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An essay by Contributing Editor Susan Humphreys

How to Understand the Resurrection Stories in the Bible
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I am an Atheist but I think that there is great wisdom within the pages of the Bible for those that will read it thoughtfully and critically. One set of stories deals with the resurrection of Jesus.

I read with interest Alton Thompson’s "Updating the New Testament”, a revision of Matthew 25:31 to the end of the passage. A few weeks later Bradley Bowen presented his logical analysis in a 2 part piece on the Patheos website blog titled "Why I reject the Resurrection.”

Toward the end of Mr. Thompson’s essay, he tells a European folktale about Jesus disguised as a beggar and wandering from door to door in a town seeking help. At each door he was turned away.

He says "When you think of it, -- that is: if you believe in Jesus -- then Jesus could be anybody.”

This is the message that I think the Resurrection stories in all four Gospels of the Bible are trying to teach us, at: Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24 and John 20 & 21. It is also why I, like Mr. Bowen, reject the traditional literal reading of these stories.

The concept of death and resurrection has been a common theme in mythology. If you are curious you might check out Joseph Campbell’s books on the topic. 1,2 The story of the death and resurrection of a God is not unique to Christianity.

But to understand the mythical story one needs to start at the beginning. Genesis 1: 26 "Then God said, '‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness',"  Theologians have argued over the exact meaning of this passage. Does it mean that we physically resemble God and the Angels? Does it mean that we are like them in other characteristics?

Why does this matter?

It matters because it helps us understand how are we to behave towards those "others" -- those that aren’t just like us -- but, like us, are created in God’s own image.

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The Bible has plenty of advice:

In Jeremiah 5, we read:

  • 21: "Hear this, O foolish and senseless people, who have eyes, but do not see, who have ears, but do not hear."

  • 23: "But this people has a stubborn and rebellious heart."

  • 25-28: "Your iniquities have turned these away, and your sins have deprived you of good. For scoundrels are found among my people; they take over the goods of others. Like fowlers they set a trap; they catch human beings. Like a cage full of birds, their houses are full of treachery; therefore they have become great and rich, they have grown fat and sleek.They know no limits in deeds of wickedness; they do not judge with justice the cause of the orphan, to make it prosper, and they do not defend the rights of the needy."

  • 30-31: "An appalling and horrible thing has happened in the land: the prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests rule as the prophets direct; my people love to have it so, but what will you do when the end comes?" 3

In Matthew 13:15 we read:

  • "You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart. ...”

Luke 10:25-37 tells us the parable of the Good Samaritan, the man that stopped to help a stranger lying by the road who had been beaten and robbed.

John 8:1-30 is the story about the stoning of the adulteress where we get the famous admonition "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”

Let’s not forget the passages in Matthew 7:

  • 1: "Do not judge, so that you may not be judged."

  • 3: "Why do you see the speck in your neighbors’ eye, but do not see the log in your own eye?"

  • 9-12: "Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him? In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”

In Luke 6, we read

  • 30: "Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again."

  • 31: "Do to others as you would have them do to you."

And of course. Matthew 25 says:

  • 40: As Mr. Thompson rephrased it in his essay: "The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me’.”

How do you know what to do to others? You see that they like you are created in Gods image and you treat them as you would treat God or Jesus if they came knocking at your door.

And what about those Resurrection stories. How do they fit in? How do we understand the mythical message behind the stories. They are about opening your eyes, your ears, and your heart to see the essence of goodness we call God in Jesus and in every person created in Gods image.

When Mary was at the tomb and she saw the gardener her eyes and heart were opened when she saw the essence of Jesus in the lowly gardener. The fishermen in the boat had their eyes and heart opened in the kindness of a stranger who told them where to cast their nets. The disciples who shared a meal with strangers  had their eyes and heart opened when they saw the essence of Jesus/God in the strangers that weren't’t just like them, but showed them kindness.

The message of the Resurrection stories and of Matthew 25: 31 -- whether you believe in Jesus and God or not, or are an Atheist like me. -- is that Jesus and God, or just goodness, LIVE in humility, in the kindness of strangers, in the camaraderie of new friendships, in seeing our shared humanity, in recognizing the neighbor -- the other — the one that isn’t like you, is in essence just like you.

You never know who may come knocking at your door at any time.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. book cover "The Power of Myth:"
  2. Book cover Diane Osbon, "A Joseph Campbell Companion: Reflections on the Art of Living," Harper Perennial; Reprint edition (1995), Read reviews
  3. From the New International Version of the Bible. (NIV)

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Original posting: 2018-APR-15
Author: Contributing Editor Susan Humphreys

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