The storm is over in Kang. This will be recorded in our political history. Easter holidays are just around the corner. Each individual has his or her own plans on how to spend these holidays. For Christians is not just holidays but the time to celebrate the climax of their faith which is the death and resurrection of Jesus. Should we search for the historical Jesus especially for evidence of his resurrection which is at the base and root of the Christ of dogma? Can we know the Jesus of history? This Jesus if He never existed why has so much been written about Him? I can’t think of anyone in history who did leave an archaeological monument after him. It was later followers who put up those monuments to their heroes. But don’t we have His actual words in the gospels? For better or for worse, there is no VCR, no video tapes or Sony cassette recordings of what he said or did. But we do have His words in the gospels and accounts of what He did by reliable witnesses, such as St Luke who was a historian. However, it is feared that the New Testament and the tradition of the church give an idealised and theologised portrait of Jesus the man which obscures the man as he actually was.
The first paragraph rests on a false assumption which is that there is a gap or difference between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. Protestants scholars of the 1800s took this line. This, in turn assumes that Jesus was basically a man who claimed to be God and who fooled some followers into thinking He was God so that after He died and was secretly buried far away His followers invented the story of the resurrection and kept up the story that He was God and wrote the gospels with that bias or slant and got more and more people to believe them and follow them which then became the church. To put it simply this quest for the historical Jesus assumes that Christ was a man who became God and not the true God who became man which is what the gospels teach and the church believes, not that they put this slant or perspective on Him but simply because it is the truth of what happened.
Easter is a time for all of us to reflect on the resurrection and ask some basic questions about it: did Christ really rise from the dead, or was this just a story made up by His follower so as to give backing to His claim to be God. If so, it would mean that historically Jesus was just a carpenter or wandering rabbi suffering from delusions about being God who nonetheless managed to fool a lot of people who kept His story going even when He was dead and buried for ever, so that they made Him to be God. To keep this story going it would be necessary to say He rose from the dead because He claimed that He would rise, so His failure to rise would undermine everything about Him. Are the gospels then reliable historical accounts of what He was and what He did or are they just the slanted, biased accounts of His followers making Him out to be much more than what He actually was? The gospels are not immune to critical investigation, no more than any other document, but do they stand up to this investigation?
To begin with, if Christ did not rise from the dead would we still be talking about Him now two thousand years later? Not at all! He would be totally forgotten, having been written off as a deluded failure long ago. There were many other such deluded figures in all ages but their names are scarcely remembered now. If Christ did not rise it should be easy to find His dead body. All one would need to do is catch one of His disciples and torture him until he talked. That never happened nor was it even tried.
If Christ did not rise what would His followers have gained by keeping His story going? Nothing except crucifixion for themselves! No one follows a failure. Furthermore when the news of the resurrection was brought to them they themselves were very slow to believe for a long time – the story of doubting Thomas, for example. They did eventually believe for the simple reason that they saw Him, spoke with Him and ate with Him a number of times, over a span of 40 days, in various places with witnesses numbering as many as 500 in one occasion. One cannot argue against facts.
By comparison the stories of His opponents who then and still today try to discredit the doctrine of the resurrection are laughable: that the apostles stole the body while all of the guard of Roman soldiers were asleep! Impossible because the penalty for such failure by Roman soldiers was death. Another theory is that the soldiers stole the body so that the apostles could say He was risen? But why would they give support to the story of a man being alive whom they had deliberately put to death themselves? Then there's the story that He was buried in a different grave so that the apostles went to the wrong grave? But how can one say that one grave is wrong until one finds the right grave later, something that never happened! Then the theory is that He merely fainted or went into a coma for a few days. The centurion's spear stuck into His side puts an end to that. All of these theories give rise to so many ridiculous complications that the story that He did actually rise is far more plausible to anyone who has an open mind. Furthermore, scholars have applied the rules of evidence of good barristers to the accounts of the resurrection and find that they stand up well.
So if it is true that Christ rose from the dead then we can say that His claim to be God is also true and if He was God at all it was from the beginning of His existence in the womb of His mother Mary. It follows then that the gospels are being historical and factual when they tell us that He was God the Son made man. In other words, our religion is not about a man who became God but a God who became man, God the Son the second person of the Blessed Trinity, the Word, being made flesh and dwelling amongst us as St John puts it. So the gospels are not a bit of history with the slant or bias or ideology of the church added on. No: they are true accounts of what happened so that there is no need to try separating an imagined Jesus of history for an imagined Christ of faith. The Jesus of history is exactly what the gospels teach about Him: the Son of God, the Christ of faith.
Nonetheless Christian faith is at least partly exposed and vulnerable to historical enquiry. The roots of Christianity are not immune to critical historical investigation. Such investigations fit the nature of Christian belief, which is that God works not unambiguously or like a juggernaut, but precisely in and through human beings. Thus there is a necessary continuity between Jesus as known by historians and Jesus as the Christ of believers.
These theories can be responded to in different ways so as to affirm that indeed Jesus was resurrected from the tomb. One response to all these “theories” is to say, “Who’s to say what is true? It’s all a matter of speculation.” After all, even today one can speculate about mysteries to which we probably won’t ever get answers: What happened to Louis Nchindo? Was he killed, or did he commit suicide or skip the country? Was there a conspiracy in the death of Gomolemo Motswaledi? To some people, the controversy over these events is proof that we cannot possibly know for sure what happened concerning an incident which occurred almost two millennia ago. The evidence of Jesus resurrection goes beyond the discussion of source documents and historical records. It is evident that even now some people still testify about their experience of a changed life due to the resurrection.
His death was not an accident. He could have escaped His enemies easily. But He took on the terrible suffering and death of crucifixion to deliver us from our sins by paying the penalty for us. That He rose means He was successful in this, that the Father accepted His sacrifice as perfect, and that we can indeed be cleansed of the burden of our guilt if only we turn to Him in the mass. The Holy Mass makes that sacrifice of the cross present to us every day, and with a sincere confession so that His forgiving grace flows to us individually from His sacrifice. To think about these things during Easter should give us great joy and provide occasion for true celebration.
We are experiencing a lot of mushrooming churches where even some pastors claim to have such extra supernatural powers to resurrect people. When it comes to the resurrection of Jesus some people will even question the New Testament when they attempt to uncover the Jesus of history. What some assume is that the writers were biased, putting their own agendas rather than writing what actually happened. With that kind of thinking it is important also in another to familiarise oneself with the New Testament about Jesus. The four Gospels along with other writers in the New Testament give an account of the resurrection. After His resurrection, Jesus appeared to the disciples (they were cowards) and He transformed them to proclaim the message of the resurrection.
Jesus’ death was not an accident. It was part and parcel of his mission in this world that he gave his life as atonement for sin. The Good News is that the Messiah willingly stood in our place and by dying took the penalty which rightfully belongs to each one of us. But he did remain dead in the tomb but rose again and defeated the power of sin and death and enabled each one of us to have a new relationship with God. And this is the power of the resurrection which is available to those who believe. This power has changed a lot of people’s lives since the first century.
One scholar by the name Hugh Schoenfeld in his best-selling book The Passover Plot said Jesus’ plan was to pretend to be the Messiah and that he attempted to fake his death by taking a drug which would have made him swoon, giving the appearance of death. This plan was thwarted when a Roman solider struck a spear into his side which caused death.
The claims of Jesus stand alone, even when compared with the sayings of other religious leaders. And to punctuate his claims, there is a historical event which stands as a challenge. The New Testament does not present the resurrection of Jesus as merely one part of a creed that must be followed by insiders. It is presented to all people as a historical fact, and there are only two possible responses to it. Either it happened or it didn’t.
What do you think? Will your conclusion be determined by reflecting on tradition? Will you dismiss the issue because of twenty-first century presuppositions? Or will you choose to explore an ancient tomb—where all too few have dared to look? How can I or anyone else explore an ancient tomb? What does this mean? In Jerusalem there is the little church of the Holy Speculchor inside the big basilica there. It is empty right now. Even if I go over there and go into it I will see nothing there. So what are you asking us to do?
Something caused the disciples to move from despair to belief in the days after Jesus’ death. Their discouragement was replaced by conviction that He was, indeed, the risen Saviour. The tomb remained empty, Jesus’ dead body was never again seen and those who saw and believed were forever changed. The most believable explanation for this is that Jesus rose from the dead in bodily form, just as He said He would. If Jesus did not exist as a real historical figure, then there can be no faith in Jesus as the Christ and the Son of God.
Tshiamo Stephen Takongwa
Spiritual Director – Morwa