The Resurrection of Jesus — History or Allegory, Follow-Up
This is part of a conversation between David Knott and myself about Christianity in general, and currently the resurrection of Jesus. The recent focus has been that he does not understand how I might call myself a Christian, even if I don’t necessarily believe in the resurrection of Jesus, which he thinks is “the most important evidence upon which the Christian faith either stands or falls”.
My main argument has been that the resurrection is better understood as an allegory, and is more meaningful and relevant to modern humans if understood in that way. Also, this may have been the original intention of the gospel writers, even if the later Catholic Church interpreted the story literally. I have had this same debate previously with Gerald R. Baron, and at that time wrote several articles. (It is not essential to have read these for the purposes of this article, but if interested see footnote 1. The fourth one deals specifically and in detail with the question of an allegorical interpretation.)
A few weeks ago I wrote a response to David Knott, in which my conclusion was that, even if Jesus never existed, it would still be possible to be a Christian. He has in turn made a response, which unfortunately I have not yet had time to reply to. Since then, however, I have come across an interesting and relevant passage in the writings of the mythologist Joseph Campbell, which helps me to elaborate further on that idea:
“Dante in his philosophical work the Convito distinguishes between the literal, the allegorical, the moral, and the anagogical (or mystical) senses of any scriptural passage. Let us take, for example, such a statement as the following: Christ Jesus rose from the dead. The literal meaning is obvious: ‘A historical personage, Jesus by name, who has been identified as “Christ” (the Messiah), rose alive from the dead’. Allegorically, the normal Christian reading would be: ‘So likewise, we too are to rise from death to eternal life’. And the moral lesson thereby: ‘Let our minds be turned from the contemplation of mortal things to abide in what is eternal’. Since the anagogical or mystical reading, however, must refer to what is neither past nor future but transcendent of time and eternal, neither in this place nor in that, but everywhere, in all, now and forever, the fourth level of meaning would seem to be that in death — or in this world of death — is eternal life. The moral from that transcendental standpoint would then seem to have to be that the mind in beholding mortal things is to recognize the eternal; and the allegory: that in this very body which Saint Paul termed ‘the body of this death’ (Romans 6: 24) is our eternal life — not ‘to come’, in any heavenly place, but here and now, on this earth, in the aspect of time”².
My question would therefore be, which of these four levels is ultimately the most important? The traditional Christian message is that it is the literal meaning - although the Church obviously believes that this literal interpretation has important implications. Readers will probably not be surprised to discover that I think that it is rather the mystical sense that is the most important, a message for all human beings for all time. Once one has understood this and acted upon it, the literal, historical level becomes far less important.
Campbell goes on to say that he finds the same idea in William Blake, Walt Whitman, “as well as in those (lines) of the Indian Upanishad, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and the Gnostic Thomas Gospel. He then quotes the Roman Catholic monk, Father Thomas Merton: “The symbols of the higher religions may at first sight seem to have little in common. But when one sees that the experiences which are the fulfilment of religious belief and practice are most clearly expressed in symbols, one may come to recognize that often the symbols of different religions may have more in common than have the abstractly formulated official doctrines’ ”³.
What I find interesting here is that a practising Catholic is acknowledging that the essential (hidden) message of all religions is the same. This is a belief known as the Perennial Philosophy, and is a theme to which I often return. The various churches, however, believe that Christianity is the only true religion, and are frequently dismissive of Eastern traditions. This is because they believe in, and are focussed upon, their literal understanding of the story and message of the Gospels. It is only when we turn to the symbolic, allegorical, or mystical (i.e. hidden) levels of meaning, that we discover that the message is the same.
One point needs clarification. One frequently finds references in Christianity to “the promise of eternal life”. (‘Eternal life’ even appears in Campbell’s text.) Believers take this to mean that the sense of their individual selves, their personalities will survive in an afterlife and “no longer taste death”. I have no scholarly opinion or evidence to back this up, so this is purely a personal guess, but I do not believe that this is what the original writers meant, nor Jesus himself if he ever said those words. I suspect that, somewhere down the line, the original meaning got lost in translation, or was reinterpreted in the light of one editor’s beliefs. ‘Eternal life’ would be far better understood as ‘life in eternity’, i.e. existing in the spiritual realm way beyond the space-time universe. This is the goal of Eastern religions, where this state is known variously as enlightenment, samadhi, nirvana, thus the final stage at which union with the divine is reached, and the ultimate goal of all spiritual practice. In order to achieve this, one has to lose all sense of separation, individual self and personality.
That, I believe, is what Christianity should be teaching and, if we adopt that interpretation, then we can see that its deeper meaning is the same as these Eastern religions, therefore that Christianity is one more tradition within the Perennial Philosophy. Once we have accepted that, we can begin to reflect upon the important question of what role Christianity has, in its mystical form, in the overall evolution of consciousness.
I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, politics and astrology. All these articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here).
- Easter Without the Resurrection?. This article is a response to a recent… | by Graham Pemberton | Medium
2. Myths To Live By, Souvenir Press, 1973, p256
3. article entitled ‘Symbolism: Communication or Communion?’