Simcha Jacobovici examines a 1st century burial tomb in documentary "The Jesus Discovery".

The Register’s Resurrection mea culpa

  • April 26, 2012

I’m sorry. In writing about a controversial documentary earlier this month (Dramatic Jesus Discovery documentary lacks hard evidence), I never should have brought up the Resurrection in such an offhand way. I should never have imagined the Resurrection could be explained in a single paragraph of a newspaper article.

Simcha Jacobovici’s documentary The Jesus Discovery provocatively asked “what if” a tomb now under an apartment complex in Jerusalem actually contains the bones of Jesus and His family. In my review, I took the bait and posed the question to myself.

Though it is impossible to prove any particular ancient bone buried 2,000 years ago belonged to any individual, I asked would scientific proof of the existence of bones belonging to Jesus change our faith?

My answer was no. Christian faith does not rely on scientific proofs but rather revealed truths. The Gospels reveal Christ rose from the dead but do not explain how it happened. The question of faith has never been how, but why.

But here we were talking about the how. In attempting, perhaps awkwardly, to shift the focus to the spiritual reality of resurrection many readers thought I was denying the physical reality.  Not so.

“John and Peter found the tomb empty Easter morning. They did not report finding bones beneath the linen cloths,” wrote John Nabeen from Windsor in a letter to the editor.

“In conceding that an ossuary might contain the bones of Jesus, (Swan) has rewritten the four Gospel accounts, the Creed and the universal teaching of the Church,” wrote Michael Schaub from Toronto.

“Simply put, if there are the bones of Jesus in the tomb then there is not the Resurrection the Church holds to and has preached as dogma,” wrote Hugh Williams in an e-mail from New Brunswick.

These people are right. Jesus resurrected is not an allegory, not a myth, not a story we tell each other to make us feel better. The human body of Jesus was raised from the dead.

“The Christian tradition has always assumed that, whatever it was, (the Resurrection) meant that Jesus’ body was no longer left behind in the tomb in any sense,” New Testament scholar Fr. Murray Watson wrote to me from St. Peter’s Seminary in London, Ont.

I believe Mary Magdalene found no body, no remains of any kind in the tomb, and that Jesus ate grilled fish on the beach by the Sea of Galilee and that Thomas touched the wounds on His hands and side. An “if” does not nullify the Gospel. But I believe much more than that.

In the Gospel accounts of the Resurrection, St. Paul’s explanation of the Resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 and most importantly in the risen Christ in the Eucharist, there is Jesus transformed. He invites us to be transformed with and in Him.

“There’s no denying that there is a definite ambiguity in the accounts about exactly what that transformation looks like,” said Watson. “There is obviously continuity with Jesus’ pre-Resurrection body (i.e. people do eventually recognize Jesus as Jesus), but it is also significantly different and transformed. It seems able to pass through walls and closed doors, can apparently vanish quickly, is not initially recognizable. The Gospels also seem to clearly want to emphasize that it is in some sense a body — changed, different, transformed, qualitatively different — but still a human body.”

In other words, there is only one Jesus. Pre-Resurrection and post-Resurrection, Jesus remains completely and profoundly human and absolutely, undeniably divine. Only by joining these two concepts in a single reality can we participate in the life of the Trinity.

“We have to recognize that we’re wrestling with mystery,” theologian John Dool told me. “Our words are always going to be true but inadequate.”

Dool is an expert in Christology who teaches theology at St. Peter’s. Christology (the study of who Jesus is in history and in theology) makes no sense if we talk about different versions of Jesus pre- and post-Resurrection.

“This was not a subjective event in the psychology of the Apostles,” Dool said. “Jesus really is raised from the dead. But He’s raised from the dead in a different way than Lazarus was raised from the dead.”

Lazarus, it would seem, continued on with his mortal life. That’s not what happened to Jesus.

This transformation is about the essence of Jesus’ life, including His connection with the Father. This essence is a spiritual reality which includes His physical, human reality. Swiss Cardinal Charles Journet speaks of St. Paul’s explanation of the spiritual body as being “flooded with all the brightness of the Spirit, freed from the limitations of flesh and blood.” 

“But this spiritual body is a body,” he said. “The risen Jesus remains Himself. He is not changed into pure spirit.”

Talking about the spiritual does not preclude belief in the physical. We know the resurrected Jesus is physically present on the altar at the Eucharist without denying it is a spiritual reality.

“We’ve been affected by the scientific paradigm, imagining there’s a single, measurable truth against which everything needs to be measured and tested,” said Colleen Shantz, a University of St. Michael’s College professor of New Testament.

Perhaps we should learn to read our Bibles differently.

“We want to read (the Gospels) like documentary history to get just the facts, ma’am. And that’s not the conversation they’re interested in,” said Shantz. “We have to be prepared to read them openly and be shaped by them. We have to be prepared for a different kind of conversation. We have to be better listeners.”

“Please, dear Register, proclaim and never allow to be doubted that the crucified Saviour rose in His human body by His own divine power on the third day — really, historically and forever,” wrote Fr. Paul McDonald from St. Catharines, Ont.

It is an awesome responsibility and an overwhelming sign of hope that our readers want this message so much, so deeply, so sincerely from this newspaper. I am grateful that you will not allow us to fail.

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.