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John Dominic Crossan Cross-Examines Eastern and Western Depictions of Resurrection

Historian John Dominic Crossan returns to Chautauqua to give a lecture about his studies of Jesus as major part of the Bible in the Hall of Philosophy July 9, 2019. SARAH YENESEL/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Despite the importance of the Resurrection, it is one of the least described events in the Bible, according to John Dominic Crossan, and this lack of detail has caused many artists to interpret the event in many different ways.

Crossan, co-author of Resurrecting Easter: How the West Lost and the East Kept the Original Easter Vision, spoke Tuesday in the Hall of Philosophy for the Week Three Interfaith Lecture Series, “What Archaeology Tells Us About Biblical Times.” His talk was titled, “Jesus: From Archaeology to Text.”

I’m convinced that the Eastern, not surprisingly, is in closer continuity and conformity to what is in the New Testament vision and in pre-Christian Judaism,” Crossan said.

The first example of “visual theology” that Crossan described was in the city of Arelate, now known as Arles, located in the Roman province of Gallia Narbonensis around 350 C.E. In the city was what would soon be the largest Christian acropolis in the world. Of course, those who wanted to be buried in the acropolis wanted to be buried in sarcophagi and also wanted, on the center front panel of their sarcophagus, a depiction of the Resurrection.

Crossan said  the “poor artist” assigned the job of carving the depiction was in a bind because the Resurrection was not very well described in the New Testament.

“So, I have to imagine one of those moments of absolute sparks of creativity,” Crossan said. “They’re like the dark matter of the human imagination. We don’t know how it was done, but we know the results. So something like this must have happened.”

The artist must have worked with what was in the New Testament, specifically the story of the two guards put on watch at Jesus’ tomb. They then combined that story with an image on the back of Constantinian coins, depicting two soldiers standing guard, but at rest, as their spears are upside down. In the center is Constantine’s battle standard, also known as the labarum in Greek.

Crossan said that while it is an exciting first attempt at trying to artistically depict the Resurrection, there is no physical body for Jesus; he is replaced by a symbol, the labarum.

It’ll take 500 years before you ever get the Resurrection moment with the physical body, and there’s two of them,” Crossan said.

The first of the two depictions is on a Carolingian Psalter. Jesus is shown sitting up in the tomb with large eyes. The second depiction, the more interesting one, according to Crossan, shows the two guards sitting on the slab of the tomb. Below them, within the tomb, the viewer can see “the Holy Spirit’s dove” breathing life into Jesus’ body.

So, Crossan concludes that the first depiction had a symbol that represented Jesus. Five hundred years later, Jesus’ body was physically shown. It would take another 500 years, around 1350, for the “Individual Resurrection,” as Crossan called it, to appear, in which Jesus is positioned hovering above the tomb while the guards are either looking up at him in fear and surprise, or fast asleep against the tomb.

“By ‘individual,’ I mean it shows Jesus rising alone,” Crossan said. “There’s nobody else with him. He’s glorious; he’s triumphant; he’s magnificent. He is also very much alone. I call this the Individual Resurrection, and as we know, it becomes eventually the dominant, normative, official image in Western Christianity for Easter.”

Crossan then transitioned to a new site, the Roman Forum between 550 and 750 C.E. This was a time in which the Byzantine Empire held control over Rome and Roman Catholicism, including the papacy. The emperor in Constantinople controlled the election, the life and, if necessary, the martyrdom of the pope in Rome. In other words, during this time period, it was a Byzantine Rome.

Not only was the area under Byzantine control but the pope, Pope John VII, was a pure Byzantine as well. He, as a part of Christianizing the Forum, wanted to turn the Roman edifices into Christian edifices, replacing Roman heroes with Christian heroes. The pope saw an opportunity to reinvent such images throughout the Forum, but also on the ramp that Emperor Domitian used to go from the Forum, up the Palatine hills to his palace. So, beginning with the Forum, the pope made a small shrine to 40 martyrs within the Santa Maria Antiqua, a Roman Catholic Marian church.

When creating the images for the Forum and the churches within, Pope John VII wanted something special for the depiction of the Resurrection.

He wanted it at a certain site — when he’s going into the church or out of the church, and going onto the ramp or off the ramp,” Crossan said. “It’s like a portal image, … the great entrance and exit, the Resurrection itself. When he entered and exited, he would be reminded of this all the time.”
Historian John Dominic Crossan returns to Chautauqua to give a lecture about his studies of Jesus as major part of the Bible in the Hall of Philosophy July 9, 2019. SARAH YENESEL/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

The depiction of the Resurrection developed based on information from the New Testament and coinage, as was done on the sarcophagi at the Christian acropolis. The artist would have a few specific ideas in mind from both sources. From the New Testament, they would be thinking of the line from the Gospel of Matthew in which it is stated that other people rose with Jesus.

Two images of victory are also found on the back of coins in the 500s and 600s, and both are accurate. The first image is extremely brutal.

“You have the emperor with his right foot on the poor captive’s head, which is bowed to the ground; his neck is down, and his boot is on his neck,” Crossan said.

The second image shows the emperor not trampling on the captive, but bending over him and raising him up. What is even more fascinating, Crossan said, is that the emperor is not just raising this captive, but the captive symbolizes a people or a city — it represents more than one individual. The same can be said for the image of the Resurrection commissioned by Pope John VII.

The depiction is on a wall that lines the ramp, and it shows Jesus dressed magnificently. In his left hand, Jesus holds a scroll, which Crossan said symbolized thinking and philosophy. In the other hand, Jesus holds the limp wrist of Adam. Next to Adam, Eve stands “ambiguously.” In addition to these two, Hades is below the feet of Jesus.

“Now let me be very clear,” Crossan said. “Adam and Eve are the human race. They’re not two people, they are in the Biblical tradition, the progenitors, the personification of the human race. Hades’ place is not hell; he is the gatekeeper of death. He’s not an evil figure. He just has a job.

Despite the two archaeological sites Crossan mentioned — one being the “Individual Resurrection” and the other being the “Universal Resurrection” —   it would take yet another 500 years of development before Jesus reaches for both Adam and Eve. Eventually, Crossan said, the most glorious Resurrection depiction of all would be created in the Church of the Holy Savior in Chora, now the Chora Museum in Istanbul.

“Jesus, equal hands out there, one for Adam, one for Eve, is taking the whole human race with him,” Crossan said.

With detailed examples of both the “Individual Resurrection” and the “Universal Resurrection,” Crossan said that, in the first millennium, the former or the latter could have become the official image of the Resurrection for all of Christianity.

With the split in Christianity in 1054, the East chose to use the “Universal Resurrection” depiction, while the West stuck with the “Individual Resurrection.”

“Paul says, ‘Jesus is the first fruit of those who have slept,’ and Matthew uses the same Greek words for those who have slept, who rise with Jesus,” Crossan said. “Where are they in any Western image? The only sleepers I see there are the guards, so I think (the ‘Universal Resurrection’) is in greater continuity.”

Crossan then questioned the meaning of resurrection. He said that it has the same roots as “insurrection.” The Greek word is anastasis, which consists of two words: “ana” and “stasis.”

“Stasis is revolution,” Crossan said. “Now it can be either violent or nonviolent revolution. … Only nonviolent revolution can save the human species from escalatory violence that will destroy it. That’s the message. That’s the challenge I get from the ‘Universal Resurrection’ image. It has to do with our species.”
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