Translation vs. Resurrection

Someone recently asked me about why Jesus’ death was understood by Christians as a resurrection rather than a “bodily translation to heaven” or something of the sort.

It’s a fascinating question, and so I thought I would share some of my answer here.

The reference in Jude to a Jewish tradition about Michael and the Devil disputing over Moses’ body is presumably relevant, as are Enoch and Elijah, in addition to the Testament of Job. In all these cases, there seems to have been a rescuing of bodies and not just souls, and their transportation to heaven.

And so why did the early Christians understand Jesus’ death not as something of this sort, but as an eschatological event, part of the final resurrection? Why did the early Christians view what they believed happened to Jesus not as simply the vindication of Jesus by his body being rescued from dishonorable burial and brought to heaven, but as the start of the resurrection expected at the end of time?

Of course, the question of whether this characterization of things is correct does not have as straightforward and singular an answer as is sometimes supposed. Paul is our earliest source, and he clearly views Jesus’ resurrection as the start of the general resurrection of the dead. But did the author of the Gospel of Mark share this view? Is this a case of something being widely accepted from the beginning, or a minority view that spread and came to predominate?

If we assume for the moment that early Christians in general shared this view of Jesus’ resurrection as connected to the resurrection of the dead at the end of human history, then we must go on to ask why that should be so.

One possible answer is that Jesus’ own teaching focused on the near end, and so in making sense of what happened to Jesus, his followers interpreted his death eschatologically. A slightly more specific possibility is that Jesus himself spoke about the final resurrection and dawn of the kingdom of God as near, with his own death and resurrection anticipated as part of it. Jesus’ nazirite vow at the last supper envisages his not having the chance to fulfill his vow and drink wine again before the kingdom of God is present. But is that expected to dawn on earth while he is alive, or is he expecting to participate in it posthumously, assuming the saying is authentic? Such material might have provided enough basis for the early Christians after the crucifixion to come to view Jesus’ expectation as having been fulfilled, but only for him thus far.

For some, these questions may seem unnecessary, and for others they may seem impossible to answer. But whatever your view about the nature of the experiences that persuaded the earliest Christians that Jesus had been raised from the dead, a historian of early Christianity needs to ask the question of why Christians interpreted those experiences in the way that they did.

How would you answer such questions?

  • stuart32

    When the diciples saw Jesus after his death they were observing an event in the future. The resurrection was a real, physical event on earth, but it was being seen before it had happened. The disciples were being given a glimpse of what this event would be like.

  • Mike K.

    James, do you have any thoughts on Richard C. Miller’s “Mark’s Empty Tomb and Other Translation Fables in Classical Antiquity” JBL 129 (2010): 759-76 which tries to argue that Mark’s narrative was a typical translation story and that the empty tomb/predicted post-mortem appearances were evidence that the hero had ascended to the divine realm? Ed Babinski has often brought this up to me in online conversations. Without denying Greco-Roman influences I tend to situate Mark’s view of the resurrection in a Jewish eschatological framework rather than the deification of a hero, but it is curious that Mark does not seem to explicitly tie Jesus’ vindication directly with the general resurrection as does Paul. But then perhaps it was not so easy to put the metaphor of Jesus’ resurrection as the firstfruits of the general one into a narrative (though Matthew may hint at it with his symbolism of the resurrection of the saints). What do you think?

    • Stewart Felker

      To Miller’s article, may I add Endsjø’s “Immortal Bodies, Before Christ: Bodily Continuity in Ancient Greece and 1 Corinthians” (JSNT 2008)?

      But you know, one thing to think about is that in Luke and John, Jesus retains the wounds sustained during the crucifixion. I think this would be atypical of the expected Jewish eschatological resurrection. (As perhaps implied by everything from Ezek 37 to 1 En 61.5. And 2 Baruch 50 says that when the Earth gives back the dead during the eschaton, “it will make no change in their form” – but surely this didn’t mean that those who were decapitated would come back with no head.) Some later texts further address the injuries sustained by those who died, and how they will be repaired in the eschaton: Pseudo-Clement (they will receive “the same bodies freed from impurities through the dissolution”), Athenagoras, etc. – perhaps also under Pauline influence. Anyways, another useful study for interpreting the resurrection and post-resurrection appearances is Prince’s “The ‘Ghost’ of Jesus: Luke 24 in Light of Ancient Narratives of Post-Mortem Apparition” (JSNT 2007)

      As mentioned, there’s also Mt 27:62, where immediately after Jesus dies “The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.” Troxel (2002) has actually argued that this was influenced by the Enochic Apocalypse of Weeks (though not very persuasively, IMO)

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

        Thanks for these bibliographical details! I think I need to do a blog series on this, interacting with some of the articles and books on the subject, as well as important Jewish literature. The fact that so few NT scholars discuss the Testament of Job is, if on one level understandable, nonetheless disappointing. :-)

        • Beau Quilter

          James, I’ve just read the Miller article that Mike K. references above, “Mark’s Empty Tomb and Other Translation Fables in Classical Antiquity” JBL 129 (2010): 759-76; and I found the long list of translation fables quite interesting. He shows that there are translation fables that end with the disappearance of the hero, and others that include re-appearance tales (often happening on the road) in which figures such as Romulus or Claudius appear to individuals, sometimes in white, shining clothes.

          I have mentioned the Endsjø book that Felker mentions here before (I’ve read through a few chapters), and I am aware that there are other scholarly comparisons of Gospel tales with Greek heroic writing.

          I did a search on Miller’s article and found this blog post of yours from last year. I would certainly enjoy seeing a blog series on this topic, as you suggest.

  • captain obvious

    I think Paul probably got his belief that the world was coming to an end (and that Jesus was the first fruit) from the early Christians he was persecuting (before he converted). The tradition is probably very early. Because Paul and (probably) Jesus were convinced the world was about to end and that they were central players in the end times, both Jesus and Paul were completely insane.

  • Andrew Dowling

    Bernard Scott argues that an OT-esque Assumption was a common belief among some early Jewish-Christians (in addition to the Resurrection). IMO this helps make sense of the fact that the few early Jewish-Christian documents we still have (James, the constructed Q Gospel, Hebrews, Didache) don’t mention Resurrection once.

    Add in Thomas (and some primitive kerygma in Peter’s early speech in Acts which speaks of the evidence of the risen/exalted Jesus is in the activity of his followers), and I think the traditional consensus that all early Christians shared Paul’s theology of the cosmic significance of the Resurrection event to be wanting.

  • Robert Landbeck

    To understand the significance of the Resurrection it may first be necessary to comprehend the meaning of ‘Death’. Of course there is the literal meaning but is there another? And one should remember that how we see ourselves and how we are perceived by God are likely to be very different. So take any concordance off the bookshelf and look up ‘death’ and the relevant passages and it become evident, even to a lay man that Death also represents ignorance of God. That is to say, however sincere ones aspirations may be, by the Fall, we remain ‘spiritually dead’. And if that is the case, than the purpose of true religion is that we should be Raised to Life. Life being knowledge and insight.

    Consider that the Resurrection of Jesus may have been to demonstrate absolutely that God is willing to make Himself known by an intervention into the natural world to confirm His will by a ‘Resurrection’ that becomes our own experience of transcendent power which we experience within this existence. The ‘First Resurrection’.

    And indeed, if existing tradition has missed this point, it may very well be that ‘Christianity’ in the true since of the Word has yet to begin. And that may be what a ‘second coming’ and judgement are all about. To expose that spiritual corruption or ‘death’ within human nature itself and demonstrate just how far ignorance can carry the steps of reason in the absence of absolute truth!
    http://www.energon.org.uk

  • Jerome

    Paul doesn’t describe Jesus’ resurrection as a body getting reanimated though. He rather describes it as Jesus’ spirit/soul getting clothed with a new, heavenly body (implying the old, dead, physical body gets left behind).


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