Resurrecting Easter

How the West Lost and the East Kept the Original Easter Vision

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John Dominic Crossan, Sarah Crossan
  • New York, NY: 
    HarperOne
    , February
     2018.
     224 pages.
     $39.99.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780062434180.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

John Dominic Crossan, a distinguished biblical scholar, and Sarah Sexton Crossan, a photographer, wrote Resurrecting Easter based ontheir curiosity about the eponymous holiday, which took them to churches, monasteries, museums, and other locations around the world. This volume represents “a debate about ideas presented in and by images” concerning the Eastern and Western churches’ different treatment of Jesus’s resurrection (1). The volume eschews jargon that would confuse non-academic readers, instead presenting friendly and inviting accounts of the authors’ travels, including the motivations for their trip, interactions with local guides, and meetings with owners of resurrection artworks, as well as their travel notes and observations. 

After introducing the purpose of the research in chapter 1, the Crossans presents four different descriptions of Jesus’s resurrection in chapter 2. In Eastern depictions of the resurrection, Jesus does not rise by himself, as is characteristic of most Western representations, but rather rises with other biblical characters (including Adam, Eve, David, John the Baptist, or others). The author explores the chronological variation implied in the illustrations and scrutinizes how early churches, dating to around 600 CE, expressed Jesus’s symbolic power through physical forms. In chapters 4, 5, and 6, the Crossans examine how early churches began to visually depict Jesus’s universal resurrection and where those images came from. 

The Eastern and Western resurrection traditions appear in both textual and visual witnesses. The visual material is inspired by the verbal and textual descriptions in the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Peter. The image of Christ’s universal resurrection, or anastasis, was developed separately from the text (in particular the Gospel of Nicodemus) by the late 7th century CE. Christianity developed the ideas of liberation and conquest based on imperial images of victory and incorporated them into the tradition of the universal resurrection (97). The Crossans are able to date images by arguing that certain elements derive from imperial images inscribed on coins and medallions (93) celebrating particular imperial events. 

In chapters 7, 8, and 9, the authors examine how both individual and universal resurrection traditions were exploited and adopted during the first millennium. They analyze the Khludov Psalter of Russia (800 CE) to explain why Western Christianity favored the individual resurrection over the Eastern tradition’s universal resurrection. They travel to Greece to examine the 9th-century Psalter in the Pantokrator monastery, considering it in its historical context at a time of Muslim domination. They argue that Islam’s geographic control over Christian communities and their sacred sites evoked the “innovative individual resurrection imagery from the Byzantine 840s” (124). The imagery of individual resurrection apologetically defends the spatial distinction of Christian sites under Islam. The Randolf parchment (900 CE) liturgically expresses the same defense and exemplifies how the Western Church began splitting the resurrection scene into Jesus’s trampling down Hades on the one hand, and leading human characters out from Hades on the other (130). In chapter 10, the Crossans continue to explore when and how Christ’s individual resurrection was officially confirmed in Western Christianity by examining artifacts and liturgical scrolls that celebrate the Easter Vigil (e.g., pictures and Easter candlesticks).

In chapters 11 and 12, the Crossans also describe how the universal resurrection tradition developed in Eastern Christianity and highlight Jesus’s invitation to the characters in the images as well as to the viewer. Finally, they ask whether the individual or universal resurrection reflects “the vision of Easter in the New Testament” (167), arguing that just as the kingdom of God is “a process over human time … resurrection as universal event” is “process and not just instant” and the vision of Easter is fulfilled with “the start of the universal resurrection with Jesus” (174). In the last chapter, the Crossans end their long journey at the Memorial Mausoleum of the Distomo Massacre in Greece, where German soldiers slaughtered Greeks during the Second World War. The universal resurrection, they so, exposes not only the conquest of death and the deliverance of humanity but also encourages people to perceive the liberation “by, with, and through Jesus” (184), who successfully fought violent power through nonviolent means. 

Resurrecting Easter dexterously points to an interpretive move from “universal” to “individual” resurrection in Christian history, scrutinizing the resurrection embedded in the images from liturgical, textual, historiographical, musical, and visual perspectives. The reader of this volume perceives how the sacred and the secular entwine in varyingly harmonious ways with many layers of complexity. The husband and wife team made unceasing efforts to collect illustrations of Christ’s resurrection from France, Italy, Romania, Syria, and Turkey, among other places, that display the relationship between the Eastern and Western churches’ interpretation of Christ’s resurrection. 

Resurrecting Easter aims to understand the emphasis on the individual that is so central to Western thought. The Crossans’ theory as to Islam’s influence on the development of an individualistic Western tradition would have been more convincing if they had gone more deeply into the context of emergent Islam. The volume’s subtitle, “How the West Lost and the East Kept the Original Easter Vision,” is also potentially misleading, given that the authors state that “Western Christianity retains the universal resurrection tradition” (151). It also must be noted that reports of Jesus’s resurrection in the New Testament (in particular in the four Gospels) differ according to how each gospel writer perceived the resurrection and what they intended to show through it. The images, literary texts, and liturgical materials of the resurrection are the cultural products of interpretive observation based on the diverse and complicated processes of religious activities and events. No matter which of the many learnings and lessons readers take away from this volume, and regardless of whether they belong to the Eastern or Western traditions, the author provides universal wisdom by showing that one can reach salvation without fear of death through nonviolent means. The volume’s strength is not only the succinct presentation of its multiple contexts and sources, but also its focus on the importance of the human connection with religious objects in shaping ideas and devotion. 

Resurrecting Easter is a stunning work of cultural history that is loaded with sharp, full-color images of resurrection scenes from two Christian traditions. The author relies upon a deep knowledge of the sources and shows considerable theological and historical sophistication. I fully enjoyed the many images and was impressed by the author’s provocative thesis that the communal and universal resurrection of the East might be a timely wake-up call to Western Christians as modern Christianity struggles to build a collective theology to counter the destructive results of extreme individualism. If anyone is interested in joining two masterful professionals on a journey filled with intellectual excitement and a detective’s sensitivity in regard to resurrection images, do not wander astray—this volume is all you need.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Chang Seon An is a doctoral candidate in New Testament and Early Christianity at Boston University School of Theology.

Date of Review: 
September 19, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John Dominic Crossan is Professor Emeritus at DePaul University and is widely regarded as the foremost historical Jesus scholar of our time. He is the author of several bestselling books, including The Historical Jesus, How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian, God and Empire, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, The Greatest Prayer, The Last Week, and The Power of Parable. He lives in Minneola, Florida.

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