The always excellent Terry Mattingly of Get Religion points out that the Associated Press reveals a bit of biblical and theological illiteracy in a March 20th piece about the renovations done to the shrine in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. The report begins in this way:
The tomb of Jesus has been resurrected to its former glory. Just in time for Easter, a Greek restoration team has completed a historic renovation of the Edicule, the shrine that tradition says houses the cave where Jesus was buried and rose to heaven.
The problematic phrase—”the shrine that tradition says houses the cave where Jesus was buried and rose to heaven”—is repeated in the photo caption. Mattingly writes:
OK, I know that this is complicated. Maybe there needs to be an expanded entry in the Associated Press Stylebook covering the events of Holy Week, Easter and the Ascension?
Attention AP corrections desk: Christians around the world do not believe that Jesus was “buried and rose to heaven” from the tomb cut into the stone of Gethsemane. They believe that he was buried there, was resurrected, then ascended to heaven 40 days later. Church tradition points to Mount Olivet as the site of the Ascension.
Q. Was the Resurrection also when Jesus ascended into Heaven and was exalted there by the Father?
This is a common misunderstanding, even among some Christians. It is even, as Brant Pitre points out [in The Case for Christ] remarkably popular “especially among scholars who do not believe in Jesus’ bodily resurrection. Nevertheless, this idea is (literally) dead wrong.” That is because the Ascension of Jesus into Heaven, as the creedal statements above indicate and Scripture clearly attest, took place forty days after the Resurrection; the two are entirely distinct events, even though the Ascension is made possible because of the Resurrection. The risen Jesus, in fact, told Mary Magdalene that he had not yet gone to the Father:
Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brethren and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” (Jn 20:16–17)
In addition, Luke begins Acts of the Apostles by stating, “To them he presented himself alive after his passion by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days, and speaking of the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3).
The key point here is that the Resurrection was not a spiritual event only, during which Jesus was exalted, in some form, into Heaven; rather, it was a miraculous event in which Jesus was raised from the dead with real and glorified body, becoming “the first‐born from the dead” (Col 1:18; cf. Rev 1:5). And forty days separated that event from the Ascension, during which time Jesus, according to Paul, “appeared to Ce’phas, then to the Twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles” (1 Cor 15:5–7).
Mattingly reminds readers of a similar error made by The New York Times in a May 2013 piece about Pope Francis’ first Urbi et Orbi message: “Easter is the celebration of the resurrection into heaven of Jesus, three days after he was crucified, the premise for the Christian belief in an everlasting life.”
These sort of mistakes certainly betray sloppiness and a lack of basic knowledge, which is frustrating enough. But a deeper issue, I suspect, is the implicit assumption that the Resurrection is an entirely spiritual event, having little or nothing to do with the material realm. This general approach to the Resurrection can be described as the Spiritual Resurrection Theory; here is an excerpt from Chapter 9 (“Physical and Spiritual”) of my book:
Q. What is the Spiritual Resurrection Theory?
This is the idea that the Resurrection of Jesus was purely spiritual and not at all corporeal or bodily. The risen Jesus was a spirit. Those who encountered him encountered the spirit of Jesus. His corpse is irrelevant, in this view. Whether dogs ate it or it remains buried in a tomb makes no difference. Jesus’s body wasn’t transformed; he was raised a spirit.
Q. Who advocates the idea of the Spiritual Resurrection Theory?
Some theologically liberal Christians espouse the Spiritual Resurrection Theory, or a form of it. It is held by John Shelby Spong, John Dominic Crossan, and Marcus Borg, among others. Jehovah’s Witnesses, oddly enough, also advocate a form of it. They think the various Resurrection appearances recounted in the New Testament do not reflect Jesus’s actual resurrected state, but involve various bodies he assumed or materialized in order to indicate to his disciples his continued existence as a spirit. Unlike most people who reject the traditional understanding of Jesus’s Resurrection, advocates of the Spiritual Resurrection Theory generally appeal to the New Testament to support their views. As a result, the case against the theory involves a careful review of certain New Testament passages.
There is much, much more, as you can see from the table of contents and the Introduction.
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