The Devil's Peak in the dusk, 2014, looking south from the Hawker Road.

The Exegesis of Resurrection

I am discussing a comment about the post Remembering Absent Presence. That post caused some discussion on one of the mailing groups to which I subscribe.

During the discussion, Greg said,

It seems to me that the normal two stages of exegesis are being confused. In regards to the resurrection, the first step would be to grasp the thought of those who wrote the documents of the New Testament. What do the documents show about their Christian beliefs? The second step is to ask what this can mean for us today.

 This second step involves things with which it is hard to argue. If somebody says "I believe…", how could anyone else contest that claim? It is a subjective thing to which only the person making the claim has access. If you say "My favourite colour is blue", how could I possibly argue with you? ....

The problem arises when someone, for whatever conscious or unconscious reason, wants to fiddle with the New Testament documents in order to make them support a particular 21st century world view – a most unlikely state of affairs! Certainly there is a degree of subjectivity in un-cloaking the thought of the New Testament, but that degree of subjectivity is of a different order to a simple "I believe" statement.....

So when we come to resurrection, I think the first question to ask is "How did the authors of these documents understand it?" If one is allowing one's own beliefs to interfere with this analysis, then the analysis will be flawed.....

..... From this viewpoint I would suggest that either a denial of a literal resurrection or a belief in the inerrancy of the Scriptures finds no place in this analysis. Of the three Gospels which describe resurrection appearances, it is clear that they portray a tactile Jesus. ..... Greg

This is Greg's typical cogent thinking. He is correct about the way exegesis should proceed, although we should add to the two basic stages Greg outlines. There is a third stage. We are not always aware of this stage. This means we make unconscious exegetical decisions. I will use the resurrection topic of my post and the mailing list discussion to illustrate this.

Step One  - on which Greg and I agree.
Let's begin with the first question in exegesis, "What did the writers believe?" so far as we can determine that. And clearly, on the face of it, Greg is correct. "Of the three Gospels which describe resurrection appearances, it is clear that they portray a tactile Jesus."

However, arriving at what the author's believed is not always simple. Not only is there the question of how well we understand the meaning of the author, there is also question of the New Testament Canon, and how much we should strive for a 'canonical view.' The biblical authors disagree!

Mark, the first of the gospels, does not portray the risen Jesus at all, and this fact has always discomforted the church; witness the add ons at the end of that gospel. Mark clearly demands a radical faith. He leaves us with an empty tomb, no visible Jesus of any kind, and only the witness of a young man clothed in white-- a baptismal garment. We are not to fixate on the body of Jesus, but to go back to Galilee, the place of Jesus' works of compassion and to find resurrection there!

I find this lack of concern with the physical body of Jesus suggestive of someone who was no believer in physical resurrection at all.

Both Matthew and Luke knew Mark's gospel. Both rewrote him substantially, including adding physical resurrection appearances. Did they disagree with some aspects of his resurrection understanding?

Paul the Apostle, probably dead by the time any of the Gospels are written, has his own ideas on the resurrected body. In 1 Cor. 15 he says,

12 Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? 13If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; 14and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. 15We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. 17If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. 19If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

He links Christ's resurrection from the dead closely to ours; there is something about them which is of the same order, and concludes with the famous words "if for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied." The point I would make here is that Paul offers no support for any kind of theology that makes Christ's resurrection a kind of 'one off' affair; it has to be the same order of event available to the rest of us.

But like us, Paul could not know what was coming. His best instincts discerned something other; a resurrection body different from what we currently know as "body."

35 But someone will ask, 'How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?' 36Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. 38But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body.

In that same chapter, (15:31) Paul says, "I die every day." That sounds much like the understanding of resurrection I experience; a constant re-raising despite failings, humiliations and small deaths.

Now to the other three gospels. I am not clear how much the writers of John, Matthew and Luke would have 'gone to the wall' over the resurrection of the physical body in the way we seem to mean in our time. However we speak of resurrection in our time, it has strong overtones of a resuscitated corpse, despite protestations that we mean something different. That makes it hard to judge what is being said.

Greg neatly, and wisely, steps around this by saying "a tactile Jesus;" he knows his Paul. But how much did the gospel writers, 60 years and more beyond the event, have to deal with a received and popularised tradition, and yet want to point us beyond it?

In my original post it would be fair to infer that I think they did. Being more careful in my expression, I especially wonder about what Paul and Mark thought. In John I never take anything at face value; this is what he intends, I think! But what he and Matthew and Luke really thought, I do not know. What is a tactile Jesus?

Without further time and resources, I think Luke and Matthew probably mean a body of the same order as us, very much Lazarus, if you like, but more than Lazarus.

It's never simple!
In these last paragraphs I have raised two issues:

  • How much do I preach Easter according to Luke or another author versus, according to the New Testament canon? They say different things.(Indeed, what is the canon? Who decides?)
  • What did the New Testament authors mean by 'resurrection' and 'body?'As people immersed in the Faith and with a stake in the argument, it is extraordinarily difficult to answer these questions objectively. Greg said in his post that " I think it is sometimes better to have an historian, without a stake in the issues, to unravel New Testament thought about the resurrection than any other person with an axe to grind." We could use such a person here!

The problem is, of course, that all people have a stake in a study of resurrection and death. There is no objective observer here! Greg's disinterested historian does not exist. Atheist historians still die, and so cannot avoid personal interaction with the texts. Indeed, they may want them not to be true!

Greg pointed out the problem that occurs "when someone, for whatever conscious or unconscious reason, wants to fiddle with the New Testament documents in order to make them support a particular 21st century world view..." No one is immune to that; we can only seek to be as impartial as possible, and as conscious as possible.

Whatever actually happened, and whatever the various authors thought, many folk throughout the history of the church have read the texts to mean Jesus was raised as a physical body of the same order as our own rather than Paul's 'other' physical body. The idea is still current, even the norm, and people make it a key plank in their faith, even a criterion for authenticity of faith. They combine this with the words of Paul (If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.) and find questions about the nature of resurrection a direct attack on their faith and their hopes for life.

Step Two, according to Andrew
The middle exegetical step, which Greg does not mention, is where the angst arose in our discussion.

Essentially, as we go from the text, and what we think its author meant, to Step Three-- "what this can mean for us today--" as Greg puts it, we make a decision. We decide how much of the author's understanding we must accept as necessarily true if we are to call ourselves a 'Christian.'

It is extraordinarily difficult to simply ask "What can this mean for us today?" The church, and the tradition, look over our shoulder and wish to direct our thinking. This is not to mention other insecurities we may have about dying, or the scorn we may face at work because of our faith.

There are a host of extra biblical factors at work. These can be quite at variance with what makes the most sense in terms of our own religious experience, or other aspects of our culture and time.

For example, the rules and regulations, and the psychological security and maturity of the denomination to which we belong, have enormous influence on how much we accept the understanding of a biblical author as correct, unchallengeable, or even complete.

If we stop to think about it, we may find they actually contradict our experience of life, and of God. They often seek to control us by suggesting that if we follow our experience of God then we will be dis-fellowshipped.

When we call for adherence to "what the biblical authors meant," are we aware of the factors driving us? How much is the standard we are setting for ourselves and others really presenting what they said, and how much is it conforming to the norms of a particular tradition we value? Do we even know?

Denominations often have a "canon within the canon," giving much more weight to one author than another. Such attitudes can be so "imbibed with mother's milk" that we are scarcely aware of them, even those of us who have undertaken formal education in theology.

Doctrine and Fear on the way to Step Three
Step Three is Greg's second exegetical step;  i.e. "What this can mean for us today?"

I value my denomination enormously. The Uniting Church in Australia has been a home to me since it began, and supported and guided me towards a fuller and freer life. I am forever in its debt.

The Uniting Church has been the Safety Railing of Life for me.  It has provided me with the sort of safety railing you get around mountain lookouts, and the old mine sites in the Barossa goldfields. It is not actually forbidden to go through there, but be warned; you are going off the beaten track; this is not well known territory. There may be dangers as well as treasure.

Within the Uniting Church, and all denominations, there are those who wish to take doctrine from the role of guide and interpreter, and turn it into a legal fence that comforts their psychological needs. I had to decide, eventually, that what counts about my progress through Step Two is not the authority of the church, and especially not the authority of the fencers.

What counts is the compassion of the Jesus who shows us what God is like. (If you have seen me you have seen the Father. John 14:9) Jesus' major problem with the Pharisees and others was that they categorised and judged people according to their version of orthodoxy; that is doctrine, rather than being compassionate. (Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy, not sacrifice. Matt 9:13)

In the big scheme of things the authority of the Uniting Church is, like all the other texts and acts of faith of God's people, an attempt to respond faithfully to God. But it is human, like the gospels; often God inspired, but human and fallible. My responsibility is not to subject myself to the insights of my denomination as to a law, but to use them as inspiration, guide,  and interpreter of the Tradition as I seek to be faithful to my experiences of God.

When I am clear on what I think the text meant to its author, and what pressure church and colleague my place on me, or I simply imagine they place on me, then may ask of of my exegesis "What this can mean for me, and us, today?"

I have found this understanding of the limits of church authority to be one of the most liberating decisions I have made. It also makes my membership provisional! I am saying that I will put faithfulness to God as I have met God, over and above the safety and fellowship and love of my denomination; this is not always a comfortable place to be!

In our online discussion, one correspondent strongly avowed the primacy of the doctrines of Nicaea. The acceptance of Nicaea is as arbitrary as the acceptance of the doctrines of a denomination. People can say I do not adhere to Nicaea according to their interpretation of the text. An historian might say, on balance, that they are correct.

But none of that, and no decision of the Uniting Church, will validate, or invalidate, my experience of God, or Jesus. God does not disappear because my particular understanding of a doctrine or interpretive principle is limited, or imperfect, or 'heretical.'

Folk often project their own fears upon us: "What will happen if you depart from the plain words of scripture?" is a question of fear. I used to ask this question, and now see the fear that drove my questioning. The legitimate question I can ask of you, if I struggle with the conclusions you draw from your exegesis is, "How do you see that response measuring against Jesus teaching of compassion?"

I experienced God first as a little child, and then powerfully and more consciously as  teenager. Did God disappear or become false, or was God limited, because my interpretation and articulation of these experiences was shallow, naive, and in my twenties, often uncharitable and exclusive. Of course not! God is God. I just needed to grow up.

Why then should the fact that the New Testament writers' understanding of an issue such as bodily resurrection is now seen to be fallible invalidate God? God does not disappear just because someone doesn't see resurrection the way I do!

If we live according to Christ's compassion, and if we give Christ the cup of water, (Matt 25) all other doctrine is advisory... unless we wish to make a particular interpretation of the Divine, from a particular time in history, the ruling interpretation of scripture and tradition. But then a doctrine becomes God. That is not Christianity. That is fundamentalism.

Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

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