By Spencer D Gear PhD
This article was first published as, ‘Any old resurrection will not do in On Line Opinion (23 April 2019).
As I began this article, I read the reporting of an ABC News Rural event, ‘From drought to flooding rains as farmers celebrate drenching in Queensland’s west’ (4 February 2019). It showed a photo of
residents in Cloncurry jump[ing] for joy after flooding rains drench the once parched area (ABC News: Krystal Gordon).
How should I interpret this event? Did it happen in time and space to be interpreted literally? Was there literal water or were the waters rising as a symbolic indication of moving from depression to elation?
Or should I interpret these flooding events allegorically? Are they speaking about the floods of spiritual blessings for farmers and others as an Easter blessing from God?
You’d have every reason to question my mental state if I interpreted the floods that way. The same applies to another event from history (floods are recent history) – Jesus’ resurrection (ancient history).
1. We all use literal interpretation.
Am I being too emphatic with, ‘we all’? This article is not about historical-critical methods some scholars use to deconstruct Jesus’ passion-resurrection events.
Scholars, journalists and laity have made some confronting attacks against evangelical or fundamentalist Christians who interpret the Bible literally. Are the challengers heading down the correct path or are the evangelicals so fixated on literal interpretation that they can’t throw away the mantle of rigidity?
From primary school to university, I learned that the way to interpret any document was literally. Berkeley Mickelsen’s text on Interpreting the Bible gave this understanding:
“means the customarily acknowledged meaning of an expression in its particular context. For example, when Christ declared that he was the door, the metaphorical meaning of “door” in that context would be obvious. Although metaphorical, this obvious meaning is included in the literal meaning” (Mickelsen 1963:33).
The Collins Dictionary (2019. s.v. literal) provides the adjectival meaning: ‘You use literal to describe someone who uses or understands words in a plain and simple way’.
Therefore, ‘by literal meaning the writer refers to the usual or customary sense conveyed by words or expressions‘. The contrasting meaning is that of figurative which means ‘the writer has in mind the representation of one concept in terms of another because the nature of the two things compared allows such an analogy to be drawn‘ (Mickelsen 1963:179).
So, reading the article on ABC News about the outback floods up north, Crossan’s book The Birth of Christianity, and Jesus’ resurrection in the Bible, should be read literally. It means that figures of speech are included in the literal meaning. This has been the case in reading any kind of literature down through the centuries.
Literal interpretation is not the bogeyman of fundamentalists but the tools used by all of us in reading any document when we want to understand the plain meaning of the writing.
I did it today in completing forms to renew my driver’s licence. What a joke it would be to fill in the documents as though I interpreted them symbolically.
From primary school to university, I learned there is one way to read any document – literally. If I find it is poetry, I interpret it as a poem, as I do with Homer’s epic, The Odyssey.
2. Making a meal of Jesus’ resurrection
These are come of the variations of resurrection meals served up in recent times:
(a) John Shelby Spong: ‘Resurrection is an action of God. Jesus was raised into the meaning of God. It therefore cannot be a physical resuscitation occurring inside human history’ (1998).
(b) John Dominic Crossan: ‘Jesus’ burial by his friends was totally fictional and unhistorical. He was buried, if buried at all, by his enemies, and the necessarily shallow grave would have been easy prey for scavenging animals’ (1994:160) and Jesus’ resurrection was an apparition – a ghost (Crossan 1994:160).
(d) An antagonist: ‘If, as you say you believe, Jesus, resurrected with a physical body about 2,000 years ago, the probability that he is still alive and well is so infinitesimal that it may be considered non-existent’.
(e) Scott Korb, a non-practicing Roman Catholic of New York University, gave this view of Jesus’ resurrection: ‘What I mean is that we can reach the lowest points of our lives, of going deep into a place that feels like death, and then find our way out again — that’s the story the Resurrection now tells me. And at Easter, this is expressed in community, and at its best, through the compassion of others’.
(f) The laity again, ‘I believe the bible is a mythical book….’
If I interpreted the floods in north Qld that way, you would have every reason to question my integrity in dealing with any text. But it’s acceptable for these scholars to make such bizarre claims.
3. What are the facts about the resurrected Jesus?
… The evidence for Jesus’ resurrection is so strong that nobody would question it except for two things: First, it is a very unusual event. And second, if you believe it happened, you have to change the way you live.
His body had real flesh and blood. People touched him, ate food with him, saw the crucifixion wounds in his body, and he could be seen and heard.
There’s a key aspect that clinches the bodily resurrection of Jesus and that is the Greek, soma, to refer to his body.
Whenever the Greek speaks of an individual human being as having a soma, it always means a physical body in the New Testament (NT). When the Apostle Paul wrote of Christ’s resurrected body and the future resurrected bodies of people, he used soma in 1 Corinthians 15:42-44). This confirms that the early Christians understood Jesus’ being raised from the dead as a bodily resurrection.
Robert Gundry’s research concluded ‘the soma denotes the physical body, roughly synonymous with “flesh” in the neutral sense. It forms that part of man in and through which he lives, acts in the world’ (Gundry 1976:50)
There is another fact to demonstrate this point that could be a bit technical: A prepositional phrase is used in the NT to describe resurrection “from (ek) the dead” (see. Mark 9:9; Luke 24:46; John 2:22; Acts 3:15; Rom. 4:24; I Cor. 15:12). This was not a ho-hum view for the Greeks.
In addition, they used a preposition, ek, concerning Jesus who was resurrected ‘out from among’ the dead bodies. Similar words were used to describe Lazarus being raised ‘from the dead’ (John 12:1). There was no doubt that he came out of the grave in the same body in which he was buried.
The same happened with Jesus! Australian ancient historian and evangelical Anglican minister, Dr Paul Barnett, made this assessment of the start of Christianity:
“It was this twin conviction, that Jesus was the Christ and that God had raised him alive from the dead, that drove and energized the first disciples and that alone accounts for the rise of Christianity as we encounter it in the historical records” (Barnett 2005:186).
From those few disciples and belief in the bodily resurrected Christ, the church worldwide today has grown to approx 2.3 billion who identify as Christians.
3.1 Reliable documents or fiction?
It is a view expressed by both laity and scholars that ‘it is no longer possible in retrospect to think of that passion fiction as relatively benign propaganda’ (Crossan 1995:XII). A lay antagonistic version was, ‘Many things in our modern bible are clearly invention, created to conform to a particular narrative. Rather than the plain unvarnished truth.’
Is that the truth? How does anyone determine if an historical writing, like the Bible, is a compilation (66 books) of reliable information? We use the same criteria that ancient historians use to determine the legitimacy of any document from history, whether that be the life of Aristotle, the first fleet’s coming to Australia, the Nazi Holocaust, or the Port Arthur massacre in 1996.
These tests do not attempt to demonstrate that Scripture is the Word of God or that the Bible is infallible. The criteria discern if the Bible’s narrative of the major events in the life of Jesus and the young church were accurate.
These criteria include: early testimony, eyewitness testimony, multiple independent eyewitnesses; are the eyewitnesses trustworthy? Is there supporting evidence from archaeology or other writers? Is there verification from enemies? Does the evidence contain details that are embarrassing to the authors (e.g. lowly Jewish women at the empty tomb on resurrection morning) [Geisler & Turek 2004:230-31]?
The hard work of research into the trustworthiness of the NT already has been done by Blomberg (1987), F F Bruce (1960); Geisler & Turek (2004:221-93); and N T Wright (2003). See also Blomberg on The Historical Reliability of the New Testament (2016).
Blomberg’s assessment of the Gospels was: ‘Other conclusions, widespread though they are, seem not to stem from even-handed historical analysis but from religious or philosophical prejudice’. However, he gave ‘a radiant endorsement of the historical reliability of the four gospels’ (1987:254).
From these trustworthy documents, we discover the resurrected Jesus had a
4. Fleshly body with a difference
The risen body of Jesus did some things ordinary bodies did and other actions that were extraordinary. Examples of the latter included meeting Jesus on the road to Emmaus and John’s cooking breakfast by the seashore. N T Wright described this other dimension as ‘transphysicality’ (2003:477-78). Others call it a ‘transformed’ body. It did not diminish Jesus’ bodily characteristics with his wounds still visible but there were human and divine dimensions to Jesus’ post-resurrection reality.
The modern, scientific, Western world finds it hard to process the supernatural at any time, including history. However, honest historians who have access to the data report what the eyewitnesses saw and processed the historical data.
Nobody physically saw Jesus resurrected, but the data about him is based on three females (Mark 16) finding the tomb empty on Easter Sunday and the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus (multiple attestation in the four Gospels).
Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome went to the tomb and found it empty (Mark 16:1-8). They were the first witnesses of Jesus’ empty tomb. In Jewish culture, female witnesses were taboo as reliable witnesses (see Josephus: Women unacceptable witnesses). This is further evidence of the embarrassment criterion of historicity used to support the integrity of the Gospel narratives.
4.1 Not any old body will do
Where will you be one minute after your last breath? The answer depends on the nature of Jesus’ resurrection.
Two fundamentals of life and death ought to clinch it for us when we take Jesus’ resurrection seriously. The resurrection matters because …
(a) Salvation and resurrection go together
The NT makes commitment to the resurrection essential to gain eternal life. ‘Give praise to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. In his great mercy he has given us a new birth and a living hope. This hope is living because Jesus Christ rose from the dead’ (1 Peter 1:3).
That is a fundamental of the Christian life. Without Jesus’ bodily resurrection – yes, bodily – there is no eternal life in Christ. Secondly,
(b) Jesus’ resurrection guarantees what happens after death
People will be raised from death in the future at Jesus’ second coming. How are the dead raised and what kind of body will they have? Paul said ‘these are stupid questions’ because when we plant something like wheat, it has to die in the ground before it comes alive and grows (1 Cor 15:35-38).
The new plant does not have the same ‘body’ it had before. The seed of wheat, as with a stalk of sugar cane, becomes something else. So with the resurrected body, ‘God gives it the body that he has planned for it, and he gives each kind of seed its own body’ (1 Cor 15:38).
There will be a future resurrection of both the saved and the lost; believers to the resurrection of eternal life and non-believers to the resurrection of eternal punishment (1 Cor 15:51-57).
Much is stated in the Bible about the bodies of Christians after death but I’ve found nothing about the resurrected bodies of unbelievers. We know there will be a resurrection and judgment (Heb 9:27), but Scripture does not address the nature of the bodies of the resurrection of the ungodly.
Paul was charged before governor Felix of being a troublemaker. He told Felix: ‘I believe that both the godly and the ungodly will rise from the dead’ (Acts 24:15).
As hot cross buns remind us of Easter approaching, what are we to make of Christ’s resurrection? Like any other document, from Centrelink forms to scholarly tomes, On Line Opinion articles and the Bible, all writings must be read literally to obtain accurate meaning. A literal interpretation includes the use of figures of speech.
In spite of others who reinvent, deconstruct or fictionalise the biblical events, the interpretation of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances revealed he was a real human being but with a transphysical or transformed dimension of supernatural abilities.
The NT documents are reliable historically and the bodily resurrection is important because: (1) Salvation and resurrection are a compulsory combination, and (2) The future resurrection of both believers and unbelievers depends on the nature of Jesus’ resurrection.
Dr Albert Mohler Jr summarised the essential need for Jesus’ literal, bodily resurrection:
‘The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead separates Christianity from all mere religion–whatever its form. Christianity without the literal, physical resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is merely one religion among many. “And if Christ is not risen,” said the Apostle Paul, “then our preaching is empty and your faith is in vain” [1 Corinthians 15:14]. Furthermore, “You are still in your sins!” [v. 17b]. Paul could not have chosen stronger language. “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable” [v. 19]’.
6. Works consulted
Barnett, P W 2005. The Birth of Christianity: The First Twenty Years. Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
Crossan, J D 1994. Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography. San Francisco: Harper SanFrancisco.
Geisler, N L & Turek, F 2004. I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books.
Gundry, R H 1976. Soma in biblical theology: With emphasis on Pauline anthropology. Society for New Testament Studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Mickelsen, A B 1963. Interpreting the Bible. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
Copyright © 2019 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 27 April 2019.