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.” 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 . 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”.
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.”
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 . 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”  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”  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” , 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” . A somewhat different perspective is that he and his close companions were themselves “spirit” possessed . 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 . 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”  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.
- The Spectator, 4 April 2020
- 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”
- Marcus Bockmuehl, “Resurrection,” The Cambridge Companion to Jesus (2001) pp.111-112
- P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (1993) pp. 276,279
- Richard C. Miller, Resurrection and Reception in Early Christianity (2017); David Mishkin, Jewish Scholarship on the Resurrection of Jesus (2017)
- K. Elliott, Questioning Christian Origins (1982) pp.90-9
- Ronald D. Story (ed), The Mammoth Encyclopedia of Extraterrestrial Encounters (2002) pp.226-230; “Miracle of the Sun,” Wikipedia
- 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
- 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
- Stevan L. Davies, Spirit Possession and the Origins of Christianity (2014)
- Mark 13; James 5.14-15
- “Entheogen,” Wikipedia; Richard Evans Schultes, Albert Hofmann & Christian Raetsch, Plants of the Gods (2001)