Skip to main content

Did Jesus really rise from the dead?

By Jay Parini
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Women in traditional costumes are sprayed with water by men as members of the Marghareta Dance Group perform Easter folk traditions of the region in the Museum Village in Nyiregyhaza, northeast of Budapest, Hungary, on Monday, April 21. Click through the gallery to see how Christians around the world are observing Holy Week, which marks the last week of Lent and the beginning of Easter celebrations. Women in traditional costumes are sprayed with water by men as members of the Marghareta Dance Group perform Easter folk traditions of the region in the Museum Village in Nyiregyhaza, northeast of Budapest, Hungary, on Monday, April 21. Click through the gallery to see how Christians around the world are observing Holy Week, which marks the last week of Lent and the beginning of Easter celebrations.
HIDE CAPTION
Holy Week around the world
Holy Week around the world
Holy Week around the world
Holy Week around the world
Holy Week around the world
Holy Week around the world
Holy Week around the world
Holy Week around the world
Holy Week around the world
Holy Week around the world
Holy Week around the world
Holy Week around the world
Holy Week around the world
Holy Week around the world
Holy Week around the world
Holy Week around the world
Holy Week around the world
Holy Week around the world
Holy Week around the world
Holy Week around the world
Holy Week around the world
Holy Week around the world
Holy Week around the world
Holy Week around the world
Holy Week around the world
Holy Week around the world
Holy Week around the world
Holy Week around the world
Holy Week around the world
Holy Week around the world
Holy Week around the world
Holy Week around the world
Holy Week around the world
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jay Parini: Easter is Christians' most powerful day. People vary on how literal resurrection is
  • The Gospel writings about this are unclear on what happened. They skip that part, he says
  • He says in post-Resurrection accounts Jesus appears, but he is not recognizable
  • Parini: Differing accounts suggest much was rumor. But Easter rebirth message endures

Editor's note: Jay Parini, a poet and novelist, teaches at Middlebury College. He has just published "Jesus: the Human Face of God," a biography of Jesus. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- As Easter comes into view, the thoughts of billions of Christians turn to Jerusalem, to a sacred weekend that includes the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Of course, people regard these events with various degrees of literalness. But Easter retains its power.

It is, in fact, the essential Christian celebration, as the Gospels focus hugely on this part of the Jesus story. They describe in slow motion his entry into Jerusalem and the final week leading up to the crucifixion on Good Friday, the uncertain stillness of Holy Saturday, when the world seems to have slipped into total darkness, then the joy of the Resurrection itself, with a sense that boundaries have been broken -- most aggressively, the membrane between life and death.

Jay Parini
Jay Parini

Questions arise, of course. Did Jesus really rise from the dead? What would that look like? Many Christians imagine some literal wakening from the dead and refuse to accept the slightest hint that the Resurrection might be regarded as symbolic without denigrating it.

Indeed, if you read the Gospel narratives closely, it's not easy to say what actually happened. All four of them skip the actual Resurrection. That is, we never see Jesus waken. The first inkling of change comes when a few women close to him visit the tomb. Accounts differ on who turned up at the tomb that morning: Mary Magdalene, a close friend of Jesus, alone or with Mary, his mother, and with Salome (who is either Mary's sister or the mother of apostles James and John).

In John's Gospel, Mary Magdalene visits the tomb alone. To her amazement, she finds the stone rolled away. In panic, she runs to tell Peter and another (unnamed) disciple, who rush to the tomb and find it empty. They appear to think someone has stolen the body. Meanwhile, Mary Magdalene sits outside the tomb by herself, crying softly.

After a while, she walks back into the crypt, where she sees two angels in white. They speak to her, and then a mysterious figure appears at her side to ask her why she's crying. She thinks he's the gardener, then she recognizes the voice if not the face when he calls her by name. She cries: "Rabboni!" --in Aramaic, "teacher."

2012: Could Jesus have had a wife?
The scary side of the Easter Bunny
First Lady visits military families
Jesus' greatest Hollywood hits

The post-Resurrection appearances of Jesus vary wildly. For the most part, those who meet him fail to recognize him, as in the story of the Road to Emmaus, where Jesus appears beside two of his followers. They don't recognize him, which suggests that he has not reappeared in a familiar form. Even when he joins them for dinner, they don't know who sits beside them. Only when he prays over the bread before eating do they recognize him, and he immediately disappears -- poof.

Even his closest disciples don't know Jesus when they see him, as in John's Gospel, where he appears by the Sea of Galilee to Peter, Thomas, Nathanael and two other disciples. It takes quite a while for Peter, alone among them, to recognize this mysterious figure on the shore who advises them where to catch the fish.

A kind of summary of Jesus' post-Resurrection appearances will be found in Paul's first letter to the Corinthians (15:5-8):

"He appeared to Cephas [Peter], and then to the Twelve. Then he appeared to over five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom remain alive now, though some have fallen asleep. Then he showed himself to James, then to all the apostles. Finally, he appeared to me."

This letter of Paul is one of the earliest examples of Christian literature, written perhaps 20 years after Jesus died, and it gives us some sense of what stories people were telling about him. The last appearance, alas, hardly counts for much, as it occurs on the Road to Damascus, where Paul hears a voice from the Lord, which says: "I am Jesus whom you persecute." (Acts 9:5) When Paul opens his eyes, however, he sees nothing.

These accounts of what happened after Easter suggest that a lot of different rumors circulated about the Resurrection, and the four Gospels reflect these divergent stories. And the characteristics of Jesus' resurrected body shift a good deal. In one case, Jesus asks Thomas, the famous doubter, to touch the wound in his side, proving that he's really there. Elsewhere, Jesus passes through locked doors like a ghost -- an unsettling image.

In Luke's Gospel, he astonishes his disciples by eating "a piece of broiled fish" as well as swallowing honey. For the most part, his appearances retain a dreamlike quality, suggesting that Jesus didn't want anyone to assume that whatever happened to him occurred in ordinary time and space. He did not, like Lazarus, simply get up and walk from the burial crypt and resume life on the street. This is the Resurrection, not the Great Resuscitation.

But Christian thinking is Resurrection thinking. It's about rebirth or reawakening in many forms, about spiritual and moral transformation. And this is the really good news of Easter.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:30 AM EDT, Sun September 21, 2014
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
updated 7:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
updated 5:47 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
updated 11:44 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
updated 11:01 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 11:47 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT