At the end of a subterranean archeological tour of St. Peter’s Basilica a few years ago, a fellow tourist asked an unusual question. Has anyone found the bones of Jesus? The tour guide laughed, a few people scoffed, and as the Episcopal priest in the group, I am still ruminating on the question. No scientist has yet claimed evidence of Jesus’ remains. But supposing one did? Would it matter to the faith?
Yes, it would. The disappearance of Jesus’ bones was not sufficient evidence to convince the disciples that Jesus has risen from the dead—the body could, after all, have been stolen by thieves—but it was the starting point for the story of Easter. The material nature of Jesus’ Resurrection also shapes the ethical behavior of his modern followers. Christ’s bodily resurrection prompts exceptional acts of generosity and forgiveness in a way that a spiritualized version of the resurrection would not.
All four Gospels agree that the resurrected Christ is not a ghost. In Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the first sign that something unusual is afoot comes when Mary Magdalene and other followers of Christ go to anoint Jesus’ body the day after the Sabbath. They discover the body is gone from the tomb. The Gospels diverge about what happens next. In John’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene runs to tell the other disciples the news, and upon returning to the tomb she confuses the risen Jesus for a gardener, recognizing him only when he calls her name. In Luke’s Gospel, Cleopas and another disciple encounter Jesus as a stranger and fellow traveler on the road to Emmaus (“Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these past days?” they ask him incredulously). The disciples recognize Jesus only after he stays to break bread with them. In each of these post-resurrection stories, Jesus’ miraculous appearances connect to his disappeared body. According to scripture, the resurrected Jesus is surprisingly worldly: He invites doubting Thomas to “put your hands in my sides” and feel his wounds. He eats fish on the beach with his friends.
The scholar Elaine Pagels points out that the communities of early believers called the Gnostics disputed the Gospels’ account of a bodily resurrection. They wrote their own stories about what happened. The Gnostic author of the Apocryphon of John, for example, describes the resurrected Jesus taking multiple forms:
Straightway, while I was contemplating these things, behold, the heavens opened and the whole creation which is below heaven shone, and the world was shaken. I was afraid, and behold I saw in the light a youth who stood by me. While I looked at him, he became like an old man. And he changed his likeness (again), becoming like a servant.
The Letter of Peter to Philip, another Gnostic text, describes the risen Christ as a luminous presence speaking to the disciples from a ray of light:
a great light appeared, so that the mountain shone from the sight of him who had appeared. And a voice called out to them saying, “Listen … I am Jesus Christ who is with you forever.”
For the Gnostics, light symbolized the belief that Jesus was sent to deliver an esoteric teaching that would free its elite audience from the material universe. The body and all of created life was a bad thing, according to the Gnostic world-view; the object of spiritual enlightenment was to escape it. Some Gnostics adopted strict asceticism, but others went in the opposite direction, to the extreme. According to one of the Gnostics’ early critics, Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyon in the second century A.D., Gnostic waywardness included eating meats offered in sacrifice to idols, seducing women away from their husbands, yielding “themselves up to the lusts of the flesh with the utmost greediness,” and even attending “that bloody spectacle hateful both to God and men, in which gladiators either fight with wild beasts, or singly encounter one another.” Paul’s letters to the Corinthians suggest that some of the early Christians were subject to similar temptations, but he strongly reprimanded such libertine behavior. For Jesus to have taken the form of light would have symbolized that he shared the Gnostics’ hostile view of the material world and of the body itself.
Why should we care about the bodily resurrection of Jesus today? In his recent book, Free of Charge, Yale Divinity School Professor Miroslav Volf describes the decision his Croatian parents made in 1957 to forgive a soldier who was responsible for the accidental death of his 5-year-old brother, Daniel. Volf’s parents struggled to do this in the name of Jesus’ command in Ephesians “to forgive others as you have been forgiven.” To Volf, the resurrection of the body is central to forgiveness. Before “forgiving as you have been forgiven,” a person who has been shattered needs to know that his whole person is restored—his physical being as well as his spirit. “Our bodies may be in ruins,” Volf writes, “they may even be desecrated by the excrement of human hatred and folly, and yet they are holy, sanctified unalterably as a dwelling place of the Holy One.” It’s not enough to assert, as Paul does in his first letter to the Corinthians, that the human body is a temple. Instead, it is the bodily return of Jesus from the dead, wounds and all, which promises that “this flesh, suffused with blood, built up with bones, [and] interwoven with nerves” is the vehicle for the restoration of trust, as the early Christian philosopher Tertullian wrote.
By walking, talking, and eating with his friends the apostles after his death, Jesus helped restore their broken relationships with one another. The resurrection did not erase the crucifixion. But it allowed the apostles to discover that “it was possible for them to belong together again, forgiving themselves and each other,” writes Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams in his book Resurrection. The apostles gradually began to reconstruct the kind of fellowship they had known with Jesus—one grounded in sharing food at one table, foot-washing, and the giving and receiving of gifts. That togetherness is material in nature. Jesus gave it to us—and continues to give it to us—with the strange gift of his body.