I was reading along on time.com today, and came upon this story that give me an initial shock, followed by a certain confidence on what is true that I may not have carried several years ago.
The story, titled, “Was the resurrection of Jesus a Sequel?” (appropriately named for maximum shock value), describes the unearthing of a tablet that seems to date to the first century B.C.with an interesting smudged inscription on it. The tablet, known as “Gabriel’s Revelation,” in one place predicts that “in three days you will know evil will be defeated by justice,” and in the most contentious place, is interpreted by scholar Israel Knohl to read “in three days, you shall live. I Gabriel command you.” Basically, this challenges one of the Christian arguments that has survived over the millenia since that the resurrection is literarily unique and therefore less likely to be fabricated. But if the idea existed before, critics might say, then who’s to say those disciples of Jesus didn’t make up the resurrection as a way of honoring their failed leader’s memory, bringing some spiritualistic consolation that was completely out of touch with reality?
In a great little quip in the article that displays our obvious bias as we report, the Time reporter says,
“this, in turn undermines one of the strongest literary arguments employed by Christians over centuries to support the historicity of the Resurrection (in which they believe on faith): the specificity and novelty of the idea that the Messiah would die on a Friday and rise on a Sunday.”
Zing! Bah-dah-bow! Those foolish, anti-intellectual Christians with their heads in the clouds, believing things “on faith” without “having facts” to support their “beliefs.” And even if I’m reading into the parenthetical comment too much, the fellow’s still perpetuating the ol’ facts vs. faith dichotomy that the two can’t exist beside one another (or, for that matter, mesh together in a way that can’t be written simply in a textbook or argued).
The journalist quotes Knohl that a “dying and rising Messiah appears in some Jewish texts, but until now, everyone thought that was the impact of Christianity on Judaism…but for the first time, we have proof that it was the other way around…this should shake our basic view of Christianity…what happens in the New Testament [could have been] adopted by Jesus and his followers based on an earlier messiah story.”
By itself, the concept is intriguing, whether the tablet is authentic or not. If we really want to grapple with the possibility this is legitimate, it may build a small bridge for understanding between Christians and Jews (the journalist suggests this at the end of the piece); that the concept of the resurrection of a Messiah was something that predated Jesus. But this isn’t entirely new anyways, it seems. Speaking generally, the book of Acts shows some of the inner workings of the disagreements between Pharisees (who believed in a resurrection of the faithful), and Saducees (who denied the possibility of resurrection). The apostle Paul (himself formerly a Pharisee) plays the groups off each other in Acts 23 on this very issue.
What gave me the initial shock at first, though, is the small thought that passed through my head, “What if this was all made up and the resurrection was a farce? A pipe dream?” There are plenty of folks out there today (the Jesus Seminar comes to mind) who, while calling themselves Christians, reject the actual physical resurrection of Jesus as either a made-up event or something the early disciples “obviously” never believed was literal (I’ve heard John Dominic Crossan confidently say this before). The Jesus Seminar folks in particular suggest that while Jesus clearly never physically resurrected, we can still speak of resurrection as a metaphor; that God can redeem or raise from the ashes anything that is neglected, broken, or destroyed in our world. The meaning of the resurrection then, they say, is that we are to live courageously and confidently to live for the purpose of why the world was created no matter what happens to us.
I have to say there’s some that’s attractive in this kind of approach. Though the apostle Paul did say to the persons in Corinth,
“And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all others.”
and later quoted Isaiah when he said,
If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.’
I’ve become and more convinced that that was just a rhetorical point for Paul and not something he really held fast to. I find it hard to believe that Paul, one of the most courageous and forceful disciples in in the early church, if upon finding that Jesus was not resurrected, would have thrown up his hands and said, “Oh well, let’s just do what we want and get through life as comfortable as possible.” For starters, he wasn’t living that way before he knew Jesus as Lord.
It’s because of this belief that I find much courage in folks who refuse to believe in a literal resurrection yet give their lives for the good of the world that surrounds them. This is why I am astonished even further at Mohandas Gandhi or committed followers of Mahayana Buddhism who have such a deep-rooted commitment to bringing hope and healing and restoration to the world. Their ends are different than Christian discipleship, so their lives and goals only carry that depth of meaning to a point, but they still astonish me.
The reason my fears took a quick spike as I read was the rearing up of the lazy, hopeless side of me that doesn’t believe that any substantive change can take place in this world. The one that thinks this all is a cycle and we’re doomed to destroy each other anyways because of our hatred, so who cares anyways? There’s on one level a naive belief in the resurrection where I see Jesus as some kind of Superman who conquered death but yet the event has nothing to do with me, and on another level there’s a side of me that says, “Hey, if there’s no resurrection, who really cares anyways? I’ll just do what I want.”
The fear spike lasted just for a second, though, as I settled into this deeper place inside of me that I’ll call “trust.” And that trust (which is, after all, the deepest meaning of “faith”) is rooted in the truth I see in the ministry of Jesus, the truth I hear in the teaching of Jesus, the trust I have in his earliest disciples who believed in his literal resurrection and their lives were virtuous, courageous, and transformative for the world around them, and the trust I have in the early church that assembled what we call the “New Testament” today into its form, including the present pieces and excluding those they did not find to be trustworthy.
I trust all of these elements more than John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg sitting back 2,000 years later, pontificating on what “really” Jesus said or didn’t say, or what “really” happened. I trust all of these elements more than my pagan friends who demand “facts” from 2,000 years ago, as if we owe them some kind of concrete wine basin or Shroud of Turin or whatever that prove the existence of Jesus.
When I look at Jesus, I see the hope of the world. I see teaching and a lifestyle that can break cycles of violence in our world today, bringing redemption and healing and justice to our fragmented reality. And I see the hope of the resurrection from the dead that tells me there is nothing anyone can do that stands in the way of the church representing the truth, working for reconciliation, and living for God’s glory. Because what can they do to us, after all? Kill us? Our God will just raise us again anyways.
Shane Claiborne often uses different metaphors for the life of Jesus and the life of his followers. I like the metaphor of a dance, that creation was the overflow of a God in community who couldn’t help but create and create, extending the dance into the heart of all He made; that rebellion is a refusal to dance, a refusal to live into our created purpose, and thus killing the music; and redemption being our progressively rising awareness of the chords of the music and the flow of the dance. No one can interrupt that primal dance we’ve been created for except a continued rebellion.
As the great campfire song “Lord of the Dance” says from Jesus,
I danced in the morning when the world was begun
I danced in the Moon & the Stars & the Sun
I came down from Heaven & I danced on Earth
At Bethlehem I had my birth:
Dance then, wherever you may be
I am the Lord of the Dance, said He!
And I’ll lead you all, wherever you may be
And I’ll lead you all in the Dance, said He!
(…lead you all in the Dance, said He!)
I danced for the scribe & the pharisee
But they would not dance & they wouldn’t follow me
I danced for fishermen, for James & John
They came with me & the Dance went on:
I danced on the Sabbath & I cured the lame
The holy people said it was a shame!
They whipped & they stripped & they hung me high
And they left me there on a cross to die!
I danced on a Friday when the sky turned black
It’s hard to dance with the devil on your back
They buried my body & they thought I’d gone
But I am the Dance & I still go on!
They cut me down and I leapt up high
I am the Life that’ll never, never die!
I’ll live in you if you’ll live in Me –
I am the Lord of the Dance, said He!
If only Christians would grasp this picture and lose their invented “get out of hell free” twisted religion and follow the God of the Bible and life of Jesus…we might not have folks relentlessly seeking to subvert Christian truth claims. They would simply look at our lives and long for the dance.
But then again, I am an idealistic 27 year old. Nothing will ever change, right? All we can do is sit on our hands and wait for Jesus to come back.