Easter without Hindsight, Part 30

Easter without Hindsight, Resurrection: “We know this can’t happen, but this is what we saw.”

If a friend one knew was dead suddenly appeared with a cheery “Hello!” one would be a little freaked out. Luke records just this kind of incident in the days after Jeshua’s execution and burial. He had died just before the start of the Sabbath day (each new day starts at sunset in Hebrew culture) on Friday night. Jeshua had been hastily entombed by his disciples, including Nicodemus, a powerful Pharisee in Jerusalem (cf. John 3), and Joseph of Aramathea. Joseph is believed to have been a trader and possibly Jeshua’s relative. Some traditions say Joseph took the young Jeshua to Glastonbury, maybe to buy tin. That story inspired the English poet, Blake, to write the words to the hymn ‘Jerusalem’.

Women disciples returned on Sunday (e.g. Luke 24:1-12), the next working day, to complete Jeshua’s first burial. He was no longer there, but was later seen by two disciples at Emmaus (Luke 24:13-33), a town some miles away. While those disciples were in Jerusalem reporting the news to the Eleven (Judas Iscariot having left the Twelve under something of a cloud) Jeshua appeared (Luke 24:36-48) among them.

When the gospels use the word ‘resurrection’ the meaning is quite specific: a dead body coming back to life in this world. The concept of an ‘afterlife’ was quite different. There were also beliefs, like reincarnation, (not shared by Jews) in other cultures nearby. The Jewish belief (shared by the disciples, cf. John 11:24) was that ‘resurrection’ would only happen to righteous people at the end of the world. Hence the disciples’ initial assumption that they were seeing Jeshua’s ghost. Ghosts, whether or not one believes in them, are at least a known concept. The point is that none of Jeshua’s disciples expected him back from the dead into this world.

It’s also worth recalling that the disciples had believed Jeshua was messiah and would shortly lead a revolt against the Romans. To this day many Jews believe that Jeshua’s death on a Roman cross proves he couldn’t have been messiah. Jeshua didn’t even live long enough to lead a failed rebellion. Maybe that’s why the Twelve weren’t there when he died: perhaps they thought he was a good man but clearly not messiah.

Jeshua had a heck of a job persuading the disciples he was really alive. Is that so surprising? What would we think if we had been there? Most of us might find a ghost much more believable than a man back from the dead.

There’s a whole industry devoted to proving Jeshua could have risen naturally, which perhaps misses the point. If you were God wanting to leave an unmistakeable sign of your presence, what could be better than doing something that everyone, in every age and culture, agrees cannot happen naturally?

Did the disciples (the founders of the churches) make up the story? The earliest gospels we have all report that the women, going to continue his burial, reported Jeshua alive again. The disciples probably believed Jeshua’s death proved he wasn’t messiah. They also knew that no one ever comes back from the dead. So why invent a story that even they wouldn’t believe and then say the witnesses were women? In the Middle East (to this day) women’s testimony is devalued or ignored.

Wouldn’t we have expected them to have ‘credible’ (i.e. male) witnesses? Later gospels (like the Gnostic gospels) do down-play the women in the story and make the men more important. But the gospels in the Bible have all the ‘wrong’ witnesses. Might that be because that was what happened? The gospels report people who might have said: “We all know this can’t happen, but this is what we saw”.

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