A Hot Nugget – The earliest resurrection account
So, here is a reminder of how the first century unfolded that keeps in their proper place the roles of Paul and the gospels as they address the Easter event. We are looking back as far as we are able into what we consider the center piece of history…
Paul’s writing in 1 Corinthians 15 relays what many consider the most ancient part of the New Testament. What he is passing along is something he had in turn received. That is, it may have already been well known to the communities of Corinth he was addressing. Since it is, in 50 CE at Paul’s writing, already accepted as tradition, we can be sure it dates back into the 40s CE or earlier, a good 30 years or more before the first gospel was written (Mark).
The alarming holiness of God, pictured as a burning coal against Isaiah’s lips in the text from Isaiah chapter 6 is our parallel passage. What I am about to propose will be similarly offensive to some and come as quite the shock. The type of move Paul makes adding his own experience onto the tradition he inherited as testimony to Christ’s ongoing presence with us is one we should make as well. It is something you have to develop a bit of a taste for! Bear with this…
The earliest account is 1 Corinthian 15:3-8: “For I handed to to you as of first importance what I in turn had received; that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and 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 brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me…”
There are a number of questions that spring to mind as I read this! Keeping in mind the above chronology (Paul writing prior to the gospels) it is natural to ask “which scriptures?” did Jesus rise on the third day according to? Since it isn’t the gospels a couple of most likely answers are Hosea 6:2 and Jonah 1:17. Hosea uses “after 2 days” and “on the third day” as parallel poetic phrases, metaphor for an indefinite time (but certain to come) when we would be rescued by God. Jonah was in the belly of the whale for 3 days, a story I take to be symbolic as well. This helps with the difficult math of getting 3 days out of the gospel account’s Friday noon to Sunday sunrise (a day and a half maybe?) but puts us on alert that we are once again in a category beyond simple history, videotape-able and easily digested by the scientific mind.
The rest of the passage reads like no gospel account we have, the differences are striking. The gospels present us with profound differences amongst themselves of what occured at the Easter event, but Paul’s earlier passage seems all but unknown to them. The only thing my Sunday School upbringing recognizes here is Paul’s own experience of the Risen One. But according to Luke (the only author who details it – Paul doesn’t, alas!) that had nothing to do with a resurrected body at all. He was on the road to Damascus and heard a voice.
How dare Paul put his own subjective spiritual experience on par with the very first witnesses!
We have often acted as though Jesus’ resurrection was a repeat of the Lazarus episode – a corpse returns to its previous embodied state. I don’t believe that is either scriptural or helpful. There is something more than meets the eyes with resurrection in the New Testament. It appears that what Paul writes about is more spiritual/subjective. It is also much futher reaching in its impact than Lazurus. He puts it at the center of all our theology. This is a hard nugget to swallow. This most holy of events we might rather keep at arms length, before having it hopelessly personalized by the apostle. I think rather we should follow Paul’s example as theologians – relating to each other our own sometimes fantastical experiences of the Divine – and adding our name to the list of the church community’s witness. Bringing the holiness of our tradition so close in to our own lips is an audacious thing to do, but might help prompt us into speaking as the fiery witnesses we are called to be.