Why do they say that He is resurrected?
Jerusalem, June 29th, 2011
I arrived to what seems to me the axis of the world, the centre of Earth, because if God revealed Himself to men, if God became a man and this happened here, then there is no place more important. Don’t you think so? This place is also the melting pot of humanity: the three great monotheist religions consider it as their own (so much so that sometimes they do not understand that it is difficult to determinate to whom the sacred places belong, you know what I mean, don’t you?). I am sending you these lines from the place that witnessed the Mystery and where, one day, life turned into a feast.
I waited until I was here before writing you this letter. In this letter I want to tell you about the resurrection of Jesus. Since the last time I wrote you, you wrote of your difficulty in incorporating this event into your life. You tell me that reading my words over and over again, you feel kind of dizzy as if this God who became a man also wanted to establish a conversation with you, as if everything that I told you corresponded in some form to your life, to your studies, to your desires. Perhaps of all the answers you seek, this will be at once the most outrageous and the most reasonable... for you the problem is this: how could it be possible that Jesus is both still alive and that even now He is with me?
Resurrection is the key, Ignacio. Encountering Christ is possible for us today only if He really is resurrected and alive, here and now. This was been fully experienced by those who followed Him.
Make an effort to contemplate it! Imagine the scene after the death of Christ! The 14th day of the Jewish month, Nisan, after the rage and blood, one could hear only the crushing noise of the stone rolling to close the sepulcher. While the darkness spread out, the last women returned to their homes. Pain, shame, desolation, failure... What remained apart from the broken body of a dead man? Solitude.
Where now are the people who said ‘we are going to die with you, if necessary’? Judas, the betrayer, committed suicide. Peter, filled with fear, denied Him three times. The rest scattered and hid because all that they believed in was finished and the world had witnessed it. Their Lord had just died like a criminal. The Saturday of solitude starts in the sepulcher and the despair spreads out through the hearts of the disciples. It will be a day of silence and sadness in front of the tomb where nobody could have hoped or imagined what would happen three days later.
It is not the idea that failed, Ignacio, but a life full of signs that referred to God. It was the failure of each and every life that decided to leave everything behind and follow Him. The Person who was considered as the promise of their life, now nourished worms for He had been taken away by death just like any other man.
Two days later these same men, fearful and desolated, will be radically changed. They will be filled with joy and happiness. What is happening to them? They will tell each other that Christ is resurrected, that He defeated death and that He demonstrated once and all that is He is God, whom they have seen, and that they have eaten with Him and talked to Him, without fear, fully rejoicing and transformed. They pass from despair to trust, from confusion to certainty, from being cowards to being of an iron will. And they do it in Jerusalem, close to the Jewish and Roman authorities that condemned and killed Christ only two days before, in front of the crowd that preferred Barabbas to Jesus, in front of everybody that believed that they were finished for ever with this group of ‘Nazarenes’.
If we could ask the disciples, they would respond without batting an eyelid: ‘What happened was that Jesus was resurrected’. Without much fuss, in the direct style of someone who bore witness to an event and so tells it like it was. All of a sudden the sepulcher is forgotten, nobody venerates the dead person. The tomb of the beloved master who died accused of blasphemy is no longer visited. Why? Because there is no tomb, there is no body.
Not even fifteen years passed after the death of Jesus and there were already solid written traditions which show how well rooted and extended was the conviction that Jesus had been resurrected. I will quote here the text of Saint Paul so that you can see what these people went through:
‘For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died or our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to someone untimely born, he appeared also to me’ (1 Cor 15:3-8).
Faced with this event, there are some possibilities that come to mind:
a) It is a lie; the disciples lied and invented everything.
b) The disciples deceived themselves and they had hallucinations.
c) It is a legend put together by the first Christians based on historical events to which they kept on adding things till they ended up with the myth of resurrection.
d) It must be true; these stories simply tell what happened. That would not constitute a ‘proof ’ of resurrection and even less the divinity of Jesus, but a potent appeal to take a position before the events. A call to the head and the heart that feel questioned.
The third opinion, I think, raises the same issue that we clarified before concerning the historicity of the Gospels; and concerning the fourth one you can freely decide about its validity thus, I restrict myself to the first two questions.
a) Was it invented by the first Christians?
Think about it! Such a big lie is really untenable. In the first place because there are no trustworthy witnesses to it. The first people to see the resurrected God are women: Mary Magdalene, Mary of Cleophas and Mary (mother of James the Less and Joseph), Salome and Joanna and more. This is how it appears in the Gospels written in a simple style of somebody who collected immediate testimonies. Women giving a testimony while the men are full of fear and hide themselves. I always thought that if the resurrection is true, God certainly does not know too much about marketing. It is enough to read the Gospel of Luke 24:11: ‘[They] told this to the Apostles [the empty sepulchral and the encounter with the resurrected Jesus]. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them’. Sure they did not! They thought it was crazy and did not believe it. The contemporary thinking and attitude is very well depicted by Flavius Josephus in his Antiquities of Jews: ‘But let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex’. Celsus the great dialectical adversary of Christianity of the second century affirmed: ‘Galileans believe in a resurrection witnessed to by some hysterical women’.
In the final analysis, Ignacio, it would not have been easy for the first Christian communities to accept that the original witnesses to the living Christ were given by women, for this would have gone against their world view. Giving so much importance concerning the stories of Jesus’ resurrection to female witnesses certainly would not have helped to assure their credibility. The inventor of a lie, trying to make the lie credible, would never try to base it on witnesses like these.
Secondly, it is untenable because the invented ‘story’ is not believable: supposedly ready to invent a story, the first Christians should have come up with something that could have been believed and that would correspond to the Jewish mentality. A resurrection as they tell it does not fit in their Semitic thinking. Within Judaism, the groups that believed in resurrection (not all did so) expected a universal resurrection at the end of time that would begin with the coming and work of the anticipated Messiah. The fact that Jesus was resurrected alone and before the end of time was something impossible to admit and even more so to imagine.
The Apostles would not have interpreted their ‘visions’ as resurrection. Because the only idea that they could have was of a body that returns to the same life that it had before, like Lazarus or the son of the widow of Nain or Jairus’ daughter or what the prophet Elisha did, but a human body that appears and disappears, enters and leaves closed rooms, eats food, a body that one can touch... these they wouldn’t have ever thought of.
How would the enemies of Jesus react when they came face to face with the public claim that Jesus was assassinated and therefore his enemies were murderers? The enemies of Jesus were not playing games, and whoever held that Jesus now still lived, risked the same fate as their teacher. Moreover, the question for them was not only to believe it but also to make others believe. This faith demanded from them a radical devotion of their life to this event, i.e. to Jesus. The only principal ‘argument’ that they had was that even though Jesus died in the manner he did, He was now resurrected. Do you really think they expected to convince anybody? How could they come up with such an ‘outrageous idea’ without having
touched Him with their own hands?
The hypothesis of the lie becomes even less sustainable if we see the reaction of Jesus’ enemies, those who condemned and executed Him. If the Apostles were lying, they were being really annoying. The high priest together with the full Sanhedrin decided to give them a warning: ‘We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us’ (Acts 5:28). Nothing is easier than presenting the dead body or the guards injured when the body was stolen. The fact that they didn’t do this has only one explanation: there was no corpse, the sepulcher was empty. And the empty sepulcher presents only two possibilities: either somebody had stolen the body or Christ resurrected.
Let us see then: if the body of Christ was stolen, who did it? It seems clear that it was done neither by the Jews nor by the Romans. Why would they get themselves into such trouble, especially with all the preoccupying movement and the suspicious group around the deceased?
Suppose that some brazen followers of the deceased won the battle against some professional soldiers that were put there on the request of the Jewish authorities in order to avoid such a stealing, wouldn’t there have been some noise of struggle in the silent daybreak of Jerusalem full of pilgrims? What about the scandal that would have been caused by the fact that some Jewish people confronted the Roman soldiers and defeated them? Where are the guards wounded or killed in the skirmish? There is nothing else to do but to present them to the people to prove theft.
The only thing that is left for us is to think that the body was stolen while the guards were sleeping... It is clear that according to the Roman military code of honor, a Roman soldier who would fall asleep during his guard was supposed to be clubbed to death or burnt alive on the spot. And the guards were asleep? In a mission that was not routine, but expressly demanded in the face of a certain danger?
And if the Apostles indeed stole the body and then walked around Jerusalem talking about the dead man, telling that the authorities were responsible for this death... How could it be that no one accused them of desecrating a grave and steal a corpse?
There are many questions, Ignacio, and as you can see all are very pertinent, very concrete and solid. Every man of every age must face them without silencing his reason, and he should consider all the possibilities, for the Truth of what we talked about in previous letters depends on this fact.
I faced them with all my efforts. My brother passed away and if a man came into this world and promised us life, I was certainly interested in it. This saved me from my despair and my desolation. But it had to be true and real... I was not ready to trust a lie, because sooner or later the fall will come and it will be even more painful. The only thing I can offer you is my own experience, Ignacio.
In the case that the disciples had stolen the corpse of Jesus, why would they turn to the Hypothesis of the resurrection in order to explain His disappearance? They could have explained it along the lines of the Jewish concept of a corporal rapture to heaven. That is how the Jewish tradition tells the story concerning some of the characters like Enoch, Elijah, Ezra and Baruch. The Apostles, nevertheless, in spite of having been denounced as false and suspected to be thieves, insisted again and again that Jesus disappeared from the sepulcher and resurrected from the dead. The empty tomb was not a sufficient proof of resurrection, but there was no other justification on the side of Jesus’ followers but their insistence on that particular affirmation as a sign of loyalty to what seems to have really happened.
b) Is it possible that the disciples really deceived themselves?
This is the next question that I wanted to show you. We can think that the disciples – being stricken by the total failure of their Master, destroyed emotionally and influenced by the words of Jesus – had hallucinations. This is tantamount to saying that somebody can talk to the dead. More than one scholar has formulated this hypothesis. The psychological studies reveal that a hallucination never goes together with the doubt concerning what one believes he has seen. The one who hallucinates does not doubt. Nevertheless the protagonist of the alleged hallucinations doubted and at some occasions did not recognized Jesus at first sight.
Pathological hallucinations are progressive up to the point of destroying the entire personality if not properly treated, but this particular one started and finished in forty days. Moreover, one should talk about a collective hallucination (Mary Magdalena, the eleven in the cenacle, the two of Emmaus, the five hundred, Peter, James...), and this type of hallucination is not possible without something that would bring it about.
That behavior was very unusual of the witnesses. The authorities of Sanhedrin did not treat them like madmen, something that would have been easy to demonstrate with other features of their apparent delirious hallucinations. If they hallucinated and expanded a similar delirium, the Jewish or Roman authorities could have easily stopped the deception by showing the corpse.
The alleged hallucination would explain only the stories of the appearances posterior to the death, but it would not shed any light on the empty tomb, the stone of the sepulcher rolled away or the lost of the body.
Nobody has ever given any alternative explication of the Resurrection of Jesus that would explain everything in a satisfactory manner, Ignacio. This does not mean that the resurrection is proven, but rather that one has to consider the possibility that it has really happened and, taking this possibility into account without silencing reason, one has also to evaluate whether it is possible that this event that provoked such a reaction in the followers could be quite meaningful to oneself. The steps that I am showing you are the steps that I followed, but each will have his own way. There is no proof concerning Jesus Christ that coerces the freedom of the person contemplating Him. The Jewish professor of history of the Second Temple of the University of Jerusalem, David Flusser (I have talked about him in class, do you remember?) based on 1 Cor 15:3-8 affirms the following: ‘We don’t have any motive for questioning that the Crucified appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve and then to five hundred brothers at the same time... and then to James; and then to all of the Apostles and finally to Paul on the road to Damascus’. [x]
Death is not an ‘issue’, Ignacio, it forms a part of our lives. If one thinks about it abstractly, making theories of it, one can say many different things, some sensible, others less so. But when it touches our lives or someone we love, it introduces us to the mystery of our existence.
For me it was the death of my brother that served as an entrance to the Mystery of Jesus of Nazareth. Death was not a fact in my life any more, and started to be a great riddle. I realized that if everything finishes there, life is one thing, if not, it is something else. If someone has overcome the power of death, and death no longer has the last word, then life changes radically. And at that point I was only interested in one thing: embracing again my brother. I know now that behind this legitimate desire there was something more: the necessity that my life and the life of all my beloved ones should have a harbor where they can safely arrive.
The Gospels contain a story that changes everything. The story is direct and to the point: the Crucified was found alive after his death, not as a revival of a Jesus who was before, but as one who already lives in a new world in which there is neither death nor tears. I was overwhelmed by the disproportion between the event and the reaction that it caused in its witnesses. People that lived the event of the death and the burial of their Master with such fear were able to go into the streets shouting some hours later that He was alive and that everything made sense, at least for them. And for me? – I asked myself, did it make sense for me? I wondered and I still wonder as I look at this holy land that bore witnessed to what sustains me.
I wish you were here, Ignacio.
Your old professor
[x] D. FLUSSER, Jesús en sus palabras y en su tiempo, Ediciones Cristiandad, Madrid, 1975, p. 138. Quote from the Spanish edition as translated by M. SZALAY & A. RICHES.