Thoughts on the First Easter

The Entombment of Christ, Caravaggio

Thoughts on the First Easter

    by David Ashton

Desperate times, desperate measures. A global “Act of God” has significantly impacted on “faith” communities. Churches everywhere are closed to worshippers and communicants, because of another oriental virus. The Pope at Rome and the Archbishop of Canterbury recited the Lord’s Prayer alongside “millions around the world” – with what heavenly answers we are not told. Christians have gone into a catacomb of prudent self-isolation, like everyone else.

Could this be a punishment, like the ancient deluge, for human impiety? Or a sign, along with earthquakes, locusts, and rumours of war, of the Second Coming of Christ, a salutary surprise indeed for those who do not even believe in the First? If no minor miracles cure the lepers of this modern disease, is a major miracle on its way, at long last, to shut down the whole mess?

With more livelihoods threatened than lives, the Bishop of Chelmsford compared our isolated households to fourth century hermitages, hoping our cities would resemble those north African deserts, its occupants meditating on the walk of Jesus to the cross. “On Easter Day, a new reality was born. When this is over, may God spare us from ‘getting back to normal’. We await a resurrection.”[1] Sanctimonious pulpit patter aside, how precisely the ecclesiastical bureaucracy conceives “resurrection” surely directs enquiry into its Biblical source.

Did the Lord “really” rise from the dead, or is the faith in vain, after all? Re-reading the relevant “first epistle” Saint Paul sent his Corinthian converts two decades after the execution of Jesus, one notices some similarity of their multi-ethnic commercial metropolis to London now in lockdown: depravity, corruption, sectarianism and food-supply fears. The missionary tried to reassure bewildered followers of an early return of Christ, whose immortality guaranteed their own, if they behaved themselves.

His first assurance was then mistaken, but what of the second? He provided the earliest available account in a list of people to whom Jesus “appeared”, including blood-brother James and “500” followers recorded nowhere else in the New Testament.

Paul’s description of his own epiphany suggests its inferiority to the apparitions granted to long previously recruited disciples, but it also implies that those were as intangible as his individual encounter. Discussing the physicality of a “resuscitated” yet transformed visitant from some supernatural dimension grinds metaphysical complexities, a being with a functioning digestive system and wounds retained on a “glorified” body, yet unconstrained by walls and stairs.

A curious feature of Paul’s conversion is that he did not promptly visit the leaders Peter and James, but instead spent time in Damascus and its adjacent “wilderness”. Possibly a local Essene-healer removed the scales from his eyes [2]. In such regions sectaries were known for apocalyptic religious ideas and medical gifts, using “roots and herbs” like mandrake, and where Jesus could himself have studied during many “missing years” before emerging as an “Anointed One”. An embellishment trajectory runs from his NT statement that enemies removed the corpse of Jesus from a tree to its “royal” interment by a wealthy patron.

Some sceptics have argued that the resurrection belief first arose from female discovery of an empty sepulchre, while others think the burial narratives, with problematic features from anointing customs to the tomb portal, were concocted retrospectively, maybe influenced by other accounts of women mourning dead heroes. “Graeco-Roman stories, too, are familiar with the motifs of finding unexpectedly empty tombs whose occupants subsequently reappear alive and well”.[3]

Popular “whodunits”, like Josh McDowell’s Resurrection Factor (1993), Arnold Lunn’s Third Day (1945/2014), and John Wenham’s Easter Enigma (2005), but also superior scholarship, such as Tom Wright’s 838-page Resurrection of the Son of God (2003) and Michael Licona’s 643-page Resurrection of Jesus (2010), problematically assume that the narratives reliably convey initial reports rather than late fictional reconstructions. After all, secular as well as religious events can rapidly acquire extraordinary legendary accretions.

The “appearances” need be considered in only three canonical gospels, since Mark ended without any original account available for analysis. Variations exist because the literature was composed and edited for different motives. Mistakes over detail can confirm a central fact, as with (say) observations given to police of an unexpected road crash, but not if the same accident is described as occurring in London and Hertfordshire. Luke locates the resurrection in the Jerusalem vicinity, while Matthew places it in Galilee. Several alternative attempts exist to reconcile “discrepancies”, but these were not in any case first-person eye-witness accounts.

The Fourth Gospel is a profound structured theological drama, which portrays Jesus as an emanation in human flesh of Deity, disclosed in stages until his post-mortem manifestation is tested symbolically by a disciple whose doubts are succeeded by divine adoration. Re-clothed, presumably like a gardener, after emerging from his own tomb, Jesus has his first personal symbolic encounter with a female devotee previously known for “seven devils” (not veils) i.e. madness. Instead of expelling “demons” as in all three synoptic gospels, he combats the Devil himself. His revivification of Lazarus resembles the raising of Osiris from his Egyptian grave. We can no more extract historical certainties from John than from Shakespeare’s King Lear, or even Shaw’s Saint Joan.

Matthew tells us that Jesus asked the women returning from the cemetery to tell his disciples that he would meet them later in Galilee where, eventually, some failed to “believe”. This writer’s credibility is undermined not only by his clumsy apologetic that officially appointed guards were paralysed by an angel alighting on the sepulchre stone, but by his story of many holy people other than Jesus also emerging alive from inhumation.

The extant linked documents of Luke and Acts reflect acquaintance with the historian Josephus born after the crucifixion. “Jesus’ ascension into heaven is different in Luke 24.50-53 and Acts 1.6-11, though both accounts were written by the same….artistic writer…the risen Lord was with the disciples for only a few hours in Luke, and for forty days in Acts.”[4]

Some commentators mistake the charm of Luke’s “Emmaus pericope” for verisimilitude, whereas it resembles Greco-Roman variants of tales like our own “ghostly hitch-hikers”. The implausibility of a close companion remaining unrecognised until he “breaks bread”, before vanishing altogether, may nevertheless offer a clue to the actual nature of the initial resurrection phenomena.

The resurrection of Christ is not merely a myth or ritual enactment comparable to ancient “dying and rising deities”, although its literary constructions are influenced by Classical and Jewish tropes, from “Mediterranean translation fables” to reflections on Daniel, Isaiah and other scriptures [5]. Real-life experiences were nevertheless responsible for this belief to emerge in the first place. They were neither totally mythological, nor simply metaphorical.

The bedrock of traditional mainstream Christianity was a firm conviction of the personal survival of Jesus (despite the Deuteronomy curse on hanged malefactors) that provided the essential impetus for subsequent missionary endeavour. But the notion that his adherents just had a “feeling” that in “some sense” their leader “was still with them and was guiding them” [6] is insufficient cause for subsequent known effects.

However, would a few transient subjective illusions, even if bereavement or guilt-based, be enough? Such explanations have been strenuously critiqued, though plural hypnosis in cultic or entertainment contexts is not unknown, and groups can share delusions by contagious interpersonal effects on their imagination; for example, the solar dance watched by “fifty thousand” [7] at Fatima in 1917.

Dr Gary Habermas, foremost critic of “collective simultaneous hallucinations” as “outside mainstream clinical thought”, has acknowledged that mental illness can produce religious thoughts and notably that biochemical disturbance from “drug effects” can cause hallucinations.

Any plausible hypothesis must be tested against the historic role of Jesus and his entourage, which has for over 200 years occasioned a host of diverse interpretations and incompatible speculations impossible to summarise here. Widely regarded today as little more than an ethical teacher, especially of compassion as shown in current care of virus victims, he is best seen as “a religious man” who above all “earned a reputation as healer and an exorcist” [8], and saw himself as inaugurating government by God.

In cultural circumstances where physical illness is considered a consequence of sin and mental illness of demonic possession, an apocalyptic and compassionate liberation from personal and social evil would entail actual and symbolic “cures” on a significant albeit limited scale, ranging from medical applications to hypnotic techniques; and positive “spirit” experiences could include both if psychoactive substances were employed.

“Exorcism was an undisputed feature of the ministry of Jesus…Although clinical details are meagre, there is suggestive evidence that the synoptic exorcisms were restricted to epilepsy and the abnormal behaviour patterns that occur in hysterical (dissociative) states” [9]. A somewhat different perspective is that he and his close companions were themselves “spirit” possessed [10]. The faith-healings, exorcisms and mystical experiences of Jesus, and of his assistants, should be seen within a therapeutic spectrum including “pentecostal” group responses and healing oils [11]. Jesus could be compared with legendary Galilean and pagan wonder-workers.

The main argument against mental self-deception in contact with a revenant is the absence of prolonged engagement with the phantom; Matthew and Luke are short on quotation of dialogue. An authoritative person can pass on messages to an entranced assembly; Peter is accorded the role of inspired announcer of messiahship, a “transfiguration” participant, recipient of dreams, and apostolic spokesman.

Features of the apparitions most deeply embedded in the NT are sudden arrival, in close association with a shared meal, of an “indistinct” figure which afterwards disappeared. What if psychoactive substances, familiar to “spirit healers”, were ingested on such occasions, producing euphoria and also visionary experiences? Such “entheogenic” [12] speculations will be explored in detail in due course.

Meanwhile, how many Anglican clergy believe that Jesus Christ “ascended into heaven whence he will come to judge the living and the dead” and in the general “resurrection of the body”? Writing from Corinth to another congregation puzzled by delayed expectation, Paul warned that when the Lord is revealed from heaven with his angels, he will punish those who disobey with everlasting destruction. Likewise the Muslims, whose numbers are catching up, think Jesus will return to join battle against infidels and establish submission to Allah, destroying crucifixes and pigs in the process.

The present pandemic may not betoken Armageddon. But a revival of Western Civilization, in the age of cyber controls and AI robotics, will be required.

ENDNOTES

  1. The Spectator, 4 April 2020
  2. Robert Feather, The Secret Initiation of Jesus at Qumran (2006) pp.142-143; cf. Hugh J. Schonfield, The Essene Odyssey (1993); “Essene” is most likely derived from an Aramaic term for “healer”
  3. Marcus Bockmuehl, “Resurrection,” The Cambridge Companion to Jesus (2001) pp.111-112
  4. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (1993) pp. 276,279
  5. Richard C. Miller, Resurrection and Reception in Early Christianity (2017); David Mishkin, Jewish Scholarship on the Resurrection of Jesus (2017)
  6. K. Elliott, Questioning Christian Origins (1982) pp.90-9
  7. Ronald D. Story (ed), The Mammoth Encyclopedia of Extraterrestrial Encounters (2002) pp.226-230; “Miracle of the Sun,” Wikipedia
  8. Bas van Os, Psychological Analyses and the Historical Jesus (2012) p.187; cf. Mark Allen Powell, The Jesus Debate (2000) p.64-66, 99-100, 191
  9. Keir Howard, in Bruce M. Metzger & Michael D. Coogan (eds) Oxford Companion to the Bible (1993) p.217; cf. Craig A. Evans, “Exorcisms and Healings,” The Routledge Encyclopedia of the Historical Jesus (2010) pp.189-192
  10. Stevan L. Davies, Spirit Possession and the Origins of Christianity (2014)
  11. Mark 13; James 5.14-15
  12. “Entheogen,” Wikipedia; Richard Evans Schultes, Albert Hofmann & Christian Raetsch, Plants of the Gods (2001)

David Ashton is a frequent contributor to QR

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9 Responses to Thoughts on the First Easter

  1. ANON says:

    From “The Guardian Weekend”, Front, 18 April 2020
    Questions from Rosanna Greenstreet, Answers from Alice Eve, actor (i.e. actress)

    Q What is top of your bucket list?
    A Saving the world.
    Q If you could bring something extinct back to life, what would you choose?
    A Jesus.

  2. Ned J. Casper says:

    David Ashton skips past the “serious scholarship” which covers several of his New Testament difficulties. I would add J. P. Holding’s “Defending the Resurrection” and
    Dr W. L. Craig’s contributions that emphasise the vacation of Joseph of Arimathea’s personal tomb.

    Other earthquake exposures of buried corpses are on record; e.g. at Bogota in 1962. Israel itself has a seismic fault-line leading to tremors around Jerusalem, including the Crucifixion period; “International Geology Review”, July 2012, and the “Christian Apologist website, 5 January 2019.

    It is blasphemous to suggest our Saviour used drugs, and ridiculous as an explanation of Christianity.

  3. David Ashton says:

    Nice to have a comment, as I welcome debate and even refutation. Readers are welcome to wade through the writings cited in defence of the traditional belief in resurrection, &c. However, even the RC Biblical Commission appointed as its secretary a leading critic of the gospel narratives, regarded the “product” of years of selection, synthesis and explication.

    Incidentally, the word “Arimathea” is a suspect as “Iscariot” since it could easily derive from the Greek for “noble disciple”.

    Matthew (NIV translation) notes only two appearances of Christ himself, but also says that the “bodies of many holy people…came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many”. It states that, after an angel in snow-white clothing told the women looking for Jesus that he had risen, he himself suddenly met them and said: “Greetings…. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee”. The Eleven then went to Galilee, where when they saw him, “some doubted”. He “came to them” and instructed them to baptize all nations in “the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”. Modern commentators regard these sentences as mostly eschatological legend and/or theological fabrication.

    I shall develop my theme of pharmacological healings and entheogenic visions in greater detail in due course. It is not my intention to disparage Jesus as a dope addict. I am against general legalization of addictive brain poisons for “recreational” or “spiritual” purposes”, and have no sympathy for Timothy Leary’s politics of “ecstasy” nor even Aldous Huxley’s doors of “perception”.

    Religions big and small can arise out of imaginative experiences, such as Islam, and from bizarre fakes, such as the Latter Day Saints. Mormons in the UK number nearly a quarter of the Church of England’s Sunday congregants. Hinduism has about a billion misguided adherents.

    Tom Holland has remarked on the failure in this pandemic of church leaders to explain to a “grieving and anxious people how the dead will rise into the blaze of eternal life” but have opted instead to like eccentric branch managers of the welfare state (“Sunday Telegraph”, 3 May 2020). I take no pleasure in the decline of belief in Christianity in western Europe, or in my own case. “There is tragedy in the spectacle” (Ayn Rand).

  4. Ned J. Casper says:

    Decline of the belief and morality of Christianity has indeed brought no benefit. Failure of others to give an account of the faith within them here is a disappointment.

    So far as the “academic” case for the resurrection of Jesus goes, I suggest three more scholars in addition to William Lane Craig: (i) Craig A. Evans, miscellaneous; (ii) Craig L. Blomberg, “The Historical Reliability of the Gospels” (2007); & (iii) Craig S. Keener, “Christobiography” (2019). This is not a verbal joke.

    Whether Jesus is alive today has been answered in the hearts and minds of those who have confessed their sins and invited Him into their lives as their personal Redeemer and Friend. This is not a joke, either.

  5. Ned J. Casper says:

    Decline of the belief and morality of Christianity has indeed brought no benefit. Failure of others to give an account of the faith within them here is a disappointment.

    So far as the “academic” case for the resurrection of Jesus goes, I suggest three more scholars in addition to William Lane Craig: (i) Craig A. Evans, miscellaneous; (ii) Craig L. Blomberg, “The Historical Reliability of the Gospels” (2007); & (iii) Craig S. Keener, “Christobiography” (2019). This is not a verbal joke.

    Whether Jesus is alive today has been answered in the hearts and minds of those who have confessed their sins and invited Him into their lives as their personal Redeemer and Friend. This is not a joke, either.

  6. David Ashton says:

    I’ve got the point, Pastor Ned. I haven’t yet read Keener’s latest book, which I understand compares the canonical gospel accounts with ancient biographies. So I have yet to see whether or how he deals with the similar stories of Romulus (including the Emmaus parallel) and Apollonius of Tyana (Hero archetype). He believes in miracles and has written a two-volume book collecting them. I do not reject the supernatural out of hand, but prefer credible natural explanations if not themselves grossly outlandish; as with UFOs or seances. The trouble with the resurrection narratives in Matthew, Luke & John is not their creepy weirdness but internal implausibilities; they just do not seem convincing as factual reports.

    The quite different list of apparitions by Paul is another matter – for another time.

    Some people have found “the Lord” in prayer; I have not. One believer said that Satan must have been near; another feared that I had been predestined to hell (as per Calvinism). A minister we met said had Jesus himself on the back of his motorbike. I once met a street-preacher who told me that God had only just granted his prayer for a parking-space, and I knew a lady who found a lost coin in her garden thanks to St Antony, the patron of lost causes. Meanwhile, innocent thousands have been left helplessly tortured by crime or illness, long before and long after his Son “came down to earth from heaven”, and Lourdes is now closed – to prevent infection!

    • Ned J. Casper says:

      It is surely clear that the material in all four gospels dates from the period before the Roman attack on Jerusalem, and Saint Paul clearly lists specific witnesses of the resurrection including 500 “brothers”. I am disappointed that other Christian readers have not joined battle with David Ashton’s sarcasm-tinged attack on our religion and its promise of salvation.

  7. David Ashton says:

    The reference to 500 resurrection witnesses stands alone without corroboration or detail anywhere else, though some scholars speculate that it coincides with the occasion of world mission on a mountain in Galilee that provides the climax to Matthew. It would certainly be unusually high for an indoor meeting, and it has been suggested (Bas Van Os) that most people concerned would be young – and therefore susceptible. If taken from an Aramaic creed, the round number in our present Greek text is possibly higher than the original; “the syntax suggests that the passage has been manipulated” (G. A. Wells). My entheogenic hypothesis would not be affected one way or another, any more than feeding 5000.

  8. Ned J. Casper says:

    Mr Ashton presumably considers the intelligent theologian and hardworking missionary Paul as credulous and/or dishonest. His early list of appearances of the risen Jesus is not contradicted by the gospel narratives which reinforce it.

    As for hallucinogenic substances being used by the apostolic community to conjure up these appearances, Paul condemns such a practice (“pharmakeia=sorcery).

    What else needs to be said?

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