The Burial of Jesus

This is the title of the newest book I read by Dr. James McGrath, Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University, Indianapolis. The full title of the book is “The Burial of Jesus: What Does History Have to Do with Faith?“.

I was motivated to read the book not only because the author was my New Testament professor during my BA theological studies, but also because of the latest ‘resurrected’ story about the Talpiot tombs where an archeologist claims to have found an ossuary with the inscription ‘Jesus Son of Mary and Joseph’ on it.

Could these be the bones of Jesus? This question seems to be emphatically asked especially now as we approach Easter. What if they were the bones of Jesus? Should I raise my arms in resignation and go find a real job? Is Christianity now in peril because somebody may have found the bones of the Jesus we believe to have been resurrected?

The author approaches the issue of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection from both a historical and a theological perspective, very helpfully indicating the limits of historical enquiry. The clarity of his thinking in regards to historical enquiry in the death and burial of Jesus makes the book very easy and captivating to read. The same clarity is evident in his exploration of what is generally understood by ‘resurrection’ and how this relates to ‘resuscitation’.

If Christian faith is so dependant on resurrection, we need to understand what ‘resurrection’ means. And we also need to understand what ‘faith’ means. Does faith require us to ignore historical evidence and blindly hold on to doctrinal statements? And how do we handle this evidence, especially when it threatens our assumptions? McGrath writes: “Faith may go beyond the available evidence, but if it contradicts it, it is at best wishful thinking and at worst a delusion or a lie.”

It seems to me that a lot of what we understand by ‘faith’ is about believing stuff (usually written or declared), rather than putting our trust in a living God. Whenever evidence comes to light that threatens to challenge our beliefs we tend to clench our teeth, close our eyes and refuse to engage, other than to say: ‘That’s clearly wrong. My faith says otherwise, and I’m certain I’m right.’

I found it refreshing to discover in this book both an enlightening historical perspective around the death and burial of Jesus, and an inspirational theological perspective on what resurrection means for us today and how it relates to what faith is about.

I leave you with this quote and encourage you to read the whole book: “Affirming the resurrection ought not to be an expression of absolute certainty, as though anyone alive today could claim either to have touched the resurrection body of Jesus, or to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that someone else had done so. It is more appropriate, not only in the light of historical inquiry but also in light of the core emphases in the Bible, to speak of resurrection faith, which does not mean believing without evidence in the resurrection as something that has happened and will happen, but rather means trusting in the God who is capable of rescuing even from death. This should be the heart of resurrection faith: trust and hope in God rather than arrogant self-assuredness.”

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