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.

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