by Ethan Mack
In his later life, Thomas Jefferson edited a book entitled The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. In it, Jefferson edited out all of the biblical verses that were “offensive” to the modern intellect, namely all mentions of miracles and Christ's divinity. I can only imagine that all passages on the Crucifixion on were eliminated entirely, since nothing is more offensive to the modern mind than the resurrection of Christ from the dead. As Father James Martin recently said in an excellent Wall Street Journal article, the resurrection is disturbing because it forces you to make a decision: either you believe the in resurrection, accept Christ's divinity, and adjust your life accordingly, or you accept that the early Christians were a bunch of lying sociopaths who decided to enter into the greatest conspiracy in human history.
That being said, some modern, progressive Christians have sought a middle ground on the issue of the resurrection. This has led to a mystical theory of the resurrection which does not require the “scientifically problematic” idea of Christ's literal, bodily resurrection. This theory is well encapsulated by Michael H. Crosby in the National Catholic Reporter article entitled “Reclaiming the Mystical Interpretation of the Resurrection.” Crosby writes on the traditional biblical scholarship of the Resurrection: “The unfortunate result of this approach has been an overreliance on a literal interpretation of Jesus' resurrection as a kind of resuscitation of Jesus' body rather than the early disciples' experience of him as risen or alive in their lives through faith and baptism.” Crosby argues that the question of Christ's bodily resurrection is unsolvable for a historical perspective and, more importantly, that this question does not need to be settled in order to understand the biblical resurrection or its importance within the Christian narrative.
I must admit that I don't find Crosby's argument very compelling. It has often been said by apologists that the historical evidence for the bodily resurrection is so strong that its validity would hardly be questioned if the event were not so remarkable. There are a plethora of universally accepted historical events that have far less evidence indicating that they occurred. In the few words I have left, I'd like to briefly discuss the piece of historical evidence I find most compelling: the apostles and the early followers of Jesus.
Lets briefly consider the events of holy week and Easter from the perspective of the apostle Peter. It may be true that Peter was Prince of the apostles, but one may not get that impression from his constant portrayal as an ignorant, weak man. For example, Peter falls into the water due to a lack of faith, is called Satan by Christ for his false charity, and falls asleep after his Lord told him to keep watch for a mere hour. In the passion narrative, we of course witness Peter's greatest failure: his thrice denial of his Lord and greatest friend. However, Peter's failure in his denial was not due to any malicious intent, but rather to fear; fear of the cross. Here we see the terrifying power of Roman crucifixion. Crucifixion was nothing short of state-sponsored terrorism. The Romans would crucify rebels and criminals along the roads entering captured cities as a warning to any who would dare disobey Caesar within the walls. The cross was so terrifying that a mere flash of it had Peter and the others scatter in fear. It’s hard to imagine a more effective way to end the Christian cult than to kill its leader with such an instrument of sheer terror.
However, Christianity did not die with Christ on the cross. Peter did not wallow for the rest of his life in guilt and fear. On the contrary, he preached fearlessly in the very city where Christ was killed. Later, he went to Rome, to the heart of the very people who killed his Lord, and preached Christ all the way to his own crucifixion. How on earth are we to explain this? How did this weak, scared, pathetic fisherman become the fearless leader we see in the life of the early church? Believers in the mystical resurrection would say that Jesus' teachings were “revived” within Peter; that after three days of mourning Peter woke up on Easter Sunday remembering the hopeful teachings of Jesus and thus Christ was “resurrected” through Peter and the now hopeful apostles. I must admit that I struggle to accept this explanation. To thrice deny the living God and witness His death is not something that one recovers from after brief spiritual reflection. This remarkable shift in Peter and all the apostles can only be explained by a remarkable event; one that allowed them to encounter God's forgiveness tangibly and overcome their fear of death. The resurrection was this event. Christ tangibly came before Peter, forgave him of his sin, and showed him how death itself no longer had power over him. Without this miracle of all miracles, it’s easier to imagine Peter's fate resembling something like Judas', rather than that of a fearless martyr crucified on the Vatican Hill.