Monday, July 9, 2007

Part 5: Bodily resurrection and sematics

Chad has left an interesting comment on Part 2 of the resurrection posts, which I duplicate here in full. He brings to the discussion what I consider to be a very good and relevant question. What did first century Jews and Christians think that the Greek words for resurrection actually meant? One thing? A range of options? Are we imposing our modern definitions onto the past? Are we narrowing the historical nuances to fold into our own orthodoxy?

Chad says:
At the risk of reheating a now cooled debate and perhaps further riling your confessional Christian interlocutors, who continue to grasp at straws with appeals to philosophy of science, definitions of inductive reasoning, and the like (all, by the way, standard and now tiresome postmodern apologetic tactics) in their defense of bodily resurrection as a "unique" event, I wish to call attention to a more fundamental issue in any discussion of the “resurrection” of Jesus - the arguably problematic modern semantic range of this English word.

As the Greek readers in your audience should know, this word stems (via Latin resuscitāre and resurgere) from two Greek verbs: anistēmi and egeirō (cf. Hebrew qum). From these well-attested verbs in LXX and GNT, we derive the notions of “stand up,” “rise,” “raise up,” “rouse,” “restore,” “set up,” or even “awake” (each usually in the quite mundane sense of things). Of course, such prosaic usages would doubtless have also been imbued with other symbolic meanings. However, I doubt that many Christian commentators - both those with and those without control of ancient Greek - have really pondered these words and their import apart from the KJV-influenced semantic range or even from a non-Christian (modern and/or ancient) perspective. Moreover, I doubt that, in the case of, say, the Corinthians (i.e., “pagans”) and their disdain for a resuscitated corpse, many commentators even consider that folks in antiquity could misunderstand the meanings or semantic range of words (theologically tinged or not) – just as folks do today. This latter point in general is rarely mentioned in studies of Paul or Christian Origins. In fact, the notion of misunderstanding in this sense, it seems to me, must be taken into account in any responsible study (whether confessional or secular) of, say, the so-called “Gentile Mission” or really any first-century dissemination of the Christian “gospel” and its subtleties to those without a “Jewish” or “Christian” mindset. (Anecdotally, I cannot help but think – in a more trivial sense – of "The Life of Brian" with its “Blessed are the Cheesemakers.”) But seriously, it is likely that across the Greco-Roman world the Greek verbs anistēmi and egeirō (and their derivatives) were not wholly refined in the “Christian” sense, but were largely culturally refined. Perhaps, then, some of what we witness in Paul’s Corinthian correspondence, for example, is just as much a rhetorical struggle over the “meaning” of the word egeirō(cf. 1 Cor.15:4, 20) as a presentation and reiteration of Pauline “theology.”

Now I am not arguing that anistēmi and egeirō did not or could not signal bodily “resurrection” in the modern Christian sense in the first century. I simply call attention to an issue that is certainly under-discussed, and an issue that would fit well with your suggestion about rethinking the problem of “ante-eschaton” resurrection in first-century Judaism.

Finally I submit that, as much as it may pain some Christians and Christian scholars to do so, the polysemy of “resurrection” in ancient usage must be factored into any modern reconstruction of Jesus’ supposed postmortem appearances.


Jim Deardorff said...

It is interesting to me that "anastasis" includes the possibility of recovery from clinical death.

Doug said...

Thanks for highlighting that very useful comment I'd otherwise have missed. Far from being riled (as one of you confessional Christian interlocutors) I think it dovetails neatly with the point I made about the changing framework and meaning of resurrection even in Paul's own rhetoric. We can never assume any word is univocal. I think Chad makes a very important point, even though I assume we assess the "what happened" rather differently.

Watchman said...

I have read these various posts and comments with great interest, even though the exchange is a bit old now. The idea of a physical or literal resurrection has become doctrine, but we really don't have to accept it as original or true to the sense of the teachings. The linguistic analysis on the origin of the word 'resurrection' is helpful in this regard. A spiritual resurrection, coined in physical narrative, is much more attractive to the intellect and heart. Death equates to ignorance of one's own spiritual nature, and ultimate meaning, and of faith. Life is discovery of this nature and meaning.

Perhaps we should approach the scriptures as homiletic narratives rather than as grammatico- historical narratives. They are there to be viewed as screens or images with meaning hidden in them, like the treasure in the field. We have to dig past the outer covering of dirt to find the inner meaning.

A three fold process from death to life appears to recur regularly in the OT and NT. It is typological, with various motifs, including time (three days of the resurrection; three days of revival in Hosea 6; three days of rebuilding the temple; three days of Jonah in the belly of the sea monster); geography (Egypt > wilderness > promised land; Capernaum > Jerusalem > Inner temple); and spiritual children (Cain > Abel > Seth). These all describe three stages of human nature from the most abased, i.e., immersed in materiality and mere sense-perception, in a sense an innocent child-like state (hylic or sarkic in Paul's terminology); a plane of limitation in which the searching soul seeks gratification and desire and feels guilt owing to the compulsions and desires it allows to rule over itself (psychic plane, and adolescent state); and the fully resurrected soul now become full of spirit (pneumatic) and freed from the restrains of materialism, sense perception, and self deception. It becomes what Paul would call "mature" or telios.

The Gospel of Philip is helpful in this regard:

"Either someone will be found in this world or in the resurrection or in the middle place. God forbid that I be found in the middle! In this world there is a good and evil. Its good is not good and evil not evil. But there is evil after this world that is truly evil – which is called the middle. The middle is death. While we are in this world it is best to acquire resurrection for ourselves so when we strip off the flesh we may rest and not walk in the middle. Many go astray on the way."

The "middle" (wandering in the wilderness with mixed multitudes) is likened to death. Here the soul is aware of its choices, and it generally and often chooses wrongly, using its willpower to satisfy its desires rather than to separate from them. That is death. The resurrection in this text is clearly not resuscitation from physical death, but rather emergence from a state of such spiritual death into a state of spiritual life, a rebirth. It is a very enlightening text indeed, from the Gospel of Philip. It goes on to say elsewhere that such lessons come down to us scripturally not in clear text ("naked") but rather: “Truth didn’t come into the world naked but in types and images. There is rebirth and its image. They must be reborn through image. What is the resurrection? Image must rise again through image.” And elsewhere: “The mysteries of truth are revealed in type and image.”