When Did the Resurrection Go from Rumor to an Official Declaration of the Church?

040915In the early hours of the first Easter Sunday, the news began to circulate that Jesus was alive and had been seen. These reports were at first disbelieved or at least doubted by the Apostles. They dismissed various reports from both women and men. But suddenly that evening there was a change, a declaration by the Apostles that the Lord “has truly risen!”  What effected this change? We will see in a moment. But first, note the early reports of the resurrection and how they were largely disregarded:

  1. The women who go to the tomb first discover that it is empty (Mat 28:6; Mk 16:6; Luke 24:5; John 20:2). The Gospel of John, which is the most specific, indicates that Mary Magdalene went straight away to Peter and John, speaking anxiously not of resurrection, but of a stolen body. Peter and John hurry to the tomb to investigate. Meanwhile, the other women have a vision of angels, who declare that Jesus has risen and instruct them to inform the Apostles. The women depart to do so. This is the first evidence of the resurrection, though at this point the risen Lord has yet to appear.
  2. John sees and believes – Peter and John arrive at the tomb after the women have already departed. They see only the empty tomb, but it was clearly not due to grave robbers, for the expensive burial linens are lying outstretched. Peter’s reaction is unrecorded but the text says that John saw (the burial clothes outstretched) “and believed” (Jn 20:8). Exactly what he believed is not clear. Did he believe what Mary had told them? Or does the text mean that he came to believe that Jesus had risen? It is not clear, but let us suppose that he has come to believe that Jesus has risen. Does the fact that one of the Apostles (one of the first bishops) believes Christ has risen mean that the Church now officially believes it? It would seem not. That will have to wait until later in the day. At this point, Peter and John leave the tomb.
  3. Mary Magdalene had followed Peter and John back to the tomb and after they leave Jesus appears to her. This is the first appearance of the risen Christ. Does this appearance now mean that the Church officially believes that Jesus is risen? It would seem not. That will have to wait until later in the day. For Scripture testifies that Jesus appeared elsewhere to the other women who had gone to the tomb, but that when Mary Magdalene and the other women reported His appearances, the Apostles would not believe it (Mk 16:11; Luke 24:11). Hence, though we have appearances, we cannot yet say that there is any official declaration by the Church that Christ is truly risen.
  4. Jesus appears to two disciples (not Apostles) who are journeying to Emmaus late that afternoon. At the conclusion of that appearance, the two men run to tell the Apostles who, once again, do not believe it (Mark 16:13). So now we have had at least three appearances but no official acceptance by the Church’s leaders (the Apostles) that there is any truth to these sightings.

So when does the resurrection become the official declaration of the early Church? Up until now the stories have been rejected by the Apostles as either fanciful or downright untrue. Even the possible belief of one of the them (John) was not enough to cause an official declaration from the early Church.

So what causes this to change? It would seem that after the early evening report from the disciples returning from Emmaus, Peter slipped away, perhaps for a walk. According to both Paul (1 Cor 15:5) and Luke (Lk 24:34) the risen Lord then appeared to Peter privately, prior to making Himself known to any of the other Apostles. Peter reports Jesus’ appearance to the others and it is at this point that the resurrection moves from being doubted to being the official declaration of the community, the Church. The official declaration is worded as follows:

The Lord has truly risen, he has appeared to Simon!” (Luke 24:34)

The resurrection is now officially declared. Notice the world “truly” (some texts say, “indeed”). It is now an officially attested fact that Jesus has risen. Neither Mary Magdalene, nor the women in general, nor the disciples from Emmaus, nor even John could make this declaration for the Church. It took the College of Apostles in union with Peter to do this. Hence the dogma of the resurrection becomes so in a very Catholic way: the first bishops (the Apostles) in union or in council with the first pope (Peter) make this solemn declaration of the faith.

When I wrote a similar article some years back, some argued that the Church “did not exist at this time” since Pentecost “is the birthday of the Church.” I do not accept that “the Church did not exist at this time.” I think she did exist but had simply not been commissioned to go forth to the nations as yet; that would wait for Pentecost. Further, even if one holds Pentecost as the birthday of the Church, since our existence precedes our birth by at least nine months, surely the Church’s existence also precedes her “birth.”

We could sidestep the whole debate by saying that the exercise of the Church’s teaching authority in this event is “proleptic.” That is to say, what would fully be the case later is here seen operative in an earlier, yet real manner. The Apostles and their office, which were fully operative after Pentecost, are here active as the result of a prevenient grace, an anticipation of the future reality of the Church teaching authoritatively out of her basic structure, and of the charism given to Peter and the Apostles more fully at a later time.  But I stand by my contention that the Church did exist at this time and that we do not have a prolepsis, but in fact a proper action of the Magisterium at this very point.

Pope Benedict, writing as Joseph Ratzinger (that is to say not claiming to exercise the Papal Magisterium), speaks to the ecclesiological aspect of the early Church’s declaration. “The Lord is truly risen; He has appeared to Simon.” and “He appeared first to Cephas and then to the Twelve” (1 Cor 15:4).  Benedict writes,

… This indication of names [Cephas and then the Twelve], … reveals the very foundation of the Church’s faith. On the one hand “the Twelve” remain the actual foundation stone of the Church, the permanent point of reference. On the other hand, the special task give to Peter is underlined here. … Peter’s special witnessing role is confirmation of his commission to be the rock on which the Church is built. … So the resurrection account flows naturally into ecclesiology. … and it shapes the nascent Church [Jesus of Nzareth Vol 2., pp. 259-260].

But did the women’s and the laymen’s declarations mean nothing? The Lord upbraids the Apostles  later for being so reluctant to accept the testimony of the others (Mk 16:14). He calls them “hard of heart” for this reluctance. But He does not undermine their authority to make the official declaration, for in the very next verse He commissions the Apostles to go forth, preaching and teaching in His name. Surely the Lord was not pleased when, after He had promised many times to rise from the dead, they were so slow to listen to the voices of the first witnesses. Should they not have realized that it was the third day and that the Lord had promised to rise? Should they not have “connected the dots”? Did He have to personally appear to them before they would believe?

Alas, it would seem so. Jesus’ first bishops were not perfect men—far from it. But they were the leaders He had chosen, even knowing their weakness. And so, too, today. The Church’s leaders are not perfect; at times they may take too long to make decisions, give clearer teachings, or impose necessary discipline. But in the end it is they who are nonetheless commissioned to teach officially.

This whole event also teaches us that the bishops and even the Pope himself are not always the first to hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church. The more frequent pattern is that the Lord begins reforms and sends apparitions not to the leaders, but to some among the faithful. Reform movements and messages are often received there first and only later does the Church, through her anointed and appointed leaders, affirm or uphold certain things as worthy of belief and set aside others as problematic.

Finally it should be noted that one of the Apostles, Thomas, was absent. Even after the official declaration of the Church went forth, he refused to believe (Jn 20:25). But the Lord is merciful to him. In the end, though, it is clear that Thomas has fallen short, egregiously so. Not only has he disbelieved the testimony of one or more disciples, he has refused the collective and solemn declaration of the Church. Jesus goes on to declare as blessed those who accept the solemn testimony of the Church though they have not seen him with earthly eyes (Jn 20:29). So we are blessed!

10 Replies to “When Did the Resurrection Go from Rumor to an Official Declaration of the Church?”

  1. I read a wonderful book by Steve Ray called, “Upon This Rock, St. Peter and the Primacy of Rome.” If you don’t know of him, Steve Ray was an Evangelical Protestant who set out to prove, using the writings of the Church Fathers, that the Catholic Church was in error and is not the true Bride of Christ. After reading the Church Fathers he converted to Catholicism and is a Catholic apologist.
    These are the first lines of the introduction to his book: “There is little in the history of the Church that has been more heatedly contested than the primacy of Peter and the See of Rome. History is replete with examples of authority spurned, and the history of the Church is no different. As we proceed with this overview of history, we will allow the Scriptures, the voice of the apostles, and the testimony of the early centuries of the Christian community to speak for themselves.”
    I don’t recall if Mr. Ray uses the Scripture passages above as he makes his case that Peter was acknowledged as the first Pope by the nascent Church, but it speaks volumes to me that 1) Although John arrived first at the tomb, he deferred to Peter to enter first, and 2) as Pope Benedict as Cardinal Ratzinger points out, “Peter’s special witnessing role is confirmation of his commission to be the rock on which the Church is built.”
    I sometimes hear Protestant pastors, truly good men who love God very much, deny Jesus’ words, You are Peter and upon this Rock I will build my Church, meant that Peter was to be the head of the Church. They will say Jesus was referring not to the man Peter, but to his declaration of Faith (You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God). But from the passages about the Resurrection it seems clear to me, even the other Apostles seemed to know it.

  2. Great reflection – I’ve been enjoying reading your work this Easter Octave thank you.

  3. It’s interesting to imagine what those early days must have been like. We seem to be told only the bare bones of the story, and I want so much more. For example, how could Mary Magdalene be the first to see Jesus but hear so little from him before she left to tell the others? I would have had thousands of questions. Maybe she asked them but we’re not told about it. What did the apostles do and say between Jesus’ appearances after the resurrection? Thomas had to wait a week to have his doubt taken a way…a very long week, I think. Msgr. Pope’s post a few days ago about the chronology of Jesus’ appearances was fascinating. The apostles didn’t get all that much of him. Surely they wanted more!

  4. Dated June 29, 2012 “what is the Secret to understanding Scripture?” has a funny video attached. Thanks.

  5. I think you are spot on Msgr regarding the gestation and birth of th Body of Christ (the Church).

    Every living thing that can be born into this earth goes through a gestation period. The seed becomes a plant or tree, the worm a butterfly, the egg a chicken (who will later cross a road for an unknown reason ;P), the fetus a baby. Logic and reason support then that the body of Christ in the form of the Church would also go through this process. The Church is not a simple entity, building or idea, it is a real living thing. It grows, it suffers, it becomes. It has outlived multiple wars, political regimes, heresies, and persecutions. Civilizations have grown and collapsed, economies as well. There is no other terrestrial entity or thing other than the Earth herself that can make that claim.

    To argue it only began to exist on the first Pentecost is not supportable in theory or in fact. It rather denies all that went into creating the Church. It trivializes Jesus’ ministry and our own faith journies as well. And it doesn’t follow the pattern.

  6. You write in point 2 “Peter’s reaction is unrecorded but the text says that John saw (the burial clothes outstretched) “and believed” (Jn 20:8). Exactly what he believed is not clear.
    I read an account by a Jewish convert that it was the napkin neatly folded that John saw and because of that he believed. Why? This convert pointed out that it has long been a Jewish tradition that if one got up from one’s place at table and did not intend returning to that place, one crumples up one’s napkin and tosses it down on the table. Then anyone doing the clearing up, immediately knows that this person whose place it was, has left the table and all can be cleared away. However, if someone leaves the table and intends returning then that person neatly folds the napkin and puts down clearly in place. Then, anyone doing the clearing away, immediately knows not to remove anything because that person is coming back to their place.
    When John saw the neatly rolled napkin he knew that Jesus was coming back and it was then that he believed because of what he saw.

  7. The crux of this article’s argument is that the resurrection became dogma when declared so by Peter in 24:34. But there is a slight problem: read the context and you will see that the people speaking are the disciples whoet Jesus on Emmaus.

  8. A suggestion as to what the beloved disciple saw in the empty tomb that lead him to believe might come from the Shroud of Turin. On the shroud a horizontal strip of cloth had been removed and then later reattached to the larger piece of cloth. It is the same cloth. Speculation is that this strip was used to wrap around the body once the shroud had covered the body front and back. The strip basically held the shroud to the body. What the beloved disciple may have observed in looking at the burial garments in the tomb was that the strip of cloth had not been unwound from the shroud, that it still wound around the shroud that no longer held the body. This state of the shroud and the strip of cloth may have suggested to the beloved disciple that the body had not been taken away since any removal of the body would have involved unwrapping the strip from around the shroud. The beloved disciple may have believed that some supernatural event had happened that removed the body from the shroud without unwrapping the strip of cloth. Even is the Shroud of Turin is not the burial garment of Jesus, it still displays characteristics such as the strip of cloth clearly reattached to the whole which may well have been the standard practice in Jesus’ time and still may suggest what the beloved disciple observed.

  9. Dr. Gilbert Lavoie came up with a brilliant response to the beloved disciple’s statement that he “saw and believed”. What he saw in the state of the burial garments made him believe that Jesus is the Son of God, although he didn’t come to believe in the Resurrection until later. The next statement in the Gospel of John confirms that.

  10. Monsignor–this is an extremely important post. I appreciate how you pointed out that the Church’s first dogmatic proclamation was both paschal and petrinological. It is especially tantalizing that the gospels nowhere relate the narrative of Jesus’ appearance to St Peter–which I think highlights the weight of the declaration in a particular way that demands we take it at face value without “demanding” evidence of the appearance.

    I think, too, it’s important to connect Luke 24:34 with Luke 22:31-32. I think there is something to be said about (1) ἐπιστρέψας and (2) to “strengthen the brethren.”

    Perhaps you could devote a follow-up column to this?

    Fr Matthew Hysell MA MTh
    Archdiocese of Edmonton, Canada

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