Passion and Resurrection - Part 1

Course: Introduction to the New Testament: Gospel and Acts

Lecture: Passion and Resurrection - Part 1

I. Passion Narrative

At last we come to the Passion narrative in the four Gospels, describing the last day or night and day of Jesus’ earthly life. There are numerous historical problems surrounding the accounts of Jesus’ arrest and trials and execution which are discussed in the textbook. But all of them, essentially, come down to two issues, namely: all the later rabbinical laws were alleged to have been broken, already in force in these pre seventy (refers to AD 70 when Rome sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple) days and secondly were these laws followed. Desperate men even in high positions of power often do not follow their own laws in times of crisis. More important for the Gospel writers, clearly, was the theological message of the crucifixion narratives, although distributed among the various Gospel writers, the sudden sayings recorded of Jesus from the Cross, often referred to as the ‘Sudden Last Words of Christ.’ Clearly when put together, sum up a huge amount of significance that early Christians understood to be attached to these events. Thus Jesus in excruciating pain can nevertheless look upon the enemies who had condemned him to this agonizing execution, pleaded for his heavenly Father to forgive them; ‘for they knew not what they were doing.’ He can grant similar pardons such as the repentant thief on one side of him who begs Jesus to remember him when he enters into his Kingdom. Jesus replied, ‘today, you shall be with me in paradise.’

He showed concern for his earthly mother and directs the disciple who he was apparently closest to, traditionally associated with the Apostle John to look after her. Joseph may well have passed away by this time and Jesus’ biological half brothers and sisters had not come to faith in him so it makes sense that he entrusts Mary to John and vice versa with the words, ‘mother behold you son, son behold you mother.’ In what must certainly rank as one of the most theological statements in Scripture because we can scarcely imagine what kind of unbroken communion Jesus had as the divine God/man with his heavenly father. It is that point that later Christian reflection would understand to be when he took upon himself all the sins of the world and therefore had to be separated for a time from his heavenly Father that he cried out, ‘my God, my God? Why have you forsaken me?’

Then the subsequent sayings, I thirst and it is finished apply at the physical level by a clearly and more profound deeply spiritual level and then in an amazing trusting of the very God whose presence he had been separated from, prays a simply trusting prayer of a child at bed time as he gives up his spirit in death, ‘Father, into your hands, I commit my spirit.’ It’s also significant to pay attention to the theological distinctives of each of the four Gospel writers. Here, if ever, one can go to the table of contents/index in the back of synoptics and simply look for entire kerygapis that are in boldface with boldface parallels of the other columns. Though, with Mark, since his is the first and shortest Gospel, one is forced there more simply to focus on what is essential to Mark’s narrative. Namely, the apocalyptic side that accompanies Jesus’ death, the earthquake that tore the Temple into, the centurions confession, that surely that this was the Son of God, which from his Greco-Roman viewpoint may have simply meant a deified man but for a Gospel like Mark who begins with the headline, ‘This is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’ He uses this title not frequently but at crucial junctures to punctuate his narrative. It clearly reflects an even deeper truth of the identity of Jesus. Mark also narrates in detail the various trials before the Sanhedrin and the Jewish leadership, alongside Pontus Pilate representing the Roman leadership. From a theological perspective, however, it is every single individual’s sins that crucified Jesus. So the Passion narrative can scarcely be used to supply anti-Semitism or anti-Romanism or prejudice against any single ethnic group.

Matthew’s largest unique edition includes the account of Judas’ suicide showing how the events surrounding his death fulfilled the Old Testament. The constant preoccupation of Matthew, the heighten sense of the responsibility of the Jewish crowd who when Pontus Pilate was trying to avoid crucifying Jesus, accepted responsibility for his death by shouting (Matthew 27:25), his blood be upon us and our children. In context, an idiomatic way of saying, we take responsibility for this, not a self-condemnation for the entire race for all time. So if Matthew sees a deeper meaning here, maybe it was upon their children, one generation later, the judgment attributed to God of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. And the instruction of much of Jerusalem and its inhabitants by Rome was accomplished. At the same time, the very death, they assigned Christ to, made possible their eternal life for all who would repent and turn to him. It is also uniquely Matthew who refers to the request for a guarded tomb for fear that his disciples would come and steal his body and announcing him resurrected in fulfillment of his predictions. The sequel to that event will occur in Matthew distinctive edition to the resurrection narrative on which we will comment more at that time.

Luke has the unique emphasis on Jesus’ innocence by adding the extra hearing before Herod Antipas in between his hearing of Pontus Pilate; all of them find nothing legally worthy of condemnation. The centurion’s testimony is radically rewritten to read, ‘truly this man was innocent.’ And where there is no indication of one of the criminals on the cross on either side of Jesus subsequently repenting, it is Luke who uniquely includes that exchange with our Lord.

Finally, in John’s Gospel, we have the emphasis on his true humanity against the emerging Gnosticism, and of Pilate rendering of, ‘behold the man,’ and with the soldier’s spear thrust proving his true death with the outflow of blood and water from the pericardial sack around the heart which only takes place within a few hours of physical death. At the same time, Jesus’ divinity has not been lost sight of against those first century Jews who were not yet prepared to accept this aspect of Jesus’ nature. It is only John who has the scene in which those who would arrest Jesus in the Gardens fall backwards as if bumping up against an invisible force field when Jesus says, ‘I am he,’ in reply to the question, ‘Whom do you seek?’ with the answer, ‘Jesus of Nazareth.’ Making it clear that Jesus goes to his death voluntarily as also does the uniquely lengthy exchange with Pilate in the 4th Gospel in which Jesus insists that he would have no power over him were it not given to him from above.

II. Resurrection!

Fortunately, for the human race, the agony and defeat of the Cross gives way on what today we call Eastern Sunday Morning to the glorious drama of the resurrection. Again, there are historical questions, some of which allege that the many different appearances and details involved in the four Gospels are contradictory. We refer in the text to sources that in fact give plausible harmonization to all of this material. The PowerPoint slide here, simply sketches a brief outline of the most important points of such harmonization. On Sunday morning the women, a group of several who had watched Jesus die, go to further anoint his body in the tomb, unsure how they will manage to get into the sealed tomb, perhaps, hoping that the Roman Soldiers will allow them this typical Jewish custom of honor and mourning. Mary runs ahead while it is still dark, reports back to the women that all see the tomb, apparently together. Mary also goes on to tell the disciples but returns on her own later to have her own personal encounter with Jesus as described in John 20. Later on, Jesus appeared to Cleopas and one other on the road to Emmaus, in the final chapter of Luke’s Gospel. Jesus taught them, beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. Peter also met with Jesus that Sunday evening with Thomas being absent, Jesus appeared to his disciples in Jerusalem. The disciples would have remained in Jerusalem for the rest of the week long Passover feast and a week later, again, at the end of the festival, this time with Thomas present, Jesus appears and Thomas likewise comes to believe that he has indeed resurrected.

Over the coming weeks leading up to the ascension, approximately forty days later, Jesus appears to seven disciples (John 21) and then to the eleven by the Sea of Galilee as well and on the Mount of the Beatitudes as shown in John 21 and Matthew 28 and then in 1st Corinthians 15, it tells us that he appeared to over five hundred of his followers. Probably during the period of his Galilean appearances, this corresponded to the location of the largest group of members of Jesus’ followers outside the twelve apostles. The ascension takes place on the Mount of Olives as the disciples headed back to the vicinity of Jerusalem in preparation for the festival of Pentecost and a brief reference to waiting for good spiritual things to happen in Acts brings this segment to an end.

Another historical question involved the credibility of such a supernatural narrative. The five points shown in the continued slide of the resurrection adds historical support which forms powerful evidence for such credibility. In a world in which women’s testimony was rarely admissible in a court of law, it seemed highly improbable that four authors writing independently of each other would all concoct a story where women were the first and primary witnesses to the empty tomb and to the resurrected Jesus. The significance of death with crucifixion from Deuteronomy 21:23, ‘His body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall in any wise bury him that day; (for he that is hanged is cursed of God) that your land be not defiled, which the Lord you God gives you for an inheritance. This was already interpreted by the Jewish leaders that anyone executed who was deemed to be both a criminal and cursed by God. How did the originally exclusively Jewish band of Jesus’ followers overcome this seemingly theological obstacle in order to claim Jesus, not only as risen, but as Messiah and Lord and one worthy of worship? This was something that was very dramatic and affected them all.

Thirdly, what about the early shift already discernable in the book of Acts, the gathering of Christians in Acts 20, in 1st Corinthians where the offering is taken on the Lord’s day, on the first day of the week. In 1st Corinthians 16, again, what was originally the Jewish band of disciples came to worship and honor the resurrected Jesus, not on their traditional day of worship, the Sabbath, the 7th day of the week but on the 1st day of the week, on Sunday. Something significantly amazing took place on one such Sunday. All this despite the fact that remembering the Sabbath day to keep it holly was one of the central ten commandments given to the Jewish people as it were before all generations. A forth form of historical support involves the fact that from the earliest recorded information of the church and onward, the resurrection formed a central part of the Gospel message. In 1st Corinthians 15, in the opening verses, Paul refers to passing onto the Corinthians that which he had learned and he uses words that often applied in a technical sense to the process of the transmission of oral traditions. The poetic structure and detachable nature of the creed in 1st Corinthians 15:3, A scholar, by the name of Calling, suggested to many scholars, not just conservative ones, that Paul is recounting fundamental training he would have learned very shortly after becoming a believer, perhaps already in Ananias’s household.

(In the following two paragraphs, the Lecturer is defending the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ by arguing against what the liberal scholar, Lutamen, who denies the resurrection openly, and tries to explain away the physical resurrection of Jesus. The Lecturer further argues against Jesus’ physical resurrection being only spiritual.)

Lutamen, the liberal German Christian scholar, turned atheist, who though not a formal part of the Jesus Seminar but was influential in the deliberations of it in the 1990s, makes the stunning claim in his works on the resurrection that although, he doesn’t believe that Jesus objectively rose from the dead, he begin with the presupposition that we all know that this is simply scientifically impossible. Nevertheless, the proclamation of what for him was obviously a very real but subjectively experience of Jesus. As the resurrection had to be already well established by the time Paul became a believer which happened within a couple of years of Jesus’ death. In this, we may push the date back to within a year or even months of the crucifixion which Jesus’ followers believed they saw Jesus resurrected and alive again. The much more popular thinking, those who believed in the resurrection did not develop until a generation or two after the death of Christ and that it was taking what was originally the conviction that his spirit or his cause lived on in fleshing it the out by the very Jewish garb of the story of a bodily resurrection. That evolutionary hypothesis might have had some probability to it, had Jesus been a Greek ministering in Athens where immortality of the soul, not bodily resurrection was the normative belief and within one or two centuries or even generations after his death, the message of his life had spread as far east as Israel and Jerusalem to be re-clothed in bodily trappings. But it is an utterly nonsensical hypothesis to account for a Jewish teacher revered by Jewish followers coming to the faith that they came to when in fact that the Gospel moved further and further afield from Jerusalem; there would have been every reason to delete and diminish and play down the bodily part of the resurrection rather than to increasingly make it more central as the prevailing critical consensus requires.

With this, we have already gone well into the content of the fifth point on the PowerPoint slide, mainly that when one would have spoken of a resurrection in Jewish circles going all the way back to numerous Old Testament contexts that at the very latest, clearly in Daniel 12:2 and countless inter-testamental contexts that if anything moved in the sense of bodily resurrection almost in the direction of bodily resuscitation. While there is no question that the body has changed and has been glorified and reenergized by the spirit, there is no possibility that the first Jews couching their beliefs in language of the closing chapters of the Gospel could possibly have been that the resurrected body was only spiritual and not physical in any way. Nothing in 1st Corinthians 15 in any way contradicts this; it does go on in the second half of the chapter to speak about the resurrection body as a spiritual body but it is in contrast to a natural body. The terms that are used are identical to those that appear in 1st Corinthians 2-3 contrasting that which is merely of this life verses the life to come and perhaps might better be rendered natural and supernatural bodies.

There is a change and clearly a perfecting and glorification and transformation of the nature of Jesus and believers’ bodies in the life to come, not least in not being limited by many of the same boundaries that limit what bodies can do in this life but there is no support for the notice that there are not in some way a physical and embodied form. We are reminded again of the writings of Tom Wright, particularly his magnificent and magisterial resurrection of the Son of God, dealing with all of the relevant New Testament passages after a very thorough study of all of the Old Testament and inter-testamental and Jewish Greco-Roman background, necessary to understand this concept. All it boils down to the simply but profound truth that the Christian Gospel because of the centrality of the Resurrection narrative and belief in a coming general resurrection of all people is fundamentally not about dying and going to heaven, not what is normally called life after death but about life after life after death, after the subsequent resurrection and combination in the eternal state of a new heaven and a new earth with fully embodied people.

One turns to the evangelical distinctives again, using the synoptics like that of the scholar, Alon, with its index or Table of Contents in the back with its unique kerygapi in bold face print. We see that given the overwhelming likelihood that the so called longer ending of Mark is late and not original, that Mark’s distinctives involve the brevity of his account, no actual resurrection appearance of Jesus, merely the prediction by the young man who has an angelical appearance. That the women are to tell the disciples to go and he will meet them in Galilee. Given the reliable prediction that have spanned the Gospel of Mark, we can assume however that such a command was ultimately obeyed and that Jesus did appear not withstanding Mark’s deliberate and abrupt ending of his Gospel with the initial response of women that fled from the tomb saying nothing to anyone because they were afraid. As we discussed and introduced the Gospel of Mark, here is the climax of the Messianic foretelling of the coming Jesus. But clearly Mark’s community would never have even become Christians had they not heard the afore Kerygma in which Jesus’ resurrection appearances did in fact take place. That they knew this and then did not see it narrated in Mark’s original ending makes his emphasis on the themes with which he ends that much greater.

Matthew’s Gospel, we see the distinctively point of the guards at the tomb, to prevent the resurrection and in a wonderful ironic passage leads to the very rumor that the disciples stole the body that the Jewish rulers wanted to avoid. The greater interest in countering Jewish apologetics fits Matthew’s distinctively Jewish Christian concerns, but his emphasis on the great commission at the very end of the Gospel similarly fits the move from particularism to universalism throughout his texts and creates an inclusio with a number of the main themes of the beginning of his Gospel. Luke, alone, has the story of Cleopas and unnamed companion on the road to Emmaus. And the fulfillment of Scripture in Christ that Jesus incognito explains to them in root. He, alone, also briefly anticipates the full narrative of the ascension in Acts and if we are right in our hypothesis in our hourglass or extended inverse parallel structure to two items Luke and Acts put together, then the climatic center of that structure here in Luke 24 along with Acts 1, appropriate for Luke’s emphasis throughout Acts on the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus as the theological core of the kerygma. In John, once again, we see true humanity balanced by true divinity. Humanity in demonstrating to Thomas that Jesus truly was the same person that had been crucified to divinity in the confession given in response to this revelation by Thomas, ‘my Lord and my God’, and then in chapter 21, the two major parts of the chapter, unified by the appearance of some sort of rivalry but one which is played down by the narrator of the Gospel between Peter and the beloved disciple. Perhaps reflective of situations in the church then of those who had begun to over exalt Peter and move in the direction of institutionalized later Roman Catholicism and which has also been called the anointed community, the still more small seat charismatic, autonomous, spirit led communities over which John had responsibility.