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Was the resurrection of Jesus actually resuscitation? A Vedantic perspective on the Resurrection of Jesus Christ

Many believe that Jesus had fainted due to some liquid given to him, and therefore his reappearance was more fortuitous resuscitation rather than resurrection

Jesus Christ has transformed the lives of millions of people over a couple of millennia. From the days of his ministries in Galilee and Jerusalem to the recent proclamation by Pope Francis of the division among Christians as the ‘work of the father of lies (the devil)’ to promote better Catholic-Protestant relations, the message of Jesus Christ has been one of compassion, love, camaraderie and salvation [1-4]. What has, however, been a matter of debate recently has been whether the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ was historical or purely a matter of faith, even as the resurrection of Jesus Christ remains central to Christianity, as best highlighted by the verses from 1 Corinthians 15:13-14.

But if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain. 

From Burhenn to Licona, there have been many who have spoken for the historicity of this event [5, 6]. The stories in the Gospels, such as that of the empty tomb and the appearance(s) of a risen Jesus to his followers, have been analyzed and interpreted in myriad ways – from a literal event to visionary experiences to eschatological parables to complete fabrications of early Christian writers. 

Before moving forward on investigating the veracity of these disparate interpretations, it is important to understand the import and meaning of the word ‘resurrection‘. Specifically, let us look at what some of the scholars who claim that there is sufficient evidence to establish the historicity of Jesus Christ have to say. This included Gary R. Habermas [7], Murray J. Harris [8,9], William Lane Craig [10], Wolfhart Pannenberg [11] and George Eldon Ladd [12]. Broadly, the concept of resurrection expands on the transformation of a corpse into a soma pneumatikon (living supernatural body), in a process that is fundamentally different from resuscitation of a dead person to his/her ordinary, premortem state of life, like Lazarus in John 11:39-44 [13,14]. William Craig in his book Knowing the Truth about the Resurrection, published in 1988, says 

Jesus rose to eternal life in a radically transformed body that can be described as immortal, glorious, powerful, and supernatural. In this new mode of existence he was not bound by the physical limitations of this universe, but possessed superhuman powers.

The fact that this is not merely resuscitation being described (but something fundamentally different) is also seen in Luke 20:36

and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection.

The resurrected body is shown to be imperishable, even as it cannot suffer deformity or deterioration or any manner of physical indignity. This, beyond saying that Jesus came back from the dead, goes on to highlight that his was a supernatural body that could not die, could not age, could not be sick, could not be injured and could move at will instantaneously from place to place. This is a much stronger proposition to stand by than a simple revival or resuscitation or even a resurrection in the same human body as before death.

The belief that Jesus was raised from the dead arose fairly early in the history of Christianity. Scholars of the New Testament also attest to the idea that some of Jesus’ followers believed that they had seen Jesus alive only weeks or months after his death! For instance, Bart Denton Ehrman says [15].

“What is certain is that the earliest followers of Jesus believed that Jesus had come back to life, in the body, and that this was a body that had real bodily characteristics: It could be seen and touched, and it had a voice that could be heard.”

This is corroborated by other accounts in the New Testament, even one where 500 individuals were said to have seen Jesus Christ together. These claims, however, do not prove that Jesus was resurrected. It has been seen that people do ‘see’ their loved one who have died: in a recent study [16] of around 20,000 individuals, 13% are said to have reported seeing the dead. This could be due to the emotional strain and physical exhaustion that the death of a loved one can call to the belief that some aspects of the human personality can survive bodily death to simply hallucinatory episodes.

Therefore the claim of followers and others seeing a resurrected Jesus is not as strong a supporting claim as some scholars like to believe. Even the claim of the 500 people together seeing a resurrected Jesus is disputed by Professor Joseph A. Fitzmyer, a leading scholar on the New Testament, ancient Aramaic, and the Dead Sea Scrolls [17], suggesting that this event was probably added to the list of resurrection appearances by Paul and that its origins are uncertain.

In the assessment of possibilities, it is important to assess the textual and historical evidences on their independent merit as well as debunk and dismiss any inconsistent conspiracy theories that have emerged over the years, either for or against the resurrection, to obtain an impartial and honest idea about this subject. The Quran speaks of the ascension of Jesus without any description of crucifixion, death and resurrection of the Christ, as mentioned in Surah 4 (An-Nisa) ayat 157–158 [18].

That they said (in boast), “We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the Messenger of Allah”;- but they killed him not, nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them, and those who differ therein are full of doubts, with no (certain) knowledge, but only conjecture to follow, for of a surety they killed him not:-

Nay, Allah raised him up unto Himself; and Allah is Exalted in Power, Wise;-

Ahmadiya Muslims also contend that Jesus fled to India, after he was brought down from the cross alive and resuscitated by his friends, and to this day there is apparently a shrine that marks his real burial place in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir in India [19]. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, scholars like Karl Friedrich Bahrdt and Karl Venturini, among others, tried to promulgate what has come to be known as the Swoon Theory: Jesus fainted from exhaustion on the cross or he was given a drug that made him pass out on the cross. Those who promoted this view cited excerpts from the New Testament such as Mark 15:36

Someone ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a staff , and offered it to Jesus to drink.

and Mark 15:44-

Pilate was surprised to hear that he should have already died. And summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he was already dead.

thereby highlighting that Jesus had simply (and rather quickly) succumbed to some liquid given to him on a sponge, and therefore his reappearance was more fortuitous resuscitation rather than resurrection (which, as mentioned previously in this article, is fundamentally different from resuscitation, and particularly so in the case of Jesus, as per the New Testament). From Hugh Schonfield’s bestseller The Passover Plot to Donovan Joyce’s 1972 book The Jesus Scroll, the Swoon Theory has had many takers and has undergone numerous evolutions and changes. The verdict is still out about this particular line of thought, though a closer examination of events around the crucifixion can give us a better idea about what may have happened. 

It is interesting to note the possibility of explaining some of the occurrences with knowledge of physiology. For instance, Luke 22:44 says:

And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.

This is medically akin to the condition known as Hematidrosis, which takes place due to severe mental stress and anxiety [20]. Is it possible that Jesus Christ had a premonition of the suffering he was about to undergo and, in a state of extreme stress, had this particular medical condition? The signs of being on the verge of collapse and with his excess thirst while carrying the cross, Jesus may have been enduring Hypovolemic Shock (a condition in which the liquid portion of the blood plasma is too low) due to the merciless flogging by the Roman soldiers. Nails being driven into the hands and legs of Jesus would not only have led to more blood loss but the intense pain arising out of the crushing of the nerves therein. All of this suffering is important to keep in mind but the primary element when discussing whether death actually came or the Swoon Theory or some such hypothesis could hold true is that of cause-of-death in a usual crucifixion in that age.

Read- Christmas, appropriation of pagan festival marked by violence against Jews, and why I am hurt as a Hindu: Time to reflect?

Strange as it may sound, the cause-of-death was asphyxiation, more than multifactorial pathology involving the after-effects of compulsory maiming and scourging, dehydration and hemorrhage [21]. When left in a vertical position, the person is usually undergoing stresses on the muscles and diaphragm that put the person in an inhaling position. To exhale, the person must push up on his feet, and in doing so the nail(s) in the feet would tear through the feet and cause pain around and in the tarsal bones [22]. This would continue to the point where the person is completely exhausted and cannot push up or breathe anymore. Respiratory acidosis sets in, wherein carbon dioxide in the blood gets dissolved as carbonic acid, which in turn increases the acidity of the blood [23].  This leads to an irregular heartbeat and possible cardiac arrest leading to death. The spear thrust by the Roman soldier who had come to check whether Jesus had died apparently went through the right lung and into the heart, with possibly the pleural effusion and pericardial effusion (which looks like water) emerging from the puncture and thrust [24]

Some people have claimed that crucified prisoners would not be nailed but only tied to the cross. This is found to not have been the case since there have been archaeological findings such as that from 1968 when archaeologists in Jerusalem found the remains of about 36 Jews who had died during an uprising against Rome in around 70 AD, with one victims (apparently known as Yohanan) having been crucified with seven-inch nails driven into his feet [25,26]. Therefore, it seems likely that Jesus Christ did die on the cross, going by the textual evidences that remain and modern medical knowledge and modelling of the sequence of events. What, however, raises a doubt about whether Jesus was yet another preacher in an age with a number of spiritual teachers and luminaries in Galilee and Jerusalem or really the Son of God who rose from the dead are the discrepancies between the Gospels as to what happened after Jesus died on the cross. Even for the portion about the sequence of events in the tomb of Christ, we have the following narration in the Gospels:

  • In the Gospel of Mark, which is considered the first Gospel to be written, three women go after dawn to the already-opened and unguarded tomb of Jesus Christ where an angel tells them Christ will appear in Galilee. The women flee from the spot and are too afraid to tell anyone. 
  • In the Gospel of Matthew, two women reach the well-guarded tomb of Jesus around dawn and seemingly witness the stone being rolled from its entrance by an angel. They run in happiness to tell others, but come across Jesus himself, who later appears to his disciples in Galilee.
  • In the Gospel of John, one woman goes to the open and unguarded tomb, and encounters no angel at first but informs John and Peter, who inspect the tomb. Later the woman sees two angels and also meets Jesus, who even appears twice to his disciples in Jerusalem. 

Certain other differences emerge between these accounts and the ones in the Gospel of Luke, the Acts of the Apostles and in Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians. The key question here is: Are these differences secondary or do they show that the factual basis of the narratives were entirely or majorly overlaid with elements added for metaphorical, philosophical, symbolic and even apologetic purposes? No Gospel provides any eyewitness description of the actual resurrection of Jesus Christ. We only find something like this, in significant detail, only in the Gospel of Peter, a non-canonical gospel that was rejected as apocryphal by the Catholic Church’s synods of Carthage and Rome.

The inconsistencies in accounts make certain scholars argue that the stories of the empty tomb and the resurrection of Jesus Christ may have been added later [27]. Even as the Swoon Theory has a very limited set of proponents, there is another theory that was first formulated by David Friedrich Strauss: Vision Theory, which has found traction among various scholars including Géza Vermes [28], Helmut Koester [29], Gerd Lüdemann [30] and Larry Hurtado [31]. This theory suggests that sightings of a risen Jesus were visionary experiences and not literal events. The Christophany or appearance of Jesus Christ to Paul and others was purported to have been ‘internal and subjective’ [32]. This theory has been criticized by scholars such as Craig and Habermas. 

The letters of Paul are one of the earliest examples of Christian literature, written perhaps 20 years after Jesus died, and it gives us some sense of what stories people were telling about him. The last appearance, alas, hardly counts for much, as it occurs on the Road to Damascus, where Paul hears a voice from the Lord, which says: “I am Jesus whom you persecute.” (Acts 9:5) When Paul opens his eyes, however, he sees nothing.

Does it matter if Jesus underwent resuscitation, bodily Resurrection or Gnostic Resurrection?

In the absence of any definitive contemporary writing from the period or even for some decades after, ascertaining the truth of the matter has led to a debate between the faithful Christians who have relied on the word of the Church, while skeptics have outright rejected even the concept of resurrection itself. Without either disrespecting the faith or rationale of people across the spiritual spectrum, I feel the whole question underlying the debate is pointless. From the perspective of historical accuracy, there is very little we can say for sure about Jesus beyond acknowledging his historical existence and some aspects of his life. This element of the ambiguity of knowing the details has brought in multiple interpretations, interpolations and investigations into aspects of his life.

In all likelihood, Jesus Christ was a historical spiritual leader in Roman-occupied Israel, who inspired masses to follow him with his distinct teaching that introduced the key element of oneness and love in the conception of divinity, thereby taking it beyond the perception of God as in the Old Testament that had an element of fear and punishment upon non-compliance with the divine laws and the covenant of man with God. He spoke of transcending the physicality and lower realities and truth of mankind to realize the divine Truth. His vision encapsulated the idea of resurrection from the darkness of ignorance and ‘death’ of not having realised the spiritual mooring of existence into the light of self-realisation and connecting with the Truth. In doing so, he invariably spoke the language that has often been spoken in humanity, from the Upanishadic texts and Vedanta to Merkebah mysticism and Sufi concepts such as Fanaa and Baqaa.

I feel that it is important to keep aside these differences of how or where and in what ways the divine Truth manifested its aspects, over the ages, be it as a person, a tradition, an idea or a school of spirituality. At the end of the day, I feel that it does not matter in the least. What matters is movement towards spiritual emancipation, remembering and thinking of this Truth every single moment of our lives, realising it in the workings of nature, in its beauties and symmetries, its components and their correlations. As per all traditions and schools of spirituality, in that Truth, everyone is one and inherently in union. There is no hierarchy, no up and down, no first and last, no my way or your way.

This is why Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa, who was immensely devoted to Christ and his message (‘Ramakrishna came to understand that Jesus was an avatar, a divine incarnation’, according to Swami Prabhavananda), spoke of a ‘thousand ways to a thousand truths’ – as paradoxical as that may sound. But this inclusivism, nay cosmopolitanism, is symptomatic of self-realisation, since the one Truth may have many relative truths but the essence remains one. I feel that we must rid ourselves, at an individual level, of any exclusivist, regressive elements or tendencies that deny of this unfiltered truth and of compassion and love for our fellow beings, regardless of religion, form, class, nationality, gender, race or caste.

As One, we reside.

References
[1] A. E. McGrath. Christianity: an introduction. 2006. ISBN 978-1-4051-0901-7 pp. 16-22.
[2] A. J. Köstenberger, L. S. Kellum. The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament. 2009. ISBN 978-0-8054-4365-3.
[3] J. Vardaman, E. M. Yamauchi. Chronos, kairos, Christos: nativity and chronological studies. 1989. ISBN 0-931464-50-1. 
[4] B. M. Metzger, M. D. Coogan, Oxford Companion to the Bible. Oxford University Press. 1993.
[5] Burhenn, H. (1972). Pannenberg’s Argument for the Historicity of the Resurrection. Journal of the American Academy of Religion40(3), 368-379.
[6] Licona, M. R. (2020). The resurrection of Jesus: A new historiographical approach. Inter-Varsity Press.
[7] Habermas, G. R., Flew, A., & Miethe, T. L. (2003). Did Jesus rise from the dead?: the resurrection debate. Wipf and Stock Publishers.
[8] Harris, M. J. (1983). Raised Immortal: Resurrection and Immortality in the New Testament. Marshall, Morgan & Scott.
[9] Harris, M. J. (2008). Three Crucial Questions about Jesus. Wipf and Stock Publishers.
[10] Craig, W. L., & Lüdemann, G. (2000). Jesus’ Resurrection: Fact Or Figment?: A Debate Between William Lane Craig & Gerd Ludemann. InterVarsity Press.
[11] Page, J. S. (2003). Critical realism and the theological science of Wolfhart Pannenberg: Exploring the commonalities. Bridges: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy, Theology, History and Science10(1/2), 71-84.
[12] Ladd, G. E. (1975). I Believe in the Resurrection of Jesus. Eerdmans.
[13] Segal, A. F. (1999). Paul’s” soma pneumatikon” and the worship of Jesus. The Jewish roots of christological monotheism, 258-276.
[14] Burkett, D. (1994). Two accounts of Lazarus’ resurrection in John 11. Novum testamentum36(3), 209-232.
[15] Ehrman, B. D. How Jesus became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee. Harper Collins (2014). ISBN 0062252194, 9780062252197.
[16] Tien, A.Y. Distribution of hallucinations in the population. Soc Psychiatry Psychiatr Epidemiol 26, 287–292 (1991). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00789221
[17] Fitzmyer, J. A. (2008). First Corinthians (Vol. 32). Yale University Press.
[18] Lawson, Todd (1 March 2009). The Crucifixion and the Quran: A Study in the History of Muslim Thought. Oneworld Publications. p. 12. ISBN 978-1851686353.
[19] Pappas, P. C. (1991). Jesus’ Tomb in India: The Debate on His Death and Resurrection. Jain Publishing Company.
[20] Praveen, B. K., & Vincent, J. (2012). Hematidrosis and hemolacria: a case report. The Indian Journal of Pediatrics79(1), 109-111.
[21] Retief, F. P., & Cilliers, L. (2003). The history and pathology of crucifixion. South African medical journal93(12), 938-941.
[22] Papaloucas, C. (2004). Anatomical, Physiological and Historical Aspects of the Crucifixion and Death of Jesus. Catholic Medical Quarterly54(3).
[23] Holoubek, J. E., & Holoubek, A. B. (1994). A Study of Death by Crucifixion With Attempted Explanation of the Death of Jesus Christ. The Linacre Quarterly61(1), 10-19.
[24] Retief, F. P., & Cilliers, L. (2006). Christ’s crucifixion as a medico-historical event. Acta Theologica26(2), 294-309.
[25] Martyr, J. (2017). Scandalum Crucis. The Cross: History, Art, and Controversy, 1.
[26] Strobel, L. (2004). The Case for Easter: A Journalist Investigates the Evidence for the Resurrection. Harper Collins.
[27] John K. Naland, “The First Easter: The Evidence for the Resurrection Evaluated,” Free Inquiry, Spring 1988, pp. 16-17.
[28] Vermes, Geza (2008), The Resurrection, London: Penguin
[29] Koester, Helmut (2000), Introduction to the New Testament, Vol. 2: History and Literature of Early Christianity, Walter de Gruyter
[30] Gerd Lüdemann, The Resurrection of Jesus, trans. John Bowden (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994)
[31] Hurtado, Larry (2005), Lord Jesus Christ. Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity, Eerdmans
[32] Garrett Jr, J. L. (2014). Systematic Theology, Volume 2: Biblical, Historical, and Evangelical. Wipf and Stock Publishers.

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