Resurrection (Discussion 1)

This is a discussion of the In Depth Group at its February 20 2008 meeting, according to my memory and based on my perspective. It was based around the chapter called 'Thinking about Easter' in Tony Windross's book called The Thoughtful Guide to Faith published in 2004 by O Books of Ropley, Hampshire (a cut down version of the book, not including this chapter, appears at There is only limited reporting of others' expressed views, in so far as they relate to mine here, and no connection is made between them.

My submitted paper was absorbed into the introductory presentation given by the In Depth Group facilitator. He began with an extract from Kilvert's Diary, where people arrive from far and wide and children dress the grave stones before Easter arrives. He then spoke on the debate between spiritual and physical resurrection, in that if it is not a physical resurrection then what sort of resurrection is in the texts. He tackled the Tony Windross chapter about Easter and how at times he seems like Paul, that if the resurrection did not happen then there is no Christianity, but he is unclear - I said Windross is unclear what "it" is (whether an actual resurrection or us living in the resurrection) and another found the Windross chapter weak. There are no primary documents, said the facilitator, extracting a little from my paper (below). Another extraction was that the resurrection stories indicate absence as well as presence - that the resurrected Jesus cannot be a live human being. Others have written there is no history of Jesus as such, whereas Tom Wight had written recently that we can know much of Jesus's life.
Given that my paper was not distributed, I spoke freely about my views. There are no primary documents but like a social anthropologist you can go back in time and try to inhabit and suppose what happened and try to get into the mindset. He heals because he readies people for the Kingdom, given that sin causes illness and needs removal for entry into the Kingdom. Jesus is talking about either another Son of Man (transformed), or himself or he is crucial to events that should come about. Now when he is dead, he is either the Messiah or no one. People say that the disciples ran away, were in despair, that Jesus was dead and that was it - all over. But this does not take account of the continued expectation, and continuing Jewish festivals these people will have maintained. Him dead, they are still in the throes of his teachings, his personality, bereavement stages and expectations, and he could actually return. They will have, at some stage on, had a religious meal, and say he, Jesus, is present with us. Just as the New Testament is history-like, and biography-like, but is neither, so the resurrection as presence can be personality-like. The stories of his presence are given that suggest his absence. One members said, regarding the stories, like a horse race, "They're off." Thus stores are embellished, and later "Jobs depend on them," he said. Others spoke of stages of bereavement - from the loss to the positive and presence, this being a common experience. Queen Victoria continued arguing with Albert after he was dead, said one.
I said if you do it the other way around it does not work. Suppose you take the agreement of six hours, which is not long enough to be sure of suffocation. So Jesus is given healing herbs, resuscitates and walks as a cripple to speak to the disciples and give instructions. As a wanted man he then walks off out of the boundary of the Roman Empire, looking for the twelve - "ten," said one member, remaining - tribes of Israel, and ends up buried in Afghanistan. Then the resurrection stories of appearances do not work. They are not of such an individual. The stories are like you get the point, eyes opened, see him, he disappears again. One also said that they also conflict too much (not likely with a live individual).
The facilitator was fairly sure the crucified body would have ben thrown in a lime pit, and another said the Romans would not let others get to the bodies (to be sure they were up long enough to die). I said that even donating organs has to be arranged before you die, even without a lime pit you rot quickly. With lime he'd be unrecognisable rapidly and so no bodies could be produced in any timescale.
One member raised the issue of the women going to the grave. Why would they if in a lime pit (a sort of error of historicity of the text). I said well the body and tomb is probably a later story which was to resist the Gnostic intepretation of the purely spiritual; others say in a kind of double bluff that the use of the women as first witnesses therefore, perversely, makes it more historical. They as first witnesses also can explain why the tomb story was not heard earlier. It also explains why there was no tomb worship (given to a messianic figure). One said there is a lot to suggest it is a later story, and that Paul certainly does not consider a tomb. I said Paul could have been in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus's death, and would have paid it no attention at all - Jesus is a salvation figure to Paul later on.
I also suggested another going into the mindset of the early communities who would as Jesus was resurrected and appeared but why isn't he appearing now? The answer is the ascension and the unique Christian second coming. So he is gone, and send a paraclete - but, more than this, he appeared to the leaders ending in Paul and the congregation of 500 or 120, so he gave the leaders legitimacy and authority and therefore does not need to reappear any more. So now there is a Holy Spirit to do the guiding.
Some said how they do not think the Holy Spirit is a person. There are also different gender tags that can be applied.
One asked again about the Emmaus meal. I made the point that in the Last Supper Jesus says this won't be done until he is back, and so having such a meal at Emmaus in the writing means he is back. Some do not like the words, 'Jesus had supper with his friends' in the liturgy.
One member read from a newspaper article about an Eastern Roman Emperor in 379 CE who emphasised the co-equality of the Trinity, and that was it. I said all the debates come back, and that from my background I know about the Turkish influence in what is now Romania where the Reformation took a Unitarian turn. John's gospel is Arian-compatible.
In the next session resurrection will be tackled further as the facilitator said he will introduce John Spong's thesis that resurrection arose out of Jewish practice in the "quiet forty years". When one said John Spong was, "a bit way out," I said, "But no more than we have been."



This is a paper to prepare for a discussion of the In Depth Group at its February 20 2008 meeting, given to the discussion leader ahead of the meeting, and is based around the chapter called 'Thinking about Easter' in Tony Windross's book called The Thoughtful Guide to Faith published in 2004 by O Books of Ropley, Hampshire (a cut down version of the book, not including this chapter, appears at Tony Windross is Anglican priest and Vicar of St. Peter's, Sheringham in NorfolkA visit by mystery worshipper Hermione for Ship of Fools to Sheringham in 2002 - with a photo of the church.

Resurrection and History

Tony Windross (2004) tackles the issue of resurrection by skirting around it. He attempts, nearly successfully, but not quite, to merge the impact of resurrection with the "it" he thinks is at the heart of it. He half avoids saying what the "it" is, except to say that if "it" was not true then it would not have lasted.
The ability of something to last, or indeed the speed of expansion, is not an evidence of the truth of the thing. Otherwise we would be forced to say the Mormon belief is true or Hinduism is true and many people do not say this about one or both of those. However, longevity and speed of expansion are evidence of speaking to a truth. Does, therefore, resurrection speak to a truth?
The problem with Windross's approach is that he will not pierce the issue of history. Skirting around this won't do, even if wanting to concentrate on, say, living the resurrection life. So we need to ask what if anything might have happened.
We cannot know for even near certain. There are no primary documents. History is not about trying to do the equivalent of grabbing a video camera and going back in time. At best, and empirically, it is a study of and around primary source documents. A primary source is something recorded at the time for the express purpose of witnessing what happened and that we continue to possess. The earliest documents, the first of Paul's letters, are about twenty years after Jesus's death. They have been partially altered, are too unreliable as history, and some of them were never his in the first place. And his letters carry a distinct theology of a salvation scheme of a dying and rising Christ, rather than witting history.
After him we get the Paul affected Gospels. They Paul affected throughout and without other influences, but you see his influence and parallels all over the place.
The individual Paul interprets a spiritual encounter on the Damascus road as a visitation of Christ. Used to the Jewish language of the body, Paul then gets into a muddle of speaking about a spiritual body. The problem is that this is evidence for nothing except that he interpreted something that he said happened, and indeed there may be several layers of interpretation here: spiritual experience, Christ appearing.
Paul's interpretation like his is then applied as a series of visitations to a roll call of leadership, the last of them coming to him (thus he joins the leaders and ever so lowly) and there is also the 500 or the 120 in Acts, which is the congregation (the first is half a Roman Legion, the second is a quorum of a synagogue and the number of the Great Synagogue in Nehemiah that was restoring the Divine Law to greatness - other significances are 120 as a period of probation, divine waiting, a factor of the number returned from Babylon, a factor of those who left Egypt).
Then we have accounts which show disciples not recognising Jesus and then recognising him, sometimes in the context of a meal, whereupon once they "see" and get the point he disappears. The writing confirms the apostles' authority and the legitimacy of the eucharistic meal via the relationship back to Last Supper account with the earthly Jesus at which he apparently said this would not be eaten again until he returns. So the stories are designed to run together.
The tomb stories were developed one by one, which principally emphasise the centrality of the body and is against the Gnostic trend (in Paul and John too) towards the spiritual. The stories indicate the absence of tomb worship that some other messianic figures enjoyed at the time of the early Churches. There was no tomb to visit to worship. In other words, the tomb stories and the nature of appearance stories indicate the loss of Jesus's body. Had Jesus's body been thrown in a lime pit after crucifixion the body would have quickly become unidentifiable. Arguments made that Romans would have respected Jewish customs by going to the effort of handing back the body to claimants hardly suits a situation where Romans killed any disturber of their rule on the flimsiest of basis. What is clear is that, buried or otherwise, the body was gone.
As for the old evangelical argument about why didn't they produce a body when challenged by other Jews is a complete red herring. First of all, other Jews would have been uninterested until Jewish-Christians became a presence in synagogues when a lost body would have been long lost. And a disposed body rots rapidly. It is why we have to agree to organ transplants while we are still living.
The other potential historical issue is the speed of Jesus's death. Six hours is too short to die as a result of crucifixion, even if you have been bashed about. But we don't know that it was six hours: we know of no reporter and again there is no primary source. In any case, the accounts of visitations and presence are inconsistent with someone who had not completely died, and who via, say, Joseph of Arimathea's healing herbs had recovered and then met to direct the disciples bnut then walked over the eastern border of the Roman Empire to escape the clutches of the Roman authorities as a wanted man. The argument is that after recovering, which would indeed have been seen as a miracle, he left the Roman sphere and walked very far looking for the lost tribes of Israel, to call them back for the Kingdom to come. In fact the visitations are more consistent with someone who was never there than with someone who was a recovered cripple.
Suppose these visitations are more than just the early Church writers giving accounts to show legitimacy of leaders and rituals - a religious trasdition in rapid development. Then there is the issue with consciousness. This is whether a continuous self with the pre-death Jesus and therefore his consciousness directed the apostles after his death. We take it that consciousness is connected to the materiality of the functioning brain. This is only slightly questioned by Near Death Experiences, that is whether seeing, understanding and directing can happen when a person has become brain dead. Interestingly, seen this way, it is the issue of life after death that decides the impact of Jesus in this narrower NDE related sense, not that the impact of Jesus Christ decides the existence of life after death (as is the usual Christian account).
By the way, there is also the Star Trek issue. Star Trek personnel when they energise are annihilated into energy before they are reconstituted somewhere else from energy. In other words they die. The reformed have the memories of the previous ones who stepped into the transporter, but the ones who stepped into the transporter had come to a sticky end. So a Jesus who actually dies on the cross comes to a sticky end. A conscious Jesus-self who is resurrected might have his memories and personality, to go on to affect others, but he is not the same continuous person.
Over and again the New Testament accounts lead to nothing conclusive, other than the central focus of the continuous early Churches on resurrection. Incidentally we know that some of the earliest and Jewish Christian rituals are not so resurrection based: the Didache plays down resurrection, for example. This really is an intensely Paul affected event that has been shot through the Gospels and New Testament. The purer Jewish resurrection view may be much more linked to expectation and general resurrection, and Jesus as a pointer to this without being central in a scheme of salvation.
In fact, the resurrection accounts in the gospels as much tell the believers why Jesus no longer appears as that he did appear. Yes, he was resurrected, they say, and appeared to leaders and the 500/ 120, and not to many, but he no longer appears now. He went away again and so now it is the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Christianity uniquely has the second coming - its one great break with Judaism. The second coming is the explanation why resurrection appearances stopped, or why any further visitations by Jesus that people claim cannot be linked with the resurrection. For Jews the first of the resurrected is resurrected and is here whilst the rest are to be resurrected.
Resurrection happened in the quiet pre-period of early Christianity, the time before the Churches - with the exception of Paul presumably - and of course the birth of the Churches, the expansive period, is given as Pentecost. This is about having a clear beginning, though this is not exactly historical either. So resurrection alone is inadequate and is really part of a salvation scheme.
So, yet again, the accounts are an explanation of absence, not simply presence. But they are an explanation of a kind of presence.
History can be reconstructed narrative, taking into account sifting secondary sources and knowledge of the cultural environment at the time. So the disciples have lost their leader, who had impacted on their lives in a very thorough way, a man who pointed to the coming of the Son of Man, and who identified with this very closely. Indeed he may have identified himself with the to be transformed Son of Man - or at least that what he did was crucial for bringing about the messianic figure.
Now that Jesus is dead, there are fewer possibilities. For him to be followed any further, he must be either the messiah or nothing (a kind of Pauline argument that there is the resurrection or nothing). He is now in the heavenly realm and is able to return and his return would be transformation. No doubt in the months and even years that followed his death, Jesus's presence on the disciples was a subject of continued reflection - especially as the expectation of the end time did not go away. After all, this was what Paul thought too.
Nor did the Jewish significance of the meal diminish in any way. So we can image small groups of the disciples wondering during and after their work wondering about the coming future and their own responsibilities given the possible wait in heaven of their once all-charismatic leader. So one day, seeing signs and wonders still of the end, and with still the ongoing oppression, they have a meal, and say that Jesus is present with them in the meal.
Some today might have a party to remember the loved one and, being more spiritual in language say that the deceased one is looking down over them. For Jews it was always more material than this, always more in the celebration itself. Perhaps they did celebrate, a remembrance, but to give any sense that he was present in the atmosphere of future expectation has the potential to become charged with further meaning and excitement.
The idea that Jesus was crucified and the disciples ran away (they'd have got away earlier) and that this was it, and only an actual visitation from Jesus would have turned their despair and loss into excitement, is just naive. The potential of the suffering servant message includes the very potential of the ultimate suffering, and they believed in a very strong relationship between the heavenly realm and the earthly one - indeed Jesus had indicated it was so close you could virtually taste it. Plus changes of circumstance like death and expectation often force shifts in perception and beliefs. The Jewish belief was that God needed prompting by a ready humanity through the messianic based actions for God to then bring in the final reality of the Kingdom. So it was still to do, and still could be done, and a shift was towards presence and thus a sense of matters in process of being done.
On the basis that the gosel writings are history-like and biography-like (Acts is also history-like), and that there is a blur between fact and fiction (since separated out post-Enlightenment), and that ancient writers almost remake reality (e.g. it is how some writers could write like they thought Paul would have written and then the writing sort of becomes his thoughts), so then does presence-like in the meal and in the way forward become presence. It takes just religious fervour to make Jesus's presence become ever more active, in a way that still emphasises the meal.
The significance of the resurrection is in the community that lives the resurrection in the presence and absence of Jesus. It speaks to a truth: of living in the hope and intention of renewal of the self and the world around us, of becoming transformed in the context of a purposeful fulfilment at the end of all things.
However, we should not dodge the history questions. The visitations, in how they are written, are suggestive evidence of absence as well as presence, and that the presence is different than before. The visitations emphasise the authority and legitimacy of leaders and the central meal ritual. The tomb emphasises the body against spiritualist competitors.
Since then the forward expectation has turned into tradition, that looks at the Christ resurrected and awaits the second coming, and the much delayed end.

Windross, T. (2004), The Thoughtful Guide to Faith, Ropley, Hampshire:O Books, 67-72.




Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful