The resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, just a metaphor?

Having grown up in the context of 19th liberalism Christianity, I was accustomed to hearing that the miracles performed by Jesus, and the miracles performed on Jesus (his resurrection - Jesus did not raise himself from the dead), were simply metaphors for spiritual realities, rather than physical truths. Thus, the story of Jesus calming the storm on the Sea of Galilee was not really a physical reality, but simply a metaphor for the way in which Jesus could bring peace in the “storms of life”. One could see this if one had spiritual insight. Likewise, the story of Jesus’ resurrection was not literally true, but rather an imaginative way in which, following his gruesome death, the spirit of Jesus lived on in the hearts and minds of his followers.

The adoption of this interpretation was readily made at the end of the 19th century. A study of epistemology recognizes that each generation has a way of accepting “what everybody knows to be true”. At the end of the 19th century, the physics of Sir Isaac Newton had established scientific explanations of how and why things happen, and within this framework, there was no room for miracles.

So was the 19th century liberal interpretation of the resurrection a reasonable and acceptable way of interpreting the Gospel accounts? After decades of studying the Gospels at an academic level, I have come to the conclusion that such an interpretation is intellectually dishonest. Do the Gospels hint at the idea that we should interpret them in purely metaphorical ways as spiritually insightful people, or does that run counter to the idea that the Gospels actually put forward?

Matthew’s Gospel comes first in the cannon, though not necessarily first in chronological order. There is an empty tomb, not necessary when the “resurrection” is just a metaphor. The angel tells the women that he has risen, just as he said, which seems to point to the times Jesus spoke of his resurrection in apparently concrete ways.The women encounter the risen Jesus and clasp his feet, which is a bit too concrete an experience for a metaphorical resurrection. There is an account of the guard on the tomb being bribed to say the disciples stole the body, but this is presented as fraudulent. Why would Matthew feel the need to add this account if the resurrection was purely metaphorical? The body could still be in the tomb without that affecting a metaphorical resurrection. The disciples return to Galilee as they were told, where they see Jesus, worship him, although some doubted. What is there to doubt about a metaphorical resurrection.

On the other hand, there are some things in Matthew’s account which seem a bit “iffy”. Even in the previous chapter, which speaks of Jesus’ death, Matthew has a number of people being raised from the dead at the moment of Jesus’ death. This sounds a bit like he is tweaking his account with a few eschatological hints, meaning, that he is associating the death/resurrection of Jesus with the general resurrection of the dead, and collapsing the death and resurrection of Jesus, which we normally think of as being separated by two days, into one event. (One thinks of St Francis of Assisi - “for it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”) So does Matthew’s account of others being raised suggest that he is basically speaking about a metaphorical resurrection with a theological interpretation? Well, Matthew maintains that many people saw those others who were raised. (Matthew 27:53)

Mark’s Gospel is problematic, in that a portion of the end has been lost. The oldest manuscripts end at chapter 16 verse 8, not 18, with the women fleeing the empty tomb and telling no one. How could Mark know these things if the women told no one? Well, the original ending may have said the women told no one along the way, until they caught up with the apostles. Their account still includes an empty tomb - unnecessary for a metaphorical resurrection.

Next we have Luke’s Gospel. Again there is an empty tomb. The strange story on the Emmaus road lends itself well to a metaphorical interpretation, which intimates that Jesus can still be known in the ‘breaking of the bread’. Not a few preachers have lent on this possibility for an excellent sermon. But just when we are thinking this is a purely metaphorical resurrection, Luke continues the Emmaus Road account with an appearance of the risen Jesus, in which he says he is not a ghost, and invites them to discover he has flesh and bones. Definitely a literal resurrection!

Finally comes John’s Gospel. In what appears to be the initial final chapter (20), we have the empty tomb, the appearance of Jesus to Mary (whose name is actually Mariam, by the way), who clings to Jesus, the appearance to the apostles. As if to underline the fact Jesus’ appearance is literal, we have the story of Jesus appearing again to Thomas, who is demanding scientific proof. Chapter 21 appears to be an addition in a second edition and contains a further resurrection appearance where Jesus shares a meal with them. It is not a sacramental meal after the tradition of the last supper; it is a call to have breakfast with bread and fish. Thus, these appearances in John’s Gospel appear to be accounts intended to be taken literally.

So here is the problem for 19th century liberalism. These accounts which are supposedly just metaphors for the spiritually enlightened, about a Jesus who lives on in our hearts and minds, show a fairly clear effort to make us understand it was a literal resurrection. Metaphorical accounts for the spiritually enlightened should not be trying to do that. They would be heading in the opposite direction.

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It is hard for me to understand this human tendency to black and white extremes. It is so unrealistic. Almost every book on the planet uses metaphors and yet to say this mean everything in such books must be therefore be a metaphor is ridiculous. It is frankly quite difficult to write a book which either has no metaphors or is only metaphors.

Jesus was definitely resurrected. A ghost is not resurrected. And this is why Jesus was not a ghost. But it does not follow that Jesus was therefore the same as everyone else. Jesus did not just pick up His life where He left off as if He had not even died. He was difficult to recognize and appeared in a room without opening the door.

1 Corinthians 15:35 But some one will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” 36 You foolish man! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37 And what you sow is not the body which is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. 38 But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. 39 For not all flesh is alike, but there is one kind for men, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. 40 There are celestial bodies and there are terrestrial bodies; but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another. 41 There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory.

42 So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. 43 It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. 44 It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. 45 Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. 46 But it is not the spiritual which is first but the physical, and then the spiritual. 47 The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. 48 As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. 49 Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven. 50 I tell you this, brethren: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.

Part of the confusion is that the word “physical” has two different meanings. It is a physical/bodily resurrection to a spiritual body not a physical/natural body.

But the living spiritual body is more powerful than the physical/natural body rather than less so, capable of doing much more rather than less, just as God who is spirit can do more rather than less. A ghost is a dead spirit and just shadow of the person. This is why they are frightening because they show us the truth of what we are and what we can expect without God.

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If people are using “metaphor” to mean “something I don’t believe really happened” they aren’t using the word correctly. If they are saying the stories of the miracles or the resurrection are ahistorical, fictional allegories intended to teach a spiritual truth, then they should say “allegorical” or “a parable” or “not historical.” The opposite of metaphorical is literal, but literal isn’t a synonym for true or historical.

Metaphorical language is true if it’s metaphorical interpretation corresponds with reality. If I say the sky last night was velvet glittering with diamonds, that metaphorical language is true if the sky last night was dark and there were no clouds and lots of stars were visible. It would be stupid to say, “Well, it’s not literally true” because no normal English speaker would infer I was trying to be literal. It is the intended meaning that has the truth value.

When it comes to the dead coming out of the tombs, the interpretive questions is about author intent. If everyone in the original audience because of their cultural frames and genre expectations would have thought it would be stupid to interpret that literally and would have assumed the meaning was something like “It was an apocalyptic hugely meaningful event when Jesus died.” then that figurative language is true. You don’t decide the literal meaning is false and then dismiss the description as “just a metaphor,” you decide the literal meaning isn’t intended and obviously a figurative meaning was intended, so what was it? I don’t think you can make a good case that the apostles were not intending to recount historical events about the miracles, death and resurrection of Jesus and instead were communicating stories that would clearly be interpreted as allegories or parables for spiritual truth. Then you have the early church being imprisoned and put to death because people objected to their sermon illustrations? An allegorical savior would not be offensive or threatening to Caesar.

But the problem is the conflation of “metaphor” with “something I don’t want to deal with and don’t think really happened.” The problem is not that the New Testament does indeed teach lots of truth via metaphors.

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The Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is the bedrock of my faith and theology. As Paul said, “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain.” [1 Cor. 15:14]
The Resurrection is the litmus test of faith.

May the day never come, but I am ready to die rather than give it up. I won’t die for a metaphor, but I’ll stake my life on the conviction that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified, died, raised from the dead, ascended into heaven, and lives.

Would you die for a metaphor?

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The bodily resurrection of Jesus is part of the orthodox Christian faith. There is both continuity and discontinuity between the pre-resurrection body and the resurrection body. The risen Christ showed his disciples his wounds. Thomas wanted to touch Jesus before he would believe. The Gnostics rejected a physical resurrection–matter was considered evil and death would deliver them from this. But for Christians, a bodily resurrection affirmed the goodness of creation.

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I find Orthodox rhetoric least bad. The further west you go, the worse it gets. And better.

I think we are on the same page, Terry.

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Because that story existed then and has persisted. And there is no place for an invented resurrection in the Gospel. Matthew insists that it was real and that is not a metaphor.

Richard

I’ll leave you with the opportunity to remonstrate with 19th century liberalism against their use of the word “metaphor”. Whatever turns out to be the correct word, the contrast is between a physical resurrection of Jesus to the point he can be touched in the most literal and objective sense of the word and an understanding of the resurrection of Jesus which is purely the result of the power of literature to evoke a romantic idea that has no physical reality. A colleague of mine announced that if a tomb was found which still held the remains of Jesus, his faith would not be altered. He simply never believed in a literal resurrection.

Let’s look at two kinds of power. In the English-speaking world we learn in our early years of the basics of the English language - consonants and vowels, how to write the language in script. By the time of high school we move into English literature - the novel, the short story, the poem, the sonnet, the play, etc. With this we discover the power of the English language. However, when Paul says that as Christians we have been raised to newness of life by the same Spirit which raised Jesus from the dead, he is not talking about the power of literature to evoke sentimental ideas. It is not about the power of literature to evoke any sort of ideas.

When people experienced the resurrected Christ they were dumbstruck with awe. That is the kind of power which we, as Christians, encounter in being raised to newness of life. It is not an experience generated by the power of literature, but by the same power that literally raised Jesus from the dead.

For me liberal Christianity was a reference to Christians stances on social issues that were generally frowned upon as being sinful and needed to be shamed, criminalized and banned by the conservative Christians.

For me I presume Jesus’s resurrection was a literal physical resurrection and not merely a ghostly like resurrection where his body was left somewhere on earth. But it’s ultimately that important to me and what is important is that somehow, he rose from the dead and continues to live and gives eternal life to those who remain in him. But none of this discussion for me is centered in liberalism or conservatism.

But one of the reasons why it’s not so clear to me is besides the language we see about the resurrection of the saved throughout the epistles is those verses about how God was the one to bury Moses and in Jude it says Michael and Satan was arguing over the body of Moses. Then in the gospels we see that story about a vision that involves Moses standing with Jesus. So I could see God having done something along those lines with a Jesus and it still being considered a resurrection because they say him.

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The marvelous thing about the Transfiguration story, IMO, is the fact that Matthew 7:1-8, Mark 9:2-8, Luke 9:28-36, and 2 Peter 1:16-18 mention it, and some believe that John 1:14 alludes to it.
Transfiguration of Jesus

Just noting such a metaphor weakens the claim that Jesus was given power over death if he didn’t die. If it was a metaphorical death then he has no claim over physical death. The claim that Jesus has been given authority over all powers and domains would include a physical death.

But this is just my reasoning and theories. It takes finding the right perspective for the answer to become obvious. A mic drop moment. We ain’t there yet. grin.

I know Mike Licona, who firmly believes the resurrection accounts of Jesus, has cast doubt on the literal understanding of the raising of the saints in Matthew. Im not sure myself, but I find it odd that Matthew would add that they showed themselves to many people in Jerusalem - he seems to be implying there were clear witnesses to this, probably family members. If the original readers of his gospel wouldnt have taken it as literal truth, why add such a detail?

I think Licona makes good arguments. It doesn’t really matter what it implies to us, it matters what it implied to his original audience, and that is the whole debate. Why add such a detail? Maybe it was considered literary and well-educated. Why all the doubles in Matthew? Two donkeys, two demoniacs, two blind beggars. Probably a reason we don’t fully grasp beyond including factual details.

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