During the Easter season, the drama unfolds as Jesus rises from the dead and appears to Mary Magdalene, and to Simon Peter, and to Thomas.
Mary Magdalene had gone to the tomb where Jesus' body was placed after the crucifixion and found it empty. As she stood there, Jesus appeared and asked her, "Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?"
Not recognizing him, thinking perhaps he is the gardener, she says, "Sir, if you carried him away, tell me where you laid him and I will take him." To this, Jesus says only one word, "Mary." But it is enough. She recognizes him.
The effect the risen Jesus has on his disciples is almost palpable. From his death and resurrection in approximately A.D. 30, until A.D. 56 -- when Paul writes, "I saw the risen Lord" -- Jesus' disciples can think of nothing else. When has anyone ever risen from the dead before or since?
But did he? Did he merely die? Is his rising a hoax, with the apostles hiding his dead body and saying that he rose from the dead? Looking back nearly 2,000 years to words which are, at best, second-hand accounts, you can't be sure of the historical authenticity of those words or those actions. It all comes down to faith.
Can one even be sure that there was an historical Jesus for those words to authenticate?
Ancient historical documents say very little. A note in the "Annals" of the Roman historian, Tacitus (at the beginning of the second century) mentions Christus, who was sentenced to death by the procurator, Pontius Pilate, during the reign of Tiberius. Pliny the Younger (A.D. 110) mentions a hymn sung to Christus as in honor of a god. "Jewish Antiquities" (A.D. 90) by the Jewish historian Josephus notes that Jesus, who is called Christ, has a brother, James, who has been stoned.
Ultimately, though, world history hardly notices Jesus. It says only that he exited and when and where. What was he like? What did he do? It's almost impossible to answer these questions. Scholars suggest that we can know only what possibly happened, what probably happened and what could not have possibly happened.
All this we learn from Paul, Mark, Matthew, Luke and John, disciples of Jesus, who are not historians, and who are biased. They believe Jesus is the Son of God. They want to persuade others to do the same. So they collect material from oral tradition (A.D. 30 to 50), from collections of Jesus' sayings and even from each other. Starting with Mark, they arrange their material into biographical-historical narratives.
Hundreds of years later, scholars comb these Gospel narratives, testing their authenticity, noting their dissimilarities and similarities, matching these narratives against oral traditions. In this way, they come up with an historically probable picture. They reconstruct that picture into an image of Jesus. The term "historical Jesus" refers to this reconstructed image.
The historical Jesus is a Jew from Nazareth. His Hebrew name, Yeshua, resembles the name Joshua. His mother is Miriam. When he is born, there is a resurgence of Jewish nationalism. By profession, Jesus is an artisan, one who builds with stone and wood. During his adult years, Jesus begins preaching the coming kingdom of God, directing his teaching to Israel. He uses a variety of teaching materials, the most common being the parables, which instruct and promise a world of new values.
Jesus performs miracles, as signs of the kingdom, not as attempts to validate his career. The miracles heal, exorcise and otherwise prove God's triumph over evil, sickness and suffering.
One one hand, Jesus affirms the Mosaic law; on the other hand, he radicalizes it. He admits the lowly to his table, comparing this to being admitted to the kingdom. He refers to God as Abba, literally his own father; he does not appeal to the authority of the prophets but teaches on his own authority. For this blasphemy, the historical Jesus suffers, dies and is buried.
From here, the explanations can go two ways. First, the apostles steal Jesus' body from the tomb and lie. The lie deceives millions of people -- both wise and foolish, for 2,000 years. Or second, Jesus does rise from the dead. The apostles tell the truth, and their truth is still believed. Neither explanation can be proved.
Both depend on faith -- one group having faith that Jesus did rise, one group having faith that he did not. Both groups show the power of faith to control thoughts and change the course of history. Both show the power of faith to rise above facts. This power, ironically, is the very message of Jesus before and after his resurrection. It's the power that makes me believe Jesus Christ is the son of God.
Diane Scharper is the author of "Radiant: Prayer/Poems." She is a student of theology at the Ecumenical Institute of St. Mary's Seminary.
Pub Date: 4/12/98