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Conversation with a Good-Natured and Confused Person

Wednesday, April 25, 2012 1:00 AM Comments (28)

He wrote:

I take the story of Jesus metaphorically too, like many biblical stories in the old testament. I take it as a story that wants to give us a theological message, which in the end is the important thing, wheter or not it happened.

The people who report the story, and who died for it in gruesome ways, neglected to make this clear to the people who crucified them, stabbed them, and stoned them to death. The key to understanding a text is not to ask, “What does it mean to me?” but “What did it mean to the people who wrote it?” Those people very obviously meant to say that they had seen Jesus Christ alive bodily after his death and had eaten fish with him and poked their finger in his wounds. Spiritualizing that away is rubbish. It’s either true or a lie.

He replied:

Interesting way of seeing it. True, we have to look at what it meant to the people of the time, it’s just that Jesus’ story has so many pagan parallels it is very hard to overlook, and I really feel that whether or not he resurrected or perform miracles is inconsequential to the christian or even catholic faith, because, again, what matters is it’s message. I never said I don’t believe in the Resurrection, though, because I do, I just think it’s not essential.

That the story of Jesus has a few “pagan parallels” means absolutely nothing about the historicity of the resurrection. The story of the Titanic has a few pagan parallels too (see every Greek myth warning of the danger of hubris).  Indeed, a novel published 14 years before the Titanic disaster describes a ship called the "Titan" (about the size of Titanic) striking an iceberg (while going roughly 22 knots, like Titanic) on her maiden voyage (in April) and sinking at great loss of life because she only has half the number of lifeboats necessary but all the lifeboats required by law (like Titanic).  What this means is not "Therefore the Titanic disaster is a myth based on previous tales" but rather "Human beings are sometimes capable of intuiting things about the nature of reality that later on find fulfilment."  The pagan parallels to the resurrection are quite inexact and take place in cloud cuckoo land once upon a time. Nobody ever says Osiris actually lived.  Corn gods who represent the cycle of the crops and the turn of the seasons were never taken for historical figures.  In contrast, the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth takes place in broad daylight during the reign of a Roman bureaucrat named Pontius Pilate and in front of 500 eyewitnesses, most of whom are still alive when Paul writes his first letter to the Corinthians in the mid-50s AD. What you get from Paul and the gospel writers is, extremely clearly, a claim of a personal encounter by multiple witnesses with a living, breathing person alive after death, not a hazy reverie about a myth from faerie land:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God which is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed. Now if Christ is preached as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. - 1 Corinthians 15;3-20

What matters is indeed the message. And the message is nothing other than that Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified in time and on earth was found to be alive three days later and was seen and spoken with by many witnesses who were not concocting a myth but describing that “which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands” (1 John 1). If you do not grasp that the Resurrection is not only essential to the Christian message, but virtually all the news the Christian message has to give, you simply do not understand the Chrisian message at all. The gospels are accurately described as “passion narratives with long introductions”. The core of the gospels is not Jesus' miracles (which, yes, are also eyewitness accounts of things which actually happened and not mere morally instructive tales), nor his parables and sayings. All these things are spokes on the wheel. They gain meaning from the hub of the wheel: namely, the fact that Jesus, who is God in human flesh, died for our sins and rose again for our justification, so that we could receive his Holy Spirit and become partakers in the divine life. It is only in light of his resurrection and the power he gives us to live his life that his sayings and actions become intelligible.  That some pagan myths (not to mention the entire Old Testament) anticipate this proves, not that it never happened, but that Jesus is the fulfilment of the longings of the human heart, both pagan and Jewish.  Which is, by the way, precisely what he claimed to be.

Ask yourself: if the passion, death and resurrection are “inconsequential” to the message of the gospels, why does every gospel spend one quarter of its ink on a 72 hour period in the life of Jesus? Quite obviously, it’s because that 72 hour period is absolutely the essential core of the story. Everything else in the gospel is just preface, preparation, and commentary.  The apostles do not go into the world with the message that Jesus the Nice Man gives us certain mythic underpinnings for an interesting new moral theory.  They go into the world preaching, with almost monotonous insistence, "Jesus is God's Son and has been crucifed and raised from the dead.  That, and only that, is the news they have.

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About Mark Shea

Mark Shea
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Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.