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Part 3: Resurrection

In the Bible we don’t see the resurrection. We see what comes after—some women discover an empty tomb, an angel tells them what happened and what they should do, there are appearances of Jesus, people bring the news that God raised Jesus from the grave, the apostles believe or doubt or both. The Gospels narrate a lot of events in Jesus’ life, including some that no one could have seen, but they do not narrate the resurrection. It’s as if they’re saying: Find your own evidence; we’ll tell you how to look.

Jesus and many, though not all, Jews of the first century believed in a resurrection. That is, they could say, as Martha tells Jesus in the story about the death and raising of Lazarus, “I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day.” (John 11:24) The early Church came to believe something different about resurrection. They believed Jesus didn’t have to wait for the last day; that Jesus had been raised already.

Scholars have learned many historical facts about Jesus, from probable to almost certain, by comparing texts and searching behind the text of the Bible; but it’s impossible to find a historical resurrection that way. The four Gospels give a fairly straightforward account of the crucifixion—details don’t all match up but the main idea is pretty much the same in all of them. But when it comes to the resurrection, it hardly seems to be the same story in all four. Here we seem to be unable to latch on to any particular historical events other than the change that occurred in the apostles themselves. Jesus’ life after death, as a series of historical events, is as hidden, though in a different way, as the resurrection itself.

 We seem to be left with no recourse except to take the apostles’ word for it. That may not be such a bad situation. After all, if this were a court case and the DA asked, “Are these witnesses trustworthy?” we’d have a ready answer. You can hardly find more trustworthy witnesses than people who stake their lives on the truth of their testimony. But we can do more than just trust the apostles. In fact, we have to because the available testimony comes in the rather strange form (for a court case) of stories meant as interpretations of events or experiences that perhaps could not be reported literally. Any mediocre lawyer could find the inconsistencies in the stories and get the case thrown out. But these witnesses didn’t think they needed to be factually consistent. They aimed for understanding, not proof.

 If the resurrection itself is out of reach for the historian, we can still investigate the kinds of experiences that the witnesses (“apostle” means witness) had. We can investigate the meaning that they read into those experiences. Then we can see if something like the apostles’ experience is with us today and decide if something like what the apostles meant by resurrection is a reasonable interpretation of our own experiences. As a Catholic, though, I can’t just garner an idea from the apostles that fits with my experience. I can never leave the apostles’ experience behind. As a Catholic I believe “with the apostles” – a phrase I find in my favorite theologian, David Tracy. (“An Interview with David Tracy” by Lois Malcolm in Religion Online, http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=2269 first published in The Christian Century, February 13-20, 2002) However, as I see it, if the apostles’ experience turns out to be totally unlike ours, if they “saw” the risen Jesus in some privileged way that is simply unavailable today and if that and only that is the basis of their faith, then whatever faith they had is impossible for me and probably irrelevant as well. I don’t think faith is just believing something that has been handed down, even if by credible witnesses.

 The process by which the apostles came to believe in the resurrection couldn’t have been exactly like what is recorded in the Gospels’ mutually contradictory stories about appearances. And it probably took a lot longer.

 The Gospels give us a short time frame. Starting on the first Easter, the resurrected Jesus is supposed to have made several appearances, including the one to Cleopas and companion on the way to Emmaus. That’s about three days. On the Jewish feast of Pentecost, which the apostles undoubtedly marked in some way, about 200 of Jesus followers are said to have experienced an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, giving them not only understanding but also courage to go out and proclaim Jesus as the resurrected Messiah. That’s about 50 days. But we have these stories in Gospels and the Book of Acts, which were written between 40 and 70 years after Jesus died. That gives us a more relevant timeline for the process of coming to understand Jesus and resurrection.

 Actually, it was less than 40 years. There may have been earlier “proto gospels,” which are lost to us; and there are some important writings that we do have, written before the first Gospel. These are the letters Paul wrote in the decade of the 50’s, some 20 years after Jesus. So I will turn to Paul for some clues to the development of the Christian idea of resurrection.

Paul’s experience of the risen Jesus

 Paul is the murderous persecutor of Christians. He also appears to be something of a mystic. At least, he had a mystical experience of the risen Jesus just as he was on the way to another rendezvous with those troublesome Jesus followers. Mystical experiences are notoriously hard for someone else to interpret. But we can say for sure that it was a conversion experience. Schillebeeckx thinks that all the resurrection stories in the Gospels are conversion stories. (Jesus, pp. 380-392) He’s thinking of conversion from the deficiency of faith that resulted in the apostles’ running away when Jesus was taken. I’m suggesting their sin was more than that. It certainly was in Paul’s case. I want to investigate Paul’s experience and suggest that the earlier apostles’ experience was similar. What comes out in this investigation are two main themes of the earlier part of this paper: power or, rather, God’s powerlessness as power is usually viewed; and sacred violence.

 What was Paul converted from? Paul tells us, basically, that it was a conversion from a way of life, the sacred, God-directed violence that killed Jesus and some early Christians. Jesus was already dead when Paul, whose name was originally Saul, got into action. By the time Paul, now a Christian with a new name, wrote his letters, probably everybody who had a direct hand in Jesus’ death was gone from the scene. But Paul writes about the “powers” that killed Jesus as if they were fully operational even at the time he wrote. He was thinking of a demonic kind of reality, in which we participate when we sin. He was thinking about sin as it is found in this strange Pauline quote:

 For our sake he [God] made him [Jesus] to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him. (2 Corinthians 5:21, my emphasis)

 If we think of sin, as we almost always do, as an action that an individual does, this makes no sense. But we American, Western people think of sin the same way we think of ourselves—far too individualistically. We imagine we start out as individuals who then become involved in relationships—family, culture, a religion, a community, a history, and so on. This would have been nonsense in most of human history and in some non-Westernized cultures of the world today. In these cultures relationships precede individual identity. You are a member of a family and a tribe first; you have a situation, a time and a place in the world of people and things with all their relationships before you are an individual.

 When Paul says Jesus became sin, he is thinking of sin as a basic condition of a person’s existence, like being white, or American, or Jewish. The Catholic Church derives a doctrine of Original Sin from Paul and, I think, rightly; but when we think about being born with Original Sin on our “souls” (those souls, oddly, being fashioned directly by God with this defect already “on” them), again we’re thinking too individualistically. We too are “made sin” by the condition into which we are born. God’s creation is good, but we are not born directly into creation. We are born into a largely human-made world.

 Paul gets more specific about this “sin” as he sees it in his own former life. When Paul writes about his past, he doesn’t say much about individual sins, but he says a lot about a way of life. He calls this way of life “living according to the flesh.” People have been thrown off the track by this terminology. Paul does not mean debauchery, gluttony, libertinism, materialism, or anything we usually think of as fleshly sins. Paul is not saying anything bad about our bodies. To understand what Paul means we have to look at the battle Paul was fighting, especially with other Christians. (Krister Stendahl makes this a major point of his Paul among Jews and Gentiles.)

 Paul had been preaching that it was not necessary for Christians to follow the Mosaic Law, in particular, the provisions about circumcision and diet. Not all the followers of Jesus agreed with him on this. The controversy came to a head in Galatia, one of Paul’s mission areas, when some “Judaizers,” as the group that insisted on the Jewish Law are called, told the Galatians they had to be circumcised. You can tell by reading the Letter to the Galatians that Paul gets pretty worked up about this.

I originally thought that Paul wanted to make it a little easier for Gentiles to be Christians. It was tough enough being a Christian in the Pagan Roman Empire without all those Jewish rules. But Paul was preaching to people who were attracted by the idea of doing something hard. It seemed to make salvation all the more certain. So when the Judaizers came along, the Galatians were easy targets. Paul isn’t concerned with how easy or hard following Jesus is, but he struggles mightily against the idea that being right with God depends on a human way of reckoning righteousness. That’s what Paul calls “living according to the flesh.”  (Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence, pp. 121-122) Circumcision has to do with a bit of flesh, so maybe that’s the reason for Paul’s strange use of that term.

 Paul described his life according to the flesh this way:

 Circumcised on the eighth day, of the race of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrew parentage, in observance of the law a Pharisee, in zeal I persecuted the church, in righteousness based on the law I was blameless. (Philippians 3: 5-6)

Sounds pretty good except for that part about persecuting the church, but even there he thought he was being righteous. That, and not any of what we call the “weakness of the flesh,” is living according to the flesh for Paul.

 I think it’s also a pretty good match for the condition the human race got itself into from the very beginning, if Girard’s theory of sacred violence is right. This theory holds that human culture began in a kind of institutionalization of the self-righteousness of sacred violence.

 Another Jesus story: Writing on the ground

Jesus was teaching in the temple area when some scribes and Pharisees brought a woman to him. They said she was “caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” Jesus bent down and wrote on the ground with his finger. When they continued to press him, he straightened up and said the famous line, “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone,” and quietly resumed his writing on the ground.  (John 8:1-11)

 What was Jesus writing on the ground? People have imagined that he was embarrassing the woman’s accusers by writing their sins. That makes a good addition to the story, but I want to vary it a bit.

The first thing to say is that this story comes from the Gospel of John, of all the gospels the most theological and the farthest removed from Jesus’ actual history. So if we’re wondering what Jesus might have written on the ground, we really have to be thinking of Jesus as a character in John’s book. John may have been working with an actual memory of scribes and Pharisees confronting Jesus as in the story, but the writing on the ground and our speculations about what Jesus might have written require us to look into John’s mind.

 Christians by John’s time had 60 years to try to make their way in a world which had a significantly different view of sexual morality than their own, largely inherited from the Jews. We have had much longer than that to misunderstand what those early Christians were about. The part that we tend to miss is the most obvious thing for anyone in the first-century Mediterranean world—slavery and class distinctions.

 Greeks and Romans weren’t as sexually uninhibited as is sometimes portrayed. They considered sex between a married person and someone other than that person’s spouse as, if not sinful, at least uncouth; but they made exceptions for slaves, children, and prostitutes. According to Kyle Harper (in From Shame to Sin: The Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity),

 What mattered, in Roman law and in Roman sexual morality, had little to do with sex. It had everything to do with whose bodies could be enjoyed with impunity and whose could not be touched without elaborate formulas of consent. (Quoted by one of my favorite bloggers, Artur Rosman in “Cosmos the in Lost,” April 17, 2015, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/cosmostheinlost/2015/04/17/sexuality-is-at-the-heart-of-christianitys-place-in-the-world/. I’m relying on his review of Harper’s book for this section.)

What set Christian sexual morality apart was not that it was stricter when it was in force but that it was always in force. There were no exceptions. All people had intrinsic value that had to be respected. That includes the victims of a society that clings to its own righteousness.

 The scribes and Pharisees in the story bring the woman to Jesus while he is teaching in the temple area. How convenient that they should happen upon this woman at just the right time! Or else they planned the confrontation in advance, in which case they would have known where to find a suitable woman—a house of prostitution. The story doesn’t say so, but I’m guessing the woman would have been a prostitute.

 If we look through John’s eyes, we can get a different idea of what Jesus was writing on the ground and the way he shamed all those accusers into departing without a further word. John’s Jesus may have compared not their sins to hers but her nobility to their self-righteousness. In John’s view a prostitute isn’t one you can “enjoy with impunity” but one whose rights are being violated, starting with the conditions which regularly forced widows or unmarried women into a life of prostitution in the first place. She was not a sinner so much as a victim of society’s sin.

 John’s Jesus doesn’t approve of prostitution. That’s obvious from his concluding words to the woman, “Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”  I often wondered how this woman would have managed to obey this directive and what help Jesus or his followers would have provided her.

 Christians with too much imagination thought the woman was Mary Magdalene and that she turned from her “evil” ways, followed Jesus, and was rewarded with the first vision of the risen Jesus. But the Bible says nothing about Mary Magdalene as a prostitute. In fact, she was a woman of considerable means—not the prostitute type. Mary accompanied and supported Jesus’ band of apostles. Some today consider her one of the apostles. The woman of the story couldn’t have been the woman from Magdala, but it’s not too far afield to imagine John’s “woman caught in the very act of adultery,” whoever she was, or some women like her, joining with and starting new life in one of the new Christian communities, about whom Luke writes:

 All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their property and possessions and divide them among all according to each one’s need. (Acts 2: 44-45)

 The human condition and Paul’s conversion

 There’s no escape from the human condition. Paul and Jesus both were “sin” because they were Jews, carrying with them that particular history of self-righteousness, among many such histories, including ours, born of sacred violence. Paul and Jesus also had from their scriptures glimpses of another way of being human. Jewish Scriptures contain both sacred violence (like the kind of devotion that led Ezra to force the Jews to send their foreign wives packing and other Jews to stone prostitutes) and the unmasking of sacred violence (as in Ruth, Jonah, and elsewhere).  No less mixed than the Jewish Scriptures is the Christian response over the centuries to the challenge of Jesus. Paul could only speak for Jews, but the condition of sin he describes is universal.

 I believe the hints of a life that confronts the demon of self-righteousness in Jewish Scriptures were operating in the back of Paul’s mind long before his mystical encounter with Jesus, even while his life was going along the well-trod path of sacred violence. Somehow Jesus brought those hints to life for Paul. It may have been all at once in that flash on the way to Damascus; but it may have been building bit by bit from what Paul knew of the ones he was persecuting and their leader. Either way, Paul must have been moved by Jesus’ strange attitude toward power visible in the behavior of Christians.

 If Paul had met a power opposed to his own, he would not have experienced conversion. But Jesus had very little of what we call power. He resisted the temptation offered by thye Jewish Zealot party, and he really didn’t have legions of angels at his command, for example. Even a power as overwhelming as that would not have converted the likes of Paul to a new way of being human. Paul’s conversion had to be away from power, away from the energy and sense of superiority that comes from being absolutely sure of oneself, and toward the humble recognition of one’s true place—among those one once sought to save or kill or otherwise exclude.

 Now I want to extrapolate from Paul, whose interpretation of Jesus as still active after he died is the earliest we have on record, to what must have been going on earlier than that in the lives of the apostles. I will use Paul’s experience as a guide. We read quite a bit less in the Newer Testament about the apostles’ change of heart than Paul’s. I’m going to suggest that the apostles’ change was something like his.

The apostles’ experience of the risen Jesus

 At first sight the apostles don’t seem at all like Paul. It’s hard to imagine them sinning in any great way. They were cowards at the end. They must have felt pretty bad about that. But that’s a sin of weakness, very much unlike Paul’s sin.

 I don’t think the apostles’ change was just a matter of getting braver. It must have been the sort of thing where everything changes, as happened later for Paul. They needed to see that they, like Paul, had been trapped in the very system that put Jesus to death, the system of sacred violence, of self-righteousness that stands above and excludes the other. They needed to see that, even as they traveled with Jesus, they were still involved in the way of power. Weak sinners, like Achan and probably the Ninevites, are the ones Jesus identifies with. Sins of strength, like when the Israelites kill Achan, feel like righteousness. (Jonah feels even more righteous than God.) Sacred violence always feels good and holy. I should say “holier than thou.” It always excludes some “other” individual or group.

 Assuming that the apostles’ process of conversion was a slow one, they would have had time to remember not only their cowardice at the moment of Jesus’ passion but also incidents like the following:

  • When they tried to keep children away from Jesus. And Jesus explained, “The Kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” (Mark 10:13-16)
  • When they wanted to stop someone from driving out demons in Jesus’ name because “he was not following us.” And Jesus said, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” (Mark 9:38-40)
  • When they pestered Jesus about when he would restore the Kingdom to Israel, i.e., get rid of the Romans. And Jesus said, “It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed.” (Acts 1:6-7)
  • When they argued about which of them would be greatest in that Kingdom. And Jesus said, “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.” (Mark 9:33-35) And, “Unless you turn and become like children you will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Matthew 18:3)

 I think of these as incidents that really happened. Maybe not, but either way, as symbols, they tell about how the apostles and all the rest of us at least sometimes take sides with the forces that killed Jesus, how we tend to exclude certain others and keep for ourselves a sense of holy righteousness.

 Jesus said on several occasions, “Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” By repentance, he didn’t particularly mean what we mean by that word today—being sorry for our individual sins. He meant, “Change your mind, change your way of thinking, change your vision of what’s important.” The root meaning of the English word “repent” is “rethink,” and it’s about the same in the evangelists’ original Greek. But the apostles hadn’t changed their way of thinking even as they followed Jesus and heard his words. They were still involved in rivalry and identity politics. They didn’t understand the inclusive vision Jesus manifested by words and deeds. They missed that strain of the Older Testament that leads from the animals that God sacrificed in the Garden of Eden through the prophetic option for the poor and the critique of Jewish exclusiveness in the books of Ruth and Jonah.

 I used to think that the episode with the children coming to Jesus showed the apostles’ concern for Jesus, misplaced but sincere. Jesus must have been tired and hardly ready for a mob of boisterous kids. But the text doesn’t say anything like that. More probably the apostles thought about children the way everybody in the first-century Mediterranean world did. Children were about the lowest on the hierarchical chain of being. In the apostles’ minds children were unworthy of associating with the great master. But Jesus was with the children in the same way that he was with the tax collectors and “sinners” and all the rest of the “unworthies.”

 The apostles, whom Peter gathered together after their great loss, felt defeated and demoralized. I can imagine each one trying to outdo the others in remorse and self-recrimination. Finally they settle down to a meal together. Someone, maybe Martha or Mary Magdalene or one of the other women named Mary, remembers the words of Jesus on the Passover evening before he died: “This is my body…. This simple cup is the new testament in my blood.” These women might have been there at that Last Supper. (My pastor doubts that a bunch of men could have pulled off a Passover meal by themselves.) Maybe the Gospels’ stories of the women at the empty tomb show us that the first inkling that Jesus was not dead was also “women’s work.”

 This is speculation, of course. Who knows how many different ways the first witnesses came to feel again the presence of Jesus? But Luke’s Emmaus story, where Jesus is recognized in the “breaking of the bread” after he had interpreted Scripture for them, seems intended to teach Luke’s community that Jesus is recognized in the “opening” of the Scriptures and in the Eucharistic meal, that is, in experiences available not just to the apostles but also to them—and to us. (Raymond E. Brown, A Risen Christ in Eastertime, pp. 49-50)

 I can imagine that a surprising end to the despairing voices and a renewed sense of unity comes over the apostolic group. They have energy again. Maybe it takes a while to get going, but they have Jesus’ spirit with them. They feel as if they can do anything, and they and their followers do accomplish something great in subsequent history.

 If I compare this feeling to that of the Israelites in the story in which they kill Achan and go out to do “great things,” there isn’t much difference—as a feeling. But the reality is completely different. An experience, a feeling, doesn’t verify itself. You have to look at the content. A hallucinated voice from heaven and a real one sound exactly the same. You have to decide if it’s telling you to do something good or bad. The apostles may have experienced the same feeling as the earlier Israelites did, but it said something totally different. It did not exclude anyone. It was not any kind of “holier than thou.” The apostles didn’t feel any more righteous than anyone else. But they did feel forgiven. Compared to the just-mentioned Israelites’ experience or to the one René Girard hypothesizes for earliest humans, this one is at least honest. It doesn’t make up a story about God or the gods to hide its own complicity in evil; in fact, it begins by admitting sin.

 Is the kind of honesty that the apostles experienced our experience too? In my life it’s not as common as I would hope. The stories I tell myself seldom miss the chance to show how superior I am compared to people I have a disagreement with. But I can imagine being changed. The experience of the apostles is available to me too. If it's truth that changes people, then I have good reason for counting on the truthfulness of what the apostles experienced.

 Could that truth change more than just some individuals? Or, when it comes to big structures in society, is the best human history can do, even with Jesus and the Church, merely to substitute one mendacious system for another? Just as with the Jews after the Exile, the evidence is mixed. The Church certainly has a track record of exclusive self-righteousness, but it has also had reformers. Probably, as I’ve read in Protestant literature, the Church is always “to be reformed.”

 The Jews believed in a resurrection at the “end of the age.” Jesus anticipated that ending by (who knows?) at least a couple thousand, but maybe a billion years. The final truth about Jesus as risen and as a living participant in the history of the world, may not be quite clear until then. In the meantime there is faith along with the apostles. Faith, and living the new life Jesus holds out for us.

 “New life” suggests destruction of an old life, and that suggests we look at ….

Another Jesus story: The destruction of the temple, and maybe the world

 Tradition, based largely on St. Paul, says that Jesus reversed the “fall of Adam.” Girard says he turned upside down the system of sacred violence that has characterized human history since its beginning. If true, that would amount to a kind of destruction, and a scary thought at that. After all, that system of sacred violence, dishonest and cruel as it is, has at least provided a structure that the human race has been able to live with. 

 One of the charges against Jesus in the trial before the Sanhedrin is that he threatened to destroy the temple “and within three days I will build another not made with hands.” (Mark 14:57-59) Apparently Jesus did say something like that, though the witnesses couldn’t agree on exactly what. John’s Gospel, with a slight change in wording (“Destroy this temple” instead of “I will destroy”) says Jesus was really talking about “the temple of his body.” (John 2:18-21). John makes Jesus’ words a prediction of the passion and resurrection, but about that he is probably as mistaken as the witnesses at trial. Jesus really was talking about the Jerusalem Temple, but perhaps not the physical structure. Maybe, as I think the members of that Jewish court suspected, something much bigger than that.

 Jesus not only talked about destruction, he also acted it out symbolically. All the Gospels have a story about a disturbance in the temple by an irate Jesus. We call it the “cleansing of the temple,” but it seems Jesus had more than a good cleaning in mind. Mark sandwiches this story between two episodes with a fig tree:

 It’s the day after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the last week of his life. Jesus is leaving Bethany, where he had spent the night, and is going back into Jerusalem. He’s hungry and sees a fig tree in the distance. Going up to it he finds nothing but leaves. It’s not the season for figs. Jesus curses the fig tree, “May no one ever eat of your fruit again.” (Mark 11: 12-14)

 This strange episode is the first slice of bread. Next come the meat and cheese.

 Going on to Jerusalem and entering the Temple Jesus starts driving out people who were selling there and overturning tables of the money changers, saying, “Is it not written: ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples’? But you have made it a den of thieves.” (Mark 11: 15-17)

 The traditional interpretation that Jesus performed this action out of righteous anger at the cheating that was supposedly going on is too obviously an attempt to justify Jesus’ action. We have no evidence that anyone was cheating. It also ignores Mark’s own interpretation, which he gives us through his sandwiching technique. Now comes the second slice of bread.

 Early in the morning the next day, Jesus again passes by the fig tree, and it’s withered to its roots. (Mark 11:2)

 Mark’s Christian audience doesn’t need to be told any more than that. The tree represents the Temple and the sacrificial system associated with it. The meat and cheese between the two slices of bread (I mean the two parts of the fig-tree episode), are Jesus actions and words in the temple. Mark’s interpretation says clearly: Something will be destroyed,not just cleansed.

 The temple was a huge place with lots of business going on, and the disturbance Jesus would have been able to cause wouldn’t have amounted to much of a cleansing. Instead, Jesus destroyed the temple symbolically, just as, in Mark’s probably made up story, he destroyed the fig tree. (I relied on John Dominic Crossan, Who Killed Jesus? pp. 62-65, for this section.)

 A little later in Mark’s Gospel Jesus predicts in plain words that the temple will be destroyed.

 Jesus is leaving the Temple area. One of the disciples says, “Look, teacher, what stones and what buildings!” Jesus answers: “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be one stone left upon another that will not be thrown down.” (Mark 13:1-2)

 Around the time Mark wrote his Gospel, that Temple was destroyed by the Romans. It happened in the year 70 at the end of a Jewish war of resistance. It raises the question whether Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the Temple could be Mark’s invention. An argument in favor of this prediction’s belonging to the historical Jesus and not to Mark’s interpreted Jesus is that the prediction isn’t accurate. Some stones were “left upon another,” and Mark would have known that, if in fact he wrote just a little later than year 70. Even today in Jerusalem you can see a remnant wall of that Temple, the Western Wall, also called the Wailing Wall. If the prediction were Mark’s invention after the fact, you’d think he would have made it accurate.

 On the other hand, if Jesus made the prediction, it need not be a case of clairvoyance or a miraculous vision of the future. It was probably Jesus’ sense of what the future would likely hold, and if he meant the temple literally, he could be excused for making it as dramatic as possible. But I think Jesus was speaking symbolically, just as earlier he had acted symbolically. And I don’t think it was about his body. He probably meant the temple as a symbol of the current Jewish system of priests and high priests, the offering of sacrifices, and the thousand or so personnel that were needed to keep the system operating smoothly. I’m guessing that the prediction is actually Jesus’ words, including the words “not one stone left on another.” It makes a really good commentary on what Jesus had recently done in the Temple area.

 Jesus challenged the whole sacrificial system of his people, the system within which he himself, as a faithful Jew, had regularly worshiped. Imagine the joy and excitement Jesus must have known as a boy on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and coming in sight of the holy temple of God, rebuilt in magnificent style by Herod the Great in a political, not a devotional, maneuver. Jesus never lost that feeling. It was the best thing he knew. It made him who he was, a Jew of the first century. But it was keeping out people that he loved most. 

 There are many things that go into making a person who he or she is. We can name some of them: ethnicity, culture, politics, economics, religion, family. In the first century these were not separate areas of life as we try to make them today. They were all bound up together. You could not challenge one without challenging all of them. To challenge any one was to challenge the human condition.

 One of the biggest puzzles concerning Jesus is what Mark places right after the prediction of the destruction of the temple. There Jesus seems to be predicting the destruction of the whole world. Among some of the more drastic events, in Jesus’ words …

 “… the sun will be darkened,

and the moon will not give its light,

and the stars will be falling from the sky,

and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” (Mark 13: 24-25)

 This is called the “little apocalypse,” and it takes up most of Mark’s Chapter 13. By contrast the big apocalypse in the Newer Testament is the entire Book of Revelation. Apocalyptic thinking, the anticipation of the end of things as they are now and a new beginning for the entire world, was widespread among first-century Jews. The literature of apocalyptic movements is always highly symbolic. But Jesus gives a prediction that seems literal:

 “Amen, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.”  (Mark 13:30)

 There’s a similar saying probably from a source that scholars believe was used by Matthew and Luke:

 “Truly I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:27)

 Was Jesus simply mistaken? Whether or not Jesus was caught up in the apocalyptic fever of his time, Jesus believed that God had assigned him a rather large role in some crucial changes. I think the prediction about the temple and the predictions about wider history and the cosmos are all of one piece. For Jesus the temple was the best part of the human condition as he knew it, and yet it was missing the mark, just as all that is best in us somehow falls short and sometimes even turns demonic. (In Greek the word we translate as “sin” means missing the mark.) It was Jesus’ own condition. And his acceptance of death on a cross, often interpreted as the perfection of the Older Testament sacrifices was, rather, aimed at their destruction. Girard gives us this new interpretation of Jesus’ death, and I think it’s likely that this part of his theory will stand the test of time even if other parts are left behind or modified.

 The author of Mark’s Gospel gives us a final hint that, in his mind, the end of the entire Jewish system of priestly doings is what Jesus was about. In his account of the crucifixion, the moment Jesus dies the veil of the Temple is torn in two from top to bottom. It’s likely symbolic rather than real. The symbol itself has a double meaning. According to Raymond Brown, scholars

 … debate whether the tearing of the Temple veil is meant to signify the displeasure of God abandoning the Temple or an opening of a once-closed sacred place to a wider audience, especially to the Gentiles. While the latter allows a more benevolent interpretation of Mark’s attitude toward Judaism, the former is more probable, even if more unpleasant. (A Crucified Christ in Holy Week, p. 31)

 I think the two meanings belong together. God’s abandonment of the temple is at the same time the opening up of God’s Kingdom to those whom the law excluded from the temple worship—lepers, shepherds, the poor, women, gentiles, the blind, and the lame. Mark has Jesus quote Isaiah’s saying about God’s house being a house of prayer “for all the nations.” That would be the gentiles. Matthew omits that phrase from Jesus’ quote, not because he wants to exclude the gentiles but because for him the time for all the nations to worship God is after the resurrection. (That’s according to my Catholic Study Bible’s note on Matthew 21:13) But immediately Matthew gets inclusive in his own way. He has “the blind and the lame” approaching Jesus in the temple area, and Jesus cures them. Turning again to my Study Bible, I find that the blind and the lame were forbidden to enter the “house of the Lord.” (That’s in 2 Samuel 5:8 in the Septuagint version of the Jewish Scriptures. It reads differently in my Bible; but the Septuagint version was the one the early Church knew.) Chances are those blind and lame weren’t really in the temple area. Matthew puts them there as another symbol of the age to come, when restrictive temple rules, if not the temple itself, will be undone.

 Jesus’ words and actions and their stories in the Gospels, whether historical or symbolic, herald a new turn in religious practice. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross turns things completely around. It reverses the usual direction, not from humanity to God, like every other holy offering, but from God to humanity. Jesus’ death secularizes a religious practice. God submits to the law of this world.

 This is not the usual way of seeing Jesus’ sacrifice, but it is anticipated in the story of Adam and Eve. Remember the animals sacrificed not to God but by God to the human sinners. That was a story, but this is reality. There’s something similar again in the human sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter, not to God but to a human being’s pride. 

 There’s an important difference, too. Jesus knew what he was getting in for and he accepted it willingly. Of course, that contrasts with the animals in the Garden. Jephthah’s daughter knowingly accepts her lot, but she doesn’t understand what is going on. She thinks her father had to fulfill his vow to the Lord. We know that Jephthah’ is just preserving his pride, but she didn’t know that.

 Through all of human history people have not understood what was going on when they offered sacrifice to their gods, starting with human sacrifices—a nearly universal practice if you go back far enough, as anthropologists are finding. And it doesn’t have to be religious. You can see it in capital punishment and the myriad other ways we exclude people. The “sacrifices” work; that is, they reinforce unity in the group precisely because the people don’t understand, because they made up a story about God or cosmic Scales of Justice that need to be rebalanced to hide what we don’t want to think about—the totally secular way sacred violence works.

 Jesus made it very hard for that system to work and to wear the appearance of sacredness. The Sanhedrin could not convict him. That meant they had to find some rationale for their sentence other than that they were pleasing God. Old Annas, the one-time high priest, was honest: “It is better for you that one man should die instead of the people so that the whole nation may not perish.” (John 11:50) The expediency is plain to see. A popular anti-Roman movement threatened to coalesce around Jesus, and the Romans were always ready to subdue any such movement with indiscriminate violence.

 A common theory about Jesus’ death on the cross

 Christians have always believed that Jesus’ death was much more than an expeditious way to avoid a Roman massacre. In an ancient liturgical phrase, Jesus “paid the price of Adam’s sin” by dying on the cross. This raises the question, Who got this payment? One very old answer is that it was the devil. This character had held us in bondage, just as the Israelites were slaves in Egypt. He released us when we were “redeemed,” or bought back by Jesus’ blood. Not many people liked the idea of paying anything to the devil, and I don’t blame them. Why would the devil fulfill his end of the bargain? Besides, it seems to give the devil much more than his due.

 Most Christians for most of Christian history thought that Jesus paid the price of our sins to God and that Jesus’ death on the cross was the culmination and perfection of all the sacrifices of the Older Testament. Those sacrifices, being imperfect, couldn’t ultimately satisfy God’s justice and had to be repeated over and over; but Jesus, as the Letter to the Hebrews says, gave his life once and for all. (Hebrews 10:11-12) In a picturesque turn of phrase, we say he “opened the gates of heaven.” God had kept those “gates” locked until adequate payment was made. A theory proposed by Anselm in the 11th century, accepted more or less universally until rather recently, explained: An offense against an infinite God had to have an infinite recompense—impossible for a mere human. Unfortunately the payment had to be made by the party that gave the offense. God’s clever answer to this dilemma was to become human.

 Recently some atheists have asked, “Why would anyone worship a god like that, one who takes offense rather easily and must have revenge. The fact that the revenge had to be taken on God’s own son just magnifies the weirdness of it. Before the atheists, though, theologians also have questioned this view of God, who

 … feels the need to revenge his honour, which has been tainted by the sins of humanity, and so on. Not only does God require a new victim, but he requires the victim who is most precious and most dear to him, his very son." (Girard, Things Hidden from the Foundation of the World, p.182, quoted by Eugene Webb, “René Girard and the Symbolism of Religious Sacrifice,” in Anthropoetics 11, no. 1, Spring/Summer 2005)

 Could God forgive without a penalty or any payment at all? What does Jesus say?

 The parable of the Prodigal Father and the Unforgiving Brother

 There are times when the Israelites as a whole or certain individual Israelites have to pay for their sins, and sometimes it seems to be God delivering the punishment. But other times the punishment seems to come not from God but from the consequences of the sin itself, and God seems ready to forgive even before any penalty. God never stops loving. God makes clothes out of animal skins for Adam and Eve. The father in Jesus’ story acts like that. We pick up the story in the middle.

 Day after day the father watches for the Prodigal Son’s return. He can hardly think of anything else. He had given this younger son half his fortune; now he gives practically all of his time. Finally he sees the unmistakable figure and gait of his wayward son. He runs to him and kisses him before a word of apology can be spoken.

 I called the story The Prodigal Father because of the father’s lavish giving when the son asks and forgiving even before the son returns. But some scholars say it really should be called The Unforgiving Brother. The conclusion of the story holds Jesus’ main point:

 The older son comes home to find everyone feasting and making merry because the younger wastrel has returned. No one had to pay more for the prodigality of those other two than this first son, and yet he’s expected to forgive his younger brother, and forgive the father too.


Let’s imagine him saying, “Alright, I’ll forgive him, but damned if I’ll go in and party with him!” But that’s exactly what the father asks him to do.

 That’s what Jesus did, and I’m thinking God is exactly like Jesus. God likes us sinners enough to want to party with us. Jesus said at another time, “My yoke is easy and my burden light.” He also ordered us to forgive as we have been forgiven. Jesus says it's easy, but it's also a yoke. Sometimes the hardest part of that yoke may be a party.

 The cross for Jesus was no party. This was total giving. I’m almost inclined to go back to the theory that Jesus was paying the devil because the recipient of Jesus’ offering was the demonic system that was creating victims since history began. But Jesus gave in a way the system didn’t expect. By offering himself without a fight, Jesus deprived the system of the chance to exercise its mighty power. There could be no satisfaction, no reward, no “miraculous” forging of unitty and renewal of spirit in that kind of victory. Jesus found the soft spot in the armor of the victimizing mechanism. Jesus’ innocence robbed the system of its myth of acting for God. Jesus’ powerlessness robbed it of its feeling of any kind of great accomplishment. The system still lives, but Jesus’ "gift" isn't finished. It lives on too in all those whose encounter with Jesus lets them see themselves honestly for the first time.

 Then Jesus was raised. About the history of this event I’ve said all I can. There’s no end to talking about its meaning. I want to explore the meaning of the resurrection by way of some recent thinking about the Trinity.

On to Conclusion