The origins of Easter (part 5)

Fun fact #11: At the time of Jesus, Jews were probably not awaiting the Messiah

The Hebrew Moshiah means simply “the Anointed One.” There are 38 instances of this usage in the Hebrew Bible, and in 36 of them, the King James Bible does employ “Anointed One” – meaning (as the context in each case makes clear), the person singled out by Yahweh for a specific task. In two cases the KJV substitutes “Messiah” (from the Greek Messias): in Daniel 9:25-26. However, even here, in the Hebrew Bible’s one apocalyptic text, it’s evident that – as historian Donald Harmon Akenson says – the passage “is not about the coming of a Messiah in the Christian sense, but about an Anointed One, a purely Judahist usage. . . . Moshiah in Daniel’s ‘seventy weeks’ . . . personifies the situation in which a covenantal relationship between Yahweh and his people will flourish: when the liturgical-sacrificial system operates with its two major components intact, an authentic High Priest, and a purified, daily-sacrificing temple. Moshiah here is the divinely sanctioned system whereby the Chosen people and Yahweh touch and mutually affirm their covenant” (Donald Harmon Akenson, Surpassing Wonder: the Invention of the Bible and the Talmuds, Harcourt Brace, 1998).

In the Hebrew scriptures, then, the term Moshiah refers to priests (e.g. Lev 4:3), prophets (Psalm 105:15) and kings (1 Sam 12:3, 2 Sam 23:1), and in each case it designates a servant of Yahweh. Such service may even be completely unwitting: Cyrus the Great becomes a Moshiah (Isaiah 45:1) for ending the Babylonian captivity. But the figure of a unitary Moshiah of eschatological significance does not exist in the “Old Testament,” except as later tradition (Rabbinical as well as Christian) has read one into it.

Nor is the term Moshiah employed often, or in a manner differing significantly from traditional usage, in the large number of texts produced during the inter-testamental period (Pseudepigrapha, Apocrypha, Dead Sea Scrolls). Akenson concludes from this that “the concept of Messiah was only of peripheral interest to later Second Temple Jerusalem.” But that needn’t mean that a creative, charismatic leader of the period – or his followers – couldn’t have employed the term in a new manner. We know from Josephus that the age was rife with self-styled prophets and insurrectionary leaders, and creative reinterpretations of tradition formed a major part of their modus operandi. This is true of most revolutionary movements, in fact: rarely do the leaders describe their innovations as something completely new. Instead, they tend to cast them as a return (whence revolution) to the roots (whence radical).

However, Akenson would disagree with me here. As a faithful disciple of William of Ockham, he insists upon the fact that “Moshiah, or Messiah, does not emerge as a primary idea until after the Second Temple was pulverized.” Whatever the case, there’s little doubt in my mind that the destruction of the Temple was an absolutely pivotal event for both Judaism and Christianity, precipitating their final and acrimonious divorce.

Fun fact #12: The earliest account of the resurrection, by Paul, implies a belief in a spiritual rather than a bodily resurrection

Paul’s letters are the earliest accounts of the life of Yeshua ben Yosef, and the only canonical or extra-canonical works we can date to before the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul states “that Jesus died for ‘our sins,’ that he was buried and rose again on the third day. He was seen by Cephas (one of the twelve apostles) and after that by 500 of his followers simultaneously. After that Jesus was seen by James (his brother) and then by all of the apostles, ‘and last of all he was seen of me also, as one born out of time.’”

That’s Akenson again. As an historian rather than a Biblical scholar, he takes it upon himself to point out a number of fairly obvious, if uncomfortable, truths. Among them: “Paul draws no distinction between his seeing Jesus and the experience of the others. All the believing witnesses (and, according to Paul’s account, it is only believers who see the risen Jesus) had seen the same figure. Paul, in his own writings, does not provide any direct information about his own experience of encountering the resurrected Moshiah. However, the author of the Book of Acts narrates that, within a year or two of Jesus’ death, when Paul, as part of an anti-Christian crusade, is on the road to Damascus, he has a vision of Jesus, sheathed in light from heaven. Paul and the risen Jesus converse briefly, and thereafter Paul becomes a Christian and an enthusiastic proselytizer (Acts 9:1-11). The textual bridging here is obvious enough: Paul’s own account in First Corinthians makes no distinction between his own experience of the resurrected Jesus and that of the other disciples, and in Acts it is clear that he encounters a visual embodiment of the spiritually resurrected Jesus, but not a physically resurrected human being. If one accepts this textual bridge, then it implies that Paul’s own view was that he and the other disciples had encountered a spiritually-raised Christ, but not a physically resurrected Yeshua.”

In fact, Paul makes a special point of distinguishing between “natural” and “spiritual” bodies (1 Cor 15:44), concluding that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God; neither does corruption and incorruption.” But as Akenson notes, the authors of the gospels and Acts “show some difficulty in making up their minds about what form Jesus’ resurrection actually assumed.”

To me, the actual doctrine isn’t as important to the evolution of Christianity as the attempt to enforce doctrinal conformity down through the ages. That, more than anything else, bred an intolerance of the kind of nuance and paradox that one finds more or less at the theological core of all other major religions. Like many moderns, I resist making sharp distinctions between the corporeal and the spiritual, and am equally resistant toward what I regard as excessively literalistic readings on the one hand and excessively intellectualized readings on the other. In the Hebrew Bible, Elijah is taken bodily into heaven (2 Kings 2:1-11), which paradoxically has the effect of allowing him to remain an earthly figure – the very image of the unforeseen Guest, in fact. As William H.C. Propp observes, for modern Jews Elijah has completely replaced the demonic element in the original Passover story – and he is symbolically welcomed into the home, not barred at the door.

In a similar manner, in Christian tradition, the risen Christ returns to earth not merely as Messiah, at the end of time, but potentially right now. For most of the Christian Era, saints and mystics have taught that Jesus is present not merely in the mystery of the Eucharist but in the very real bodies of the widow and the orphan, the homeless and the lepers, the illegal alien and the AIDS victim. (This parallels the official doctrine homologizing Christ with the Church Universal.) The figure of Jesus has also evolved into the preeminent (but far from the only) spirit familiar in the Christian tradition. And with increasing force, down through the centuries, believers have sought to reenact Christ’s self-sacrifice within their own lives, and even within their own bodies: it’s a short step from Imitatio Christi to the stigmata and the Pentecost.

Whatever one makes of the promise of resurrection, and however one views Jesus – as God, as man, or somewhere in between – I think it’s important to acknowledge the centrality of the cross and the empty tomb as symbols of mortality and transcendence in the West. In his thinking about these symbols, the radical Catholic priest Ivan Illich (David Calley, Ivan Illich in Conversation, Anansi, 1992) draws upon the terminology popularized by Mircea Eliade in The Sacred and the Profane. “The term sacrum, the Latin noun corresponding to our sacred, has been used for a long time by religious scientists to describe a particular place in the topology of any culture. It refers to an object, a locality, or a sign, that within that culture is believed to be . . . a doorway. I had always thought of it as a threshold, the threshold at which the ultimate appears, that which within that society is considered transcendent. For Eliade, a society becomes a conscious unity not just in relation to neighboring societies – we are not you – but also by defining itself in relation to what’s beyond.”

According to this analysis, the cross should be the Christian sacrum par excellance, and I believe that it is. For Illich, however, “faith in the incarnate word sacrificed on the cross is not a religion and cannot be analyzed within the concepts of religious science.” Well, no doubt the adherents of every tradition would feel that the categories and concepts of anthropologists and comparative religionists fall far short. I would argue that such inadequacy is endemic to the discriminatory process.

But I am struck by the remainder of Illich’s argument.”If there is something analogous to a sacrum in the Christian tradition,” he says, “it is the tomb; and Christian holy places are built around an altar, a table, which stands on top of an empty tomb and is covered by a cupola. It is at this event that Christians remember a historical event and expect one by which history will be closed. This historical event is part of sacred history, from creation to ascension, which will be concluded by the coming-again of the real person, who is Christ. The empty tomb had a powerful, structuring influence on fifteen hundred years of Western history.”

To Illich, this emptiness is far from nothingness, because it is filled with the promise of Life which Christ uniquely embodies. By contrast, he says, our modern attempts to locate “life” either in the uterus (the fertilized zygote) or in the planet as viewed from space (Gaia) are truly empty, in the nihilistic sense. Science doesn’t even recognize this concept of life; it is so much pseudo-scientific idolatry.

Here I am reminded of Dale’s translation, back on March 1 at Vajrayana Practice, of the Buddhist term sunyata: it really means openness, not emptiness, he wrote. From what Illich is saying, the tomb/altar on which the Eucharist is performed is also open in precisely this manner. And my father reminded me the other day that, for Protestants at least, representations of the cross are always empty – or open – as well. A number of interesting and fruitful conclusions might be drawn from this, but I believe it’s up to practicing Christians to draw them. As an amateur scholar and Bibliophile, my job here is finished.