(Letter to Verne A. Kiular, continued)
“On the third day He rose again in fulfillment of the Scriptures,” will now be read as “and rose again on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” This may seem a trifling difference, but there’s more to it than meets the eye. First of all, the latter translation is the way it’s written in Latin. That’s also the way it’s written in Greek the language in which the Nicene Creed was first written. Now don’t lose me here. This is an obscure point. The fact that Jesus rose from the dead is not the whole point of the phrase, “He rose on the third day according to the Scriptures.”
The third day is not just incidental. Three is a huge concept in Hebrew gematria. (Gematria is the symbolic meaning attached to numbers) When three appears in the text, it symbolizes divinity. For example, the three heavenly visitors who told Abraham about Sara’s impending pregnancy. (Gen.18:1-8) Jesus had said that He would rise on the third day. “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up... He was speaking of the temple of His body. So when He was raised from the dead, His disciples remembered that He said this... and they believed the Scriptures and the word which Jesus had spoken.” (John 2:19-22) The disciples seem to think that there was something important about not only His rising, but His rising on the third day. Consequently, the first Christians maintained that Jesus had not only risen from the dead, but that He had risen on the third day. That fact must have been pretty important to land in the Creed.
The point is this: Jews maintain that there is nothing in the Torah about a divine messiah rising from the dead. In the words of my dear friend, Rabbi Yehudah ben Yiddshkeit, “The Messiah isn’t supposed to be divine and doesn’t rise from the dead. He’s a man. He’s born, he re-establishes the temple, he establishes justice and world peace and then he dies. We still can’t eat shrimp!” So is my friend the rabbi right? Is there no mention of the resurrection in the Torah, the first 5 books of the Bible? This was a huge problem for the first Christians.
The letter to the Hebrews deals with the problem in the following way. “Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death.” (Hebrews 11:9) Now, get ready for really obscure. The Letter to the Hebrews claims that Abraham’s belief in the resurrection is found in Genesis 22:3-5. “And Abraham rose early in the morning... and took two of his servants with him, and Isaac his son... and went to the place of which God had told him. ON THE THIRD DAY Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place far off. Abraham said to his servants, “Wait here... and I and the boy will go further. We will worship, and come back to you.”
In other words, Abraham trusted God so completely that he reasoned even if God would require the death of Isaac, He would restore him to life by raising him from the dead. People often are appalled that God would require such a test of loyalty and that Abraham would submit to it. The Letter to the Hebrews points out that it was Abraham’s trust in God and hope of resurrection that allowed him to take such a risk. If God required the sacrifice, God would return Isaac to his father by mans of resurrection. Abraham says to his servants, “WE will come back,” not “I will come back.” In this text of Scripture, at least as far as the author of the Letter to the Hebrews is concerned, this “WE” instead of “I” is proof that Abraham believed in the resurrection.
Isaac was a type for the Messiah and his “figurative resurrection” occurred on THE THIRD DAY. Resurrection is not a fulfillment of Scripture, not a development, but a fact that is written into the story of Isaac. The phrase, “the third day”, would be a clear indication that the Scriptures had mentioned resurrection, if only indirectly. If the Torah says that Father Abraham believed in the resurrection with a faith strong enough to risk slaughtering Isaac, then there is resurrection! And if Isaac is a type for the messiah, then resurrection is a messianic expectation. You and I might not think like this, but it seems that Jesus and His disciples did, and that is why resurrection on the third day was important enough to be included in the Creed. It refuted the refutations of Jesus’ messiah-hood at a time when those refutations were much discussed, and troublesome to many.
The Greek and Latin texts, of which the newer version of the Creed is a more accurate translation, grammatically emphasize that this importance of the “third day-ness”. It is a kind of Biblical footnote. This emphasis, I suspect is directed toward Rabbinic Pharisees who were vigorously trying to refute Jesus’ messianic claims. At the time of the Nicene Council, a great philosophical, theological battle raged among Jews, Christians and Pagans (by this I mean followers of the old Roman religion). The loyalty of many people whom today we would probably call Jewish Christians was at stake, and they were not an inconsiderable part of the Christian community and the Roman Empire.
The Nicene creed was written squarely in the midst of that battle. The first version of the Creed was produced by the First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. The final version was produced by the First Council of Constantinople in 381 AD. Between these two councils, there was a serious attempt by one of the Roman emperors to roll back the growth of the Catholic Church.
Julian, known to history as the “apostate,” ruled from 361 to 363. He passionately hated the Christianity that his uncle Constantine the Great had legalized in 313 AD. It is to be remembered that the temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed two centuries before by the Roman Emperors Vespasian and his son Titus in 70 AD, and that the Roman Emperor had once and for all ended sacrifices on the temple mount in 132 AD. The Christians saw this as fulfillment of Jesus’ words “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Church claimed to be the true temple, the messianic temple made of living stones. “You are living stones that God is building into his spiritual temple.” (1Peter 2:5) As part of his campaign to prove that Christianity was not the fulfillment of the religion of Israel, Julian tied to rebuild the Jerusalem temple. His attempt failed spectactularly. Here’s a quote from a personal friend of Julian’s Ammianus Marcellinus:
“Julian thought to rebuild at an extravagant expense the proud Temple once at Jerusalem... (but), when fearful balls of fire, breaking out near the foundations, continued their attacks, the workmen, after repeated scorching, could approach no more and he gave up the attempt.”
Sounds like a bad kung fu movie: explosions but no car-chases.
So the phrasing of the line in the Creed “kai anastanta te trite hemera kata tas Graphas,” or if you prefer Latin “et resurrexit tertia die, secundum Scripturas” is best rendered in English as “and rose again on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” You may be unimpressed, but remember all that junk you threw out of the attic when grandma died? Now don’t you wish you’d thought about it every time you watch Antiques Road Show? Maybe we shouldn’t be so anxious to toss stuff just because it’s old. Even when milk gets old we call it cheese.