Shuck and Jive

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Searching for the Body of Jesus

It appears this blog has raised some eyebrows. Awesome! I was going to tackle another topic, but I think I will stay with the body of Jesus for at least one more post.

When the writers of the Gospels wrote about Jesus, particularly the resurrection accounts, what were they communicating? What did they want those who heard their stories to take home with them? What is important about these stories?

Two are walking to Emmaus. They are bummed out. Their hero is dead. A mysterious stranger walks among them, listens to their story and reframes their story in light of a larger story. They stop and share a meal. In the midst of the breaking of the bread, they discover that the mysterious stranger is their hero. As soon as they recognize him, he vanishes. The two are renewed with hope. Their hearts are on fire.

This story is found in the Gospel According to Luke. That doesn't mean a guy named Luke actually wrote it. It was common practice to attribute the name of a famous person (ie. an apostle, or in this case, a companion of Paul) to a text to give it authority. As to the actual author, we don't know. We don't even know the author's gender. Luke could be a she. But for shorthand, scholars refer to the author as Luke anyway.

What is the author of Luke's Gospel saying? How do I read this story? Do I read it as I would an account in a newspaper? Is Luke's goal for me to read this account as something that literally happened? I don't think so. The author is a better writer than that. S/he is writing to strengthen the hope of people who have been demoralized by the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in the Jewish War of 66-70 CE. The Jewish hopes of an independent state--of the kingdom of God--are dashed. The Roman Imperial Army has won again. Caesar is Lord. Caesar and Rome proved it in the way that imperial armies always prove it, with ruthless force and public executions. Thousands have been crucified. Our hero was one of many. We have been beaten again.

Luke writes this story quite a bit after this event. Between 80 and 90 CE was the consensus of scholars when I was in seminary. Some scholars are now suggesting that it might be as late as the early second century.

By the time Luke writes, time has elapsed since the Jewish War. Time for reflection. Time to go back to the Scriptures and try to make sense of what has happened. Why has Yahweh appeared to have failed them? Where is the promised Kingdom of God?

Luke reframes the story. S/he writes about Jesus. S/he looks at what has already been written, Mark's Gospel, perhaps some of Paul's letters, other sources, and s/he writes a narrative, which is in two parts, Luke and Acts.

Luke wants to communicate to them about the kingdom of God. Where is it? We find in Luke 17 that Jesus says: "The kingdom of God is within/among you." (17:21)

Luke's story is the story of Jesus and the work of the Spirit in the community. The Walk to Emmaus story is a story about communion and the sharing of this hope. It is a story about the presence of Jesus in their midst when they break bread together. That gives them strength to keep on, to love their enemies, to trust in the way of compassion, and to be honest even at great risk.

I read these gospel accounts of the empty tomb and the appearances as parables of the power of the hope of God for people who need their hope renewed. The authors of the gospels used the media, methods, and literary devices available to them to inspire.

As time went on and the church evolved, these literary stories were were interpreted as literal accounts. Historical Jesus scholar, Dominic Crossan, once said something to this effect:

"Are we so smart that we interpret these stories symbolically when they were intended literally? Or have we been so dumb as to interpret these stories literally when they were intended to be interpreted symbolically? I think the latter is true."

The point is not to "believe" that the corpse of Jesus was resuscitated. The point is the power of the Spirit alive in us. The presence of Jesus with them is so powerful that he changed their lives. Without that hope, without that presence, life is hopeless. That is what Paul is talking about in I Corinthians 15. He saw Jesus in a vision. He didn't see a resuscitated corpse. But his life changed.

Our lives can change too. Emmaus continues to happen when we break bread, when we tell the story to one another.

What is that story? I think today it is the story the divine realm. How would we live if we lived with total awareness of the divine realm within us? For starters, it would be a way of life that included loving our enemies, engaging in new ways to deal with our conflicts, working for justice, speaking the truth, sharing the world's resources, living in harmony with Earth's creatures, denouncing war, seeking to reinterpret the faith in ways that make sense to people, developing compassion and peace within ourselves, and our communities. We would do this regardless of risk. We would do this even if we may be killed, shamed, lose privilege, or be taken to ecclesiastical court!

But it looks bleak. Sometimes it appears as if the divine realm is far from us. The worst thing we can do is to give up hope. The story is that the risen Christ in our midst. Don't give up. The Spirit of Jesus is with us. We are the body of Jesus. The kingdom of God is among us. Let us open our eyes, see it, and live it.

I am indebted to my seminary teachers and courageous scholars in the Jesus Seminar who enabled me to, as Marcus Borg put it: "Meet Jesus again for the first time." I recommend Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time and The Heart of Christianity by Borg. Borg helped me to understand the Emmaus story.

I also recommend other books by scholars of the Jesus Seminar such as the classic, the Five Gospels , and A New Spiritual Home by Hal Taussig. Plus many more!

A teaser:
Hal Taussig and Perry Kea will do a workshop at our church November 3-4. More details to come on this blog!



  1. I'm pretty sure you can quit with S/he thing about the gender of the author of Luke. Luke was written by a woman who also wrote a popular song that goes, "My name is Luka, I live on the second floor, I live upstairs from you, Yes I think you've seen me before."

    Many theologians don't think of the resurrection as the "corpse of Jesus [being] resuscitated." We are not a religion that worships a zombie. Resurrection was a transformation. Just as the laws of thermodynamics show that energy is energy through all it's transformations, life is life and the resurrection could be a phase change, like ice to water to vapor.

    I am not embarrassed to believe in the resurrection of Jesus. If Christ is the Word made flesh, then a cycle of incarnation, death, and resurrection is small potatoes for the Creator who lit the fuse for the Big Bang.

    Personally, I find the Jesus Seminar writings interesting, but not edifying. While I love to study scripture, I don't like to dissect it. In the search for truth, attempts to apply empirical thinking to the Bible have damaged the narrative truth of Scripture in the same way that a butterfly is no longer fully a butterfly when pinned in a collector's case. If the search for truth is guided by logic and reason, part of the truth in God's story is lost.

    Of course, this is from a guy who grew up reading Superman comics. Now there's a hero.

    Paul Peterson

  2. Luka was the sister of Lola at the Copacabana. Look it up.

    Neither am I embarrassed about the resurrection nor ashamed of the Gospel!

    The resurrection of Jesus was, as I see it, the affirmation that Jesus is Lord. This would have been an anti-Caesar statement. Everyone knew that Caesar was Lord. Rome's Imperial Theology (Crossan and Borg) depicted the deified Caesar at the right hand of Jupiter everywhere throughout the Roman Empire.

    That theology clearly stated who is in charge. Who runs the world? What was the character of Rome's god? Domination. Pax Romana. Military engenders morality. Peace through superior firepower. Caesar is Lord. Don't you forget it.

    Along come these ragtag followers of a scripture-thumping Jew from Galilee. They say, Caesar is not Lord. Jesus is Lord. Who is Jesus? He is the non-violent lover of enemies, befriender of the poor and outcast, agitator for justice--this nobody who ever built a road, led an army, or served in the Senate is Lord. The one who irritated people with his annoying little stories, this trouble-maker who gave the oppressed hope is Lord. The one executed by empire is actually the one whose God ultimately is the source of life. This one is at the right hand of God.

    That is not a patriotically correct thing to say. In fact, that is damn near treason. Kind of like criticizing our global economic system or the U.S. war in Iraq.

    It is time, long past time, for those who claim Jesus as Risen to challenge those politicians who like to brag about how religious they are (ahem, GWB). The early Christians were persecuted by Roman authority because they dared to say that Caesar is not Lord.

    What God do we worship? We call ourselves a Christian nation. We spend on our military five times more than the rest of the world combined. That should give us a clue. The God we worship resembles Caesar much more than Jesus.

    For me, Resurrection is not about life after death, resuscitation of corpses, or physical changes in the Universe. It is an affirmation of who our God is.

    While I say I affirm it, I confess that I seldom live it.

    I understand that the Jesus Seminar is not edifying for many. We learned the historical-critical method in seminary. I loved it. Theology left me kind of scratching my head. But NT scholarship lit my fuse. A matter of preference, I suppose. What JS has done is to make NT scholarship and research into Christian origins public in a form that non-specialists understand.

    It has helped me develop an eye for reading texts and to seek to understand authors of texts. What were they saying to whom and why?

    Thanks Paul, for revving me up!

  3. “The God we worship resembles Caesar much more than Jesus.” And therein lays the problem, no? Christianity can be, was and is co-opted by those in power for their own means. By placing the words and life of Jesus in a historical context, John’s sermons are usually very interesting and informative and allow us to see modern times with more clarity. My interest is raised. Most right-wing Christians, for lack of a better phrase, seem to place an emphasis on a meek Jesus who was concerned only with personal sin and salvation and not very concerned with the socio-political environment around him, a view that seems to run counter to the historical Jesus John regularly speaks of.

  4. John,

    My seminary training has apparently been deficient. Could you share with me what it is in the text that leads you to state that it is addressing the concerns of Jews in the Diaspora who would be heartbroken about the razing of Jerusalem? The studies with which I am most familiar indicate a largely Gentile concern and argue for a Gentile author, but maybe there is something that I'm overlooking.

  5. One other question:

    What purpose does Luke (Luka?) have in taking such painstaking historical research? Why is it that Luke claims to have run down all available sources (rather than the casual perusal of some Pauline materials and Mark that you suggest) and that all historical claims that we've been able to test have been confirmed? Why establish credentials as a historian by combining Greek historiography with Hebrew historiography?

    As a NT studies "wonk" myself, I'm just wondering how you make your conclusions in light of the available evidence. Moreover, I'm wondering if there aren't theological considerations that primarily drive your conclusions about the text, rather than the other way around (as you claim). I'm sure that I have some - but I think we should all be as honest as possible about it.

  6. Hi Chris,

    You made me rethink the connection between the Jewish War and the concerns of Luke. If Luke-Acts are second-century, that does put quite a temporal distance between the razing of Jerusalem and the author's community (kind of like the difference in time between WW2 and today).

    But I think the same concern would be there. Where is the promised kingdom? Empire is still as strong as ever.

    I went and checked "The Acts of Jesus: What Did Jesus Really Do?" by Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar. On pages 481-2 they discuss the Emmaus story.

    The story is a familiar story of entertaining angels unaware and then recognizing the divine presence.

    Think of Abraham at the Oaks of Mamre (Gen. 18:1-15), Lot entertains two angels without knowing who they are (Gen 19:1-11). In both cases they share a meal (bread).

    I found this interesting:

    "There is a similar recognition scene in Ovid's tale of Philemon and Baucis (Book 8 of the Metamorphoses), who entertain the gods Jupiter and Mercury without knowing it. They provide the best hospitality their limited means afford. Only when the flagon of wine continues to replenish itself do they recognize their visitors as gods, wh had come to punish the neighborhood." (p. 481-2)

    Recognition in these stories happens when the host is offering hospitality to the stranger.

    This is a wonderful story for communion. Strangers become friends as we break bread. We recognize the image of Christ in each other.

    Luke's tale (and I believe tale is the right word) served to encourage the community of the ongoing presence of Christ in their midst.

    Thanks for your thoughts!

  7. Bobby,

    Thanks for your kind words and good thoughts. Understanding the socio-political situation behind the creation of the New Testament and the history of Christian origins is so important. It isn't a matter of learning extra little curious tidbits about how folks lived in bible times. It results in an understanding of the theology of the gospel writers themselves.

    Theology is politics.

    The Roman Empire was the default reality behind the New Testament. Roman Imperial Theology was so pervasive that no one could ignore it.

    Focusing on personal sin and salvation is the way the empire (after it has co-opted the church) keeps control.

    "God bless America" is empire theology unless we can equally say, "God bless Iran" or put the name of one of our enemies here ___________


  8. I also found Spong's book "Resurrection: Myth or Reality?" to be very influential in my understanding of the resurrection. I view the resurrection as not a literal revival of a dead Jesus, but the intimate experience of Jesus's presence by Peter and Paul and other followers. The literalization of this into post-Easter stories of a resurrected corpse came later. When Paul wrote of the resurrection, he used the same verb to refer to his experience of Jesus's resurrection as he did to refer to Peter's. And since Paul never claimed to have met Jesus as a resurrected body, it seems clear to me that he did not conceive of Jesus's resurrection in bodily terms.

    I have come to appreciate more and more the political context of Jesus's life and times as well as what followed, and how that was reflected in the Gospels. Mark was probably written around 70, around the time of the destruction of Jerusalem. All of this colored the gospel writing (and Mark only wrote of an empty tomb--he wrote of no post-Easter appearances of Jesus on earth. These came later, with Matthew having Jesus in Galilee, and Luke moving him instead to Jerusalem. We can see the evolution of these post-Easter stories over time.)

    I think that the political context of the time--Roman oppression, and Jesus's nonviolent resistance to it--were very important to his message. I recently read Borg and Crossan's book "The Last Week", which made this point very well.

  9. Hi Mystical Seeker:

    I think you put that very well. I enjoyed that book by Spong as well and learned a great deal from it. Thanks again!

  10. John,

    I admit to being left shaking my head. I'm surprised at the credibility you give to the Jesus Seminar. While their hermeneutical lens might work well at uncovering authentic first-century material from the "Gospel" of Thomas, the same methodology does not work with the canonical gospels. Simply put, they purport to be reliable historical accounts of the events they record.

    While the canonical gospels differ in arrangement and focus one from another, and while they clearly are motivated by a theological agenda (aka a truth-claim) that is hardly a reason to doubt their historicity. To do so would necessitate (in the interest of a consistent hermeneutic), we would have to discount the facticity of accounts set down by survivors of the Holocaust.

    Moreover, the Jesus that the Westar Institute discovers is remarkably similar to a Marxist revolutionary - oddly enough, much like the people who comprise the institute. Their criteria for uncovering their version of the authentic Jesus is highly self-contradictory. Thus, they are free to use criteria when it advances the revisionist cause and to dance around those self-same criteria when it does not suit their purpose.

    One example will prove sufficient for illustration (though a much more thorough case can and should be made for the Westar Institute's lack of credibility among the majority of Biblical scholars). Funk and Crossan - the big guns of the movement - lay out certain rubrics for determining whether a statement / activity of Jesus is authentic or an accretion of the early church. They are:
    1. Jesus said things that were short, provocative, and memorable.
    2.Jesus' best remembered forms of speech were aphorisms and parables.
    3. Jesus' talk was distinctive.
    4. Jesus' sayings and parables cut against the social and religious grain.
    5. Jesus' sayings and parables surprise and shock; they characteristically call for a reversal of roles or frustrate ordinary, everyday expectations.
    6. Jesus' images are concrete and vivid, his sayings and parables customarily metaphorical and without explicit application.

    Firstly, these aren't criteria - they are conclusions. There is so much a priori here, yet it's only the begining of troubles.

    If Jesus' talk was memorable and distinctive but without "explicit application," then how can Crossan know that it was characteristic of Jesus to call for a "reversal of roles" or that he frustrated "ordinary, everyday expectations"? Both role reversals and frustration of expectations are "explicit applications" of Jesus' talk.

    Tell me something, John. These interpretations are fueled by an assumption of antisupernaturalism. What do you think about the supernatural? Please give a straightforward answer that doesn't try to redefine supernatural - let's just stick to the common usage of something that is above or beyond the capacity of natural action. And is God supernatural?

  11. Hi Chris,

    Why are the canonical gospels exempt from the same methodology as extra-canonical literature? Historical methodology should be consistent with all texts regardless whether a group thinks "their" texts are divinely inspired or whatever. To say one hand that canonical gospels are historically accurate and then on the other hand say they cannot be examined by the same method as one would with other literature is special pleading.

  12. Indeed that would be special pleading - and I don't think I've made that move though if I have I ask you to forgive my lapse in criticism and kindly point it out.

    While I have a number of problems with the conclusions of the Westar Institute folks, I can assure you that they are not baseless.

    For instance, Westar's rubrics demand an early composition of GoT in order that it take precedent over the canonical gospels. They do this knowing that the earliest Greek fragments they (perhaps spuriously) link to the 4th c. Coptic text are from no earlier than the third century - and do not truly match any particular part of the known Coptic text. This is in spite of the fact that we have manuscript evidence for the canonical gospels stretching to the end of the 2nd century. In fact, it's thought that one fragment from John - the last gospel to be written - can be dated to the end of the first century. Therefore, it makes little chronological sense to afford GoT with the esteem that they do.

    Yet again, on the credibility of the GoT - they establish its early dating by relying on the inscripturation of oral testimony, mandating a date as early as the 50s and as late as the 90s. Yet the same privilege of reliable oral testimony is not recognized for the canonical text - which has a much sturdier textual basis to begin with.

    So the question of privileging the canonical gospels wrings a bit empty when Thomas is afforded so much leverage.


  13. Chris,

    This is what I meant by the special pleading comment. You wrote:

    "I'm surprised at the credibility you give to the Jesus Seminar. While their hermeneutical lens might work well at uncovering authentic first-century material from the "Gospel" of Thomas, the same methodology does not work with the canonical gospels. Simply put, they purport to be reliable historical accounts of the events they record."

    Why would not the methodology applied to Thomas also apply to the canonical gospels? Just because the gospels purport to be reliable historical accounts, it doesn't mean they are. The Gospel of Judas purports to be a reliable account as well, but that doesn't mean it is.

    As far as manuscript analysis is concerned, we have no originals. Nor would documents such as Thomas likely be found (since they were considered heresies).

    I tend to agree with Elaine Pagels that the GJohn was a response to the GThomas. There is a great deal of technicality that is beyond me (the dates of manuscript scraps and so forth). I trust you know more about manuscripts and dating than I.

    Frankly, I tend to agree with you that the criteria for the historical Jesus in "The Five Gospels" sound an awful lot like conclusions. I don't think the Jesus Seminar is above criticism, by any means.

    Robert J. Miller, "The Jesus Seminar and Its Critics" (Polebridge) addresses their methodology. I found this book helpful at explaining what historical scholars do and their methods (not just scholars with Jesus Seminar).

    I think that the difference between you and I is in the way we read the gospels. When I read them, I see mostly fictional stories adopted and adapted to fit the needs of the gospel writers. Within those stories there are kernals of earlier traditions perhaps going back to an historical person named Jesus, perhaps not.

    I don't see the way I view the texts as such a big deal. Maybe I am completely wrong, oh well. That is how I see it. My interpretive lens makes a lot of sense to me. The way I see it, these authors wrote theology not history. Their theology is written in the form of story.

    As far as the supernatural is concerned, what can I say? I think when we study history, we assume that the universe worked and works pretty much the same way then as now. People do not walk on water now. Probably people did not walk on water then. Once you make that assumption, you look at stories of people walking on water and then try to understand them. You find these stories not only in the Bible but in other places as well.

    What conclusions can be made? Here are three choices:

    1) The laws of physics have changed. People used to walk on water. But now they don't.

    2) The laws of physics have not changed. Normally, people do not walk on water, but at one time in history, our hero did. The rest of the stories are lies, but ours is true.

    3) The laws of physics have not changed. No one walked on water then or now (even if some people thought people could do so). Stories of people walking on water are in all probability stories to make some kind of point.

    What conclusion makes the most sense, 1, 2, or 3? Maybe there is another choice?