What the Resurrection is Not

(This is Neil) I should begin by wishing any readers a very happy Easter. I haven’t been posting much as of late, and I now owe posts on both the existence of God and the sacrament of confirmation. I should be more regular in my contributions in the near future, for better or worse. In any case, I haven’t died.


Here, I would like to post on the Resurrection in order to continue the very interesting discussion begun by Todd’s post “Have Faith.” (I have posted on the Resurrection before; see here and here.) I think that the essential question regarding the Resurrection is asked in a sermon preached this year by the Reformed minister Kim Fabricius: “Are we to interpret the Easter event in the light of secular convictions about what constitutes ‘reality,’ or are we to interpret secular convictions about what constitutes ‘reality’ in the light of the Easter event?” The Rev. Fabricius, correctly siding with the latter option, tells us that the Resurrection “certainly cannot be circumscribed by our so-called plausibility structures, or understood within our everyday frames of reference, rather it subverts these structures and frames and compels us to revise reality itself.”


This might seem to leave us helpless, able to do little more than speak softly of paradox and inexplicability. I – not going quite so far – would like to say that the Resurrection changes our epistemic capacities (again, please see here). The Gospel accounts of the Resurrection challenge our attempts to see it as merely a particularly strange or intense event that we can already grasp and use to confirm our preexisting thoughts and ideas. But this is not meant to leave us simply stuttering and babbling. We can speak, but whenever we say something about reality or “the way things are,” we must speak out of the astonishment and, yes, trembling of the first Easter.


I’d like to quickly go over a very interesting article by Deborah Thompson Prince from the Journal of the Study of the New Testament that appeared in 2007. I think that it nicely shows that part of the Easter event is, in Fabricius’ words, the subversion of the usual structures and frames through which we usually interpret reality. Prince is looking at the 24th chapter of St Luke’s Gospel. If our first reaction to Luke’s account is to shake our heads and say, “I don’t get it,” we might be in the perplexed place where Luke wants us to be.


After all, we can think of many inadequate ways to “get” the Resurrection: a vision, a dream, resuscitation, or, in Dale Price’s words, “something out of the works of Romero” (George, not Oscar). There were, Prince tells us, already many inadequate ways to “get” the Resurrection in Greco-Roman times. She says, “I propose that the picture of Jesus that emerges in Lk 24 surpasses all expected modes of post-mortem apparitions by virtue of the fact that it draws upon them all and distinguishes itself from them all.”


The first of these ways of “understanding” the Resurrection is as the appearance of a disembodied spirit. Disembodied spirits are insubstantial. They might eat and drink. Teiresias tells Odysseus, “Any ghost that you let taste of the blood will talk with you like a reasonable being.” But Odysseus’ dead mother, despite his sorrows, simply cannot be embraced. Anticlea tells her son, “The sinews no longer hold the flesh and bones together; these perish in the fierceness of consuming fire as soon as life has left the body, and the soul flits away as though it were a dream.”  


Jesus might seem to be a disembodied spirit because he “vanishes from sight” at Emmaus (Lk 24:31). But Jesus cannot be a disembodied spirit because his tomb is empty (“when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus,” see Lk 24:3-12). The bodies of disembodied spirits are not disturbed. Furthermore, when Jesus shows his hands and feet, it is “because a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you can see I have” (Lk 24:39).


The second of the inadequate ways of “understanding” the Resurrection is as a reanimated corpse, or revenant. The 2nd century writer Phlegon of Tralles, in his On Marvels, reports an account of a reanimated girl who is able to eat, drink, and have sex during a three day period. Then, from Euripides, Plato, and Apollogorus, we have the story of Alcestis, who dies in the place of her husband, but is retrieved from death by Herakles. (Plato: “So noble did this action of hers appear to the gods, as well as to men, that among the many who have done virtuously she is one of the very few to whom, in admiration of her noble action, they have granted the privilege of returning alive to earth.”)


Jesus might seem to be a reanimated corpse, because his body is not in the tomb and he is still flesh and blood. But, then, how does he “vanish from sight” at Emmaus? In Jerusalem, how does he suddenly appear “in their midst” so that the disciples “thought that they were seeing a ghost” (Lk 24:36-7)?


The third inadequate way of “understanding” the Resurrection is as the apparition of a dead hero. These heroes are ghosts that appear to have physical contact with the living. Prince gives, as example, Philostratus’ fictional dialogue Heroicus, in which a vinedresser speaks of Protesilaus, the first Greek to die in Troy, with whom he converses regularly. Protesilaus eats, leaves footprints, and can be embraced. “But how he returned afterwards too, he does not tell me even though I’ve wanted to find out for a long time. He is hiding, he says, some secret of the Fates.”


Some of this might seem consistent with Jesus’ Resurrection, but, again, the bodies of dead heroes who reappear are usually undisturbed. And the apparitions of dead heroes are generally not “taken up to heaven” (Lk 24:51).


Finally, the fourth inadequate way of “understanding” the Resurrection is as the translation of a mortal to the end of the world or the realm of the gods. This usually does not involve death. Thus, Livy on the translation of Romulus:


A violent thunder storm suddenly arose and enveloped the king in so dense a cloud that he was quite invisible to the assembly. From that hour Romulus was no longer seen on earth. When the fears of the Roman youth were allayed by the return of bright, calm sunshine after such fearful weather, they saw that the royal seat was vacant. … At length, after a few had taken the initiative, the whole of those present hailed Romulus as “a god, the son of a god, the King and Father of the City of Rome.” They put up supplications for his grace and favor, and prayed that he would be propitious to his children and save and protect them. … The tradition runs that Proculus Julius, a man whose authority had weight in matters of even the gravest importance, seeing how deeply the community felt the loss of the king, and how incensed they were against the senators, came forward into the assembly and said: “Quirites! At break of dawn, to-day, the Father of this City suddenly descended from heaven and appeared to me. Whilst, thrilled with awe, I stood rapt before him in deepest reverence, praying that I might be pardoned for gazing upon him, “Go,” said he, “tell the Romans that it is the will of heaven that my Rome should be the head of all the world. Let them henceforth cultivate the arts of war, and let them know assuredly, and hand down the knowledge to posterity, that no human might can withstand the arms of Rome.”


Jesus might seem to be “translated” to heaven (again, see Lk 24:51). Luke will write about his Ascension. But Jesus clearly dies and does so in public. In translation stories, the death is usually uncertain and the body is missing. Romulus disappears in a cloud.


What is Luke doing? Prince tells us that Luke means to “disorient” us. He can only describe the Resurrection using the categories found in Greco-Roman literature, but the Resurrection surpasses all of them, one after another, leaving all the alternatives obviously inadequate. Likewise, the Resurrection, while drawing on elements of our reality, forces us even today to revise our commonplace accounts of reality.


And this is why we must speak of it with astonishment and trembling. Whenever we would “overspiritualize” the Resurrection for the sake of intellectual comfort, Jesus always offers us his hands and feet for inspection. Whenever we would think to understand the Resurrection in such a way as to domesticate it, Jesus always “vanishes from our sight.”


Once again, Happy Easter.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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