Given that this is Easter Monday and I did not post yesterday, I thought it appropriate to turn our attention to the Café mailbox. I mentioned last week that I received a letter from the Boston area about the Resurrection. Specifically, the question focuses on an Irish Redemptorist Priest, Father Tony Flannery, and reports in the media about his response to a question of whether the Resurrection of Jesus was “another myth.” According to my Beantown correspondent, Father Flannery was “banned” but I note that he was silenced way back in 2012 by the Vatican for public views he expressed on women priests and Church teachings on sexuality, issues more likely to get him into hot water.
I have a nagging suspicion that this kind of question posed to Father Flannery is a reflection of poor adult comprehension of both the humanities and Catholic theology, as the original and first meaning of the word “myth” is exactly the reverse of its current American usage as a fable of dubious worth. On the contrary, in anthropological studies the term myth applies to a narrative that embodies profound religious truths. Many cultures, for example, have a “flood and rescue myth” involving a mix of divine wrath and divine intervention. If you are a catechist, you can thank your lucky stars that you teach the Jewish narrative of Noah’s Ark, and not the Mesopotamian narrative of “Utnapishtim’s Ark.” I doubt that 1 in 100 Catholics have studied the Old Testament and understand its literary foundations. Given that Jesus went to his grave a Jew, that is a rather serious deficiency in our understanding of Jesus.
But to the specificity of the Resurrection narratives in the Gospels, my writer quotes Father Flannery as saying “The Resurrection of Jesus is fundamental to our faith, but that does not mean it happened exactly as it is described in the various biblical accounts. What it does tell us is that, after the desolation of Jesus’ followers as a result of his death, they gradually began to realize that in a mysterious, but very real, way he was still with them.” The quote continues with the suggestion that “maybe their experience of the reality of Jesus in their lives wasn’t that different to how we can also experience him in our own lives…the detail of how this happened doesn’t really matter very much.”
There’s the problem: the devil is very much in the details. I am taken back by Father Flannery’s assertion that the specifics in the four Gospels of the post-Good Friday era are without significance for the believer. I agree with Father Flannery that realization of the ultimate meaning of the Resurrection took time to sink in. The Scriptures themselves talk of this phenomenon. In Cycle A’s Gospel of Matthew, the disciples meet the risen Christ in Galilee, “but some doubted.” In Cycle B’s Gospel of Mark, the Longer Conclusion reports that the risen Jesus excoriates the disciples for their lack of faith. In the C Cycle St. Luke famously encapsulates the awakening process in the magnificent narrative of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. In John’s Gospel, the trials and tribulations of doubting Thomas are generally well-known. I have no argument that the earliest Christians “gradually began to believe” what they were experiencing.
On another point, Flannery speaks of the description of the Resurrection “as narrated in the various biblical accounts.” Truth be told, no New Testament author narrates a resurrection scene. The four Gospels and several other New Testament places describe an encounter with an empty tomb or a personal encounter with Jesus after his resurrection. Scripture scholars in general would agree that the New Testament records personal faith decisions in the risen Jesus, and not physical proofs of how a body resuscitated. The Easter stories are divided into two types: empty tomb narratives and appearance narratives.
It is helpful to remember that all history is interpretation, just as translation is interpretation. The Gospel accounts we possess today express the meaning of the event as understood by the Evangelists and by the followers of Jesus who encountered him. For many centuries, the Church spoke of the Resurrection as “proof” that Jesus was God, but as noted above, no material proof exists that Jesus’ rising from the dead happened, historically and scientifically speaking. The Resurrection cannot be plucked from the mystery of faith and dropped into scientific research. We are on somewhat safer ground when we talk about the Resurrection as an event of Faith, for it is objectively provable that a community of believers believed they had encountered the living Jesus and understood themselves to be filled with God’s Holy Spirit.
Flannery’s summation overlooks that the Resurrection narratives in the Gospel bring unity to each text, which accounts for the differences between each Gospel. The details are quite important. Take St. John’s Gospel: written possibly as late as 100 A.D., St. John’s text is directed toward a standing Church of several generations. We know from the Last Supper that John wished to deliver a message of unity to a church that was now experiencing matters of doctrinal and disciplinary disunity. John’s Resurrection narratives seem to be directed to the primacy of Peter. When Peter and a younger disciple race to the empty tomb, the younger man arrives first but defers to allow Peter to enter first. Later, Jesus commands Peter to “feed my lambs, feed my sheep.” John also seems concerned about a church that is several generations removed from these events. For after Thomas’s remorseful act of faith, Jesus says, “Blessed are they who have not seem but have believed.” This is a strange sentence dated a week after the Resurrection; the disciples, the missionaries, are still ensconced in the upper room. John clearly has in mind future generations of believers whose faith rests upon the handing forth of early Resurrection faith.
What is the Church’s official position on the Resurrection? On April 21, 1964, the Pontifical Biblical Commission issued “Instruction Concerning the Historical Truth of the Gospels" (A link to the document—admittedly involved---and a commentary by American Biblical Scholar Father Joseph Fitzmyer can be found here.) A Catholic is bound to believe that God sent his Son, Jesus, to die for our sins and then be raised by the Father to return to his place in the everlasting glory of the Trinity. The document notes that there were multiple stages to revelation about Jesus: what Jesus actually did and said, what his immediate followers understood of his words and acts, how and in what form this information was passed along in an oral tradition, and finally, how the Gospel writers received this material and applied it to the congregations and the needs of their times.
I conclude with a direct quote from the 1964 text. It is involved, but it may explain how the Church’s understanding of Jesus—including his Resurrection—came to be and passed along to us.
VIII. The apostles proclaimed above all the death and resurrection of the Lord, as they bore witness to Jesus. They faithfully explained His life and words, while taking into account in their method of preaching the circumstances in which their listeners found themselves. After Jesus rose from the dead and His divinity was clearly perceived, faith, far from destroying the memory of what had transpired, rather confirmed it, because their faith rested on the things which Jesus did and taught. Nor was He changed into a "mythical" person and His teaching deformed in consequence of the worship which the disciples from that time on paid Jesus as the Lord and the Son of God. On the other hand, there is no reason to deny that the apostles passed on to their listeners what was really said and done by the Lord with that fuller understanding which they enjoyed, having been instructed by the glorious events of the Christ and taught by the light of the Spirit of Truth. So, just as Jesus Himself after His resurrection "interpreted to them" the words of the Old Testament as well as His own, they too interpreted His words and deeds according to the needs of their listeners. "Devoting themselves to the ministry of the word," they preached and made use of various modes of speaking which were suited to their own purpose and the mentality of their listeners. For they were debtors "to Greeks and barbarians, to the wise and the foolish." But these modes of speaking with which the preachers proclaimed Christ must be distinguished and (properly) assessed: catecheses, stories, testimonia, hymns, doxologies, prayers--and other literary forms of this sort which were in Sacred Scripture and were accustomed to be used by men of that time.