Scholars sift varying views of Jesus’ death, resurrection


A depiction of Christ’s resurrection, rendered in a tapestry held by the Vatican Museums. It is part of the 1524-1531 “Scuola Nuova” series from the Flemish Pieter van Aelst’s workshop.

Two biblical scholars will discuss different ways of seeing and understanding the death and resurrection of Jesus in a series of talks this weekend in Billings.

The Jesus Seminar on the Road event, sponsored by the Westar Institute and Billings First Congregational Church, will start Friday evening and run for most of Saturday at the church, 310 N. 27th St. (See below for details on the schedule and registration.)


Celene Lillie

Arthur Dewey and Celene Lillie will each deliver two talks as part of the series, and then appear together to answer questions from the audience.

Dewey appeared here once before, the first time the Jesus Seminar came to First Congregational, in 2016, but this will be Lillie’s first time here. The Rev. Mike Mulberry, the pastor at First Congregational, said he was particularly interested in what Lillie will have to say because she offers “a feminist critique on the death and resurrection of Jesus using critical scholarship from non-canonical gospels.”

Lillie, of the Tanhoe Center and Boulder (Colorado) First United Methodist Church, has written several books, including “The Rape of Eve: The Transformation of Roman Ideology in Three Early Christian Retellings of Genesis,” published last year.

In her first talk, “Plurality in the Passion,” Lillie said she will discuss the so-called Gospel of Mary, found in Egypt in the late 19th century, which tells of how Mary of Magdala met with other disciples of Jesus shortly after his death and resurrection. The full gospel was not found, just three fragments of it, Lillie said, and “it looks like we have a post-Resurrection teaching session that we kind of step in the middle of.”

The disciples are frightened, wondering whether they’ll suffer the same fate as Jesus, and Mary comforts them, having received a special teaching from Jesus, which Peter asks her to recount.

The gospel’s chief importance lies in its authorization of women, like men, preaching the teachings of Jesus, Lillie said. Even though some of the other disciples are not happy with the idea of Mary teaching, “the entire community does go out to teach and preach at the end of the gospel,” Lillie said.

Dewey said his talks, like Lillie’s and those of other members of the Jesus Seminar, make extensive use of the non-canonical gospels, each of which has to be critiqued on its own basis, disregarding the “canonical bias.”

Dewey is a professor of theology at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio, and the author, most recently, of “Inventing the Passion.” He said he will be talking about “the whole matter of remembering the death of Jesus and what that means.”

He said the death of Jesus was not significant to his early followers, partly because they were too shocked by his crucifixion. He said the Roman Empire employed that method of execution because it was such a shameful way to die and “was a way of removing someone from memory. … The point of crucifixion was liquidation, making you disappear.”


Arthur Dewey

Some early Christian traditions viewed the death and resurrection of Jesus through the lens of Jewish teachings, which would have seen it not as the story of individual heroism, but as a communal remembering of the death of an innocent, a declaration “that the innocent are in fact remembered by God,” Dewey said.

Mulberry said that so much of modern Christianity is about belief in one particular message or interpretation, and about each sect believing its version of the truth to be absolute.

Lillie said that the canonical texts, the gospels that are collected in the New Testament, contain contradictions and variations among themselves, which are often overlooked. Consulting the non-canonical texts as well “helps us remember how many different interpretations there are.”

In a letter of Peter to Phillip, which she will also discuss, Jesus appears in a vision and advises the disciples to go out and preach despite the dangers of being put to death. Being killed, becoming martyrs, is not the goal, Lillie said; Jesus’ message is that he will be with them no matter what, that he will be with them in times of suffering.

Dewey said he has advised ministers to preach on Palm Sunday not about the entire narrative of the Passion of Christ, but simply to ask their congregations if they’ve ever experienced the suffering of an innocent, like the death of an infant.

“Just take that,” he said. “That is the key to the whole narrative,” being reminded that God does “not forget those who have suffered grievously.”

Lillie also promised that she and Dewey will not be speaking in terms accessible only to other scholars or clergy.

The talks “are really geared to the general public, so that they can learn these things that scholars have known for decades,” she said.


You can read a full description of the program and register by going here. Here’s a quick look at the schedule:

♦ Friday, 7:30-9 p.m., “Ancient and Modern Memory,” Arthur Dewey.

♦ Saturday, 9:30-10:30 a.m., “Plurality in the Passion,” Celene Lillie.

♦ Saturday, 11 a.m.-noon, “The Death that Would not Die,” Dewey.

♦ Saturday, 1:30-2:30 p.m., “Ancient Resurrection and Modern Hope,” Lillie.

♦ Saturday, 3-4 p.m., “Questions and Answers,” Dewey and Lillie.

Prices are $20 for the Friday evening lecture, $30 for each morning and afternoon session on Saturday, or $60 for the whole weekend. The event qualifies as continuing education units for clergy and other educators.

In addition to registering online, you can register at the door.

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