“The early Christians not only said that Jesus had been raised from the dead; they concluded from this that God’s new age had indeed begun”

What then did the earliest Christians mean when they said that Jesus of Nazareth had been raised from the dead?

They cannot have meant that, though his body remained in a tomb, his spirit or soul was now safe in the hands of God, perhaps even given a place of honor. That was a perfectly reasonable Jewish thing to think about someone now dead, particularly a great leader or teacher, particularly one who had died a cruel death. There was normal Jewish language to express such a belief. If that had been what Jesus’ first believed about him, Jesus would have been on a par, in their eyes, with the Maccabean martyrs of the prophets of old.

Resurrection implies at the very least a coming back to something that had been forfeited, that is, bodily life. In the well-developed Jewish language for describing the continuing nonphysical existence of someone who had died there would be no question of “coming back” but only of going on, with a spiritual life in unbroken continuity with what had existed before. What the early church insisted about Jesus was that he had been well and truly physically dead and was now well and truly physically alive. If all they had meant was that he was now exalted to a place of honor with God, the language of dying and new life the other side of death would not have been appropriate.

Nor, I submit, would they have used the language of resurrection to describe a sense that Jesus was personally present with them. Such a thing would have been unprecedented, but if it occurred, the natural categories for them would have been angel, spirit, and so forth. In addition, had Jesus’ resurrection been simply a matter of people being aware of his presence, there would not have been a sense, as there clearly is in all our evidence, of a sequence of resurrection “appearances” that then stopped. Paul knows, and he knows that the Corinthians know, that his seeing of Jesus was the last such event. His churches, not least the Corinthians, had all kinds of wonderful spiritual experiences; they knew Jesus as their Lord in the power of the Spirit; but they had not seen him as Paul had.

Nor would they have drawn the conclusion that the new age had dawned. When a Jewish leader, teacher, or hero died violently at the hands of Israel’s enemies, this was the sign that the old age was still here, the new age had not yet come. Yet the early Christians not only said that Jesus had been raised from the dead; they concluded from this that God’s new age had indeed begun, however paradoxically.

This rules out as well the explanation that has recently been offered, that the early Christians received a ghostly visitation from their recently deceased leader. Such events are well known in the modern, as in the ancient world; the worried church thought they were receiving such a visit from Peter in Acts 11. “It must be his angel,” they said; that meant that Peter had been killed by Herod, and they would have to go and collect his body for burial. It would not mean that Peter had been “raised from the dead”; indeed, it would mean that he hadn’t been.

So why did the early Christians use the word resurrection to describe what they believed had happened to Jesus? The large package of heaven-sent renewal expected by many Jews, including the general resurrection, had not occurred. Pilate, Caiphas, and Herod were still ruling. Injustice, misery, oppression, and death were still features of life for Jews and everyone else. Nor were Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, and the prophets alive again. From that point of view, “the resurrection” expected by Jesus’ contemporaries had obviously not occurred.

And yet they said that it had—and proceeded to built a new worldview, a significant variation from within contemporary Judaism, on this belief. “The resurrection,” as something that has already happened that must now determine life, faith, prayer, and thought, dominates a good deal of the New Testament: the early Christians really did believe that they were living in the “age to come” for which Israel had longed, the time of forgiveness of sins, the gift of the Spirit, when the Gentiles would be brought in to worship the one God of Israel. The “present age” was still continuing, but the “age to come” had been inaugurated.

We see the same pattern if we ask the vital question: why did the early church believe and declare that Jesus was the messiah? Other would-be messiahs executed by the authorities were thereby forever discredited: a messiah was supposed to lead Israel to liberation from the pagans and to rebuild the temple, not die in pagan hands, leaving the temple still in the grip of Israel’s oppressive pseudoaristocrats. Other groups whose messiah was killed faced a choice: either find a new messiah, or give up the revolution. We have evidence of both patterns. Declaring that God had raised one’s messiah from the dead was not an option. First-century Jews do not seem to have had time or mental energy to indulge in that peculiar twentieth-century phenomenon, cognitive dissonance, believing that something is still true when events have in fact disproved it. Life was too short and hard for fantasy.

Why, for instance, did the early church not decide that James, the brother of Jesus, was now the messiah? He was the central leader in the early church: holy man, wise teacher, man of prayer, man of God. He was known as the brother of the Lord. Other groups, faced with the death of their would-be messiah and the emergence of his brother as the natural new leader, would have been quick to put two and two together: the brother is the real messiah. But the early church did not. Jesus was the messiah; and the explanation was that God had vindicated him by raising him from the dead. Nor was this belief the mere granting of an honorific title to Jesus, a word with grandeur but little substance. Early Christianity was self-consciously a messianic movement, announcing Jesus as the true Lord of the world even at the risk of offending the existing lords of the world, Caesar included. And this political-religious affirmation grew clearly and visibly out of Jewish messianic beliefs, redefined around the person, agenda, and fate of Jesus of Nazareth.

The early Christians, in other words, affirmed not only that “the resurrection,” the great hope of Israel, had happened, but that it had happened in a way that nobody had imagined (a single human being raised within the middle of ongoing history). They reconstructed their worldview, their aims and agendas, around this belief so that it became, not merely an extra oddity, bolted onto the outside of the worldview they already had, but the transforming principle, the string that had pulled back the curtain, revealing God’s future as having already arrived in the present.

N. T. Wright

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25 Responses to “The early Christians not only said that Jesus had been raised from the dead; they concluded from this that God’s new age had indeed begun”

  1. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    N. T. Wright, “The Transforming Reality of the Bodily Resurrection,” in The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions, pp. 115-118.

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  2. Simeon says:

    I’ve read this blog for a while and I occasionally find it quite illuminating. On the topic of the resurrection I have a question that may seem trivial but I do struggle with it. What makes the resurrection of Christ qualitatively different to the resurrection of Lazarus or of the Shulamite’s son? Wouldn’t they be considered as being born from the dead before Jesus? I would appreciate any thoughts you have.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Hi, Simeon. Good question. I was just chatting with someone yesterday about Lazarus and how he must have felt after being brought back to life by Jesus. Would he have been happy? After all, his “resurrection” was simply a resuscitation of sorts. Now he had to go through the whole process of dying yet another time.

      But the resurrection of Jesus was totally different, wasn’t it?

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      • Simeon says:

        I’m surprised (and somewhat disappointed in myself) at how simple that was. It seems like I was struggling with nothing at all. He is resurrected into life eternal. Thanks for your prompt answer.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      And while you’re thinking about all the ways Jesus’ resurrection is different from the resuscitation of Lazarus, ponder on these:

      (1) The tomb was empty. Why?

      (2) What are the consequences if Jesus now truly lives with death behind him?

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  3. Perhaps N.T. Wright and his most loyal readers are being a bit too easy on themselves. I’m certainly not denying that Christ lives–nor can I demonstrate that Jesus did not leave behind an empty tomb (nor, really, do I wish to). But there is something not quite right about an understanding that brooks no opposition — often insisting “that if Christ be not raised, we are of all men most miserable” (as if this requires an empty tomb–especially considering that “the body which you sow is not the body that shall be”) and usually dismissing alternative theories by insisting, ‘a priori’ that there are no plausible alternatives to N.T. Wright’s assertion that only a literal, bodily resurrection can account for the postmortem sightings, the transformation of the disciples, and the growth of the early church (as if the mere *belief* in a literal, bodily resurrection could not have much the same effect–with or without the historicity of the Easter narratives). Moreover, it must be noted that the real growth in the early church took place among gentiles — not among Jews. As such, however much Jewish categories may have influenced the form of the early Christian message, Greek and Roman categories most certainly influenced its reception and very quickly influenced its theological development, as well.

    So what’s the point? If I am not trying to disabuse people of their belief in a literal, historical, bodily resurrection (honestly held), what are the motives behind these comments? My intention is to illustrate that, from the beginning, the resurrection was conceived of in metaphorical, symbolic, and Spiritual terms– as well as literal, historical, and bodily terms –and that to be honestly skeptical of the latter does not prevent one from experiencing the reality of the former. Let us teach the historical narrative, to be sure, but let us not disparage the possibility that while we may be skeptical of its historicity, we can nevertheless come to know the living Christ (the One who IS the resurrection and the life–the One who IS before Abraham was). For while the historical narrative preserves the gospel in symbolic form, it is the living Christ that is the Way, the Truth, and the Life — the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end — whether or not the body of Jesus of Nazareth went back to dust sooner or later (like the body of John the Baptist’s, say, or that of Lazarus). Moreover, if we can allow for this, we will not only find ourselves speaking to a larger audience of prospective Christians (including many who may think of themselves as atheists or agnostics), we will simultaneously gain much sympathy and support for the teaching of the historical narrative, as well (even among those who remain skeptical).

    “Awake you that sleep, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light” (Ephesians 5:14)

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    • Hi Wayne,

      What then would you do with the prophecy of the nature of Jesus’ death in the OT cited in the New, which specifically denies that Jesus’ body was capable of corruption, and the Orthodox Christian conviction Jesus’ death was not a foregone conclusion for Him simply by virtue of His assuming true humanity (His humanity being united fully from His conception to His Divinity), but the result of His free will decision to submit to our death (the separation of His soul from His body) as is Orthodox teaching (John 10:17-18)? I’m thinking of Psalm 16:10 cited or alluded to in Acts 2 and several times in Acts 13. As in this Apostolic example, there is a real correlation and connection drawn in Orthodoxy between what is presumed to happen on the material plane (created material realities being considered symbolic of and thus embodying spiritual ones) and on the spiritual plane therein symbolized. I’m not entirely unsympathetic, I don’t think, with the thrust of your comment which would seem to be the concern to not unnecessarily alienate those who might otherwise be receptive to the message that Jesus Christ is alive by the Spirit today, but who might be tripped up on the insistence on His material bodily resurrection.

      I have a formerly Catholic, now New Age, relative, who has no problem embracing Jesus’ “resurrection” (and present existence) in spiritual terms only. She doesn’t accept (I don’t believe) that He is God in the unique “only-Begotten” sense of orthodox Christianity (rather, we–and everything–is all “god”). The early Gnostics would have embraced your notion I think as well. Is this the sort of “Christian” believer we are hoping to make then? I don’t believe my relative’s Gnostic-like beliefs put her completely beyond the reach of God’s grace by any means, but I do believe it puts her beyond the capacity to embrace that grace in anything like its fullness, so long as this is what she is convinced of.

      I can’t help contrast the suggestion in your comment with the context and content of all of the various Ecumenical Councils of bishops that met in the first millennium to construct dogmatic statements to stand as a sort of marker between truth and heresy in the face of various heretical teachings that cropped up over those centuries and threatened to eclipse the Church’s understanding of the Apostolic witness of Christ they had received. All dogmatic statements that came out of those Councils had to do with defining the full humanity (and all its implications) and the full divinity (with all its implications) of Jesus Christ and their relationship to each other–sometimes in ways we as modern Christians would consider splitting hairs and of no consequence. This is because they understood salvation as the true union (communion) of our humanity with God/the Trinity through Christ. Those Fathers would have disagreed with us that their deliberations constituted “splitting hairs”–they understood our salvation depends upon our recognition (if not our comprehension) of the true nature of that salvation expressed in the Incarnation of God, the Son, in all its fullness.

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      • [What then would you do with the prophecy of the nature of Jesus’ death in the OT cited in the New, which specifically denies that Jesus’ body was capable of corruption]

        For the skeptic, many of the prophesies that were said to be fulfilled in the life of Jesus seem rather forced and fabricated. But in the final analysis, Christ’s body extends to the whole of creation which “was made subject to vanity . . . by reason of him who subjected the same in hope” and which “shall be delivered from bondage to corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Romans 8).

        […and the Orthodox Christian conviction Jesus’ death was not a foregone conclusion for Him simply by virtue of His assuming true humanity (His humanity being united fully from His conception to His Divinity), but the result of His free will decision to submit to our death (the separation of His soul from His body) as is Orthodox teaching (John 10:17-18)? I’m thinking of Psalm 16:10 cited or alluded to in Acts 2 and several times in Acts 13.]

        It seems to me that we, too, are called to “drink of that cup and be baptized with that baptism” — to “take up our cross” and to “present our bodies a living sacrifice” (as we have borne the image of Adam– being guilty of Adam’s sin –so shall we bear the image of Christ, being put to death in the flesh and made alive in the Spirit — we are crucified with Christ, we no longer live, but Christ lives in us).

        [As in this Apostolic example, there is a real correlation and connection drawn in Orthodoxy between what is presumed to happen on the material plane (created material realities being considered symbolic of and thus embodying spiritual ones) and on the spiritual plane therein symbolized.]

        But to insist that if he did not leave behind an empty tomb he does not live is to make our salvation dependent on an artifact of history rather than the living reality which is Christ in you…

        [I’m not entirely unsympathetic, I don’t think, with the thrust of your comment which would seem to be the concern to not unnecessarily alienate those who might otherwise be receptive to the message that Jesus Christ is alive by the Spirit today, but who might be tripped up on the insistence on His material bodily resurrection.]

        Yes–that, and the fact that the living reality, when recognized and honored, is transformative. All I wish to do is remove that which in our day and time constitutes an unnecessary obstacle to faith… (especially in evangelical and fundamentalist circles where it is associated with “inerrant scriptures”, science denial, and the eternal torment of unbelievers/non-Christians).

        [I have a formerly Catholic, now New Age, relative, who has no problem embracing Jesus’ “resurrection” (and present existence) in spiritual terms only. She doesn’t accept (I don’t believe) that He is God in the unique “only-Begotten” sense of orthodox Christianity (rather, we–and everything–is all “god”).]

        It is one thing to look back at the historical Jesus, but quite another to see the living Christ. I really don’t mean to discourage people from the former, but I especially want to encourage people toward the latter. If the Easter narratives have become an obstacle, they are no longer serving there purpose. My suggestion is that they continue to be taught, without apology, but that we make room for those who are skeptical and encourage them to see their inner truth, here & now.

        https://jeshua21.wordpress.com/2013/07/30/lord-show-us-the-father/

        [The early Gnostics would have embraced your notion I think as well. Is this the sort of “Christian” believer we are hoping to make then? I don’t believe my relative’s Gnostic-like beliefs put her completely beyond the reach of God’s grace by any means, but I do believe it puts her beyond the capacity to embrace that grace in anything like its fullness, so long as this is what she is convinced of.]

        It’s difficult for us to understand the depth of our respective experiences. The language we have with which to express them often rather limited. In addition, people often parrot what they have learned by heart and think they ought to say…

        [I can’t help contrast the suggestion in your comment with the context and content of all of the various Ecumenical Councils of bishops that met in the first millennium to construct dogmatic statements to stand as a sort of marker between truth and heresy in the face of various heretical teachings that cropped up over those centuries and threatened to eclipse the Church’s understanding of the Apostolic witness of Christ they had received. All dogmatic statements that came out of those Councils had to do with defining the full humanity (and all its implications) and the full divinity (with all its implications) of Jesus Christ and their relationship to each other–sometimes in ways we as modern Christians would consider splitting hairs and of no consequence. This is because they understood salvation as the true union (communion) of our humanity with God/the Trinity through Christ. Those Fathers would have disagreed with us that their deliberations constituted “splitting hairs”–they understood our salvation depends upon our recognition (if not our comprehension) of the true nature of that salvation expressed in the Incarnation of God, the Son, in all its fullness.]

        I’m very much concerned with “true union”, as well–and I do understand all this in Trinitarian terms (though in a way which may not be completely orthodox). In any event, the REALITY of the One Life Divine is with us always, is it not? Whosoever will may come and drink of the water of life freely!

        Thank you for your thoughtful reply! 🙂

        https://jeshua21.wordpress.com/additional-essays/one-life-divine/

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        • Thanks, Wayne. I appreciate your thoughtful reply.

          I would say although I don’t limit Jesus (as the “I AM” incarnate) to the historical Reality, for me, as an Orthodox, it is indeed the historic Reality which drives home the present eschatological Truth of Who Christ is and what is the nature of the present Mystery of Christ in His Church–and Who exactly the “Christ” is Who lives in me. We are warned of many pretenders, too, (Mark 13:22, 2 Corinthians 11:14). I don’t say this based solely on some rational analysis of what the NT writers say about Jesus, but also am considering my own personal encounters with Him through the conviction of my own heart throughout my life and now within the Orthodox Christian Church.

          Orthodox acknowledge in our “Trisagion” prayers, God, the Holy Spirit, is “everywhere present and filling all things.” By no means would we limit the experience of the conviction of the Holy Spirit (John 16:8) or an awareness of His presence and truth only to those who consciously confess Jesus Christ in the kind of fullness He has been revealed and known down the centuries in the Church from the Apostles on forward. Orthodox Christians are bound by the norms of the Orthodox Church, but the Holy Spirit is not (as Met. Kallistos Ware writes in his book, The Orthodox Church). “Christ enlightens every man coming into the world . . . ” writes the Apostle John in the first chapter of his Gospel, and the Apostle Paul preaches to the philosophers of his day in Athens in Acts 17:26-28, “He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring.’ (emphasis mine). In view of these things, I will certainly not be upset if God in Christ ultimately manages to save literally everyone, regardless of creed or lack thereof. Certainly, I would agree with you “whosoever wills may come and drink of the water of life freely.” We don’t believe everyone who is formally Orthodox or Christian “wills” and is therefore automatically being saved, nor does the Orthodox Church teach everyone who is not formally a member of the Church cannot be being saved (albeit in a manner often largely hidden from our view).

          On the other hand, many have born witness to discovering “the light within”, and rather than being transformed into the image of Christ “from glory to glory” by such an encounter have rather descended into madness and inner and inter- personal chaos. I’m distrustful of an undiscerning and generalized encouragement to others to embrace “the light within” because such an approach can also misdirect some (because of the deceitfulness of sin) onto a path away from God to narcissism and spiritual delusion rather than the True Light that is Christ. One has only to read the “enlightened” drivel of many a New Age guru of our age and contrast it with the teaching of Christ and His Apostles to discover this. I don’t know if you have ever seen the documentary of his father done by Deepak Chopra’s son (http://www.snagfilms.com/decodingdeepak/), but it is a very poignant tribute, and also an eye-opener. The lofty-sounding vision and words of many of our world’s would-be spiritual guides are a far cry from the very broken human place they live (and to be quite honest, I can see the presence of God more clearly in the latter than the former).

          Heeding such spiritual guides, Orthodox Abbott, Fr. Sophrony Sakharov of blessed memory, as a young man traveled away from his Orthodox Christian upbringing and into the practice of TM seeking wholeness and truth before returning to Christian faith. Having come full circle to a full embrace of Orthodox Christian faith again, he warns that the experience that is the result of Eastern religious meditation practices is far from the experience of the living Christ to Whom the Apostles bore witness and Who gave birth to His Church. What one may encounter through such Eastern meditation techniques is the image of Christ within, in which we are created (i.e., our own human nature). It is possible to become enthralled with this image and its relative “light” and believe in encountering this created image of the Divine that we have encountered the transcendent Divine Reality Himself of which our own deep humanity is but a reflection. Fr. Sophrony (having experienced both) is quite adamant these are vastly different experiences, and once one has truly encountered the living Christ through repentance and begun to experience the kind of transformation effected by Him, one would never mistake the one for the other.

          Orthodox Christianity is much more experiential than many of its Fundamentalist and more rationalist-leaning Western theological counterparts. We aren’t taught we come to know Christ mainly by rationally analyzing the Scriptures (or the teachings of the Church Fathers), but by praying them, experiencing Christ’s presence in the sacramental life of His Church and seeing the true nature of the transformative effect of union with Him in the lives of our Saints–through the ineffable working of the Holy Spirit in our own hearts in the same manner as He has worked throughout the continuous, historic and embodied life of Christ in His Church. We celebrate Christ’s Pascha in all its fullness precisely because we continue to encounter Him thus today in the life of His Church.

          The truth is most of us do not wholeheartedly “will” to drink of the water of life even though it is free because the “water of life” is the very same “consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29) which burns and consumes all within us that is corrupt and opposed to God’s good and perfect will–and this is not a painless process, particularly for the ego. This “water of life” annihilates the forces of sin and death at work within us and to which, in the perversity of our spiritual blindness, we may yet stubbornly cling (Romans 3:10-12).

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          • I don’t necessarily disagree with any of that, Karen. We seem to agree that there are many who say, Lord, Lord, who do not know him and, at the same time, there are others who find him outside of traditional Christian teachings (east or west). To be sure, there is much room for self-deception either way. But insofar as we are responsible for the path we take, I can only follow the leading of the Lord in my life as best I can discern it and trust in his grace to correct me if I have gotten side-tracked. I can’t speak for anyone else and can only observe that their experience– however celebrated –doesn’t necessarily apply to me. Having said that, I know enough about Orthodoxy to realize that it is a beautiful, authentic tradition and I would not discourage anyone from following it if that is the direction in which they feel authentically led.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Greetings, Wayne. You and Karen seem to be having a nice conversation. I don’t wish to intrude, but I thought I’d add my two cents.

      Tom Wright, as you have noted, is never shy with his views. When he is confident about something, he expresses himself in forthright, confident language. I don’t think that should be counted as a strike against him.

      In this citation he addresses a simple historical question: What must the message of Jesus’ resurrection have meant to the early Jewish-Christian believers?

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      • Hi Fr. Kimel — you are not intruding at all — I’m happy to hear from you, in fact. Indeed, I do not object to that particular claim so much as I do his tendency to claim more for his overall case (for the historicity of the Easter narratives) than the evidence warrants. Also, I sometimes inadvertently find myself in the position of arguing against the resurrection (which is not really my intention). My intention is to argue that whether or not they had good reason to think of it in physical and historical terms, I think we have good reason to think of it in metaphorical, symbolic, and Spiritual terms. I’m not suggesting that the former is necessarily false, but that there is room– or ought to be room –for the latter, as well (just as N.T. Wright makes room for Marcus Borg in the book that you are quoting and does not question his faith, however much he may disagree with him). Moreover, the fact that Paul does not seem to be aware of the women and the empty tomb makes me think that much of the Easter narratives are stories which tended to grow like tospy as the belief in the risen Lord became more common.

        On another note, N.T. Wright often mentions that the Jews had no idea that the resurrection would begin “in the middle of history” (as opposed to being an end-time event), but I don’t think the early Christians imagined it that way, either, did they? Rather, they thought the end of the age was near…

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Wayne, you write: “My intention is to argue that whether or not they had good reason to think of it in physical and historical terms, I think we have good reason to think of it in metaphorical, symbolic, and Spiritual terms.”

          Clearly all Christian talk about the resurrection involves us in analogous and metaphorical language, as we are talking about an event and reality that transcends worldly experience. But I have to resist your skepticism, as I am persuaded that the apostolic preaching of our Lord’s resurrection only makes sense if something surprising happened to Jesus (and his corpse) on that Easter morning that made resurrection language the only appropriate language by which to speak of it. This resurrection language would have made no sense, for example, if the corpse of Jesus were still lying in the tomb or in whatever potter’s field the Romans buried him (per Crossan and Ehrman). If it were, then would not the apostles have found different language by which to express their convictions that Jesus, in some sense, survived his death or that God had, in some way, vindicated his messianic identity?

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        • Wayne, I ask you the same question Paul asked King Agrippa at his trial:
          Acts 26:6-8 “And now I am standing trial for the hope of the promise made by God to our fathers; to which our twelve tribes hope to attain, as they earnestly serve God night and day. And for this hope, O King, I am being accused by Jews. Why is it considerd incredible among you if God does raise the dead?”

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          • Once again, I am not denying the resurrection, I am expressing skepticism that resurrection requires that human remains be transformed.

            Think of it this way: Most of us have been taught that our eternal well being depends on believing that the crucified body of Jesus did not decompose. Suppose, however, that our eternal well being depended not on believing that but on judging correctly whether or not that claim is true? Do you see how in the first case, we are coerced somewhat– through threats of hell and hopes of paradise –while in the second case, we become strict empiricists and historians? Now I’m not suggesting that either of these is preferable, but merely that it is instructive for us to reflect on them a bit. In fact, our understanding of the resurrection story– our “belief” in it, if you will –must ultimately be informed by our relationship to the risen Christ. Once we recognize and honor the risen Christ, it makes little difference whether or not we “think” the Easter narratives are historical, we still “know” that they are “true”.

            If we do not recognize and honor the risen Lord, however, it makes little difference whether or not we believe the Easter narratives are historical (except, insofar, as a belief in them might eventually make us look and listen for his presence in our lives). But if our skepticism is preventing us from looking and listening for his presence, it would be better to understand that a myth is a story that is true on the inside whether or not it is true on the outside, would it not? As such, I am suggesting that the skeptical point of view not be disparaged.

            FYI, this poem by Thomas Traherne illustrates (IMO) one way in which the skeptic might come to recognize and honor the living Christ. It’s a long poem–I will just repeat a few highlights and then provide a link:

            “My Spirit”

            * Being simple like the Deity…
            * Not shut up here, but everywhere…
            * God [hath] appeared in this mysterious fact…
            * O sacred mystery!
            * My Soul a Spirit infinite!
            * An image of the Deity!
            * A pure substantial light!
            * That Being greatest which doth nothing seem!
            * The only proper place of Heavenly Bliss.
            * To its Creator ’tis so near…
            * In it, without hyperbole, the Son and friend of God we see…
            * being nigh of kin to God…
            * O wondrous Self! O sphere of light,
            * Thou which within me art, yet me!
            * Thou eye, and temple of His whole infinity!

            This is to me a vision of the risen Christ–the light of the world through which we are reconciled to God. It is this kind of “seeing” that I have in mind when I say it is possible to recognize and honor the living Christ while remaining skeptical about the historicity of the Easter narratives. Follow the link and scroll down mid-way to read the whole poem:

            https://jeshua21.wordpress.com/additional-essays/the-mind-of-christ-and-the-power-of-the-spirit/

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  4. Pingback: I Am the Resurrection and the Life | Life Streams – Narrative and Grace…

  5. Thank you for your reply, Fr. Kimel — I assure you that “resistance is not futile” as far as I am concerned (it may not change my mind, but a free and open discussion of the question should benefit all involved).

    Keep in mind that one of the main thrusts of Wright’s thought is to show how Paul’s message was both thoroughly rooted in Jewish categories, but that, at the same time, those categories had to be stretched in various ways to accommodate the advent of Christ. Likewise, I would argue– if the 1) body of Jesus is unaccounted for (for whatever reason–lost in the scrap-heap or stolen by well meaning followers), and if 2) more and more of his disciples begin to have various experiences through which they realized the continuing presence of the Lord in their lives, it would be perfectly understandable that they would testify that he was, in fact, NOT DEAD, but alive. And given their general understanding of an afterlife that involves a resurrection, it would be natural for them to say he had been raised from the dead (especially if some of them did, indeed, experience him as a physical or quasi-physical presence). That does not mean that his crucified body did not also go back to dust. There is, BTW, no logical reason to think that some of our remains need to survive in order for us to have a resurrection body. But be that as it may, the important thing– I think you would agree –is that we be raised with him in newness of life NOW. That is consistent with Jesus’ message in the gospels and with the writings of St. Paul.

    With regard to Jesus crucified body, of course, I could be mistaken… Perhaps it happened more or less as reported in the Easter narratives. But given the fact that Paul makes no mention of the women or the empty tomb, I suspect that much of the narrative is made up of legendary accretions between the time that Paul is writing of and the time that the gospels were written. But once again, my point is not to deny resurrection, but to fully acknowledge the skeptical point of view. For if, initially, the story of the resurrection served to point people to the living Christ– but has now become a hindrance –I am suggesting that there are other ways to point to the living Christ and that once Christ is recognized and honored, the story of the resurrection makes perfect sense (whether or not we are inclined to take it “literally” (i.e. it is true on the inside, whether or not it is true on the outside). Moreover, by growing up in the tradition, the children of skeptics, too, will gain the benefit of the teaching even if, eventually, they are not inclined to understand it as a historical narrative. As such, I suggest that everyone should be made welcome and that the light of the world be magnified.

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    • Hi again, Wayne!

      I accept the sincerity of your viewpoint, but to see things that way strains my credulity (as a former psychology major) just as much as to take the Gospels more or less at face value strains the credulity of many modern people. Lee Strobel’s book, The Case for Christ (as well as his whole series in this line) does a good job of explaining why that might be true for some of us, if you want a better understanding of why that might be. But if you are skeptical about the reliability of the Gospels and the basic continuity and agreement with the Apostle Paul and the Gospel writers, you and I have a deeper difference of presuppositions and perspective than simply whether we think the Apostles being convinced of Jesus’ bodily resurrection was what really started the Church. It simply seems to me traditional scholars of the New Testament do a better and more coherent job of explaining the data we have than their liberal counterparts.

      For me, the Gospel accounts and what actually happened in early Church history simply ring true to my experience of the way people behave in certain circumstances and are affected by certain beliefs in a way rival accounts (whether early Gnostic heresies or the theories of modern liberal scholars) of the Person of Jesus Christ do not.

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      • One thing which makes a merely spiritual “resurrection” a non-starter for me (and a completely inadequate basis from my perspective for a faith like that of the early Christians) is that belief in the spiritual realm is quite typical and widespread throughout the world throughout the ages and rather “business as usual” for virtually all traditional religions. Dreams, visions and visitations from the departed and “angelic” or “demonic” spirits are no great surprise for any age except perhaps only in our present day in the modern West, where a species of scientism and materialism have held sway for quite a while and extinguished much of that for many modern skeptics. A claim of “visitation” such as you propose, as N. T. Wright points out, certainly would have held no particular surprise for a first-century Jew.

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        • And that’s fine, Karen–different strokes for different folks. You are obviously a kind and intelligent woman and I am pleased to converse with you, whether or not we reach any clear agreement. With regard to Lee Strobel, I read “The Case for Christ” 12 or 15 years ago, but did not find it compelling. Not sure what I would make of it now… With regard to Paul and the gospel writers– especially Paul and John (and the Johannine letters) –I find much that resonates deeply. But I find that resonance in my heart and life– in the Spirit, so to speak –not in any officially sanctioned history or dogmatic pronouncements. I understand that the church must draw and maintain boundaries, but my experience does not allow me to reside safely within those boundaries. There is a rather superficial view of salvation history that I sometimes refer to as “Our Sunday School Theology”. I know that those who pass through Catholic and Orthodox seminaries understand all this more deeply, but even then, there is a tendency to ignore the absurdities that are involved in a strictly orthodox account that would seem to involve a creator that sanctions a creation in which many– perhaps most –will end up in hell for eternity (after being born subject to original sin and after failing to encounter the necessary grace that would reconcile them to God). You may find my approach counter-intuitive, but I am trying to make sense not only of the events of the first century but also the whole scheme of things as traditionally imagined (including the experience of those born before the advent of Christ or born outside of Christendom–and including the experience of honest skeptics and sincere critics). So while the “Lee Strobel” understanding may smooth over the rough spots for those who are predisposed to smooth them over and get on with their life, I am not so predisposed. Thanks again for your thoughtful replies–they are much appreciated.

          https://jeshua21.wordpress.com/2014/08/05/our-sunday-school-theology/

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        • Sorry, Karen–I missed this appended message, earlier… I am suggesting that the followers of Christ may have had many different kinds of experiences, but that the central experience is that of the Divine presence which is suggested by the “I Am” expressions in the gospel of John (an experience that Jesus indicates they could not fully appreciate as long as he was with them in the flesh). Perhaps you have already looked through this– I may have shared it earlier –but if you have not, and if you have the time and patience to do so, you might understand what I am referring to as the living Christ.

          https://jeshua21.wordpress.com/additional-essays/the-divine-presence-that-i-am/

          That and the Traherne poem captures what I am getting at pretty well. The “Divine Presence” article challenges the reader to look deep within, the “My Spirit” poem challenges the reader to look high above, and together, they offer a path to transcendence for even the most skeptical of modern minds — assuming they are honestly searching for the truth. This does not mean that Easter narratives are not also true, but they make more sense to me understood in symbolically/Spiritually.

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          • Thank you, Wayne. I appreciate the chance for conversation as well.

            God creating a world where “most people are going to end up in hell” is more of a Western theological logical deduction than a firm Orthodox (and early Christian) conclusion based on the Apostolic witness. The early Christians arguably held a much more optimistic view of the scope of Christ’s victory over hell and death than is typical of many stripes of conservative Christians today (many Orthodox included). It is actually my struggle with this whole question that drove me from my former Evangelical communion into Orthodoxy, so your struggle with the apparent “smoothing over” of “absurdities” is a familiar one to me (and to Fr. Aidan). You might be able to appreciate Fr. Aidan’s blog series on St. Isaac the Syrian as well as his posts of excerpts from George MacDonald’s sermons who developed the same convictions as St. Isaac, though it is unlikely he ever heard of St. Isaac. It was the presentation of aspects of St. Isaac’s understanding of the nature of hell in an address by contemporary Orthodox, Dr. Alexandre Kalomiros, entitled “The River of Fire,” which led me to become Orthodox.

            If you are so inclined, you might also enjoy this talk by Met. Kallistos (Ware) on St. Gregory of Nyssa as well: http://www.ancientfaith.com/video/cambridgevideo/perpetual_progress_or_felix_the_cat

            It is noteworthy, perhaps, that although the Orthodox Church has not embraced St. Gregory of Nyssa’s view of Christian Universalism as dogma, neither have they ever condemned St. Gregory of Nyssa as a heretic for his views. On the contrary, he is venerated as a Saint and revered for the profundity of his theological vision. This offers a rather striking contrast to the response of a good portion of Evangelicalism to Rob Bell, many of whom publicly vilified him after he wrote, Love Wins (and even before he left the pastorate and appeared on Oprah, apparently officially no longer an Evangelical in his convictions). This perhaps suggests a rather different approach to ultimate questions in the unarguably “traditional” Christianity of the Orthodox Church than the rather cut and dried one you are used to associating with what you describe as “Our Sunday School Theology” on this subject in western “traditional” Christian circles today.

            St. Silouan (Silvanus) the Athonite reflects the most genuinely Orthodox Christian attitude on the subject (and I have not encountered an Orthodox Christian who would dispute this). I reckon he should have the last word: http://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2009/06/conversation-between-saint-silvanus.html

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  6. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Wayne Ferguson writes, “Moreover, it must be noted that the real growth in the early church took place among gentiles — not among Jews.” Why would this be thought to be so? Or with reference to what and where and when? The New Testament records, for example, as far as they go, seem to indicate both “growth”, and failure of growth, variously among Jews and gentiles. Something like the agora and Areopagus history of Acts 17 shows St. Paul insisting on the ‘historical’ Resurrection (vv. 18, 31) meeting, among a variety of (learned) Greek hearers/interlocutors a variously successful and unsuccessful response (vv. 32-34).

    It seems important to attend to and consider (for example) St. Paul’s “insisting ‘that if Christ be not raised, we are of all men most miserable’ ” and not implausible to think he might have enjoyed greater “growth” among some (even many?) Jews and gentiles if he had not so insisted, but I do not see that this is therefore “an understanding that brooks no opposition” and that there is further “something not quite right about” it. Why might (for example) St. Paul have been so convinced that there was precisely ‘something quite right about it’ such that there could (it would seem) be no question of considering the possibility of a persuasive advantage in (at least initially) ‘soft-pedalling’ it? Thinking of Charles Williams characterization of St. Thomas as ‘apostle and sceptic’ and his treatment of “the history of the Holy Spirit in the Church”, I would urge Wayne Ferguson to be more widely and deeply sceptical, and question more things that seem to have crept into his approach and analyses than he does already.

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    • [David Llewellyn Dodds wrote: “Why would [more growth among the gentiles] be thought to be so? Or with reference to what and where and when? The New Testament records, for example, as far as they go, seem to indicate both “growth”, and failure of growth, variously among Jews and gentiles.”]

      Apparently it is not an easy question to answer, but the only analysis that I have been able to find online suggests that 1) the numbers in Acts are probably inflated, 2) that the Jerusalem church was never larger than about 500, and 3) that the total population of Jewish Christians in the first century was probably never more than 1000 (and more probably closer to about 5% of the total Christian population which he estimates to have been between 7 and 15 thousand by the end of the first century). Those conclusions seem to be coming from a rather liberal perspective, so please offer any alternative figures that you can find, but do have a look at that study–you can get the gist of it pretty quickly… But however we slice it, even by the time Paul is writing, the Jews have by and large rejected the Christian message (“blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in” – Romans 11:25).

      http://www.hts.org.za/index.php/HTS/article/viewFile/430/329

      [Something like the agora and Areopagus history of Acts 17 shows St. Paul insisting on the ‘historical’ Resurrection (vv. 18, 31) meeting, among a variety of (learned) Greek hearers/interlocutors a variously successful and unsuccessful response (vv. 32-34).]

      He is insisting the Christ was crucified, buried, and rose again the third day. No explicit mention is made of the women or the empty tomb. I’m do not deny that Paul may have believed in the transformation of Jesus’ remains– I am not even denying that his remains were transformed –I’m just saying that there no logical necessity to think that this must have been the case in order for him to be raised from the dead. And one of my main points is that N.T. Wright’s arguments at best lend plausibility to the historicity of the Easter narratives and do not warrant the cavalier dismissal of alternative explanations (which many of his groupies and sometimes he himself tends to do–implying he has exhaustively covered all the bases and demolished any and all alternative points of view).

      [It seems important to attend to and consider (for example) St. Paul’s “insisting ‘that if Christ be not raised, we are of all men most miserable’ ” and not implausible to think he might have enjoyed greater “growth” among some (even many?) Jews and gentiles if he had not so insisted, but I do not see that this is therefore “an understanding that brooks no opposition” and that there is further “something not quite right about” it. ]

      Again, I am primarily making a logical argument against the N.T. Writes logical/textual/historical analysis. But I am also suggesting that the essential ingredient is that Christ LIVES and that we have eternal life in him. If being a Christian is just a self-help club to make us happy and successful, we are of all men most miserable. Rather, we are called to be crucified with him (“put to death in the flesh”) and raised with him in newness of life (“made alive in the Spirit” — “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” — “we have the mind of Christ”).

      [Why might (for example) St. Paul have been so convinced that there was precisely ‘something quite right about it’ such that there could (it would seem) be no question of considering the possibility of a persuasive advantage in (at least initially) ‘soft-pedalling’ it? ]

      This isn’t a matter of trying to get more people to join our club, it is a matter of exposing them to the life of the Spirit–in the same way that Paul want to bring gentiles into relationship with the God of Israel (without burdening them with circumcision or dietary laws). I have edited this in my blog posting slightly to lessen the chances of that misconception (i.e. that I am somehow just concerned with clever marketing).

      [Thinking of Charles Williams characterization of St. Thomas as ‘apostle and sceptic’ and his treatment of “the history of the Holy Spirit in the Church”]

      You will need to explain this–I’ve read a couple of Williams’ novels and generally appreciate his work, but I’m not familiar with this…

      [I would urge Wayne Ferguson to be more widely and deeply sceptical, and question more things that seem to have crept into his approach and analyses than he does already.]

      I would be happy to revisit this from any specific angle that you would suggest. But please don’t miss the point of the article. First, I am criticizing the attitude of NTW and his fans vis-a-vis alternative accounts; and second, I am suggesting that Christ LIVES whether or not the stone was rolled away and the tomb was empty. I have in mind the cosmic Christ here–the Divine logos through whom the world is framed. The one in whom we are reconciled with God (at-one with the Father) and members one of another.

      Whether or not the Easter narratives are historical, they remain compelling symbols of the eternal life that we have in Christ.

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