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Theology and History on Easter

Posted on: April 01, 2018

Category: Theology

Theology and History on Easter

Easter announces that Jesus has risen from the dead. It also announces chocolate, bunnies, and a statutory holiday. In many cases, the latter elements exceed the former in importance. That's understandable. Earliest Christianity tied the resurrection of Christ to the Jewish Passover, and since Passover is a Spring Equinox celebration turned religious, Christians were happy to follow suit. The Christian Easter is also a Spring Equinox celebration turned religious. Before it was religious, though, Easter was, of course, "Pagan," both in the Ancient Near East and in the old Roman Empire, which accounts for the tie, in Western European traditions, to bunnies, eggs, and (eventually) chocolate. Easter has two faces: the Jewish face of Passover and the Pagan face of Spring. Christianity creatively amalgamated these two expressions.

On a strictly historical basis, it is uncertain when Jesus was crucified. It is only in the passion narratives (composed in the Gospels of Peter and Mark) that the death of Jesus is tied to the time of Passover. The earlier Sayings of Jesus traditions (Q and Thomas) and the Apostle Paul give no indication that Jesus was crucified during Passover. Paul only talks about the "night" Jesus was betrayed, which could have been any given night, any time of the year. Relating the death of Jesus to sacrifice, to Passover, and to betrayal is a theological development in earliest Christianity and not strictly speaking historical information.

Theology, not history, is Christianity's specialty. While the church is rather poor when it comes to history, the theological points about the resurrection are worth noting. Paul claims to have "seen" the risen Jesus (I Corinthians 15:8), but Paul writes in Greek. So, the first question is what did Paul mean? The word used, it is often pointed out and then ignored, is ophthe (seen). Paul draws this word from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. It is a passive verb. It can be translated as "he was seen by me." The trouble is that Paul does not use the word "by," which in Greek is hypo. Instead, Paul uses a dative expression. The best translation is "he appeared for me." The point is that the risen Jesus acts toward Paul and that Paul sees because this action was taken for him. If you or I were standing beside Paul, we would not have seen it for it was not a physical event. It was an insight that Paul was caused to see. It happened uniquely for him.

This commentary on Paul is important because it reveals the theological not historical matter of the resurrection. In the Gospels, the theology is repeated. Jesus appears several times to the disciples but they neither recognize nor believe him until they either understand the scriptures or eat with him. He appears on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24) but is not recognized; he fishes with the disciples in John 21, but they don't know it's him. Luke at 24:41 is at pains to say that Jesus was there in flesh and blood but still the disciples are in doubt until he eats with them. The theology seems clear. The question about the physical resurrection is useless. What is important is the insight of the resurrection. The insight happens for the community in shared meals and for individuals in changes to their understanding.

We can say then that two things make the resurrection theologically happen: one is community solidarity and the other is the value given to insights about life. Yet both of these are possible only because of the crucifixion. In Christian theology, the resurrection (insight about life) is possible because of the crucifixion (the horror about life and society going wrong).

The theological mistake that Christianity tends to make at least traditionally is to separate the crucifixion from the resurrection. The two events, Good Friday and Easter, are given separate days and effectively isolated emotions. As seen in Paul, the earliest expressions of Christianity did not make this theological distinction. The resurrection had to be recognized in the daily passion of life. The resurrection was the justification of solidarity in the suffering world and it was insight about life despite evidence to the contrary. In Christianity - theoretically - the resurrection is embedded in social problems like poverty, prejudice, and violence, and in issues like climate change. It is here in this mess where life asks us to perform the miracle of holding a new insight. A resurrection experience changes the sense of the human future. It can do so because it is a change in the present, a change that involves recognizing new forms of life and a change that holds the character of social solidarity against the present threats of scattered individualism and pure self-interest. The present situation in life does not inspire us but present insights about life call us to transformation.

These words about resurrection are all theological words. This means that however inspiring, the words may not have any effect on history. That's the point of theology. It is not a description of history. Its content is not facts. It is, though, an expression of hope for history. Theology is about insights that can change the interpretation of life. When communities hold solidarity and share changed interpretations about life, the whole world can be made new. If that ever happened, that would be a real resurrection.


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