Resurrection of Jesus

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Resurrection accounts

The New Testament

The primary accounts of the resurrection are in the last chapters of the Canonical Gospels: Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, John 20-21. There is suspicion in scholarly circles that the traditional ending of Mark 16, was not originally part of that Gospel ([1]), somewhat complicating matters. Many modern translations of Mark 16 end at Mark 16:8 with for they were afraid, sometimes adding the traditional ending in italics, or in a foot note; the New Revised Standard Version uses the so-called short ending after Mark 16:8, which doesn't make any explicit reference at all to Jesus having been resurrected.

All the Canonical Gospel accounts agree that Jesus was crucified late on Friday afternoon and placed in a tomb belonging to Joseph of Arimathea. On Sunday, after the Saturday Jewish day of rest, one or more of Jesus' female followers, one or more of whom were called Mary, returned to the tomb, to complete the burial rites. When they arrived they discovered that the tomb was empty, or more accurately it did not contain Jesus' body. They then conversed with (an) angel(s)/male youth who informed them that Jesus was resurrected and so they departed. According to the traditional ending of Mark 16, and the surviving versions of the other Gospels, the women returned with some of Jesus' disciples to confirm the emptiness of the tomb. However, ancient manuscripts of Mark 16 vary heavily after this point, some ancient manuscripts even halt at this point, and most scholars do not believe the traditional ending was the original one.

Both Peter (Acts 2:22-32) and Paul (1 Corinthians 15:19) argue that the resurrection event was the cornerstone of Christianity, and the resurrection is mentioned in nearly every New Testament book.

Spreading the word

What happens once Mary (and Mary) has seen the occupier(s)/empty tomb is again one of the more variant parts of this narrative. According to Mark, even though the man in the tomb instructs Mary and Mary to inform the disciples and Peter, they flee as they are afraid, and do not tell anything to any man. The other Gospels completely contradict this, presenting the obvious - that Mary (and Mary) must have told someone for the Gospel writers to know about it. Like Mark, Matthew presents Mary and Mary as being instructed by the tomb's occupant to inform the disciples, but unlike Mark's account they happily do so, and Peter has no special status amongst the others. Luke, again, merely presents Mary and Mary as telling the eleven and the rest, but presents them as doing so apparently without being instructed. John's account is quite different; John only describes Mary (just the one) as informing two people - Peter and the Beloved Disciple, an individual that is usually considered, by both scholars and Christians, to be a self-reference by the author of John.

John's account also recounts that Mary told them that a third party had taken the body and she didn't know where they had put it. The third party is not identified, and Brooke Foss Westcott, amongst others, considers there to be three possibilities as to who Mary is meant to be referring to:

  • Grave robbers, as grave robbery was a problem in Palestine during the era
  • Jewish leaders, though it is unclear what motive they could possibly have
  • Grave keepers, merely moving the body to another tomb - aside from putting the body somewhere, the Greek word tihenai also can be translated as buried.

There are a couple of textual curiosities in John's account here; Mary refers to Jesus as lord while John had not previously described any of the followers as using this title, and Mary also states that we don't know where they put him even though only Mary is described as having been to the tomb, at this point. To those who believe in inerrancy, lord is used here because Jesus only gained the title on dying, and that we is evidence that John actually agrees with the synoptics and merely didn't regard the other women as worth mentioning.

Checking the story

With Mary and Mary having told no-one, Mark does not present any further involvement of the tomb. Matthew doesn't either, but unlike these two, John and Luke describe Peter as running to the tomb to check for himself, and John adds that the Beloved Disciple did so too. It is never explained why the disciple(s) move(s) from merely travelling to running, and it has often been speculated that running only occurred on the last stretch once the tomb had come within sight. John Calvin instead speculated that the rush was due to religious zeal. In particular, John describes the Beloved Disciple as out-racing Peter, though waiting for Peter to arrive before entering the tomb, with some scholars seeing the out-racing as a metaphoric elevation of the Beloved Disciple above Peter. However, many Christian scholars object to this interpretation, instead arguing that since the Beloved Disciple is usually interpreted as a reference to the author of John, it would be necessary for him to be considerably younger than Peter, and hence his speed could be due simply to youthful vigour. The other question is why the Beloved Disciple pauses outside the tomb, and while many view it as being due to not wishing to violate death ritual by entering a tomb, hence attacking Peter who has no such qualm and instead enters immediately, most scholars believe he is simply being depicted as deferring to Peter, particularly as the Beloved Disciple enters the tomb once Peter is inside.

Although John describes the disciple only as making a cursory glance at the linen, Peter is described as carefully examining the scene. After making their examination, and the Beloved Disciple apparently drawing a conclusion, Luke merely states that after seeing the vacancy of the tomb, Peter was wondering what had happened. Luke and John both have the disciple(s) return home, but while several scholars view this as implying that (t)he(y) embarked on the long journey from Jerusalem back to Galilee, according to Brown the majority interpret home as the location that the disciple(s) had been staying in Jerusalem, and hence a substantially briefer journey. A few scholars believe that Peter and the Beloved Disciple departed to separate areas, since when Mary met them to tell them the news, she is described as meeting first Peter and then the Beloved Disciple, in a manner which these scholars consider to mean two separate meetings.

The belief of the Beloved Disciple

Once Peter has entered, John describes the Beloved Disciple as entering the tomb whereupon he believed as they knew not about the scripture. What exactly the Beloved Disciple believed, and who exactly they are, and what scripture exactly is being referenced, is not explained. The word used to mean scripture is singular and most of the time this form is used to refer to single quotations. Several passages from the Old Testament have been proposed as likely candidates for this source such as Psalm 16, Hosea 6:2, and Jonah 1:17. Since most of the New Testament was written before the Gospel of John, candidates have also been suggested from these texts. John only indicates that Peter and the Beloved Disciple were present, but it is possible that one or both of the people named Mary may also have been there, and thus some scholars, such as Hartmann, believe they refers to Peter and Mary being in ignorance about a resurrection.

Since the only mention in John of the tomb having any content describes it only as having grave clothes, this paucity of evidence for anything more than the body being stolen would make the Beloved Disciple rather gullible if it was a resurrection he suddenly believed in. A question also arises as to why, according to John, the Beloved Disciple doesn't tell Peter and them about this. A long line of major scholars including Augustine of Hippo and John Calvin have thus argued that the Beloved Disciple simply came to believe Mary Magdalene's story that the body was gone. Unlike Hartmann, and those sharing his view, most scholars regard they as referring to Peter and the Beloved Disciple, pointing to them both being ignorant about any resurrection, and pointing to the conclusion that the Beloved Disciple had come to believe some other issue.

Appearances after resurrection

After the discovery of the empty tomb, the Gospels indicate that Jesus made a series of appearances to the disciples, with the most notable being to the disciples in the upper room, where Thomas did not believe until he was invited to put his finger into the holes in Jesus' hands and side (John 20:24-29); along the road to Emmaus, where people talked about their failed hopes that Jesus would be the messiah before recognising Jesus (Luke 24:13-32); and beside the Sea of Galilee to encourage Peter to serve his followers (John 21:1-23). His final appearance is reported as being forty days after the resurrection when he ascended into heaven (Luke 24:44-49), where he remains, at the right hand of the Father until the Second Coming.

Both Peter (Acts 2:22-32) and Paul (1 Corinthians 15:19) argue that this event was the cornerstone of Christianity, and the resurrection of Jesus is mentioned in nearly every New Testament book.

When compared, the accounts give different details and are difficult to reconcile into a single sequence of events according to some, though John Wenham and other scholars have argued that they are reconcilable. Also, Christians have answered by noting that multiple eyewitnesses to any event tend to give differing accounts and that the resurrection account has many details.

Other Christian records

Some of the earliest records of the resurrection outside the New Testament are found in the writings of Ignatius (50 - 115), Polycarp (69 - 155) Justin Martyr (100 - 165), and Tertullian (160 - 220), and also the first epistle of Clement.

Ignatius makes many passing references, but two extended discussions are found in the Letter to the Trallians and the Letter to the Smyrnaeans.

All of the main Creeds mention the resurrection, eg the Nicene Creed (325) states that "On the third day he rose again"

Several works that are now regarded as part of the New Testament apocrypha also make mention of the resurrection. Particularly the Gospel of Peter and the Gospel of Nicodemus, which had a heavy influence over depictions in mediaeval and renaissance art, as well as being the source for the concept of the Harrowing of Hell, which does not biblically occur.

Significance of the resurrection

The resurrection of Jesus perhaps the most significant part of the New Testament, where, according to Christian Theology, it is the point in scripture where Jesus gives his ultimate demonstration that he has power over life and death, thus he has the ability to give people eternal life.

Roman Catholic view

Held by the majority of Christians, the Catholic view is that Jesus willingly sacrificed himself as an act of perfect obedience, atoning for the disobedience of Adam, and thus cleansing Mankind of the stain of original sin. Jesus's sacrifice was an offering of love that pleased God more than man's sin offended God, so now all who believe in Jesus and keep his commandments may receive salvation in his name.

Catholics believe one can fall from grace again if one continues to sin after being saved. One can be restored to grace through the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation (Confession).

Judicial view

By contrast, the Catholic view off-shoot titled the judicial view was held by Martin Luther, and a major cause of the Reformation. It is held by the majority of Protestants.

This view emphasizes God as Judge. Humanity had sinned and God was therefore required, in His justice, to punish humankind. However, God sent His Son, who was sinless, to take the sin of the world on his shoulders, so that anyone who accepted the gift of Jesus's act could be freed from the consequences of his sin, without violating God's judgement.

The result is that through Christ's death, the Old Covenant passed away and all things became new. The veil separating man and God was torn, and the people were free to work out their own salvation through the only true Mediator, Jesus Christ, rather than seeking salvation through rituals, rules, or an exclusive priesthood. People who hold this view generally believe that only acceptance of Christ's sacrifice is necessary for salvation, not a ritual or a sacrament.

This view of the theological significance of Jesus's resurrection is analogous to the Jewish Day of Atonement, by which the sins of the Israelites were put onto a flawless scapegoat, who was then released into the wilderness, taking the sins of the people with him.

Christus Victor

The Christus Victor view, which is more common among Lutherans (see, e.g. G. Aulen's book Christus Victor), and Eastern Orthodox Christians, holds that Jesus was sent by God to defeat death and Satan. Because of his perfection, voluntary death, and Resurrection, Jesus defeated Satan and death, and arose victorious. Therefore humanity was no longer bound in sin, but was free to rejoin God through faith in Jesus.

In contrast to the Judicial view, the Christus Victor model emphasizes a spiritual battle between good and evil. This battle is on a cosmic scale. The Judicial view would require Christians to believe that God voluntarily punished Jesus for their sins, whereas the Christus Victor view sees humanity as formerly in the power of Satan, who was defeated by Jesus; and God, through Jesus, broke us out of Satan's power.

The Christus Victor sometimes has also been used to argue that Jesus defeated sin and death for everyone, whether or not they hear of Jesus, granting non-Christians the chance of eternal life (or a guarantee thereof, depending on the particular theology in question).

The historicity of the resurrection

For Christians, the historicity of the resurrection is seen as crucial, as most tend to assume that if Jesus has power over life and death, then he is the Son of God. The resurrection, then, becomes the point of falsifiability for Christianity, and is often the focus of religious debates.


Ancient Texts

  • Gospel of Barnabas, Published by Oxford University Press, London
  • The New Testament, various editors have used different translations (NRSV, TNIV and others)
  • Saint Ignatius, Letter to the Trallians
  • Saint Ignatius, Letter to the Smyrnaeans

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