a source of blessing to men, then the rest of the Song had some suggestive things to say about this same Jesus.
Yet the Lord took thought for his tortured servant
The same Song which helped to solve the stumbling block of the crucifixion also suggested the continuing role of Jesus after his death, as one who was ‘fully vindicated’ in order that he might ‘vindicate many’. We see here the seeds of the double proclamation which formed the heart of the Christian Gospel, death and exaltation. Paul put it this way, ‘He was given up to death for our misdeeds, and raised to life to justify us.’16
The Fourth Servant Song was not the only passage in scripture where Christians found what was to them a clear reference to Christ. We have already pointed out that biblical interpreters in the first century used very different methods from ours and some of the interpretations which men of those days found very convincing may no longer seem valid to us. The author of Acts makes it clear in the speech he attributes to Peter on the day of Pentecost that first-century Christians believed the ultimate destiny of Jesus was explicitly revealed in the following quotations from the Psalms:
moreover, my flesh shall dwell in hope,
The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool."18
These are probably only a few of the passages which could have helped the early followers of Jesus if they searched the scriptures to find the meaning of his death. What biblical passage lay behind the words of the credal formula quoted by Paul, ‘He was raised to life on the third day, according to the scriptures’? There is only one passage in the Old Testament where resurrection language is linked with ‘the third day’ and that is Hosea 6:2, which we have already recognized as constituting a quite fascinating milestone in the path of the idiom of resurrection, in that it links Israelite thought with that of ancient Canaan.
after two days he will revive us,
Gerhard Gloege, along with some other New Testament scholars, believes that ‘the early dating of the resurrection on the "third day" was certainly influenced by Hos. 6:2’.20 It is true that the New Testament nowhere refers to this passage. But Gloege points out that there is evidence in the Jewish Targum,21 which ‘shows that Jesus’ resurrection "on the third day" was regarded as the fulfillment of Hosea’s prophecy by Christians at a very early date; it erased the precise chronological reference "after two days" and "on the third day" and replaced them by the more general phrases "in the days of consolation" and "on the day of resurrection", in order to exclude the Christian interpretation.’22
Before going further we must examine more closely the kind of convictions which were likely to emerge if the bewildered disciples had searched the Bible to find an answer to the crucifixion. We have seen clearly enough how they could have been led to the conviction that Jesus died for the sins of men. If they were trying to understand the ultimate destiny of the crucified Jesus, then such passages as lent themselves to relevant reinterpretation might have led to a conviction in the divine vindication and heavenly exaltation of the crucified Jesus. But since we have seen in earlier chapters that the Old Testament had only a little to say directly on the subject of resurrection, how did the exaltation of Jesus come to be proclaimed as resurrection?
At this point we must take into account the conclusions of a growing number of New Testament scholars to the effect that in the earliest Christian traditions the resurrection of Christ was in any case actually understood in terms of exaltation. R. Bultmann wrote, ‘according to the oldest view, Christ’s resurrection coincides with his exaltation to heavenly glory’.23 G. Bornkamm agrees, saying, ‘What is certainly the oldest view held by the Church made no distinction between the resurrection of Christ and his elevation to the right hand of the Father, while only later was there developed, in addition, the theory of the resurrected Christ walking the earth for a time and only subsequently ascending into heaven.’24 E. Schweizer writes, ‘that the exaltation really dominated the thought of the early church is also shown by the fact that the oldest tradition barely distinguished between Easter and Ascension. . . It may well be asked if the reports of the first appearances (I Cor. 15:5) have been lost because they told of Jesus’ exaltation to God and on account of that were not sufficiently realistic in the eyes of a later generation . . . The view that the event of Easter was the appointment to heavenly glory can still be traced behind the Synoptic tradition of the resurrection.’25
Paul spoke in terms of exaltation when writing to the Philippians (and these words are often regarded as pointing to an earlier credal form), ‘Bearing the human likeness, revealed in human shape, he humbled himself, and in obedience accepted even death -- death on a cross. Therefore God raised him to the heights and bestowed the name above all names, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow -- in heaven, on earth, and in the depths -- and every tongue confess, "Jesus Christ is Lord", to the glory of God the Father.’26 We should note here how death is followed immediately by exaltation and how this leads to the earliest and simplest Christian creed, ‘Jesus Christ is Lord’.
The speeches attributed to Peter by the author of Acts contain the same emphasis on exaltation. ‘The God of our fathers raised up Jesus whom you have done to death by hanging him on a gibbet. He it is whom God has exalted with his own right hand as leader and savior, to grant Israel repentance and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to all this, and so is the Holy Spirit given by God to those who are obedient to him.’27
The letter to the Hebrews is noteworthy for the fact that it makes only one reference to resurrection, ‘the God of peace who brought up from the dead our Lord Jesus’.28 It elsewhere speaks of Jesus after his death only in terms of exaltation. ‘When he had brought about the purgation of sins, he took his seat at the right hand of Majesty on high, raised as far above the angels, as the title he has inherited is superior to theirs . . . and he has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of Majesty in the heavens, a ministrant in the real sanctuary, the tent pitched by the Lord and not by man.’29
These are some of the indications that in the earliest expressions of Christian belief still preserved in the New Testament there was no clear distinction between exaltation (being raised to the right hand of God) and resurrection (being raised from the dead). C. F. Evans has pointed out that ‘it may be too easily assumed that exaltation to share the authority of God in the last things was a corollary, or extension of resurrection, whereas what may have been prior as a . . . concept was "seeing Jesus our Lord" as the exalted and coming One, and resurrection a corollary or extension of that.’30
In trying to trace the rise of the Easter faith, we must reckon with the real possibility that at the very beginning it was not expressed explicitly in terms of resurrection, but in terms of the divine exaltation of the crucified Jesus. The Easter faith began to take shape as the response to the ‘offence’ of the cross. It saw the death of Jesus as a vicarious sacrifice for the sins of men, and because Jesus had submitted to the way of the cross even though he had done nothing to deserve it, he was vindicated by God, and ‘allotted a portion with the great’.15
And who were the great? The two figures who stood out most prominently in the current Jewish traditions were Moses and Elijah. At this point we must examine how these traditions may have contributed to the rise of the Easter faith. The more the disciples had become impressed by the unique caliber of Jesus during his ministry, and the more their study of the scriptures may have led them to believe that Jesus had been ‘allotted a portion with the great’,15 the more they would have made comparisons between Jesus and such men as Moses and Elijah.
The New Testament reflects such comparisons. John the Evangelist wrote, ‘for while the Law was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.’31 The author of Hebrews wrote. ‘Moses also was faithful in God’s household; and Jesus, of whom I speak, has been deemed worthy of greater honor than Moses.’32 If Jewish tradition, as we have earlier seen, could reach the point of elevating Moses to a place in heaven even though the scriptures clearly referred to his death and burial, then the disciples had only to com, to the conviction that Jesus was at least on a par with Moses in order to draw the conclusion that the crucified Jesus too had been exalted to heaven.
In the last chapter we discussed the parallels between Jesus and Elijah. The current tradition of Elijah’s presence in heaven meant that as soon as the disciples reached the conclusion that, because of his sacrificial death, Jesus was deserving of an even higher honor than Elijah, it was but a logical step to conclude that God had exalted the crucified Jesus and raised him to heaven to join Elijah and Moses.
The association of Jesus with Moses and Elijah is exactly what the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus proclaims. Here the three disciples were given a pre-view of the exaltation of Jesus which was to eventuate after his crucifixion. It is significant that Mark tells the story (and Matthew and Luke follow suit) immediately after Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ, and Jesus’ own forecast of the coming crucifixion.
If the story of the Transfiguration stems from an historical experience within the ministry of Jesus, then the disciples had already learned to associate Jesus with Moses and Elijah before the crucifixion. Meyer and Harnack regarded the Transfiguration as the experience which later prompted the rise of the Easter faith and caused the disciples to see the risen and exalted Jesus.33
On the other hand, it has become increasingly difficult to interpret the Transfiguration, even if of a visionary nature, as an historical experience within the life time of Jesus, for if the unique character of Jesus had been thus revealed to these three disciples, it makes their later behavior rather inconsistent. Many scholars have consequently interpreted it as a resurrection narrative which has been read back into the earthly life of Jesus.34 Whether it stems from an actual experience of the disciples, or whether it is a symbolic account of the much more complex spiritual experience of the disciples after the crucifixion, it is very difficult to determine. But it does seem more probable that the disciples came to the conviction of Jesus’ Messiahship only when they came to understand the significance and meaning of his death. It seems possible therefore that the Transfiguration story is a witness to the fact that, as the disciples were led to understand the positive significance that Christians have seen in the death of Jesus, they were prompted at the same time to recognize that Jesus ranked with Moses and Elijah. In taking the sins of men upon himself, Jesus, however, had done more than Moses and Elijah. He had opened up a new and living way into the Kingdom of God, and, in doing, so had become the Lord and Savior of men. Since Elijah and Moses had been exalted to heaven, then Jesus too had been vindicated, raised from death and exalted to heaven.
This, of course, was the Easter message and nothing less than this could have constituted the Easter message, and initiated in men the Easter faith. Goguel rightly points out that if ‘the resurrection was only the reversal of the undeserved fate to which Jesus had submitted and nothing more than his rehabilitation . . . it would not have created a new order of things. It might have saved Jesus, perhaps; it would not have saved mankind.’35 The Easter message was nothing less than the assertion that the crucified Jesus had been exalted to the right hand of God to become the Lord and Savior of men. But such an assertion, though it may be confessed by faith, is of such a character that it does not admit of tangible and visible demonstration. Thus C. F. Evans notes the possibility that ‘the concept of exaltation to the right hand of God . . . was prior to the idea of resurrection in establishing belief in Jesus’ lordship and messiahship, for it leads directly to it, while resurrection from the dead, as such, does not’.36
If the Easter faith is understood primarily as the conviction of the exaltation of the crucified Jesus to be Lord and Savior, it is possible to understand how it could have arisen among the dispirited disciples as their response to the ‘offence’ of the crucifixion of their Master, while they wrestled with that problem in the light of the impact made on them by the life and teaching of Jesus, and in the light of their study of the scriptures, of their current convictions about similar figures and of their belief about God. Because the exaltation of Jesus to be the Lord of men is a conviction which can be apprehended only by faith, it is hard to see how such a conviction could have grown in their minds except in the same way as similar convictions about God had always emerged in the past. Faith in God and in God’s actions throughout the history of Israel had come to birth as men reflected on their experience in the light of inherited traditions. The convictions that came to them were often so strong, (as in the case of the prophets) that they interpreted them as having been revealed or proclaimed to them by God himself.
The Easter message took shape as the disciples wrestled with the ‘offence’ of the cross through the various channels open to them. In these ways they came to hear from God the message of the vindication of Jesus, which was simply that ‘God had made this Jesus, whom men crucified, both Lord and Messiah’37, as Peter is said to have proclaimed. If the Easter message developed in this way, then it is unlikely to have become clearly understood all at once, nor in such a way as to leave no room for doubt or uncertainty.
There is a good deal of evidence, still continuing in the later and more developed narratives, which suggests that the Easter faith did not come to birth within the disciples as a result of one, sudden, epoch-making and fully convincing disclosure. There is much which points to the fact that even when the exaltation of Jesus came to be spoken of in terms of resurrection, the grounds for this conviction were still of an ambiguous character, and open to more than one interpretation.
Mark’s story of the empty tomb, without the message sent by God, was certainly inconclusive, and even the stories of the appearances contained an element of doubt and uncertainty. In Matthew’s story of how the eleven disciples went to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them, he tells us that ‘When they saw him, they fell prostrate before him, though some were doubtful’.38 The experiences commonly referred to as the appearances of the risen Christ did not occur all at one time. Moreover, the fact that, with the exception of Paul, only those who had already been followers of the earthly Jesus are reported to have seen the risen Christ appear to them, suggests that the Easter message was not something which could be pressed home by means of any objective proofs. Rather it was a conviction which finally came to possess the group of men who had been most closely associated with Jesus, and it came to possess them not all at one time, but slowly and spasmodically over a period of time.
In this development the evidence nearly all points to the primacy of Peter. He is named first in Paul’s list of witnesses, and he is given special mention in the Gospels of Mark, Luke and John.39 The fact that Peter seems to have played a leading role in the primitive church could have been due to the fact that he was the first to ‘see’ the exalted Jesus. Yet the New Testament has nowhere preserved any account of the circumstances of this first ‘appearance’ to Peter.40 B. W. Bacon hinted that the oldest tradition simply described how Peter recovered after the initial shock and assumed leadership, and traces of this are to be found in Luke 22:32, ‘but for you I have prayed that your faith may not fail; and when you have come to yourself, you must lend strength to your brothers.’41
We must now turn our attention to the New Testament witness concerning the appearances of the exalted Christ, for most scholars agree that they constitute the oldest element in the New Testament tradition of the rise of the Easter faith. If there is one thing more than anything else which could be referred to as the catalyst which enabled the Easter faith to become a reality, it would be the experiences of those apostles, beginning with Peter, which made them convinced that Jesus had appeared to them. But even the ‘appearances’ came only to men who had close association with Jesus during his ministry, and who, since his crucifixion, had had time to wrestle with the shock of his death in the various ways we have outlined. The memory of Jesus, the scriptures, and the Jewish traditions of Elijah and Moses, all contributed to the seeds of the Easter message, and were making their contribution even before the appearances. The appearances brought the seeds to life. They enabled the Easter message to be heard in such a way that the Easter faith burst into life.
We must remember that in Israelite tradition there was a long history of visionary experiences, commencing with the ancient theophanies in which God was thought to have ‘appeared’ to men in human form. Later such experiences were openly acknowledged to be subjective visions, though none the less real for that. Theophanies and visions were normally associated with times of crisis and stress, and they enabled those who received them to reach a new conviction, or to make a necessary decision.
The same language was used of the appearances of Jesus as of the earlier theophanies. That is, we are simply told he ‘appeared’ (lit., ‘was seen’). But whereas the stories of theophanies and visions referred to in the Old Testament may in some cases be legendary in character, we have the best possible historical evidence concerning at least some of the appearances of Jesus. This is because of the first-hand witness of Paul, who, in his own words, writes, ‘In the end he appeared even to me.’42 In addition, he not only transmits to us the early tradition that Christ ‘appeared to Cephas’, but tells us elsewhere that some time after his own conversion he went ‘up to Jerusalem to get to know Cephas’43 and ‘stayed with him for a fortnight’.43 Since Paul and Peter are likely to have discussed all the important aspects of the Christian Gospel together, we can take Paul’s testimony as the equivalent of first-hand testimony by Peter that Jesus had appeared to him. We are bound to accept as historically substantiated that Paul and Peter both believed that Jesus had appeared to them. This apostolic testimony to the appearances of Jesus remains an irreducible datum of the Easter faith.
But this most important yet simple statement almost exhausts the firsthand evidence of the appearances of Jesus. We possess no firsthand description of the nature of what they saw, or the circumstances of their experiences. We are left with many important questions unanswered. Was it a wholly subjective vision, intensely real, but taking place within Peter’s own mind? Was it an objective vision, which others too would have witnessed had they been there? Did Peter see Jesus just as he had known him during his earthly ministry or did he see a glorified Jesus? Did Jesus appear as if he were standing in front of Peter? Or was it a vision of Jesus at the right hand of God? We do not know, and we must resist the temptation to assume that the vision must be interpreted in the light of any of the later resurrection narratives. Von Campenhausen thinks that ‘there is a distinct probability that the first appearance of the risen Christ to Peter was at the fish haul on the lake of Gennesaret in Galilee’.44 Many have regarded the Transfiguration as an early resurrection story, and if, as Bultmann suggests, it was originally told only of Peter, it may contain some clues pointing to Peter’s initial experience.45
We do not learn much more about the real nature of the appearances of Jesus when we turn to Paul, for he nowhere spells out for us the nature of the experience in which he saw Jesus. The author of Acts has given us three accounts of Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus, and in not one of them does he say that Paul saw Jesus, but rather that Paul was blinded by a light and heard the voice of Jesus. In the Lucan chronology, however, the appearances all took place in the forty days before the Ascension, and this put them in a different category from the experience of Paul. Yet the sources used by the author of Acts did not observe this distinction, for each of them in an indirect way testified to the belief that Paul saw Jesus.46 This too was Paul’s own testimony. Moreover, since his vision of Jesus is one of the grounds on which he defended his apostleship, he evidently did not recognize any difference between his experience and that of Peter as regards the appearance of the exalted Jesus.
Although we have only a few clues about the nature of the appearance of Jesus to Paul, we must not assume that it was necessarily a vision of the historical Jesus standing before him. The traditions of it reported by the author of Acts all speak of a great light flashing from heaven. These suggest a vision which revealed Jesus in his heavenly glory at the right hand of the divine throne, not unlike that seen by the martyr Stephen when he looked up to heaven and ‘saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at God’s right hand’.47 So Goguel comments, ‘When we consider the part played by the faith in the resurrection in Paul’s religious life and thought as a result of Christ’s appearance to him, we see that most essential to his faith was not the feeling that Jesus had returned to the environment of his life on earth preceding his passion but a belief in his glorification, i.e. in his transition to life in heaven where death has no more dominion over him.’48
Whatever the nature of the appearances of Jesus to Peter and Paul, they did not so much initiate the Easter message as confirm it, and thus cause the Easter message to bring forth the response of Easter faith. Even visions must be interpreted. Vital to the experience of Paul were the words with which he found himself addressed by the Jesus he saw. In the same way a simple vision, however real and vivid, of Jesus subsequent to his death would not have led to the Easter faith unless it had been preceded or accompanied by the Easter message that God had vindicated the crucified one and made him Lord. But if, for the reasons outlined earlier in this chapter, the Easter message was already beginning to take shape in the minds of the disciples, of Peter in particular, the experience of seeing Jesus in his glorified state would have the effect of authenticating the Easter message and of causing the Easter faith to take possession of whoever heard it, and of those, in turn, who were convinced by the apostolic testimony.
We have spoken of the Easter message in terms of the glorification or exaltation of the crucified Jesus, a divine act by which God was believed to have made Jesus both Lord and Messiah.37 In the New Testament the resurrection of Jesus is primarily to be understood not as an act of Jesus (he rose) but as an act of God (he was raised by God). The Easter message does not describe an historical event, but proclaims a divine act. An act of God is beyond historical investigation and can be confessed by faith alone. Yet this proclamation was related to an event which was certainly historical, namely the crucifixion. Because the death of Jesus on the cross was the very fact that sparked off the development which led to the Easter message, it came to determine the more precise meaning of the exaltation of Jesus in a way that had no parallel in the tradition of Elijah, for he was thought never to have died.
The exaltation of Jesus implied the victory of Jesus over death, from the time it was first proclaimed. ‘To exalt the crucified Jesus to the right hand of God’ was a statement which implied another, namely, ‘to raise from the dead’, and the two seem to have been used almost synonymously at first.49 At this point we must take note of the widespread belief in the resurrection of the dead at the end-time, already described in the previous two chapters. For two centuries this conviction had been bringing comfort and hope to some sections of Jews when they saw loyal and saintly men succumbing to a cruel death at the hands of their enemies. This belief, shared, it appears, by Jesus and his disciples, would have led the disciples in any case to the conviction that Jesus, as a martyr, would be among the first to be raised at the end-time.
However, we have seen that there was no one definitive form of understanding the nature of the future resurrection. In view of the fluid nature of this belief, and since, for the reasons outlined above, the disciples had been led to believe the Easter message that Jesus had been exalted to heaven, the divine raising of Jesus from the dead was not only a synonymous way of proclaiming the exaltation of Jesus, but the most natural way of doing full justice to the two foci of the Easter message, death and exaltation.
We must also remember the widespread conviction of the time that the end of the age was near at hand. The ministry of Jesus did not usher in the new age in the way the disciples may have been led to expect it. The unexpected death of Jesus, however, did nothing to lessen the conviction of the disciples that the end had all but come. It must have seemed to them in the first days after that shattering blow that the end had come. The emergence of the Easter message, expressed in terms of the raising of Jesus from the dead, meant that in Jesus, at least, the new age had already broken into the old age. The exaltation of Jesus was the prelude to the coming of the new age in all its fullness. There seems little doubt that, when Paul was writing, Christians were still expecting the exalted Jesus to descend from heaven within the imminent future. The new age would then be ushered in in its fullness and be accompanied by the general resurrection. The victory over death granted to Jesus by God constituted the earnest of the resurrection to come. For all these reasons the language of the current eschatological hope of resurrection was used from near the beginning in order to express the Easter message.
In this chapter we have tried to sketch the rise of the Easter faith by taking into account the factors present at the time of the death of Jesus. But it is not a history of what happened to the disciples, or of the reasoning that went on in their minds, for we have not sufficient data to write such a history. It has become clear, however, how the factors present at the time of the crucifixion could have contributed to the message that the crucified Jesus was vindicated and exalted. And the New Testament writings point to this as the earliest form of the Easter message.
The Easter message proclaimed that the crucified Jesus was exalted to the right hand of God. This by its very nature is beyond historical enquiry and rational demonstration. It was a message which could be accepted by faith, if believed to have come from God. This Easter message, accompanied by and confirmed by the apostolic experiences of ‘seeing’ the exalted Jesus, produced the Easter faith.
The Easter message could be expressed without drawing upon resurrection language, as, for example, in Philippians 2:5 - 11, and in what maybe another early credal form, I Timothy 3:16.
He who was manifested in the body,
Yet, for reasons outlined above, the language of the current eschatological hope of resurrection was used from near the beginning in order to express the Easter message. Thus a fresh use was found for the idiom of resurrection. It was now employed to describe the exaltation to heaven of a particular person, because his exaltation included the victory over his death. The resurrection of Jesus could thus be proclaimed as something which had already occurred; at the same time it was the earnest of the general resurrection which would accompany the new age shortly to appear.
In this new use to which the idiom of resurrection was being put, hope was still a basic element. But, whereas resurrection had been a hope associated with the end-time, the hope of the first Christians now became rooted in the crucified and exalted Jesus. Christians could now speak of the crucified, and risen one, as ‘Christ Jesus our hope’.50
1. Mark 14:50. See also Mark 14:27, 16:7, John 16:32.
2. op. cit., p. 73.
3. Cf. I Cor. 1:23, Gal. 5:11.
4. See Mark 8:31, 9:;9, 31, 10:34.
5. Mark 9:32.
6. Luke 24:27.
7. Luke 24:26.
8. Luke 24:32.
9. Luke 24:44-7.
10. John 20:9.
11. Cor. 15:3-4.
12. Isaiah 53:4-9.
13. Gal. 6:14.
14. I Cor. 2:2.
15. Isaiah 53:10-12.
16. Rom. 4:25.
17. Acts 2:26-8, quoting Ps. 16:9-11.
18. Acts 2:34-5, quoting Ps. 110:1.
19. Hosea 6:2.
20. The Day of His Coming, p. 283.
21. The Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible stemming from the early Christian era.
22. op. cit., p. 283.
23. Theology of the New Testament, p. 82. Cf. also A. M. Ramsay, What was the Ascension?, an essay in Historicity and Chronology in the New Testament, S.P.C.K.
24. Jesus of Nazareth, p. 183.
25. Lordship and Discipleship, pp. 38-9.
26. Phil. 2:8-11.
27. Acts 5:30-2. See also 2:23, 32-3, 36.
28. Hebrews 13:20. The Greek verb used here means ‘to lead up’ and is not used in the New Testament elsewhere in connection with resurrection except in Rom. 10:7.
29. Hebrews 1:3-4, 8:1-2.
30. op. cit., p. 141. See also ibid., p. 137.
31. John 1:17.
32. Hebrews 3:2-3.
33. See V. Taylor, The Gospel according to St Mark, pp. 386-7.
34. e.g. Wellhausen, Loisy, Goguel, Bultmann. See V. Taylor, op. cit., p. 387.
35. op. cit., 68.
36. op. cit., p. 137.
37. Acts 2:36, and reading ‘men’ for ‘you’.
38. Matt. 28:17.
39. I Cor. 15:5, Mark 16:7, Luke 24:34, John 20:2-9, 21:1-18.
40. See C. F. Evans, op. cit., p. 53 for fuller discussion.
41. The Beginnings of Gospel Story, p. 226.
42. 1 Cor. 15:8.
43. Gal. 1:18.
44. op. cit., p. 51.
45. History of the Synoptic Tradition, pp. 259-60.
46. Acts 9:17, 27; 22:14; 26:16.
47. Acts 7:55
48. op. cit., p. 46.
49. See Phil. 2:9, Acts 2:32-3.
50. 1 Tim. 1:1. Cf. Col. 1:27.