Easter as Myth

What a good religious myth does is relate to and fashion something about the pattern of life. The crucifixion and resurrection myth for me reflects upon experience that life is uneven and that sometimes you have to finish something in order to allow the new to take place. That finishing is painful, but the newness can follow and is a breaking out.
In my view nothing of the resurrection story is historical in any sense other than it was linked to expectation of liberation held at the time. The human Jesus was healing, teaching and preaching of the coming of the Kingdom of God for which he believed he was a crucial agent in the drama. If he did not think he was the messiah - who, transformed, would come in clounds of glory - then he was crucial to events to bring that cosmic Son of Man about. After his death, and in the context of continued expectation of the End, and in the continued observation of Jewish rituals (including the importance of the meal) he was either to be the returning Messiah or nothing: there was only one option once he was dead.
Jesus obviously went from the Galilean backwater to the centre of activities, Jerusalem, probably at the feast of Tabernacles (if palm leaves were part of the environment). From the point of view of outsiders, Jesus was just another one of these end time preachers and who attracted a crowd. The Jewish rabbis would have seen him as another end-time preacher and healer too, but the effect of say a disturbance at the Temple - the centre - would have been fairly swift. Christians make the mistake of thinking other people were interested. He was just another disturber in a fearful place at the edge of the Roman Empire, and at a flashpoint time of a public holiday with many crowds adding to authoritarian nerves he would have been picked up and disposed. Pontius Pilate probably gave him no thought at all.
Jesus was utterly a man of his time, picking up the Jewish view of the End and expectation, as it had developed (for example in the Book of Daniel), but specifically following on from John the Baptist who had probably followed on from Qumran or even possibly been a reject from there. Whatever, the ideas were pregnant. Whilst Qumran kept itself pure, the others progressively dealt with the polluted in wider society. This is what Jesus did: he was not all inclusive by any means, as he was interested in his own people, but he did mix with those who needed healing of their demons so that sin could be removed, and they could be made ready for the coming transformation.
This world view is so strange to us. It is utterly supernatural and carries its own reality in terms of suffering, death, explanations and loss. The Jesus hope is that this world was close to being turned upside down by that celestial height coming down to the ground. Now we do not think like this: unless we blow the world up ourselves, it will go on until the sun comes to the end of its time, swallowing the planet up in its gasping ball of fire. Before that happens, this species of human will probably be long gone - not gone off the planet, but extinct, either through folly, or some rapid change that forces evolution. As for first century beliefs, bones do not put on flesh, and will not walk again, nor will there be a sudden meeting of all that were once existing in order that some live on and some do not. However, faced with an enlarging sun, there's no doubt that whatever species of humans makes it to that time, if any, the people of conscious intelligence will possess some strange beliefs about that coming end and transformation.
The problem with the New Testament is that, even with parts from elsewhere, it is so Pauline drenched and so proto-orthodox: it shows development to what would be later an extra-biblical Trinity (though the doctrine is by no means the obvious outcome). It reflects the early Churches asking questions like did Jesus return, what did he set in motion, and why is he not making visitations now? The answers the early Christians received, that become biography-like and history-like even after Jesus's death, seems to be that Jesus visited the people in charge, including Paul, and visited the "congregation". He'd said, apparently, that the meal will not be eaten again until the new Kingdom was in place, and they see the point (him) when they eat the meal - and he vanishes again. The accounts display not just presence but absence, not just body but spirit, and the accounts cannot be joined together into a coherent whole (the proto-orthodox go on later to emphasise the body in the battle with gniostics). The simplest explanation for this is that it is a myth under rapid, charismatic, oral and literary construction. It is a myth of leaders and future direction: of being ready for a return that is still to be fulfilled. It is communal and dynamic. One can imagine the first Jewish Christians dancing around in expectation and that Jesus was present in the rituals, in the meals, as a kind of guide, but not a visitor any more - as he apparently had been, for which there is a Spirit.
Paul makes the expectation of a coming end into a crucifixion-resurrection salvation faith into which sin is given a new twist; whereas Jesus directed people to the work of this soon to be dramatically interventionist God, Paul shifts the focus to Jesus as God's sole worker in the coming work of the interventionist God. Jesus is put on an escalator towards divinity when he would have been regarded as chosen and human. Plus, Paul sees that many Gentiles rather like the notion of one God, rather do not wish to adopt the Law, or have their private parts altered, and, just as Saul could see that Law and Messiah were incompatible and he favoured the Law and told synagogue leaders to punish the messianic Jews, now as Paul he still saw the two as incompatible and yet shifted to the other camp. Perhaps he was "visited" too, or had an experience, or just felt guilty and flipped camp. How he did it isn't clear, but after the destruction of Jerusalem and the wiping out of the Jewish path and those Jewish Chrisitans nearest the pattern of Jesus (there are some like the Ebionites who continue that tendency), Paul's view won through - and how pro-Roman and anti-semitic we see these stories of Jesus's end. Indeed we have this all the way through: Mark's gospel is sufficiently pro-Roman, Matthew's is a Church in the making which is after-Jesus, Luke appeals to the new people, and John inhabits a fantasy world of Jesus the Christ the firstborn of creation and some sort of Greek philosophy of eternity and spirit with reluctant Jewish roots. John (even Paul) shows a route to Gnosticism and also its resistance, which is shows the ongoing departure from Jewish roots.
For me, the whole of this season is about a myth. The hymn "Jesus Christ is risen today" is like singing of sunlight that bursts out after days of cloud. Of course it is related to Easter and renewal, because this is how it anchors itself. All sorts of analyses can be done about the fragments of the Jesus story that are historical and that are of the early Churches', that are constructed into a narrative and bits that remain awkward. Analysis can be made about the quiet time that exists for probably many years between a "resurrection" and the birth of the early Churches in any numbers. Crucial to Christian development is the failure of messianic Judaism: the sect just had to find a different footing and appeal to those people who were the future. Hundreds of years later on many Arabs hearing the stories of local Jews and local varieties of Christians also wished to dispense with polytheisms - not everyone, not consistently, but a new way forward.
Now, today, some of us are stuck: in this time period we know what religious myth looks like, and we know the limitations of historiography. We know the dead do not live, not even one of them - decay is very rapid once death strikes. We know we die because we biologically conk out, not because we have a burden of sin that, if someone might remove it, we could live forever (suitably made other-worldly in the fantasy of evangelical-land).
So I say, rather, let us see crucifixion and resurrection for what it is: the bumpiness and unevenness of life, the endings before beginnings, clearing the old to see the new. Not always, but it is a pattern. We are entitled to hope and to sing, but this is what it is.


Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful