Continuity and Discontinuity in Jesus’ Resurrection

When Jesus rose from the dead, he was both the same as and different than he was before. Michael McClymond puts it well in his introduction to Jesus:

The earliest Christians insisted that Jesus’ death on the cross was not the end of his life and that he reappeared to many of them, alive again. Their claim was not that he was resuscitated from death and simply returned again to the same kind of existence he had prior to his crucifixion. Instead the resurrection narratives suggest that Jesus had passed into a new mode of existence. On the one hand he had a physical body, and in the Gospel of Luke he invited them to verify this for themselves with the words: “Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (Luke 24:39). Luke also states that Jesus ate a piece of fish in their presence (Luke 24:42-43; cf. John 21:13). On the other hand Jesus presents himself in the Gospels as victorious over death and therefore no longer existing in a mortal or perishable body. In the Gospel of John Jesus suddenly appears with the disciples in a room where the doors were shut and locked (John 20:19-20). In John, as in the Gospel of Luke, he shows them his hands and sides (John 20:20), presumably so that they could see the marks of his suffering and know that the one they saw was also the one who had died on the cross.

— Michael J. McClymond, Familiar Stranger: An Introduction to Jesus of Nazareth (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 129

This continuity and discontinuity is nicely expressed by McClymond’s “on the one hand. . . on the other hand. . .”. On the one hand, Jesus had a visible, physical body with “flesh and bones,” as in Luke’s account. On the other hand, and significantly, Jesus is victorious over death; this is not a return “to the same kind of existence” as before. Jesus rises as the one who will never die again. He also has new modes of mobility and visibility, appearing without going through closed doors, as in John, or disappearing before the disciples’ eyes, as with the disciples at Emmaus in Luke.

McClymond also highlights the identity of the risen Jesus with the crucified. It may seem obvious when it comes to Christ, that “the one they saw was also the one who had died on the cross,” as evidenced by the wounds in his hands and sides in John. But of course, our resurrection is based on Christ’s; he is the “firstfruits” of a great harvest (1 Cor 15:20) and the “firstborn from the dead” (Rev 1:5). How can these same bodies in which we now live rise again at the end, after they have decomposed into their constituent elements? That this must be so, the scholastics spoke of in terms of numerical identity (eodem numero): the resurrection body must be the same in number as our present bodies, that is, you will not be able to add them up, the present body plus the resurrection body making two. They are one and the same. To say how this can be so, they only pointed to God’s omnipotence as the Creator of heaven and earth.

There is also more we can add to McClymond’s helpful account. To do this, we can compare Jesus’ resurrection with the accounts of others raised from the dead in Scripture. There are eight (or nine) such accounts: 1 Kings 17; 2 Kings 4, 13; Luke 7; Mark 5//Matt 9//Luke 8; John 11; Acts 9, 20 (the odd one is Matt 27:52-53). Yet these are almost universally dismissed as irrelevant to our understanding of what occurs in Jesus’ resurrection. They are often given a different name: not “resurrection” at all, but “resuscitation,” as indeed here in McClymond’s text. Because these people would die again, their return from death can tell us nothing about Jesus’ return from death. The contention of my current research is that (a) they are, in fact, a kind of resurrection, though not permanently death-defeating as Jesus’ is and our own will be; and (b) that these resurrections, when compared to Jesus’ and our own, help us to better understand and, indeed, to believe Christian teaching on the raising of the dead.

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