Roger Severino

Jesus’ Resurrection: Myth, Metaphor, or History?

Reflections on 1 Corinthians 15:1-14

A myth is generally thought of as something that is untrue (or not entirely true), that develops as a legend over time. A spiritual metaphor is something that takes something we know—like light or bread—and attempts to teach a spiritual truth or practice, correlating the literal to the symbolic truth.

Is this how we should think about the resurrection of Jesus? Even if you are not convinced by the Christian claim that Jesus “was buried” and “was raised on the third day” (1 Corinthians 15:3), it is worth exploring whether this mattered to the earliest Christ followers, or whether it was myth and metaphor.

Myths and legends take years to develop. It is better if the story gets passed along to future generations, allowing for embellishments along the way. Or, if the audience recognizes that this is myth, the process can happen more quickly and reality can be suspended for the sake of “poetic truth.”

The resurrection of Jesus fails to be a myth on both accounts. First, there was too little time for the legend to develop. Most scholars believe that 1 Corinthians was written about 55 A.D. That is within 25 years or so of the resurrection. In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul lists several eyewitnesses of the risen Christ, and an appearance to over 500, most of whom were still alive (as if saying: “you can ask them”).

OK, if there is too little time for the stuff of legend to develop, maybe they wanted it to be true, and maybe the idea of a resurrection was a good metaphor for living your life. “In the winter all things die, and in the spring they come to life. Isn’t this a type of resurrection? Out of death comes life. What a great philosophy!” Were the early Christians complicit in spreading this type of spiritual truth, a “spiritual resurrection?” I have heard people today say things like: “It doesn’t matter if Jesus rose bodily from the dead; what matters is that his spirit is alive in you.” Would this make sense to the early Christ followers?

Here is what Paul had to say in 1 Corinthians 15:12-14: “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say, ‘There is no resurrection of the dead’? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation is without foundation, and so is your faith.” Paul doesn’t mince words (see vv. 15-19). Without the bodily resurrection of Jesus, the whole foundation of the faith crumbles. It’s not a nice idea; it’s not myth; it’s not metaphor. If it is not history—something that occurred within time and space—then it is untrue and our faith is in vain.

People can debate ideas and philosophies. I may have a routine or philosophy for living life that works for me, and you may be completely right to say “That’s great if it works for you; but that’s not for me.” History is a little different, isn’t it? Either something is historical, or it is not. What if I were to say: “That’s great if you believe in World War II; that may be true for you, but not me.” That wouldn’t make much sense would it? Either it happened or it didn’t. And there seems to be good evidence that it did.

The Christian faith is based on a historical event: the resurrection of Jesus. Either it happened or it didn’t. Paul wants to give the testimony of what the early believers saw and experienced: Jesus died; was buried; was raised on the third day; he appeared to Peter, the Twelve, to 500, to James, and finally to Paul. The entire Christian faith rests on the belief that Jesus was raised from the dead. If this is true—if it is history—what are the implications?

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