What is it that the Christian Church celebrates year by year on Easter Day? Or what is it that the Christian Church celebrates week by week on Sunday? One might go even further to the root of the matter and ask what it was that brought the Christian Church into being as a force to be reckoned with in history, for the answer would still be the same. The resurrection of Christ, which is commemorated every week on Sunday and every year on Easter Day, brought the Christian Church into being; apart from his resurrection, we may be sure, nothing would ever have been heard of the Church.
What do Christians mean when they speak of the resurrection of Christ? For some it is sufficient to hold that although he was put to death, his spirit and power revived and lived on in the life and activity of his followers, as in measure they still do. When, for example, we contemplate the life-work of such a man as Albert Schweitzer, we may say, quite truly, that the spirit of Jesus is not yet dead. From this point of view, the event that the Church celebrates Sunday by Sunday and Easter by Easter is the moment when the dejected followers of Jesus suddenly became aware that their crucified Master was not really dead, because his power had invaded their lives as it had never done before, giving them courage and strength to go out and begin to win the world for him.
All that is true as far as it goes, but it is not the whole truth. Our earliest witnesses to the Easter event tell a story that goes far beyond this.
One of our earliest pieces of documentary evidence can be dated less than twenty-five years after the Easter event, at a time when many people were alive who had had first-hand experience of that event. This document is one of the letters sent by Paul, apostle to the Gentiles, to the community of Christians in the city of Corinth. As he wrote to them he had occasion to remind them of the message that he had brought when first he had visited their city. What adds weight to this message is Paul’s assurance that he himself had first “received” it before he “delivered” it to others, and that it differed not at all from the message proclaimed by those who were apostles before him. Here, then, is Paul’s summary of those features of the message that he reckoned to be of first importance: “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.… Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed” (1 Cor. 15:3–11, RSV). This is not the earliest New Testament document absolutely to mention the resurrection of Christ, but it is the earliest one to assemble so much evidence for it. And the evidence here assembled, apart from the clause “last of all … he appeared also to me,” was common ground to all Christian preachers in the first twenty-five years of their preaching, however great and many might be the other differences among them.
There is, indeed, good reason to believe that this body of evidence is very primitive. Apart from Paul’s reference to his own experience, it falls into two series of resurrection appearances—one headed “he appeared to Cephas” and the other headed “he appeared to James.” Cephas is an alternative name for Peter, the first of the apostles, and James was the brother of Jesus. Now, when Paul visited Jerusalem in the third year after his conversion, he stayed with Peter for two weeks but saw none of the other apostles except James. So he tells us himself in Galatians 1:18 and 19. This was almost certainly the occasion when he “received” the account of appearances of the risen Christ that he subsequently “delivered” to others. This, in other words, was the established account of the matter some five years after the death of Christ.
Detailing The Witness
The Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, which were written at various times in the later decades of the first century, reproduce this primitive apostolic witness in considerably greater detail. The incidents which they narrate are difficult to fit neatly together, partly because they represent only a selection from an abundance of stories of how Jesus appeared alive again after his death and burial; but this is the essence of their testimony:
Jesus died on the cross and was buried on the Friday of Passover Week (probably April 6, A.D. 30). On the following Sunday morning some of his friends went to place in his tomb the funeral spices that they had been unable to bring earlier, since the intervening day was the Jewish Sabbath. But when they arrived at the tomb, they found it empty. Not long afterwards, one and another of his followers saw him alive. Some of them were alone when they saw him, but for the most part he appeared to smaller or larger groups of them, both in Jerusalem and in Galilee. This went on for six weeks or so, and then the appearances ceased. But seven weeks after the first of those appearances a crowd of pilgrims who had come to Jerusalem for the festival of Pentecost were surprised to see a small group of men stand up and publicly declare that Jesus of Nazareth, who had been crucified just outside that city less than two months previously, had been raised from the dead and had been seen alive by them. They argued that therefore his claim to be the long-expected Messiah of Israel—a claim that had been rejected by the Sanhedrin, the supreme court of the nation—was vindicated by God. And so powerfully did they present their case that many of their hearers were convinced of its truth and joined their ranks. That day, the first Christian Pentecost, is accordingly reckoned to be the birthday of the Christian Church; but there would have been no such birthday but for the resurrection experience.
The most surprising feature of this last incident lies in the character of the men who made this bold claim. They were the followers of Jesus who, in spite of their protestations of loyalty to him, took to their heels when he was arrested. Their leader, whose affirmations of loyalty had been most emphatic, swore repeatedly that he had never set eyes on Jesus. They hid themselves for safety behind locked doors in the upper room of an obscure house in Jerusalem—and now they appear in public, proclaiming themselves to be Jesus’ followers and charging the supreme court of the nation with having put their Messiah to death. What brought this change about?
Jesus’ death had been, to all outward appearance, the tragic defeat of a noble ideal. The high hopes that had been placed in him collapsed; he had not lifted a finger to save himself. It looked as if he would follow into obscurity other leaders of popular movements in Israel who had come to grief. His followers were disillusioned and dejected. And then, beyond all expectation, everything was changed; their sun rose again and shone more brightly than ever. What was the cause?
Their own account was that they saw him alive again. It was not an empty tomb that brought them new faith and hope; it was a living Christ. Yet the empty tomb must not be dismissed as irrelevant to the Resurrection. If his tomb had not been empty, neither they nor anyone else would have believed that he had risen from the dead. To them resurrection did not mean the survival or revival of a man’s spirit and power in the lives of others; those who regard the resurrection of Jesus as meaning that and nothing more are giving the word “resurrection” a meaning different from its New Testament usage.
Nor will it suffice to say, with one writer, that “once the disciples were convinced by the visions they had had that Jesus was alive and active despite his death on the cross, their belief that his tomb must therefore be empty would follow inevitably as the night the day, whether there was any actual evidence for it or not.” We should try to use a little realistic imagination. Had his tomb not been empty, or had his body been moved somewhere else, then as soon as his followers began claiming that they had seen him alive again, the authorities would have taken steps to disprove their claim by producing the body. And had they been able to do so, no one would have believed that Jesus had risen from the dead. To the disciples themselves, and to all other Jews of that time, resurrection meant bodily resurrection.
‘That He Was Buried’
Such arguments can be countered, no doubt, by the assertion that the body of Jesus was not placed in Joseph’s tomb, as the gospel narrative states; that it was thrown into the common criminals’ pit in the Valley of Hinnom or elsewhere. But when this assertion is made, one may ask on what grounds it is made. It is difficult to avoid the suspicion that sometimes it is made on no other grounds than a desire to dismiss the first-century evidence for Jesus’ burial as irrelevant and useless as testimony in the case for his resurrection. In the Pauline passage quoted above, the clause “that he was buried” is inserted between those clauses that affirm his death and resurrection in such a way as to imply that the body in which Jesus rose was the body that had been taken down from the cross and laid in the tomb—transformed, indeed, into what Paul elsewhere calls a “spiritual body” or a “body of glory,” but nevertheless maintaining some continuity and identity with his “body of humiliation.”
We have no description of the actual resurrection of Jesus. All the “resurrection narratives” that we have in the New Testament, whether their location is near the tomb or elsewhere, are narratives about what happened after Jesus rose from the dead. But no one saw him rise. Whether or not there is any probability in such a suggestion as that made by Dorothy Sayers in The Man Born to be King about the dissolution of the physical elements of Jesus’ body in the tomb and their reassembly outside is something on which a physicist is better qualified to pronounce judgment than the present writer.
The disciples’ claim did indeed receive powerful support from the evidence that was soon produced that the mighty works performed by Jesus were still being performed by his followers in his name. And that the claim was made in utter sincerity is clear from the readiness with which they staked their lives on its truth. That the “resurrection faith” is a firm historical datum is generally conceded even by those who find it difficult to accept the “resurrection fact.”
But what gave rise to the resurrection faith if it was not the resurrection fact? If the resurrection appearances were wholly subjective, they cannot be said to conform to the conditions that normally govern such experiences. Usually in such experiences people see something else and mistake it for what they expect to see. But the disciples did not expect to see Jesus alive again. And repeatedly when they did see him alive again, they mistook him for someone or something else—the gardener, or an unknown fellow traveler, or an apparition—and needed some convincing that it was really he.
The obvious suggestion that he had not really died on the cross but regained consciousness in the cool of the tomb will not account for the events that followed his appearances. One who had luckily survived several hours of crucifixion would have been a broken and pitiable object of a man, quite unable to fill those who saw him with new life and new confidence that he was the Conqueror of death and the Lord of life. The sequel to that kind of survival would have been the sort of thing that George Moore brilliantly relates in The Brook Kerith; but that masterpiece of imaginative fiction has nothing to do with the history of apostolic Christianity. It is not very profitable to set up one alternative explanation after another, only to knock them down like so many Aunt Sallies; but the history of apostolic Christianity, and the history of post-apostolic Christianity as well, demands an adequate cause. The New Testament offers us one: “Christ has been raised from the dead.” Need we look for another?
Most of the witnesses of the risen Jesus were his former disciples. But some were not. His brother James, for example, had not been a follower of his before the Cross. The family of Jesus had grave misgivings about his ministry, and when at last he was arrested and crucified, they probably felt with sorrow that their fears and warnings had been only too well founded. Yet James appears in later years as the trusted leader of the Jerusalem church, a man whose piety won him the esteem, moreover, of the non-Christian Jews of Jerusalem. What caused the change in James’s attitude to Jesus and his cause, at this precise juncture when his worst fears had been realized? Paul gives us the explanation he had probably received from James himself: “He appeared to James.”
“Last of all,” says Paul, “as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” Paul’s antecedents are well enough known; he, at any rate, was not psychologically predisposed to believe that Jesus had conquered death. Those who went about claiming that they had seen Jesus alive again had no more relentless opponent than Paul; and we have no reason to believe that during his persecuting activity he had any qualms of conscience, any inward doubts, about the rightness of his course. What was it that convinced such a man of the wrongness of his course, and led him so decisively to abandon his most passionately cherished convictions for the cause which he had so vigorously assailed, but for which he was henceforth prepared to sacrifice everything? Paul’s own account of the matter, that the risen Christ appeared to him personally, is an adequate explanation; it would be difficult to find another.
When we are dealing with a unique situation, generalizations and analogies are inapplicable. And the situation is indeed unique when we are confronted by the incarnate Son of God, divinest when he most was man. That the incarnate Son of God should die is wonder enough. But as the disciples looked back, they recognized more and more how impossible it was that their Master should stay dead, such was the impact he had made on them. It was not this impact that gave rise to the resurrection experiences. But when these experiences took place, the disciples realized their utter fittingness and inevitability. “God raised him up, having loosed the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it” (Acts 2:24).
God’S Sword Thrusts
The feeling or disillusionment and emptiness that resulted from my undergraduate years led me to apply for advanced studies at the Graduate School of New York University. During these months of study, my awareness of spiritual impoverishment increased markedly; it was at its height when a member of the family subscribed to a Christian newspaper in my name and I began to read the Gospel.
At that time, the paper which I received included the story of a college boy who struggled against the persecution of unsaved classmates. He placed a Scripture plaque in his room that had on it the words from Philippians 1:21, “For to me to live is Christ.” This verse disturbed me and brought quick and unjustified criticism. As time passed, however, I found myself unable to forget these poignant words of Paul. They seemed to burn their message into my consciousness, at first bringing anger, later conviction to my heart. As I review the incidents leading to my acceptance of the Lord Jesus Christ as my Saviour, those wonderful words seem to have been prophetic; for now, truly—to me to live is Christ!—KENNETH A. MARKLEY, Camp Hill, Pennsylvania.
F. F. Bruce is Rylands Professor of Biblical Criticism and Exegesis at the University of Manchester, England. He holds the B.A. from Cambridge University, M.A. and D.D. from Aberdeen University. Among his books are “The Acts of the Apostles,” “Are the New Testament Documents Reliable?,” and “Epistle to the Ephesians.” Dr. Bruce is the editor of “The Evangelical Quarterly.”
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