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Friday, March 30, 2012

The Resurrection According to Crossan

For decades, Christian historians have refused to investigate Jesus' resurrection on the ground that, if it happened, it was a miracle worked by God and therefore belongs to the field of theology. For example John P. Meier, the author of A Marginal Jew, never wrote about this subject, although he painstakingly analyzed the canonical gospel in all their aspects. Why then not to extend his study to the resurrection narratives, which are their focal point?

At last, the British scholar N.T. Wright published a book titled The Resurrection of the Son of God. He's apparently the first scholar who argues that faith can grow on a rational ground.
In the ancient pagan world, he writes, what came after death was the existence in the form of soul, a sorrowful existence devoid of the pleasures of life. The ancient Jews instead, and precisely the Pharisees, believed that God's people would be bodily raised from the dead at the end of times, either in a luminous body or in a plain human body. Ancient men and women, however, knew that when people die they stay dead. They were not inclined to believe any kind of absurdity they happened to hear. Not only Wright, but also C.S. Lewis before him, wrote that the notion that ancient people believed in magic is false. There had been very little of it even in the Middle Ages, but it grew in 16th and 17th century, right when modern science was developing.

In The Birth of Christianity, John Dominic Crossan holds a different position:
"That the dead could return and interact with the living was a commonplace in the Greco-Roman world…Not only were visions and apparitions accepted…as a possibility in the early first century, they are also an accepted and even commonplace possibility in the late twentieth century….Why, against the first century context, does vision, apparition or resurrection explain anything, since such events were not considered extraordinary let alone completely unique?"
Crossan is arguing against those who maintain that Christianity was born because of the apparitions of a dead man. Of course, he implies that these apparitions lacked certain qualities that would make them equivalent to reality, as if the man in question was alive again. Also, when he talks about the dead interacting with the living he uses as an example the mythical story told by Virgil in the Aeneid. In Italy, kids study that poem in middle school. It sounds like a myth and nobody ever claimed that it was more than that. Furthermore, he reports data from a recent study: Fifty to eighty percent of bereaved people experience an overwhelming feeling of the presence of the lost loved one and these types of experiences can't be classified as hallucinations or delusions. They are, in fact, part of the grieving process.

Crossan admits that grief related visions alone could hardly have motivated the apostles. What did it, according to him, was the powerful effect that the living Jesus had on their lives.
Crossan was co-director of the Jesus Seminar, where each participant scholar put to vote every passage of the canonical gospel to establish their credibility. He's a Christian because he loves the Jesus of history and can appreciate what he accomplished in all its magnitude. Bodily resurrection, for him, means that "the embodied life and death of the historical Jesus continues to be experienced, by believers, as powerfully efficacious and salvifically present in this world". This is beautiful but misleading. I think that there is more than that to be found in the birth of the Church,

It's obvious that when the early Christians spoke of Jesus being raised three days after the crucifixion, they were speaking of an event unknown to any culture or religion. Something unique must have happened to make Jesus and His resurrection become the center of Christianity.

Monday, March 26, 2012

More on "Is it Reasonable to Believe in the Resurrection?" (Part 2)

Since I'm fascinated by this subject, I'm planning to post twice a week for a total of probably six posts. It's going to be my work for Lent!

The New Testament offers mixed information about the risen Jesus: He was unrecognizable, he walked through closed doors, yet he could eat food. Do these contradictory descriptions mean that nothing actually happened except for different forms of delusion? I don't think so. I believe that what happened was real and powerful, but hard to describe. Those who don't believe in miracles explain these contradictions stating that the apostles simply underwent a life changing spiritual experience and that the evangelists translated it into symbolic images. Those who believe in miracles think that everything that is said in the resurrection narratives is true and that the properties described are peculiar to the "glorified body" mentioned by St. Paul.

In my opinion, the less likely explanation for the Easter apparitions is that nothing happened except for a spiritual experience, I have noticed that the scholars who hold on to this theory (at least those I happened to read) mention only in passing Paul's Corinthians 1,15, or they don't report it in its entirety. Paul wrote that Jesus appeared to Peter and then to the twelve apostles. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at once, most of them, Paul says, still living. Later he appeared to James and finally to Paul himself. This claim is so vast and precise, one has only two choices: Either Paul was lying or he was describing what he experienced and what the apostles told him. Corinthian 1,15 is no subject for interpretation and it was written no more than twenty years after Jesus' death. Paul was a great mind, respected as a man of culture. He was persecuting Christians before his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus and he died for his faith. I chose to believe him.

However, we don't know to how many Christian brothers Paul actually spoke. From his letters to the Galatians we learn that he met Kephas (Peter) and James (Jesus' brother) three years after his conversion, and then he went to Syria and came back to Jerusalem after fourteen years. In Jerusalem he might have met some of the people who saw the risen Jesus. Where they all gathered together when they saw him? To find an answer to this question was important to me because my son insisted that they had suffered from a phenomenon of mass hysteria, so I spoke to a priest at my parish. He told me that Jesus appeared to each disciple individually.
"How do you know?" I asked.
"Theology teaches that it's a property of the glorified body to be in several places at the same time", he answered.
According with Hinduism, after we die we can be everywhere at once because infinity and eternity stretch in all directions. I strongly believe that Jesus' resurrection in a glorified body is not an oddity, if one looks at Christ as a being who has transcended time and space.

My son says I believe because I consciously made this choice, since there is no rational argument to sustain a belief in the divinity of Jesus. I can understand his point of view; I thought just the same only a few years ago. Then I started wondering if I wasn't rejecting religion because I was afraid to be tricked by my psychological needs. I needed strength, comfort, atonement and hope, but I refused to look for them where I felt I could find them. My son thinks that I'm forcing rationality where it doesn't belong. Or does it? In spite of his reasoning I feel that my faith in Jesus is based on logic. It is rooted in my belief that there is no better explanation for the birth of Christianity than his resurrection.
Here is how Garry Wills describes the apostle's sudden change that took place three days after his death:
"These Christians were not expecting the Resurrection. They did not believe it, even when the women first announced it to them. They had, remember, all scattered and hidden as Jesus was condemned and executed…Yet this band of cowards was suddenly changed into an energetic body of effective evangels, spreading their faith, firmly offering the claim that Jesus lives".

As the risen Son of God, Jesus confronted Caesar and the emperors that followed him until, more than 325 years later, Constantine surrendered to reality: Christianity had won.