Looking to the Old Testament for insight on the Resurrection

July 29, 2019 at 12:37 p.m.
Looking to the Old Testament for insight on the Resurrection
Looking to the Old Testament for insight on the Resurrection

By Father Gerald O'Collins, SJ | Catholic News Service

“For they did not yet understand the Scripture that he had to rise from the dead” (Jn 20:9).

It is hard to overstate the importance of the inherited Scriptures for the earliest followers of Jesus. When they recalled what Jesus did, said, and went through, they turned to these Scriptures, or to what we often refer to nowadays as the Old Testament.

Through that biblical lens, they tried to understand and interpret what they had experienced of Jesus in his life, death and resurrection from the dead.

The Crucifixion proved a horrifying experience for the first disciples. But Jesus had led them to scriptural passages that threw some light on that hideous and humiliating execution. On the cross he quoted the opening words of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”

When they told the story of Jesus’ Passion and Death, they borrowed language from that (and other) psalms.

Likewise, some of the words of Jesus at the Last Supper (Mk 14:24; Lk 22:15) and earlier (Mk 10:45) might have prompted the earliest followers of Jesus to interpret his death in the light of Isaiah 53.

This dramatically powerful fourth “servant song” also became a key text when presenting the suffering of Jesus on behalf of others and the redemption it brought.

The New Testament contains 11 quotations from and at least 32 allusions to this final servant song. Right down to the present and the liturgy of Good Friday, Isaiah 53 has retained its central importance in the way Christians understand the death of Jesus on the cross.

But where could the first disciples turn for scriptural insight into Jesus’ resurrection from the dead? The Psalms, Job, Isaiah, Jeremiah and other books of the Jewish Scriptures have much to say about suffering and, in particular, the suffering of innocent persons.

But it is only in books such as Daniel and Wisdom, written toward the end of the Old Testament period, that we find a little clear teaching on resurrection from the dead. Where are the Scriptures that could have helped the earliest followers of Jesus when they thought about his resurrection?

In the letters of St. Paul, the first Christian writer, we find a confession of the Death and Resurrection of Jesus that goes back to the very beginning of the church. The apostle reminds the Christians in Corinth of the heart of their faith: “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures ... and was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3-4).

But this ancient creed does not cite any particular biblical passages. It simply says Christ’s death and resurrection happened according to that great scheme of things willed by God to which the inspired Scriptures witness.

St. Luke found a hint of Jesus’ Resurrection when the psalmist says to God: “You will not abandon my soul to the netherworld, nor will you suffer your holy one to see corruption” (Acts 2:27, quoting Ps 16:10).

Jesus was and is “the holy one of God” (Mk 1:24). It was unthinkable that his existence would end with his body quietly corrupting in the tomb.

Even more significant was the next verse that Luke quoted: “You have made known to me the paths of life” (Acts 2:28, citing Ps 16:11).

The resurrection had brought Jesus from the state of death into that of a new, glorious life that would last forever and which he wants to share with all the children of God.

In a debate over the resurrection of the dead, Jesus himself appealed to the Scriptures in support of his vision of God, as “not God of the dead but of the living” (Mk 12:18-27).

It was a lesson his followers had to learn: God has the last word and that last word is life - glorious, transformed life. It was a lesson that was not confined to specific biblical passages but one that came through the Scriptures everywhere.

Jesuit Father Gerald O’Collins has taught theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome. His latest book is “Believing in the Resurrection;” Paulist Press.

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“For they did not yet understand the Scripture that he had to rise from the dead” (Jn 20:9).

It is hard to overstate the importance of the inherited Scriptures for the earliest followers of Jesus. When they recalled what Jesus did, said, and went through, they turned to these Scriptures, or to what we often refer to nowadays as the Old Testament.

Through that biblical lens, they tried to understand and interpret what they had experienced of Jesus in his life, death and resurrection from the dead.

The Crucifixion proved a horrifying experience for the first disciples. But Jesus had led them to scriptural passages that threw some light on that hideous and humiliating execution. On the cross he quoted the opening words of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”

When they told the story of Jesus’ Passion and Death, they borrowed language from that (and other) psalms.

Likewise, some of the words of Jesus at the Last Supper (Mk 14:24; Lk 22:15) and earlier (Mk 10:45) might have prompted the earliest followers of Jesus to interpret his death in the light of Isaiah 53.

This dramatically powerful fourth “servant song” also became a key text when presenting the suffering of Jesus on behalf of others and the redemption it brought.

The New Testament contains 11 quotations from and at least 32 allusions to this final servant song. Right down to the present and the liturgy of Good Friday, Isaiah 53 has retained its central importance in the way Christians understand the death of Jesus on the cross.

But where could the first disciples turn for scriptural insight into Jesus’ resurrection from the dead? The Psalms, Job, Isaiah, Jeremiah and other books of the Jewish Scriptures have much to say about suffering and, in particular, the suffering of innocent persons.

But it is only in books such as Daniel and Wisdom, written toward the end of the Old Testament period, that we find a little clear teaching on resurrection from the dead. Where are the Scriptures that could have helped the earliest followers of Jesus when they thought about his resurrection?

In the letters of St. Paul, the first Christian writer, we find a confession of the Death and Resurrection of Jesus that goes back to the very beginning of the church. The apostle reminds the Christians in Corinth of the heart of their faith: “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures ... and was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3-4).

But this ancient creed does not cite any particular biblical passages. It simply says Christ’s death and resurrection happened according to that great scheme of things willed by God to which the inspired Scriptures witness.

St. Luke found a hint of Jesus’ Resurrection when the psalmist says to God: “You will not abandon my soul to the netherworld, nor will you suffer your holy one to see corruption” (Acts 2:27, quoting Ps 16:10).

Jesus was and is “the holy one of God” (Mk 1:24). It was unthinkable that his existence would end with his body quietly corrupting in the tomb.

Even more significant was the next verse that Luke quoted: “You have made known to me the paths of life” (Acts 2:28, citing Ps 16:11).

The resurrection had brought Jesus from the state of death into that of a new, glorious life that would last forever and which he wants to share with all the children of God.

In a debate over the resurrection of the dead, Jesus himself appealed to the Scriptures in support of his vision of God, as “not God of the dead but of the living” (Mk 12:18-27).

It was a lesson his followers had to learn: God has the last word and that last word is life - glorious, transformed life. It was a lesson that was not confined to specific biblical passages but one that came through the Scriptures everywhere.

Jesuit Father Gerald O’Collins has taught theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome. His latest book is “Believing in the Resurrection;” Paulist Press.

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