Did It Happen on 9 April?
- BuyThe Resurrection by Geza Vermes
Penguin, 168 pp, £7.99, March 2008, ISBN 978 0 14 103005 0
In about 56 AD, St Paul writing to the Christians of Corinth, made his position very clear. Somebody had been suggesting that the dead cannot be resurrected, and this was his response: ‘If there be no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen; and if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain and your faith is also vain.’ The creeds still require the faithful to declare their belief that Jesus died, was buried, descended into hell, and on the third day rose again. Paul explains that the requirement is reasonable: provided the dead can rise, there can be no reason to suppose Jesus did not do so. In fact if he didn’t, ‘we are of all men most miserable.’ Like Paul, the creeds also insist on ‘the resurrection of the body’, though Paul had in mind not every body but those of the brethren who had died between the death of Jesus and the postponed but imminent day of judgment. As Geza Vermes remarks, he seems not to have given any thought to the very large numbers of dead between Adam and his own day.
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Vol. 30 No. 7 · 10 April 2008
Frank Kermode does not include in his discussion of the resurrection the gospel reference that gives the best clue about the death and resurrection of Jesus, namely John 19.34: ‘Forthwith came there out blood and water’ (LRB, 20 March). There can be only one possible explanation for this happening after the spear had been thrust into his side: Jesus had a large pleural effusion, which the spear released. This diagnosis explains a good deal that is otherwise puzzling in the gospel stories. Although he had previously walked everywhere, Jesus needed an ass for his final entry into Jerusalem. Also, he was unable to carry his cross, which other men of his age could carry easily. A pleural effusion this size would have been accumulating for some time. It would have been tuberculous, and so Jesus would have been getting steadily weaker. It isn’t surprising that he felt ‘he was not long for this world.’
The story in John implies that the soldiers were surprised to find Jesus dead so soon. With the effusion pressing on his heart and his body fixed upright he would probably have gone into severe heart failure, and would have appeared dead even though his heart itself was perfectly sound. The spear blow that was expected to finish him off might actually have saved his life by relieving the pressure on his heart. Being laid horizontally would have allowed the blood and fluids pooled in his legs to return into circulation, a process assisted by the coolness of the tomb. He might, in these circumstances, have regained consciousness and thus have seemed to be resurrected.
Dr Roger James
Vol. 30 No. 8 · 24 April 2008
Stan Smith complains that I failed to explain Auden’s sly conversion of ‘Out on the lawn I lie in bed’ from a Communist to a Christian poem (Letters, 10 April). I have known the poem in its original state since about 1938 but had evidently taken no account of the postwar shorter version or of Anne Fremantle’s book, so Smith was right to charge me with an oversight. But I’m not sure why Auden’s revisions are so obviously reprehensible. Perhaps one could say that in Malvern he had the experience but missed the meaning, later recognised as what he calls ‘a vision of agape’. Verses that clouded it were then cut. It is unnecessary to add that this kind of thing has been known to occur in the work of other poets not normally accused of lying.
In his letter in the same issue, Dr Roger James brings his professional knowledge to bear on selected detail, much in the manner of two millennia of previous interpreters. The spear thrust he takes from John, who offers his own interpretation: like the decision not to break Jesus’ legs, it was the fulfilment of an Old Testament prophecy (19.36-37). In his argument that Jesus was too weak to carry his cross Dr James silently disagrees with his chief witness, John (19.17): ‘And he bearing his cross went forth.’ In all three Synoptics, but not in John, Simon, a Cyrenian, is forced to carry the cross. No mention is made of any physical weakness, however, though it is true that Jesus has recently been flogged. The ass (and/or colt) are from Matthew 21.7, Mark 11.2 and, I think, have traditionally been regarded as signifying a rejection of messianic display, an example of humility. There is no suggestion that riding rather than walking a shortish distance betokened the onset of the disease diagnosed by Dr James and fortuitously relieved by the spear thrust.
Vol. 30 No. 10 · 22 May 2008
Roger James would have us believe that Jesus needed an ass for his final entry into Jerusalem because of his medical condition (Letters, 10 April). I think he needed an ass because of Zechariah 9.9: ‘Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem; behold, thy King cometh unto thee: he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass.’ As has been remarked before, the New Testament is latent in the language of the Old.
Galiano Island, Canada
Vol. 30 No. 11 · 5 June 2008
Alan Rudrum believes that Jesus needed an ass to get into Jerusalem not because he was suffering a pleural effusion, as Roger James has it, and not because of his innate humility, as Frank Kermode suggests, but ‘because of Zechariah 9.9’, a concordance which, he asserts, also handily demonstrates that the New Testament is ‘latent in the language of the Old’ (Letters, 22 May). Rudrum is not the first person to discover Jesus’ Messianic credentials by putting the Old Testament cart before this New Testament donkey: the author of the Gospel of Matthew did the same. Matthew misread Zechariah’s reference to ‘riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass’ as referring to two distinct animals, where the repetition is simply a rhetorical flourish: Jesus didn’t even have an adult donkey, let alone a horse. Hence in Matthew’s account, ‘the disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their clothes on them, and he sat on them’ (21.6-7). This curious situation in which Jesus is riding two animals (hardly a mark of humility) is not found in either Luke or Mark.
Université de Franche-Comté, Besançon