Today is the Eastern Orthodox Easter Sunday and the second Sunday of Easter for the western tradition; nevertheless, for several reasons unconnected with Easter Sunday, I have recently been contemplating the scandal of the resurrection of Jesus.
The idea is rather startling if it is taken seriously. It certainly does not fit within normal academic historiography; it offends liberal religious sentiment; it would make most people roll their eyes if it were asserted for any other human being. Without reviving Heidegger, it is no stretch to say death pretty much sums up our normal expected human limitations.
I understand the historiographical rejection of the resurrection of Jesus. It is not something even believers would account to normal historical processes–it is quite literally divine. One can take the story seriously historically simply by viewing it phenomenologically: it is what a group of people believed and taught at a point in history. Fine.
There is another way of thinking which wishes to take the resurrection mythically, more or less as a spiritually powerful metaphor for transformation. In this view, the historicity of the resurrection is irrelevant, because the point is the principle not the event. Of course, radical transformation is an important aspect of Christianity, and the theological impetus for the mythic paradigm is strong.
Nevertheless, I find the combination of an acceptance of Jesus as divine and of rejecting a literal, historical resurrection of him rather bizarre and self-defeating. From a purely historiographical perspective, Jesus was man who was believed to be divine and believed to have been resurrected. The two go together as part of a materialist perspective. The accuracy of those theological claims is left suspended. The idea of Jesus as divine is itself a statement beyond history as such: it is making a theological claim about an event in history.
If one really believed this claim, then why is resurrection so difficult?
I think the answer is the scandal of the divinity and humanity of Jesus, one which is easily skirted by its familiarity, but which is harder for resurrection to avoid. Resurrection offends our normal sense of reason and experience of mortality. It is patently something either outside normal historical processes or merely a sign of craziness. Divinity is beyond historical processes per se, but the long trend of Deism in the West has obscured this in our thinking: we are used to the idea of a vague divinity lurking in the background. But, the statement that a particular human in a particular place at a particular point in time was G-d, that actually is a rather shocking claim.
If one truly believed Jesus were divine, then his resurrection would hardly be a more radically extra-historical statement. It is like Jesus’s own statement concerning his ability to heal or forgive: one implies the other.
I think the discomfort some forms of Christianity have with a literal resurrection of Jesus is actually a weak sense of his divinity. Were he truly divine, then resurrection should be a walk in the park. If one believes Jesus has the power to effect transformation in the world because He is G-d, then surely he could rise from the dead. Ironically, it could even be argued that resurrection is more open to verification “scientificially” than is divinity (or, at least, it could be disproven in theory). Moreover, Paul even tries to argue in his writings that the resurrection is what proves Jesus’s divinity, rather than the other way around. Perhaps this is where the discomfort comes in. Were one to assert the literal resurrection of Jesus in history and not only as a metaphor, then one has no reason to reject or ignore his divinity–and the resurrected Jesus as G-d makes some pretty uncomfortable demands towards transformation, perhaps more so than the resurrected Jesus as metaphor.