Sunday, March 23, 2008

Resurrection concept unclear, say scholars

Easter is the day when Christians celebrate the central tenet of their faith, that Jesus, having died on the cross on Friday, was raised from the dead by the power of God.

The concept of resurrection, though, was not original with Christians. It was a prominent, though not universal, belief among the Jews of Jesus' day. The Jewish Encyclopedia explains that one group of Jews, the Sadducees ("the party representing views and practises of the Law and interests of Temple and priesthood directly opposite to those of the Pharisees,"),did ...
... not accept the Pharisaic doctrine of the resurrection (Sanh. 90b; Mark xii. 12; Ber. ix. 5, "Minim"), which was a national rather than an individual hope. As to the immortality of the soul, they seem to have denied this as well (see Hippolytus, "Refutatio," ix. 29; "Ant." x. 11, § 7).
The older Hebrew conception of life regarded the nation so entirely as a unit that no individual mortality or immortality was considered. Jeremiah (xxxi. 29) and Ezekiel (xviii.) had contended that the individual was the moral unit, and Job's hopes are based on this idea.

A different view, which made a resurrection unnecessary, was held by the authors of Ps. xlix. and lxxiii., who believed that at death only the wicked went to Sheol and that the souls of the righteous went directly to God. This, too, seem based on views analogous to those of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, and probably was not widely held. In the long run the old national point of view asserted itself in the form of Messianic hopes. These gave rise to a belief in a resurrection in order that more might share in the glory of the Messianic kingdom. This hope first finds expression in Isa. xxvi. 19, a passage which Cheyne dates about 334 B.C. The hope was cherished for faithful Israelites. In Dan. xii. 1-4 (about 165 B.C.) a resurrection of "many . . . that sleep in the dust" is looked forward to. This resurrection included both righteous and wicked, for some will awake to everlasting life, others to "shame and everlasting contempt."
So by the time of Jesus, the idea of the resurrection of the dead, though not universally held among the Jewish people, was likely the majority view. To be fair, though, even among those who affirmed the resurrection, there was ongoing debate as to its extent - just whom would be resurrected and where, only in Israel or elsewhere also. As time went by, the concept of resurrection continued to evolve.

The Pharisees, a lay movement of Jews who devoted themselves to adhering to the covenantal law of ancient Judaism, affirmed the concept of the resurrection. The Christian apostle Paul was the son of a Pharisee and began his religious vocation as a Pharisee. (Pharisees generally get a bad rap in Sunday Schools but shouldn't. Jesus shared the religious devotion of Pharisees. Pharisaism was a lay movement, just as Jesus found his broadest support among the laity.)

Now, all this is to point out that modern-day Christian understanding of the resurrection is "deeply misunderstood, say scholars from varied faith traditions who have been trying to clear up the confusion in several recent books."
"We are troubled by the gap between the views on these things of the general public and the findings of contemporary scholarship," said Kevin Madigan and Jon Levenson, authors of the upcoming book, "Resurrection, The Power of God for Christians and Jews."

The book traces the overlooked Jewish roots of the Christian belief in resurrection, and builds on that history to challenge the idea that resurrection simply means life after death. To the authors, being raised up has a physical element, not just a spiritual one.

Levenson last year wrote a related book, "Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel: The Ultimate Victory of the God of Life." Meanwhile, N.T. Wright, a prominent New Testament scholar and author of the 2003 book "The Resurrection of the Son of God," has just published, "Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection and the Mission of the Church."

Debate about Christ's Resurrection has focused on whether Jesus rose bodily from the dead after the Romans crucified him on Good Friday, or whether Resurrection was something abstract.

Wright's 2003 book was considered one of the most important recent arguments that Jesus was physically resurrected.

The three scholars also have been challenging the idea, part of Greek philosophy and popular now, that resurrection for Jews and the followers of Jesus is simply the survival of an individual's soul in the hereafter. The scholars say resurrection occurs for the whole person — body and soul. For early Christians and some Jews, resurrection meant being given back one's body or possibly God creating a new similar body after death, Wright has said.
It's my experience that the vast majority of Christians readily agree that upon death, the souls of the saved enter immediately into heaven, but when asked about the resurrection of the dead, mumbling ensues. After all, if heaven is your reward instantly upon breathing your last, what purpose could being resurrected have?

Now, this whole debate won't interest many people but theologians, but it actually cuts to the core of the Christian proclamation, as Paul realized:
Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.
Paul is explaining that the resurrection of Christ is a subset of the larger category of resurrection. The Corinthian church apparently accepted Paul's teaching that Jesus had been raised, but rejected the idea that they (or other also) would be raised as well. That made no sense to Paul. It was like someone today saying, "I drive a Chevrolet but I don't think there is any such thing as General Motors."

The resurrection of Jesus, Paul insists, is of little utility unless it is to show that the promises of God are true, that the promise of the general resurrection is true. In fact, Paul understood the resurrection of Christ and the general resurrection yet to come as belonging to the one and same event, separated by a "time out," as it were. Hence, for Paul, Jesus was the "first fruit" of the general resurrection yet to come.
Yet Wright and others say the church should teach what the first Christians believed. Wright also has argued that the physical reality of a future world after death shows "the created order matters to God, and Jesus' Resurrection is the pilot project for that renewal."

Madigan and Levenson have an additional motivation. They said they wrote the book to help Jews and Christians understand more about their theological bonds.

Amy-Jill Levine, a New Testament scholar at Vanderbilt University's Divinity School, said interest in resurrection — along with reincarnation, ghosts and contacting the dead — has grown in recent years.

"The more chaotic our world, with war and disease, hurricanes and famine," she said, "the more many seek a divine response to the problem of evil."
The problem of evil is, I think, the central problem of Christianity and is most often cited by people as the reason for their rejection of it.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

A short Jerusalem photo tour

Photos copyright 2007 by the author; may not be used or hotlinked without permission.

The first photo is of the Gethsemane Church on the Mount of Olives outside Jerusalem. The church's proper name is the Church of All Nations and was built from 1919-1924. It was to Gethsemane that Jesus and his disciples, except Judas, came after the Last Supper. It was here that Judas brought the Temple police to arrest Jesus.

The first thing Pontius Pilate sentenced Jesus to endure was flagellation, a whipping with a particular whip called a flagellum. Although probably not quite as brutal as depicted in Mel Gibson's movie, The Passion of the Christ, it was a bloody ordeal nonetheless, and considerably weakened Jesus before he was crucified, which may help account for the speed at which he expired on the cross.

As at most Christian holy sites in Israel, there is a church built at the site where Jesus was whipped. This plaque at the church explains its history.

This is the interior of the Church of the Flagellation. There is little historical doubt that this is indeed the actual site where the scourging took place. Jesus' trial took place only a half-block away; Pilate's "courtroom" is still there and is undeniably of Roman origin. The courtyard between that site and this church is verifiably also of Roman origin.

This is a small chapel along the via dolorosa, the Way of Sorrows that Jesus walked to his execution. At this station of the cross, Jesus stumbled and fell, depicted in the mural below. It was not at this place, but a later one, where the Roman soldiers made a bystander help carry the cross because Jesus was too weakened to continue alone.

The scene depicted is of the ancient Roman Catholic tradition of Jesus carrying the entire cross, the upright and crossbeam included. Relatively recent historical research has revealed, though, that almost certainly there were permanent uprights built outside Jerusalem, a sort of ready-to-use gallows, if you will. Jesus and other condemned would have carried only the crossbeam.

Below is a street scene along the via dolorosa. This and many other sections are lined with shops, all seeking the tourists' trade. In the first century, the streets were much wider and certainly not so commercialized.

Finally, you see the dome and cross of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

This is a view from the courtyard of the church.

Another view. As you can see, the church is extremely large. Under one roof the church encompasses the site where Jesus was crucified, the place his body was (incompletely) prepared for burial, and his tomb.

A schematic of the church from Sacred Destinations Travel Guide.

This is a tableau on the wall next to the place where Jesus' body was prepared for burial. The rock of preparation is on the floor just beneath here. Except it is not actually the rock even if it is the actual location - the actual rock was taken away in bits and pieces centuries ago by religious pilgrims who wanted a relic.

Inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, this is the entrance to the traditionally-sited tomb of Jesus. I did not go inside since the waiting line was more than an hour long.

The Sepulchre Church is, as I said, simply enormous. High above the tomb's site is this dome, which is not the largest dome of the church by any means.

Sacred Destinations' page on the church is worth reading and includes the arguments in favor of the site being the actual location of Jesus' death and entombment.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Execution day

At right, "The Three Crosses," by Rembrandt

Sometime on the Friday after Passover, almost 2,000 years ago, Roman soldiers, acting on orders of Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea, took Jesus of Nazareth to a low hill outside Jerusalem and crucified him to death. As crucifixion deaths went, Jesus' death came pretty quickly, within a few hours. It was not unusual for victims to linger on the cross for days.

There were two criminals also crucified alongside Jesus. Because it was Passover week, emotions ran high among the Jews who had made pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the holy observances. There were many thousands of pilgrims there, some historians say more than 100,000. At sunset on Fridays the Jewish Sabbath began then as now, and even hardened Roman soldiers were uneasy about the execution of these men continuing when the Sabbath began during this particular week. So they decided to break the victims' legs in order to make quick their suffocation to death. Crucifixion is, after all, a form of hanging, killing by suffocation. With their legs broken, the victims could not push up to take a breath and so would die a quick, though brutal death ("excruciating" derives from the same root as "crucifixion," and it is no accidental relationship).

But when they came to Jesus to break his legs, they discovered he had already died. Another soldier, probably more experienced and thus leaving nothing to chance, took his long spear and plunged it into Jesus' side, almost certainly penetrating his heart, since that would have been the whole point of spearing him to begin with.

Before sundown, the Romans permitted some of Jesus' friends to retrieve his body and entomb it.

One of the vexing problems about Jesus' execution is that we really don't know exactly why Jesus was crucified. Of course, we know why the Romans crucified people - political offense against the empire - but just what Jesus did, or was accused of doing, relating to that is unclear. Even stipulating that the Jewish high council, the Sanhedrin, wanted to be quit of Jesus, they could have ordered him stoned to death for religious offenses without getting the Romans involved. The Gospels are clear enough that religious charges against Jesus not only could easily be made, they were made.

"Ecce homo" - Behold, the man.

Whatever the reason, Pilate became persuaded that Jesus was defying the emperor's authority and so was guilty of a political offense against Rome. Pilate, we know from Roman historians, was a weak man, inclined to violence to solve his problems, and was unskilled as a procurator. In fact, most modern historians have concluded that Judea had the singular misfortune among Roman provinces to suffer uncharacteristically inept Roman governance for several decades, including those on both ends of Jesus' life. Certainly, Pilate thought almost nothing of crucifying Jews; during Jesus' own lifetime Pilate had sentenced hundreds, probably thousands, of Jews to the cross and had killed numberless more by other means. So one more was not even a statistic. (Jesus himself spoke of a time when Pilate had sent his cavalry, swords swinging, into a group of men making sacrifices, killing the lot of them, for reasons not related. Pilate seems to have been extremely paranoid about crowds of Jews who gathered for any reason.)

Somehow, perhaps with the Sanhedrin's collusion, perhaps not, Pilate became convinced that Jesus was a political insurrectionist, trying to claim the throne of David. A hugely false claim, of course, and one that Jesus easily and directly refuted under Pilate's own questioning. John's Gospel, chapter 18, relates that Pilate said to Jesus, "Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?"
Jesus answered, "My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here."
If Jesus had been a claimant to the throne of David, he would have built not only a popular base of support, but an armed faction. He had the former (but not as much as we prefer to think - chapter 10 of John reports that Jesus so angered a crowd he was speaking to that they "took up stones again to stone him," but "he escaped.") At any rate, Jesus swatted aside Pilate's interrogatory about Jesus' presumed kingship so that Pilate did not raise it again with him. He did poke the Sanhedrin in the eye with that presumption by placing a sign on Jesus' cross that mocked them, not Jesus, by saying, "This is the King of the Jews."

So what was the chain of events was that led Jesus to be executed? Only one Gospel states the case fairly clearly, the Gospel of John. In it, Jesus is presented as raising Lazarus, dead and entombed for four days, from death back to life (John 11). When word of this deed reached the high priest, Caiaphas, he became deeply fearful that Pilate would (in character) slaughter countless Jews as a consequence - not for raising Lazarus, but because of the enormous following Jesus would doubtless gain as a result. John relates,
So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, ‘What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.’

But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, ‘You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.’ ... So from that day on they planned to put him to death.
The other three Gospels don't mention Lazarus' raising and are not clear just what Jesus did or said that got him into trouble with the Sanhedrin. But John presents a case (by some inference) that the Sanhedrin believed that Jesus would indeed make a political power play that would inevitably lead Pilate to "go Roman" on Judea. This was an entirely justified fear, justified, that is, only if Jesus really did have political ambitions. But he didn't.

My homiletics professor once lectured that one thing the Easter story proves is that sin, and the will to sin, is more deeply rooted in human beings than we really can imagine. Roman justice, he pointed out, was the best system of justice the world had ever seen until then; after all, it still forms the basis for most Western jurisprudence today. And among the lands and peoples of the empire, he said, the Jews were enormously respected for their religion, which was considered ancient even way back then. In the case of Jesus (his point being), the best justice and the best religion somehow, and not altogether clearly how, came together to cause the execution of a man entirely innocent of every capital charge brought against him - and for the best of putative reasons. "Even the best we can do has no promise of freedom from sin."

So Joseph of Arimathea and the women disciples of Jesus (the men having gone into hiding) took Jesus' corpse and began to prepare it for burial in Joseph's own tomb. They did not finish the job because of the beginning of the Sabbath, a day on which they could do no work. They laid the body in the tomb, had it sealed, and left. The women agreed to return on Sunday morning to finish anointing Jesus' body, that being the first daylight hours after the end of the Sabbath at sundown Saturday.

The sun set and mercifully brought an end to execution day.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Generosity makes you happy

If you spend as little as $5 per day for the benefit of others, you will automatically be happier.
"We wanted to test our theory that how people spend their money is at least as important as how much money they earn," said Elizabeth Dunn, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia.

They asked their 600 volunteers first to rate their general happiness, report their annual income and detail their monthly spending including bills, gifts for themselves, gifts for others and donations to charity.

"Regardless of how much income each person made, those who spent money on others reported greater happiness, while those who spent more on themselves did not," Dunn said in a statement.

Dunn's team also surveyed 16 employees at a company in Boston before and after they received an annual profit-sharing bonus of between $3,000 and $8,000.

"Employees who devoted more of their bonus to pro-social spending experienced greater happiness after receiving the bonus, and the manner in which they spent that bonus was a more important predictor of their happiness than the size of the bonus itself," they wrote in their report, published in the journal Science.

"Finally, participants who were randomly assigned to spend money on others experienced greater happiness than those assigned to spend money on themselves," they said.
Something else I've learned: generous people cope with their own mortality much better than others. In the years I've ministered to the terminally ill and people dealing with aging-toward-mortality, invariably the ones who have been generous towards others - routinely, not just for birthdays or holidays - finally die more peaceably than non-generous people.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

How the stock market works

Once upon a time in a jungle village, a man appeared and announced to the villagers that he would buy monkeys for $10 each.

The villagers seeing that there were many monkeys around, went out to the forest, and started catching them.

The man bought thousands at $10 and as supply started to diminish, the villagers stopped their effort. He further announced that he would now buy at $20. This renewed the efforts of the villagers and they started catching monkeys again.

Soon the supply diminished even further and people started going back to their farms. The offer increased to $25 each and the supply of monkeys became so little that it was an effort to even see a monkey, let alone catch it!

The man now announced that he would buy monkeys at $50 ! However, since he had to go to the city on some business, his assistant would now buy on behalf of him. In the absence of the man, the assistant told the villagers. 'Look at all these monkeys in the big cage that the man has collected. I will sell them to you at $35 and when the man returns from the city, you can sell them to him for $50 each.'

The villagers rounded up with all their savings and bought all the monkeys. Then they never saw the man nor his assistant again, only monkeys everywhere!

Now you have a better understanding of how the stock market works.

From the Braden Files.