John Behr, The Mystery of Christ: Life in Death (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2006).
When Jesus rose from the dead it must have been a pretty traumatic experience for the disciples. Clearly, none of them expected it. Despite occasional confessions such as Peter’s “You are the Christ,” it is likely that none the disciples really understood that Jesus was God until after His resurrection. Suddenly confronted with their risen Lord, the disciples had to rethink everything they knew about Jesus and the world in general. According to John Behr, the resurrection became the interpretative key through which the early Christians and the Church Fathers made sense of their world. Rather than doing exegesis of Scripture, the early Church used the Old Testament to interpret Christ. They were less interested in understanding the Bible and more concerned with understanding their God. Even though the early church didn’t think of the New Testament as a canon, it still treated these writings as authoritative because it found in them the same teachings that it was proclaiming.
An expert in early Christian creeds, in The Mystery of Christ (2006) Behr argues that “the images throughout the early Christian period depicting the Crucifixion, such as that in the Rabbula Gospels (586, pictured right), consistently depict the crucified Christ with an upright body and eyes wide open, not because of an inability to depict a dead corpse, but precisely because the crucified one is the triumphant Lord: the Cross itself is taken simultaneously as a reference to the Crucifixion and to the risen Christ. The Christ that Christians are concerned with is always the crucified and exalted one, the one who has now entered into his glory.” Behr notes that like Paul’s writings, the gospel of John treats Jesus as God from beginning to end. Only in the synoptic gospels do we see disciples who don’t understand what is going on, and Behr assumes that this is a literary ruse – Matthew, Mark and Luke know full well who Jesus is and they are playing with their readers when they reveal His identity only gradually. The true kerygma of the early Church, Behr argues, is that Christ is the eternal God through whom the world came to be and in whom it finds its end.
Acknowledging that Jesus is God and that “through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made” (Jn 1:3) means that the Resurrection forced the disciples to rethink the very creation of the world. If Jesus’ death and resurrection is the fons et origo of all things, then we can only understand creation with reference to the cross. St Ireneus of Lyons (130-202) said it thus: “Since he who saves already existed, it was necessary that he who would be saved should come into existence, that the One who saves should not exist in vain.” Behr argues that we should stop thinking in historical terms as if the Fall came first and then Jesus appeared as a stop-gap measure to fix a problem created by the Adam and Eve’s sin. This sort of chronology might make sense to us as modern Westerners, but this was not how the Church Fathers thought about time. He writes, “St Athanasius, for instance, describes how, after they were created by God in his own image “through his own Word, our Savior Jesus Christ,” human beings turned away from contemplating the Word, and he then brings in Adam “the first of human beings,” as an example of this. St Maxiumus the Confessor affirms that the first man, “together with his coming-into-being,” misused his God-given capacity for spiritual enjoyment so that his “first movement” was towards the things of sense-perception rather than his Creator, but that this was encompassed in God’s overall providence for his creation: there was never a “time,” for St Maximus, in which human beings did not stand in need of Christ.”
Seen through Behr’s eyes, the Resurrection becomes the beginning and the end of our thinking about God. “Theology begins,” he writes, “with the opening of the scriptures by the risen Lord, so that his disciples can see how they all speak of him and the necessity of his Passion, and so be prepared to share in the meal to which he invites them, when he is recognized and disappears from sight (Lk 24:27-32), creating in them a desire for the Coming One. It is based on Peter’s acknowledgment that he has betrayed Christ, that he was complicit in his death, but is nevertheless, as a forgiven sinner, called to be an apostle, proclaiming the forgiveness of Christ, his mercy and his love – a new creation.” Behr finds the whole gospel encapsulated in Peter’s experience of the Passion and he encourages us to read the Bible as a confession of our own encounter with God. If Behr’s approach to the Bible doesn’t blow your mind then you weren’t paying attention when you read the book. It challenges us to let go of our modern presuppositions when we read the Bible and be willing to find God through the eyes of an ancient, foreign culture that is at first strange, then confusing, then frightening. But when we are talking about the living God we should expect nothing less.