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Two views of resurrection

Famous UC Berkeley sociologist Robert Bellah died last week, and to note the occasion, the university’s media center sent around an article on Bellah’s view of death. Gene Palumbo kindly sent it on to me. Here are some key paragraphs:

Where were you before you were born? That’s where you will go after you die.

Well before I was born, I was in the sperm of my father and the egg of my mother, I had within me the earliest beginnings of the components of a billion or more years of life, the genes that I share with worms (a lot) and with mold (some), and the atoms that I share with the universe all the way back to the big bang. So returning to all that isn’t so bad.

Further, I will join the company of saints, of all those whose cultural work has made it possible for me to have been a half-way decent person, and what I have added to the cultural pool, even when I am long forgotten, will go on having an influence (unless we become extinct soon, which is also possible) for a long, perhaps an immeasurable time.

As for eternal life, that is now. If we don’t see eternity in a grain of sand, when will we ever see it. As for resurrection, as Tillich said, dead men don’t walk. But Christ was surely resurrected in the consciousness of his disciples and is more alive today than the day he was crucified, in the faces of all those who follow his example and who keep him alive.

By coincidence or, as believers hold, by divine providence, I read today a sermon that the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe preached one Easter Sunday. Some contrasting paragraphs:

Jesus really died. The living human body which had been Jesus became no longer a human body but a corpse hanging from the cross and cadaver was put away in a tomb. There was no longer a man, Jesus of Nazareth: he had lived his short life and was no more. True, his soul was, no doubt, immortal, but a soul is not a human being. We only have an individual human being when that soul is the life of its inidividual human body. We are animals not ghosts; not even ghosts inside animals. What you are is this living flesh and blood, and when your flesh and blood ceases to live, when your life departs, you cease to be. You are totally absent, utterly not with your fellow men and women.  ...

And today we celebrate: we rejoice because he is alive and with us. “I am risen and with you.” God has risen him up. What had been a corpse, a cadaver, is now a living human body again, and much more, unimaginably more, humanly alive. ...

The gospel we preach is not about memories or ideals or profound thoughts. It contains all these things, but what it is about is the human person, Jesus, alive and present to us and loving us from his human heart. Our Easter faith is that we really do encounter Jesus himself: not a message from him, or a doctrine inspired by him, or an ethics of love, or a new idea of human destiny, or a picture of him, but Jesus himself. It is in this that we rejoice.

If I met you one day, I mean really met you, not a picture of you or a televised three-dimensinal holgram, or a truth about you, or a dream about you, but really met you, and you said to me, “By the way, it’s a rather interesting thing, my bones are in a cave in Palestine,” I would be astounded. I would not know what to think, but I would be inclined to say that you or somebody had done a remarkable “conjuring trick with bones.” This would be the really tricky and puzzling thing: that I should meet you (you, and not a ghost or a dream but the actual you), without meeting your body.

There is nothing in the least tricky or puzzling or quaint about God giving back life to the dead Jesus–and not just a resuscitation but a new and greater transfigured life in glory. There is deep mystery here, of course, as there is deep mystery in God’s giving us life in the first place, in God’s creation of the universe. To believe that God creates the whole universe and holds it in being over against absolute nothing, but to find it tricky or unworthy of belief that he should raise a man from the dead to a human life of glory seems eccentric. What we might find tricky, though, would be God raising Jesus to glory by doing something for something quite other than Jesus: producing, by sleight of hand, a substitute risen Christ while the body of Jesus is left buried in the grave.

God Still Matters (New York: Continuum, 2002) 226-228.


Commenting Guidelines

There's a lot of dogged anglosaxon empiricism, blending with unimaginative literalist readings of the gospel resurrection narratives, going on here. The appearance of the risen Christ was of the order of what Jean-Luc Marion calls a "saturated phenomenon" and the gospel accounts are symbolic pictorializations that attempt to bring out dimensions of that reality (e.g. he was the same Jesus -- Thomas and the wounds; he was not a phantom -- Luke; he lit up the Scriptures; he was known in the breaking of bread; he had the freedom of a "lifegiving spirit" etc.)


I wonder if Tillich was speculating that perhaps the dead body of Jesus did not, or could not have, revived and start walking and talking?  Maybe Tillich was expressing misgivings about the "bodily resurrection"?

Today in Jerusalem there are archeological investigations being conducted at sites dating back to the first century C.E., especially of note are the burial and funeral customs of these Jews.  Maybe some of these could shed fresh light on the accounts of Jesus' burial and resurrection stories of the NT?

In particularly, there has been discovered burial art on Jewish tomb ossuaries (bone boxes) that reveal perhaps the earliest known artifacts of "proto-Christian" art.  These findings seem to confirm primitive belief systems in the Risen Jesus were indeed alive within years after the death of Jesus - maybe even dating to before the written NT accounts of the resurrection.  

Assuming that further research confirms these findings, this would mean that a "resurrection cult" indeed could have "sparked" the proto-Jesus movement, or at least affirms the tradition that the church has always asked us to take on faith.  In a sense, these artifacts are confirming what Paul wrote later in Corinthians ("If Jesus be not risen, then our faith is in vain.")

[The work of James Tabor, chair of the Dept. of Religous Studies at UNC at Charlotte, is a good place to start.]

Thus, it maybe possible to begin to move the inquiry into the [meaning of resurrection] beyond just the purview of theological reflection.

What is really needed from Catholic and Christian academics alike is a willing suspension of previously held assumptions - usually flowing from tradition - with no out-of-hand dismissals, that have always buttressed our narrow and strongly held denominational, sectarian or partisan view points.  

A good faith show of humility from professional exegetes for other "secular" sciences and disciplines may necessary.  If Christians want to revive the core beliefs of our tradition(s) for a 21st century people, perhaps we need to give greater deference to scientific inquiry, deconstruction and analysis.  [I can almost hear the groans eminating from the Inquisition.] 


Mr. Jenkins:   Just to reassure you. Dunn and other NT scholars do discuss archeological evidence pertinent to the resurrection-claims, including bone-boxes, although not, it seems, the particular evidence you refer to. I'd wonder how exactly it can be dated, of course, and whether it would give us anything more than what we know from 1 Cor 15:3-5.  Dunn says that Paul "attests the tradition already established at the time of his conversion, within a year or two of the events themselves."  I'd think it very hard to get back much farther than that. 

"Reassure[d]?"  Maybe.

“I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”





Thank you for your response Joseph Komonchak.  I am now an online subscriber although have been responsive to Commonweal for many, many years. I am in my later years but have read and written via ordinary avenues about Catholicism and our world for many years. One could say that it has been my hobby.


.”It is not a new phenomenon, and whether undertaken by Catholics or by others, it does not invariably lead to where Robert Funk et al. think it should. Are you familiar with the critiques of the Jesus Seminar?”

Funk’s et al The Acts of Jesus totally and nearly instantly turned my life and faith upside down.  But they did not flip me all by themselves; other sources helped. But that book was the eureka moment. Pope Pius XII 1943 encyclical helped a lot too. It is the diversity of faiths, perspectives, and knowledge that I find most convincing that Catholicism along with the rest of humanity continues our long evolutionary journey.  More later.  Marie.




My comment spot and posts seem to be in an interesting order. Hope Joseph Komonchak sees this in this location. Another essay that reinforces my point is Thomas Sheehan's New York Review of Books  Revolution in the Church June 14,1984 if my memory serves me correctly. It's online of course as is the encyclical.That's how I discovered Pope Pius XII 1943 encyclical (via Sheehan). I remember Pope Pius in my youth for numerous reasons.

Mid-August and annual wind-down time for many people. Hope we can continue this discussion in the Fall.  Thank you. Marie.




I neglected to respond to you Joseph Komonchak, regarding: “Are you familiar with the critiques of the Jesus Seminar? ” I was an associate with the Jesus Seminar. I had a brief chat with Robert Funk shortly before he died. Wonderful man. When the group moved from California to Oregon and true academia as their location I discontinued my involvement. It was an impressive move. But my age-related health issues were the reason: they still send me invitations. 

So, to answer your question, I have read some critique material but not a lot. I question whether some of it reflects a particular faith tradition’s preconceived notion rather than scientific biblical scholarship. * I am so convinced that Funk et al give the best evidence but combined with other evidence. My husband, who is a philosopher of science with other specialties, has Powell’s book Jesus as a Figure in History: How Modern Historians View the Man from Galilee by Mark Allan Powell; and Schellenberg’s Evolutionary Religion (due out August 2013) lined up for our joint summertime reading.



*Footnote: From my perspective, the chief task of the RC Church is to update from an axial age religion to a post- axial age faith and moral agency phenomenon.




I underestimated the arguments for the empty tomb above; the earliest written testimony is Mark, but it seems probable that the empty tomb was part of the oldest passion narrative, which would go back to a much earlier date.