Jesus, a radical preacher who advocated for the poor, was crucified for turning over money tables at the Temple and other insurrectionary acts. His body was likely left to wild animals, but his chroniclers sought to glorify his ending with myths about a resurrection, as Rev. Howard Bess explains.
By the Rev. Howard Bess
On Easter morning, at 6:30 a.m. when sunlight is just beginning to glow over the mountains to the east of Palmer, Alaska, I will, as is my custom, arrive at a sunrise Easter service to celebrate the resurrection of my Lord. I have already checked the lectionary and reread the resurrection story as recorded in Matthew 28:1-10. Millions of my Christian brothers and sisters will be reading the same ten verses.
Millions of sermons will be preached based on the Matthew account of the resurrection, but very few preachers will make mention of the history and background of the passage. A typical minister will not share what he/she learned in theological seminary about the resurrection passages.
Figuring out what happened to Jesus is not a simple journey. I do not recall when I first started raising questions. I do know that it began when I laid the resurrection accounts down side by side and started comparing the differing stories of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. They cannot be reasonably reconciled.
For instance, in Matthew an angel caused an earthquake and rolled the stone away from the entrance into the tomb. The angel then engaged women in conversation. The other story tellers mention no earthquake and no angels. The Matthew account was beyond my own personal experience with earthquakes and angelic conversations. Believing in the resurrection story as history became more difficult to embrace.
The next step in my journey was to learn that the story cannot be connected to any eyewitnesses. There is no known verification that any of the followers of Jesus, including his disciples, saw and touched a real live post-death flesh-and-blood Jesus. There are reports of ghost-like appearances that float in and out of places and finally into a cloud in the heavens.
But these ghostly appearances are hardly verification of a flesh-and-blood resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
The Matthew account – written at least 50 to 60 years after the death of Jesus – looks more and more like a writer of fiction, not a reporter of history with verifying witnesses.
Nevertheless, no one can doubt that within a few years a rapidly growing number of people believed that Jesus was raised from the dead. Under the leadership of Paul, a whole theological interpretation was given to the death and resurrection of Jesus.
The humble prophet from a small village in northern Palestine was made into a universal figure that demanded recognition as the central figure of all human history. An ugly death on a Roman cross could not wipe out his significance. God raised his son, Jesus, from the dead. For these early believers, the history of this transformation took place in real time, in real history, in real life.
So, every Easter presents people with a murky question: Did Jesus come back from the dead in real flesh and blood? If he did not, can a devout Christian hold fast in his/her faith? Can a questioning person still sing all those great Easter songs and celebrate Christ’s resurrection without crossing his/her fingers?
I have resolved the dilemma to the satisfaction of my own head, heart and soul. I do not believe Jesus was raised from the dead in flesh and blood. I do not believe he had a respectful burial. It is more likely that he was crucified and left for dogs to tear at his dead flesh and for scavenger birds to peck at his dead body.
I do not believe that I am reading history when I read the resurrection narratives of the four gospels. Rather, I believe I must read the resurrection narratives as mythology written by devout and believing followers who claimed Jesus as their Lord.
Our respect for mythology as a carrier of truth needs a rebirth. I contend that mythology is a time-tested and honored literary tool to do truth-telling, although not literal truth. Technically, mythology is any story or report in which God or a god is the primary actor. Mythology will always defy historical analysis, so I should never attempt a fool’s chase.
Jesus was killed because he was a speaker of God’s truth. He was an unrelenting advocate of justice. The resurrection stories make a profound declaration: Truth can never be killed and the truth-teller can never be defeated. [For more on the crucifixion, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Misunderstanding Jesus’s Execution.”]
At Easter sunrise service, mine will be a hearty voice singing “Up from the grave he arose” and “He lives, he lives, Christ Jesus lives today.”
The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.