Rethinking the Resurrection

By Woodward, Kenneth L. | Newsweek, April 8, 1996 | Go to article overview

Rethinking the Resurrection


Woodward, Kenneth L., Newsweek


IF CHRIST IS NOT RAISED, SAINT Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians, "then our preaching is in vain and so is your faith." This is the week Christians round the world gather to remember the passion and death of Jesus on a criminal's cross. Once again, the familiar story will be relived in liturgy, sermon and song: the somberness of Good Friday, the tomblike silence of Holy Saturday, followed by the radiance of Easter Sunday proclaiming Christ's resurrection to new life by the power of God. As the Apostle Paul insisted, the Risen Christ is the center of the Christian faith, the mystery without which there would be no church, no hope of eternal life, no living Christ to encounter in eucharistic bread and wine. By any measure, the resurrection of Jesus is the most radical of Christian doctrines. His teachings, his compassion for others, even his martyr's death -- all find parallels in other stories and religious traditions. But of no other historical figure has the claim been made persistently that God has raised him from the

From the very beginning, the resurrection of Jesus was met by doubt and disbelief. To the Jews of Biblical Jerusalem, it was simply blasphemous for the renegade Christians to claim that a crucified criminal was the Messiah. To the cultivated Greeks, who believed in the soul's immortality, the very idea of a resurrected body was repugnant. Even among Gnostic Christians of the second century, the preferred view was that Jesus was an immortal spirit who merely discarded his mortal cloak. And yet, if the New Testament is to be believed, it was the appearance of the resurrected Christ that lit the flame of Christian faith, and the power of the Holy Spirit that fired a motley band of fearful disciples to proclaim the Risen Jesus throughout the Greco-Roman world. According to the late German Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch, "It wasn't the morality of the Sermon on the Mount which enabled Christianity to conquer Roman paganism, but the belief that Jesus had been raised from the dead. In an age when Roman senators vied to see who could get the most blood of a steer on their togas -- thinking that would prevent death- Christianity was in competition for eternal life, not morality."

Christianity won, but the battle for the spiritual imagination is never ending. Every generation reinterprets for itself the meaning of Jesus; it's one way to keep faith -- and its traditions -- alive. While believers head for church and even lapsed Christians prepare holiday lambs, this season academics, most of them committed Christians, do battle. Over the past five years, scholars have published. more than two dozen books and scores of footnoted articles, initiating a fierce debate over the Risen Jesus. In their relentless search for "the historical Jesus," various Biblical scholars argue that the Gospel stories of the empty tomb and Jesus' post-resurrection appearances are fictions devised long after his death to justify claims of his divinity. To hear them tell it, the Resurrection is an embarrassment to the modern mind and a disservice to the itinerant Jewish preacher from rural Galilee.

THEY PUBLISH, THEY QUARREL and they meet. In February, Oregon State University hosted a national symposium celebrating Jesus at 2000." And next week, beginning Easter Monday, an equally august group will gather for a four-day Resurrection Summit at the seminary of the Catholic Archdiocese of New York. They will present an assortment of theological and philosophical papers. At St. Patrick's Cathedral they will listen to two sopranos from the Metropolitan Opera. And they will publish yet another book.

Now as before, Jesus lives in controversy. The questioning could not be more basic, more subversive, or more relevant to believers and professional critics alike. What can be known about the real Jesus? Can the historical Jesus be separated from the Risen Christ of faith? Does Christianity owe its origins to the Resurrection? …

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