Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Vol. 34, No. 18. October 6 1971
Resurrection: a Symbol of Hope
Resurrection: a Symbol of Hope.
The vast majority of people today dismiss the Biblical stories of the resurrection and Jesus as rubbish, not worth a second thought.
A minority insist that the stories are literally true - and life transforming.
Both groups exhbit a lamentable ignorance of the fruits of a century of careful and scholarly academic study of the biblical documents.
Lloyd Geering in his lates book Resurrection: A Symbol of Hope attempts to dispel this ignorance. "The controversy in New Zealand," he says, "made it clear that many loyal church members had little idea of the change and movement that have taken place in the last hundred years in Christian thought and study of the Bible." (p.7) We may add that it isn't only loyal church members who are ignorant of these things.
Opponents of Geering have tried to make out that his point of view is eccentric and adopted by very few Christian scholars. How wide of the mark they are is shown by the two and a half page bibliography and the fourteen pages of references which clearly establish the truth of Rein hold Niebuhr's remark (quoted on p. 61), "There are very few theologians today who believe that the Resurrection actually happened."
At some point most writers and speakers defending the traditional story of the Resurrection triumphantly ask what else but an empty tomb and a literal Resurrection of Jesus could convert a demoralised, frightened group of disciples such as is portrayed in the gospel account of Good Friday evening into the confident world evangelists of a few weeks later? Most traditionalists apparently believe this argument unanswerable. In this book they will find that Geering has taken up the challenge and easily shows that the expectations the disciples inherited from the Old Testament tradition, together with a number of other circumstances of the time, are quite sufficient to account for the construction and acceptance of a Ressurrection stroy in the early church.
Most of us (whether we believe in the Resurrection or not) are pretty sure what is meant by the Resurrection and what are the events that were alleged to have taken place. Unconsciously (as with the Christmas story) we adopt a version largely based on the writings of Luke. In fact this is by no means the only version of the story to be found in the New Testament. The general picture conveyed by the narratives in Luke and Acts is derived from traditions circulating in the church around AD 80. The Epistles of Paul give a picture twenty or thirty years earlier than this, and earlier strands still can be distinguished which reveal a very different version of what took place. So "the traditional understanding of resurrection not only vastly oversimplifies the New Testament traditions but is open to serious objections." (p. 27)
In the major portion of the book, Geering traces the idea resurrection from its beginnings in the civilisation of the ancient Middle East more than four thousand years ago. He begins in the area also covered by Dr Henry Chadwick in his lecture Dying and Rising Gods of Antiquity (Victoria University; 26th July 1971). Ideas of resurrection arise from the vegetation gods mythology, where new life springs out of the death of the old crop. It is a totally new harvest each year, not a restoration to life of the old crop (which has already been gathered, stored and eaten).
The Jews continued to take death seriously and regarded death as affecting the whole person. But the Greek tradition saw the personality as divisible; on the one hand there was the material body which died, and when the body died it released an indestructable part - the soul. This thinking was alien to Jewish traditions and was rejected by them until the second century B.C. From this time onward it gained support in some sections of Judaism but was firmly rejected by others.
The debate was still going on in Jesus' time. Paul felt that the Platonist idea of the immorality of the soul was irreconcilable with the Jewish concept of the resurrection of the body, and in I Corinthians he argues against the idea of immortality. Eventually, however - despite St Paul - the church achieved a synthesis of the two doctrines which in fact tended rather more to immortality than to resurrection.
Geering is easy to read and reliable in his scholarship. Neverheless many people will put down his book with a feeling that it is incomplete. He has established his thesis that resurrection is a symbol of hope. He has shown the sort of things people once hoped for when they used resurrection in this way. He has shown that these hopes are no longer relevant expressions for today. So he leaves us with an injunction to hope, but no idea of what to hope for.
The new theology has made the old theology untenable (unless you deliberately refrain from exercising the critical faculties you are supposed to develop at university), but the new theology still has to find something in its place which will provide a similar inspiration.
Maybe all that we can do at the moment is to hope that it can.