One of my favourite New Testament scholars is John Dominic Crossan. Last year, he and his wife Sarah released a book, Resurrecting Easter: How the West Lost and the East Kept the Original Easter Vision, which I have just finished.
The book focusses on images of the resurrection and what these images tell of developing understandings about the resurrection. (All those visual folk – this is for you!)
In particular, this book traces two different paradigms of thought, one in the Western (Catholic and Protestant) tradition and the other in the Eastern (Orthodox) tradition.
Of note, neither tradition depicted the moment of resurrection for many centuries after Jesus. What was portrayed were the soldiers guarding the tomb, and sometimes the women disciples, but the risen Christ was only ever alluded to – through symbols such as an empty tomb. His presence was signified by his absence.
Eventually, depictions of the resurrection became more tangible, purporting to show the presumed moment of the resurrection (no writings in the New Testament describe this). That moment was captured in stone carving or painted illustration. This more literalistic understanding pushed aside previous symbolic approaches.
A carving found on the Cross of the Scriptures in the ruins of St Ciaran’s monastery in Ireland is an early example of this style. It shows Jesus lying down, burdened by the weight of a stone slab, and apparently dead, but on closer inspection there is a tiny bird, a symbol of the Holy Spirit, breathing life into his body.
As this literal tradition developed, Jesus became more ‘life-like.’ Soon, he was featured upright, stepping out of the tomb.
At this point, the two traditions diverged. The Western tradition represented the Risen Christ as an individual. (We are so familiar with this that it may seem pointless to note it.)
However, the Eastern tradition represented the Risen Christ differently – Jesus held out his hand to raise up Adam and Eve (see picture above). The Eastern tradition understood resurrection as corporate and communal.
This unusual notion, from a Western perspective, finds biblical support in Matthew’s account of the crucifixion, ‘many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised’ (Matt. 27:52).
Paul also writes of Jesus‘ resurrection as ‘the first fruits’ (1 Cor. 15:20). Paul saw an intrinsic connection between the resurrection of Jesus and the resurrection of all people at the end of time; Jesus‘ resurrection was the first of many resurrections to come.
These different emphases have implications for how we think about humanity and God, and how we experience them.
I believe that depicting Jesus in solo, heroic mode draws attention to what Jesus has done for humanity, whereas depicting Jesus, raised with others, draws attention to what Jesus does with humanity, and by implication to what humanity can do with Jesus.
I find in Crossan’s insights a helpful corrective to Western Christianity’s focus on God and the individual. The Western perspective atomises us.
The Eastern perspective, which is much-needed, causes us to reflect more deeply on our links with others and their welfare.