New Book by Crossan on Easter

NCR reviewed a new book by the Crossans: “RESURRECTING EASTER: HOW THE WEST LOST AND THE EAST KEPT THE ORIGINAL EASTER VISION.” John Dominic Crossan and his wife spent much of the last 15 years studying ancient images from the East and West of Christ’s Resurrection. Surprisingly, at least to me, it turns out that they are radically different: “Western Christianity depicts an individual resurrection of Jesus, whereas Eastern Church icons show a universal resurrection for Jesus and all humanity together.”

However, this radical difference is not immediately obvious to the casual observer. The images are sufficiently ambiguous that the “universal” Eastern images can be seen as earthly Christians adoring the resurrected Christ. I suspect that is how most of us seem them, even though it is not what the artist intended, nor, if you look closely, what he depicted.

The Crossans claim that this Eastern view of group resurrection is how the original followers of Jesus understood things. The reviewer notes that the authors provided a great deal of scholarly support for this view. But she said nothing about the supporting evidence, and little about the implications of Crossan’s claim.

At first glance, the claim seems incorrect, because the earliest recorded evidence – Paul’s letters and the Gospels – support the Western view that only Jesus was resurrected. Paul wrote about two decades after Jesus’ death. He said that only Jesus was resurrected, but he expected Jesus to return at any moment and resurrect all his followers. If the universal view is older, why did the early writings contradict it? Why is it that we don’t see the “universal” view of Easter for several centuries?

But the “universal” view makes sense within the cultural and religious context of the period. At that time, there was no concept of a dead and resurrected Messiah - it was almost a contradiction in terms.  But many Jews thought the Messiah might initiate the Apocalypse -  the end of this world. Crossans’ “universal” claim makes sense if the first Jesus-followers believed his death initiated the Apocalypse, when all were resurrected. Of course this requires an unusual view of the Apocalypse, one in which it takes places in stages, spread over a long period of time. But this was probably a smaller stretch for the original followers of Jesus than the claim that the Messiah was killed by the foreign occupiers of Israel. After all, the Messiah was supposed to rid Israel of those occupiers and establish a divinely sponsored theocracy.

Crossan is one of the today’s best New Testament scholars. He is both knowledgeable and intelligent, and generally does not allow his faith to overwhelm his reason – a rarity in this field. Whether or not I agree with him, I usually learn from his books. I expect this will be true of Resurrecting Easter.

 

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