By Kirsty McHugh, OUP UK
It’s Easter this weekend, so I thought today I would look at how the Oxford Dictionary of the Bible, by W.R.F. Browning, defines some of the key concepts of this important time in the Christian calendar. Read on to find out what the Dictionary says about Easter, Good Friday, and resurrection, and I hope those of you who, like me, have a nice long weekend off work have a fun and relaxing time.
The word is used by [the Authorized Version of the Bible] for the annual commemoration of Jesus’ resurrection at Acts 12:4; modern versions prefer ‘Passover’. Easter soon became the chief festival of the early Church, and by the 3rd century it was preceded by a night vigil. At dawn those who had been prepared were baptized; all received communion. There was no observance of Good Friday as a separate memorial day until the 4th century. For some time Easter, as the Christian Passover, was observed on 14 Nisan, the date of the Jewish festival, whether it was a weekday or a Sunday. This continued for some time in Asia Minor, where the group known as Quartodecimens observed Easter when Jews celebrated Passover on 14 Nisan whatever the day of the week; but in Rome and elsewhere the feast was kept on the following Sunday, and this was the date settled by the Council of Nicaea (325 CE).
The day when Christians each year commemorate the crucifixion of Jesus. There was for a long time no special annual observance of the crucifixion of Jesus except that from the 2nd century every Friday was a day of fasting. The death and resurrection were commemorated in a single Paschal festival over Saturday and Sunday. But in the 4th century there was a development of Holy Week at Jerusalem in which the historical events of the passion were rehearsed and then Good Friday became a distinct occasion for recalling the Crucifixion, and Easter Sunday for celebrating the Resurrection. Only the latter allowed the adjective ‘good’ to be applied to the Friday.
There was a variety of beliefs about life after death held both by people generally and by intellectuals in the biblical eras. The ancient Hebrews rejected both the Canaanite Baal worship, which included in the cult the annual dying and rising again of the god, and also the Greek notion of the inherent immortality of the ‘soul’. But the New Testament concept of resurrection has only the barest hints in the Old Testament. The idea of a hopeless shadowy existence in sheol (e.g. Ps. 88: 3–5) similar to the Greek conception of Hades, as in Homer, is a state of misery where the dead survived as feeble shades. In later literature there is a richer conception of life after death. Job 19: 25–7 is searching for a more satisfactory view which would conform to the Hebrew sense that the human body, part of God’s creation, was ‘very good’ (Gen. 1: 31), and therefore life without ‘body’ was incomplete and unsatisfying. Moreover, while existence in sheol might be a fair reward for the wicked (Ps. 49: 14), surely the faithful deserved something better? So there is a promise of resurrection for Israel as a nation (Isa. 26: 19); Yahweh’s loyalists who have suffered will rise to an appropriate reward (Dan. 12: 2) and apostates will endure shame and everlasting contempt. In 2 Maccabees there is hope for the resurrection of those who suffer (7: 9) and the righteous will be vindicated (1 Enoch 104: 2–6), and in the time of Jesus this was also the view of the Pharisees (but not the Sadducees) and of Jesus himself (Mark 12: 18–27).
The resurrection of believers is part of Paul’s hope for all believers at the end of history. He anticipates a complete transformation of the whole human person (1 Cor. 15: 53–5). The resurrection of the body is part of Christian belief about life after death. This has been superbly, but literally, depicted in great paintings, as by Stanley Spencer (1925) where the dead are emerging out of the churchyard at Cookham. The essence of the belief is that what has been of value on earth in the bodily, historical life is not wholly left behind but is transfigured.