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Interpretation and Experience

Posted on: March 04, 2018

Category: Theology

Interpretation and Experience

Interpretation and Experience

Biblical scholars make a distinction between scriptural influences and personal influences when examining the resurrection stories about Jesus. This distinction can be described in different ways, but I like to name it as a distinction between interpretation and participation.

Interpretation refers to how the first Christians searched the Psalms and Prophets to find ways to interpret the death of Jesus. There were no eye-witnesses to the death of Jesus since everyone's account (Gospel of Peter, Mark, and John) is different. What is similar is how the Psalms are used (like Psalm 22) or how the image of innocent suffering (Isaiah) plays a role. Ancient Christians used their scripture to create both a description and a meaning to the death of Jesus. The Apostle Paul tells us so in his letters. Paul writes that Christ died "according to the scriptures" and that he was raised "according to the scriptures" (I Cor. 15:3-4). This tells us that while there were no eye-witnesses, the first Christians used scripture to create their accounts of the death and resurrection.

Using "scripture" to explain what happened (and scripture then was not the Bible as we have it now) was one way the first Christians talked about the death and resurrection of Jesus. That's the interpretation way, but there was another way, too. The second was an appeal to experience, which is called the appearance tradition or, what I call, participation.

For the second tradition, scholars usually say "appearances" because it involves the risen Christ appearing to Apostles. These stories are often taken literally today to prove to modern skeptics that Jesus physically rose from the dead. But, of course, ancient people were not modern people, so they did not care about this modern, fundamentalist-like, argument. The great ancient critic of Christianity, the 2nd Century philosopher Celsus, never criticized Christians for their belief in the resurrection of Jesus (he only criticized what it meant). Lots of people rose from the dead in antiquity. Even in the Gospel of Matthew, there are a ton of resurrections (27:52). What mattered about the resurrection to ancient Christians was the experience of an appearance. Such an experience was necessary for authority. All the Apostles had them. It was a pre-requisite for being an Apostle, which means that it was about holding authority in the community. It was a bit like having an American Express card or some other sign of prestige and authenticity. But it was not just based on the experience; it included and was based on participation in the suffering of Jesus and in the meaning of the cross. This is why I like to call it the participation tradition.

In the Gospel of John, the famous story of Doubting Thomas is one such participation story. Thomas had to participate by seeing and touching the risen Jesus before he could believe. This is not a modern story about scientific proof. This is an ancient story about understanding that following Jesus means participating in suffering. The Gospel of Luke has similar stories where a risen Jesus is not recognized until the bread is broken and the community in some way participates in the suffering or brokenness. When Paul talks about Jesus being revealed to him, it is clearly not a reference to or proof of a physical resurrection. Paul does not care about that. It is about what happened to Paul as an experience. In I Corinthians 15, referred to above, Paul writes that what is sown is a physical body and what is raised is a spiritual body (44). But even more to the point, when Paul gets personal in Galatians 1:16 he does not say that Christ was revealed "to me." The English translation of the Greek is "to me" but the actual Greek text does not say this. The Greek is "en emoi" (in me); Paul states that Christ was revealed "in me" not to me. Paul is indicating that he participates in the death and resurrection of Jesus and that this experience is what makes both him and his communities (who likewise participate in the body of Christ) authentic. The question about whether the resurrection is factual is a modern question that misses the point.

It is certainly the case that the stories of Jesus death and resurrection appearances are creative and fictional accounts of ancient Christians, but this does not make them irrelevant. Fiction, after all, is one of the main ways human beings learn to care for other people and places they have never seen or experienced. Fiction is an important part of learning to develop feelings, empathy, compassion, and knowledge about different people or different cultures. Without fiction (story) it's hard to believe that we could mature in relation to our feelings and emotions. The death and resurrection stories emerged from scriptural stories and from the desire of earliest Christians to participate in the story of Jesus. These stories were one way the earliest communities learned to care for each other and also learned, despite how hard it is to understand Jesus at times, that the point is compassion. Christianity is about participating in human compassion.

By David Galston

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