The Gospels (13) ‘Raising the Dead’

Duccio di Buoninsenga –

We’ve reached the last ‘sign’ in John’s Gospel, and it’s a big one! These ’signs’ were included to ’prove’ the divine origin, nature and mission of Jesus. What greater ‘proof’ could there be than an ability to raise the dead? Let me lay my cards on the table. Do I believe that if I’d been there, equipped with a video camera, I could have recorded the emergence from his grave of a person who’d been dead for “four days”? No, I honestly don’t. We’re talking here about the cessation of blood circulation, rapidly leading to irreparable damage to brain cells, as well as the beginning of decomposition, not to mention maggots and worms. As the man’s sister is reported as saying, “by this time the body will have a bad smell”. Quite so.

What I also find hard to take at face value, is the reported reaction of the “chief priests and Pharisees” to the news that Jesus had raised a dead man to life. ‘We can’t have that sort of thing going on’, they say. ‘We’ll have to put him to death, to stop him resurrecting even more people’! They’re afraid, we’re told, of a big increase in over-excited followers of Jesus risking violent repression by the Roman authorities. This addition to the story enables the author to get in a superb ‘one-liner’ – “it is more to our advantage to have one man die for the people than for the whole nation to perish”. Here is advance notice of the doctrine of the substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus, before his death has yet taken place, and from the mouth of his adversaries rather than his adherents. Nice one! 

Why is this story located where it is? As with previous ‘signs’, the author is prefiguring something soon to take place, namely, the story of Jesus’ resurrection, and again he heightens the drama for maximum impact. Although Jesus is told about Lazarus’ illness, he does nothing “for two more days”, days of grief for the man’s sisters. When he arrives, the burial site is “a cave and a stone was placed across it”. Its removal forces the issue, creating the heart-stopping drama of ‘the moment of truth’. Will the dead man emerge? The answer is yes. Some might think that his ability to walk out of the tomb is all the more remarkable, given that “his feet and hands were tied up with strips of cloth”, (see Duccio’s painting above), but then authors are allowed a bit of license, are they not?

In the one or two centuries before and after Jesus, as we know from the New Testament and the Jewish historian Josephus, there was a succession of charismatic healers, ‘miracle’ workers and ‘end of the ages’ preachers. That Jesus is the one on whom a world religion has been based, is due to the fact that some of his followers believed they had seen him alive again. If so, they thought, God must have raised him from the dead. If so, he must now be regarded as in some way a divine being, a ‘son of God’, so at what point did that come about?

In the 50s of the 1st century, in his letter to the Romans, Paul says Jesus, “was appointed the Son of God by the resurrection from the dead”. That was all very well, but how about before that? In the Gospel stories, as the later decades wore on, at the time of Jesus’ baptism God’s voice says, “You are my Son”, and several manuscripts add the remaining words of this quote from Psalm 2:7, “today I have fathered you”. Two of the Gospels also come up with ‘nativity stories’, in which his prospective mother is told that her baby will be, at the time of his birth, “the Son of the Most High”. This still leaves a question about ‘before that’ and so finally, in John, the last Gospel to be written, “In the beginning, was the Word [ie. Jesus], and he was with God, and was fully God”. 

That’s where ‘systematic theology’ took over. If Jesus is fully God, and if there is only one God, then God must somehow be divisible, but without ‘coming apart’. After many years of sometimes fierce argument, the ‘doctrine of the trinity’ was agreed upon, whereby the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are each God, and yet God is nonetheless One. That doesn’t seem to make sense, but then God’s ways are bound to be conveniently inscrutable to mere mortals, are they not? Such ‘solutions’ to self-created ‘problems’ are not, I think, worth squabbling over.

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