Susan Sink spoke recently with Professor of New Testament at Brite Divinity School Shelly Matthews, a spring semester Collegeville Institute Resident Scholar, about her research on feminist approaches to the Resurrection of Jesus. The project follows her recently published books, Luke 1–9 and Luke 10–24, part of the Wisdom Commentary series from Liturgical Press, co-authored with Barbara Reid. Shelly is the series editor for the SBL Press series Early Christianity and Its Literature; and was the co-founder and inaugural co-chair, with Tat-Siong Benny Liew, of the Society of Biblical Literature program unit on Racism, Pedagogy and Biblical Studies.
Before arriving at Brite in 2011, she was the Dorothy and B.H. Peace Jr., Associate Professor of Religion at Furman University, in Greenville South Carolina, where she taught for 13 years. She is an ordained United Methodist Minister (Dakotas Area Conference). Her current book in progress is tentatively titled A Feminist Guide to Early Christian Resurrection: Justice, Authority, Presence.
Having read the outline for your Resident Scholars presentation, your project struck me as suited for a primarily academic audience. Is that right?
The issue of audience was the first thing our cohort of Resident Scholars discussed at the seminar. It likely needs to be an academic book, in part, because the subject of the resurrection is sensitive, both for the laity and scholars. Within biblical scholarship, resurrection is typically explained in one of two competing ways. Liberal scholars like Marcus Borg argue that Resurrection is just a metaphor, and more conservative scholars like N.T. Wright insist that it was literally true and provable that Jesus rose from the dead in bodily form.
Feminist Biblical scholars ask different questions. They reject this either/or thinking and focus on more poetic ways of thinking about resurrection, emphasizing mystery, connection, divinity, and how relationships might extend beyond the time/space continuum in which we are immersed. Even the Methodist funeral rite says it better than the typical either/or formulation. It affirms, “We stand in sure and certain hope of the resurrection.” The phrase is not “sure and certain proof” but “sure and certain hope.” To formulate it this way is to embrace paradox and mystery.
Your book’s working subtitle is “Justice, Authority, Presence.” What is the “justice” component about?
We know the death of Jesus was political. Crucifixion was political. It was an imperial execution by the Roman authorities. It was a degrading punishment reserved for slaves, rebels, and others considered less than human. We also know that Jewish resurrection proclamation developed as a way to counter death-dealing empires.
The first proclamation of resurrection in the Bible is in Ezekiel 37, the vision of the dry bones. It is a counter-narrative to the Babylonian conquerors. The vision is explained as a metaphor for the restoration of the people of Israel to the land of Israel. Later texts, such as Daniel and Maccabees, proclaim that the body destroyed by the enemies will be literally resurrected.
Jewish resurrection proclamation developed as a way to counter death-dealing empires.
However, in Christian reflection on Jesus’s death this political version of resurrection gives way to the spiritualizing language of forgiveness for our sins. We emphasize atonement and otherworldly reward. The body gets removed, the politics, the physicality of it.
To my knowledge, there are no hymns emphasizing resurrection as God’s justice for the suffering (at least not in predominantly White churches in North America!). That God is on the side of the oppressed is part of the resurrection accounts, which are about restoration and justice. But this acknowledgment is hard to find in our worship resources.
It’s true I always think of resurrection in a spiritual context, primarily about atonement. Where does that come from?
Plato invented immortality of the soul. The idea that we have individual souls that outlive our physical bodies and go to heaven is a Platonic idea. If all we Christians have to declare to the world is immortality of the soul, we are simply proclaiming Plato. But the Jewish idea of bodily resurrection inherited by Christians comes from Ezekiel, not Plato. It is framed in the context of political persecution and grisly death.
In my book I remind readers that the origin of the resurrection proclamation had to do with justice. It came not from thinking, “Do you and I get to live forever?” but from asking, “What does God do about those who were slaughtered?” These first narratives were for lives interrupted, unfinished lives, children who suffered and died, and people killed by unjust regimes.
The origin of the resurrection proclamation had to do with justice.
Resurrection, of course, is essential to Christian proclamation. But I sometimes wonder what was lost when other ideas of a “New Heaven and New Earth” gave way to resurrection as the ultimate fate for humans. Consider the vision of Isaiah 65:17-25, which speaks of a new heaven and earth. It’s a utopian vision, where the lion will lie down with the lamb. However, death is not abolished. This vision celebrates a life that is 100 years long: a long, full life, but not everlasting life. The vision also stresses fair compensation for labor and fair distribution of resources as a means to live a long, full life.
What about the second part of your subtitle, “authority”?
The gospels sometimes care about questions that don’t necessarily matter to us, such as “who saw Jesus first?” There are footraces to the tomb in John, and arguments about the order in which Jesus appeared to various persons in 1 Corinthians. In the Gospels, women are both at the cross and the tomb, but certain forces pushed back against the idea that they were “first.” As the church develops, being first to see the risen Jesus is linked to apostolic authority. My book asks about their role in shaping the story of Christianity. One chapter will summarize the very rich scholarship being done now on Mary Magdalene. (I note that here my work shares common ground with an article on The Resurrection illumination in The Saint John’s Bible by our own Fr. Wilfred Theisen, OSB.)
Jane Schaberg, one of my favorite writers, argues that Mary is to Jesus as Elisha is to Elijah. That Jesus hands the mantle of his ministry on to her. In the story of Mary and Jesus in the garden in John 20, Schaberg sees a trace of a community which understood Mary as the successor of Jesus.
What has your experience as a Resident Scholar been like?
I love the Collegeville Institute and wish I could stay! This is an important place for me, and our family has been here three times. Back in 2004-05, we had young children who attended the public school in St. Joseph. A few weeks ago, I ran into Fr. Wilfred Theisen in the Abbey gift shop, which was so delightful. A particularly rich experience was being invited to preach at Christian Unity Sunday in the winter of 2005. Overall, we appreciate the radical hospitality offered by the Collegeville Institute staff and the Benedictines. The cross country skiing this winter has been splendid. And, of course, the wonderful library staff, the Hill Monastic & Manuscript Library (HMML), the School of Theology–all these resources make it a great place to work.
The Friday night dinners with the scholars are lovely. This is something we did informally with [fellow scholars] Dorothy Bass and Mark Schwehn when we were here seven years ago and now it’s part of life at the Collegeville Institute. I also made a friend for life here, Margarita Farina from Italy, who was working with Syriac manuscripts at HMML in the days before digitization. This is a place with a sense of place. Unlike “Strip Mall America,” which can be in Texas or Minnesota or anywhere, there are things here you can only do in this place. Only here can you experience this combination of The Saint John’s Bible, HMML, the monks’ liturgies, the ecumenical thrust of the Collegeville Institute, and Benedictine hospitality.