Summary: The fact of the physical Resurrection of Jesus dominates the New Testament, but we must, when studying the various accounts, read the NT with the faith of the Church.
Monday of Easter Week
The apostles’ experience of the Resurrection of Jesus changed their lives forever. In the light of our week-long Easter festival, it makes sense to look at the Word of God recording the Resurrection, and to do so in the spirit of the Synod and the Holy Father’s exhortation, Verbum Domini.
There are two approaches to reading Sacred Scripture. The first is to read the Word as theology, as faith seeking understanding. The second is to read it critically as historians read all writings from the past. Over the past two centuries, the second sense has generated the most ink. The Pope cautions, however, that there is a serious risk of taking a dualistic approach to reading Scripture. It is highly dangerous to apply the techniques of secular hermeneutics without a faith orientation.
A good example of the latter is a Scripture scholar who, during his lifetime, was highly acclaimed by Catholics and non-Catholics alike, Fr. Raymond Brown. If you read his little book, The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus, as I did in graduate school, you would come away with the notion that, a couple of generations after Jesus’s life, the Church became highly creative in crafting the Bible narratives. Everyone knows that the four gospels do not agree on the various appearances of Christ after the Resurrection. What Brown and other secular-type scholars tend to do is to ignore the need to harmonize the four narratives–five if you count St. Paul’s stories of Christ’s appearance to him. If that is your only source of information, you might think the Church made up the appearance stories out of whole cloth. The problem, of course, is that if the Church did that, then they might very well have made up the whole tale. Then we get theological abominations like the once-popular Jesus Seminar, who tended to dismiss 95% of the New Testament as a work of pious fiction.
The Holy Father rightly reminds us that if “the work of exegesis” is secularized like that, then the text becomes a word belonging only to the past. But the Word of God is relevant to every age. It must be more than a record of a past world, of a past understanding of the breaking in of God into our world to save us. What he tells us to foster is a hermeneutic of faith. If we neglect to read the Scriptures with the faith of the Church informing our minds and hearts, then we become historiographers of the most secular kind: “whenever a divine element seems present, it has to be explained in some other way, reducing everything to the human element. This leads to [secular] interpretations that deny the historicity of the divine elements. . .Such a position can only prove harmful to the life of the Church, casting doubt over fundamental mysteries of Christianity and their historicity – as, for example, the institution of the Eucharist and the resurrection of Christ. A philosophical hermeneutic is thus imposed, one which denies the possibility that the Divine can enter and be present within history. The adoption of this hermeneutic within theological studies inevitably introduces a sharp dichotomy between an exegesis limited solely to the first level and a theology tending towards a spiritualization of the meaning of the Scriptures, one which would fail to respect the historical character of revelation.”
As an example, we see that there are two apparently contradictory traditions in the Gospels. The first places Resurrection appearances of Christ in the neighborhood of Jerusalem. The second shows appearances in Galilee. In Luke, the ascension of Jesus takes place on the Mount of Olives, just outside the Holy City. In Matthew, Mary Magdalene tells the disciples to go to Galilee, to the mountain of ascension. Mark records the instruction to go to Galilee, but also tells of appearances in Jerusalem.
Faith teaches us that the existence of multiple traditions does not cast doubt on the historical validity of the Resurrection. It simply means that there were multiple witnesses, each with his or her own story. The Gospel writer wove these true stories together in ways that support the preaching of the good news. The plain fact is this–none of the stories contradict each other. Jesus could have ascended to the Father twice, once in Judea and once in Galilee–we don’t know if there are any limits on his resurrected body. Each story tells the tale of the Father’s love; each tells of the need to preach the Gospel everywhere to everyone. And each attests to the simple, glorious fact–Christ is risen, and goes before us. Alleluia.