The Communal Resurrection of Jesus

An Eastern depiction of the ResurrectionThe Irish theologian John Dominic Crossan is not one I would normally read or agree with. But for Easter last year he wrote an article which makes an important point for the Huffington Post, The Communal Resurrection of Jesus.

In this article Crossan contrasts the Western and Eastern Christian understandings of the Resurrection, as depicted in their works of art. He starts with a depiction of the Resurrection which he saw at its traditional site, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem:

That image does not show Jesus arising in splendid triumph from an opened tomb. This is not — even in miniature — a Titian or a Rubens with Jesus emerging in muscular majesty. But emerging, however majestically, in magnificent and lonely isolation. Instead, four other individuals are with him in this parabolic vision. …

… But is not Easter about the absolutely unique resurrection of Jesus alone, so why are any others involved and, if others, why precisely these others? The answer reveals a major difference between Easter Sunday as imagined and celebrated in Eastern Christianity as opposed to Western Christianity. It also reveals for me the latter’s greatest theological loss from that fatal split in the middle of the eleventh century.

Crossan doesn’t properly explain this theological loss – and if he did, I might not agree with him, as he is reported as rejecting the bodily Resurrection of Jesus. But he is clearly hinting that the Western tradition has lost sight of the communal aspects of the Resurrection. As the Eastern tradition correctly remembers, Jesus did not rise from the dead alone, but he raised to life with himself all those who believe in him, right back to Adam and Eve.

This of course ties up with the odd story of the resurrection of the Old Testament saints in Matthew 27:51-53, which I discussed yesterday in my post When did Jesus come back to life?

What does this mean for us, as believers in Jesus? As the Apostle Paul wrote:

… we were by nature deserving of wrath. 4 But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. 6 And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, …

Ephesians 2:3-6 (NIV)

So, when Jesus rose from the dead he raised with himself not only the Old Testament saints but also, in anticipation, all of us New Testament believers. We may not yet have our Resurrection bodies, but we already have within us the Resurrection life of Jesus. The time is past when “we were by nature deserving of wrath”. Now we are alive and seated with Christ in the heavenly realms. We must not forget that, but live according to that truth.

When did Jesus come back to life?

On this holy Saturday, as we wait before rejoicing on Easter Sunday, I was thinking about the timing of the Resurrection. This was prompted in part by Jeremy Myers’ post Why Did Jesus Wait Three Days to Rise from the Dead? Also I had been thinking about this enigmatic Bible passage, talking about what happened immediately after Jesus died:

At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split 52 and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. 53They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.

Matthew 27:51-53 (NIV)

Domenico Beccafumi's depiction of Jesus leading the patriarchs out of limbo, c.1530-1535From the next verse it is clear that the earthquake took place immediately after Jesus died, and before he was buried. But the timing here is hard to pin down. The most straightforward interpretation would be that the opening of the tombs and the raising to life of the dead holy people took place at the time of the earthquake. The timing of them coming out of the tombs is unclear, but it is only after Jesus’ resurrection, so at least 36 hours later, that they appeared to many people in Jerusalem.

Now I know that many scholars, including some evangelicals, consider this story to be a myth. Last year there was a major controversy when evangelical author Michael Licona suggested the possibility that this passage is “apocalyptic imagery rather than describing historical events”, and Norman Geisler and Albert Mohler condemned him for abandoning biblical inerrancy. This is in fact irrelevant to my point here. What is important is the use that the author of this Gospel makes of the story.

The interesting issue is that, according to Matthew, these Old Testament saints seem to have been alive but in their tombs for the whole of the period that Jesus was in his tomb. But only after Jesus left his tomb did these others leave their tombs and, like Jesus, appear to others in Jerusalem. Wikipedia notes that

Nolland speculates as to what happened after to the risen saints. He considers it unlikely that they simply returned to the grave after a brief time among the living, he also does not think it likely that the saints resumed their normal lives on Earth. Thus Nolland feels that Matthew probably imagines the saints being translated directly to heaven after a short time on Earth, similar to Elijah.

We could also end this quotation “similar to Jesus”, although these saints probably ascended to heaven not as many as 40 days after the Resurrection. But on this interpretation, the raising of these saints was not a temporary resuscitation like that of Lazarus, but a resurrection like that of Jesus, and like the one which we Christian believers can expect on the last day.

But there is a theological problem here. If Jesus was indeed raised from the dead as “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep”, the first in time to be resurrected (1 Corinthians 15:20,23), then how could others have risen before him, even if they had to wait for his resurrection before appearing publicly?

Or could it in fact be that the resurrection of Jesus was just like that of the Old Testament saints, in that he too came back to life immediately after he died, but only came out of the tomb on the third day afterwards? Yes, Paul does write that “he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:4), but that could mean only that he first appeared on that third day.

To go back to Jeremy Myers’ question Why Did Jesus Wait Three Days to Rise from the Dead?, in my opinion the best answer to that question is given by Kurt Willems in his post The Easter Surprise – Resurrection Changes Everything (reposted at Red Letter Christians as The Easter Surprise: Celebrating the first day of a new kind of week). Jesus by rising again is inaugurating a new creation. So it is significant that his work in the old creation was finished on the sixth day of the week he had spent in Jerusalem (here reading the gospel chronology in the traditional way); he rested in the tomb on the seventh day; and then he rose again for the new creation on the first day of a new week.

But on the seventh day of the original creation week God was not dead, only resting. Jesus too would have had plenty of reason to rest after his work on the cross was finished. So within this framework it makes sense if Jesus was also not dead but resting.

Now I am certainly not denying that Jesus truly died. The New Testament makes this clear. It also seems clear that he was dead when his body was put into the tomb and sealed up. On that basis the Old Testament saints could have come to life immediately after Jesus, slightly out of chronological order in Matthew. But we don’t know what happened between then and Easter morning. So we don’t really know if Jesus was dead, or was alive and resting. But theologically it might make sense that he was already alive, and waiting for the right time to present himself as such and start his work of new creation.

Jesus was not a Jew – according to the Gospels (2)

This is follow-up to part 1 of this series. Please read there how I dissociate myself from anti-Semitic writers who deny that Jesus was an Israelite. I will repeat that this series is not really about Jesus, but about the New Testament use of the word Ioudaios, usually translated “Jew”.

CrossIn the first post I looked at the Old Testament background and at the use of Ioudaios in the first three Gospels. I now want to move on to the much more extensive use of the word in the Gospel of John, where it is in fact used about 70 times.

In this discussion I gloss over difficult issues of whether the author is recording actual words spoken, originally in Greek or translated, or putting his own words into his characters’ mouths. I will simply surmise that he might have used Greek Ioudaios to translate Hebrew Yehudi or Aramaic Yehuday.

In the largest group of these uses (1:19, 2:18,20, 3:25, 5:10,15,16,18, 7:1,11,13,15,35, 8:22,31,48,52,57, 9:18,22, 10:19,24,31,33, 11:8,19,31,33,36,45,54, 12:9,11, 13:33, 18:12,14,20,31,35,36,38, 19:7,12,14,21,31,38, 20:19; probably also 3:1) the reference appears to be to Israelites in Judea, who are interacting in some way with people such as Jesus and Pilate who are not from Judea. It seems clear that at least the majority of these people would have lived in Judea. Indeed in 7:25 “people of Jerusalem” is used of apparently the same group. This suggests that in these cases “Judean” might be a more accurate translation than “Jew”. It is impossible to be sure that there were no Galilean or diaspora Israelites among these groups; nevertheless they were in general groups of Judeans.

In quite a number of these cases NIV 2011 renders Ioudaioi as “Jewish leaders”. Indeed this seems justified as many of the references seem to be to people with some kind of religious or political authority. But they were also Judeans.

In 6:41,52 the situation is a little more nuanced, as the action takes place in Galilee, in the synagogue at Capernaum, and most of the congregation would have been local Israelites. However, in Mark 7:1 (cf Matthew 15:1), from the same period in Jesus’ ministry after the feeding of the five thousand, we read of “The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem” (NIV) and challenged Jesus in or near Capernaum. So it is at least possible that the Ioudaioi referred to in John 6:41,52 are not the local Israelites but these visitors from Judea.

By contrast, Jesus, according to John, calls the presumed Galilean Nathanael not a Ioudaios but an Israelite (1:47), a point which he then elaborates by comparing him with Jacob = Israel seeing a ladder into heaven (1:51).

In 3:22 Ioudaios is used as an adjective “Judean”.

Most of the other references (2:6,13, 5:1, 6:4, 7:2, 11:55, 19:40,42) are to Jewish religious customs and festivals, described as of the Ioudaioi. From the author’s probably Galilean perspective, even these may have been considered “of the Judeans”, in that at the time Judeans seem to have been active in imposing their standardised religious practices in Galilee. But these mentions of Jewish practices can also be understood as explanations for Gentile readers, which would imply that here Ioudaios is used of Israelites in general to distinguish them from Gentiles.

Then we have the title “King of the Ioudaioi” (18:33,39, 19:3,19,21,21, cf. 19:14; also Matthew 2:2, 27:11,29,37, Mark 15:2,9,12,18,26, Luke 23:3,37,38). The interesting thing about this title is that it was used, whether seriously or in mockery, only by Gentiles – the Magi, Pilate, Roman soldiers – and by Israelites quoting them. It seems to have been Pilate’s error to refer to “the one you call the king of the Jews” (Mark 15:12). When Israelites wanted to express the same sentiment, seriously or in mockery, they called Jesus “King of Israel” (Matthew 27:42, Mark 15:32, John 1:49, 12:13).

So, to summarise, in John’s Gospel Ioudaios most often means “Judean”, but is used by and to Gentiles in the sense “Israelite”.

The final three occurrences of Ioudaios in John are in chapter 4. And it is J.K. Gayle’s discussion of these at BLT that got me interested in this subject. In verse 9 we have the note that “Ioudaioi do not associate with Samaritans”, which can probably be listed as another explanation for Gentiles of Israelite religious customs. But it is immediately preceded by the Samaritan woman calling Jesus a Ioudaios. What did she mean by that? It is unlikely that she thought Jesus was a Judean, as very likely he spoke with a similar Galilean accent to Peter’s (Matthew 26:73). More likely, as a Samaritan not accepted as truly Jewish, she used Ioudaios in the same way as Gentiles did, to refer to all Israelites.

This leads to perhaps the most interesting of the references, in John 4:22, where Jesus tells the Samaritan woman that “salvation is from the Ioudaioi“. What does he mean here? Is he accommodating his language to what the Samaritan woman would understand, and so referring to all Israelites? Maybe. Or is he hinting at something which he would have known, but which is not otherwise mentioned in John’s Gospel, that he is in fact by birth not a Galilean but Judean, from Bethlehem in Judea, and indeed from the tribe of Judah itself?

I would like to discuss this further, but this post is already too long, so I continue in part 3.

Jesus was not a Jew – according to the Gospels (1)

Now I have got your attention with this title, I must start by dissociating myself completely from the anti-Semitic rubbish which you can easily find by googling “Jesus was not a Jew”. My point here is not at all negative about the Jewish people. It is abundantly clear from all of the accounts that we have of his life that Jesus of Nazareth was in every way a member of the people of Israel: biologically, racially, culturally and by religious upbringing.

My point is in fact not really about Jesus. Rather I am asking this question: Who are the people referred to in the New Testament, and especially in the four Gospels, as the Jews? Are they the same people as we now refer to as Jews? Does the group include Jesus?

CrossPerhaps more to the point on this Good Friday, are the people responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus in any way to be identified with today’s Jews?

Thanks to J.K.Gayle for a post at BLT Odd Gospel Greek: Jesus as a Jew – ἐκ τῶν Ἰουδαίων, which prompted me to study this issue.

In most Bible translations the Greek word Ioudaios is translated consistently as “Jew”. Some more recent translations, such as TNIV and the NIV 2011 update, render the term in other ways, such as “Jewish leader”, in some places especially in the gospel of John. On this point, see Joel Hoffmann’s post Which Jews Opposed Jesus? – although I don’t agree with all of Hoffmann’s conclusions.

The Greek Ioudaios corresponds to the Hebrew Yehudi, used in the Hebrew Bible but almost exclusively in the post-exilic books of Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther and Zechariah. This Hebrew word refers to the people of the southern kingdom of Judah, Yehuda, to people exiled from that kingdom, or to the people of the restored post-exilic state of Judah. People from the northern parts of Israel, i.e. from Samaria or Galilee, are never referred to as Yehudi.

By New Testament times this southern part of the land of Israel, the area surrounding Jerusalem and to the south, was known in Greek as Ioudaia, “Judea” or “Judaea”. Ioudaios is, at least in its form, the adjective derived from Ioudaia, and so can be expected to mean “Judean”. It is indeed used as an adjective in this way in, for example John 3:22, “Judean land” = “Judea”. But the word is used more commonly as a noun, referring to people, and it is these references which are generally translated “Jew”.

In fact the word Ioudaios is rather rare in the first three Gospels. Matthew (27:11,29,37), Mark (15:2,9,12,18,26) and Luke (23:3,37,38) use it mainly concerning the title “King of the Ioudaioi“, given to Jesus at his trial before Pilate – this title will be discussed again in the next part of this series. Matthew also refers to Jesus as “King of the Ioudaioi” in his infancy narrative (2:2). In Luke 23:51 Arimathaea, in Judea, is described as a city of the Ioudaioi.

Only in Matthew 28:15, Mark 7:3 and Luke 7:3 do we meet characters in the story called Ioudaioi. The first two of these references may well be to people from Judea (compare Mark 7:1) rather than to Jewish people in general. In Luke 7:3, however, we have the only example in the synoptic Gospels where Ioudaios is most likely used in a religious sense, to distinguish these religious Jewish elders from the Gentile centurion who sent them.

However, it is in the Gospel of John that the great majority of the Gospel references to Ioudaios are found. I look at these references in part 2 of this series., and then conclude my discussion in part 3.

Cameron and Obama on the Resurrection

Barack Obama and David CameronPrime Minister David Cameron and President Barack Obama, who met recently in Washington, have both taken the opportunity of the run-up to Easter to talk about their Christian faith, including their position on the Resurrection.

Gillan Scott gives the text of David Cameron’s Easter message at a reception for Christian leaders. Gillan highlights some positive points in this message. Like Phil Groom in a comment, I am far from convinced that Cameron is really signalling a change of policy on gay marriage; rather, I would suggest, by insisting that the government proposals are only about civil marriage, he is asking Christians to choose different battles to fight.

But the main point I want to make here is not about gay marriage at all, but about Cameron’s Christian faith, or lack of it. Last year I wrote about how seriously he misunderstands the Bible, as centrally “about leading good lives and helping each other as best we can”. This week’s message shows all the more clearly how little true faith he has:

… actually, really, Easter in many ways is the one that counts. Even those of us who sometimes struggle with some parts of the message – the idea of resurrection, of a living God, of someone who’s still with us – is fantastically important even if you sometimes, as I do, struggle over some of the details.

So what Cameron seems to be saying, in somewhat confused words that are surely his own and not a speech writer’s, is that he doesn’t really believe in the Resurrection or in a living God who is still with us. For him, it seems, Christianity is merely “about leading good lives and helping each other as best we can”. But that is not Christian faith at all; it is no more than what the best of atheistic and deistic philosophers thought. Indeed, if Cameron doesn’t even believe in a living God, he really should call himself a deist or an agnostic, and make no claim to be a Christian.

So it came as a pleasant contrast to read these words spoken today by Barack Obama, quoted by Joel Watts from a speech at the White House Easter Prayer Service:

It is only because Jesus conquered His own anguish, conquered His fear, that we’re able to celebrate the resurrection. It’s only because He endured unimaginable pain that wracked His body and bore the sins of the world that burdened His soul that we are able to proclaim, ‘He is Risen!’

These are the words of a true Christian. Mr Cameron, will you be able to join Mr Obama this Sunday in proclaiming, with genuine faith, “He is risen!”?

Hypocrisy and Gay Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage

Roger Olson writes, in a post Are divorce and remarriage and homosexual relations comparable?:

A recent guest editorial in the Minneapolis Star Tribune (April 1, 2012) argues that evangelicals are inconsistent, if not hypocritical, when they tolerate divorce and remarriage but condemn homosexual relations.

MarriageThe article Olson refers to is by Tim Turner, a former pastor who is himself divorced and remarried. Turner doesn’t himself use “hypocritical” or related words, but that is what the charge he makes amounts to. He argues, rightly, that the Bible has a lot more to say against divorce and remarriage than against homosexual practice. He sees divorce as a much greater threat to families than gay marriage is. Then he writes,

So why all the blood, sweat and tears on the gay-marriage issue and not on the things that are truly a threat to families? Sadly, that’s easy enough to figure out.

Within our churches, and even the evangelical community, we want the freedom to do what we want.

We want to divorce when we want to and to remarry when we are ready, and we don’t worry too much about those troublesome words Jesus spoke 2,000 years ago. Christians divorce and remarry at a very similar rate to that of everyone else in our society.

However, most of us are not homosexuals; we may not even know any. And really, we have to draw the line somewhere, don’t we?

This is an issue which I looked at on this blog, from a rather different perspective, back in 2007, in a post Homosexuality, Divorce and Gay Marriage. See also my 2008 follow-up posts Is there a moral difference between homosexual practice and remarriage after divorce?I do NOT applaud divorce and remarriage and Remarriage, homosexual “marriage”, and burning passion.

I stand by what I wrote in those posts. Jesus made it clear that sexual relationships outside of monogamous heterosexual marriage are wrong. He taught that remarriage after divorce, presumably if consummated, is adultery. While Jesus did not mention homosexual relationships, in the Old Testament and in the letters of Paul they are listed together with adultery as equally wrong.

Nevertheless Jesus taught that, in the law of Moses, God allowed divorce and remarriage, as a concession to the hardness of human hearts. Because of this concession, I have no objections to the state and the church permitting divorce and remarriage, provided that it is not used as a pretext for sleeping around, or for abandoning responsibilities for one’s family. But it should always be taught that this is less than God’s ideal.

My argument was that the same concession could reasonably be offered to gay and lesbian couples. Thus I have no objections to same sex civil partnerships with no Christian celebration. I would prefer the word “marriage” to be reserved for heterosexual couples, but would not want to make a big issue over the word.

As for celebrating civil partnerships or gay marriages in church, I am pleased that this is not a part of the UK government’s current controversial proposals. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that gay marriages in church should be allowed. But I do see the force of Tim Turner’s argument: it is indeed hypocritical for Christians to campaign against gay marriage, and to refuse to celebrate them in their churches, while at the same time they are happy to remarry divorced people with no questions asked.