A few weeks ago there was a burst of controversy about whether the bones of Jesus, Mary Magdalene and their “son” had been discovered in one of the thousands of ossuaries that are buried throughout Jerusalem and the surrounding territory.
Comments ranged all the way from the self-assured claims of the producers of a Discovery Channel documentary, “The Lost Tomb of Jesus,” to the angry denunciations of fundamentalist Christians. There were more measured, but still largely negative, reactions from respected, mainline biblical scholars and archaeologists.
At first glance, the producers seemed to be taking advantage of the wind at their backs generated by Dan Brown’s novel, The Da Vinci Code, and the film version released last year.
The theological questions posed by Brown and the hypothesis underlying the Discovery Channel documentary are different in kind, even though clearly related.
The novel claims that Jesus was married; the documentary takes the marriage for granted and casts doubt on an even more basic belief, that Jesus rose from the dead.
It was controversial enough, I can personally testify, to have acknowledged the possibility that Jesus had been married, without any compromise of his divinity (although no evidence whatever exists for such a marriage). But far more is at stake in a denial of the Resurrection.
The Resurrection, after all, is at the heart of Christian faith and hope. “If Christ has not been raised,” St. Paul declared, “your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:17). The promise given to Christians (and by extension to others) is that those who died and are, in effect, buried with Christ also will rise with him to new life (Romans 6:3-11).
Because of the Resurrection, we have been born anew “into a living hope” (1 Peter 1:3). At the core of this Christian faith and hope is the conviction that the Father who raised Jesus from the dead also will raise us (2 Corinthians 4:14), and that those who believe in the risen Lord will themselves be raised on the last day (11:25-26; 6:39-44,54).
To be sure, belief in the Resurrection is just that — an expression of faith. It is not grounded on scientific evidence, which is not to say that the belief is without any basis whatever.
In fact, there was a remarkable and wholly inexplicable change in the disciples (some 500 in all) who claimed to have “seen” the risen Lord. Many willingly accepted martyrdom rather than deny him or his resurrection from the dead.
Perhaps under pressure of modernity, some Christians later conceded that the Resurrection may have been a miracle that “happened” only to the disciples, not to Jesus himself. The faith of such Christians would not be troubled if, in fact, Jesus’ bones had been discovered more than 20 centuries later.
Those at the opposite end of the spectrum insist that the Resurrection consisted of the resuscitation of Jesus’ corpse in such a literally realistic fashion that the event could have been filmed or photographed, had the technology existed in those days.
But if this were the case, why is it that Jesus’ own disciples did not recognize him when he stood before them after his death on the cross (Luke 24:16; John 20:14; 21:4)?
In the end, however, the Resurrection is not about bones but about the transformation of one’s life. Faith in the Resurrection requires us to live as Jesus did, dying to self for the sake of others, in the hope of rising again.
We reaffirm this at Easter.
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.