All Saints and All Souls is a Good Time for Thinking about the Resurrection of the Body

JESUS AND THE EYEWITNESSES by Richard Bauckham makes the point that in Greco-Roman historiography, the way you footnote your source is by naming them. Why do we know the name of the utterly unimportant Bartimaeus, a man with all the social standing of a parking lot attendant in his society? Because he is the source of the story of his healing and a member of the early Church. Same with Jairus.

And same with Mary Magdalene, a woman who plays virtually no part in the gospel narrative until she suddenly shows up in all four Resurrection narratives. If you were making the thing up, you would have Jesus appear to a Proper Male Authority, like Peter, James or John.

But the gospels are constrained by what actually happened, so they relate the unlikely Mary Magdalene–from whom seven devils had been driven (Mark 16:9)–as the first witness, because she was.

John, by the way, assumes we know the other gospels and only mentions the Magdalene as a sort of shorthand. But John also tells us she says, “We do not know where they have laid him”. It’s a bit like when we say “Neil Armstrong landed on the moon.” The thousands of NASA workers and Buzz Aldrin are assumed in that statement.

Interestingly, the first account of the resurrection is a credal, not a story, summary of the appearances and does exactly what Greco-Roman culture would like by giving us an official ecclesial summary of the appearances rather than a strictly blow-by-blow historical one. In that summary–which Paul is parroting, not inventing–neither the women, nor Cleopas and his friend on the Emmaus Road comes first, but Peter (Cephas), because the point is to establish that all this is in agreement with the apostolic college–and that so is Paul:

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. (1 Cor 15:3-8)

The other important thing to understand about Paul’s account is that he is not really trying to establish that Christ rose from the dead. Why? Because the Corinthians already believe that. The problem is that they have, with the mysterious doublethink of which humans are perfectly capable, come to reject the idea of the Resurrection on the Last Day. Paul’s point is, “If you think that resurrection is impossible, then this one–which you have already accepted as real–is impossible too. And if this one is impossible, then what are you even doing? You are still in your sins and nothing but an object of pity, wasting your time on this stuff. But if this one happened, then you have to face the reality that its entire purpose is that we are to share in it on the Last Day and your Greek philosophy that declares that impossible has to go.”

In the end, that is the shocking claim of the Christian tradition: not “life after death” (everybody believed in ghosts and spirits and such) but life after life after death. The claim is that Jesus’ resurrection is the first, not the last time that dead human beings will receive their bodies back as glorified, divinized, transphysical creatures sharing perfectly in the life of the Blessed Trinity and that this ultimately mean the transformation of entire cosmos along with that–a New Heaven and a New Earth.

That’s what All Saints and All Souls is all about, Charlie Brown!


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