I thought it might be good to offer a peek at my book on the Creed I’ve been laboring on for the past few years and, in particular, take a look at the chapter on the Resurrection. It’s a longish chapter for a big subject, so I will break it out into five days, starting today.
Chapter 8 – Risen in Accordance with the Scriptures
Enough! the Resurrection,
A heart’s-clarion! Away grief’s gasping, | joyless days, dejection.
Across my foundering deck shone
A beacon, an eternal beam. | Flesh fade, and mortal trash
Fall to the residuary worm; | world’s wildfire, leave but ash:
In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, | since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, | patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond. – Gerard Manley Hopkins
We now arrive at the central miracle performed by the Blessed Trinity in the great drama of redemption Christ underwent for us, summarized simply by the Creed:
[He] rose again on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.
One of the small misfortunes of a book like this is that, in order to unpack the words of the Creed, we have to take them a little at a time. The difficulty is that by separating the Passion and Death of Jesus from his Resurrection we may give the impression that they are separated—and even opposed—in the mind of the Church. That is deeply false. We may just as well say that the blades of the scissors are in competition as they cut the paper, or that the heart and the lungs are in competition to keep the body alive, or that the notes in a chord are in competition with each other.
In reality, the entire saving action of Jesus—from the Institution of the Eucharist on Holy Thursday, through his Passion, Death and Burial, to his Resurrection and his Ascension, to the giving of the Holy Spirit—are all one with a harmony more profound than a Bach fugue.
The seal on this promise of the Spirit is the Resurrection. Many people complain of the Resurrection as a crass, crude, physical ending to the Gospels. Such people prefer a Jesus who rose spiritually and lives on in the hearts of nice people everywhere—which is to say they prefer him dead. The thing is, as Peter Kreeft and Fr. Ronald Tacelli, SJ, have noted, resurrection is a crass, crude, vulgar, literalistic, and materialistic thing because death is a crass, crude, vulgar, literalistic, and materialistic thing. That’s why Jesus was buried and did not fade into mist like Yoda or Obi-Wan. The world thought it was burying a corpse. God knew we were burying a seed that would sprout on the third day.
He Rose Again
The Christian faith absolutely stands or falls with the glorified bodily Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul understood this and told the Corinthians bluntly, “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14).
The Catechism calls the Resurrection a “historical and transcendent event”. This description captures both the curious nature of the thing and also hints at why so many people have trouble wrapping their minds around it. Just as people have had difficulty believing that Jesus could be fully God and fully man at the same time, so also people have found it hard to believe that the Resurrection of the glorified and fully transcendent God-Man could have actually occurred on a particular Sunday morning in a particular tomb with a particular physical location and been witnessed by the actual eyes and ears of real human beings whose graves we can visit today. It feels like a story from cloud-cuckoo land—the mythic country of Osiris or Balder or Gandalf. But the absolute insistence of the apostles is that it happened here, on earth, before their very eyes and in front of some five hundred eyewitnesses over the course of a month and a half. It is a claim that involves a risen Christ who could pass through locked doors. But it is also a claim that involves an empty tomb, the police, physical evidence such as half-eaten fish, poking and prodding fingers, and graveclothes without an occupant.
Conflicting Quasi- or Non-Christian Accounts of the Resurrection
Raised in what was at best a quasi-Christian household, I was slow to grasp any of this. The version of the Resurrection I occasionally heard boiled down to, “Jesus came to give us moral guidance and, to prove he meant business, he let himself be killed and seen after death, so we would listen up, work hard to please him, and be good so that he would let us into Heaven.” In other words, I thought the sole purpose of the Resurrection was simply to be proof he still existed. It did not, as I understood it, accomplish anything for us that a ghostly apparition would not have done. Salvation was still up to our hard work. He could just as easily have been a disembodied voice assuring the apostles that he was still around and it would have been just as significant. He did not do anything for us by his Resurrection other than remind us he still existed.
It wasn’t until later that I discovered this view of Jesus’ Death and Resurrection had more in common with The Day the Earth Stood Still than it did with historic Christianity. But this view of Jesus-as-Klaatu, impressing the earthlings with spiritualist stunts to wow us into listening to his moral preachments, is but one of many “alternative” views of the Resurrection of Christ that float around in the world much as various answers to the question “Who do men say that I am?” floated about the world of the apostles. So, for instance, others think it isn’t important whether Jesus is alive even as a ghost so long as he “lives in the hearts of his countrymen”. This is more or less the position of people like John Dominic Crossan, who offers this flat denial of any sort of Resurrection at all in Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography:
What actually and historically happened to the body of Jesus can best be judged from watching how later Christian accounts slowly but steadily increased the reverential dignity of their burial accounts. But what was there at the beginning that necessitated such an intensive volume of apologetic insistence? If the Romans did not observe the Deuteronomic decree, Jesus’ body would have been left on the cross for the wild beasts. And his followers, who had fled, would know that. If the Romans did observe the decree, the soldiers would have made certain Jesus was dead and then buried him themselves as part of their job. In either case, his body left on the cross or in a shallow grave barely covered with dirt and stones, the dogs were waiting. And his followers, who had fled, would know that too. Watch, then, how the horror of that brutal truth is sublimated through hope and imagination into its opposite.
This, in English, means Jesus’ corpse was dog food long ago, but since the apostles were particularly adept at making lemonade out of lemons via religious psychosis, then we can say the gospel is full of “hope” in the same sense that Santa Claus is real.
Then again, there are others who solve the problem of the Resurrection by not letting Jesus die. In this view, somebody else was crucified on Good Friday (somebody who really deserved it, like Judas Iscariot), while Jesus went off to a well-earned pension someplace else. Depending on the legend or the book you are reading, “someplace else” could be anywhere from Heaven to Japan to France. Frequently, “Jesus didn’t die” scenarios go for the hearts and flowers conclusion favored by Hollywood, in which the retired Son of Man finally gets the girl. In some scenarios, they pack him off to a vineyard in France with Mary Magdalene, there to found a dynasty of Merovingians. Sometimes, instead of escaping crucifixion entirely, some grant that he was crucified, but swooned (possibly with the help of some drugged wine) and regained consciousness later. But the central claim of all such scenarios is that Jesus didn’t really die on the Cross.
Still other theorists, often involved in the New Age Movement or in an ancient version of it known as Docetism, solve the problem by allowing him to only ever have existed as a spirit–a sort of Holy Vision (divine or angelic, depending on the preference of the author)–appearing as a man among humans for thirty-some years until his seeming death. This solves the problem of his death by making it an illusion: a tidy disposal of a messy crucifixion which preserves the Happy Ending.
Meanwhile, others have much simpler and cruder explanations. The first and most blunt of them was proposed by his enemies on the first Easter: his disciples stole the corpse, lied about it, and founded a cult for their own selfish gain and power (cf. Matthew 28:11-15).
Slightly kinder than this is the Hysterical Hallucination theory which says that the apostles meant well, but everybody in the entire early Church went to the wrong tomb, found it empty, and then hallucinated a Resurrection.
Still another variation is the theory that the apostles never claimed a Resurrection at all, but that later Christians got hold of the gospel stories of the original disciples and added the Resurrection to patch up the sad story of his death. Originally (goes this theory), it was just a collection of apostolic memoirs about the Dead Master and his witty sayings. Some think this process did not begin until the whole first generation of apostles was dead and editors went to work on their gospels to insert the Resurrection stuff.
Others think the process of tacking a Resurrection on to the tales of the original Twelve started earlier and Paul is behind the whole thing (see, for instance, The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity by Hyam Maccoby as a sample of this sort of thinking). According to this theory, Paul allegedly transformed this ordinary Jewish rabbi into a Cosmic Christ figure under the influence of pagan myth. The original apostles, according to this school, would be horrified at what Paul did to the teaching of the gentle and witty Y’shua.
The Resurrection and the New Testament Documents
One of the obvious difficulties with all these theories is that they don’t fit together well. If later generations are to blame for importing Resurrection myths, then earlier ones aren’t. If it’s all Paul’s fault then it’s not Peter’s fault, and vice versa. If the Eleven are body snatchers, then they’re not well-meaning hallucinators, and vice versa. Meanwhile, Paul, writing in about 56 A.D., roughly twenty-three years after the Death and Resurrection of Jesus—about the span between our time and the re-election of Bill Clinton–simply tells us:
Now I would remind you, brethren, in what terms I preached to you the gospel, which you received, in which you stand, by which you are saved, if you hold it fast–unless you believed in vain.
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God which is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed. (1 Corinthians 15:1-11)
This, the earliest creedal summary of the Faith, gives the lie to my first (and still one of the most common) ignorant notions of the meaning and nature of the Resurrection. For it shows clearly that the real heart and soul of the New Testament teaching about Jesus is not that he was primarily a preacher, wonder worker, reformer, sage, or deliverer of profound truths and happy thoughts, nor that the Resurrection was a special effect performed to wow us into following good advice.
The first fact of the Christian gospel, according to the New Testament, is the Passion and Resurrection of Christ. Without the Resurrection, you don’t have an “original” gospel of moral preaching. You have no gospel whatsoever. This is why one fourth of each of the gospels focuses on a 72-hour period in the life of Jesus of Nazareth: his Passion, Death, and Resurrection. It is why virtually the whole of the rest of the New Testament—the twenty-one letters from various apostles to sundry churches and people, nearly all of which are written before the gospels–is overwhelmingly focused on the meaning of that Death and Resurrection, and not on his signs or sayings (almost none of which are preserved outside the gospels). It is why no scholar of the New Testament—even non-Christian scholars–holds the notion that the Resurrection was tacked on to the New Testament by later generations of Christians after the death of the apostles.
The simple fact is that trying to account for any of the New Testament without placing the Resurrection at the absolute core of apostolic preaching from the moment they opened their mouths at Pentecost is like saying that the real truth of Abraham Lincoln consists of platitudes about peace and justice and that the “Civil War” was just a myth concocted by later hagiographers which forms no part of his original story. If the “original gospel” was just a collection of tales about Jesus going around saying “Love your neighbor and obey God” the question that arises is what, exactly, was so interesting about him? Every rabbi worth his salt said the same. The only answer is found in the actual documents of the New Testament, which begin to be composed within twenty years of his death, which reflect a faith in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ which is about twenty years old at that point, and which already contain things like the creed recorded in 1 Corinthians 15 and the insistence that the gospel is about nothing other than Jesus and his Resurrection (cf. Acts 17:18).
Paul and the Apostles Agree
Very well, we can’t blame “later generations” for coming up with the Resurrection story. So, say some, let’s blame Paul. The problem with this theory is that Paul himself (and witnesses who know Paul, such as Luke, as well as witnesses who appear to be under very little influence by Paul, such as Matthew, Mark, Peter, and John) seem to be under the impression that the basic core of the Resurrection story Paul has to tell is not Paul’s invention.
“I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received” is rabbinic jargon which means “I’m handing on to you the Tradition I was taught”. Taught by whom? In Paul’s case, taught by the apostles (Galatians 1:18-21) and by the normal primitive catechesis given in places like the Church at Antioch where Paul lived for many years before he started any mission at all—and then only because that Church sent him, not because he just lit out on his own like the Lone Ranger (cf. Acts 13:1-3). For Paul emphatically insists, not that the risen Christ appeared to him alone, but that he stands at the very end of a long list of others to whom Jesus appeared as well. Paul says this sort of thing repeatedly and takes for granted, not only that what he has to say about Jesus is common knowledge to all Christians (not just the ones he’s converted) but that none of the other apostles traveling around the Mediterranean–and none of the Churches they founded–are going to have any quarrel with him when he says that Christ is risen, since those apostles saw the risen Jesus before he did. If Paul alone is coming up with this unheard-of and cockamamie myth of the risen Christ while the rest of the apostles are just sharing anecdotes about their friend the martyred Nazarene, you would think one of them would have corrected him, not joined in Paul’s delusion.
In short, if faith in the Resurrection is as old as Paul, it is as old as the apostles themselves. He preaches it for the same reason they do: he really believes he saw the risen Christ, just as the Twelve say they saw the risen Christ.
Ah, yes. They say. But why should we believe them?
 John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (New York: HarperCollins, 1994), p. 154.