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Posted February 5, 2004

The Resurrection

Taken from the book: 101 Questions and Answers by Raymond E. Brown
[cited on our web pages in the Book section]

Q52. . . I have heard that reputable theologians, including Catholics, say that their faith would not be upset if the body of Jesus was discovered in Palestine. Do you as a biblical scholar think it necessary to believe in a physical resurrection?

Your pointed question raises a large issue, but an issue that I do not think we can afford to avoid or treat without precision. I have many times, both verbally and in writing, maintained that the statement of anyone today that “my faith would not be disturbed if they found the body of Jesus in Palestine” is quite irrelevant. We are not asked to believe in the resurrection of Christ upon the authority of any modern theologian. But we are asked to believe in the resurrection upon the authority of the apostolic witnesses. Therefore the question must be: Would the faith of Peter or Paul be disturbed if they found the body of Jesus in Palestine? I maintain that biblical evidence points to the fact that Peter and Paul preached a risen Jesus whose body had not corrupted in the grave. There is not an iota of New Testament evidence that any Christian thought the body of Jesus was still in the grave corrupting. Therefore, I think that the biblical evidence greatly favors the corporeal resurrection of Jesus.

You may note that you asked about the physical resurrection and I responded in terms of bodily resurrection. The question of physical resurrection touches on the nature of the risen body and about that there may be dispute. The basic issue is bodily resurrection. Was the body that was placed in the tomb on Friday raised into glory so that it no longer remained in the tomb or rotting in the earth? And that question I answer affirmatively according to the biblical evidence.

Having been clear on that point, let me add some factors that may clarify why objections are raised or why theologians speak the way they sometimes do about the body of the risen Jesus. In terms of the New Testament evidence, the stories of the finding of the empty tomb narrated in all four Gospels are often designed as late. The reasons for that include the fact that while Paul preaches the risen Jesus, he never narrates the story of the finding of the empty tomb, or mentions the tomb of Jesus. Personally, I do not find that silence very alarming, since Paul mentions practically nothing else about the historical details of the ministry of Jesus. Even today one could preach on the resurrection at length without getting into the matter of the finding of the empty tomb. Another factor suggests to scholars that the stories are late are the varying details in the narrative: one angel or two angels, standing or sitting, the tomb already opened, or opened by an angel who descends, what the angel says. These variations in the Gospels I would regard as reflecting the oral development of the tradition. But underlying all such variations is a solidly attested tradition by all four Gospels that the tomb was empty on Easter morning. To me the authenticity of that tradition, not the lateness of the varying stories in which it is contained, is the issue. The very fact that Mary Magdalene is remembered in the Gospels (and she is the basic witness to the finding of the tomb) favors the thesis that this was a historical Christian memory. Moreover, as often pointed out, if any Jewish nonbeliever could have gone and pointed to the body of Jesus in a tomb, the Christian proclamation of the resurrection would have been impossible. I see no reason to think then that the emptiness of the tomb of Jesus is not historical.

Of course, I understand that that tomb could have been empty for various reasons. So did the evangelists: In John 20, Mary Magdalene’s first suggestion for why the tomb is empty is that someone had taken the body. Matt 28:13-15 reports the existence of a Jewish claim that Jesus’ disciples stole the body at night. The emptiness of the tomb does not prove the resurrection; rather the resurrection became the standard explanation of the emptiness of the tomb. The latter fact suggests to me that Christian proclamation of the resurrection implied the impossibility of finding Jesus’ body and therefore, implied the corporeal aspect of the resurrection of Jesus.

Another factor that must be taken into account by Roman Catholics is church teaching. In my opinion the bodily resurrection of Jesus represents the teaching of the ordinary magisterium of the church in such a way that it comes under the rubric of infallibly taught doctrine. (I do not claim that this is taught by the extraordinary magisterium of the church exercised in creedal, conciliar, or papal definitions, but that it is part of the general and universal teaching and understanding of the church throughout the ages.) Very responsible systematic theologians have queried this by insisting that the precision bodily is not provably part of the infallible teaching. They are entitled to their view; but I do point out that in recent years where the bodily resurrection has been challenged, the reaction of church authority has been swift and definite, so that at least the office of the church that supervises doctrine does not regard a nonbodily resurrection as an alternative to be taught infallibly. I do not hesitate to invoke that as a reason why I believe it — not over against the biblical evidence, but in consonance with the biblical evidence. ( never see the church’s authority as a purely extrinsic factor: the church teaches authoritatively on such issues because it has lived with the Bible and proclaimed it over the centuries and has been guided by the Holy Spirit in interpreting the Bible.)

Nevertheless, these two factors that I have mentioned, namely, the theory of some biblical scholars that the empty tomb story is a late development in the New Testament and the disagreement of some scholars about the precision of church teaching, must be kept in mind in understanding why a debate has arisen over the bodily resurrection. One may defensibly maintain, however, that the majority of centrist biblical scholars would recognize that a resurrection of the body is what New Testament writers and preachers are talking about and that a majority of centrist theologians would hold that a bodily resurrection is infallibly taught by the ordinary magisterium of the church. For non-Catholics the latter issue may not be of importance; yet many of them would insist on bodily resurrection as part of the inerrancy of Scripture.