Readers of the Bible are accustomed to link the death of Jesus with his Resurrection, but there is evidence that the Resurrection interpretation of Jesus's death only arose some time after his death, and that the earliest Jesus followers thought instead that Jesus was never buried, but ascended to Heaven immediately after his death on the Cross. There are remnants of this belief in the Gospels, and there is positive evidence of a different kind from other texts (the Epistle of James, the Two Ways, the hymn embedded in Philippians 2) that much early Christian preaching and ritual assumed a Jesus in Heaven, but not that he had been buried, and then returned to the flesh before making that ascent. Here is a brief overview of that evidence.
The Gospel remnants:
- The Transfiguration in Mark; the Ascension of Moses among currently popular Jewish noncanonical texts.
- Peter Kirby showed the probability that Jesus's body was simply cast out of the city, into some common grave, and notes that the Parable of the Vineyard in Mark is most convincingly read this way.
- Adela Yarbro Collins' 2007 reconstruction of the Pre-Markan Passion Narrative (p819 of her Mark commentary) has no burial or Empty Tomb scene; it ends with Mk 15:38, the Rending of the Veil. The unavoidable conclusion is that our Markan Passion Narrative is an overwriting and extension of an earlier complete account that ended with Jesus's death, and did not include the Resurrection.
- The Woman of Bethany. The Markan legend (a symbolic anointing of Jesus's body before he dies) conflicts with the story of the Woman at the Tomb (who try to anoit his body after he has died). The latter is obviously part of the Resurrection story; the former is likelier to date from the time when it was not yet thought that Jesus had been buried in an expensive tomb. That is, the Woman legend probably comes from the period of the Direct Ascent belief. And the Woman story is not original in Mark; it is interpolated (it manifestly interrupts the story of Judas's betrayal). Then the period of the Direct Ascent belief must have lasted a certain amount of time, a matter of some years, at least in the area which is reflected by Mark's account of Jesus.
- Jesus in Mark repeatedly predicts his own death and resurrection after three days, but these passages stand or fall as a group, and the second of them is manifestly interpolated. If one, then all, meaning that the Resurrection Prediction is a late addition to Mark.
- Luke, coming later than Mark, and unquestionably including a Resurrection story, nevertheless includes a moment which can only be from an earlier tradition. Says Jesus on the cross to the Good Thief next to him, "This day shalt thou be with me in Paradise." This eliminates the three-day burial scenario; Jesus (the story clearly expects) will be in Heaven in a few hours, as soon as he has physically died.
The Ritual evidence:
- The Eucharistic prayers in the Didache thank God for the gift of Jesus, but in what terms? Not as the one who redeemed them, but as the one who showed them the way to life. Not as the Lamb of God, but as the supreme teacher of men.
- The hymn embedded in Philippians 2, which depicts the descent, death, and ascent of Jesus to a position of honor, would be a good opportunity to mention the Resurrection. It does not do so.
- Arguments from Silence are strong in proportion to the amount of material they include, and the probability that the texts in question would have been likely to mention the given event if they had known of it. The probability that the Didache Eucharist prayer, in thanking God for sending Jesus, would have mentioned his redeeming sacrifice if that community had believed in it, is surely very high.
- And the simple number of independent texts which not only do not refer to the Resurrection, but preach a different way of salvation - which take the "works" side of the faith/works opposition expressed by Paul in Romans, is surely significant. The Two Ways document, which occurs attached to several others (the Didache, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Apostolic Constitutions, and as an interpolation in Galatians), is purely a list of good and (especialy) bad works; things to do and no to do. It focuses on the Christian, not on the Christ.
- Finally, the Epistle of James not only preaches deeds rather than beliefs as the way to be saved, it goes on to ridicule and hold up to contempt Paul's doctrine of faith, and his use of Abraham as an example of faith. Abraham's virtue, notes James, was not in what he believed, but in what he did (or was prepared to do, namely, sacrifice his own son). This James/Paul confrontation is something of a high point in the history of interChristian controversy. No overview of the evolution of Christian doctrine is complete without it.
Such is the case for Alpha. We may then ask, if things were so satisfactory on that basis, why then the idea of the Resurrection? Why did it arise in the first place? It was probably inspired by essentially Jewish-based reflection (resurrecton was a tenet held by the Pharisees, against the opinion of Sadducees and other Jews), most likely in Jerusalem, on the possible meaning of Jesus's death in more traditional Jewish terms. This idea had the merit of not discarding Jesus's death as an embarrassment, but of using it as a climax: a ground of hope and not a denial of hope. It seemed to be a foretaste and guarantee of the individual resurrection anticipated by believers. In sum, it solved the problems that the story of Jesus as then understood presented to believers. It buried the shame of the cross in the sancity of the cross.
Paul and the Resurrection. [For the time being, see the Paul page].
Later Developments. Once the Resurrection was established, a further development led to the idea, not only that Jesus had physically survived his death (thus showing the power of God over Death), but that his death had the character of a sacrifice, and that by that sacrifice, Jesus had atoned for the sins of all. This Atonement theory is the strong version of the Resurrection theory; it was vigorously preached by Paul. For our best suggestion as to how it arose, and why it appealed to Paul in particular, see the Atonement page.
The emergence of the Atonement doctrine marks a second state of Beta; we might call it Beta II. It was around this doctrine that the lines of orthodoxy were eventually drawn, and the terms for inter-Christian controversy were established. The war over the Canon was only one incident of that controversy.