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Friday, 17 January 2020

Did Jesus Raise Himself from the Dead?

St. Ignatius of Antioch, a Christian bishop who was martyred in the early second century, wrote the following concerning Jesus Christ in his Letter to the Smyrnaeans:
For he suffered all these things for our sakes, in order that we might be saved; and he truly suffered just as he truly raised himself—not, as certain unbelievers say, that he suffered in appearance only (it is they who exist in appearance only!). (Smyrn. 1.1-2.1)1
In this passage, Ignatius asserts that Jesus had raised himself from the dead. The statement occurs in a longer paragraph in which he praises the Smyrnaean church for their conviction in the concrete historical realities of Jesus' life: his descent from David, birth from a virgin, baptism by John, crucifixion under Pilate and Herod, and resurrection. The point that he is most keen to emphasise is that Jesus' suffering and resurrection 'truly' happened and not did not merely appear to happen. The causal agency of Jesus' resurrection is not a point he belabours; indeed, elsewhere in his writings—including in this same letter—Ignatius describes Jesus as having been raised by the Father.2 Thus, for Ignatius, 'he raised himself' is simply another way of describing Jesus' resurrection. That he provides no further comment or clarification suggests that he does not regard his statement as novel or controversial, but assumed that it would be acceptable to his Smyrnaean readers.

Now, throughout the New Testament literature (all or nearly all of which predates Ignatius), the normative way of referring to Jesus' resurrection is not 'Jesus raised himself from the dead' but 'God raised Jesus from the dead' or simply 'Jesus was raised from the dead,' a divine passive that implicitly identifies God as the subject of the action. The pre-Pauline credal formula quoted in 1 Cor. 15:3-4 uses such a divine passive, and throughout the Pauline corpus we consistently read that God raised Jesus from the dead (Rom. 4:24; 8:11; 10:9; 1 Cor. 6:14; 2 Cor. 4:14; Gal. 1:1; Eph. 1:20; Col. 2:12; 1 Thess. 1:10). The same language is used throughout Acts (2:24; 3:15; 4:10; 13:30, 34; 17:31) and also appears in 1 Peter (1:21). As for the Gospels, all four of them use divine passives, for instance in the post-resurrection narratives (Matt. 28:6-7; Mark 16:6; Luke 24:6, 34; John 21:14).

Juxtaposing the consistency of the New Testament in describing Jesus' resurrection as 'God raised Jesus' with Ignatius' seemingly uncontroversial statement that Jesus 'raised himself' leads to an obvious question: where did Ignatius (and presumably at least some of his contemporaries) get the idea that Jesus raised himself from the dead?

The most plausible answer is that Ignatius took the idea from the Gospel of John. Now, it is not certain that Ignatius knew the Gospel of John. Over a century ago, a committee of the Oxford Society of Historical Theology made a close study of literary dependence on the New Testament in the Apostolic Fathers. They gave a 'B' rating to Ignatius' knowledge of John, meaning they considered it 'highly probable,' but not 'beyond reasonable doubt,' that Ignatius knew the Fourth Gospel.3 A subsequent study by Walter J. Burghardt found that literary dependence of Ignatius on John's Gospel was the most plausible explanation of the affinity between the two, but that other forms of dependency (such as oral tradition or the influence of a post-apostolic 'Johannine school') could not be ruled out.4 Thus, we cannot take it for granted that Ignatius knew the text of the Gospel of John as we have it today, but it is almost certain that he was familiar with Johannine ideas in some form.

The Gospel of John does not state as explicitly as Ignatius that Jesus raised himself from the dead. However, there are also two passages in John that imply that Jesus raised himself from the dead. The first of these reads as follows:
19 Jesus answered and said to them, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and you will raise it up in three days?” 21 But he was speaking about the temple of his body. 22 Therefore, when he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they came to believe the scripture and the word Jesus had spoken. (John 2:19-22 NABRE)
John explains the temple metaphor that Jesus used in this saying: the temple refers to his body (cf. John 1:14, which says literally that the Logos 'tabernacled among us, and became flesh'). Thus, as v. 22 confirms, in saying 'Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up,' Jesus was foretelling his death and resurrection. The first-person statement, 'I will raise it up' (egerō auton) cannot be explained away as though necessitated by the temple metaphor. Jesus could easily have said, 'Destroy this temple and in three days it will rise again' or 'Destroy this temple and in three days it will be rebuilt.' Instead, he foregrounded his own agency. What is more, this statement parallels the fourfold statement of Jesus in John 6:39-54, 'I will raise him/it up on the last day' (although the latter uses a different verb, anastēsō). In that text, Jesus is clearly referring to his own future agency in raising the dead. Thus, we have every reason to think that the same idea is in view in John 2:19: Jesus foretold that he would raise his own body from the dead.5,6 We must emphasise that this notion is not opposed to the idea that Jesus was raised from the dead by God—to the contrary, the latter idea does appear in this very context (v. 22) through the use of a divine passive. (The same is true, as we noted already, in Ignatius' Letter to the Smyrnaeans). 

How could John have conceived of both God and Jesus raising Jesus from the dead? The answer lies in different levels of causal agency. The temple metaphor is helpful here: the Jerusalem temple, forty-six years in the making, was called Herod's Temple because it was Herod's project. However, Herod probably was not involved in the day-to-day construction operations and almost certainly did not do any of the heavy lifting. Thus it would be correct to say that Herod built the temple and it would also be correct to say that workers built the temple. The second Johannine text that implies Jesus' agency in his own resurrection provides more detail about the respective causal roles of the Father and the Son:
17 This is why the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own. I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again. This command I have received from my Father. (John 10:17-18 NABRE)
Here, Jesus describes his death and resurrection in terms of laying down his life and taking it up again. Notice that he specifically emphasises his volition: 'I lay it down on my own.' He then declares, literally, 'authority I have to lay it down' (or, 'to give it up,' exousian echō theinai autēn), 'and authority I have to take it up again' (or, 'to take it back', exousian echō palin labein autēn). Word order in Greek conveys emphasis and here the word order squarely emphasises Jesus' own agency. According to this text, Jesus took back his life in the same willful sense that he gave it up. As Jerome H. Neyrey states, 'John 10:17-18 and 28-38 both assert that Jesus has God's eschatological power over death, both to raise himself and to raise his followers.'7 However, the text is not saying that this was done independently of the Father. The last clause stresses that the authority with which Jesus was to act was received from the Father.8

Other passages in John's Gospel shed further light on Jesus' role in the resurrection of others (already seen in John 6:39-54). In John 11:24-25, just prior to demonstrating his power to raise the dead by raising Lazarus, Jesus responds to Martha's faith in 'the resurrection on the last day' by declaring his own definitive role therein: 'I am the resurrection and the life'. However, the Gospel's most detailed material on Jesus' role in the resurrection comes in John 5:19-29. The overarching theme here is that, a son does not work independently of his father, and the Son is no different: the Father loves him and shows him all that he does, and the Son does likewise. Here we have precisely the kind of dual Father-Son agency that is implied in the above references to Jesus' involvement in his own resurrection. John 5:21-22 gives two concrete examples of how the Son imitates the Father: resurrection and judgment. 'just as the Father raises the dead and gives life, so also does the Son give life to whomever he wishes'. 'Taking back' his own life after giving it up (John 10:18) was just such a volitional act of the Son. Jesus goes on to declare that it is the voice of the Son that will give life to the dead in the resurrection (John 5:25, 28). Jesus says in v. 26 that 'just as the Father has life in himself, so also he gave to his Son the possession of life in himself.' 'Having life in oneself' appears to refer to self-existence, a divine attribute. We have then the paradoxical idea that the Son has received self-existence as a gift from the Father. That the Son 'has life in himself' helps to explain how, having died, he would still have authority to reclaim his life.

We can now understand a bold Christological move that was first made in the Fourth Gospel, and then taken up by Ignatius. Because the Father gave the Son to have life in himself, and authorised him to dispense life to whomever he wished—already during his lifetime, in the case of Lazarus, and ultimately 'on the last day'—why should the Son not also have exercised this agency in his own resurrection, by 'taking back' his life as deliberately as he had given it up? After all, Jesus' resurrection was not a separate event from the eschatological resurrection. It was, in Paul's words, the firstfruits of the same harvest (1 Cor. 15:20, 23). Or, to return to Ignatius, 'our Lord' was 'truly nailed in the flesh for us under Pontius Pilate and Herod the tetrach...in order that he might raise a banner for the ages through his resurrection for his saints and faithful people' (Smyrn. 1.2).9

What are the theological implications of the notion that Jesus raised himself from the dead? There are profound implications, not only for Christology—Jesus' divine authority over death is absolute—but also for anthropology. Clearly, in order to raise himself from the dead, Jesus must have still consciously existed while he was dead. This implies that death, for humans, is not the extinction of all existence.10


  • 1 Trans. Michael W. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: English Translations (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 186.
  • 2 'They abstain from the Eucharist and prayer, because they refuse to acknowledge that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins and which the Father by his goodness raised up' (Smyrn. 6.2, trans. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers, 189); 'Be deaf, therefore, whenever anyone speaks to you apart from Jesus Christ, who was of the family of David, who was the son of Mary; who really was born, who both ate and drank; who really was persecuted under Pontius Pilate, who really was crucified and died while those in heaven and on earth and under the earth looked on; who, moreover, really was raised from the dead when his Father raised him up, who—his Father, that is—in the same way will likewise also raise us up in Christ Jesus who believe in him, apart from whom we have no true life' (Trall. 9.1-2, trans. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers, 165).
  • 3 A Committee of the Oxford Society of Historical Theology. The New Testament in the Apostolic Fathers (Oxford: Clarendon, 1905).
  • 4 Walter J. Burghardt, 'Did Saint Ignatius of Antioch Know the Fourth Gospel?', Theological Studies 1(2) (1940): 130-56.
  • 5 Robert H. Gundry writes, 'Jesus' saying [in John 2:19] — with John's editorial comment — makes Jesus raise himself from the dead just as in John 10:17-18' ('Jesus' Blasphemy according to Mark 14:61b-64 and Mishnah Sanhedrin 7:5,' in Robert H. Gundry, The Old is Better: New Testament Essays in Support of Traditional Interpretations [Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2010], 109; previously published by Mohr Siebeck).
  • 6 Frederick Dale Bruner writes, 'Usually in the New Testament it is God who is said to raise Jesus. But John here, and notably in chapter 10 (vv. 17-18), records Jesus speaking of raising himself. Most of us are most comfortable with the majority New Testament representation: that God raised Jesus from the dead. But if John is so convinced of Jesus' full deity that he believes Jesus also contributed to his Resurrection, without any compromising of Jesus' true humanity (a true humanity that John, too, is deeply eager to maintain), then most of us have felt we can live with John's record as well, since in the final analysis, a Resurrection is mystery enough in itself' (The Gospel of John: A Commentary [Pillar New Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012], 195).
  • 7 An Ideology of Revolt: John's Christology in Social-Science Perspective (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2007), 79. Previously published by Fortress Press.
  • 8 Bruner again: 'Usually in the New Testament it is God the Father who is reported to have raised Jesus. But here Jesus speaks of raising himself — though, notice, he says he can both "lay down" and "take back" his life only because, as he continues immediately, "I have authority" to do so (from the Father)' (The Gospel of John, 765).
  • 9 Trans. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers, 186.
  • 10 One could escape this implication by asserting that unless death for Jesus was a metaphysically different experience than death for the rest of humanity. This, however, would be a soteriologically dangerous claim to make, since it is precisely our relatedness to Jesus' death that gives us hope (see, e.g., Rom. 6:4-5; Heb. 2:9, 14).