The Resurrection of...?: A Response to Broderick Greer
There has been a bit of a firestorm in the Twittersphere lately. At least the Christian neighborhood of the Twittersphere. It all started when a progressive Christian public intellectual named Broderick Greer said, as part of a longer thread,
It’s not an attack on the resurrection. There is a distinction between a literal bodily resurrection and resurrection itself. One is a fundamentalist tenet and one isn’t.— Broderick Greer (@BroderickGreer) September 1, 2018
Greer linked together a widely believed Christian doctrine, one which is treasured by seemingly all moderate to conservative Christians (and probably most liberal Christians), with the only really derogatory title left: fundamentalism. This, as might be expected, exploded instantly.
Now, Greer knows full well that “resurrection” is an important, even essential, aspect of Christian theology. Without the resurrection, there is no New Testament faith. “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is in vain and you are still in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:17). But the word “resurrection” need not mean a physical event, according to Greer. “Resurrection itself” is not necessarily “literal” and “bodily.”
A bit of historical background is in order here. The word “resurrection” comes from the Latin word “resurrectio” which means “to stand up again.” This Latin word is the one used to translate the Greek word anastasis in the New Testament, which means the same thing. And, of course, this word meant specifically to stand up again after death. It meant for a person—a literal, physical person—to stand up again after being laid down in the grave. It meant, it only meant, the body’s living again.
This is not only proven by the etymology of the word. Meanings are seldom contained by etymology. But the use of the word (and concept) in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament refers to the resurrection of bodies. The first time that the concept of resurrection appears in the Bible is in Ezekiel, in the famous valley of dry bones (37:1–14). In the story, Ezekiel is shown a vision of a field long after a battle, when the bodies of the killed soldiers have rotted and decayed into the ground. All that is left of their memory are bones. God then tells Ezekiel to speak to the bones, to tell them to live again, and the image is vivid for its sheer physicality: “And I looked and sinews and flesh came upon [the bones], and skin covered them” (37:8). Real, physical bodies raised to life, given breath again; that is the meaning of “resurrection.” “Spirits,” as far as I am aware, don’t have sinews.
Then in Daniel 12 there is the first clear picture of eternal judgment and life-after-death in the Old Testament, and this time the concept of resurrection is understood literally and physically; it is no longer a mere metaphor for Israel’s “living again.” Regarding the judgment, Daniel 12:2 reads, “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake, some to eternal life and some to eternal shame and contempt.” Those who “sleep in the dust of the earth” being, of course, the bodies of those long dead. “Spirits,” whatever those are, aren’t buried underground.
Then we have 2 Maccabees 7, where a Jewish martyr tells his persecutor, “Though you deprive us of the present life, you demon, the king of the world will resurrect us again to eternal life because we died for the sake of his laws” (7:9). And then, even more clearly referring to physical resurrection, the martyr’s brother says, “I received these [hands] from heaven, and because of his laws I disregard them, for I expect to receive them again from him” (7:11). “Spirits,” whatever those are, do not have hands.
Then we have the New Testament, which uses the word and concept of resurrection in an exclusively physical way. Greer misleadingly—downright wrongly—claims that Mark doesn’t teach the physical resurrection of Jesus:
Descendants of the early 20th century Christian fundamentalists are more preoccupied with a literal bodily resurrection than the Creeds and frankly, the Gospel According to Mark, which originally ended at 16:8, not 16:16. But that is for another time.— Broderick Greer (@BroderickGreer) September 1, 2018
But this is disproven by any serious reading of the New Testament. While Mark doesn’t have a resurrection appearance, Jesus is clearly physically raised in the text. His body is gone, and the angels say specifically, “He [that is, his body] is not here” (16:6). Are we to imagine that Mark imagined angels hiding the body in order to make a point (what point?) about Jesus’ purely “spiritual” resurrection? Also, it was precisely the physical resurrection (of Christians, which by implication is tied to Jesus’ resurrection) that Paul thought was so important in 1 Cor. 15. Revelation 20 clearly depicts dead bodies being raised back to life, both graves made in the ground (Jewish term “sheol” turned into Greek “hades”) and even the sea giving back the bodies of the dead that they might rise and be judged (20:13). “Spirits,” whatever those are, are not buried in the earth or under the sea waiting to be judged.
And, of course, the early Christians believed in the very tangible, very physical resurrection of Jesus. The Apostles’ Creed specifically says, “I believe in… the resurrection of the flesh.” It’s hard to reconcile this, the original and foundational creed of early Christianity, with Greer’s claim that “Descendants of the early 20th century Christian fundamentalists are more preoccupied with a literal bodily resurrection than the Creeds.” The earliest and most important creed of all, the Apostles’ Creed, explicitly says the resurrection is bodily.
The only early Christian groups which might be marshaled to Greer’s defense are two groups of heretics, and neither is as helpful as he might hope. First we have a group called “the Ebionites.” The Ebionites were a group that, essentially, believed that Jesus was just a prophet, not divine in any sense, and that Jesus died a martyr’s death. And then wasn’t raised. Jesus’ work was interpreting the Law for the new era. But small problem here: the “Ebionites” may never have existed. And if they did, they were extremely marginal and represented an incredibly small portion of early Christianity, dying out within the first century of Christianity with no real theological heirs. Not exactly the same level of authority as the (falsely understood) “Creeds” that Greer cites. The second group that might be understood to defend Greer’s claim are the Gnostics, but these are even more ephemeral in their defense of Greer’s position. True, the Gnostics didn’t believe in Jesus’ physical resurrection. But that’s because they rejected everything about physicality. The savior was never physical in the first place; at best, the “savior” is merely a spirit that possessed a man named “Jesus” (and then abandoned Jesus when that Jesus was put to death). Gnostics rejected the idea that physical suffering could in any way be redemptive, because it is rather the intellectual, the “spiritual” which mattered. Physical well-being, along with any type of social justice, would be irrelevant at best, criminal at worst for a typical Gnostic. That’s not the type of ally I think Greer would want.
Pretty much no one else throughout church history up to the present doubted the physical resurrection of Jesus. No one in the mainstream of the tradition, at least. That is, no one except liberal biblical scholarship in the 19th and 20th century. Building off of Enlightenment principles, liberal biblical scholars in this era attempted to reinterpret the Bible’s miracles to better accord with “reason” (i.e., “What Western, Eurocentric intellectuals believed to be ‘reasonable,’ rejecting the ‘superstitions’ of the East and the past”). So Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand became not the miraculous multiplication of food, but a “mythologized” account of people sharing their food with each other. Similarly, Jesus did not physically resurrect; he was simply “resurrected” in the hearts of his disciples, his message revived among them and energizing them to serve and love. Anyone who has ever read the New Testament, especially those who read it attempting to be historical rather than appealing to modern Western intellectual fashion, can see that reading is special pleading. But, obvious special pleading or not, it has gained a large following in modern, Western, Enlightenment-infatuated progressive Protestantism. And that, of course, is where we find Greer.
So, what should we say about Greer’s claim? First of all, speaking purely historically, it is totally implausible. The word resurrection, as used by the early Christians to discuss their beliefs about Jesus and themselves, always and only meant a literal, physical event. This is not some “fundamentalist” claim. It was believed by almost everyone up until the Western Enlightenment, and then only by one branch of Euro-American Christianity. I don’t know Greer personally, and I don’t know very much about his theological training, but the claim that only fundamentalists (a 20th century movement) emphasized a literal, physical resurrection betrays an embarrassing ignorance of Christian theology and history.
Whatever we might say about the resurrection, and whatever we might say about the resurrection body, we at least must agree that Christians throughout history have believed that resurrection was indeed in a body.