At Easter we hear the stories of angelic visitors, empty tombs, Jesus walking through walls. All of these are metaphors, not to be read as history.They are as the great scholar Dominic Crossan says,”prophecy historicized.’
Stories carry ultimate truths but you have to go deep to hear them. You must know what a gospel is, what literary form you are dealing with. A gospel is not like a traffic report—time, date etc.They are powerful faith statements, a blend of history, symbol and myth. The ancient writers well knew what they were doing. It is modernists who are tethered mechanical fundamentalism devoid of poetry and imagination.
And this Sunday we heard the ne plus ultra, the classic “Doubting Thomas” story of John’s gospel. We all know the fantastic details—Jesus suddenly appears having walked through walls with his word “Peace”. He is so real that Thomas puts his hands in his crucified side. It is a marvelous story, the major point being (70 years after!) “blessed are those who have not seen yet believe.” In brief this is a gospel story and it will serve to point out what a lousy job the institutional church has done to unpack the nature of scripture.I mean this is 50 years after the Pontifical Biblical Commission accepted the results of form criticism pioneered of course by the great Protestant exegetes beginning at the turn of the 20th century and proceeding through Bultmann and Dibelius in the 20s. It literally took 40 years for RCs to catch up and little was dome at the local level to rectify this huge gap.Catholics were simple catechism people. My generation was forbidden even to read the Bible or to study theology without a pastor’s permission.
To repeat, these are gospel stories! They are not history!
When I began teaching this 40 years ago, people were in shock and they still are today because a patronizing church has had such a poor adult education history that it left parishioners still in the dark as to the nature of a gospel. What have we been doing for 50 years ?I t is nothing less than scandalous. Cranking out Catholic fundamentalists? No, not really but assiduously avoiding real teaching .One can almost make a case for keeping people biblically illiterate.
The resurrection stories—all of them as Crossan says are simply “prophecy historicized”, tales made real, tales told in dramatic form to convince people that Jesus indeed had risen. They are written by believers for believers. No Roman ever sees Jesus.As a matter of fact neither do the early Jewish Christians who followed him. He never recovered from his horrible death. His bones still lie in Palestine. In all the Easter stories, the followers saw “the Lord”, that is the resurrected Christ.They experienced him as alive, among them as a enabling power. St Paul went out of his way as the first real “evangelist” in the 50s to explain that the resurrected body is not a corpse come back to life (see 1.Cor 15 ff.)In the Thomas story Jn 20:26 Jesus does not need to walk through walls —he’s already present in the community!
Remember this key point. it is always “the Lord” who is seen, the one who was raised into a new life. All these great stories are symbols of the deep reality these people experienced.The proof of the resurrection is the rise of the early Church. Jesus was experienced as “alive”—then came the stories.This unexpressible reality( and we’ll never know what it was) needed structure, a concrete pictorial form—and boy have we got them! John’s dramatization of this reality is a little more fantastic than say Luke’s Emmaus.He is the last gospel writer and this is exaggeration is expected. Tales always grow but the reality is simple—He is risen.The hopes of the apocalyptics of the Hebrew scripture of God’s intervention have come true..
Sadly in Catholic churches—and not only here—the stories are still taken for history. Wrong! The faith experience came first—then the wonderful stories.