The Resurrection Before Jesus


 

According to a recent New York Times article, "Ancient Tablet Ignites Debate on Messiah and Resurrection," a stone tablet discovered roughly a decade ago is now under scrutiny by the academic religious community. It appears that the 87 lines of Hebrew embedded on this stone discuss the idea of bodily resurrection after three days – years before the historical birth date of Jesus. If this is true, it raises the possibility that the resurrection could be a metaphor for the redemption of the entire community of Israel, not only one human being. The case, as you can imagine, is being fiercely debated.

The most serious question the debate poses is this: Why did it take this tablet to make people – scholars no less – realize that? I'm used to the jargon of academia; it has been part of my studies for fifteen years. In fact, I even like some of it. Treating religion as history, and not as "fact," is an important pursuit in an age that can be defined in so many ways by the term "blind faith." But the problem with a debate like this is how poorly metaphors, much less mythologies, are understood in certain academic circles, as well as by the general population.

Hence our religious interpreters encourage the public to be more intrigued by conspiracy theories, a la The Da Vinci Code, than by understanding the mythological and metaphorical significance of these ancient stories. When you present analogies as living, breathing humans, you actually take away their humanness. Instead of personified ideas, you are left with the ideas of particular persons. This defeats the purpose of the prophecies, which is to educate and empower every individual with the lessons of religion. We spend more time wondering about what particular historical figures might have done when alive than doing what we need to do ourselves. There is a good reason "primitive" societies employed animals and imaginary figments as their gods: those figures couldn't be mistaken as human, so humans would not make the mistake of separating themselves from the rest of the world.

There exist much older tablets, discovered a century-and-a-half ago, that were even more significant harbingers of the biblical cycles: the world's oldest known story, the Epic of Gilgamesh. That epic tale laid the groundwork for the flood and ark, the resurrection, and the entwining of politics and spirituality which is the hallmark of every religious tradition, not just that of the Bible. This does not mean that the biblical writers knew Gilgamesh and deliberately copied it. In oral traditions, stories were passed down and remixed for centuries; they changed according to the temperament of the time. There were likely thousands of different Noahs and Christs with other names that never made it to the page. What mattered is their influence on the people who heard the stories, not the factuality of Noah as a historical being.

What seems apparent is that this recently discovered tablet will accomplish at least one thing. It is already fueling the continual ego battle between two religions that have shared the same God and book for millennia. Having faith in a particular value system, and organizing your life around those values, is a noble discipline. But believing those values to be the only way a person should experience reality is the result of spending too much time not actually experiencing the world around you – not traveling, not engaging in conversations with people of other faiths, not being critical of your own faith. This leads to the false righteousness that the prophets of religions spoke against, not in favor of.

Whether or not a historical figure called Christ ever existed is irrelevant. The term "Christ," like the word "Buddha," is significant because it represents the individual who has given up his or her ego in search of something universal. As the Buddha noted, this does not even imply "goodness." For him, it was more important to be compassionate than good; the notion of "good" is an abstract and relative quality to begin with. These ideas are lyrical mandalas designed to be reflected and meditated upon, and ultimately integrated into this life now, not a life that may or may not exist in the future. Who we are is defined by our behavior, not by what we believe.

Between the two poles of blind faith and academia there is a balance between the impulse that needs a definitive historicity, and the tendency to accept religious icons without questioning. Of course, resurrection stories were told before the time of Jesus. Of course, the resurrection theme preceded Jesus' life by thousands of years, and not only decades. These stories resonate as part of the story of eternal life, the undiscovered and highly sought after state of being that has perplexed humans since time immemorial. We have always asked: what is after this life, where we come from, where are we going? To freeze a moment in time is to be forever stuck in the same place, and if there's anything we need in order to live freely, it is this first: recognize that human existence is a process; we are not stagnant beings. We are blessed to have had great souls before us point the way. The path, however, must be walked by our own two feet.

 

Image by *L*u*z*a*, used courtesy of a Creative Commons license.