Easter is a celebration of the most important holiday in Christianity. For if Jesus had not risen from the dead, how powerful would the rest of his story be? So to be taken seriously, it should stand up to scrutiny. Or as Marcello Truzzi, late professor of sociology, said, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.” (credit is often erroneously given to Carl Sagan).
So what extraordinary proof is offered for the resurrection of Jesus? Historical stories in the New Testament. How valid are these stories or for that matter any historical stories? In the words of Paul Davies, professor of physics and cosmology at Arizona State University, “we chip away the multi-pasts from the many to the one or few. Our observation resolves the fuzziness of probability. “It is not backward causation, but rather, it is resolution.”
There is probably no area of human interest that contains more efforts to chip away the multi-pasts than religion. Knowing we have so many religious histories, it is easy to see how they have been shaped by human speculation and interpretation for over three thousand years.
In the century after Jesus’ death, there was no church or New Testament, per se. Nor was there a central clearinghouse for determining which gospels were accurate and which were not.
In the era 180 to 200 A.D., Irenaeus, Bishop of Lugdunum in Gaul, (now Lyons, France), chose the four core Gospels and officially authorized Christian tradition began. All other gospels were to be considered heretical. In spite of this fact, there remained several dozen gospels in the world of Gnosticism.
In 1978, a small stone box was found in an Egyptian cave. The box contained a codex, which was later validated as authentic. After countless hours of investigation, reconstruction and analysis of the contents of the codex were identified as the Gospel of Judas.
The interesting clue, which provokes the question is the traditional story of Judas appears to fulfill a prophecy and sounds like it was added later. Historically, we think by the time the Gospel of John was written, the early church was in the process of trying to dissociate Jesus from the Jews; a move to solidify the Christian community.
The traditional story of Judas’ betrayal made him the perfect negative icon to represent the Jewish people. His image has been used as the anti-Semitic poster boy since then. One simply needs to view the early religious art depictions of Judas and Jews to see their vilification.
If history is correct, Jesus would have lived and died as a devout Jew. He practiced the rituals and traditions of other ordinary Jews of his time. Certainly, he was a revolutionary in the context of traditional Judaism, but he forced no one to follow him or his teachings.
The twisted theme of Judas fulfilling a key prophecy, having an evil nature and the continuing historical revision of the role of the guilty Jews, continued the early struggle to delineate Christians from Jews.
In 367, Athanasius, the orthodox patriarch of Alexandria, wrote an Easter letter to be read in all monasteries of Egypt, calling upon them to eliminate apocryphal writings from their libraries. In the letter, he listed those books that were to be included as unacceptable – the oldest extant list of the twenty-seven books in the new testament. It has been suggested that the Nag Hammadi codices were among the books that had to be excluded but were buried for safekeeping in a sealed jar by those who valued them.
Fortunately for us today, we have the Gospel of Judas and the Gnostic scriptures found near Nag Hammadi, a city in Upper Egypt to give us a more complete understanding of the man called Jesus.
That said, I could claim at a metaphorical level Easter is a reminder that life perpetuates and ultimately conquers death. I could reason that resurrection was taken from the existing folklore of the ancient past and added to the story of Jesus. I could simply agree that although we were not founded as a Christian nation, Christianity is the dominant religion and influences our national psyche. And that can be good and bad.
But to me the most important issue is that we see the two thousand-year history of political machinations. And admit our beliefs lack extraordinary proofs when we are tempted to condemn others who don’t believe.
Robert De Filippis