Scholars: Resurrection misunderstood by Christian and Jewish faithful
AP Religion Writer
On Easter Sunday, Christians will proclaim the message at the heart of their faith – “He is risen” – and will affirm the hope that God will raise all the dead at the end of time.
But this belief is deeply misunderstood, say scholars from varied faith traditions who have been trying to clear up the confusion in several recent books.
“We are troubled by the gap between the views on these things of the general public and the findings of contemporary scholarship,” said Kevin Madigan and Jon Levenson, authors of the upcoming book, “Resurrection, The Power of God for Christians and Jews.”
The book traces the overlooked Jewish roots of the Christian belief in resurrection, and builds on that history to challenge the idea that resurrection simply means life after death. To the authors, being raised up has a physical element, not just a spiritual one.
Levenson last year wrote a related book, “Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel: The Ultimate Victory of the God of Life.” Meanwhile, N.T. Wright, a prominent New Testament scholar and author of the 2003 book “The Resurrection of the Son of God,” has just published, “Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection and the Mission of the Church.”
Debate about Christ’s Resurrection has focused on whether Jesus rose bodily from the dead after the Romans crucified him on Good Friday, or whether Resurrection was something abstract.
Wright’s 2003 book was considered one of the most important recent arguments that Jesus was physically resurrected.
The three scholars also have been challenging the idea, part of Greek philosophy and popular now, that resurrection for Jews and the followers of Jesus is simply the survival of an individual’s soul in the hereafter. The scholars say resurrection occurs for the whole person – body and soul. For early Christians and some Jews, resurrection meant being given back one’s body or possibly God creating a new similar body after death, Wright has said.
Madigan and Levenson, among other scholars, also emphasize that resurrection for humankind is a belief that Christians and Jews share. Christians generally find it difficult to imagine that a faith that doesn’t believe in Christ’s Resurrection can believe in resurrection at all.
But “as the early church was developing, rabbis were making resurrection an article of normative belief,” Madigan and Levenson said in e-mailed answers to questions from The Associated Press. “That is something many Jews do not know. Like many Christians, they are under the misimpression that resurrection is a uniquely Christian hope.”
Jews in the time of Jesus believed that resurrection was bodily and communal – in that it brought justice to the oppressed and renewed creation, wrote Madigan, who teaches Christian history at Harvard Divinity School, and Levenson, who teaches Jewish studies there. That Jewish belief was absorbed and reshaped by the earliest Christians to form part of their religion.
Most modern-day Jews don’t know this. Except for the Orthodox branch of Judaism, Jewish groups deleted belief in resurrection from the traditional prayer book during revisions that began during the 19th century in response to rationalistic, Enlightenment thought.
Public understanding of resurrection has been influenced not only by modern rejection of the idea of miracles, but also by popular culture.
Alan F. Segal, a Barnard College professor and author of “Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion,” notes that most Americans expect the afterlife will be a continuation of life on earth – “like a really good assisted-living facility.”
He also said that belief in an existence beyond death persists among Americans no matter how little they observe their religion. In the 2005 Baylor Religion Survey, 82 percent of respondents said they “absolutely” or “probably” believed in heaven. Nearly 71 percent said they “absolutely” or “probably” believed in hell.
But their ideas have been molded by Western individualism, and scholars say many important teachings from early Christianity have been skewed as a result. Indeed, even debating the specifics of resurrection may seem far removed from 21st century life.
Yet Wright and others say the church should teach what the first Christians believed. Wright also has argued that the physical reality of a future world after death shows “the created order matters to God, and Jesus’ Resurrection is the pilot project for that renewal.”
Madigan and Levenson have an additional motivation. They said they wrote the book to help Jews and Christians understand more about their theological bonds.
Amy-Jill Levine, a New Testament scholar at Vanderbilt University’s Divinity School, said interest in resurrection – along with reincarnation, ghosts and contacting the dead – has grown in recent years.
“The more chaotic our world, with war and disease, hurricanes and famine,” she said, “the more many seek a divine response to the problem of evil.”