Book Review: Resurrecting Easter

Resurrecting Easter: How the West Lost and the East Kept the Original Easter Vision

by John Dominic Crossan and Sarah Sexton Crossan

 Harper One

This is a fantastic book.

The premise of the book is that within the tradition of art surrounding the resurrection of Christ there are two distinct types of resurrection images. One he calls the individual resurrection tradition, the other the universal resurrection tradition. The individual resurrection tradition most characterizes the Western Church and the universal resurrection tradition is represented in the East. The distinction is best represented visually:

Anastasis at Resurrection Gate Red Square
Resurrection by Raphael

The image on the left is an example of universal resurrection tradition. In the painting are those whom are raised with Jesus: Adam and Eve (representing all of humanity), King David and King Solomon, Abel, the Apostle Paul just to name a few. All of these are enveloped by the resurrection of Christ and this is typical of universal resurrection iconography.

The image on the right is an example of individual resurrection tradition. The focus is on Jesus alone as the subject of the resurrection. The attempt here is to give a representation of the event in real time at the actual location. So we have angels, the guards in various expressions of awe/fear/shock, and the women arriving in the distance.

Early in the history of the church (the first millennium) we have both of these traditions are represented, but as we move into the second millennium, the West adopts the individual tradition and the East the universal. The Crossans examine this history and trace the development in a marvelous visual way. They take us to little known locations and display wonderful pictures to help us see this development. Occasionally, the photos are too small to show the detail needed, but often I could find the work online and enlarge and follow. Occasionally not.

But Resurrecting Easter is more than a visual history. Crossan makes a case for the tradition he feels best represents the Easter tradition expressed in the Gospels. His conclusion is that the true Easter vision is represented by the universal resurrection tradition that is dominant in the East.

I won’t try to reproduce his argument in this review but I will leave you with some of his observations and try and summarize his conclusion. For me this was one of those books that caused me to have one of those “enlightenment” moments reminiscent of my discovery of all of the symbolism in the Great Gatsby. Having read the book in my younger days, it was a mystery to me as to why it was a classic. I left it in that category of, “oh well, there is no accounting for taste” arrogance that is common in our species. Then my son shared some of the imagery and meaning behind the book, and I experienced a revelation. I felt that way with this book. As a person fully immersed in the Western church I have been exposed virtually exclusively to an individual perspective with regard to the resurrection. Since our emphasis is on the individual elements of the resurrection story, and as moderns who are culturally conditioned to individualism, we see the resurrection of Jesus solely as a promise to me of personal resurrection. As a result, we miss the fullness of the resurrection.

One of the first revelations is an obvious one. The resurrection story is the only story in the Bible that we don’t have a description for. The reasons for this are fairly obvious, the tomb is a private space. Nonetheless, we have no description in the text of any physical expression that would give an artist something to portray. Now for a reader this isn’t a problem, but for a viewer of a painting, it is. Here is how Crossan describes it:  

There is one…event in the life of Christ that is never described in any gospel story. Furthermore, this is not some minor happening, but the most important and climactic one of them all. This is the moment of Christ’s resurrection as it is actually happening. This – unlike all other gospel events – is never described in itself. But if it is never described in the text, how can it ever be depicted as an image?

Pages 1-2.

And herein begins the process leading to the development of the two traditions. In the earliest artistic renditions Jesus is absent, there is no physical representation of him. We have empty tombs, and sometimes streams of light, but no Jesus. This is a later development that gives rise to our two streams.

The brilliance of this book is that Crossan forces us to examine these competing traditions and ask which one is closer to the original Easter vision. We tend to read backward into the text our current viewpoint without regard to the original audience and authors. Crossan forces us to ask two important questions:

“Imagine that you are a learned Jewish Sage at the end of the first century, and you happen across the story of the empty tomb in Mark 16:1-8, whether from Christian Jewish apologetics or non-Christian Jewish polemics. The question is not whether you believe its content, but how you understand its claim. Within your own specific Jewish tradition and within the general Greco-Roman culture, what does this narrative mean, intend, propose?”

and

“Imagine next that you are a Roman philosopher rather than a Jewish sage, and you happen –  most unlikely, we admit – to read Matthew 28:1-20. Once again, disbelief and even ridicule are immediate, but both reactions presume comprehension. You recognize that Matthew’s three motifs of mystery, vision and mandate about Jesus’s departure from Earth to Heaven track all too exactly with the same traditional story about Romulus (Plutarch, life of Romulus, 27-28).”

P. 169 & 171

The first thing to note here is the appropriateness of his two questions. It forces us to examine the historical context in which the resurrection event occurs and the contexts that determine how to understand the claim being made. His conclusion based on examination of these two questions is:

“In summary, both Jewish covenantal tradition and Roman imperial tradition would recognize easily – even if reject completely – the claims made in Mark 16 and Matthew 28. Jesus as hero/founder of the Christian sect, was assumed into heaven as greater than Moses, hero/founder of the Jewish religion, and Romulus, hero/founder of the Roman Empire. Greater too than Caesar Augustus…

“The common matrix for all such cases is that, one way or another, a heroic individual disappears mysteriously from Earth and reappears recognizably from Heaven. In the Jewish tradition it is about heroic sanctity; in the Roman tradition it is about heroic military power.”

P. 172

And here is his ultimate conclusion:

Jesus’s kingdom of God, however, represents a paradigm shift, tradition swerve, or disruptive innovation within this contemporary matrix. For Jesus, the kingdom is already present, but only if, when, and as humans accept it, participate in it, collaborate with it, enter Into it, and take it upon themselves. It is, in other words, a process over human time and not just an instant in divine time.

 Similarly, therefore, with the universal resurrection as part of God’s Kingdom on earth. It too is process and not just instant; it is program and not just instantaneous event. It begins with Jesus, but cannot be individual for him alone. It must be universal for all those who have died before him. Easter is not an individual “Ascension” for Jesus, but the start of the universal “Resurrection” with Jesus. 

This, for example, is why Paul argues in 1 Corinthians that Christ’s resurrection and the universal resurrection stand or fall together: “If there is no resurrection of the dead (ἀνάστασις νεκρῶν) then Christ has not been raised” (15 13). Paul – as a Christian Jewish Pharisee – could never isolate Christ’s Resurrection as a special, individual privilege for him alone. That would be an “Ascension.” Christ’s “Resurrection” is something far, far greater than that. It is the resurrection of all humanity in, with, by,   and through Christ.

 Again, therefore, in the correct translation of Romans 1:4, Paul declares that Christ “was declared to be the Son of God with power by the resurrection of the dead ones (ἀνάστασις νεκρῶν). Paul does not say “by his resurrection from among the dead ones” or “by his resurrection from death” or, most simply, “by his resurrection.” He repeats that Greek phrase “resurrection of the dead ones” in 1st Corinthians 15 12, 13, 21, 42. Paul is describing a universal rather than an individual resurrection of Christ.

 In answer to this chapter’s question, therefore, the Eastern image of Christ’s universal resurrection is in closer conformity to and continuity with the original Christian-Jewish meaning of “Resurrection” than is the Western – contradictory –  image of Jesus’s individual resurrection. 

P. 174-175

The implications of this conclusion is not minor or small. It forces us to aggressively challenge the predominant view of the resurrection as insufficient and not reflective of the gospel. His ultimate conclusions are compelling and challenging. Challenging not only our individualist view of the resurrection he challenges our devotion to establishing kingdom priorities by violence, the opposite of the death/resurrection example. He brings the resurrection out of the devotional hole we have put it into and enables us to talk about its significance beyond Easter sermons and graveside services.

I highly recommend this book.

This book makes me want to explore these books:

Image of Anastasis, or Resurrection, on Resurrection Gate, inside Red Square, in Moscow, Russia (Sarah Sexton Crossan)

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