Jesus’ resurrection: What really happened?

This scholar's interpretation navigates between the perils of realism and fundamentalism

Topics: Jesus, Religion, Christianity, resurrection, Bible, Books, Writers and Writing, Editor's Picks,

Jesus' resurrection: What really happened? (Credit: Jaroslav74 via Shutterstock)

All faith is resurrection faith.
— Hans Urs von Balthasar, Prayer

To rise from history to mystery is to experience the
resurrection of the body here now, as an eternal reality;
to experience the parousia, the presence in the present,
which is the spirit; to experience the reincarnation of the
incarnation, the second coming; which is his coming in us.

— Norman O. Brown, Love’s Body

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming!

— W. B. Yeats, “The Second Coming”

The Burial Scene
The burial of Jesus took place in haste, in keeping with Jewish law, as commanded in Deuteronomy 21:22-23: “And if a man have committed a sin worthy of death, and he be to be put to death, and thou hange him on a tree: His body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but thou shalt in any wise bury him that day.” One can only imagine the eagerness of those who loved Jesus to remove his body from the cross, a position of extreme exposure and embarrassment, and to lay it gently in a crypt, safe from mocking Roman eyes. At last, the torture was over.

Having acquired permission to take charge of the body, Joseph of Arimathea wrapped it carefully in fine linens and, with the help of Nicodemus, put it in a crypt hewn from rock not far from the site of the execution on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Nicodemus had brought a mixture of embalming spices: aloes and myrrh. One recalls the lines from “We Three Kings,” a midnineteenth-century Christmas carol:

Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in the stone cold tomb.

A large stone sealed the entrance to the cave: not uncommon in the burial caves of wealthy people in the time of Jesus, as archaeologists have confirmed.

The care taken by these men with the body of their beloved teacher underscored the importance of honoring the dead in appropriate ways. In Genesis, for example, Abraham had been instructed by God to bury the dead only in the choicest of tombs, and so he bought a cave “in the field of Machpelah” in Canaan for the body of his wife, Sarah (Genesis 23:4–19). The law required that even the enemies of Israel, when slain in battle, deserved an appropriate and respectful burial (I Kings 11:15). Moses actually warned his companions that if they didn’t follow the laws of God in this regard, they risked being slain and not buried, their corpses left for the birds and wild beasts to pick apart (Deuteronomy 28:25–26). It should not have surprised anyone in the first century that a man whom many considered an important teacher, if not the messianic Son of God, deserved a proper burial.



It was unusual for the bodies of executed men to be buried with respect, however. Soldiers often just tossed the remains into shallow graves or burial ditches, where wild dogs fed on whatever was left. This might have happened to Jesus, as John Dominic Crossan has argued — not, in my view, persuasively. The public would surely have been outraged by such crassness, as Jesus had attracted a sincere (if rather small) following, especially among Galilean pilgrims; with so many visitors in Jerusalem for the Temple celebrations, Pilate would not have wished to unsettle this group, however small by comparison with the others. A discreet burial for Jesus was politically astute as well as in keeping with Jewish customs, and the archaeological as well as written evidence suggests that such burials did occasionally take place after an execution.

Jesus lay in the cave through Friday night, Saturday, and early Sunday: a period of three days, ending with Easter and the Resurrection, known as the Triduum or “three days.” Commentators on the life of Jesus often pass over the hours of his entombment, which embrace a painful mental state described in “Waiting” by the Welsh poet R. S. Thomas as “the mind’s tree of thorns.” But Holy Saturday forms a corridor between the death and resurrection of Jesus, in his remarkable (and theologically complex) passage from Jesus to Christ. Alan E. Lewis, a theologian who wrote a book about Holy Saturday during the final year of his own struggle with terminal cancer, said: “If confidence in the resurrection tends to modify the deadliness of Calvary, likewise it is only those who have first looked into the mouth of hell and seen the world abandoned to its godless fate who then can truly see the meaning of the Easter day reversal.” In other words, the mythos needs to be heard in two ways — “as a story whose ending is known, and as one whose ending is discovered only as it happens . . . the truth emerges only when both readings are audible, the separate sound in each ear creating, as it were, a stereophonic unity.”

Most of us will for a time occupy this anxious, transitional space between two worlds, as described by Lord Byron in Don Juan (Canto Fifteen): “Between two worlds life hovers like a star, / ’Twixt night and morn, upon the horizon’s verge.” Holy Saturday unfolds in this dark space, in the tomb where Jesus lay in a kind of unrealized state, perhaps plunging into psychic or spiritual depths in what has often been called the Harrowing of Hell — a legend without much scriptural basis suggesting that Jesus made a kind of wild descent, with mythic overtones, into the underworld. In fact, mythologies often describe a turn when the hero descends to a deep pit or a place of psychological, spiritual, or physical confinement, as when Jonah spent three days in the belly of the whale or Gilgamesh descended into the underworld in a quest for immortality. Nearly all heroic or mythic tales include a part of the heroic cycle where the hero visits some version of Hell or Hades in his or her quest for immortality (Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess, is a female example). In any case, the Sacred Sabbath, as it’s often called with reference to Easter weekend, represents a place where Jesus dives into the darkness before the Resurrection. It lies between two loud claps of thunder, an emptiness wherein we sense a horrifying loss of life, on the one hand, yet remain expectant: in a state of gradually realizing awareness of the life to come. This difficult space is one of the symbolic gifts of the Triduum in its second day: a timeless time that suggests that “God himself has plumbed these depths and has brought creation out of the darkness and into resurrection life,” as Richard McLaughlan has written.

Easter Morning and Beyond

Easter morning arrived with a holy hush, the day after the Sabbath, with little fanfare. The gospels pass over the Resurrection, and we never actually see Jesus waken, rub his eyes, stand and stretch. We don’t even see the rock that sealed the tomb actually rolled away. The joyous resurrection of Jesus happens off-stage, as it were. The first inkling of change occurred when some of the women close to Jesus came to visit his tomb. The gospel narratives vary on who turned up in the garden first: Mary Magdalene alone or with Mary, the mother of Jesus, and with Salome (Mary’s sister or the mother of James and John). In John, the story plays out in suspenseful detail as Mary Magdalene visited the tomb by herself to mourn. To her amazement, she found the stone removed. In panic, she ran to tell Peter and another (unnamed) disciple, who hurried back to the tomb and discovered it empty, much to their distress and confusion. They assumed that someone had stolen the body. Meanwhile, Mary Magdalene sat outside the tomb by herself, crying softly. She could hardly believe the things that had happened in the past few days, and the missing body of Jesus was really too much to bear.

After a while, she returned to the dark, heavily scented crypt, where she “saw two angels in white.” They spoke to her, and then a mysterious male figure appeared at her side.

The man said to her in a gentle voice: “Why are you crying?”

She didn’t recognize this person and apparently thought he was a gardener.

Jesus responded with a single word: “Mary.”

At once she realized who stood beside her: “Rabboni!” Her response was in Aramaic, meaning “teacher.” The intrusion of an Aramaic exclamation in a Greek text serves to underscore and convey a sense of authenticity. That Jesus would first appear to Mary Magdalene was, of course, a disconcerting matter for some, such as Peter, who must have wondered why he didn’t get to meet the risen Christ before her. In three of the Gnostic Gospels — Gospel of Philip, Gospel of Mary, and Dialogue of the Savior — one sees a rivalry developed between Peter and Mary. Elaine Pagels, in her study of the gospels discovered at Nag Hammadi, notes that these writings outside the canon often “use the figure of Mary Magdalene to suggest that women’s activity challenged the leaders of the orthodox community.” The raw facts remain: Jesus first appeared to Mary Magdalene. Furthermore, she didn’t recognize him.

Nobody recognized Jesus at first — a point of huge significance, as it underscores the difficult and mysterious nature of the Resurrection, which defies all norms and defeats rationalization. The embodied spirit of the Messiah returning from the dead was not exactly the same person who died but some altered version of Jesus, transmogrified more than restored to his former state. In reality, the manifestation of Jesus after his death beggars the imagination: he acquired a spiritual body, as we read in I Corinthians 15:44: “It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body.” There is a subtle teaching here: We should not expect to recognize Jesus at first, even as he wakens within us. (One thinks here of the Buddha, who also awakened to new life in his moment of Enlightenment at the Bodhi Tree, which entails an awareness of Nirvana, a condition of bliss that comes from the blowing out of the three flames of greed, hatred, and delusion.) Recognition takes time, becoming in fact a process of uncovering, what I often refer to in this book as the gradually realizing kingdom: an awareness that grows deeper and more complex, more thrilling, as it evolves.

Jesus walked free of the tomb, appearing to various disciples and followers over the next forty days. One vivid appearance is described in Luke 24:13–32, where the narrator elaborates a story only mentioned briefly in Mark 16:12–13. Two followers of Jesus walked along a sandy road from Jerusalem toward Emmaus. They discussed between themselves the astonishing rumor that Jesus, their beloved teacher, had awakened from the dead. (Obviously word of this occurrence had spread quickly, though nobody quite knew what to believe.) As they talked, a third man appeared beside them, emerging from the shadows. “What are you talking about?” he asked. They looked at him incredulously: “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who doesn’t know what’s happened?”

They told the mysterious stranger about this “prophet, powerful in word and deed,” a man called Jesus of Nazareth, someone who enjoyed a special relationship with God. They retold the story of the women who visited his tomb but did not find him there.

Jesus listened patiently, then scolded them: “You are so foolish, and slow to believe everything the prophets have spoken!”

But even this rebuke didn’t alert them to the identity of their companion, whom they nevertheless invited to share their dinner. He agreed to join them that evening. Taking the bread in his hands, he gave thanks for it, “and then their eyes were opened, and they saw who was before them.” Somewhat bizarrely, as soon as they recognized their teacher, he disappeared — poof. It’s a strange but compelling story, suggesting that it’s difficult to possess the vision, to retain it. The risen Jesus requires sustained focus, strong belief, and devotion.

Even his closest disciples failed to recognize him, as in the first fourteen verses of John 21, where we hear that he appeared to Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, and two other disciples, one of them the mysterious Beloved Disciple. In the days following the Crucifixion, this cluster of core disciples had returned to Galilee.
One assumes they were forlorn, confused, and deeply anxious about their future. Without Jesus to lead them, how would they operate in the world? How would they feed themselves? In situations like this, people often return to familiar habits, and these men were fishermen, so they fished. But the fishing didn’t
go well.

It was early morning on the Sea of Galilee, and the disciples despaired of catching anything. Suddenly Jesus stood on the shore, although none of them recognized him.

He called in a loud voice: “Friends, not having any luck?” They explained glumly that no fish seemed to be biting. It seemed quite hopeless.

Jesus offered them a tip: “Throw your net over the right side of the boat, and your luck will change.”

They probably wondered: Who is this arrogant man? Haven’t we already tried everything we know? Yet he must have spoken with authority, as they took his advice, and their nets filled up at once. They couldn’t even drag them into the boat, they so bristled with the catch. It was, of course, a miracle.

Peter suddenly realized — alone among them — who stood on shore. “It’s the Lord!” he said with a gasp.

They came ashore warily, however. Who was going to trust Peter? The stranger stood by himself, cooking breakfast over coals. He looked up, offering them bread and fish. His radiance was undeniable. Now they “knew it was the Lord,” and yet they scarcely believed their eyes. Was this some kind of trick? Did a ghost hover before them? Had they fallen into a dream-state of some kind?

A larger truth informs these stories. Jesus did not, like Lazarus, simply get up and walk out from the burial crypt and resume life in ordinary time. The Resurrection was not the Resuscitation. As noted above, his closest friends didn’t recognize him, not even Mary Magdalene. He was otherworldly now, fully transfigured. What this part of the mythos invites is meditation as well as a blunt refusal to accept easy answers, a willingness to submit to the incomprehensible, to what the great German theologian Rudolf Otto called the idea of the holy. Here we discover a sense of the numinous — the so-called mysterium tremendum — a “tremendous mystery” difficult to embody in speech or thought, an “all-pervading, penetrating glow” that in its otherness resists the intellect and cannot be discerned easily.

As one moves through the four gospels and the letters of Paul, the accounts of post-Resurrection appearances by Jesus vary markedly in their nature and sequence. There is a summary of these appearances in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (15:5–8): “He appeared to Cephas [Peter], and then to the Twelve. Then he appeared to over five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom remain alive now, though some have fallen asleep. Then he showed himself to James, then to all the apostles. Finally, he appeared to me.”

Written twenty years or so after the events described, this letter suggests two things: a lot of stories circulated about Jesus and the Resurrection, not all of them consistent. These storytellers had their own agendas, and their narratives shifted according to the perceived audience. The author of Mark nearly avoids any mention of post-Resurrection appearances, except for one brief passage (16:9–20), which is not included in the earliest manuscripts of his gospel. In Matthew, there is almost nothing about his reappearance except for a few verses in the twenty-eighth chapter, where Jesus meets the remaining eleven disciples and gives them the Great Commission: “Go and create disciples everywhere, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, teaching them as I have commanded you. And know that I am always with you, even to the end of time.” Luke includes not only the story of the Road to Emmaus but glimpses of the post-Easter Jesus by Peter, plus a further visit with the eleven remaining disciples in Jerusalem. In Acts, which is an extension of Luke, Jesus makes numerous appearances to his disciples during the forty days before he ascends to heaven. In John, he meets Mary Magdalene in the tomb itself, visits with the disciples in Jerusalem, and — as the story related above — meets others by the shores of Galilee, with the miraculous catch of fish: no doubt a symbolic as well as literal catch, perhaps meant to remind these fishermen of their role as “fishers of men” or missionaries who will “catch” men and women with the good news of the gospel. The work of reading here, as suggested earlier, is one of remythologizing the story, finding its symbolic contours while not discounting the genuine heft of the literal tale.

The characteristics of the resurrected body of Jesus shift, depending on the text at hand. In one case, Jesus asks Thomas, the doubter, to touch his wound, just to prove to him that he’s really there and not some phantasm. This proves that he has a physical presence, and it satisfies Thomas. In John, Jesus passes through locked doors like a ghost — an unsettling image that suggests an incorporeal aspect, stressing his spiritual nature. In Luke 24:41–43, he astonishes his disciples by eating “a piece of broiled fish” as well as swallowing honey. It’s as if, by looking at him, they didn’t expect as much. He has to prove his real presence. For the most part, the appearances of Jesus retain a dreamlike quality, as in Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, where he hears a voice from the Lord, which says: “I am Jesus, the one whom you persecute” (Acts 9:5). When Paul opens his eyes, however, he sees nothing. The spirit has vanished.

Huge questions confront anyone thinking about Jesus. Did he really rise from the dead? Was there an actual Resurrection? If so, what would that look like? A large number of Christians throughout history have imagined a resuscitation, refusing to countenance the slightest hint that the Resurrection should be regarded as something beyond human understanding. I myself would argue this: life and death are mysterious, at best, and the membrane between the living and the dead is a porous one, perilously thin. Jesus rose from the dead, the scriptures say. I see no reason to doubt this. And yet a literalistic belief in the Resurrection cannot be, as many fundamentalist churches insist, the only important part of the “good news” of Christianity. The message of God’s love in operation in the world trumps everything and must be regarded as the necessary extension of the idea of rebirth, the social basis for true spiritual enlightenment. Nowhere more so than here does it matter that we find a proper balance between the literal and the figurative, giving full weight to the concrete meaning while relishing the mythic contours of the story.

Jesus put before human beings an example, a way to reconcile with God, the source of creation, the ground of all being. Overall, the Resurrection represents, for me, a joy that is probably diminished by a reading of this event that fails to embrace the mystical aspect, the idea that the transfigured body of Jesus defies human comprehension. Perhaps Doubting Thomas needed a physical manifestation, and some people still do. But the gospel writers repeatedly suggest that the risen Jesus confounded everyone, and that different people regarded this part of the story in different ways — even at the time, among his closest associates. Jesus himself seemed to revel in the mystery, as on the road to Emmaus. He didn’t expect, even wish for, instant recognition.

Literalism is reductionist and limits access to God in the fullest sense. I’d go further here to argue that it’s downright dangerous to dwell exclusively on the literal aspects of the story. Norman O. Brown wrote in Love’s Body that the Resurrection should be regard as an awakening, a coming back to life: “The resurrection is to recur, to be fulfilled in us: it is to happen to his mystical body, which is our bodies; in this flesh.” This seems, to me, more useful as a way of thinking about the Resurrection than the kind of dour Christianity that argues one is not “saved” unless one “believes” in resuscitation in the most physical way.

The fundamentalist view of the cross, with its emphasis on the sacrificial or “substitutionary” aspect of the Crucifixion, evolved in the Middle Ages and solidified with Martin Luther’s insistence on the single, simple, and stable meaning of scripture; the text of the Bible itself became a mighty fortress that resists symbolic interpretations. (I would note that early in his career Luther was much more amenable to symbolic readings of scriptural passages.) To many, the idea of Christ as sacrificial lamb becomes the whole of the Christian message, to the disparagement of every other reading, leading to an exclusionary view of salvation. Yet the apostle Paul himself warned early Christians in his second letter to Corinth that to become an able minister of the new covenant one should not read the scriptures in ways that undercut their fullest meanings, “for the letter kills, but the spirit gives life” (II Corinthians 3:6).

Paul followed his own advice, taking an obviously multilayered view, as when he suggested that those who follow the way of Christ shall “all be made alive” (I Corinthians 15:22). He wasn’t talking about “the dead” here, who required bodily resuscitation. He meant that a spiritual awakening must occur, and this would confer new life on those who understood what they had experienced. It’s a feeling not unlike what Thomas Merton, the poet and Trappist monk, experienced in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) in the late sixties, when he encountered the great Buddha statues in Polunnaruwa: “Looking at these figures I was suddenly, almost forcibly, jerked clean out of the habitual, half-tied vision of things, and an inner clearness, clarity, as if exploding from the rocks themselves, became evident and obvious.” This very much echoes the kind of awakening described by Paul.

Excerpted from “Jesus: The Human Face of God” by Jay Parini. © 2013 by Jay Parini. Published by Amazon Publishing/New Harvest December 2013. All rights reserved.

Jay Parini is Axinn Professor of English at Middlebury College. His novels include "The Last Station" and "Benjamin's Crossing." He has written a life of John Steinbeck and is just completing a life of Robert Frost.

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