Monday, March 24, 2008

Dem bones

This is a train of thought prompted by reading (and commenting on) this post at Chelmsford Anglican Mainstream, the question being what difference would it make to Christian faith if Jesus' bones were discovered in a tomb somewhere, that is, in what way is the continuity of body between dead-in-the-tomb Jesus and eating-breakfast-with-disciples Jesus essential to Christian faith?

There are two angles I want to mention, but before continuing let me say that I believe the resurrection was a physically perceived event. I was about to put 'physically manifested' but that begs questions about scientific objectivity etc, and I don't really want to play that game. I want to say that the disciples experienced Jesus with them physically, and I'm content to leave open the question of whether that physicality was something that could, in principle, have been validated with scientific instrumentation. Luke's account: "Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have."

So: two angles. The first is about the evidence for the empty tomb. Over the last eighteen months or so I've been introduced to Margaret Barker's work, and much Christian language and symbolism is now more meaningful to me. One of them is the empty tomb, in particular, the way in which the two angels at each end of the bed correspond to the cherubim on the mercy seat - in other words, the empty tomb is now the place of atonement (note: not the cross); here is the restoration of the world. I find that a wonderful image.

However, I haven't reached a settled view on the historical evidence question. Paul doesn't mention it; on the other hand, if the story was invented out of whole cloth the early community wouldn't have had the empty tomb discovered by women (their evidence was considered to be less worthy than that from a man). I think it possible that the story was invented; I think it possible that Jesus was buried in an unmarked grave along with the people crucified alongside him; but as time goes on I tend more towards something like the empty tomb.

Really what I want to say on this point is that whatever the view of the story on historico-critical grounds, what matters is the weight put onto the story - which brings me to the second angle - resurrection is not resuscitation. This is something on which Paul is good in 1 Corinthians 15 - the body dies and is raised a different sort of body. Still physical, but different. My worry about the empty tomb is less the historical question than the tendency it provokes to seeing the resurrection as simply a 'coming back to life' of Jesus: the body stopped working, and then it started working again. That's not the resurrection. The resurrection is a much more radical break in continuity than that, it is the first fruits of a new creation.

I think that continuity between the bodies is important (that is why the resurrected body bears the marks of crucifixion - that's tremendously important) but I don't believe that continuity has to be expressed through an uninterrupted sequence from dead-body-in-tomb to risen-body-with-disciples. I'm happy for there to be a radical break there - indeed, I believe there was a radical break there.

You could say: the empty tomb as an historical account isn't weight-bearing for me. Jesus being touched after his death is weight-bearing, and the empty tomb as a theological statement, these are weight-bearing.Which is really why I'm open to the possibility that we might one day discover a tomb with Jesus' bones in it. That is, I don't expect it, but should it happen, it wouldn't make a great deal of difference to my faith and, in particular, it wouldn't lead me to believe that the resurrection didn't take place.

UPDATE: in other words, the resurrection is not like this!

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